The View From 1776

Revolutionary Aspects Of Our War Of Independence

Robert Stapler presents a thorough review of his differences of viewpoint with my earlier post

I must say that I don’t disagree with any of Mr. Stapler’s points.  The impetus behind my assertion that the 1776 struggle was conservative rather than revolutionary was to combat the present-day education propaganda aimed at discrediting the predominating ethos in the colonies at that time. 

The intention of such educational propaganda is to legitimize the liberal-progressive doctrine that the Constitution has no permanent meaning, that it is a instead a Darwinian, evolving document that is subject to changes in public opinion, that Judeo-Christian morality must be banished from the public square and replaced with Marxian-Darwinian materialism.

A Commentary on the July 21, 2014 article ‘The War of Independence’
By Robert Stapler

While I agree in substance with my good friend Thomas Brewton on his main point the American Revolution (or ‘War of Independence’) was overwhelmingly ‘conservative’, I find myself for once at odds with him and forced to side with our longtime adversary Mr. Jay that it was also in some degree ‘revolutionary’.  Having said this, I must also protest my reasons for agreeing with Jay are, with but one exception, not the ones he cites.  The one semi-valid point Jay makes was “what made the war ‘revolutionary’ is that it did not involve regime change, but rather the creation of an entirely new … system of governance.”  Of course, it did involve ‘regime change’, for what is any change of government as an outcome of conflict but regime change; this one just happened to be for the better.  Moreover, the change was far from being ‘entire’, and retained far more than what was altered.  Yet, it did result in a ‘new system of governance’ different enough from its original to be classed ‘revolutionary’.  While I agree (with Thomas) both the system first adopted (a loose confederation of fully sovereign states) and the later one (a federation of states with a central authority established for coordinating efforts and interests) were highly conservative structurally, they were also clear breaks with our colonial past in that neither of those bodies had as features any provision for ‘inheritable power’ (aka, a nobility possessing an inheritable ‘right to rule’).  Whatever else we may say about that war, the resulting system was a paradigm shift away from certain key elements under which we’d been previously governed and took for granted, and which made our new system significantly different from any we’d directly experienced before; among them:

a) no longer part of a global empire (large commercial impacts for us)
b) repudiation of Britain’s monopolistic ‘mercantile’ policies (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 had a profound effect on our more intellectual Founders, including Franklin, Jefferson and Madison.  Hamilton, too, though he argued against Smith’s ideas, was nonetheless influenced by them)
c) specifically written v. a constitution built largely on tradition and precedents
d) no longer subject to a monarchical system and hereditary privileges
e) no longer subject to ‘state sponsored’ religion, at least not nationally
f) brought slavery, indenture and bound-apprenticeship into question
g) ‘voting rights’ restrictions hotly disputed
h) brought into question who could stand for office
i) agitation to make legislative deliberations more public
j) right of government to tax other than on fixed, well-defined, and commonly agreed upon objectives disputed
k) politically ‘free’ speech (while the British already had substantial arguments in its favor, it was not yet a well-respected ‘right’)
l) personal-responsibility and self-sufficiency an underlying principle supporting notion government should butt out of purely personal affairs
m) frontier opened up, and prevailing idea government ought not to impede settlement
n) spirit of reform, & denunciations of remaining ‘arbitrary’ aspects of British system (aka, ‘rule of law’ had special meaning to rebels somewhat different than that prevailing in Britain)
o) spawned (briefly) early feminist movement (Abigail Adams, Lucy Knox, & Judith Sargent Murray)
p) advocacy for a more educated constituency

The above list illustrates the colonies were, at least from the British standpoint, already quite ‘radicalized’ even before the hostilities began.  Among war objectives most Americans felt keenly was a sense they were breaking with a past with which they were no longer or entirely comfortable.  Our merchants (e.g., Robert Morris) wanted greater freedom to trade with whomever he wished, free of Britain’s monopolistic meddling.  The more political among us were no longer trusting of a system that wasn’t written down in clear, concise and unequivocal form, and wanted greater assurance political rights would be respected.  America’s yeomanry were mostly fed up with kings and nobles, and wanted no further part of that breed.  Religious freedom, even beyond that assured by Britain’s ‘Toleration Act of 1689’ and an end to tithes was demanded.  Freedom of speech, while already a British assumption, was limited to a specific ‘right to petition’ the king and a specific right protecting Parliaments members only, and was not yet broadly interpreted to cover all public (or even private) speech.  Moreover, Parliament was left free to curtail speech among ordinary citizens as it saw fit.  While true the British (multiply sourced) constitution did eliminate the king’s taxing authority, it in no way limited Parliament’s power of taxation.  So, while all the grievances listed in the Declaration had some precedent (making them ‘conservative’ gripes), their interpretation was somewhat open to dispute or still in flux.

