The Radicalism of the American Revolution

The “meaning” of the American Revolution has been hotly debated for more than 200 years. For some, it is a conservative effort by planters to seize power and control the development of a society already divided between slaves and free men, whites and non-whites, and the landed and the landless. For others, it represents a radical break with a hierarchical, monarchical past and the dramatic move toward a republic and democratic politics. This outline discusses this debate. It also lays out two important contrasts—between the northern and southern states in the newly created United States and between Anglo America and Latin America.

The meaning of the American Revolution has been hotly debated for more than 200 years.

A. The debate over the radicalism of the American Revolution goes to the heart of the meaning of the term revolution.

  1. For much of this century, revolution has been associated with social upheaval and the rise to power of one social class (usually the working class or peasants) and their triumph over the upper classes.
  2. Many historians since the beginning of the 20th century have tried to interpret the war as a revolt of oppressed peoples tossing aside monarchy and aristocracy.
  3. This interpretation went out of fashion in the 1960s and 1970s as historians stressed the conservative nature of the rebellion—of a political revolt by a small white planter elite, rather than a social transformation.
  4. This view was, ironically, shared by both conservative historians and historians on the left.

B. Led by Gordon Wood, some historians have once again argued for the “radicalism of the American Revolution.”

  1. Wood, in particular, has emphasized the profound social changes the revolution unleashed.
  2. The revolution, for Wood, created the most liberal, democratic, and commercially minded society in world history.
  3. It destroyed aristocracy, privilege, and hierarchical social structures.

The impact of the revolution across the 13 colonies was not uniform.

A. The effects of the war were widespread and far-reaching.

  1. Perhaps 20 percent of the colonies had remained loyal to England, and some 60,000–80,000 people left for Canada, Britain, or other colonies in the aftermath of the war.
  2. The British had also freed thousands of slaves, especially in the South, and resettled them in Canada and the Caribbean.
  3. The Indians would soon suffer, as the war opened up westward expansion across the Appalachians and beyond.
  4. Finally, the fighting killed about 1 percent of the colonists, proportionally the bloodiest war in our history (with the exception of the Civil War).

B. The northern and southern colonies had evolved along very different paths for nearly 150 years before independence.

  1. New England and some of the mid-Atlantic colonies had a very different geography and environment than the agricultural regions of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.
  2. The thrust of some of the early settlements was heavily influenced by those fleeing religious persecution in England.
  3. Although all the colonies depended primarily on agriculture, by the mid-18th century, the North had developed a vibrant culture of trade, small manufacture, and shipping.
  4. Perhaps the most important difference was the minimal presence of slaves and slavery in the North.

C. The southern colonies had emerged by 1750 as productive plantation and slave societies.

  1. Tobacco farming in Virginia and rice production in South Carolina are two prime examples of export-oriented agriculture employing large numbers of slaves.
  2. As many historians have pointed out, the South in 1775 was more aristocratic and hierarchical and less democratic than the northern colonies.
  3. In both North and South, the experience with Native Americans was similar: They were fewer in number than in Mexico or Peru, and the white colonists killed, conquered, or drove them off.

D. In the aftermath of the revolution, the two regions would increasingly diverge over the issue of slavery and states’ rights.

  1. The very ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would make a resolution of the issue of slavery unavoidable.
  2. As the North became more commercial, democratic, and egalitarian, the same processes took shape in the South but were slowed by the presence and importance of slavery.
  3. In many ways, the seeds of the “second” Civil War were planted in the process of fighting the “first.”

The revolution also hastened and heightened the growing differences among the political cultures and societies of the United States, Canada, and Latin America.

A. Anglo American political culture (including Canada) had been diverging from that of the Iberian colonies since the early 17th century.

  1. These dissimilarities go back to profound differences in the monarchies of England and Iberia, even before the conquest and colonization.
  2. They were accentuated by the different types of immigrants and their motivations.
  3. By 1750, the English colonists in the Americas had already developed strong traditions of individual rights, constitutionalism, and self-government.

B. The United States was the most radical version of these traditions, and the revolution accelerated the pursuit of these values.

  1. Canadian colonists tended to be more conservative and more loyal to the Crown.
  2. The immigration of thousands of loyalists after the war accentuated these tendencies.

C. Latin American political culture was much more centralist, hierarchical, paternalist, and collectivist.

  1. Three hundred years of colonial rule had reinforced these traditions, rather than challenging them.
  2. The emergence of a revolutionary culture in the 18th century, then, had the same roots as that of the British colonists but took shape in a much different context.
  3. The radicalism of the American Revolution would serve as a powerful influence on the rest of the colonies in the Americas.
  4. For those seeking change, it would serve as a brilliant model.
  5. For those seeking to hold back change, it would become a threat to be avoided at all costs.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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