The Revolution generated radical changes in the principles, opinions, and sentiments of the American people. New ideas and issues affected social customs, political ideals, and gender and racial roles as the thirteen colonies evolved into the United States. Debate and conflict over government authority, diverse state economies, federal control of western territories, and the new republic’s relationship with other nations transformed America’s political culture.
The desire to form a democratic government with balanced powers can be traced, in part, to the Enlightenment and its profound impact on colonial thinking. Many eighteenth-century intellectuals believed that progress was related to human reason unlocking the secrets of the natural world. Believing that the discoveries of Isaac Newton would enable them to understand the workings of the universe, enlightened thinkers reasoned that they would be able to perfect human society.
Many leading colonists, most notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, followed the doctrines of deism, a religious outgrowth of the Enlightenment. Deists relied on the reasoning power of science rather than on faith. Skeptical about the divinity of Jesus and the Bible, they believed in an impersonal God who, once the universe was created, no longer intervened in human affairs. The best way to improve society, deists argued, was to rely on reason. The Enlightenment embraced the concept of natural rights as a rational ideology, which fostered the Patriots’ yearning for liberty and a democratic government that protected their freedoms.
During a self-imposed exile in Holland, a country that tolerated the free expression of religion and thought, British philosopher John Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government. In that work, which was published in 1690, Locke rejected the claim that kings and queens had a “divine right” to rule others. Instead, governments were created among naturally free people as social compacts or contracts. Civil rulers derived their authority from the consent of the governed, and held their power as a public trust. Locke argued that rebellion against such a government was acceptable if it failed to protect certain “self-evident” natural rights, including life, liberty, and property. This “right of rebellion” theory, based upon natural law, subsequently influenced the American Patriots.
Locke believed that a government with great power would be tempted to use its authority to control individuals. The government, he contended, should be divided into different branches with each branch possessing only the power necessary to fulfill its function.
“The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of Nature for his rule. The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth, nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it.” – John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
More than eighty years after Locke published his political views on government, Thomas Jefferson incorporated many of the philosopher’s principles into the Declaration of Independence. Locke’s ideas regarding limited, democratic government; the right to rebel against an inept government; and the opportunity to pursue the natural rights enjoyed by all mankind; clearly influenced Jefferson:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” –Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence
Following the French and Indian War, many of Parliament’s decisions to control the colonists through taxes and trade regulations produced waves of discontent in America. However, after England repealed the Townshend duties and support for the non-importation agreements weakened, trade between America and Great Britain increased. By 1771, colonial merchants enjoyed an improved business climate and the Patriots’ message for freedom lost its urgency.
To recharge the opposition to England, Samuel Adams created a committee of correspondence in Massachusetts to publicize colonial complaints against the British. Within a short period, most of the other colonies established similar organizations to spread the spirit of resistance and exchange information and ideas about the latest British policies. The network effectively shaped public opinion, generated strong inter-colonial cooperation, and created a unified front that invigorated the patriotic cause.
As late as January 1776, months before independence was declared, many colonists continued to proclaim their loyalty to the Crown. Large portions of the population, including people in leadership roles, considered the colonies an extension of Great Britain and generally discarded the notion of becoming a self-governing country.
To the loyalists, the thought of severing economic and political relations with Great Britain, the “mother country”—a nation with intimate cultural and ancestral ties— was unthinkable. Futhermore, the penalties for treason, which often included hanging, were severe. Parliament’s prior reactions to rebellious acts, including the Boston Tea Party, loomed heavy on the colonists’ minds. Eventually, however, the numerous taxes, strict regulations, and decision to hire foreign soldiers to suppress colonial uprisings weakened the loyalists’ allegiance to the Crown.
One person credited with influencing the colonists’ decision to seek independence from British rule was Thomas Paine, a one-time corset maker who left England for a better life in Philadelphia. The impoverished entrepreneur, who tried his hand at several vocations including writing, penned the pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776, about a year after his arrival in America.
Paine unleashed his anger directly at King George III. He argued that the cause of American hostility toward the British government was not Parliament, but rather the monarchy, which he claimed was the true source of malice toward the colonists. Paine declared that King George was a “Royal Brute” who did not deserve the colonists’ respect and claimed that the authority of all government officials, from governors to senators to judges, should originate from popular consent. Paine further argued that the concept of an island ruling a continent defied natural law.
