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What Was Uniquely Important About American Revolutionaries?

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


The only discordant note in Harold Holzer’s review of Edward Larson’s undoubtedly superb book on American revolutionaries occurs in the conclusion (“‘American Inheritance’ Review: How Bondage Shadowed Freedom,” Jan. 21). There, Mr. Holzer favorably quotes Mr. Larson’s line that “[l]iberty and slavery remain our conflicted American inheritance.”

It’s true that many American founders preached liberty while holding fellow humans in bondage. And this grotesque hypocrisy is indeed a stain on these founders’ legacies. Yet the unique contribution of America’s founders wasn’t slavery – that institution had been commonplace for millennia – but, instead, the world’s first government with a credal commitment to individual liberty.

That this commitment was imperfect is true. No less true, however, is this reality: Had men such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin pursued only political independence from Britain without their radical commitment to keep government power strictly limited, not only would slavery in the U.S. likely have persisted for at least as long as it actually did, but the American revolution would be remembered today as merely a successful rebellion with absolutely no philosophical significance.

Our uniquely American inheritance is liberty, full stop.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030