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The double error of teaching the American Revolution as political philosophy

Updated: Jan 19, 2021

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

One of the great barriers students face when studying the founding of the United States is that their teachers too often teach it as political philosophy. This is not merely a tactical error (since most people are intimidated or turned off by philosophy), but also a historical error – it misinforms students about the Revolution.

As experts on ideas, political philosophers trace the intellectual origins of the Revolution, and identify the implications of Revolutionary ideas – how these ideas shaped American government and politics. There’s no doubt that some Revolutionary leaders dabbled in political philosophy, and that they employed political philosophy in their justifications for rebellion and in their construction of the state and national constitutions. But most leaders of the rebellion and of the young republic were not amateur philosophers; they were practical people – wealthy lawyers, merchants, and farmers. They were also elected representatives, which brought even the most philosophically inclined among them into contact with the practical concerns of their constituents.

Indeed, redirecting one’s focus from the Revolution’s leaders to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who did the bulk of the heavy lifting on campaign and on the homefront – people who had neither read nor heard of Locke, Hobbes, Harrington, and Montesquieu – leaves no doubt that political theory is an inappropriate lens through which to understand the Revolution. The Revolution was a mass movement of common people; an event that took place in the streets and in the countryside. It was not political abstractions about taxation, representation, or law that moved Americans to resist Parliament in the 1760s, and then fight a long, costly, and bloody rebellion against Britain. Rather, it was the daily life experiences of countless men and women on their farms, on the docks, and in their workshops, stores, and homes. It was seeing a cousin hauled in front of a military tribunal for a minor offense like smuggling, while a murderer or a rapist had the protection of a jury trial. It was seeing a neighbor’s property searched without a warrant and his possessions confiscated without trial. It was hearing of British troops confiscating a nearby town’s stores of gunpowder.

"You may in vain talk to [the people] about the duties on tea, etc. These

things will not affect them. They depend on principles too abstracted for

their [comprehension]. But tell them of the robbery of the [Williamsburg]

magazine, and that the next step will be to disarm them, you bring the

subject home to their bosoms, and they will be ready to fly to arms to

defend themselves." [Patrick Henry, 1775]

Common settlers joined the resistance movement because of practical fears; because they saw law-enforcement agents enforcing policies that English communities instinctively understood as threatening, unjust, and illegal. Colonists saw, in their daily lives, a mostly benign imperial government suddenly turn against them, becoming lawless, and becoming hostile to the traditional, conventional, and sacred English custom of self-government – in law enforcement, in the courts, and in provincial legislatures.

The famous 1843 interview with Levi Preston – an elderly Revolutionary veteran – illustrates this mindset among the colonists. When asked whether he was moved to join the fight by the taxes, or the Stamp Act, or the Tea Act, or the Intolerable Acts, he replied no to each. When asked if it was famous essays on governance and the principles of liberty, he professed to have never heard of them – “We read only the Bible […] and the Almanack.” Instead of all these, he offered this explanation: “we had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean that we should.”

It was men and women like Levi Preston who fueled and participated in the political resistance against Parliament for a decade before the war, and who then sustained or fought in the rebellion for eight long years. When instructors focus on a handful of Revolutionary leaders and Founding Founders who explained their fears and beliefs in the form of philosophical concepts and political theory, we neglect multitudes of normal Americans who did not think like that. And likewise, when academics focus on our academic audience – a handful of American Revolution scholars, who are interested in political philosophy – we neglect our real audience, which is millions of normal Americans who are not at all interested in political philosophy.

I mean no offense to philosophers and political theorists; some of my best friends... But philosophy is undoubtedly an acquired taste, and is not easily accessible for most people. So leading with political philosophy – theories of government, positive vs. negative liberty, John Locke, separation of powers, statutory and common law – not only makes the Revolution boring for most students, but it also misleads them as to why Americans launched their Revolution.

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1 Comment

Catherine Borck
Aug 02, 2020

The one disagreement that I will offer here: John Locke is most certainly not boring.

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