The American Revolution and the revelation of an embarrassing truth

9670246[1]“The self-styled champions of liberty branded taxation imposed without their explicit consent as synonymous with despotism and slavery. But they had no scruples about exercising the most absolute and arbitrary power over their slaves. This was a paradox: ‘How is it’, Samuel Johnson asked, ‘that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ Across the Atlantic, those who sought to contest the secession ironized in similar fashion. Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor of Massachusetts, rebuked the rebels for their inconsistency or hypocrisy: they denied Africans those rights that they claimed to be ‘absolutely inalienable’ in the most radical way imaginable.[46] Echoing him was an American loyalist (Jonathan Boucher), who, having taken refuge in England, revisited the events that forced him into exile and observed: ‘the most clamorous advocates for liberty were uniformly the harshest and worst masters of slaves’.[47]

It was not only the people most directly involved in the polemical and political struggle who expressed themselves so harshly. The intervention of John Millar, prominent exponent of the Scottish Enlightenment, was especially stinging:

It affords a curious spectacle to observe, that the same people who talk in a high strain of political liberty, and who consider the privilege of imposing their own taxes as one of the inalienable rights of mankind, should make no scruple of reducing a great proportion of their fellow creatures into circumstances by which they are not only deprived of property, but almost of every species of right. Fortune perhaps never produced a situation more calculated to ridicule a liberal hypothesis, or to show how little the conduct of men is at the bottom directed by any philosophical principles.[48]

Millar was a disciple of Adam Smith. The master seems to have seen things in the same way. When he declared that to a ‘free government’ controlled by slave owners, he preferred a ‘despotic government’ capable of erasing the infamy of slavery, he made explicit reference to America. Translated into directly political terms, the great economist’s words signify: the despotism the Crown is criticized for is preferable to the liberty demanded by the slave owners, from which only a small class of planters and absolute masters benefits.”

(Excerpt from pp. 10-11 in Losurdo, Domenico. 2011. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso.

From CHAPTER ONE: What Is Liberalism?, pp. 1-34, section 2. The American Revolution and the revelation of an embarrassing truth, pp. 7-12. References below by Losurdo below:)

[46] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, London: Picador, 1999, p. 32.

[47] Boucher, quoted in Anne Y. Zimmer, Jonathan Boucher, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978, p. 297.

[48] John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, Aalen: Scientia, 1986, p. 294.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: