The Real American Revolution
On the 4th of July, I saw a tweet along the lines of, “A day that a group of entrepreneurs started a new country.” Perhaps, the author was referring to the risk-taking adventure of the revolution, but I felt it was yet another example of making it seem like the American Revolution was for capitalism what the Russian Revolution was for communism. As though there were a small group of free-market capitalists that plotted to kick out that mercantilist old fart, King George III. Of course, the reality is very different.
To start with, the signers of the Declaration of Independence were not entrepreneurs. Of the 56 signers, 20 were lawyers, 10 were civil servants (politicians, police, tax collectors), 7 were just rich guys, 4 doctors, 2 clergymen and 1 was a slave trader. There were six merchant traders and four farmers, although most of them were carrying on the family careers. The most entrepreneurial ones were likely Ben Franklin, whom I count as an inventor and one of the merchants who rose from complete poverty. However, the vast majority were people representing the government and the entrenched interests of their society.
That could be forgiven if the act were truly some huge risky venture taken against the odds, but it wasn’t. The Revolution of 1776 really started with the first organized protests of the Stamp Act in 1764. The colonial governments of Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Virginia and Rhode Island organized committees to send protests to Britain and discuss other forms of resistance. As Britain ignored these protests, the committees grew in importance and more belligerent in their behaviour. Even more surprising is that the hostilities began a year before the declaration, on April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord.
It was in this atmosphere that the Second Continental Congress was formed in April 1776. The Congress allotted 1 vote to each colony. It was not formed to declare independence, but rather continue the political pressure on the British. In fact, New York’s delegation was initially forbidden to vote on independence. After discussing alternatives, the Congress finally decided to vote on independence on July 1. It was rejected when South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted against. Additionally, Delaware’s delegates were deadlocked 1–1 and New York was still not permitted to vote. After 3 more days of debates, the Congress finally adopted a Declaration of Independence, albeit against continued opposition to the idea.
So, the next time someone simplifies the American Revolution, remember that it wasn’t a bold move taken quickly by a group of outsiders. Instead, like so many real accomplishments, it was the long culmination of process of informed interested parties.
Note: I originally wrote this in 2012.