George Washington’s Lament: Was the American Revolution based on foolish expectations?

Burton Weltman

The question I want to discuss in this blog entry is whether the American revolutionaries were mistaken in their expectations of what would be the consequences of making a revolution against British rule.  Why was George Washington dismayed by the outcome of the Revolution? 

As with the question discussed previously in this blog about whether the Revolution had been based on false premises, the question of whether the Revolution was based on foolish expectations is discussed at greater length in Chapter 2 of my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake?:Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).  That chapter includes lots of quotations and citations from easily accessible primary and secondary sources.  And as with the previous question, I recommend The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) as the single best secondary source on the Revolution.

Was the American Revolution a foolish mistake?

The American Revolution was not merely or even primarily a movement for national independence.  Most of the revolutionaries did not mind being considered Englishmen.  What they minded was being controlled by the kind of government that ruled England and that the English were imposing on each of the colonies.  That is, they were opposed to centralized government and to government with a strong chief executive that might morph easily into tyranny.  Their goal was, instead, to establish a decentralized government with a weak chief executive for the colonies as a whole and for each of the separate colonies.

This goal was exemplified by the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, and by the state constitutions adopted during the Revolution, all of which established weak central governments with  weak chief executives.  The Articles left most governmental power to the states and the state constitutions left most governmental power in the hands of local officials.  The President of the United States under the Articles was essentially the chairman of the meetings of Congress and served for only one year.  Ten of the thirteen state constitutions adopted during the Revolution had similarly weak governors who were elected by the states’ legislatures and served only one-year terms.

But no sooner had these constitutions been enacted and the Revolution ended, than Founding Fathers such as George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others turned against the decentralized government under the Articles of Confederation that they had been fighting for, and moved aggressively to adopt a new Constitution with the very sort of centralized government and strong chief executive that they had been opposing.  In so doing, the Founders had no sooner won the Revolution than they abandoned the “republican” ideology which had inspired it.

The ideology that had inspired the Founding Fathers was based on two basic premises.  The first was that “the people” all have essentially the same goals and will naturally cooperate with each other when given the chance.  The Founders were not adherents of small government.  They were adherents of local government, with local government having broad powers of control over the local economy and social life.  The second premise was that ordinary people will naturally defer to their “natural leaders,” that is, to elite leaders such as the Founding Fathers, when given the chance.  The Founders’ was a philosophy of government for the common people but not by the common people.

The Founders’ republican ideology had been reinforced by their pre-Revolution experience of local government in the colonies, which had been largely cooperative, constructive and controlled by elite leaders.  Washington and other elite leaders objected to Britain’s intervention in the colonies as a violation of what they considered the right of the natural aristocracy in America to govern the colonies.

Based on their ideological premises, the Founders expected that once the corrupting and disrupting influences of the British monarchy had been eliminated, Americans would choose governments at the local and state levels that would be controlled by their natural leaders who would operate those governments in the best interests of all the people.  This did not happen.

When the Revolution ended, ordinary Americans began to make economic and political demands that greatly disturbed elite leaders.  In turn, upstart leaders of the common people began demanding authority within the new state governments.  Many of the Founding Fathers, such as Washington, Madison, John Adams and Hamilton, felt themselves being overwhelmed by democrats at the local and state levels.  And they began complaining about a new type of tyranny, the tyranny of the majority, which they claimed was even worse than royal tyranny because it was all-encompassing.  “Have we fought for this?,” George Washington lamented.

In what was seemingly an admission that they had been foolish in their expectations as to the outcome of the Revolution, the Founders tried to restore their political and social ascendancy through establishing a new Constitution that centralized power in the federal government and that included a strong chief executive.  This was a radical reversal of their original plans and expectations.  In this respect, the Revolution could be considered a mistake.  Might the Founders have had a better chance of achieving their original social and political goals if they had not made the Revolution?  Would that have been the better choice?


George III’s Legacy: Was the American Revolution based on false premises?

Burton Weltman

There are several ways in which we might ask whether the American Revolution was a mistake.  I will briefly discuss one way in this blog and others in future blogs.  The question I will discuss in this blog is whether the premises upon which the Declaration of Independence was based were accurate or whether the revolutionaries were mistaken in their analysis of the situation in 1776? 

A more thorough discussion of this and other questions about the Revolution can be found in Chapter 2 of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).  The chapter includes lots of quotations and citations from easily accessible primary and secondary sources.

Much of the discussion in this blog is based on The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).  Over forty years after its publication, this book remains, I think, the best discussion of the Revolution and its aftermath and continues to be the foundation of most scholarship about the Revolution.

Were the premises upon which American revolutionaries based their call for revolution accurate or were they mistaken in their analysis of the situation in which they were in?  

The Revolution of 1776 was a preemptive strike to prevent the establishment of a tyranny over America.  It was based on two key premises.  The first was that the King was becoming a tyrannical dictator over England and the colonies.  The second was that if the colonies did not achieve independence immediately, they might never again have another chance to do so.

Despite the impression created in most conventional American history textbooks, the Declaration of Independence does not claim that the colonies were currently being subject to tyrannical rule.  Gordon Wood has noted that “Americans were not an oppressed people.  In fact, the Americans knew they were probably freer and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and hierarchal restraint than any part of mankind in the eighteenth century.”  It was the prospect of future oppression that worried the revolutionaries and led them to act.

