Our Fathers’ Freedom: The American Revolution and the COVID Crisis

by Will C. De Man

In the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are filled with a general feeling of anxiety and worry. For some, it’s anxiety over how they’ll keep up their rent or pay their bills. Others worry for their sick or elderly loved ones, who are particularly at risk. Still others have experienced a growing anxiety over tightening quarantine restrictions, fearing that their American liberties are being infringed upon.

British soldier on horseback among colonial settlers with the caption "You peasants better have the King's permission to be outside."

A meme circulating social media, attempting to link the American Revolution and the present shelter in place orders. (Source unknown)

In Michigan especially, there seems to be a growing resentment of state Governor Whitmer, particularly after the executive, “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order was expanded on April 9. The announcement of further restrictions have led to loud protest, exemplified by the rise of a Facebook group titled, “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine.” This group claims to be fighting for the Constitutional rights of Michigan residents.

Some protesters have drawn correlations between the “oppression” of this particular moment and the fight for freedom during the American Revolution. Public memory creates a filter through which Americans remember the birth of the nation as being defined by liberty, freedom, and human rights.

All of this preamble leads to the question at hand: does the COVID-19 quarantine resemble the very acts our founding fathers stood against? Do the actions of the state governor relate to the actions of the British in colonial America? In order to find the answer, the roots of the American Revolution must be examined and compared with our present situation.

To understand the context of the American Revolution, we must look back to the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War). This war was waged by the British against the French and their Native American allies in an attempt to determine who would maintain final control of North America. At the cost of doubling its national debt, England won the war in 1763. The cost of the war would prove to be a troublesome after-effect, leading to some of the causes of the American revolution.

From the British point of view, the war with the French was fought to protect the American colonists. As the direct beneficiaries of British victory in the Seven Years War, the British expected American settlers to repay this debt in kind. Thus began the infamous series of taxes that would be levied on the inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard.

Oil portrait of John Adams, showing a balding man in black robes.

John Adams (1735-1826), by Gilbert Stuart. National Gallery of Art.
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

American dissent wasn’t necessarily because of the financial cost of these new taxes; the colonies were generally prosperous and these taxes were relatively small. The problem, some believed, was the precedent set by the taxation. Preeminent American historian Alan Taylor writes:

 “[John] Adams expressed a widespread fear that the small new taxes set precedent that would inevitably lead to ever increasing levies that would enrich an official elite around the royal governors while impoverishing common taxpayers and obstructing their social mobility.”[1]

This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded, either. Bernard Baily accounts in his The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a growing suspicion of British officials in America and their motivations. Certain bureaucrats and judges attempted to consolidate their power, testing the limits of the newly born English constitution. These officials, particularly judges, would vote themselves into life-long offices and give themselves ample pay raises.[2] American colonists saw these actions and called foul.

A further impact of the Seven Years War upon America was an increased presence by the British military. The number of British troops in North America had been significantly increased in order to combat the French, and these troops stuck around after the war. The British authority saw these heightened troop levels as an opportunity to bring their colonies in line. Alan Taylor again writes: “victory invited the British to redefine their empire and to increase the colonist’s burden.”[3]

With this framework laid, the question at hand must be answered: Are we now fighting for the same freedoms as our founding fathers 250 years ago? Is this a similar battle against tyranny? We’ve recounted so far several areas of perceived oppression on the part of the British in Colonial America: “Unconstitutional taxing, the invasion of placemen [soldiers], the weakening of the judiciary, plural office holding… standing armies these were major evidences of a deliberate assault of power upon liberty.”[4] Are we now facing the same?

There are, in fact, major differences between the reality of past oppression and the perceived oppression of this day. The American Revolution was a response to a legitimate infringement of the rights of the colonists as citizens of the British empire. They experienced taxation without the ability to lobby and the invasion of their homes by British soldiers without their consent. In contrast, the rights of the American people as laid out in our own Constitution have been maintained; on the very day of this writing (April 15), Michiganders exercised their right to protest by grid-locking Lansing, the state capital.

Additionally, there is no imminent threat of danger by American troops against American people. The National Guard has been deployed, but only to provide aid to those who need it. My own brother worked with the National Guard to provision a food bank being run by his church. We are not experiencing the same very real threat of physical harm faced by the residents of Boston in 1770.

Furthermore, a definitive difference is that our American liberties are being restricted for this brief time to protect us, not to exploit us. John Adams painted a bleak future in which Americans would face severe taxation to pay off British war debts; rather than embrace this seemingly sure future, America revolted and won its freedom. Now Americans are facing new kinds of restrictions, but these are in place to try to protect American citizens and stop the spread of a global pandemic.

Though we do not face the same imminent threats as the Americans of the 18th century, our country today is faced with fear and uncertainty about the future. The economic anxieties are legitimate. The fear for the safety of our loved ones is legitimate. Our aversion to the uncertainty of the future is legitimate.

Surely though, this is a moment in which Americans can show the same resolve as in the 18th century. Our founding fathers journeyed uncharted waters— they knew as little of the future as we do now. Let’s keep that thought in mind as we take on the future. The framework of American society is strong. Let’s be sure to take on the uncertain future with the same bravery and resolve as though who brought this nation into being.

Sources:
[1] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, (New York: Penguin Book, 2001), 442.
[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967), 112.
[3] Alan Taylor, American Colonies, 438.
[4] Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 117.

Will C. De Man is a junior at Calvin University studying History, Secondary Education, and Classics. He is particularly interested in the history of Ireland, Ancient Rome, and Colonial America. He loves camping and drinking coffee out of his Martin Luther mug.

 

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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