As any good argument should do, I will begin this rebuttal by defining the terms "conservative" and "liberal" in the way I will use them in this article. I will then offer my premise and the valid logic that follows that premise.
Conservative: tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Liberal: Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values. (I chose the Google Dictionary's definition since Merriam-Webster couldn't really provide a solid, comprehensive political definition.)
The American Revolution was not a liberal one in the modern sense of the term. It was rooted in many political ideas that had been around for centuries, the chief of which was the idea that a people has a fundamental right to rebel and demand recognition of their natural rights if their leader is a tyrant. The conditions leading up to the Revolution legitimized the right for the Colonists to rise up against King George III. And yet, even once the Colonies had gained their independence and the chance to implement their ideas for a republic, even then they implemented those ideas carefully and gradually. This gradual change is more a tenet of conservatism than modern liberalism. The only liberal idea employed in the Colonies was that of a liberal "free market" economy, and even that idea is espoused more by conservatives than liberals today.
'Liberal' at the Time of the Revolution
During the time of the Revolution, the term “liberal” in the political sense was used mainly in reference to a “liberal system” that supported a laissez-faire government and a free market economy, as described in the Scotsman Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Today this form of liberalism is often called “classical liberalism” and it is different from today’s modern liberalism, which emerged from the rubrics of FDR’s New Deal, which actually called for more government involvement in the economy, such as with social security. So it’s ironic that both the American Revolution and social security are often both considered liberal ideas, because the Founders of our country revolted against an empire that tried to control America’s economy and tax the Colonies; and social security essentially taxes our wages in the interest of our future economic security. It taxes Americans today in order to control America’s economy tomorrow, thereby employing two functions of government America’s founders broke away from the British to avoid.
'Conservative' at the Time of the Revolution
The British Parliament of the mid-to-late eighteenth century, however, was not unanimous in its opposition to the American Revolution. In fact, British Parliament member Edmund Burke, often called the founder of conservatism, favored no taxation of the Colonies. Throughout his writings, Burke emphasized that Britain and America both had prospered under a system of “wise and salutary neglect.” His vision for representation in the Colonies would also steer America into forming the representative republic we know of today.
Nothing New about True Liberalism
Furthermore, the liberal ideas of the American Revolution may have been liberal in the classical sense, but they were not new. The liberal ideas that built America were rooted in historically Christian principles of human dignity and subsidiarity, political ideas that were part of the complex patchwork of European society for centuries prior. For example, the Magna Carta in 1215 guaranteed the rights of individuals, the right to justice and the right to a fair trial. Many medieval legends that we revere today, such as Robinhood, King Arthur, and Braveheart, were based on the classical liberal concepts of freedom and human dignity. These legends are loved because they show the heroic spirit of freedom enduring in the West centuries before the American Revolution, and America will forever be in their debt.
America also has the Catholic Church to thank. In the thirteenth century the Catholic Church formed a College of Cardinals, chosen at the behest of local clergy and laymen throughout the universal Church, and the cardinals in turn elected the pope while being guided by the Holy Spirit. In an age of monarchies, this would have been seen as a very liberal idea. The Church was and is essentially a theocracy, but even in the monarchies of medieval Europe that are so often depicted as being ruled by tyrannous kings, the belief was widespread that the king was ordained by God as a servant of the people. In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, St. Thomas Aquinas legitimizes rebellion against tyrants who did not follow that calling, writing:
“Authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.”
One can easily see how liberal these sentiments of Aquinas are, and how they might have planted the seeds for the revolutions that would come in future centuries. He is essentially saying that the ruled may have a right to rebel if a ruler's rise to power was not legitimate, or if the ruler abuses that power even if it was legitimately obtained. St. Robert Bellarmine built upon Aquinas’ ideas, speaking in words remarkably similar to those of the Declaration of Independence, in his treatise, De Laicis:
“All men are equal, not in wisdom or grace, but in the essence and nature of mankind…. For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa.”
John Locke also borrowed from these ideas, which inspired England’s Glorious Revolution.
So as you can see, the ideas behind the American Revolution had been stirring around in the West for hundreds of years. It’s not far-fetched to say that the liberal ideas were conservative and these conservative ideas were liberal. The only difference at the time of the American Revolution was that the liberals wanted to start a war which would lead to independence. The conservatives felt it could be done through a slow and peaceful separation from the British Empire, much like Canada, Australia and India did later on.
The phenomenon of the American Revolution could be explained best by a theory that grew popular during the Glorious Revolution, the Radical Whig Theory, which states that a people who allow themselves to be ruled by a corrupt leader are themselves corrupt; therefore it is the duty of the people to rise up against tyrants lest they become tyrants themselves. This is alluded to in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, where de Tocqueville warned against the "tyranny of the majority." According to the Whig Theory, if the Colonists had not revolted against King George, they would have been just as unfit to control the Colonies as was King George. Ironically, the Whig Party is often depicted as being more conservative than their Democratic counterparts, by American historians.
When we learned of the Revolution in American history class, especially in high school, most of us learned about the many preliminary events that justified the rebellion of the Colonies. We learned about unjust taxes on everything from stamps to tea, we learned of the Boston Massacre and the unlawful usurpation of Colonists' homes by British soldiers. We learned of how the British soldiers prevented Colonists from settling the frontier. The list goes on. All of this seems to suggest that, had the Founders of America truly desired a republic of their own for the sole sake of testing out their new liberal political ideas, they would have revolted long before they actually did.
On the contrary, every move they made toward gaining independence was marked by careful consideration. They made sure they weren't standing alone (The Declaration of Independence was signed by fifty-six delegates). They endured several unjust taxes and poor representation for years. They even endured the usurpation and massacre of their own people. If the Founders were of a liberal mindset, something tells me they would have revolted much sooner.
The American Experiment was the consummation of all the popular political philosophies of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The ideas that led to the American republic were not new. The Founder of America were simply fortunate to have the opportunity to build a brand new nation upon those ideas, while the nations where they originated did not have that luxury of a clean slate. The thing that led to the American Revolution was not contention between conservative and liberal values, but a tyrannical king and parliament versus colonial Americans.
This post was updated on September 29, 2019.