Perhaps the most repulsive idea (to British sensibilities) put forward soon after the Declaration of Independence was a determination among rebels that, whatever system should eventually be adopted, there would be no further tolerance of hereditary power and/or of a nobility.  This was, to Britain’s political class, the worst possible form of Jacobinism, and had to be put down however great the cost in coin and blood.

A Revolution in Thinking, If Not One of Form

Thomas is, off course, perfectly correct the war was not, itself, ‘revolutionary’ nor fought to overthrow a colonial system with which the rebels (prior to hostilities) were perfectly comfortable and frequently defended as the best of all possible systems.  The real revolution in thinking and system took place during the war and in the generations immediately following.  For example, abolitionism began gathering steam in the northern states even before hostilities ended with Britain.  What this illustrates is the war and separation from the old world order (and its perceived ‘evils’) represented in American minds a revolution in thinking with a huge emphasis placed on casting off all things ‘unenlightened’.  If Founders from Adams to Monroe were somewhat old-fashioned in their desire for preserving what was best of the old ways, radicals like Thomas Paine were not; and Paine’s ideas enjoyed a broad following among the American yeomanry and army ranks.  In fact, Paine’s polemics energized patriotic passion far beyond the limited reach of even our most influential statesmen and military leaders.  Paine quickly became our primary propagandist, and any reading of Paine can only be viewed as an appeal to ‘homegrown radicalism’.  As later events show, Paine was dissatisfied with our Constitution, and his dismissal by Congress and his ‘Age of Reason’ treatise show just how radical he really was (or became).  Washington and many of the leading Founders began distancing themselves from Paine and his extreme notions in the latter half of the war; which shows that whereas the Founders were certainly enlightened or even a bit ‘progressive’, most of them drew a line at the kind of sweeping social changes Paine advocated.  However, if Paine’s views were too radical for Congress and Washington, he long remained a darling among ordinary patriots.

Thomas cites Madison’s arguments for adopting the Constitution (Federalist Papers) as proof of foundational ‘conservatism’.  However, I’d be less than forthcoming by not admitting the Federalist Papers were also propaganda used to persuade New York State’s most influential men (who were mostly politically conservative) that the proposed system was in no wise ‘radical’ the way many feared.  That Madison was addressing primarily ‘conservative’ gentlemen (i.e., those most likely to attend New York’s adopting convention) is beyond doubt as he proved himself many times a persuasive propagandists for changes he favored.  This is not to say Madison was in any sense disingenuous, only that he was sublimely skillful in his presentations, and took great pains to calm any and all fears voiced against adoption.  It should be further noted Madison’s own opinions regarding objectives changed with time, and shifted from outspoken advocate of federalism to unflinching opponent of federalist overreach, and from a conservative to a liberal in his choice of faction.

It should be noted that while Adam Smith is today regarded a cornerstone of fiscally conservative thought, he was in the context of his own day what we would regard a ‘progressive’.  Smith’s lengthy epistle on national wealth was, in fact, a call for sweeping social changes, and his particular concern was the counterproductive exploitation of labor and disregard for England’s ‘poor’ as embalmed in the ‘mercantile system’.  As such, he would have had a good deal in common with today’s unions and Britain’s Labor Party.  However, I would not class him a radical as his great interest was also for Britain’s economic well-being and improvement of its global system of trade.  Also, his mode of outreach to the poor was to put them to work and engage them in his nation’s political dialogue, not to create entitlements that effectively keep them poor and shut them out.  As our Founders were conversant with Smith’s ideas (far more than we are today) and at least some of them endorsed those ideas, it cannot be they were entirely conservative.

