They faced a profound question: would they actively support America’s bid for independence from England?
During the second half of the eighteenth century, enthusiasm for independence fluctuated among the residents of the thirteen colonies. At times, the majority was probably in favor of it; at times, the majority seemed indifferent or even hostile to the idea.
Polling data as it is known in the twenty-first century was not collected in those days. Estimates of support are made from what evidence exists. Such approximations are not exact.
It is, however, clear that support for independence varied from region to region, and varied within region by ethnic and religious groupings. Historian Thomas Sowell writes:
While other Americans split into Tory supporters of England and revolutionaries for independence in 1776, German Americans split into pacifists and revolutionaries. Mennonites and other German religious sects would not fight, but some paid extra taxes instead or engaged in medical or other duties consistent with their status as conscientious objectors. However, the largest denominations among Germans, the Lutherans and the Reformed, had no prohibitions against the military, and many Germans from these groups fought in the revolution.
Support for the independence effort varied with the colonial army’s victories or losses, with the economic impact of the war, and with shifting political moods. Stirring texts, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The American Crisis stoked the passion for independence; news of betrayal and defection, like that of Benedict Arnold, muted such fervor. Larry Arnn writes:
In the period leading up to the American Revolution, loyalists or Tories contested with revolutionaries, and these two groups alternated having the upper hand between 1763 and 1776, and even later, after the war had begun. The people were making up their minds about something fundamental, and a consensus was slow in forming.
Ultimately, the spirit of independence took permanent hold. A unique turning-point in world history, the United States would find the legitimacy for its founding, not in the hereditary claims of a royal dynasty, but in the consent of the governed.
Working out this Lockean vision, the inhabitants of the new nation reconceived citizenship and participation. Mark Levin describes this notion:
In the civil society, the individual has a duty to respect the unalienable rights of others and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next, that establish society's cultural identity. He is responsible for attending to his own well-being and that of his family. And he has a duty as a citizen to contribute voluntarily to the welfare of his community through good works.
In making a decision for independence, then, the residents of North America were making more than a decision about the sovereignty of a particular territory. They were making a decision about personal political liberty and the personal responsibliity which is necessary to maintain it.