I still don’t really understand the Revolutionary War

51XWuULSWdL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Okay, so after finishing the Grant biography, I started two books about the Revolutionary War. One’s a biography of Washington (also by Ron Chernow) and one’s a history of early America by Robert Middlekauf. I’m halfway through them, so I’m getting a little more insight, but I have to say I’m still a little confused about why the Revolutionary War started.

Like, I totally understand the Civil War. The abolition of slavery was a direct attack on the source of the wealth of the Southern elite. If there was a political party today that made, say, owning stock illegal, then there’d probably be another Civil War! (Obviously I’m against slavery, just saying that the South had a strong economic incentive to secede.)

But the Revolutionary War makes much less sense to me. The war was led by upper-class farmers and merchants, people like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hancock, who were rich! The British weren’t trying to take away their wealth! In fact, the Revolutionary War, in many cases, hit them much harder in the pocketbook than any taxes would’ve done.

Furthermore, the British taxes weren’t really an existential threat to Washington and Jefferson in the same way that, say, a bullet is an existential threat. I don’t understand fighting and dying for the cause of, what, a bunch of tea merchants who were worried about being undercut by the East India Company?

I mean many of the things that Americans cite when talking about the Revolutionary War: the Stamp Act (a tax on all legal documents) and most of the Townshend Acts (a number of other tariffs) were repealed in response to American pressure! So really what was left was a tax on tea. It was the confiscation and destruction of this imported tea that led the British government to close the port of Boston and suspend Massachusetts’s self-government (which is what directly led to the Revolutionary War).

What’s more, the Revolutionary War was obviously one that had a large base of popular support. It wasn’t just the elite who were coercing everybody else into going along. Washington’s army was an all-volunteer force. So far as I know (I haven’t finished either book), there was no conscription during the war. So not only was Washington willing to die, but so were tens of thousands of other people!

I’m reading the Declaration of Independence right at this moment, and when you read that document, Great Britain certainly does seem tyrannical, but in practice, many of these things were based on isolated and rare instances. Yes, the King did dissolve legislatures, revoke charters, make arbitrary laws, etc. But, overall, the hundred and fifty year history of the American colonies was, up to that point, one of being left more or less alone and being allowed, more or less, to rule themselves.

And that fact is probably the key to the rebellion. The American colonies were founded, oftentimes, by people fleeing from Britain. They found in America the freedom to order things in the manner that they pleased. And they came to think of themselves as more or less in charge. But when Britain started to constrain them a little more and remind them a little more of its power, they felt this as an erosion of their liberties. People are much more likely to respond to the loss of something than they are to the prospect of gaining it.

This also, perhaps, explains why the white people of Canada and Australia never (successfully) rebelled. Canada contained a large subjugated population, the French-Canadians, who didn’t necessarily expect better treatment from the British than they got. And, similarly, Australia started as a penal colony. Again there was no expectation of freedom.

Furthermore, Washington didn’t know how history would turn out. He didn’t know, first of all, that the British would rule their (white) colonists with a relatively light hand (well except for South Africa…okay maybe I shouldn’t generalize). In retrospect, it’s surprising that Britain didn’t oppress America much more than it actually did, given America’s lack of representation in Parliament. Washington and the other Founding Fathers had good reason to fear that someday Britain might try to enrich the homeland at the expense of the colonies.

And, finally, the French and Russian revolutions hadn’t happened yet. I think that those two events (as well as the subsequent history of the 20th century) have given elites a deep, deep fear of popular revolution. If they’d possessed the example of the French revolution, I’m not sure if Washington and the rest would’ve dared to rebel. Even in their own time, they feared the power of the mob, but they hadn’t yet seen the havoc it could truly wreak (of course they did have the example of the English Civil War, but in that case the lessons were of a different sort).