Could America have gained independence from Britain in the late-18th century without the use of violence? Adams to Jefferson after the Revolution: ‘The revolution was in the minds of the people, and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before the hostilities commenced’.
background info… • The crisis of empire for Great Britain involved rapid change, with the main events leading to the Revolution taking place between 1763 (the end of the Seven Years War) and 1776 (Declaration of Independence). • The events themselves play a large role in explaining how colonists were able to gain independence from Britain at this time, but the fundamental change in the ideology or mind-set of the settlers towards Britain is also greatly significant.
a changing attitude towards Britain… • Various factors altered the relative sense of attachment that colonists felt towards Britain towards the end of the Seven Years War. • To counter some of these problems Great Britain tried to exercise greater control over the colonies. Since the Glorious Revolution only loose control had been exercised over the colonies, and colonists thought they shared the rights of Englishmen (secured in 1690). • As a result, the colonies considered themselves as an equal and important part of the empire, participating in imperial gain through the first half of the 1700s. At the same time, they had started to function as independent entities politically and culturally in the absence of strong British control, which established a basic desire for independence. • The Revolution was led by the American elite, a generation of ‘founding fathers’, and may be seen as quite a conservative movement in the sense that it safeguarded elite rights and privileges that were seen to be under threat from the British. • Yet to succeed the movement had to have the support of the people, and at the time a significant Loyalist presence remained in the colonies. The stress was placed on issues of natural rights and the heroic struggle against oppression to win over the hearts and minds of the people. Demagogues (including Samuel Adams) and the propaganda war (publication of books and imagery) assisted in rousing popular protest.
a changing attitude towards the colonies… • To reduce the national debt Britain increased taxes on the colonies; according to them it was only fair that the burden of debt should be shared, and that the colonies should pay for their own defence. • Taxation attempts were vigorously resisted by colonists, the key idea was ‘no taxation without representation’ (that Britain’s tax measures were a violation of the traditional rights of Englishmen, and bypassed colonial legislatures). • Violence eventually came into play in such situations, but pre-war American revolutionaries very effectively used boycotts (e.g. women wove cloth rather than bought it from British mills; spinning became patriotic. Also, tea was boycotted; the reduction of the tea duty in an attempt to offload excess tea in America led to the Boston Tea Party of Dec 1773 - ‘the most famous act of nonviolence in the American colonial period’). • This resistance was extremely effective and significant, yet the degree to which British power was immobilised and the Americans won their demands due to non-violent non-cooperation frequently goes unrecognised. The 1770s revolutionary movement included many colonists with anti-British sentiments but also a commitment to non-violence (80,000 in non-violent sects; far more than the number of troops that Washington ever had at his disposal).
There were attempts to achieve peace without violence (e.g. the Olive Branch Petition to the King) but Britain seemed intent on crushing the rebellion by force, so the Americans responded. The British (Feb 1775) sent 240 soldiers to Salem to seize weapons that the rebels had been amassing. The townspeople pulled up the drawbridge and made the British negotiate entry. • At the same time, many of the new Americans could not conceive of ‘power without force’, and therefore did not think that places such as colonial Pennsylvania and its Quaker society would be of much significance if they didn’t engage in warfare. Indeed, many in Pennsylvania, including Benjamin Franklin, did want to be central to events and therefore actively campaigned against the Quakers. • Yet in July 1775 religious pacifists were called on by the Continental Congress to contribute to the struggle in non-violent ways. Noted by the revolutionaries that in the past the Quakers had been successful in converting soldiers to non-violence; spread of such ideas outside of the sect feared – most colonies therefore persecuted these ‘threats’.
A culture of violence is said to have already existed in the colonies (e.g. popularity of militias), and this became more complex going into the 1770s, with riots coming together that were targeted toward specific aims and then disbanded once the objective had been achieved. • A series of demonstrations against the Stamp Act took place, including one in Charlestown where 2,000 people protested the taxes by burning effigies and then staging a mock funeral for ‘American Liberty’. • Tensions clearly ran very high in such protests, on both sides (e.g. the reaction of British troops to protest in one instance led to the 1770 Boston Massacre). Both sides were committed fully to their cause and were unwilling to back down, and American and British responses to small events became more and more extreme. • Eventually Britain passed the Coercive Acts, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord came soon after (April 1775), with the 2nd Continental Congress adopting the role of a Revolutionary Government.
