24 July 2008
The American Revolution Challenge

In a previous posting I asked whether the American Revolution deserved the name.  I asked, if its aim, as is so often claimed, was freedom then, when the dust had settled, what freedoms did Americans possess that Britons did not.

I didn’t get many replies.  A couple of commenters pointed out (citing the French and Russian examples) that revolutions don’t have to have anything to do with freedom to be called revolutions.  That’s a fair point but still, in what way was the American Revolution a revolution?  I often hear the claim that it got rid of the monarchy.  But hadn’t Britain already done precisely that?  Sure there was a guy called George III who was called the monarch but what powers did he really have?  It seems to me that after about 1720 (and the creation of the office of Prime Minister) the British monarchy was something of a paper tiger.

Thankfully, a chap called Maldain took up the challenge:

Well, let’s see at the time.  The average Brit didn’t have the right to free and unfettered speech.  Speaking against the crown was considered sedition and punishable by prison or death.  The average Brit didn’t enjoy a truly free press as the crown could and did shut down the press at will.

The average Brit was not allowed to keep and bear arms. 

The average Brit was required when so ordered to quarter troops in their homes.

The average Brit’s home, business and person was eligible to be searched at any time without showing cause.

The average Brit did not have the right to not speak in court.  In fact was required to give evidence against himself.

That’s much more interesting.  But is it true?  Did Britons genuinely not have these freedoms at the time?  For instance, isn’t the right to keep and bear arms enshrined in the (English) Bill of Rights?  The other thing is that Maldain’s list appears to be a listing of the amendments to the US Constitution.  Fair enough, but what the law says and what the law does are two different things.  Did Americans genuinely enjoy these freedoms after they were introduced in 1791?

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  1. Not hugely convinced.


    “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.

    So said William Pitt the Elder, speaking in Parliament in 1763.”

    Part of the annoyanc (grievance perhaps) for the Americans was that they were denied what the English were not in terms of rights.

    Posted by Tim Worstall on 24 July 2008 at 08:33pm

  2. Now you’ve asked a more interesting question.  I’m not sure we did completely.  After all, we had the whiskey rebellion which started in 1791 over taxes on whiskey.  We didn’t quarter troops in homes but there were likely unwarranted searches.  And the fact is that this was a slave nation.  Took a civil war to end that mess. So while we were in fact more free under the new government I suspect it was mostly because it wasn’t strong enough to abuse the freedoms of the citizens.  And by time the government was strong enough a custom of not violating rights had been created.

    Posted by Maldain on 24 July 2008 at 09:22pm

  3. I believe it’s more properly called a war for independence.  The colonists, leading up to the war, felt that they were being deprived their rights as Englishmen, and the source of their discontent was parliament, not the king as many like to assume.

    This is much different from the various revolutions of the world.  They like to destroy tradition and wipe the slate clean, often forcing men and women to live quite inhumanely in slavery to the new ideology. France, Russia, & China, to name a few, displayed the insanity.
    Definitely not what happened here.

    Posted by August on 24 July 2008 at 09:58pm

  4. I think both are right.  In terms of the politics of the day it was a war of Independence but in terms of effect it was a Revolutionary War.  You’re right about the insanity shown in other revolutions since that time.  But the truth is that the colonists considered themselves Englishmen so to gain their independence they had to revolt against the crown.  And you’re right about the problems being with parliament rather than the king.  However, then just as now the King was the manifestation of the executive portion of the government thus gets tagged with the credit or the blame regardless of his actions or inactions.

    Posted by Maldain on 24 July 2008 at 11:20pm

  5. I’ve been doing some research into the English Bill of Rights.  It’s an interesting document.  However, while it does grant the titled nobility and landed gentry the right to keep and bare arms.  The actual phrasing is citizens have the right to keep and bare arms for defence per their stations and legal abilities.  So lower class Englishmen weren’t allowed to keep and bare arms.  Actually, on the differences between the original American constitution and English constitutional law is that the American Constitution gave the average American citizen the same rights and privileges as the English gentry.

    Posted by Maldain on 01 August 2008 at 01:12am

  6. In Dec of 1689 the English Parliament passed into English law “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown”

    One of the provisions of that act commonly called the English Bill of Rights or The Declaration of Right is that Protestant Subjects have the freedom to keep arms for their defence suitable to their class and status.  How does that work with the near ban on firearms you in England live with now?  Isn’t that a violation of your rights as Subjects under the English crown.  And if it’s not why isn’t it a violation?  Just a yank from across the pond curious about English Laws.

    Posted by Maldain on 29 August 2008 at 02:17am

  7. Maldain writes: “The Declaration of Right is that Protestant Subjects have the freedom to keep arms for their defence suitable to their class and status.  How does that work with the near ban on firearms you in England live with now?  Isn’t that a violation of your rights as Subjects under the English crown.”

    Yes, it is.  There was some sort of legal challenge on exactly those grounds. I can’t remember what happened to the challenge but it was rejected by some sophistry.

    My husband suggests (not with any approval) that the get-out clause might be that guns are not exactly “banned” more “controlled” very, very strictly.

    Posted by Natalie Solent on 30 August 2008 at 10:48pm

  8. Interesting, it’s interesting that having something so tightly controlled that the common Englishman can’t use them for his or her own defence isn’t considered a ban.

    Sounds like liberals are weasels regardless of where they originated.  I don’t know do you have weasels in the British Isles?  It’s a kind of vicious ferret that murders for pleasure (one of the few other than deranged human beings) and is very sneaky.

    Posted by Maldain on 03 September 2008 at 10:50pm

  9. I prefer to think of our “revolution” in a mechanical sense and apply it to rights. In this way, the Americans/Colonists were asserting that the rights granted to them under the English constitution were to be respected-or else. What, after all, does a wheel do when it revolves? It starts again AT THE BEGINNING.

    Posted by Athena on 16 October 2009 at 06:51am

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