Washington Post on the American Revolution: The Fathers Blew It.

4 07 2013

Actually, that the thesis not of the editor of the Washington Post but of an op-ed by Paul Pirie that appeared in that paper yesterday (3 July). Mr. Pirie, a Canadian and self-described “former historian” who argues that it was mistake for the Thirteen Colonies to have rebelled against British rule. He cites a variety of statistics demonstrating the success of Canada and Australia as societies and economies as proof that the Thirteen Colonies should have remained in the British Empire and evolved towards Dominion status. (Of course, it’s not clear that the British would have invented Dominion status save for the fear of a repeat of the American Revolution). Pirie also overlooks that fact that some US states did eliminate slavery at the time of the American Revolution– the New England states certainly acted before Upper Canada took its first step towards the gradual elimination of slavery.

As you would expect, Pirie’s well-timed and provocative piece has generated plenty of controversy on the blogosphere. See here, here, and here. US conservatives have attacked the piece and have accused Pirie of being disloyal to the United States.

Pirie’s argument is broadly similar to one I made a few years ago in ‘Canadian Progress and the British Connection: Why Canadian Historians Seeking the Middle Ground Should Give 2 1/2 Cheers for the British Empire’. In Contesting Clio’s Craft: new Directions and Debates in Canadian History. Ed. by Chris Dummitt and Michael Dawson (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009). It would have been nice had he mentioned my piece, but I know that space is at a premium in a newspaper piece.

I still have no idea who Paul Pirie is. There is a comedian of the same name in the UK but that’s clearly not the same individual.

Anyway, Happy Independence Day to my American readers.

P.S. Over at the Junto blog, Ken Owen explains why as a Brit he is well situated to teach the American Revolution to US college students.


Was the American Revolution an Economic Disaster?

15 07 2011

According to economic historians Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert:

The American Revolution itself, like the revolutions in France and Russia and the waves of independence in Latin America in the early 19th century and in Africa and Asia after the Second World War, delivered negative economic shocks...The new estimates imply that America’s real income per capita dropped by about 22% over the quarter century 1774-1800, a decline almost as steep as during the Great Depression between 1929 and 1933, and certainly longer…What caused such sustained income losses?

The authors go on to list a number of ways in which the Revolution harmed the American economy. Canadian readers will be particularly interested in this factor.

…The third major negative shock involved a crisis at the top, and it could have caused much greater income losses. America’s urban centres were damaged by British naval attacks, by their occupation, and by the eventual departure of skilled and well-connected loyalists. New York, Charleston, and Savanna were not free of Loyalists and waves of recriminations until 1783. An estimated 60,000 free persons (3.1% of the free population) and 15,000 slaves (3.6 of the slave population) had left by the early 1790s. Loyalist claims presented to His Majesty for losses in American rebellion came to $1,053,024 or about 0.6% of the 1774 income of the 13 colonies.

You can read a summary of the paper here. The full paper is: Lindert, Peter H and Jeffrey G Williamson (2011), “American Incomes Before and After the Revolution”, NBER Working Paper 17211.

This research in fascinating. Many Canadians are of the view that it would have been far better had the dispute over British taxation of the colonies been solved with some sort of compromise and that the United States ought to have achieved independence from Britain gradually and peacefully on the Canadian model.

United Empire Loyalists, Hamilton, Ontario

It is pretty clear that the Revolution was bad for the American economy in the short term. I’m not certain whether we can say the same thing about its long-term consequences. It seems to me that Independence from Britain produced cultural and institutional shifts that accelerated economic growth in the longer term. As Gordon S. Wood argues in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the revolution was about far more than Home Rule–it was about who would rule at home as well.  The Revolution helped to make the country less hierarchical and more egalitarian, and as Lindert and Williamson themselves note, “the new institutional view of development views inequality as a barrier to pro-growth institutions and policies (Engerman and Sokoloff 1997)”. The Revolution also produced modest improvements in the status of women and a fall in the birth rate, which also would have influenced growth patterns. The republican ideology also provided an additional rationale for state investment in higher education and we know from studies in modern developing countries that increasing literacy rates is one of the best things a country can do to encourage growth.  As Morton Horowitz showed, the legal break with Britain also allowed American judges to reform the common law in ways that departed from British precedent and accelerated economic growth. Most importantly, political independence helped to insulate the United States from some of the consequences of British imperial wars. For instance, the United States did not enter WWI until 1917 and was thus able to rake in big profits from three years of neutrality. Canada, Newfoundland, and the British West Indies, in contrast, assumed the burdens of this conflict the moment Britain declared war on their behalf.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

My Teaching This Week

8 10 2009

I teach a Canadian history survey course that is designed for first-year students. The course is designed to teach them about both Canada’s past before 1867 and about the study of history at the university level. Normally, there are two lectures per week. This week, however, I held tutorials during one of the normal lecture slots.

On Monday, I delivered a lecture on the impact of the American Revolution on British North America.United Empire Loyalists, Final Resting Place Our tutorial on Wednesday looked at the history of slavery in Canada. We discussed slaveholding by First Nations, the enslavement of First Nations individuals by whites, and the smaller number of Black slaves brought into New France and the British colonies. The student will be completing an assignment about a Portuguese-born Black slave named Angélique who was executed for arson in Montreal in 1734.

In my fourth-year seminar, our theme this week was economic change in the 1840s and 1850s. We began the seminar by discussing Adam Shortt, “General Economic History, 1841-67” in vol. 5 of Canada and Its Provinces. This reading gave the students a sense of the overall developments of the period. We then moved on to some more modern interpretations of the period.   Lawrence H. Officer and Lawrence B. Smith, “The Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty of 1855 to 1866The Journal of Economic History 28 (1968): 598-623 and Peter Baskerville, “Americans in Britain’s Backyard: The Railway Era in Upper Canada, 1850-1880Business History Review 55  (1981): 314-336. We then took our customary coffee break, after which we listened to excellent student presentations on the lives and times of two important individuals, Isaac Buchanan, a Canadian merchant, and Sir Samuel Cunard, the founder of the great steamship line.

Montreal Wharf

Montreal Wharf, 1874. Note railway boxcars near ship in foreground. Image Source: Library and Archives Canada.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and touched on important themes in the history of technology, international trade (hence the picture of a Montreal wharf), and Canadian-American relations. We also talked about how the rich get rich. Do they do it entirely through hard work and their own unassisted efforts? Or do they sometimes use subsidies and other help from the government to grow their firms? Next week’s seminar is entitled “Ideology”.  We shall look at how people in an age dominated by classical liberalism justified an increasing number of interventions by government in the economy.

Thomas Paine and the Rights of Hindus

24 09 2009
Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

I would like to draw people’s attention to a piece by historian J. M. Opal in Common-placeCommon Sense and Imperial Atrocity: How Thomas Paine saw South Asia in North America”. Opal argues that Paine understanding of British policy in the Thirteen Colonies was influenced by the ongoing British debate about British misrule and atrocity in India.

If Opal’s interpretation is correct, it means that Paine saw the whites of the Thirteen Colonies and Hindu and Muslim populations of India as co-victims of the British Empire.

I found Opal’s argument interesting in light of a book I have purchased and plan to read this weekend, David Armitage’s The Declaration of Independence: a Global History.

The picture of Paine is from the Library of Congress (see here) and is in the public domain.