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I42 THE ENGLISHREVOLUTION
Light and DarkSideof God,"quotedin NormanCohn' Pursuitof
3. JacobBatrthtrmley,"The
1970)'p' 30a'
Press,
OxfordUniversity
theMillennium(NewYork
in the-English
Radicali.sm
Religious
4. Quotedin A.L. Morton, Theworld of the Ranters:
thattheRanters'
noting
worth
It
is
p.
71.
1970),
Wishirt,
&
Lawrence
ieiotution(London:
and
Romance,
a
meer
but
was
BIBLE
"the
sacred
;;;b;r; inctudedevenatheists,for whom
the Peoplein
keep
to
Ages,
Former
of
Witts
the
by
invented
only
itself;
,o
.o.,-,.6i.,.ty
'
strbjection."
Ranters'P'85'
the
of
World
Morton,
5.J.Salmon,"ARout,A Rout"'quotedin
Peopleo^fEngland"'in
6. GerrardWinstanley,'ADeclarationfrom the PoorOppressed
pp' 26-7'
1989)'
Press'
(London:
Aporia
Hopton
Andrew
ed.'
ings,
iirirt t a Writ
pp.
104-5
Down,
Upside
Turned
'
7. Hill, World
Hill andEdmtrndDell,eds',TheGoodOldCause:
8.In Christopher
2*"y':"
!,'!: Frank
r-ev'(London:
ed,
andConsequenca,2nd
Course,
iiiAitnn oi rcaUl1eOt Its Causes,
1969)'p.385.
M. KelleyPublishers,
casra co., ls49;NewYork:Augustus
SelectedWritings'
Winstanley'
also
See
395'
385,
Cause,pp.
9. Hill and Dell, GoodOld
cromwellandthe
oliver
Englishman:
God's
Hill,
in
christopher
10.Qtrotedanddisctrssed
(NewYork:Harper& Row 1972)'P' 139'
Revolution
English
..rtre Htrntingof Foxes,"
Manifutoesof thePuritan
in Don M. Wolfe,ed.,Leveller
r r.
370'
1967),
Press,
Humanities
(
York
P'
1944]New
Revolution
149.
12.Hill, God'sEnglishman,P.
13.Ibid.,p. r50.
in a Platform,or TrueMagistraclRestored,d:
14.Gerrardwinstanley,TheLawof Freedom
Robert
RobertKenny (NewYork: SchockenBooks,l94l)' p' 147'
in Three British Revolutions;'
15.Lawrencestone, "The Resultsof the English Revolution,"

1980)'
Press'
University
N'J':Princeton
Pocock(Princeion,
ed.J'G.A.
7aal, rcaa,1776,
45-4.
pp.45-6,48.
16.Ibid.,
tT.ChristopherHill,TheCenturyofRevolution:160j-1714([ondon:ThomasNelson&
Sons,1961
; NewYork:W.W.Norton& Co'' 1966)'pP'l-2'

PART III
r

THEAMERICAN
REVOLUTION

llr

I

i,

|l, l

il
i

r

li

il
I

lilr

li

A KIND oF REVOLUTIoN,,
l4s

e 'A Kind of Revolution"
.HAPTER

The men and women who rallied to the Leveller causein the late 1640s

awaywith the rise of Cromwell'sinterregnum.But their politicalidealof "
agreement of the people acceptableto the general will," as H.N.

"It crossedthe Atlantic . . . and bore ripe fruit
observes,did not disappear.
Defeatedin Europe, the English Revolution found its triumph and
culminationin America."'
Until recently,therehasbeena tendencyamonghistoriansto deprecate
migration of radical idealsto colonial America and the radicalismof
Its revolutionarycharacterhasbeenslighted
AmericanRevolutiongenerally.
historians who treat it as a mere war for independence, a co
movement to preserve existing political institutions, or a purely

conflictbetweencompetingcolonialinterestsandthe"mothercountry."Even
the AmericanRevolution
populista historianasHowardZinn hasdismissed
and
a "kind of revolution"and demeanedit for its presumedtameness
classbias,'while other historiansportray it as a gentlemanlyballet
bewiggedAnglo-Americans.
It is onething to look at the Revolutionin thetermsof the varyingfortunes
American Left, and quite another to examine
the late-twentieth-century
within the context of its own time, more than two centuries ago. As
eighteenth-century phenomenon, the American Revolution continued
earlier political tradition based,like the English Revolution, on "the
Englishmen,"but it built this tradition into a force that would gain monu
importance, no lessfor Europe and evencolonizedcountries than for the
States.In its own time, this Anglo-American tradition was to become di
revolutionary, in a sensethat would have been congenial to figures
Lilburne, Rainborough, and Overton'
In arguing the casethat the American colonies underwent a revolution itr
1770sand 1780sand not merely a war for independence,R.R. Palmer
the question according to two quantitative and objective criteria: "how

