Learning Objective One: Discuss the nature of the American Revolution.
That was, and remains , the supreme achievement of the American Revolution; indeed, that was and is the American Revolution. Thus it was not new revolutionary ideas that brought about the American Revolution or changed American complacency; but it was the revolutionary conditions of American's social, economic and political systems that forced American thinkers to come up with new ideas to understand and explain their position. The nature of the revolution comprised of five factors that included the silent pressure of the environment, the influence of Enlightenment philosophers, the long-held practice of self-government, economic independence, the eventual development of colonial unity. As you read, be sure to cite and explain specific examples for each five factors of the nature of the American Revolution.
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries an important internal transition was taking place within each of the colonies. This metamorphosis was a change from colonies to provinces. This virtual shift from colonial to province was motivated by the need of the political and economic colonial elites to create stability in society that would later be based on class and race. This transition did not move at the same pace in every colony and was influenced by the common denominator of social instability. With the absence of English imposed hierarchy, the silent pressure of the environment facilitated the historical trend of self government or "salutary neglect"
For a prominent historical example that explains this phenomenon of economic hope infused with anxiety see the video below of Antony Johnson story as a man who rose from the very bottom of the economic strata to the top before hierarchy based on race was imposed in the Virginia colony.
The second condition that helped foster the American Revolution was the Enlightenment and its impact upon the American mind. The Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, was a product of the writings of the liberal political philosophers like John Locke of Europe and had a great impact on the minds of America's intellectual leaders.
John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher who would later have a major influence upon the Founding Fathers. A founder of British empiricism with an unabashed faith in the natural sciences and the rising middle class, Locke embodied the principles of the Enlightenment.
In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas and instead argued that everyone begins with a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and is shaped by his or her environment. This was a concept with radically equalizing implications. Locke therefore rejected Thomas Hobbes's theory that kings rule by divine right; how could they, if everyone was born equal?
Locke also diverged from Hobbes in that he believed that the original state of nature was characterized by reason, equality and independence, rather than chaos, avarice, and savagery. People voluntarily left nature to enter into a society for the sake of mutual protection. Still, in any society, Locke contended, people are endowed with certain natural rights (to "life, liberty, and property").
In his enormously renowned political theory, Locke presented the idea of governmental checks and balances, which became a foundation for the U.S. Constitution. He also argued that revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation, which also clearly influenced the Founding Fathers. He most eloquently expounded his arguments concerning the natural rights of man in his 1680 work, Second Treatise on Government (or Two Treatises on Government), a book that Thomas Jefferson read at least three times.
John Locke's ideas re-enforced the practical experience of the American environment as it applied reason to authoritarian institutions and people.
The Enlightenment: John Locke
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared
As already mentioned, in 1619 Jamestown received instructions from the Virginia Co. to establish the first representative assembly in English America, the House of Burgesses. This example of self-government in the first English colony in America is an outstanding representation of the impact of the political developments within England during the sixteenth century and their direct relationship to the English colonies.
It would have been unthinkable for the Spanish Kings in the 1500s to have permitted this degree of self-government within the Spanish settlements. When the Spanish colonials moved tentatively in the direction of limited self-government in the 1530s, the Spanish sovereign, Charles I, banned representative bodies in the New World. In contrast, the concept of the limited power of the monarch was widely accepted in England starting with the Magna Carta in 1215. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, this idea of basic rights and limited government was a product of the English mind and experience which was transmitted to the English colonies in the form of self-government.
Thus, American political independence was an evolutionary process that started with the House of Burgesses in 1619 and evolved through the intercolonial committees of correspondence to the Second Continental Congress of 177
The·fourth condition of economic independence was discussed when we covered mercantilism .
As was the case with political independence, economic independence was also an evolutionary process. This was demonstrated when England was forced to shift her emphasis from the regulation of trade (navigation acts), the primary concern in the seventeenth century , to the regulation of manufacturing by use of the trade acts (the wooland hat act, etc.) in the eighteenth century .
V. Colonial Unity
However, in 1763, few would have predicted that by 1776 a revolution would be unfolding in British America. The ingredients of discontent seemed lacking — at least on the surface. The colonies were not in a state of economic crisis; on the contrary, they were relatively prosperous. Unlike the Irish, no groups of American citizens were clamoring for freedom from England based on national identity. King George III was not particularly despotic — surely not to the degree his predecessors of the previous century had been.
Furthermore, the colonies were not unified. Benjamin Franklin discovered this quite clearly when he devised the Albany Plan of Union in 1754. This plan, under the slogan "Join, or Die," would have brought the colonial rivals together to meet the common threat of the French and Indians. Much to Franklin's chagrin, this plan was soundly defeated.
Ben Franklin sketched this cartoon to illustrate the urgency of his 1754 Albany Plan of Union.
He unsuccessfully tried to bring the colonies together to defend themselves against Indian and French threats.
1754 Albany Plan of Union
How, then, in a few short years did everything change? What happened to make the American colonists, most of whom thought of themselves as English subjects, want to break the ties that bound them to their forebears? What forces led the men and women in the 13 different colonies to set aside their differences and unanimously declare their independence?
Much happened between the years of 1763 and 1776. The colonists felt unfairly taxed, watched over like children, and ignored in their attempts to address grievances. Religious issues rose to the surface, political ideals crystallized, and, as always, economics were the essence of many debates.
For their part, the British found the colonists unwilling to pay their fair share for the administration of the Empire. After all, citizens residing in England paid more in taxes than was asked of any American during the entire time of crisis.