With all of the disturbing talk these days about the possibility of another American civil war, perhaps now's the time to think about the origins of the two previous civil wars in America. Of course, we tend to think only about the civil war that broke out with the secession of the Confederate States in 1861. But we should recognize that the American Revolutionary War could rightly be identified as a Civil War, because Americans fought on both sides of that war--American Revolutionaries fighting against American Loyalists. In a letter written in 1813, John Adams estimated that about one third of the American people were enthusiastic supporters of the Revolution, one third were not committed to either side of the war, and one third were loyalists supporting the British side. In fact, some Americans as early as 1774 and 1775 spoke about what was happening as an "American civil war."
To explain the origins of that war, we need to keep in mind three points. First, it began not in 1776 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence but in 1774 when Americans mobilized to resist British imperial rule after Parliament passed the Coercive Acts for punishing Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. The second point is that the primary impetus for the revolution came not from the "Founding Fathers" (those prominent American intellectual leaders who wrote about the abstract principles of liberty) but from those ordinary Americans who joined the popular insurgency for overthrowing British political authority. The third point is that these popular insurgents were "Lockeans"--not in the sense that they had read and been persuaded by John Locke's writings, but in the sense that their insurgent activity conformed to Locke's teaching.
A good survey of the evidence for all three of these points is T. H. Breen's American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Hill and Wang, 2010).
After the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773, the British Parliament felt compelled to punish the city of Boston by passing a series of statutes in the spring of 1774 known as the Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts in the colonies), which closed the port of Boston to all commerce and restructured the Massachusetts government so that the council would be filled with Crown appointees to carry out the will of the Crown. This new system was to be enforced by an army of occupation under the command of General Thomas Gage. Many colonists were outraged by this because they thought this was not a fair way to punish the Tea Party. They saw this as part of a conspiracy to tyrannize over the American colonies.
Across New England, many towns and villages had public meetings to decide how they should express their resentment against British rule. They adopted four kinds of action. First, they decided to boycott British manufactured goods. To enforce this boycott, they established committees of people in every community to put pressure on those individuals who continued to buy British goods. The names of people who violated the boycott were published in local newspapers so that they could be ostracized by the community and sometimes threatened with being tarred and feathered. This boycott worked because within a year the sale of British goods in the colonies had dropped dramatically.
Their second action was to have town meetings that voted for representatives to go to a Continental Congress to formulate policies for a union of the colonies. This Congress--the First Continental Congress--was an extralegal body that had no legal authority under the British imperial constitution. But the colonists claimed that the people had the ultimate authority to institute new governmental institutions.
Their third action was to dismantle imperial authority. They vowed not to obey orders from officials appointed by General Gage. They also closed the British courts by organizing public protests that prevented the courts from meeting. By September of 1774, General Gage was writing to the Earl of Dartmouth in London, the secretary of state for the colonies, confessing his frustration: "Civil Government is near its end, the Courts of Justice expiring one after another." The town meetings also voted to refuse to transfer tax revenues to loyalist treasurers.
Finally, these town meetings also decided to order their militia officers to resign, and then new militia units were established under the control of the local community. They were preparing for armed resistance.
Throughout the summer of 1774, angry crowds harassed suspected loyalists and British officials, often with threats of violence. But generally the colonial resistance was nonviolent.
This resistance movement began in New England, but it soon spread through all the colonies, particularly through newspaper stories that promoted the political argument against British authority.
Early in September, a rumor spread around New England that General Gage had destroyed Boston with a bombardment of cannon. In response, across many towns, thousands of men took up arms and marched toward Boston. This rumor turned out to be false. But the New Englanders were proud of the strength they had shown by this massive mobilization of armed force.
This military mobilization happened during the first weeks of the meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September. The fifty-five men in the Congress were the elite political leaders in the colonies, who assumed that they could guide the colonists through the imperial crisis they faced. But the popular insurgency had become so powerful that it seemed that the people were marching ahead of their leaders, and so the congressmen felt compelled to become more radical than many of them would have liked.
