Four hundred years ago it was a commonplace that government rested on the will of God. Three hundred years ago a good many people still thought so. But by two hundred years ago, in England and in England’s American colonies government was supposed to rest on the will of the people. The American Revolution was carried out in the name of the people, and it was supposedly “We, the people,” who created the government that Americans still live under. In the course of American history doubts have arisen from time to time about whether that government has not escaped from the people, and the doubts have more than once led historians to ask whether the people ever had control over the Revolution or over the national government that resulted from it.
As early as 1909 Carl Becker suggested that the Revolution was a struggle not only about home rule but about who should rule at home. And subsequent historians have searched for an internal revolution, a rising of the people (not necessarily successful) against a local ruling elite. In the burst of books that celebrate the Bicentennial several probe the question. They are for the most part the work of scholars associated with the New (and not-so-new) Left, and some of them furnish new insights, based on new research, into who and what the people were in 1776, and into how they affected the Revolution and how the Revolution affected them.
At the outset one must regretfully dismiss a book by one of the most revered of the group, a prolific scholar whose work has always been imaginative and original. William Appleman Williams, in America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, has written a study for which the most charitable word is eccentric. In it the people appear to be victims of a “Weltanschauung” imposed on them by the “Revolutionary Fathers.” Williams describes the ingredients of this Weltanschauung and then proceeds to rewrite the rest of American history as the product of it. His description of how it operated leaves one longing for the concreteness, say, of Kant or Hegel. For example:
They [the Revolutionary Fathers] killed Time (and History) in the name of uniqueness. They concluded that the Past was Bad and that the Future would very likely be Bad, and hence all that remained was the Here and Now. If you have a philosophical turn of mind you see the point immediately: Americans were the first existentialists—to live now is all, over and over and over again. Forever, as it were, without any Amen. Perhaps, indeed, America is best defined by an existential sense of omnipotence. Our purpose is to preserve the Present forever.
In spite of the exuberance of this statement, it is not intended to convey approval. The commitment to the Present, though not specified as an ingredient in the Weltanschauung (it comes in as an adjunct of a sense of uniqueness) seems to have become a malevolent force in American history. Williams sees it as a sort of temporal complacency, a fear of change, a determination to keep everything as it is: “the effort to preserve the Present inexorably drives one into an embrace with the status quo.” It is not clear just how Americans acquired this infatuation with the Present, but Williams finds it dominating their history throughout the past two centuries, directing the energies of national leaders, who keep killing the Past and Future whenever they raise their heads. Seldom has a historian attributed such power to an ideological attitude. Theodore Roosevelt “charged San Juan Hill to help bring Cuba into the American Present.” Woodrow Wilson “defined good people as those who accepted the American Present.”
The author defines people as bad or good according to whether he thinks they insisted on the American Present or showed concern for the Past or the Future (always in capitals). Southern secessionists are good and so is Herbert Hoover, because they accepted the Past. Lincoln is bad, “the bloodied Saviour of the American Present,” etc., etc. In the end we are quite ready to believe the author’s revelation that when he speaks of understanding the past he means “the knowing in the soul that tells us of our primary nature as a culture.” It is only in the soul, not in factual records, that this kind of history can be found.
The book closes with a moving appeal for abandonment of the Federal Constitution and a return to the Articles of Confederation. The Articles, Williams insists, embodied the best part of the Revolutionary Weltanschauung, an insistence on the right of selfdetermination, before the Fathers somehow or other killed the Past and committed us to the Present. In this conclusion the author brings his bizarre rendering of American history back to earth by attaching it to the views of an older historian of the people, Merrill Jensen, whose classic study, The Articles of Confederation (1940), however controversial, is a work to be taken seriously.
Jensen argued that the Articles embodied the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence, while the Constitution of 1787 was the product of a conservative, Thermidorean reaction. Jensen has reaffirmed his views in a new book, The American Revolution Within America. Here, as before, he finds the people in the vanguard of the Revolution and the colonial elite either loyalist or reluctant revolutionaries. The people identify popular government with local government and hence favor the ineffective national government provided for in the Articles of Confederation, while the elite yearn for a higher authority to hold the masses in check. Having lost the one furnished them by the British, they strive continually for a national government capable of doing the job. With the adoption of the Constitution of 1787 they finally succeed. The basic difficulty with this interpretation is, as it always has been, to demonstrate that national government is intrinsically less popular than state government and that it was so perceived by the people of the time.
