Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities
By Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
It has become de rigueur, even among libertarians and classical liberals, to denigrate the benefits of the American Revolution. Thus, libertarian Bryan Caplan writes: “Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?… [W]hen you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer. In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.”1 One can also find such challenges reflected in recent mainstream writing, both popular and scholarly.
In fact, the American Revolution, despite all its obvious costs and excesses, brought about enormous net benefits not just for citizens of the newly independent United States but also, over the long run, for people across the globe. Speculations that, without the American Revolution, the treatment of the indigenous population would have been more just or that slavery would have been abolished earlier display extreme historical naivety. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.
It’s true that the American Revolution had some mixed results from the standpoint of liberty. Like all major social upheavals, it was brought off by a disparate coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. At one end of the Revolutionary coalition stood the American radicals—men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson. Although by no means in agreement on everything, the radicals tended to object to excessive government power in general and not simply to British rule. They viewed American independence as a means of securing and broadening domestic liberty, and they spearheaded the Revolution’s opening stages.
At the other end of the Revolutionary coalition were the American nationalists—men such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and Alexander Hamilton. Representing a powerful array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests, the nationalists went along with independence but often opposed the Revolution’s radical thrust. They ultimately sought a strong central government, which would reproduce the hierarchical and mercantilist features of the eighteenth-century British fiscal-military State, only without the British. Of course, any such sharp distinction entails some over-simplification. These differences were arrayed along a spectrum, and individuals over time might alter their perspectives. Thus, John Adams started out as a radical but became a nationalist, whereas James Madison evolved in the opposite direction.
Caplan asks what specific benefits came about because of the American Revolution. There are at least four momentous ones. They are all libertarian alterations in the internal status quo that prevailed, although they were sometimes deplored or resisted by American nationalists.
1. The First Abolition: Prior to the American Revolution, every New World colony, British or otherwise, legally sanctioned slavery, and nearly every colony counted enslaved people among its population. As late as 1770, nearly twice as many Africans were in bondage throughout the colony of New York as within Georgia, although slaves were a much larger percentage of Georgia’s population. Yet the Revolution’s liberating spirit brought about outright abolition or gradual emancipation in all northern states by 1804. Vermont, which, despite participation in the Revolution remained an independent republic until it was permitted to join the union in 1791, was the first jurisdiction to abolish adult slavery—in 1777. In 1786, the Confederation Congress also prohibited the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory.
There is a tendency to minimize this first emancipation because slavery had been less economically entrenched in the northern colonies than in the southern colonies and because in many northern states slavery was eliminated gradually. But emancipation had to start somewhere. The fact that it did so where opposition was weakest in no way diminishes the radical nature of this assault upon a labor system that had remained virtually unchallenged since the dawn of civilization. Of course, slavery had largely died out within Britain. But the Somerset court decision of 1772, which freed a slave brought from the colonies, had a limited reach. Masters continued to bring slaves occasionally into the country and were able to hold them there. Parliament did not formally and entirely abolish the institution in the mother country until 1833.
Even in southern colonies, the Revolution’s assault on human bondage made some inroads. Several southern states banned the importation of slaves and relaxed their nearly universal restrictions on masters voluntarily freeing their own slaves. Through resulting manumissions, 10,000 Virginia slaves were freed, more than were freed in Massachusetts by judicial decree. This spawned the first substantial communities of free blacks, which in the upper South helped induce a slow, partial decline of slavery. By 1810, for instance, three quarters of African-Americans in Delaware were already free through this process.