An Introduction to the History of the American Revolution
Some persist in the argument that the American Revolution is not really a revolutionary movement. They argue that the American Revolution did not establish a new nation, because the new government was established by the same social elites that held power before the Revolution. They point to the French Revolution, a real revolution by anyones standards, and claim that because the American Revolution does not share some of the same drastic and immediate changes, it is not a real revolution. However, while both statements are arguably true, they miss the fact that there were undeniable changes in American society as a direct effect of the American Revolution. The new ideals for foundation of government, the abolition of slavery in the North, and the shifting of land-ownership to a broader, more middle-class base all carried far-reaching social and political effects. Thus these changes, brought upon by the American Revolution, define the American Revolution as undoubtedly revolutionary. The American government that we know today is a product of the American Revolution. This is because the ideals brought to the surface in the American Revolution were the very ideals that our government was founded on. These ideals include antistatism, egalitarianism, populism, and liberalism. The antistatism of the American Revolution is seen as the rebellion against the powerful, centralized, English government. Fighting against a centralized monarchical state, the founding fathers distrusted a strong unified government.
To them, the centralized English government was tyrannical, and thus antistatism was a prevailing idea of the America Revolution. Following the revolution, antistatism was expressed as a complete lack of centralization in the American government under the . The ideals of antistatism are also expressed in the Constitution, i.e., the elaborate system of checks and balances which scatters power throughout government. Egalitarianism of the American Revolution is most clearly seen in the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that the are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. This ideal stems from the Enlightenment thoughts of John Locke, and became a fundamental belief of the new nation. This is seen in not only the Declaration of Independence, but also the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, and the Virginia Bill of Rights. These documents have in common the same ideas that all men carry certain natural and unalienable rights. The practice of slavery, however, is in direct conflict with these ideals. How could the founding fathers establish the first real egalitarian government but establish it as a slave society? It was because slavery as a whole was too deeply rooted to be removed by the actions of the American Revolution, although some changes would take place. This point will be discussed later, but it is important to note now that although slavery could not be completely wiped out, egalitarian principles began to chisel at its foundation. Thomas Jefferson felt that the egalitarian ideals in the Declaration of Independence would undermine slavery, and after the ball of equality began to roll so to speak, it would not be stopped. Populism is defined as the political doctrine supporting rights and powers of common people in their struggle with the privileged elite. Therefore, the idea of populism was actually not one held by the founding fathers, who were in fact themselves the privileged elite.
The populist movement is seen in the shift of control in America to the middle class. In a study done examining the wealth of men in state legislatures before and after the Revolution, the wealth of such men was divided into three classes: wealthy, well-to-do, and moderate. Between the years of 1770 and 1784, in New York, New Hampshire, and New Jersey the number of men of moderate wealth rose from 17 to 62 percent, with a concordant loss of well-to-do, and wealthy . Also, the proportion of farmers in state legislatures doubled while the proportion of merchants and lawyers declined. According to R. R. Palmer in his essay The Revolution: In short, the revolt in America meets the external criteria of a true revolution, and of a revolution in a democratic direction, since it was the former upper or aristocratic class that was displaced. Lastly, the ideal of liberalism is seen in the new government in the separation of church and state. Many states abolished a government-supported church in favor of the idea that men should be able to choose their own path of worship. However, this was not to say that discrimination against Catholics, Jews, Deists, and nonbelievers ceased, only that religious liberty for many citizens grew. The Constitution of Maryland stated that: All persons professing the Christian religion, are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty; note the phrase All persons professing the Christian religion.
While this discrimination existed, the abolishment of a state-supported church was a grand improvement of the rights and liberties of citizens. In 1784, James Madison wrote his Memorial and Remonstrance to the general assembly of Virginia, opposing a bill which in effect made all Christian churches state churches. In his Remonstrance, Madison cites Article 16 of George Masons Declaration of Rights (1776): Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, that Religion or the duty which we owe our Creator and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. Virginia later passed An Act for establishing Religious Freedom. This document, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 was passed in 1786 through the efforts of James Madison, George Mason, and John Taylor. In it, Jefferson wrote that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support and religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever. And of course, in 1791, the 1st Amendment in the Bill of Rights stated that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The ideals of antistatism, egalitarianism, populism, and liberalism were not limited to the American Revolution. Some were in part products of Enlightenment thinking, and would have no doubt been present had the American Revolution never taken place. The American Revolution did not create these ideals. It did, however, provide a facet for them to be formed into government. The American Revolution established a new kind of government, based on democracy, equality, and freedom, and that is why it was revolutionary. The abolition of slavery is a defining feature in the revolutionary nature of the American Revolution. Following independence, many northern states began the process of abolishing slavery. This happened because political and economic factors chiseled at the need for slavery while egalitarian and humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution began to be applied to the rights of blacks. In 1777, Vermonts constitution declared that: All men are born equally free and independent.