Anyone who was not persuaded by the author’s earlier books is unlikely to be swayed by the new one, even though it does offer some additional evidence and does take note of the argument presented in the past thirty years that the majority of colonists, by owning property, were qualified to vote and presumably, therefore, gave the government a popular base. Jensen acknowledges that “Property was indeed distributed more equally than in Europe, and there was more opportunity to rise to the top.” “However,” he goes on,
Americans in 1776 were not concerned with “comparative history” but with political and economic realities within America. The reality was that while a multitude of men owned small farms, many of them owned money for the land they had bought. Still others were tenants, many of whom had no hope of becoming landowners. Beneath them were tens of thousands of indentured servants who would eventually work their way to freedom, and at the bottom was nearly twenty per cent of the whole population of the colonies, the Negro slaves, few of whom could ever hope to be free. In the cities, for every apprentice bookbinder like Thomas Hancock who became one of Boston’s wealthiest merchants, there were hundreds of people who owned no property at all.
That a fifth of the population was enslaved is a fact of fundamental importance. If the same number of people had been both free and without property, the internal history of the Revolution might have been quite different. But they were not free and the Revolution did not make them free. If there was an internal revolution, they were not part of it. And if we eliminate them from the catalogue that Jensen gives us and consider that on the eve of the Revolution city dwellers (man, woman, and child) amounted to only 5 percent of the total population (or about 7 percent if we count cities with fewer than 6,000 inhabitants) and that a large proportion of the tens of thousands of indentured servants were apprentices not yet of age, then the depressed segment of the population is going to be much smaller than Jensen seems to imply. It will not render oppression any less oppressive if it affects a minority rather than a majority, but if we are talking about “political and economic realities within America,” the probability remains that a majority of adult males in the colonies owned the property on which they supported their families and were qualified to participate in the political process, that the national government, in other words, did have a popular base.
It does not follow that American society was egalitarian or that an elite did not hold dominant positions in government. But it does follow that a people’s history of the Revolution will have to take account not merely of a struggling, discontented minority but of a landowning majority (of adult males). That majority must surely be counted as part of the people rather than of the elite. A history dealing with ordinary men cannot proceed on the assumption that they are a minority and the elite a majority. This fact has been something of an embarrassment to historians who seek in the Revolution a radical tradition that can be carried forward to a time when the masses were indeed without property.
The problem is evident in the most important book on the Revolution yet produced by the historians of the New Left. This is a collection of articles by eleven scholars, edited by Alfred Young, The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. The authors are all professional historians, and their work, brought together here, forms an impressive testimony to the intellectual vigor and scholarly standards of the New Left. In spite of occasional lapses into the doctrinaire, encouraged perhaps by a consciousness of being in the company of friends, most of the papers offer solid information about those Americans (exclusive of the loyalists) who challenged a local elite and who may not have shared in the Whig ideology of the Revolution. I say “may not” because I think the evidence offered, though impressive, leaves the matter in doubt.
There is no doubt, however, that the authors are eager to repudiate the “consensus historians” (the improbable firm of Bailyn, Boorstin, Brown, Morgan, Rossiter, and Wood) who have expounded what they consider to be the common ideas and ideals and goals of the struggle both for home rule and for popular rule at home. The éminence grise of Young’s collection is none of the authors nor even Young himself, but E.P. Thompson, whose 1971 article in Past and Present on “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” has served as a model for several of the articles.
Thompson argued that food riots in England were not spasmodic reactions of the hungry to a scarcity of bread, but disciplined affairs, aimed not at destroying property but at controlling prices. They represented a conflict between the regulated economy of mercantilism and the advancing unregulated economy of Adam Smith and the classical economists. Similar riots occurred during the American Revolution, when the fiscal policies of the Continental Congress combined with the demands of the Continental Army, and the profiteering activities of those who supplied it, to create scarcities and inflate prices.
