This week's big question
What was the American Revolutionaries’ understanding of freedom and the need to revolt?
Video introductionAs you'll see below, we have two sets of readings this week. Depending on your name, you will read one of those two sets (more below). While we tried to craft learning outcomes that are applicable to all the readings some of the outcomes are better fits for some of the readings than others. Having said that, at the end of this week you should:
- have some understanding of the basic causes of the American Revolution;
- have some understanding of some colonists’ bases for not revolting;
- be able to discuss different colonists’ understanding of liberty and freedom;
- be able to discuss why not all people were part of “all people”.
Questions to consider, and learning activityThe two secondary sources offer very different views of the revolution, and point to very different meanings of "freedom" and "liberty" - two of the key ideas of modern liberalism. Some of you will be reading about the Revolution and its conventional politics; others will be reading about how slavery figured into that discussion. Both are important topics. One tries to explain the fundamental bases for revolt; the other tries to explain some of the very real limits on that story. So, begin your week discussing what you found in your own readings, then finish your week responding to what others found in their (different) readings. Talk to each other!
When you reply look for tensions and/or parallels (differences and/or similarities) between the different stories. It’s important that you try to explore these varied issues. Don’t simply agree, or disagree, or say that you like someone’s post. Explore the tensions. Try to build a conversation where you can learn from each others’ different knowledge of the Revolution.
In that spirit, we’ll offer some fairly general questions this week:
- What factors do you see informing Americans’ views on liberty and freedom?
- How did colonial Americans argue their cases?
- How did they debate the questions before them?
- What factors influenced the outcomes of those debates?
There have been few more radical comments in all of human history. Indeed, today it is hard to fathom the enormity of change necessary to effect such a dramatic transformation. As we saw in Module 1, earlier European societies assumed inequality to be natural; it was understood that people not only did, but also should, live in a preordained hierarchical order, that some humans ruled and others were ruled. Saying that “all men are created equal” challenged the very core of that older perspective. In opening their declaration of independence from Britain, the colonists signalled not only a revolt against an empire, but also a revolt against traditional political practice.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
From the United States Declaration of Independence, 1775
Equally radical was the opening line of the United States Constitution: “We the people”. This new government would be created not by Kings but by “the people”. Here was a turning upside-down of the way people conceptualized the very basis of government. This revolution was not merely a transfer of power from one group to another, but a reconceptualization of what gave states legitimacy. The movement from the divine rights of kings (which meant that political power flowed down from God) to “We the people” (which mean that it flows up from the people) represents an upending of the traditional European social and political order.
These older views had not disappeared by 1775, but they were sufficiently well-questioned that people could imagine rebelling against a state that seemed to threaten liberty. And yet, as we’ll see this week, there remained real limits to who would possess these new liberties and who could exercise those political rights.
We’ll come back to those limits in a moment, but let’s first look at what exactly these American radicals were contesting. As we saw in the last Lesson of Module 3, at the end of the Seven Years War most colonists in British America were not radical republicans – indeed, most considered themselves to be loyal Britons. Their economic and cultural worlds were largely British, and they understood themselves to be British. Many colonists might have complained of a policy, or a tax, but that was not especially different than for anyone living in London or Manchester.
That changed after the Seven Years War, and historians have generally pointed to two large factors effecting that change. First, and most obviously, were the changes in British policy that affected America. We’ve already seen one of those: the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The proclamation, as we discussed, created a massive “Indian Territory” in the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. That was in part to reward Indigenous allies and appease Indigenous foes (the Proclamation was made in the months after Pontiac’s rebellion). But the Proclamation was also designed to contain colonial aspirations by preventing the colonies from easily moving into that now potentially settled territory. Designating it as “Indian territory” (specifically acknowledging Indigenous title to the land and thus making it illegal to colonize that territory) was a direct assault on American plans to conquer and settle the territory. Many American colonists now asked, why was Britain denying them the land they felt they needed? The land they conquered?
More famous were the efforts of the British to impose new taxes in the colonies after the war. The war had been enormously expensive. Britain found itself deeply in debt, and Parliament felt it was right to expect the colonies to pay additional taxes. Over the decade between 1765 and 1774, the British imposed taxes on printing (the Stamp Act) and Sugar, and compelled the colonies to buy their tea from the British East India Company, all of which was done without the colonists having any political representation in Britain. The last of what the colonists came to call “the Intolerable Acts”, the Quebec Act of 1774, created a non-democratic government for the newly conquered territory of Canada and gave rights to French Catholics and the Catholic church. Here, in many colonists’ views, was Britain moving away from democratic institutions, and tolerating Catholicism. In self-governing, Protestant New England these were ominous directions. So, too, had been the British response to resistance. In 1768, the British reinforced the garrison in Boston, effectively militarily occupying their own city. That, together with British soldiers’ shooting of several workers in Boston in 1770 – the Boston Massacre (below) – put into sharp relief the fact that Britain was prepared to crush resistance.
Historians have also emphasized the growing sense of a distinctive American identity emerging in the colonies after the war. Americans had played a major role in the Seven Years War, and for many it was a significant lesson in their growing power. British troops and ships no doubt were the most important forces in the war, but Americans saw clearly their ability to finance and build and direct an army. They were also coming to see that British interests in the war were not completely the same as their own (elements of which we saw in the Gibson Clough’s war journal). This factor was made clear several times during the war (British commanders often seemed to care more about larger British interests than local American ones), but was made especially clear in the Royal Proclamation. From a British perspective, the war had been fought to contain French power; from an American perspective the war had been fought to secure the frontier so that the colonies could expand. The Royal Proclamation seemed to tell Americans that they had fought the war, but that Britain would determine the political outcomes.
