1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar
Source link: http://archive.mises.org/6616/modern-historians-confront-the-american-revolution/

Modern Historians Confront the American Revolution

May 11, 2007 by

The historian must be more than a chronicler, a mere lister of events, writes Murray Rothbard. For his real task is discovering and setting forth the causal connections between events in human history, the complex chain of human purposes, choices, and consequences over time that have shaped the fate of mankind. Investigating the causes of such a portentous event as the American Revolution is more, then, than a mere listing of preceding occurrences; for the historian must weigh the causal significance of these factors, and select those of overriding importance. FULL ARTICLE


TGGP May 11, 2007 at 7:21 pm

If, as I note below, you can’t rely on Rothbard when it comes to reviews of mafia movies, there’s no way I’d trust him here. Rothbard cares less about the truth than his ideology, and attacks those who present the former rather than the latter. Rothbard seems to suffer from a bad case of “The People’s Romance” here. Libertarianism is naturally incompatible with populism, so it is rare for someone of Rothbard’s (or my) political persuasion to indulge in the People’s Romance and usually requires some stretching of the truth. I posted this earlier, but it is worth repeating.

The following is from Thomas Woods’ “Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”:

In 1842, Judge Mellen Chamberlain interviewed ninety-one-year-old Captain Preston, a veteran of the Battle of Concord in 1775, to understand why Preston fought against the British.
Judge Chamberlain: Did you take up arms against intolerable oppressions?
Captain Preston replied that he had never felt any oppressions.
Judge Chamberlain: Was it the Stamp Act?
Captain Preston: No, I never saw one of those stamps.
Judge Chamberlain: Was it the tea tax?
Captain Preston said no again.
Judge Chamberlain: Were you reading John Locke and other theorists of liberty?
Captain Preston: Never heard of ‘em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.
Judge Chamberlain: Why, then, did you fight?
Captain Preston: Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.

That sounds awfully conservative, rather than like radical libertarian ideology, don’t you think? A more realistic assessment of how the people actually think about politics is found in Robert Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”. There is a Mises article that discusses it briefly here and Jeff Friedman’s opening of the issue of Critical Review on it here. The people are never really swayed toward one ideology or another, though ideologues convince themselves that is the case to make themselves seem more important. The people are ignorant of ideology.

Ohhh Henry May 11, 2007 at 8:53 pm

In the article Rothbard says, “how many colonists indeed sat down to read the abstract philosophy of John Locke?” Then he goes on to explain the link between the widely un-read John Locke and the widely read writings of later libertarians. Even if Captain Preston had not heard of these articles I would be surprised if he had no contact with anyone who had read them, for example in churches, taverns, town hall meetings, etc.

Many people are ignorant of ideology, but no one is devoid of ideas.

TLWP Sam May 11, 2007 at 9:53 pm

It is also interesting to note that Karl Marx did live long to see Marxists running around with their ideas and did declare himself not to be Maxist . . .


“Have you read Marx?”

“Yes these cane chairs are murder!”

TLWP Sam May 11, 2007 at 9:54 pm

Marxist. Maxist. whatever


Steve May 12, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Sorry TGGP, the American Revolution by many accounts other than Rothbard’s was deemed radical. Mercantilists, Tories, Hamilitonians, and Neocons have also tried to rewrite history as they see fit. But there was not much conservatism among farmers, merchants and average citizens when they fired on government troops to defend their liberty.

cloned May 12, 2007 at 2:46 pm

RogerM (or anyone else knowledgeable),

I was wondering whether you have read Religion and the American Mind, by Alan Heimert, and if so, how it fits in to your thinking about the American Revolution?

Here is a concise statement of its main thesis from a recent blog post: “Liberal clergy were not in the forefront of the American Revolution. The rebellion was fueled, rather, by the pro-Awakening clergy and their descendants.”

I am no expert, but I read it recently and found it pretty persuasive. I believe Jonathan Edwards held many false notions of economics, consistent with his Calvinism, and I do not agree with the nationalism that occurred after 1800. But evangelical religion seems likely a major animating force in 1776. The Great Awakening and the idea that man could help bring about the millennium were both nationalizing forces, but the ideas of evangelical preachers were often at odds with the established churches in Boston and the state establishments. There are individualistic (and “antimoniam”) aspects here as well. If I am not mistaken, Patrick Henry’s first court case was on behalf of Virginia Baptists. Nathan Hale’s family, active in the church in Coventry, Connecticut, certainly would have been exposed to the theological debates at that time.

