The New Yorker briefly reviews Gordon S. Wood’s new book The Idea of America in its current issue (July 25, 2011). Wood, respected and decidedly mainstream, argues that “the Americans revolted (against England) not out of actual suffering but out of reasoned principle.”
The late, respected, and non-mainstream historian, Howard Zinn, saw it differently in his A People’s History of the United States. Zinn portrayed the Founders as intent on wresting control of the vast wealth of the colonies from Britain and merely used high-flown rhetoric (“liberty for all,” etc.) to arouse the masses to assist them. Implementation of these principles was not the true end of the Founders, money was.
Zinn saw the American Revolution as a dispute between the upper classes of both countries for control of profits earned by the labor force, including slaves. Rhetoric about individual rights was a tool to inflame, not a goal of the Revolution.
Where do I stand?
Some of the wealthiest Founders (Washington was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the colonies) were indeed motivated by money but Thomas Paine, whose pamphlets inflamed more people than any speech made by the Founders, was of humble origins and background. He believed what he published and so did thousands of his readers.
War can have many reasons, some of them contradictory. World War II was good for munitions makers on all sides but this did nothing to diminish the moral clarity of the Allies’ determination to rid the world of Nazism.
In no way should this suggest that I view all or most U.S. wars as morally justified. I don’t. Indeed, the majority were of questionable necessity and many were fomented by corporate interests and their Congressional servants.
The Revolutionary War and World War II were clear in purpose and therefore, exceptions.