The Boisterous Sea of Liberty
Part 5. The Age of Revolution, 1765-1825
Here is a panoramic look at early American history as captured in the words of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many other historical figures, both famous and obscure. In these pieces, the living voices of the past speak to us from opposing viewpoints--from the vantage point of loyalists as well as patriots, slaves as well as masters. The documents collected here provide a fuller understanding of such historical issues as Columbus's dealings with Native Americans, the Stamp Act Crisis, the Declaration of Independence, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Missouri Crisis, the Mexican War, and Harpers Ferry, to name but a few.
Compiled by Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz, and accompanied by extensive illustrations of original documents, The Boisterous Sea of Liberty brings the reader back in time, to meet the men and women who lived through the momentous events that shaped our nation.
During the 1760s and 1770s many colonists began to conceive of America as a truly "republican" society--one that emphasized personal independence, public virtue, and a suspicion of concentrated power as essential ingredients of a free society. They conceived of America as a society inhabited by people who governed themselves and enjoyed personal rights and liberties. A growing number of colonists contrasted their society with Britain's political corruption and bloated governmental bureaucracy.
The American Revolution was not simply the result of British political missteps, it was also a product of the way that colonists interpreted British actions. When Britain began to tax Americans, regulate their trade, station troops in their midst, and deny colonists the right to expand westward, many colonists viewed these events through an ideological prism that had been shaped by English thinkers who had warned about the dangers posed by a standing army, the evils of public debt, and government officials lusting after power.
The Revolution's success was not preordained. France's entry into the conflict in 1778 (followed by Spain in 1779 and the Netherlands in 1780) significantly aided the American struggle for independence by transforming the Revolution into a global war.
DEBATING THE ISSUES
Few topics in American history arouse more heated controversy than the causes of the American Revolution. Some historians trace the causes of the Revolution to British high-handedness: to Britain's determination to impose policies by parliamentary fiat rather than negotiation. Others attribute the coming of the Revolution to designing demagogues and firebrands, like Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry, who aroused peoples' opinions by their words and actions.
Still others believe that the Revolution grew out of a growing sense of American identity. Long before the Revolution, the colonists began to recognize that their experience diverged sharply from Britain's. Their population was growing faster (doubling about every twenty years); there was greater religious freedom; land was more widely distributed; and men had greater access to the vote. Increasingly, the colonists contrasted American simplicity, morality, and republicanism with British aristocratic corruption and responded forcefully to British policies that threatened to restrain their economic and geographical growth.
But perhaps the most important cause of the Revolution lay in the way that the colonists perceived and interpreted events. In the years before the Revolution, the colonists embraced an ideology which held that liberty was fragile and was threatened by the conspiratorial designs of scheming politicians. This ideology led colonists to interpret British policies as part of a deliberate scheme to impose tyrannical oppression in America and reduce the colonists to slavery.
- After visiting the colonies toward the end of the French and Indian War, the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, a minister for the Church of England, described the Americans as too diverse and disunited to successfully oppose British rule: "[F]ire and water are not more heterogeneous than the different colonies in North America. Nothing can exceed the jealousy...which they possess in regard for each other.... [W]ere they left to themselves, there would soon be a civil war from one end of the continent to other...."
Why do you think that the colonists were able to overcome a long history of bickering and unite in opposition to British rule?
- Up until 1763, most colonists took pride in their membership in the British empire. They regarded themselves as among the freest and most prosperous people in the world. Yet within less than a decade and a half, they had begun to wage a revolution against British authority.
Was this the main product of misguided British policies that violated the colonists' liberties? Was the Revolution primarily caused firebrands, like Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry, who aroused public opinion through impassioned speeches and actions? Was the Revolution mainly the product of ideas--including a belief that government is the result of a voluntary agreement between rulers and the people and that when the agreement is broken, people have a right to establish a new government? Or was the Revolution the largely result of the way that the colonists perceived and interpreted British actions--as a conspiracy to strip them of their liberties and reduce them to slavery?
- Was the American Revolution a "tax revolt" launched by people unwilling to pay the costs of government? Or was it motivated by larger principles and grievances?
In addition to conflict over taxes, the colonists were angry about abuses of royal power, British efforts to control westward expansion, and restrictions on trade and manufacturing.
- Was conflict between the colonies and Britain inevitable? Or could the conflict have been resolved as a result of political compromise?
- Why were the Patriots able to defeat Britain's professional army, backed up by the world's finest navy?
Because the Patriots adopted guerrilla warfare tactics; Britain was unable to knock out the Continental Army or to control the American countryside; and Americans received valuable support from France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
How would American history have been different:
- If Britain had issued an emancipation proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebellious colonies?
