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Gaining Independence: The (Internal) Fight for Freedom

Boisterous parades, the aroma of apple pie, and colorful fireworks exploding over a summer landscape. What does this image portray to the average American? A celebration of independence.  Instead of viewing America as a nation that was suppressed by British Rule in the colonial times, people might be better served by having a deeper understanding of the country’s birth.  The pursuit of liberty was a noble cause, but it was met with uncertainty and challenges. There were many in support of the patriot’s rising, but there were a significant number of colonists whom could not support revolution. Were these colonists truly against liberty, or was there more wisdom and steadfast to their beliefs than most would assume? Most of the British colonists who opposed the revolution were likely pragmatic, because they enjoyed the benefits of being a distant extension of Great Britain, they believed Britain would be victorious if a war erupted, and they feared that the colonies were not strong enough to build a new nation.

During the eighteenth century, colonists found themselves divided in the face of potential independence. Some, loyalists, wished to stay connected to Britain, allowing the king and the parliament to continue to govern The British Colonies.[1]  Other colonists sought a revolution in which they could gain independence.[2]  Yet another camp adhered to neutrality. They were typically poor or uneducated, likely farmers, and wanted to continue living their lives in a way that allowed them to provide for their families’ needs.[3]  Although the latter tried avoiding politics and war altogether, the patriots were so driven that the American Revolutionary War began in 1775.  King George III was more concerned about how his kingdom benefited from The Colonies than the state of The Colonies themselves. After the colonists resisted impressment and what they felt were high taxes, the king allowed parliament to impose new taxes and restrictions on trade such as the Tea Act of 1773. He tried to curtail potential patriot uprising by bringing stricter regulations over the colonists.[4]  In retaliation, the patriots fought the restrictions by moving violently on loyalist elite and by throwing tea overboard off the British East Indian ships such as in the Boston Tea Party. [5]  These events only further divided the people.  The Colonies were governed by the elite, or the gentry authority, some loyalist, some not, and many who considered themselves British still. Many militias began to form within the colonies and though their means to gaining tools and sustenance were often terrible and destructive, the patriots proved themselves a worthy adversary winning many battles, and ultimately, their freedom. [6]  The outcome of seven years of war was independence from Britain. Americans are taught from a young age about the bravery and valiance of historical characters such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Paul Revere. Many American’s see the American Revolution as a very positive and worthwhile event that truly shaped their nation from day one.

A major trend seen throughout the years surrounding the American Revolution is nationalism.  Nationalism could be described as a strong connection and loyalty to one’s nation even at the expense of other people or nations. Not only were the patriots dedicated to the idea of a new nation, but loyalists such as Reverend Charles Inglis were dedicated to Great Britain, so much so that they saw no hope or value in the purpose of seeking independence.[7] Patriots on the other hand, due to their extreme loyalty to their dreamt up nation, used many unethical avenues to acquire resources to support their militia and win the war. In addition to fighting the British Navy, the patriots wreaked havoc on colonist civilians by stealing livestock, food, tools and even injuring and raping during the pillage.[8]  A second trend that we see throughout the American Revolution is social class.  When discussing the trend of social class in the 18th century one might consider womens roles, the patriarchy rule, the role of the elite – both British and Whig, Natives, and the African slave system. A look into Robert Munford’s play “The Patriots” reveals just how complex some of these issues were. Women were seen as inferior and unable to understand or contribute to society much beyond their husbands and fathers’ direction, which mostly revolved around children and household duties. The gentry class authority is explored in the play as well, and specifically how that begins to break down amongst the overzealous patriots.[9]

