As everyone must know by now, the bicentennial of American independence is fast approaching. But what kind of revolution will we be commemorating in 1976? The axiom that each generation rewrites history in its own image has certainly proven true of the American Revolution.1
Earlier in this century, “progressive historians” like Carl Becker and Charles Beard argued that the Revolution, like the rest of American history, was dominated by a struggle between oligarchy and democracy, between business interests and the “common man.” In their view, there were two simultaneous contests—the battle for home rule and the struggle over who should rule at home.
Opposition to British measures was begun in the 1760s among the aristocratic merchants and planters who dominated colonial society and politics. But almost from the start, they were faced with pressure from below, from the impoverished urban artisans and rural yeomen who resented their own exclusion from political power as much as they opposed British rule. Rioting was their form of political expression, and through extralegal committees like the Sons of Liberty they entered political life. In the end, these lower-class groups strengthened the commitment to independence and won a series of democratic changes in American political life, although never completely overturning the power of the oligarchy.
That, to sum it up briefly, is the progressive interpretation. Over the past twenty years it has been attacked by historians who emphasize what Americans have in common rather than what divides them. Investigations of colonial society and politics have shown that property-holding and the suffrage were far more widespread than had been believed. If colonial America was a “middle-class democracy” and if even the urban artisans were property-holding entrepreneurs rather than impoverished radicals, then surely class conflict played little part in bringing about the Revolution. In the search for causes of the Revolution, demands for social change gave way to conflicts of ideas.
To the progressives, ideologies were simply masks for economic interests. Ideas were best understood as propaganda; it was their function, not their content, that was significant. But recent writers have taken the ideas of the revolutionists far more seriously, a trend culminating in the most influential book published on the Revolution in the past two decades, Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.2
Based on a study of the pamphlet literature of the period, Bailyn’s book brilliantly outlined the revolutionaries’ view of history as a constant struggle between liberty and power, in which citizens had always to oppose governmental encroachments on their rights. Only within the setting of their ideological convictions about the fragility of liberty and the aggressions of power could the colonists’ reactions to British measures of the 1760s and 1770s be explained. Eventually Americans struck for independence, not to transform their society but to preserve the liberties they already enjoyed. Although the Revolution transformed some institutions—the abolition of slavery in the North is perhaps the best example—it mostly rationalized and confirmed a political and social order which already existed; its major consequences, like its causes, were ideological.
This interpretation has been described as neo-Whig, because it is so similar to what the revolutionaries themselves said about their own motives and aspirations (perhaps inevitably, since it is based on the assumption that people mean what they say and write, and that open statements, not hidden interests, are the place to look for their motivations). The profound influence of Bailyn’s book on subsequent writing on the Revolution can be seen in the four books under consideration, an influence which goes far beyond the fact that they have been written by young scholars who were graduate students of Bailyn’s at Harvard.
The studies by Pauline Maier and Richard Brown are most closely related to the work of their mentor. While Bailyn sketched the over-all ideology which predisposed Americans to react to British measures as they did, Maier shows how American resistance gradually developed, how each event after 1763 served to confirm and intensify their distrust of British intentions.
At the outset, American leaders were not outspokenly anti-British; they defended the British constitution and assumed that any injustices would soon be put right. But gradually Americans came to believe that malevolent ministers were conspiring against them, and by the 1770s they were including among those conspirators the king himself. Finally, they concluded that the entire British nation was steeped in luxury and indifferent to liberty, and they were then ready to demand independence.
According to Maier, the Whig ideology shared by the revolutionary leaders justified forcible resistance to tyranny, but only after all peaceful means of recourse had been exhausted. And even during resistance order must be maintained, and anarchy and violence avoided. Emphasizing the power of this ideology, Maier develops a striking reinterpretation of mob violence and the role of radical leaders in the events leading up to independence.
Drawing on George Rudé’s studies of eighteenth-century European crowds, she shows that mobs were an accepted and common part of political life; often, as when directed against high food prices or impressment of sailors, they had the tacit approval of local authorities. Composed of members of all social groups, they were hardly a threat to the social order. Indeed, Maier writes, the leaders of the secret organizations called Sons of Liberty that first sprang up in protest against the Stamp Act of 1765 were substantial members of their communities, not the voteless urban poor described by the progressives. And since their ideology of resistance deprecated mob violence, radical leaders devoted themselves to maintaining the peace, restraining popular violence, and disbanding crowds. One function of the extralegal committees that flourished before the Revolution was to provide alternative methods of protest. Eventually, this “ordered resistance” was naturally transformed into “ordered revolution.”
