Written by Vladimir Moss



     In a materialist age such as the eighteenth century, it was inevitable that the motivation for the first major revolution in the century should be materialist. The American revolution was elicited by the mother nation, Britain, trying, as David Reynolds writes, “to make the vast new empire pay for itself, provoking a backlash to defend popular rights. In 1776 the Declaration of Independence summed up those rights, purporting to show how they had been undermined by the British Crown, and justified the creation of a new government in order to preserve them.”[1] The basic “right” insisted on by the Americans was: no taxation without representation. This was rejected by the British, who affirmed that “the British Parliament had full authority to make laws ‘to bind the colonies and people of America in all cases whatsoever’. So the underlying issue became clear: Britain wanted more revenue from America to pay for defence [of the Americans against the French and the Indians], whereas the colonists claimed that this could be raised only with the consent of their legislatures.”[2]


     Niall Ferguson writes: “The war [of Independence] is at the very heart of Americans’ conception of themselves: the idea of a struggle for liberty against an evil empire is the country’s creation myth. But it is the great paradox of the American Revolution… that the ones who revolted against British rule were the best-off of all Britain’s colonial subjects. There is good reason to think that, by the 1770s, New Englanders were about the wealthiest people in the world. Per capita income was at least equal to that in the United Kingdom and was far more evenly distributed. The New Englanders had bigger farms, bigger families and better education than the Old Englanders back home. And, crucially, they paid far less tax. In 1763 the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes. The equivalent figure for a Massachusetts taxpayer was just one shilling. To say that being British subjects had been good for these people would be an understatement. And yet it was they, not the indentured labourers of Virginia or the slaves of Jamaica, who first threw off the yoke of imperial authority.”[3]


     The American revolution developed no radically new ideas. Thus Jacques Barzun writes: “No new Idea entailing a shift in forms of power – the mark of revolutions – was proclaimed. The 28 offences that King George was accused of had long been familiar in England. The language of the Declaration is that of protest against abuses of power, not of proposals for recasting the government on new principles.”[4]


     At the same time, it was important for the development of political thought, because, just as Hume took the principles of Lockean liberalism, made them self-consistent and thereby showed their absurdity, so the American revolutionaries took the principles of the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, applied them more generally and in a Rousseauist spirit, and thereby showed that English liberalism was dangerously open-ended, tending to its own destruction. More precisely, the revolution showed that if parliament placed limits on the king in the name of the people and natural law, there was no reason why limits should not also be placed on parliament in turn by other estates of the realm, even colonials, in the name of the same principles. Thus the American revolution showed, as Barbara Tuchman has put it, that “parliamentary supremacy”, no less than monarchy, “was vulnerable to riot, agitation and boycott…”[5]


     Moreover, the process of rebellion could go on forever; for there were always people who did not feel that they belonged to this people, and therefore felt the right to rebel against it. Thus Noam Chomsky points out that many American loyalists fled to Canada “because they didn’t like the doctrinaire, kind of fanatic environment that took hold in the colonies. The percentage of colonists who fled in the American Revolution was actually about 4 percent, it was probably higher than the percentage of Vietnamese who fled Vietnam after the Vietnam War. And remember, they were fleeing from one of the richest places in the world – these were boat-people who fled in terror from Boston Harbor in the middle of winter to Nova Scotia, where they died in the snow trying to get away from all of these crazies here. The numbers are supposed to have been in the neighbourhood of maybe a hundred thousand out of a total population of about two and a half million – so it was a substantial part of the population. And among them were people from groups who knew they were going to get it in the neck if the colonists won – blacks and Native Americans, for example. And they were right: in the case of the Native Americans, it was genocide; in the case of the blacks, it was slavery.”[6]


     “And that,” writes Adam Zamoyski, “still left a considerable proportion of the population out of sympathy with the state of affairs in 1783. The unassimilated communities of Germans, Swiss, Dutch and Finns, and the religious settlements of Quakers, Shakers, Dunkers, Mennonites, Schwenkenfelders and others carried on as before – oblivious to government and resistant to national inclusion. The settlers of what later became Kentucky and Tennessee debated the possibility of switching to Spanish sovereignty. In 1784 the western counties of North Carolina attempted to go their own way. Three years later the Wyoming Valley tried to secede from Pennsylvania. There was opposition, rioting and even revolt against the Congress, just as there had been against Westminster. One reason was that the tax burden had increased dramatically. In the last years of British rule, the colonies enjoyed lower taxation than any people in the Western world except for the Poles. By the late 1780s the Massachusetts per capita tax burden of one shilling had gone up to eighteen shillings; the rise in Virginia was from five pence to ten shillings. And it is worth remembering that tax was what had sparked off the revolution in the first place…”[7]


     However, all this was not foreseen when Thomas Jefferson presented a doctrine of “self-evident” natural rights known as the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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...”