I see certain echoes (and a more modern understanding of economics) in this comment by Mercy Vetsel yesterday at Greg Mankiw’s Blog:

. . . It’s a sign of the utterly craven self-indulgence of our times that kids are now taught in elementary school that agitating for ways to spend other peoples’ money is a good deed. It’s not! Real charity means giving your own money — a personal sacrifice.

When the people agitating to spend OPM are especially privileged themselves, the spectacle is all the more revolting.

It’s odd. I don’t find the supernatural claims of Christianity credible, but I as a boy from the Christian heartland of American, it is saddening to see the degree of raw selfishness and naked status-driven nature of consumption and political agitation exhibited in post-Christian enclaves like elite college campuses and hip urban areas like Manhattan, San Francisco, and parts of LA. Whatever happened to modesty, prudence, charity and frugality?

This disenchantment is all the more painful when I look at the non-believing, secular churches like the Unitarians or the liberal mainline protestant churches. The FIRST thing they remove from Christianity is any sense of personal sacrifice.

Why give money to the poor when you can petition the government to give other people’s money to the poor? . . .

Moreover, “rationalist” denominations were always closer to the Church of England, with some worry individual ministers might defect (as they did occasionally) and a persistent worry that England would try to establish an American bishop.

In this post (or the one nearby) I did not see Rothbard cite Heimert. Nor in Conceived in Liberty (as I recall), which I believe was published just a few years after Religion and the American Mind. It seems likely that Rothbard agreed with Edmund Morgan, who wrote a highly critical review of Religion and the American Mind shortly after it was published (which is cited in the introduction to the book).

But consistent with the book jacket reviews, I believe it probably has grown in influence over the years. Whether you agree with evangelical religion, or not, and whether you agree with what happened after the Revolution (during the early-1800s, and of late), I believe it is probably a necessary corrective. Evangelical religion played a larger role in the Revolution than I previously would have thought.

Any thoughts?

TGGP May 12, 2007 at 8:03 pm

Steve, did you read the quote from the guy who actually fought in the American revolution? He was trying to preserve local or self-government because he feared the British were going to take it away. That is essentially CONSERVATIVE. Elites wrote stuff that we get to read today (and what was deemed important of what was written was determined by later elites), but those elites are not reflective of the common people. Among the things they were angry about was the British tolerating Catholocism in Canada and trying to hold back the colonists from venturing west and slaughtering indians. Does that sound very libertarian? We can be thankful for what they left us, but they were not the saints Rothbard wishes them to be. Hamilton and mercantilists did not just play a big role in how the revolution was “spun”, they played a huge one in how the revolution PLAYED OUT. The most radical hotbeds of revolutionary sentiment were in New England, from whence the Federalists later drew their support. The South, base of the Anti-Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, was the last refuge of the British after failing to crush New England or hold the Mid Atlantic, which they felt they could control because of the lower revolutionary sentiment there. In terms of David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed”, the New Englanders were descendants of Puritans, who had earlier overthrown the King when he was unnacceptable and created a Commonwealth. The South was controlled (the Scots-Irish also lived in the sticks, but had little influence) by Cavaliers, who were pseudo-aristocrats and hence more partial to England and against revolution. The colonists were originally peeved not by mercantilist taxes, which they thought were legitimate policy, but by taxes intended to gain revenue. I am not saying this to denigrate libertarianism. I myself am a libertarian. I am saying this because the American Revolution (as Thomas Woods points out, it was really a war of secession, like the southern one,rather than a revolution, like the French or Russian ones) was not as Rothbard wanted to depict it for ideological reasons. People who teach history as being about “Good guys versus bad guys” should NOT be relied upon for truth.

Dave May 12, 2007 at 9:30 pm


Do you have any sources for the history you just gave? In particular, I am reffering to “Among the things they were angry about was the British tolerating Catholocism in Canada and trying to hold back the colonists from venturing west and slaughtering indians” Just curious.

