The 250th anniversary of American Independence is fast approaching, and with it the maneuvering to redefine the American Revolution for a new generation.
The latest provocation comes from Andrew Roberts, the British historian who is author of “The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III.”
Roberts, while conceding that the introduction to the Declaration of Independence is inspiring, insists that the rest of it, the list of grievances against the king, is “grotesquely hypocritical, illogical, mendacious.”
Roberts writes in his new biography that George III “was in fact a civilized, good-natured, Christian and enlightened monarch . . . nota tyrant.”
Roberts, who is affiliated with Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, praises George III in terms that will warm the hearts of contemporary progressives.
The king, to hear Roberts tell it, “was a convinced abolitionist,” unlike slave-owning American revolutionaries such as Patrick Henry and George Washington.
The king’s government “behaved with an honourable punctiliousness towards her treaties with the Indigenous Nations,” placing commitments toward the Iroquois and the Cherokee ahead of the expansionist ambitions of American land speculators including Henry and Washington. And George “defied the vicious prejudices of the day against homosexuality and bisexuality.”
It has echoes of The New York Times and its “1619 Project,” which likewise portrayed the American Revolution as a racism-tainted effort to preserve slavery from British abolitionism.
It’s early yet — 2026 is four years off — but activity is already stirring in connection with the sestercentennial, or the semiquincentennial. Congress has established the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, with congressional and private citizen members.
A consortium in Massachusetts has launched Revolution 250 to mark the anniversary with, among other things, a lively podcast series that has featured, in separate episodes, both Roberts and this columnist in his capacity as the author of “Samuel Adams: A Life.”
It fits with America that our history is told and retold by a combination of politicians, government institutions, voluntary associations, academics, and businesses. Our understanding of the revolution and the characters who made it has improved over time.
If the current generation of intellectuals and politicians is scrambling to get ahead of the story, it wouldn’t be the first time.
In a 2020 dissertation for a doctoral degree earned at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Joshua Tait tells the story of how in the 1970s, in anticipation of the bicentennial, the American Enterprise Institute organized a lecture series in which neoconservatives like Irving Kristol “sought to re-appropriate ‘revolution’ from the New Left and restate the value of the American political tradition in terms acceptable to the intellectual class and compelling to business and political elites.”
The lectures were published as pamphlets and as a book, and they became a public television series moderated by Wall Street Journal colmunist Vermont Royster.
As Tait tells it, the lectures also influenced President Gerald R. Ford’s bicentennial speeches.
Irving Kristol’s essay “The American Revolution as a Successful Revolution,” written after the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and urban riots and racial unrest, but before the Reagan renaissance, began, “As we approach the bicentennial of the American Revolution, we find ourselves in a paradoxical and embarrassing situation.
“A celebration of some kind certainly seems to be in order, but the urge to celebrate is not exactly overwhelming. . . . Many will doubtless ascribe this mood to various dispiriting events of the recent past or to acute public consciousness of present problems.”
So too today. But that only raises the stakes.
Various tyrants on the global stage — Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei — are portraying themselves as civilized, good-natured, and enlightened rulers.
They are the George III’s of today, Roberts’s revisionist spin notwithstanding.
In that context, it’s as urgent as it’s ever been to tell the American Revolution’s story of self-government and of freedom.
“The love of liberty is interwoven in the soul of man, and can never be totally extinguished,” as the American revolutionary Samuel Adams put it.
No mendaciousness, no misunderstanding there.
Check back in 50 years, or in another 250.