For those who look for such things, the American Revolution has always provided a well-spring of proof that America is an exceptional nation. After all, the American rebels set into motion a string of democratic revolutions that swept the West in the proceeding century and established the model government system in which oppressed peoples would find inspiration for an even longer period after that. What’s proven most interesting to scholars in this regard is the extent to which ideology motivated these rebels to wage war against the most advanced military in the world. It seems that colonists rallied behind the rhetoric of republicanism, epitomized by words like liberty, equality, and freedom, to fight for the high-minded principles that would come to characterize our fundamental conception of this as the freest, most democratic nation in the world.
(Note: By “republicanism,” I refer to the political philosophy of representative government descendant from antiquity, which is to say that I do not mean the modern, “big-R,” Republican Party.)
Falling for this seductive narrative hook, line, and sinker, is the Revolution’s most celebrated historian, Bernard Bailyn. In his most important work, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, he examined the vast Revolutionary pamphlets distributed leading up to the revolt (think Thomas Paine’s Common Sense) concluding that in the period leading up to 1776, “Americans had come to think of themselves as in a special category, uniquely placed by history to capitalize on, to complete and fulfill, the promise of man’s existence” and that “everything that followed assumed and built upon [the] results [of the pre-Revolutionary period].”1
For Bailyn, the Revolution created an American nation exceptional in its cherishment of freedoms in a world dominated by tyrannical kings. This grandiose self-conception was fundamentally a vision about political systems – “an elevation to a higher place of political and social life than had ever been reached before” – invoking Enlightenment notions of the natural rights of man in its construction of a new order founded on liberty.2
This is the story that we all know well: Americans, inspired by Enlightenment rationality, fought for and won the right to establish the first modern democracy. Given the justifications the revolutionaries had for overthrowing the British Crown, it’s a hard story to argue with. But what if that inspiring republican (please note, that’s lower-case republican) rhetoric meant something entirely different to the revolutionaries of that period than it does to people today, and thus, if we have been simply reading their words based on what they mean to us today? In that case, the Revolution might take on a whole new meaning, one not necessarily worth bragging about for twenty-first century Americans.
Though this perspective has yet to reach the broader public, historians have been considering this question for the past half-century, coming up with alternative ways of understanding the language of republicanism that bear little resemblance to how we think of it. While they remain utterly divided about which alternative interpretation is correct, one thing that they have definitively shown us is that by contextualizing republican rhetoric, it becomes clear that the Revolutionaries weren’t fighting for the democratic system that we’d like to think they were fighting for.
These responses have come in two forms. The first, epitomized by the work of J.G.A. Pocock and Gordon S. Wood, has emphasized the anti-democratic, non-egalitarian character of eighteenth century republicanism, while maintaining it as a fundamentally political doctrine. In contrast, the second, drawing from the works of Ruth Bloch and Brendan McConville, has undermined the purely political foundation of republican ideology in colonial America by considering the religious implications of its rhetoric.
For Pocock and Wood, the Revolution was most definitely about preserving political “liberties.” It’s just that “liberty” didn’t mean then what it means now. What republicans ultimately campaigned for was protection from arbitrary rule in the form of a consistent legal system. This required “virtuous” rulers. Virtue in this sense meant “dedicated to the public good,” which, in turn, required “disinterestedness.” But what, then, did “disinterestedness” require? Wealth and power.
Basically, to be disinterested you had to be financially and socially independent enough that you could not be cowed into stepping on people’s rights. In this context, “equality” — another familiar word — did not mean that everyone was born equal; it referred instead to the distribution of society according to one’s proper, natural role. Far from egalitarian ends, this entailed an unequal distribution of power determined by one’s level of God-given virtue.3 To sum up, then, republicans cared a lot more about keeping the unworthy out of political involvement (translation: the vast majority of people), than they did about what form of government they had.
Such emphasis on virtue could be and was unhesitatingly applied to judge the decisions of royal authorities without also calling into question the critic’s loyalty to the king. In other words, republicanism was not inherently opposed to monarchical rule and it certainly did not amount to advocacy of democracy, a style of government republicans dismissed as outright dangerous to their beliefs.4 This is the central issue for those interested in understanding the true ideological origins of the Revolution.