Also, you seem to being playing fast and loose with the term “conservative.” By conservative do you mean one who wants to preserve the status que? In that case, I don’t think the terms “libertarian” and “conservative” are neccasarily mutually exclusive. For instance, if I lived in an ancap society, I would, under the defintion I just give, be considered a conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve that society and libertarian in the sense that I would have a moral objection to any imposition of a state.

Moreover, the concept of going to WAR to preserve “local or self-government” seems somewhat libertarian in my view.

Also, I have read the link you just gave before, and I do not recall the article portraying Rothbards view of history in that manner.

cloned May 13, 2007 at 10:08 am


I will let TGGP provide sources (if he chooses to).

But his understanding on the questions you asked is consistent with my general understanding. The British sought revenue from the colonies after winning the expensive French & Indian War (or The Seven Years War). If I recall correctly, they also made the boundary of Quebec extend down into the present US along the Appalachians, which I believe American colonists were not to cross (something George Washington was especially peeved about). The British wanted to minimize expenses. They didn’t want colonists spilling out further west and getting into fights with the natives (which the more recent “backcountry” immigrants, such as the Scotch-Irish, were inclined to do).

Consistent with the above, by the very nature of this arrangement, I suppose the British necessarily were tolerant of Catholicism in Canada. I know people in New England were particularly upset when earlier in the 1700s (as part of some war I forget, Queen Anne’s?), New England colonists took Ft. Louisburg at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and after the war, the British turned around and gave it back to France in the peace treaty. People in New England (and other colonies, I suppose) weren’t particularly tolerant of Catholicism. Jonathan Edwards was surely not alone in viewing the Pope as the Anti-Christ.

I look forward to any responses to my original post, but I encourage TGGP and others to read Religion and the American Mind if you haven’t done so. In it, Heimert points out that what most of the people were reading (or hearing) wasn’t necessarily what historians are able to find in written form today. As I recall, a major source was reading all of the published sermons he could find from that period. It is kind of a tough read, and it helps to be familiar with theological issues and historical events of that day. Today there is a lot written about Edwards – and by Edwards – but an excellent biography was published just a couple of years ago. It is interesting to me how many of the issues at that time echo down to the present. For one, I have a much better understanding of many or even most of the present Protestant denominations came about.

I have other reasons, but my personal discovery of a rather novel constitutional law textbook helped draw me into considering the state of religion at the time of the founding in greater detail.

Like TGGP, I also find Albion’s Seed an excellent resource.

Like you, Dave, I don’t necessarily see this as so black and white (though IMO it appears Rothbard’s analysis may be a bit deficient as I have pointed out). People in the backcountry, all up and down the colonies, were underrepresented in the local legislatures; their grievances weren’t just with GB. I do not feel familiar enough with history though, or Rothbard’s approach, than to simply ask about what appears to me a shortcoming.

Vanmind May 13, 2007 at 12:28 pm

Has anyone read “The Plains Of Abraham?” I did as a kid, and I’m wondering now how much it might have skewed the truth about that period of Quebec history.

As an aside: my maternal ancestors were United Empire Loyalists. Not exactly proud of that, but whatever…

TGGP May 13, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Dave, the Quebec Act was listed as one of the “Intolerable Acts”. The Proclamation of 1763 was about Injuns rather than Papist Canucks, but it was also much griped about by the revolutionary colonists.

You are right that circumstances can result in conservativism being rather libertarian. However it does not change the fact that conservativism != libertarianism. Understanding that makes it less of a mystery that America left the path of liberty requiring conspiracy theory thinking and shoddy history. The colonists were certainly not living under anarcho-capitalism and would have laughed at you if you told them they were (especially the Puritans).

I gave multiple links, so I’m not sure which one you are referring to in your last paragraph, but if it’s the one I think it is, it uses the same phrase I hyperlinked: “good guys vs bad guys”. That is how Rothbard taught. The reason is because he was an ideologue who preferred an account of events that reflected his sensibilities rather than what actually happened. Just as “Marxist history” or “feminist history” or “[insert here] history” sacrifices truth, so too “libertarian history” does not let history stand by itself but must distort it to dispense a pre-approved message.

