Revolution and Social Change: The American Revolution as a People’s War
Marina approaches the Revolution ‘from below.’
A Bibliographical Essay
“History’s great tradition is to help us understand ourselves and our world so that each of us, individually and in conjunction with our fellow men, can formulate relevant and reasoned alternatives and become meaningful actors in making history.”
–William Appleman Williams
Toward a Theory of Revolution
Just as “no man is an island,” no historical event is isolated from its context of space and time. The American Revolution drew upon diverse ideas stretching back to the ancient world, was influenced by numerous social conditions each with its own past development, and involved the actions of millions of individuals over a span of years within a transatlantic area.
In examining a “symbolic” event such as the Revolution, however, we often overlook how our whole conceptualization of the boundaries of that “extended” event is largely based upon a sense of comparison. In this regard, the key word is not “American,” but “Revolution.” Thus our perception of when the Revolution began and ended follows from our beliefs around the class of events we designate “revolutions.”
Perez Zagorin defines three distinct lines of inquiry for studying revolution. The first is a detailed or general account of one specific revolution. The second presents a formal comparison of two or more revolutions to uncover any significant relationships between them. And, “finally, the third kind of inquiry is theoretical; its purpose is to establish a theory of revolution capable of explaining causes, processes, and effects as a type of change.”3 But, as Perez Zagorin observes, it is the third theoretical study of revolutions which is most impoverished:
[N]othing has appeared that qualifies as a general theory of revolution. Furthermore, among theorists there has been little progressive accumulation of ideas. The general theory of revolution remains subject to confusion, doubt, and disagreement. Even elementary questions of definition, terminology, and delimitation of the field to be explained are not settled.
Recent historiography of the American Revolution (with a few notable exceptions) has been preoccupied with the particular. But the most striking feature of the writings celebrating the Bicentennial has been the absence of any new, fresh interpretation explaining the broader meaning of that historic occurrence.
In addition, too much of historical scholarship is fragmented and overspecialized, and adrift without theoretical moorings or a unifying vision.
Our essay seeks to set the mass of recent scholarship of the American Revolution within the unifying paradigm of the sociology of revolution—of revolution as a people’s war. This paradigm will permit a better understanding of the nature and meaning of the American Revolution. It will invoke as a leitmotif the tensions among inequality, equality, and egalitarianism which both inspired and divided the human actors of the Revolution.
This unifying paradigm and these issues concerned with equality will emerge as we answer four difficult questions about the era of the American Revolution:
(1) Why did a revolution occur in a society viewed as free and prosperous?
(2) Who formed the components of the changing revolutionary coalition?
(3) How did the American revolutionary coalition win its conflict with the leading imperial power?
(4) What was the nature of the society which emerged in the struggle of war and revolution?
Before answering these four questions at length in the major sections of our essay, we will first briefly define some preliminary issues relating both to a paradigm of revolutionary social change and to the role of equality in such change.
The Problems Facing a Paradigm of Social Change
Robert Nisbet in Social Change and History traces the effort to understand and explain social change back to the pre‐Socratic Greeks (in the West at least). Heraclitus saw all of life as involving change and he emphasized war as the ultimate activity stimulating social upheaval.6 In developing a cosmology, Adam Smith, as a typical Enlightenment thinker, drew heavily upon concepts first articulated by the Greek Sophists. Since the classical world view profoundly influenced the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not surprising that patterns of cyclical thought appear continuously from Machiavelli to John Adams.
Machiavelli, as J.G.A. Pocock shows in The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, had an enormous impact upon English revolutionaries such as James Harrington, and hence on the later Whigs, and finally on the Americans who shared that outlook. A cyclical metaphor was at the core of the Americans’ paradigm or framework for analyzing social change and revolution.
The emphasis on “modernization” in the sociology of revolution has stimulated the study of social change and has called into question the “inertia” or “tradition” paradigm for revolution. Perhaps the most influential recent contribution has been Barrington Moore, Jr.‘s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. One of Moore’s most important contributions to an analysis of change was questioning the “inertia” paradigm, one of the unexamined assumptions about change. Borrowing from physics, the inertia paradigm assumed the existence of a traditional, natural order of things in society; only change away from this “norm” need be explained. Quite apart from the conservative bias, inertia overlooks the enormous educational effort required if that “tradition” is to be passed on from one generation to another. This does not happen automatically. The lack of social change in a society is equally as important to explain as any significant change.
Those who have lived through the last decade of change in America can appreciate the situation facing British officials after 1763. What sort of “tradition” could be emphasized in an Empire which (1) was still feeling the effects of a revolution less than a century before, (2) was already entering a series of changes collectively labeled “the Industrial Revolution,” and (3) recently had acquired a vast overseas empire? Assuming it could be articulated, what meaning would that tradition have for colonists whose average age was roughly sixteen? Complicating the unity of a tradition was the soaring colonial population. A high birth rate and an influx of immigrants (many not from England) would virtually double that population during the years of the “revolutionary generation,” over a third of whom would leave the seaboard areas for land in the interior.
From this viewpoint it is evident that we must consider revolution and social change on both a theoretical level and a global basis. Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System,11 attempts to utilize such an approach, covering roughly the two hundred years after 1450. Wallerstein’s approach reminds us how important is an analytical framework covering a vast historical landscape if we are to fashion more coherent theories of social change and revolution.
Strangely enough, in stressing this broad panorama, modern scholarship has just recently caught up with the popular social unrest which was perceived by many at the time. This will serve as a theme of our essay: the nature of popular social unrest in the epoch of the American Revolution.
A Paradigm for Understanding Revolution
Our best perspective for examining the American Revolution is to sketch briefly the general agreement about the revolutionary process: the Why, Who, How, and What of revolution.
In reading through all the jargon of modern social science dealing with revolution and change (e.g., “J curves,” “relative deprivation,” and “rising expectations”) we are forcefully impressed that these concepts, if not the terminology, were understood by the ancients, as well as many of the revolutionary generation in America.
As might be expected, much ink and paper have been expended simply on trying to define revolution. We need not get bogged down in attempting to offer an all‐inclusive definition. For our purposes, a useful, straightforward definition is that of Lyford P. Edwards in The Natural History of Revolution: “A change brought about not necessarily by force and violence, whereby one system of legality is terminated and another originated.”
Why? Ideology and Legitimacy in Revolutions
Assessing the necessary preconditions for revolution leads us to examine the composition of the potential revolutionary group. The important role of ideology is evidence in Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, where he emphasizes “the desertion of the intellectuals” as a key phase in the prerevolutionary developments. This involves more than desertion, however, for the intellectuals do not simply withdraw support from the “Old Regime” as Brinton termed those in power. Beyond merely deserting, a growing number of intellectuals mount an increasingly vigorous attack upon the very philosophical underpinnings of the Old Regime; even more importantly, they advance an alternative paradigm, or world view, about how the society ought to be organized.
The sociology of revolution demands much greater exploration of the whole question of legitimacy and how a new legitimacy comes to transplant the old. In this regard, a very useful idea is the “paradigm” derived from the historian of science, Thomas S. Kuhn. Our tendency to conceptualize reality in terms of a model, or paradigm, is closely related to the older tradition in the study of the sociology of knowledge which used the term Weltanschauung, or world view, to describe that idea. If we see the paradigms as subsets within a world view, an individual might hold a number of separate or overlapping paradigms. The totality of these paradigms constitute his world view and seldom conflict with each other.
Kuhn’s normal science—the dominant, accepted, legitimate paradigm—bears a similarity to the “Old Regime” in the study of the sociology of revolution. A current belief in America holds that the authorities need to use force to restore law and order. That outlook seems to be a misreading of the dynamics of social change; real authority always rests upon legitimacy, not force. Legitimacy is, in fact, the very antithesis of force. Large protests within a society usually decry some objective inequities, which fuel dissent.
Revolutions, whether in science or society as a whole, are preceded by what could be called “a crisis in legitimacy.” Authority must ultimately rest on a belief, held by virtually the entire society, that the social order is legitimate, that it corresponds with the way things “ought” to be in a just and equitable society. Operationally, men seek solutions to social problems within this legitimate world view. Until a competing revolutionary world view arrives, no one suspects that a solution might be framed outside of this dominant world view.
Who? Dynamics of Revolutionary Society
The concept of legitimacy leads us into another important aspect of the revolutionary process: that is the societal dynamics in revolution, involving the relationship of the leadership to the larger population and the internal workings of the revolutionary coalition. The idea persists that the American Revolution was a minority affair. Walter Lippmann once observed: “Revolutions are always the work of a conscious minority.” Since revolutions always have leaders, it tells us little to observe that, say, the American Revolution was led by a small minority. This elite concept fosters the innuendo that such a minority simply manipulates the majority to do its bidding.
Against the view that a minority manipulates revolutions, a general postulate holds that at the level of legitimacy the great social revolutions have always involved the bulk of the population. If a dialogue between leaders and their supporters ceases, or if the leadership exceeds the limits of their legitimacy, then the revolutionary movement hesitates, loses momentum, and may fail altogether. The minority may then resort to force, a treacherous course, for the leadership then begins to lose the legitimacy which animated it, and is no longer very revolutionary.
In “Ideology and an Economic Interpretation of the Revolution” Joseph Ernst has distinguished mentality, ideology, and world view. Briefly defined, a “mentality” is a vague but usually broadly held attitude; the dynamic concept of equality that was increasingly held by Americans of the revolutionary generation is an example of such a mentality. Next, a more formal “ideology” characterizes the leadership in any sort of movement: an effort to explain and more fully understand the relationship “between ideas and social circumstances.” At its most general level, the American ideology came to encompass republicanism. Finally, a “world view” is an even more detailed theoretical analysis developed only by a few, usually among the wider leadership. In the American Revolution, those who sought to comprehend the larger role of the British mercantile system, or Empire, were thereby propounding a world view that integrated social, economic, and political events.
Revolutions are shifting coalitions over time—among both the leadership and the larger population. Revolutionary coalitions embody all three of the levels of awareness and so contain overlapping areas of consensus and disagreement. Consequently, there will be basic “fault lines” that create internal divisions within those groups comprising the coalition. Over time, the dynamics of any revolution are shaped by the interaction of specific groups of interests within the coalition, as well as the interaction between them.
As an example, one of the basic fault lines in the American Revolution example divided those who wanted only independence from England from those who wished to seize the opportunity to work more extensive changes in the structure of American society. Was the American Revolution merely a colonial rebellion or was it a true social revolution? The answer is, of course, both. Any future interpretation of the nature of the American Revolution must begin by making clear the internal divisions among the revolutionaries, and ways in which the evolving factions and coalitions shaped the direction of change. (This same debate has occupied historians of the Revolution since at least the time of J. Franklin Jameson’s The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement and Carl Becker’s The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York.)
How? People’s War and Revolution
Explicating the relationship between the leadership and their supporters leads to another aspect of revolution: in what way does the military means employed affect the whole post‐revolutionary society. Whether in an internal civil war or in a colonial war for independence, if one side is able to wage a “people’s war,” such a world view and organizational structure will have repercussions throughout the society. One of the major divisions in the American revolutionary coalition—between advocates of a traditional war as opposed to a people’s war—reflected a fundamental difference in paradigms, if not world views, among different revolutionary factions.
What? Political and Constitutional Aftermath of Revolution
Revolutionary coalitions cannot be maintained indefinitely. As a revolutionary era reaches its final stages, its radical actions are replaced by an effort to conserve the essentials of the revolutionary program. In the American case this is exemplified in the Constitution replacing the Articles of Confederation. Despite the heated debate over the Constitution, what is significant is that the opposition, with the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, did not conclude that the Constitution was a violation of what they conceived as a legitimate social order.
Equality in Human Action and Social Change
Our discussion of the sociology of revolution has highlighted the conditions and groups which make revolution a possibility and then a reality. Such an analysis may ignore the fact that individuals (rather than classes or coalitions) feel, think, and act. In short, there is a psychology as well as a sociology of revolution. (It is impossible to miss the Founding Fathers’ constant references to ambition, fame, envy, power, or greed as significant factors.) Often lacking in contemporary theories of revolution and social change is an understanding that one must begin with a view of human action or nature which links the individual to the social groups of which he may become a part.
The drive for equality, broadly understood, can be viewed as the central motivating factor in all revolutionary action. Equality serves as the organizing principle for constructing a social interpretation of the revolutionary era. The issue of equality follows from the fact that human beings as social animals demonstrate a tendency toward hierarchical attitudes.