In the English food riots Thompson saw an assertion of the moral values of an older economy, in which consumer had dealt more directly with producer. The American historians in Young’s collection point to similar hearkenings in the Revolutionary episodes they examine. The main purpose of their essays, however, is to extend Thompson’s notion of the moral economy of the crowd into an American counter-culture that was in rivalry not simply with the ideology of Adam Smith and the free market but more especially with the Radical Whig ideology of the Revolutionary leaders. There was another ideology, we are now told, disruptive rather than cohesive, that animated the internal revolution. Gary Nash sets the theme in the opening essay:
The Whig ideology, about which we know a great deal through recent studies, was drawn from English sources, had its main appeal within upper levels of colonial society, was limited to a defense of constitutional rights and political liberties, and had little to say about changing social and economic conditions in America or the need for change in the future. The popular ideology, about which we know very little, also had deep roots in English culture, but it resonated most strongly within the middle and lower strata of society and went far beyond constitutional rights to a discussion of the proper distribution of wealth and power in the social system.
Although Nash avoids posing a direct conflict between the two ideologies and at the outset suggests that they interacted “dynamically” in bringing on the Revolution, the interaction he presents us with seems to have been one of mutual hostility. The popular ideology, in so far as we learn any of its tenets through its manifestations, seems to have consisted in hostility to wealth and to governments run by the wealthy. Nash emphasizes the growth of poverty in the cities and depicts “a rising tide of class antagonism and political consciousness,” a struggle between “two incompatible conceptions of government and society.” And since at this point he is not talking about the British versus the Americans, we get the impression that the two incompatible conceptions are both American and are those represented by a popular ideology of hostility to wealth and an elite Whig ideology that included hostility to the poor. Since the classes were antagonistic, it seems plausible that their ideologies were also in conflict.
The idea is appealing, for it can be demonstrated that exponents of the Whig ideology, such as John Locke, James Burgh, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon, gave short shrift to the poor. The Whig “Commonwealth-men” generally regarded poverty as the product of vice, and some of them formulated plans for disciplining the poor in workhouses or even for enslaving them. In the Whig ideology the poor posed a threat to liberty, because they could be bought by anyone who filled their bellies with food and drink. They formed the material from which a political adventurer could build a standing army and reduce a whole country to political slavery.
Neither Nash nor any of the other authors deals with this aspect of Whig ideology, but most of them do focus on class antagonisms and the superior popular appeal of a lower-class moral economy or popular ideology, as against a supposedly upper-class, “abstract,” Whig ideology. Marvin L. Michael Kay argues that the Regulator Movement in North Carolina, a popular rising in the western counties of the colony just before the Revolution, was not a conflict of west versus east but of lower-class westerners against upper-class westerners. He interprets the Regulator demands for more equitable taxes, reduced court fees, and stricter accountability of public officials as “democratic reforms to implement class rule,” rule, that is, by the lower classes. Edward Countryman, discussing rural riots in the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, and Vermont, sees in them the communitarian moral economy of a peasant society, arrayed against speculators and landlords. And Rhys Isaac, in the most enticing essay of the volume, provides a variation on the theme.
Isaac too advances the proposition of another ideology, or rather another culture, in conflict with the culture of the upper class in Virginia. But it is not the moral economy of the crowd. It is the evangelical Protestantism of Baptists and Methodists, an ascetic culture that coincided with the onset of the Revolutionary movement and fitted it more comfortably than did the worldly culture of the easy-going, gambling, luxurious Virginia gentry. This is a brilliant essay, not least in its explanation of Patrick Henry’s popularity by his ability to appeal to both cultures at once.
It would be impossible to do justice here to the range of interpretative insights offered in this book. It gives a new lease on historiographical life to the contest over who should rule at home. But with regard to the theme of a popular ideology distinct from the Whig ideology and perhaps in conflict with it, a word of caution may be in order. The content of this popular ideology, except in Isaac’s essay, remains elusive and seems to consist more in attitude than in general ideas which can be differentiated from those of the Whig ideology.
