Liberalism and the American Revolution

Callum McPetrie's picture
Submitted by Callum McPetrie on Sat, 2010-02-27 04:26

The following is an essay I've written for school. As my history class is learning about the American Revolution, that's the topic we're writing about. We also need to talk about how an historical force influenced events, so I've chosen to talk about Liberalism.

The ideas of Liberalism – that men had unalienable rights, sovereignty lay with the people, and the government acted as their servant – swept throughout Europe and America during the 18th Century. It was popular in many segments of society, yet was also seen as a great threat to the existing order. The ideas of Liberalism were especially popular amongst American colonists. Liberal ideas drove the colonists to radically reshape political thinking in the American Revolution of 1776, which successfully replaced an overseas King with a Constitutional Republic.

The first instance in which Liberal ideas can be seen in American thinking was that they believed that, as subjects of the British crown, they were entitled to all the same liberties as all Englishmen. These liberties included trial by jury, property rights and the right to vote for all landed gentlemen. It was this last point on which much of the Revolutionary thinking depended. If the English Parliament had no representatives from the American colonies, how could it claim to be able to make legislation regarding the colonies' affairs?

The Americans saw this as an abrogation of their rights as free Englishmen, and it was this particular charge that drove most of the American rebellion up until the Revolution itself. The Americans saw their own parliaments on par with the English Parliament, subject only to the decrees of the King. It was this particular part of the system of English liberties, sovereignty (the belief that legislative power lied with the people, or their representatives) that drove many Americans to rebel against the decrees of a legislature in which they had no say and place more power in their own legislatures. This Liberal thinking led to the 1773 Tea Party, and rebellion against the Stamp Act in the late 1760s. The illiberal British response to these acts of defiance helped foment Liberal sentiments until the Revolutionary War and open rebellion against British rule, as Liberalism held that it was the right of the people to take up arms against the government should it deny the people their rights and sovereignty.

Not only were Parliamentary acts formed without the input or the consent of the American legislatures, with the exception of the repeal of part of the Townshend duties, all legislation regarding the colonies was also deliberately designed to restrict their freedom, primarily that of trade. The Stamp Act imposed a tax on many printed items. The Townshend Duties placed tariffs on many different goods, including tea, paint, glass, and paper. The Coercive Acts, in response to the Boston Tea Party, closed the port of Boston and stationed a standing army in the area. All these acts contradicted the philosophy of Liberalism, which stated that government existed as the servant of the people and that its purpose is to protect the rights and liberties of the people, rather than abridge them.

Because of this fundamental component of the Liberal ideology, these British acts alienated a large group of the American populace. Wealthy traders such as John Hancock, as well as workers and craftsmen, saw these acts as direct assaults on their livelihoods, and Liberalism provided justification to rebel against them. Likewise, the “gentlemen”, the 18th Century American intelligensia, had been powerfully influenced by Liberal ideas as they were radically different from the traditional ideas of aristocratic and monarchical rule, stressed importance on education and promoted rule by merit, rather than lineage. Because Liberalism influenced such a large group of people in 18th Century America, the British Acts were opposed by large numbers of people from all walks of society; and it was the ardent belief in the essentially Liberal ideas of self-determination and government as the servant of the people that drove many colonists to seek greater self-autonomy, by rebellion against British acts.

Once again, these Liberal ideas came to the forefront in the Boston Tea Party. Not only was it an act of defiance against the fact that the colonists had no say in the English Parliament, but also an act of defiance against the general idea of government existing to tax and regulate the affairs of the people (even if, in the case of the Boston Tea Party, the price of tea would actually go down). The authoritarian British restrictions on the colonies also led to the Revolutionary War itself, as Liberalism had convinced the Americans of the need to take up arms against British rule and claim their rights for themselves. Indeed, Liberalism held Revolution, and the taking up of arms, as the right of the people if government should become tyrannical, and this part of Liberalism led the colonists to open rebellion during the Revolutionary War.

Liberalism was the driving force behind the Declaration of Independence, as Jefferson believed that the only way to prevent governmental tyranny over the long term was by tying the new American government to liberal ideas: “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. These Liberal ideas formed the basis of the Republic, and the later Bill of Rights, which defines in clear terms the rights of free human beings.

Overall, the attempts to make America a Liberal republic during the American Revolution were very successful. America became the first country in the world in which ultimate political power existed with the voting population, and the first country based on the idea of the government as the servant of the people, existing to uphold and protect the unalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Governmental power over free citizens was severely restricted by a written Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Although the Revolution failed to free slaves and grant woman their rights it provided the groundwork for the later Emancipation and Civil Rights Movements, as all rested on the idea that men had unalienable rights and were equal under the law.

The American Revolution was the first major revolution in which the ideas of Liberalism were key to the drive toward liberty and independence. The Liberal ideas of unalienable rights, the sovereignty of the people, and government's role as their servant, not master, came to the fore in the American Revolution, and provided the groundwork for later Revolutions and Movements. Like no other philosophy, Liberalism led people to strive to build a state based on enlightened ideas.

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Callum McPetrie's picture

What the British did was to hand over control of the entire North American tea supply to the East India Company, thus lowering prices substantially. However, this undercut the price that American merchants were already offering, thus having the effect of putting them out of business. From wikipedia:

"This act restored the East India Company's full refund on the 25% duty for importing tea into Britain, and also permitted the company, for the first time, to export tea to the colonies on its own account. This would allow the company to reduce costs by eliminating the middlemen who bought the tea at wholesale auctions in London. Instead of selling to middlemen, the company now appointed colonial merchants to receive the tea on consignment; the consignees would in turn sell the tea for a commission. In July 1773, tea consignees were selected in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston."

Essentially, all power the colonists had over the tea trade was taken out of their hands, and they didn't take too kindly to it.

Regulation, tax and prices

Neil's picture

Smiling Good thanks ... now can you explain how regulation was going to bring the price of tea down? Was that for consumers or growers? Rodney Hide needs to know this.

Thanks for the great effort

gregster's picture

I have plenty of further reading to do. Let us know what the American teacher says.


Frediano's picture


Now, we should all ponder, what is 'Progressive' about progressing -away- from those ideas?

In that political context you describe, progressing away from those ideas is moving towards Totalitarianism.

I love it

atlascott's picture

Never let them dissuade you from your burgeoning clarity, Callum!

I also marvel...

Ross Elliot's picture

...that Callum is getting this education.

Callum's growth in his ideas has been something to behold.

Keep it up, Callum!

Very good Callum. I'll give

Mark Hubbard's picture

Very good Callum. I'll give you an A.

Your American teacher's reaction would be especially interesting if you had included a paragraph comparing then and now Smiling Mind you, that would have probably risked a lower grade.

Thanks Linz!

Callum McPetrie's picture

My history teacher is himself an American, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to this.

I marvel

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... that a schoolboy in New Zealand "gets" the American Revolution way better than the vast majority of adult Americans. Bravo Callum!

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