Was the American Revolution Virtuous?


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created AmericanRevolution.org in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      The American Revolution was virtuous in some respects, but the movement also failed to consistently uphold its ideals in others areas.

      The Revolutionary War enabled the United States to become self-governing. It led to the ratification of the United States Constitution, which promoted rights and liberties available to all men, in theory.

      However, while the Founding Fathers espoused equal rights for all, and individual freedoms, many were also tolerant of slavery, or owned slaves themselves. After the war ended, Native Americans continued to face oppression, violence, and the destruction of their culture at the hands of the US government.

      The virtuous argument

      In the minds of Patriot leaders, the revolutionaries were fighting a virtuous war against a tyrannical British government.

      In the 1760s, the British implemented a number of new taxes on the colonists.

      These taxes were supposed to help fund the continued presence of the British Army on the continent. In the minds of the British leaders, their colonies existed to help them raise revenue – and after the Seven Years’ War with France, the country was in a huge amount of debt.

      The Patriot colonists considered taxes such as the Stamp Act hugely unjust. They did not feel the need for the British Army’s protection, and were incensed that they did not receive any representation in British parliament in return for the taxes they paid. While many people were still loyal to the British Crown, there was growing discontent with the monarchy, and its strict, autocratic style of governance.

      As a result, there was huge political backlash, including petitions to the King of England, and public protests, leading to instances of civil unrest, such as the famous Boston Tea Party.

      The British repealed the Stamp Act, but it was immediately followed by the passing of additional laws that the colonists would not stand for.

      In their minds, the Patriots were standing up for the rights of their people, against a tyrannical government. At the beginning of the war, their revolt was virtuous, although self-interest did play a role, since the rebels also aimed to protect their wealth from the British taxman.

      Patriot ideals

      The revolutionaries espoused a number of virtuous ideals, at least on face value.

      Patriot leaders such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson wrote that all Americans had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They argued that it was the colonists’ duty to fight for self-determination.

      A huge emphasis was also placed on personal freedoms. Influenced by Enlightenment principles, a school of philosophy that was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, revolutionary leaders argued that men had irrevocable individual liberties, such as freedom of speech, which would later be enshrined in the US Constitution.

      It is certainly arguable that the colonist cause was righteous.

      The British were implementing “taxation without representation”, as the Patriots labeled it. And when the colonists petitioned the British government, their complaints fell on deaf ears.

      At the end of the Revolution, the American people were able to govern themselves, and were no longer subject to arbitrary taxes that they had no say on.

      It is also arguable that the American Revolution inspired other similar movements against tyrannical governments in different parts of the world, such as the French Revolution. Some French Revolutionary leaders fought alongside the Americans, and brought home ideals and experiences that helped to ignite the French Revolution.

      How virtuous was the Revolution in practice?

      While the ideals espoused by revolutionary leaders were virtuous, in practice the idealism of the revolution left a lot to be desired.

      In the decades after the war was won, the values that the Patriot leaders espoused primarily applied to the white male population of America.

      • Native Americans saw promises regarding the sovereignty of their land broken by the US Government. Settlers continually encroached on tribal lands, leading to the destruction of native communities and culture.
      • Slavery continued to exist in many states, and freed slaves, including those who fought, were not afforded many of the rights and liberties proffered to the white population.
      • Having participated in the war effort, such as by working in hospitals, and in the Continental Army’s supply chain, women were expected to return to their roles as housewives.

      None of the aforementioned groups were allowed to vote or run for office. In fact, many states had land ownership requirements for voting, meaning only wealthy white males could participate politically.

      After the war, some Loyalists also found themselves at risk of persecution, and many had to leave the country for Canada or Great Britain.

      The ideals of the new nation defined in the Declaration of Independence were not applied equally across all parts of society. Minority groups did not enjoy the universal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that the Patriots were supposedly fighting for.

      It is also arguable that for the average person, even someone who enjoyed the rights set out in the Constitution, the American Revolution did not lead to a significant improvement in their quality of life.

      In the late 18th century, America was in social and economic turmoil, and the nation would only begin to see consistent peace and prosperity more than half a century later, after the end of the Civil War.

      Although the United States did experience economic growth in the early 19th century, on the back of westward expansion and increased industrialization, the Revolution itself did not lead to a significant increase in the average person’s quality of life in the short term.

      Was the American Revolution virtuous?

      The American Revolution was virtuous in theory, but not in practice.

      The colonists were fighting a righteous cause, against a tyrannical British government. And by revolting against the British, Patriot leaders wanted to grant the American people new liberties, political freedoms, and individual rights.

      However, once the war was won, these liberties were not applied equally. Slaves, women, and Native Americans were excluded from the rights offered to the people of the new United States.

      Therefore, while the cause of the American Revolution was virtuous, its outcomes were a lot more complicated, as revolutionary ideals were not equally applied to all parts of the populace in the decades after 1783.

      For many people, they did not see the social and economic benefits promised by revolutionary leaders after the war was won.

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