Did the American Revolution create a new world or did it merely remain a mirror of the old world?
An examination of whether or not the American Revolution actually changed the Colonies
Wissenschaftlicher Aufsatz 2011 25 Seiten
On 4th July 1776, outside Independence Hall, Philadelphia, the first official reading of the Declaration of Independence commenced and for the first time the American people heard the immortal lines; “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.”1 Such words followed the likes of “Give me Liberty or Give me Death”2 in 1775 and the events of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the Boston Massacre in 1770. From such statements and actions, the risk and passion with which the colonists opposed the Crown before the War had even begun, it can be seen that a driving force behind the political movement ,the military revolution and the social reconstruction, was the concept of liberty and freedom from tyranny; “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”3 Although this revolution did achieve the overthrowing of the British colonialist government, the extent to which the Founding Fathers were successful in creating the republic dreamt of in the hearts of the revolutionaries, rather than merely replicating the systems of colonial Europe, is a highly contestable issue. This essay shall seek to argue that the American Revolution did manage to achieve a “new world”, but that some mirroring was inevitable due to shared social concepts and political origins. Many of the goals laid down in the Declaration such as the “unalienable rights”4 were accomplished with their enshrining in the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution, ratified 15th December 1791. The perceived failures with the American Revolution, that it simply replaced the ruling elite rather than altering the concept of governing America, are merely the result that some goals were perhaps simply a step too far, both for the era and due to the corruptibility of human nature; one need only look at Benedict Arnold to observe such weaknesses. Politically, there was some mirroring; but only at the base level. Socially, America truly became a “new world” with highly radical viewpoints on sections of society when compared to Great Britain. America may have been the “new world” in theory from the late 15th Century5 but it was not until the revolution in the late 18th Century that the “new world” had its true foundations laid.
Section 1: Political developments as a result of the revolution
One of the ways in which one may assess the nature of the newly founded nation is through the political legacy of the revolution. Starting chronologically with the Declaration of Independence; based upon Jeffersonian ideas6, and which produced many of the revolutionary and radical views which are still prevalent today. Most notably amongst these beliefs is the concept of the American Dream, spawned from the Declaration out of its statements on “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The notion that everyman regardless of class or race has the right and the ability to achieve prosperity and social mobility could not have been farther from the views in colonialist Britain, with its highly limited franchise at this time. In Britain the landlord still reigned sovereign over their tenants – especially with the threat of rack renting7 being held over the tenants head. With the naturally low cost of land for farm ownership in America, coupled with the increased availability of land from the confiscation of Loyalist lands, such authority was not entrenched into society making the transition from oligarchy to egalitarianism a far more natural development. With free trade an established part of the new American society as well; especially after the pre-war confrontation and protest against excessive tariffs and duties such as the Sugar Act or Stamp Act8, a man was at liberty to truly reap what he sowed, unlike in Britain where many farmers merely worked land simply to pay for their rent. In addition to the creation of this ideal, the Declaration also generated many changes relating to social outlooks which will be discussed later. All in all the Declaration helped fashion America into a unique “new world” rather than a mirror of Britain.
A “new world” was also born by diverging from the traditional political structure and format that was present under the colonial powers of Europe. The adoption of the Articles of Confederation9 also had a resounding effect upon the political nature of America; for it united the states in a way previously never had been believed possible by most Americans. Although the union it created, referred to as the “United States of America”10 is not as strong as it is today, and it took almost four years to produce an acceptable version of the Articles to all relevant parties for ratification, the union it created was stronger than many people had expected it to be. The Articles forbade the individual states from conducting foreign affairs, including making treaties or war. A citizen of one state was entitled to the privileges of all the states and all discriminatory travel and trade barriers were to be dismantled. Furthermore, the Articles of Confederation created the Congress of the Confederation; a base copy of the Second Continental Congress11 albeit with some rather distinct and vital alterations. As in the Second Continental Congress each state was permitted to send a delegation; the total number of delegates was approximately fifty, but as it was the state that voted reducing the number of seats to only thirteen. The most important of these changes was the ability of Congress to conduct diplomatic relations, requisition soldiers and money from the states and settle disputes between states. Such matters only required a simple majority of seven out of the thirteen colonies, but more important issues such as the borrowing of coin on behalf of the confederation, declaration of war and the ratification of any treaties required a larger majority of nine states. In Great Britain such co-operation between the four parts; England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, never existed. The Irish Declaratory Act of 1719 ensured submission to Britain by the Irish and is just one of many examples in which domination was chosen rather than an equal partnership. Such a differing politic cannot be considered to have spawned from the “old world”. Furthermore, the concept supermajorities have now been accepted in the majority of democratic nations; showing us that this “new world” led the way in political development rather than merely copying or mirroring.
