Dispelling Myths about the American Revolution

A report on a talk by Glenn F. Williams

By Nancy Spannaus

February 23, 2024—A presentation by well-known military historian Glenn F. Williams[1] to the Sergeant Lawrence Everhart chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution Feb. 21 provides a perfect opportunity to dispel some dominant myths about the American Revolution. This event was particularly timely and useful for me, as I am about to embark on a four-part class series entitled Preparing for America’s 250th Birthday: The Core Principles of the American Revolution.[2]

Dispelling Myths about the American Revolution
Glenn F. Williams

Williams’ presentation was entitled “The American Colonies and the Constitutional Crisis,” amplified with the provocative quote “For Britannia’s Glory and Wealth.” He explained that, while his work has focused on 18th century military history, he found it essential to provide the context for the American Revolutionary War in the political realm. His talk recounted the key events leading up to the shooting war that began on April 19, 1775, starting with the turning point of the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War.

Throughout his narrative, Williams highlighted key points that challenge simplified, and even falsified, notions of the American Revolution. In the rest of this post, I will elaborate on those which most impressed me.

Americans supported the British Constitution

It is a common myth that the British realm did not have a constitution. While it’s true that their constitution was not written, Britons and British-American colonists of the time would have taken issue with that statement. They viewed their Constitution as the mixed powers of the monarchy (king), aristocracy (house of lords), and democracy (the Parliament). Under that system, the power to initiate revenue bills lay with the Parliament, which allegedly represented the people. This procedure represented, in their minds, popular consent to taxes being levied. [A balance of these three elements of society was supposed to ensure “liberty” and the “good of the whole community.”[3] –nbs]

Dispelling Myths about the American Revolution
The Virginia House of Burgesses was to serve the role of parliament for the colony.

Additional elements of the Constitutional arrangements were the right to a jury trial of one’s peers, and freedom from a standing army during peacetime.

All of these elements were paralleled in the structure of the British-American colonies, nine of which were royal colonies by the time of the American Revolutionary War. And it was the violation of what the American colonists viewed as these “rights of Englishmen” that served as a rallying cry in the early days of the Revolution.

Making the Case in Song  

In discussing this background, Williams turned to a popular song of the time to make his point. The lyrics of “The Liberty Song” were written in 1767 by Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, one of the early leaders of the resistance against the British policies after the Seven Years’ War. It’s from this song that Williams culled the phrase “For Britannia’s Glory and Wealth,” which he featured in his title.

Dispelling Myths about the American Revolution
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania

First [from me], a little context. 1767 was the year of the Townshend  Acts, a series of revenue measures designed to raise revenue for support of British administration of the colonies, including the stationing of troops in North America. Its enforcement measures actually authorized the shutdown of the New York assembly, which had refused to use the taxes to pay for the resident British troops. This action spurred Dickinson into action, including the penning of one of the most popular pamphlets of the era, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, and this song, which was first published in the Boston Gazette.

In his presentation, Williams quoted two elements of Dickinson’s song text, which you will see underlined in the full text here. Ironically, the tune was the theme song of the British Royal Navy.

Come join band in hand, brave Americans all,
And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty’s call;
No tyrannous acts, shall suppress your just claim,
Or stain with dishonor America’s name.

In freedom we’re born, and in freedom we’ll live;
Our purses are ready,
Steady, Friends, steady,

Not as slaves, but as freemen our money we’ll give.
Our worthy forefathers – let’s give them a cheer –
To climates unknown did courageously steer;
Thro’ oceans to deserts, for freedom they came,
And, dying, bequeath’d us their freedom and fame.

Their generous bosoms all dangers despis’d,
So highly, so wisely, their birthrights they priz’d;
We’ll keep what they gave, we will piously keep,
Nor frustrate their toils on the land or the deep.

The Tree, their own hands had to Liberty rear’d,
They lived to behold growing strong and rever’d;
With transport then cried, – “Now our wishes we gain,
For our children shall gather the fruits of our pain.”

How sweet are the labors that freemen endure,
That they shall enjoy all the profit, secure, –
No more such sweet labors Americans know,
If Britons shall reap what Americans sow,

Swarms of placemen and pensioners soon will appear

Like locusts deforming the charms of the year:
Suns vainly will rise, showers vainly descend,
If we are to drudge for what others shall spend.

Then join hand in hand brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall;
In so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed,
For Heaven approves of each generous deed.

All ages shall speak with amaze and applause,
Of the courage we’ll show in support of our laws;
To die we can bear, – but to serve we disdain,
For shame is to freemen more dreadful than pain.

This bumper I crown for our sovereign’s health,
And this for Britannia’s glory and wealth;
That wealth, and that glory immortal may be,
If she is but just, and we are but free.
In freedom we’re born, &c.

Dickinson makes Williams’ point: the colonists were totally committed to their mother country.  But, as the words that follow each of these phrases indicate, that loyalty was contingent upon the British government being “just,” and the colonists being treated as “freemen,” not slaves. In the words of the colonists at the time, adhering to the (unwritten) British Constitution.

Taxation was not the issue

Which raises the second major myth that Williams vehemently debunked throughout: the idea that the American revolt occurred because the colonists didn’t want to pay taxes.  That, he emphasized, was not true at all.

