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Ideology in The American Revolution

A People Divided

Though widespread resistance to the Stamp Act galvanized public awareness and sentiment throughout the North American colonies, "America" as we now know it was not even a concept in the minds of early-eighteenth-century colonists. The rudimentary communication and transportation systems of the period, combined with North America's vast territory, its diverse regions, labor systems, social hierarchies, and a long history of localized affiliations and histories, made for a dispersed and even disparate population. American identity did not yet exist; colonists thought of themselves first as Englishmen abroad, second as Bostonians or New Yorkers or Virginians, and not at all as "Americans."

Preexisting local feuds often intertwined with broader political issues and prompted different groups to take one side or the other as tensions escalated with the British in the 1760s and 70s. For many people, the Revolution offered an opportunity to settle old scores. Along the Hudson River to the north of New York City, tenants calling themselves the Sons of Liberty—the same name but a different association from the Sons who opposed the Stamp Act—refused in the mid-1760s to pay their rent and claimed their rented lands as their own. Both British and colonial troops soon suppressed their uprising. When the Revolution began, a disproportionate number of the wealthy Hudson Valley landowners—the enemies of the Sons, who had relied upon British protection—fled the colonies as Loyalists. But this was a specific example in a particular region of North America; in other counties, such as Westchester, New York, tenants sided with their landlords if they took any side at all.97 Nor were all Loyalists rich. That fact alone is very telling, for if it were true that all Loyalists were rich, then it would indicate that the American Revolution truly was radical, and based on class divisions. But these generalizations do not square with the evidence, and the matter of who took which side was more complicated than the question of personal wealth, as we will see in the case of Virginia.

In the Green Mountains of the New York colony, settler Ethan Allen led a revolt of settlers against absentee New York landlords who tried to claim title to the region. Allen argued that settlers who worked the land held title over it, and in the mid-1770s he led his "Green Mountain Boys" on a successful revolt that ended with the Green Mountain territory breaking away to form independent Vermont. Allen and his "Boys" simultaneously became successful fighters for the Americans in the Revolution, as their opposition to New York's elites easily morphed into opposition to the British government that supported them. In South Carolina, backcountry residents protested their underrepresentation in the colonial assembly and a lack of local government capable of providing security and stability for landowners. These so-called "Regulators" also organized in North Carolina, where they tended to be small farmers. The Regulators of North Carolina kidnapped local officials and refused to pay taxes as a show of protest against the corruption of county officials, who saddled the farmers with exorbitant taxes and court fees. Under Governor William Tryon, the colonial militia suppressed some 2,000 of these armed but unorganized Regulators in 1771, at the battle of Alamance. Twelve Regulators were convicted of treason and six were hanged. Then the governor had his men trek through the backcountry, forcing 6,500 Piedmont settlers to sign oaths of allegiance. Preexisting local conflicts did not disappear once the Revolution swept across North America; those very conflicts may not have predetermined every colonist's allegiance, but they still manifested themselves in the sides that people took after the war had begun.

The Enlightenment Spirit of Inquiry Spills Over into the Eighteenth Century

Given the number of regional conflicts that consumed colonists both wealthy and poor, few people in North America had the time or luxury of seriously pondering their relationship to the mother country before 1763. Yet in the pre-revolutionary period, long before tensions with British authorities had strained to the breaking point, many colonial luminaries sought to apply the Enlightenment spirit of rational inquiry and its suspicions of authority to the political matters of their day. Several of America's foremost intellectuals began employing their knowledge of political philosophy to ask some difficult questions.

Ben Franklin suggested that government was something akin to a business, where the rulers were tantamount to Directors who were beholden to the company owners (the people of the country). The leaders derived their power from the people, and were the servants of the people. This was a pretty radical concept in the eighteenth century, because it ran against the prevailing notion that kings were divinely ordained and that monarchical government and hierarchical society were the natural order of things. Once people conceived of a government as an artificial, man-made institution, then it became much less sacred and much more susceptible to criticism and even overthrow. If kings really were "the servants and not the proprietors of the people," as Thomas Jefferson asserted, then it followed that the people had the power to determine a king's course of action, and he defied them at his peril.98


Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January 1776, helped to articulate revolutionary ideology in an easily understandable, accessible fashion that appealed to the masses who avidly read it (see The Political and Ideological Origins of the American Revolution for more on Common Sense). As the Revolution progressed, the masses quickly came to understand the radical potential of the new society they were helping to create. As historian Woody Holton has written, "The central thesis of Common Sense, hinted at in its title, was that the common people possessed enough sense to govern themselves."99 Though many colonial elites did not exactly understand the Revolution this way, many colonists did. They fought for a new society where people would not be born into a fixed social rank, where they were expected to remain for the rest of their lives. Many elites—most of the "Founding Fathers" among them—supported some version of this theory, but assumed that the "better part" of American society—that is, the wealthy men who had the time and ability to obtain an education and who possessed the independence that came with property ownership—would naturally continue to shape the laws and fill the elite offices that governed everyone else.

The colonists had long thought themselves loyal subjects of the British monarchy, and significantly, there was no entrenched aristocracy in place on American soil. There were certainly social gradations of rank in the colonies—though the modern concepts of upper, middle, and lower class did not really exist before the Industrial Revolution—but as John Adams wrote in 1761, "all Persons under the Degree of Gentleman are styled Yeoman," including laborers and people who did not own any property. Because of this unique social infrastructure, Adams commented that "an idea of equality...seems generally to prevail, and the inferior order of people pay but little external respect to those who occupy superior stations."100 In short, the colonies developed a more egalitarian society than Europe. As historian Gordon Wood has written, "Although eighteenth century society was much tighter and less permeable than American mythology would have it, the topmost ranks of the social hierarchy certainly remained more permeable and open to entry from below than in the mother country. Claiming the rank of gentleman in America was easier."101 If this sense of equal opportunity could be enshrined in the government itself, then people from the lower rungs of society would have some chance of climbing the ladder upwards, which was—on the whole—more than had ever existed in European society up to that point.

The principle of meritocracy later grew into what came to be known as the Horatio Alger myth (named for the author of several popular nineteenth-century novels): that if a person exhibited aspects of Christian morality, thrift, virtue, and hard work, he could expect to move up in the world. Hard work had not historically been associated with success; it was, instead, understood up until this point as the "inevitable consequence of necessity and poverty that most people still associated...with slavery and servitude," as Wood has explained.102 Suddenly, in the American conceptualization, hard work could be seen not merely as the punishment for poverty, but as the vehicle by which one could elevate his social position, or elevate the rank of his children. The prospects of self-rule and social uplift motivated many American farmers and mechanics to mobilize against the British. The colonists had initially reacted against the perceived tyranny of Parliament, but once they embraced the concept of independence, their struggle against oppression also became a fight to establish a new society. They envisioned an independent, democratic government that would provide safeguards against corruption, but they also viewed that government as the instrument through which a more egalitarian system could prevail.

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