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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

Learning Objective One: Discuss the nature of the American Revolution.

There seems to be a growing agreement among historians that the American Revolution was not so much brought about by a single "cause" as by a set of "conditions." While admitting that the new taxes were ill-timed, many historians deny that British Imperial policy discriminated heavily against the colonists.

Although England's taxation measures precipitated the rebellion, it would be a mistake to interpret the American Revolution as resulting solely from economic causes. As stated before by John Adams: "But what' do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution."

Thus the American Revolution was a process, that started with the Virginia House of Burgesses of 1619 and the Mayflower Compact of 1620 and continued through the intercolonial committees of correspondence and eventually led to the First and Second Continental Congress.

It is important to keep in mind that the American Revolutionary War was fought to preserve what the American Revolution as a process had completed by 177 In 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush a patriot from Massachusetts, expanded on John Adams' interpretation of the American Revolution. "There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of American Revolution with those of the late American War. The American war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed."

As John Adams also stated, what was significant about the American Revolution was not that the colonists invented new principles; but, "they realized the theories of the wisest writers." They actualized them and they legalized them, by institutionalizing them.

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.


The first condition is what has been called the "silent" pressure of the "environment" which helped create an American character in an atmosphere freer than that in Europe .  

As discussed under the essay question of the colony of Georgia, the American environmental experience re-enforced the idea of the worth of the individual and his self-reliance. The environment, in the early years of colonial development, gave physical proof that all men should share certain basic political rights of "Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness." The opportunity derived from two sources: the land and absence of stringent and preexisting hierarchy. This phenomenon, derived from the abundance, availability, and the resources of the land created both HOPE and ANXIETY for those at the economic bottom and top.

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"

In the early years of colonization , the unstable environment provided for a great deal of social mobility. But even more important, it also provided for a tremendous amount of anxiety in all colonists regardless of their social and economic position These anxieties were caused because the colonists faced an unsettled present and a thoroughly unpredictable future. This anxiety plus the opportunity for social mobility led to a tremendous amount of class conflict as men competed for nature's resources--as was seen in the 1670s in Virginia's Bacon's Rebellion. The result of Bacon's Rebellion created an opportunity for the governing elite of Virginia to establish hierarchy based on class, yet masked by race.  

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 common assumption during the formative or colonial period (again, due to the abudunce of resources and lack of established hierachy) was that anyone with talent, regardless of background and origin, could attain a position of influence and power. However, as the relatively fluid social structure of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries became immobile, the tensions mounted even more between the different classes as they were striving to protect what they had or to advance their economic and political power against a continually and increasingly stingy environment. For example, indentured servants aspiring to become yeomen farmers characterized the 1670's; slaves confined to perpetual bondage characterized the 1720's. Small planters held a reasonable hope of becoming large planters in the 1670's, but by the 1720's this hope was diminishing rapidly in many colonies. Thus, the relatively fluid social structure of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries became largely immobile by the mid eighteenth century .

For example during this period, colonial instability in Virginia was transformed into political stability. The desire for colonial political power was transformed into a triumph of provincial political power . With the stabilization of political power, the social structure became clearly defined: frozen at the bottom by the influx of slaves and frozen at the top by the final emergence of a provincial elite who were not easily persuaded to accept new members into their exclusive circle. By 1763, in all the colonies, the pattern of provincial society had been set as the social structure transplanted from England was replaced by an indigenous provincial one that was relatively self-governing in nature.

II. The Enlightenment

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.

John Locke

As discussed with the Declaration of Independence, as a result of the Enlightenment, humanity began to envision a universe based on impersonal, scientific laws that governed the behavior of all matter. They lived in a universe which was controlled, in all its manifestations, by "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

They believed that the same laws which governed the movement of the stars in the heavens and of the tides in the oceans also governed the tides of human history by directing the economic, political, social and moral functions of life. They did not distinguish sharply between natural philosophy and moral philosophy.

The men of the Enlightenment had almost unlimited confidence in Reason and in the ability of man to penetrate the laws of Nature (with this reason) and in man's ability to apply them to the affairs of life.

Suggested Viewing

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke: Two Philosophers Compared

III. Self-Government or "salutary neglect"

The third condition which contributed to the American Revolution was experience in self-government from 1619-1776.

Self-government was not an American creation; (1) it was an outgrowth of "salutary neglect" as discussed earlier and (2) an invaluable legacy from England herself.

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.

The Magna Carta became a blue print for social and legal justice and established such ideas that no man could be judged without a trial by his peers and that his life or his property could not be taken without such a trial. It also established that no man, not even the King, was above the law. These rights and beliefs were transported to the colonies by way of colonial charters which were contracts that protected the rights and liberties of the colonists established under the Magna Carta. It was the combination of England's neglect and these basic rights, which were developed on English soil and transplanted to American where they were allowed to germinate in a much freer environment, that led to the provincial governments which developed under the leadership of popular leaders like Sam Adams and Patrick Henry in the 1770s.

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

IV. Economic Independence. 

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 .

Before a country can be politically independent, it has to be economically independent. By 1763, the colonists were basically economically independent but were tied to the British Empire by economic benefits, customs, and habit.

V. Colonial Unity

The last condition and the spark that ignited the American war for independence and led to the climax of the Revolution was the new British Imperial .policy which was implemented after 1763 and represented by the process of colonial unity.

Colonial unity was the beginning of the development of national unity and the creation of a common identity in America . The years preceding the American war for independence concluded a giant cycle in which Old World ideas became New World institutions as European ideas were absorbed in the American experience and transformed into new institutions to meet American needs. Thus ideas and practices transplanted from the Old World to the New were modified by the colonists by their experience in the America environment and emerged as American principles.

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.

Learning Objective 


Discuss the NEW 

British Imperial 

policy and its results