However, the primary fear of the Founding Fathers as well as most of the leading revolutionaries was that a strong centralised government would produce the same flaws that existed in British society and political system and thus did their utmost not to emulate it. The first of these major contrasts was that there was no executive per se, instead a series of congressional committees which had fluctuating memberships, who held and exercised the authority previously held by the British Crown, with the consent of the Congress. The other is that instead of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty that was present in Britain, powers would be dispersed – a rejection of the concept of a unitary state. Vital powers such as commercial regulation and taxation would be left in the hands of the individual states. Individual state law was to be respected and final. Congressional resolutions were only recommendations that states could chose to abide by rather than legally binding legislation. The states and not a body of individuals in Pennsylvania State House were to be sovereign; “each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”12 Despite the inadequacies of the Articles, for they were replaced in 1787 with the United States Constitution, the Union of these states; as described by historian Gordon S. Wood, was; “as strong as any similar republican confederation in history”13. Simply by definition of being a republic, the original United States can hardly be called a political mirror of the “old world”, but when combined with the devolution that took Britain until 1998 to enact, it can be clearly seen that the “old world” had limited effect on this new nation.
But however original the newly created nation’s politic was it was quickly replaced at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. This was not due to any dictatorial desires of the Founding Fathers, but “to form a more perfect Union"14. The Articles of Confederation had tried to create a union through a sense of goodwill rather than one by legal obligations. Congress could print money, but by 1786 this was irrelevant due to hyper-inflation. Debts spiraled without any prospects of repayment. States even began to violate the Paris Peace Treaty of 1781 by prosecuting Loyalists for wartime offences. In addition to this, attendance at the Congress of the Confederation was not compulsory by delegations and quorum was hardly ever achieved. Congress could not govern. These events, although later solved, do suggest that some mirroring did exist, for the European powers’ general response to a budget deficit was to merely produce or borrow more money without assessing the consequences of such actions – a policy which is still followed today. Also the failures of the states to abide by the Articles and to honour agreements also suggests a lack of change regarding morality and a desire for unity; both of which were not present in the various components of the colonial powers of Europe. In desperation the Annapolis Convention was convened and agreed upon the agenda for a Constitutional Convention; “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation’ in ways that, when approved by Congress and the states, would ‘render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”15 The only exception to this was Rhode Island which refused to attend. The convention convened in May; by Mid-June had agreed that they must write a new Constitution instead. Here one can see the radical change occur from being a former colony on the verge of collapse to becoming the “new world.” The Constitution was of a nature that had prior to the revolution been un-contemplated in the modern world, only theorized about, most notably by French political thinker Montesquieu, Unlike the “old world” who had rejected Montesquieu’s radical notions, the writers of the Constitution embraced them to establish a “new world”. Montesquieu’s most influential teachings regarding the United States Constitution was the concept of separation of powers and the branches of government. Montesquieu broke down government into three sections; the judiciary, the executive and the legislature, and in doing so one would divide authority and power to ensure there can be no build up within the reach of any one person to ensure that despotism and tyranny could never be experienced again in the United States.
But was this development in government and nationhood really such a leap away from that of the “old world”? Under the Constitution a bicameral legislature was set up, one elected by the people; the other appointed – similar to the membership of the House of Commons and House of Lords in Great Britain. Universal suffrage would not be permitted; not even all men were enfranchised and although the individual right to vote varied state to state it was typically tied to the requirement to own property, just as in Britain. In addition to this upon taking the decision to write a new Constitution, instead of allowing an open exchange of views from the states and informing their electorates about such a momentous decision, it was kept secret by the delegates; rather like the inner-workings of the British Cabinet even to this day. Also amongst all of these gradual shifts back to a British style government is the creation of the executive under the Constitution. The first President, George Washington, had also been President of the Constitutional Convention and thus presided over the writing of the Constitution. This in itself can be seen to reflect the dictatorial and militaristically enforced nature of the United States; for one man is able to command the armies through a revolution and then become the leader of the nation, all without a popular democratic election, but rather appointment by the newly formed and self-imposed, Congress. Finally despite that key Jeffersonian ideal that “all men are created equal”, slavery was permitted under this new Constitution; even protected under Article Five, which will be explored in greater depth later.
