Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Economic Underpinnings of the U.S. Revolutionary War

The U.S. war for independence from Britain is often described in terms a desire for democratic self-government and protection of the rights of citizens. But among historians, there has been a long tradition arguing that economic factors were more important. Perhaps most famously, Charles Beard argued back in 1913 in his book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States that the Founding Fathers were just out to protect their own personal property. But as the decades passed, a consensus developed that Beard's arguments was so simplistic and contentious and stark that it was just wrong.

Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher offer a refreshing take on the role of economic forces in the U.S. Revolution in "Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward and Economic Interpretation of American Independence." It appears in the October 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, which is not freely available on-line, but will be available to many with academic ties if their institution has a certain kind of JSTOR subscription. Here's their opening (footnotes omitted):

"What kind of revolution was the American Revolution? Four basic answers, all first suggested before 1800, continue to shape the scholarship. They can be denoted Answers A, B, C, and D.

Answer A was advanced by the Revolution's leaders and echoed by their friends in Great Britain, such as Edmund Burke: The American Revolution was a struggle for constitutional rights.

Answer B was that of the Revolution's opponents, again both in the American colonies and in Great Britain: The American Revolution was a struggle for economic independence from the British Navigation Acts and other economic restrictions. 

Answers C an D were put forward in a second round of controversy during the 1790s, as Americans tried to determine their proper relationship to the French Revolution. Answer C was that of the Jeffersonians: The American Revolution was a democratic movement essentially similar to the French Revolution. Their Federalist opponents responded with Answer D: The American Revolution was a colonialist independence movement essentially different from the French Revolution. ...

We offer for further exploration what might be described as a B-D interpretation. That is, the American Revolution was basically a colonial independence movement and the reasons for it were fundamentally economic."

I can't hope to summarize their argument point-by-point, but in large part, it comes down to pointing out how economic conflicts were often prior in time other events of the Revolution,  and loomed large in importance. Britain often sought to tax or even to embargo various kinds of trade from the American colonies to the West Indies: for example, the import tax with the Molasses Act of 1733, or the way in which the British Navy tried to cut off trade between the colonies and the French West Indies during the Seven Years' War. The "single most contentious issue" in the First Continental Congress in 1774 was about the extent to which the British Parliament could regulate the U.S. economy, including these and other limits on navigation as well as acts that sought to prohibit manufacturing in the colonies (so that the colonies would need to import from Britain, instead). After reviewing the history in some detail, they write:

"The commercial dispute preceded the constitutional, not just once but again and again in these years. It is important that colonists melded economic and constitutional arguments under the category of sovereignty--but not so important that we should ignore the originating nature of economic forces."

To anyone who has passed through the U.S. public school system, or who has listened to the rhetoric of politicians, thinking of U.S. independence as driven by economic motives has nearly sacrilegious overtones. Lynd and Waldstreicher respond like this:
"If the American Revolution had fundamentally economic causes, it is not thereby demeaned. Post-World War II colonial independence movements should have taught us something about the many-sided meanings of economic sovereignty for developing nations. If not only merchants but also artisans, tenant farmers, cash-strapped yeoman, fishermen, and debt-ridden slave-owning planters can be shown to have had compelling economic reasons to favor independence, it should not seem too narrow or conspiratorial to suggest that they acted on these reasons and sought to combine them with a language that spoke to principles as well as to the bottom line."

To me, it seems quite plausible and believable that the urge of the colonists to move beyond protest and into actual war and rebellion needed the push of economic factors. In addition, if we have learned nothing else from last two centuries, it should be that when anyone starts talking about a revolution is needed for freedom and justice and for people to get their "rights," warning sirens should go off in your brain. Such promises from revolutionaries have certainly been betrayed far more than they have been honored.

But it also seems to me that the cause of an event is often quite different than the lasting legacy of that same event. The causes of the U.S. Revolution probably were largely economic, albeit expressed in a language of constitutionalism. But the lasting legacy of American Independence was the creation of a constitutional structure that is flexible enough to adapt and strong enough to endure.