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Episodes

Chapter 19: The American Revolution

In this episode, we explore the underlying intellectual reasons for the American Revolution, and how that Revolution reshaped those ideas into a philosophy that would take over the world as industrialization spread.

Sources for this Episode Include:

Appleby, Joyce. “Liberalism and the American Revolution.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 1, 1976, pp. 3–26.

Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Vintage. 2015.

Richter, Daniel K. Before the Revolution: Americas Ancient Pasts. Harvard University Press. 2011.


Full Transcript

In 1773, the British Parliament was forced to deal with a crisis that was spiraling out of control. The House of Commons had created a Select Committee to investigate the corruption and mismanagement of the East India Company.

Established at the turn of the 17th Century, the East India Company had long had a virtual trade monopoly between the Indian subcontinent and England. And throughout the 18th Century they greatly expanded their trade with the several Indian kingdoms.

Then came the Seven Years War. What began as a fight over small chunks of land between Eastern European powers soon sucked in France, as well as their constant enemy, Great Britain. From there it became a truly global war, fought in and fought over colonial territories all around the world.

Long story short, France lost that war, and they had to make huge concessions to the British. Among them would be large amounts of land in North America and also, critically, their military outposts in India.

Soon enough, the British East India Company didn’t just monopolize trade between Indian kingdoms and Great Britain, they monopolized all trade with India.

With that power, they forced their terms of trade onto the Indian kingdoms – some of which opposed Britain in the Seven Years War. They practiced an extreme form of usury with Indian borrowers. They tapped into the Bengali treasury, taking a big part of Bengal’s tax revenue in exchange for “protection.” And, with these massive profits, they paid out huge bonuses to their local employees. And they pushed grain prices so high that, when a famine hit the subcontinent, it killed an estimated 10 million people – one-third of the Bengali population.

That horrible and entirely avoidable episode of human misery also represented the bursting of a bubble.

With such a staggering loss of population, the workforce shriveled and agricultural productivity collapsed, as did tax revenues, as did credit. The Bengali economy was in ruins and the East India Company was on the brink of collapse.

Parliament was furious. The East India Company represented the very worst of Mercantilist abuses. But Parliament also knew the East India Company was those four words which we Americans know all too well after 2008: “too big to fail.”

By this point, Britain was absolutely dependent Indian trade. The East India Company would need to get a bailout.

But this put the government in a bit of a bind. The Seven Years War had been astronomically expensive for all parties involved. The treasury was now mired in debt. And the military still had to pacify the formerly French subjects of their new lands, as well as the Native American tribes that were previously allied with France.

To pay for all these expenses, the British had tried some new tax policies. To help pay for the North American theater of the war – which was better known in North America as the French-Indian War – Parliament passed the Currency Act, the Sugar Act, and the Stamp Act, all of which raised modest taxes on their subjects in their 13 colonies on North America’s eastern seaboard.

These taxes were deeply unpopular though, and within a couple years they were rescinded. But the kingdom’s fiscal problems weren’t going away. So, then Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, raising taxes on the colonies from import duties. In the years that followed, British authority became so unpopular that a crowd in Boston provoked British soldiers into an incident that killed five people. This incident, known to history as the Boston Massacre, led Parliament to once again rescind their taxes on American colonists.

But now, with the East India Company on the brink of collapse, Parliament had no choice but to try taxing the American colonies once again. This time they passed the Tea Act.

Americans – including many outside radical New England – were livid. As one pamphlet in Pennsylvania noted, the East India Company was an institution “well versed in Tyranny, Plunder, Oppression, and Bloodshed.” As they saw it, they were being unconstitutionally taxed so that a self-serving and immoral special interest group would be able to continue profiting. On a night in December that year, a small group of men in Boston, dressed like Native Americans, boarded ships carrying tea and dumped that tea into the harbor – just to prevent Massachusetts tax money from winding up in London.

In the past, an event like the Boston Tea Party might have convinced Parliament to roll back the taxes. This time, though, the British stood their ground. A war was coming. And by the end of it there would be a new nation – and more importantly, a new worldview that would forever change the world’s political order.

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This is the Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 19: The American Revolution

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I’ve never really been one for military history. The strategies generals used on battlefields, for example, never really captured my interest. I’m much more concerned about the histories of political regimes, and of economic endeavors, and of ideas.