There is a constant tension among three concepts: inequality, equality, and egalitarianism. First inequalitarians tend to be those at the top of a given social order; with their privileges usually based upon birth or wealth, they conceive of a rather rigid hierarchy with little mobility. A number of inequalitarians do feel some paternalistic concern for those beneath them, which may well be reciprocated from a few below.
By contrast, the egalitarian agitates for the destruction of this status system by redistributing property, wealth, and income. The egalitarian program necessitates the creation of an elite group of guardians whose task it will be to administer the new order. In reality, therefore, a fully egalitarian society is a logical impossibility: the small elite is always necessary. The equalitarian society is characterized by the idea of equality before the law. For the equalitarian the chance to compete does not imply the equal chance to win. In such a circumstance of individual differences, hierarchy—or ideally a plurality of hierarchies, offering each person an opportunity to find some field in which he can excel—continues to exist, permitting enormous mobility. The equalitarian society is a contract society, rather than a status society, and is based essentially upon achievement. J.R. Pole’s The Pursuit of Equality in America is a reminder of how formative equality has been to the American experience, especially to the revolutionary era.
Why Did the Revolution Occur?
“What I call virtue in the republic is the love of the patrie, that is to say, the love of equality.”
The question of why the American Revolution occurred requires us to distinguish between long and short range factors. Further, in so far as these pertain to the changing structure of American society, were these such as to have created a loss of legitimacy by the government of the Mother Country, apart from actions initiated by the British authorities themselves?
The Bailyn Interpretation: Ideology or Social Conflict?
The study most closely resembling an interpretation of the coming of the Revolution during the last decade is Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Bailyn wrote that as he studied the pamphlets and other writings of the revolutionary generation, he was “surprised” as he “discovered” that (even more than by the work of John Locke) the Americans had been influenced by the freedom oriented writings of Whig pamphleteers such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters and The Independent Whig.
But Bailyn’s discovery of these “Old Whig” pamphleteers was anticipated by others. As early as 1789 David Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution mentioned “those fashionable authors, who have defended the cause of liberty. Cato’s Letters, The Independent Whig, and such were common…” Reminiscing in 1816 about the era of the 1770s John Adams observed, “Cato’s Letters and The Independent Whig, and all the writings of Trenchard and Gordon,…all the writings relative to the revolutions in England became fashionable reading.”
Bailyn’s approach to ideas and historical causation fit comfortably with the dominant outlook which tends to downplay social and economic conflict—that is the struggle over power—in the American past, present, and indirectly, the future. But is it possible to separate ideology (as a cluster of ideas about reality and what ought to be) and political and constitutional issues from a social and economic context? Ideas cannot exist independent of some subject, content, and context.
Equality and the Historical Roots of Social Conflict
In enforcing the importance of the writings of Whigs such as Trenchard and Gordon, Bailyn has rendered an important twofold service. First, it becomes apparent how far back beyond 1776 we must go to understand the ideas that were influencing Americans. Secondly, reading through the works of Trenchard and Gordon reveals the extent to which equality was the fundamental issue interwoven into the various specific issues with which they dealt.
With respect to both of Bailyn’s points, J.G.A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment takes us back to the efforts of Florentine thinkers to sustain a republican form of government. These thinkers (of which Machiavelli was the most profound) were deeply influenced by Aristotle’s works and by their reading of the degeneration of the Roman Republic into Empire. One clue to Machiavelli’s republicanism is his work as a militia organizer during the period of the Republic in Florence.
Two of the dominating concepts for these republican theorists were virtue and corruption, both essential to understanding the republican paradigm which culminated in the American Revolution. Montesquieu fully understood the republican bearing of virtue in his remark, quoted above, that virtue fundamentally depended upon the existence of equality. Conversely, the corruption and decay which undermined republics were closely related to inequality. Interwoven through Machiavelli’s analysis is his deep concern with the whole question of legitimacy.
Equality and the Seventeenth Century English Revolutions
In Pocock’s analysis, seventeenth‐century England underwent many of the changes the Italian city states had experienced a century before, complicated by the Protestant Reformation. The English debate drew upon Machiavelli and the republican historians of the ancient world. Both Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment and Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution8 offer an abundance of evidence to link the debate to inequality/equality/egalitarian divisions.
Drawing upon the ancients, Machiavelli, and Harrington, the “Opposition,” such as Trenchard and Gordon, stretched across a wide political spectrum. Caroline Robbins’s The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman indicates many Whigs thought of themselves as in the tradition of the Levellers of the English Revolution, and those views, stressing equality and liberty, were transmitted across the ocean to the New World. In assessing the “Opposition,” Kramnick’s Bolingbroke and His Circle has focused some attention on the importance of Lord Bolingbroke. Forrest McDonald in The Phaeton Ride has dealt with Bolingbroke’s influence on later American leaders such as Thomas Jefferson. Roger Durrell Parker has explored “The Gospel of Opposition” both in England and America.
There were enormous changes occurring in the areas of commerce, banking, and even in manufacturing. Even though the State had often been involved in the process, there was certainly no reason to believe that this had to be the case. Indeed, a major issue separated the Court view (those who sought to use government in this economic development, and incidentally help themselves in the process) and the Country Party view (those who felt government intervention was not only unnecessary, but detrimental). The term Financial Revolution has been used by historians to suggest that this State interventionism was the only natural and necessary way to realize this process. This analysis tends to place opponents of the State’s intervention in the economy as opponents of market developments, when that simply was not true.
The Country Party included men so wedded to a world view of agrarian independence that they wanted nothing to do with a financial, commercial, market revolution, with or without State interventionism. In its most rigid form, their’s was an egalitarian program modeled on ancient Sparta.
Many of the Country Party, on the other hand, were committed to equality of opportunity before the law. They believed they could best achieve such equality by limiting the State to a very negative role. This view united them in their opposition to the statism of the Court Party and its evident inequalitarianism. They fully accepted the implications of the emerging urban‐market revolution. They were in no way philosophically wedded to agrarian life. Farmlands were simply another area where market and technological techniques would yield important improvements. State interventionism was the enemy.
A final group was, perhaps, the most important and representative of all. Their rhetoric was usually agrarian. They understood the virtue of the agrarian life: the apparent political stability of a nation of independent yeomen. But they realized the potential benefits from an urban‐market sector within society. They were also disenchanted with the long‐range corruption of a state financial system based upon great extremes of wealth and the creation of an urban proletariat without property. Whatever their ambivalences, they opposed the Court’s alliance of State and private interests.