It’s important to remind ourselves that the colonies had been fairly independent since their inception (all were sanctioned by the British state, but most were organized by privately chartered companies, not the state itself), and largely democratic in their internal organization (most white males over the age of 21 both had the vote and were eligible for public office). One of the great misunderstandings of the American Revolution is that it invented democracy - it certainly enhanced it, but for white, property-owning males it was a long-standing dimension of life in the colonies. All of this seemed threatened in the new policies the British were adopting. In hindsight, one might be tempted to argue that these changes were probably not as pernicious as the colonists imagined. After all, Britain itself had democratic institutions (Parliament,as well as some forms of elected local government), and it was in the process of becoming more so in this same period (certainly more democratic than other major powers like France and Spain, though perhaps less than the Dutch). Yet there is no doubt that Britain feared the increasing autonomy and heightened aspirations of the American colonies. As the colonists’ wealth and population grew, so too did their capacity to more fully rule the New World. But the British empire was not in the business of setting up shop for others to make money! The British parliamentarians were perhaps not as “tyrannical” as the American rebels claimed – any slave could tell you that! – but they were certainly desirous of checking American autonomy and containing local democracy. By the end of the Revolution, most Americans accepted the basic premises of republicanism: that citizens constituted and governed a state whose form only they could dictate. (And, as an aside, it's really important not to conflate 18th-century republicanism with 21st-century Republicanism. No parties existed in this time period; both parties emerged later in the 19th century, both claimed to be the inheritors of that tradition, and both parties have themselves changed greatly since that time.)
So, our exploration this week is twofold: First, we will examine the nature of the revolution. In particular we will seek to understand what pushed the colonists to rebel and the liberal-democratic aspirations at the heart of their views. Second, we will grapple with the limits of that revolution. That is, we will pursue that phrase “All men are created equal” and ask, why was it restricted to “men”? And why did it not apply to African-American slaves and Indigenous peoples? Both are powerful questions. They ask us to consider not merely political dissent, but the willingness to put a musket to one’s shoulder – the willingness to kill another human being – for political considerations. As we’ve seen, white Americans lived fairly good lives. Few were rich, but in general they were more prosperous than the typical Briton, paid few taxes, and enjoyed one of the most democratic political systems in the world; they also had plenty of food (Britain and France still underwent fairly regular famines) and lived longer than the typical person in Britain. It doesn’t sound oppressive; so why the muskets? These issues also compel us ask why there were such obvious limits to their radical program: why only men (listen to Abigail Adams on this), and why only white men (listen to the petition from Boston)? Indeed, putting the two points together – that Americans lived good lives and the new political arrangement wasn’t that new – one can wonder how revolutionary the American Revolution really was?
We can’t answer that big question here, but we can look at how some people tried to articulate these various positions. We can ask if these documents, these proclamations, these views did contain something wholly new, why was it restricted to some and not others? Certainly there was an expansion on the existing American practices, and moreover (and we’ll see more of this in the next few weeks when we look at France and Haiti) just by articulating these radical principles – all men are created equal – it opened new possibilities toward ever-greater freedoms. This new conversation demanded justifying why some people were not eligible for the freedoms. It required that some men explain why “all men” didn’t include African men, or any women; it required that they attempt to justify those positions. Liberalism is an Enlightenment ideal, and as such it exists largely through ideas, rational debate and discussion. Having put forward radical ideas, its proponents then had to defend, define, and redefine them. And in that debate lies much of the history of the modern world.
Note the instructions: what you read depends on your last name.If your last name begins with the letters A through L, read the following primary documents on liberty and the revolution:
- Abigail Adams to John Adams, Braintree, MA (on women) – March 31 1776.
- John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April 1776, n.p., (his reply to 31 March 1776) .
- Excerpts from Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776).
- Excerpt from Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecouer, "What Is an American?" (London, 1782).
- Excerpt from the Diary of John Adams and the correspondence of Governor Francis Bernard on the rise of popular politics (Source: English Historical Sources Online)
- An advertisement from the Boston Gazette, 15 August 1774.
* * * * * * * *
If your last name begins with the letters M through Z, read any FIVE of the following primary documents on race and freedom:
- Abigail Adams to John Adams – 22 Sept 1774.
- “Humanity” to John Adams, 13 January 1776.
- “Petition of A Great Number of Blackes”, Boston, 1777.
- Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation (1775).
- Virginia Congress's Response (1775).
- “Antibiastes”, “Observations on the Slaves and Indented Servants, inlisted in the Army, and in the Navy of the United States” (Philadelphia, 1777).
- Jupiter Hammon, An Address to the Negro in the State of New-York. (New York, Samuel Wood, 1806 [orig. 1786]).
- Congress debates: How to calculate the tax burden for different sized colonies, and how to calculate numbers (people) and value (property).
- Proposal for a “negro battalion”.
If your last name begins with A through L, read:
Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History (New York, Modern Library, 2002), 91-109.
And if your last name begins with the letters M through Z read,
Cassandra Pybus, “Washington’s Revolution”, Atlantic Studies 3, 2 (2006), 183-99.
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This page references:
- Anon, "Tea-Tax-Tempest" (London, 1783), Source: John Carter Brown Library
- Unknown, "Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man" (1774)
- Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, "Four Soldiers", [Rhode Island] circa 1781, (Source: "Black Loyalists in New Brunswick, 1783-1854," Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives.)
- A View from America, 1778 (London, 1778), (Source: John Carter Brown Library)
- Paul Revere, "A Bloody Massacre", (Boston, 1770), (Source: Wikipedia Commons)