Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Historical Context: Thinking About the American Revolution


"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Law of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
Declaration of Independence, 1776


"Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
— Inscription on the Liberty Bell


These words embody the spirit behind the founding of this great country of ours. While many nations and religions took part in the settlement of the original thirteen colonies, these colonies eventually came under the rule of the British parliament and the English monarch. While it was convenient, the settlers were granted a great deal of independence within the British Empire. Most colonies operated under royal charters and were overseen by a British governor. This crated a population that flourished under the hardships of the wilderness; they tamed the country and found a relative amount of freedom to practice their own religious beliefs — England was persecuting all religions except the Church of England at the time.

So, why would this group of strong, resourceful people opt out of the British Empire? Two reasons were predominate: Taxes and Trade Restrictions. The British, with the help of the colonists had just finished fighting the French forces in the Seven Years War (known here as the French and Indian War) by the mid-1700's. At the conclusion of this war, the British parliament began placing taxes on the essential goods and services needed by the colonists. The colonists, however, felt that these taxes were oppressive and 'illegal,' since they did not have representation in the parliament. This is embodied in the expression of "No Taxation without Representation."

The second reason — Trade Restrictions — resulted in the quest of the British for wealth. Wealth was accumulated by exporting more goods, especially manufactured good, than you import. The triangular trade cycle between England, West Africa (slaves), and the American colonies (slaves and manufactured goods). This resulted in the British restricting manufacturing activity in the colonies; the British wanted raw materials (especially tobacco and cotton) from the colonies. This is based on the monitary theory put forth by John Locke, among others. The goal of the British was to maximize this trade cycle to increase the wealth of the English crown.

Both of these factors produced conflicts between the mother country (England) and the American colonies. When the colonials started to protest both of these impositions, the British started stationing British troops in the colonies, at the expense of the colonists! This resulted in the formation of the 'Sons of Liberty' around 1764 and the rise of a strong group of Patriots (those against the crown). Pariament was petitioned to allow the colonies more freedom and independence, but they were turned down. This increased the colonists' sentiments against the parliament. Eventually, this led to the convening of the 1st Continental Congress in 1774 in an effort to present a united front to the British parliament against the multiple taxes being imposed.

When the situation did not improve, a 2nd Continental Congress was convened in 1775 to discuss the options available to the colonies. They petitioned King George III for relief, but were rejected. They then came up with the following statement of their position:

"Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them."
— Continental Congress Declaration, 1775


In the mean time, learned men and ministers throughout the colonies began to mobilize the thoughts of the population. Some of the first battles of the revolution were found, especially the Battle of Lexington and Concord (1775), the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775) and several battles in Canada. The anti-British sentiments were encited by many ministers, including John Witherspoon, the president of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University). In the early part of 1776 he distributed a collection of sermons and other writings, such as the following:

"There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire. If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage."
— John Witherspoon, 1776
The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men



The colonists separted themselves into three camps. There were those who maintained neutrality, the Quakers and native American Indians. There were about 1 out of 5 colonists who remained loyal to the crown, the Loyalists. Finally, there were the Patriots (the rest of the population) who wanted self-government and independence from British rule. As conditions got worse, the 2nd Continental Congress charged Benjamin Franklin, John Adams & Thomas Jefferson to write a Declaration of Independence to be delivered to the British. This was submitted to the 2nd Continental Congress and signed on July 4th, 1776. The document built heavily upon the thinking of John Locke, especially where human Rights were concerned and what a legitimate government consisted of. The following statement reflects these ideas:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Declaration of Independence, 1776


In 1777, the 2nd Continental Congress approved the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Thus, a new civil government was establish as a confederation of independent states. This became effective in 1781 when the last of the thirteen colonies signed it. It became the definition of governement after the Treaty of Paris of 1783 which ended the revolutionary war. The following is an excerpt from these Articles:

"The said states hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their Liberties, and their mutual and general welfare."
Articles of Confederation, 1777


After suffering through growing pains and misunderstandings, it became apparent that the confederation of independent states was not an optimal organizational scheme. Consequently, a Constitutional Convention was called and worked on a new constitution to help solve most of the problems. This new constitution was accepted and ratified by the final state in 1789. This constitution called for a strong Executive Branch, a Legislative Branch with two houses (House and Senate), and an independent Judicial Branch. This became a model on many of the democracies that emerged during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I think that most of us get a tear in our eyes and a lump in our throats when we hear the words:


"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
Constitution of the United States of America, 1789



Note: This starts a series of 'Thoughts for the Day...' postings that will examine the philosophical and intellectual roots of our American Revolution. It will examine the contributions of many men (most women didn't do much published writing in those days) from the Enlightenment and Colonial period, including many of the Founding Fathers themselves. In addition, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution themselves will be featured for the 4th of July itself. Please join us for this exciting exploration through our country's intellectual history.

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