English people, including the Anglo-Americans, understood their history as the product of a bitter struggle between tyranny and freedom. Stuart absolutism had sought to restrict the rights of Englishmen. This led to the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, and the republican Protectorate. The Stuarts had been restored in 1660, but had acknowledged the role of Parliament and the laws as guardians of the rights of Englishmen. King James II (r. 1685-1688) had tried to tip the balance toward French-style absolutism during his brief reign. This had triggered the Glorious Revolution of 1688, while the constitutional fruits of that revolution had been harvested by the terms of the Hanoverian Succession in 1714.
Britain’s American colonies, and New England in particular, were peopled by the descendants of anti-absolutist Englishmen of the mid-17th Century. The Englishmen who did not migrate had fought the English Civil War and created the republican Protectorate government. The two groups shared many ideas. These ideas were in some respects, pre-Enlightenment, rather than Enlightenment ideas. John Locke occupied a central position for both strains of thought. Locke had argued that a “social contract” bound both governors and the governed. If either party broke the contract, then the other party was not bound to comply with the terms of the contract. A tyrannical ruler had no legitimate claim on the obedience of his subjects.
That fear of a strong central government had arisen from these earlier experiences. In the 1760s, the Americans had still seen themselves as Overseas Englishmen. They still possessed the rights of Englishmen. Those rights, in their understanding, included the right to be taxed by their own elected representative and the right be tried by a jury of their peers. Both of these rights had seemed threatened by new taxes imposed by a British parliament elected only by British voters and by the Admiralty Courts appointed by the Crown and operating without juries. As early as the Stamp Act Crisis, a handful of Americans had seen the measures as the leading edge of an effort to subjugate the colonists to absolute government.
In these circumstances, resistance offered the best path to preserving existing freedoms. Colonial legislatures had denied the right of Parliament to impose the Stamp Act, then organized boycotts of British goods, and worked-up mobs to intimidate potential stamp distributors. The organizers of this violent intimidation then went on to create the Sons of Liberty as a continuing resource.
The threat of superior military force added another dimension. Until the French and Indian War (1756-1763), Anglo-Americans had defended themselves—and occasionally made offensive war—through their militias. These were call-ups of all able-bodied and self-armed men in every Middlesex village and farm. Anglo-Americans associated “standing armies” with the expansion of absolutist/tyrannical government like that in France. Paranoia added another dimension. After the defeat of the French, the Quartering Act had required the colonists to house British soldiers. If the foreign danger had passed, why did Britain need to keep troops in America? Did the Crown intend to impose its will on its American colonists?
In September 1768, two regiments of British infantry were ordered to Boston to support collection of the Townshend Duties. The “Boston Massacre” (1770) cemented American hostility to regular troops. The “Boston Tea Party” (1773) demonstrated the uses of violence. Then came Concord and Lexington (1775). Then came the Revolutionary War. In the minds of many Americans, the ultimate defense against tyranny lay in the ability to shoot back.