Dispelling Myths about the American Revolution
Stamp Act protest in Boston, 1765

The American colonial legislatures, he explained, acted like little parliaments for the colonies, and they were the source of taxation. Taxes were a part of life in the Americas, and the colonists were used to paying them.  Taxation itself was not the issue.

What was the issue, Williams asserted, was the imposition of taxes by the distant Parliament, in which they had no voice, as well as the purposes for which the taxes were levied. Contrary to the standard explanation, the Stamp Act, for example, was not to raise revenue to pay for the debts Britain incurred in the Seven Years’ War; it was to pay for the stationing of thousands of British troops in the colonies. In other words, the colonists were to pay for maintaining a standing army!

The Stamp Act triggered such broad, determined, and sometimes violent resistance that it was repealed within a year. The colonists literally brought trade to a standstill for some time, and the British Parliament was forced to relent. However, Parliament immediately passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted their right to impose any taxes they pleased.

The next set of taxes, called the Townshend Acts, purported to get around the colonists’ objections by being framed as import duties (on items such as glass, paint, lead, paper, and tea), which the colonists had been used to paying for years. However, the purpose of these taxes went smack against a core tenet of the British Constitution as the colonists understood it: it was to pay for the British administration of the colonies. In other words, no longer would the colonial governors, and other officials, be paid by the local legislatures, but those officials would be solely dependent on the British government. The colonists would lose the “power of the purse,” the right to be taxed only with their consent. (their legislatures)

Resistance to the Townshend Acts was less effective, Williams said, but it was effective enough to lead to the repeal of all the taxes except that on tea. But the colonists’ leaders were not fooled.  The purpose of the tax on tea, small as it was, was still to provide the revenue for the British administration of the colonies, taking away a crucial element  of self-government.[4] The British Constitution was being violated.

The Boston Tea Party, December 16, 1773

The result was the Boston Tea Party (Dec. 16, 1773), followed by the Coercive Acts (March 31, 1774) that 1) shut down the port of Boston; 2) installed a military government that suppressed the local town meetings; 3) mandated that trials of American colonists in conflict with British officials be held in either Nova Scotia admiralty court, or England; and 4) granted a huge swath of land beyond the Appalachian Mountains to the then British-colony of Quebec. All these measures provided sufficient outrage throughout all the colonies to lead to the first Continental Congress.

While that Congress, and the Second as well, continued to call for a “redress of grievances” – i.e., the restoration of the rights under the English Constitution as they understood it – the road to armed revolt lay straight ahead.

The War is not the Revolution

Williams concluded his presentation with a quote from Founding Father Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In an “Address to the American People” in 1787, Rush wrote: “There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war.” It is critical to understand this point, Williams said, as so many Americans confuse the two.

I was curious as to what exactly Rush meant by this statement. Could he have meant, as John Adams later said, that the real revolution was in the minds of the people before armed hostilities actually began? Or did he mean that the successful war against the British oppression was just the first step toward a revolution in government?

Benjamin Rush

Upon reading Rush’s address, I believe it’s clear that he meant the latter. He was writing on the eve of the Constitutional Convention. Involved as he was in the attempt to frame republican governments (both on the state and national levels) that would preserve the freedoms for which the war was fought, Rush[5] believed that the revolution had just begun. He wrote:

The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.

Rush goes on to discusses the defects of the Confederation government, and the need for a reformed federal government, complete with separation of powers similar to the form (though not the spirit) of the British government. His proposals are too detailed for me to go into in this post, but I will do so in the future. He concludes with a rousing call:

PATRIOTS of 1774, 1775, 1776—HEROES of 1778, 1779, 1780! come forward! your country demands your services!—Philosophers and friends to mankind, come forward! Your country demands your studies and speculations! Lovers of peace and order, who declined taking part in the late war, come forward! your country forgives your timidity, and demands your influence and advice! Hear her proclaiming, in sighs and groans, in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals, and in her manners, “THE REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER!”

In Closing

I will have much more to say about the causes and course of the American Revolution (not the war per se) in my upcoming class series. I consider such study a top priority for American patriots at this time of extreme partisanship, actually dysfunction, of our federal government. I hope some of you will join me.

We are coming up on the 250th anniversary of our nation’s Founding, when we announced to the world a set of noble purposes which have yet to be fulfilled. Understanding the history of that period will be crucial to helping us clarify our identity as a nation.

In the meantime, thanks to Dr. Williams for his thought-provoking presentation.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Shows the Way (click hereand Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics (click here).

[1] Glenn F. Williams Ph.D. is a retired Army officer who made public history a second career. He is currently a Senior Historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Fort McNair, DC. His recent books include Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign against the Iroquois, and Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era

[2] The series is sponsored by the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture and will be a zoom class of four parts. Registration is available at  https://www.ffrcc.org/american-history.

[3] See Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Belknap Press of Harvard, 1992, chapter III.

[4] In addition, the colonists saw the tea tax as a “foot in the door,” since it could be raised at any time.

[5] It should be noted that at this time Rush was a prominent member of Pennsylvania’s Abolition Society, as well as an activist for other reforms such as humane treatment for the mentally ill.

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