Instructions: Actively read both secondary sources and respond to corresponding prompts. Both sources provide what may appear to be controversial or unusual perspectives on “revolutionary” America, however both have largely been endorsed by scholars of our day. Should they be?
Excerpt from John L. Hancock’s book, Liberty Inherited: The Untold Story of American Exceptionalism (2011)
John L. Hancock is generally recognized as one of the leading figures in the field of American exceptionalism, conservative history, and the foundational infrastructure of English-speaking societies.
The American Evolution, not Revolution!
Since 1776, there have a many attempts by other countries to replicate what the Americans did that fateful year. The French were the first in 1789, followed by others, including the Mexicans (1810), the Russians (1917), the Chinese (1949), and the Cubans (1959). Unfortunately, rather than providing those nations with leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, these revolutions ended with tyrants such as Napoleon, Santa Anna, Stalin, Mao, and Castro.
This begs the question, “Why did the American Revolution succeed where so many have failed?”
The American Revolution was not really a revolution. It was actually the next step in the development of a socio-political-economic system that evolved over the previous 1200 years in England. As George Washington would write in 1783, the British Empire “was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and suspicion but in an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period.”
And he was not alone. In 1763, John Adams wrote: [T]he British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition be just, the British constitution is nothing more nor less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government’s being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend. An empire is a despotism, and an emperor a despot, bound by no law or limitation but his own will; it is a stretch of tyranny beyond absolute monarchy. And, as late as March 1775, Benjamin Franklin was hopeful that British America could remain part of the Empire, even to the point of offering his entire net worth to pay for the tea spilt in the Boston Tea Party if London would only address the colonists’ grievances.
It is clear from these few examples (and there are many more) that the Founding Fathers of this nation considered the British system of government—with its limited government and respect for the rights of the individual—the best in the world. They did not consider it tyrannical, despotic, or authoritarian. Even after the defeat of the Empire by the American colonists Washington still maintained a positive opinion of the system.
Furthermore, through the colonial assemblies and the hands-off approach of London, the colonists had over 150 years of semi self-rule. Each colony had an assembly based on the English Parliament (either unicameral or bicameral) with the now familiar executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. The most common shape of a colonial government had the executive in the form of the colony’s governor appointed by London, a legislature in the form of an assembly elected by the colonists, and a judicial with locally elected judges and the Governor’s Counsel acting as a supreme court. The colonies, with few exceptions, were free to create their own laws as long as the laws did not violate English Common Law. These 150 years of experience created political traditions, customs, and culture that the colonies of the other colonial powers (mainly Spain and France) lacked.
While it is true that the Founding Fathers established a congress rather than a parliament, an elected president rather than a hereditary monarch, and a federal republic rather than a constitutional monarchy, the American Revolution is less of a revolution than it initially appears to be. The truth is that when the time came for British America to become America and establish its own government the Founding Fathers took the system they knew, respected, and envied and made it their own. They kept English Common Law as the basis of their legal system; and used the Declaration of Rights of 1689 (which guaranteed in writing the ‘rights of all Englishmen’) as the model and basis for the founding documents (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights). So, while the mechanics of government were changed, the basic political principles and values of the English system—mainly limited government, individual rights, private property, and free market economics—remained at the heart of the system. The ‘rights of freeborn Englishmen’ became the ‘rights and liberties of Americans.’
This is why the American Revolution was really more of an evolution than a revolution. It is also why the Americans were able to succeed where so many others have tragically failed, often with great bloodshed and loss of life. Real revolutions attempt to fundamentally change a society by imposing an unfamiliar political system (including values and principles) on the people. This is traumatic for the society and results in the blood-thirsty tyrannies that often come out of the chaos they create. The Founding Fathers did not try to impose a system of government that was alien or offensive to the majority of the people. In fact, the principles on which the new government was based on were quite familiar to most of the colonists because it was, in reality, an Americanized version of the British system.
This does not take away from the fact that the American form of government was a leap forward in the idea that the common man is capable of ruling himself. But this idea did not develop out of thin air. It developed out of the British system, which—just as the American system was a leap forward from the British system—was a leap forward from the absolutism that condemned the common man to a life of poverty and servitude.
The actions of declaring, fighting, and winning the Revolutionary War were revolutionary: the American colonists revolted against the British government and that revolution resulted in American independence. However, the consequences of the War were evolutionary: the War did not dramatically change the structure or content of American society.
It did not establish a democratic government or create a new economic structure; rather, it kept capitalism in place and resulted in a conservative Constitution that often took power away from the majority. Nor did it significantly change the structure of American society; rather, it reinforced the political, economic, and social status quo and reinforced the power of conservative elites. “The war was not about home rule, but about who would rule at home” (Carl Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776,” [University of Wisconsin Press, 1909]).
The outcome of the war saw no broad change in the composition of those who dominated the social, political, and economic structure of the former colonies. Those individuals who were wealthy, powerful, and influential before the event continued to possess wealth, power, and influence later. The Revolution was basically a revolt by colonial elites against the elites in England.
The Constitution was created to maintain commercial and landowning elites’ power, influence, and standing in the face of events such as Shays’ Rebellion.
At the end of the day, it’s best to say that the Revolutionary War placed Americans on an evolutionary road to creating a more democratic nation.
Make a list of evidence that Hancock provides to support his claim(s):
Boil Hancock’s arguments down to 1-2 sentences (this should read like a thesis statement):
Do you find Hancock’s argument(s) persuasive? Why or why not? Can you think of any potential counterarguments to Hancock’s claims?
Excerpt from Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States (1980 and subsequent revised editions through 2005) [See attached excerpt.]
Howard Zinn was an historian and political scientist who spent much of his career at Boston University. The book A People’s History is often required reading at the collegiate level and was a runner-up for the National Book Award in 1980.
Make a list of Zinn’s key arguments:
Boil Zinn’s arguments down to 1-2 sentences (this should read like a thesis statement). What is he ultimately arguing in this chapter excerpt?
What might be the larger purpose/objective of this chapter in Zinn’s book? (Clearly part of the purpose is to prove his argument, which you addressed in the previous question. But I would like you to address the larger goal; this will require broader thinking and making inferences.)
Do you find Zinn’s argument(s) persuasive? Why or why not? Can you think of any potential counterarguments to Zinn’s claims?
What course themes are highlighted in Zinn’s work? Briefly explain. (Revisit Survival Guide)
What information did you find most shocking, intriguing, and/or interesting from either of these two sources? Explain.