For example, Dirk Hoerder, in an essay on Boston crowds, gives us a picture of a confrontation at the Boston townhouse between a crowd and a customs officer, in which the crowd was unable to offer any accusations against the man. Although Hoerder has assured us that the Boston mob had an autonomy divorced from the Whig leadership, he comments that “The crowd was unable to articulate grievances and general principles on a level adequate for the atmosphere of the townhouse, which contained better educated onlookers,” and he adds sarcastically, “It seems that their access to pamphlets expounding constitutional theories and the thought of the British ‘Commonwealthmen’ was limited.” But it is not clear what general principles, other than hostility to the rich, the crowd might have articulated if they had not been overawed by the presence of the educated.
If we consider the general principles of the Whig ideology, about which, as Nash observes, we know a great deal, it is hard to see why it should not have served the middle and lower levels of society (exclusive of the poor and the dispossessed) as well as the upper levels. Although the Whig commonwealthmen of the eighteenth century were suspicious of the poor, they were also suspicious of mere wealth. Their writings echoed the seventeenth-century writings of James Harrington, the principal founder of the English republican tradition. Harrington insisted that the distribution of political power would always follow the distribution of property, that property ought to be widely distributed, and that only a general equality of property in the population could guarantee republican government and the liberties that went with republican government. Those who followed Harrington made the protection of property the primary aim of government, but they were highly suspicious of speculators and merchants who accumulated too much wealth and too much power. The best-known work in the Whig canon, Cato’s Letters by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, was directed primarily against the South Sea Company and the influence of stock-jobbers and wealthy speculators in the government.
If the people were in need of an ideology that condemned malefactors of great wealth, the Whig ideology stood ready at hand. Was it too abstract and elitist? Perhaps. Perhaps Trenchard and Gordon were guilty of abstraction when they said that “equality is the soul of liberty” or that “A Free People are kept so, by no other means but an equal distribution of property.” Were they also too abstract in saying that would-be tyrants “will be ever contriving and forming wicked and dangerous Projects, to make the People poor, and themselves rich; well knowing that Dominion follows Property”? Were they elitist when they asserted that
there are not such mighty Talents requisite for Government, as some, who pretend to them without possessing them, would make us believe: Honest Affections and common Qualifications are sufficient; and the Administration has been always best executed, and the publick liberty best preserved…when plain honesty and common sense alone governed the public affairs, and Men’s morals were not corrupted with riches and luxury, nor their understandings perverted by subtleties and distinctions.
The Whig Commonwealth, to be sure, had much to say in defense of property, because they thought the possession of property was what enabled men to be free. It was only men with their own means of production, their own land, who could not be bullied or bought by would-be tyrants. Such an idea may have seemed less abstract and less elitist to eighteenth-century farmers than it would to twentieth-century proletarians. Which brings us back to the persistent problem that confronts any interpretation of the Revolution that sees the people as consisting primarily of the poor and oppressed. Undoubtedly the people, almost by definition, were not the rich. But neither were they merely the poor. Most of them, apart from servants and slaves, had the property to enable them (if the Whigs were right) to resist tyranny, whether from abroad or at home.
It may be that they nevertheless found the Whig ideology abstract and inapplicable, but the evidence offered in this volume does not so demonstrate. In so far as what is called the popular ideology found expression in words, other than mere denunciation, it sounds very much like the Whig ideology derived from Harrington.
The authors have succeeded in demonstrating a large amount of class antagonism, but in their eagerness to align themselves with the oppressed and to repudiate consensus, they tend to project on to the property-holding majority a radicalism that would have suited only the enslaved and the poor. Nash himself describes his popular ideology as appealing not merely to the poor but to a “popular party” in Boston, which he says “included many of the city’s merchants, shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and other well-to-do men.” Can this be the group that exhibited a rising tide of class antagonism? Kay, who insists that the Regulators wanted reforms to implement class rule, estimates that the Regulators included between threequarters and seven-eighths of the household heads in the western counties. Was the class rule they wanted anything besides the rule of the majority? Did they wish to give political power to the dispossessed?