In consideration of this insight, Ruth Bloch pointed out a related concern for modern understandings of republican ideology. The English constitutional system already protected “liberties” as they were then understood. England had proven this a century before when it had overthrown a tyrannical leader to enshrine their ability to safeguard their rights in what is known as the Glorious Revolution. What’s more, inheriting their conception of history from classical thought, pre-Revolutionary republicans viewed history not as marching toward a better future, but as endlessly circling between the already existing forms of government, wherein England’s “mixture” was the most preferable. In short, Britain, with its constitutional monarchy, had just about the best political system possible, and thus, colonial rebels could only hope for the conservation of the existing order. So why did they revolt?
For Bloch, the reason was religious rather than political. Her answer was to be found in the national religious revival known as the Great Awakening, which occurred in the middle of the 1700s. The Great Awakening had created an America chocked-full of religious zealots all of whom believed that Heaven on Earth would be imminently arriving – an idea known as millennialism. As things started to heat-up with Britain in the 1760s, they began to see the British king as the literal anti-Christ and the Revolution as the path to instituting the earthly Paradise, thereby justifying their actions.
And how did they describe this struggle? In the language of republicanism! As Bloch argued, the “very words” of republicanism, “were laden with religious connotations.”5 Since evangelicals understood humanity as marching toward the millennium, a future society free from vice that would preserve moral virtue, it was a natural extension for evangelicals to apply republican terminology to describe this coming millennium brought about by the Revolution as “a time of perfect freedom and liberty.”6 Thus, according to Bloch, the Revolution was motivated not by rational political concerns but by religious beliefs that by today’s standards most would consider extreme.
The final (and most compellingly written) alternative explanation comes from Brendan McConville. For McConville, the Glorious Revolution had created a distance between British and provincial societies. Whereas the British accepted the resultant constitutional monarchy in England, for colonists, the event “called into question the relationship of the political and spiritual worlds and especially their intersection in the royal person.” As a result of colonists’ crisis of authority, they did not move away from the king, but rather the exact opposite happened: They began embracing the king more than ever; more than even citizens of the British mainland. For colonists, the king was not a tyrant. Rather, he personified virtue and protected their liberties as Englishmen.
Yet, the Glorious Revolution had taught Protestant American colonists, which is to say almost all of them, to fear tyranny in the form of Catholic conspiracies. In this manner, colonists were able to simultaneously embrace the monarchical system and the rhetoric of republicanism because they regarded infringements on their liberties as a sign of a popish plot, as a religious affront. This became manifest in the Quebec Acts, which, in allowing Canada to remain Catholic after England’s assumption of the former French territory, signaled to American colonists that King George III had succumbed to such a plot. In short, his problem wasn’t that he was insufficiently democratic, it was that he was too friendly to Catholics.
In this way, McConville interpreted the rhetoric of Republicanism not as a sign of a struggle for political freedoms and democracy, nor even as a belief in America as a potential heavenly paradise, but rather, as a language that perfectly described a Catholicism they considered so evil that they were willing to overthrow their beloved monarch. McConville’s rhetorical analysis indicated that the Revolution wasn’t about looking toward a more perfect future, but about conserving a more perfect past.
Republicanism didn’t mean just one thing to colonial Americans. Indeed, as this review of the historical literature examining the meaning of republican rhetoric implies, not only did different segments of the population join the republican cause for disparate reasons, but also, many individuals possessed multiple motivations for doing so. These rebels latched on to a republican rhetoric that proved elastic enough to contain many different, and sometimes competing, justifications for the Revolution. Only by detaching ourselves from the ultimate results of the Revolution can we begin to understand the contingency of those results and interpret the Revolution in any manner other than one that is biased and self-congratulatory.
image credit: Patrick Hoesly
1. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 20-21. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).↩
2. Ibid., 3. ↩
5. Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought 1756-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 4. ↩
6. Ibid., 64; 81. ↩