So, let me make it brief for you. In 1774, the 13 colonies created a Congress and began formally resisting British taxes and other laws. In 1775, the British declared Massachusetts in a state of rebellion. Military skirmishes began. George Washington took command of an American army. In 1776 Congress declared independence. War dragged on. The Americans generally did pretty bad in battle, but kept the dream alive by turning to guerrilla warfare tactics. They secured alliances and support from France and Spain, and they won the critical battle of Yorktown in 1781. From there, they spent a couple years hammering out a peace treaty to officially part ways with Great Britain in 1783.

If you came into this episode hoping for me to detail the military history of the American War of Independence for you, I’m sorry to disappoint. But you can learn a lot about that (and more) elsewhere. For example, I recommend the “American Revolution Podcast” by Michael Troy.

Instead, this episode is going to focus on the causes and the legacy of the American Revolution.

To understand why the Americans declared independence, you have to understand the history of the British colonies.

The various 13 colonies were established by very different characters with very different goals at very different times.

The Virginia colony was established as early as 1607 after several failed attempts to settle it during the reign of the virgin queen, Elizabeth I. Originally a giant territory that covered most of the eastern seaboard, Virginia was effectively reduced in size over the next hundred some years. The English made the unusual step to send settlers there, to give England a foothold on the continent and compete in the mad-rush for colonial territory with their European rivals – France, Spain, and the Netherlands – who generally weren’t trying to populate their colonies with their peoples.

Up in New England, settlement took off for slightly different reasons. When a Puritan cleric named Robert Browne started preaching secession from the Church of England – at a time when all Christians in England were expected to worship according to Church of England doctrine, and were punished if they didn’t – he inspired a group of similarly-minded Puritans to leave the island altogether. First, they settled in Holland but couldn’t find enough jobs. So then they decided to take a bit of a leap and sailed to the New World, establishing the Plymouth Colony. Other Puritans followed and set up the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unlike the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, they were still holding out hope that the Church of England would adopt Calvinism some day.

And before I get any comments about this, let me just say: YES the Pilgrims were Puritans. I don’t know where we got the idea that they weren’t, but they absolutely were. In fact, they were especially radical Puritans because they actually advocated for separating from the Church of England, rather than trying to reform it. As I mentioned in Chapter 17, the Puritan movement didn’t have a lot of cohesive ideas. They were very broadly speaking, more supportive of the theologies and practices of Continental Protestantism than the Church of England officially was. Beyond that, it is a very loose term, and the Pilgrims 100% fit into it.

Anyway.

The English crown was all too happy to rid the country of its religious nonconformists and so they agreed to officially charter colonies for them in the New World.

Religious differences motivated other colonial settlements as well. I already told you about Rhode Island in Chapter 17. Pennsylvania was granted to the Quaker William Penn, who hoped to build it as a safe place for Quakers. He also invited other settlers, including a lot of German Lutherans, anabaptists, and others. Maryland was actually started by the Catholic Lord Baltimore, originally as a safehaven for English Catholics – and if you can imagine how happy the King was to see Puritans leave the island, oh man, just imagine how he felt about seeing Catholics leave.

Other colonies were established to secure England’s geopolitical position on the North American continent. By taking New York from the Dutch, for example, the English controlled a continuous strip of land along the eastern coast – prime real estate. By establishing Georgia, meanwhile, they created an important buffer to French and Spanish encroachment.

Now, of course, France and Spain were the big picture concerns. On a more day-to-day basis, the colonists were more concerned about their relations with the indigenous nations of these lands they settled on. Settling on these lands was much easier for them than it should have been, thanks to successive waves of smallpox epidemics that decimated the native population prior to most English arrivals. The indigenous nations were smaller than ever, fractured as ever, and basically just trying to survive. And they didn’t understand why the English cared so much about these pieces of paper that supposedly had some sort of power over who lived where.

And in all 13 of the eventual colonies, the settlers had to fend for themselves, economically and politically. Navigation was still yet to see its most advanced techniques and instruments. The British government was a little preoccupied with things like (you know) the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and then constant wars with France back in Europe. So, when it came to an authoritative presence in the New World – forget it.