On September 17, 1774, the Congress almost unanimously adopted the Suffolk Resolves, named after the county in Massachusetts where it was originally drafted by a convention of town delegates. This was a radical statement of the right of the people to nullify parliamentary statutes that they considered unlawful: "that no obedience is due from this Province [Massachusetts] to either or any part of the Acts above mentioned, but that they be rejected as the attempts of a wicked Administration to enslave America." Loyalists denounced the Suffolk Resolves as the work of "rebellious Republicans" and "a complete declaration of war against Great Britain."
The Congress also debated how to make the boycott of British goods more effective. Since the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, a boycott of imported goods had been a primary strategy of nonviolent resistance to Parliamentary taxation of the colonies. The hope was that the stoppage of British imports would punish British businesspeople so that they would be motivated to put pressure on Parliament to yield to the colonists' demands. The problem with this strategy was that it was difficult to enforce. If the American merchants in one city reduced their orders for imported goods, they complained that their competitors in other cities were continuing their normal trade.
The Congress needed a plan that would win the support of all Americans for a boycott, with serious penalties for those who refused to cooperate. On October 20, 1774, the Congress enacted the "Articles of Association" that was a "non importation, non consumption, and non exportation agreement." The crucial article for solving the problem of enforcement was Article Eleven. They ordered "that a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association." They also declared that when a majority of the members of a local committee saw that someone was refusing to cooperate in the boycott, they were "forthwith to cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British America may be publicly known, and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively with break off all dealings with him or her."
At first glance, this establishment of local committees to enforce the boycott of British goods was nothing new. For many years, "committees of correspondence" had been formed in the colonies to coordinate resistance to unpopular British policies for the colonies. The first such committee was formed in Boston in 1764. Through handwritten letters and printed pamphlets, they disseminated information about the resistance movement within and between the colonies. Often these committees were accountable to town meetings. Most of the colonial legislatures had created such committees.
But the Congress's Articles of Association turned out to be a more radically revolutionary step. Since the great majority of adult white males were eligible to vote in colonial elections, the local selection of committees by these voters became a highly democratic process. Moreover, these local committees were given a wide latitude to expand their powers. As British authority in the colonies disintegrated, these committees took over the government of the colonies. Hundreds of committees were created throughout America in the fall of 1774 and the spring of 1775. By electing these committees and serving as committee members, ordinary people gained experience in self-government. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 Americans served on these committees. In effect, this was a federal system of government, with power divided between the local committees and the Congress as the central ruling body. Thus, the Association functioned as the first American Constitution.
The members of these committees understood the revolutionary implications of the Association. For example, one of the committees in Philadelphia published a statement in the Pennsylvania Journal saying that "in the present unnatural struggle, where the child is obliged to defend itself against the violence of the parent, an attempt on our liberty is made, under the form of law." Once Parliament forfeited its authority over the colonies, they explained, "we were obliged to recur to the first principles of the Constitution, and to delegate to men, chosen for the purpose, powers to suspend the former laws and customs of our Country, so far as was necessary for the preservations of our privileges, and to establish others of a temporary nature, to answer the present exigencies."
Notice the implicitly Lockean character of what they were doing. In response to what they saw as Parliament's "attempt on our liberty," they claimed the right of the people to withdraw their consent to Parliamentary authority over them, and thus to dissolve the government, thereby reverting to a state of nature without government, and then to establish new governmental institutions to secure their liberty. In reverting to a state of nature, they entered not a state of complete anarchy but rather a social state in which they acted as a community that could consent to establishing the Continental Congress and the local committees as agencies of government.
This confirmed Locke's argument that a dissolution of government does not require a dissolution of society, because human beings are naturally social animals who can spontaneously organize a social order in a state of nature, and then act as a community to establish formal governmental institutions.
In April of 1775, General Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, had lost all control of Massachusetts outside of Boston. The colonial governments across Massachusetts were building up their militias to prepare for military hostilities with the British soldiers. Gage planned to send an expedition of soldiers to seize military supplies that he believed were stored in Concord. On the morning of April 19, his soldiers entered Lexington where they were met by Lexington militiamen blocking their way. It's unclear who fired the first shot. But the colonials reported that the British soldiers fired first, killing some of the militiamen. This set off an outpouring of popular rage, and from this point, the largely nonviolent revolutionary resistance of the previous year was turned into a revolutionary war.
