Wednesday, July 4, 2018

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.

Domestic Benefits

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.
Read the rest here.


  1. What a truly superb article. No surprise, coming from the always-exceptional, libertarian political-economist and historian, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.
    I honestly wasn't sure I had a shred of patriotism or pride in my country left in me...but after reading this, I'll today be celebrating, not the sad specimen we've become, but rather the Spirit of '76, the Revolution, and the tremendous ramifications that resulted in other ways.

  2. War is the health of the state.

    "The American Revolution Was a Mistake
    By Gary North

    I do not celebrate the fourth of July. This goes back to a term paper I wrote in graduate school. It was on colonial taxation in the British North American colonies in 1775. Not counting local taxation, I discovered that the total burden of British imperial taxation was about 1% of national income. It may have been as high as 2.5% in the southern colonies.
    In an article on taxation in that era, Rabushka gets to the point:

    "Historians have written that taxes in the new American nation rose and remained considerably higher, perhaps three times higher, than they were under British rule. More money was required for national defense than previously needed to defend the frontier from Indians and the French, and the new nation faced other expenses."

    So, as a result of the American Revolution, the tax burden tripled.

    The debt burden soared as soon as the Revolution began. Monetary inflation wiped out the currency system. Price controls in 1777 produced the debacle of Valley Forge. Percy Greaves, a disciple of Ludwig von Mises and for 17 years an attendee at his seminar, wrote this in 1972:

    "Our Continental Congress first authorized the printing of Continental notes in 1775. The Congress was warned against printing more and more of them. In a 1776 pamphlet, Pelatiah Webster, America’s first economist, told his fellow men that Continental currency might soon become worthless unless something was done to curb the further printing and issuance of this paper money.

    The people and the Congress refused to listen to his wise advice. With more and more paper money in circulation, consumers kept bidding up prices. Pork rose from 4¢ to 8¢ a pound. Beef soared from about 4¢ to 100 a pound. As one historian tells us, “By November, 1777, commodity prices were 480% above the prewar average.”...
    What would libertarians ...give today in order to return to an era in which the central government extracted 1% of the nation’s wealth? Where there was no income tax?"

  3. Also, in Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's good article “The Constitution as counterrevolution: A tribute to the Anti-Federalists”, he makes the case, like the title suggests, that the adoption of the extralegal Constitution was a betrayal of the “revolution”. But the revolution was a violent political one that led to the adoption of the Constitution for the reasons he gives in his article on the subject of the Constitutional Convention:

    “Of the 55 delegates, only 8 had signed the Declaration of Independence. Most of the leading radicals, including Sam Adams, Henry, Paine, Lee, and Jefferson, were absent. In contrast, 21 delegates belonged to the militarist Society of the Cincinnati. Overall, the convention was dominated by the array of nationalist interests that the prior war had brought together: land speculators, ex-army officers, public creditors, and privileged merchants.

  4. Jack surely you don’t think if America hadn’t revolted then we would still be at a 1% tax? Have you heard of Great Britain? They are still around. Their tax rate is 40% anything above $32,000 and 45% about $150,000.
    I think it’s quite easy to say that the constitution was flawed seriously, given the supposed right of congress to tax, but good grief. That Revolution changed the whole world. Divine Right of Kings was destroyed. Seperation of Church and State, or rather, Freedom of Conscience. I get the whole libertarian thing to rag on the founding fathers, and the colonists who revolted against Britain, but come on. Those colonist fought for something they actually believed in. They didn’t just pound a keyboard criticizing how much more libertarian their forefather could have been. If you think about that era as a person living in 1776, with their mind frame, rather than an American of 2018 with the luxury of history, you would not have the same opinion.
    Part of my thought is this. Their taxes were so low and yet they STILL rebelled. It’s nothing about them, as much as it is a chastisment of Americans, us, today.
    I love Gary North, and have read his writings on the Revolution. And it’s really good.
    But, have a read of Rothbard’s “Concieved in Liberty”. It’s fascinating. I’ve read the whole book 3 times and will start again soon. Or check out Tom Woods Liberty Classroom. Get a little more perspective on that era.
    I appreciated both your articles on Independence Day RW. Thanks

    1. The point is they weren’t fighting against tax tyranny. They had it very good. Only around a third of the colonists supported independence from Britain. What later made matters worse for some of them was the Sons of Liberty destroyed almost 2 million, in today’s dollars, of tea they didn’t own. They did so because, due to a British tax cut, the price of that tea undercut the price of bootlegged tea sold by their main benefactor John Hancock: not a libertarian thing to do. That provoked Britain to pass the Coercive Acts on the colony of Massachusetts (that Jefferson goes on about in the DOP), but only on the colony of Massachusetts. The Sons of Liberty also at times threatened violence against those who paid British taxes: hardly a libertarian activity either.

      Independence would have come eventually, as the population and economy grew, but could have done so in better way, especially one that didn’t lay the foundation for an always growing state.

      The economy for the colonists during and after the war was bad.

      We’re all pounding on a keyboard JB, spare the hypocrisy about that ok.

    2. Your assuming things that you have no idea would really happen.
      How do you know Independence would have came about? You don’t. Speculation says maybe, but not guaranteed.
      Why do libertarians care so much about the tea?
      It was hardly owned by innocent bystanding free marketeers. I do think that the war was much more about legislation without representation than mere taxes, but the taxes ticked people off. British tea didn’t start out cheaper than the Dutch tea.
      My point is, many conclusions about the colonists are made that “aren’t very libertarian”, but the examples don’t include the whole picture.
      As far as my comment on the keyboard pounding and colonists, I’m certainly not being hypocritical.

  5. The American farmer, who got up early to do his chores, grab an apple, his knapsack and rifle, run 12 miles to get a shot or 2 at the tyrants in his country, and back in time to do his evening chores, only to do it all over again the next day, they weren’t fighting for the reasons you spell out. They were fighting for their and their posterities Liberty. I am grateful to them for it.
    Where are the Sons of Liberty now?