Friday, April 17, 2009

Was the American Revolution really a revolution?


This posting is for our April 25th session. We will be meeting at the Wang Center on the SBU campus. Remember, we only have one more session after this one! If you are taking the course for in-service credit, you must make at least two comments (one before and one after the session) on at least two different session. So if you have not commented on any of the past blog entries these are your last two opportunities!!

22 comments:

stapes1976 said...

A revolution is defined as a change in power or organizational structures that take place in a relatively short period of time. Great Greek Philosopher described political revolution as either complete change or a modification of an existing constitution.
With that being said I feel the American Revolution fits into the criteria as a revolution. Although it did not radically transform the colonies, it did replace distant rule from Britain with local government. It was also a unique event which produced great changes in the world. It sparked a strong belief in a republic government and citizens natural rights.

Thone said...

Maybe I missed someting but what else would the revolution be. King George, Parliament, and the imperial system was overthrown and a confederation of 13 independent colonies held power. Is the arguement that state legislatures already existed in the colonies the basis for questoning the whether it is a revolution or not? I am honestly interested in hearing the argument that the revolution wasn't a revolution. From reading the book it made it seem like Wood supported the claim that a revolution had taken place.

Christy said...

At first, it may not seem like the American Revolution was really a revolution since there were no rights for Native Americans, blacks, and women were still considered as inferior. The first government outlined by the Articles of Confederation didn't even work. Once they were on their own, they didn't even have anyone to trade with and their economy was crumbling. Apparently, there wasn't much thought put into life after the Revolution.

But then again, the colonists weren't really trying to secure NEW rights, they were trying to recover their rights as stated in the English Constitution. In their quest to do this, they ended up changing the entire political and economic structure of the colonies. We should give them a little credit for that.

Slavery may not have been abolished, but more anti-slavery societies were started. Women weren't given the right to vote, but new inheritance laws were put in place, women started to reject the word "obey" in their marriage vows, and it opened up the door for brave women to start fighting for and demanding their rights.

The transformation from a monarchy to a republic had a huge impact on the lower classes. The political process was no longer just for the rich, educated, and elite members of society. Now artisans, merchants, and farmers could get involved. Men's futures were no longer limited to what their fathers had accomplished because people weren't stuck within the traditional social hierarchy.

So, I guess I would say that the American Revolution itself wasn't very revolutionary, but it brought about some pretty notable changes in society that were revolutionary.

jratchford said...

The American Revolution did produce a thorough replacement of the established government, King and Parliament. The people replaced tyranical hereditary power with elected officials. They produced a plan of government based on democratic priciples and a republic that would inspire others to do the same. Americans also replaced a rigid social hierarchy with waves of immigrants and migrants searching to put down new roots; finding success and status through entrepreneurship, hard-work, and self-reliance.

Daniela McKee said...

Wood's book argues that the American Revolution was indeed a revolution. Some of the gains from the war were freedom, economic freedom, resources, free trade, and land but it was the belief that spiritual enlightenment and virtue were just as important, if not more important, than the tangible gains of the war. The idea of republicanism was revolutionary, in and of itself.

The American Revolution was not a social revolution, nor was it intended to be. However, I think Wood is remiss by not going into more depth regarding this. Did the American Revolution set the stage for the Civil War? I read a book in graduate school entitled "Water from A Rock" by Sylvia Frey, which was an exploration of how the Revolution came to be. In Frey's account, the American Revoluion was not inevitable and the aristocracy was forced into action by debtors, Native Americans, and slaves. Though the sweeping changes in the Revolution were felt by the aristocracy and little changed for debtors, Native Americans, and slaves, they entered the Revolution with great hope and seemed to believe that their lives would be enriched. She clearly sets the stage for the American Civil War based on what happened to the slaves during the Revolution. In the sourthern regions of the colonies, before any fighting actually began, there were more loyalists than patriots. However, the loyalists were turned into patriots by the issue of slavery. When the British began going directly to the slaves and offering them freedom in return for fighting with them against the colonists, the loyalists turned into patriots. The loyalists were frightened that the British simply did not understand the economic importance of slavery. The British had generated enough talk of emancipation by 1775 that the slaves in the south knew what was happening and slaves had knowledge of the pending war. The British saw the south as less cosmopolitan and more easily manipulated so they looked to slaves to assist them in overtaking the region. The British had substantial military success in Georgia. Though the Revolution did not bring slaves the freedom they coveted, slaves were actively alternating the conditions of the war and actively working for their freedom. Following the Revolution, 80-100,000 slaves migrated away from slavery. Slave violence and insurrection increased, as did the violence and vehemence with which white slave crimes were carried out. Slaves understood that a war for national independence had taken place but to them, it was certainly not a revolution.

Rick said...

Clearly it will be hard to argue that the American Revolution was not one. In a fairly short period of time the Thirteen Colonies rejected and replaced British control.
Gordon Wood points out that it was indeed a "strange revolution" due to the fact that our founders had to look for justification. Americans were not living under the shadow of a cruel and barbarous tyrant who lived across the sea. (although we certainly would try to paint him that way). If that had been the case justification would be simple. Instead this would be, as Wood says, "an unusually intellectual and conservative affair...they were rebelling not against the principles of the English constitution, but on behalf of them."

