Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
Summary & Analysis
The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most iconic document in American history, has been described as the embodiment of "revolutionary genius and rhetorical grace." That is, its style and quality of writing did justice to its pivotal historical substance. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration announced a break with the English empire, thereby voicing the frustrations, concerns, fury, and aspirations of four-fifths of the American population and formally disavowing an allegiance to the British government that had lasted for more than 150 years of North American colonization. At the time, the drafting of the declaration did not seem to the Continental Congress delegates to be nearly so monumental a task; Jefferson was chairman of the committee only because he was from Virginia, the colony that had proposed the resolution. Because his fellow committee members were busy with other work that they considered more important at the time, Jefferson wrote the Declaration in solitude.
Significantly, when the break came it took the form of a series of grievances—not against the Parliament or the government ministers but the king—the embodiment of the British state. This was a constitutional method in keeping with the precedent set by the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, when Dutch leaders William and Mary overtook the throne from James II and established a precedent that British kings are subject to Parliament and not above the law. By attacking the monarchy, Jefferson sought to demonstrate that the American people would become citizens of their own country, rather than subjects. Actually, the Continental Congress omitted Jefferson's criticisms of the British people themselves. His original draft had charged them with allowing their King and Parliament to send over English soldiers and foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy the colonists, and lamented that "We might have been a free and great people together." Jefferson thought that Englishmen and Americans had every reason to band together as one people who had lived under "one common king" and who had multiple kinship ties. He felt betrayed by what he viewed as the British people's refusal to recognize the justness of the American cause. The Congress, however, agreed that its grievances were principally with the king, so they eliminated this section, the second-to-last in the document.
The Declaration charged the King with twenty-one grievances. They included the predictable charge of taxation without representation and the popularly resented mandate that colonists must provide quarter for English troops. Several involved his usurpation of the laws and alteration of colonial governments. Others were economic; George III was said to have cut off American trade "with all parts of the world." The most dramatic charges involved the very lives and welfare of the colonists: "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people." The fact that the Declaration charged the king directly with such acts is a clear indication of his symbolic significance; though he had never set foot on North American shores, King George was held responsible for the actions of his government and the outcome of his policies.
The grievances listed in the Declaration included many instances in which the colonies had attempted to cooperate with the King, only to meet with intransigence and tyranny. By forsaking his principal responsibility to look after the "lives and properties" of his subjects, Jefferson argued, King George III had relinquished his monarchical authority and had instead become a tyrant undeserving of either allegiance or respect. By contrast, as Jefferson wrote, a new American government would be founded upon the consent of the people; it would be based on a contract between the governed and their elected representatives.
Fifty-six white men signed the Declaration of Independence. Most of them were lawyers, merchants, or businessmen, but a quarter of them were farmers, and one was a clergyman. Most had served in their colonial legislatures. Seven were educated at Harvard, four at William & Mary, four at Yale, and three at Princeton. Almost a third of them fought in the American Revolution, and eleven had their houses and property destroyed by the British during the war. Thirteen went on to become state governors after the Revolution, sixteen became state or federal judges, and eighteen served in their state legislatures. Seven became members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Six became U.S. senators. Two became Supreme Court justices. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Elbridge Gerry each became vice president. Adams and Jefferson later became the second and third presidents of the United States. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress and one of Boston's most prominent merchants, had the best signature.
The Opposition: Tories
Tories, as they were pejoratively called by the majority of Americans who supported independence, were a diverse lot who ran the gamut from wealthy merchants to tavern keepers, carpenters, farmers, bakers, blacksmiths, hairdressers, and clergymen. Most loyalist (or Tory) families were headed by white, property-owning men who had trans-Atlantic cultural and personal ties to the mother country, who stood to benefit financially from America's connection to the empire, and who believed that they already enjoyed the rights and liberties granted them under the British Constitution. They feared that a republican government, without the ultimate authority of the king at the epicenter, would devolve into anarchy.
By setting aside their old royal charters—or, in the case of Connecticut and Rhode Island, deleting any references to the crown—all of the colonies established their own separate governments in the years following the Declaration of Independence. The citizens elected special conventions to write state constitutions, which were developed through a process of debate and experimentation. Their central priorities were to establish a more democratic system than before, to limit the powers of government to protect against tyranny, and to make elected leaders accountable to the voting public. State officials were usually elected annually under the new systems, rather than every two or three years under the British. The governments were larger and more representative. Most state assemblymen in the North were farmers, artisans, doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. In the South, most were planters.