It is fair to argue that the social and economic discontents of the majority affected the course of the Revolution and the kind of institutions and leadership that came out of it. But it is another matter to see popular discontent as a protoproletarian ideology. The problem is vividly illustrated in the case of the Philadelphia artisans, who are the subject of two very suggestive new studies. The first is Charles S. Olton’s Artisans for Independence: Philadelphia Mechanics and the American Revolution. By Olton’s estimate, one-third of the household heads in the city were artisans, and they played a conspicuous role in Revolutionary politics. It seems reasonable to think of eighteenthcentury artisans as lower-class. They did not generally have the kind of property that figured as the basis for economic and political independence in Whig ideology, and they would seem thus to belong to the proletariat.
But Olton finds that in Philadelphia most artisans, including those who determined the group’s politics, were independent entrepreneurs rather than employees. They took an enthusiastic part in the nonimportation agreements and other anti-British measures, because the cutting off of British imports brought direct benefits to them as producers. They had enough personal property to qualify as voters, and they used their votes in favor of independence. But they had no desire to overturn the social structure, and in the years from 1776 to 1789 they opposed price controls and favored hard money, the Bank of North America, protective tariffs, and the Federal Constitution, measures that have commonly been interpreted as the work of upper-class conservatives.
The Philadelphia artisans are also central figures in Eric Foner’s Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, for Paine’s America was mainly Philadelphia, and Paine, having been an artisan himself, had no trouble forming close attachments with those of the city as soon as he arrived there in 1774. The book is a sensitive attempt to expose the tensions in Philadelphia society and to delineate the social ideas and ideals that competed in the mind of Paine. Foner, like Olton, traces the radical, antiBritish activities of the artisans, extending from extra-legal committees to city and provincial politics, and he sees Paine as the leader of the artisans. Paine may even have led them farther than they would have gone by themselves in extending popular power in the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1776.
In the years that followed, when the profiteering of merchants resulted in a demand for price control and even some crowd action against monopolizing middlemen, Paine was at first on the side of the crowd and its “moral economy” of price control. Foner follows Thompson here in showing the conflict between the traditional notion of a controlled economy and the philosophy of free trade advanced by Adam Smith and espoused (in this instance at least) by the Philadelphia merchants. Paine was no great friend of merchants. If the people had a champion, if there was a spokesman for the popular ideology, he should have been it. But Paine found that the moral economy of the crowd did not extend to the artisans. They might be lower-class, and they must certainly be counted among the people rather than the elite, but they were as eager as the merchants to benefit from high prices for their goods. And when they accordingly came out against price control, so did Paine.
In the 1780s he too supported the Bank of North America and the Federal Constitution. When he went to France and became more clearly a spokesman for the dispossessed and a conspicuous figure in what Henry May calls the Revolutionary Enlightenment, he lost his American following. So bald a summary does violence to the subtleties of Foner’s analysis, but it suggests the complexities that await the effort to discover in Revolutionary America an ideology that is both popular and distinctively lower-class.
Proponents of a popular ideology will also have to reckon with the kind of people Robert A. Gross has found in Concord, Massachusetts, In The Minutemen and their World Gross has written the first full-dress community study of a New England town to focus on the Revolutionary period. The author has employed the current apparatus of historical demography, but he keeps the statistics in the footnotes and uses the text to give the results in English. The result is a richly detailed picture of social life and social divisions in Concord and a lively narrative of the coming of the Revolution there.
Three significant observations emerge. First, the town was troubled by disputes in which the outlying regions were arrayed against the center, mainly over ecclesiastical issues. Second, in the halfcentury before the Revolution the town suffered an economic decline (documented in variety of statistics) comparable to what other historians have found in other old New England towns. And finally, neither the economic decline nor the economic differences among the rich, poor, and middling portions of the population seems to have affected the ecclesiastical-geographical disputes or the town’s participation in the Revolution. Apart from one or two Tories, the people of Concord seem to have supported the Revolution all but unanimously. The Minutemen were drawn from all segments of the male population. During and after the Revolution the townsmen continued to elect the same sort of people to town offices as before; and when militia officers became elective (instead of being commissioned by the king) the militiamen elected the same sort of people as had formerly received commissions. Anyone looking for a lower-class ideology will find few signs of it in Concord.