Equality, Social Structure, and Social Change in Eighteenth Century America
The ideology flowing from the English Revolution needs to be linked to the social change in the American colonies during the eighteenth century. In this reassessment the most important is Rowland Berthoff and John M. Murrin’s “Feudalism, Communalism, and the Yeoman Freeholder: The American Revolution Considered as a Social Accident.” Berthoff and Murrin point out that “Until very recently few historians argued that the causes of the Revolution lay in the structure of colonial society.” And “[n]either J. Franklin Jameson, when in 1925 he broached the question of the Revolution as a social movement, nor Frederick B. Tolles, in reassessing the matter in 1954, paid any attention to the possibility that social causes impelled the political events of the years 1763 to 1775.”
One recent example is Gordon S. Wood’s observation in “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution,” that “Something profoundly unsettling was going on in (their) society.” In going back to the half century before the Revolution, however, Berthoff and Murrin suggest that “[i]n certain ways economic growth and greater social maturity were making the New World resemble the Old more closely.” In such a society “becoming both more like and more unlike that of Europe, more and more unsettled, more complex and less homogeneous, a revolutionary war—even one conducted for the most narrowly political ends—could hardly fail to stimulate certain kinds of change and inhibit others.”
Berthoff and Murrin suggest that in American society a recurrent tension between this conservative, even reactionary, ideal and the practical liberty and individuality that their new circumstances stimulated is a familiar theme of colonial history—Puritanism against secularism, communalism eroded by economic progress, hierarchic authority challenged by antinomianism.
Pseudofeudal Inequalities and Social Unrest
Berthoff and Murrin disagree with those historians who believe “that feudalism was too anachronistic to survive in the free air of a new world.” On the contrary:
The opposite explanation is more compelling. Feudal projects collapsed in the seventeenth century, not because America was too progressive to endure them, but because it was too primitive to sustain them. A feudal order necessarily implies a differentiation of function far beyond the capacity of new societies to create. In every colony the demographic base was much too narrow.… By 1730 the older colonies had become populous enough to make the old feudal claims incredibly lucrative.
On the shifting social pattern imposed by the State Berthoff and Murrin are worth quoting at length:
exploitation of legal privilege became the single greatest source of personal wealth in the colonies in the generation before Independence. By the 1760s the largest proprietors—and no one else in all of English America—were receiving colonial revenues comparable to the incomes of the greatest English noblemen and larger than those of the richest London merchants. Indeed the Penn claim was rapidly becoming the most valuable single holding in the Western world.
A number of historians such as Richard Maxwell Brown in “Violence and the American Revolution” have commented upon the rising level of internal social disorder and violence that preceded the American Revolution, and which mounted with growing intensity.25 This protest needs to be linked to the pseudofeudal revival, for as Berthoff and Murrin observe, it “was as divisive as it was profitable, provoking more social violence after 1745 than perhaps any other problem.”
Inequality, Archaic Communalism, and the Yeoman Freeholder
Even prior to the Revolution the most violent protests against the pseudofeudal revival, as Berthoff and Murrin note, came from areas where the settlers were transplanted from New England. New England “resisted the feudal revival because in several important respects it was rather less modern than the rest of English America.” The early New England town conducting its affairs through a general meeting of the freeholders, a large majority of the inhabitants, may seem modern, but “it embodied an archaic English tradition.” Kenneth Lockridge has called it a “Utopian Closed Corporate Community.” “Because it distilled the communal side of the medieval peasant experience—with lordship quite deliberately excluded—it could resist feudal claims with furious energy during the middle third of the eighteenth century.” But as Berthoff and Murrin point out, this communalism had been breaking down from other causes: “the population grew denser, less homogenous, more individualistic, and more European.”
In the face of an attempted pseudofeudal revival, on the one hand, and the breakdown of the vestiges of communalism on the other, “the new democratic individualism harked back to yet a third English model that had survived more successfully in eighteenth‐century America than in England itself—the yeoman freeholder.” Here we are brought in contact again with the appeal of the “Country” ideology. In touching on the growing inequalities in prerevolutionary American society, Berthoff and Murrin observe that “the image of a golden age of republican equality, of a society of yeoman freeholders (abstracted from their place among the various interrelated classes of English social tradition and colonial reality), had its greatest appeal at a time when there was solid reason to feel things were going too far the other way.”
The growth of cities and the development of a market economy are blamed for differences while the continued inequalities engendered by the statism of the political system itself are ignored. To what extent did differences occur within the overall development of a rapidly expanding economy in which many were moving upward, though some more rapidly than others?
In addressing these long‐run social trends, Jack P. Greene points out that one has to be careful not to ascribe social tensions too great a role in causing the Revolution. However, the role of the British government’s statist interventionism, which precipitated the social turmoil of the feudal revival, is inseparable from the extension of imperial policymaking, which led directly to the Revolution.
Who Formed the Revolutionary Coalition?
“The leading men of America, we may believe, wish to continue to be the principal people in their own country.”
Revolutions, of course, are not begotten by abstract social changes extending over a century, but by living individuals who come to feel social repercussions over relatively short periods of time. To survey this accelerating human drama of the American Revolution, we need to describe the shifting composition of the protest coalition as the issues moved toward self‐defense and later independence.
Equality: From Early Social Protest to Armed Defense
Two distinct and dissatisfied groups launched protests against the elites who dominated a colonial society marked by inequalities. Both breathed inspiration from the Country‐Whig tradition and its stress on equality. The first group, representing the mechanics and artisans of the burgeoning colonial urban centers, resented being cut off from full participation in the political system and its expanding social differentiation. As in Europe, where such unequal disfranchisement was even more extensive, organized rioting became a carefully orchestrated symptom of politics.
The second group comprised the townspeople and farmers in the western segments of several colonies, who chafed at the inequities of their underrepresentation in the assemblies. Serious protests erupted in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas during the same period as the developing quarrel with British imperial authorities.
The early social protests during the years 1759 to 1765 are well documented in Bernard Knollenberg’s Origins of the American Revolution: 1759–1765. Knollenberg observed, “in reading some accounts of the American Revolution, one gets the impression that until the very eve of the outbreak of war, active colonial opposition was limited to a relatively few propagandists and hotheads, which is far from true.”