But as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would later say; “How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct”16. This Constitution, although with some discernable similarities to European political systems, was a stark contrast and highly revolutionary, due in no small part to the Connecticut Compromise. Firstly the legislatures; for although only one chamber was directly elected by the people, the House of Representatives, the second; the Senate, was appointed not by some sovereign person such as in Britain, but by the individual state legislatures. This means that they were, in some sense, indirectly elected by the public for the people could still have some influence in this process by applying pressure to their elected representatives to choose the favoured candidate. As well as this, unlike the British House of Lords, it had a tiny membership; in 1789 only 22 Senators, highly contrasting to the 400 Peers created during the reign of George III alone, (1760-1820). Such a minority severely inhibits the aristocracy as a whole becoming too powerful, instead limited the potential abuse to only a small segment that would be easy to impeach or overthrow in accordance with the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore as described by David Ramsey; “In monarchies favour is a source of preferment; but in our new forms of government, no one can command the suffrage of the people, unless by his superior merit and capacity. “17. It was as defined by Thomas Jefferson; “a natural aristocracy”18. A genuinely skilled elite were placed in the upper-house to amend and guide the legislation of the people. Additionally the term lengths of those elected to office differed greatly from that of the “old world”. In the British parliament, an MP held their seat for up to seven years19, (unless appointed to the Cabinet), during this era, whilst it was American tradition that the state governors, whom prior to the Revolution held almost sovereign executive powers, were elected for one year terms as were other officials. The new system differed greatly from both of these; Congressmen were to be elected every two years, Senators every six; expiring biennially and the President every four years. Overall this system was different to that of Britain’s in almost every aspect. Franchise too was nothing like in Great Britain; for as mentioned due to the low cost of land and the increased opportunities for expansion of land due to the Land Ordinance Acts of 1785 and 1787, a staggering majority of the male population did own land and thus were enfranchised. This means that there is a stark contrast between post-1787 America and Britain through political structure and attitudes.
The introduction of an executive, instead of being the result of a dictator, was instead a symbolic act as well as proof of the sound development of America into the “new world.” As a symbol, George Washington, to both the public as well as to foreign powers, represented the revolution and the ideals upon which it stood. He had been commander-in-chief of the Continental Armies during the Revolutionary War and great symbolic events such as Valley Forge defined him as a virtuous and dignified man – everything for which the United States wished to appear. Added to the high risk of British invasion at this time he was the perfect candidate to become the 1st President of the United States of America, allowing him also to remain as “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy… and of the Militia”20. As for the creation of such a position, it was required if only for pragmatic reasons. The Articles of Confederation failed because of the lack of respect for Congress, the union between the individual states and the inability to demand the attention and commitment of the states. A united head of state would create such unity and mutual accord; George Washington in particular would be able to accomplish this task; his years as a military commander granted him unassailable leadership qualities. But the position was deliberate designed to differ from a monarch; presidential powers were to be checked and although a presidential veto existed it could be overturned by a two-thirds majority of both chambers of Congress and in extreme cases the president may be impeached. The British monarch’s veto, or refusal to grant royal assent could not be overturned by Parliament and there was no way to remove one other than through war. Therefore it can be seen that the creation of such a position was not a step back into the realms of British colonialist governing but instead a step forward in the development of a responsible, and in some respects elected, executive position of power held by a man checked by both elected officials and the sovereign Constitution.