The composition of these new governments differed from state to state. The constitutions of Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Vermont represented the most radical manifestations of the revolutionary sentiment; in Pennsylvania, artisans, radical leaders, and western farmers pushed through a unicameral legislature with debates open to the public, under the premise that society had a single common interest that should be represented in governmental affairs. There was no governor in the new Pennsylvania government, and all property requirements (in order to vote) for white, taxpaying males over 21 were abolished. The conservatives barely managed to fend off a proposal for the redistribution of property (from the rich to the poor). In the ensuing decades, most state problems that arose—particularly fiscal issues—were attributed to the radicals, and the conservatives grew proportionally in strength and number. In 1790, they prevailed, and a more conservative constitution was enacted for the state.
The Articles of Confederation and the "Critical Period"
All thirteen states ratified the Articles of Confederation in the spring of 1781, thereby commencing the first independent republican form of government the modern world had ever known. The U.S. Congress had been operating as a collective substitute for the king, not merely a legislative body. Congress governed foreign affairs, coinage, questions of war and peace, disputes between states, Indian affairs, the postal service, and the western territories. Because of widespread distrust of centralized authority in the wake of a revolution against the abuses of a king, the national government of the Articles of Confederation was purposefully crafted with few powers of enforcement or oversight. In practice, however, Congress's weaknesses quickly became a problem.
Without the ability to levy taxes, Congress could do little to mop up the fiscal mess caused by rapid inflation and depleted revenues of wartime. The phrase "not worth a Continental" indicated the extent of the currency problem; Continental dollars were synonymous with worthlessness. Each year the Confederation ran a deficit in operating expenses, and the national debt more than doubled to $28 million. That would be over $500 million in 2007 dollars; of course, that might not seem like such a huge problem today—when we are currently poised to surpass $9 trillion in debt—but this was still a big deal back then.
The Confederation government could neither regulate interstate nor foreign commerce, and therefore it was an even weaker government than the English Parliament. A flourishing black market trade undercut American craftsmen at home and only added to the money drain, since none of the underground revenues paid U.S. duties and therefore they did not benefit the national treasury, and American manufacturers sold less as a result of the competition. There was no head of government and no judicial branch to decide cases; all thirteen states had to unanimously approve any amendments to the Articles and any measures that levied tariffs on imports. At least nine of the states had to approve any measures dealing with coinage, war, treaties, the army, or the navy. The result was gridlock and ineffectiveness.
A Fragile Republic and A Disgruntled Military
Even before domestic unrest revealed the ongoing problems and weaknesses under the Confederation government, the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783 threatened to unravel republican government itself. Because the Confederation Congress was notorious for delayed payments to soldiers, officers at Washington's army encampment at Newburgh, New York, began to grow justifiably suspicious that the government would prove unable to come through on payment of their bounties and life pensions. They formed a delegation and traveled to Philadelphia with a petition for redress. While there, they became embroiled with a few frustrated congressmen and some public creditors in a plan to threaten Congress and the public with a coup d'état unless changes were made to strengthen the power of government so that it would finally deliver on its promises to the military. Several Founding Fathers, including Robert Morris (the so-called "financier of the American Revolution" and a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and New York Congressman Alexander Hamilton supported the plan. Hamilton tried to persuade his old commander, General Washington, to join them.
It was Washington's exceptional restraint and devotion to duty that thwarted the whole thing; though he sympathized with the necessity to expand congressional powers, Washington found the prospect of a coup both dangerous and dishonorable. He confronted the conspirators directly and convinced them to denounce the plot. Historians still debate whether the conspirators were really prepared to mount a coup d'état. Regardless, they represented the low morale of the entire Army, who suspected that their guaranteed pensions would not continue past the war and who remained under-supplied and underfed. Men were becoming desperate for a strong government that could provide for their needs and preserve national independence and integrity.
The Rank-and-File Revolt
Three months after the officers came the revolt of the rank-and-file men. Several hundred disgruntled Pennsylvania militia members and continental soldiers marched from Lancaster to Philadelphia in June 1783 to demand the back pay they were owed. They picked up reinforcements in Philadelphia and demonstrated in front of Independence Hall, where the Confederation Congress assembled. State authorities failed to provide a guard for Congress, for they feared that the guard would only join the ranks of the mutiny. After three days of hostile protests, Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey. There, the shaken legislators agreed to compensate the soldiers for three months' worth of pay, and furloughed them until they could be formally discharged. The crisis had subsided by the fall, but not without a serious blow to congressional authority.
