Study Guide

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution Introduction

The Thirteen Colonies starting a war with the British was like Jesse Eisenberg entering the UFC ring—kind of a bad idea, but awesome (go scrappy guy!). 

The colonies had no navy, no standing army, no means of buying guns, and you could count the number of cannons they owned on one hand. The British, on the other hand, were so warlike that their corporations employed over 50,000 troops, so you can imagine what their government could do.

Awesome to watch, but it didn't bode well for the colonists.

So, why did Britain's "child" talk back? Well, once Parliament started taxing any and every import in the colonies, the colonists started to get a wee bit irritated. Their response to this irritation started out fairly tame with a few boycotts, but grew into actions that were much more sinister. You know, like tarring, feathering, and publicly humiliating tax collectors.

Plus, the "parents" and the "children" were actually the same age, so that made it awkward. And their "parents" included British Parliament and King George III, and while they lived on British soil (technically speaking), they lived 3,000 miles away from England proper. That made it harder for the "parents" to keep control over the American colonists. 

However, we sometimes assume that Americans seemed to have been destined to declare independence, but in reality, 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.

So, the fact of American independence was truly revolutionary, and the Thirteen Colonies really needed someone to believe in them, get in their corner, and pump them up into fighting shape, montage-style. But no one would help them if they were still legally part of Britain. To get friends, the colonists needed to make a Declaration of Independence.

But it couldn't just be a basic declaration. While the Founders were probably tempted to make a one-sentence statement reading, "We're our own bosses now, suckas!," they had to make a declaration that would convince both the "Undecideds"—the colonists who weren't sure if independence was the best plan—within their borders, and the European nations overseas, that they were doing the right thing.

To do this, Thomas Jefferson wrote a declaration that justified independence in terms of the philosophical ideals of liberty and rights guaranteed to everyone. The ideas he used were based on not only English legal traditions—cough, Magna Carta, cough—but also the cutting-edge ideas of the French Enlightenment.

The idea of the Declaration was to make it known that the colonies had good reasons for rebelling, reasons that any freedom-loving European could understand. They weren't just power-hungry war mongers who were tired of paying taxes—their motivations were philosophical, yo. 

And on July 4th, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence and sent it to be gift wrapped and mailed to Parliament. Thanks to those members of Congress, we now spend July 4th of each year watching fireworks and eating watermelon in their honor.

What is Ideological Origins of the American Revolution About and Why Should I Care?

Many teachers, parents, and politicians will tell you that it's imperative to learn about the ideas and the people who framed American independence. It's 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's so great.

Sure, solid points.

But the Founding Fathers thought about freedom and rights differently than we do today. For most 18th-century thinkers, the only people who actually had natural rights were adult men who were white, Christian, and owned property. So, maybe not so natural after all. These were the only sorts of people Founding Father Benjamin Franklin thought capable of freedom. (Et tu, Benny?)

So, on the one hand, studying the history of the American Revolution can provide us with an enhanced understanding of a truly remarkable generation and the unprecedented battle they waged for self-determination and liberty. But on the other hand, this same history can also teach us about some of the central contradictions at the heart of this nation's history—cough, slavery, cough—and some of the paradoxes that abounded in the republican ideology.

And yet, 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've disapproved of increased immigration quotas—contemporary politicians 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's to say that his opinion on matters like constitutional law or modern political subjects should direct our thinking on such 21st-century matters?

There's a sort of bizarre time-zone effect to these debates. Our reverent attitude toward 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 didn't know 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. Sorry, Founding Fathers. Just tellin' it like it is.

See, it almost didn't work out, as you'll find out when you learn more about the choppy history under our first government (guided by the Articles of Confederation). They gave it their best shot and they kept trying.

There's 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 isn't 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.

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution Resources

Books

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967)
An acclaimed study of the intellectual basis for the revolt.

Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence (1922)
Becker covers the drafting of the document and its political philosophy.

T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (2004)
Though historians traditionally examined the political ideology and intellectual forebears of the elite Founding Fathers, Breen instead analyses the way that common purchasing practices provided the groundwork for solidarity-in-boycotting, which in turn began the Revolution.

David N. Mayer, The Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson (1995)
An excellent examination of the foundational texts and inspirations as well as the ideological basis for his seminal works.

Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (2007)
A fantastic narrative history of the conflict from one of its preeminent historians.

Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth ofDemocracy and the Struggle to Create America (2005)
A revisionist take on the conflict from UCLA historian Nash, who incorporates Native Americans as central figures in the war and who depicts it not as the mythical "glorious cause" of legend, but as a bloody and chaotic clash between two sides, each with constantly shifting alliances.