refugees
weretherefrom theAmericanRevolution,
and how muchpropertydid
theylose,in comparisonwith the French
Revolution?,'By
the first criterion,he
observes
that whereasrhere
were"24 6migr6sper thousarid
in the
AmericanRevolution,"th,erewere"onty i emigre,
"ip.o","i"n
p". tho.rsula'or
poput.tion
in the FrenchRevorution."As
for the s".ond.rit.rion, ,h.;;;;
ievorutionary
government's
confiscationof the propertyof French;;ai;;r-;;;"il
known,but
judgedby indemnitiesthat thesriiish
maie Americanroy;ist; for;heir property
in theAmericanRevolution,theAmerican
losses
revolutionarygovernment
not confiscate
anvlessthanthe Frenchn.uorutionin;il;;if;population.3 did
In short'the AmericanRevolurionproduced
." .":;;;ir'
*ii n, ulation
thanthe French,and c^omparable
expropriatlons
"p
oI property.
Perhapsmore significantthan thesestatistics palmert'quite
is
soundobser_
vation that the Americanand FrenchRevolutions
were guided by identical
principles:
"certainideas.ofthe ageof Enlightenment,
foundon both sidesof the
Atlantic-ideas of constitutionaiism,
indiiidual lib.;t;;l.g"i."quutity_*.r.
morefully incorporatedand lessdisputed
in Americathan in Etiope.,,,These
principles,he observes,
were
muchmoredeeplyrootedin America,and
. - . contraryor competing
..r;r- principles,
monarchistor aristocraticor feudalor
ecclesiastica,'
nougi
fro_
America'were' in comparisonto Europe,
"Ur.n,
very weak.Assertionof
the
same
principlesthereforeprovokedlers
.o.rflict in Americathan in France.
[The
AmericanRevolution]was,in truth,less
revolutionary.
TheAmericanRevolution
was,indeed,a movementto conserve
whatalreadyexisted.It wash"rdl, ho*.u..,
a "conservative"
movement,and it can givelimited comfort
to the theoristsof
conservatism,
for it wastheweakness
of conservative
forcesin eighteenth_century
America,not theirstrength,thatmade
theAmericanRevolutionasmoderateasit
was.. . . Americawasdifferentfrom
Europe,but it wasnot unique.s
The,less-inflammatory
characterof the AmericanRevolution
canbe attributed
to the fact that American
colonistsrruJ-ui..uaybeen revolutionizing
societyfrom the inception
their
or .otoniruiionlo-" ,*o centuries
earlier.By the
ttmehostilitiesbroke
out, theyhad cometo ,.gura their liberties
aspart of their
patrimony.on
the eveof the irevoruti;;, ,iun, o-.ricans
had
significantry
ress
,.o fist't about internally than r.t lu;;;;;i;s in France,
whoi" i.ual purt
ourdenedthem
with an entrenchedaristocracy,
a fairly centralized-monarchy,
aDd,a
powerfulclergy.
rne tact that American
colonistsgenerallyacceptedthat
one-fifth of the
Populationwerechattel
,tuu.r, tr,uii,il';;;"
genocidalwarsagainstIndian
Peoples;
and that colonialr"-ilil, *...'o"ari"..r,"r
qesisand
may seemto b-.ti"palmer,s
my own. But it is easyto f.;;;a',h";;mericans
wereno differentfrom
f,uropeans
in theserespects.
None of"the imieriaristEuropeancountries
were

146

THE AMERICAN

"A KIND oF REvoLUTIoN,'

REVOLUTION

the treatmentof the Irish by
gentleguardiansof subjectpeoples,as,witness
nor did any of them accord wglnen political, legal' and
l"gliti
.q,iuti,y. As for slaveiy,Napoleon-generally regardedasthe crownedde
of Frenchrevolutionaryidials from the late 1790sto l8l4-restored slavery
Euro
the French coloniesafter the French Revolution had abolishedit' In
hi
continent's
given
the
sense
no
economic
made
have
itself,slavelabor would
chronically
was
labor
where
America,
to
population density-in contrast
io,. c.nt,rri.s. The Americans,particularlythe plantationownerswho dep
so heavily on field hands to cultivate tobaccoand later cotton as their
important cashcrop,werechronicallyshort of labor and usedwhite inder
acrossthe oceanto Americain excl
,"*unar-p.ople who gainedpassage
for five to seveny.urc of *ork on.. they arrived-as well asblacks,for s
tasks throughout the colonial period. Thesefacts do not in any way
slavery,but-they explain the reasonswhy it emergedin the specificcor
colonial society.
TheEnglishpeopleingeneralacutelyrememberedthattheyhadhadto
their monarchsto respecitheir rights-rights that FrederickII of Prussia'
a
XVI of France,or catherine II of Russiawould haveabrogatedwithout
all the revolutionsof the de
thought. In this respect,asPalmersuggests,
revolutionariesasserted
the
for
conservative,
era were in some sense
againstinvasiveor
tradition,
by
hallowed
rights that they regardedas
radicalliterature
appreciable
An
them.
.."rirrginrrouationsthat would limit

lilT

rnomentumof popularboycotts,riots,actsof defianceof the royalauthoritiesin
their land; the establishmentof grassrootsinstitutionsto mobilize people
againstthe royaland parliamentaryinvasionof their "liberties";and fina1lyihe
actual facts of armed insurrectionthat spreadthrough the colonies-all
radical institutional upheaval.out of this upheavalemerged
produceda
-u:ly
newpoliticalidealsandvaluesandpopularinsurrectionary
institutionsthat had
an inestimableimpact on Euro-Americanhistory,and which wereto reappear,
often with no changeof name,aswe shall see,in the FrenchRevolutionitself.
Althoughthe ideasof the ageof Enlightenment
"weremore fully incorporated
andlessdisputedin Americathan in Europe,"aspalmerobserves,
[t]herewasenoughof a commoncivilizationto makeAmericavery pointedly
significantto Europeans.
For a centuryaftertheAmericanRevolution,asis well
known,partisansof the revolutionaryor liberalmovementsin Europelooked
upon the United statesgenerallywith approval,and Europeanconservatives
viewedit with hostilityor downrightcontempt.6
TheAmericanRevolution,in effect,markedthe culminationof revolutionary
tendencies
that had beena significantpart of the Atlantic seaboard's
colonizationasfar back asthe 1630s-and it is to thesetendencies
that we must first
turn our attention.

