Did the Founding Fathers Lead the American Revolution for the Pursuit of Liberty - Or Personal Greed?
Americans, like citizens of countries around the world, celebrate their country's Independence Day with pride and reverence for the people who founded the country. In the United States, we tell a powerful story of the country's founding as a break from the tyranny of the British crown and away from King George III's relentless taxation without representation, a break which led to the Revolutionary War.
But is this merely a myth meant to inculcate patriotism? Political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have argued that we should question the American founding story as a noble crusade.
Instead, they see the founding of the United States as the result of the unabated greed of the founders.
In their book The Spoils of War, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith expand on their theory of political action as deriving largely from the personal ambitions of rulers and politicians in power. They apply this theory to the American presidents, and they begin their case with no lesser figure than President George Washington.
Washington, they argue, had deep financial interests in land. One estimate ranks him as the 59th richest man in all of American history, and he died with 60,000 acres to his name across Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia, the authors write.
But the market for land that Washington would use to become so rich was under threat from the British government prior to the war. In 1763, the king issued a proclamation restricting the colonization of the Ohio Valley, where the Ohio Company — to which Washington was tied — had sought to profit handsomely. The proclamation dimmed the prospects for profit.
The king's imposition became even worse in 1767 when he proclaimed that all land west of the Alleghenies belonged to the crown, completely nullifying the Ohio Company's land acquisition ambitions.
"For Washington, however, all future paths, whether as a landowner, a canal builder, or a military hero, lead back the benefits he derived from the Ohio Company," the authors write. "It was a catalyst for his success."
So while many average colonists may have little quarrel with the king over these seizures of land — land which was, quite often, inhabited by Native Americans — men with ambitions for wealth and power saw these proclamations as an affront.
The authors note that the king's effort to restrict colonists' use of uncolonized land is even mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.
Two other famous decrees from Britain are also commonly cited as part of the incentive for revolution: The Currency Act and the Stamp Act. But both these laws, passed by parliament, had exaggerated effects on wealthy colonists, like the founders, compared to their effects on the rest of the people.
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were also both, like Washington, historically wealthy men who engaged in land speculation. John Hancock was another founding father from elite stock: he is reportedly the 56th wealthiest man in American history.
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith write:
Through tough business dealing, prudent spending, and a superb eye for opportunities in land acquisition and other businesses, George Washington turned himself into a phenomenally wealthy man. And then the economic world around him was turned topsy-turvy by new policies emanating from Britain. These policies and the threat they represented to his, and many other founding fathers', personal interests were a great impetus for revolution.
In the end, it's not clear that the authors develop a knock-down argument for their case. While they persuasively show that the founding fathers may have had compelling financial interests at stake at the time of the revolution, they don't argue conclusively that war was the most efficient or reasonable tactic for them to increase their wealth.
And they aren't able to show that, even if financial interests were a motivating factor for many of the founding fathers to go to war, these interests were necessarily the deciding factor.
However, the authors' argument that going to war was the wrong decision, on the other hand, is much more persuasive.
One of the major reasons to regret the war is the effect American independence had on Native Americans.
Despite their claim in the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers and early colonists did not have a right to take the land from Native Americans who already lived in the Ohio Valley and beyond — and the coming conflicts over this land would spill much blood.
So had the colonies complied with the king's demands on this front, much of this unjustified theft and violence might have been avoided.
Vox's Dyland Matthews makes a similar point:
American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn't have occurred. And like America's slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels. Generally speaking, when a cause is opposed by the two most vulnerable groups in a society, it's probably a bad idea. So it is with the cause of American independence.
Moreover, the taxation without representation issue could have been solved, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue, had the king and British parliament simply allowed the American colonies to have representation. And if the American colonies stayed a part of Britain, they would have then abolished slavery in 1833 under the Slavery Abolition Act, many years earlier before the United States, in fact, achieved that end of the abominable institution.
The authors contend that had the southern colonies attempted to rebel to preserve slavery as the southern states did in 1865, they would have faced not only opposition from the north, but also from the British empire. This superior force could have reduced the chances of a bloody civil war.
Without the Revolutionary War, the United States would have likely ended up following a path much more similar to that of Canada. That is, while vestiges of imperial rule would linger, the country would have eventually won its independence without resorting to armed conflict.
So was it greed that drove our founding fathers to go to war? Perhaps, though it remains uncertain. But whatever the motivation for the war that led to American independence, it was probably a mistake.
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith's argument reminds us that it is always worthwhile to examine leaders' motivations for bringing nations to war and to question a country's founding myths. As an apocryphal James Madison quote warns: "The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted."