In the American Revolution, ideas were of great significance. The revolution was underpinned and justified with expressions of ideas and principles. These ideas came from three sources: traditional British legal values, the European Enlightenment and what some historians have dubbed the ‘American experience’.
Any study of revolutionary ideas (not only for the American Revolution but also the French Revolution) should begin with the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement that began in the 1600s and involved many of the era’s greatest minds; some, like Isaac Newton, would become key figures in modern history. Continuing on with intellectual trends begun during the Renaissance, Enlightenment thinkers challenged old views, values and traditions that had previously been accepted as fact. They believed that for something to be truly valid and immutable as fact, it must be logical, rationally argued and examined, and not just based on superstition or dogma. It follows that religion and church-based teachings were a particular target for these men, whose ranks included Newton, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu. Enlightenment philosophes were particularly keen political thinkers who questioned the divine right of kings: they were of the opinion that mankind, being essentially of good character and intelligence, could govern itself with the right framework and organisations (see popular sovereignty below).
Not all revolutionary ideas were new. Many American revolutionaries cherished what they saw as traditional British customs, values and ideas they believed had been bypassed or corrupted by King George III and his parliament during the 1770s. The revolution was, to some of them, not so much about introducing ‘the new’ but reinstating ‘the old’. Key documents such as the first Continental Congress’ Declaration and Resolves discussed the colonists’ rights as ‘freeborn English men’: as such they should be entitled to equality before the law and before parliament, protection from unfair taxation, a right not to be confronted with tyranny, misuse of standing armies and denial of liberty. The various revenue measures, the imposition of troops on Boston, the closure of colonial assemblies and the ‘Intolerable Acts’ of 1774 all infringed these rights and were viewed as the transgressions of a government gone mad with power and tyranny. Revolution was therefore justified in order to ‘purify’ the American corner of the empire and uphold the high principles of the British political and legal systems.
“The eighteenth century was an age of ideology; the beliefs and fears expressed on one side of the revolution were as sincere as those expressed on the other. The result, anticipated by Burke as early as 1769, was an ‘escalation’ of distrust toward a disastrous deadlock. The Americans, Burke said, ‘have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them: we have made a discovery, or think we have made one, that they intend to rise in rebellion against us. We know not how to advance, they know not how to retreat, but some party must give way.”
Bernard Bailyn, historian
Added to this mix were new ideas and ways of seeing things that were forged within the colonies … they were uniquely American ideas that emerged during the 160 or so years that Britons had actually been living in America. Part of this included living on the frontier or in remote towns, in some distant corner of the empire; it made the colonists independent, self-sufficient people, more inclined to tend and govern themselves than to rely on a distant parliament. There were also the hostile ‘Indians’ to the west and French to the north; the dangers of new terrain, wildlife and climate; and the free availability of land (with so much more land available in America than England, it was far more accessible and freehold land ownership was much more common… more landowners and fewer tenants meant people with a more independent point-of-view. Doubtless, some Americans with only weak bonds to the mother country, particularly those on the frontier, saw English interference as something that could be done away with quite easily.
Some specific revolutionary ideas included:
Opposition to taxation. This was critical, particularly during the time of the Stamp Act and then the Boston Tea Party. The Americans had become used to a large degree of self-government, accustomed to having a say in the political and law-making processes. This was not a new thing to the Americans, it had been the case in the colonies since their inception. They therefore viewed the arbitrary and external taxation of the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties and the Tea Act as heavy-handed, dictatorial government. The colonists insisted that taxation could only be passed if they had a voice in the British parliament, or at the very least to be consulted. They also wanted to have their petitions to Britain heard and treated with respect.
Desire for representation. The desire for ‘actual representation’ was a corollary of the debate about representation. British parliamentary democracy was based, many Britons said, on virtual representation … that is, the parliament acted for all its citizens, supposedly in their best interests. The growing industrial city of Manchester had a population of 65,000 but was not represented by a parliamentarian! This didn’t matter, British politicians said, because Manchester was ‘virtually represented’ by the land-owning aristocrats of Devon and Sussex. The Americans rejected this and preferred actual representation: where each member of parliament or an assembly sat on behalf of a number of his constituents; this enabled every person to have a voice in the parliament, because they had an individual was sitting on their behalf… a direct line, in a sense, to their government.
Sovereignty. A desire for sovereignty became part of the debate, particularly in 1774 and beyond. Thomas Paine wrote eloquently in Common Sense about the pressing reasons for independence and American sovereignty. The American colonies had grown through trade and commerce under England’s imperial protection? but now they were developing rapidly, had increasing populations, were resource-rich, politically mature and intellectually active. It was a natural progression that the Americans desired sovereignty or political autonomy: the right of a nation’s government to rule itself and not be commanded by others.
Fear of military oppression. Paranoia about military rule and ‘tyranny’ was an idea that spurred on many revolutionaries, particularly those in the lower classes. Britain was the world’s leading military power at the time of the Revolution; its army and navy were much feared by its enemies – and also within its own colonies. Cities in America didn’t even have a visible police force so the presence of British soldiers in the 1770s came as a shocking imposition. Many saw it as oppression, the use of a threat of violence to make the colonies ‘obedient’ again; others saw it as an insult, the kind of measure that might be taken in a colony in rebellion. The Boston ‘Massacre’, although it was probably the fault of Bostonian workers and resulted in the death of just five people, was cleverly exploited to portray the imminent horrors of a standing army and England’s ‘murderous intentions’. The various Quartering Acts of 1765 and 1774, requiring Americans to house and feed British soldiers in their own homes, were also much despised.
Natural rights. Locke’s concepts of the natural rights of man were derived from the Enlightenment but became an integral part of American revolutionary ideology. The English philosopher John Locke argued that man is born with ‘natural rights’ that no government could take away: these rights are life, liberty (freedom) and property (the right to acquire it and keep it safe from theft or seizure). Many progressive philosophers, both in America and elsewhere, thought the British to be infringing on these rights. It was the role of any government to protect the natural rights of its citizens, rather than to restrict or impinge upon them. These ideas also contributed to the French Revolution (1789).
Commercial freedom. The restriction of American commercial potential is perhaps a motive rather than an idea but it was important nevertheless. Some left-wing historians have argued that the American Revolution was sparked and perpetuated by the merchant-class, who were angry at the many restrictions imposed upon them by British mercantilism and the Navigation Acts. They felt they could make much more money with greater levels of economic freedoms: if they could trade with France, Spain, Holland and the other nations of the world, on their own terms, and build industries and manufacturing facilities within America. This was certainly an important factor in motivating at least some American merchants.
Isolation of the colonial gentry. Lack of respect paid to the colonial gentry might have been a key factor. The PBS documentary series “Liberty” suggests that the colonial upper-classes (men like Washington, Jefferson and Hancock) were ‘jealous’ and angry with the mother country because they aspired to be respected and admired in Britain; however the English would always look down on them as ‘colonials’ or ‘provincials’, as being ‘not quite gentlemen’. This rejection by Britain, some historians claim, angered and inspired certain revolutionary leaders and propelled them towards revolution. George Washington, for example, had applied for a commission in the British army but this was rejected without explanation; he subsequently became the leader of the rebel colonial army. What might have happened if he had been accepted as a British officer…?
Anti-Catholicism. Religion and paranoia about Catholicism helped drive the revolution and secured it the support of America’s Protestant churches. While the American colonists often preached religious tolerance, in reality, they feared Catholics. Most colonists belonged, after all, to one of the many Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and they feared the impact that the spread of Catholicism and the influence that ‘Popery’ or ‘Papism’ might have on America. The Quebec Act (passed straight after the ‘Intolerable Acts’ of 1774) allowed the French in that particular province to practice the Catholic religion… this fuelled suspicion that the British were ‘soft’ on Catholicism.