II. The American Revolution

Catechism of the Constitution Book CoverThe Federalist Papers has posted a PDF copy of an Elementary Catechism on the Constitution by Arthur J. Stansbury. I’m publishing it here on Mondays in a series of posts. There are no sections in the book, so I’m dividing it into any natural breaks of topics. Any emphases within the text are Stansbury’s.

II. The American Revolution

Q. Was it always a Republic?
A. No. The states were formerly Colonies.

Q. What do you mean by Colonies?
A. When a part of the people of a nation remove to some distant place, where they settle, but still continue to be governed by the nation from which they came out, these new settlements are called Colonies, and the country which governs them is called the mother country.

Q. By what nation were the American Colonies governed?
A. By Great Britain. Most of the people who first settled this country came from England, Scotland or Ireland, (which three countries make up Great Britain) and long after they had settled here, continued to be governed by laws most of which were made in England.

Q. Were these laws good and wise ?
A. Many of them were; and for a time the colonies were perhaps better off than if they had entirely governed themselves, because, though Great Britain did rule them, she also gave them protection by her fleets, and did many things for their advantage. But afterwards very unwise and unjust laws were made, and such as threatened to destroy all liberty in the colonies.

Q. What did the colonies do then?
A. They made complaints, and reasoned for a long time with Great Britain, trying to persuade her to act more justly.

Q. Did Great Britain listen to their complaints and repeal those bad laws?
A. No—but instead of that sent over ships and soldiers to force us to obey them.

Q. And did we obey?
A. No; the people of the colonies consulted with each other what was to be done, and at length took up arms, raised such armies as they could, and though they had few soldiers, no experienced officers, and but little money, they carried on a war against the whole power of Great Britain, and having (with aid from France) forced two British armies to lay down their arms and surrender themselves prisoners, they at length compelled Great Britain to acknowledge their independence,

Q. What do you mean by that?
A. I mean that she was compelled to consent that all those colonies, which had before been governed by laws made for them by her, should after that have liberty to make laws for themselves, and obey her no more.

Q. When we speak of this war, what do we call it?
A. We call it the American Revolution.

Q. What do you mean by a Revolution?
A. A revolution means some great change of government; and we ought ever to remember ours with ardent gratitude to God for so great a blessing, and with lasting love and reverence for those good, wise, and brave men, who went through such dangers and sufferings that their country might be free.

Q. When and where did the war of the revolution begin?
A. At Lexington and Concord, villages near Boston in Massachusetts, on the 19th of April, 1775.

Q. How long did the struggle continue?
A. More than seven years.

Q. When did it end?
A. On the 21st of January, 1783—when a treaty was signed at Paris acknowledging the independence of the United States.

Q. Why is the 4th of July kept with such public rejoicing through all parts of the United States?
A. Because on the 4th of July 1776 the Colonies first declared themselves free and independent; from that day the independence of the country is reckoned in
all our public proceedings; though it was not acknowledged by Great Britain till 1783.

I would add to this brief overview that prior to the American Revolution the Founders believed they were being denied their rights as Englishmen. From The Rutherford Institute:

In the wake of the French and Indian War, the British treasury was severely depleted and the national debt had risen ten-fold. Members of Parliament looked to the American colonists to help repay that historic and crippling debt. They sought any means necessary to pull money from the American economy— they raised taxes and tariffs, they quartered troops in colonists’ homes to save money, they issued more intrusive search warrants (writs of assistance) to stop free trade by colonial merchants.

From the American point of view, all of this denied colonists the rights they were due as British subjects- rights that were guaranteed to them under the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

In her article Shared Memory: John Hampden, New World and Old (PDF), Maija Jansson wrote about the impact on the American Revolution of John Hampden, a member of the House of Commons who in 1635 refused to pay the ship-money tax he believed Charles I had levied unlawfully (my emphasis in the last paragraph).

…Hampden became an icon of the revolutionary period for his stand against the unjust taxation by the Crown that culminated in his trial in the ship-money case in 1637….

