Truly revolutionary change doesn’t happen every day, or every year, or every decade, or even every lifetime. The American Revolution, far from being a once-in-a-lifetime event, was a once- in-several-lifetimes transformation, and naturally it knocked everybody off balance, even if they were working body and soul to help it happen. We forget, sometimes, that it was the Revolutionary War. It was the war for independence from Great Britain, yes, but that isn’t all it was. The thing to remember – the key that unlocks a lot of riddles about those times – is that the generation of ’76 thought of themselves as continuing the process of climbing out of the superstitions and encumbrances of the Middle Ages.
As John Adams justly said later, the real revolution took place in the hearts of the people before the war began. That’s why the war began. It wasn’t just about England. It was about literacy, and feudalism, and the Enlightenment, and Protestantism, and unfair trade conditions, and chronic debt, and manifest destiny (though no one had yet used that phrase), and slavery, and the creation of heaven on earth.
Ideologically, (though that word had not yet been invented, oh happy times):
- Catholicism. They were virulently anti-Catholic in the same way that some people in the 20th century were virulently anti-Communist, and for the same reason: They feared Catholicism as a belief-system likely to be manipulated by a foreign power for its own subversive purposes. They also assumed that its mystical elements were superstition.
- As they left off theology, they put on worship of materialism, without quite realizing it. In New England especially, where literacy was virtually universal, the unstated assumption was that the past thousand years had been ignorance and superstition, but now men were remembering how to think and investigate and deduce, and all would be well.
- Feudal institutions. Primogeniture (the oldest son inherits), entail (the inheritor can’t divide the property), church establishment (taxpayers, whether or not they are members of the Anglican church, support it financially). All these feudal remnants tended to increase social stratification at the expense of individual freedom.
- Titles. Hereditary titles were clearly tied to monarchy and to feudal divisions of society into nobility and commoners. Although few lords ever settled in America (Lord Fairfax being a conspicuous exception), the existence of a legally recognized order of nobility impacted the Americans and hampered them in their new pursuit of equality under the law.
And, on a more mundane level:
- Debt. The Virginia planters were in a trap set from London. Legally, they could sell tobacco only to England, and only through one outlet. Naturally, that put all the economic power in the hands of the buyer. They were convinced (perhaps rightly) that it was deliberately done to keep them economically enslaved.
- Trade. New England merchants, too, chafed at the constraints imposed by England’s mercantilist regulations. They knew they could make much more money by trading wherever there was a market, and creating new markets wherever they discovered opportunities – but at every step, English laws blocked the way. Even their extensive smuggling could only do so much to overcome the effect of British trade regulation.
- Slavery. The Somerset decision, that we will have to look at after a while, seemed to threaten emancipation throughout the British Empire. The Southern colonies – South Carolina and Georgia particularly – did not care to run the risk.
- Expansion. No sooner were the French expelled from the Ohio Valley than England declared the trans-Appalachian area closed to colonization. British statesmen in their wisdom thought this would solve a couple of problems – it would preserve a homeland for the Indians, and it would channel British colonists north toward Canada and south toward Florida. The problem was, the colonists wanted to follow the prime farmland and hunting grounds, and they were on the other side of the Cumberland Gap.
The revolution was a radical rethinking of the life and society that was going to emerge from the war. And just like every revolution, it affected different temperaments and different interests differently. A revolution is a tram line into the unknown, and with every mile traversed, some look back at the distance covered and decide they’ve ridden far enough, and others say to themselves, “if we stop here, all our sacrifices will have been in vain.” And they’re all in the same car. Decisions on how far it goes and whether it stops affect them all.
This is an inadequate analogy, because in real life, even if you stop the car, you’re going to find that the landscape around you continues to change. And if you have been scared enough by what has already happened, life after the car stops is not going to calm you down much – especially since that very stoppage is going to inflame some of your fellow passengers. In revolutionary times, everyone around you except those of your own party seems asleep, or insane.
Thus, some didn’t want to go down this pathless path; they were called Tories. Others were eager to escape the dead hand of the past; they called themselves patriots, and Sons of Liberty, until the revolution went farther than they were comfortable with, at which time they were called Tories or renegades or monocrats or God knows what. And many people – at least a third, but perhaps many more – just wanted to be left alone to live their lives. But if that’s what they wanted, they picked an exceptionally bad time to be born. Like it or not, understand it or not, America was in the process of experiencing revolutionary changes that would transform it utterly beyond recognition.