- If France, Spain, and the Netherlands had not intervened on the Patriot's side during the Revolution?
MAKING ETHICAL JUDGMENTS
- Recently, a Louisiana school district voted to change the names of all schools that are named in honor of slaveowners. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaveowner. So too was George Washington, who led the struggle for American Independence, as was James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution. Do you agree with the school board's decision?
How could Jefferson, Washington, and Madison reconcile their commitment to liberty with ownership of slaves? To what extent should we empathize with people in the past?
- What would you have done if you had been an African American during the Revolution? Would you have responded to Lord Dunmore's proclamation granting freedom to slaves who fled behind British lines? Would you have enlisted in the Continental Army?
INTERPRETING PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS
In our daily lives, Americans tend to give little thought to the importance of ideas. In fact, however, ideas--often simplified and misunderstood--have immense power. They can even change the course of history. At various times in the past, gripping ideas have consumed the popular imagination. That was very much the case with the Declaration of Independence and its ideals of liberty, equality, and popular self-government. The Declaration would inspire many groups of peoples--including enslaved African Americans and women--to demand greater rights.
Why did Britain close the west to settlement? Was Britain right or wrong to prohibit settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains?
The proclamation was designed to prevent frontier warfare between Indians and colonists, who committed frauds and abuses in acquiring Indian lands.
Why did the colonists, most of whom lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic seaboard, view the Proclamation as oppressive?
The colonists feared being walled in along the eastern coast, which would result in overpopulation and social stratification along rigid class lines.
What do you think accounts for the intense opposition to the Stamp Act by the colonists?
It was the first direct tax Parliament levied in the colonies and violated the principle that only assemblies directly elected by the people could impose taxes. Further, the act also provided that violators would be punished summarily, without jury trials.
John Adams infuriated his cousin Samuel Adams when he agreed to defend soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. After reading Deacon John Tutor's account of events in Boston, would you have been willing to defend the soldiers? Why or why not?
Students might debate whether it was more important to defend the principle of rule of law than to let it appear that Boston was governed by mob rule.
Why do you think that the colonists argued that Parliament was attempting to reduce them to slavery? Why did they choose that particular word? In what precise ways, according to the Continental Congress, was Parliament stripping the colonists of their freedom?
By restricting trade; illegally imposing oppressive taxes; depriving colonists of the right to trial by jury; blockading American ports; and nullifying colonial charters.
By adopting non-importation and non-exportation agreements, including a prohibition on the slave trade.
Why would Jefferson accuse the British King of forcing the colonists to engage in the slave trade?
Because the British government had vetoed attempts to restrict or halt slave importations.
Because it smacked of hypocrisy.
Both the British and the Patriots recognized that slavery might play a pivotal role in the outcome of the Revolution. Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, promised liberty to slaves who joined British forces and later John and Henry Laurens urged the Continental Congress to recruit an army of three thousand slave troops. Although some five thousand African Americans served in the American army during the Revolution, there were few efforts to foment slave unrest as a way to win the Revolution. Why didn't Britain or the Patriots make greater efforts to exploit slave unrest?
Because they were unwilling to risk a social revolution and the loss of support from slaveholders.
Some historians say the Revolution was also a civil war. How does the story of Lucy Knox support that claim?
Divided loyalties tore her family apart.
While her husband, General Henry Knox, fought against the British, Lucy Knox managed the family business and finances. What does her 1777 letter suggest about the impact of the war upon her life and her attitudes?
The war encouraged a new independent spirit.
Despite the popular image of a Revolutionary army consisting primarily of citizen-soldiers, most soldiers were landless, unskilled, and many were unfree, either indentured servants and slaves. After reading Washington's letter, ask students to describe the hardships that these soldiers faced.
In October 1787, Sir Henry Clinton made Britain's last formal attempt at a reconciliation with the colonies. What arguments does he make in support of reunion and why did the Patriots refuse the offer?
Clinton warns the Patriots that thus far Britain had waged a limited war and that if the Americans formed alliance with Britain's enemies, then the British were justified in using every means in their power to suppress the Revolution. The Patriots declined the offer because the foreign alliances had made independence a realistic possibility.
While today we take an American victory in the Revolution for granted, no one in 1780 knew what the future would bring. As Virginia's governor, Thomas Jefferson witnessed two British invasions of his state; the capture and burning of Richmond; and a raid on his own home at Monticello. At the time, would you have felt confident or pessimistic about an American victory in the Revolution?