The American Revolution is a historical event that stirs up patriotism in the hearts of many Americans. They praise the founding fathers, shake their fists at tyrannical England, and cheer at the stories of courage and leadership. However, the American Revolution is a misnomer, because it was not a truly revolution. As defined by Dr. George Grant, revolution is men taking violent action against their government because they want immediate change in or destruction of the old order. (Grant, 2003, no. 20) This categorizes the French Revolution, but the so-called American “Revolution,” does not fall under this classification. Instead of seeking the “radical restructuring of society,” the founding fathers “wanted to preserve traditional rights.” (Woods, pp. 11). If not a revolution, then what was the American “Revolution”? Perhaps more fitting terms would be “the American War for Independence” or even “the American Reformation.” Wishing to reform England’s government so that the colonies would be governed constitutionally, the founding fathers fought no revolution, only a war for Independence “in which Americans threw off British authority in order to retain their liberties and self-government.” (Woods, pp. 14) Their thought shaped by men like John Locke, Montesquieu, and John Calvin, the early Americans had a covenantal view of government that they believed England had violated. Americans pleaded with the King of England to restore their rights, but the king refused. Despairing of reconciliation, the colonists took matters into their own hands to restore the government, not to create a new one. If the term “revolution” is used, it would be more fitting to say that the revolutionaries were the English king and parliamentarians who refused to follow the written charters they had given the colonies. (Grant, 2003, no. 20)
Although many disliked British rule, the colonists did not wish to be independent because they harbored hatred for England. The reasons for war were numerous, and were of utmost importance to the Americans, who merely wanted to recover their rights as British subjects. Before the war, “they protested that their ancient chartered rights were being violated.” (Woods, pp. 13) These “ancient chartered rights” the Americans drew from the Magna Charta, the Arbroath Petition, and the English Bill of Rights, and many of these rights were also included in the colonies individual charters as well. In section 60, the Magna Charta granted the colonies the same rights as English cities, stating “observances of which we have granted in our kingdom as far as pertains to us towards are men, shall be observed in all of our kingdom.” (Magna Charta) However, King George III was taking rights from the colonists that the British in England possessed, and imposing taxes and laws that were not present in England itself. In the Olive Branch Petition, the colonists made their grievances clear to the King, begging, “to share in the blessings of peace and the emoluments of victory and conquest” of the Seven Year’s War. (Dickinson) Instead of benefitting from peace, the Americans were taxed harshly by the British government to cover the cost of the war. Following the philosophies of John Locke and his views of natural law, the colonists believed this was tyranny and that the King and parliament were not fulfilling their duties as government officials. In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke defines tyranny as “the exercise of power beyond right,” that right being in the purpose of government to “preserve the rest of mankind,” and not to harm anyone unless it be “to do justice on an offender.” Locke also believed that the laws of nature bind men absolutely and with those laws comes the responsibility to preserve natural rights such as life, liberty, and covenantal agreements to preserve mankind. By taxation, quartering of troops, and unjust criminal trials, the British were infringing the rights of the charters, natural law, and liberty. Clergyman Samuel West in his sermon “On the Right to Rebel,” said, “this, therefore, cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage.” (West, pp. 123) West continued to say that magistrates are “set up by the people” to guard rights, and when magistrates are destructive to the people, they forfeit their rights to judge. (West, pp. 124) What England was imposing on the colonies was also a violation of section 13 of the Magna Charta – all cities shall have “all their liberties and free customs.” (Magna Charta). By Natural law, the Magna Charta, the Arbroath Petition, the English Bill of Rights, and by their own individual charters, the colonies were lawfully protected from England’s illegal actions.
Today if one violated another’s rights, the person would protest and perhaps get angry, but then the intrusion would most likely pass. This was not so for the colonists because of the multigenerational vision that they had. The early Americans were concerned for their children and their grandchildren; they wanted to protect the liberties that they had moved across the sea to preserve, and the colonists believed that their charters stood as covenants. The Great Awakening that spread across the colonies affected the way the early Americans stood together for what they believed was right. They began to know and understand Scripture better, and were “awakened” to an American Christian mindset, which would only deepen as the Scottish Influx began. Persecuted by the Church of England, many Scots were forced to leave Scotland in the Great Migration. The Scots transported their multigenerational vision of freedom and faith to the Colonies. “The covenant standard shall again rise,” Alistair MacDonald wrote of the Scots’ impact on America. (Grant, 2003, no.13) They founded a covenant community - community based not on what man can do but on biblical Truth and what God has done and will do through future generations. As a covenant community, the colonists considered their actions to be a part of a Covenant Lawsuit against England. When this lawsuit failed to resolve the conflict, the colonists fought adamantly for freedom because they understood Samuel Adam’s words that “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. And where there is liberty, there is the covenant community standing fast in its defense.” (Grant, 2003, no. 18) Because of the persecutions they had faced in Scotland, the Scots knew the Scriptures relating to self-defense and government very well. It was clear to them that when there is a need for defense, the men needed to “not be afraid of them,” but “remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14, ESV). The colonists were not fighting for an easier life for themselves, but for freedom from tyranny for their wives, children, and generations to come. They wanted to uphold the rule of biblical law, regardless of England’s despotism.
