Study Guide

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution People

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  • John Locke

    John Locke (1632–1704) was an English philosopher and a major influence upon the Founding Fathers. A founder of British empiricism with an unabashed faith in the natural sciences and the rising middle class, Locke embodied the principles of the Enlightenment.

    In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke rejected the notion of innate ideas and instead argued that everyone begins with a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and is shaped by his or her environment. This was a concept with radically equalizing implications. Locke therefore rejected Thomas Hobbes' theory that kings rule by divine right; how could they, if everyone was born equal? 

    Locke also diverged from Hobbes in that he believed that the original state of nature was characterized by reason, equality and independence, rather than chaos, avarice, and savagery. People voluntarily left nature to enter into a society for the sake of mutual protection. 

    Still, in any society, Locke contended, people are endowed with certain natural rights (to "life, liberty, and property"). In his enormously renowned political theory, Locke presented the idea of governmental checks and balances, which became a foundation for the U.S. Constitution. He also argued that revolution in some circumstances is not only a right but an obligation, which also clearly influenced the Founding Fathers. He most eloquently expounded his arguments concerning the natural rights of man in his 1680 work, Second Treatise on Government (or Two Treatises on Government), a book that Thomas Jefferson read at least three times.

  • David Hume

    David Hume (1711–1776) was a Scottish philosopher, essayist, economist, and historian known for his philosophical empiricism. 

    He influenced the Founding Fathers with his combination of scientific methodology gleaned from Isaac Newton and his work building on the political philosophy of John Locke. He was friends with Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. 

    In many ways, Hume was the opposite of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued that thought and the structure of society derived from physical nature. On the contrary, Hume reasoned that they both came from the human senses, from what he called ideas and impressions.

    Hume's distinction between "synthetic" and "analytic" truths provided inspiration for the concept of "self-evident" truths in the Declaration of Independence. His friend, Benjamin Franklin, changed Jefferson's language from "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "we hold these truths to be self-evident." The change reflected a statement grounded in reason, rooted in the principles of the scientific revolution, rather than the notion that the equality of all men was an article of religious faith.

  • John Dickinson

    John Dickinson (1732–1808) was a highly successful lawyer and legislator in Philadelphia who became a leading political figure in the state and a conservative opponent of Benjamin Franklin. 

    He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he still hoped for reconciliation with the king. Nonetheless, he led the committee that provided the rough draft for the Articles of Confederation and, in 1786, he presided over the Annapolis Convention that sought to resolve interstate problems that arose under the Articles. Dickinson was a delegate from Delaware to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and supported the rights of the small states. He became a vocal proponent of the Constitution.

    Before the Revolution, Dickinson was a strong critic of British governmental policy and, in 1765, he wrote a pamphlet protesting the Sugar and Stamp Acts. He served on the Stamp Act Congress and helped draft the petitions to the king, but opposed all violent resistance to the law. 

    After the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767, Dickinson published his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Posing as an average farmer and addressing his fellow British colonists, he argued that these laws were inconsistent with established English constitutional principles. Still, he continued to press for non-importation agreements instead of violent revolt. He thus became a relatively conservative leader who disagreed with the British but also with the radical ideas and tactics of patriots like Sam Adams.

  • George Mason

    George Mason (1725–1792), a Virginian, was one of the most important delegates to the Constitutional Convention, one of the richest men in his state, and one of the most prominent Founding Fathers.

    In 1759, Mason was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and became one of the earliest opponents of British colonial policy. In 1776, he drafted the Declaration of Rights for the Virginia Constitutional Convention, and it became the model for Thomas Jefferson's opening portion of the Declaration of Independence

    He became one of the most respected Anti-Federalists, and with Patrick Henry, he led the fight in Virginia against ratification of the Constitution. He pushed for a bill of rights as a necessary precaution, and this provided the basis for some of the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) to the Constitution.

  • Thomas Paine

    Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was a radical writer who emigrated from England to America in 1774. Just two years later, early in 1776, Paine published Common Sense, a hugely influential pamphlet that convinced many American colonists that the time had finally come to break away from British rule. No other figure played a greater role in moving the American people from a spirit of rebellion to one of revolution.