that popularrightswereST?t fgli:' it"Y:
Engl;h Revolutionasserted
abridged
ahJadyseen,which the Norman conquerorshad presumably
william s invasionof the islandin 1066.Howeverspecioussuchclaims
i
howeverdistortedthe history they invoked,revolutionshaveoftenbeen
as defensiveactions.what Americanswere trying to "conserve"in
which'
British interferencewas a spectrumof Englishliberties,many of
term'
the
of
meaning
usual
the
in
wereby no meansconservative
After the.,GloriousRevolution"of 1688-89,in whichthe laststuart

mo
was replaced with the more domesticated, Parliament-controlled
the
elaborated
cousins'
American colonists, even more than their English

oi engHshmen"into fairly autonomousinstitutions'rangingfrom,oligr
Vll8ili"
coloni"allegislaturestypified by the House of Burgesses
a1r
1l
democratictownmeetingsinNewEngland-assembliesthatwere
oid.fying royalcJlonialgovernorsand raisingb
capable,when necess"ry,
alsoby thel
to the exerciseof arbitrary po*.,,-"oi only by the Crown but
ec
Parliament.Indeed,on the eveof the Revolution,many colonists,
its
and
Crown
that
the
considered
EnglishRoundheadsof the 1640s,
of their institutions'
weie usurpingthe sovereignty
did not
But as th! American Revolution unfolded, Americans
rather,
..conserve,,
rights"l
"Englishmen's
of
local institutional forms

THE ORIGINS OF REBELLION
Perhapsthe most important singlefactor that shapedthe trajectoryof the
Kevolutionwasthe availabilityof vastexpanses
of land for settlementand the
existenceof a strong and highly independentyeomanry.In this respect,
the
sltuationof the American colonistswas quite different from
that of European
revolutionaries.England's yeoman population
was losing out to land
enclosures,
a processthat would ultimatelycreatean urban froletariat,while
in France,it wasnot until afterthe Revolutionbeganthairedistributionof
ltta
rormerchurchlandswould create
a largepeasantstratum.
the American coloniesnestledat the foothills of the Allegheny
*rI :ol,t..rt,
rvrountains,
beyondwhich lay a vastexpanseof arableland.This immensearea
renderedunnecessary
the demand for radical land redistribution,such as
occurredin
France.Although the growth of the yeoman population was
u. ,.1.. expense-of ".icfr r"ii", ..rti.,r"r, it produced quite unique
**::l

;;; ;i-;;

h"ilil;

a self-conscious yeomanry that saw no reason why its self-sufficient
should be inhibited by any exogenouselements,such as merchants,

"A KIND oF REvoLUTIoN"

146 THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

gentleguardiansof subjectpeoples,aswitnessthe treatmentof the lrish by
inglistl; nor did any of them accord women political, legal, and
eqtiality.As for slavery,Napoleon-generally regardedasthe crowned
of Frenchrevolutionaryidealsfrom the late 1790sto l8l4-restored slavery
the French coloniesafter the French Revolutionhad abolishedit. In
itself,slavelabor would havemadeno economicsensegiventhe continent's
population density-in contrastto America,wherelabor waschronicallys
ioic.rrtu.i.r. The Americans,particularlythe plantationownerswho depe
so heavily on field hands to cultivate tobaccoand later cotton as their
important cashcrop,werechronicallyshort of labor and usedwhite ir
acrossthe oceanto Americain
,.*untr-p"ople who gainedpassage
for five to seveny.utr of work once they arrived-as well asblacks,for
j
tasks throughout the colonial period. Thesefacts do not in any way
slavery,butlhey explain the reasonswhy it emergedin the specificcollt
colonial society.
The Englishpeoplein generalacutelyrememberedthat they had had to
to ,especitheir rights-rights that FrederickII of Prussia,
their mon-archs
xvl of France,or catherine II of Russiawould haveabrogatedwithout a
all the revolutionsof the de
thought. In this respect,asPalmersuggests,
revolutionariesasserted
the
for
conservative,
era were in some sense
againstinvasiveor d,
tradition,
by
rights that they regardedas hallowed
radicalliterature
An
appreciable
..--ringinnovationsihatwould limit them'
rights' as we
Saxon
were
Engliih Revolutionassertedthat popular rights
follc
abridged
ahJadvseen,which the Norman.onqn.to.t had presumably
claims
williams invasionof the islandin 1066.Howeverspecioussuch
ini
howeverdistortedthe history they invoked,revolutionshaveoften been
as defensiveactions.what Americanswere trying to "conserve"in reacl
i
British interferencewas a spectrumof Englishliberties,many of which,
were by no means conservative in the usual meaning of the term'
After the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-89, in which the last stuart
mo:
was replaced with the more domesticated, Parliament-controlled
the
elaborated
American colonists, even more than their English cousins,

olig
ti Engtittt-en" into fairly autonomousinstitutions,ranging from
to
Virginia
in
coloni'allegislaturestypified by the House of Burgesses
wel
democratic town meetings in New England-assemblies that
oid.rying royalcolonialgovernorsand raising
capable,when necessury,
by the
to the exerciseof arbitrary powersiotonly by the Crown but also
ec'ho
Parliament.Indeed,on the eveof the Revolution'many colonists'
its
and
crown
that
the
considered
EnglishRoundheadsof the 1640s,
usurpingthe sovereigntyof their instrtutions'
weie
";;-;;';il3
n-.ri.un"Revolution unfolded' Americans did not
,.conserve,,
local institutional forms of "Englishmen'srights"; rather'

t

147

momentumof popularboycotts,riots,actsof defianceof the royalauthorities
in
their land; the establishmentof grassrootsinstitutionsto mobilize people
againstthe royaland parliamentaryinvasionof their',liberties,';
and finailythe
actual facts of armed insurrection that spread through the colonies_all
produceda very radicalinstitutionalupheaval.out of this upheavalemerged
newpolitical idealsand valuesand popular insurrectionaryinstitutionsthat had
an inestimableimpact on Euro-Americanhistory,and which wereto reappear,
oftenwith no changeof name,aswe shal see,in the FrenchRevolutionitself.
Although the ideasof the ageof Enlightenment"were more fully incorporated
andlessdisputedin Americathan in Europe,"aspalmerobserrres,
[t]herewasenoughof a commoncivilizationto makeAmericavery pointedly
significantto Europeans.
For a centuryaftertheAmericanRevolution,asis well
known,partisansof the revolutionaryor liberalmovementsin Europelooked
upon the united Statesgenerallywith approval,and Europeanconservatives
viewedit with hostilityor downrightcontempt.6
TheAmericanRevolution,in effect,markedthe culminationof revolutionary
tendencies
that had beena significantpart of the Atlantic seaboardtcoloniz_
ationasfar back asthe 1630s-and it is to thesetendencies
that we must first
turn our attention.

