Growing up, my views of the American Revolution were influenced by the musical 1776 and the School House Rock specials on Saturday morning. I grew to deeply respect our Founding Fathers and to see in them a heroism that is lacking in today’s leaders. As a grown up I’ve started reading a lot of history books that remind that though these Founding Fathers were great leaders, they were also human, and that the Revolution was as much the story of the ordinary merchants, farmers, slaves, native Americans, and women as it was of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Our historians remind us that the American Revolution was a complicated event, with mixed results many of the people who participated in the fight. I’ve especially learned from 3 of my favorite historians, Howard Zinn, Gordon Woods, and Joseph Ellis, to see the founding of our nation in new ways.
Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, devotes two chapters to the American Revolution. He focuses on the divide between the rich upper classmen of New England businessmen and Southern gentry that made up the American leadership, and the merchants, sailors, farmers, slaves, indentured servants, and the rest of the American population that had to be mobilized to win the revolution. In the beginning, John Adams estimated that a third of the population was opposed to the revolution, a third supported the cause, and a third were neutral. Zinn noted that while mechanics and sailers were incensed at the British, much of the public was lukewarm. The men who first joined the revolutionary army were respectable men with property and respectability in their communities, but the need for greater numbers led to the recruitment of poorer white men. The military was a place where the poor could rise in rank and change their social status and many joined for that reason. Some states used conscription to fill the ranks of their armies. Excluded initially from the militia were friendly Indians, free African Americans, and white servants. So the majority of support for the revolution came from the town mechanics, laborers, seamen, and small farmers who made up “the people” and bonded through the camraderie of military service and benefitted from the distribution of land.
During the War for Independence, Zinn noted that occassional riots would occur that were motivated by the resentments of the poor against the rich elite. Divisive civil conflicts occurred during the course of the war in Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, and to a lesser degree, Virginia. The threat of slave revolts were a constant worry to Southern plantation owners. Amid the chaos of the war, thousands of slaves fled for freedom, leaving on British ships to settle in England, Nova Scotia, the West Indies, or Africa, or staying in America as free blacks, evading their masters. The war gave African Americans and other oppressed groups a venue to make demands for equal treatment from their white countryment. In Boston, African Americans asked for city money to educate their children. In Norfolk, they asked to be allowed to testify in court. Peter Matthews, a butcher in Charleston, led free black artisans and tradesmen in petitioning the legislature to repeal discriminatory laws against blacks. In 1780, seven African Americans in Dartmouth, Massachussetts, petitioned for the right to vote. The agitation of African Americans and the poor white classes showed the gap between the high idealism of the Declaration of Independence and the realities of discrimination and poverty of a large segment of the American population. This gap has led more radical historians like Zinn to see the American Revolution as being the trading of a British elite with an American elite.
Joseph Ellis is a historian who sees much more of the accomplishments of the Revolution than Zinn. He’s famous for his books on the Revolutionary era and his latest book, American Creation, explores the evolution of the United States as it goes from fighting a revolution to setting up a working government. This exploration weighs the accomplishments of the Founding Fathers and their two great failures. Ellis felt that the American Revolution succeeded, while the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions failed, because the American leadership was made up of many different players with many different beliefs. The diversity of the American leaders helped the United States from devolving into a one-man despotism, like Napoleon in France, Lenin in Russia, and Mao in China.
Ellis felt that the revolutionary generation succeeded in many areas. The Americans won the first colonial war for independence in the modern era, defeating the most powerful military in the world. They established the first nation sized republic and the first secular state. They created political parties as institutional channels for ongoing debate, permitting dissent as a legitimate voice. And for Ellis, the most important thing was that the United States was able to reconcile two competing and contradictory political impulses. The first impulse, as represented by the Declaration of Independence, was a radical document that locates sovereignty in the individual and depicts rebellion against government as a natural act. The second impulse was represented by the U.S. Constitution, and it located sovereignty in the collective state, making government an essential protector of the people and not its enemy, and valuing social balance over personal liberation.
