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A Revolution Prevented: A Second Look at America's War for Independence
A common historical debate is whether or not the American colonials were justified in waging a war against Great Britain with the purpose of achieving independence. While much of the focus of such discussions centers on whether or not men like John Adams, Patrick Henry, and George Washington were “rebels” or or whether or not the British abuses were sufficiently onerous, in this essay, I look at four major groups involved in America’s move toward independence, two British and two American. My conclusion is that the colonials were not necessarily rebels, at least not in the traditional sense.
First, Parliament. Parliament had little to do with the establishment of English colonies in America. Furthermore, Parliament’s status as the sovereign British institution was not established at the time that English colonies were being seeded in North America. Parliamentary sovereignty as a prevalent British constitutional principle would not be established until the Act of Settlement (1701). Therefore, seeing that Parliament had little to do with the creation of English colonies and that their status as a governing institution was uncertain during the formation of the English colonies, it’s dubious as to the legal foothold that Parliament would have had on the colonies. Colonials took note of this and were rightfully protesting and resisting parliamentary acts.
In the seventeenth century, the British crown (more specifically, the British Board of Trade--the earlier-called Lords of Trade) created colonial governments by means of colonial charters. However, given that the Stuarts were dethroned by the Parliament in the late seventeenth century and that the early charters had been made with the Stuarts, it's questionable what legal hold those charters held over the colonists by the Hanoverians during the revolutionary era. Of course, the colonists continued to abide by the charters for some time after the Stuarts were banished—there was no reason not to. Except for minor problems, the British took a “hands off” approach when governing the colonies. But the bottom line is that it is dubious whether the colonials had any legal obligation to submit to the Hanoverians under the old charters.
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Colonial Officials & the Colonials
The colonial assemblies that one-by-one decided to leave the British fold and declare independence may have done so under the guidance of the Continental Congress, but the move toward independence was under way prior to the Lee Resolution to depart the British fold. The Declaration of Independence expressed the solidarity of the individual colonies, now states, “to depart” as Thomas Paine put it. Several state assemblies were making gestures toward independence prior to July 4. Royal charters were being abolished and state constitutions were being written. In North Carolina in April, 1776, delegates sent to the Second Continental Congress were authorized via the "Halifax Resolves" to promote the idea of independence. A sizable number of the colonial leaders were intent on leaving the British fold. It was to these leaders that the colonials gave their consent. Once their leaders declared that they were going to pursue independence, many colonials followed these leaders in their pursuit of that goal.
In many respects the colonials were backed into a corner. British troops were marching on their homes. Their proximate colonial leaders were telling them that independence was their best option. What were they to do? Obey their immediate rulers (the ones they knew) or the ones they did not? Besides, the Crown had declared war on them.
Colonials had become accustomed to ruling themselves without much in the way of aid or interference from the British. Historians have referred to this disinterest of the British as “salutary neglect” (an expression from Edmund Burke, a parliamentarian that favored American independence). Colonial historian Forrest McDonald reports that up to ninety percent of all legislation passed in colonial assemblies was approved by the crown (eventually!). Typically, colonial assemblies would pass a resolution and implement it while simultaneously submitting it to the British Board of Trade. So, colonials were accustomed to governing themselves, to seeing their resolutions immediately put into effect.
Sometimes the colonials are portrayed as a pack of hotheads that were irrational, who were overreacting to some minor taxes. But it is not even true that they revolted because of abusive taxation. Remember, that what were deemed “abusive taxes” started as early as 1763 and a call for a “Stamp Act Congress” did not materialize until 1765. Even after the meeting of the Stamp Act Congress, it took considerable more provocation over a period of eleven years before the colonials declared independence. So “no taxation w/o representation” was, at best, only one reason among many for the colonial leaders to declare independence.
A Revolution Prevented
For those early Americans that were involved in the American Revolution, we need to keep several matters in mind. First, theirs was not a revolution, not at least in the strictest sense. Our modern understanding of a revolution is that it is an attempt to throw off authority and establish a new order. The colonials actually tried to preserve order by trying to adhere to the status quo prior to the unlawful taxations. The founders were not trying to behead George III: the worse that he got was a burning in effigy. Compare that to the execution of Louis XVI and his consort in France and the brutal killing of the Czarist family by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. The principles were partly guided by the principles of the Enlightenment and the principles of Christianity. Where these principles met were in the ideas of limited government. In contrast, the Revolutions of France and Russia were atheistic and envisioned no constraint as to the powers of the state. Alexander Hamilton had a sense of the difference between the revolutions taking place in America and France with he said, "when I contemplate the horrid and systematic massacres of the Jacobins...when I find the doctrines of Atheism openly advanced in the convention and heard with loud applause...I acknowledge that I am glad to believe there is no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France.” Edmund Burke probably said it best when speaking of the American Revolution, saying that it was not “a revolution made, but prevented.”