But another fact about Concord may suggest a more fruitful direction for a people’s history of the Revolution. Although the town was solidly behind the resistance to the British, although its men turned out to fight again and again (in the course of the war the town answered calls for two-and-a-half times as many men, for two months or more, as there were eligible males in the town at the outbreak of the war), nevertheless enthusiasm for the war lagged after the initial years, and the town’s quota of troops in the Continental Army had to be filled by draft. Concord was by no means unique in this respect. Service in the militia may well have helped to revolutionize the American people, as John Shy suggests,* but popular participation in public affairs in the eighteenth century, even in so enveloping a movement as the Revolution, was spasmodic.
The people might express themselves vigorously from time to time, whether through regular political channels or through extra-legal or mob actions, but they generally left politics to a small minority who had the taste and talent and social prestige required for it. They were seldom to be found pressing from below for a greater share in the political process. When they acted spontaneously, it was likely to be violently. For when aroused they wanted action without the tedium and delay of politics, as in closing the courts in Shays’ Rebellion, or burning down hospitals (which they thought were spreading smallpox by inoculating people against it) or demolishing theaters (dens of vice). When they did turn to politics it was usually under prodding by some politician or party that wanted their votes.
The people did not need a special ideology to enable them to take control of government if they had wanted to. Prevailing political axioms in England as well as America, and not merely Whig ideology, proclaimed that the legislative body (the supreme branch of government) was a mere substitute for the people, that it was mere convenience that caused them to empower representatives to act for them, that they could have legislated for themselves if they chose to. This was a fiction, but it invited the people to take a much larger role in government than they showed any willingness to play.
Most adult males in the American colonies had the right to vote, but they exercised it only occasionally or not at all. For the most part they had not gained it by demanding it. It was thrust upon them by the terms of colonial charters and by the abundance of land that enabled them to fulfill the traditional property qualifications. Perhaps because it had come to them so easily they did not value it highly, and they did not wish to be bothered with it unless they thought the government was up to something worth being bothered about. Those who cast the majority of votes in an election one year might not take the trouble to vote at all the next year. Sometimes a few of them assembled to give instructions to their representative, but both the gathering and the instructions were likely to have been instigated by the man instructed, who hoped to gain the leverage of popular approval for the adoption of measures that he or his faction already favored.
The situation encouraged factional politics, and made it likely that political office would be monopolized by ambitious politicians and by the elite of a community to whom the people paid either willing or grudging deference. It also encouraged competition for popular support; and that competition probably made it inevitable that the people would sooner or later be drawn more actively into the political process, made it inevitable that the fiction of popular sovereignty would move closer to reality. Changes in that direction were already under way before the beginnings of the Revolution.
The Revolution itself did not complete the change. Voting continued to be spasmodic. It was not until long after independence was won that political parties developed the organization and continuity to bring voters to the polls with any regularity. But the creation of a people in the Revolution required a heightening of political consciousness in the people. It required renewed and repeated assertions of popular sovereignty. It demonstrated the possibility of directing popular action, if only for brief intervals, toward larger goals than the closing of a court or the burning of a hospital. It produced (as Gordon Wood, Jackson Turner Main, and James Kirby Martin have shown) a decline in the influence of social deference on the popular choice of public officials. And it opened the opportunity for popular control of economic and social policy without interference from abroad.
A history of the people in the Revolution, whatever else it contains, will have to deal with these matters, with the awakening of the inert majority of the political nation. It will have to deal also, of course, with the dispossessed and with those too poor to have a part in the political process, but it should not confound the minority with the majority. It will take more than one book and more than one historian to do justice to the subject and more than the prescriptions of one critic to define its limits. The variety of insights in the books reviewed here, from the social impact of militia service to the social challenge of evangelical Protestantism, suggests how rich the topic is—and how rewarding the study of it remains for anyone who wishes to understand how the American people came to be what they are.
August 5, 1976