Considering the Meaning of the American Revolution and the Promise of Liberation

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July 1, 2021 1:21 p.m.

As we move into the July 4th weekend, I wanted to make a bid for an appreciation of the liberationist impulse at the heart of the American Revolution and its radical character.

As I explained a few weeks ago, there is a strong argument for the deficiency of the first American Republic, which in this view is the constitutional order created in 1787 and reconstructed through war and constitutional revision in the late 1860s. But the constitution created in 1787 is not synonymous with the American Revolution. Indeed, in critical respects it was in tension with it. Some of the constitution’s greatest opponents viewed it as a betrayal of revolutionary tumult.

The Declaration of Independence is the work of the Continental Congress, a revolutionary and illegal body which managed the process of the disintegration of Britain’s American empire. The document was drafted by a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, with Jefferson, because of knack with words, writing a first draft.

But when we talk about the American Revolution we are not talking about something contained or created by these well known men. It’s a much broader popular movement, both emerging from the mass of society and also catching fire because of the increasingly violent contest between provincial and metropolitan elites – the stuff we see most clearly in the history books. It’s much more than just a decision to separate from Britain. It’s much more than the words and concepts Jefferson – an educated and engaged minor provincial grandee – chose to justify it. It’s unruly and unbridled and genuinely revolutionary, as much a creation of the country’s towns and burgeoning cities as the country gentlemen we most associate with it. I won’t attempt the hopeless task of explaining the totality of just what the Revolution was. But it was certainly a broad liberationist impulse that shaped the rapidly growing society and once released was a contagion that could not easily be controlled.

Franklin is a fascinating example of this. A man of genuinely humble origins, he spends his life trying to establish himself in the hierarchical world of British life. Finally failing at this and stung by the rejection he casts his lot with the Revolution. In the final years of his life he rebrands himself as the embodiment of rough-hewn, self-made Americanism.

At its core the Revolution was a revolt against authority which spoke most directly against the prescribed gradations of persons on which the British system was based. I bow to you, you bow to the person next up the totem pole. The people who are most written into this equality are white men, or more specifically untitled white men. But they’re not the only ones who see the liberationist impulse and decide it applies to them. We see it among free blacks in the Northern colonies, not to mention the far greater population of enslaved African-Americans North and South. The revolutionary tumult spurs the creation of the first anti-slavery societies, since slavery is the most foundational hierarchy, inequality, expression of unbridled authority. If you don’t believe this you can hop in a time machine and go back and take to the coastal grandees from South Carolina who recognize from the start it makes their rule brittle and rush to secure it.

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That impulse is beaten back in the parts of the new country where slavery is a foundational part of the economic system, which is to say what we now call the American South. And this is in many ways the dimension of the American Revolution that is most relevant and resonant in 21st century America. The breakdown of political and civil authority in the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s unleashes a deep liberationist impulse which transforms the entire society. But it also spurs a paired effort to rein in the implications and expressions of that liberationist impulse once its let loose in society. It applies to these people and not to those people. It applies to white people and not to black, to men and not to women. But that’s not the only dynamic at play. The various name brand Revolutionaries we know from our history books – the Jeffersons, Shermans, Masons, Adamses and the like – are talking a good liberationist game in their pamphleteering against the Crown or in the early decades of the Republic. But less fancy men are saying the equality and the dignity of power applies to them to. The Jeffersons of the period want the elan of radicalism while also having their lessers defer to them like they’re supposed to.

In important ways the creation of the federal constitution is part of that beating back process. The liberationist impulse is so broad in the land that governments can’t properly function. Authority is so loose, the powers of government are so tenuous that there’s no way to make the fledgling country function or become a powerful, respected state on the world stage. One of the central questions of early American history is whether that’s really true or to what extent it’s simply the society’s elites trying to reassert control of things after the Revolutionary crisis was over.

One key aspect of the public memory of the American Revolution is that American conservatives (in the traditional not the contemporary sense) and radicals both want to neuter. Note that when people call it the War of Independence that’s usually because they don’t like to emphasize the revolutionary part of it. There’s no Revolution at all. Just a new country, America, becoming independent of Britain. Radicals meanwhile point to its lack of clear economic revolutionary change, to the continuance of slavery to suggest it’s no more than a skim of rhetoric. The French and Russian Revolutions are the real revolutions.

My dissertation advisor, Gordon S. Wood, is best known for two books – The Creation of the American Republic (1969) and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) – which chart the ideological course of the Revolutionary period and argue for its radical character, largely against models of radicalism focused on revolutionary socialism and 20th century radical movements. I’m making a different argument, though one that accepts some its premises. This liberationist impulse is deeply embedded in the country’s revolutionary experience but it’s contested from the start. It profoundly reworks the country’s social fabric but in ways that can be hard to perceive from the perspective of today. But this liberationist impulse, whatever we choose to make of it in the early 21st century, is an abiding part of American culture, history and society, woven deep into our mores and traditions. It remains available to us and we should celebrate it.

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