We continue to understand colonialism in a nineteenth century way. We imagine it as economically advanced European Countries and the United States exerting economic, military, social and cultural influence over peoples in Latin America and Africa who are intimidated by the rifles and the religion of the dominating country, that applying even to China, which had been in decline, though no one knew how badly until their defeat in the Opium War which opened them up to granting even more foreign concessions. The economically advanced countries could think of themselves as carrying out the White Man’s Burden of bringing civilization to places whose own cultures and economies were backward or had deteriorated to the point that they could no longer be responsible for their own welfare. Ex-colonies are still in the process of getting over the time they were occupied by developing economies that allow for them to be independent and build a culture which produces a literature that looks to themselves rather than, let us say, to English models. But that is not what colonialism meant before the Nineteenth Century. The Low Countries, in the Fifteenth Century, became an appendage of Spain through dynastic inheritance, but when the new government arrived to take over, the Spaniards marveled at the material wealth of the Lowlanders. Spain might occupy the land but the people did not need Spain’s culture or economic support. The same could be said of that other about to become new nation, the English colonies on the east coast of North America. Let us illustrate that fact and spell out its consequences.
While the causes of the American Civil War are well recognized, the same is not the case with the American Revolution, which has not for a long time fired the imagination of the American people, partly because they wore such funny clothes and were fighting the war, now long settled, between aristocracy and democracy, and partly because that conflagration has been long replaced in the American imagination by the Civil War, fought about things we still recognize as salient: issues of race and of the proper alignment of industry to the rest of society and of states to the federal government. So scholars debate whether the American Revolution was fought for the benefit of rich merchants and plantation owners, the ones who Charles Beard claimed peopled the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, or whether it was a needless fight to allow one section of the new economic plutocracy to wrest some control from their English compatriots, or whether, on the third hand, it was a democratic and republican rebellion when such things had not been known since ancient times. My take is that the American Revolution was a cultural rebellion whereby a people already a European like nation of the first rank were simply fighting to have themselves recognized as such.
Daniel Boorstein pointed out long ago that the Colonies, by the mid Eighteenth Century, were advanced and comparable to England in the distribution of books and newspapers, in physical science and natural science, in the state of learning in colleges. A look at Jefferson’s library shows the latest English journals and a look in the homes of the Massachusetts wealthy shows portraits not quite up to that done by English artists, the shapes too imperfect, too ungainly, to be true representations, but well on the way there, while the silver produced by Paul Revere and others as good in quality as any produced anywhere. And political discourse was advancing rapidly. Hamilton ws familiar with the latest in English texts on political economy, and he and his colleagues would reach a new level of original profundity very soon in “The Federalist Papers”, and in the U. S. Constitution, which was better than the document proposed by Jean Jacques Rousseau to be the governing written constitution for Poland.
All of these cultural advances led colonists to think of themselves, as Ned C. Landsman put it, less as members of one or another colony and more as Englishmen who were living far from home but with all the attendant rights of being Englishmen. They were very conscious and insisted upon being treated no less than as Englishmen. This is far different from what happens during the Nineteenth Century and Twentieth Century in Africa where there is no culture at all equivalent to that of Europe, however much the Anglican Church, and later Roman Catholicism, tried to make the place an appendage of European culture. There are no universities worthy of the name north of South Africa and until late in the Twentieth Century little production of literature or western influenced art but rather a preservation of pre-literate forms of art, such as masks and textiles, as the substance of culture. And in Latin America, which is far more literate, the native grandees thought of themselves as pure bred Spaniards who preserved their Spanish ways rather than as the beginnings of a Mexican or Argentine culture. But to be a full blooded and certified Englishmen living in North America meant wanting parity with those still in the homeland rather than some kind of dependant relationship. There were ways to arrange that, as Ben Franklin proposed at the time. Americans could have been elected in their own right to Parliament. Or significant powers could have been delegated to the Colonial legislatures that were asserting power on their own anyway. Or, at the least, British rule could have been exercised with a gentler hand. But what was an unnecessary rebellion or at least one not required quite so quickly was set aside for a confrontational policy. Whether, with wiser heads prevailing, the American colonies could have become the first Canada is difficult to say. Their national character might have already been too well formed not to require political independence. The point is that they were a first world country already and dickering over trade and taxes with the home country was an expression of the fact that it was a negotiation between equals rather than a set of petty controversies that need not have amounted to much. Thus we can unify the narrow grievances of the colonists with their lofty rhetoric. The Revolution wasn’t about taxes but about the rights of man.
This is different from the take on the matter offered by Justin du Rivage in his “Revolution Against Empire”, which was very favorably reviewed recently in “The New Yorker”. Du Rivage poses the radical Whiggery of Hamilton and the rest of the Enlightenment who were interested in democracy and the issues of taxes without representation against the elite intellectuals, such as Samuel Johnson and other conservatives, who were tied to empire and are dubbed by du Rivage as “authoritarian reformers”. There is no reason, so the author thinks, that the the party of empire could not have won out and the United States emerge, in a generation or two after the failed Revolution, as the first Canada: a part of the British Empire with plenty of autonomy and, as has been suggested to me, a far less rocky road to industrialism than the road it took, in that it would not have required stealing industrial secrets from Great Britain and allowed better trade relations with the Mother Country than proved to be the case early on. But that would be to make the economic and political case more important, as often happens, than the cultural one, whereby there was this identity of Americans as Englishmen who had to separate so that they could fulfill their destiny as Englishmen and which yields, by the 1850’s, a literary and artistic tradition that rivals that of the Mother Country. Cultural considerations are not to be treated lightly.