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Radicalism in the Revolution


"Radical" stems from the Latin radix, root. Politically it means addressing matters from their roots. Within the American Revolution there was no single radical position from beginning to end. The word radical can apply equally well to deep criticism of both the British-American social order and British policies during the pre-Revolutionary crisis. It also can describe the various visions people formed of the new America that the Revolution made possible.

colonial tensions

Broadly speaking, pre-independence radicalism was "conservative," seeking to turn back changes that Britain sought to impose. But colonial radicalism also drew on presumptions that a great deal was wrong with the world as it was. One source, especially among New England intellectuals, was the heritage of Puritanism, which had overturned the monarchy, beheaded King Charles I, and abolished the House of Lords. "Commonwealth" or "real Whig" English writers were profoundly suspicious of all political power and the people who wielded it. Provincial American readers devoured their caustic criticism of "Old Corruption," as they described the political settlement in Georgian Britain.

Underpinning these (and other) intellectual traditions was a generalized belief that good communities were small, cohesive places where local customs governed relations among neighbors and kin. White colonials believed in private property and took part in long-distance markets; but they had not become fully capitalist. Colonial plebeian culture drew on Britons' deep popular suspicion of country lords, city financiers, and others who lived on poor people's labor. Just as British pamphleteers helped fuel elite colonial suspicions, migrants and seafarers helped keep popular traditions alive. Pre-Revolutionary English "liberties" were privileges that went with a given situation. White colonial males could tell themselves that the "liberty" of having their own political institutions gave them British freedom under the crown equivalent to the freedom their fellows "at home" enjoyed under Parliament. Their "liberty" of owning slaves was denied to Britons within "the realm" of England, Scotland, and Wales. Native people dealing with the invasion of their land had no love for the colonial order. Nor did Africans and their American-born children, who were enslaved to make that land productive. Given any chance, they said so. Kingship did offer a way to comprehend the whole situation: society was unequal, and liberties were uneven, but a benevolent British monarch, limited by Parliament, did protect his people. Or so official ideology maintained.

revolutionary protests

During the imperial crisis elite protest writing was distinctly provincial, responding to problems of taxation, legislation, and power that the British authorities posed. Consider the Boston politician and pamphleteer James Otis. Although his fundamental attitude toward British power was outrage, he remained trapped within the notion that Parliament, the source of English liberty, remained the ultimate voice in determining the colonials' version of British freedom The contradiction between that belief and the hard reality that Parliament claimed the power to bind colonials "in all cases whatsoever" helped tear his unstable mind apart.

Thomas Jefferson's first pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), cut through much of the tangle. He abandoned all the complexities of internal and external taxation, taxation and legislation, colonial privilege and parliamentary power that had bedeviled previous protests. He asserted a full equality of rights between (white) Americans and Britons. They were separate peoples, linked only by a shared monarch, who reigned over them on their own terms by their own consent. Jefferson's pamphlet prefigured both his tone and his arguments in the Declaration of Independence two years later. Without fully realizing it, he was opening the question of how an independent America should structure itself. His style was forceful: "Let those flatter who fear, it is not an American art." He understood that a deep crisis had opened and that old arguments had become useless.

Thomas Paine published his great pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776, after crisis had turned into war. His prose was ferocious, not gentlemanly. The king was a "royal brute." "The weeping voice of nature" cried "'tis time to part." Jefferson and Paine alike were ardent republicans, believers in political liberty and in the idea, at least, of equality. But Jefferson tripped on the contradiction that ran through both his America and his own life, slavery. Drafting the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, he tried to blame slavery on the hapless king. It did not work, foreshadowing his lifelong failure to address the question adequately. Paine saw more clearly. In this matter the king was not at fault. As he wrote in "African Slavery in America" (1774), "We," not the king, had "enslaved multitudes," and the act was a "crime."

By 1776 many people were raising their own voices in their own interests, within a general sense that equality and liberty ought to apply to them. A New Jersey farm woman asked her soldier husband why she "should not have liberty whilst you strive for liberty." A poor Boston shoemaker who once had groveled in the presence of the wealthy merchant John Hancock now faced down both British officials and American privateer officers. Farmers in New York's Hudson Valley debated among themselves which side to choose. So did Iroquois Indians not far west of them, breaking their centuries-old Confederacy as four of their six nations chose the British side and two chose the American. Chesapeake slaves invited Virginia governor Lord Dunmore to recruit them and rallied to join his "Aethiopian Regiment." Their badges proclaimed, "Liberty to Slaves." Many other black men found freedom under American arms. After initial opposition, George Washington welcomed them. In 1781 he recognized their contribution by giving a heavily black Rhode Island regiment pride of place in the final attack on British emplacements at Yorktown.

future visions

People agitating for liberty and equality did not necessarily get what they wanted. For Indians the Revolution became a disaster, whichever side they chose. After independence they faced an implacable Republic bent on acquiring their land. For black Americans it was a partial success. Slavery started to break up, and free black communities began to take shape, at least in what became "the North." Within these communities, antislavery could generate and flourish. But in the South slavery expanded and prospered, fueled by a vicious African slave trade that did not end until 1808. For many women the Revolution was a moment of opening possibilities, but it was not a moment of institutional change. Yet all of these groups were beginning to develop and press a public agenda that turned on rights and equality rather than privileges and hierarchy. They were addressing Jefferson's proposition that "all men" indeed "are created equal."

In immediate terms ordinary white men enjoyed the greatest success in asserting rights and equality for themselves. Between 1776, when the old institutions of government finally collapsed, and 1789, when the United States Constitution took effect, the fourteen separate states (including Vermont) provided the arena where such men worked out their visions and their fears. In both thought and practice one problem was giving real meaning to the abstract idea of "the People." Farmers in western Massachusetts and "mechanics" in New York City demanded in 1776 that new state constitutions be written by special conventions and ratified in special elections, rather than simply proclaimed. But only Massachusetts carried that ritual through, and it did not do so until 1780.

More than ritual was involved. In general, the state governments drastically expanded white men's political possibilities. Pressure from outside forced leaders to enlarge both representative institutions and the pool of candidates and voters. Elections would be frequent rather than at long intervals. Most states made their legislatures the dominant branches of government, on the assumption that these would do the people's will. Men who never would have gotten near the old centers of power found themselves making, interpreting, and enforcing laws.

The model of the good community continued to be the small communities people knew. But another truly radical force was emerging around those communities and their people: a national capitalist economy. Such an economy demanded stability and predictability over long distances and long periods of time. One way or another, most of the states passed laws during the late 1770s and the 1780s that tried to restrict and hamper capitalist development. Where they did not, unrest followed, most notably in the case of Shays's Rebellion in central and western Massachusetts (1786–1787).

The United States Constitution met the needs of the young nation's emerging economy. It would be a "supreme law of the land" governing all citizens equally and directly. Binding contracts, not local customs, would govern economic relationships. For that reason it won the firm support of city folk who were enmeshed in trade. The Constitution also expressed the belief of many national leaders that broad, frequent political involvement and state autonomy did not serve America's real needs. In this sense, it marked a reaction against the Revolution's radicalism. But it was completely consistent with the idea that "the American people" ought to govern itself. It left open the problem of who actually comprised that people. Thus in principle, at least, the possibility remained open that people who were excluded or made marginal during the Revolution still could claim its radical heritage for themselves.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Relations, 1763–1815; Antislavery; Constitutionalism: Overview; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; Government: Local; Government: State; Jefferson, Thomas; Paine, Thomas; People of America; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Popular Sovereignty; Shays's Rebellion .


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Countryman, Edward. The American Revolution, rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: Norton, 1988.

Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1992; Vintage Books, 1993.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Edward Countryman

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