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The American Revolutionary War: Right or Wrong?

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 27 years.


A common historical debate is over whether the American colonials were justified in waging war against Great Britain to achieve independence or were they a bunch of ungrateful malcontents. Much of that debate centers on whether men like John Adams, Patrick Henry, and George Washington were “rebels” and whether the British abuses like taxation and quartering were sufficiently onerous. However, in this essay, I look at four major groups involved in America’s move toward independence, two British and two American. My conclusion is that the colonials were not necessarily rebels and revolutionaries, at least not in the traditional sense.

The American colonists were not under the control of the Parliament. At the time that the colonies were being established in the seventeenth century, Parliament's powers were only beginning to surmount those of the Crown.

The American colonists were not under the control of the Parliament. At the time that the colonies were being established in the seventeenth century, Parliament's powers were only beginning to surmount those of the Crown.


For those that might say that "The Colonists rebelled against Parliament," the problem is that, first, Parliament had little to do with establishing the English colonies in America. Furthermore, Parliament’s status as the sovereign British institution was not established at the time that English colonies were being seeded in North America. Parliamentary sovereignty as a prevalent British constitutional principle would not be established until the Act of Settlement (1701). Therefore, seeing that Parliament had little to do with the creation of English colonies and that their status as a governing institution was uncertain during the formation of the English colonies, it’s legal foothold on the colonies is dubious. Colonials took note of some of these conditions and rightly protested and resisted parliamentary acts.

The colonial charters were created by the Stuart monarchs and were the basis of law in the colonies. But how much legal strength did these documents hold under a different ruling family, the Hanoverians with monarchs such as George III?

The colonial charters were created by the Stuart monarchs and were the basis of law in the colonies. But how much legal strength did these documents hold under a different ruling family, the Hanoverians with monarchs such as George III?

The Crown

In the seventeenth century, the British crown through the agency of the British Board of Trade (the offshoot of the Lords of Trade) created colonial governments by means of colonial charters. However, given that the Stuarts were dethroned by the Parliament during the Glorious Revolution (1688) and that the early charters had been made with the Stuarts, it's questionable what legal hold those charters held over the colonists by the Hanoverians during the revolutionary era. Now, the colonists continued to abide by the charters for some time after the Stuarts were banished—there was no sufficient provocation to do otherwise. Except for minor problems, the British took a “hands off” approach when governing the colonies what parliamentarian Edmund Burke referred to as "salutary neglect." But the bottom line is that it is a dubious claim that the colonials had any legal obligation to submit to the Hanoverians who were now in possession of the charters created by the Stuart kings and their agents.

Were the colonists of the Revolutionary War wrong to fight to displace the ruling government?

Were the colonists of the Revolutionary War wrong to fight to displace the ruling government?

Colonials & Their Officials

The colonial assemblies that one-by-one decided to leave the British fold and declare independence may have done so under the guidance of the Continental Congress, but the move toward independence was under way prior to the Richard Henry Lee Resolution to depart the British fold. The Declaration of Independence expressed the solidarity of the individual colonies, now states, “to depart” as Thomas Paine put it. Several state assemblies were making gestures toward independence prior to July 4. Royal charters were being abolished and state constitutions were being written. In North Carolina in April, 1776, delegates sent to the Second Continental Congress were authorized via the "Halifax Resolves" to promote the idea of independence. A sizable number of the colonial leaders were intent on leaving the British fold. It was to these leaders that the colonials gave their consent. Once their leaders declared that they were going to pursue independence, many colonials followed these leaders in their pursuit of that goal.

In many respects the colonials were backed into a corner. British troops were marching on their homes. Their proximate colonial leaders were telling them that independence was their best option. What were they to do? Obey their immediate rulers (the ones they knew) or the ones they did not? Besides, the Crown had declared war on them.

Colonials had become accustomed to ruling themselves without much aid or interference from the British. Historians have referred to this British disinterest in colonial affairs as “salutary neglect,” an expression from Edmund Burke, a parliamentarian that favored American independence. Colonial historian Forrest McDonald reports that up to ninety percent of all legislation passed in colonial assemblies was approved by the crown (eventually!). Typically, colonial assemblies would pass a resolution and implement it while simultaneously submitting it to the British Board of Trade. So, colonials were accustomed to governing themselves, to seeing their resolutions immediately put into effect as law.

Sometimes the colonials are portrayed as a pack of hotheads that were irrational, who were overreacting to minor taxes. But it's not true that they reacted violently because of abusive taxation. Remember, that what were deemed “abusive taxes” started as early as 1765 with a call for a “Stamp Act Congress,” not a revolutionary war. Even after the meeting of the Stamp Act Congress, it took more provoking over ten years before the colonials declared independence. So “no taxation w/o consent” was only one of the items on Jefferson's list of 27 "abuses and usurpations" that can be found in the Declaration of Independence.

