Revolution and Radical Reform

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How radical was the American Revolution? Historians are divided over this important question, taking varying positions on the extent and nature of change during the Revolutionary era. But most historians agree that the American Revolution did result in sweeping changes or radical reforms that had an enduring effect on American politics, culture, and society. These reforms can be divided into three categories: independence, constitutions and government, and social change.


The Declaration of Independence embodied the first radical reform of the American Revolution. But the American Revolution did not begin as an independence movement or as a movement for radical change. Quite the opposite was true: the earliest protests aimed at preserving the status quo in British America. For more than a century, colonial governments had administered the colonies as quasi-autonomous members of the British Empire. Historians identify this experience as salutary (or benign) neglect. Under this framework, England allowed a high degree of self-government in the colonies as a way of encouraging maximum profitability.

Salutary neglect became less viable in the 1760s. Increased costs of empire and wartime debt following the Seven Years' War prompted Parliament to seek new sources of income. The result was tightened regulation of trade and a series of internal and external taxes. This was met with protests and resistance, which included boycotts, harassment of officials and destruction of property. The goals were conservative: restoration of the quasiautonomy of the colonies. But the results were farreaching. After a decade of protest, the momentum shifted from protection of English rights to outright independence from Britain.

Inspired in part by Thomas Paine's radical treatise Common Sense, the colonies, assembled in congress, agreed on a formal Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was, in many ways, a pragmatic document. In declaring independence, the colonies also put into practice theories that had been promoted by philosophers of the Enlightenment. Liberty was redefined as inherent and universal, in contrast to the English understanding of rights granted selectively by the monarch and, later, by Parliament.

The Declaration of Independence also expressed four fundamental principles of modern republican societies in which sovereignty originates in the people, not the government. The first is the doctrine of equality—"that all men are created equal." While expressing the eighteenth-century idea of equality in the eyes of God, this doctrine became a catalyst for social conflict and cultural change. At the time of the Revolution citizens fought, and since then have continued to struggle, to implement the ideal by securing equal rights, equality before the law, and equal opportunity for personal advancement. The second is the assumption that people are born with "certain unalienable rights," which are expressed in the Declaration as "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." The third is the precept that government gets its "just power" only from the "consent of the people" and by securing those unalienable rights. Finally, the Declaration proclaims the right of the people to "alter or abolish" their government should it no longer be based on the consent of the people or should it no longer secure their unalienable rights. This right of revolution, however, is tempered with "prudence," the acknowledgement that government should not be fundamentally "changed for light and transient causes."

constitutions and government

The Declaration was both the summary of American colonial ideals and the justification for the colonial war of independence from Great Britain. The newly independent colonies formed themselves into sovereign states in the immediate aftermath of the Declaration of Independence, employing constitutions to legitimize and organize their declarations of sovereignty. The process and methods of creating new governments varied, but the new state constitutions had one thing in common. Each of these constitutions was written and published, unlike the English constitution, which existed only in a vast body of laws and court rulings and in the imaginations of Englishmen.

The written constitution, an outgrowth of popular demands, was itself a radical reform. But these state constitutions incorporated additional reforms that were direct outgrowths of the American Revolution. Faced with an erosion of their rights as British colonists, Americans demanded guarantees from the new governments. Virginia led the way in June 1776 with a declaration or bill of rights: a written guarantee of individual liberties and restraints on government power. Most of the states followed Virginia's lead by incorporating bills of rights into their own constitutions.

In some cases, the bills of rights reflected existing grievances against Britain, including the quartering of troops and suppression of the press. But they also contained original demands, such as the guarantee of religious toleration (freedom of religion). In a few cases, religious toleration assumed a new and, for its time, radical form: separation of church and state. This was, in part, a concession to religious minorities, whose support was crucial to the success of the Revolution. But separation of church and state also reflected one step in a larger and broader rethinking of government and its role in society.

The most radical rethinking of government, at least from the perspective of contemporaries, was reflected in the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776. Operating under the influence of radical patriots, the Pennsylvania legislature reduced government to its most basic form: a unicameral government (a single legislative body), elected annually and democratically by a broad male suffrage that virtually ended the traditional requirement that only property holders could vote.

Other states, including New York and Massachusetts, took more moderate approaches to government. Nevertheless, the resulting constitutions reflected a variety of radical changes. New York retained the English structure of government: a bicameral legislature (two houses) and an executive or governor. But New York's constitution, ratified in 1777, called for an elected governor; on the basis of this change, George Clinton became the first popularly elected executive in modern history. The Massachusetts state constitution, ratified in 1780, added an additional radical element by constructing an independent judiciary, freeing the courts from political entanglements. Massachusetts also made a sweeping change to the process of constitution-making. For the first time in modern history, a constitution was drafted by a special body of representatives elected for this purpose only and ratified by a popular vote.

