The Pathos of Politics – The American Revolution

The American Revolution

Give me liberty or give me death! ~ American attorney, planter, and politician Patrick Henry in 1775

The United States of America began in the early 17th century as an acquired appendage of Europe. Native Americans were slaughtered, and African slaves imported by European interlopers, who for decades considered the country a place to mine precious metals or reap a rich harvest of tobacco before returning to the Old World to retire to a life of luxury. In time, the settlers settled. By the 18th century, Americans began to think of their country as a place with a unique character and destiny of its own.

Time wore at the bonds to the mother country. In their place sprouted new habits and ideals, and a cultural fabric spun from heritage, but with a strongly self-reliant weave.

The British engendered autonomy with a prolonged period of salutary neglect. John Adams accurately appraised the dynamic when he wrote “the revolution was effected before the war commenced. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.”

The foremost impetus to revolt lie in British mercantilist policies. These had been long-standing. The oldest were proscriptions in the mid-1600s against trade with any other country than England, or at the least through its ships. Enforcement had been lax. Then came the Sugar Act of 1764 and Stamp Act of 1765: designed not merely to regulate, but also siphon more from the colonies.

The 7 Years’ War (1756 –1763) more than emptied the British treasury. Since its North American theater (the French and Indian War (1754–1763)) had benefited America, many British politicians contended that the colonies ought to pay their share.

The Stamp Act required that revenue stamps costing from a half penny to 20 shillings be affixed to all publications and public documents. The Stamp Act provoked revolt from those very people capable of organizing and carrying out a revolution: lawyers, bankers, and newspapermen.

Another cause of capital importance was British interference with the interests of land-hungry colonists on the western frontier. A royal proclamation in 1763 and parliamentary amendment in 1774 swept away claims that the colonies had made for themselves.

Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy. ~ Margaret Thatcher

Like all revolutions, the American one got its vigor from ideology. Colonial political leaders drew their inspiration from English political philosophers of the 17th century, not contemporary thought. News did not travel fast on the frontier, and philosophy was even slower.

The republicanism of John Milton, James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke weighted heavily in the founding fathers’ minds. From such sources were drawn the doctrines of natural law, social contract, no taxation without representation, and the right to revolt from subjection.

In response to Britain’s restrictive laws, called the Intolerable Acts by the colonial locals, the 1st Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 5 September–26 October 1774. Attending delegates from 12 of the 13 colonial states were not of one mind as to what they were there to accomplish. Conservatives wanted a path to reconciliation. Radicals had in mind developing a new system of governance, independent of Britain.

In the end, rather than precipitate rebellion by calling for independence, the 1st Congress called for a boycott of British goods. Further, if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed, the colonies would cease exports to Britain.

Britain did not blink, and so the revolution began in early 1775, putting paid to the whimsy that the threat of economic sanctions would suffice.

The Continental Congress reconvened, again in Philadelphia, on 10 May 1775. Georgia did not at first attend but joined in July.

The 2nd Congress managed the colonial war effort, acting as the de facto national government.

At the start of hostilities, scarcely anyone considered autonomy: a short-lived lack of vision. In less than a year of fighting, the goal clarified into independence. Thomas Paine’s widely read pamphlet Common Sense, first published in January 1776, was influential in focusing minds.

A recent immigrant from England, Paine argued that America’s destiny under the British crown was that of a leashed dog. Rebellion and independence were the only rational course.

America is only a secondary object in the system of British politics, England consults the good of this country, no farther than it answers her own purpose. Wherefore, her own interest leads her to suppress the growth of ours in every case which doth not promote her advantage, or in the least interferes with it. A pretty state we should soon be in under such a secondhand government. ~ Thomas Paine

To amplify alienation, Paine characterized the checks and balances in Britain’s constitutional monarchy as innately inane, and thereby its government necessarily dysfunctional. Paine’s rant against royalty rang true to his readers.

As the same constitution which gives the commons a power to check the king by withholding the supplies, gives afterwards the king a power to check the commons, by empowering him to reject their other bills; it again supposes that the king is wiser than those whom it has already supposed to be wiser than him. A mere absurdity!

The state of a king shuts him from the world, yet the business of a king requires him to know it thoroughly; wherefore the different parts, by unnaturally opposing and destroying each other, prove the whole character to be absurd and useless. ~ Thomas Paine

Paine’s pamphlet pointed out the core creed that Americans came to adopt as the irreducible division between society and its governance.

Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher. ~ Thomas Paine

On 4 July 1776, the Congress issued an explanation as to why it had voted to declare independence from Great Britain 2 days before. The Declaration of Independence was largely a tale of woe: “the patient sufferance of these Colonies” from “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The justification for independence was like a page lifted out of the natural law handbook.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. ~ American Declaration of Independence

Going into war, the odds favored Britain. While the distance of the Atlantic Ocean was a logistical obstacle, superior firepower and resources were in Britain’s favor.

At the onset at least, many Americans were opposed to revolution. Enlistments lagged. Efforts to conscript troops met with resistance.

Rather than raise taxes, which Americans abhorred, Congress printed paper money to pay soldiers and meet other obligations. This provoked rampant inflation.

The British might have swept to victory in 1777 if they had held to their original strategy. But General Howe abandoned the planned pincer which would have broken America’s incipient hopes. Instead of going north, Howe decided instead to head south and take Philadelphia.

While the capture of Philadelphia was a blow, Howe’s victory there allowed the Americans to crush the British army descending from Canada. This devastating defeat at Saratoga, New York in October 1777 persuaded France to back the Americans with warships and troops.

Beginning in 1778, the British focused on the Deep South, hoping to capitalize on Loyalist sentiment there. Instead, their tactics – which included offering freedom to slaves who ran away – incited fierce opposition.

Britain won many battles but gained little from their victories. Despite the hardships which led to frequent desertion, the Americans managed to form new forces and fight on.

With the help of the French, the Americans wore the British down. In October 1781, a decisive victory by the Americans at Yorktown, Virginia was the beginning of the end.

The defiant bluster of King George III to continue fighting was short-lived. Political support in London for pursuing the war plummeted as the British continued to suffer setbacks. Parliament voted on 27 February 1782 to cease offensive operations and sue for peace.

The Revolutionary War formally ended in September 1783 with the Treaty of Paris. The British unilaterally ceded all native American lands to the United States: an unexpected gain of western territory that led to wars with the indigenes as American pioneers encroached upon their lands with no intention of cohabitation – confiscation without representation.