These are posts in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
- World History Overview
- From 9-11 to the Present
- From the Cold War to the Millennium
- From Waterloo to World War II
- 5a. The French Revolution
The American Revolution
6. The American Revolution preceded the French Revolution by only a few years, and there is a strong possibility that the French Revolution would not have taken place if the American Revolution had not. On the one hand, the American Revolution inspired French revolutionaries, not least that the ideals of the Enlightenment need not just be ideas. They could actually be put into place in a real government, in a real Constitution.
On a more concrete level, the French monarchy expended significant resources in helping the American revolutionaries, which accentuated France's own economic crisis. Without this economic and social crisis, the French revolution would not have taken place, despite the ideas. Ideas scarcely have legs unless they have a womb in which to grow. Ideas in themselves are weak. They need a concrete catalyst to explode. Without the economic and social crisis of France, the ideas themselves would not have brought revolution.
7. The causes of the American revolution were also more economic at first than ideological. Of course we also have to consider the temperament of the kind of person likely to move to America in the first place. To move so far from one's homeland in such an age suggests most colonists were either 1) adventuresome, 2) ambitious or idealistic, 3) trying to escape something, or 4) in the family of one of the above.
Some of the earliest colonists came to America to be free to practice Christianity the way they wanted to. The Pilgrims who landed in Massachusetts in 1620 were separatists who were not particularly welcome in the Church of England. Quakers, German Baptists, Puritans, Baptists--many of these were attracted to a space where they could do religion their own way without some government clamping down on them. This spirit of independence and ideological persistence, even to the point of disobeying authority, was thus part of the early genetics of the colonies.
Of course most of them then clamped down just as much on whoever happened to disagree with their own understanding of Christianity once they got here. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished from Massachusetts for going against the Puritan grain. Williams went on to found the territory that would become Rhode Island, a place that modeled the attitude toward religion that would prevail in the United States, namely, one where there was no official form of religion set by the state.
Hutchinson was banished not only for teaching contrary to the leadership of the Puritan churches in Boston but for holding Bible studies as a women. Her charisma was such that the studies became very popular.
8. No doubt some came to America to escape authority and accountability in a less noble vein. It would be surprising indeed if, among many who came for reasons of hope, there were not also some who came with less virtuous designs. We plausibly see these elements come to the fore in the various rebellions that took place long before the Revolutionary War. Bacon's Rebellion (1676), Culpepper's Rebellion (1677), the rebellions of 1689, the Paxton Boys Uprising (1763), the War of the Regulation (1771)--all of these in one way or another reflected a frontier mix that included in its ranks arrogant leaders, rabble rousers, and violent men.
9. The colonists perhaps most attractive to us are the adventurers. If you were looking for the adventure of a lifetime--especially if you were idealistic and naive--surely coming to the New World was an attractive option. We think of Lewis and Clark, who mapped and cataloged the way to the Pacific Ocean from 1804-1806. We think of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.
10. If the personalities above were prone to independence and potential defiance, the distance of England made it difficult to use force to keep the common person in check. The common person was used to much more independence in America than people elsewhere, especially after the first generation to arrive. They had a taste of what independence looked like. They were not likely to acquiesce on the assumption that "This is just the way things are."
The "French and Indian War" or Seven Years War between the British and France (1756-63) not only gave the British control of Canada (from the French) and Florida (from the Spanish). It also left them with a debt that they were keen to partially recoup from the colonies themselves. The Sugar Act of 1764 hit merchants in the pocket with increased taxes on sugar, coffee, and some wines. Those taxed were not involved in the decision.
The Stamp Act of 1765 similarly put a tax on all paper documents in the colonies--newspapers, wills, deeds, even playing cards must have a stamp on it in exchange for this tax. This act of the British parliament infuriated many colonists. From this conflict more than any other came the sentiment that there should be "No taxation without representation." Those who were supposed to distribute the stamps were harassed and pressured to resign. Finally Parliament repealed the act in 1766, while making a statement that they had the right to pass any laws over the colonies that they wished.
11. But a precedent and trajectory of sorts had been set. They were set in mind to oppose any such impositions of far off bullies. They had called a convention of sorts in 1765 to make a statement to the king. The Townshend Acts of Britain were a series of acts meant to bring the colonies in line while raising revenue. One thing led to another. Boston was occupied by British soldiers. In 1770 a jittery British soldier sparked a shooting that left five colonists dead.
1773 saw the Boston Tea Party, as a group of colonists dumped a boat full of tea into the Boston harbor. The tea was yet another attempt to force the colonists to do what their far off landlord insisted they do for the benefit of the landlord's interests, with no say on the part of the tenants. After the Tea Party were the Coercive Acts in response (or "Intolerable Acts," as the colonists called them). Massachusetts self-governance was taken away.
