Articles of Interest

Was the American Revolution Radical?

[Chapter 80, “Was the American Revolution Radical?,” from Murray N. Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, vol. 4, The Revolutionary War, 1775–1784.]

Especially since the early 1950s, America has been concerned with opposing revolutions throughout the world; in the process, it has generated a historiography that denies its own revolutionary past. This neoconservative view of the American Revolution, echoing the reactionary writer in the pay of the Austrian and English governments of the early nineteenth century, Friedrich von Gentz, tries to isolate the American Revolution from all the revolutions in the western world that preceded it and followed it. The American Revolution, this view holds, was unique; it alone of all modern revolutions was not really revolutionary; instead, it was moderate, conservative, dedicated only to preserving existing institutions from British aggrandizement. Furthermore, like all else in America, it was marvelously harmonious and consensual. Unlike the wicked French and other revolutions in Europe, the American Revolution, then, did not upset or change anything. It was therefore not really a revolution at all; certainly, it was not radical.

Now this view, in the first place, displays an extreme naiveté on the nature of revolution. No revolution has ever sprung forth, fully blown and fully armed like Athena, from the brow of existing society; no revolution has ever emerged from a vacuum. No revolution has ever been born out of ideas alone, but only from a long chain of abuses and a long history of preparation, ideological and institutional. And no revolution, even the most radical, from the English Revolution of the seventeenth century to the many Third World revolutions of the twentieth, has ever come into being except in reaction to increased oppression by the existing State apparatus. All revolution is in that sense a reaction against worsening oppression; and in that sense, all revolutions may be called “conservative”; but that would make hash out of the meaning of ideological concepts. If the French and Russian revolutions may be called “conservative” then so might the American, This same process was at work in Bacon’s Rebellion of the late seventeenth century and the American Revolution of the late eighteenth. As the Declaration of Independence (a good source for understanding the Revolution) rightly emphasized:

Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations ... evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government. ...

It takes such a long train of abuses to persuade the mass of people to throw off their habitual customs and loyalties and to make revolution; hence the absurdity of singling out the American Revolution as “conservative” in that sense. Indeed, this very breakthrough against existing habits, the very act of revolution, is therefore ipso facto an extraordinarily radical act. All mass revolutions, indeed all revolutions as distinguished from mere coup d’états, by bringing the masses into violent action are therefore per se highly radical events. All revolutions are therefore radical.

But the deep-seated radicalism of the American Revolution goes far beyond this. It was inextricably linked both to the radical revolutions that went before and to the ones, particularly the French, that succeeded it. From the researches of Caroline Robbins and Bernard Bailyn, we have come to see the indispensable linkage of radical ideology in a straight line from the English republican revolutionaries of the seventeenth century through the commonwealthmen of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the French and to the American revolutionaries. And this ideology of natural rights and individual liberty was to its very marrow revolutionary. As Lord Acton stressed of radical liberalism, in setting up “what ought to be” as a rigorous guidepost for judging “what is,” it virtually raised thereby a standard of revolution.

The Americans had always been intractable, rebellious, impatient of oppression, as witness the numerous rebellions of the late seventeenth century; they also had their own individualist and libertarian heritage, their Ann Hutchinsons and Rhode Island quasi anarchists, some directly linked with the left wing of the English Revolution. Now, strengthened and guided by the developed libertarian natural rights ideology of the eighteenth century, and reacting to aggrandizement of the British imperial state in the economic, constitutional, and religious spheres, the Americans, in escalated and radicalized confrontations with Great Britain, had made and won their Revolution. By doing so, this revolution, based on the growing libertarian idea pervading enlightened opinion in Europe, itself gave immeasurable impetus to the liberal revolutionary movement throughout the Old World, for here was a living example of a liberal revolution that had taken its daring chance, against all odds and against the mightiest state in the world, and had actually succeeded. Here, indeed, was a beacon light to all the oppressed peoples of the world!

