America’s Founding (Full Series), Featuring Sarah Burns
Taxes, protests, massacre, and revolution — this is our full America’s Founding series in one glorious video. For more US history, watch
- Declaration of Independence (statement): Learn why the America’s Founders declared independence from Britain from the Founders themselves!
- The American Founding in Practice (video): History professor Rob McDonald of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point gives a lecture on the conflict between the ideals of the American Revolution, such as individual liberty, and unfortunate realities of the time, such as slavery.
- The king is dead, long live chaos! Why Hobbes was wrong and Burke was right. (article): In the 17th and 18th centuries many theorists attempted to undermine the belief that kings had the right to absolute power. Professor Sarah Burns explains why she believes Edmund Burke’s arguments are more compelling than Thomas Hobbes’.
Sarah Burns: The American Revolution, that period of time where we became a country, but you’re a little fuzzy on the details.
What do we know for certain? We became a country and became independent in July of 1776, and because of that, you all get a day off to eat hamburgers and watch fireworks. Hooray! Most people don’t stop to ask why the Founders decided to declare independence from a powerful empire, considering the big risks associated with that action.
In the next two videos I’ll try and give you a sense of why the Founders thought they should do this. My name’s Sarah Burns and I’m a Professor of Political Science. I study the American Constitution as well as the ideological origins of the revolution. I’ve always found this period so interesting, because it’s a group of people coming together and creating a country. To quote Hamilton, they decided to, “Create a country from reflection and choice, rather than accident and force.” Just like that. Moreover, they actually managed to create a dialog amongst a diverse group of people under incredibly stressful circumstances. So what were the stressors?
First, they were trying to create a democracy over a large area. States of that size, at that time, were always run by monarchs. No one really though that you could have a democracy over a country this size. Second, they were going up against the British military, which was a formidable fighting force, and we were not a formidable fighting force. What we see in the revolution therefore, is a powerful testament to what people can achieve if they can devote themselves to an important cause and work together.
So without further ado, in the following videos we’ll look at the lead up to the American Revolution. We’ll talk about the increasing tensions between the British and the colonists, especially the abuses of the armed forces, and the increase in taxes. Then we’ll look at the ideological underpinnings of the Revolution. And finally, we’ll look at what the Declaration declares.
Leading up to the Revolution, the colonists had two major types of grievances. First was the changing role of the British soldiers, and the second was the increase in taxes. In this first video we’ll look at the changing role of those soldiers.
In 1763, the British and the French had just finished up fighting a war called, unimaginatively, The Seven Years War. The North American theater of that war was called the French and Indian War, and it had a dramatic impact on life under British rule. After the war, the military’s role started shifting. The King asked the military to enforce increasingly painful measures, which made them seem much more like an occupying force than a source of security. So how did this come to pass? At the end of the Seven Years War, the British had a huge military without a huge international war to fight. Now you might be thinking, “Why not dry down forces? Spend your money on something else” If you are thinking that, you’re not thinking like a king.
By the mid-18th century, the King had deployed the military in a number of wars internationally, causing them to triple in size. By this point, they’re organizationally very sophisticated, and more importantly, the King intended to make them permanent. Now, what do you do if you have a big army and a big navy, and they don’t have a big war to fight? You send them to the colonies. Now initially, the King had a point. The colonists kept pushing into native land reserved to them by treaty, and every time the British would say, “Can you please stop doing that.” The colonists just ignored them. This worked out perfectly for the English, because they needed something for their army to do, and that’s thinking like a king. Find a problem for the military to solve, rather than drying down forces. But, they didn’t stop there.
After 1763, the English started to ask the military to collect taxes, and control Americans. It’s this shift that started angering colonists, and marks a change in the relationship. It’s important to see that the British and the Americans saw things very differently. While the armed forces started to irritate the Americans, politicians back home didn’t back down, in fact they doubled down. The British saw them as a source of revenue, and so therefore didn’t take colonial concerns very seriously. They claimed that the army was actually protecting Americans, rather than oppressing them. This was not the right reaction.
