From the time they first settled in America, in what became the original Thirteen Colonies, the American colonists had enjoyed English rights under British law. These rights came from their colonial charters, the Magna Carta of 1215, and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. What is more, colonists had also enjoyed minimal rule and supervision from Britain. They were therefore free to set up their own assemblies and govern themselves. By the 1700s, the American colonies had formed and lived by self-governed, elective, representative colonial assemblies for nearly 150 years. America’s changing relationship and circumstances with Britain in the 1700s, however, challenged the colonists’ way of life and led to events that would change the course of history.
In the 1760s and 1770s, tensions arose between colonists and Britain as King George III and British Parliament, failing to recognize the colonists’ governing assemblies, imposed regulations on colonial trade and commerce in America. While colonists tried to avoid conflict with Britain, they questioned Britain’s right to intrude in their affairs after a century of very little interference. As colonists protested, Britain only tightened its control, escalating conflict.
Opposition to British rule was strongest in Boston, Massachusetts. Following the Boston Tea Party of 1773, British Parliament attempted to revoke the charter of Massachusetts and submit the colony to British rule. Avid defenders of their rights, many colonists saw British policies and taxes as unjust violations of their rights and civil law. They had serious concerns about corruption, the loss of Rule of Law and their freedoms, the possibility of an enforced national church, and subservience to Britain. The rights violated by the British, colonists cited, included no taxation without representation, trial by jury, innocence until proven guilt, due process of law, freedom of travel in peacetime, no quartering of troops in private homes in peacetime, and no standing army in peacetime without consent. The church issue that concerned colonists was the possibility that Britain might impose the national Church of England in the colonies, for the church had proposed to appoint a bishop in America. Though not supported by the British government and never realized, the proposal was seen as a potential threat to the religious tolerance gained during the Great Awakening. The issue, say historians, added to anti-British sentiment.
Since colonists had no elected representative in Parliament, they had no say on laws enacted by Britain. As Britain’s policies became more intrusive in America, colonists’ lack of representation and lack of justification by British law or Crown to claim it, left them in a powerless position by which to assert themselves and their rights as free Englishmen. When Parliament denied violations of colonists’ rights and claimed that Americans were indirectly represented in Britain, many Americans responded in the same way that early American minister Rev. Stephen Johnson did: “‘Tis ridiculous to common sense that two millions of free people can be represented by a representative elected by no one of them.” The Americans, in fact, wanted more than representation overseas. They wanted to govern themselves.
In 1774, American representative delegates from each colony convened as the first national governing assembly in the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to represent and unify the colonies, create a militia, and repudiate Britain’s policies. Led by radical delegates Samuel Adams and John Adams of Massachusetts, and Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, the Congress issued a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.” This proclamation declared that the colonists were entitled to life, liberty, and property based on the Law of Nature, the English constitution, and their charters and compacts. They did not forfeit English rights, they asserted, when migrating to America. Nor did they give power to any earthly authority to remove these rights. Further, they had a right, they declared, to participate in legislative councils that enacted laws in their colonies. They were entitled, in fact, to exclusive power in their colonial assemblies over internal policies and taxation. All legislation and taxes should be enacted by themselves and with their consent. King George III, however, rejected this proclamation and responded, “The New England governments are now in a state of rebellion. Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or to be independent.”
In a last effort to avoid full-blown war with Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress adopted the “Olive Branch Petition” in July 1775 that affirmed American allegiance to Britain and implored the king for a peaceful resolution. The king, however, rejected this petition as well. Its rejection sent a message to colonists that they had to choose between complete independence or complete submission to British rule. For their independence and freedom, the American colonists would have to fight.
Americans who favored independence thought much like colonist William Prescott of Massachusetts who expressed, …
We think if we submit to these [Britain’s] regulations, all is gone. Our forefathers passed the vast Atlantic, spent their blood and treasure, that they might enjoy their liberties, both civil and religious, and transmit them to their posterity. Their children have waded through seas of difficulty, to leave us free and happy in the enjoyment of English privileges. Now, if we should give them up, can our children rise up and call us blessed? Is a glorious death in defense of our liberties better than a short infamous life, and our memories to be had in detestation to the latest posterity?
The Americans would pledge their lives, fortunes, and honor for their cause.
Following the battles at Lexington and Concord between American colonists and the British army, and finding peace with Britain impossible, delegates to the Second Continental Congress–including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston–drafted the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and declaring the colonies a new, independent nation. The Declaration asserted that the colonists, as equals, had the natural, unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” based on the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.” It announced the formation of a new government based on the “consent of the governed.” The American colonies thus joined together to become the United States of America, beginning a new era in human history.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Source for more information: Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2. Great Awakening Effects: Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution
3. The American Revolution: An Introduction
4. The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
5. American Revolution often called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
6. American Revolution Debate: Submission to Authority
7. American Revolution Debate: God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
8. How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
9. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
10. American Revolution Debate: The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
11. American Revolution Debate: The Principle of Civil Covenants
12. American Revolution Debate: Obedience to God Over Man
13. American Revolution Debate: Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
14. American Revolution Debate: The Lawfulness of Defensive War
15. Freedom: The Most Important Characteristic of America
Poster: Declaration of Independence
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 1, Activity 3: Principles of the American Revolution, p. 205, 354-356. MS-HS.
Principles of the American Revolution
Purpose/Objective: Students learn about the historical context of the American Revolution and the Bible-based principle of freedom that drove the colonists to support revolution against Britain.
1) Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 6.1 and 6.2 in particular.
2) Essay/Handout: Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3) Related blogs/videos (see above).
Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the American Revolution” handout and, as desired, relevant sections in Miracle of America sourcebook as indicated on the handout. (The Miracle book is high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class. You may wish to project some text on-screen. Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed. The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text.) After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout. See “Principles of the American Revolution” handout and review questions in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, pp. 354-356. Review questions are also found in Chapter 6 of the Miracle of America sourcebook, p. 175.
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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