But the most unifying action of all was the Stamp Act of 1765. Nothing better demonstrates the British notions of inequality and subordination. Thomas Whately, the official who drafted the Act, commented upon the higher tax on university and law degrees in America by saying that these were raised, “in order to keep mean persons out of those situations in life which they disgrace.” Clearly American equalitarian ideas of mobility, especially through education, were out of step with imperial thinking!
In The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776, Merrill Jensen has observed that the Stamp Act “transformed” the nature of “American opposition to British policies.” The real engine of protest was the riots which disturbed the more conservative of the American leaders. But the most lasting result of the Stamp Act protest was institutional: a communication network among the Americans grew out of the numerous protest organizations ranging from the Stamp Act Congress to the Sons of Liberty.
What provoked the final crisis, of course, was the Tea Act. Designed to aid that government chartered monopoly, the East India Company, the Act culminated in the famous Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773). This defiance was a brilliant stroke to polarize the issue and undermine British legitimacy. The British, as is well‐known, retaliated by passing the “Coercive,” or “Intolerable Acts.”
In the context of the crisis of legitimacy, the Intolerable Acts form a sort of watershed of revolution. David Ammerman’s In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 indicates the new direction of revolutionary protest. The Americans responded by calling a Continental Congress.
Social Dynamics of the Coalition for Independence
It is noteworthy that the internal dynamics of the protest coalition were also changing, especially in Massachusetts, the heart of protest. Urban firebrands such as Samuel Adams now found themselves out‐flanked, and even “out‐radicaled,” by the western agrarians7 These militiamen were prepared to fight, if necessary, to protect their rights. As J.R. Pole observes in The Decision of American Independence, “The progressive breakdown of the formal structure of power threw unprecedented opportunities into the hands of the local militants.” From early 1775 onward into the War itself, it was not unusual for local Committees of Safety to exert enormous pressure—a procedure known as Recantation—upon those suspected of Loyalist sympathies. Here was a People’s War in action! The first fighting, of course, occurred when the British sought to march to Lexington and Concord, literally into the teeth of this armed countryside of agrarian militia.
Time, itself, is something of a legitimizer. Each day that American institutions ruled the country solidified the notion of their legitimacy. What Adam Smith realized in his memorandum (quoted earlier) to the British government was that local American leaders, having come to rule themselves and their communities for some period of time, would not easily surrender that role. More than a military effort by the British would be needed to undo the organic development and growing legitimacy of such a revolutionary society.
Common Sense: Social Equality, and Popular Justice
In this interim, American thinking increasingly recognized that independence was the only solution to the problem. The catalyst of that final shift was Thomas Paine’s little pamphlet “Common Sense.”
Equality, as noted, had been a conspicuous thrust of the Whig tradition. In 1721, for example, in Cato’s Letters number 45, “Of the Equality and Inequality of Men,” Trenchard and Gordon had noted, “It is evident to common Sense, that there ought to be no Inequality in Society,…” Paine raised the same equalitarian concern in the quotation he chose for the cover of his own pamphlet: “Man knows no Master save creaking Heaven, Or those whom choice and common good ordain.”
Paine opened “Common Sense” by distinguishing between “society,” which “in every state is a blessing,” and “government,” which, “even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Because of “the inability of moral virtue to govern the world,” government, whose purpose was “security,” was necessary. The best form of government was one which insured security “with the least expense and the greatest benefit.”
Paine denied that independence would inaugurate a civil war among the colonies. “Where there are no distinctions there can be no superiority; perfect equality affords no temptation,” Paine argued. “If there is any true cause of fear respecting independence, it is because no plan is yet laid down.”
Equality: Social Divisions behind the Declaration of Independence
As John M. Head notes in A Time to Rend: An Essay on the Decision for American Independence, “As late as the fourth week of June, what the members of Congress would do about…independence was not irrevocably established.” Certainly, the advocates of independence were concerned not only to vote it through, but that it win more than a slight majority. Popular pressures, rising up through the state governments especially after mid‐May, changed the picture.
The Declaration of Independence was not, of course, in any sense a blueprint for a revolutionary society. At the same time, its emphasis on equality voiced something more than just a declaration of freedom from British rule. In recent years it has become fashionable to talk about the American Revolution as simply a conservative, colonial rebellion. These tensions swirling around the issue of equality would seem to belie that image. We need to define precisely what criteria are being employed in making such an assessment. Many years ago R.R. Palmer noted the large percentage of Loyalists who left America, never to return. Since this percentage of disenchanted emigrés was larger than that of other so‐called more radical revolutions, it appears an unlikely yardstick to measure the radicalness of any revolution. And in a recent study, Men in Rebellion: Higher Governmental Leaders and the Coming of the American Revolution, James Kirby Martin has estimated that elite turnover averaged 77 percent, but ranged as high as 100 percent in several colonies. Compared with the 50 percent in Russia after 1917, this seems very radical indeed! As we shall see, it was this vast turnover and appearance of “new” men which sociologically explains the movement culminating in the adoption of the Constitution.
Equality: Individualist vs. Corporatist World Views
Finally, a word is in order about the Tories, or Loyalists. Despite some errors, William H. Nelson’s little volume, The American Tory, remains the best. The occupations and social classes of the Loyalists cut across American society even if they were more highly represented among the old oligarchy. Thus, of the 300 people banished from Massachusetts in 1778, about a third were merchants and professional men, another third were farmers, and a final third were artisans, shopkeepers, and laborers. Nelson identifies two areas where Loyalists concentrated: the extreme western frontier from Georgia up into New York, and the maritime regions of the Middle Colonies. Religion also played a part, especially among minorities:
Almost all the Loyalists were, in one way or another, more afraid of America than they were of Britain. Almost all of them had interests that they felt needed protection from an American majority.… Not many Loyalists were as explicit in their distrust of individualism as, say, Jonathan Boucher, but most of them shared his suspicion of a political order based on the ‘common good’ if the common good was to be defined by a numerical majority.
There existed a conflict of fundamental world views. Loyalists and Patriots “differ not only about the Revolution itself, and revolutions in general: even more deeply, they differ about the essential functions of government, about the proper role of the State, and about the nature of society itself.” It was in essence a confrontation between a corporatist and an individualist world view.
How Was the Revolution Fought Militarily?
“War is ten percent fighting, ten percent waiting, and eighty percent self‐improvement.”