All alone in that New World, the colonists set up their own little colonial governments, following the model of English law. Now, ever since King John was forced to accept Magna Carta way back in 1215, the English crown could not raise taxes on free men without their consent. In Parliament, this meant that clerical leadership and the nobility could vote on raising their own taxes in the House of Lords. And even non-nobles who owned land would be represented in the House of Commons, and in some cases, get to vote for their representative in that house. Every commoner lived in a geographic constituency that was represented in that lower chamber.

So, colonial legislatures were created to fill the role of an absent Parliament. And male landowners – who made up a much higher percentage of the population in the colonies than they did in England – would get to vote for their representatives to these legislatures. The legislatures would raise taxes and spend money as the colonies needed. And the colonists were generally satisfied with this.

So, when the British government tried raising taxes on the 13 colonies, following the French-Indian War, it created outrage. Not over taxation itself – and certainly not over how high the taxes were (because, again, they were modest) – but over the constitutionality of such taxes.

The colonies were not represented in Parliament. So how could Parliament vote to tax them? Hence, the battle cry of the revolution: “No taxation without representation.”

Now, to the British, it seemed all too obvious that the colonists should pay taxes to the crown since the crown was protecting them from French, Spanish, and Native American attacks. So, they thought they were implementing legitimate policy reforms to update an out-of-date colonial system. And they were baffled by the response of American patriots, who seemed to be up in arms – literally – over a concern about process.

But what started as a dispute over the legal process needed for taxation developed into something much bigger. The Revolution soon lifted the voices of America’s most radical thinkers, promulgating a new ideology of political freedom – rooted in English law, but going far beyond it…

Liberalism.

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How to define Liberalism?

To be honest, I haven’t found a dictionary or encyclopedia definition that really does it justice. But we can piece one together with the most famous line of the American Declaration of Independence.

Liberalism is the belief that “all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But of course, that definition falls short. Wrapped up in liberalism are also economic ideas like the belief in a “free market” and free trade, as well as political ideas about the role of government –  protecting private property, individual liberties (civil and also, perhaps, otherwise), and human rights.

Nowadays, many people refer to this as “Classical Liberalism” to distinguish it from the beliefs of “liberals” in the United States today. But of course, that modern use of the word “liberal” to contrast with the word “conservative” is based on some (frankly) outdated labels.

In the late 18th Century, this early Liberalism stood in stark contrast to traditional ideas about the order of things. Before, it was considered a given that kings and nobles were superior to common people. Similarly, it was considered a given that a community (or a nation) must be uniform in its religion, that ordinary people must not speak ill of their leaders, and that this entire order of things was ordained by God Himself.

But by 1700, this world order had been slowly breaking down for centuries. After the Black Death, yeomen started getting land, just like nobles, and the process of enclosure helped spur the concept of land as private property.

Then the printing press came along and allowed new ideas to move around. Among these were the ideas of the Protestant Reformation. Puritan Calvinism was particularly dangerous to the old world order. As Daniel K. Richter puts it in his book, Before the Revolution

 If all should read the scriptures, who was to say which readings of ambiguous and contradictory texts was correct? If grace was free, who was to say who had it and who did not? If works did not earn justification, why not let people do what they pleased?

If the elaborate church furnishings, stained glass, images of saints, decorated alters, and all the other glories of the Medieval cathedrals devoted to the discredited mass and the false teachings of the Pope had to be destroyed…what was to restrain iconoclastic mobs (like the one that, in 1559, took less than a week to dismantle Scotland’s entire cathedral of Saint Andrew) from turning their rage on all symbols of hierarchy?

If scripture was the only authority, what role was there for kings and princes? What lord could there be, but the Lord?

But what really hit the old order hard were the Wars of the Three Kingdoms – that is, the Scottish Civil War, the Irish Confederate Wars, and the English Civil War – as well as the Glorious Revolution.

In the epic Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War, the sometimes-problematic writer Shelby Foote says, “…it is very necessary if you're going to understand the American character in the 20th Century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe in the mid-19th Century.”

Well, to truly understand the American outlook in the 18th Century, it is necessary to learn about the British conflicts of the 17th Century – especially the English Civil War.

Now, there were a lot of issues leading into the English Civil War.

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages, the power of monarchies across Europe increased significantly. In the age of expensive weapons like cannons, and the age of religious reformations, the powers of warrior nobles and the independent Catholic Church had declined significantly. And monarchs like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I successfully pushed higher and higher tax bills through Parliament. But by the time of the Stuart Dynasty, the English had had enough.

To make matters worse, King Charles I married a Catholic. (gasp!) And the Archbishop of Canterbury, favored by Charles, routinely made decisions that frustrated Puritans, or even slapped them in the face. Observing holidays and allowing non-religious activities on the sabbath, certain sacraments, The Book of Common Prayer, etc., were all cool with him. And the teaching of predestination was banned at Oxford and Cambridge. So that pissed them off. It also made them question the legitimacy of Charles’ reign.

Then came some rebellions in Scotland and Ireland – the former of which had to do with anti-Puritan measures forced on the church up there. To pay for the army to put down these rebellions, Charles had to call a Parliament in 1640. Remember, in England, taxes had to be approved by the people paying them.

But the elected Parliament was in no mood. They had a lot of grievances – over their personal finances, yes, but also over religion, over particular favorites of the King in his royal court, and over a myriad of local issues too.

Charles was livid. Monarchies across Europe had grown more and more powerful for a good 200 years leading up to this point – and he still had to deal with this ancient Magna Carta crap? He believed his reign was ordained by God, and that gave him a divine right to rule as he saw fit. If God chose him to be king, then he believed he had to answer to God and God alone – not to some Parliament of his inferiors.

But when he failed in his attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament for treason, he quickly realized he had another rebellion on his hands. What followed was a civil war that lasted the better part of a decade. Acting without royal approval and becoming ever-more radical as they went along, the Parliamentarians started passing ordinances (rather than laws) against the king, raised an army, defeated the Royalists, executed the king, and established a non-monarchical Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth eventually turned into a military dictatorship, but one in which new radical groups – the levelers and the diggers – sprung up, advocating greater social and economic equality.

When this dictatorship fell apart by 1660, the monarchy was restored, with Charles’ son – Charles II – taking the throne.

If you want to learn more about the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, I recommend listening to the first season of the “Revolutions” podcast by Mike Duncan. I just want to explain the key point of their legacy: the two sides of the conflict.

The first were the Royalists – the guys who supported Charles. They tended to be pretty Anglican. They were also known as the Cavaliers. After the Civil War they became known as “Tories” – derived from a Scots Gaelic word that roughly meant “outlaw”, given to them by their opponents – and they supported absolute monarchy.

The second were the Parliamentarians – the guys who opposed Charles and created the Commonwealth. They tended to be pretty Puritan. They were also known as Roundheads because of their haircuts. After the restoration of the monarchy, their belief in limited monarchy lived on in a new faction called the “Whigs” – derived from a Scottish word for “cattle driver” because of a certain battle during the Scottish Civil War, given to them by their opponents.

These two factions – the Tories and the Whigs – formed the foundation of British parliamentary politics.

The Tories maintained power for nearly three decades under Charles II and James II. But when James converted the Catholicism, the Whigs surged. The ideological descendants of Puritans, they loathed the idea of a Catholic king. With some Tories, they convinced William and Mary to take over.

After the Glorious Revolution, England had a flourishing two-party system where the Whigs could compete freely and fairly with the Tories in elections and legislative efforts. The English also adopted a system of (what we call) constitutional monarchy, limiting the powers of the crown again. The Whigs helped pass new civil liberties under the Act of Toleration and a Bill of Rights, which protected things like freedom of speech, free and regular elections, a limited right to bear arms, and habeas corpus. And the colonists took these reforms of British law to heart.

The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution also spurred critical advancements in political philosophy – especially the two social contract theorists, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

In his Leviathan, Hobbes comes down decisively on the side of monarchy, declaring it the most practical form of government. He believed that absolute authority is critical and was concerned that a democratic order would likely lead to a free-for-all. But in his arguments, he made the unique assertion that such absolute authority is derived from a will of the governed, not really from the will of God.

And in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke goes even further. He declares the existence of “rights” – like to life, liberty, and (critically) property – and that government exists to protect these rights. But beyond this, he claims that the governed have a right to rebel against their government when it fails to protect their rights or, even worse, infringes on them. “By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.”

This was the foundation of liberalism.

And when, in the 1770s, British colonists in the Americas saw the Crown and the Parliament violating Manga Carta (by raising taxes without their consent) and violating the Bill of Rights (by shutting down their legislatures and allowing soldiers to take over their homes), they believed that government had forfeit its power. And that that power had devolved to the people of the American colonies. And those colonies had become free and independent states.

