Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Discourses of Resistance in the American Revolution

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Discourses of Resistance in the American Revolution

Article excerpt

Much of the debate about the political thought of the American Revolution has centered on the relative influence of the liberal tradition as exemplified by John Locke and the republican tradition. The tide of recent scholarship has been against the revisionist position that downplayed the influence of Locke on the American founding in favor of authors in the republican tradition. One can grant that Locke was not a hegemonic figure and that republican sources played an important role without denying Locke's central place. The real puzzle for scholars now is the ease with which early American thinkers combined liberal and republican strands of political thought that many modern scholars find contradictory.1 In this paper I suggest that to answer this question we must broaden our scope and recognize that revolutionary thought cannot be placed along a simple continuum between liberals and republicans. Rather, the arguments the Americans used to justify resistance are better understood as falling into four types: Lockean, Biblical, legal/historical, and republican. These are not rigid types but indicators of relative emphasis. Each represents a distinct way of arguing for resistance, but the American writers did not see them as mutually exclusive. A survey of American resistance pamphlets reveals that Lockean themes were very common and that for a number of reasons writers were able to see Lockean arguments as complementary to the other types. Close analysis of what Locke actually said and of the types of arguments made in each of these genres reveals the underlying unity the American writers understood these different modes of discourse to have. Where there were sharp differences, the other modes of discourse were often modified in a Lockean direction.

The thirty-three pamphlets surveyed in this article are drawn from the seventy-two pamphlets in Bernard Bailyn's projected four-volume series of pamphlets of the revolutionary period. He selected the pamphlets on the basis of relevance, contemporary fame, representativeness, and originality of thought.2 Although there is one sermon from 1750, all other pamphlets in the series were published between 1760 and 1776. The thirty-three pamphlets represent those that present conditions under which resistance is legitimate, even if the author did not believe those conditions existed, and they illustrate how colonists argued for resistance and combined different types of arguments. This procedure necessarily calls for judgment in deciding which pamphlets to include and therefore the possibility of bias. By using the pamphlets selected by Bailyn, who is generally thought to have played down the Lockean influence, the selection procedure should if anything overstate the influence of republican authors.

One important methodological question that must be addressed before proceeding to the typology is the criteria for inclusion in the study. Since this study includes pamphlets that present the argument that resistance is sometimes appropriate even if the writer did not think that facts of the current situation warranted resistance,3 some pamphlets by Loyalist writers and writers who did not support the actual revolution enthusiastically are included in the sample. Two considerations justify their inclusion. First, many colonists made the decision to resist only gradually and grudgingly. These "hypothetical resistance" pamphlets (to coin a term) provided a necessary intermediate step en route to calls for actual resistance. It is striking how many of the arguments used to justify actual resistance were first put forward by persons who were not themselves advocating resistance. second, there are also pamphlets that actively argue against resistance on the grounds not that such resistance is always wrong but that it was wrong in this particular case. These pamphlets show that in some cases Lockean vocabulary was present on both sides of the argument.

Before proceeding further, it will be helpful to compare this project to previous contributions to the literature. …

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