THEORIGINSOF REBELLION
the most important singlefactor that shapedthe trajectoryof the
l:tn?or.
Kevolutionwasthe availabilityof vastexpanses
of land for settlementand the
of a strong and highly independentyeomanry.In this respect,the
lli:l*
sltuationof the American colonistswasquite
different from that of European
revolutionaries.England's yeoman population
was losing out to land
a processthat would ultimately createan urban proletariat,while
lTl":uTr'
in France,it wasnot until afterthe Revolutionbeganthairedistribution
of
l::r'
tolmerchurch landswould
createa largepeasantstratum.
the American coloniesneitled at the foothills of the Allegheny
M^BJ,-:::t'u:t,
ryrountains,
beyondwhich lay a vastexpanseof arableland. This immensearea
unnecessary
the iemand for radical land redistribution,such as
3..ot*q
in France.Although.the growth of the yeoman population
was
;fff
the. expenseof rich Indian cultures, it' produced
unique
iuite
I:i conditions.
:]
In New England, the abundanci of arable land made
a self-conscious yeomanry that saw no reason why
its self-sufficient
should be inhibited by any exogenous elements, such
as merchants,

l

I4t

T H E AM ERICAN REVOL UT ION

speculators,or, later, industrial entrePreneurs.Despite the immense
trotdingsthat easternspeculatorsand southernplantationownersacquired,
westernfrontier provided a major reservoirthat absorbedmillions of
immigrants for more than a centuryafterthe Revolutioncameto an end.
the frontier also servedas a force to dampensocialunrest
Paradoxically,
militant'
absorbingmany discontentedelements.When more aggressive,
landowners
large
by
stymied
aims
their
found
individuals
sociallyunruly
wealthymerchants,theydrifted westwardratherthan remainbehindandprc
leadershipto popular movementsagainstprivileged elites.On lhe frr
moreove; these militant elementscould create their own rough-and
egalitariancommunities,and when further immigrants rolled in, they
move still further on to recreatedemocraticlifewaysin the West-or at
of
remainwheretheywereand becomeelitesin their own right. The vastness
absence
the
and
wilderness'
its
uncharted
its
soil,
of
richness
the
continent,
highly stratified societymade possiblethe formulation of an egalitarian"
co-ntract"that keptthe democraticidealsof the EnglishLevellersvery much
English colonization of the New World did not begin in earnestuntil
op.tting decadesof the seventeenthcentury, when the Virginia Comp
chartered in 1606,establisheda permanent community at Jamestown.
settlementwasmore of a businessenterprisethan an idealisticu
1630,tobaccoshipmentsfrom the new colony had soaredfrom a mere
t2,000 of curedleavesto about !1.5 million, anchoringthe southerncolo:
a plantation way of life. In the coastalareasof Virginia and the Caroli
white landed gentry,who tended to be Anglican, evendevelopedaris
pretensions,und th.it affinity for hierarchywas secondnature.This oli
iived in hostile coexistencewith its own white indentured servants
growing number of African slaves.
pushed inland into the demanding foothills of the Appalachi
Piedmont-an impoverishedwhite population of Scotch-Irishsettlers
insulatedcommunities of their own that were more likely to be
than Anglican and that shared the hardships of frontier- life: its
insecurit|, and continued Indian raids. These yeoman farmers I
patiencewith the social distinctionsthat coastalelitesso fervently c
Th" .o-*on people,complainedWilliam Byrd,"are rarely guilty of
or making any court to ttreir governors,but treat them with all the
freedomand familiarity."'
Thesebackcountry settlerstypify another feature that contributed
Revolution.In many parts of the colonies,a militia systemhad
madefor a mentality and characterstructureamongAmericanfarmers
once'
Iong since ebbed among the lower classesin England,-where the
a
stable
by
replaced
been
had
1630s
and
l62bs
"tr;n bands" ofthe
standing army. At a time when England was instructing its lower and

i*,

"A KIND oF REVoLUTIoN"

l4g

classes
in the arts of servility the demandingliving conditions
in Americawere
instructing its population in the arts ofself-assurance.
survival in a harshland
reguirednot only strongcommunity tiesbut keenmarksrnar;ii;:ilr..
warsin
which American militia, along with British regulars,f.Gil'il.
French at
outpostson the frontier, and numerouswarsagainstIndians-who
resistedwhite
encroachmentson their landsproducedin the coloniesa wal-tiained
popular
military force and a skilledofficercadrethat, by the eveof the
Revolution,knew
the art of warfareaswell as,if not better than, ih.i, gritirh .o*..f*,r.
is not to say that there were no crassconflicts in
coloniar America;
Thi:
indeed,quite to the contrary: opposingclassinterestswithin
the coloniesgave
riseto considerabledomesticskirmishingbetweendifferent
strataof the iop_
ulation.Local armed uprisings*.r. .o--on- enough,partly
beciuseordinary
colonistswere irasciblein temperament,and pardy u..uur.
their familiarity
with arms gavethem the ability forcefullyto asserttheir demands.
Thesehardy
peoplewere as accustomedto taking direct action in defense
of their rights as
they were forward in their demeanor.when a seventeenth-i.ntu.y
,oy"t
governorof virginia, wlliam Berkeley,voicedhis upper-clarr.orr."rnr-..Ho*
miserablethat man is that Governesa peoplewher six parts
of seavanat leastare
PooreEndebtedDiscontentedand Armed"r-his complaint
reflectednot only
seriouseconomicinequitiesbut fearsthat an armedpeople
,"ourairy,o resolve
thoseinequitiesin their own combativeway.
The sharpestcolonial hatredswere initially domestic:
..
the rough piedmont
il enduring hatred of the sophisticatedand aristocratic
coa"star
plain. In
li:.d.
virginia, Nat Baconled a revolt of iarcthat
wasconductedlargelyby frontiers_
menwho demandedno1only protection against
Indian raids 6ui trre easingof
inequitabletaxationof the poor and the liftiig
of controlsoverthe beavertrade
that favored the well-to-do. The
revolt'reached even more menacing
proportionswhen it wasjoined
by armedindenturedservantsand black slaves.
other civil conflictsbroke out be-trleen
,i" iignry privilegedplanter cliquethat
controlledthe provincial assemblies
and th-eb"lk ouitry'r.,ri..r, who fert
9"iT::-1,Ot the^irsocialbettersand deniedtheir democraticrights- '
rne tailure of Bacon'srebelrion
inflamed the ingrained haired toward the
Quasi-aristocratic
Anglican_tobacco ptunt.r, that "festered;;;il
the rude
rresbyterianfrontiersmen.
on the.rr. of th. Revolution,associations
of frontier
ur:*: as Regulators-a term ttrat wouta
be used for armed backlllt:
-:'trr
reDelsthrouehout the century-came into
conflict with the semi_

