The American Revolution is a cornerstone geo-political event not just for the New World but for the entire globe. In retrospect, it is obvious that this mutiny against trans-Atlantic British dictates of the late eighteenth century is pivotal in shaping and altering power equations in coming decades and centuries. Although I started the course with a basic understanding of the significance and reach of this event, towards the end of the course my understanding is more complete and nuanced. Beyond nascent and immediate feelings of patriotism I am now able to see the revolution objectively and impartially. Going further back in history, I am now able to view the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere as inclusive of invasion, conquest, and genocide. I now look back with embarrassment about constitutional settlements that protected trade in slaves, committed government to helping slave catchers, and gave extra votes in Congress to slave owners. The moral perceptions that underpin those reappraisals oblige us to go further. In other words, it made me realize that there is good reason to question whether the American Revolution –the British colonies’ fight for freedom from the Crown–was morally justifiable.
At the beginning of the course I thought of the revolution in transatlantic terms, springing forth as a result of colonial domination. The initial perception was that the colonists were taxed without due representation in Parliament, their endeavor to gain autonomy promptly suppressed by the Crown, their reluctance to act subservient to unresponsive masters leading, justifiably, to the sweeping revolution. It is not that these initial conceptions were disproved during the course, but some of them were rectified. There is some veracity to the standard version of the War of Independence, for the colonists had genuine grievances against the British Monarchy. But, as I learned during the course, this version either colors or ignores certain obvious facts. Take say the plight of oppressed groups long inhabiting the vast North American landscape. Their voice was totally unrepresented in the discourse related to the revolution.
According to the doctrinaire version of the revolution, the colonists were regarded as the primary victims of injustice. This is blatantly false, because the principal victims were the colored people, including Native Americans, whose generosity and hospitality were grossly abused by the European settlers. Contrary to the belief that European Americans have been all too willing to accept, European emigres came to inhabited territory in North America. Native Americans were populous and many dwelt in stable and structured communities. They had cleared land on the eastern seaboard and cultivated vast terrains. Their nations had established territories which were vital to the hunting component of their economies. These facts were evident to European settlers—especially to those who escaped starvation by accepting as gifts the fruits of Native American agriculture. Yet, distilled history of colonization largely neglects this aspect of early settlements.
I also learnt during the course that African Americans are another community that bore the brunt of injustice – as they came to the continent tied in chains and were forced to slog as slaves. In this backdrop, the European frontiersman’s basic grievance was that he was restricted in robbing the already wretched natives and black slaves. Their cry for freedom and liberty was nothing more than a clamor for more control over the disadvantaged slaves and natives. This state of institutionalized injustice was accentuated further during the years of the revolution, diminishing the aura surrounding it even more. In other words, the injuries and sufferings associated with the revolution were apportioned unequally between the colonialists and other colored groups. These darker facets of the American Revolution were not cognizant to me prior to taking the course. And taking the course has made me realize the parallel injustices meted out to the natives and blacks by the colonials and the Crown.
Above-made observations are not to suggest that I disbelieve the democratic credentials for the revolution. To the contrary, I still believe that the grand democratic justification of this landmark event has inspired (and continues to inspire) liberation struggles throughout the world. The benefit of taking the course is that it has facilitated distinguishing positive aspects of the revolution from the unsavory ones. For instance, I could now distinguish between the oppression and injustice of European colonization from the undeniable fact that the shores of New England offered escape from similar violations far away in Europe.
Another key insight that I gained via the course is that the seeds of American imperialism were sown quite early in the country’s history – in fact as early as the revolution itself. Previously, I believed that the democratic character of the American Republic is inherently incompatible with imperialism. This assumption is based on the understanding of circumstances surrounding the formation of the new republic. For example, while American scholarship on the subject notes the emergence of the new nation as a product of the Revolution, British historians attribute the same event as the ‘American War of Independence’. In the American sense, the Revolutionary War was assumed to resonate with parallel revolutions in France and Haiti. Further, patriot scholars marked the moment of overthrow of the thirteen British colonies in North America (under an invidious external despot–George III) with such poignancy and self-righteousness, that later day American imperial activities would sound contradictory. But, alongside noble utterances toward the end of the revolution, there were also claims to the ownership of the continent from sea to sea. In the period before the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, calls for unfettered colonial expansion became increasingly bound up with the claim for colonial self-government, and not only for those, such as Washington, who were actively pursuing expansion. In A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Thomas Jefferson argues not only that democracy and colonial expansion are compatible, but that the former springs from the latter. Such ‘democratic colonialism’ is not, therefore, incompatible with membership of the British Empire, as long as the empire is understood as a collection of independent and equal polities of ‘free men’ (i.e. not natives, slaves, or the property-less) sharing the same constitutionally limited monarch.