Revolutionary Ideas

The revolutionary ideas which came from the Enlightenment period such as Natural Rights originated from English philosopher John Locke. He suggested that all people had three essential rights: life, liberty, and estate.

  • Life: everyone is entitled to live once they are created.
  • Liberty: everyone is entitled to do anything they want to so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first right
  • Estate: everyone is entitled to own all they create or gain through gift or trade so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two rights.

These notions appeared in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and acted as the fundamental rights that all Americans were to have in the new independent nation.

In addition to this the idea of Social contract was adopted by the colonists. This was a contract between those in power and the people. In this contract laws were made to protect the three natural rights. Although the people may not agree on the laws they have to follow them and if not can be prosecuted or killed. Also if the King does not follow these rules, he can be overthrown. As the colonists felt that the King had violated the social contract, they felt that is was justifiable that they break away from his rule and form independence.

The notion of popular sovereignty was also adopted where the right to rule was found through the approval of the people. This is the notion of democratic power where the people choose a leader to represent their interests. Therefore all political power is held by the people.

Many colonists throughout the 1763-1776 period declared that it was unlawful that the British taxed them. This is because they believed that there should be ‘no taxation without representation’. This is the idea of actual versus virtual representation. Actual representation relates to the colonists being directly represented for example by their State Assemblies. This is in contrast to virtual representation, whereby the interests of the British Parliament were equivocal to those of the colonists.

The period of salutary neglect between 1607 and 1763 highlighted a British policy of avoiding strict enforcement of Parliamentary laws in America. The colonies were left to govern themselves and became used to a high level of sovereignty. When Britain tried to introduce taxation, laws and acts colonists resisted as they felt Britain was unfairly imposing itself. Furthermore, when British closed colonial assemblies, colonists felt their right to be directly represented was being taken away. This was a major causation for the hostilities throughout the revolutionary period.

The notion of the ‘standing armies’ was also a grievance felt by the American colonists. The standing army enforced the Proclamation Line in 1763 which disallowed further colonial expansion. During the French-Indian War homes were forcibly seized to quarter troops and in addition after the Quartering Acts 1765 and 1774 colonists were forced to house British troops. In 1768 2000 added troops were brought into Boston in order to restore order. The ‘lobster-backs’ as they were called by Bostonians became an annoyance and an ever present reminder of British imposition on colonial life. They saw the British troops as a threat and restriction of freedom. Their presence led to the hostile events of the Boston Tea Party (after the Boston Massacre) and Battle of Lexington-Concord and Bunker Hill.

The Constitution used the idea of separation of powers whereby the state is divided into branches each with individual powers and areas governance. In the American Constitution this consisted of the legislative, executive and judiciary bodies. Each branch held checks and balances over one another which reduced tyranny through disallowing one arm to become too powerful.