American Revolution: What Were They Really Fighting for?

Topics: Thomas Lee, United States Declaration of Independence, Virtue Pages: 38 (12621 words) Published: January 4, 2009
American Revolution: What Were they Really Fighting For?

I: Introduction

A superficial understanding of the Revolutionary War may lead to believe that it was struggle in which the purpose of the colonists was to rid themselves of the cruelty and tyranny associated with the British colonial regime. This is simply not true, or at the very least, it is not the whole truth. For the most part, the inhabitants of the colonies took pride in calling themselves Englishmen, and under the so-called tyrannical regime, enjoyed rights and privileges to a degree that would be considered exceptional in other parts of the 18th century world.

The problem that some colonists had with British monarchial rule is that it obligated its subjects to live in a society that adhered to British political understandings, one of them being the need for leaders to demonstrate classical virtue. Originating in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, classical virtue had justified the class system in Europe for centuries. However, as time passed, it became apparent that the ideologies of the Old World were not compatible with the conditions of the New World. One principle that some members of colonial society chafed under was the apparent contradiction between self-interest and republicanism. The proponents of classical virtue put forth the belief that only an individual who was able to rise above all interests could ascend to the moral level at which one could make decisions for the good of the community. Decisions made by a man with interests, especially in the market, would be marred by his own proclivities overriding those of the population whom he was entrusted to represent.

Some prominent individuals within the colonies however, particularly members of the merchant class, did not adhere to this definition of virtue. In the years that preceded the Revolution, these men began to flock to the new ideology of liberalism, which created a new understanding of virtue. Unlike its classical counterpart, liberal virtue accepted self-interest into the fold of republicanism with the idea that in advancing one's own economic interests, those of the community would benefit as well.

Both of these definitions of virtue had factions within the colonies that supported them, and believed that its particular notion should be the foundation for the New Republic. The controversy over the conflicting definitions raged within several different forums of debate, beginning with the private correspondence of delegates within the Continental Congress, then moving to the floor of the Congress itself, and finally being thrust into the public sphere through addresses from the delegates. The focal point of this conflict was Robert Morris, a prominent Philadelphia merchant who would later become known as the 'Financier of the American Revolution.' Besides having interests in the market, Morris also had ambitions of attaining a leadership position that would allow him to play an active role in creating the policies that would define the new government. He was perhaps the most well known backer of liberal virtue in the debate between Richard Henry Lee and himself. Unlike Morris, whose success as a merchant had elevated him into the class of the colonial elite, Lee was born into a wealthy Virginian planter family, which dominated the political affairs of the region. In addition to his participating in his own controversy, Morris also played an important role in the congressional debate that took place between Lee and Deane, the latter being a business partner of Morris as well as a fellow proponent of liberal virtue.

In a sense these debates were a part of the Revolutionary War, but this battle was fought by orators with their speeches rather than soldiers with their muskets. Although no blood was shed in determining which definition of virtue would be championed in the New Republic, the end result was as important as any battle in establishing what kind of nation...
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