The American Revolution Was a Great Idea

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tags: The American Revolution



Mark Hemingway is a Senior Writer for The Weekly Standard. 

The current issue of the New Yorker has an article by staff writer Adam Gopnik, who spent part of his childhood up north, titled, "We Could Have Been Canada: Was the American Revolution such a good idea?" The notion that liberals hate America is an intellectually lazy ad hominem attack indulged by far too many on the right. But when you dedicate 4,500 words to Gopnik's premise, well, let's just say it becomes a lot harder to protest should people start unkindly questioning the man's patriotism.

Aesthetically, Gopnik is a first-rate writer, but being explicitly self-congratulatory about engaging in "taboo" thoughts requires a remarkable degree of sanctimony. And so right off the bat, we are treated to this daring thought experiment in counterfactual history:

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders' panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No "peculiar institution," no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada.


Now historical counterfactuals are provocative and rhetorically useful, but they prove next to nothing. And they almost always oversimplify; for instance, it's true that the British empire, to its everlasting credit, ended slavery sooner than America did. However, that didn't stop the British empire from prospering significantly from trade with its former colony for decades after it ended slavery elsewhere. Had America remained a British colony, the massive economic incentives for keeping slavery would have been more directly felt by the British empire. And who knows whether they would have been so keen on ending slavery earlier then?

It would be one thing for Gopnik to harp on slavery, but it's worth asking why he wants to denigrate America's greatest contributions to world peace and prosperity. The article is full of asides that amount to little more than petty digs at the United States. This one is beyond the pale: "That the Canadians had marched beyond their beach on D Day with aplomb while the Americans struggled on Omaha was never boasted about." No disrespect at all to Canada's justly proud military tradition and their people's sacrifice at Juno Beach, but is Gopnik kidding with this? One gets the sense that he feels he can get away with bashing the heroism of American World War II soldiers because precious few of them are alive anymore. ...





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