How radical was the American Revolution? “Give me liberty, or give me death!

”1 According to the Oxford English Dictionary a revolution is ‘a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system’, which consequently results in, ‘dramatic and far-reaching change’. Every revolution is bound to have significant changes on the society, the economy, the political system and the ideological mindset of that nation. The extent to which any revolution may be deemed radical is, therefore, determined by the levels of change within these contexts. However, to truly appreciate the nature of the American Revolution and determine how radical it was, one must also take into account the pre-conditions and the social and ideological movements that led to the outbreak of war, and the desire for freedom. Thus, in addition to examining the effects of the American Revolution, it would be necessary to examine how radical the revolutionaries were in terms of their ideology and philosophy, in terms of their intentions and of their actions. In doing so, it would be safe to say that one would be able to reach a thorough conclusion as to how radical the American Revolution really was. The American Revolution would prove to have significant effects on American society, across the entire social spectrum including, women, Loyalists, slaves, Native Americans and religious groups. The story of women and slaves following the American Revolution were rather similar. In listening to the liberal and egalitarian ideas espoused by the revolutionaries, both had sought an opportunity for freedom and ultimately a vastly improved social status. Both women and slaves took this opportunity by volunteering in their thousands, hoping that their contribution to the war effort would ensure their freedom and equality. However, unfortunately for both social groups this hope was not entirely upheld. Although women were granted new legal rights, such as the right to divorce, the right to hold property separately, and the right to engage in business deals and contracts without the presence of their husbands deemed necessary2, these rights were not recognised throughout all the Colonies. The Revolution also did little to alter the political nature of women’s existence in American society, and women continued to be excluded from politics. The most common reason for this was the property qualifications imposed by the new State constitutions with regards to voting. Married women were almost entirely dependent on their husbands and had little means of owning their own property. Thus, these new voting qualifications virtually excluded married women. However, although the American Revolution did little to alter the status of women in American society in the short term, the recurrent ideas of liberty and equality purported by the revolutionaries inspired women to campaign for their rights, and ensure the revolutionaries remained true to their word. This would prove to be a long campaign for American women, however one could argue that the Revolution instilled in women a belief that they deserved equality among men, and that it was their duty to ensure it. General perception towards the institution of slavery was extremely polarised within American society. The North reinforced their hostile stance towards slavery following the Revolution, and many slaves were freed as a result. Slavery was almost completely abolished in New England not long after the war, having started its process of
1 2

Patrick Henry in his speech to the Virginia Convention, March 23rd 1775 Gordon Wood from The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), extracted from Elizabeth Hoffman and Jon Gjerde’s Major Problems in American History Vol. 1: to 1877, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2007), page 115

