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How revolutionary was the American Revolution? Previous Next
Digital History ID 3222

 

Richard Price, a British Unitarian minister, called the American Revolution the most important event in the history of the world since the birth of Christ. At first glance, this seems like a gross overstatement.

The American Revolution was not a great social revolution like the ones that occurred in France in 1789 or in Russia in 1917 or in China in 1949. A true social revolution destroys the institutional foundations of the old order and transfers power from a ruling elite to new social groups.

Nevertheless, the Revolution had momentous consequences. It created the United States. It transformed a monarchical society, in which the colonists were subjects of the Crown, into a republic, in which they were citizens and participants in the political process. The Revolution also gave a new political significance to the middling elements of society-- artisans, merchants, farmers, and traders--and made it impossible for elites to openly disparage ordinary people.

During the colonial era, the percentage of white men who voted or participated in politics was low. There were no organized political parties, and adult white men tended to defer to gentlemen. Established merchants, wealthy lawyers, and large planters held the major political offices. But in the years leading up to the Revolution, popular participation in politics increased. Voter turnout climbed as did the number of contested elections. Political pamphleteering also became more common. By the time the Revolution was over, ordinary people had become much more heavily involved in the political process.

The revolution also profoundly altered social expectations. It led to demands that the vote be extended to a larger proportion of the population and that public offices be elected by the people. During and after the Revolution, smaller farmers, artisans, and laborers began increasingly to participate in state legislative elections, and men claiming to represent their interests began to win office and wield power. Leaders in the new state governments were less wealthy, more mobile, and less likely to be connected by marriage and kinship than those before the Revolution. For the first time, state assemblies erected galleries to allow the public to watch legislative debates.

Above all, the Revolution popularized certain radical ideals--especially a commitment to liberty, equality, government of the people, and rule of law. However compromised in practice, these egalitarian ideals inspired a spirit of reform. Slavery, the subordination of women, and religious intolerance--all became problems in a way that they had never been before.

The Revolution also set into motion larger changes in American life. It inspired Americans to try to reconstruct their society in line with republican principles. The Revolution inspired many Americans to question slavery and other forms of dependence, such as indentured servitude and apprenticeship. By the early 19th century, the northern states had either abolished slavery or adopted gradual emancipation plans. Meanwhile, white indentured servitude had virtually disappeared.

The Revolution was accompanied by dramatic changes in the lives of women. Before the Revolution, many women were involved in campaigns to boycott British imports. During the conflict, many women made items for the war effort and ran farms and businesses in the absence of their husbands. After the Revolution, American women, for the first time, protested against male power and demanded greater respect inside and outside the home. Lucy Knox, the wife of General Knox, wrote her husband in 1777: "I hope you will not consider yourself as commander in chief of your own house--but be convinced...that there is such a thing as equal command." After the Revolution, the first feminist writers, such as Judith Sargent Murray, demanded equal rights for women.

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