     When he was ambassador in Paris, Jefferson was asked why he had substituted “happiness” for the traditional Lockean emphasis on “property”. He replied that since the secure possession of property was an important condition of happiness, there was no real contradiction. However, this was the first time in history that “the pursuit of Happiness” had been taken to be one of the purposes of the State, and the failure to achieve this end as a justification for revolution. “This was not, of course,” writes J.S. McClelland, “to say that it was government’s business to regulate the details of people’s lives to make sure that they were cheerful, but it did mean that a very exact sense emerged of government’s duty to provide those conditions in which rational men could pursue happiness, that is further their own interests, without being hindered unnecessarily either by government or by their fellow men. This was more radical than it sounds, because in eighteenth-century political thought it meant that government’s capacity to promote the happiness of its subjects, however negatively, was connected with the vital question of the legitimacy of government. No political theory ever invented, and no actual government since the Flood, had ever had as its proclaimed intention the idea of making men miserable. All governments more or less claim that they have their subjects’ happiness at heart, but most governments have not based their claims to be entitled to rule directly on their happiness-creating function. The reason why governments do not typically base their claim to rule on their capacity to increase happiness is obvious enough, because to do so would be to invite their subjects to judge whether their governments are competent or not. Indeed, it could be argued that most of the justifications for forms of rule which have been on offer since Plato are all careful to distinguish between questions about legitimacy and questions about happiness…”[8]


     Mark Almond writes: “The Declaration, approved by congress on 4 July 1776 and signed by its members on 2 August, was greeted with incredulity by the British. The British Gentleman’s Magazine for September, 1776 ridiculed the idea of equality: ‘We hold, they say, these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal. In what are they created equal? Is it in size, strength, understanding, figure, civil or moral accomplishments, or situation of life?”[9]


     The British had a point: the equality of men is far from self-evident from a humanist point of view. In fact, the only real justification for it is religious: that all men are made in the image of God, and that Christ died for all men equally. But, having been the leaders in political thought, the British were now behind the times. Rousseau had preached the general will and the nobility of the common man, and it was now the Americans with their “We, the People” Declaration who were more in tune with the latest political ideas.


     In any case, was it not a British philosopher, John Locke, who had spoken of an original state of human equality, and had even looked across the Atlantic to the primitive societies there for its incarnation, saying: “In the beginning all the world was America”? And were not the Americans simply applying the same principle in opposing parliament as the English had in opposing the king nearly a century before?[10]


     However, while Locke had invoked the sovereign power of the people in order to place limits on the king, he never dreamed that any but the landowning gentry, should qualify as “the people” and do the limiting. But the Americans claimed that “the people” included even unrepresented colonials, and that “the will of the people” had a wider meaning than “the will of parliament”. The uncomfortable fact for the British was that, however little basis the doctrine of equality had in empirical fact, it was in the air of public debate, while the Americans’ feeling that they should be treated equally, that is, on equal terms with Britons of similar wealth and breeding, was a very powerful force that brooked no resistance…


     In 1778 France entered the war on the American side – hardly a wise move for a state that was more absolutist than Britain and therefore still more vulnerable to the propaganda of revolution. Indeed, “French assistance to the rebel Americans helped to bankrupt the royal regime in France and create the conditions for revolution in 1789.”[11] But the assistance given to the Americans by the French was decisive in turning the tide of war: on October 19, 1781 the British marched out of Yorktown to surrender to the Americans with their bands very appropriately playing the old song, “The World Turned Upside Down”…


     In 1787 delegates from the Thirteen States assembled at Philadelphia to draft a new Constitution. Their major motivation was fear of despotism and distrust of big government; they wanted to create a government which would interfere as little as possible in the private lives of the citizens. For, as James Madison put it: “Wherever the real power in government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our government the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. This is a truth of great importance, but not yet sufficiently attended to…”[12]


