At the heart of American democracy is the concept of democracy. Every government and civics textbook declares the noble principle that self-governing people preserve the rights of the minority, but it is the will of the majority that prevails.
Nowhere is this better articulated than in the Declaration of Independence which recognized certain God-given rights and then affirmed, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The American Revolution was the culmination of the God-given right to self-governance. The colonists rose up as one and shook off the oppressive restraint of Great Britain and fought with solidarity against King George’s troops.
Or did they? Perhaps those who formed the United States weren’t quite as united as we thought.
In his book Independence: the Tangled Roots of the American Revolution, Thomas Slaughter says that colonists’ support for the Revolutionary War went through ebbs and flows. At no time, however, did the war have the support of more than 45 percent of the people.
Although there was general discontent about interference with trade, taxation without representation, and other political matters, taking up arms against the mother country was not uniformly popular.
The patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence mutually pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” As for the rest of the colonists, many were riding the fence. It was not uncommon for people to switch their loyalty from day to day, depending on how things were going in their part of the colonies.
A popular inn along what is now New Jersey’s Route 1 had a servant whose job was to keep an eye out for approaching visitors. If he spotted approaching soldiers, he was to quickly figure out if they were American or British then hurry back to the inn to make sure the appropriate flag was flying by the time they arrived.
It would be easy to misinterpret this flip-flopping and think that the war was unimportant to the colonists. In terms of percentage of the population, the Revolution was the costliest war in American history. One percent of the population was killed during the war. That would be akin to losing 3.3 million people today. There was no one in the new country who wasn’t personally affected by the fighting.
Historians estimate that 15-20 percent of the population firmly supported the British crown and flatly opposed independence. At its peak, 45% were in favor of breaking away from the motherland. Despite the devastating effect of the war throughout the colonies, the rest remained more-or-less neutral.
The 2020 presidential elections saw the highest voter turnout in decades, with over 66% of eligible voters going to the polls. Even so, many lament that one-third of those who could have voted didn’t seem to care enough to do so. Curiously, that is pretty much the same percentage that didn’t want to take a position about American independence.