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Was Independence a good thing?

July 4, 2018

Back in 2007, Bryan Caplan asked whether libertarians should celebrate American Independence. Jeff Hummel, a libertarian economist and friend, this year pens a positive response.

I am not entirely convinced. Hummel is on historical ground when he points out the actual, beneficial results of Independence. But answering the question inevitably requires looking at the counterfactual, at what would have happened otherwise. The common criticism of American Independence is that it preserved slavery here until 1865, whereas Britain abolished it in 1833. Hummel responds:

The only conceivable way Britain could have held on to all its American colonies was through political concessions to colonial elites. If American cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar planters had still been under British rule, they inevitably would have allied with West Indian sugar planters, creating a far more powerful pro-slavery lobby. Moreover, by 1833 American cotton had become more essential to the British economy than Caribbean sugar. Bear in the mind that it was the spread of cotton cultivation in the United States in the early nineteenth century that had reversed what little anti-slavery impulse had emerged during the Revolution in the southern states, inducing slaveholders to cease apologizing for slavery as a necessary evil and start defending it as positive good. Thus it is likely that, without U.S. independence, slavery would have persisted in both North America and the West Indies after 1834 and, indeed, possibly after 1865.

Perhaps. An alternate possibility is that the British would have prevailed in America’s War for Independence had they made slavery a more explicit issue then, enticed more slaves to escape to their side, and more used domestic insurrection as a war tactic. How would the politics after such victory affect the continuation of slavery in the south? (As it was, many American slaves did take the war as opportunity to escape.)

People are notoriously bad at answering the question: what will happen? Especially concerning political or economic trends beyond a short timeframe. If you doubt that, ask any economist whether we will see the start of recession in the next year. They are quite right to hem and haw. But even harder than the question of what will happen is the question: what would have happened? Some things would have had to be different to prevent the American colonies from achieving their independence. What things? Well, more than just one. What else would have had to be different in British culture, for it to more overtly appeal to escaped slaves during the War for Independence? Answering the question “what would have happened” breaks down into answering well two questions chained together. First, how else was the world different, assuming it was different in the counterfactual way imagined? And then from there answering the question, “given that, what will happen?” When that latter question on which economists and historians are so wobbly is set on top of an equally wobbly first question, it seems to me that any answer is speculative. Hummel is quite correct to point out that we can’t know that slavery would have ended earlier without Independence. But we also can’t know that it would have ended later, or that it would take so much bloodshed to end it.

Still, it is better to read these speculations from historians who get the factual parts right, than from writers who don’t. I’m grateful that historians like Hummel engage in the exercise.

I like the fact that Caplan correctly understands the moral ambiguity of patriotism:

Without the war, conservatives would still have a country to get misty-eyed over – it would just be Britain instead of America. If you’re going to love whatever country you’re born in, it’s hard to see the point of fighting to make a new one.

Patriotism is the modern instantiation of two of the seven ethical principles Oliver Curry identifies as universal to all cultures: help your group and defer to authority. The problem, as Caplan adumbrates, is that ethical principles that equally motivate soldiers fighting American independence and those fighting for the Soviets, and equally the Soviet soldier fighting Hitler in 1943 as well as the one crushing Czechoslovakia in 1953, don’t stand up well to scrutiny. Rommel, whose recent quotation upset Exeter, was a great patriot. Had his plot to assassinate Hitler succeeded, that university today might celebrate him as a hero. Which brings us back to the issue of uncertainty. Strangely, I find that ancient authors seem to face that more squarely than moderns.

The painting is “The Death of Jane McCrea,” painted in 1804 by John Vanderlyn. Despite extensive post-mortem analyis, it still is unknown whether she was killed by Wyandot scouts sent by the British to escort her to safety, as shown by the painting and as proclaimed by American propaganda at the time, or by American troops.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Hummel permalink
    July 7, 2018 4:20 pm


    You are right about speculative counterfactuals. The more broadly they are framed, the more problematic they become. But we cannot dispense with counterfactuals entirely. Every causal statement necessarily has an implied counterfactual. If a historian claims that the attack on Pearl Harbor brought about U.S. involvement in World War II, then the implication is that without the attack the U.S. would not have entered the war, at least at that particular time. So the real distinction is between good and bad, or plausible and implausible, counterfactuals. And what helps make counterfactuals good or plausible is holding other things equal.

    Which leads to the British approach to slavery during the American Revolution. Much is made of the fact that the British offered freedom to slaves who fought for them during the conflict, and an estimated 20,000 slaves responded to this offer. Unfortunately, many of them were killed in combat or by disease, and others were recaptured, so only about half of them or less were evacuated to Britain or other colonies at the war’s end.

    Yet at the same time that the British offered freedom to Patriot-owned slaves, they were promising white Loyalists that they could hold on to their slaves. Thus the 60,000 evacuated Loyalists at the war’s end took no less than 15,000 slaves with them. Most of these slaves ended up in the Bahamas or Jamaica, but 2,000 of them were dragged to various Canadian provinces, significantly increasing the slave population there. Since Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts (which included Maine) had abolished slavery, there was a temporary reverse underground railroad where some slaves fled from Canada to the U.S.

    In other words, at the time of the Revolution not only was the British commitment to freeing slaves entirely tentative and opportunistic, but also if their campaign for abolition had been any more aggressive, they would have alienated large numbers of important Loyalists, making it even less likely that they could have held on to the rebelling colonies. Indeed, such a campaign could have extended the rebellion to the British West Indies

    • rturpin permalink*
      July 7, 2018 5:54 pm

      Jeff Hummel writes: “If a historian claims that the attack on Pearl Harbor brought about U.S. involvement in World War II, then the implication is that without the attack the U.S. would not have entered the war, at least at that particular time.”

      I’m going to push back on that claim a little bit. It seems to me that a historian could hold both of the following. a) That had the Japanese not included Pearl Harbor in the attacks of that day, it is plausible that FDR still would have pushed for and obtained a declaration of war against Japan, given the other places attacked, including a couple of US territories. Now, yes, most Americans then had never heard of Guam. So the rhetoric and reporting and sentiment would have been different. But I’m just imagining a historian who thinks it is plausible, not one who thinks it is certain. b) Nonetheless, the same historian believes it was the attack on Pearl Harbor that motivated FDR, that event looming so large in Americans’ consciousness that the other attacks then took far second seat.

      Of course, I raise this not to pick at the particular example. Rather, to demonstrate how difficult it is to define historical causality in counterfactual terms.

      Here is an alternative. “If a historian claims that the attack on Pearl Harbor brought about the US inolvement in WW II, then the implication is that the attack has to be included in any reasonable causal explanation of that.” In other words, historical causality can be defined with reference to the space of reasonable explanations, rather than with reference to the space of possible worlds.

      Someone might object that reasonable explanations are many, and hard to rigorously define. I would agree. But they are far fewer and far better understood than the space of possible worlds!

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