The powerlessness of the central government under the Articles of Confederation was amply demonstrated by the public outcry that erupted from multiple points throughout the colonies, most notably in western Massachusetts. In Massachusetts there was an unusual dearth of paper currency and an excess of taxation (most other states, by contrast, had too much currency and it wasn't worth anything). The state was undergoing a depression by 1785; British banks had glutted the market and then suddenly called in their American loans. American merchants in turn tried to collect debts owed them by the people of the state, who had been borrowing from one another just to pay their taxes and get by. This unstable pyramid of loans was collapsing. The conservatives who had control of the state levied heavy poll and land taxes to pay off the war debt. Those who could not afford to pay—mostly farmers and the poor—were sent to debtor's prisons. Towns petitioned the legislature for a change; they despised the debtor's jails and defended their inmates as "good inhabitants" of their local areas. But the legislature turned a deaf ear to their pleas, and adjourned in 1786 without providing any relief.
By the end of January 1787, the situation for many in Massachusetts had become desperate, and popular Revolutionary War Captain and poor farmer Daniel Shays led an attack of some 1,200 frustrated farmers on the state arsenal at Springfield. Shays and his followers wanted a more flexible money policy, the right to postpone tax payments until the depression lifted, and laws that would allow them to use corn and wheat as money. They believed themselves patriots, acting in the spirit of the Revolution by attempting to close the courts to prevent land seizures against their bankrupt neighbors and themselves. They employed the symbols of the Revolution in their effort, from liberty trees to liberty poles. Nonetheless, an unsympathetic state governor dispatched another Revolutionary War veteran, General Benjamin Lincoln, at the head of an armed force of 4,400 men to suppress the rebellion. The militia killed four of Shays's men and forced the rest to retreat; more than 1,000 were eventually arrested.
Yet the next election put more sympathetic state legislators in office and the state stopped direct taxes and lowered court fees the very next year. The legislature also pardoned Shays and the other members of his rebellion. Writing from his diplomatic post in Paris, Thomas Jefferson approved of the revolt, famously telling a friend that "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing," because "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Such sentiments alarmed and infuriated many of his contemporaries, including Abigail Adams, who refused to correspond with Jefferson for a month after hearing of those comments.
The uprising in Massachusetts bolstered a growing clamor for a stronger national government. Shays's Rebellion suggested to Virginia's James Madison that excessive liberty might prove just as dangerous as concentrated authority; unchecked power in either case could prove injurious to private property rights and the stability of the new nation. Madison invited delegates from every state to convene at Annapolis in 1786 to discuss the problems that had resulted from the current system of government. Only five states actually sent delegates to Madison's Convention, and neither the New England states, nor the Carolinas, nor Georgia were in attendance. Lacking a quorum, the Convention was a failure, but New York delegate Alexander Hamilton proposed another convention in Philadelphia to consider the necessary steps for rendering the federal government adequate to the task of governing the Union. Delegates from every state but Rhode Island began arriving in Philadelphia the next spring.
The 1786 Annapolis Convention was a necessary first step towards addressing the problems and shortcomings in the Confederation government. Several states had already begun to recognize that there were multiple problems to address, from economic policy to regulation of interstate and international commerce to the lack of federal authority or effectiveness. Many of these concerns were further dramatized by Shays's Rebellion, which took place between Annapolis (in September 1786) and the Philadelphia convention (in May 1787). By the spring of 1787, concerns were sufficiently widespread to as to produce delegations from almost every state but the smallest, Rhode Island, which was always fearful of consolidated power.
A Change Is Due
Leaders recognized the need for a new centralized structure, but the "critical period" when the first U.S. government was in effect (from 1781-1788) was hardly a total wash. The Congress of the Confederation, as it was known, served as an important precursor to the federal government that would take shape under the Constitution. It provided ample evidence for which federal powers must be strengthened to facilitate an effective governing body, and it set a few important precedents for the young nation. The Confederation government successfully concluded the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the war in 1783; it set the standard for land distribution in the western territories and the process of establishing governments in those regions; and it created the first executive departments. The agencies of Foreign Affairs, War, and Finance provided some guidance for their later reincarnations as government departments after 1787.