The Massachusetts example was later followed in the adoption of the federal Constitution in 1787 and 1788. The long-term significance of this action cannot be overstated because it distinguished making fundamental law (a constitution) from passing legislation. That distinction has elevated the Constitution to a position of "higher law" by which all legislation and government acts can be judged.

Some of the state constitutions' radical reforms did not stand the test of time. Others evolved or returned in new forms, including term limits and limits on the number of offices an individual could hold. But the state experience of constitution-making had a direct and enduring effect, not only on the U.S. Constitution of 1788, but on constitution-making in the modern era.

social change

Political reforms resulting from the American Revolution were indeed significant. But the Revolution unleashed a broader set of radical reforms that went to the heart of American society. Revolutionary ideology coupled with the demand for military forces and changes in government created new expectations among ordinary Americans. Many of these expectations were realized during and immediately following the Revolution. Other expectations developed and were realized in the decades and centuries that followed.

White males, in particular, expected much and gained significantly as a result of the American Revolution. Deference—the respect due an assumed superior—decreased considerably, resulting in broader assumptions of social equality. More important, however, was the incorporation of more of them into the body politic. Prior to the Revolution voting, office holding, and the right to serve on juries were restricted to those who owned a certain amount of property or controlled a certain level of wealth. In the wake of the Revolution, many states amended their voting qualifications to include most, if not all, white males over twenty-one years of age. This was the first step in what would become a continual demand in the United States for expanded suffrage and eligibility for office.

White females gained significantly less as a result of the Revolution, even though they had provided material support for the patriot cause. Protest and war forced many women to assume unaccustomed roles as boycotters, fund raisers, heads of households, artisans, farmers and laborers. Some women made their way to the front, where they served the needs of the army as nurses, cooks and laundresses. A few found themselves on the field of combat, including at least one woman—Deborah Sampson—who disguised herself as a man and served with distinction in the military.

For most women, participation in the war effort was an act of patriotism. Few if any of them expected to gain political rights. A small percentage of propertied women in New Jersey did, for a brief period, have the right to vote, although the loophole in the state constitution was quickly amended. Many women did, however, expect reforms within the household, particularly to women's economic roles and to divorce laws. This is what Abigail Adams meant in her often misinterpreted demand to her husband "to remember the ladies."

Women did not, in the end, gain much ground economically or legally as a result of the Revolution. Their gains were largely limited to newly-defined roles as mentors for the next generation of republican sons and daughters, what historian Linda Kerber identifies as "republican motherhood." Many women, particularly women from the upper strata of society, used this new responsibility to claim an education for themselves. In reaching for their own educations, these women benefited from a post-Revolutionary environment that was strongly in favor of education for American society as a whole.

Although the gains for women were limited, the American Revolution had a long-term effect on women's rights in the United States. The expectation of more freedom within marriage was, in itself, quite radical. The demand would gain momentum over the next two centuries, becoming an important element of the movement for women's suffrage and women's rights in general.

African Americans had a similar experience of limited gains with significant long-term effects. The Revolution raised important and challenging questions concerning the practice of slavery. In some cases, slaves and slave owners acted on their own. Some African Americans gained their freedom by serving in the British or American armies, or by running away in the confusion of war. A few individual slave owners, influenced by the ideology of the Revolution, voluntarily freed their slaves. Others included manumission in their wills. These routes to freedom, however, affected only a small fraction of enslaved African Americans.

A handful of leading patriots wrestled with the coexistence of democracy and slavery. A few hoped for general abolition. But that hope fell victim to the economic needs of the southern states and to the larger need for unity in the postwar period. Abolition in the post-revolutionary period was limited to northern states and was usually accomplished in a piecemeal or gradual manner. In any case, abolition and emancipation did not always guarantee economic, social or political equality for African Americans. But they did set an important precedent for the future, raising doubts among northerners about the racist assumptions of American society.

The American Revolution served as a catalyst for a wide variety of radical changes in the way nation-states are understood, governments are constructed, and people's roles in society are perceived and acted on. Some of these changes were immediate. Others took decades and centuries to come to fruition. Many continue to unfold. But the seeds can be traced to the Revolution: to an independence movement that unleashed more in the way of radical reforms than its authors originally imagined.


Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution. New York: Harcourt, 2002.

Berlin, Ira and Ronald Hoffman, eds. Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.

Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Main, Jackson Turner. The Sovereign States, 1775–1783. New York: New Viewpoints, 1973.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Angelo T. Angelis

See also:Flags; Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution; Religion and Revolution.