The Radicalism of the American Revolution

“If we measure radicalism of revolutions by the degree of social misery or economic deprivation suffered, or by the number of people killed or manor houses burned, then this conventional emphasis on the conservatism of the American Revolution becomes true enough. But if we measure the radicalism by the amount of social change that actually took place – by transformations in the relationships that bound people to each other – then the American Revolution was not conservative at all, on the contrary; it was as radical and revolutionary as any in history. Of course, the American Revolution was very different from other revolutions. But it was no less radical and no less social for being different. In fact, it was one of the greatest revolutions the world has known, a momentous upheaval that not only fundamentally altered the character of American society but decisively affected the course of subsequent history.

It was as radical and social as any revolution in history, but it was radical and social in a very special eighteenth-century sense. No doubt many of the concerns and much of the language of that premodern, pre-Marxian eighteenth century were almost entirely political. That was because most people in that very distant world could not as yet conceive of society apart from government. The social distinctions and economic deprivations that we today think of as the consequence of class divisions, business exploitation, or various isms – capitalism, racism, etc. – were in the eighteenth century usually thought to be caused by abuses of government. Social honors, social distinctions, prerequisites of office, business contracts, privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts – all social evils and deprivations – in fact seemed to flow from connections to monarchical authority. So that when the Anglo American radicals talked in what seems to be only political terms – purifying a corrupt constitution, eliminating courtiers, fighting off crown powers, and most important, becoming republicans – they nevertheless had a decidedly social message. In our eyes the American revolutionaries appear to be absorbed in changing only their governments, not their society. But in destroying monarchy and establishing republics they were changing their society as well as their governments, and they knew it. Only they did not know – they could scarcely have imagined – how much of their society would change. J. Franklin Jameson who more than two generations ago described the Revolution as a social movement only to be roundly criticized by a succeeding generation of historians, was at least right about one thing: “the stream of revolution, once started, could not be confined to narrow banks, but spread abroad upon the land.”

“Idleness, leisure, or what was best described as not exerting oneself for profit, was supposed to be the prerogative of gentlemen only. Gentleman, James Harrington had written, were those who “live upon their own revenue in plenty, without engagement either to the tilling of their lands or other work for their livelihood.” In the early 18th century Daniel Defoe defined “the gentry” as such who live on estates, and without the mechanism of employment, including the men of letters, such as clergy lawyers and physicians…Aristocrats lived upon what we today might call “unearned income”, they did not work for a living. Although some northern colonies might suggest that gentleman Farmers ought to set a “laborious example to their domesticks”, perhaps by taking an occasional turn in the fields, a gentleman’s activity was supposed to be with the mind. Managing their land of the states meant exercising authority the only activity befitting a truly Freeman.”

“Only a society that intuitively conceived of individuals as enmeshed in social relationships – bound tightly to the community in a variety of personal ways – could make sense of the such public confessions and of the traditional public punishment still common in the 18th century. Subjecting criminals to public censure at the pillory or whipping and mutilating their bodies in front of neighbors and friends was designed both to involve the community in the punishment and to make the criminals feel shame for their actions. Men and women in 18th century Boston were taken from the huge cage that had brought them from the prison, tied bareback to a post on State Street, and lashed 30 or 40 times “amid the screams of the culprits in the uproar of the mob.” In New York criminals with labels on their breasts were brought to the whipping post on a wooden horse set upon a “triumphal car.” Everywhere criminals had their heads and hands pillared and were exposed for hours on end to insults and pelting by onlookers. The stocks were even moved about, often to the particular neighborhood of the criminals so they could feel their mortification more keenly. Executions were likewise conducted in public (New York’s gallows stood on the Common), and they drew thousands of spectators. In every punishment the authorities were determined to expose the offender to public scorn, and with the lowest of criminals to do so permanently through mutilation. Persons with a brand on their forehead or a piece of ear missing were forever condemned to the contempt of the intimate worlds in which they lived.”

Most conspicuously unfree of course were the half million Afro-Americans reduced to the utterly debased position of lifetime hereditary servitude.

It is evident that many northerners as well as Southerners experienced the Master slave relationship and exercised or witnessed this most severe sort of patriarchal authority at some point in their lives.

Tens of thousands of whites, usually young men and women, were indentured as servants or apprentices and bound to Masters for periods ranging from a few years to decades. As late as 1759 Benjamin Franklin thought that most of the labor of the middle colonies was being performed by indentured servants brought from Britain, Ireland and Germany. It has been estimated that one half to two thirds of all immigrants to the colonies came as indentured servants. Among these immigrants were an estimated 50,000 British and Irish convicts and vagabonds shipped to America between 1718 and 1775 and bound over as servants for periods of seven or fourteen years, or even in some cases for life. Yet being bound out in service or apprenticeship for a number of years was not always an unrespectable status, and it was by no means confined to the lowest ranks of the society.

In the colonies servitude was a much harsher, more brutal, and more humiliating status than it was in England, and this difference had important implications for the colonists’ consciousness of dependency. Colonial bonded servants in fact shared some of the chattel nature of Black slaves. Although they were members of their masters household and enjoyed some legal rights, they were a kind of property as well, valuable property. Colonial service were not simply young people drawn from the lowest social ranks but, more commonly, indentured immigrants who had sold their labor in order to get to the new world. Precisely because these imported servants were expensive, their indentures or contracts were written and their terms of service were longer than those of English servants – 5 to 7 years rather than the year long agreements usual in England.

Because labor was so valuable in America, the colonists enacted numerous laws designed to control the movement of servants and to prevent runaways. There was nothing in England resembling the passes required in all the colonies for traveling servants. And as expensive property, most Colonial servants could be bought and sold, rented out, seized for the debts of their masters, and conveyed in wills to heirs. Colonial servants often belonged to their masters in ways that English servants did not. They could not marry, buy or sell property, or leave their households without their Master’s permission.

The subjugation of colonial servitude was thus much more cruel and conspicuous than it was in England, where the degrees of dependence were much more calibrated and more gradual. Consequently, the colonists were much more acutely conscious of legal dependence and perhaps of the value of Independence then Englishmen across the Atlantic.

By the middle of the 18th century Black slavery had existed in the colonies for several generations or more without substantial questioning or criticism. The few conscious stricken Quakers who had issued isolated outcry’s against the institution hardly represented general Colonial opinion. Southern planters showed no feelings of guilt or defensiveness over slavery, and even the most liberal of masters coolly and callously recorded in their diaries the Savage punishments they inflicted on their slaves. “I tumbled him into the cellar and there had him tied neck and heels all night and this morning had him stripped and tied up to a limb.”

“By modern standards it was a cruel and brutal age and the life of the lowly seemed cheap. Slavery could be regarded, therefore, as merely the most base and degraded status in a society of several degrees of unfreedom, and most colonists felt little need as yet either to attack or to defend slavery any more than other forms of dependency and debasement. In addition to the stark forms of unfreedom, many people in this monarchical society experienced other kinds of inferiority and dependency. Closest to the legally unfree were those who did not own their own land.”

Wood, Gordon S. Radicalism of the American Revolution. Vintage Books, 1993.