In justifying the Revolution, the Declaration claims that the King’s actions demonstrate his “having the direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny.”  That is, the revolutionaries were convinced that George III’s recent actions in reforming the British empire and enforcing British rule were the prelude to what we today might call totalitarian rule.  They were concerned that the King was creating a dictatorship in which they would be smothered in the future if they did not act immediately.  In this context, the list of grievances against the King which is the heart of the Declaration has a prospective tone of portending harm rather than current actual harm.

The first several grievances on the list in the Declaration do not even complain about things the King had done but about the refusal of the King to agree to things that the colonists wanted done, seemingly to the colonists an ominous portent of future oppression.  And many of the specific acts of oppression that are complained about were reactions by the King to the illegal attack on British property that we call the Boston Tea Party and to other violent American attacks on British targets.  In sum, the revolutionaries claimed that although the King was not yet a tyrant over America, his actions, including his reactions to violent American actions such as the Boston Tea Party, were conclusive indicators of his intention to become a tyrant.

In retrospect, it is clear that the revolutionaries were mistaken in their analysis of George III.  Historians generally acknowledge that the King was not becoming a tyrant over England or the colonies and never had any intentions of doing so.  Majority opinion about George III in England during the 1770’s seems to have been the same.  Even most of his opponents in England believed that the King was merely wrongheaded but not that he was aiming for tyranny.

George III was, in fact, merely trying to be an active king within the existing British King-in-Parliament system of government.  Unlike his grandfather, George I, and his father, George II, who had been Germans by birth, had barely spoken any English, and had very little interest in England, George III was a native-born Englishman who was interested in his country and in fulfilling his duties as King.  And this is the view of the King that many leading revolutionaries, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, tacitly acknowledged after the Revolution when they promoted negotiations and close relations with the government of George III.

The revolutionaries were also seemingly mistaken in their second premise that it was now or never in 1776 for independence.  As England developed parliamentary and democratic government during the nineteenth century, Britain gradually granted independence to its English-speaking colonies, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Each of these colonies got first home rule and then complete independence during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  And each of these former colonies developed as a democracy that is overall as prosperous and free as the United States.

In fact, at the very time the American revolutionaries were declaring their independence, British emissaries of King George III were sailing from England to America with an offer of what amounted to home rule for the colonies over their domestic affairs, the main thing that most of the revolutionaries were demanding.  If the Americans had waited a few weeks before issuing their Declaration of Independence, the Declaration might never have been issued and the Revolution might never have happened.  And if the American colonies had not made the Revolution, they might have followed the same path to independence as the other English-speaking British colonies and would not have had to suffer through the eight years of war and devastation of the Revolution.  Would this have been the better choice?

What to think about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves?: Distinguishing between Questioning, Criticizing and Condemning People and Events in Approaching History as Choice.

Burton Weltman

In approaching history as a process of people making choices, I think it is important to distinguish between questioning, criticizing and condemning people and events.  To question is not necessarily to criticize.  To criticize is not necessarily to condemn.  And to condemn in part is not necessarily to condemn in whole.  These are distinctions that we make in our own lives and that are applicable to history as well.

Questioning is an almost automatic human response.  We are constantly evaluating and reevaluating things we have done, things other people have done, and things in general all around us.  Whether it’s a businessperson evaluating a sales campaign, a government official evaluating a public policy, or a Little League coach evaluating a strategic move, we are continually looking at decisions we have made and asking whether we could have done better.

But to question is not necessarily to criticize.  Your answer may be that the decision being questioned was right or was at least the best choice under the circumstances.  Questioning a decision is a way of clarifying the situation so that you can either reinforce your initial decision or revise it if necessary.  As such, in asking historical questions such as “Was the American Revolution a mistake,” a question that George Washington among others repeatedly asked in the aftermath of the Revolution, you are not necessarily saying that it was a mistake.  Your answer may be, as Washington’s ultimately was, “No, it was the right thing to do.”

Criticizing is not the same thing as condemning.  To criticize something as a mistake is not to condemn it or the people who supported it as bad or evil.  We all make mistakes, sometimes even when we have the best intentions, the best available information, and the greatest decision-making skills.  As such, if you were to decide, as many of the Founders did, that the American Revolution was in some respects or even entirely a mistake, you would not necessarily be condemning the Revolution or the Revolutionaries.  The Founders could have been mistaken in making the Revolution or in some aspects of making the Revolution, as Washington among other Founders sometimes thought, but could still have been good people trying to do a good thing.

You can condemn something or someone in part without condemning the thing or the person entirely.  That is, a person might do something bad or evil without being a bad or evil person.  Many Founders, for example, supported the American Revolution because they were afraid that Britain was moving toward abolishing slavery in the colonies as it had already been abolished in England.  In the opinion of almost everyone now and most people during the Revolution  (don’t forget, as most textbooks do, to include the slaves when you total up the “people” during the Revolution), slavery was evil and supporting slavery was evil.  But that doesn’t mean that everything slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson did was evil or that they were evil people.

What do you think?

The American Revolution through British Eyes.

I received a comment from Historical Kate who is interested in looking at the American Revolution through the eyes of the British.  I think that is a great project.

One of the most interesting questions for me about the British response to the American Revolution is why they didn’t just let the American colonies go. This was the recommendation of many members of the British political and business establishment, including such prominent figures as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. They argued that Britain would control the colonies economically even if the colonies were politically independent and Britain would be spared the costs and aggravation of having to govern the colonies.

There was a furious ongoing debate within the British establishment during the whole course of the Revolution as to whether it was worth it to keep ownership of the colonies. And the “let the colonies go” faction finally won the argument. Why did they win and why did it take so long?