Five views of the american revolution

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Edmund S. Morgan, “Conflict and Consensus in the American Revolution”

Historians argue about whether there was conflict or consensus among the colonists on the eve of revolution. Some have argued that there was a social class conflict, but Morgan disagrees. After all, some loyalists were poor and some patriots were rich. Loyalism also drew off the most extreme people, which brought more consensus to the patriots. In addition, social class was hard to define, especially since what brought all white people together was racism against black people; this created a consensus of race that transcended social class. A bigger division than class was that between the coastal residents and residents who had pushed west into the country’s interior. The population of the colonies doubled every 25 years in the 18th century. As people moved west in search of new opportunities, the east could not always meet their needs, especially in governmental representation and protection against natives. So what brought the colonists together despite this conflict? Nationalism. There was already the beginning of the notion of manifest destiny, the push westward that would cause us to reach the Pacific Ocean. Colonists defended their land with guns, and their ties to their property and their weapons were underestimated by the British. The equality that was preached by the Declaration of Independence was not really honored, but it did invite people to demand their rights in the future.

Mary Beth Norton, “Women in the Revolution”

The revolution disrupted normal patterns of life for women, creating a sense of chaos; however, the experiences of women did vary by region and by how close the women were to the field of action. As soldiers inadvertently brought disease with them, many women had to decide whether or not to inoculate their children against smallpox with vaccines (without the benefit of their husbands’ advice, and with the uncertainty of whether these new vaccines would work properly or kill their children). Women also feared rape, which, sadly, some did experience, even being dragged back to British soldiers’ camps and repeatedly being violated. On the flip side, the British held out the prospect of freedom to slaves who became loyalists, and many black women fled to the British side with their children. White women who were married to patriots could often go with their husbands to the field and serve as nurses and cooks, though their contributions were minimized by commanders. Loyalist women could not easily follow their husbands, and if they did move to another part of the colonies or abroad, they had a hard time adjusting to their new lives. Some women on both sides relished their freedom and were happy to see their men leave. Ultimately, the war led to a breakdown in and reinterpretation of women’s roles. Abigail Adams went so far as to ask her husband to “remember the ladies” as he and other leaders worked on developing the new government for America. Ironically, rather than giving women more freedom, the war ultimately helped solidify women’s roles in the home, since they were supposed to be content in the “glory” of raising patriotic children. The experience of revolution did, however, give women the vocabulary that would later be used in the struggle for equal rights.

Bernard Bailyn, “The Logic of Rebellion”

The colonists saw everything that was developing on the eve of revolution as a deliberate assault on their liberty by plotters sympathetic to the British Empire. They feared an Anglican conspiracy, since many considered priests to be enemies of liberty (as philosopher David Hume suggested). Given their natural suspicion of all British acts, the colonists viewed the Stamp Act as a trap, thinking that small taxes now were just the first step to big limits on their freedoms later. Plus, the idea of taxing paper (such as newspapers) was distasteful to them because they saw this as a strategy to limit people’s access to information. They also disliked the “idle drones” who held jobs in the colonies sponsored by the British government, as well as the “court locusts” who tried to influence the king’s opinion against the colonists. When Britain denied life tenures to colonial justices, this was seen as another way to control the colonists’ actions, since Britain could remove people from office at will, limiting their effectiveness. Furthermore, having a standing British army in Boston was, to the colonists, a sign that their liberties were about to be taken away. For two years after the initial acts, there was some measure of peace, but then the Tea Act inflamed the colonists again. To suspicious colonists, England was giving up all pretense of friendliness and was now prepared to fulfill a systematic, master plan which had been devised earlier and was only now becoming fully visible. The colonists used the revolution as a way to safeguard the freedom that they felt was being threatened around the world, and since we had always been destined for something special, it was only natural that the future, to them, was now.

Gordon Wood, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution”

The American Revolution was not particularly violent or bloody, at least compared to such events as the French Revolution. The colonists were not an oppressed people yearning for freedom from horrific struggles. Nevertheless, the revolution was radical in that it brought about a high degree of social change. The war destroyed the reach of the monarchy here; it also helped to bring about the most democratic, commercially minded society in the world, which was all the more astonishing given that the colonies had not yet even industrialized. From subjects of the crown, citizens of a society were made, and the interests of those citizens became the goals of society and government. The colonists valued the ownership of land and would do anything to preserve that right of ownership. People in the colonies were nervous that the progress they had made could be unmade by Britain, and they were especially wary of patronage and corruption whereby sons, other relatives and friends of those in power gained special privileges and roles in government. This was more a conflict between patriots and courtiers, and not so much a struggle of the poor versus the rich. After all, even Thomas Jefferson, who was wealthy, had a problem with the patronage system, since “virtue is not hereditary.” So, ultimately, the revolution was a radical movement. To answer those critics who use slavery as an example of how things stayed the same, Wood argues that although slavery did still exist, it would now have to be redefined in a whole new way in order to fit with the ideas of the new government. This would ultimately lead it down the slippery path to the downfall of the entire slave system, and it was no accident that the first anti-slavery society was established during this time. Things may not have changed all at once, but they changed nonetheless.

Merrill Jensen, “Radicals Versus Conservatives”

The basic social forces which divided the colonists were not eliminated by the Declaration of Independence. The ruling aristocracy in the colonies used democratic arguments to defeat Britain in the Revolutionary War, but this same group did not actually want to widen political power beyond its own circle. Agrarian (rural) and proletarian (working class) radicals were against this oligarchy, and in the towns, where these radicals could come together effectively, they at least temporarily had an impact. They used the war for independence as a tool to wage war on the colonial aristocracy as well. These radicals tried to write democracy into the government; even though the conservative oligarchy would work to undo it, the groundwork for the future was laid. These conservatives feared an internal revolution by radicals seeking power, so for a time, they had even resisted independence from Great Britain. Once independence had been declared, their goal was to ensure that not much power would be given to the radical elements. This struggle would make its way into the creation of the Articles of Confederation and even the Constitution itself. Most radicals hoped to gain more local and state power, while most aristocrats worked to create a strong national government, which, not surprisingly, they envisioned under their control.

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