Maier has succeeded in turning the progressives’ interpretation of the American Revolution on its head. In their view, the radicals instigated popular violence, in hers, they endeavored to control it. Part of her thesis is confirmed in Richard Brown’s study of revolutionary politics in Massachusetts. In that colony also, the Committees of Correspondence were composed of well-to-do citizens, and once again the radical leaders devoted themselves to “the discouragement of all licentiousness, and suppression of all mobs and riots,” to quote one town meeting. For Brown, as for other recent writers, harsh British measures, not internal conflict, provide the key to the coming of the Revolution. The Whig leaders were successful because, far from setting one class against another, they appealed to “a shared body of political habits and ideas.”
The picture of the revolutionaries that emerges from both books is of a rather cautious, conservative group. Their revolution was conceived in consensus, carried out without civil violence, and sanctioned by appeals to law and order. But we should not conclude that the final word on the Revolution has been spoken. These books suggest that the ideological interpretation, like the progressive view which preceded it, is by no means free of problems. Maier describes her work as “a study of political perception,” and she is too astute a historian not to recognize that the radicals’ perceptions of events were often “partial, skewed, inaccurate.” Yet too often she crosses the line between describing the radicals’ perceptions and accepting them as an accurate description of what was happening.
The Whig press consistently reported that crowds conducted themselves with remarkable decorum and sobriety. Yet is it not possible that their own way of thinking predisposed them to perceive crowd behavior as largely peaceable? Certainly the Tories had an entirely different view of what was happening. Their accounts stressed the very disorder and anarchy which the radicals claimed was being avoided. Brown’s account of Boston’s Stamp Act demonstration of August 14, 1765, is relevant in this regard:
Boston’s Sons of Liberty and their friends celebrated the demonstration of August 14 which had culminated in the stamp master’s resignation. Ignoring the physical destructiveness which accompanied the demonstration, they chose to regard it as an example of properly expressed popular power….
Maier usually accepts how the radicals “chose to regard” crowd actions as an accurate description.
Similarly, toward the end of her book, Maier observes that even after the battles of Lexington and Concord, radical leaders strove to keep the peace. She does not mention that New York City was plunged into what one contemporary described as a “scene of riot, tumult, and confusion” when news of the battles became known. Resistance may have taken a more disorderly course than her account would lead us to believe.
A second problem concerns the nature of the ideological consensus itself, which recent works describe as embracing all members of the revolutionary coalition. In her study of the Loyalist exiles in England, Mary Beth Norton argues that even the Tories shared “the underlying consensus” in American politics. This book is a fascinating portrait of the lives of some 7,000 Americans who went into exile rather than be disloyal to the crown, and of their pathetic hopes that the Revolution would blow over. Like so many other exile groups, the Loyalists were never really at home in England, remaining Americans even while they denied the idea of American independence.
Norton describes their lives with perception and compassion, but she never really explains why they became Loyalists in the first place. If they read the same pamphlets and shared the same ideas as the Whigs, what made them act so differently? Norton observes that it was the radicals who changed, not the Loyalists, since at the outset everyone claimed to be loyal to the crown. Yet surely this begs the question. One must wonder how useful is the concept of an ideological consensus so broad that it embraced men and women of opposite political behavior.
The same question is raised by Brown’s study of Massachusetts politics. He too sees a society ruled by “common assumptions” and shared political beliefs. The reader of his detailed, perceptive account of political events between 1772 and 1774 may well be surprised to learn that within a few years the state would be torn by internal dissensions, that in some counties mobs would prevent courts from being held, and that a decade after the Declaration of Independence, the western farmers who took part in Shays’s Rebellion would rise against the eastern-dominated government. There may have been a consensus for independence and republicanism, but as John Adams observed, “Republican Government may be interpreted to mean anything.” It obviously meant something different to the farmers of western Massachusetts from what it did to Boston merchants.
In fact, on the crucial ideological question—the future shape of American society and institutions—there was no consensus at all. The decade following 1776 was marked by severe internal conflict and turmoil, and Richard Buel’s study of the 1790s shows that severe ideological differences continued into and beyond that decade. The main difference between the Republican and Federalist parties, Buel argues, was whether they had faith in the durability and stability of republican institutions, and he carefully traces how first fiscal policy and then the French Revolution divided the former revolutionary allies.