Blood was boiling. Pamphlets were produced. Men stockpiled ammunition and guns. Meanwhile, Britain stupidly and arrogantly doubled down.
In 1774, a First Continental Congress was called with delegates from the colonies in order to petition King George III in relation to the Intolerable Acts. No response. In such case, they had already planned then for a Second Continental Congress, which convened in May of 1775. A month earlier, the colonists had drawn blood in skirmishes around Lexington and Concord ("the shot heard round the world"), on that night of Paul Revere's famous ride.
Over the course of the next year, this second Congress made last ditch attempts at reconciliation which turned to resolve to declare independence. Representation of the thirteen colonies was tightened. On July 2, 1776 they voted for independence, and they signed their Declaration on July 4.
12. The Declaration of Independence was largely the work of Thomas Jefferson. In it we hear echoes of Enlightenment thinkers like the English John Locke (1632-1704), who suggested that life, liberty, and property were inalienable rights. The pamphlet writers of the days leading up to the revolution were full of such influences. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), for example, solidified popular support for the war in 1776 with his pamphlet, Common Sense, which was full of Enlightenment influence.
The original agreement between the colonies set up a confederation by the Articles of Confederation. These allowed Congress to make treaties with foreign countries, make war and peace, make coinage, and settle disputes between the states. It could not tax or regulate commerce.
This arrangement was not sufficient. There was a call for a Constitutional Convention in 1786 which took place in 1787 to put together a Constitution. Future president James Madison had already put together a coalition. He arrived early. He secured the support of early arriving delegates. "The man with the plan is the man with the power."
Again, embodying Enlightenment ideas, Madison's proposal had a division of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. This drew from French Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu (1689-1755). The Federalist Papers were put out in the days after the Constitution was proposed, 85 essays and articles by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay urging the ratification of the Constitution by the colonies.
This took some time. Although five states passed it almost immediately, Massachusetts insisted that they would only sign if a Bill of Rights was added (something Thomas Jefferson had supported, but Alexander Hamilton had opposed). This was done after ratification, constituting the first ten amendments to the Constitution. New Hampshire was the ninth in 1788, causing the Constitution to go into effect. Rhode Island was the last of the thirteen original colonies to sign in 1790.
13. George Washington became the first US president in 1789, followed by John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson. Under Jefferson came the first major expansion. In 1803, Napoleon sold the "Louisiana Purchase" to the US to raise money for his impending war with Britain. It almost doubled the territory of the United States.
14. The Enlightenment is the name we give especially to a movement in the 1700s that glorified reason as the ultimate authority and basis for human thought and life. As an ideology, it was primarily a matter of the intelligensia of Europe, and its focal point as a movement was in France. The publication of the Encyclopédie in thirty-five volumes from 1751 to 1772 covered the gamut of knowledge from the standpoint of reason. Figures like Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) and Voltaire published related works (1694-1778).
As historians look back, we can see trends and beginnings that were in play in intellectual circles before the movement received its name. So it is with the Enlightenment. The French may date it to the period between the death of Louis XIV in 1715 and the French Revolution in 1789, but we retrospectively should include intellectuals in England and France even earlier in the 1600s. And the German Enlightenment must go at least to the death of Kant in 1804.
15. The Enlightenment did not only champion reason, but also experience. What it did not champion was religion or tradition as authorities. Perhaps we can go back to Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who questioned everything in a quest for certainty. His final conclusion was that he could not doubt that he was thinking, that he at least existed, "I think therefore I am."
So Descartes suggested, like Plato two thousand years earlier, that reason was the truly reliable path to truth. He would be followed by Spinoza in the Netherlands (1632-1677) and Gottfried Leibniz the German (1646-1716).
There was however another path just as much a part of the Enlightenment as the "rationalists." These were the empiricists, those who said our senses were the only reliable path to truth. John Locke was in England, along with George Berkeley in Ireland (1685-1753) and David Hume in Scotland (1711-76).
Others who should be mentioned are Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who wrote the Leviathan in support of the divine right of kings. Then there was Rousseau, who wrote of the noble savage and of social contracts. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations attempted to set economics on a purely rational basis. Meanwhile, the scientific revolution continued, as natural law was pursued as the explanation for the way the world works.
Of course the love affair with reason would come to an end soon enough. Tired of reason's reign, romanticism would take over around the turn of the century into the 1800s.
- Rhode Island was the model with a future, not Puritan Massachusetts. The ideal religious environment (and this fits well with Wesleyan theology) is one in which the law is based on basic morality and diverse religious groups can otherwise freely practice their religions.
- Victors in wars should apparently not be too overbearing in making the defeated pay for wars. It often comes back to bite you in the behind.
- Those who flex their muscles to show who is the boss, often later get kicked in the teeth.
- Doubling down with force on the disobedient only increases resistance and opposition.
- The early bird gets the worm. The man with the plan is the man with the power.