In twenty-two original essays, leading historians reveal the radical impulses at the founding of the American Republic. Here is a fresh, new reading of the American Revolution that gives voice and recognition to a generation of radical thinkers and doers whose revolutionary ideals outstripped those of the “Founding Fathers.”
While the Founding Fathers advocated a break from Britain and espoused ideals of republican government, none proposed significant changes to the fabric of colonial society. Yet during this “revolutionary” period some people did believe that “liberty” meant “liberty for all” and that “equality” should be applied to political, economic, and religious spheres. Here are the stories of individuals and groups who exemplified the radical ideals of the American Revolution more in keeping with our own values today. This volume helps us to understand the social conflicts unleashed by the struggle for independence, the Revolution’s achievements, and the unfinished agenda it left to future generations to confront.
“To Begin the World Over Again”
Alfred F. Young, Ray Raphael, and Gary B. Nash
"All men are created equal,” our first founding document declared. Men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These truths might be self-evident, as the Declaration of Independence stated boldly, but historically they are enigmatic. A majority of the fifty-six men who subscribed to such noble thoughts enslaved other human beings. Thomas Jefferson certainly did, but he alone is not the puzzle, nor is slavery the only inconsistency. What, exactly, did Jefferson and his colleagues mean by “created equal”? Was a shoemaker’s son, at birth, really created equal to the son of a wealthy merchant? Did women have the same unalienable rights as men? Were blacks as well as whites entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Such notions frightened most of the prominent men we think of today as the Founding Fathers.
Eleven years after the Declaration, when the framers of the Constitution devised “a more perfect union,” they did so, in part, to prevent an “excess of democracy” (a phrase they repeated often) from sweeping the young nation. The framers pejoratively labeled threats to their wealth and political power as “leveling” and those to their political power as “democratic.” Political, social, and economic equality were not what the framers had in mind. The disparity between words and deeds presents a particular problem for history- proud Americans who see the founders as guiding, patriarchal exemplars of their most cherished ideals. Searching for a moral resolution to this conundrum, typical American textbooks today assert that though all people were not treated equally in America in 1776, the Declaration of Independence set high goals for equal treatment in the future. This has become our nation’s standard fallback response. By treating liberty and equality as “promises” to future generations, we simultaneously acquit the founders of culpability and affirm our national commitment to these high goals. It’s a clever remedy, but factually it does not ring true. While some of the men who commanded slave labor hoped the institution would end someday, and a handful freed their slaves in their wills, that was as far as they went. With few exceptions, the gentlemen who drafted and signed our two founding documents opposed popular democracy and social equality. Our high goals were not theirs. They did not hold fundamental values that we accept as common currency today.
Although the Declaration of Independence claimed that people had “the right to alter or abolish” their form of government if they had exhausted all other means to express their grievances, the traditional founders did not wish to “alter or abolish” the institutional structures that protected their claim to rule. Once an elective government was established, traditional founders suppressed political rebellion. They did not want people to significantly alter, much less abolish, the structures they had just created. By contrast, many of their contemporaries wanted to strike at the heart of existing inequalities and radicalize governmental structures. Our protagonists in this book wanted to extend the lofty principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence to areas of life that the traditional founders never intended. These people did have a sense of the promise of the Revolution, and they wanted to fulfill it in their own time. Sharing no single agenda, they acted in the spirit of the words of Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The new nation was “a blank sheet to write upon,” Paine wrote,1 and on that sheet they placed their marks. Their actions were many and varied:
• Common farmers, artisans, and laborers often led the resistance to imperial policies, moving the colonies toward independence while reshaping the character of political life in North America.
• Slaves emancipated themselves by fleeing to freedom, then established their own viable communities.
•Women staked claims to “equality of the sexes” and to retain rights to their own property in marriage.
• Persecuted religious dissenters pushed for, and obtained, “the free exercise of religion.”
• Resisting the inequities of rank, soldiers carried democratic values into the military.
• Native Americans claimed sovereignty and fought to defend it, with a spirit of independence that paralleled that of colonists.
• Farmers threatened with the loss of their land resorted to collective action, including taking up arms.
• Printers published what they wanted, overriding attempts to repress them.
• Self- proclaimed democrats, turning that term of derision on its head, won the right of ordinary people to vote, hold public office, and pass judgment on their rulers.