     The success of the American revolution provided an inspiration for the French revolution in its first phase; and the French revolution in its turn influenced the further development of the American. The debate between the conservative Edmund Burke and the radical Tom Paine over the French revolution had its analogues in the controversies among the Founding Fathers over the American. Some, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, still looked towards the more conservative and authoritarian British model of democracy, in spite of the experience of the War of Independence. Thus Hamilton said to the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “I believe the British government forms the best model the world ever produced… All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people… The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second… Nothing but a permanent body can check the impudence of democracy.”[13]


     Others, however, such as Thomas Jefferson, drew inspiration from the French revolution even in its later, Jacobin phase in his almost anarchical drive to “rekindle the old spirit of 1776”. Thus Jefferson believed that a rebellion every twenty years or so was necessary to stop the arteries of freedom from becoming sclerotic. As he wrote to William Stephens Smith in 1787: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure.”[14] And to James Madison he wrote in the same year: “A little rebellion now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical… It is a medicine for the sound health of government.”[15]


     These different understandings of democracy were reflected in different views on the two most important issues of the day: the relative powers of the central government and the states, and slavery.


     With regard to the first issue, the champions of a strong central government, the federalists, believed that a strong central government was necessary in order to preserve the gains of the revolution, to guarantee taxation income, and to preserve law and order. As George Washington put it: “Let then the reins of government be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the Constitution be reprehended. If defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled on whilst it has an existence.”[16]


     Not surprisingly, many of the anti-federalists thought that Washington himself was substituting his own style of monarchy for the British monarchy. As Joseph J. Ellis writes, they were haunted by “the ideological fear, so effective as a weapon against the taxes imposed by Parliament and decrees of George III, that once arbitrary power was acknowledged to reside elsewhere [than in the states], all liberty was lost. And at a primal level it suggested the unconscious fear of being completely consumed, eaten alive.”[17]


     One potential danger of American democracy – as of every revolution that acts in the name of freedom - was that demands for equal rights on the part of any number of truly or supposedly oppressed minorities - permanent revolution in the name of equality – were theoretically endless, and could lead in the end to complete anarchy, which in its turn would lead to the imposition of old-style Cromwellian dictatorship.


     This was seen even by one of the architects of the revolution, Benjamin Franklin. He was prepared to support the constitution of 1787 “with all its faults – if they are such – because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered”. But this good administration, he believed, could only go on for a few years, after which it “can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other…”[18]


     The Constitution included elements that were familiar from Montesquieu, such as the separation of the powers of the executive (the President), the legislature (the two houses of Congress) and the judiciary (the Supreme Court).[19] However, the Americans went a significant step further in granting individual citizens the right to bear arms in defence of their rights. Such an innovation was perhaps possible only in America, whose distance from its most powerful rivals, decentralised system of semi-sovereign states and ever-expanding frontiers made strong central government less essential and gave unparalleled freedom to the individualist farmer-settlers.


     There is a rich irony in the fact that the State which after 1917 became the main bulwark of ordered government against the revolution should have been the most revolutionary State prior to 1789. Thus in 1787 Jefferson wrote to Madison: “A little rebellion now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical… It is a medicine for the sound health of government.”


     This recipe for permanent revolution was taken up by none other than Abraham Lincoln in 1861: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it…”[20]


     With regard to the second issue, that of slavery, it must be remembered that slavery had been part of the social fabric in the South since the beginning. This is said not in order to excuse its existence, but in partial explanation of why the southerners fought so hard to retain it. There is no doubt that conditions for black slaves were harsh, harsher than in New Spain. According to the Virginia slave code of 1705 all servants imported into the State “who were not Christians in their native country… shall be accounted and be slaves, and such be here bought and sold notwithstanding a conversion to Christianity afterwards…” Whites could not marry blacks or those of mixed race. And if a master killed a slave in the course of correcting him, “he shall be free of all punishment… as if such accident had never happened”. Slaves were vital for the economy because many of them came from the so-called Rice Coast, present-day Ghana, where they had learned how to separate rice grains from their husks – a skill vital in making rice cultivation a success in the South. Free white workers were less skilled and more expensive. That was the main reason – apart from simple racism – why the slave-owners resisted emancipation so fiercely, and why there were periodic slave uprisings. An attempt to create a new colony without slavery was made in Georgia in 1732, but it failed; and in 1752 Georgia became a crown colony, and thereafter a plantation society like South Carolina…[21]