As I have indicated in a previous post, proponents of nonviolent resistance to despotism have wondered why the American revolutionaries in 1775 gave up their nonviolent strategy in going to war. But I think Breen is correct in saying that the colonial leaders in the Congress were forced into this by the passionate surge of ordinary Americans towards a violent response to the British attacks at Lexington and Concord.
On May 10, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia for the first time. The First Continental Congress had adjourned on October 26, 1774. This Second Continental Congress became the provisional central government for the United States until 1781.
On June 14, the Congress organized the militia around Boston into the Continental Army, and George Washington was appointed as the Commanding General. On July 6, the Congress approved a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, which justified colonial military action as a defense against British attacks, but it also explained that it was not declaring independence from Great Britain. One year later, on July 2, 1776, the Congress approved a resolution for declaring independence; and on July 4, the Congress approved the text of the Declaration of Independence.
What we see here, as Breen observes, is that the American insurgents were "popular Lockeans," although most of them had never read Locke. Breen explains:
"In general terms, the Americans were all children of the great seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. But one should not exaggerate his influence. Many Americans had never read Locke's work; quite a few would not have even recognized his name. They are probably best described as popular Lockeans. They subscribed to his rights-based philosophy without much caring about intellectual genealogies. We encounter this perspective on state power in humble statements. Early in 1773, the inhabitants of Hubbardston, a small farming community in Massachusetts, worked out for themselves the ligaments of this system of thought. In the language of the folk, they announced, 'We are of opinion that Rulers first Derive their Power from the Ruled by Certain Laws and Rules agreed upon by Ruler and Ruled, and when a Ruler Breaks over Such Laws and Rules as agreed to by Ruler and Ruled, and makes new ones that then the Ruled have a Right to Refuse Such new Laws and that the Ruled have a right to Judge for themselves when Rulers Transgress'" (Breen 2010, 242-43).
As I have indicated in some previous posts on Claire Rydell Arcenas's America's Philosopher: John Locke in American Intellectual Life, Arcenas does not recognize that identifying Locke as "America's Philosopher" does not depend only upon showing that many Americans have read Locke, because we might show that many Americans have been Lockean in their moral and political thinking even without ever reading Locke. The ordinary people of Hubbardston manifested that in affirming the Lockean teaching that political authority rests ultimately on the consent of the people, and that it is the right of the people to judge for themselves when the rulers have violated that popular agreement to a government that will secure the people's liberty.
The American revolutionaries also understood Locke's teaching that when there is a disagreement between the people and their rulers as to whether the rulers have violated the people's trust, the people can "appeal to Heaven," which is to say that the people can go to war and allow the God of battles to decide the dispute. That's what happened when the American insurgents went to war against Great Britain.
On July 18, 1775, Major General Israel Putnam was leading soldiers of the Continental Army in the Siege of Boston; and at dawn on that day, he organized a ceremony for unfurling a new battle flag--the Appeal to Heaven Flag. It had a single pine tree against a white background. Underneath the tree ran the words APPEAL TO HEAVEN. Later, George Washington commissioned a similar flag for flying on Continental naval vessels.
The pine tree had long been a symbol of New England, and it became known as the "Liberty Tree." As I have indicated in a previous post, the phrase "Appeal to Heaven" came from Locke's Second Treatise, where it appears many times (see ST, 21, 109, 155, 168, 176, 232, 240-43). This was Locke's phrase for the Old Testament story of Jephtha, who was chosen by the people of Israel as their Judge and as the General to lead them in war against the Ammonites. Jeptha prayed that God would give the victory in war to the Israelites, and this would be the judgment of God in Heaven.
When the people go to war against rulers whom they regard as despotic, the people are invoking what Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural power and right that people have in the state of nature to punish those who harm them and thus violate the law of nature. The American Continental soldiers who went into battle under that Appeal to Heaven flag were confirming that Lockean teaching.