AFisk said...

A revolution is a change. I agree with Gordon Wood that the American Revolution was the start of major changes in America. Americans not only governed themselves differently, their way of life socially and economically differed greatly from their fellow citizens living in Great Britain.
Nowhere is the change more obvious and evident than in the formation of the new government. In Britain, the monarch and Parliament attempted to control its citizens. After the war, the new republic attempted to create a government whose sovereignty rested with the people – that was a change! A government which existed to protect its citizens and to provide for its common good and one where all men (well white ones anyway) could participate seemed radically different than what Americans had been experiencing under King George’s rule.
The American Revolution brought about many changes. With these changes came a new view and perspective on government and its role as well as the role of the citizen. The Founding Fathers had these new ideas of government in their hearts and minds from the early days of the Revolution to the creation of the Constitution. The Constitution is evidence that the American Revolution was indeed a revolution.

msmilow said...

Gordon S. Wood’s book makes an excellent case for the American Revolution as revolutionary if it is agreed that a revolution is the “overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed”. According to Woods the colonists viewed English constitutional thought in a way that differed from their cousins across the pond. They were decidedly radical in their views, taking to heart the writings of eighteenth-century English pamphleteers who criticized the corruption of traditional values by “the general commercialization of English life” and the associated “deceit and luxury of the ‘court’”. Accordingly, the American Revolution was predicated on the desire to rid the colonies of the tyranny that came from a corrupt king, Parliament and the appointed royal governors. The shift of power to colonial legislatures, the people’s representatives marked a radical departure in the conduct of government. In fact I was quite surprised to see that the power given to the state legislatures during the Revolutionary period often created governors who in many cases became mere figureheads.

Beyond the change in American political institutions, the growth of republicanism in colonial America as described by Wood was also revolutionary. He says “By throwing off monarchy and becoming republicans in 1776, Americans offered a different conception of what people were like and news ways of organizing both the state and the society.” All aspects of society felt the impact of this belief. Yeomen farmers felt equal to the tidewater planters, apprentices became employees, some women felt “obey’ should be omitted from their wedding vows and anti-slavery societies grew in both the North and the South.

However, I think that the most startling and revolutionary idea that developed as a result of the American Revolution had to be the “locating (of) sovereignty in the people rather than in any particular government”. This concept which was a response to the dangers posed by the tyrannical state legislatures and the inability of the Congress to tax and regulate commerce, enabled the Federalists to garner the support necessary for the ratification of the Constitution. Wood points out that the effect of this move to popular sovereignty did not lead to “disinterested leadership” as the Federalists had hoped but rather to the rise of partisan politics since according to republican thought all men had the right to political office and therefore the right to promote their own interests.

Anonymous said...

I have to a agree with what stapes is saying. The American Revolution was the first time in world history where a group of citizens decided to break away from governmental rule. England has a long history its citizens revolting against its government (signing of the magna carta, guy fawkes, etc.) Some of the American Colonists felt they were following a precedent that was already established. This time though, it was on a much grander scale.

pcostell said...

I believe that the term revolution must be defined in a broader way than just a change in political power over a short time, as the Industrial revolution as well as the Neolithic revolution are neither political nor short. Revolution must mean change, and by this definition the American revolution fits. However even if we stay with the more restrictive view of political revolution I believe that the American revolution was a change from the British political philosophy prevalent at that time. The idea of virtual representation was a prime motivating factor in the Revolution itself and the notion of actual representation that developed here in the states was a major change. The founders believed the government closest to the people was the most likely to serve their interests rather than a distant power. In addition a large part of the changes from the American revolution involve the social structures that emerge after the removal of the aristocratic or monarchical hierarchy. Americans become their own man so to speak, not dependent on a lord or "mentor" for their positions in society. We are a highly individualistic and egalitarian society because of this major shift that occurs after the war.

Vin Bronzino said...

Without a doubt the American Revolution was a Revolution.........for the white, priviledged elite. These people purposely orchestrated a Revolution or change and realized that by breaking away from the mother country and creating a new nation, they could take over land, profits and political power from favorites of the British empire. Despite the emergence of new and upcoming democratic republic, we know that life for the poor, slaves and Native Americans would be no different under new leadership. It's safe to say that these people were used to fight in war and that this revolution would not change thier lives.

Anonymous said...

I think one of our colleagues from Smithtown said it best, "how many of you think this was a quasi-revolution?". It comes down to what your definition of a revolution is. I believe it was a revolution, but one where the effects were not seen quickly and one that didn't just affect the United States of America, but will affect the entire world.

Christy said...

As discussed in class, whether or not the American Revolution was really revolutionary depends on who you were. Individuals' lives were definitely changed. The lower classes may not have gotten more political rights, but their outlook on life changed. Their opinions may not have been valued, but they felt like they had become more equal to the upper class. This "semi-enlightenment" was a change as well as the creation of new schools and churches that allowed the average citizens to participate.

Rick said...