In gaining independence from Britain, these trends are significant because they set the foundations for the culture and structure of the new nation.  Patriots knew that they wanted independence from Britain, and that is what they fought for. However, the majority of colonists likely didn’t have education or insight into what it would take to create a new country and government. Colonists chose a side based on their perceptions at the time, often with little foresight. Nationalism proved destructive in some ways because it created a huge and violent divide not just between the loyalist and patriot parties, but it further alienated and persecuted people that had wished to remain neutral, Natives that both picked a side and chose to stay out of the war, and slaves who had been promised freedom by fighting for the British.[10]Furthermore, the class system was threatened because as the patriots became more excited and passionate, the elite stood out as too safe. Perhaps their education provided them with reason to have concern and proceed with caution which the patriots saw as weakness.[11] Although the breakdown of some of these social structures may be perceived as positive progress, people such as the African Americans, Natives, and women continued to be persecuted and overlooked for decades, in fact some would argue that they are still. The war and the defense of the social culture also caused profound attention to be brought to the distrust between the classes. When the war was over and the patriots led by George Washington had secured victory in 1781, the new nation was built on huge debt, immoral social systems, and significant cultural problems that the Continental Congress didn’t know how to address.

The colonists had distinct benefits from being an extension of Great Britain.  Great Britain was considered a super power, not just in Europe but throughout the world. Thus, being a part of the British Empire, the colonies were protected by the greatest navy of the time. They had little to fear of threats from other nations.[12] Britain provided protection for open trade, and at considerably less tax than what the people living within Britains boundaries were expected to contribute. The average colonist paid about one shilling per year instead of the usual twenty-six that was expected of the British. Furthermore, many loyalists believe as Reverend Charles Inglis did, that the actual cost of import and export was a fraction of what it would be if they chose to revolt the rule of Great Britain.[13] Not only were exports efficiently handled, but imports received through British avenues were of great benefit such as silk, sugar and tea from Asia. The split from Britain would cause the colonists to have to find new and costly ways to secure such profitable trade. When it came to self-governance, the colonies were allowed a lot of leniency. Britain extended their laws but with little interference in a judiciary system outside of trade as evidenced by the insignificant number of Naval troops prior to the revolution.[14] They were presented with the stability of nationality without the need to put huge amounts of planning, effort, and money into nationhood. In short, being a part of Great Britain made a lot of people within the colonies feel safe, secure, and free to focus on expanding their families’ fortunes.

Most loyalists believed that if a war erupted, Great Britain was sure to be victorious.  Great Britain had the most powerful navy of its time.[15] The colonists hadn’t even organized an official militia. The patriots who did band together were viewed by many, such as loyalist Rev. Myles Cooper, as overly zealous, idiotic, and even attention seekers.[16] It seemed impossible that an unorganized, under resourced, and nonexistent military could conquer an empire as world renown and domineering as the Great Britain. The British Navy had what the patriots did not: an incredible amount of funding, troops, and resources. They also benefited from some local alliance in the form of the yeomen whom the loyalists convinced that the patriots didn’t care for their needs, but wished to have their own king in place.[17] And also from native tribes and free or runaway blacks. It seemed unlikely that a group of “Men undefin’d by any Rules, Ambiguous Things, half Knaves, half Fools”[18] could claim victory over the British Colonies, much less raise up a nation.

Although the notion of an independent, new nation was brave and noble, loyalists feared that the patriots did not have what it would take to build a new nation.  It would take people who could build government at the state and federal levels. These governments then would have to build just legislation, a strong military, infrastructure, and a successful economy.[19] As Rev. Charles Inglis reminds his readers, the Patriots had little money, little education, and little experience to do any of these things. The colonies would also have to face other challenges without the guidance and support of the British such as how to handle the ongoing Native conflicts, the nearby Spanish colonies, and the frustrated and depleted yeomen. With all these challenges combined, it seemed that even if the patriots could secure independence, that they would not be in any shape to bring structure and strength to the baby country.

