The Philodemic…land of the British?

Having just discussed the domestic politics of the US, the Society moved on to the big picture this week, with a historical debate focused on the biggest foreign affairs dilemma the US has ever had in Resolved: The Thirteen Colonies were Unjustified in Declaring their Independence from Great Britain. Our English representative was Mr. Michael Whelan (COL ’16) of Connecticut (oh, a traitor to his colony!) and for the patriots was a very spirited Mr. Samuel Kleinman (COL ’16) of Virginia.

Mr. Whelan began the debate by saying that you can love or hate America and/or communism and still stand on either side of this debate! This debate disregarded the consequences of the birth of America, and instead focused on evidence leading up to the Declaration. It was also to center on four elements of Just War Theory: motivation, means (whether grievances were expressed well), legitimacy (did the Continental Congress have the authority to declare independence?), and right reasons (did the colonies squandered other peaceful alternatives?). Mr. Whelan then appropriately shifted our attention to the 17th grievance in the Declaration: taxation without representation—something we all know about living in DC. Yet we should not and cannot revolt because we receive benefits from the federal government, much like the thirteen colonies did, especially during the French and Indian War. Regardless though, 7/8 of mainland Brits also had no representation at the time and paid even higher taxes! Even the four elements of Just War Theory yield a lack of support for the Declaration. First, dumping privately owned tea and tarring and feathering civil servants was clearly not ethical means. The American colonists also provoked the war by firing the first shot at Lexington and Concord. Secondly, the Continental Congress was undeniably illegitimate; at most, secessionists had 45% of colonists’ support and some reports estimate that the population was evenly split between wanting to declare independence, not wanting to, and not caring. Furthermore, in regards to just cause and right intent, perhaps the colonists had a strong likelihood of success, but they declared independence despite having other alternatives. They rejected the olive branch petition Britain extended. Thomas Jefferson said that revolt was not to be undertaken for light reasons—if only the colonies had heeded his words.

Mr. Kleinman, on the other hand, felt that when the government of Britain chose its interests over the common interests, it authorized a revolt. He noted the common acceptance of the Declaration as correct, and also rebutted Mr. Whelan by asserting that the Seven Years’ War shifted the costs and burdens to the colonists. However, the colonists weren’t represented and the British ruler had none of their interests at heart! In fact, he had already trod on their rights, especially trial by jury. Even the Townshend Acts were a betrayal of the contract between the colonists and the British government and, when they were protested, colonists were killed. Thus, three quick justifications for the Declaration are obvious: the constant dissolution of colonial governments (see the Intolerable Acts), unjustified fire, and the lack of representation. Mr. Kleinman also keenly posited that the Revolution need not be justified in order for the Declaration to be. And the Declaration was actually already practically declared—Britain blockaded the Eastern seaboard of the US and declared colonial ships enemies of the state—a “de facto independence.” Moreover, the Congress was made up of delegates from a plurality of the colonies and the Declaration it produced only fought violence of the state. These colonists “risked their lives to make their eloquent voices heard in the defense of liberty.”

Mr. Eisen then began the floor portion of the debate by calling Mr. Kleinman and Americans “a little melodramatic” and explaining that the biggest issue for the colonists was the Proclamation of 1763, but really the colonists were equivalent to squatters on the crown’s land. Yet Mr. Mazzara was quick to point out that Mr. Eisen’s fellow Irishmen followed a similar path. Regardless, by the Declaration, the Framers truly represented colonial society and there had been “countless appeals” to the crown and a “long line of grievances.” Mr. Naft disagreed though, declaring that we should all abstain because “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Mr. Weiner continued the discourse by clarifying one major problem: the entire month it took for a message to traverse the Atlantic. When tensions run hot, one month is much too long to de-escalate a situation and the colonists had no other option. But our Brit-in-residence, Ms. Blakeway-Phillips naturally defended the Brits, comparing colonists to wealthy adults who move into Georgetown and then suddenly expect the rowdy students to leave their original homes. Mr. Greco rebutted her point by proclaiming that we weren’t discussing the colonization of America, and instead need to focus on the unfairness of the Proclamation of 1763 and the larger theme of mercantilism. Then Mr. Meyer (SFS ’11) suggested that the Declaration was only desired by the upper class that was losing their profit margin from being tied to Britain; because of the aristocratic tendencies of the Declaration, it was unjustified.

