Saturday, March 8, 2014

American Revolution not about equality….

Book review:
Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

I like Morgan’s book. I re-learned some stuff I knew about the era of the Revolution, and learned a lot that I didn't know. He tells a coherent story; the links between events are made clear, as are the contexts in both America and in Great  Britain.

I wish there were books of this caliber about the Roman Empire, China, the Middle Ages, Egypt, the fertile Crescent….

I will say that Morgan’s prose is exuberant, perhaps he exaggerates intentionally to add color to his chronology, perhaps he’s a bit sloppy in hyping his romance with the American Revolutionary story.

There is a significant flaw in The Birth of the Republic. Morgan practically says that the rebellious colonists discovered the principal of human equality. Throughout the book he confuses “rights” with equality, and confuses “liberty” with “equality.” In fact, he allows himself to splurge with “Gunpowder is a great equalizer,” and actually says (p. 79) “The Revolution became a people’s war” ! Gee whiz….

Great Britain did not think the war was about equality. The King and parliament notably thought it was about getting the colonies to help pay for the expenses of garrisoning North America and prosecuting the Seven Years’ War.

There was less unity and singleness of purpose than Morgan describes. Neither the Revolutionary zealots nor the members of the Continental Congresses referred to themselves as "the founding fathers," and there never was political or philosophical unity among these men or among the colonies. There was a strong ideological consensus about bolstering and preserving the security of property, and of course there were economic motives that helped push the colonies into rebellion.

The Founding Fathers were generally wealthy, professional men or political leaders. Ultimately they were all politicians. There was sharp and prolonged disagreement among them on many issues. In fact, many delegates to the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses were opposed to independence. (About 20% of colonial Americans were British loyalists).

I dispute Morgan's central theme. He argues that the concept of human equality was a central driving force in the Revolution and the creation of the constitution. I think he fails to make the case, and his preoccupation with equality mars the utility of his analysis.

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