     The Declaration of Independence famously declared all men (if not women) to be equal, and even declared that it was “not possible that one man should have property in person of another”. However, as Ellis writes, “removing slavery was not like removing British officials or revising constitutions. In isolated pockets of New York and New Jersey, and more panoramically in the entire region south of the Potomac, slavery was woven into the fabric of American society in ways that defied appeals to logic and morality. It also enjoyed the protection of one of the Revolution’s most potent legacies, the right to dispose of one’s property without arbitrary interference from others, especially when the others resided far away or claimed the authority of some distant government. There were, to be sure, radical implications latent in the ‘principles of ‘76’ capable of challenging privileged appeals to property rights, but the secret of their success lay in their latency – that is, the gradual and surreptitious ways they revealed their egalitarian implications over the course of the nineteenth century. If slavery’s cancerous growth was to be arrested and the dangerous malignancy removed, it demanded immediate surgery. The radical implications of the revolutionary legacy were no help at all so long as they remained only implications.


     “The depth and apparent intractability of the problem became much clearer during the debates surrounding the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. Although the final draft of the document was conspicuously silent on slavery, the subject itself haunted the closed-door debates. No less a source than Madison believed that slavery was the central cause of the most elemental division in the Constitutional Convention: ‘the States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size,’ Madison observed, ‘but principally from their having or not having slaves… It did not lie between the large and small States: it lay between the Northern and Southern.’


     “The delegates from New England and most of the Middle Atlantic states drew directly on the inspirational rhetoric of the revolutionary legacy to argue that slavery was inherently incompatible with the republican values on which the American Republic had been based. They wanted an immediate end to the slave trade, an explicit statement prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the western territories as a condition for admission into the union, and the adoption of a national plan for gradual emancipation analogous to those state plans already adopted in the North…


     “The southern position might more accurately be described as ‘deep southern’, since it did not include Virginia. Its major advocates were South Carolina and Georgia, and the chief burden for making the case in the Constitutional Convention fell almost entirely on the South Carolina delegation. The underlying assumption of this position was most openly acknowledged by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina – namely, that ‘South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves’. What those from the Deep South wanted was open-ended access to African imports to stock their plantations. They also wanted equivalently open access to western lands, meaning no federal legislation restricting the property rights of slave owners…


     “Neither side got what it wanted at Philadelphia in 1787. The Constitution contained no provision that committed the newly created federal government to a policy of gradual emancipation, or in any clear sense placed slavery on the road to ultimate extinction. On the other hand, the Constitution contained no provisions that specifically sanctioned slavery as a permanent and protected institution south of the Potomac or anywhere else. The distinguishing feature of the document when it came to slavery was its evasiveness. It was neither a ‘contract with abolition’ nor a ‘covenant with death’, but rather a prudent exercise in ambiguity. The circumlocutions required to place a chronological limit on the slave trade or to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in the House, all without ever using the forbidden word, capture the intentionally elusive ethos of the Constitution. The underlying reason for this calculated orchestration of non-commitment was obvious: Any clear resolution of the slavery question one way or the other rendered ratification of the Constitution virtually impossible…”[22]


     Several of the Founding Fathers themselves owned slaves. Thus Thomas Jefferson owned 200 slaves, only seven of whom he ever freed. [23] But this did not prevent him from moving to include a clause condemning George III for the slave trade. But the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia succeeded in having it deleted. George Washington also owned slaves. But this was not the primary reason why he was silent about slavery when he came to make his retirement address in 1796. “His silence on the slavery question was strategic, believing as he did that slavery was a cancer on the body politic of America that could not at present be removed without killing the patient…”[24] And with reason; for by 1790 the slave population was 700,000, up from about 500,000 in 1776. This, and the threat that South Carolina and Georgia would secede from the Union if slavery were outlawed, made it clear that abolition was impractical as politics (but not on a personal level – Washington decreed in his will that all his slaves should be freed after his wife’s death).[25]