abolishment during the Revolution itself. The Vermont Constitution of 1777 prohibited slavery, as did the Massachusetts Constitution of 1783; and in the space of 20 years after the war New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania had all firmly implemented gradual emancipation laws, with the intention of complete abolishment. The gradual destruction of the industry in the North of the United States could be said to have been sped up by the Revolution and the liberating ideas that accompanied it. The first anti-slavery society in the world was formed in Philadelphia in 1775.3 These revolutionary attitudes towards the slave industry would prove to be a common reference point for future abolishment movements within the Empire. However, whilst the North speedily dealt with the problem of slavery, in the name of the radical views espoused by the revolutionaries themselves, the view that “all men are created equal” was not upheld in the South. The concept of abolishment or gradual emancipation was very much opposed in the South, due to the fact that slavery had been the main source of the South’s economic prominence. In a time of the Revolution, the South had to be conservative to maintain the economy of the region. For many years after the Revolution, slavery in the South gradually became recognised as a necessary evil. Nevertheless, slavery had evidently undergone a radical transformation following the American Revolution, providing opportunity and potential for those in the North, and though slavery continued in the South, the slave industry had been converted from a national institution to one that was ultimately determined by region. Another prominent social group in American society was also affected greatly by the American Revolution, the Loyalists. The defeat of Britain in the War of Independence led to the vast displacement and migration of the Loyalists throughout America. Roughly 80,000 Loyalists are estimated to have left British America during the American Revolution.4 In total, around 100,000 left the United States, headed for Canada, England or the West Indies.5 They had represented the upper echelons of American society, either due to their wealth or political significance. Thus, their absence would prove to have a dramatic effect on American society. Wallace explains how the more prominent members of the Loyalist community, such as royal officials, wealthy merchants and landowners, fled to England in search of compensation; Whereas, the more “humble” Loyalist, as Wallace refers to as, sought a better life in the remaining British Colonies in North America.6 Ultimately, the absence of such an integral and wealthy social group had significant effects on the social context, in that a new social hierarchy was established with Patriot economic elites replacing the field left by the Loyalists at the top of the social pyramid. The war also proved to have a significant effect on the Native Americans. As a result of the American Revolution, there was a large increase in the amount of people flooding to America in search of a better life. Ever since the first settlers arrived, the Native Americans found their lands gradually becoming smaller and smaller in size. Of what land the Native Americans still possessed at the end of the Revolution, this was quickly destroyed and inhabited by the rapid influx of settlers that followed. In addition to their lands being shaved further and further, the egalitarian views surrounding the American Revolution did little to alter social hostility to the Native Americans, and their way of life. In despite of the underlying belief of the Revolution that ‘all men are created equal’, and the increase in social standing of social groups such as slaves, Native Americans were continually referred to as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’. In his book Empire
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Gordon Wood from The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), extracted from Elizabeth Hoffman and Jon Gjerde’s Major Problems in American History Vol. 1: to 1877, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co 2007), page 117 4 Gordon Wood from The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), extracted from Elizabeth Hoffman and Jon Gjerde’s Major Problems in American History Vol. 1: to 1877, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co 2007), page 111 5 Niall Ferguson, Empire, (London – Penguin Group, 2004), page 100 6 Stewart Wallace, The United Empire Loyalists, (Kessinger Publishing, 2004) page 7

(2004), Niall Ferguson argues that “the distant Imperial authority in London was more inclined to recognise the rights of Native Americans than the land-hungry colonists on the spot”.7 In addition to these various social changes as a result of the American Revolution, religion in America and social perception towards it underwent a radical transformation. The most radical of views, particularly for the time of the Revolution, was the fundamental belief in the separation of the Church and the State. The revolutionaries also fervently believed in religious tolerance and the freedom of religion. These principles were perhaps the most radical the American Revolution produced. In addition to changing conceptions towards religious tolerance, the church as an institution was also subject to dramatic change. With the overthrow of the Monarchy, came an increased desire among Americans to distance themselves from the Anglican Church, an institution headed by the Monarch. Furthermore, due to support for religious freedom, the established churches within the various Colonies were challenged. This desire consequently led to the establishment of a new religious order following the Revolution. When the Revolution ended, these ideas were put into practice at both state and federal level. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted on the 15th December 1791, reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Furthermore, perhaps an even more radical element of the revolutionaries in terms of religious tolerance was their constant references to Nature’s God rather than the Christian God. John Adams once said, “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”8 Society had clearly undergone a significant transformation as a result of the American Revolution. However, perhaps the context in which the most radical degree of change occurred was within the American political system. Prior to the American Revolution, the head of state was the Monarch of Britain - an unelected figurehead over 3,500 miles away - and there were no national political systems in existence. Remarkably, in just over ten years after declaring their independence, the Patriots managed to create a strong, publicly legitimate national government, held accountable by and administered through a federal constitution. The American Constitution is arguably the birth child of the American Revolution, and perhaps one of the most contested documents in history. Perhaps the best measure of the extent to which the American Revolution was radical is this document, which in theory was supposed to comprise of all the values, beliefs and, social and political theory espoused by the revolutionaries. The Constitution was so unprecedented for its time, due to the fact that it established a social contract, holding the federal government to account and, placing the ability to scrutinise and ultimately destroy government in the hands of the people. Patrick Henry once said “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government”.9 The American Constitution was also designed to ensure limited government intervention, and established clear boundaries between the public and political domains, and the private domain. “History is clear that the first ten amendments to the Constitution were adopted to secure certain common law rights of the people, against invasion by the Federal Government”.10 Another significant change in the American political system following the American Revolution was the establishment and emergence of political parties. The origins of
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Niall Ferguson, Empire, (London – Penguin Group 2004), page 101 Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the US Senate on 7th June 1797 9 When commenting on the virtues of the Constitution
10