The question of how the Americans won the Revolution has for the most part been treated essentially as a military problem usually in terms of conventional armies confronting each other in a series of set battles and campaigns. Some theorists on guerrilla warfare such as Lewis H. Gann, Guerrillas in History, for example, have seen the American Revolution as of little relevance to understanding that mode of warfare:
Regarding revolutions in general, nothing can be more dangerous to insurrectionary planners than the romantic notion that virtuous peoples—rightly struggling to be free—must necessarily win in their struggles against tyrants. This interpretation is based on a misconceived idea of revolutionary wars that many textbooks help to perpetuate. According to the old version, the Americans won the War of Independence because the British Redcoats were no match against liberty‐loving farmers sniping from behind cover against over‐disciplined regulars.… But the American War of Independence was not mainly won by guerrillas but by regular soldiers and sailors. British soldiers were perfectly capable of becoming as skilled in skirmishing as their American opponents.
Revolutionary Warfare as a Social‐Political Activity
Gann’s observations are indicative of the misunderstanding of some writers on guerrilla or counterinsurgency warfare. While guerrilla warfare is a part, a tactic, of revolutionary warfare; the two are not the same. Certainly, neither virtue nor mass support of a population can guarantee victory—a superior foe willing to employ a pacification program involving mass genocide may win—but the support and involvement of the people is a necessary prerequisite to victory in revolutionary warfare, and it is significant that this aspect is now in the process of rediscovery. However, it is peripheral to the essence of revolutionary warfare whether the regular soldiers of an occupying force can develop counterinsurgency techniques. For revolutionary warfare is essentially a political activity, as the quote from Mao above clearly implies. “Self‐improvement” means not only as a fighting force, but also in raising the level of consciousness both of the soldiers and of the people as a whole, from a “mentality” toward an “ideology” (in Joseph Ernst’s terms).
As James W. Pohl has observed, perhaps the most astute American analyst of people’s revolutionary war was Thomas Paine. His Crisis papers, written between 1776 and 1783, are literally filled with observations such as the following: “It is distressing to see an enemy advancing into a country, but it is the only place in which we can beat them” for such a campaign placed the enemy “where he is cut off from all supplies, and must sooner or later inevitably fall into our hands.”
Since the Americans controlled the country, except where there were British troops—and several times during the war when British armies were in transport at sea none of their forces were on American soil—the British had to devise a strategy to regain North America. For most of the war the British imagined this as an essentially military problem. But from the standpoint of revolutionary warfare and legitimacy, much more was involved.
George Washington had to devise a strategy to counter that of the British. In his recent study The Way of the Fox: American Strategy in the War for America, 1775–1783, Dave Richard Palmer has traced this through several phases. A great deal has been made of the idea that several times, after American defeats, the British were near victory. A corollary is that American victory was possible only through an alliance with France. In the light of what we know about revolutionary warfare and the tactics of counterinsurgency, both of these assumptions appear wide of the mark.
British Failure to Understand Counterinsurgency
The tactics of counterinsurgency may be summarized briefly (without mentioning the ideological dimension): first the enemy’s regular army is broken up, then the irregular units, and, finally, as the remaining guerrillas are isolated from the population, the insurgency begins to dry up. It is also necessary to deny the enemy the use of any sanctuary into which he can retreat or from which he can secure supplies.
Viewed in this light, it is evident that the British never took the first step toward victory. The Americans understood fully the principles of “protracted” conflict.5 British commanders acknowledged they controlled nothing except where their armies encamped. Lacking that first step, pacification became impossible.
New England, staunchly Patriot—94 percent in Connecticut, for example—was the sanctuary of American forces. From this source supplies and troops flowed, on an irregular basis to be sure, to the American army. In a fine account Page Smith has explained why Washington’s army varied so greatly in size, sometimes from one week to the next, as men went back to farm. Every fall these farmers went back to plant, but in the spring, year after year, they returned to fight again.
The above suggests that a sociological analysis of the American army would be of value. Here again, the inequalitarian‐equalitarian‐egalitarian tension played an important part.
From a sociological perspective, the courageous army that struggled through that memorable winter at Valley Forge was hardly representative of either the army or the population supporting it. It was noted above that the backbone of the fighting army of the spring and summer—whether militia or Continentals—often returned to their farms during the fall and especially the winter. Apart from the officers, a high percentage of the winter soldiers were what might otherwise be called displaced men. With few roots in the society, they had nowhere else to go. Years ago Allen Bowman in The Morale of the American Revolutionary Army explored the number of foreigners, convicts, ‘former’ Loyalists, and British deserters who formed the ranks of the army.
Militia vs. Standing Army and Empire
The ambitions of much of the officer corps, and the sense of inequality in some of them, must also be related to the function of the regular army as a military instrument. It also reveals one of the major fault lines within the revolutionary coalition. A tenet of radical Whiggism detailed in Lois Schwoerer, “No Standing Armies!” The Antiarmy Ideology in Seventeenth Century England grew out of the “Standing Army” controversy in England. Men such as John Trenchard fully understood, from the English Revolution and after, that the King’s power rested on his control of a regular, standing army. Bernard Knollenberg’s Origins of the American Revolution and Growth of the American Revolution suggest that radical success was a factor in the decision by British policymakers to garrison a force in North America, which might be used there or brought back home to quell domestic dissent.
Radical Whiggism leaned, therefore, toward the idea of a people’s militia, as was to be reflected later in the Second Amendment to the American Constitution. Such a force tends to be essentially defensive, as we shall see. It fights best when the enemy invades its community. It has neither the organization, training, weaponry, nor motivation for an offensive action, let alone a sustained one. Its very decentralization mitigates against very effective hierarchical command from above.
On the other hand, Richard Kohn in “The Murder of the Militia System” and Eagle and Sword describes how the less radical members of the American revolutionary coalition tended to think along more conventional military lines. Unlike the militia, an organized army is capable of a sustained, offensive campaign. It can initiate an assault, capture, and hold extensive territory.
