America’s Founding, Ep. 4: The Ideas Behind A Revolution

Sarah Burns,

Release Date
July 11, 2016



“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.”

How did “No taxation without representation” become a rallying cry for war? It wasn’t just the actions of the British, but the political beliefs of the colonists that caused this reaction. Many colonists were influenced by the ideology of radical Whigs, a political movement that began in England years earlier. Prof. Sarah Burns explains radical Whig theory, and how it convinced many colonists that it was their moral duty to fight back against oppressive rule.

The Two Ideas that Made America (blog post): Blog post by Prof. Sarah Burns on Radical Whig Theory and Classical Liberal Theory influences in the founding.
America’s Founding (playlist): Check out the rest of our videos about America’s Founding and the rest of our summer binge learning series at
No Taxation Without Representation – Schoolhouse Rock (Youtube video): Classic Schoolhouse Rock music video on the American Revolution. 

>> 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 government assert novel powers, this makes the free people nervous. The colonists are 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 thing’s first, what is Radical Whig Theory, and no, it has nothing to do with actual wigs. Whig theory started in England years earlier as response to the increasing power of the king in the Court.

Yes, they were worried about it too. This theory holds that individuals within in a free society must jealously guard their liberty and be wary of any government encroachment. This school of thought focuses on reviving ancient ideals of 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 answer to themselves.

An American’s 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 Act in the 1770, colonies realized they had to resist collectively. This lead to the creation of the continental congress where they tried to determine how to resist these novel powers.

Meanwhile in England, they continued to have a tenure 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 if they had 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 wig ideology. The concerns and the continental congress stem 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, accepting the increased presence of the armed forces and accepting 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 weaved these two theories together to create a new democratic order.

If you want to learn more about American Revolution, click on the other videos from this series.