There are some slogans associated with the American Revolution that are powerfully evocative even today. Phrases like “All men are created equal,” “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” and “Don’t tread on me” are part of our national heritage, and they are well known and easily understood by present-day Americans. Some other slogans of the Revolution, however, don’t have the same resonance in the 21st century that they did in the 18th century.
One slogan that was popular early in the Revolutionary era was “An Appeal to Heaven.” Even though the famous “pine tree” flag that features this slogan is still widely recognized as a symbol of the Revolution, the meaning of the words “An Appeal to Heaven” isn’t obvious to most modern-day Americans. To understand these words we must go back in time to the 17th century and to other, earlier political events that shaped the way British subjects thought about government and individual rights.
During the 17th century there was a series of conflicts in Britain between Parliament and the Crown, and this caused British scholars to think and write a great deal about the nature of government and the limits of royal power. John Locke (1632-1704) was the most important of these political philosophers. In 1689-90 he published his “Second Treatise of Government,” which says:
…where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.
This quote is part of Locke’s justification for the overthrow of Britain’s King James II, who was removed from power in 1688, an event known as the “Glorious Revolution.” Locke’s “appeal to heaven” is not about prayer; it is about direct political action. Locke argues that people have rights that cannot be infringed upon by the government and that rebellion is justified if it is to defend those rights.
As American colonists increasingly came into conflict with the British government during the 1760s and 1770s, Locke’s words became an inspiration to many patriots. After all, if the Glorious Revolution was justified as a defense against tyranny, didn’t the American Revolution have the same justification?
The slogan “An Appeal to Heaven” is less dramatic than “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” but in its own way it is equally forceful and evocative. It is a call to action couched in the words of a philosopher rather than a politician.