Published On: Tue, Nov 12th, 2013

Lessons from the American Revolution

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American Revolution

The American Revolution, which started in 1775, was a British revolution on American soil.  There were thirteen British colonies in America.  These colonies were governed by British laws and its people were British.

{Editor’s note:  This is part of a longer article on “What does it take to get Europeans to have a Revolution?”}

Many of these colonists had left England before, during and after the English Civil War, depending on how their side was doing in the conflict.  Puritans from East Anglia had settled New England between 1629 and 1640 in the run up to the English Civil War.  Between 1642 and 1675 a large number of aristocrats and their supporters from the south and west of England fled to Virginia and Maryland.  Between 1675 and 1715 another wave of immigrants, mainly Quakers from the north of England, settled in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.  Finally, between 1717 and 1775 another wave of immigrants, from the north of England, lowland Scotland and Ulster, moved to Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Kentucky.

What they all had in common was the knowledge that the monarchy was not a superior power that had to be obeyed.  These people had seen their king, Charles I, beheaded.  They had seen England develop a republican Commonwealth with power held by Parliament, with no monarch at all, under Cromwell. They had seen Parliament choose five monarchs: Charles II, William III, Mary II, Anne and George I.

It can be argued that the American Revolution was a rehash of the English Civil War.  The colonists had grown up with an understanding that Parliament was the key to governance and power in England.  Charles I had been deposed because he had been governing the country without any Parliamentary representation for years. And yet the problem was even worse for the British colonies in America.  They had no Members of Parliament at all.

In many respects this was a practical problem.  It took a long time to travel to London from the colonies.  American Colonial Members of Parliament would be away from home for months at a time and would be deciding on matters that had nothing to do with issues in North America.  Only some issues would be directly relevant to them.  No other part of the British Empire had overseas Members of Parliament either.

In addition, it must be mentioned that the colonists did have provincial assemblies which had much higher levels of electoral representation than their fellow citizens back in England, Scotland and Ireland.  Only 17-23% of adult males could vote for the British parliament.  In contrast, about 75% of adult males could vote in American provincial assemblies, which dealt with issues that were directly applicable to them.

This was not enough.  What the colonists objected to was a lack of control.  Politicians in another, distant, country were making rules and setting levels of taxation on them. Without the consent of the American provincial assemblies.

British citizens in America were fighting to take back all of the rights that they had come to expect in Britain, without compromises.  The British had fixed the colonies’ western border in 1763. Now the colonies could head west, uninterrupted.  The British controlled all exports and fleets. Now colonial ships could trade (almost) where they wanted.  The British had imposed taxes, albeit very low ones, on the colonies.  Now the colonies could control their own taxation.

Critically, full sovereignty now lay with American citizens.  This helps explain why America today is so reluctant to tie itself to international agreements that supersede American law.  It also explains why so many British today rile against the European Union, which places the British Parliament in a position not that different from American provincial assemblies to British Parliament prior to 1775.

It is worth highlighting that it was not guaranteed that America would become a Republic, once victorious.  Many thought that George Washington should become their new monarch and wanted to confer on him far more powers than he would ultimately take.  Had another man led the Revolutionary efforts America might well have ended up being another monarchy.

So the lesson of the American Revolution was that wealthy British citizens in America would fight to gain the same rights were enjoyed by their fellow citizens in Britain.

To read more about the lessons we can learn from past revolutions, click here.


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