An American Revolution Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Where was the "shot heard round the world" fired?
    • Bunker Hill
    • Lexington & Concord
    • Saratoga
    • Yorktown
  2. What state issued the Halifax Resolves?
    • Massachusetts
    • North Carolina
    • Rhode Island
    • Virginia
  3. Prior to independence, who said he envisioned "a union and confederation independent of Parliament, Minister & King"?
    • John Adams
    • Benjamin Franklin
    • Alexander Hamilton
    • James Madison
  4. This "Father of American Independence" established the Committees of Correspondence in 1772.
    • Sam Adams
    • John Paul Jones
    • Paul Revere
    • Joseph Warren
  5. What prejorative did Washington earn because he often delayed attacking or avoided direct controntation?
    • Backside Washington
    • Courageless George
    • Fabian General
    • Weasel Washington
  6. What battle is considered the "turning point" of the American Revolution?
    • Bunker Hill
    • Lexington
    • Saratoga
    • Yorktown
  7. During what holiday did Washington cross the Deleware?
    • All Saints Eve
    • Christmas
    • Easter
    • New Years
  8. Although he is credited as the "Financier of the American Revolution" he went to debtor's prison and died peniless.
    • Fisher Ames
    • Alexander Hamilton
    • Robert Morris
    • James Wilson
  9. He said of his own writing: "I shall avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet."
    • John Adams
    • Ben Franklin
    • Alexander Hamilton
    • Thomas Paine
  10. This "League of Friendship" was drafted early in the war but was not ratified by all 13 states until 1781.
    • Articles of Confederation
    • Frame of Government
    • First Continental Congress
    • Second Continental Congress

Answer Key

  1. Lexington & Concord
  2. North Carolina
  3. John Adams
  4. Sam Adams
  5. Fabian General
  6. Saratoga
  7. Christmas
  8. Robert Morris
  9. Thomas Paine
  10. Articles of Confederation
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Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 3 correct answers: You were apparently staring at the cute guy/girl whle the teacher was explaining the Battle of Bunker Hill. American immigrants know more than you. Time to hit the books!

If you got between 4 and 6 correct answers: If you are still in school, it's time to wake up. If you've been out a few years, OK, you get a pass. But it's time to bone up on your American history. Perhaps a good biography of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

If you got between 7 and 8 correct answers: Good. You hit it right more times than not. Keep reading and learning more about your American heritage.

If you got 9 correct answers: Great. You were obviously listening in school and enjoyed it when the teacher got to the Revolutionary War section. Give yourself a pat on the back.

If you got 10 correct answers: A Colonial Era Scholar! You obviously had a good high school history teacher that engaged you in America's founding. Send him/her a note and thank them.


A Revolution Prevented

For those early Americans embroiled in the American Revolution, we need to keep several conditions in mind. First, theirs was not a "revolution," not at least in the strictest sense. Our modern understanding of a revolution is that it is an attempt to throw off authority and embrace a kind of "libertarian freedom." The colonials actually tried to preserve the old order by embracing the status quo prior to the unlawful taxations. The founders were not trying to behead George III: the worse that he got was a burning in effigy. Compare that to the execution of Louis XVI and his consort in France and the brutal killing of the Czarist family by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

The principles that sustained the American Revolution were partly guided by the principles of Christianity which focused on the need to restrain human tyranny because of human depravity. In contrast, the Revolutions of France and Russia were atheistic and envisioned no constraint as to the powers of the state. Alexander Hamilton had a sense of the difference between the revolutions taking place in America and France with he said, "when I contemplate the horrid and systematic massacres of the Jacobins...when I find the doctrines of Atheism openly advanced in the convention and heard with loud applause...I acknowledge that I am glad to believe there is no real resemblance between what was the cause of America and what is the cause of France.”

Edmund Burke probably said it best when speaking of the American Revolution, saying that it was not “a revolution made, but prevented.”

The American Revolution: Right or Wrong?: The Debate

In Conclusion...

Therefore, both the Parliament and the Crown had questionable claims to keep a continued hold on the colonists: both Parliament and the Hanoverian kings played little role in establishing the English colonies. The constitutional status of both Crown and Parliament were in flux at the time that the colonies were being berthed in North America.

As for the colonials, a group of their local leaders moved toward independence and they followed them. They followed their proximate leaders as opposed to those across the ocean. The worst that can be said of them in this respect is that they rebelled against one set of leaders and submitted to another, a set of leaders of their own choosing.

American Independence: Yes or No?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2009 William R Bowen Jr

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