With these achievements, Ellis notes two great failures of the founding of our nation. The first was the failure of the nation to end slavery, or at least adopt a plan to gradually emancipate the slaves. Most of the Founding Fathers were against slavery, and some of the leaders, notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, tried to get legislation to end slavery and the slave trade. They were unsuccessful in their attempts to end slavery, though, and they realized that the existence and expansion of slavery would eventually lead the nation into civil war. The other failure of the Founding Fathers was to find a way to implement a just settlement with the Native Americans. Like with slavery, most of the leaders acknowledged that the Native Americans had a legitimate claim to their land. They never successfully were able to come up with a just plan for the indigenous people of this country.
Gordon Woods is another historian who has gained a reputation for his insights on the Revolutionary period. His book, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, explores 8 of our revolutionary leaders and asks what it was about them that made them different from leaders of succeeding generations. The leaders that he explores, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Paine, and Aaron Burr, were of different temperements and political beliefs, but most of them (with the exception of Aaron Burr) were united by their aspirations to be disinterested gentlemen, a sort of moral ideal of a leader with the 18th century virtues of politeness, grace, good taste, learning, and character. Most of the leaders were the first in their families to attend college or attain social status, and they deeply believed in a leadership that was gained through talent and not heredity. Aaron Burr was the one leader who didn’t aspire to the 18th century idea of the gentleman politician. He seemed to always act upon political expediency instead of worrying about the public good, and this eventually lead to his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Each of the founders were very different men with different beliefs and personalities. Washington did his best to live up to the gentlemanly virtue of civility, and this led him to many of the decisions that garnered respect among his colleagues: his decision to surrender his position as commander in chief to the Congress in 1783 rather than pursue greater power; his decision not to run for a third term as President; his decision to free his slaves after he dies. Franklin’s sense of public service led him to be ambassador to England and France, where he helped the colonies victory by securing French support. Jefferson’s belief in the ability of the people to make the right decisions lead him to fight for greater public education, for the separation of church and state, and the abolishment of slavery, all in an attempt to educate enlightened citizens in Jefferson’s idea of a perfect republic. John Adams, Jefferson’s close friend and frequent political foe, believed in a natural aristocracy of merit, and believed in a balanced government between the aristocracy and the common people. Alexander Hamilton believed that government should exploit the self interest of the influential class at the top of the society to harness their talents for the benefit of the rest of society. James Madison believed in a government of clashing interests that neutralized each other, allowing liberally educated rational men to decide questions of the public good. Woods considers Thomas Paine the first public intellectual who wrote Common Sense and his other radical tracts specifically for the average person in the taverns and guilds of the city.
In his book, The American Revolution, Gordon Woods wrote:
“The history of the American Revolution, like the history of the nation as a whole, ought not to be viewed as a story of right and wrong or good and evil from which moral lessons are to be drawn. No doubt the story of the Revolution is a dramatic one: Thirteen insignificant British colonies huddled along a narrow strip of the Atlantic coast three thousand miles from the centers of Western civilization, becoming in fewer than three decades a huge, sprawling republic of nearly 4 million expansive-minded, evangelical, and money-hungry citizens is a spectacular tale, to say the least. But the Revolution, like the whole of American history, is not a simple morality play; it is a complicated and often ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not celebrated or condemned. How the Revolution came about, what its character was, and what its consequences were- not whether it was good or bad- are the questions this brief history seeks to answer.”
In this Fourth of July, I’m grateful for the work of these historians for giving me different views of the founding of our nation. From Howard Zinn, I learned that the revolution was not just the story of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. It is also the story of the merchants, the small farmers, the slaves, the freed blacks, and the Native Americans. Zinn reminds us of the gap between the high idealism of the Declaration of Independence and the realities of the people in the margins of our society and that true social change only occurs when those marginalized people feel empowered to agitate for change. From Joseph Ellis, I’ve learned to appreciate the accomplishments of the leaders in building a government that allowed debate to take place and didn’t degenerate into a one person dictatorship. Ellis also reminds us though of the failures of the founders, of their inability to resolve the issues of slavery and the just treatment of Native Americans. From Gordon Wood, I learned to appreciate the founders as individuals, with their own beliefs and personalities and gifts. Each were united in trying to live to the 18th century idea of the virtous gentleman leader and this seperated them from future generations who lived up to different models of leadership. Each historian gives us a different and more whole view of the American experience, one that shows the ideas and the people who helped shape who we are today.