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The American Revolution Was a Culture War

7 min

Two hundred and forty-seven years ago this month, a group of American opponents of the Crown's tax policy donned disguises and set about methodically destroying a shipment of tea imported into Boston by the East India Company. The vandals trespassed on privately owned ships in Boston Harbor and threw the tea into the ocean. These protesters were thorough. Not content with having destroyed most of the company's imported tea that night, the activists later discovered another tea shipment which had been unloaded at a warehouse in Boston. The activists then broke into the warehouse and destroyed that tea, too. Total damages amounted to more than $1.5 million in today's dollars.

This was the work of the Sons of Liberty, a group led in part by Samuel Adams and which would become known for acts of resistance, arson, and violence committed against tax collectors and other agents of the Crown. Notably, however, as time went on, acts of resistance in America escalated, at first into widespread mob violence, and then into military action and guerrilla warfare.

Why did many Americans either engage in this behavior or support it? The simplistic answer has long been that the colonists were angry that they were subjected to "taxation without representation." This is the simplistic version of history often taught in grade school. The reality, of course, is that the conflict between the "patriots" and their former countrymen eventually became a deeply seated (and violent) culture war.

It Wasn't Just about Taxes

The taxation-without-representation argument endures, of course, because it is useful for the regime and its backers. Advocates for the political status quo insist there is no need for anything like the Boston Tea Party today because modern Americans enjoy representation in Congress. We are told that taxation and the regulatory state are all necessarily moral and legitimate because the voters are "represented." Even conservatives, who often claim to be for "small government," often oppose radical opposition to the regime—such as secession—on the grounds that political resistance movements are only acceptable when there is no political "representation." The implication is that since the United States holds elections every now and then, no political action outside of voting—and maybe a little sign waving—is allowed.

It's unlikely the Sons of Liberty would have bought this argument. The small number of millionaires who meet in Washington, DC, nowadays are hardly "representative" of the American public back home. The 1770s equivalent would have consisted of throwing the Americans a few bones in the form of a handful of votes in Parliament, with seats to be reliably held by a few wealthy colonists, far beyond the reach or influence of the average member of the Sons of Liberty.

But attempts to frame the revolution as a conflict over taxes largely misses the point. Political representation was not the real issue. We know this because when the 1778 Carlyle Peace Commission offered representation in Parliament to the Continental Congress as part of a negotiated conclusion to the war, the offer was rejected.

The Revolution Was Partly a Culture War

By the late 1770s, the fervor behind the revolution had already gone far beyond mere complaints about taxation. This was just one issue among many. Rather, the revolution quickly became a culture war in which self-styled "Americans" were taking up arms against a foreign, immoral, and corrupt oppressor. Mere offers of "representation" were hardly sufficient at this point, and it's unlikely any such offers were going to be enough after the events of 1775, when the British finally marched into Massachusetts and opened fire on American militiamen. After that, the war had become, to use Rothbard's term, a "war of national liberation."

This ideological and psychological divide perhaps explains the ferocity with which the American revolutionaries resisted British rule.

The "Patriots" Initiated Real Violence—Against Innocents

For example, when we consider the many other protest actions by the Sons of Liberty in the lead-up to the revolution, many of them could easily be described as acts of nondefensive violence, intimidation, and destruction. Many tax collectors resigned from their offices in fear. Others, including citizens merely suspected of supporting the British, were tarred and feathered (i.e., tortured) by the protestors.

Known loyalists were routinely threatened with physical harm to themselves, their families, and their property. Many loyalists fled the colonies in fear for their lives, and after the closure of Boston Harbor, many fled to inner Boston seeking protection from the mobs. Loyalist homes were burned, and theft committed by members of the Sons of Liberty was routine (hundreds of pounds were stolen from Governor Hutchinson’s private home after it was ransacked by a mob of poor and working-class Bostonians). Caught up in all of this, it should be remembered, were children and spouses of the guilty parties, who in many cases were just low-level bureaucrats.

In the southern theater of the war, for example, the British Army armed loyalist militias who engaged in a scorched earth campaign against the rebels. They burned private homes to the ground, cut up and murdered pregnant women, displayed the severed heads of their victims, and employed other tactics of terrorism.

The rebels responded in kind, attacking many who had no role in the attacks on patriot homes, including women, and torturing suspected Tories with beloved torture methods such as “spigoting” in which the victims are spun around and around on upward-pointing nails until they are well impaled.

This sort of thing cannot explained by mere disagreement over taxation. Acts of violence like these represent a meaningful cultural and national divide.

How Big Is the Cultural Divide in America?

For now, the cultural divide in the United States today has yet to reach the proportions experienced during the revolution—or, for that matter, during the 1850s in the lead-up to the American Civil War.(1)

But if hostilities reach this point, there will be little use in discussions over the size of the tax burden, mask mandates, or the nuances of abortion policy. The disdain felt by each side for the other side will be far beyond mere compromises over arcane matters of policy.

And just as discussions over "taxation without representation" miss the real currents underlying the American rebellion, any view of the current crisis that ignores the ongoing culture war will fail to identify the causes.

Yet, the culture war has also likely progressed to the point where national unity is unlikely to be salvaged even by charismatic leaders and efforts at compromise. When it comes to culture, there is little room for compromise. It is increasingly apparent that the only peaceful solution lies in some form of radical decentralization, amounting to either secession or self-rule at the local level with only foreign policy as "national" policy. Had the British offered these terms in 1770, bloodshed would have likely been avoided. Americans must pursue similar solutions now before it is too late.