Bell v. Hood, 71 F. Supp., 813, 816 (1947)

national party politics in America lie in the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debate that arose during the ratification of the American Constitution. The extension of government to national level generated fierce debates, as political activists were no longer debating policies within their region or Colony, but those that concerned the entire nation. The contrasting factions within these nationwide debates ignited the establishment of political parties and organisations to unite the like-minded individuals of American politics. In addition to the various changes to the American political system, as outlined in the American Constitution, the revolutionaries also devised plans for a new economic system and policy. The fact that the individual Colonies had become the United States of America generated the need for a common market. The constitution imposed a number of changes on the American economic system such as, the absence of tariffs or taxes on interstate trade, the ability of the federal government to administer trade within the states and with foreign nations, the ability of the central government to print money and regulate its value, and the establishment of uniform bankruptcy laws.11 Prior to the American Revolution, Colonial America was arguably the wealthiest jurisdiction in the world. Gordon Wood in his essay on the Radical Possibilities of the American Revolution (1992) argues that “America was no doubt the ‘best poor Man’s Country in the World”.12 Naturally, the revolutionaries would have hoped that America would maintain and expand on her economic prominence following independence from British rule. Unfortunately, things would not go so smoothly for the American economy in the years after the revolution. Mercantilism had, before the war, imposed tough limitations of the freedom of the American markets. This was indeed a key issue for the revolutionists who sought to ensure complete autonomy over their own markets. However, though the Colonists had gained political independence from the British following the American Revolution, they were virtually obligated to retain their economic ties with Britain to ensure the country’s economic prominence. The intention of the Colonists was to ensure their right to self-governance; however the Revolution did not ensure this included full autonomy over America’s economy. Although America was unrestricted by Britain in terms of who she could trade with, she was still very much reliant on Britain for trade many years after the Revolution. Furthermore, due to the fact that The United States was now independent of the British, she no longer had the luxuries so akin to other Dominions within the British Empire, such as subsidies from the British government to help regulate the economy. Due to her incapacities to self-regulate her economy, and the vast lack of support from the now-absent British, The United States slowly fell into a recession. This economic downturn wasn’t helped by the costs of the war, which were significant considering the time at which it was fought. As Brogan states, the foreign debt alone rose from $7,885,085 in 1783 to $11,858,983 in 1789.13 Among the debts were those owed to the thousands of colonialist and foreign troops who fought in the war, and Congress found it increasingly difficult to meet these reparations. The proposed solution to the problem was to print more money, which eventually led to a period of inflation. Nevertheless, the American Revolution meant that the United States was no longer constrained by London and theoretically had the ability to trade with whoever they wanted and regulate that trade, along with the economy, independently. Though in reality, in the years that followed the American Revolution, the United States was constrained. However, this is arguably understandable for a nation going through so much social and
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Carr & Conte. “Outline of the U.S. Economy” (Accessed 25thOctober 2008) <http://economics.about.com/od/freeeconomicstextbooks/a/us_economy.htm> 12 Gordon Wood from The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), extracted from Elizabeth Hoffman and Jon Gjerde’s Major Problems in American History Vol. 1: to 1877, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co 2007), page 113 13 Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, (London – Penguin Group 2001), page 188

