We have come to quite a pass in American society when major publications are publishing straight-faced criticisms of the very existence of the United States. But in this week’s New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik (“We Could Have Been Canada”), he questions the goodness of the American Revolution two and a half centuries ago. Seeing Trump at the head of our government has driven Leftists so mad, they now question everything—including America itself. The result is a bad argument against the ideas that led to the greatest country on Earth.
Remember? Monarchy Is Actually Bad
Of all the left-leaning bloviating floating around, the defense of monarchy is perhaps the most ridiculous. What makes Gopnik’s argument even more ridiculous is that if America were ruled, even technically, by the British queen, most of the opposition to monarchy would come from the Left. Even in Britain, where the monarchy is beloved, the head of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has a long history of republicanism.
In America, intersectional-socialist-identity politics thinkpieces against a crown write themselves. “Why should America, an increasingly diverse nation, be ruled by a family of old, rich, white, people?” “Shouldn’t we stop throwing away money on an idle, rich monarch while the war on poverty is not yet won?”
For a group of people who cry nepotism at every political utterance of Ivanka Trump, who resent every trip President Donald Trump takes to his Florida palace, and who cry out in rage that the person with the most popular votes is not our current chief executive, this defense of unelected spendthrift monarchy rings false.
America Isn’t A Dystopia
Gopnik’s more specific arguments are no less absurd. Consider this from the opening paragraph:
No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada.
Diversions into alternate history are always utopic or dystopic. No one likes to imagine that if one major event had gone differently, the world would be … pretty much the same. Here, the author imagines that a utopia might have been achieved, if only American colonists had meekly submitted to rule by a king and Parliament across the sea. If only our Founding Fathers had been a bit more cowardly, we could be governed today by a crowned head whose tolerance of natural rights is more in line with that of the New Yorker’s tremulous readership.
It’s Not As Simple As It Seems
But even if Washington and Franklin had been as pusillanimous as Gopnik’s fantasy, the beautiful vision he proposes is unlikely to have come about. To begin with, the British government not only permitted slavery in the colonies, it actively encouraged it.
Once our Revolution began, the British encouraged slaves to desert their masters, but only as a means to weaken the enemy. The convenient conversion to abolitionism did not carry over to Britain’s West Indian plantations, where slaves continued to labor in conditions equally brutal—if not more so—to those in the worst malaria swamps of South Carolina. But those slave owners were paying taxes to the Crown and were loyal to the mother country; their crimes against humanity were allowed to continue for two more generations.
That slavery would have been peacefully abolished within an undivided Empire is absurd. The opening of the Southern interior to cotton cultivation would have enhanced the profits of a slave economy in Gopnik’s alternate America just as it did in the real one. Many in the Founding generation thought slavery was on the decline, and few imagined it would endure as long as it did after their deaths. But the invention of the cotton gin and the cultivation of rich interior farmland breathed life into the dying institution, and further entrenched it in the hearts and minds of slave owners.
Things Could Have Been Worse
Gopnik pooh-poohs the “Enlightenment argle-bargle” at the heart of the Revolution, but the leading men of that day believed those principles and were not blind to the contradictions of proclaiming liberty in a slaveholding republic. By the time of the Civil War, however, their places in society had been taken by men who had grown rich on the fruits of unfree labor, men like John C. Calhoun and Robert Barnwell Rhett, who portrayed black slavery as part of a just system.
To them, slavery was a positive good that had to exist. Between people who believed that and people who believed in abolition and racial equality, it is hard to imagine any possible solution short of Civil War. When Trump suggested last week that the Civil War might have been avoided had Andrew Jackson lived, all the bien-pensant minds on the Left laughed at his naiveté; when Gopnik suggests the British crown might have done the same thing, they all nod their heads and mutter praise. But it is equally preposterous.
Being part of a unified British Empire would not have changed the American South’s economic facts or racial ideology. On the other hand, it might have changed the way the Empire dealt with the cause of abolition. In 1833, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. The Act provided for compensated, gradual emancipation of 800,000 slaves in the Caribbean and South Africa (India was excluded from the Act’s provisions).
The effort cost the British government £20 million at a time when the total government spending was just £50 million. If the United States were still ruled by the Crown, there would have been four times that number of enslaved people. That would require £60 million more to be paid out. The answer would not have been just to pay it, which even the most powerful nation on Earth could not have afforded; it would have been uncompensated emancipation.
We Just Aren’t Canada
Historically, the mere rumor of abolition led reactionaries in the South to secede; in Gopnik’s imperialist fantasy, the result would have been no different. He must know that, even if he does not admit it. Consider this passage: “It was only in recent decades that schools cautiously began to relay the truth of the eighteen-seventies—of gradual and shameful Northern acquiescence in the terrorist imposition of apartheid on a post-slavery population.”