Luc/\Lranuc seaDoard.such
Such
revorts
revolts
wourd
would
'v'r jh"Atr;;;;.";;
rikery
likely
have
have
hc.-.
;:^_";::*^r
ffi::::,*f$_.1:il"-wrr€ chronic
throuphout the colonial period had planters
not imported ever

t1 ni*ide ther"U.,
*r,ichthesouthern
..o'o_y *",
tiT i:i.:itu1"r
"i", ii" importation
o''e reasonplantersu.."t..ut.a
of blu.k I";::
l^tIr.r9'

to avoid still another revolt
like Bacon's,which, had created a panic among
strata in southern society.

r5O THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

In New Englandand the middleAtlanticcolonies,settlerson the edgeof the
towardcity merchantsandwell-to-do
wildernessdevelopedstrongantagonisms
coastalcitiesthe poor and bitterly
in
the
century,
artisans.By the eighteenth
population.
Homelesschildren,indeed
oppressedwere a visible part of the
young
peoplewereimpressed
entire families,lived precariouslivesin the streets;
into servicein trading ships,whalers,and fishing vessels;most indentured
servantswerelittle more than slavesfor the period of their servitude,and
of them did not survivetheir often harshtreatment.At the sametime,
ants in the northern provinces, planters in the southern, and lawyers a

everywherestood at the summit of colonial societyand filled the v
by
The contrastbetweenstreetbeggarsmisshapen
provinciallegislatures.
and
landed
merchants
and
nutrition and neglect,on the one hand,
who rode in ornatecarriageswith blackdriversand liverymen,on the other,
evidentto anyhonestvisitorto the colonies.
Within the working population, sharp antagonismsdivided unski
laborers-many of whom earneda miserableday-to-daylivelihood on
wharves of Boston, New York, Philadelphia,and Charleston-from m
higherstandardof living. Thesem
artisans,who enjoyeda substantially
jour
and especially
artisans,in turn, ruthlesslyexploitedapprentices
guild
their
who were increasinglydenied the opportunity to advance
Takentogether,theseeconomicstrata-as well as indenturedservants
slaves-tended to sharea common hatred of the merchants,who formed
wealthiestclassin the coloniesasa whole.
werevery much at oddswith one
Moreover,the coloniesthemselves
over claims to the so
conflicted
Hampshire
New
New York and
the separateand
become
later
to
HampshireGrants,which were
radical stateof Vermont;Virginia and Pennsylvaniaclashedover claimsto
unsettledlands of the Ohio Valley;and the southerncoloniescompeted
lands in the Alleghenies and westward-lands vital to the tobacco
economy because of the enormous toll that the crop takes on soil fer
Although differences between the colonies over religious issuesdiminished

the passingof time, varying religious and cultural traditions also pi
settlementsagainsteachother.Finally,frictionsbetweencolonialassemblies
their royal governors' and between municipal organs of government
colony-wideinstitutions,becamenearlycontinuous.

NEW ENGLAND TOWN MEETINGS
The slaveplantation economy of the south and the semifeudal patroon
the Dutch in the Hudson Valley stood in marked contrast to the life

"A KIND oF REVoLUTIoN"

r5l

prevailedin New England-the regionthat becamethe popularcenterfor the
Revolutionpar excellence,rn
1629,the Massachusetts
Baycompany,a branchof
the virginia company, initiated the major settlementof New England,literally
rescuingthe devout Puritan colonyat Plymouth from ruin after its founding in
1620.The company steadilypopulatedthe region with yeoman farmers,
fishermen,and artisans,and new colonieswere soon foundedin
rnerchants,
RhodeIsland,connecticut,and New Hampshire,partly becauseof religious
differenceswith Puritan Massachusetts
and partly becauseof the needfor land.
But sociallythe New Englandcoloniesweresurprisinglyalike:theywerebasedon
farmsteads
independent
organizedinto a villagesociety,
on the one hand,and a
coastalmerchantclassorientedtoward internaland foreigntrade,on the other.
whether consciously
or not, the congregationalist
world of the puritanswas
by
democratic
marked
valuessimilar to thosethat had surfacedduring the
English Revolution. Democracywas explicitly loathsometo congregational
divines:theybelievedratherin rule by the elect,whoseauthoritywasGod-given
andauthorizedby Scripture.Indeed,democracywas"the meanestand worstof
all forms of government," wrote John Winthrop., yet even as the
congregationalists
deniedthat theypursueddemocraticideas,puritan religious
preceptsstood in flat opposition to ecclesiastical
hierarchy-which, they
believed,
was contradictedby the Bible-and thus,if only inadvertently,
their
religiousorder gaverise to remarkablydemocraticinstitutions.Ratherthan
forminga unitary churchpresidedoverby bishopsandpresbyters,
eachpuritan
congregation
createdits own church,by meansof a compactor covenantamong
individualmen and womenwho agreedto abideby scripture,look aftereach
other'ssouls,and electtheir own minister,therebyfulfillingan old demandthat
hadbeenraisedin the GermanPeasant
War of lS24-25.
Not only werethe New Englandcongregations
self-constituted
and,assuch,
virtuallyall-powerfulin religiousmatters,but they themselves
and no one else
wrotethe individualcovenants
that bound them together.Almostunavoidably,
thetownsthey formedbecameextensions
of their ,.ligiou, congregations
and,
over time, answerableonly to themselves,not to any higher governmental
authority.Formed on thirty-six-square-mile
parcelsoi una paientedby the
wtassachusetts
assembly,they governedthemselvesin town meetings,which
werethe secularcounterpart of the covenanted
religious co--unity. Thrrr,
wherethe congregationelectedits
minister,the town in turn electedits
hoderatorand selectmen;
both met in the meetinghouse
in the centerof town.
By-1641,
the Massachusetts
Body of Libertiesrecognizedtheir legalexistence
andacknowledged
their considerable
autonomyin managing'the-ir
own local
affairs.
the early yearsof settlement,to be sure,Massachusetts
townspeople
vermitted
".3j.1*t these local powers to devolveon the selectmen,who formed an
vrSoing oligarchy,
reelectedfor one-year terms year after year. By 1720,