The American Revolution was radical in many other ways as well. It was the first successful war of national liberation against western imperialism. A people’s war, waged by the majority of Americans having the courage and the zeal to rise up against constituted “legitimate” government, actually threw off their “sovereign.” A revolutionary war led by “fanatics” and zealots rejected the siren calls of compromise and easy adjustment to the existing system. As a people’s war, it was victorious to the extent that guerrilla strategy and tactics were employed against the far more heavily armed and better trained British army—a strategy and tactics of protracted conflict resting precisely on mass support. The tactics of harassment, mobility, surprise, and the wearing down and cutting off of supplies finally resulted in the encirclement of the enemy. Considering that the theory of guerrilla revolution had not yet been developed, it was remarkable that the Americans had the courage and initiative to employ it. As it was, all their victories were based on guerrilla-type concepts of revolutionary war, while all the American defeats came from stubborn insistence by such men as Washington on a conventional European type of open military confrontation.

Also, as in any people’s war, the American Revolution did inevitably rend society in two. The Revolution was not a peaceful emanation of an American “consensus”; on the contrary, as we have seen, it was a civil war resulting in permanent expulsion of 100,000 Tories from the United States. Tories were hunted, persecuted, their property confiscated, and themselves sometimes killed; what could be more radical than that? Thus, the French Revolution was, as in so many other things, foreshadowed by the American. The inner contradiction of the goal of liberty and the struggle against the Tories during the Revolution showed that revolutions will be tempted to betray their own principles in the heat of battle. The American Revolution also prefigured the misguided use of paper money inflation, and of severe price and wage controls which proved equally unworkable in America and in France. And, as constituted government was either ignored or overthrown, Americans found recourse in new quasi-anarchistic forms of government: spontaneous local committees. Indeed, the new state and eventual federal governments often emerged out of federations and alliances of local and county committees. Here again, “committees of inspection,” “committees of public safety,” etc., prefigured the French and other revolutionary paths. What this meant, as was most clearly illustrated in Pennsylvania, was the revolutionary innovation of parallel institutions, of dual power, that challenged and eventually simply replaced old and established governmental forms. Nothing in all of this picture of the American Revolution could have been more radical, more truly revolutionary.

But, it may be claimed, this was after all only an external revolution; even if the American Revolution was radical, it was only a radicalism directed against Great Britain. There was no radical upheaval at home, no “internal revolution.” Again, this view betrays a highly naive concept of revolution and of wars of national liberation. While the focus of the upheaval was, of course, Great Britain, the inevitable indirect consequence was radical change within the United States. In the first and most obvious place, the success of the revolution meant inevitably the overturn and displacement of the Tory elites, particularly of those internal oligarchs and members of governors’ councils who had been created and propped up by the British government. The freeing of trade and manufacture from British imperial shackles again meant a displacement of Tory favorites from positions of economic privilege. The confiscation of Tory estates, especially in feudalism-ridden New York state, had a sharply democratizing and liberalizing effect on the structure of land tenure in the United States. This process was also greatly advanced by the inevitable dispossession of the vast British proprietary landed estates in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. The freakish acquisition of the territory west of the Appalachians by the peace treaty also opened vast quantities of virgin land to further liberalize the land structure, provided that the speculative land companies, as it increasingly appeared, would be kept at bay. Revolution also brought an inevitable upsurge of religious liberty with the freeing of many of the states, especially in the South, from the British-imposed Anglican establishment.

With these radical internal processes inevitably launched by the fact of revolution against Great Britain, it is also not surprising that this internal revolutionary course would go further. To the attack on feudalism was added a drive against the remnants of entail and primogeniture; from the ideology of individual liberty—and from British participation in the slave trade—came a general attack on that trade, and, in the North, a successful governmental drive against slavery itself.

