Many Americans today seem to chalk the revolution up to years of oppressive government from a tyrannical English king. Punitive and unfair taxes, human rights abuses and crippling tariffs — so the simple story goes — led oppressed colonists to rise up and take on the world’s strongest military force of the time.
But, how does that jibe with the fact that, at the time of the revolution, American colonists were some of the freest people on the planet? Moreover, the colonists enjoyed some of the highest living standards then imaginable.
Unlike the common folk of Britain itself, the “Americans,” as colonists were beginning to be called, enjoyed much autonomy in their domestic affairs, more religious freedom and fewer taxes. They also were largely at liberty to build wealth as they saw fit.
Even then in America, economic standing was largely dependent on one’s ingenuity, innovations and hard work — and not on family status.
In this regard, the colonies were already seen as a beacon of freedom for suffering people around the globe and a place to build a new life and pursue one’s dreams free from oppressive government.
There was some link, people recognized, between American prosperity and the fact that American colonists were largely free of the burdens carried by British subjects in the old country.
But how did that dynamic operate? After all, despite the prosperity, and low taxes, Americans had a real thirst for independence.
At root, America and Americans — children of the Enlightenment —saw the unacceptable rot within a British government that held itself completely unaccountable to the very people it governed.
As Hamilton Alexander once noted, “A fondness for power is implanted in most men; and it is natural to abuse it, when acquired.”
And indeed, the men of Britain’s ruling class had certainly acquired such power.
Americans understood that unchecked power is far more dangerous than any single tax, tariff or law could ever be. England was holding over Americans’ heads a Sword of Damocles in the form of additional, egregious abuses just waiting to happen.
Parliament and the Crown, holding themselves unaccountable, taught the nation’s founders that further offences against America freedom were an inevitability.
So, the American desire for self-government was more than a rebellion against mistreatment. It was a rebellion against the very nature of empirical Europe. It was a demand that government acquire consent from citizens, rather than power over subjects.
That’s why the volley fired at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts in 1775 was the “shot heard round the world.”
It was not merely a group of farmers rising up against the world’s largest military machine. No, this was an assembly of individuals willing to stake their very lives on their right to hold their rulers to account.
The revolution crystalized a brave concept for the rest of the world: The sovereignty of the individual.
And this revolutionary view of self-government was contagious. It soon changed the way the entire western world looked at the nature of the common man. Soon, the individual, the citizen, was the true sovereign.
In the following decades, this principle swept the Western world. And not just in politics. From civil rights to economic theory, the supremacy of the individual became the primary beacon for activists, reformists and revolutionaries.
This focus on individual rights — political, economic and civil — has transformed humanity. More than 200 years of unmatched growth in prosperity followed the American Revolution. Looking back we can see that the founders’ skepticism of unchecked power has created a world where poverty and suffering are increasingly rare, and the entire civilized world acknowledges the values of liberty and freedom.
And it all began with a handful of relatively free colonists — skeptical about a government that refused to first gain the consent of “we the people.”
The American Revolution wasn’t really about a tax or a tariff. It was a rebellion against the old world, where kings and unaccountable parliaments made the rules.
Let’s make sure, as inheritors of this great nation, we maintain that traditionally American level of intolerance for unchecked government power.
This commentary was first published in Nevada Business Magazine.