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The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution

The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution

by William H. Benson

July 3, 2014

     Joseph J. Ellis says in his book, Founding Brothers, “No event in American history, which was so improbable at the time, has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution.” In other words, Ellis contends that the revolution was not foreordained to happen. In 1760, few English-speaking people, either in England or in its thirteen colonies, believed in the likelihood of an American rebellion against King George III and Parliament. Few, if any, foresaw its approach.

     According to Ellis, “the creation of a separate American nation occurred,” not “gradually, but suddenly,” not in an “evolutionary fashion, but in a revolutionary way,” and in a moment of “dynamic intensity and inspiration.” It was like a whirlwind that swept across the land in an hour on a calm day.

     Why did it happen when it did? Why would the thirteen American colonies unite in their opposition to the British government’s officials in London when they had rarely united before to achieve anything?

     Perspective is important. How one person sees a situation can be so different from another, and not everyone reacts in a similar way. Internal beliefs, principles, and ideas, as well as exterior fears, threats, and intimidation, can drive a person one way, but another person reacts in a contrary direction.

     The king, Parliament, and British officials failed to foresee the Americans’ reaction to the stamp tax of 1765. Those in London believed that a small, almost insignificant, tax—by the purchase of a stamp required on legal documents and playing cards—would offset the expense of quartering British soldiers in the colonies, but the colonists thought otherwise.

     They argued that they paid their taxes to their respective colony—to Virginia, to Massachusetts, or to the other colonies—and so they refused to pay this tax to London by purchasing the detested stamps, but the reason for their hostility goes beyond simple opposition to a tax. 

     Edmund Morgan, a twentieth-century historian, thought deeply about the revolution, and he identified its prime cause in what he called the Puritan Ethic. Although the American Revolution’s leaders were not Puritans, they subscribed to the same ethics. The Puritans championed above all else industry and frugality, virtues that promoted manufacturing and economic self-sufficiency.

     Many colonists came to believe that those in England had abandoned hard-work and thrift and had fallen into the vices of laziness, prodigal spending, and an opulent lifestyle. The colonists especially detested the office-holders in London, men “who served no useful purpose but were fattened on the labors of those who did the country’s work.”

     Samuel Adams said the commissioners were “a useless and very expensive set of officers.”

     Edmund Morgan wrote that visitors to London would return and then “make unflattering comparisons between the simplicity, frugality, and industry that prevailed in the colonies and the extravagance, luxury, idleness, drunkenness, poverty, and crime that they saw in the mother country.”

     The Americans believed that the colonists worked and spent their money wisely, but those in England were lazy and, like fools, spent all they earned. American writers protested the “legions of idle, lazy, and to say no worse, altogether useless customs house locusts, caterpillars, flies, and lice.”

     The colonists thought that the Stamp Act was London’s attempt to bring its corruption across the Atlantic to the thirteen colonies. Thomas Jefferson wrote on February 20, 1775, “We do not mean that our people shall be burdened with oppressive taxes to provide sinecures for the idle or the wicked.”

     Why were the virtues of industry and frugality so important to the colonists? Edmund Morgan answered that the colonists believed that virtue promoted both property and liberty. By the virtues of diligent work and the wise use of resources, people could purchase property, the very foundation of liberty. Without property ownership, citizens are reduced to slaves, but with it, citizens are liberated.

     In the newspaper, the Newport Mercury, dated February 28, 1774, a writer wrote, “We may talk and boast of liberty; but after all, only the industrious and frugal will be free.”

     The colonists feared the same would happen in the colonies that had happened in the British Isles. Rent and taxes had drained the Irish farmers, reduced them to serfs, to the status of slaves bound to the land, without the liberty to leave or to advance themselves. The American Revolution’s leaders were determined to prevent that from ever happening to the colonists.

     The American Revolution was not an inevitable but an improbable possibility. Once that whirlwind began spinning though, its leaders were committed. Jefferson’s final words in the Declaration of Independence are most illuminating. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor,” because at stake were virtue, property, and liberty.


     So, enjoy and celebrate Independence Day.