Of course, everyone knows how that chapter of the story ended: America gained independence from British rule. The founding fathers of a new and mighty nation scrambled to form a base strong enough to govern such a large land while also allowing variances in colony to colony, or what would become, state to state. Although the colonists who opposed revolution were wrong about at least one fact, which is that the British military would smite the patriot militias, their other concerns were a little more founded perhaps. It took a lot of commitment and sacrifice after the revolution to build anew, and early America did not enjoy the same power and luxuries that British connection had allotted. They faced many challenges such as how to handle the continuing and inflammatory conflict with the Natives, post-revolution trade concerns with Europe and Asia, and with more wars on the horizon. However, perhaps the British colonists who fled revolution wished they had had more faith in the prospect of gaining independence. Although America still faces many challenges today, it is unreasonable to think that any nation would ever be in perfect peace and stability. But despite any challenges, the United States of America has certainly proven itself time and again in the ability to rise up, be strong, and march forward.

Bibliography

Cooper, Myles. The Patriots of North America: A Sketch. 1775. Excerpts. National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text1/cooperpatriotsnorthamerica.pdf.

Inglis, Charles. The Deceiver Unmasked; Or, Loyalty and Interest United: In Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled “Common Sense.” 1776. Excerpts. National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text7/inglisdeceiverunmasked.pdf.

Kim, Sung Bok. “The Limits of Politicization in the American Revolution: The Experience of Westchester County, New York.” The Journal of American History 80, no. 3 (1993): 868–89. https://doi.org/10.2307/2080407.

Mason, Keith. “Localism, Evangelicalism, and Loyalism: The Sources of Discontent in the Revolutionary Chesapeake.” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 1 (1990): 23–54. https://doi.org/10.2307/2210663.

McDonnell, Michael A. “A World Turned ‘Topsy Turvy’: Robert Munford, The Patriots, and the Crisis of the Revolution in Virginia.” The William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2004): 235–70. https://doi.org/10.2307/3491786.

Oliver, Peter. Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion. 1781. Appendix I. National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text2/oliverloyalistsviolence.pdf.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. 1776. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1776-1785/thomas-paine-common-sense/in-the-following-pages-i-offer.php.

Citations:

[1]Charles Inglis, The Deceiver Unmasked; Or, Loyalty and Interest United: In Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled “Common Sense,” 1776, excerpts, National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC, 3, http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text7/inglisdeceiverunmasked.pdf.

[2]Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1776-1785/thomas-paine-common-sense/in-the-following-pages-i-offer.php.

[3]Sung Bok Kim, “The Limits of Politicization in the American Revolution: The Experience of Westchester County, New York,” The Journal of American History 80, no. 3 (1993): 871, https://doi.org/10.2307/2080407.

[4]Paine, Common Sense.

[5]Peter Oliver, Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, 1781, Appendix I, National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC, 5, http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text2/oliverloyalistsviolence.pdf.

[6]Kim, “The Limits of Politicization,” 877.

[7]Inglis, The Deceiver Unmasked, 2-4.

[8]Kim, “The Limits of Politicization,” 884-886.

[9]Michael A. McDonnell, “A World Turned ‘Topsy Turvy’: Robert Munford, The Patriots, and the Crisis of the Revolution in Virginia,” The William and Mary Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2004): 238, https://doi.org/10.2307/3491786.

[10]Kim, “The Limits of Politicization,” 887.

[11]McDonnell, “A World Turned ‘Topsy Turvy,’” 266.

[12]Inglis, The Deceiver Unmasked, 3.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid., 4.

[15]Ibid., 3.

[16]Myles Cooper, The Patriots of North America: A Sketch, 1775, excerpts, National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC, 2, http://americainclass.org/sources/makingrevolution/rebellion/text1/cooperpatriotsnorthamerica.pdf.

[17]Keith Mason, “Localism, Evangelicalism, and Loyalism: The Sources of Discontent in the Revolutionary Chesapeake,” The Journal of Southern History 56, no. 1 (1990): 45, 46, https://doi.org/10.2307/2210663.

[18]Cooper, The Patriots of North America, 5.

[19]Inglis, The Deceiver Unmasked, 5.

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