However conservative the Founders (i.e., political leadership) may have been at the outset, the nation’s yeomanry had some ideas of their own how any new government placed over them should operate, and were generally more open to sweeping change.  Having fought and suffered through a long war of independence, they were understandably apprehensive any new system must have safeguards against oppression.  More than that, as the middling to lower-class economically, they were open to ideas that levelled their playing field and provided them new opportunities for improving their situation.  Though there is little in the way of literature describing yeoman expectations, it does exist and can be discovered in journals, broadsheets, and letters of the time.  Moreover, the Founder’s recognized from the outset they must appeal to yeoman sentiments to inspire them to fight for ‘The Cause’, that their case for war must be compelling to simple farmers and artisans; and that the losses suffered by both officers and privates in such a contest must form an effectual bond or ‘covenant’ between them as would not end in independence alone or in advantage to a few which political leaders might later disregard.  War shapes objectives and our ideas of them even more than do initial grievances; and, the Framers were nothing if not shaped by debates over yeomen expectations of this shared ‘cause’.  Thus, when it came time to constitute a new government (1787), the Framers were intensely mindful of this ‘unwritten’ covenant they’d earlier formed with America’s yeomanry; of promises sworn to and of which they, as ‘honorable men’ had every intention of honoring.

The Genêt Affair & the French Revolution

American sentiment during the French Revolution and just after teaches us, that at least by 1790 (and likely much sooner), a ‘spirit of revolution’ was clearly in the air in America.  Much of this spirit was a direct result of shared excitement and suffering, of the large number of Frenchmen who had flocked to our shores in support of our cause.  A ‘bond of brotherhood’ was thus formed between their and our ‘patriots’.  It was not until the ‘Terror’ (September 1793 - July 1794) that many Americans began having doubts regarding the revolution taking place in France.  Yet, even this revulsion was not universal among us, and a great many Americans (including some of our leading lights) continued supporting the French in the conviction some bloodshed was acceptable (see ) so long as it resulted in an end to monarchy along republican lines.  The French Revolution was a severe test of what our American experiment stood for, and divided Americans for the first time regarding its ideals.

In 1793, the Genêt Affair (see ) challenged those principles and our government more directly and severely.  Citizen Genêt was sent by the new radical regime as an ambassador to our shores with the flagrant goal of recruiting us to fight against and harass the British with whom we maintained a fragile peace, and against whom our continued separation was less than assured.  Genêt’s incitements were, thus, an existential threat to American peace and independence.  Even so, hundreds of Americans, including some who were both influential and perfectly aware of the risks, flocked to Genêt and/or openly supported his cause.  Nor were most Americans entirely ignorant of the differences between their and our revolutions (see ).  Indeed, some of our own hot-heads embraced French radicalism as a kind of ‘continuation’ of changes taking place here they regarded incomplete; and, for a time, seemed ripe to boil over into partisan violence.  It is important to understand, the ‘Reign of Terror’ that began in September of that same year, would not become well known to us nor its implications understood until the following summer.  So, at least from our war of independence through 1794, a spirit of ‘real’ revolution was very much alive this side of the pond, and was only damped as the revelations from France piled up.

When we speak of the ‘Founders’, we must be careful not to exclude these ‘yeoman founders’ who risked their all as much or even more than did their more affluent and educated leaders.

American Revolution as a continuation of the British Civil Wars of 1641-1688

At least one notable historian has made the point our War of Independence was, in many respects, an extension of the English Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution.  While Thomas is perfectly correct our new system substantially mirrors and preserves major features of the British system of their time, we need to understand that that system was, itself, still in flux as a result of convulsions their side of the pond a mere 88 years earlier.  Prior to the English Civil Wars (see ), Britain was ruled primarily by its monarchs with its Parliament subject to arbitrary kingly dissolution.  One result of those wars was King George III could no longer dissolve nor prorogue a British Parliament, and was subject to certain other important restrictions that would become points of contention with us.  But, he could and did still prorogue and dissolve colonial parliaments with impunity, and with or without Parliamentary consent.  [side note: British Parliamentarians (almost as much as we) contested King George retained such a power over our parliaments, but, as this was the first time (since the Civil Wars) any king had interpreted the new rules in this way, it would not be resolved as an issue their side of the pond until well after our separation.] 

Those wars plus the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (see ) established Parliamentary independence of the King and placed certain objects beyond his reach; including taxing-authority and ultimate control of the army (its size and uses).  As such, it was an early foray into ‘limited government’.  Recall one of the more prominent complaints made against King George was his arbitrary dissolution of colonial parliaments.  The list of grievances in the second half of our own Declaration of Independence could easily have been a laundry list of British Parliamentarian complaints from a century earlier.  Our own revolutionary leaders were certainly ‘preserving’ the constitutionally-based parliamentary system then extant in Britain, but, just as importantly preserved its ‘revolutionary’ spirit instilled in them by grandparents, parents and teachers; many of whom had lived through and supported England’s political struggles. 