Most of these “Revolutionary founders,” as we call them here, were radicals in the literal sense of the word: they promoted root changes in the very structure of social or political systems. One of those fundamental changes, of course, was independence from Britain, a goal they shared with the traditional founders, but often they pushed for others. Many of these people can also be considered rebels, either because they forcibly challenged British authority or because they confronted old or new hierarchies. Finally, some might best be described as reformers who sought to change a particular feature of society while leaving others intact.
Each of these rebels, radicals, and reformers moved the American Revolution in some direction the traditional founders did not want to take, extending it farther and deeper than a separation from the British Empire. They made the Revolution more revolutionary.
Excerpted from Revolutionary Founders by Edited by Alfred F. Young, Gary Nash, and Ray Raphael. Copyright © 2011 by Alfred F. Young, Ray Raphael and Gary B. Nash. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: The title of your book is Revolutionary Founders yet you don’t mean the traditional founding fathers. Who were the “rebels, radicals, and reformers” you are referring to?
A: These were people who wanted to apply the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence – the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – more broadly than the famous founders intended. They sought an expansion of political democracy, equality, and liberty. Most of them supported the war for independence from Britain, but some, such as Indians fighting for their own independence or slaves fleeing their masters to fight with the British, did not. Some, particularly women, fought personal battles to overcome barriers. Most, though, participated in popular movements to realize what they believed to be the true goals of the Revolution.
Q: How would you describe the contributions of the protagonists featured in Revolutionary Founders to the American Revolution? How did their concerns and approach differ from that of the traditional founding fathers?
A: Our protagonists sought to restructure social, economic, and political forms in ways that most of the traditional founding fathers resisted. They wanted “to begin the world over again,” in the words of Thomas Paine, and bequeath to their children and grandchildren a reformed, regenerated America. By contrast, most of the people we most commonly celebrate as founding fathers, including many of those who sought independence, wanted to keep traditional social, economic, or political hierarchies largely intact. There are exceptions, but with the exception of Franklin and of course Paine (whom we include in this volume), no other famous founder imagined equality on all levels.
Q: Why, in your opinion, have their stories been largely overlooked by the public? How do they change our understanding of the American Revolution?
A: Many people believe that a good deal of hero worship is necessary to sustain patriotism. For these self-appointed guardians of patriotism, to suggest that the Great Men who drafted the Declaration and Constitution were less than perfect is to question or even denigrate American ideals. We believe quite the reverse. The historical figures featured in these essays wanted to see their ideals applied where the more famous founders were not willing to take them.
These protagonists reveal that the Revolution was more than a war for independence from Britain. The traditional view, that the “Revolution” was a matter of “Redcoats go home,” sells the founding generation short. The famous founders, far from operating in a political vacuum, needed to respond to movements that were shaking their society. The men we traditionally revere were so successful, in part, because they learned they could not govern without the consent of the governed.
Q: Many of these men and women (though not all) were far more common than those who framed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Did they leave fewer sources behind? Did that make it more difficult to trace their actions?
A: Yes, they left fewer sources behind. The edited papers of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton currently amount to 216 volumes — and those have yet to include 108 years of their collective lives, including all of Adams’s presidency and much of Washington’s, Jefferson’s, and Madison’s. These sources can be mined and re-mined, generation after generation, by historians and popular writers who wish to tell the story yet one more time and perhaps find new things within it.
Our sources are fewer, but plenty exist if we look for them. Some of the people in our book were highly articulate—Abigail Adams, Judith Sargent Murray, Phyllis Wheatley, Joseph Plumb Martin, Thomas Paine. Herman Husband also wrote at length, but his writings have been ignored. Some stories been recovered because later movements for civil rights, the equality of women, and an expanded electorate have created new audiences for them. Because there are fewer bodies of sources, historians and biographers have to learn how to piece together what these historical actors thought and did by examining not only letters and journals but also minutes of revolutionary organizations, petitions, flags and banners carried in parades, newspaper accounts, comments by their opponents, military records, and so on. While it is often much harder to write about lesser known protagonists, we have no choice but to do so in order to recover a more balanced history. Unless we take these people seriously, we will never capture the intensity of their determination to carry the revolution beyond the achievement of independence.
Q: You write in your introduction that “political, social, and economic equality were not what the framers had in mind.” Do you think that our view of the American Revolution has become skewed as it relates to democracy?
A: Yes. We take it for granted that the framers believed in the same things we do, but the truth is far more complex. They embraced popular sovereignty, the notion that government ultimately resides with the people, but their definitions of “the people” excluded women, blacks, and men without property. Several speakers at the Constitutional Convention expressed fears of an “excess of democracy,” but at the same time they realized the “genius of the people” would need to pass judgment on the government they were trying to create. Even a founder as conservative as John Adams recognized that there was a danger to society if economic or social inequality was too great. As these men struggled with such notions, they were constantly being pushed from below by the types of people we feature in this volume.
Q: How has the definition of “revolutionary” changed over time?
During Revolutionary times, the term “revolution” did not necessarily connote “radical,” as it does today. Like the “revolution” of a wheel, changes would come in their time. American colonists had been raised in a tradition that celebrated the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, glorious because it was allegedly bloodless and because it established the authority of the people’s representatives in Parliament. The term did not necessitate social upheaval, so slave owners and wealthy merchants could consider themselves revolutionaries.
Then came the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and worse yet, the Haitian Revolution, conducted by blacks. Also, in the early nineteenth century, American nationalists trying to give their government a firm footing shunned notions that their new government might be challenged or overturned. Textbooks expunged the term “rebel” from their accounts of the Revolution, and that tradition has in some ways continued. Now, people resistant to change are often the first to celebrate the American Revolution. There is a disconnect here. Many Americans denounce “revolutions” as cataclysmic events, exemplified by the French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, while simultaneously embracing the American Revolution precisely because it was not “revolutionary” in their eyes.
In this book we hope to show that progressive ideas were indeed in the mix and that such goals were pursued in large measure by people who were “revolutionary” in modern terms. Many were “radicals” in the literal sense, challenging “root” aspects of their society.
Q: What brought the three of you together to edit this volume?
A: Al has been editing volumes of “explorations in the history of American
radicalism” in the era of the Revolution for many years, dealing largely with social movements. Noting the profusion of biographies of the great men in the founding generation during the last decade, he reasoned that he could reach the general reading public by taking more of a personal approach. Why not a volume of biographical essays that show the many individuals with alternative views? It was time to campaign for a broader definition of who was a “founder,” he reasoned.
Al invited Gary, his close colleague for many years, to be a co-editor because Gary has written about more movements of the era than any other scholar, because he has written so many essays about ordinary people at the time, and because Gary is so knowledgeable about African American and Native American history. He invited Ray to join because his books have shown a passion for allowing ordinary people to speak through original sources, because he combats the myths of the Revolution, because he comes to history from outside the insularity of the academy, and because he has written for popular audiences.
Q: Why did you feel that now was the time to bring out such a collection of essays?
A: “Founder Chic” biographies have shown there is a wide reading public interested in the time of the Revolution, but these readers have not been exposed to the extensive research of a generation of scholars who have broadened and radicalized the traditional story. Adapting this research to a biographical approach seemed a natural way to do this. In particular, present-day liberals, radicals, and protesters of all persuasions deserve to know there were people like them who played important roles in founding the nation, and teachers at all levels can benefit from personal stories they adapt for their classrooms. Teachers tell us that their students find history more engaging – and relevant – when they see ordinary people like themselves as part of the making of American society.
Q: Your contributors include many of the leading historians in the field. How did you decide who to approach?
A: We recruited only scholars whose writings showed they had a command of both of their individual protagonists and the larger subjects their protagonists exemplified. We especially sought scholars in the midst of research who would bring a freshness to their writing. Further, we wanted scholars willing and able to write not just for their fellow scholars but also for a wider reading public. Finally, we tried to get a mix of the top people in their fields and younger scholars eager to introduce the lesser known subjects of their research to a broader audience.
Q: How do the Revolutionary Founders depicted in your volume resemble or differ from current grass-root political movements in the country today—whether union members occupying the Wisconsin state capitol or Tea-Party advocates?
A: Modern protesters should not be lumped as if they were all of the same mind, nor should protesters of the Revolutionary era. That is one of the goals of this book, to display the diversity. Herman Husband was an evangelical Christian who drew inspiration from the Bible; Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, attacked all organized religions. Judith Sargent Murray was a genteel Boston lady who wrote at length about equal rights for women; Mary Perth escaped from slavery and ended up a founder of Sierra Leone. Even within particular movements, we wished to showcase the diversity of tactics.
That said, all the subjects we treat here looked forward to what they imagined could be a more equal society on some level. Some of today’s Tea Partiers, by contrast, look backward to an America they think existed in times past. How much significance is to be placed in this difference we leave for readers to ponder and classes to discuss.