The American Revolution

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More than merely signaling America’s political dissolution from the British empire, the Revolution pegged the republic Americans would create to the expectations and principles of the Enlightenment: to Locke, to the classical and liberal republicans, to Harrington and others. Thus Americans dissolved not only their political ties to Britain, but their intellectual ties to the long train of the traditional European past.

In this series of articles we are going to try to understand the intellectual background and the ideas behind the Revolution:

  • Common Sense and the American Mind: From the synthesis of Scottish common sense philosophy and moderate Calvinism would flower the first creative era of the American conversation about ideas between religion and the Enlightenment, between God and nature. A conversation that in many ways we still participate in.
  • The Beginnings of American Liberalism: By a process that few people in London understood, the rowdy lowlife who departed for the colonies a century before, had turned into competitors for economic dominance within the Empire. They had developed an anglicised elite who thought of themselves as the equals of their English cousins. And they created domestic legislatures exercising powers that were technically illegal, and elected by farmers who had an unpleasantly passion for independence. All the Americans lacked was a political philosophy to give it all coherence. In the 1760’s, the imperial government unwillingly provided them with it.
  • John Locke’s Political Theory and Its Influence on American Thinking: Locke is what we might call the prophet of Liberalism. I don’t mean liberal or liberalism in the party politics sense that we use it today. What I’m talking about is the classical Liberalism of the Enlightenment, which was concerned with abolishing the monarchy, making reason rather than tradition the guide of political life, and downplaying the role of inherited and non-rational factors like race, religion or language; and to look expectantly to the future for progress. It is in this sense that virtually all Americans, no matter what political party identification they might have, are classical Lockean liberals. This is because we identify ourselves as Americans by a loyalty to a series of what Abraham Lincoln called “propositions”. We identify ourselves by allegiance to these propositions, not by our identification with a certain ethnic group or religious denomination. We identify ourselves by certain propositions about liberty. We are, in that sense, all liberals; and America is the perfect example of a classic liberal regime.
  • A Close Look at the American Revolution: It only remained for Thomas Paine, in the revolution’s most sensational pamphlet, “Common Sense”, to conclude that a King had little more to do than to wage war and give away places, which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. However, old habits and sentimental attachments to the old country did not die quickly. It took ten years, from 1764 to 1774, for the mounting cycle of accusation and confrontation to turn into violent resistance on the part of the colonials in the infamous Boston tea party of December 1774. After that, though, the trajectory of violence turned sharply upwards.