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20201115 -Ideological Origins of American Revolution



The main idea of this book is to review literary and philosophical sources of American revolution and analyze the processes by which, starting from these sources, American ideas developed and by mid 1760s become not just popular, but dominant intellectual force in the minds of colonial population. Another idea is to demonstrate how these ideas become reality of American constitution and society and how it impacted social development all over the world.



Here author reviews various types of literature popular in pre-revolutionary period, being the main method of information flow and debates. First and foremost, there were brief pamphlets, produced by all sides participating in discussions after every significant event. Author reviews various types of pamphlets and notes that written discussions were conducted for 20 years leading to revolution on increasing scale. Author also discusses personalities of writers from Adams and Jefferson to quite a few of less known pamphleteers.  


 In this chapter author looks at sources of colonial thinking and finds it in general western culture going back to: “Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aristotle, Strabo, Lucian, Dio, Polybius, Plutarch, and Epictetus, among the Greeks; and Cicero, Horace, Vergil, Tacitus, Lucan, Seneca, Livy, Nepos, Sallust, Ovid, Lucretius, Cato, Pliny, Juvenal, Curtius, Marcus Aurelius, Petronius, Suetonius, Caesar, the lawyers Ulpian and Gaius, and Justinian, among the Romans”

However, author also points out that actual knowledge of these works was lacking and they often were cited without real understanding.

Author stresses that” More directly influential in shaping the thought of the Revolutionary generation were the ideas and attitudes associated with the writings of Enlightenment rationalism — writings that expressed not simply the rationalism of liberal reform but that of enlightened conservatism as well.” These were works of “Locke, Montesquieu, Vattel, Beccaria, Burlamaqui, Voltaire, or even Rousseau.”

The third source were “The great figures of England’s legal history, especially the seventeenth-century common lawyers, were referred to repeatedly — by the colonial lawyers above all, but by others as well. Sir Edward Coke is everywhere in the literature: “Coke upon Littleton,” “my Lord Coke’s Reports,” “Lord Coke’s 2nd Institute” — the citations are almost as frequent as, and occasionally even less precise than, those to Locke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. The earlier commentators Bracton and Fortescue are also referred to, casually, as authorities, as are Coke’s contemporary Francis Bacon, and his successors as Lord Chief Justice, Sir Matthew Hale, Sir John Vaughan, and Sir John Holt.11 In the later years of the Revolutionary period, Blackstone’s Commentaries and the opinions of Chief Justice Camden became standard authorities.”

Another source was religious Puritanism and its link to English history that produced specific ideological strain.  “The ultimate origins of this distinctive ideological strain lay in the radical social and political thought of the English Civil War and of the Commonwealth period; but its permanent form had been acquired at the turn of the seventeenth century and in the early eighteenth century, in the writings of a group of prolific opposition theorists, “country” politicians and publicists.”

After defining ideological sources, author goes into more detailed discussion of ideas and writers of the period from Glorious revolution to 1760s during which all these sources were intellectually reprocessed into more or less consistent ideology of what it means to be freeborn Englishman and what rights and duties should apply to colonials in America.


This chapter about power discusses its aggressiveness, meaning strive to expand and difficulty of controlling it. So, the problem was to allow legitimate use of power to protect community and limit its expansion beyond legitimate borders.  Author describes the process of ideas development this way:” The clarity of the modern assumption of a tripartite division of the functions of government into legislative, executive, and judicial powers did not exist for the colonists (the term “legislative,” for example, was used to mean the whole of government as well as the lawmaking branch), and in any case the balance of the constitution was not expected to be the result of the symmetrical matching of social orders with powers of government: it was not assumed that each estate would singly dominate one of the branches or functions of government.” Author describes influence of events in states that used to be free, but then succumb to despotism like Poland or Denmark at the time. Author points out that this analysis demonstrated that “the preservation of liberty rested on the ability of the people to maintain effective checks on the wielders of power, and hence in the last analysis rested on the vigilance and moral stamina of the people. Certain forms of government made particularly heavy demands on the virtue of the people”. Author discusses in details not only influence of English constitution, but also influence of the real-life practices that were well familiar to colonists.


The logic of rebellion actually was not revolutionary, but rather conservative: to retain traditional freedoms of Englishmen and English constitution. Here is how author puts it:” It was this — the overwhelming evidence, as they saw it, that they were faced with conspirators against liberty determined at all costs to gain ends which their words dissembled — that was signaled to the colonists after 1763, and it was this above all else that in the end propelled them into Revolution.”

 Author first discusses religious aspect of this related to attempt of domination by Anglican church over religiously diverse population. Then came Stamp Act and other taxes, which, while comparatively small, nevertheless were designed to establish precedent of parliament control over colonials. Then came attempt to establish control from outside over colonial judiciary via control over salaries and undermining of jury system. The next steps were increase of power of royal governors and rejection of attempt to achieve representation in parliament (John Wilkes). In addition, the burden of standing army arrived with British troop moving to colonies in peace time. Author describes these processes and increasingly negative reaction to it by population.

Note on Conspiracy

This is detailed description of colonial perception of events as a conscious conspiracy to deprive people of their rights. Author reviews conspiracy literature and other documents and pretty much concludes that it was effective idea, which was not necessarily correct evaluation of situation.  


 Author builds the main thesis of this chapter around John Adams evaluation:” But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.”  He then discusses specific parts of this revolution.