I52

THE AMERICAN

REVOLUTION

however,the town meetingshad ceasedto act asrubber stampsfor the decisions
of their selectmenon day-to-dayaffairs,even on matters as fundamentalas
altering bylaws.The towns now met more frequently-indeed, wheneverthey
deemed it necessary-and easily turned unsuitableselectmenout of office,
electingtheir moderatorsand engagingin ever more contentiousdebates.By
1705,when Cotton Matherwasattemptingto uniff and centralizeauthorityin
the congregationalchurches,John Wise, the head of the church at Ipswich,
could rebut him and, remarkablyfor the time, extol democracyas "a form of
governmentwhich the light of nature[not God-M.B.] doeshighly value,and
often directs us to as most agreeableto the just and natural prerogatives
humanbeings."'o
Perhapsmore important than ideologywasthe realityof democraticIi
in New Englandand in the backcountryof the othercolonies.The demands
fronti
colonizationfostereda highly egalitarianoutlook on the ever-changing
were
in
1630s,
town
meetings
was
the
frontier
the
When New England
as we noted, largelyas an extensionof a town's Congregationalchurch to ci
affairs,and the franchiseexpandedsteadilywith new settlers.In time, com
with the southern colonies,whereperhapsone out of ten white maleswas
eligiblevoter and only the most selectmembersof societygainedentry to
provincial assemblies,
four out of five New Englandershad the right to vote,
commonersoften satalongsidewealthymerchantsand lawyersin colonial
latures.Although, before 1691,church membershipin Massachusetts
prerequisitefor voting, over time voting qualificationswere steadily
of even
and the franchiseextendedfrom churchmembersto householders
limited means. Once the religious qualification was eliminated, the
remainingqualificationfor participationin a town meetingwasthat a man
requiredto havean income of 50 shillings.But after a while it wasnot di
for male inhabitants with very little property or low incomes to meet
requirement, with the result that most male inhabitants of a town
enfranchised."
finallybecamea community'sgenuinepopular
The town meetinghouse
powers.Townmeetings
and asan institution it acquiredfairly considerable
levy taxes,distributeland,settlepropertydisputes,admit new residents,
and control the militia, constructroads,and voiceand debatepolitical
on all issuesin times of socialunrest.Moreover,the townsenjoyedconsi
autonomy in managingtheir own affairs."The only links connectingthe
with the largerworld in the colonialcapital,"observesRichardLingeman"r
the deputy it sentto the legislatureand the county officials-the sheriff and
circuit judges-who were appointedby the governor."''Authority was
upon the direct face-to-face democracy of the community, and delegatio;
representation was strictly mandated by the town meeting itself. When
Massachusettstowns dispatched legislators to the colonial assembly or

"A KIND oF REVoLUTIoN',

lsi

court in Boston,their mandatelimited them to beingmereagentsof the town,
and they could vote on,anygivenissueonly asthey had beeninstructedby their
town meetings.Soassiduouswerethe Massachusetts
townsin assuringthat their
behavedaccordingto their mandatesthat theyoftensentalonga second
delegates
memberwhosesolerolewasto seehow eachdeputyvotedin the utr.-bly. Finally
they insistedthat assemblyproceedingsbe publishedso that all citizenscould
scrutinizethe behaviorof their deputies.

NEWERCOLONIALSETTLEMENTS
The establishment
of the mid-Atlantic seaboardand newercoloniesmay be
summarized rather quickly. New York, initially settled by the Dutch for
commercialreasons,
wasbasedon a patroonsystemwherebylargelandowners
alongthe Hudson and DelawareRiverswere allowedto exercisenearly feudal
rightsovertheir largeestates,
suchasthe right to appointlocalofficialsand the
authorityto set up local courts.In 1664New Netherlandswastakenoverby the
English,who did not dismantlethe Dutch system;thus,a quasi-feudal
society
extendedup the Hudsonvalley and remainedin placewell into the Revolution,
although,incongruously,the colony'sfamousport city of New york-formerly
NewAmsterdam-soon rivaledBostonasa centerof businessactivity.
Marylandwassettledalmostexclusivelyfor economicpurposes,and its wellto-do founders,like the Dutch patroons in the Hudson valley, establisheda
semifeudaldominion structuredaround a classof manorial landlordswith
bond servants, tenants, and slaves interspersed with small but fairly
independentfarmers. Pennsylvania,initially ihartered by william penn
as a
h11e1for English Quakers,becamethe centerfor u' e*t.aordinary variety
of
religiousimmigrants,suchas GermanLutherans,welsh Baptists,
dcotch-Irish
Presbyterians,
andlatercatholicsandJews.philadelphia,
in turn, becameoneof
the most culturally vibrant of Americancities,
eventhough an oligarchyof
vuaKermerchantspresidedoverits politicallife.New |erseyand the carolinas
p*pt:g
farmersand manorial landlordsreipectively,and only
::::,
!f 1ma]t
stowlyestablished
a distinctivecultural identity-in the caseof New fersey,a
highlyvaried and ambiguousone.
wasinitially sertledas a havenfor the indigent and debtorsby the
*j,!o,tttl
philanthropist |amesoglethorpe, who actuallyprohibited slaveryand
::9'"1
doors of the colonyto rerigioussectariansof everyvariety aswell as
lj,jltlh:
rcws' (catholic settlers,_
to be sure, were prohibited.) But tle colonyt extradiversity,high-minded goals, and rerigioustolerancecould not
*11"1'Y.
the pressureof economicforces.By the late seventeenthand earry
;:T:t119
't.'nt€€nthcenturies,coastalGeorgiahadbeenparceledinto plantations
worked

