The Principles Fought for in the American Revolution
by J. Calvin Coolidge, Amherst College, December 1894
When history looks beyond the immediate cause of the American Revolution for the justifying principles, it is very soon brought back to the spirit of English liberty. It is the same genius for freedom that has led the race from the primeval forests of Germany to the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Such an honorable antiquity of political ideas has made the race very conservative of self-government. The idea is prehistoric. It is the descendants of those very freemen described by Tacitus, who not only dictated the policy of Edward the Confessor but extorted the great charter of human rights from King John in the thirteenth century.
And during the next four hundred years, too, this spirit was not dormant, but came to the surface on three great occasions:
The confirmation of the Magna Carta by Edward I
The Petition of Right to Charles I, and
The Revolution that drove James II from his throne.
Although it is characteristic of Englishmen to have great love for a king so long as he respects the liberties of the people, yet the fact that they drove out one king, rebelled against two and executed three, shows clearly enough that there was always a strong idea of the divine right of the people as well as of kings.
Precedents, then, are by no means wanting among Englishmen for the successful resistance of arbitrary despotism whenever it encroached upon their liberties.
Another fact that must be noted is the character of the colonists, and especially those of Massachusetts. These were the Puritans, who had fought the wars of liberty in England. Then, because they were not satisfied with church ordinances, they were driven by Archbishop Laud to seek religious freedom across the sea.
Of all the race they were the most tenacious of their rights and the most jealous of their liberties. The American Revolution was not, then, any struggle for emancipation from slavery; and the colonists were free men. Nor was it at first so much for gaining new liberties as for preserving the old.
Nor can it, as is often thought, be called a war between different nations. Both sides were Englishmen who gloried in the name of England. William and Mary had, moreover, given the colonists a full share of the rights of British subjects. Another fact showing the same thing is that almost the ablest advocates of the colonial cause were members of the British House of Parliament, while the most ardent adherents of the King were colonists.
The real object of resistance was to gain security from Parliamentary encroachments. This was the chief cause for which the Revolutionists contended, but by no means all they obtained. The war was finally fought out on principles as far-reaching as the history of nations. It was a struggle for the retention of those great institutions that check oppression and violence.
The colonists were contending for the principle of a representative government of chartered rights and constitutional liberties. They were defending themselves against the military despotism of George III and struggling to change the foundation of government from force to equality.
The defense of the principles set forth above involves scarcely anything more than a narration of the leading events that culminated in the Declaration of Independence. It has been said that the separation of America from the mother country was the logical outcome of the French and Indian War. However this may be, it is quite certain that the condition of England at the close of this war forced a new colonial policy that would not have been thought of before 1763, and could not be executed until after that date.
For, instead of wanting new taxes and new restrictions upon their commerce, the colonists were already breaking away from the old restrictions by their systematic evasions of the navigation acts. These laws of trade were merely commercial regulations and not at all for revenue. But because the colonists were no longer trading-stations in their relations to the central government, they resisted even these restrictions.
Instead, however, of noting these tendencies, Grenville made a leading part of his scheme of government the passage of laws for raising revenue in America. He proposed to enforce the trade laws, which meant that the interests of a few merchants in England were to be considered before the welfare of the King’s subjects in America; he proposed to quarter soldiers here, nominally for the purpose of defending the colonies, which meant force and a military despotism; he proposed to raise a tax on the authority of the English Parliament, which meant the disfranchisement of three million British subjects, and the surrender of all those rights laid down in the Magna Charta.
The means Grenville adopted for the raising of this tax was the notorious Stamp Act. This, however, met with so much disapproval that it was soon repealed, but at the same time Parliament passed the Dependency Act, which declared that the repeal did not include the principle involved. This was followed by Townsend’s Revenue Act, laying duties on imports. Again the colonies protested and the ministry attempted coercion.
This measure was too expensive, so once more all revenue taxes were repealed, except the one on tea, which was left to maintain the principle. During an interval of some four years that followed, from 1770 to 1774, there were several acts of violence on the part of the colonies in their resistance to these imports, including the Boston Massacre, the burning of the Gaspee, and the Boston Tea Party.
Again Great Britain had recourse to acts of coercion. First, it closed the port of Boston, thus destroying the property of thousands.
Second, it declared void certain parts of the charter of Massachusetts, following a policy begun in New York in 1767, and so it virtually attempted to annihilate the protection of chartered rights and chartered liberties that has always been so dear to Englishmen. Free government was destroyed, too, in another way.