Therefore, no male person born in the country or brought from over the sea, ought to be holden by law to serve and person as a servant, slave or apprentice after he arrives to the age of twenty-one years, nor female in like manner after she arrives to the age of eighteen years, unless they are found by their own consent after they arrive to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debts, damages, fines, costs or the like. In 1786, the state legislature declared that by the Constitution of this state the idea of slavery is expressly and totally exploded by our free government. In 1780, following extensive lobbying by The Society of Friends and several rejected bills, Pennsylvania passed an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, making it the first state to pass a law for the gradual abolition of slavery. And in 1788, another law completely wiped out the trade. In 1784 Rhode Island passed the Gradual Emancipation Act which did not prohibit the slave trade, but freed all slaves born after March 1, 1784. Connecticut did likewise in 1784 with a statue making all slave children born after March 1 free at the age of twenty-five. In 1788 though, Connecticut passed an act prohibiting its citizens from taking any part in the slave trade. In Massachusetts, the process was slow and confusing, as opposing interpretations of the constitution and other slave related court cases clashed. Slavery began to wither in this state until finally in 1788 the Massachusetts legislature passed An Act to prevent the Slave-Trade. The complicated process of abolition in the northern states is beyond the scope of this paper. However, this brief overview of how slavery was abolished in the North does relate to the more immediate concern of why. As already shown, there was a great emphasis put on equality and human rights during the Revolution. Yet slavery remained a government condoned institution and a great many blacks were in perpetual bondage. It did not take long for people to see the hypocrisy in this. Asked one English official, How could Americans treat Negroes as a better kind of cattlewhile they are bawling about the Rights of human nature? Another man, Dr. Samuel Johnson asked: How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? There are many numbers of examples of people who noticed and pointed to this inconsistency in American political doctrine.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence boldly declared that all men are created equal, but it remained unclear as to if this applied to blacks. Because the deleted section of Jeffersons Declaration described the slave trade as violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people, it can be reasonably assumed that when he wrote of unalienable rights, he meant this to apply to blacks too. However, the institution of slavery proved to be more influential then the philosophy of the Revolution, thus humanitarian and egalitarian ideals continued to be juxtaposed with the brutal reality of slavery. In the New Jersey Gazette of September 20, 1780, John Cooper spoke of this contradiction: Whilst we are spilling our blood and exhausting our treasures in the defence of our own liberty, it would not perhaps be amiss to turn our eyes toward those fellowmen who are now groaning in bondage under us. We say, all men are equally entitled to liberty, the pursuit of happiness; but are we willing to grant this liberty to all men?If after we have made such a declaration to the world, we continue to hold our fellow-creatures in slavery, our words must rise up in judgment against us. And by the breath of our own mouths we must stand condemned. Of course, it was not only Revolutionary ideals which brought about the abolition of slavery in the North. There are other reasons that explain why some states abolished slavery relatively easily through legislation while in other states it would take bloody civil war almost a century later. In some states, slavery was not deeply rooted and not as needed as in other states. The declining need of slavery brought its faults more and more into the open. These included the fear of slave revolt; the desire for white laborers, for what they could give back to society as independents; and the resentment of slave labor among white laborers. These factors made slavery seem less and less desirable, while the humanitarian ideals compounded with the recently ended fight over human rights attacked slaverys fundamentals. The Revolution encouraged abolition by fueling the fire of liberty, and began the process of eroding slavery in our nation.
A final reason the American Revolution was in fact revolutionary lies in the redistribution of land. The new western lands, the confiscation of large Tory estates, and the abolishment of primogeniture served to break down the feudal land-holding aristocracy and redistribute land in small parcels to the middle and lower class. There were in fact, a great many Tory estates confiscated by state legislatures during the Revolution. Twenty-eight estates were confiscated by New Hampshire, in New York, fifty-nine. Massachusetts passed an act which confiscated all the property of every person who fought against the Untied States or resided in places under British rule. Between the states, hundreds of estates were confiscated. It is important to understand here that many of these estates were in fact enormous. The confiscated Penn estate was valued over a million pounds sterling. In Georgia, Sir James Wrights estate was valued $160,000. From Lord Fairfax and Sir John Johnson were confiscated 50,000 acres each. These are just examples of the size of many estates. The states now had an excess of land on their hands and also an excess of debt from the war. So logically, they sold this land. It was sold, however, in small parcels. One New York law discouraged the sale of those lands in parcels larger then 500 acres. Thus the estate of Roger Morris went to 250 persons, and the estate of James DeLancey to 275. This practice allowed large amounts of wealth and land to be redistributed, and contributed to the break up of a land-holding aristocracy. Following the Revolution, western lands played a large role in the development of the nation. First there was unprecedented migration west. The population in 1785 of Kentucky was between twenty and thirty thousand. By 1790, there were seventy-four thousand people there. Most of these people were farmers who bought the land in small parcels for their own use. but by the time the swarms of settlers debouched upon those great western plains the habit of the small farm was in the main already fixed, and the United States was to be a land of peasant proprietors.
Next, the abolishment of primogeniture. The feudal land-holding aristocracy of colonial America was perpetuated as estates passed from generation to generation through the practice of primogeniture. New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia all had primogeniture laws such as old feudal England (Jameson 37). However, by 1786, all states but two had abolished it, and the two states where the practice continued were states in which entails were rare. And by 1791, primogeniture was completely abolished, freeing an extensive amount of land. In Virginia, with the abolishment of primogeniture in 1776, at least half, and possibly three-quarters of the occupied land in Virginia was released from entail. The fact that all of the states abolished primogeniture at more or less the same time is strong evidence of the revolutionary nature of the American Revolution. The change to a more democratic land policy is proof of strong democratic ideals. And because the abolishment of primogeniture happened so quickly following the Revolution, it is clear that these democratic ideals must have been well established prior to the Revolution. The American Revolution provided a way for these changes to take place by breaking with old English ways. The social change in the Revolution paved the way for democratic ideals to be laid in land policy. If a revolution is the overthrowing of an old system for favor of a new, then the changes in land laws and land distribution during the American Revolution are undoubtedly revolutionary. The American Revolution set the stage for democratic ideas to be expressed in government, in human rights, and in the distribution of land. The Revolution abolished old systems of thought and brought in new ones; it broke with traditional ideas and forged its own. There are undeniable changes that took place during this period, and to look them in the face and still claim that our American Revolution did not represent a real revolution is simply false. The government we have today, the ideas we hold, and the way we live our lives are all products of the American Revolution, and moreover, the changes that took place during the American Revolution. The American Revolution was revolutionary.