Perhaps the most notable aspect of America's revolutionary period was that its chief protagonists were not particularly revolutionary. If anything, they were anti-revolutionary. From Samuel Adams and John Hancock to Richard Henry Lee and George Washington, from James Iredell and Patrick Henry to Samuel Chase and John Dickinson the leaders of the American cause were profoundly conservative. They were loath to indulge in any kind of radicalism that might erupt into violence--rhetorical, political, or martial. For the most part they were the faithful sons of colonial gentry. They were devoted to conventional Whig principles: the rule of law, noblesse oblige, unswerving honor, squirey superintendence, and the maintenance of corporate order. They believed in a tranquil and settled society free of the raucous upsets and tumults of agitation, activism, and unrest.
Their reticence to squabble with the crown was obvious to even the most casual observer. The colonials exhausted every recourse to law before they even thought to resort to armed resistance. For more than a decade they sent innumerable appeals, suits, and petitions to both parliament and king. Even after American blood had been spilled, they refrained from impulsive insurrection.
It took more than the Boston Massacre, more than Lexington and Concord, more than Bunker Hill, more than Falmouth, and more than Ticonderoga to provoke the patriots to commit themselves to forceful secession. Even as late as the first week of July 1776, there was no solid consensus among the members of the Continental Congress that "such an extreme as full-scale revolt," as John Dickinson dubbed it, was necessary.
That week, the "Declaration of Independence" drafted by a committee composed of Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams, and the young Thomas Jefferson, was defeated twice before it was diffidently adopted--and even then the cautious delegates managed to keep its pronouncements secret for four more days.
The patriots were, at best, reluctant revolutionaries. Why then did they rebel? What could possibly have so overcome their native conservatism? It was their traditionalism--their commitment to those lasting things that transcend the ever-shifting tides of situation and circumstance--that finally drove them to arms. They fought against king and motherland in order to preserve that which king and motherland represented.
According to John Adams, in his manifesto The Rule of Law and the Rule of Men, 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 argued, "a defense of the gracious endowments of Providence to mankind," including "life, liberty, and property." To deny this duty is to insure the reduction of "the whole of society" to the "bonds of servility."
Patrick Henry agreed asserting that it was only a "grave responsibility" which the leaders held to "God and countrymen" that could possibly compel the peace-loving people of America to fight. The combined tyranny of economic mercantilism--the politicalization of matters of commerce--and legislative despotism--the politicalization of matters of conscience--had insured that "an appeal to arms and the God of Hosts" was "all that was left" to the patriots.
According to John Hancock, the Americans had been "denied representation" in either "the taxing authorities of parliament or of the trade boards." In addition, their colonial charters had been "subverted or even abrogated," their "citizenship rights" according to English common law had been "violated," and their "freedom of religious practice" and "moral witness" had been "curtailed." Thus, rule of the colonies had become "arbitrary and capricious;" it had become "supra-legal;" it had become "intolerable." Under such circumstances "a holy duty" demanded "a holy response."
The emerging consensus among American patriots--that ideological and political encroachments upon the whole of society could not be any longer ignored--was confirmed in American pulpits. The very conservative colonial pastors certainly did not set out to "stir up strife or political tumult at the cost of the proclamation of the Gospel" as Charles Lane of Savannah put it. On the other hand, "The Gospel naturally mitigates against lawless tyranny, in whatever form it may take," said Ebenezer Smith of Lowell. Indeed, as Charles Turner of Duxbury asserted, "The Scriptures cannot be rightfully expounded without explaining them in a manner friendly to the cause of freedom."
Thus, "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" was a favorite pastoral text--as were "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" and "Take away your exactions from my people, saith the Lord God."
The churches of America were generally agreed that "Where political tyranny begins true government ends" as Samuel West of Dartmouth declared, "and the good Christian must needs be certain to oppose such lawless encroachments, however bland or bold."
It was not the Enlightenment rhetoric of firebrands like Thomas Paine or Benjamin Rush that drove men from hearth and home to battlefield. It was the certainty that God had called them to an inescapable accountability. It was the conviction that they were covenantally honor-bound to uphold the standard of impartial justice and broadcast the blessings of liberty afar. It was the firm conviction that politics was not to consume the whole of their lives.
In the end, the reluctant revolutionaries were forced to arms by a recognition of the fact that "resistance to tyrants is obedience to God."
Thus was America's great experiment in liberty begun. "Is life so dear," asked Patrick Henry, "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."