There is a great deal of difference between a revolutionary and a reformer. Perhaps the most notable feature of America’s founding era was that its leaders were not inclined to revolution whatsoever. Virtually all of the patriot founders—from the familiar heroes like George Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to the less known heroes like Richard Henry Lee, James Iredell, Samuel Chase, and John Dickinson—were careful, conservative, and constructive men. They were reformers not revolutionaries. They resisted even the idea of radicalism. They loathed the disruptions of violence—whether rhetorical, political, or martial.
As Paul Johnson has pointed out in his magisterial History of the American People, the patriot fathers were largely faithful sons of colonial gentry. They were devoted to all the conventional Whig principles of political stability including the rule of law and the maintenance of corporate order. They had worked hard to maintain a law-abiding, settled, and peaceful society. They wanted nothing to do with the raucous upsets and tumults of agitation, insurrection, and unrest.
Even in the face of increasing pressure from Parliament and Crown, they were terribly reticent to protest, much less rebel. They were determined to exhaust every possible legal course of action before they would countenance the thought of armed resistance. Over the course of a decade they sent innumerable appeals, suits, and petitions across the Atlantic to the Westminster authorities. Even after American blood was spilled at the Boston Massacre, they were willing to negotiate a settlement.
It took far more than the conflicts of Lexington and Concord. It took more than the full-scale battles of Bunker Hill, Falmouth, and Ticonderoga to provoke the patriots to commit themselves to a course of independence. As late as the first week of July 1776, there was not yet a solid consensus among the members of the Continental Congress that "such an extreme as full-scale revolt," as John Dickinson dubbed it, was necessary.
When the Declaration of Independence was drafted by a committee composed of Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, the resolution was defeated twice before it was finally adopted. But even then the cautious delegates decided to keep the document secret for another four more days before releasing it to the public.
Clearly, the Founding Fathers were, at best, reluctant revolutionaries.
So, what was it that ultimately cause them to rebel? What was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back? What finally convinced them to set aside their native conservatism and steer the thirteen colonies toward war and independence?
Again, according to Paul Johnson, it was actually their traditionalism. It was their commitment to a settled life of freedom that finally drove them to arms. They fought against Britain in order to preserve everything that Britain had always represented before.
Colonial pastors, patriot orators, and pioneer journalists decried the radicalism and revolutionary character of the mother country, of Parliament, and of the King. They saw themselves, not as revolutionaries but as the protectors of the Common Law tradition. In a sense, it was Britain that had staged a revolution, not America.
This was the gist of what John Adams wrote in his in his manifesto, The Rule of Law and the Rule of Men. He argued that it is the "duty of all men" to "protect the integrity of liberty" whenever the "laws of God," the "laws of the land," and the "laws of the common inheritance" are "profligately violated." Justice demands, he asserted, "a defense of the gracious endowments of Providence to mankind," including "life, liberty, and property." To deny this duty is to ensure the reduction of "the whole of society" to the "bonds of servility."
Sometimes it is essential for principled leaders to fight—not because they like the fighting, but because by fighting once they can avoid the hazards of fighting continually.
That was why Patrick Henry, chief among the founding conservatives, joined the fray. It was, he said, only a "grave responsibility to God and countrymen" that compelled the peace-loving people of America to fight. He believed that the tyranny and corruption of the Imperial system had all but ensured that "an appeal to arms and the God of Hosts" was "all that was left" to the patriots. "Is life so dear," he asked, "or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me: give me liberty or give me death."
Thus was America's great experiment in liberty begun—as a reform not as a revolution—and only thus can it possibly endure.