Judges, courts, sheriffs were made almost the puppets of the King. They were placed in his direct pay and made subject to his pleasure. Town meetings were for bidden, and thus the old familiar forms of self-government were entirely swept away. The governor was made as absolute as a despot, and the form of government that was thus thrust upon Massachusetts was despotism such as Englishmen would not have endured even in the days of Henry VIII.
Third, the British Government sent nearly all criminals to England for trial. Fourth, soldiers were quartered upon the inhabitants, so that a military government was set up in the colonies. Fifth, Parliament passed the so-called Quebec Act, to separate the French from any bond of sympathy with the colonies.
The governor stood over them like a viceroy. In his command was the army. If a soldier should murder a citizen, he was sent to England for trial. If a citizen should become a criminal, he, too, might be sent across the sea, in order that in both cases the government might have the advantage. It was a military despotism. There were no popular meetings, no criminal courts, no habeas corpus, no freedom of the press. The question was no longer one of taxes; that was a mere figment now.
Though the injustice of taxation without representation made a good war-cry, it is, in the last analysis, a dangerous principle. But it is easy to grasp, and the common people no doubt fought the war largely on that issue. The fact is, it is a duty to the state to pay taxes, and it is equally a duty to vote. It does not follow that because the state requires one duty it shall require the second.
But there is another side where the requirement of the state runs over into tyranny. Only on this ground can resistance to taxation be justified. So long as the colonies were a part of the state of Great Britain, and they were so by their charters and by the action of William and Mary, that state had the right to demand not only their property, but their service in the army, and, in the last extremity, their lives. It cannot be, then, that the American Revolution was fought that colonists might escape paying taxes. The great struggle that they passed through must make such a duty seem insignificant. The real principle was not one of the right of the state or the duty of citizens; it was a question of government, a question of form and method.
It is this that is meant above, in the statement that the struggle was not between nations, or for new principles. It was not so much a revolution, a propagation of new ideas, as the maintenance of the old forms of representative government, of chartered rights and constitutional liberty. England had fought for this in 1688 and imagined it was secured. But it was so only in name.
George III was by nature a despot; at heart he was another Stuart. He had the Parliament almost completely under his control in its legislation upon English questions, but in regard to the King’s colonies his will was supreme.
He forced a policy of government upon America that he could not, and dared not, force upon England, though his disposition was strong enough. Were the descendants of Cromwell’s Puritans going back to submit to a Stuart regime?
That is what is meant when we hear that America fought at once the battle of freedom in the colonies and in England. That is what England’s great statesman meant when he declared on the floor of Parliament that he rejoiced in the resistance of the colonists. The Earl of Chatham knew that the government of George III, in whose ears was ringing the admonition of his mother “to be King,” was undermining the constitution of Great Britain and bringing the state back to the form of monarchy that had existed in the time of the Stuarts and the Tudors.
But if the leading principle was the preservation of the English constitutional government from the encroachments of King and Parliament, there is another principle, as far-reaching as the development of the state in government. Sovereignty is always finally vested in the people.
It may need a theocracy to lead a people out of barbarism; this may develop into a despotism with the power divided between kings and bishops; but a struggle is sure to come, and the people will gather about the King to make him a monarch, like Louis XIV, who really was an objective realization of the state. This, too, will be but temporary; the people will realize more and more that the sovereignty is with them and will finally assert it.
England had asserted it against the Stuarts, but George the Third forgot it, and it took the loss of the colonies by the American Revolution to remind him of it.
If the King could have accommodated himself to the existing state of affairs for America as he managed to do for England, there would have been the limited constitutional monarchy that Great Britain finally reached in 1832. But this was impossible, and so the colonies were driven to assert by war what the Commons of England partly gained by legislation sixty years later.
There was further gained in the United States a recognition that quality, not quantity, is the basis of the peer age of man, and accordingly all men were declared free and equal.
Still, there is another factor that must have eventually led to separation. The great land of America had a part to play in the history of the world that could best be performed by making it an independent nation.
England’s great work was to plant colonies; America could not aid in that work. It was her place to found a great nation on this side of the Atlantic and bring out the conception of free government.
And when this was done, then America stretched out her hand over the sea to aid the oppressed of Europe, to furnish them a place of refuge, and, as soon as they could assume the duties, make them citizens not alone of our United States but of the world.
The winning SAR Essay in 1894
National Society Sons of the American Revolution