The American Revolutionary War was of significance because its conclusion marked the beginning of a new country that would eventually become the greatest economic and military force in human history. The outcome was nothing less than miraculous given the overwhelming advantage of the British military. How could a group of colonies spread out over a vast region with no central government or treasury and an army that was inadequately trained and equipped possibly defeat the British who were the most powerful military force at that time? Though Americans were fighting an ideological and military war with Britain in an effort to separate themselves from their former Motherland, the U.S. Constitution was patterned from the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence predominantly from the ideas of British philosophers of the Enlightenment era such as John Locke.
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How Could America Possibly Win?
Britain had ruled over the thirteen colonies in America for more than 200 years prior to the Revolution. By the beginning of the Revolution, the wars against France fought on both sides of the Atlantic had burdened Britain with a massive national debt. To ease the national debt, Parliament imposed taxes on the colonists believing it only fair that they bear part of the expenses incurred by the British military in protecting them from Indian attacks and French invasions. The Stamp Act taxed paper goods sent to the colonies. It was the first of these laws while, with the tea tax, was one of the most infamous of these laws. The colonists thought taxation without representation in the British government to be unjust and openly protested these laws which led to hostilities between British troops and the Massachusetts Minutemen in 1775. This and other conflicts with the ‘Red Coats’ led to colonists forming the Continental Congress which immediately created the Continental Army and in 1776, signed the Declaration of Independence (The American Revolution, 2006).
John Locke (1632-1704) has been credited with many of the founding principles upon which the Declaration of Independence was based including concepts of property and religion and the role of government on these in the lives of the individuals governed. Influenced by such earlier philosophers as Descartes and Hobbes, unhappy with his education in the style of Aristotle and tutored under the natural principles of Wilkins, Locke developed a decidedly anti-authoritarian philosophy in his writings, indicating that government should remove itself from the natural pursuit of knowledge undertaken by an individual. “For the individual, Locke wants each of us to use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition.” (Uzgalis, 2001). Several of these ideas propounded by Locke in his description of the general character of natural man and his relationship to God as well as the description of the perfect government as a protector of property were reiterated in the development of the American Declaration of Independence as a justification on the part of the colonists for the revolutionary actions they were undertaking.
As this social order develops, there are certain issues individuals are constrained to relinquish for the benefit of the overall good, primarily the right of enforcement, which is typically turned over to the state. In the absence of a common magistrate, Locke holds that each individual has the right to defend their property as they see fit within the bounds of God-given reason and justice. It is to avoid these inconveniences of constant vigilance that Locke says men are predisposed to join a society and therefore voluntarily relinquish the powers of self-regulation. Through this social organization, Locke argues the power of the government is provided by the people and therefore is not above the laws of the people. Because it was an agent for the people, government should be restricted to working to enforce laws that are developed for the good of the people and should not involve itself with matters that did not directly and materially relate to the general welfare of the population (Dolhenty, 2003).
From this social order, both natural and within the context of a defined society, Locke defines each individual as having the right to “life, liberty and estate” (Locke, 1960). These words have an almost identical mirror in the beginning paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence written nearly 70 years later: “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.” (“Declaration of Independence,” 1776) The ways in which Locke outlined the rights of individuals, the natural state of man and the natural acquisition of property as well as the correct way in which ruling parties, whether they be parliaments or monarchies, should best rule over the people and the right of the people to revolt against an unjust ruler are almost an outline for the declaration that Thomas Jefferson wrote up in defiance of King George III. Because he drew heavily from materials already presented in the Magna Carta and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, both of which were strongly influenced by Locke’s ideas, Jefferson’s resulting Declaration echoes many of Locke’s premises, including the idea that the people not only have a right, but an obligation, to revolt against the unnatural reign of King George under the existing conditions because the natural rights of men living in the colonies were being exploited rather than protected. “The human right in property was meant by Locke and understood by the Framers of the Constitution to be the fundamental liberty … It was only necessary to organize [government] to protect property and life (one’s life was his property), and once organized other freedoms had to be protected against government’s power” (Stephens, 2006).
An Improbably Victory
The Americans, outmatched by more than three-to-one, were predictably defeated in the majority of battles that occurred during the war’s first year. However, the Americans’ fortune began to change following the victories at Saratoga and Germantown in 1777. These important first triumphs gave increased credibility to what had previously been widely considered as an unorganized, minor uprising certain to be vanquished by the mighty British army. By 1778, France had become convinced that Britain stood the chance of being defeated. Wanting nothing more than this, America’s first formal alliance was with the French. Centuries-long enemy of Britain, France was recently defeated on American soil by the British (1763) and had been secretly funneling money, arms and clothing to the colonists from the beginning of the war in 1776. In 1778, the French had formally recognized the independence of the U.S. and signed a treaty that created a military and commercial alliance with the new country. Thereafter, “French support for the U.S. with arms, clothing, and money was open rather than clandestine, and (George) Washington’s great hope for French naval assistance off the American coast would soon be realized” (Encyclopedia, 2004). Spain and The Netherlands had also been sending secret shipments to aid in the Americans’ cause since the beginning of the Revolution and joined France in allying with America in 1778. Many historians suggest that without the help of the French, Spanish and Dutch, the new nation would have stood little chance of prevailing. The motives of the three countries were less to promote a new form of democracy than self-interest which centered on diluting Britain’s status as the world’s only superpower.
Britain’s improbable loss resulted from their inobservance of all five rules to military success: Don’t underestimate one, the enemy; two, the enemy’s allies and don’t overestimate your own allies, overextend your lines of supply and or assure that the objectives of the war are clear. The colonists were generally thought of as little better than savages to British nobility which facilitated the widespread view that they could be herded as sheep. British General Alured Clarke commented “that with a thousand British grenadiers he would undertake to go from one end of America to the other and geld all the males, partly by force and partly with a little coaxing,” as overheard and retold by Benjamin Franklin (cited by Labaree, 1966: 261). In addition, the British never appreciated the ‘minuteman’ concept, that an army of citizen soldiers could be quickly mobilized, fight a battle, then just as quickly disband. Britain, with the mightiest armed force in the world at the time, unquestionably underestimated its enemy.
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The colonists had no industry, as mandated by British law, to create wealth, no centralized government or standing army. All qualified military officers were in the British army. Washington, the fledgling nation’s Commander-in-Chief, was a Colonel in the militia. Despite the numerous and seemingly insurmountable disadvantages, the Americans defeated the world’s most powerful military. Certainly, the British possessed enough military power to defeat the Americans on the field of battle but could not concurrently control the whole of the colonies because they had to disperse their manpower to other theaters of war to fight the Spanish and French. America owes its very existence to the over confidence of the British and the alliances forged with France and Spain. It is somewhat ironic that the basis for American justice and its ideas of freedom emanated from British voices.
- Dolhenty, Jonathan. (2003). “John Locke: A Philosopher of Freedom and Natural Rights.” The Radical Academy.
- “Declaration of Independence.” (1776).
- “Encyclopedia: American Revolutionary War.” (2004). The History Channel. Web.
- Labaree, Leonard W. (1966). “The Papers of Benjamin Franklin.” Vol. IX: 1760 through 1761. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Locke, John. (1960). Two Treaties of Government. Cambridge University Press, p. 448.
- Stephens, George. (2006). “John Locke: His American and Carolinian Legacy.” John Locke Foundation.
- Uzgalis, William. (2001). “John Locke.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.