Unfortunately, he pays little attention to the Federalist and Republican views of the nation’s future, the debate over whether America should develop along the lines of Great Britain and become a powerful commercial empire, as Hamilton wanted, or retain its agrarian nature, as Jefferson believed it should. Buel’s book nevertheless shows once again that agreement on opposition to Great Britain did not translate into agreement on how American society should be ordered.
The ideological interpretation has made clear for the first time the mentality of the revolutionary leaders. But has it given us a full picture of the Revolution? In spite of the demonstrated flaws in the progressive argument and its extremely simplistic view of the colonial social structure and its social conflicts, some points in the older view still seem valid. The contest with Great Britain was accompanied by a struggle for the fruits of independence: it released forces which ranged far beyond the immediate issues of imperal relations. If demands for internal$$$
A large step toward modernizing the progressive view, taking advantage of some of its insights without being bound by its inaccuracies, was made by Gordon Wood in his recent book, a magisterial study of the ideology of republicanism during the 1770s and 1780s.3 Wood argued that the Revolution was a truly utopian enterprise, an attempt to create a wholly new republican world. If we take this approach as a starting point, it seems logical that different groups may have brought their own distinctive grievances and aspirations to the Revolution, while expressing them in the only political language with which they were familiar. This may help to explain the puzzling spectacle of an ideological consensus giving way to internal turmoil during and after the contest with Britain.
Without falling into the progressives’ trap of seeing ideas as merely the convenient rationalization of economic self-interest, we need some way of connecting ideology with social structure, of trying to understand just why the revolutionary ideology appealed to various elements of the American population. Buel does attempt to relate the party ideologies of the 1790s to their social roots, particularly to the relative security of each state’s economic and political elite. In New England, where the Revolution had unleashed so much internal conflict and where habits of deference seemed to be in decline, the privileged classes tended to be uncertain about the stability of republican government and therefore were Federalist.
In Virginia, by contrast, where slavery defused conflicts among the white population and habits of deference were strong in political life, the leaders were confident that no matter how egalitarian the political system, they would be certain to control it. They therefore were more optimistic about the future of republican government. It was a characteristically American paradox: slavery, which insulated the Virginia elite from political threats from below, made Jeffersonian democracy possible.
Buel’s argument here is ingenious, as far as it goes. But it is much more successful in explaining why prominent people of Massachusetts and Virginia acted as they did than why a New York mechanic voted Republican. In fact, like the other books under review, Buel focuses primarily on the ideas of the elite, the men who wrote the pamphlets, made the speeches in Congress, and, of course, dominated the political parties. Like the other writers, he does not address the question of how far down the social scale the ideas of articulate leaders went in an era when communications were primative, formal education was not widespread, and in which mass political parties had yet to be invented.
It is, of course, extremely difficult to assess the beliefs of those who are commonly referred to as “the inarticulate” (which usually means simply that records of their thoughts have not survived.) There are some problems however, in assuming that these people shared fully the thoughts of merchants, planters, lawyers, and clergymen. For $$$
$$$ of increasing luxury among the American populace must have seemed a poor joke to those suffering from the periodic depressions of the revolutionary period. As a New Yorker wrote to his local newspaper, the notion seemed odd “that we have become idle thro’ Wealth” because a few men were able to “roll in their four wheel’d carriages, and can support the expense of good Houses, rich Furniture, and Luxurious Living” while the vast majority could not.
In Pauline Maier’s study, there are hints that leaders and followers may have seen things differently. Maier contrasts two demonstrations in Boston on August 14 and August 26, 1765. The former was carried off with decorum and control, but the second degenerated into “a scene of riot, drunkenness, profaneness and robbery,” in which the houses of royal officials were sacked. The riot “demonstrated a remarkable extremism on the part of colonial crowds,” she writes, and adds that a riot next month in Connecticut again made manifest “the contrast between the moderacy of the crowd’s spokesmen and the extremism of the masses.”
Yet she does not pursue these insights. Why were the “leaders” so out of touch with their followers? Did the differences in tactics reflect differences in ideology? Her failure to raise these questions is all the more surprising since she is familiar with the work of Rudé, which shows that some sense of crowd mentality can be inferred from the crowd’s choice of targets.4 If mobs in 1765 sacked the houses of wealthy officials, did they share the rough sense of social justice, of getting even with the rich, which Rudé found in English crowds? Certainly their activities indicated a resentment against crown officials greater than that held in 1765 by the radical leaders after the imposition of the Stamp Act.
