In our segment on the American Revolution, we are going to review the history of the break between England and her colonies. We are going to introduce Benjamin Franklin as an example of a great American Enlightenment philosopher. We are going to discuss the role of propaganda in the Revolution and finally, we will deeply examine the Declaration of Independence to see what a debt it owes to the philosophy of John Locke.
Education and literacy was very important in the Northern colonies where almost all children had access to an elementary school in their town. In the South, education was a private affair, handled within the family or – for wealthy landowners – hired out to professional tutors. Literacy rates in the Colonies were significantly higher than literacy rates in England and every town had at least one newspaper.
Plutarch wrote this book about 2000 years ago and it was rediscovered and reprinted in the 1500’s, becoming an international bestseller. Plutarch took an ancient Greek leader and an ancient Roman leader and wrote their biographies, looking for comparisons and contrasts. This book was how most people in the 18th Century learned about Roman and Greek history. Most popular were the stories about the Roman dictator Julius Caesar who seized power in Rome and the story of Cato, the noble freedom-loving patriot who opposed him and who committed suicide rather than live under the rule of Caesar. The story of Cincinnatus as also popular. Cincinnatus was a farmer who was given dictator powers to help the Romans through a crisis. Once the crisis was over, Cincinnatus gave back his powers to the Roman Senate and went back to his farm. Every literate American had some exposure to Plutarch and these stories about the noble Romans had a huge influence on American thought during the 18th Century. One of the most popular plays of this time period was based on the story of Cato and contained the line “Give me liberty or give me death”.
Benjamin Franklin is an excellent example of the Enlightenment. He sought (as you will see in the Primary Source activity) to perfect himself and through self-control and self-mastery, become the best person he could be. He is also an excellent example of the effects of literacy as Franklin had humble working-class origins but through reading books, he became an accomplished scientist and inventor. Franklin was (amongst much else) an author, printer, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat - all self-taught. The term for someone who can teach himself is autodidact and Franklin may be the best example of an American autodidact (with Lincoln and Jackson a distant second and third respectively).
Franklin’s 13 Virtues are an excellent example of Enlightenment philosophies in action. By identifying the “13 Habits of Highly Effective People” and then by tracking his progress and setting goals for himself, Franklin was slowly but surely making himself a better person. He was doing this totally under his own power, without any help from God or the Church. His ultimate goal? To become a perfect human being. To achieve his full potential as a person. I also see a connection to empiricism here. Just as empiricists are constantly refining and improving their perception of reality by collecting data and testing hypotheses, Franklin was constantly refining and improving his humanity by collecting data and testing himself.
Franklin’s 13 Virtues.
The idea that geography controls historical outcomes is known as determinism. A determinist would look at the Northern colonies and see that the cold climate made growing crops like tobacco impossible so this would control and reduce the incentive for Northern landowners to have many slaves and servants. Instead, Northern farms are small and usually focused on growing food crops. The cultural influences of the Puritans on the Northern colonies meant that most Northern citizens bought locally and avoided contact with England. Both of these factors combine to help shape a society in the Northern colonies that is independent and egalitarian.
The warm and humid climate in the South is ideal for cash crops like tobacco. Servants are needed but they die at alarming rates from diseases like malaria. Slaves are cheaper in the long run and slaves from Africa already have a partial immunity to malaria. Thus, climate helps shape Southern society. Southern culture favors strong ties to England as it is their primary customer for their crops and where Southern landowners look to buy luxury goods. The South becomes aristocratic, has a high level of income inequality and remains profoundly connected to Great Britain.
The British government had used revenue stamps to raise money in England for many years. The basic idea was that you could only buy certain things (newspapers, playing cards) printed on special stamped paper. Also, any legal document had to be written on this special paper. You bought the paper from the government and that’s how the government raised money. In 1765, Parliament extended the Stamp Tax to the American colonies. The Americans were used to paying little or no tax and they were violently opposed to this new Stamp Act. Some Americans, like Boston lawyer John Adams, believed that because the Stamp Act taxed newspapers, the British government was trying to discourage the colonists from staying informed and literate. For Adams, the Stamp Act was designed to keep Americans ignorant.
Beginning in the early 1700’s, the British created an excellent postal system in the colonies. Letters were transported by long-distance horse riders and left at the town tavern, for later pick-up. Service was fast and dependable. As resistance formed to the Stamp Act, colonists used the postal system to send letters to each other – to communicate news and organize protests. These letter-writing groups became organized as “Committees of Correspondence” – every big town had one and each colony had a state-level committee. These groups would evolve into shadow governments and would help organize the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774.
The Sons of Liberty were a secret organization that formed to oppose the Stamp Act in the American colonies in the late 1760’s. If the Committees of Correspondence was an organization of the wealthy and well-educated, the Sons of Liberty were more popular amongst the poor and working class colonists. The main goal of the Sons of Liberty was to end taxation without representation and they opposed all efforts by the British government to tax their American colonists. The Sons of Liberty were also prone to violence. Here we see they are torturing a British tax collector by covering him in hot tar, coating him in feathers and pouring boiling tea down his throat. Such treatment could result in serious injuries or even death.
