Philosophy of American Revolution

The Revolution generated radical changes in the principles, opinions, and sentiments of the American people. New ideas and issues affected social customs, political ideals, and gender and racial roles as the thirteen colonies evolved into the United States. Debate and conflict over government authority, diverse state economies, federal control of western territories, and the new republic’s relationship with other nations transformed America’s political culture. The desire to form a democratic government with balanced powers can be traced, in part, to the Enlightenment and its profound impact on colonial thinking. Many eighteenth-century intellectuals believed that progress was related to human reason unlocking the secrets of the natural world. Believing that the discoveries of Isaac Newton would enable them to understand the workings of the universe, enlightened thinkers reasoned that they would be able to perfect human society. Many leading colonists, most notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, followed the doctrines of deism, a religious outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Deists relied on the reasoning power of science rather than on faith. Skeptical about the divinity of Jesus and the Bible, they believed in an impersonal God who, once the universe was created, no longer intervened in human affairs. The best way to improve society, deists argued, was to rely on reason. The Enlightenment embraced the concept of natural rights as a rational ideology, which fostered the Patriots’ yearning for liberty and a democratic government that protected their freedoms. During a self-imposed exile in Holland, a country that tolerated the free expression of religion and thought, British philosopher John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government. In that work, which was published in 1690, Locke rejected the claim that kings and queens had a “divine right” to rule others. Instead, governments were created among naturally free people as social compacts or contracts. Civil rulers derived their authority from the consent of the governed, and held their power as a public trust. Locke argued that rebellion against such a government was acceptable if it failed to protect certain “self-evident” natural rights, including life, liberty, and property. This “right of rebellion” theory, based upon natural law, subsequently influenced the American Patriots. Locke believed that a government with great power would be tempted to use its authority to control individuals. The government, he contended, should be divided into different branches with each branch possessing only the power necessary to fulfill its function.

“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of Nature for his rule. The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it.” – John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
More than eighty years after Locke published his political views on government, Thomas Jefferson incorporated many of the philosopher’s principles into the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s ideas regarding limited, democratic government; the right to rebel against an inept government; and the opportunity to pursue the natural rights enjoyed by all mankind; clearly influenced Jefferson:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the

and created a unified front that invigorated the patriotic cause. many of Parliament’s decisions to control the colonists through taxes and trade regulations produced waves of discontent in America.People to alter or to abolish it.” –Thomas Jefferson. including people in leadership roles. inspired Patriots to break from tradition and embrace independence. as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. the thought of severing economic and political relations with Great Britain. including the Boston Tea Party. particularly in Massachusetts. Common Sense called for an end to the colonists’ political wavering over British rule and promoted the concept of an American republic where free citizens. He argued that the cause of American hostility toward the British government was not Parliament. colonial merchants enjoyed an improved business climate and the Patriots’ message for freedom lost its urgency. The impoverished entrepreneur. One person credited with influencing the colonists’ decision to seek independence from British rule was Thomas Paine. To the loyalists. Paine unleashed his anger directly at King George III. who tried his hand at several vocations including writing. Terminating the British monarch’s arbitrary authority and limiting the . most of the other colonies established similar organizations to spread the spirit of resistance and exchange information and ideas about the latest British policies. Paine concluded. Futhermore.000 copies of Common Sense circulated throughout the colonies. not a monarch. Large portions of the population. By the late eighteenth century. many colonists continued to proclaim their loyalty to the Crown. and to institute new Government. but rather the monarchy. Thomas Paine’s call to create a democratic republic resonated with a growing number of colonists. the Declaration of Independence Following the French and Indian War. Social Although the concept of forming an autonomous American nation was not new. 150. had an obligation to the world to become an independent and democratic society. Common Sense became one of the most influential political diatribes ever written. which he claimed was the true source of malice toward the colonists. and decision to hire foreign soldiers to suppress colonial uprisings weakened the loyalists’ allegiance to the Crown. which often included hanging. should originate from popular consent. loomed heavy on the colonists’ minds. Samuel Adams created a committee of correspondence in Massachusetts to publicize colonial complaints against the British. Eventually. the “mother country”—a nation with intimate cultural and ancestral ties— was unthinkable. about a year after his arrival in America. months before independence was declared. Within a short period. Within months of its release. Paine’s vision of a new American political system without direction from Great Britain. considered the colonies an extension of Great Britain and generally discarded the notion of becoming a self-governing country. generated strong inter-colonial cooperation. considered radical by many colonists. However. however. were severe. As late as January 1776. Parliament’s prior reactions to rebellious acts. the numerous taxes. strict regulations. experienced republicanism firsthand in the form of town meetings and elections. The network effectively shaped public opinion. To recharge the opposition to England. By 1771. many towns. America. were in control. trade between America and Great Britain increased. a one-time corset maker who left England for a better life in Philadelphia. from governors to senators to judges. penned the pamphletCommon Sense in January 1776. laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form. the penalties for treason. Paine further argued that the concept of an island ruling a continent defied natural law. after England repealed the Townshend duties and support for the non-importation agreements weakened. Paine declared that King George was a “Royal Brute” who did not deserve the colonists’ respect and claimed that the authority of all government officials.