The point is not that the crowd operated entirely on its own, either politically or ideologically. As Rudé and other writers have shown, the slogans and political ideas of eighteenth-century crowds were generally taken from upper-class leaders even while the targets reflected the crowd’s own specific grievances. The step forward from this situation to independent political organization among the “lower orders” was slow and painful, involving the emergence of extralegal committees, mechanics’ organizations, and other such groups, which were much more effective in sustained political activity than sporadic crowd violence. Not until the 1790s would the American mechanics’ organizations be matched in Europe, in the London Corresponding Society and the Parisian sans-culottes.
What is involved here is one of the most important effects of the revolutionary experience—the expansion of political participation, the end of a narrow and exclusive “political nation.” “The mob,” to quote the conservative Whig Gouverneur Morris, “began to think and reason.” The results of this thinking and reasoning led another conservative to complain, “This country is agitated to its foundations.” Slaves began to petition for their freedom. Tenants on the estates of New York’s aristocratic Whig leaders demanded new and more favorable leases. And throughout the colonies there were demands for more democratic local politics, for the mass of citizens to have a hand in government. Such ideas appealed most strongly to the groups—western Massachusetts farmers, Philadelphia artisans—that were most isolated from power and privilege.
Not all of “the lower orders,” of course, were radicals, or even Whigs. New York tenants, backwoods Southern farmers, and many slaves supported the British cause simply because their enemies—Whig landlords and Tidewater aristocrats—were revolutionaries. But we shall never be able to explain the causes or results of the new “politics of participation”5 if we confine our investigations to the ideas of the leaders of the Revolution.
Finally, these books raise some interesting questions about the “radicals” and “radicalism” of the American Revolution. It would certainly be wrong to confuse, as many historians do, those who were radicals about Britain with those who were radicals about local politics, or to assume that radical-conservative divisions developed in a straight line from the 1760s to the 1790s. We must, above all else, avoid the temptation to read our current definitions of radicalism back into the eighteenth century. To do so is to indulge in revolutionary antiquarianism—to scourge the past for men who expressed ideas that today are considered radical, and define past radicalism through them. It is, of course, equally dangerous to assume that since eighteenth-century men did not express themselves in modern terminology, as spokesmen of a self-conscious working class, radicalism therefore did not exist.6
Revolutionary radicals were firmly embedded in the eighteenth century. The modern language of politics had not yet been born. Men spoke of “orders” rather than of classes; “the lower orders” included not only wage workers but self-employed craftsmen, small shopkeepers, and many others. Such groups as the urban artisans expressed their economic and political resentments not in statements of class war but in attacks on political and economic privilege, in praise of the “producing classes” as opposed to the opulent, the speculator, the aristocrat.
The demands of the most radical wing of the revolutionary coalition were generally blunted, although in Pennsylvania in 1776 a group of radicals grounded in the Philadelphia artisan class staged a virtual coup d’état and created a new state constitution far too democratic for the state’s elite-—and for many of its common citizens as well. By the 1790s, nonetheless, ideas and institutions that were dangerously revolutionary by the standards of the eighteenth century had become accepted parts of American life. Buel’s description of the Federalists’ problems is very much to the point: they desired to insulate the federal government as much as possible from popular pressure and influence, but could never succeed in maintaining power on such a platform. They were forced “hypocritically” to mouth egalitarian doctrines (which raises some interesting questions for the key tenet of the ideological school—that people meant what they said). The Federalist dilemma showed how much had changed as a result of the Revolution.
Perhaps the most instructive words for historians of this period were spoken by Thomas Paine, who was in a better position than most to interpret the results of the Revolution: “The independence of America considered merely as a separation from England, would have been a matter but of little importance, had it not been accompanied by a revolution in the principles and practices of government.”
February 22, 1973
Those interested in pursuing these changing historical interpretations should begin with Jack P. Greene, ed., The Reinterpretation of the American Revolution 1763-1789 (Harper and Row, 1968). ↩
(Harvard University Press, 1967). The book was a somewhat revised version of Bailyn’s introduction to volume one of Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1965). ↩
See particularly The Crowd in History, 1730-1848 (John Wiley and Sons, 1964), and Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century (William Collins Sons, 1970). ↩
The phrase is taken from J. R. Pole’s new survey of the revolutionary and early national periods, Foundations of American Independence: 1763-1815 (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972), which contains an intelligent discussion of this question. ↩
Thus, a recent scholarly article concludes that certain artisans in the 1770s were not “social revolutionaries ready to become soldiers in a class conflict’—a classic case of a historian simply asking the wrong questions. ↩