I54

T H E AM ERICAN

REVOL UT ION

by African slaves,and its philanthropic goals were sacrificed to the intensive
cultivation of tobacco for material gain. Like the Carolina Piedmont, its
highlands became a turbulent backwaterof largely indigent-and indignantwhite farmers, from which angry Regulatorssurfacedwho engagedin ongoing
social conflicts with the wealthy landlords'
Initially, the thirteen colonies were of three political types: corporate' Crown
and proprietary. The New England colonies were corporate, which meant that
they enj-oyedconsiderablelocal autonomy, possessingtheir own charters and
largely self-governing assemblies.Although Massachusettsgovernors were
apfointed by the Crown after 1692,Rhode Island and Connecticut electedtheir
o*-r, goua..rorsand executivecouncils.By contrast, Crown colonies such as the
Carolinas,Georgia,New fersey,and New York were obliged to acceptgovernors
and councils chosen by the Crown. The proprietary colonies-most notably,
Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania-were founded by proprietary lords,
such as the Penn family, who enjoyed feudalistic powers granted by the king.
Ostensibly managed by chartered companies, these companies' authority
declined rapidly, and in time the proprietary colonies simply became Crown
possessions.Hence, apart from those of Rhode Island and Connecticut, all
colonial governors were eventually either appointed or approvedby the king,
whose pJ*.., over the colonies were nominally sweeping.The Crown could
appoini or reject all civil authorities, veto legislation enacted by the colonial
assemblies,and prorogue them at will.
The colonial legislatures,for their part, normally consistedof fairly well-to-do
individuals: planters, merchants, and freeholders,many of whom were also
lawyersor had legal training. In periods of social stability' tensionsbetweenthe
laws
Crown and the colonies were low; as Palmer notes' only 5 percent of the
potentially'
But
London."
by
vetoed
actually
passedby colonial assemblieswere
il
at least, ihese legislaturesformed a rival power to the executive:they could,

all
u governor'slife utterly miserableand, if necessary,
they chose,
t
which
powers
-uk.
"These little parliamentsenjoyed
annul his authority.

nowhere strictly dehned in laws, charters, and decrees,"observe Charles

Mary Beardin their magisterialhistoryof the UnitedStates'
on
From smalland obscurebeginningsthey grewin dignity until they took
commons'
of
House
the
with
associated
of the pomp and circumstancelong
right
the course of time they claimed as their own and exercisedin fact the
sal
the
fixing
currency'
laying taxes,raising trooPs'incurring debts,issuing
dealings
their
in
them
oi royut officers, and appointing agentsto represent
covered
the government at London, uni, goi.,g beyond such functions' they
law-subjectahv
legislation of their own wide ao--.l.rt of civil and criminal
the crown.t'
to terms of charters,acts of Parliament,and the prerogativesof

A K IN D OF R E V OLU TION ' '

I55

The colonial assemblies,to be sure, often defended the interests of domestic
elites against those of the lower classes.Yet: "Endowed with such impressive
authority," the Beardscontinue,
these assembliesnaturally drew to themselvesall the local interestswhich were
struggling to realize their demands in law and ordinance. They were the
laboratoriesin which were formulatedall the grievancesof the colonistsagainst
the government in England.They were training schoolswhere lawyerscould
employ their talents in political declamation, outwitting royal officers by clever
legal devices.In short, in the representative
assemblies
were brought to a focus
the designsand passionsof thoserising economicgroupswhich gavestrengthto
America and threw her into opposition to the governingclassesof the mother
country. Serving as the points of contact with royal officers and the English
Crown, they received the first impact of battle when laws were vetoed and
instructions were handed out by the king's governors or agents of the
proprietors.'s
Palmer,in fact, regardstheseassembliesas"the most democraticallyrecruited of
all such constituted bodies in the Western World." In New England, the great
majority of the people were enfranchised,while half or more enjoyed the right
to vote in New ferseyand about half or lessin Virginia.'uIndeed:
The electedassemblies
enjoyedwhat in Europewould be thought a dangerously
popular mandate.By 1760,decadesof rivalry for power betweenthe assemblies
and the governorshad been resolved,in most of the colonies,in favor of the
assemblies.The idea of government by consent was for Americans a mere
statementof fact, not a bold doctrine to be flung in the teeth of government,as
in Europe.contrariwise,the growing assertiveness
of the assemblies
made many
in England,and somein America,on the eveof the Revolution,believethat the
time had come to stop this drift toward democracy-or, as they would say,
restorethe balanceof the constitution.In sum,an old senseof liberty in America
wasthe obstacleon which the first British empiremet its doom.,'
Yet the radicalism of the American Revolution is hardly exhausted by an
accountof the colonial legislatures.Too often overlooked palmer,
by
the Beards,
and.agreat many historians of the American
Revolution were the local popular
hstitutions that sprang up at the grassroots
to conduct the revolutionmstitutions that ultimately formed a radical-democratic
dual power at the
Srassroots level to oppose not only British rule in Ameriia and rory
slmpathizersbut wealthy
elitesat home.