Now taught as a relatively benign war but actually a brutal, civil conflict filled with casualties, bitter feuds and abuses between civilians and between the military and civilians. • A higher percentage of the American population died in the Revolution than in any other war in US history except for the Civil War. • Overall, in the 1770s colonists chose war over negotiation (violence over non-violence). Notion of violence leading to further violence – British and Americans went to war once more in 1812.
So, if we think back to the quote at the start of the presentation; if revolutions are accomplished in the minds of the people as Adams said, then why is force of arms needed? Because it is perceived as inevitable. Maybe this is due to people being unable to conceive of another path; e.g. Hobbes suggested violence wasn’t due to human nature but a “lack of imagination”. • It is overall unlikely that independence could have been gained without warfare; the British gave up fighting even though the Americans had very few military victories simply because it wanted to focus military efforts elsewhere and the American situation was draining its funds. • Still, the prior non-violent resistance was also effective because it cost the British money and made the colonies unprofitable (they were meant to make, not cost money!) therefore, as Kurlansky acknowledges ‘it seems quite possible that the British withdrawal could have been achieved by continuing protest and economic sabotage’.
American Abolitionist Movement Took three main Directions: Completely Moral Approach – Non Resistance The use of persuasion and argument (NonViolent Resistance) Militant Violence.
Non Resistance. Adin Ballou – Massachusetts Based on Christian Doctrine, interpreting new testament in favour of old testament. PRINCIPLES: cannot kill or commit violence; cannot break the law; join a voluntary organization; join the military or government; petition. Example of Robert Barclay
William Lloyd Garrison Born into poverty, self educated. Secular beliefs and not a pacifist but did believe in the futility of violence. Wanted the total and absolute abolition of slavery. New England Non Resistance Society – based on power of words. Influence on Henry David Thoreau.
Other Notable (nonviolent) Abolitionists. Cassius Clay – nonviolent but advocated self defence, pragmatic approach. John G Fee – idealistic Christian violence should be avoided at all costs. William Whipper – wealthy black businessman – wanted united front, against use of violence.
Key Points Split between Pragmatic and Christian Idealist violence Could not use violence due to racism – fear of a black rebellion in South. Importance of petition, clandestine organisations and producing pamphletting. Raises important dilemma of self defence.
How it Failed When the country went to Civil War in 1961 – many of the abolitionists were the first to get involved, ie: Garrison. Many others in the end resorted to violence, faced with violence themselves – perhaps due to pragmatic nature? Did not mobilize mass support, most in the North disliked slavery, as did most in South – yet would not join with abolitionists.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) • Civil Disobedience (first published 1849); argument for individual resistance to civil government in moral opposition to an unjust state. • Key motivations: disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War. • Thoreau is frequently quoted as espousing that the true place for a just man is in prison. He in fact actually writes in Civil Disobedience, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” • Thoreau is sometimes cited as an individualist anarchist as well as an inspiration to anarchists. Though Civil Disobedience calls for improving rather than abolishing government – “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government” – the direction of this improvement aims at anarchism: “‘That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
Thoreau cont. • Governments cannot be justified because they are often more harmful than helpful. Democracy does not solve this; majorities by virtue of being majorities do not also gain the virtues of wisdom and justice. • Should not suppress your conscience in favour of the law. Thoreau: ‘I cannot for an instant recognize as my government [that] which is the slave’s government also.’ • Government primary agent of corruption and injustice. Espouses men to rebel and revolutionize. Slavery fundamentally immoral and therefore must be stopped because it is wrong, despite being expensive and difficult to stop. • Criticises waiting passively for an opportunity to vote for justice; actually need to be just. Taxes; collaboration in injustice. People who claim war on Mexico and slavery are wrong but pay their taxes – contradiction.
More Thoreau • Thoreau claims that if the law is unjust, the law deserves no respect and should be broken. Abolitionists should completely withdraw their support for the government and stop paying taxes, even if this means courting imprisonment: • ‘Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison…. where the State places those who are not with her, but against her, – the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.’
More Thoreau • Briefly imprisoned (one night) for refusing to pay the poll tax. BUT even felt freer than the people outside. Came out with new perspective on his relationship to his government and its citizens. • Believed U.S government had some admirable qualities. But sought a better government. • Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience profound influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system. Thoreau, in their opinion, eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across. Teachings of Thoreau came alive in Gandhi’s satyagraha campaign and the civil rights movement. Ideas written for all time and applicable in most circumstances.