Fundamentals of Christian Resistance IV: The U.S. Colonists in 1776

The American Revolution provides concrete examples of how Christians conducted a resistance movement within the framework of a theory of constitutional government.1

The U.S. colonists had a long history of self-government. They had sailed to the colonies many years earlier, with a view to avoiding political, economic and religious oppression. The colonies, far from being a tightly knit group controlled by skilled British administrators, had from the beginning thought of themselves as being beyond the mother country’s control. They had traded where they wished and conducted their affairs substantially as independent states. They loved  “noe Government that is not like their owne,” wrote one commentator in 1676.2

The Maryland assembly saw itself as a local house of Commons, with the right to levy all taxes. During a confrontation with the governor in the 1730’s, they has claimed that it is “the peculiar right of His majesty’s subjects not to be liable to any tax or imposition, but what is laid on them by laws to which they themselves are a party.” 3

King George’s fatal limitation was his centralist view of Empire. Believing to the end that the British Parliament was good enough to legislate for the whole Empire, regardless of colonial notions of representation, George considered that these dissident American colonies must simply be brought to heel by force. “We must master them, or totally leave them to themselves and treat them as Aliens,” 4 he claimed in 1774. He later wrote that “should America succeed…the West Indies must follow them…Ireland would soon follow the same plan and be a separate state. Then this island would be a poor island indeed.” 5

The Americans had witnessed the successful opposition to an English king before, when Charles I had been opposed by the parliament and the Puritans, and subsequently lost his head. What made their circumstances any different? Furthermore, they had no elected representatives in an  English Parliament to put their views.

Thus the English merchants and manufacturers who had the ear of their political representatives, obtained overwhelming financial preference. The Southern tobacco growers were compelled by law to send their produce to England first, even though 85% of it was destined to go to the Continent. This was extra and unnecessary cost. The deliberate policy of preventing free competition between manufacturers in America and Britain was universally odious to Americans.

One Bostonian exclaimed bitterly in 1765, that “a colonist cannot make a button, horse-shoe, nor a hob-nail, but some sooty ironmonger or respectable button-maker of Britain shall bawl and squal that his honors worship is most egregiously maltreated, injured, cheated and robb’d by the rascally American republicans.” 6

When the Stamp Act was dumped on the Americans, as a means of raising money for the British Parliament, the colonists saw it as an imposition. “No taxation without representation” was their angry response. The fact that it was subsequently repealed, after unprecedented scenes of mob violence and uproar throughout the colonies, gave enormous credibility to a new generation of radicals, such as Patrick Henry and the Sons of Liberty, who were ready to make a reputation at the expense of Britain and to vigorously oppose, even with force, what they perceived as violations of colonial rights.

There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. The Christian is not to take the law into his own hands and become a law unto himself. But when all avenues to flight and protest have closed, force in the defensive posture is appropriate. This was the situation of the American Revolution. The colonists used force in defending themselves. Great Britain, because of its tyranny, was a foreign power invading America. Note that the colonists did not cross the Atlantic Ocean and mount a physical attack against Great Britain itself. They defended their homeland.1

By 1766 the colonial attitude towards England had dramatically hardened. The governor of North Carolina claimed that the people were “as jealous of any restraint put on their consciences as they have of late shewn for that of their property.” 2

Patrick Henry soon articulated some of the discontent evident in the colony in March 1775, declaring that :

We are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.

Two months later in the Virginia legislature, he went further:

Caesar had his Brutus-Charles the First, his Cromwell; and George the Third (‘Treason!’ cried the Speaker…) may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it! 3

The War:

The British forces in America were hampered from the beginning, for a number of reasons. Like any invading force, the costs of the invasion were both considerable and continuous. Soldiers had to be brought out from England, fed and clothed in America, and supplied with all the necessary equipment to fight a war. Every year that the rebellion persisted, was a year that the Parliament and the tax-payer in England had to be content to see their resources disappear overseas to fight a war.

Secondly, they were not able to get good intelligence about their enemies. This meant that they initially under-estimated their military opposition, along with the the strength of feeling in the American community. When the blood of American soldiers began to flow at Lexington and Bunker Hill, this only intensified the opposition to the British in the community. Dead American soldiers were naturally perceived as heroes, not merely casualties of war.

Thirdly, hostility (both overt and covert) in the community meant that whenever the British soldiers went about the countryside, they were likely to be the targets of abuse. This could range from cold responses in the street from civilians, to sniper fire. One frustrated British officer wrote to his sister, that

As the rascals are skulking about the whole country, it is impossible to move with any degree of safety without a pretty large escort, and even then you are exposed to a dirty kind of tiraillerie (sniper-fire).1

So long as Washington could continue a successful, (if limited) struggle and not suffer heavy losses, the odds would always be in his favour. If he could persistently deny the British the joy of battlefield victory, by studious withdrawal when outnumbered, it would be hard for the British to triumph. To some degree, he only had to persist and avoid disaster, whilst capitalising on strategic and tactical errors on the part of the British. And this seems to have played a significant part in his victory. He later commented that

It will not be believed, that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this country could be baffled in their plan of subjugating it, by numbers infinitely less, composed of men often-times half starved, always in rags, without pay, and experiencing every species of distress, which human nature is capable of undergoing.2

1 North, G., (Ed.) “The Theology of Christian Resistance,” 1983, p.xxvi.

2 Report of Edmund Randolph, October 12, 1676, quoted in Miller, J., “Origins of the American Revolution,” 1943, p.30.

3 Quoted in Adams, R., “Political Ideas of the American Revolution,” 1958, p.11.

4 Quoted in Miller, p.356.

5 To Lord North, 11/6/1779. Quoted in “History of Quotations,” Cohen M., and Major, J., (Eds.) 2006, p.508.

6 The Boston Gazette, quoted in Miller, p.23.

1 Whitehead, J., quoted in North, ibid, p.8-9.

2 Quoted in Miller, p.163.

3 Quoted in Cohen & Major, p.500.

1 James Murray, 25/2/1777. Quoted in Cohen, M., & Major, J., p.506.

2 Washington to Nathaneal Green, 1783. Quoted in Cohen, M., & Major, J., p.509.

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