This is a favorite question on Ph.D. comprehensive examinations. In fact, I had one professor on my committee who embraced this approach and asked me a succession of similar questions: How new was the New Deal? How great was the Great Depression? How cold was the Cold War? You get the picture. Some of those kinds of questions strain credulity: “How civil was the Civil War? How gilded was the Gilded Age? How Jacksonian was the age of Jackson?
But in the context of the American Revolution this is an important question that historians have been arguing about for generations. The question is whether or not the revolution was conservative in tone and tenor—essentially replacing one ruling stucture in Great Britain with another in America—or radical in the sense of changing the class system in society as well as changing the political structure. I believe it was the latter. Carl Becker said it best a century ago: “The war was not about home rule, but about who would rule at home” (Carl Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776,” [University of Wisconsin Press, 1909]).
This is not the story that we are told in the ancestor-worshipping biographies of the nation’s founders, focusing as they do on a limited number of stellar individuals—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and a few others—who were elites in the American colonies. Those elites, of course, had no real interest in changing the social structure. After all they were at the top of society. They might believe in equality of opportunity, at least for adult white males, but they were generally less friendly toward a leveling of society. But is this also the story of thousands who took up arms to overthrow what they considered a repressive regime that trounced on their ability to live their lives and make their fortunes? For them, the revolution was about both fundamental social and economic as well as political change.
This comes across clearly when reading about the intellectual underpinnings of the era. The Britich colonies in America were a society transforming itself from one of feudal relationships to one predicated on republicanism, democracy, and market-driven capitalism in the middle part of the eighteenth century.
At a fundamental level the American Revolution was truly a radical episode in world history. Gordon S. Wood, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage Books, 1991), comments that “The republican revolution was the greatest utopian movement in American history. The revolutionaries aimed at nothing less than a reconstitution of American society. They hoped to destroy the bonds holding together the older monarchical society—kinship, patriarchy, and patronage—and to put in their place new social bonds of love, respect, and consent. They sought to construct a society and governments based on virtue and disinterested public leadership and to set in motion a moral government that would eventually be felt around the globe” (p. 229). They advocated ensuring equality as the first task of society; Wood calls this “the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history” (p. 234). And all Americans seemingly embraced the idea of equality as manifested in labor and accomplishment. Wood notes, “Perhaps nothing separated early-nineteenth-century Americans more from Europeans than their attitude toward labor and their egalitarian sense that everyone must participate in it” (p. 286).
Wood closes The Radicalism of the American Revolution with this: “No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high—with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlessness, its anti-intellectualism. But there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people. The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with its consequences still” (p. 269).
Take the case of the Sons of Liberty, organized by Samuel Adams in Boston, but with chapters spread throughout the cities of the Altantic seaboard. Adams forged this group into an effective resistance force in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, one that could turn out protestors, and later trained soldiers, virtually instantaneously. An economic “ne’er do well,” Sam Adams possessed none of the business acumen of other founders. He preferred to carouse in bars, argue about politics, and manipulate the colonial system. Over time, he adopted a stark revolutionary perspective aimed at leveling society and he used words to whip others into a frenzy to undertake this action. He was equally good at propaganda with crowds—or were they mobs—as he organized for revolution first in Boston and then beyond. When the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, and when the Declaration of Independence was passed by the Continental Congress in 1776, Sam Adams was there to persuade all in earshot and publication range of the virtues of revolution.
And the people he motivated were seeking a better life than they had enjoyed in this rich, wide-open, optimism-breeding land, leading them to take up arms against the legally constituted government. At some level the Sons of Liberty were essentially shock troops waging class warfare. Adams mobilized the poor to take over, and perhaps also manipulating them for other purposes. But always, it was the ideas that drove their efforts; the ideas of equality present in the enlightenment.
Ideas and ideals certainly mattered in the context of the American Revolution, and I would contend that they matter in all of world history. Self-interest is very real, but ideas and ideals serve as powerful motivations for actions.
So how does one answer the question, “How Revolutionary was the American Revolution?” It sure seems pretty revolutionary to me.