We did not fight for a nation...we already had one
By A. C. Kleinheider
For weeks the debate over "The Patriot", Mel Gibson's summer epic about the Revolutionary War, has raged in print and on the Internet. Film critic Arion Berger quipped that, "Now the disgruntled, home-schooling, SUV-buying, pro-militia-but-cautious-suburban-family-values working man finally has a movie to call his own." Others quarrel with the portrayal of the British who, by most historical accounts, were not as viciously atrocity-prone as they were portrayed in "The Patriot". Most fascinating are conservatives who have expressed regret that the Redcoat's tyrannical violence needed to be exaggerated in order to appeal to the masses who would not understand the boring complexities of the real reason the colonies fought a war to gain their independence: taxes. Wall Street Journal editorial writer John H. Fund, in response to liberal critiques of the movie, expresses this view explicitly, "[The Patriot] barely mentions the tax revolt at the heart of the American Revolution."
Wars are never fought for a singular reason or over a singular issue. The Civil War wasn't really about slavery or a tariff and neither was the American Revolution, at its heart, about the British tax on tea. That was simply the excuse, the straw that broke the camel's back. "Taxation without Representation" was an issue that clarified and justified the American Revolution. But, it is not why we no longer pledge our allegiance to the Queen. The American Revolution was led intellectually by men, as Joe Schembrie states, whose " minds, nurtured on classical books and reasoned discourse, were accustomed to looking to the future [T]hey plainly saw that once you accepted the principle of taxation without representation, you're on the road to serfdom." But America is more than an intellectual exercise. The American Revolution was a radical revolution about principles and ideas of liberty and self-government. But these universal abstractions and squabbles about taxes weren't at the root of the conflict. They were only rationales for the conflict. Don't get me wrong, the divinely inspired words and principles of the Founders are central to what it means to be American. But America is not an abstraction, an idea, or a theory. It is a particular place inhabited by a particular people. The Revolutionary War occurred because in the process of colonizing the New World the colonists became a nation. That nation did not come into existence in 1776 or 1789 just as the rights enumerated in our founding documents did not come from those documents. It was already there.
What does it mean to be a nation? A nation is "a people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality." A nation is an ethno-cultural community, an interlacing of ethnicity and culture. A nation, however, is not a state. In colonial times we shared many of the traits of a nation with England --- the political state that ruled over the colonies. As time past the many years and many miles away from England took its toll. The disparate lot that abandoned their homelands to try and make a life in the New World was developing their own history and customs. Children were being born and raised in the New World. The New World was their home. America was the land they were tied to, not England. When distinct cultures and identities develop apart geographically from the entity that has political control over it, conflict is bound to arise. The word nation comes from the Latin nescare, to be born. Those people who were born in the New World were members of an American Nation long before they asserted their right to self-determination in the Declaration of Independence. Before a Constitution was drafted, before a state was erected, even before Thomas Jefferson put quill to parchment to write the Declaration of Independence, America was a nation.
Some sculptors say they do not create their sculptures. They say that the sculptures were already there in the slab of rock; they simply knocked away the extraneous pieces. So too was America. The American Nation was there in the colonies long before those "Indians" dumped the tea in the harbor. The War simply chiseled off the extraneous political ties to England enabling us to realize our true destiny. To assert that we are Americans because of a tax revolt is to shortchange what it means to be an American and misunderstand the true nature of the American Nation.
Now if you are asked on a multiple choice test in American History "Why did we fight the American Revolution?" you simply mark the box that says "taxation without representation" just as you mark the box "slavery" when asked about the Civil War. However, if one truly wants to get at the root of why we fought the British Empire one must go past the abstractions and slogans. America is a place and a people. Coleridge once said, "A nation is the unity of a people." You can say that the American people revolted because of taxation without representation, the quartering of troops, etc., but you would be describing symptoms not the disease. People often ask why the colonists gave up so much to fight a war against the British Crown, which while certainly tyrannical, was fairly tame compared to tyrannies that come before and after. The colonists fought because any transgression by a political force outside of America was seen as a foreign invasion. A nation had been born and it was ready to assert its identity.
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