Monday, 19 March 2018

The American Narrative of the War of Independence

On Quora, questions are frequently asked regarding what the UK thinks about the American Revolution. They always tend to get the same answer, which is, essentially, that the UK doesn't tthink about it at all. Although it is fundamental to US history, for the UK it was just a small sideshow in the war with France that was fought, on and off, for around eight centuries. The American colonies at that time had no great value.

Various answers seem to want to re-fight the war. I don’t know why. But since I used to teach philosophy, here’s a philosophical answer. Or at least an attempt at one.

Firstly, there is a famous rule: the winners get to write the history.

When the winners do this, it’s very useful if they have a handy philosopher who can explain logically why everything they did was right and justified. For the American revolutionaries that philosopher was Thomas Paine. ‘Common Sense’ and others of his works are, I take it, the basis of what the questioners mean by The American narrative of the Revolutionary War.

Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” - John Adams.

The problem with being a revolutionary is that real life is rarely as simple as they like to believe. Quite often revolutionaries end up not all that different to those against whom they rebel. Arguably the newly-independent Americans were every bit as good at imperialism etc. as the British rulers they threw out. That is a matter for better historians of the period than me.

But the problem with Paine was, he applied the same inexorable logic to everything, exposing the failings of US society’s continuing shibboleths with the same acumen as he’d exposed the failings of past ones such as monarchy. Slavery? Contrary to the rights of man. Formal religion? Subordination to an unelected priesthood is no better than subordination to an unelected king. And so on and so forth.

A philosopher who previously supported you and now embarrasses you is a really annoying creature. If you can’t answer him, it’s best to ignore him altogether. When Paine, an important US Founding Father, died in New York no more than a dozen people attended his funeral.

So perhaps a question of more relevance today would be, how consistently did (and does) the USA apply the philosophy of the Revolutionary War?