HampdenJohn Hampden became famous in England in 1637 the moment he challenged the king’s right to collect the ship-money tax, and it was sustained over generations in the hearts and minds of the people…In the mid-seventeenth century, when many Englishmen believed that Charles I was overstepping the bounds of the statutory powers vested in the Crown, Hampden became an instant national hero for seeking a judicial determination regarding the powers of taxation. It was an act of supreme courage for a little-known Calvinist country gentleman to con- front the king in a court of law. Ultimately the ship-money case was about far more than the 20 shillings of ship-money tax that Hampden refused to pay. It was about the nature of government, the powers of the Crown and the authority of parliament – all issues with which England and the colonies would wrestle in succeeding years. It became a landmark case in English constitutional practice and ensured Hampden’s place in history for all time….1

Another to take up the pen in the colonies was Ben Franklin, who questioned the use of such words as ‘rebellion’ and ‘sedition’ by English gentlemen writing about the colonists’ refusal to pay taxes: ‘It would be curious to know’, he wrote, ‘those gentlemen’s opinion[s] of the conduct of the brave Hampden, who thought it his duty to resist the lawful sovereign’s illegal demand of […] the tax of ship money. Do the Grenvillians hold this glorious patriot Hampden to be a “seditious” and “rebellious” person?’

Franklin later wrote from Boston as a Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle that

You will tell me that we forfeited our estates by our refusal to pay the taxes your nation would have imposed on us without the consent of colonial parliaments. Have you then forgot the incontestable principle which was the foundation of Hampden’s glorious lawsuit with Charles the First, that ‘what an English King has no right to demand, an English subject has a right to refuse’.2

See also Patrick Henry’s Resolutions Against the Stamp Act (the Virginia Resolves) and the Petition of Right.

In the heading under Charters of Freedom, you will find a copy of the Constitution as well as links to other pertinent primary documents and commentary on the Constitution.

Elementary Catechism on the Constitution posts:
Elementary Catechism on the Constitution (Preface)
I. The Necessity of Government and Its Forms
II. The American Revolution
III. The Occasion and Purpose of the Constitution
IV. State and National Laws
V. The House of Representatives
VI. The Senate
VII. Impeachment

UPDATE: If you would like to do more reading on John Hampden, here is a link to The John Hampden Society. Hampden was known as the ‘Patriae Pater’ – the Father of the People.

John Hampden was now at the height of his fame, and occupied much the same position in the eyes of the people as did his descendant Winston Churchill exactly 3 centuries later. Because of Hampden’s stand, the King had subse- quently been unable to collect Ship Money, and had been forced to recall Parliament in 1640, after an interval of 11 years.

When this parliament began”, wrote Clarendon, “the eyes of all men were turned on him as their Patriae Pater, and the pilot that must steer their vessel through the tempest and rocks which threatened it”. It was from this event that John Hampden received the title by which he has ever since been known – The Patriot‘.

There is a statue of John Hampden in Parliament.

As members of the public wishing to watch our debates in the House of Commons or to lobby their Member of Parliament enter the Palace of Westminster, they pass through St. Stephen’s Hall, site of the Commons Chamber until the nineteenth century.  At the entrance to the Central Lobby stand two statues, representing two alternative visions of our Parliamentary development.  On one side stands the Earl of Clarendon, in his Lord Chancellor’s robes, symbol of the respect for the law. On the other side there is the splendid figure of John Hampden, dressed for battle, sword at his side, ready to defend Parliament’s rights and privileges by any means necessary.

Book image from The Federalist Papers.
1, 2Maija Jansson, “Shared Memory: John Hampden, New World and Old,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2008) 1—2, 11–12.


2 thoughts on “II. The American Revolution

  1. I didn’t either. I never had any college courses on the American Revolution, and all I can guess is that some high school or grade school texts decided not to mention him. I’ve read about the war on my own, but I don’t remember an author focusing on him. It may be that now I know his name I’ll notice him in rereading books. The Franklin quote amazed me.

    He’s not an obscure figure in English history, and I’ve read that on my own. When I discovered Hampden, I felt the effect of having had an indifferent to poor progressive education on history!

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