Music

Various Artists, Music of the American Revolution: The Sounds of Ancient Fifes and Drums (2003)
You never knew you'd be so captivated by the sweet whistling fife coupled with the deliberate rumble of marching percussion. This collection of Revolutionary-era music includes the lassics and dozens of other marches heard on the battlefields of the past as well as in parades and concerts of the present.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
A fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

Various Artists, Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty (1996)
No new taxes! This selection of popular music from the years leading up to the Revolutionary War reflects the spirit of protest and resistance that filled the streets, homes, taverns, and churches.

Barry Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down (1992)
Barry Phillips' collection of popular music from the Revolutionary era includes quaint folk songs, lively dance tunes, and other elegant compositions played in homes, taverns, and even on the war front.

Images

The Revolutionary
Thomas Paine (1737–1809), portrait by Auguste Milliere, in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Pamphlet That Stirred a Nation
Thomas Paine penned his famous radical pamphlet Common Sense in January, 1776. He urged the American Colonies to declare independence and immediately cut all ties with the British monarchy.

These Are the Times That Try Men's Souls
Thomas Paine's The American Crisis, December 1776. This pamphlet, correctly advertised as "written by the author of Common Sense," was, as the description recounts, "written during Washington's retreat across the Delaware and by his order was read to his dispirited and suffering soldiers."

Declaring Freedom
This is the official signed copy of the Declaration of Independence, August 2nd, 1776. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776, the Declaration of Independence was famously adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776. It was engrossed on parchment but not until August 2nd, 1776 did all the delegates actually begin signing it.

Signing the Declaration
This famous painting by John Trumbull was commissioned in 1817 and placed in the Capitol Rotunda in 1826. A duplicate of this work appears on the reverse of the rarely circulated two-dollar-bill, but five figures were cut out of the reproduction in order to make the dimensions fit onto the currency.

The Author of Independence
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), painted by Charles Willson Peale.

Jefferson's Inspiration
George Mason (1725–1792) of Virginia, painted by Dominic Boudet.

Movies & TV

John Adams (2008)
HBO made major waves in 2008 with this well-produced, Emmy-nominated miniseries on the life of John Adams during the Revolutionary period and the early years of the republic.

Marie Antoinette (2006)
Director Sofia Coppola isn't all that concerned with historical accuracy, but she sure knows how to illustrate extreme decadence. Sure, the ill-fated queen of France has little to do with the specific events that unfolded in the British colonies prior to the American Revolution, but it hints at the climate of resentment and resistance that spread from Europe to the Americas.

The Crossing (2000)
Actor Jeff Daniels stars as General George Washington in this made-for-TV dramatization of the Continental Army's perilous journey across the Delaware River and its daring attack on the town of Trenton.

April Morning (1988)
Who or what provided the fire that lit the fuse of revolution? Director Delbert Mann's Emmy-nominated film provides one theory about the events leading up to that "April Morning" in 1775 when the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired.

Revolution (1985)
In an unlikely casting decision, actor Al Pacino (a.k.a Tony Montana, a.k.a. Scarface) plays Tom Dobb, a colonial fur trapper who joins the Continental Army in search of his son. Hugh Hudson's film depicts the chaos of war and the toll it can take on a family.

Websites

Revolutionary Documents
Indiana University offers scanned images of many pivotal primary source documents, including the Stamp Act, a letter from John Hancock concerning the dissemination of the Declaration of Independence, and the first page from Tom Paine's The American Crisis pamphlet.

Primary Sources on the Revolutionary Era
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School has compiled several critical primary-source documents, including the Albany Plan of Union (1754), the repeal of the Stamp Act (1766), and state constitutions.

By the General's Own Hand
The Library of Congress has made electronic versions available of the papers of George Washington.

Jefferson's Works
Plus, they've included Jefferson's papers, too.

The Works of the Adams Family
The papers of John and Abigail Adams and the Adams family.

It's All About the Benjamin(s)
Here you'll find a thorough compilation of Benjamin Franklin's papers.

Historical Documents

Locke: An Inspiration for Revolution
John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690) is available online here.

The Founding Documents
Editor Samuel Eliot Morison has compiled an excellent collection of founding documents, state constitutions, and pamphlets.

An Alternative Perspective
Peter Oliver's Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion (1781) is a Loyalist account of the Revolution, before the Treaty of Paris had formally concluded it.

Capitalism Is Born
Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) represents the founding tract of modern economics.

The Stamp Act
We've got an entire learning guide devoted to the much-hated Stamp Act of 1765 that helped spark the American Revolution.

Treaty of Paris (1783)
We have a learning guide on the treaty that ended the war, too.