Common Sense called for an end to the colonists’ political wavering over British rule and promoted the concept of an American republic where free citizens, not a monarch, were in control. America, Paine concluded, had an obligation to the world to become an independent and democratic society.
Within months of its release, 150,000 copies of Common Sense circulated throughout the colonies. Paine’s vision of a new American political system without direction from Great Britain, considered radical by many colonists, inspired Patriots to break from tradition and embrace independence. Common Sense became one of the most influential political diatribes ever written.
Although the concept of forming an autonomous American nation was not new, Thomas Paine’s call to create a democratic republic resonated with a growing number of colonists. By the late eighteenth century, many towns, particularly in Massachusetts, experienced republicanism firsthand in the form of town meetings and elections. Terminating the British monarch’s arbitrary authority and limiting the governing power to elected officials appealed to people of different classes throughout the colonies. However, not everyone in America was interested in a complete overhaul of the existing political system.
Many colonists, primarily those in higher classes, wanted to end hereditary aristocracy without dismantling the social hierarchy. They did not favor a new government that considered everyone—from wealthy landlords and business owners, to poor tenants and farmers—as equals. Conservative citizens believed that equality for the social classes would lead to unlawful outbursts, much like those witnessed during the Stamp Act crisis and the Boston Tea Party.
As the leaders of the American colonies fought for independence from Great Britain, the focus of attention broadened to include social reforms. Political representatives tackled several key issues, including voting rights, slavery, religion, and women’s rights.
The Declaration of Independence stated that all men were created equal, but the new state legislatures frequently fell short of supporting this sentiment. The franchise—the right to vote in public election—typically was restricted to white males who owned a certain amount of property. Lawmakers generally assumed that those who did not have property lacked a stake in the government, the proper work ethic, and the moral prerequisites to vote intelligently.
Americans often highlighted the moral wrong of slavery by complaining of Parliament’s attempts to make “slaves” of them, although many founding fathers, notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders themselves. Southerners were particularly outraged in 1775 when Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, announced that all slaves willing to bear arms against their “rebel” masters would be given their freedom. Nonetheless, the institution of slavery came under increased attack during the enlightened Revolutionary era.
By the early 1800s, all the northern states barred slavery, and the federal government prohibited the further importation of slaves. Slavery played only a negligible role in the economy of the northern states by then. The plantation owners of the southern states, in contrast, maintained and expanded the institution of slavery because it was indispensable to their economic success and way of life.
Racism was prevalent throughout America during this period, and many states—North and South— enacted laws restricting the rights of African-Americans, whether they were free men and women or slaves. Although the Revolution did not settle the slavery debate, it challenged Americans to consider the concept of equality for all people.
The American Revolution also presented the opportunity for lawmakers to protect religious freedom, and augment the separation of church and state. The majority of the thirteen colonies supported an official religion, called the “established church,” but the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening diminished interest in established religions. Following the Revolution, most states decreased their support for religious institutions and placed the burden of church maintenance on voluntary contributions from individual members.
In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson led the fight to expand the separation of church and state. His Statute of Religious Liberty, enacted by the legislature in 1786, delineated the boundary between religious belief and the right to participate in government:
“Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry…; All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” — Thomas Jefferson, Statute of Religious Freedom
The Revolution also shed light on the nascent movement to improve women’s legal rights. The debate over female equality began years before America severed its ties with Great Britain. John Locke, for instance, believed that since women had the ability to reason, they should be entitled to an equal voice. Most colonial-era Americans, including the enlightened New Englander John Adams, contended that most women lacked the necessary intellect or emotional make up to deal with complex and often sordid political issues.
Abigail Adams did not agree with her husband. She considered the Revolution to be the perfect catalyst to win political freedom from England and equal rights for American women. She implored Adams to “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors,” as the founding fathers debated forming a new nation. Although she light-heartedly threatened to “forment a Rebellion” among women iftheir voices were not heard, Adams gently rejected “the Despotism of the Peticoat.”
The social status of women, however, did not remain static. The concept of civic virtue became a focal point during the early national era. Americans believed that democracy was based on the integrity of each citizen. Mothers who oversaw the ethical instruction of society’s youth represented appropriate republican models for behavior. Women were elevated to the role of guardians for America’s moral values.
The important “republican motherhood” responsibility created more educational opportunities for women and undercut the male-dominated perception that women did not deserve higher profiles in society. Abigail Adams set the foundation for future generations of feminists willing to fight for equal rights.