As time progressed, the English started to use the military more and more to enforce laws Parliament saw fit. Turning the screws like this only served to increase tension. Shockingly, the colonists started fighting back. There was a ratcheting effect as the relationship between colonists and soldiers deteriorated. There were skirmishes, one of which ended in the death of a colonist in New York, there was a general sense of ill-will as soldiers would get drunk and harass local women. There were patriots who would tar and feather anyone deemed too loyal to the King. Needless to say, tensions mounted.
And then came the Boston Massacre in 1770. British customs agents asked the military to help enforce new duties imposed on imports, and they did so with weapons, which is always good when you’re trying to keep things light and breezy. Locals would then taunt the soldiers to shoot at them, and when one did, either by accident or on purpose, depending on who you ask, it ended in the Boston Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of five colonists. This event ended up symbolizing British oppression in the mind of the colonists as news of the event spread throughout America.
We see here, that the British and the colonists viewed events remarkably differently. While the English thought they would eventually settle down, each abuse, each effort to keep them under the imperial thumb, only served to push Americans towards declaring independence. And the military was far from the only problem. In the next video we’ll look at how the English increased taxes in order to pay for all of these bad decisions.
Let’s talk about the most exciting part of any revolution. Taxes! Hear me out. As you may remember from school, the colonists got very upset about the new taxes imposed by the British. Now you might be thinking, “Well everyone gets upset when new taxes are imposed.” What’s important to see here is the context, that will help us understand why it is that the Founders reacted so dramatically, that they decided to commit treason against the Crown. Since the British continued to have a large military at the end of the French and Indian War, they needed a way to pay for it, and how do governments pay for things? Taxes! That’s right. The British were taxing Americans so they could pay for the soldiers, who were then harassing those very same Americans.
Colonists got angry. When Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, Bostonians took a bunch of that tea and dumped it into the harbor in protest of this new tax. Now you might be thinking, “Why didn’t the British just pull back when they saw how angry this was all making the colonists?” Once again, if you thought that, you would not be thinking like an imperial power. Rebellions after all, aren’t indulged, their quashed. The English doubled down, passing more and more restrictive measures on the colonists. They closed the Boston port and established parliamentary supremacy in that city, as well as punishing Bostonians for their actions.
By 1774, they had passed two more of the five Intolerable Acts. Why did this bother Americans so much? It bothered them because, it was parliamentary meddling and a steady encroachment on their freedoms. That’s why they decided to fight back and fight back so hard. After all, it’s that the life had returned to normal after the French and Indian War. So what was life like before the war? There was limited English oversight on colonial affairs, they mostly governed themselves. There was no direct taxation from Parliament, and colonists could participate fairly well in legislative affairs domestically, and there was a fairly free trade system. There were customs agents on a quasi-mercantilist system, but they were fairly corrupt, so as long as you bribed them, you could pretty much import and export what you wanted to.
After the war however, England expected the colonists to pay for the privilege of remaining in the British Empire, mostly because they needed the money. By the end of the war they were 130 million pounds in debt, which is a huge amount of money at the time. So politicians did what politicians do when they need to pay the bills, they raised taxes. And at first colonists used the political process to seek redress. They would petition Parliament and tell them how negatively the new taxes impacted the Colonies. Or find Parliamentarians who were sympathetic to their cause. In the Stamp Act of 1765 however, Parliament announced it had the power to directly tax the colonists, and it’s this novel power that caused significant concern.
By the Tea Act of 1773, they realized they’d reached a point of no return, and this is partially what led to the Boston Tea Party. Bostonians especially saw that something important had changed. Now this isn’t about tea in particular, or taxes per se, it’s about power. Parliament had asserted novel powers and established a pattern of encroaching on freedom. By the 1770s, colonists see that this isn’t a way to pay down the war debt, Parliament wants more power permanently, and this isn’t something that Americans can accept.
We see here that while the military provides a good visual understanding of the oppression, the new taxes cause just as much ire. The British made the Americans feel as if the military was a threat rather than a source of security, and now they’re making them feel as though the political process, meant to ensure their liberty, was actually a way to oppress them. To better understand why the colonists perceived this change so radically, it’s important to look at the ideology behind the rebellion, that will make it clear why it is that revolution eventually became necessary.