political transition. The United States of America soon recovered from this economic recession and these initial constraints to regain and maintain their former economic prominence, and reasserted itself as the wealthiest jurisdiction in the world, which it remains today. Finally, let us consider the effect the American Revolution had on the global domain. The Revolution had proved that liberty and justice would truly prevail over an apparent oppressor. It had emphasised the importance of democratic politics, the rights of man and the fervent belief that power should always lie among the people, and that they should not be afraid of their government, but their government should be afraid of them. Palmer, in The Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959), argues that the American Revolution proved to be a benchmark for people around the world wishing to set themselves free from tyrannical rule and establish directly-elected, representative government.14 The term Atlantic Revolution applies to the numerous Enlightenment revolutions that occurred during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The American Revolution was the first in this wave of revolution. Many historians consider the fact that the American Revolution was the first in a long list of revolutions in its time was not a mere coincidence, but was because the American Revolution had initiated the process, and created the apparent ‘domino effect’. The most notable revolution, undoubtedly influenced by the American Revolution, was the French Revolution of 1789-1799. Both Greene and Pole in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of the American Revolution (1994) identified the significant influence of the Declaration of Independence on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, published in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution.15 The American Revolution could also be included in the reasons for the initial support for parliamentary reform and democratic development in Britain and other European states. Fear of revolution was undoubtedly a key motive for governments ceding to popular demand and enacted parliamentary reform, which usually came in form of the extension of the franchise. Popular radicalism in Britain certainly flourished during the period of economic and political crisis that surrounded the American Revolution.16 The fear that this social discontent could manifest into a violent revolution almost forced government officials to reform in order to preserve social order. The American Revolution clearly had a significant effect on the social, political and economic contexts of The United States. The shackles of colonial and monarchical rule were overthrown, and replaced with a revolutionary republic, administered by a previously unprecedented national, democratised, and representative government, united and bound by a constitution that embodied the radical ideals of universal liberty and equality. The Americans themselves had won complete autonomy over their natural resources, including the freedom of economic regulation, removing the previous constraints of a distant ruler.17 In the absence of the Monarchy, a new religious order was established, but the radical views of the revolutionaries with regards to religious tolerance sounded throughout both state and the federal constitutions. There were significant social groups who radically gained a great deal from the American Revolution. Women had gained legal rights previously conceived as un-deserving, and the Revolution opened the door for women to campaign further for their rights in society among men. Furthermore, the slave industry was virtually abolished in the North, and The United States in the wake of the Revolution would prove to be the frontrunner for the abolishment movement on the global
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Robert Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. Vol. 1 (New Jersey – Princeton University Press 1959), page 211 15 Jack Greene & J. R. Pole, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of the American Revolution (Cambridge – Blackwell 1994) 16 Iain McCalman, Jon Mee, Gillian Russell, Clara Tuite, Kate Fullagar, An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (Oxford – Oxford University Press 2001), page 39 17 Niall Ferguson, Empire, (London – Penguin Group 2004), page 101

stage. The exodus of the tens of thousands of Loyalists created a new social hierarchy in which Patriots would dominate, rather than those who pledged allegiance to the King. Finally, the American Revolution proved to be the starting point of a wave of revolution that would follow in the late 18th and early 19th century, and a beacon for social justice and egalitarianism around the world. However, there were of course losers in American society and many social groups failed to feel the effects of the liberal and egalitarian views espoused by the Patriots. Among these were the Native Americans who continued to lose their lands following the increase in the levels of migrant settlers, and in the South slavery continued to remain a thriving industry. Though women had gained certain legal rights, they were still very much excluded from politics and other social domains, and it would be a long time before the notion that women could participate in politics arose. As much as the Patriots hated the British for their “taxation without representation”, the effects of losing such an influential global power hit hard on the American economy, and American trade would prove to suffer as a result. In conclusion, the American Revolution may have resulted in the continuation of conservative policies, particularly in the case of slavery; but, what was achieved during the American Revolution was extraordinary. The United States of America was completely independent from Britain and achieved the unthinkable, with revolutionary ideals for its time. A nation was united under the banner of freedom and equality, self-governing and prepared for its future. The American Revolution was certainly a radical event in modern history. Word Count: 3,475

Bibliography 1. Bell v. Hood, 71 F. Supp., 813, 816 (1947) 2. Brogan, Hugh, The Penguin History of the USA, (London – Penguin Group 2001) 3. Carr & Conte. “Outline of the U.S. Economy” (Accessed 25thOctober 2008) <http://economics.about.com/od/freeeconomicstextbooks/a/us_economy.htm>

4. Greene, Jack & J. R. Pole, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of the American Revolution (Cambridge – Blackwell 1994) 5. Hoffman, Elizabeth and Jon Gjerde’s Major Problems in American History Vol. 1: to 1877, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2007) 6. Ferguson, Niall, Empire, (London – Penguin Group, 2004) 7. McCalman, Iain, Jon Mee, Gillian Russell, Clara Tuite, Kate Fullagar, An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (Oxford – Oxford University Press, 2001) 8. Palmer, Robert, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. Vol. 1 (New Jersey – Princeton University Press 1959) 9. Wood, Gordon, from The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), extracted from Elizabeth Hoffman and Jon Gjerde’s Major Problems in American History Vol. 1: to 1877, 2nd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2007) 10.Wallace, Stuart, The United Empire Loyalists, (Kessinger Publishing, 2004)

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