    In Common Sense, Paine made a persuasive and passionate argument to the colonists that the cause of independence was just and urgent. The first prominent pamphleteer to advocate a complete break with England, Paine successfully convinced a great many Americans who had previously thought of themselves as loyal, if disgruntled, subjects of the king. In his pamphlet, Paine associated the corrupt monarchy with the despised taxation policy, persuading many readers to become proponents of the world's first republican government. 

    Importantly, Paine was a master of transforming the complicated philosophical and scientific principles of the Enlightenment—individuality, reason, and liberty—into plain words that the masses could comprehend and rally around. Just as George Washington and his soldiers retreated across the Delaware River to the bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge, Paine wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." 

    Washington had this piece read aloud to his cold and starving soldiers. Paine went on to publish 15 other Crisis pamphlets, participate in the French Revolution, and write his controversial work, The Age of Reason, in which he attacked organized religion. As a result of his atheism, Paine returned to America in 1802 to scorn and ridicule, and died in obscurity in 1809.

  • King George III

    King George III (1738–1820), or George William Frederick, was king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 to 1820. 

    He ascended to the throne just as the French and Indian War was coming to a close, a fateful moment for world history. The Peace of Paris that followed in 1763 led to a number of changes in English policy, which sparked multiple conflicts with the American colonists and contributed to an increasingly hostile dynamic. This dynamic would eventually spark the American Revolution 12 years later.

    A flawed ruler himself, George appointed a series of rather incompetent men to serve as his ministers. The result was inconsistency in governmental policy: under George Grenville (1763–1765), the wildly unpopular Stamp Act was imposed on the colonies; it was repealed under the Marquess of Rockingham (1765–1766), only to have new duties levied with the Townshend Acts of Lord Chatham (1766–1768). 

    Meanwhile, George gave in to the reality of patronage politics and lavishly doled out favors in return for a coterie of "king's friends" in Parliament. This later became fodder for American charges of corruption, foppery, and irresponsible degradation in the English government. In response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, George famously told Lord North, "The colonists must either submit or triumph," and so they did.

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) is considered one of the most important Founding Fathers of the United States of America for the central role he played in drafting the Declaration of Independence. During the American Revolution, Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia and, after the war, he was appointed minister to France. He also served as the nation's first secretary of state, its second vice president, and its third president.

    As chairman of the committee to draft the Declaration, Jefferson wrote the historic document in solitude. Several of his phrasings drew from the recently drafted Declaration of Rights in the Virginia constitution, composed by Jefferson's fellow planter George Mason. Jefferson was also strongly influenced by English philosopher John Locke, who argued that humans were born in a state of nature and enjoyed certain natural (Jefferson would call them "inalienable") rights that no government could take away from them. 

    The Declaration announced a break with the English Empire, voicing the frustrations and aspirations of four-fifths of the American population while formally disavowing a long-held allegiance to the British government. It listed American grievances not against the Parliament or government ministers, but against the king, the embodiment of the British state. 

    Besides omitting Jefferson's criticisms of the British people and his blaming of King George III for the Atlantic slave trade, the Continental Congress also added two references to God. A deist, Jefferson authored the pivotal Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in early 1786 and considered religion a private matter in which the public had no to right to intervene.

  • John Adams

    John Adams (1735–1826) was the second President of the United States and an ardent supporter of the American Revolution

    A Massachusetts lawyer, Adams gained prominence during the controversy surrounding the Stamp Act (1765) as a brilliant defender of American rights under British law. As a member of the Continental Congress, he sat on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence; during the Revolutionary War, he served as a commissioner to France. At the war's end, Adams was appointed to the American delegation to Paris that negotiated the treaty ending the war with Britain.

    In the summer of 1776, Adams and others helped Virginia pass its state constitution, including a bicameral legislature with a house and senate. In his Thoughts on Government (spring 1776), he wrote that the purpose of government was the "greatest quantity of human happiness," a notion which he derived from Cicero, an ancient Roman philosopher. 

