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Ideological Origins of the American Revolution Introduction

In A Nutshell

In retrospect we tend to view the history of colonial America as nothing more than a prologue to Revolution, and to assume that colonial Americans were in some way predisposed to seek independence from Britain. Americans seemed to have been destined to declare independence. The settlers of all but one of the thirteen original colonies had left the mother country to seek new opportunities 3,000 miles abroad; only Georgia was the result of a royal charter. Though their motivations varied from the religious to the commercial, they had physically departed from England to begin anew in a new world. Britain itself—a six-to-eight-week journey away by ship—became an increasingly remote concept for subsequent generations of colonists who had never set foot in the country.

Yet the fact of American independence was truly revolutionary. Most colonists had shared a sense of British identity throughout the first 150 years of settlement, and breaking with the only state authority that many of them had ever known was a difficult decision to make, let alone execute. Independence was never an inevitable outcome or an assured success, despite the fact that colonial resentment towards the British government had been building since the end of the French and Indian War. No society had ever done what the American revolutionaries attempted to do: unseat an aristocracy and defeat the world's most powerful navy and a great army, all while establishing a new republican government without falling prey to the forces of chaos and despotism.

The origins of the political philosophies and governmental theories that underlay the American Revolution stretched back across centuries. Generations of intellectual theory, political philosophy, and scientific empiricism all culminated in the Revolutionary War, which sought to transform these abstract ideas into an actual blueprint for a new kind of society.


Why Should I Care?

Many (teachers, parents, politicians) will tell you that it is imperative to learn about the ideas and the people who framed American independence. It is where we (as a nation) come from. If you're an immigrant, or come from a family of immigrants, then this is supposed to help you understand what this country is all about and why it is so great. These are all very solid points. Studying the history of the American Revolution and the ideas behind it will certainly help to provide you with an enhanced understanding of a truly remarkable generation and the unprecedented battle they waged for self-determination and liberty.

It's just that this same history can also teach us about some of the central contradictions at the heart of this nation's history (like slavery), and some of the paradoxes that abounded in the republican ideology. This ideology was supposed to liberate us from corrupt aristocracy (but keep women subordinate to their husbands). Politicians, pundits, and others continue not only to worship the founding generation as though they were infallible, but they keep claiming to know what the Founding Fathers would think or say on all matter of current events. This is a frequently employed "political football," so to speak; if Ben Franklin or John Adams would have disapproved of increased immigration quotas—they might argue—then we must follow suit. Yet even if we had cryogenically frozen Thomas Jefferson and could bring him back to life today, who is to say that his opinion on matters like Constitutional law or modern political subjects should direct our thinking on such twenty-first-century matters?

There is a sort of bizarre time-zone effect to these debates; our reverent attitude towards the founding generation often loses sight of the point that they would be entirely unprepared to deal with a radically different historical setting hundreds of years later. Not only that, but they really weren't very certain of what they were doing in their own time; they didn't have the benefit of hindsight and they had no idea that this experiment in republican government would work. It almost didn't, as you'll see if you go on to read about the choppy history under our first government (guided by the Articles of Confederation). They gave it their best shot and they kept trying. As Ben Franklin said, "Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out."

There is no question that these were exceptionally bright people, and that their opinions and thoughts are to be valued by all patriotic Americans. At the same time, such patriotic Americans would do well to remember that the founding of this nation was not so much a perfectly executed display of omniscience as it was a noble goal that managed to gain military victory (with the critical aid of the French) and then enough stability to overcome the hardships that lay in wait. Our Founding Fathers were well read and they had admirable hopes and dreams; but they were human beings, flawed and fallible, with their own sets of contradictions and shortcomings. This is not so much a reason to revere them any less as it is a testament to the fact that what they managed to accomplish should be all the more noteworthy, given that they were human, like the rest of us.

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