156

T HE AM ERICAN

"A KIND or REVoLUTIoN"

REVOL UT ION

PEOPLE
A REBELLIOUS
people.
werenot a Yanquished
The crown's subjects,it must be emphasized,
most
Part' as
They werefeistyinglish Anglicansand Congregationalists
lor 1!e
with
battle
into
manyof whom still marched
well asScotch-irishPresbyterians,
fought
kilts and bagpipes.They includedDutch burghers,whoseancestorshad
radical
Spanish oplression; Lutheran and Anabaptist Germans' whose
independent
fiercely
of
array
an
and
War;
traditions daiedback to the Peasant
with
backwoodsmen,who had been schooledin Indian wars and skirmishes
advent
highly
a
were
Frenchadventurers.collectively,colonialAmericans
the
largely plebeian people, however much their elites aspired to
aristocraticwaysof London and Paris'
It testifiesto the fairly egalitarianatmospherein most colonial
was
that neither patrick Henry in Virginia nor SamAdamsin Massachusetts
time
his
of
much
spent
Adams
airs.
man of meansor affectedaristocratic
the muscle
the boisterousartisansand wharfsmenof Bostonwho provided
crude
affected
deliberately
the chronic riots in the city, while Henry
than
rather
manners,often speakingin the accentof a backcountryman
carelessly'
the polished expressiorisof an urban dweller' He dressed
most
cheap clothittg thut affronted his well-to-do peerq in fact'

gritish visitors-foundthat a "most disgustingequality"prevailedin the
always
and what differencesin material meansthere were did not
differencesin social status.'R
of a deferential
Nor were those who affected aristocratic airs necessarily

vir
of mind. Andrew Burnaby,an Englishclergymanwho traveledthrough
jealous
of
"haughtyand
in l759,thought the young blood-sof the province
br
of
thought
the
liberties,impitient oi rest[int and [they] canscarcelybear
to
conducive
superior power.,",,Suchqualitieswerenot
controuledLy
".ry
in their I
servility that moit giitisn aiistocratswould havepreferred
men:
cousins.The colonial eliteswere made up of highly educated
and poli
classics
ancient
the
in
urir,o.ru* gained a "sound education
manyof
did.
theory" at tte Collegeof William T9 yuty,.:
:h: Tt:g::
sel
plantation'
leadersof New Englandat HarvardCollege"'Runninga
the[Governor's]c-ouncilorinthehouseofburgessesi'accordingto
gave vlrgt
Elioi Morison, "and reading Cicero, Polybius' and Locke
the
colonials
Nor were well-to-do
excellenttraining in statesminship."2o
tor
beneficiariesof an education.As iarly as 1692,everyMassachusetts

tt tltl:lll1lt,:n^ti::T:1
school
afreegramman
t.q"ir.a
'-il-Jtil; to provide
pr<
of the colonieshad, in effect,
.o.,ig.t, and"assemblies
StilfT::
reSulal
nurtured
public,
remarkablyii,.rutJ
91
leadTgs^o{editionof
first
the
that
noted
be
should
.turri.s.It
uJe
;il,;;;"il

157

Paine's Common Sensereachedas many as 100,000adult readers'a very
substantialliterate public. To a large proportion of the population,the duties
that wereordainedby Deuteronomy,eventhe tenetsadvancedin Locke'sSecond
probablyasfamiliar asroyal fiats.The assemblies
Treatiseon Government,were
of this people-be they town meetingsor provincial legislatures-had trained
them in the arts of polemic,legaldiscourse,and rational explanationsfor selfgovernment.The town meetings in New England and colonial assemblies
especially
generallytaught manyAmericancolonialshow to governthemselves,
Europeans
of
most
continental
astonished
would
have
that
extent
to
an
iocally,
their daY.
Finally,the conflictbetweenEnglandand Americaemergedat a time when
the New World.
the Enlightenmentwas crestingin Europeand encompassing
"New
|erusalem"in the
The utopian Puritan vision of "a city on the hill," a
of
to be sure,wasneverlostby the colonials,irrespective
Americanwilderness,
had
secularized
Enlightenment
but
the
differences,
regional
and
religious
their
this vision, particularly for home-grown intellectualslike the unassuming
BenjaminFranklin.Franklin,it shouldbe noted,had a Europeanreputationasa
savant:his scientific works, writings, and technical innovations won him
international acclaim for his remarkable combination of intellectual and
artisanalvirtues.When he met with Voltairein Parisand the two men embraced
eachother publicly, they produced a great ovation from the Parisiansthat
shouldhave signaledto England'sarrogant rulers that they were not dealing
with the American country dolts depictedin their snide cartoons.Leastof all
were they dealing with men and women who were willing to live in abject
servilityto the dull-witted king who had beeninstalledon the British throne.A
society,remarkably egalitarian for its time in outlook, if not in all of its
distinctions.
institutions,
had arisenthat no longerdeferredto pettyhierarchical
of the
governors
Unknown to Parliament,the Crown, and even the royal
was
who
colonies,British America had spawneda new kind of individual
neithera rural naif nor a cravensubjectbut an activecitizen.What sometwo
centuriesof colonizationhad begun,British mercantilismand royalarrogance
largelycompletedin the crucibleof a revolution.

NOTES
l' H.N. Brailsfo rd, The Levellersand the EnglishRevolution,ed. Christopher Hill
tNottingham: SpokesmanUniversity Press,1976),p. 376.
2' Howard Zinn, A People'sHistoryof the United Srares(New York Harper & Row, 1980).
3' R.R.Palmer, The Ageof the Democratic Revolutions:
A Politinl Historyof Europeand
anterica, 1760-1800:The Challenge(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press'1959)'
p. 188.
4. Ibid.,p. 189.


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