Beginning with a mentality of equality, a few Americans did not stop with an ideology of republicanism, but carried the analysis a step further, toward a world view of empire. Even young John Adams, who was less drawn toward empire than some other leaders and could write about its contradictions in the 1775 Novanglus letters, was capable of such an imperial vision. The most immediate example of the focus of this kind of world view was Canada. Can it be accidental that in 1775, with the British army bottled up in Boston, the American leadership took the opportunity to launch a nearly successful, and then ultimately disastrous, attack on Canada? Assuming the Americans thought the Canadians wanted liberation, which soon appeared an illusion, how can we explain the continued appeal of a Canadian expedition except in terms of empire? As the war drew to a close, Washington and others were still envisioning such a campaign, despite their scant resources. The dreams of empire died hard.
The question of Canada, however, leads to another facet of the war, the French Alliance. Richard B. Morris in The American Revolution Reconsidered, is one of the few historians who suggests, with plausibility, that victory would have been possible without the Alliance, and that the Alliance probably created as many problems as it solved. The opportunity to acquire Canada was also a factor in the alliance with the French. The continued American desire for Canada and the French coolness toward this imperial thrust is described in William C. Stinchcombe, The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Some Americans wanted not only independence, but independence and empire. To understand better that goal and its relationship with the Alliance, the situation in late 1777 and early 1778 must be recalled.
Late in 1777 the British had not only suffered a significant defeat at Germantown, but had also lost their first army at Saratoga. The losses to militia forces, such as John Stark’s Green Mountain Boys, which Burgoyne suffered on route, weakened the British army. At the first battle of Saratoga (September 19, 1777), Burgoyne took heavy casualties from Daniel Morgan’s sharpshooters, on which see Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman, and North Callahan, Daniel Morgan: Ranger of the Revolution. Horatio Gates effectively used the American militia and applied guerrilla strategy in forcing Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga (October 17, 1777).
The peace feelers that resulted in the Carlisle Commission were superceded by the news of the French Alliance. What is most interesting is the shrill tone with which the American leadership greeted these efforts at negotiation. Surely at that date, this was not a question of undercutting the legitimacy of the American leadership. The more hawkish British leaders correctly indicated that the very negotiations with the Congress added to its legitimacy. What the Congress seemed most intent on doing was cutting off any dialogue between the members of the Carlisle Commission and the larger American population. It does not seem unfair to suggest that the great fear might have been that negotiations, once under way, might culminate in independence without empire. The alternative of independence without empire might satisfy the great majority of the people; it was certainly less acceptable to a segment of the leadership concerned with empire. The most complete study is Weldon A. Brown, Empire or Independence: A Study in the Failure of Reconciliation, 1774–1783.12 Franklin, in demanding Florida and Canada, plus an indemnity, was not offering conditions upon which to open negotiations but rather to abort them, and that is the way the British interpreted his actions. The failure of these negotiations protracted the war for over three more years with great suffering on both sides. In a peace two years after that, the Americans finally settled for independence without empire.
People’s Militia, Guerrilla War, and Victory
What, then, did the Americans gain from the Alliance? Little more than might have been negotiated in 1778. It is true that a French army and naval force made possible Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, but that event cannot be dealt with in isolation. The exhaustion of his army in its weaving campaign through the South had been very much the work of regular, partisan, and guerrilla American units.
Nathanael Greene’s strategy of dispersal of forces created the basis for the partisan warfare campaign in the South. John Shy’s “The American Revolution: The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War,” Don Higginbotham’s The War of American Independence; Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practices, 1763–1789, and Russell F. Weigley’s The Partisan War: The South Carolina Campaign of 1780–1782 provide important new analyses of the role of militia and guerrilla warfare. Hugh F. Rankin’s Francis Marion: The Swamp Fox discusses the guerrilla volunteer marksmen who formed “Marion Brigade” which played a crucial part at battles such as Georgetown, Eutaw Springs, and Parker’s Ferry. Don Higginbotham’s “Daniel Morgan: Guerrilla Fighter” analyzes Daniel Morgan’s guerrilla tactics (e.g., Cornwallis and Tarleton at the battles of Cowpens, South Carolina and in North Carolina) for which Morgan has been considered the greatest guerrilla commander of the Revolution.
The British called the area around Charlotte, North Carolina, the “Hornets’ Nest,” and later they were forced to abandon much of their equipment in evading engagements with American units. That every successful insurgency culminates in regular army forces accepting the surrender of their counterparts should never obscure the role of the irregulars. By that time, many of the irregulars remained in the countryside to administer order, or had returned to their work.
After 1778, British strategy moved toward the possibility of developing a pacification program. As Shy’s A People Numerous and Armed makes clear, the fundamental problem was always the American militia:
The British and their allies were fascinated by the rebel militia. Poorly trained and badly led, often without bayonets, seldom comprised of the deadly marksmen dear to American legend, the Revolutionary militia was much more than a military joke, and perhaps the British came to understand that better than did many Americans themselves. The militia enforced law and maintained order wherever the British army did not, and its presence made the movement of smaller British formations dangerous. Washington never ceased complaining about his militia—about their undependability, their indiscipline, their cowardice under fire—but from the British viewpoint, rebel militia was one of the most troublesome and predictable elements in a confusing war. The militia nullified every British attempt to impose royal authority short of using massive armed force. The militia regularly made British light infantry, German Jager, and Tory raiders pay a price, whatever the cost to the militia itself, for their constant probing, foraging, and marauding. The militia never failed in a real emergency to provide reinforcements and even reluctant draftees for the State and Continental regular forces. From the British viewpoint, the militia was the virtually inexhaustible reservoir of rebel military manpower, and it was also the sand in the gears of the pacification machine.
We have only one intensive case study of the American militia operating in a given locale, Adrian Leiby’s insightful The American Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley. What is significant is that here we are dealing not with an area where the British penetrated only once or twice during the course of the Revolution. On the contrary, one area—Bergen County across the Hudson from New York City—was under the guns of the British and thereby contested for during virtually the entire course of the War. It was thus almost a classic laboratory case for examining the development of an American guerrilla unit. Under the direction of Major John M. Goetschius, the Dutch farmers built a guerrilla unit that from hesitant beginnings by the end of the War matured into a more effective fighting group than the regular army. His correspondence with Washington makes plain that the Dutchman commanded a better understanding of the essentials of revolutionary guerrilla warfare than did his Commander‐in‐Chief.