     Nevertheless, the revolutionary demand for equality in general could not fail to arouse great expectations in the black population. Thus in 1776 Benjamin Franklin admitted “that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew more insolent to their masters…”[26]


     “The irony is,” writes Ferguson, “that having won their independence in the name of liberty, the American colonists went on to perpetuate slavery in the southern states. As Samuel Johnson acidly asked in his anti-American pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: ‘How is it that the loudest YELPS for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?’ By contrast, within a few decades of having lost the American colonies, the British abolished first the slave trade and then slavery itself throughout their Empire. Indeed, as early as 1775 the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had offered emancipation to slaves who rallied to the British cause. This was not entirely opportunistic: Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in Somersett’s case had pronounced slavery illegal in England three years before. From the point of view of most African-Americans, American independence postponed emancipation by at least a generation. Although slavery was gradually abolished in northern states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, it remained firmly entrenched in the South, where most slaves lived.


     “Nor was independence good news for the native Americans. During the Seven Years War the British government had shown itself anxious to conciliate the Indian tribes, if only to try to lure them away from their alliance with the French. Treaties had been signed which established the Appalachian mountains as the limit of British settlement, leaving the land west of it, including the Ohio Valley, to the Indians. Admittedly, these treaties were not strictly adhered to when peace came, sparking the war known as Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763. But the fact remains that the distant imperial authority in London was more inclined to recognize the rights of the native Americans than the land-hungry colonists on the spot.”[27]


     In fact, Bernard Simms has argued that it was differences between the British and the Americans over what to do with the lands and peoples west of the Appalachians that caused the revolution. Pontiac’s Indian revolt had “exposed colonial defence structures”. Therefore the British “moved swiftly to put imperial defence on a stable footing. First, in October 1763 it issued a proclamation that there should be no settlement west of the Appalachians. This measure was designed to conciliate the Indians living there; to allay Franco-Spanish fears of untrammelled British colonial expansion; and to reduce the perimeter to be defended by the already overstretched crown forces…”[28]


     Thus Sir Winston Churchill wrote: “Vast territories had fallen to the Crown on the conclusion of the Seven Years War. From the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico the entire hinterland of the American colonies became British soil, and the parcelling out of these new lands led to further trouble with the colonists. Many of them, like George Washington, had formed companies to buy these frontier tracts from the Indians, but a royal proclamation [of 1763] restrained any purchasing and prohibited their settlement. Washington, among others, ignored the ban and wrote to his land agent ordering him ‘to secure some of the most valuable lands in the King’s part [on the Ohio], which I think may be accomplished after a while, notwithstanding the proclamation that restrains it at present, and prohibits the settling of them at all; for I can never look upon that proclamation in any other light (but this I must say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.’ (italics – WSC). This attempt by the British government to regulate the new lands caused much discontent among the planters, particularly in the Middle and Southern colonies.”[29]


     The colonists were in any case unimpressed by the efforts of the British redcoats to protect them. They “expected to be awarded the Ohio Valley as the fruit of their struggles. No man or ministry, they felt, should set limits to the march of an empire. An ‘expansionist’ lobby now began to make its presence felt in the colonial assemblies of North America. They articulated a vision not just of territorial growth but of greatness: a single unified British geopolitical space on the continent, from sea to shining sea, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Imperialist aggrandizement was thus part of the American project well before independence. It was in fact the reason why the Revolution took place…”[30]




     We should also not ignore the important of religious factors in the American revolution. Although the American revolution was essentially materialist and secular in nature, the American people were highly religious, and their religion undoubtedly exerted a profound effect on their revolutionary actions.  Thus Edmund Burke pointed to the indomitably Protestant temper of the Americans: “The people are Protestants, and of the kind which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion. All Protestantism is a sort of dissent. But the religion in our northern colonies is a refinement on the principle of resistance. It is the dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion.”[31]


     There were essentially two kinds of American religion: the Masonry of the cultured leaders of the Revolution, who usually belonged to some institutional church but whose real temple was the lodge, and who, as Karen Armstrong writes, “experienced the revolution as a secular event”[32], on the one hand, and the Protestantism of the lower classes, on the other.