1. Representation and Consent

Here author looks at processes of representation in English society and demonstrates how and why event developed in such way that Americans felt being deprived of proper representation.  

2. Constitutions and Rights

Here author first discusses notion of unwritten English constitution as “assemblage of laws, customs, and institutions which form the general system according to which the several powers of the state are distributed and their respective rights are secured to the different members of the community.” In this view constitution was fixed and could be changed only organically, which it did, but differently in different places, getting eventually out of synch. Unlike organic development external intervention by distant power of English parameter was perceived as violation of constitution that could not and should not be tolerated.

3. Sovereignty

The final part of this chapter is about sovereignty. Author reviews discussion about it, but it was basically contest of sovereignty of the country as represented by parliament vs. sovereignty of the people as represented by locally elected powers.


This last chapter is about consequences of American revolution that it had on various long existing institutions all over the world. Here are these institutions:

1. Slavery

2. Establishment of Religion

3. The Democracy Unleashed

4. “Whether Some Degree of Respect Be Not Always Due from Inferiors to Superiors”


Here author comments on final result of revolution: the new constitutional order unmatched to anything that existed before. Author reviews three distinct phases that led to this outcome:

“The first was the years of struggle with Britain before 1776 when, under the pressure of events and the necessity to justify resistance to constituted authority, the colonists developed from their complex heritage of political thought the set of ideas, already in scattered ways familiar to them, that was most illuminating and most appropriate to their needs. Centered on the fear of centralized power and rooted in the belief that free states are fragile and degenerate easily into tyrannies unless vigilantly protected by a free, knowledgeable, and uncorrupted electorate working through institutions that balance and distribute rather than concentrate power, their ideas were critical of, and challenging to, the legal authority they had lived under. The writings of this early period drew together the basic ideas which would flow through all subsequent stages of American political thought, and provide the permanent foundation of the nation’s political beliefs.2 The second phase saw the constructive application of these ideas and the exploration of their implications, limits, and possibilities in the writing and rewriting of the first state constitutions, from 1776 through the 1780’s. Obliged now to construct their own governments at the state level, American leaders were forced to think through the fundamentals of their beliefs, and establish republican polities that expressed the principles they had earlier endorsed. They did not work from clean slates. Constrained by institutions that had long existed and by entrenched leadership groups, they were revisers, amenders, elaborators, and conceptualizers, as they applied fresh ideas to existing structures and brought them as close as possible to their ideal. So they explored the nature of written constitutions and of constituent power; worked through the problems of separating functioning powers of government to form balances within single-order societies; and probed the nature of representation, the operative meaning of sovereignty of the people, and individual rights. Few of their conclusions were applied uniformly or in absolute and complete form. But everywhere the institutional problems of republican government at the state level and the principles on which it was based were probed in this constructive phase of the ideological revolution.3 The third phase — the writing, debating, ratifying, and amending of the national constitution — resembles the second phase in that it was constructive and concentrated on constitution writing; many of the ideas that had been developed in the writing and discussion of the state constitutions were applied to the national constitution and further refined and developed. But in its essence this phase was distinct. For in the 1780’s, under the pressure of rising social tensions, economic confusion pointing to the possible collapse of public credit, frustration in international affairs, and the threat of dissolution of the weak Confederation, the central task was reversed. Now the goal of the initiators of change was the creation, not the destruction, of national power — the construction of what could properly be seen, and feared, as a Machtstaat, a central national power that involved armed force, the aggressive management of international relations, and, potentially at least, the regulation of vital aspects of everyday life by a government dominant over all other, lesser governments.”


This book is a classic and is used as main source for teaching American revolution for decades. The important point of this book is that intellectual development of American colonials, which made the revolution possible, was developing for many decades and became engine that moved people to act. Another important point that is completely in agreement with this approach is about power, its control, and search for balance between centralized and local powers without which any country falls either into tyranny or anarchy. Not all revolutions are as beneficial for population as American revolution 1776 was. Other revolutions such as Russian of 1917, German of 1933, or Chinese of 1948 brough catastrophic consequences for population of these countries. The current American revolution of 2020 is in process so it is not possible to tell which outcome will become reality: renovation and upgrade of American revolution of 1776 that would come with victory of republicans or turn to rejection of 1776 and attempt to repeat “success” of Chinese Communist party that would come with victory of democrats. I believe that this attempt could not possibly be successful for two reasons:

  • The first reason is economic success of communists did not really happen in China in the first place. The economic success was achieved not by fully implementing socialism in Chinese or any other known form, but from making China into manufacturing attachment to Western economies, leaders of which transferred technology and investment to country with no labor and environmental protections. This provided for huge competitive advantage initially based on low price of products and now increasingly on established supply chains. However, now when China has to turn inside, all-natural features of socialism such as massive corruption, waste of resources, irresponsible, centralized, and highly hierarchical management will kick in, eventually leaving Chinese model in ruins.

The second and probably more important reason is the American population, which is armed and habituated to be free in expression of their opinions, believes, and actions either personal or political or economic. Socialism in any of its forms is not compatible with freedom in any of its forms, so the clash is inevitable. Whether this clash will be relatively peaceful and brief or as bloody and long lasting as in Russia or China depends on balance of power in society between indoctrinated youths and beneficiaries of big government on one side and mass of population of mainly effective and productive people on the other.

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