What is the difference between the American Revolution of 1776 and the rebellions in our own time?
June 1976

“What is the difference between the American Revolution of 1776 and the rebellions in our own time?” Ensign, June 1976, 60–61

What is the difference between the American Revolution of 1776 and the rebellions in our own time? Does the fact that our nation was founded in revolution justify later Americans rebelling when they believe their rights have been invaded?

Richard L. Bushman, professor of history, Boston University We know that the American Revolution was justified by the Lord because the prophet Nephi saw that period of history and said, “the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.” The colonists “were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1 Ne. 13:18, 19.) Does that mean we are justified today in rebelling when we believe our rights are set upon by government?

The problem is not new. The English nation in the eighteenth century was tortured by the same question. In 1688 in what was called the Glorious Revolution, they had deposed their king, James II, and installed a new monarch, William III, who reigned with his wife, Mary. This joint monarch was chosen by the representatives of the people assembled in Parliament. Did that mean Englishmen could repudiate the successors to William and Mary whenever they chose?

The Americans, of course, believed they had a right to revolt and acted on that right in 1776; but they were wise enough to understand that they must build a stable government, and that the rights of the people would not be secure if the government was perpetually shaken by rebellion. (Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment about a little revolution being good for the body politic was not his mature judgment and certainly not the policy he advocated himself when he became convinced in the 1790s that the government of the United States was on the wrong course.)

The question of when revolt is justified was dealt with in our most revolutionary document, the Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson. The first part of the document is the portion we are most familiar with. It declares that governments are constituted for the purpose of protecting human rights and when they fail in that purpose they are to be overthrown and reconstituted. That was the ideological basis of our revolution.

However, Jefferson did not stop there. He went on to deal with the question of how you determine when revolution is justified since obviously you cannot resort to such drastic measures whenever you feel mistreated. As he said, “Prudence indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. …” Men wisely suffer some evils rather than “right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

When should a people go to the extremity of revolt? “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such governments. …” The key word was design. Mere incompetence was not enough. Mistakes had to be tolerated. It was only when the will of the sovereign aimed specifically at destroying all the rights of a people and reducing them to slavery that revolution was justified. “The history of the present King of Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” The abuses listed in the declaration were aimed at proving the point. The American revolutionaries themselves would not endorse a revolution arising from ineptitude in government or even suffering among the people. A much deeper and pervasive corruption was necessary—a malevolent and enduring design to destroy the freedom of the people.

After the Revolution, of course, there was no king and that changed the conditions under which revolt was justified. There were some Americans, such as the farmers of western Massachusetts in the 1780s, who because of economic distress rose up to close the courts and prevent debt collection. Samuel Adams, the most radical of the Boston leaders in the Revolutionary movement, adamantly opposed these rebels. The reason he gave was that revolution was unnecessary in a republic because all officials were elected by the people. The people in western Massachusetts were rebelling against themselves, or, what was more likely, a faction of special interests was attempting to advance its own cause under the guise of a revolution of the people.

Samuel Adam’s observations are worth heeding. There are two questions we must ask when someone makes a case for revolution: does he represent a minority point of view disguised as the will of the people; and does he represent the desires of the whole better than the lawfully elected representatives of the people gathered in our legislative bodies?

As Latter-day Saints, we must also remember our commitment to the principles of the Constitution and justice. We would never wish to back a movement, even if a majority of the people favored it, that went contrary to the basic principles of our nation and our religion. A recent student of revolutions has observed that very few revolutions have benefited the people in the long run. The American Revolution is possibly the only one that clearly qualifies. We must, therefore, honor our revolutionary forefathers for their achievement without allowing ourselves to be persuaded that revolution is a suitable means for achieving contemporary political purposes.