The American Revolution
By Brian Jaeger
U.S. History 151
The American Revolution may not always be recognized as a true revolution. British rule was overthrown, and I believe that changes did occur in political ideology, class relations, and political institutions in America. I also will try to prove that these changes lasted regardless of any attempts to counter them.
We must first take a look at the colonies before the American Revolution. "Authority and liberty flowed not as today from the political organization of the society but from the structure of its personal relationships" (Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution 11). One's place in society played an important role, just as in England. The gentry in the colonies may not have been as secure as in England, but the colonial gentry still had a lot of power. The gentry in the colonies not only owned a good deal of the land, they also had almost all of the political power."Since the society and the state were assumed to be identical, social honors and titles were necessarily related to the offices of government" (Wood 84). This power was distributed among family and friends, who were also more than likely members of the gentry. The power was kept within the powerful families. "Few if any of the common people regarded government as a means by which economic and social power might be redistributed or the problems of their live resolved" (Wood 87). Political authority was based on good relations with the people, so the gentry in the colonies would lend money, do favors, or maybe supply employment to create obligations (Wood 89). Character played a big role in moving up the social ladder, too. "Circumspection, caution, and calculation; on the control and suppression of one's true feelings for the sake of cultivating the patronage of those superiors who could help or hurt one's rise" (Wood 92).
Men in the colonies could buy their way into the gentry class. This was quite different from in England, where the gentry gained their status from birth. Colonial gentry were also less secure than their English counterparts. No one in the colonies could stop making money. Obviously, the King was not in the colonies, nor was the nobility. Fewer paupers, or jobless peasants, existed in the colonies, too.
The colonists were not altogether happy with the monarchial society. Some "intellectuals and critics" began to contemplate republicanism "to enlighten and improve monarchy" (Wood 96). These criticisms emerged from sources within the colonies like religion (Puritan) and possibly from political experiences of the colonists (Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation 103). Brinkley also writes that many of these republican ideas came from Scots or "country Whigs" who viewed the monarchy as tyrannical, corrupt, and oppressive. The colonists may not have come up with all the ideas of republicanism, but they did grab on to most ideas that promoted this radical idea. One's education was becoming the deciding factor to most, not birth. Said John Adams, "gentlemen are not... the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have received a liberal education" (Wood 195). "Republicanism represented all those beliefs and values that confronted and criticized the abuses of the eighteenth century monarchial world" (Wood 96). Republics are based on the people having virtue and self-sacrifice (Wood 105). The people of the colonies, because of these ideas of republicanism, began to declare violations of the British constitution and desire representation in British Parliament. The British did not fully understand either, since the constitution was not written and the colonists were virtually represented already (Brinkley 104,105).
Economic factors, along with the ideological factors previously discussed, caused what we consider to be the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was written on the eve of the actual fighting. This was a very liberal document in that it seemed to give a lot of power and regard to the common man. The Declaration of Independence is considered to be propaganda, so it may have ventured a bit far in order to rally support. The Revolution itself may not be how we think of revolutions today : "not poor vs. rich, workers vs. employers, or even democrats vs. aristocrats. They were patriots vs. courtiers"(Wood 175). Courtiers were the people who saw position as coming from above, like the King, nobility, gentry, and so on. The patriots, however, did not have to depend on anyone, and their position came from below and they had to rise.
State constitutions were mostly written during the war. Renda spoke about the new Pennsylvanian government of 1776 that had a one house legislature, elected annually by all taxpayers. A president with no veto power presided over the legislature. Bills had to wait for one year to be voted on, and a convention would be held every two years in order to see if any improvements were needed. A few other state constitutions were also very liberal Renda told us that many Americans were horrified by the excess of democracy. Some sort of balance was needed. This balance was to be the Constitution of the United States.
The Constitution was written in 1787 in an attempt to curb some of the change that had occurred, but "no constitution, no institutional arrangements, no judicial prohibitions could have restrained the popular social forces unleashed by the Revolution" (Wood 230). Though the Constitution of the United States may have halted any tendency towards a complete democracy, it could not defeat the fact that America was "the most egalitarian ... society in Western history" (Wood 230). The idea of equality certainly contributed to the idea of democracy sticking around. Equality caused the end of the use of such words as "yeoman" and "husbandman" as early as 1777. The gentry class began to disappear, just as the other classes did. Even the Constitution could not prevent the dissolving of titles that exhibited inequality.
The American Revolution certainly was a revolution, the effects of which remain to this day. Monumental changes took place both in society and in government. We can only question to what extent these changes remained. The Revolution planted the idea of equality in the minds of many, which led to more than simply an influx of revolutions, but to a new train of thought. This new thought helped lead to freedom of all people in America. The Constitution only solidified the new ideas into a government that could work, and it has been working well for over 200 years.
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The American Revolution