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By the end of the Seven Years War, the old Tory-Whig divide had kind of died down in England. But philosophically, the colonists – they were Whigs. And key to the Whig ideology were the rights of man, secured in English constitutional law. The liberal theories of John Locke informed the beliefs of these American Whigs.

Nowhere was that truer than in radical New England, where the patriots screaming about British tyranny were largely the descendants of Puritans. But even in the more gentile southern colonies, there was still a slew of them, driven by Enlightenment ideals about individual liberty.

When the time for independence came, they turned to this ideology to explain it.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

And after explaining their many grievances with the British crown, they declared, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

One thing we don’t really learn in American schools is how significant those words were to the world audience, to this very day. As Americans, I think we generally fail to appreciate the impact that our own founding fathers had on the development of political thought the world over.

We think about the founding fathers in terms of what they gave us:

  • Thomas Jefferson for drafting the Declaration of Independence

  • James Madison for drafting our own Bill of Rights

  • Benjamin Franklin, already famous for his flashy scientific discoveries, for lending international credibility to the Revolution

  • John Adams for his commitment to law as the foundation of government

  • George Washington for his military leadership, and more importantly, for the critical precedents he set in his presidency

  • And of course, in recent years, we’ve been talking a lot more about Alexander Hamilton for his role in securing the nation’s financial longevity.

But in 18th Century Europe, few founding fathers had a bigger impact on worldwide political thought than Thomas Paine, whose pamphlets Common Sense and The American Crisis made folks question the very need for monarchy. When the French Revolution started, he moved there to help it along. His book The Rights of Man not only underscored the Classical Liberalism of the Declaration of Independence, but also moved political thought in the direction of what we would now call socialism. And his pamphlet The Age of Reason did significant intellectual damage to the traditional power of the Church as an institution.

But the liberal legacy of the American Revolution doesn’t end with advancement in political thought. It also enshrined liberalism within a system of government.

The U.S. Constitution famously protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and a bunch of other rights. But it also expressly prohibits titles of nobility – there would be no lords in America – prohibits export tariffs – a nod in the direction of free trade – and prohibits bills of Attainder – only through the normal course of justice could an individual be punished for his or her crime.

But of course, more importantly, the Constitution established the country as a Republic and set the framework for the world’s first large-scale democracy. They knew at the time, of course, that this was a big deal. But little could they have known just how far that concept was going to spread. Because democracy was going to spread with industrialization.

Liberalism was not a product of the Industrial Revolutions, but it worked in tangent with industrialization. Liberalism, with its emphasis on private property rights and free trade, allowed the industrial revolutions to flourish. And the Industrial Revolutions allowed liberalism to flourish, by allowing capital to accumulate within the middle-class, who soon sought a political voice to match that of the nobles (and even the kings) of Europe.

We’ll be talking about these ideas more when we get to the French Revolution in a few weeks. But first, let’s talk about the direct impact the American Revolution had on industry.

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The American War of Independence created a lot of upheaval back in Great Britain. Remember, the British were trying to tax the Americans because of the fiscal pressure they were under. Well, as a result of trying to stamp out the revolution, that fiscal pressure got even worse. The debt grew to about 10 times what the treasury was bringing in in revenue. A desperate Parliament chose a 24-year-old (William Pitt the Younger) to lead as Prime Minister and raise taxes to unbelievably heights.

About one fifth of British imports were smuggled in to avoid the extreme tariffs, and this likely led folks to seriously consider adopting free trade.

The war also cut off British access to American wood, increasing the need for coal mining in that country. The expansion of coal mining during these years would go on to fuel the rise of steam power in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, the new United States immediately sought westward expansion, as a means to secure its future by gradually removing other colonial powers from the New World. In the process, they cleared lots of land for cotton plantations, providing raw cotton needed in European textile mills. (And later for American mills in the north as well.)

And as an independent nation, the United States would seek its own industrial development. But it would be a slow process. Because, from the get-go, it was a controversial process. Not everyone wanted to see America industrialize. Not everyone wanted the new nation to have textile mills, or coal mines, or high-tech machines, or the systems of high finance that accompanied them.

And industrialization would sit at the heart of America's first great public debate as a free, democratic nation - next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.

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Dave Broker