Let’s start with that familiar phrase. No taxation without representation. What does this phrase mean? And why is it important? Much like us today, colonists thought of themselves as a free people. When governments assert novel powers, this makes a free people nervous. The colonists saw the encroachment of Parliament through the prism of something called Radical Whig Theory. Because of this theory, the events after 1763, took on a certain meaning, that eventually compelled rebellion. Now, first things first, what is Radical Whig Theory? And no, it has nothing to do with actual whigs.
Whig theory started in England years earlier, as a response to the increasing power of the King and the Court. Yes, they worried about it too. This theory holds, that individuals within a free society must jealously guard their liberty and be wary of any government encroachment. This school of thought focuses on reviving ancient ideals with civic virtue. It holds, that freedom is hard to keep and easy to lose. For that reason, when government starts encroaching, it’s incumbent on a people to fight back. If they don’t fight back, they have to consider themselves too morally corrupt for self-governance. Americans didn’t think that Parliament had the power to directly tax them, free men after all, only answered to themselves, and Americans didn’t have a representative in Parliament.
Without a representative therefore, there’s only so much power a distant government can assert before it starts to look oppressive. By the time Parliament started passing the Intolerable Acts, in the 1770s, colonists realized they had to resist, collectively. This led to the creation of the Continental Congress, where they’d try to determine how to resist these novel powers. Meanwhile, in England, they continued to have a tin ear to colonial grievances. They didn’t want to give up their power to tax, so instead, they declared the colonies in rebellion, and passed several measures trying to quash it. This went against England’s ultimate interest, and demonstrates how differently each side saw the argument.
While Parliament wished to bring the colonists to heel, it’s possible, or even likely, that had they had a lighter touch, colonists would have relented. After all, what they were looking for was a representative in Parliament, and a few other things. So it was the obstinance and the arrogance of the English that pushed several who were on the fence, over towards the side of revolution. It pushed them over because of Whig ideology. The concerns in the Continental Congress, stemmed from the view that powerful government is a very serious threat to political liberty. This is true at both the top and the bottom.
At the top, power can collect into one set of hands, at the bottom, individuals who are too weak to push back against government encroachment, are viewed as morally corrupt. In the colonies therefore, excepting the increased presence of the armed forces, and excepting the increased burden of the new taxes, would demonstrate a lack of political virtue. Because of this, the post war events convinced even those who were hesitant, that they had to rebel, and this would eventually lead to war with England. Whig theory is one of two important ideologies underlying the revolutionary spirit. The other is classical liberalism, as exemplified by John Locke. In the next video we’ll look through how it is, that his theory influenced the Founders, and how they weave these two theories together to create new democratic order.
We’re at a breaking point. It’s 1776, and the colonists have tried repeatedly to reconcile with England. They realize now they have to declare independence and start the uphill battle to fight for their freedom. Once they made that decision they felt compelled to explain why it is that their relationship with England suffered from irreconcilable differences. And that’s how we got the Declaration of Independence.
This document was tricky to write for a couple of reasons. First, they had been claiming their rights as Englishmen, once you separate from England, can’t do that anymore. Second, this puts into writing that they’re rebelling against the King, and rebelling against the King, is no joke. If you lose, you hang, don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, just straight to jail and then the hangman’s block. What’s their argument in the Declaration of Independence? They’re claiming that we, as a free people, have the right to stand up to an oppressor. Now today, this seems perfectly understandable, only a government established by the people, that protects the rights of the people, deserves their support. Right? Well, at the time, this was a very radical idea, no one had tried to claim this as a reason to rebel.
This concept was radical, new and based in philosophy. Specifically, the philosophy of John Locke, who created a theory about why people can declare independence from an oppressive government. This is another important philosophical strain that underlies the Revolution. It combines with Radical Whig Theory to create a good foundation for a new constitutional order. While Radical Whig Theory emphasizes civic virtue, and a wariness of government power, Lockean Liberalism emphasizes rights protection and the responsibility of government.
Locke develops this theory by looking at the origin of government. According to him, human beings start out in an a-historical state of nature. In that state they are all free and equal. There’s a problem though, we’re all selfish and irrational, there is no objective party to mediate disputes. For him therefore, it’s necessary for us to come into society and create a government. In order to do this, it has to be possible for a people to rebel if the government isn’t protecting their rights. So, if the leader of a government doesn’t protect your rights, off with his head! Just kidding, but it is appropriate according to Lockean theory, for a people to overthrow their government if they fail in this crucial respect.
Locke claims there’s no difference between an unjust king and a thief. Therefore, in the same way that we can stop a thief, we can overthrow a king. If there were Lockean understanding of government by consent that we can move from seeing ourselves as British citizens, seeking the justice of the Crown, to human beings born free and equal, confronting an oppressive ruler. We see these ideas reflected in the Declaration of Independence, England had regularly violated their rights, to that end, in the Declaration, there’s 27 indictments against the King. This looks a lot like a list of indictments against a criminal, let’s look at an example.
“He has erected a multitude of new offices and sent hither swarms of officer to harass our people and eat out their substance.” He sounds like a mob boss! Because of his actions, we were free to dissolve our allegiance to him, and form a new society based on the consent of the government, and we see this in the Declaration’s preamble. “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 power from the consent of the governed.”
It’s important to see who radical this was for the time. Monarchs ran states of our size, and the leader was considered sovereign. We completely flipped that around, we said the people were the sovereign power, very shocking. And said that government was answerable to the people, even more shocking. Now you might be thinking that’s the end of the story. We’ve declared independence and now we live happily ever after as a new country. Right? Wrong. This is where the real work begins. Now we have to create new institutions based on radical philosophy. We have to get a diverse group of people to agree, and then we have to get the people to accept these new institutions. This is no easy task as we’ll see in the concluding video.
It’s July 1776, we’re a small, but scrappy colony of a large empire. We’ve just declared our independence and committed treason. We don’t have a large military force, we aren’t set up to fight a multi-front war and we’re trying to create new institutions based on radical ideas created by philosophers. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s important to see that all the theory in the world is not going to save the Americans from the very real consequences of their actions. The British after all, didn’t read the Declaration and say, “Oh, they’ve got a good claim.” They read it as a declaration of war, and the Founders knew this.
At the end of the Declaration, it reads, “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” If the Founders hadn’t won, they would hang. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, “We must all hang together or assuredly we will hang separately.” But winning the war is just the first problem, now that we’re free of the English yoke, we have to set up a new government. Panic! How do we do this?
We start with some Lockean principles. We know that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed. Okay, that’s a good starting point, but what does consent of the governed mean? According to a strict understanding of Lockean philosophy, every individual in the United States would have to say, “I consent to the laws of the United States.” Logistically, this is obviously very problematic, and even harder when you have the British knocking down your door. This is where we see that the Founders didn’t rely exclusively on Lockean Liberalism when they were setting things up.
Whig Theory comes back to play a role when they’re trying to establish a stable and free government. For whigs, people have to be connected to their government through a longer and older tradition. The Founders tied these two theories together in order to create institutions that protect individual liberty without becoming so radically democratic that they threaten stability. They use these theories to tackle some of the most important questions of the day, such as, how powerful should the federal government be? How do you distribute the executive, legislative and judicial powers? How do you prosecute this war? How do you pay collectively for this war? This is the great experiment that they initiated when they declared independence. It is not one they took lightly. It required great sacrifice, great statesmanship and a consensus among the people that their cause was just.
For that reason it’s important to reflect on the significance of this action, both within the United States and around the world. We decided we were not going to submit to a heavy handed government, we looked to philosophy to clarify our understanding of freedom, and to understand how it is that we can build a new democratic constitutional order. Understanding the incredible character you have to have in order to embark on this task, is very important, understanding the incredible risks associated with revolution, will help you see why it is they’re so rare, and so often unsuccessful.
I hope you spend a little time thinking about how amazing it is that the Founders declared that if people suffer under an oppressive rule, it is their right, their duty, to throw off that government. We should be alive to these concerns today, as we continue to think through what it means to live in a free society and what we expect from our government. And if it happens to be that you’re watching this around the fourth of July, I hope you think through these issues while enjoying hamburgers and fireworks.
Thank you very much.
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