The American Revolution
For the most part, the American colonists had come to the "New World" seeking political, religious and economic liberty. Consequently, when King George III and the British parliament began encroaching on these new-found freedoms, the colonists were greatly alarmed. There was no single act or event which led the colonists to commence a war against the British Crown. Rather, there was a litany of abuses and insults which, taken together, convinced the colonists that revolution was their only acceptable course of action. (See A Brief Chronology of the Revolutionary War.)
The colonists were perhaps the most likely of people in the history of the world to commence a revolution against a tyrannical government. Generally well-read, the colonists had "devoured" the writings of 17th Century English Civil War writers and their successors, such as Milton, Neville, Trenchard and Gordon. From these authors, the colonists acquired a powerful sense of moral indignation toward political corruption of any kind.1 Moreover, while recognizing that government is necessary to save man from the "state of nature" depicted by Hobbes and Locke, they also believed that their liberty rested on their ability to maintain superiority, i.e. physical military power, over their government. As the British government continually pressed itself and its authority on the colonists, they concluded that England's dominion over the colonies was essentially the power to destroy their liberty.2 Together, these beliefs laid the philosophical foundations for the Revolution.
The roots of revolution were also sewn in the economic, social and political conditions in the colonies. As the American economy began to flourish, the colonies were becoming more economically independent from Britain. More importantly, there was no rigid class system in America and the abundance of land and resources gave rise to a powerful sense of economic and political equality among the colonists. While Crown governors officially presided over each colony, the traditions of popular sovereignty and participation in government had taken hold in the colonies.
When the Declaration of Independence was drafted, signed and sent to the King, the colonists were not stating new-found beliefs. On the contrary, they were formally restating long and deeply held beliefs about government and the sanctity of their individual liberties. It was for these beliefs that they fought and died, ultimately emerging as a new nation.
The United States of America, born of bloodshed and popular revolution, has been called by some the "first new nation." Unlike any other nation in the history of mankind, it was a nation whose freedom had been won by the people and its new government derived its powers from and was accountable to the people. These were indeed revolutionary ideas. And while the Declaration of Independence is the most famous statement of these beliefs, the state Constitutions of the day were equally powerful and eloquent in conveying the new American political creed. Pennsylvania's Constitution of 1776, for example, declared:
That all power being originally inherent in, and consequently derived from the people: therefore all officers of government, whether legislative or executive, are their trustees and servants, and at all times accountable to them.3
And the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution asserted that:
The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.4
These were not mere words but rather the firmly held doctrines of the political system the new nation embraced. The evolution and importance of these ideas for the future of American government are discussed in "American Political Thought." Having won a war to defend these principles, all that remained was to see if the new nation could govern herself.
1. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967), 47.
2. Ibid., 55-66.
3. Donald S. Lutz, A Preface to American Political Theory (Lawrence, Kansas: Univerisity of Kansas Press, 1992), 73.
4. Ibid., 73.