Many of our colonists were near descendants of those same political dissidents (both against and for the crown) many of whom arrived here in successive waves following the ups and downs of that power struggle; some of my own ancestors among them (both sides).  This is something our high school history books (even those of my schoolboy days) entirely fail to mention.  Those same schoolbooks emphasize religious dissidents who fled here, but little about such political dissidents, many of whom brought with them a sense of unfinished business and factional feuds.  Those of the Parliamentarian faction were known as ‘Whigs’ (see ) whereas those fighting to preserve the old order (fewer in number this side of the pond) were known as ‘royalists’, ‘Cavaliers’ or ‘Tories’.  The Whigs came first, which gave them the advantage both politically and economically, and a good many of our leading Founders came from this class; especially in the Northern colonies.  Regardless what motivated these progenitors to emigrate, most of their children grew up in the New World ethos of self-sufficiency and self-rule, thereby pitting them against a distant and arbitrary rule which was no longer the standard in their perceived ‘country of origin’.  Thus, it was not by accident opposing factions in our own war self-identified as ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’, with the former favoring separation and the latter opposing it.  That made the Tories (most of whom were evicted as a result of our contest) the true conservatives and the Whigs (aka, rebels) a sort of ‘progressive’ or ‘revolutionary’ faction; at least in relative terms.  As things worked out, the Southern (more conservative) faction wound up politically dominant, mainly due to Washington’s overawing influence and the North’s need to keep the Deep South in the Confederacy after the war.  Thus, when we speak of Founder ‘conservatism’, we need to differentiate a little which Founders we mean and their relative contributions to the outcome.

Another thing for us to consider is, what effect did evicting our most vocally conservative elements (i.e., those stubbornly loyal to Britain) have on our political composition, and, in turn, on our perception the war was conservative in nature?  Had the Tories not been evicted, our national conversation justifying separation from England as ‘having preserved British norms’ would have been very different.  Those Tories would have had much to say refuting such a contention by pointing out all the many, significant, and sweeping changes wrought by the war; and they would have been right!  By evicting them, that particular debate never happened, however, and the narrative passed down to us is unmistakably one-sided as a result.  It is said the victors write our histories, and that is noticeably true in this case.

Differences between the American and French Revolutions

The French Revolution began without any clear objective beyond the simple one of avenging poverty compounded by long abuse.  There was no long prelude to it (unless you count our own political struggle), no broadsheet campaign, no ‘committees of correspondence’ and no dissenting colonial legislators to give it direction.  It was the temper and disagreement of French political-thinkers (in the absence of a strong leadership) that shaped their revolution first one way, then another with each succeeding factional shift becoming more strident and radical.  Also, it took us far longer to achieve our goals such that, by the time we did achieve them, our passion for sweeping societal change was effectively spent.  The French, in contrast, achieved regime change quickly and almost bloodlessly such that their passion and frustration against their ruling class was still in need of an outlet.  Where we were also fortunate is in that our ‘radicals’ were few and our statesmen many, and all of the latter determined and of one mind.  Whereas the French were weakly led and without clear (or at least common) objectives, our movement was strongly led and with well-defined objectives most Americans embraced and willingly defended.  The French Revolution began nearly as conservatively as our own.  Indeed, moderates of the Estates General of 1789 regarded our system their model.  Unfortunately for the French, order soon broke down and their radicals took over; forcing their moderates out (and to the guillotine).  There are other differences, but these suffice to explain why the French revolution was so much more ‘radical’ than our own.


There are more points I could make in defense of our ‘War of Independence’ as also having been ‘revolutionary’ in nature, but feel these suffice to make the case.  I can also produce ample proof and arguments for their fundamental ‘conservatism’, but am unconcerned a strong case needs to be made for that.  That the Founders did not intend a true revolution is beyond dispute; but can it really be said the French intended one?  Or, as is so often the case, did events and a dearth of leadership shape their outcome for them?  That our leaders were fundamentally conservative (i.e., not out to destroy the underlying fabric of an accustomed order, but rather to preserve its essential features) is undeniable.  Yet the war they waged, its declared objectives, its motivating spirit, and its outcomes are equally and undeniably ‘revolutionary’.  So whether our revolution was, by design or chance, ‘essentially conservative’ is less relevant than were its impacts on our political systems and on mankind as a whole.

Additional readings: