Revolution: Social History

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Revolution: Social History

The American Revolution destroyed a monarchy and established a republic. It transformed republicanism from a failed idea to an enduring reality. It sundered one empire and began another. The Revolution worked itself out over the whole space from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and from Florida to the St. Lawrence. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 defined that zone as "British." The Treaty of 1783 defined it as "American." The differences were enormous.

An economy of provinces and regions centered on London yielded to one of states and regions linked to one another. Uncertain boundaries gave way to definitive lines on maps. The Revolution began slavery's destruction. It also fostered slavery's expansion. It reshaped the use of private property, opening the way to full-blown capitalism. It replaced uneven "subjection" with equal "citizenship," but it left well over half the population with lesser rights or virtually no rights at all. Individuals and whole groups challenged their situations, and many improved their lives. But for others the Revolution brought loss and frustration.

conservative beginnings, transforming consequences

The Revolution began among white colonial males who wanted only to conserve a good situation. They believed they were Britons who happened to live outside the "Realm" of England, Scotland, and Wales. They accepted British authority and prospered under British protection. They had access to British markets and could afford British goods. Their British liberty was a tissue of unequal privileges. But they believed that it set them and all Britons apart. They had no problem reconciling their liberty with the unfreedom of others, including the slavery of captured Africans and their American-born descendants.

Beginning in 1763 Britain insisted that colonials were incapable of running their own societies. The surface issue was taxation by Parliament, supposedly acting for all Britons everywhere, rather than by local assemblies speaking for local communities. Beneath that issue lay a sense that the colonial economies needed to be subordinated and that colonial people were inferior. Colonials resisted and Britain retreated twice, repealing the Stamp Act in 1766 and most of the Townshend Taxes in 1770. As ordinary white colonials they found their own voices and asserted their own interests.

After Bostonians destroyed East India Company tea at the end of 1773, Britain decided to make the colonials submit. Instead of that, colonials brought down the whole structure of British power, beginning in rural Massachusetts in the summer of 1774 and culminating with the Declaration of Independence. During the collapse many more individuals and groups found their chances to assert themselves. Not all chose the American side. From New England to Georgia both elite and plebeian white men divided. Many slaves saw that their own best chances lay with the king, whose officers welcomed and armed them. So did native communities, who knew the rebels threatened their land. Yet some black people and some Indians joined the American side, insisting that its claims about equal freedom applied to them. White women began to find their own voices. Abigail Smith Adams's insistence in 1776 that her husband, John, "remember the ladies" is only the most famous instance.

war and transformation

The new order was born in war. The colonials had to organize and fight it themselves, though direct aid from France, indirect aid from Spain, and loans from the Netherlands proved vital. They fought the war everywhere except the New England interior. Despite patriotic images of embattled farmers springing eagerly to arms, most regular soldiers were the sort of people for whom society had little place. These included white men with no civilian prospects, slaves who substituted for masters to gain their own freedom, and even Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as Robert Shurtliff and served undetected for more than a year.

For most of the war the supply service was a shambles. But meeting the army's needs forced producers, merchants, and supply officers into a single structure, from which the American national economy began to emerge. One problem was localism, including people's firm belief that good communities were small and protected the needs of their own people first. The constitutions of four states allowed embargoes on exports and control over prices and supplies. Other states acted on that principle, particularly when inflation beset continental and state currencies in 1778 and 1779. By forbidding the states to interfere with "obligations of contract" explicitly prohibiting states from levying import or export taxes, and giving Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, the U.S. Constitution ended such practices, at least in theory. The needs of a national capitalist economy, not of local communities, would come first.

When the war ended the army had to be paid. So did creditors within America and abroad. One source of revenue was to tax imports. States did so until the Constitution took effect; thereafter tariffs would be federal. But land was more important in the long run. The Treaty of 1783 ceded "sovereignty" to the United States, including the exclusive right to "extinguish" the title of Native Americans to their ancestral lands. Some states claimed sovereignty over Indians "belonging" to them. The lines of authority and claims of sovereign right overlapped. Aware of the new situation, Indians resisted losing their lands, both by legal means and by force of arms. Not until the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the many "trails of tears" that it caused did the United States consider the job done. Even at that, Indian claims persisted, to be revived in a later day.

Nonetheless, what Indians had held as tribal commons became public treasure. From public domain, in turn, it became private property as governments sold it off. One goal was to pay off soldiers. Another was to establish a realm of independent farmers, good citizens who could take part in public life without fear. Another, never openly stated but very real, was to enrich privileged men who could buy large quantities and sell it off at good prices. Under both federal and state auspices, the land would be surveyed, divided, and secured. Many colonial-era landholders had seen their property in family terms, to be passed on to sons and sometimes daughters. But in the new order land became potential capital, to buy, "improve," and sell if the price became right.

a capitalist order

White people surged west to make the land their own, taking slavery with them in the South. A quarter of all the Africans brought to the British colonies and then United States—about 170,000—came during the Atlantic slave trade's final years, between 1783 and its closing in 1808. Thereafter a domestic trade flourished, taking slaves from the Chesapeake states and the Carolinas to the emerging Deep South. Some even came from the North, sold by masters and mistresses before gradual abolition could free them. These people's forced labor turned Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw land into the Cotton Kingdom.

American agriculture, in the North and South alike, sought markets. Cotton found its greatest market in England, but northern mills wanted it too. In the Northeast the consequence was rapid urbanization and industrialization. When the wars of the French Revolution, including the War of 1812, finally ended in 1815, free white migrants began crossing to America. By 1825 it was clear that New York would be a world metropolis. Philadelphia and Boston changed from regional ports to centers of industry and capital. Villages turned into small cities, particularly along major trade routes. Improved roads, canals, railroads, and steamboats allowed people and goods to cross American space in days instead of weeks or months. After 1836 the beginnings of a telegraph system allowed news to travel instantly. Invention and innovation became prized American qualities. The Erie Canal (constructed 1817–1825) brought the Great Lakes Basin into New York City's commercial hinterland. The first long-distance railroad in America linked Charleston and Hamburg, South Carolina. The eighteenth-century colonies had been prosperous, at least for white settlers. But the early Republic saw a burst of creative energy that no colonial, not even the farsighted Benjamin Franklin, could have predicted.

equals and unequals

The biggest problem the Republic faced was the terms on which people belonged to it. For white men the answer was equal citizenship, defined by the right to vote and to seek public office. The initial state constitutions, adopted between 1776 and 1780, held on to old-order beliefs about the need for voters and office holders to have property, sometimes in large quantities. They were republican, resting on their citizens' consent, more than democratic, resting on open participation. South Carolina, Rhode Island, and a few other states held on to property qualifications well into the nineteenth century. But most states abandoned them by about 1820, or weakened them to the point of meaninglessness. European visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens believed that America had become truly democratic. As far as white males were concerned, the observation was close to correct.

Even among them, however, social class meant very real distinctions. A genuine elite of white men had created the United States Constitution in 1787, and most of them expected to rule the new order. Initially they did. From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, traditional "gentlemen" filled the presidency and most other high offices. Thereafter, national power fell into the hands of professional politicians such as Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and James K. Polk. But class continued to count. In the industrializing, urbanizing North a new reality of owners and lifetime workers jibed uneasily with the belief that all men were equal. Tenant farming on great holdings remained a reality of northern agriculture. In the South the slaveholding planter class and plain-folk farmers inhabited different worlds. What united them all was that they were white.

Slavery and racism had been simple facts in the colonial period, when nobody presumed human equality. For a Republic of supposed equals, however, they were major flaws, in the North as much as in the South. The Revolution did begin slavery's destruction. Vermont abolished it in 1777, at the very moment of its own separation from New York, and Massachusetts followed six years later. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which laid out the process by which "territories" could turn into new states, forbade slavery north of the Ohio River. But the remaining northern founding states went slowly. New York adopted a gradual abolition act in 1799 and ended all slavery on 4 July 1827. Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey adopted gradual abolition acts between 1780 and 1809, but a few aging blacks remained in slavery in those states until 1840. As late as 1850 there were still three hundred blacks in New Jersey classified as servants for life.

Quick or slow, slavery's death in the North had many consequences. Free black communities emerged, their people determined that slavery itself should end. But white "democratization" in the North was accompanied by black exclusion from many job markets, and even from public places, justified by unashamed racism. Blacks voted in most of the northern coastal states, but the newer states to the west—Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois—would not enfranchise blacks until after the Civil War. Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which allowed blacks to vote in the early national period, would take that right away from them in the Age of Jackson. New York restricted black voting with high property requirements at the same time that it was abolishing such requirements for whites. In the South slavery weakened and free communities did emerge, especially in the cities. Black people in the South did struggle for freedom, by legal means, escape, and revolt. But in large terms slavery became the South's "peculiar" institution, a source for white southerners of profit, identity, and danger alike. By the 1820s southerners were defending slavery as a positive good, rather than saying they regretted it.

The Revolution changed the lives of American women, opening possibilities that the colonial era barely imagined. The likes of Abigail Smith Adams, Deborah Sampson, and the writers Judith Sargent Murray and Mercy Otis Warren raised questions about women's place in republican society. So did novelists, who used their fiction to imagine a better world.

In the cities, particularly, it became increasingly possible for a woman to be economically free on her own terms, particularly if she chose not to marry. "Ladies Academies" began providing demanding schooling. But colleges and professions remained closed. A married woman's property became her husband's. Like Indians, whom the Supreme Court would define as "domestic dependent nations," and like black people, whom law and custom excluded where they did not enslave, women belonged to the new Republic more in the sense of being possessed by it than in the sense of being members of it. The unsatisfactory short-term result was an ideology of "republican motherhood" that valued women's role in training sons as full citizens. But like the problems of class and race, the social meaning of gender was on the new Republic's agenda, however much the Republic's white masters tried to ignore it.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Policy, 1787–1830; Boston Tea Party; Class: Overview; Emancipation and Manumission; Embargo; Equality; Fiction; Inventors and Inventions; Land Policies; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Parenthood; Property; Railroads; Slavery: Slavery and the Founding Generation; Stamp Act and Stamp Act Congress; Tariff Politics; Taxation, Public Finance, and Public Debt; Technology; Townshend Act; Transportation: Canals and Waterways; Transportation: Roads and Turnpikes; Women: Rights .


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Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980; New York: Norton, 1986.

McMillin, James A. The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783–1810. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

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Edward Countryman

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Revolution: Social History

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Revolution: Social History