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1. The issue of slavery was a catalyst for a larger cultural divide that grew between the slave states and the free states during the mid-nineteenth century. For many northerners, slavery was just an example of the south's moral degeneracy. For southerners, those who tolerated abolitionism were "atheists," "communists" and unpatriotic subversives of various types. The two sides began to see themselves as fundamentally incompatible, even beyond the slavery issue. Thus, southern diarist Mary Chestnut was not entirely wrong when she simplified the mounting hostilities to a matter of a cultural divide: "We separated North from South because of an incompatibility of tempter. We are divorced because we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a 'separation a l'agreable,' as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce." After all, had northerners viewed the secession as merely a disagreement over taxes or over slavery, it's unlikely nearly as many northerners would have flocked to the US army in hopes of invading the south and burning down southern cities.

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This article has been republished with permission from the Mises Institute.

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Image Credit: 

Wikimedia Commons-Nathaniel Currier, public domain

Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014.

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Mikiebaby
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Excellent ... hope you’re wrong , but I’m afraid you’re right... the errors and misdeeds of the past look like they will play out again. This time, we won’t let the Yankees burn us out... we have most of the military bases. Just saying
 
 

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Rowana F
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The USA has some huge problems, none of which are going to be solved by persuasive speech-giving by politicians or anyone else. Joe Biden tried to sound eloquent and warm when he talked about "let's all unite happily together," but one has to be awfully naive to believe that's going to happen. I began to understand at least a couple of decades ago (maybe earlier) that there is a deep and fundamental culture war happening in this country, and have watched it accelerate with near exponential speed in the past ten years or so. The gulf is now so wide and deep between how some want to live and how others want to live, between what is considered moral and virtuous and what is considered unconscionable, there is almost no middle ground in which to find a meaningful compromise (especially when many people, including many in power, refuse to even engage in discussion, preferring to try and drown out and destroy any dissent so that no voice is heard except their own). It's also true that more and more Americans don't feel that they are truly represented, despite elections, since it is very well known by now that both parties are deeply in the pockets of certain special interests and will serve those constituents ahead of anyone else, including the ordinary people who cast most of the votes. Not to mention that it is as possible as ever to cheat a nomination AND an election, and as another recent article here pointed out, once a nation loses confidence even in the integrity of its elections, that is a huge problem with no apparent solution no matter which Party one votes for.
 
 

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TrevorWilcox
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As a kid in the 60s, we were taught that the British government's corruption along with the English belief that everyone else was inferior was the motivation behind unjust laws and actions against Americans. I'm glad that after 50 years, this understanding is publicly well-explained. Something to note concerning our present state is that change always comes through men. Since armed conflicts are male activities and our wars have been primarily fought on moral grounds, note the sentiments of America's young men today. The US State Department has for decades been taking the pulse of other nation's young men to plan America's future relationships with those nations. If a nation's young men see their futures in the context of meaningful work with their own wife and children, then they will even go to war to protect their vision. Their efforts will usually end in an orderly and productive society. Otherwise, if a nation's young men see only themselves in their futures, then chaos will destroy the very nation that is completely dependent on their will. But our society disdains its young men.
 
 

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Tionico
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Per my ow reseaerch on this period, there were in actuality THREE ships bearing tea that were involved in this Party. All were privately owned merchantmen, and had taken on tier cargo at the Tilbury Docks, London, the British East India Tea Company., which was a British Crown Corporationeffectively a ranch of the British GOvernment. They had found themselves with an huge excess of tea at Tilbury, rather well on in age, and thus of poor quality. They hatched a plan to foist it onto the Ynbakee colonists.. inferior grade tea, at a higher price, and taxed into the bargain. The ships three owners consigned the cargo, and made for Boston. Once having made port, they were surprised to learn the tea could not be unloaded until thetax was paid. But it did nt belong to the ship owners, nor masters, but to the consgnees in Boston. No matter, the tax was to be paid bfore debarking the tea. One had attempted to sail down harbour and to some other port, but was run down and forced back by a Naval Gunboat. The real problem for the ships' masters was that their means of livelihood was being effectively seized. They could not take on another cargo till theis one was away. The meetings in Boston, three days, and illegal (the Crown had banned any meetings) finallly arrived at the declaration BostonHarbor a teaPot Tonight. Ans tso it was. The group broke into three "teams", the ONLY thing harmed was the tea itself. The holds were opened, the trea triced up on deck, the chests broken ipen and the tea scattered nicely into the bay. Proper brewing technique is SO impprtant, you must understand. The onne small item that was destroyed was one of the padlocks removed to acces s the hold. The OOD did not have the key, so the lock was broken, and on the morrow early a new lock of equal quality was delivred to the vessel to replace the one destroyed. Their target was the tea, and nothing more.
 
 

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sshive73
This would be much easier to read and understand if you had simply run it through a spell check. Or maybe proofed it yourself. That being said I'm not sure what this has to do with Mr McMaken's main point...
Tionico
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You are spot on with yuor comments on the basis of the war being a clultural war. One of the nen who was with the Lexington Militia, under CaptainJohn Parker, as they faced off agaisnt the British Regulars that April morning was located some forty years later and asked the question: WHY were yuou men out tha tmorning? After a few false starts, the interviewer repeated the question. WHY were yu out that morning? The response was simple: "they had a mind that they would tell us how we should live, and we had a mlnd that they wouldn't". In all I've found avout that conflict, this sums it up best. And that is the issue today, is it not? THEY have a mod that they would tell us how we shouldlive. We do not want to bown down to that tyranny.
 
 

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