The issue of fair representation was solved as part of the Connecticut Compromise in order to appease both the greater and less populated states of the United States and which took Great Britain until 1832 with the Great Reform Act to even begin to rectify its own identical problem. The House of Representatives was to appease the more populated states; for the seats fixed at 435 in total were to be apportioned to states based on their population and determined by a decennial census. Then each state would be allocated two Senate seats regardless of size or population; in order that smaller states have the same voice and cannot be ignored in the decision making process. When one compares this to seats in the British Parliament; Dunwich for example, which elected two Members of Parliament despite being submerged and half the electorate of thirty-two being nominated by two wealthy patrons, or Old Sarum, which had no actual residents at all and in its final election in 1831 had only 11 voters, (all of whom were landowners who had bought the land for the sole purpose of controlling the seat). Thus it can be seen that the political developments that occurred as a result of the American Revolution created a fairer, more democratic and co-operating nation than existed in the “old world”.
Lastly, it must be conceded that slavery was not outlawed in the new Constitution, in order to secure the support of Georgia and South Carolina. This can be seen in Article 1 Section 9 in which the continued “importation”21 was permitted and Article 4 Section 2 prohibited the assistance of any escaped slaves and commanded the return of them to their owners. But protection of the slave trade was only to be maintained for twenty years, (until 1808), under Article 5 of the Constitution; “Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article”22, thus giving the United States twenty years to resolve this issue, (although this was not accomplished and arguably led to the Civil War breaking out in 1861). Couple this with the three-fifths Amendment which recognised African-Americans as people, albeit only three-fifths of one; the like of which had not yet been done in Great Britain and one can see that the United States of America was well on its way to becoming a “new world” with very little in relation to the European powers. The social outlook on slavery had also changed most radically with the political climate, and will be examined later.
Section 2: creation of a new world through protest (Pre-War)
One must examine the evidence for a “new world” being constructed through the conduct of the revolutionaries before the Revolutionary War, in comparison to that of the Loyalist and British forces. Chronologically; the first piece of controversial legislation which arguably begun the American Revolution was the Sugar Act of 1764. This act halved the duties to be payed on molasses23 from six pence per gallon to three pence per gallon24 but increased the measures to enforce the indirect tax. It was presumed that by these methods more revenue would be generated, especially as many people either ignored the tax completely or had turned to smuggling to avoid it. In fact, it had a very different effect on the colonies; perhaps due to timing more than anything, for the colonies were at that time in a state of economic depression. Radicals such as Samuel Adams blamed the act for the depression; further aggravating the situation. In reality it was because during the Seven Years War, (1756-63), the economy was built on supplying supplies to the British military and such market declined after the end of the war, rather than the over taxation or mistakes by the British Parliament. The situation was further intensified by the booming of the West Indies economy due to this act, making the colonies feel deliberately economically suppressed. This legislation highlights the beginning of public participation in political affairs that hardly ever occurred in Britain, for in August 1764, fifty prominent Bostonian merchants agreed to boycott British luxury imports. Additionally all across the port cities on the East Coast there was a rising trend towards colonial manufactured goods, in response to the rise in goods from Britain being sent to America. This was an early attempt to isolate the economy from that of Britain. But other than the sporadic outbreaks of violence in states, most notably in Rhode Island, there was not high level of protests in opposition to the act; showing the similarities in the two worlds regarding political apathy and merely using occasional mob violence in response to disagreeable notions. Thus it could be argued that socially, America was just the same as the “old world” even as the American Revolution begun.
