Significant Influences on the American Revolution


Late in life, John Adams wrote to his old friend and political competitor Thomas Jefferson that the American Revolution was not what historians would remember it as: a war between the thirteen colonies and England. He wrote that the Revolution was actually a revolution of ideas; a revolution of how colonists thought about themselves vis-a-vis England.


The classical texts rediscovered during the Renaissance were part and parcel of education in the eighteenth century. Particularly influential were Aristotle and Polybius. Writing around 300 BC, Aristotle pointed out that if a society were to establish a government, they would basically have three choices: rule by One, rule by the Few, and rule by Many. He also pointed out that there was a “virtuous” and “corrupt” form of each. “By virtuous,” it was meant that those in government would honestly seek to do what was best for the society being ruled, regardless of its size. By “corrupt,” it was meant that those in government was seek to use their privileged position to pursue their own ends primarily.

Writing two hundred years later, during the Roman Republic period, Polybius – another Greek scholar – observed that the Romans had established a representative form of government. Citizens – which was to say, adult male property owners – would elect a representative from their district to pursue and debate res publica, or public affairs, in the Roman Senate.

Polybius also observed that the Romans followed a “rule of law,” or jurisprudence, where disputes between individuals and groups were taken before a magistrate who would hear their arguments and make a ruling. This kept violence at a minimum, since disputes between parties could be resolved peacefully, This notion of jurisprudence would influence many societies over which the Romans had ruled during the Imperial period that followed the Republic.

One of the most provocative observations of Polybius – one that was made by a number of classical thinkers – was that of the “cycles of government.” Polybius observed that governments described by Aristotle’s One, Few, and Many seemed to always cycle from virtuous to corrupt. No matter how benevolent a government seemed to be, he noted, it always shifted to the corrupt side eventually. This is because governments are centers of power, and people can be tempted by power to use that power to pursue their own ends rather than those of the society they’ve been entrusted with. This is the basic problem: how does one form a government that prevents the temptations of power from corrupting the individuals in power leading to the downfall of the government and societal chaos?

The Common Law

The English Common Law was no doubt influenced by the centuries that England had been a Roman colony. Known in the eighteenth century as the “Ancient Constitution,” the Common Law is, simply defined, a series of court decisions dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period, (pre-1066), and perhaps earlier that were retained as guideposts for judicial decision-making.

Two examples serve to illustrate the Common Law. The first is Riparian Doctrine, which has to do with water law. The root of the word, “Ripa,” is of Greek origin and is basically a reference to a stream or stream bank. If a farmer decides to dam up a stream flowing across his land, Riparian Doctrine states, he cannot deprive anyone downstream of water. Riparian Doctrine was commonly adopted by many states in the United States, at least in the eastern half of the country where there is adequate water.

The other example is that of Habeas Corpus, a term that most people have heard of. Literally, it means “to have the body.” The doctrine is that no one can deprive you of your right to your self, that is, your freedom to move about, without telling you what law you have violated and what the evidence against you is. This is very fundamental in a free society, as it puts a burden of proof on Power (the government) to show what one has done in violation of the law before that person can be imprisoned.

Covenant Theology

Discussed in another essay, this is simply the Puritan notion that one’s relationship with God is a personal affair and, in essence, takes precedence over one’s loyalty to temporal institutions like a government. James Otis, Samuel Adams, and others were particularly influenced by this. By extension, this can also be taken to reference the broader notion of loyalty to one’s own conscience, which has proven to be a powerful force indeed.

English “Country” Radicals

These were a group of landed gentry farmers, for the most part, who began to think and write about various aspects of the problem of government after the English Civil War of the 1640s. Led by James Harrington, whose book Oceana that broached the problem of establishing a government without a divine-right monarch, “Country” Radicals had a profound mistrust of government. Left to themselves, they argued, governments only get larger, never smaller. And people in government sooner or later approach their task with an eye toward the main chance, looking for ways to profit from their position.

Country radicals also opposed standing armies — professional armies that could be used by those in government for their own private ends. This was at the root of the American revolutionaries call for “Minutemen”; private citizens who would serve their country when it was attacked. When the threat was ended, they went back to their regular jobs.

Country radicals also felt that their representatives should be residents of the areas they served. Also, that these areas should be drawn up in reasonable and organic ways, not cut up into strangely shaped areas to serve the ends of the party in power. Government was inherently corrupt, was the radicals’ bottom line, and there needed to be checks and balances to prevent it from doing what it would do if left to its own devices: serve the ends of those in power.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment was a period so named by historians because of the rise of the use of reason over dependence on faith. The humanists of the Renaissance period had grown in influence to the point of dominance in the mainstream discourse over faith. The basic notion was that the human mind was capable of ascertaining the dynamics of a problem and formulating solutions.

Regarding the problem of government, John Locke applied this idea as well as the notion of contractual relations that had come to dominate early modern economics. Government, lock argued in his Second Treatise on Government, existed to protect the individual’s “natural rights.” An idea whose origins laid in the European perceptions of American Indians, Locke specified one’s natural rights – rights one had by virtue of being born – as being “life, liberty, and property.”

The “Social Contract” between government and the people, Locke argued, was a way to provide a check on power. Government was created by people to protect their natural rights. If it failed, the people should replace it. Locke pointed out that when it came to changing the government, two problems arose. One was that if only the people in the government were changed, little would change; the other was that if you replaced the form of government, it was very dangerous because one could not be sure how it would turn out.

Other enlightenment philosophers contributed to this discourse. In France, the philosophe Baron Montisqueue wrote about the “separation of powers” that he observed in the British system of King-in-Parliament — very different from the French “divine-right” monarchy that still existed in that country. Baron D’Olbach was a Deist who believed that God was not involved in day-to-day affairs. However, D’Olbach wrote, one could still achieve a mystical experience of God through what he called the “pursuit of happiness,” a phrase that had an obvious influence on Thomas Jefferson.

Scots philosophers were also very influential in the Enlightenment. Most notable was Adam Smith, whose book Wealth of Nations (1776) basically created classical economics. He noted that supply and demand, or what he called the “hidden hand,” was actually more influential on economic activity than mercantilism. He also warned against heavy-handed hidden hands that would manipulate markets for their own ends. Smith was a believer in the laissez-faire (French for “let it go”) nature of the marketplace. The human penchant for irrational behavior has thrown doubt onto Smith’s theory, but it sounds good on paper and continues to control the thinking of many people to this day.

Folk Culture

Finally, European immigrants brought their cultures with them, and part of those cultures were methods of dealing with various problems in the community. Wife-beaters, scolds, petty thieves, etc., were often dealt with not by a police force and jails, but through “rough music,” also known as “skimmington.” This method of enforcing the community’s mores involved group action against violators of the local standards.

Often a “committee” of numerous townspeople — anywhere from a handful to the whole village — would take the person up, perhaps tar-and-feather them, perhaps strip them naked, ride them around town on a rail (a squared log) and deposit them at the edge of town. If they elected to stay after that, it was likely they had learned their lesson and changed their behavior. When the British passed the Stamp Act, or when the new Federal Government tried to tax frontier farmers, these methods were used on tax collectors, enforcers, and tax sympathizers before any shooting war began.

There were other influences, of course. But of those that can be boiled down into a brief essay, these are among the most important.