The Pros and Cons of Resistance

“To successfully comprehend and deal with changes, it is best to know the times; to know the times, it is best to understand principles; to understand principles, it is best to be open and tranquil.” – Book of Balance and Harmony

I find it helpful to consider the opposite case, of unsuccessfully comprehending and dealing with changes by a misreading of the times based in a faulty set of principles derived from a closed and agitated state.

Sound familiar?

As Billy Joel put it, on the album where it all began to go horribly wrong: You can’t go the distance with too much resistance. Because a state of resistance is the closed and agitated state described above, from which faulty principles are derived.

So, here’s one of what I see as the great puzzles of the American Revolution, which has long been known to historians of the period: the colonists weren’t really all that oppressed. Patrick Henry declared the king a brute who had sacrificed all right to rule simply because he had overruled the Two Penny Act passed by the Virginia colonial assembly.

There was, in short, a rhetorically hysterical nature to the whole thing that grows apparent the more you get outside of what we might call the traditional patriotic narrative, according to which the colonists went to war to protect themselves from tyranny.

Of course as a nation, most of us are long outside this narrative. A couple of historians named Charles and Mary Beard wrote an economic interpretation of the revolution a hundred years ago that took this rhetorical hysteria as evidence that it was mere propaganda consciously employed by colonial elites to secure their economic interests, slavery among them.

This economic interpretation was deepened later in the 20th Century to include the self-serving alliance between common whites and the Anglo elite, especially in the opening of lands west of the Appalachians. The Brits had treaties with the native tribes there, formed through their longstanding competition with the French in North America. Lower class whites wanted to dispossess those tribes of the land, so as to have farmlands of their own.

In this critique, the language of liberty the colonists manufactured during the revolution came in practice to cast a long shadow over not only the land, but the inner nature of the colonists themselves. This, because it was realized in a partial way, by means of a specific limitations on who it was that constituted a “man”.

All men were created equal, to be sure – but only a precious few humans were actually men.

So, we Americans have, as a nation, passed through various stages in our estimation of the nature of the country we live in. And indeed, if we can stop taking sides for a moment, we can all acknowledge that all of these interpretations were present at the beginning, in the three decades between 1770 and 1800. All that’s shifted has been the relative dominance of these warring narratives.

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