Statute of Religious Freedom The Revolution also shed light on the nascent movement to improve women’s legal rights. for instance. and that the same shall in no wise diminish. By the early 1800s.” — Thomas Jefferson. . However. The franchise—the right to vote in public election— typically was restricted to white males who owned a certain amount of property. Southerners were particularly outraged in 1775 when Lord Dunmore. Thomas Jefferson led the fight to expand the separation of church and state. All men shall be free to profess. although many founding fathers. Political representatives tackled several key issues. most states decreased their support for religious institutions and placed the burden of church maintenance on voluntary contributions from individual members. the proper work ethic. Americans often highlighted the moral wrong of slavery by complaining of Parliament’s attempts to make “slaves” of them. The plantation owners of the southern states. As the leaders of the American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain. and many states—North and South— enacted laws restricting the rights of African-Americans. to poor tenants and farmers—as equals. believed that since women had the ability to reason. enlarge. The debate over female equality began years before America severed its ties with Great Britain. They did not favor a new government that considered everyone—from wealthy landlords and business owners. were slaveholders themselves. wanted to end hereditary aristocracy without dismantling the social hierarchy. announced that all slaves willing to bear arms against their “rebel” masters would be given their freedom. slavery. Racism was prevalent throughout America during this period. In Virginia. His Statute of Religious Liberty. religion. it challenged Americans to consider the concept of equality for all people. the focus of attention broadened to include social reforms. called the “established church. notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…. much like those witnessed during the Stamp Act crisis and the Boston Tea Party. Although the Revolution did not settle the slavery debate. or affect their civil capacities. The majority of the thirteen colonies supported an official religion. Conservative citizens believed that equality for the social classes would lead to unlawful outbursts. the royal governor of Virginia. delineated the boundary between religious belief and the right to participate in government: “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions. the institution of slavery came under increased attack during the enlightened Revolutionary era. and the moral prerequisites to vote intelligently. Nonetheless.governing power to elected officials appealed to people of different classes throughout the colonies. John Locke. The American Revolution also presented the opportunity for lawmakers to protect religious freedom. maintained and expanded the institution of slavery because it was indispensable to their economic success and way of life. primarily those in higher classes. not everyone in America was interested in a complete overhaul of the existing political system. Slavery played only a negligible role in the economy of the northern states by then.” but the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening diminished interest in established religions. and women’s rights. their opinion in matters of religion. enacted by the legislature in 1786. Lawmakers generally assumed that those who did not have property lacked a stake in the government. and by argument to maintain. including voting rights. Many colonists. all the northern states barred slavery. but the new state legislatures frequently fell short of supporting this sentiment. whether they were free men and women or slaves. and the federal government prohibited the further importation of slaves. and augment the separation of church and state. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal. Following the Revolution. in contrast. they should be entitled to an equal voice.

Women were elevated to the role of guardians for America’s moral values. She considered the Revolution to be the perfect catalyst to win political freedom from England and equal rights for American women. contended that most women lacked the necessary intellect or emotional make up to deal with complex and often sordid political issues. The concept of civic virtue became a focal point during the early national era. . including the enlightened New Englander John Adams. and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. however. Abigail Adams set the foundation for future generations of feminists willing to fight for equal rights. Abigail Adams did not agree with her husband. Adams gently rejected “the Despotism of the Peticoat. Mothers who oversaw the ethical instruction of society’s youth represented appropriate republican models for behavior.Most colonial-era Americans. She implored Adams to “Remember the Ladies. did not remain static.” The social status of women. Americans believed that democracy was based on the integrity of each citizen. The important “republican motherhood” responsibility created more educational opportunities for women and undercut the male-dominated perception that women did not deserve higher profiles in society. Although she light-heartedly threatened to “forment a Rebellion” among women iftheir voices were not heard.” as the founding fathers debated forming a new nation.