American students should, indeed, be taught more about the reaction that followed Reconstruction. But it is not crazy to think that the exact same thing would have happened in a British colony. Need proof? The very word Gopnik uses, “apartheid”, came from a post-slavery system of white supremacy that originated in South Africa, which was ruled by Britain until 1910, and remained nominally under the Crown (as Canada still is,) until 1961.
Shorn of its southern neighbors, Canada was spared the bloody conflict that accompanied slavery’s end in America. But that is not because they were more enlightened than we: it is because they had almost no slaves. Had we remained united, our civil war would have been an Empire-wide conflagration, and Canadian blood would have been shed along with American and British blood. Separation spared Canada all of that and left them in peace. The American Revolution created our nation, but it also created Canada.
What About The Whigs?
Although he takes shots at them, Gopnik’s real complaint is not with our exact form of government, nor with the history of slavery. His real argument is with the Enlightenment. The article, a polemic disguised as a book review, pulls into the discussion two forthcoming volumes, Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire,” and Holger Hoock’s “Scars of Independence,” both of which examine the events and ideas that led to the nation’s founding. He gives Hoock short shrift generally (“like the fat boy in ‘Pickwick,’ he wants to make your flesh creep”,) but uses du Rivage’s arguments to get to a larger point about Whiggism and the theories that animated the men who led the Revolution.
Du Rivage divides British-American opinion into two camps: radical Whigs and authoritarian reformers” “The radical Whigs were for democratization, the authoritarian reformers firmly against it. The radical Whigs were for responsible authority, the authoritarian reformers for firm authority. And so on.”
Du Rivage believes, as most of us do, that the Revolution was fought for a set of ideas. Gopnik prefers the warmed-over Howard Zinn view of history, updated with 21st century wokeness. “Du Rivage’s and Hoock’s accounts,” he writes, “are mostly about white guys quarrelling with other white guys, and then about white guys being unimaginably cruel to one another, stopping only to rape their enemy’s wives and daughters.” Indeed, why discuss ideas when there is the much simpler expedient of calling everyone racist?
More errors follow from this, mostly with the aim of slandering things the author does not like about America. He calls the Confederacy “libertarian,” which besides being an anachronism, is just untrue: the slave labor system of the CSA more closely resembles feudalism than an ideology of self-ownership and self-determination. Even the original radical Whig, John Wilkes, is singled out, not so much for his own ideas—which included most of the things that would end up in America’s Bill of Rights—but for the fact that someone named after him became an assassin. “Nor is it entirely accidental that he would give his name to the charismatic actor who killed Lincoln.” Let us just say what should go without saying: sharing a name does not require sharing culpability.
Trump Derangement Syndrome Gone Wild
The reason for these increasingly strained connections is, of course, the desire to connect the American Revolution to Trump. “A government based on enthusiasm, rather than on executive expertise, needs many things to be enthusiastic about. Whig radicalism produces charismatic politics—popular politics in a positive sense, and then in a negative one, too.” Gopnik finds two things he dislikes, Trump and the Revolution, and ties them together, hoping each will sully the other.
Donald Trump can be called a lot of things, but a son of the Enlightenment is not one of them. In Gopnik’s imagining, Trump is the natural result of Enlightenment thinking and Whiggish politics; the opposite is embodied by Canada and, though he does not name her, by Hillary Clinton: “a largely faceless political class; a cautiously parliamentary tradition; a professionalized and noncharismatic military; a governing élite—an establishment” It’s all a neat little bundle, like 2004’s Jesusland map. A nice, tidy analysis, except that it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
The Enlightenment embodied the idea that universal reason should rule the world, that all humanity was endowed with natural rights, and that the preservation of liberty and equality was the highest goal of government. The reaction to that came a generation after the Revolution with the Romantic movement, which reasserted the importance of emotion, nostalgia, and individualism, and which eventually led to the rise of nationalism. Which of those sounds more like Trump?
Our Most Effective Assault On Trumpism
The most effective assault on Trumpism comes in pointing out its departure from the ideals that formed the basis of America. Americans have traditionally been resistant to nationalism because we are a nation founded on ideas, not blood and soil. Those ideas are Enlightenment ideas. Gopnik turns this critique on its head when he calls Trump the natural result of American Whiggism, and he does his side no favors in the process.
The rot of Trump Derangement System runs deep. One would have to be truly deluded to believe that it does the American Enlightenment harm to tie its principles to Trump, or to any other popular figure. The American Revolution is quite popular in America! Linking it to Trump will only burnish the president’s credentials with the average American. Indeed, the idea that Trump is the natural outcome of the Founding Fathers’ Revolution is something that, heretofore, would only have been uttered by the most fanatical of Trump supporters. Here, we have it from the mouth of his detractors. The biggest favor the Left could do themselves is to forget Gopnik’s article ever existed.