Mr. Fletcher followed Mr. Meyers as a voice for freedom, arguing that any movement towards the pursuit of happiness instead of property and against the class system was justified. But Mr. Downes (COL ’11) rightly asked, “What is freedom?” He suggested that by negating, we are affirming the “no I don’t wanna”, “American”, natural liberty—a bad idea. On the other hand, Mr. Musgrave saw no way for people to live well with troops in their homes, and saw American freedom as the freedom to be governed by those we elect—not an option in the British empire.

Just as the debate was heating up, the nonmember time began with Mr. Ben Ellis (COL ’18) who asserted that the Founding Fathers sacrificed the economic freedom of all the colonists for personal gain. Mr. Richie Mullaney (COL ’18) perceived this as the only option though, because America was and is fundamentally different—it was time to for the colonies to grow up and get away from mother Britain. Ms. Brittany Logan (MSB ’18) suggested that those fundamental differences weren’t quite real though—they were just stirred up by people like Paul Revere. On the flip side, Mr. Anton Smaliak (COL ’18) compared the colonies to his native Belarus, were residents are treated as 2nd rate citizens on their own soil.

Ms. Janelle Spira (NHS ’18) rebutted Mr. Smaliak, however, by positing that the colonists had obligations as British citizens, and were only paying 1/30 of the mainland tax rate. Ms. Emily Nicol (SFS ’16) responded by making another comparison, to the legal failure of Quebec to secede in 1998. Where Quebec failed though, the colonies would have succeeded because they weren’t considered Brits and they had their own national identity. Mr. Navneet Vishwanathan (SFS ’18) responded to her with a story—that of Rip van Winkle, who sleeps through the Revolution and find that the only real, good change is that his wife had died. To declare independence for such marginal changes was unjustified. Mr. Jack Musgrave (COL ’18) reminded us that the British had, on several occasions, fired on innocent civilians—an irreconcilable fact.

Mr. Edgar resumed the member portion of the debate by asking us to imagine being the Continental Congress—the least diverse place in the US, filled with people who would never go to world. Could they have declared a just war? Mr. Young seemed to think so, and suggested that all of the colonists were “one people” and then followed up by asking what justified the rule of the British. Well, replied Ms. Coccia, in that case it’s just as easy to ask why “these rich, white men” have the right to rule. Furthermore, they disregarded the jus post bellum rule—the victor must not benefit economically from the war.

President DiMisa tried to steer the debate elsewhere though, announcing a distinction between rebellion and war and asserting that the thirteen colonies didn’t declare war—Britain did with its blockade. In fact, a formal Declaration was the least that the colonies could do. Mr. Willis rebutted that point by saying that the true debate is on the place of the colonies in the Empire; the colonists were jealous of French-Canada, which retained its government when Britain obtained it, even though the colonists were still very free comparatively. Mr. Mouch then asked us to consider the standards—not all justifications for all wars are created equal—and to remember that Britain created the colonists’ desire for autonomy by letting it be free for a long time. Finally, Vice President Wilson implored the floor to remember the reality that the Declaration created: suffering, centralized and oppressive power, and poverty; it was all for “hypocritical, empty ideals.”

Mr. Kleinman returned to the stand to defend the colonies and began by declaring to VP Wilson that freedom was that worthy ideal that was gained. He then asked Mr. Edgar and Ms. Coccia how long they expected the colonists to suffer under the oppression of Britain—when would a revolt be just? In response to Mr. Downes, Mr. Kleinman emphasized that the Declaration gave colonists the freedom of “choosing between two kinds of freedom and no freedom”—an enormous gain. The Declaration, even if it was only a formal codification of an already started war, was supported around the world and had the most right cause available: protecting citizens. Denying the colonists the right to revolution would have been akin to creating perpetual suffering.

Mr. Whelan adamantly refused to concede any points to Mr. Kleinman though. He clarified some historical inaccuracies first: that the Quartering Act only permitted troops to be stationed in abandoned homes and that the troops involved in the Boston Massacre were tried and John Adams actually defended them. He also invoked idealism, saying that “peace demands that people not separate themselves for light and transient causes”, in a twist on Jefferson’s quote. The only big change post-Declaration was the removal of religious tests for public offices—was that truly worthwhile? The revolutionary rhetoric we so admire was merely “used to justify the status quo”—the reason that again in the ‘60s Martin Luther King Jr. would have to ask for freedom.

This wonderful debate wrapped up with a vote that negated the revolution and affirmed the resolution by a split of 31-1-30. Thank you to all who came out, and I hope to see you next week!


Rosa Cuppari

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