By March 1770, protests over the Townsend Acts were growing so violent that British troops were stationed in front of the Customs Houses where the taxes were collected and processed. On this cold day, protestors began throwing objects (snowballs mixed with oyster shells?) at the soldiers until finally, the soldiers opened fire, killing four Americans (one victim will die later that day, raising the count to five). One of those killed, Crispus Attucks, was an African-American of mixed race – his father an African-born slave and his mother a Native American. Attucks was a sailor who worked on whaling ships. He has gone down in history as the “first casualty” of the American Revolution. After the Massacre was over, the British Army turned the soldiers over to the Boston authorities for a trial on the charge of murder. They did this to try to make things right with the angry colonials and demonstrate that no one, not even British soldiers, were above the law. Future American President John Adams was the lawyer assigned to defend the soldiers and he successfully argued they only fired on the crowd in self-defense.
This is a copy of an engraving known as “The Bloody Massacre” that was extremely popular all over the American colonies in the early part of the 1770’s. Notice the British soldiers on the right – how they are deliberately firing on the Americans. Note the bright red coats of the British (The Americans called the British soldiers “redcoats” or “lobster-backs”). See the red blood pouring out of the wounds of the Americans. This image made the Americans angry and resentful against the British Army and helped persuade many undecided or loyal colonists to join the fight against the British government.
Ads for fast food show how delicious the various items are – but they don’t talk about the dangers of obesity or diabetes. Political ads only promote one candidate – they are not fair or balanced. Paul Revere’s engraving, while basically correct, contains some critical distortions. It doesn’t show how violent and threatening the protestors were before the shots were fired. And most importantly, it calls the event a “massacre”. Not a “misunderstanding”, not a “tragedy”, not even an “attack” – it goes for one of the most inflammatory terms possible – a massacre, defined as “an indiscriminate and violent attack on a large group of people”. As a citizen and voter, you will need to be aware and alert for propaganda on both sides of any issue and from any political party.
The Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty, led by Sam Adams (cousin of John), boarded ships anchored in Boston Harbor that belonged to the British East India Company and which carried tons of British tea. The men, disguised as Native Americans so that the British wouldn’t be able to identify and then later punish them, took over the ships and dumped the tea in the harbor. Millions of dollars worth of tea was destroyed. This destruction of private property angered the British and Parliament even more than the riots a few years earlier. Interestingly, after the Tea Party, patriotic Americans began to avoid tea and embraced coffee instead. This is why tea is the hot beverage of choice in all former parts of the British Empire – but coffee is king in the United States.
At this point, the British government is quite fed up with the perceive disrespect from their American subjects. Every law the British have enacted – even the Tea Act which made tea less expensive – has been met with protest and anger from the colonists. After the destruction of all that tea during the Boston Tea Party (tea owned by the British East India Company, whose shareholders and board members include many prominent members of Parliament), the British government passes new laws in 1774 designed purely to punish the colonies (especially Boston) and bring them under control. These laws were officially known as the Coercive Acts but the Americans renamed them as the Intolerable Acts. The laws put the port of Boston directly under the control of the Crown; more troops were sent into New England and – most importantly, local American government was suspended and direct rule by the British took its place. The Intolerable Acts removed self-government from the colonies. For the Americans, not only were they suffering taxation without representation, now they were deprived of representation of any kind.
The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia (then the largest and richest American city) in late 1774. Members of the suspended colonial governments came to the Convention with the Committees of Correspondence being instrumental in selecting and sending delegates. The primary goal of the delegates was to organize a universal boycott (or ban) on all British goods. They thought that this would hurt the British economy and force Parliament and the King to repeal the Intolerable Acts. They hoped to organize the boycott across all 13 colonies and get the various colonies to work together towards a common goal – something the colonists had failed to do back in 1754 when Ben Franklin tried to create a colonial militia as part of the Albany Plan.
The American colonies were on the frontier and Native American attacks, even in large towns, were still a very real possibility. Thus, every town in America had a volunteer militia that could be summoned quickly (by church bells) in case of an attack. In the North, these militia groups were known as “Minutemen” because they could be ready to fight within 60 seconds of hearing the alarm. In the South, volunteer militias were also used to put down slave revolts. Not only were the colonists well-armed and well-trained, many of the older men had extensive combat experience due to their service in the French and Indian War twenty years earlier. This military tradition meant the colonists could easily form an army to fight the British if they decided to revolt.
In the picture, you see Independence Hall as it looks today. The Second Continental Congress was held there beginning in May of 1775, a few weeks after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The members of the Second Continental Congress realized that boycotts and negotiations with Britain were not going to work and that a revolution had begun. This Congress would stay in session through 1781 and become the provisional government of the American colonies during the Revolution. They would face the large challenge of raising a Continental Army to defend the colonies against the British and to figure out how to raise the money to pay that army. By the summer of 1775, the Continental Army has been formed and George Washington of Virginia becomes its first Commander-in-Chief.
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