The Radicalism of the American Revolution
The American Revolution has always posed a challenge to historians. Revolutions are supposed to be risings of the masses against the tyranny of their masters. Even if the end result is the new tyranny of a Cromwell, a Bonaparte, or a Stalin, a revolution scarcely seems to deserve the name without the overthrow of an oppressive ruling class by some kind of underclass.
The first American historians easily rose to the challenge by identifying the British and especially George III as tyrants and the Americans as oppressed. But the academic professionals who took up the subject at the beginning of this century, priding themselves on a scientific objectivity, had difficulty finding enough evidence of British oppression to explain the extent of American resistance. Instead, under the influence, direct or indirect, of Marxist analysis, they went looking for a local ruling class against whom a local working class could have risen. Carl Becker, in an enduring epigram, described the Revolution, in New York at least, as a contest not merely about home rule but about who should rule at home, with an emphasis on the latter.
Following Becker, a succession of historians throughout the Twenties and Thirties translated every division among Americans (of which there were many) into neo-Marxist terms of class struggle. The outcries of colonial leaders against British oppression became mere window dressing to cover the self-interest of a local ruling class, determined to resist interference by their betters in Britain or their inferiors at home. The resistance was successful in both cases, and the Revolution ended in Thermidorean reaction with the adoption of the federal Constitution of 1787.
After the Second World War a new generation of historians took a closer look at the supposed struggle over who should rule at home. Working in what an older critic called “the flush times of mid-twentieth-century capitalism,” they were perhaps less sensitive than their predecessors to internal conflicts among the Revolutionary Americans and so earned, unwittingly, the title of “consensus” historians. The Revolution they described was one in which the Americans’ resistance to Britain submerged and overwhelmed any lesser contests among themselves, but the quarrel with Britain was less about who should govern than it was about the limits of government itself. The distinguishing feature of the new historians was not really their assumption of consensus among Americans but their insistence on taking seriously what the colonial leaders said they were fighting about. If one supposed that people might have meant what they said, the many manifestoes and declarations of the Revolutionists ceased to be window dressing and opened the way to a new understanding of what the Revolution was about and what it achieved.
What it achieved, in this view, apart from the independence of the colonies, was an enunciation of the principles that were supposed to guide and limit government, principles that rested the right to govern on the consent of the governed, principles that they thought the British had betrayed, thereby forfeiting the right to govern. Admittedly …
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