     Let us look at the latter phenomenon first…


     Now American Protestantism of the Puritan type that had dominated New England in the seventeenth century metamorphosed into something somewhat different in the eighteenth century. For, as Reynolds writes, “the Puritans were a dead-end, historically: their attempt to impose a church-dominated uniformity was short-lived. The religious groups who shaped America more profoundly were the Baptists, Methodists and other sects, whose roving preachers set off a series of religious revivals that sparked and crackled across the country from the mid-eighteenth century right up to the Civil War. For these preachers and their followers, religion was an affair of the heart, rooted in a conversion experience, and expressed in a rich, vibrant community of the faithful. These evangelicals broke the stranglehold of the older churches – Anglicans in the South, Congregationalists in New England - and made the United States a nation of sects rather than churches. They also generated much of the fervour behind causes like anti-slavery and later women’s suffrage. America’s religion was a product of evangelicalism more than Puritanism.”[33]


     A revival of religious enthusiasm in the lower classes is discernible already in the early eighteenth century. This movement had its roots in similar European movements: the German pietism of Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) and the British Methodism of John Wesley (1703-1791). The fiery preaching of George Whitefield (1714-1770) was instrumental in bringing this wave of Protestant revivalism to America.


     “However,” writes Jean Comby, “there was also a distinctive American dimension: the colonies’ roots in Puritan dreams of a new godly Commonwealth which would remedy the corruption of Old England. By the end of the seventeenth century these dreams had come to seem very threadbare, and many felt that the Calvinist Congregationalist establishments of New England had lost their way. Nevertheless, from the 1720s the same Calvinist impulse which had so inspired the early colonists was beginning to produce fresh energy: and frequently fresh quarrels! A group of Presbyterian ministers in the Middle Colonies led by Gilbert Tennent (1703-64) caused controversy by insisting on the importance of individual conversion in church life, in reaction to what they saw as the formalism of much contemporary religion; they found a powerful if unlooked for ally in George Whitefield when he began a series of spectacular preaching tours in 1739, often reaching great crowds by speaking to them in the open air.


     “The scenes of wild enthusiasm which Whitfield’s sermons generated (although he did not encourage such outbursts) set a tone of emotionalism which was to remain characteristic of ‘Revivalism’ in American Protestant religion: and even during the eighteenth century, the gulf between this religious style and a more restrained, reflective strain in American Protestantism became obvious…”[34]


     Revivalism now interacted with the discontent preceding the American revolution in such a way that, as Armstrong writes, the revivalists “were ready to ascribe apocalyptic significance to current events…


     “The Founding Fathers of the American republic were an aristocratic elite and their ideas were not typical. The vast majority of Americans were Calvinists, and they could not relate to this rationalist ethos. Initially, most of the colonists were just as reluctant to break with England as their leaders were. Not all joined the revolutionary struggle. Some 30,000 fought on the British side, and after the war between 80,000 and 100,000 left the new states and migrated to Canada, the West Indies, or Britain. Those who elected to fight for independence would be as much motivated by the old myths and millenial dreams of Christianity as by the secularist ideals of the Founders…


     “During the first decade of the revolutionary struggle, people were loath to make a radical break with the past. Severing relations with Britain seemed unthinkable, and many still hoped that the British government would change its policies. Nobody was straining forward excitedly to the future or dreaming of a new world order. Most Americans still instinctively responded to the crisis in the old, premodern way: they looked back to an idealized past to sustain them in their position. The revolutionary leaders and those who embraced the more secular Radical Whig ideology drew inspiration from the struggle of the Saxons against the invading Normans in 1066, or the more recent struggle of the Puritan Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. The Calvinists harked back to their own Golden Age in New England, recalling the struggle of the Puritans against the tyrannical Anglican establishment in Old England; they had sought liberty and freedom from oppression in the New World, creating a godly society in the American wilderness. The emphasis in the sermons and revolutionary rhetoric of this period (1763-73) was on the desire to conserve the precious achievements of the past. The notion of radical change inspired fears of decline and ruin. The colonists were seeking to preserve their heritage, according to the old conservative spirit. The past was presented as idyllic, the future as potentially horrific. The revolutionary leaders declared that their actions were designed to keep at bay the catastrophe that would inevitably ensue if there was a radical severance from tradition. They spoke of the possible consequences of British policy with fear, using the apocalyptic language of the Bible.