    Adams was a fairly devout Unitarian and so, didn't believe in the Trinity, predestination, or the divinity of Christ. He thought that religion should be a private matter, unrelated to the workings of government. He signed his name to a 1797 treaty that declared, "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

  • Benjamin Franklin

    Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of the most celebrated of America's Founding Fathers, a man who enjoyed success as an inventor, scientist, printer, politician, and diplomat. He helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

    Franklin and a few others managed to bring a reluctant Pennsylvania on board to pass a unanimous vote for American independence on July 2nd, 1776 in the Continental Congress. He also served as president of the Pennsylvania state convention, which adopted the Constitution of Pennsylvania—one of the most progressive until it was changed in 1790. Sometimes referred to as America's first "yuppie," Franklin certainly vested his faith in the virtue and independence of the ordinary people who became a kind of precursor to the middle class of the 19th century. 

    He also championed the virtues of thrift and the Protestant work ethic as a means of achieving success. In lieu of the slaves, servants, and European aristocrats who embodied the rigid hierarchies of the Old World, 18th-century republicans like Franklin looked toward the people who owned property, possessed an intrinsic sense of morality, and were willing to subordinate their own interests for the interests of the community. 

    Inspired by friend and philosopher David Hume, Franklin changed Jefferson's language in the Declaration of Independence from "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "we hold these truths to be self-evident." The change reflected a statement grounded in reason and rooted in the principles of the scientific revolution, rather than the notion that the equality of all men was an article of religious faith.

  • Marcy Otis Warren

    Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814) was an American poet, historian, and dramatist whose brother James Otis was an important activist in the American Revolution

    Though Mercy received no formal schooling, she benefited from her proximity to political leaders and managed to glean some knowledge from her brothers' tutors. She married James Warren, who was speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Her 1773 play, Adulateur, satirized Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and foretold the War of Revolution. Her second work, The Group (1775), targeted the Tories. She also published essays representing female support for the war effort.

    Mercy corresponded with her friend Abigail Adams, to whom she conveyed her belief that women suffered not so much from inferior intellect as from insufficient opportunities to develop their capacities. She urged, unsuccessfully, that equal rights for women be included in the U.S. Constitution. Her Observations on the New a Columbian Patriot (1788) outlined her objections to the Constitution, most of which were satisfied with passage of the Bill of Rights.

  • Daniel Shays

    Daniel Shays (1747–1825) was a popular Revolutionary War Captain and poor farmer who led an attack of some 1,200 frustrated farmers on the Massachusetts state arsenal at Springfield in late January 1787. 

    Shays and his followers wanted a more flexible money policy, the right to postpone tax payments until the ongoing depression had 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 also 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, to suppress the rebellion. The 4,400-man militia killed four of Shays' men and forced the rest to retreat. More than 1,000 were eventually arrested.

    For many prominent Founding Fathers, Shays' Rebellion—as it came to be called—was a clear sign that the U.S. government wasn't effective or strong enough under the Articles of Confederation. The incident gave impetus to preexisting plans for a new constitutional convention at Philadelphia that spring. In Massachusetts, the next state election put more sympathetic 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 the rebellion.

  • George Washington

    George Washington (1732–1799) was Commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the first President of the United States of America. A Virginia planter, surveyor, and land speculator, he sought a commission in the British Army before the Revolution, but in the 1770s, he became an early advocate for separation from Great Britain. During the war, he became synonymous with the cause of independence.

    Washington prevailed against incredible odds: he led a rag-tag assortment of militiamen mixed with Continental soldiers against one of the best trained and most powerful armies in the world. In more than one instance, the respect and loyalty that Washington commanded helped avert mutiny and catastrophe when the Continental Congress failed to provide adequate food, clothing, or shelter. 

    At Valley Forge in the brutal winter of 1776 to 1777, Washington tried to improve morale by having Thomas Paine's stirring words read aloud to his troops: "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." 

    Washington again saved the fledgling U.S. government from chaos and collapse with a moving speech to his fellow officers in the midst of the 1782 Newburgh Conspiracy. Some officers, encouraged by frustrated congressmen and creditors, had threatened mutiny to force the revision of the Articles of Confederation to enact a government that could ensure supplies and back-pay to the soldiers. Washington urged them to be patient and dutiful, and promised to personally press the officers' case to Congress. 

    His confession that he was growing blind stunned the audience and ensured their continued devotion to Washington, which prevented the conspiracy from succeeding. When the Revolution ended, many wanted to enshrine Washington as something like a new king. If not for Washington's unique character and restraint, the country might well have become accustomed to entrusting a strong charismatic leader with a lifetime in office.

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