Unpopular Opinions on Revolutionary History: The Easter Rising and the American Revolution

Today is the 100th Easter since the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, when republican revolutionaries rallied to fight for independence from the British. The actual dates of the rebellion were April 24-29, but Easter's come a bit early this year, and Ireland has chosen to commemorate the centennial now rather than in a month. It's doing so with unprecedented ceremonies, as it should. The Easter Rising was brutally crushed, but it was a critical moment that soon led to the rise of the Sinn Féin republican party, the Irish War of Independence, and ultimately Irish independence in 1921.

On Twitter a few days ago, I noticed people were upset about coverage of this history from RTÉ, Ireland's national broadcaster. I never got the chance to see any video of the coverage in question, but here are some of the relevant tweets:

Clearly, criticizing or calling into doubt the justice of revolutionaries' struggle for national independence is an unpopular position to take, especially in media coverage from a national broadcaster. Ireland was occupied and colonized by the Kingdom of England and later the United Kingdom for over 750 years, so the rebels of the Easter Rising certainly had a very good case to fight for independence. The history of Ireland is, indeed, one of the longest and most complex histories of colonialism in the whole world. Perhaps that's the main reason the Irish may have such a conflicted time analyzing their past. Nevertheless, it is shameful for anyone to aim for a "balanced" approach in their portrayal of past when the distinctions between the oppressors and the oppressed in those events couldn't be more apparent.

The idea expressed in the last tweet picture here also caught my attention, and it is undoubtedly true: Americans and French do not spend much time, if any, questioning the justice in their national revolutions. No media organizations, certainly, would spend the Fourth of July or Bastille Day casting doubt on the righteousness of the revolutionaries. One factor, certainly, must be how distant the U.S. and France are from these eighteenth revolutions: Far more time has passed for the historical figures and events to be woven into an unquestioned national mythos.

However, thinking about this comparison has led me to conclude that I should take a stand as an American in expressing some unpopular opinions about my country's history. (They must, at least, be unpopular opinions in the United States, if not elsewhere in the world.) I've been actively forming these opinions for years while studying history, but I don't think I've ever directly expressed them before. Here they are:
  1. Ireland's battle for independence, and the struggles for independence fought by many other peoples around the world, were far more noble than that of the United States.
  2. If the American Revolution had never occurred, or if it had failed, the world today would probably be a better place.
The Patriot portrayed the British as devils, while the rebels,
of course, were unquestionable heroes (source)
I'm not sure what kind of response I'll get from stating these opinions—whether I'll get hateful comments, or just get ignored. I don't think I'll write an entire essay arguing these points, at least not at this time, but I will share some of my thoughts that underlie them. I would welcome anyone to comment below and start a discussion, especially if you disagree with me.

Regarding my first unpopular opinion, the position that the cause of the American Revolution was less noble than that of other independence movements clearly hinges on various value judgments. Nevertheless, it seems like a pretty solid case that people fighting against blatant violence, exploitation, and oppression (from Ireland to Algeria to India) were more justified in their struggles than colonists who seceded from their mother country because of a buildup of popular resentment derived mostly from taxes.

Everyone knows that most of the leaders of the American Revolution were sons of privilege, and the Revolution conveniently raised their status from that of parochial gentry (as viewed from London) to rulers of an independent nation. It's not as if George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson was living a hard life, their livelihoods and liberties trampled on by George III. The same goes for most American colonists, even those much less wealthy.

Americans justify the revolution by noting that the Crown taxed (or attempted to tax) colonists without giving them representation in Parliament. Most people in Britain had no representation either; they were women, or they were men who didn't meet the hefty property requirements to vote. What's more, American colonists had almost none of the tax burden. The colonists essentially started a war rather than pay their fair share to the King in funding the national debt for Britain's wars—the largest of which (the Seven Years' War) was fought largely to defend the colonists themselves.

Colonists were justified in going to war because they were taxed without representation. Meanwhile, those colonists robbed and slaughtered indigenous peoples without mercy. Meanwhile, those colonists stole Africans from their homes and worked them to death without much of a second thought.

Indeed, that leads me to my second unpopular opinion, more significant and more difficult to argue than the first: I posit that the world would probably be better off had the colonies never rebelled, or if British forces had defeated the rebels. Of course, this argument depends on counterfactuals, or "what if" questions that create alternate histories.

(I've discussed alternate histories and counterfactuals many times on this blog, including Christian Japan, Napoleonic Britain, Napoleonic Germany, disease-immune Native Americans, and even A Game of Thrones.)

Obviously, there's very little that is objective or provable when it comes to counterfactuals, and a value judgment like the world being "better off" nearly 250 years after an event is also very tenuous. Nevertheless, I hope you'll consider the following:

the Proclamation line could have stayed
stronger for longer (source)
The British Crown was far more eager to respect treaties with indigenous nations in North America than the American colonists and the later U.S. government were. The most profound example of this is the Proclamation of 1763, in which George III actually forbade colonists from crossing the Appalachians to invade and settle Native lands. Many colonists greatly resented this Proclamation, and it was undoubtedly a factor in the Revolution. Remember, the American revolutionaries were fighting for freedom!—including the freedom to attack Native peoples and take their lands. Even if there was no American Revolution, I don't doubt that colonists would have inevitably defied the Proclamation and pushed westward, perpetuating genocide and settler colonialism. Still, anything that would have slowed settlers' destruction of Native peoples would almost certainly left more indigenous cultures and people alive and thriving today.

Slavery in the colonies likely would have ended far sooner, even if Americans had gained representation in Parliament. The British abolition movement might have been even more powerful, had it more tightly spanned the Atlantic between England and New England. If the secessionists of 1776 had failed, southern slave owners additionally would have been far more wary of trying to split from the mother country, even if it abolished slavery. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1838. Just consider the possibilities for African Americans' history had they been freed nearly thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

There's more. If Britain had retained all its American colonies, its imperial expansion elsewhere may well have been slower. To cite one example, the impetus to produce cotton in India, Egypt, and other parts of Africa would have been minor or nonexistent had the southern American colonies more smoothly transitioned from slavery to share cropping cotton in the early nineteenth century without the "cotton famine" produced by the American Civil War. Not to mention, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have escaped violent deaths had the Civil War never occurred. Without the loss of American colonies pushing it to invade other continents, Britain may well have been far more involved in meddling with Latin America (no Monroe Doctrine!) than it became in Asia and Africa. The possibilities for a world without the American Revolution are limitless, but I believe, on balance, it might have seen less death and destruction.

I hope that if you took the time to read all of these musings that you'll share your own thoughts in a comment below. Please feel free to chastise me if you think I'm way off base or shamefully un-American. I'll look forward to the discussion.