Relevance of the Revolution’s Military History
What relevance, if any, is the military history of the American Revolution to an age when liberty seems threatened from within and without? In their study of history the radical Whigs had concluded that the internal threat of a standing, professional, volunteer army far outweighed its potential utility against a foreign threat. Today we know that the irregular, people’s army functioned far more effectively than was formerly imagined. There are those, of course, who say that times have changed: that even the “lesson” of Vietnam, of what a guerrilla force can do (provided the larger power does not resort to genocide or nuclear weapons) is irrelevant to a confrontation between the superpowers. While other Communist leaders in the Russian Revolution often criticized the effectiveness of the peasant militia, Leon Trotsky appreciated how truly effective was their fighting capacity against the regular army. He understood that the Party must later smash their “individualism,” and virtually “anarchic” desire to hold their own “individual plots” of land: “Today, free, he for the first feels himself to be someone, and he starts to think that he is the centre of the universe.”
What Was the Revolution’s Political and Constitutional Resolution?
“It has ever been my hobby‐horse to see rising in America an empire of liberty, and a prospect of two or three hundred millions of freemen, without one noble or one king among them. You say it is impossible. If I should agree with you in this, I would still say, let us try the experiment, and preserve our equality as long as we can. A better system of education for the common people might preserve them long from such artificial inequalities as are prejudicial to society, by confounding the natural distinction of right and wrong, virtue and vice.”
–John Adams, 17861
A major question for historians is: What changes occurred in American society as a result of the War and the drive for equality? These developments provide a framework for understanding the equalitarian forces that pushed for replacing the Articles of Confederation and ratifying the Constitution.
Recent assessments of the motivations supporting the Constitution go back to Charles Beard’s famous economic interpretation. Without entering into a discussion of Beard’s interpretation, some of his economic data may be incorporated into a valid social interpretation of the Constitution.
Ambiguities in Social‐Political Groups: Agrarian Federalists vs. Commercial Nationalists?
The American revolutionary leadership studied the past, in part, to build ideologies and world views for shaping the future. “Given the social and cultural structure of the United States during the 1780s, we can deduce that men differed radically over what constitutes the Good Society.”
Lee Benson, together with other writers, “assume[s] that the characteristics that predisposed men to agrarianism tended also to predispose them to distrust the State.” And, “it follows, therefore, that the new nation should be a decentralized, loose confederation of the several independent states.” On the other hand, “within a liberal republic, the logical corollary of ‘commercialism’ was a system derived from the proposition that the State could function as a creative, powerful instrument for realizing the Good Society…[T]hey believed the State must be strong and centralized.”
While Benson acknowledged that not “all agrarians were federalists” or “all Commercialists nationalists,” nonetheless, “a marked tendency existed for agrarians to be federalists and commercialists to be nationalists.” Caution is demanded in doing justice to the relationships between agrarianism/commercialism and distrust of the State, as well as between the decentralized State/Centralized State.4 The critical factor, therefore, was that the perceived political crisis had caused some agrarians—who would otherwise have preferred small government, focused at the state level—to accept a nationalist solution. But that strange union of agrarianism and nationalism is difficult to sustain without the ultimate use of force to retain what are conceived of as the agrarian virtues.
Social Tensions and the Ambiguities of Republican Equality
The most thorough recent study of the period during and after the Revolution, culminating in the adoption of the Constitution, is Gordon S. Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787. The first part, “Ideology of the Revolution,” discusses the Whig world view. Wood underlines the important concepts of Virtue and Equality in the Whig Republican paradigm. Thus, the Revolution, they believed, would be “ultimately sustained by a basic transformation of their social structure.” Obviously, that ideal could hardly be considered a conservative Revolution. While there were “sporadic suggestions for leveling legislation,”…“Equality was…not directly conceived of by most Americans in 1776, including such a devout republican like Samual Adams, as a social leveling.” Thus while the Americans recognized all sorts of natural distinctions in society, it was believed these would never become extreme:
It was widely believed that equality of opportunity would necessarily result in a rough equality of station, that as long as the social channels of ascent and descent were kept open, it would be impossible for any artificial aristocrats or overgrown rich men to maintain themselves for long. With social movement founded only on merit, no distinctions could have time to harden.
However, Wood notes the paradox in the American’s belief that the ideal of equality would banish envy.
Social Equality vs. the Inequalities of the Imperial System
In an earlier article Wood had discussed the rising social tensions in much the same direction as Berthoff and Murrin. “Politics, within the British imperial system, was highly personal and factionalized, involving bitter rivalry among small elite groups for the rewards of State authority, wealth, power, and prestige.
On the other hand, American Whigs had come to feel that removing the imperial system would cure the ills and disorders within the society. If extreme, their perceptions were not without some foundation: And the grievance which “particularly rankled” the Americans “was the abuse of royal authority in creating political and hence social distinctions,” and “the manipulation of official appointments.” Any effort to close off a possibility of advancement and greater equality would, and did, lead to confrontation.
Studies more sympathetic than Wood’s to the Articles of Confederation are Elisha P. Douglass, Rebels and Democrats: The Struggle for Equal Political Rights and Majority Rule During the American Revolution, and Merrill Jensen, The American Revolution Within America, which covers more succinctly many of the points made by Wood. A useful interpretative survey of the issues and the literature culminating in the Constitution is Robert E. Shalhope, “Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography.” One cannot overlook the militia as a political institution (whatever one’s view of the effectiveness of these essentially defense‐minded warriors) as described in David Curtis Skaggs’s, “Flaming Patriots and Inflaming Demagogues: The Role of the Maryland Militia in Revolutionary Society and Politics.”
Framework of Equality Behind Ratification
The fact that government was decentralized under the Articles did not mean that its role at the state level would necessarily be small. In most states the “new” men moved to implement a rather extensive program of state interventionism. This included extensive taxation and a monetary inflation which certainly must be regarded as egalitarian in its consequences.
In limiting the powers of both the executive and the courts, the general thrust of the American Revolution had been toward “popular sovereignty,” placing major political power, with a few, if any, restraints, in the hands of the legislatures. This opened the door for extensive government interventionism, at the local and state levels to be sure, but with few protections for the individual outside the majority.
Something had happened after 1776 to convince many that the Republican experiment was not working as it should. The solution was to check the arbitrary powers of the populist, state legislatures, and the overly rapid rise of less than well educated “new” men, by raising the central focus of government to the national level. In a sense, it was a gamble to check egalitarianism, at least for a time, by institutionally moving toward the centralization that might hasten empire. Both empire and egalitarianism, of course, were the twin nemeses of republicanism; but there seemed no easy way to halt both.