Power & Market

The Spirit of '76: Radicalism and Revolution

The Spirit of '76: Radicalism and Revolution
Power & Market Ryan McMaken

In the final chapters of his masterful history of the American Revolution, Conceived in Liberty, Murray Rothbard takes to examining the political and social repercussions of the American Revolution's success. He notes the revolution accelerated the elimination of old feudal laws, the disestablishment of churches, and the confiscation of lands from the old Tory ruling classes. Confiscated lands were sold by state governments to "patriots." In other words, the "land redistribution" programs we so often hear about taking place during other revolutions, were not alien to the American one.

The war changed race relations in many areas as well. In 1776, Congress authorized the enlistment of blacks in military units, and some especially anti-British masters began to offer freedom to slaves that enlisted. Meanwhile, the "American navy — Continental, state, and privateer — welcomes Negro sailors from the very beginning of the conflict." Among the colonies, only South Carolina and Georgia refused to participate in this new option for blacks in the war. Indeed, so strong was the devotion to slavery among South Carolina and Georgia officials, Rothbard concluded, "they preferred defeat in the war to allowing that sort of subversive license." Not surprisingly, these new legal and social realities accelerated the abolition of slavery in many states, although total abolition crashed upon the rocks of the slave economy in the Deep South. 

There is no denying, then, that the American Revolution was very much a revolution, as Rothbard wrote in Chapter 80

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.

This view, Rothbard writes "displays an extreme naiveté on the nature of revolution." The American revolution was radical, indeed, and 

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 commonwealth men of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the French and to the American revolutionaries.

In spite of all of this, the mainstream continues to devalue the Revolution and its revolutionary nature. On the left, pundits claim that the war was a reactionary attempt to preserve slavery, or that it was fought to advance the views of authoritarian retrograde religious zealots. The truly revolutionary nature of the conflict — because it was radically laissez-faire — is ignored altogether. On the right, we are told to conveniently ignore all the revolutionary aspects of the war beyond the a vague opposition to taxes. Sedition and secession in 1776? That was OK. The same thing today? That's not OK. "Follow the law!" seems to be a frequent mantra of modern "patriots."   

We are fortunate, though, that this new radicalism was not guided by ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, or any sort of totalitarianism. It was instead — as we see in the thinking of the Anti-Federalists — guided by radical decentralist views, by radical suspicion of the state, by radical opposition to commercial controls, and by a radical opposition to a national military establishment. 

Although now greatly reduced, bastardized, and diluted, these revolutionary views, to a limited extent, continue to allow for a relatively robust amount of freedom in private and commercial life. How much of that freedom will be preserved a generation from now remains to be seen. 

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