Because of salutary neglect – a term meaning that English government backed out of the colonies’ business for years - the Americans had efficiently governed themselves while England was busy fighting wars. The colonists were living happily and peaceably in covenant community and under biblical law, and did not wish to be disturbed. But at the conclusion of their wars, Britain began taxing the colonies. Naturally, the colonists protested, but the English labeled them as rebels. However, as exemplified in West’s sermon, most Americans disagreed with this identification.
“British parliament has virtually declared us an independent state by authorizing their ships of war to seize all American property… they can have no right any longer to style us as rebels, for rebellion implies a particular faction risen up in opposition to lawful authority, and, as such, the facticious party ought to be punished, while those that remain loyal are to be protected. But when war is declared against a whole community without distinction, and the property of each party is declared to be siezeable, this, if anything can be, is treating us as an independent state. Now, if they are pleased to consider us as in a state of independency, who can object against our considering ourselves so too?” (West, pp. 146 )
Neglect by England had caused the colonies to fend for themselves and become essentially independent from their mother country. When suddenly England decided she wanted to use the colonies to pay for her war debt, the colonies refused and ultimately declared themselves independent. In an attempt to uphold biblical law, the colonists “exhausted every remedy to their grievances before ever resorting to war,” as John Quincy Adams stated. (Grant, 2003, no. 20). The founding fathers wrote petitions and pleas for the restoration of covenantal peace and sent them to England. The 69 Articles of War were a justification of the colonists’ violation of peace, and when the articles failed to reconcile the two disputants, the Olive Branch Petition was the last resort. “We... most ardently desire the former harmony between [Great Britain] and these Colonies may be restored,” wrote John Dickinson, author of the petition. (Dickinson) When in the Declaration of Independence, the colonists officially announced their self-rule and listed the grievances committed against them; Jefferson made it clear that “in every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress… [and they] have been answered only by repeated injury.” (Jefferson) After making numerous attempts at reconciliation, the colonists gave up and resorted to war.
By breaking away from the tyranny of the English King, Americans not only began an experiment in liberty, but also made a statement about what rights they believed men should preserve. Their Declaration of Independence articulated these rights for the world to read. “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Jefferson). The system of government the founding fathers established – a democratic republic with a constitution – helped to defend those rights by restraining people who would destroy life and liberty. The early Americans clung to these rights so dearly that the words of Patrick Henry rang true in the hearts of many “give me liberty, or give me death!” Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and others knew that the purpose of government was to control the sinfulness of man and protect the weaker subjects. To do this, a good government is necessary. This good government is what the Founding Fathers were trying to create when they declared the colonies’ independence from England. However, the government they established was not one that they made for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren. Over two-hundred years later, some of the foundations remain, however culture wars and sin have mostly destroyed the multigenerational vision of the Founding Fathers.
The early Americans did create a new government after the American War for Independence, and only in that way the founding fathers can be considered revolutionaries. Instead of a revolution of blood and terror, however, the American Revolution was a political and philosophical revolution. By the time the actual “revolution” began, America had been treated by England as an independent country for years. When Britain needed funds to pay off her war debt, they turned to their colonies for help. The colonists saw this extra taxation as unconstitutional as well as being unlawful – they viewed themselves as self-governing, self-sustaining states and did not want interference. “Each of the thirteen colonies had a governor, a written constitution, laws, and courts.” (DeMar) England violated the chartered rights of the colonies, and therefore the revolution happened in Britain, not the thirteen colonies. King George III and parliament were ignoring the old order of charters, not seeking ways to raise revenue lawfully. On the other hand, the Founding Fathers exhausted every possible means of reconciliation with England before deciding to fight. They were seeking to restore, not change, the government. Because of their biblical foundations, early Americans understood that man is sinful, and on earth, there cannot be a perfect government. However, they did believe that it was possible, with God’s help, to make a better government than those currently on earth. And so, “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” (Constitution) the Founding Fathers began the American Reformation.
“The Constitution of the United States of America.” Law.emory.edu. 1787. Emory Law School. 1995.
DeMar, Gary. “Was it Right to Fight the War for Independence?” Biblical Worldview
Magazine July 2005
Dickinson, John “The Olive Branch Petition.” Aph.gatech.edu 1775. America’s Homepage. 2001.
Grant, George C. American Culture. Lecture notes. Franklin, Tennessee; Gileskirk, 2003
Jefferson, Thomas “The Declaration of Independence.” U.S. History.org 1776. U.S. History.org. 1995.
Locke, John. “Second Treatise on Government.” libertyonline.hypermall.com .1690. Liberty Online. 1999 .
“The Magna Charta” Constitution.org 1215. Constitution Society.1995.
West, Samuel, “On the Right to Rebel.” The Patriot’s Handbook. Ed. George Grant Ph.D. , Nashville; Cumberland House, 1996.
Woods, Thomas E., Jr., Ph.D. The Politically Correct Guide to American History. Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc, 2004
My Jr. year research paper for history. It was very fun to write, and even more fun to watch my British friends read. ;)
Anyway. The research was a blast, especially reading Locke, Calvin, and Montesquieu.
This will be my last post on AP until mid- July, as I'm heading off to the states and camp in about 4 days.