Clearly I was wrong... the case could be made that the American Revolution was not a revolution. It all comes down to how one defines "revolution." If you believe it is the violent overthrow of an oppressive regime then the American Revolution does not meet that standard. However, if you believe a revolution can simply mean a transition of power, even if life basically continues as it has for most citizens, then yes it would meet that standard.
As with most wars, this was about money. The British were not cruel tyrants, quite the contrary. It comes down to the property class in the colonies realizing they no longer needed the property class across the pond.

Daniela McKee said...

The classes we have are certainly thought provoking. I left class feeling that the Revolution itself was evolutionary but it set the stage for the revolutions that followed. The fact that the abolitionist movement, women's movement, Civil Rights movement, etc were based on the ideals and principles of the Revolution (even those that did not come to fruition in the years immediately following the war) means that its long lasting impact is indeed revolutionary.

stapes1976 said...

After class I feel that the American Revolution would be better termed the American Evolution, or Reform. The Civil War and Civil Rights movement were more revolutionary than what occurred after our battles with Britian. The concept of a free America is revolutionary, but I feel that occured through a series of events.

Vin Bronzino said...

Like others, I now see the American Revolution in a different perspective. Some of my colleagues have suggested that the American Revolution was more like an American Evolution and I concur. When I reviewed the section on the Declaration, I saw that as evolutionary. When Jefferson explained exactly what colonists were doing and why it was necessary to be free of English rule that was evolutionary in the sense that no other nation or group of revolutionaries had done that before. In addition, the words in Declaration would inspire other nations or people to stage their own revolutions against tyranny.
In addition, when the states wrote their own constitutions during the war that was “evolutionary” as well. The state leaders obviously did not want anything in America to resemble a powerful English king or Parliament. So when they drafted their state constitutions they argued over how power should be separated between the different branches of government. Furthermore they debated over certain rights that some of us take for granted, including freedom the press and speech, voting rights and free education. While debating in the America was nothing new, the discussion that took place regarding the above in my opinion was the beginning of new, “evolutionary” way of thinking about American government in particular power and who ought to have it.

jratchford said...

An evolutionary revolution perhaps? Whether or not one believes this war was a revolution might depend on the length of time analyzed and the segment of the population included. Colonists were in a period of development that hovered between striving to be as English as they could be while at the same time developing an American character that was quite new. It was being molded by the enviroment and the ways of dealing with it. But when radicals like Samuel Adams talked of revolution, they said the purpose was to preserve the English constitution so colonists could enjoy their rights as English citizens. Even Thomas Jefferson was reiterating the ideas of the English revolution. As it turns out, the founding fathers were not really advocating the creation of a democracy, but a republic where the wealthy, upper- class, white males would still rule. The electoral college is proof of their fear of mob rule. The social class system remained and those who were trampled before the war were still ignored immediately after the war.
What turned out to be revolutionary are the changes that slowly took place over time. These social movements used the words of the American Revolution to reform and revolutionize society and government.

msmilow said...

To argue that the American Revolution was not a revolution because many of the political precedents had already been established in the English Parliament and the colonial legislatures, seems to ignore the fact that there was a break with the old order. No longer were the Americans subject to the whims of Great Britain and Parliament. The Founding Fathers were in a position to establish a central government from scratch and through trial and error got it right by 1789. Obviously, a monarchy would not work, but only the realization that the Articles of Confederation was unworkable made this possible.

Also, to argue that the Revolution was not revolutionary because women and other groups did not gain during this period seems an attempt to look at the events of the 18th century through the prism of the 21st century. Suffice it to say that the American Revolution was a clean break with what came before in the political realm.

msmilow said...

To argue that the American Revolution was not a revolution because many of the political precedents had already been established in the English Parliament and the colonial legislatures, seems to ignore the fact that there was a break with the old order. No longer were the Americans subject to the whims of Great Britain and Parliament. The Founding Fathers were in a position to establish a central government from scratch and through trial and error got it right by 1789. Obviously, a monarchy would not work, but only the realization that the Articles of Confederation was unworkable made this possible.

Also, to argue that the Revolution was not revolutionary because women and other groups did not gain during this period seems an attempt to look at the events of the 18th century through the prism of the 21st century. Suffice it to say that the American Revolution was a clean break with what came before in the political realm.

pcostell said...

Every class so far we leave with an ambiguous feeling , not certainty. Since most people truly desire knowing something is definetly true or false, these classes remind us again and again that life is so much more complicated than that! Perspective and context provide us with clues but looking back and examining the past leaves no certainty. The fact that we as a people have developed differently than the mother country we left is the determining factor to demonstrate that 1776 brought about great change. Its how you define revolution that determines if it was revolutionary or evolutionary!

Mr. Gatto said...

The American Revolution really was a revolution because it directly applied John Locke's ideas. The British government had been interfering withg colonists lives, liberty and property without direct representation. The American Revolution was dangerous to the rest of the world because much of it was controlled by monarchies. The American Revolution was a direct attack on the concept of monarchy as the most effective form of government. It is true that average people had little say in our early history but they were given the mechanisms to address these inequalities (amending the constitution) which did not exist in the unwritten British Constitution.