     “But this changed. As the British clung obstinately to their controversial imperial policies, the colonists burned their boats. After the Boston Tea Party (1773) and the Battles of Lexington and Concord (1775) there could be no going back. The Declaration of Independence expressed a new and courageous determination to break away from the old order and go forward to an unprecedented future. In this respect, the Declaration was a modernizing document, which articulated in political terms the intellectual independence and iconoclasm that had characterized the scientific revolution in Europe. But the majority of the colonists were more inspired by the myths of Christian prophecy than by John Locke…


     “… The Great Awakening had already made New Light Calvinists wary of the establishment and confident of their ability to effect major change. When revolutionary leaders spoke of ‘liberty’, they used a term that was already saturated with religious meaning: it carried associations of grace, of the freedom of the Gospel and the Sons of God. It was linked with such themes as the Kingdom of God, in which all oppression would end, and the myth [sic] of the Chosen People who would become God’s instrument in the transformation of the world. Timothy Dwight (1752-1817), president of Yale University, spoke enthusiastically of the revolution ushering in ‘Immanuel’s Land’, and of America becoming ‘the principal seat of that new, that peculiar Kingdom which shall be given to the saints of the Most High’. In 1775, the Connecticut preacher Ebenezer Baldwin insisted that the calamities of the war could only hasten God’s plans for the New World. Jesus would establish his glorious Kingdom in America: liberty, religion and learning had been driven out of Europe and had moved westward, across the Atlantic. The present crisis was preparing the way for the Last Days of the present corrupt order. For Provost William Smith of Philadelphia, the colonies were God’s ‘chosen seat of Freedom, Arts and Heavenly Knowledge’.


     “But if churchmen were sacralizing politics, secularist leaders also used the language of Christian utopianism. John Adams looked back on the settlement of America as God’s plan for the enlightenment of the whole of humanity. Thomas Paine was convinced that ‘we have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation such as the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand’. The rational pragmatism of the leaders would not itself have been sufficient to help people make the fearsome journey to an unknown future and break with the motherland. The enthusiasm, imagery, and mythology of Christian eschatology gave meaning to the revolutionary struggle and helped secularism and Calvinists alike to make the decisive, dislocating severance from tradition.”[35]


     The Great Awakening was not the only religious movement that inspired the revolution. Still more important, especially among the élites, was Masonry… The first lodges had been established in Boston and Philadelphia by 1730.[36] And several of the leaders of the American revolution were Masons, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Hancock, James Madison, James Monrose, Paul Revere, John Paul Jones and La Fayette.[37] However, many of the leaders of the British forces were also Freemasons, and “of the 7 Provincial Grand Masters [in America], 5 supported George III, and condemned revolutionary agitation against the established authority.”[38]


     This confirms the point that English, as opposed to Continental Masonry, was not revolutionary (or not so revolutionary) in character; while American Masonry, being a mixture of the two (Lafayette represented French Masonry, and Franklin was also influenced by the French), had leading representatives on both sides of the conflict. But it was not simply a question of English versus Continental Masonry: the movement in general had the unexpected property of spawning, as well as most of the leaders of the revolution, several of the leaders of the counter-revolution. Hence the paradox that Tom Paine, one of the leading apologists of the revolution, was not a Freemason, while his reactionary opponent, Edmund Burke, was; that the anti-revolutionary Comte d’Artois and King Gustavus Adolphus III of Sweden were Freemasons, while the ultra-revolutionary Danton and Robespierre were not; that Napoleon, the exporter of the ideals of the revolution, was not a Freemason (although he protected it), while the reactionary generals who defeated him – Wellington, Blücher and Kutuzov - were.


     Tom Paine was an Englishman who had welcomed the French revolution, engaging in a famous debate with Edmund Burke about its significance. In spite of not being a Mason, and having spent some time in a Jacobin jail in Paris, he lost none of his enthusiasm for the revolution, and saw independence for America and the continuance of world revolution as depending on each other. Thus, as Simms writes, his “electrifying tract, Common sense, argued that only independence would enable the Americans to secure the foreign support necessary to defend the Revolution.