Another inevitable corollary of the Revolution, and one easily overlooked, was that the very fact of revolution—aside from Connecticut and Rhode Island where no British government had existed before—necessarily dispossessed existing internal rule. Hence the sudden smashing of that rule inevitably threw government back into a fragmented, local, quasianarchistic form. When we consider also that the Revolution was consciously and radically directed against taxes and against central government power, the inevitable thrust of the Revolution for a radical transformation toward liberty becomes crystal clear. It is then not surprising that the thirteen revolted colonies were separate and decentralized, and that for several years even the separate state governments could not dare to impose taxes upon the populace. Furthermore, since royal control in the colonies had meant executive, judicial, and upper house control by royal appointees, the libertarian thrust of the Revolution was inevitably against these instruments of oligarchy and in favor of democratic forms responsive to, and easily checked by, the people. It is not a coincidence that the states where this type of internal revolution against oligarchy proceeded the furthest were the ones where the oligarchy was most reluctant to break with Great Britain. Hence, in Pennsylvania, the radical drive for independence meant that the reluctant oligarchy had to be pushed aside, and the process of that pushing led to the most liberal and most democratic constitution of all the states. (A highly liberal and democratic constitution also resulted from Vermont’s necessity for rebelling internally against New York and New Hampshire’s imperialism over Vermont’s land.) On the other hand, Rhode Island and Connecticut, where no internal British rule existed, experienced no such internal cataclysm. Internal revolution was therefore a derivative of the external, but it happened nevertheless. Because of these inevitable internal libertarian effects, the drive for restoration of central government through taxation and mercantilism had to be a conscious and determined project on the part of conservatives—a drive against the natural consequences of the Revolution.

Since the Revolution was a people’s war, the extent of mass participation in the militia and committees led necessarily to a democratizing of suffrage in the new governments. Furthermore, the principle of “no taxation without representation” could readily be applied internally as could British restrictions upon the principle of one man, one vote. While recent researches have shown that colonial suffrage requirements were far more liberal than had been realized, it is still true that suffrage was significantly widened by the Revolution in half the states. This widening was helped everywhere by the depreciation of the monetary unit (and hence of existing property requirements) entailed by the inflation that helped finance the war. Chilton Williamson, the most thorough and judicious of recent historians of American suffrage, has concluded that

the Revolution probably operated to increase the size of that majority of adult males which had, generally speaking, been able to meet the old property and freehold tests before 1776. ... The increase in the number of voters was probably not so significant as the fact that the Revolution had made explicit the basic idea that voting had little or nothing to do with real property and that this idea should be reflected accurately in the law. ... The changes in suffrage made during the Revolution were the most important in the entire history of American suffrage reform. In retrospect it is clear that they committed the country to a democratic suffrage.*

While many of the state constitutions, under the influence of conservative theorists, turned out to be conservative reactions against initial revolutionary conditions, the very act of making them was radical and revolutionary, for they meant that what the radical and Enlightenment thinkers had said was really true: men did not have to submit blindly to habit, to custom, to irrational “prescription.” After violently throwing off their prescribed government, they could sit down and consciously make over their polity by the use of reason. Here was radicalism indeed. Furthermore, in the Bills of Rights, the framers added a significant and consciously libertarian attempt to prevent government from invading the natural rights of the individual, rights which they had learned about from the great English libertarian tradition of the past century.

For all these reasons, for its mass violence, and for its libertarian goals, the American Revolution was ineluctably radical. Not the least demonstration of its radicalism was the impact of this revolution in inspiring and generating the admittedly radical revolutions in Europe, an international impact that has been most thoroughly studied by Robert Palmer and Jacques Godechot. Palmer has eloquently summed up the meaning that the American Revolution had for Europe:

The American Revolution coincided with the climax of the Age of Enlightenment. It was itself, in some degree, the product of this age. There were many in Europe, as there were in America, who saw in the American Revolution a lesson and an encouragement for mankind. It proved that the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment might be put into practice. It showed, or was assumed to show, that ideas of the rights of man and the social contract, of liberty and equality, of responsible citizenship and popular sovereignty, of religious freedom, freedom of thought and speech, separation of powers and deliberately contrived written constitutions, need not remain in the realm of speculation, among the writers of books; but could be made the actual fabric of public life among real people, in this world, now.**

  • *Chilton Williamson, American Suffrage from Property in Democracy, 1760–1860 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), pp. 111–12, 115–16.
  • **Robert Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution I: The Challenge (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 239–40.
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