Cushman: The Revolutionary War Was Not Justified


A 1789 engraving of the Boston Tea Party (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By KC Ellen Cushman, Opinion Writer

The American Revolution is widely celebrated in the United States during the Fourth of July. The holiday is dedicated to celebrating independence from Great Britain and remains a major symbol of patriotism and pride. The admiration of the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and the Revolutionary War itself was rooted in early American history. However, it may also be possible that the American Revolution was an unjustified revolt against a faraway government that nonetheless fulfilled its end of the social contract and provided protection for its citizens.


Fulfilling Its End of the Social Contract

A portrait of philosopher Thomas Hobbes (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Hobbes was an early proponent of contractarianism, and believed that people could only overthrow their government when it was not adequately defending them or when their ruler was too weak. Much better known for his contractarian beliefs is John Locke, who believed citizens were obligated to overthrow their government if it was not protecting their rights to life, liberty and property. Social contract theory was the primary justification that revolutionary leaders used to justify their insurgency against the British, but the British crown was not leaving any of its contractual obligations (under Hobbes’s or Locke’s contractarian philosophy) unfulfilled, meaning the rebellion could not be justified.

In 1756, Great Britain went up against France in the Seven Years War, the first war to span the globe. While the fight on the European continent was called the Seven Years War, Americans referred to it as the French and Indian War, as they fought to protect colonial territory from the French and their Native American allies. This war actually lasted seven years, finally ending in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris.

For seven years, Britain fought for colonial territory, accruing debt to defend the interests of their colonies. Part of the post-war peace (and the seeds of tension between the colonies and Great Britain) was the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade all Western expansion into Native American lands past the Appalachian Mountains. What colonists saw as a burden on their freedom was an effort to maintain peace on their continent by a government with an obligation to protect its citizens. With the Seven Years War and the Proclamation of 1763, Great Britain made a clear effort to protect the rights of the colonists and asked for very little in return other than taxes to help pay the cost of that protection.


Colonial Failure to Maintain the Contract

An engraving depicting the Battle of Lexington (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, colonists repeatedly broke their end of the contract. Most of the anger toward the British crown resulted from a series of taxes passed after the Seven Years War in part to help pay for the debt Great Britain had earned protecting the colonies and their interests. In 1764, Great Britain passed the Sugar Act, followed by the Stamp Act the next year. In response to colonial “ taxation without representation” outrage and widespread boycotts of taxed products, Great Britain tried to reestablish their dominance over the colonies with the Townshend Acts in 1767. Following this, the colonies engaged in more serious acts of rebellion with the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

From March to June of 1774, Great Britain once again tried to assert their dominance over their colonies with what the colonies coined as the “Intolerable Acts,” a series of laws meant to keep citizens who would not peaceably fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship in check. September of that year, the Revolution truly began with the convention of the First Continental Congress, and in 1775, the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord.

While the British had repeatedly shown its commitment to protecting its citizens, those very same citizens not only refused to help pay for this protection but demanded independence without cause after payment was requested. Their demands for representation, if grounds for revolution, would have meant that the majority of European-British citizens had cause for revolt, as Great Britain at that point in history was a monarchy with a parliamentary system that only granted representation to its lords. The American colonies were even granted some representation through their ambassadors to Great Britain, men like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

At nearly every occasion, American colonists tried to neglect their end of the social contract with Great Britain and rationalized their actions and their revolution by accusing their government of doing just that. At every opportunity, Great Britain tried to ensure peace for its colonists, to protect their property and provide representation through entertainment of colonial ambassadors. Americans refused to help pay for a debt they were partly responsible for, undermined their government at every turn and revolted (making an ally out of France, a centuries-old enemy of the British, in the process). Ultimately, the American Revolution is not so clearly justified, as the demands of the colonists were outlandish and the British government treated the colonies with fairness in their governing.


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