     “Diplomatic engagement was one way of protecting the Revolution and securing independence. Many Americans, however, already entertained a much broader conception of their security and their mission in the world; from the very beginning, they believed themselves and their state to be both exceptional and exportable. America, Paine argued, ‘had made a stand, not for herself only, but for the world, and looked beyond the advantages she herself could receive’ and her cause was ‘in great measure the cause of all mankind’. By representing the principles of self-determination in an age of empire, republicanism in a time of monarchy, written constitutions in a world of traditional corporatism and absolute government, and free trade against the prevailing mercantilism, the United States hoped to change the world through what it was. An idea, he claimed, ‘will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fail’; ‘neither the Rhine, nor the Channel, nor the [Atlantic] ocean… can arrest its progress,’ he predicted, ‘it will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.’ Having done so, Paine believed, the spread of freedom would lead to universal peace as nations traded freely and disarmed. But if Paine was an internationalist, he was no interventionist. He was violently opposed to all international war, which he considered a conspiracy to subjugate and defraud people. In time, howeer, many Americans would come to believe that their own freedom could only survive by spreading it actively throughout the world, beginning with those areas closest to her. Once this belief was established, the United States would increasingly change the world through what it did…[39]


June 11/24, 2013.

Day of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty, London: Penguin, 2010, p. 56.

[2] Reynolds, op. cit., p. 59.

[3] Ferguson, Empire: How Britain made the Modern World, London: Penguin, 2004, pp. 84, 85.

[4] Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 397.

[5]Tuchman, The March of Folly, London: Michael Joseph, 1984, p. 166.

[6]Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, London: Vintage, 2003, p. 102

[7]Zamoyski, Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999, p. 38.

[8] McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought, Routledge: London and New York, 1996, pp. 354-355.

[9] Almond, Revolution, London: De Agostino, 1996, p. 59.

[10] Thus Edmund Burke “considered the Americans as standing at that time and in that controversy, as England did to King James II in 1688” (Almond, op. cit., p. 63).

[11] Almond, op. cit., p. 69.

[12] Madison, in James M. Rafferty, Prophetic Insights into the New World Order, Malo, WA: Light Bearers Ministry, 1992, p. 73.

[13] Hamilton, in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 510.

[14] Jefferson, in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 510.

[15] Jefferson, in Almond, op. cit., p. 69.

[16] Washington, in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 509.

[17] Ellis, Founding Brothers, New York: Vintage Books, 2002, p. 59. See also Simon Collinson, “President or King?”, History Today, vol. 50 (11), November, 2000, pp. 12-13.

[18]Franklin, in Brian Macarthur, The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, London: Penguin, 1995, p. 101.

[19] In chapter 6 of L’Esprit des Lois, Montesquieu “defined the freedom of states by the relationship between three powers, legislative, executive and judicial. If all are in the same hands, the State is a despotism; if one of them is independent, it is a ‘moderate’ state; if all are separate, it is a free state” (Robert and Isabelle Toms, That Sweet Enemy, London: Pimlico, 2007, p. 62).

[20] Almond, op. cit., p. 69.

[21] Reynolds, op. cit., pp. 28-31.

[22] Ellis, op. cit., pp. 91-92, 93.

[23] Ferguson, op. cit., p. 100.

[24] Ellis, op. cit., p. 158.

[25]And so “the effort to make the Revolution truly complete seemed diametrically opposed to remaining a united nation” (Ellis, op. cit., p. 108).

[26] Almond, op. cit., p. 63.

[27]Ferguson, op. cit., pp. 100-101.

[28] Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, London: Allen Lane, 2013, p. 121.

[29] Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, London: Educational Book Company, 1957, volume III, pp. 151-152.

[30] Simms, op. cit., p. 123.

[31] Burke, Speech on Conciliation with America (March, 1775); quoted in Barzun, op. cit., p. 398.

[32]Armstrong, The Battle for God, New York: Ballantine books, 2000, p. 81.

[33] Reynolds, op. cit., pp. xxiii-xxiv.

[34] Comby, How to Read Church History, London: SCM Press, 1985, vol. 2, p. 98.

[35]Armstrong, op. cit., pp. 80, 82-84.

[36] Jasper Ridley, The Freemasons, London: Constable, 1999, p. 91.

[37] Ridley, op. cit., pp. 108-109.

[38] Ridley, op. cit., p. 100.

[39] Simms, op. cit., pp. 128-129.

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