THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
by William H. Benson
July 5, 2000
George III was the King of England, and he was young, self confident, ignorant, opinionated, and inflexible. His appointments to administer his vast empire were a succession of second-raters and nonentities–the Earl of Bute, George Grenville, Marquis of Rockingham, the Duke of Grafton, and Lord North, and behind them, in key jobs, were other nobodies–Charles Townshend and Lord George Germaine. King George III entered the contest over the fate of the American colonies inadequately staffed.
This situation would not have mattered much if he had faced men of ordinary stature, of average competence and character. But this was not to be, for the men who spearheaded the American Revolution were a most remarkable group of men–sensible, broadminded, courageous, usually well educated, gifted in a variety of ways, mature, and long-sighted, sometimes lit by flashes of genius.
Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams each had strengths and weaknesses that compensated each other, so that they were infinitely more formidable than the sum of their parts. They were the Enlightenment made flesh. And behind this front line was a second and even a third line of solid, sensible, and able men, capable of rising to a great occasion.
Ususally the best teams win athletic competitions, and the best teams usually have the best players. Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important single one is always the quality of the people in charge; and never was this principle more convincingly demonstrated than in the struggle for American independence.
Benjamin Franklin visited England often enough to realize that there was a constitutional gap, as wide as the Atlantic, between the British and the colonists in their interpretation of who ruled. The Earl of Granville bluntly told an astonished Franklin that “The King is legislator for the Colonies, and His Majesty’s instructions are the law of the land.” Franklin replied, “I told him this was a new doctrine to me. I had always understood from our charters that our laws were to be made by our assemblies, but the Earl assured me I was totally mistaken.”
Franklin understood better than the Earl that colonial America was an experiment in self-government. New England’s town meetings, Virginia’s House of Burgess, and the colonial assemblies were repository’s of local self-rule. Franklin foresaw the future and realized that self-government on a national scale was indeed a very real possibility. And when it came, he was saddened about the break with England, but he was confident that America’s huge strengths would make it a certain victor.
George Washington’s burning ambition was to get a regular commission in the British army. He tried repeatedly, for it would have changed his life. It would mean global service, promotion, riches, and possibly a knighthood, but the system was against him. Colonial army officers were considered nobodies and treated with contempt by the English officers. Washington felt the sting and the insult of this injustice and promptly placed his superior military and administrative talents with his native America. Without Washington’s skill, the colonists may very well not have won the war. He did not get a knighthood, but his face is on the American dollar bill yet today.
Thomas Jefferson brought an intellectual power to the Revolution. He had read Chapter Five of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, which argued that merit and capability and industry should determine men’s and women’s position in society, and not into which family they are born. Onto Locke’s idea of a meritocracy Jefferson grafted two other ideas: the importance of individual rights–life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and also the linking of liberty with popular sovereignty. Jefferson’s ideas gave the American colonists a strong, clear, and plausible basis for freedom and their move for independence.