The very next year however we can see the rise of the American people in protest and the true beginning of the American Revolution. This evolution began with the passing of the Stamp Act of 1765, signaling the conception of this “new world”. This act made it mandatory for all public issue documents; including newspapers and legal documents, to be printed on stamped paper from London. The act was designed to raise revenues to pay for the large numbers of military personnel stationed in the Thirteen Colonies. Once again seemingly innocent legislation, but under the surface and to the Colonists it represented an attack on their freedoms and liberties; for it violated the rights of every citizen of the Empire by taxing without representation. Because the American citizens had no representation in the British Parliament, consent for this new tax could only be granted, in theory, by the Colonial legislatures; which refused and instead petitioned Parliament for repeal of the Act. The uproar it caused was unpredicted and unprecedented, in part due to the small level of popular outcry about the rather similar Sugar Act the previous year. This time however, the arguments were not economically based but constitutionally – highlighting the beginnings of American obsession with liberty and freedom. The argument of Samuel Adams was taken up by many Americans; “if our Trade may be taxed why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & every thing we possess or make use of?”25 We can see the differences between the “new” and “old” world start here, for in Britain “at least 75% of British males were not represented in Parliament”26, and yet there was little protest for the same democratic rights and freedoms and on the rare occasion of protest in future years it was usually instigated by the radical middle classes, such as Spa Field in 1817 or Peterloo in 1819, and not the general public. In America on the other hand; “the colonial response to England’s Stamp Act, [was] more the reaction of common colonists than that of their presumed leaders”27. What has now become known as “Stamp Act Crisis” began on 14th August 1765 when an effigy of Boston’s stamp distributor, Andrew Oliver; the brother-in-law of the then Lieutenant Governor who had also appointed him, was hung at the intersection of two of Boston’s main roads. By “midmorning”28 the Lieutenant Governor gave the order to cut down the effigy. I believe that it is this moment when the “new world" was born and the American Revolution began; for the citizens of Boston decided not to obey the commands of their imperialist rulers and stopped the cutting down of the effigy. Throughout the day the crowd grew and became increasingly radical until as night fell they cut down the effigy and carried it to Andrew Oliver’s house where they proceeded to demolish the house, his carriage and stable; a symbol of rejecting the aristocracy. They then used the timber for a bonfire upon which they dumped the effigy. These riots continued for 12 days until finally on the 26th August the mob turned on the governor’s mansion, tearing it to the ground. Estimates put the damage at “£2,218 – nearly a quarter of a million dollars today, and more than five hundred Bostonian artisans would earn in a single year”29. Additionally as much as £900 in coin was stolen from the house by the looters. It is easy to conclude that these riots were simply the result of an angry mob taking vengeance and sneaking an easy profit from looting at the same time, virtually the same as would occasionally happen in Europe. However this is not the case; it was a politically motivated movement. When the Governor offered a £300 reward, approximately an “artisan’s wage for four years or more”30, for the leaders of the riot, not a single person tried to claim the reward. This differs greatly from Britain; which would later suffer huge numbers of informers and agent provocateurs; to the extent when false information would be given about other people for the money. These riots spread throughout the colonies until after six months the Stamp Distributors in South Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, Boston, Maryland, North Carolina and New Hampshire, had been forced to resign. America had become a land united through revolution against oppressive rule and defined by its people standing as one; a “new world”.
1 United States Declaration of Independence; Continental Congress, 4th July 1776
2 Patrick Henry; Speech made to the Virginia Convention, 23rd March 1775
3 United States Declaration of Independence; Continental Congress, 4th July 1776
4 United States Declaration of Independence; Continental Congress, 4th July 1776
5 Phrase “New World” was Coined in a letter by Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, 1st November 1492
6 Authorship of the Declaration of Independence credited to Thomas Jefferson et al
7 Rack Renting; the systematic raising of rent so tenant will be forced to default and be evicted.
8 Sugar Act of 1764 and Stamp Act of 1765
9 Articles of Confederation officially ratified 1st March 1781 but used as constitution from Nov 1777
10 Articles of Confederation; Continental Congress, 1st March 1781
11 Second Continental Congress; 10th May 1775- March 1st 1781
12 Articles of Confederation; Continental Congress, 1st March 1781
13 The Origins of the Constitution by Gordon S. Wood; published 1985
14 United States Constitution; Constitutional Convention, 1787
15 Pauline Maier; ‘Ratification : the people debate the Constitution, 1787-1788”
16 Benjamin Disraeli in a Speech to the House of Commons on 24th January 1860
17 David Ramsey; Congressman from South Carolina, Acting President Nov 1785-May 1786
18 Letter from Thomas Jefferson to former President John Adams; 28th October 1813
19 Originally no fixed limited; Triennial Act 1694 limited to three years; Septennial Act 1715 to seven
20 United States Constitution; Article 2, Section 2, Clause 1
21 United State Constitution; Article 1 Section 9
22 United States Constitution; Article 5
23 Molasses; a viscous by-product of the processing of sugar cane, grapes or sugar beets into sugar
24 The American Revolution: A History by Gordon S. Wood; P. 23
25 Samuel Adams in a public address; May 1764
26 Thomas Whately; MP, member of the government and author of a published letter on the subject of the Stamp Act in which he argued the theory of virtual representation
27 The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B. Nash; P.44
28 The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B. Nash; P.47
29 The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B. Nash; P.48
30 The Unknown American Revolution by Gary B. Nash; P.49