Vanmind, no need to feel shame. We don’t believe in collective responsibility/guilt ’round these here parts, so you’re off the hook for your ancestors. Furthermore, Hans Herman Hoppe has said he would have been a loyalist during the war of independence, and he’s pretty popular here.

Dave May 13, 2007 at 3:28 pm


I beg to differ about Rothbard! I consider his history among some of the best, and as I stated before, I do not view his history as being as laced with the “good guys vs bad guys” syndrome as you try to imply.

Moreover, history is always open to interpretation. The problem with most historians is that they pretend to simply be reporting “facts” without any bias. However, the way one interprets and reports “facts” is always going to be influenced and subjected to one’s pre-existing world view, even if one attempts to aviod this syndrome. This is why I would much rather read history by someone like Rothbard, who was very open about his idealogy, so that I know his world view and can be wary of when and if he let his idealogy influence the “facts” that he records. By the way, that is a big IF. I have caught miner inacuracies in Rothbards history before, but his interpretation alway seems plausible, even if one disagrees with it (precisely because of THEIR pre-existing world view. Oh the irony!!)

In addition, Rothbard never implied the colonists were ancaps or lived under ancap in any manner. Accusing him of that is an example of, using your words, “conspiracy theory thinking and shoddy history.”

He did point out a the factual example of Pennsylvania, however.



Jonathan Bostwick May 13, 2007 at 9:37 pm


I don’t understand your assertion that their concern with self rule is not inline with libertarianism. Anarchy is the ultimate form of SELF governance.

That the soldier said he wasn’t overthrowing an evil government merely asserting his rights of self governance SUPPORTS Rothbard claim.

Not even the greatest liberal theorists of the time believed Anarchy could work so you’re going to have to cut the colonials some slack.

RogerM May 14, 2007 at 10:49 am

Thanks for the recommendation of Religion and the American Mind, by Alan Heimert. I haven’t read it but will put it on my list.

I think it’s difficult to say what motivated every American who participated in the war, or even the majority of Americans, but all historians like to play down the role of religion today, even though at the time of the American Revolution religion probably exercised more influence than any philosophy. Bernard Lewis makes a similar point when writing about the advance of Muslim armies, complaining that historians usually ignore or diminish the motivation that religion provided for most people in the past.

cloned May 14, 2007 at 5:50 pm


Thanks for your response.

Many here might rather start with the JE biography I linked, which is an easier read and IMO very well written. Much was new to me, but besides that, it also reinforced things I had heard about before but otherwise largely forgot (e.g., the half-way covenant, “arminianism” (and so on), the Deerfield massacre, JE himself). The book is also a good introduction to his philosophy and how he differed with Frances Hutcheson, for example, among others. JE himself was at the nexus of many historical events and places and people (e.g., a missionary in Stockbridge Massachusetts at the outbreak of the French and Indian War). The man who led the effort to have him ousted from his pulpit in Northampton (and who later very much regretted it), Joseph Hawley, his cousin, was the ‘Sam Adams’ of backcountry Massachusetts. On PBS’s American Experience tonight, his grandson will kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Aaran Burr Jr. was only a year or two old, as I recall, when his father, grandfather, mother, and grandmother all died within a few months of each other (JE as a result of a smallpox vaccination shortly after taking over as president of Princeton).

The Heimert book apparently caused quite a stir, however, and in my layman’s opinion, the reviews written on the outside (in the link above) are accurate. I may be mistaken, but I believe it may be primarily responsible for the credit given by others to the Great Awakening as a forerunner of the American Revolution. Off the top of my head, I believe Paul Johnson did so in A History of the American People (who, as I recall, also took an Austrian approach to the Great Depression).

. . . but all historians like to play down the role of religion today, even though at the time of the American Revolution religion probably exercised more influence than any philosophy . . .

If I haven’t said so already, my critique of Rothbard here (to my knowledge) applies to all the other ‘liberal’ interpretations of history at the time Conceived in Liberty was written. I wish I was a little better prepared and that I had time to expand on this now, but I don’t. :)

Nice blog. Maybe next time.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: