The American Revolution was one of the most important events of the 18th century. It marked the first time that a former European colony in the New World successfully declared and achieved independence, and pursued a course of development separate and distinct from its Old World antecedents. However, the degree to which the American Revolution can truly be called “revolutionary” is debatable. The American Revolution challenged the existing structure of society and promoted a then-radical sense of equality, but these benefits of equality were (in an almost oxymoronic sense) unequally distributed among the peoples of America, and the lofty ideal of equality was restricted and exclusive. Indeed, if we look at the effects of the Revolution (or lack thereof) on large components of American society, including women, black slaves in the South, and the Indians of the frontier, the Revolution could be characterized as a fundamentally conservative movement, in the sense that pre-Revolutionary social roles, economic structures, and political privileges largely persisted in the immediate post-Revolutionary era.
When discussing the idea of equality as part of the American Revolution, we should begin by noting the origins of this idea, and identifying the groups that were meant to be encapsulated by this idea. The revolutionary idea of equality seems to have originated out of a desire by American elites to attain equity with British elites. As Robert Weir has described in his article “Who Shall Rule at Home,” the American pre-Revolutionary elite were facing a crisis of legitimacy where their positions of power were justified only in the absence of “proper” British gentlemen to govern the colonies. 1 The direct implication of such a situation was that American men were objectively inferior (i.e. unequal) to British men. This, according to Weir, led to the development of what may be called an “inferiority complex” among Americans, and made them initially hesitant to push for outright secession from the British Empire. The decisive turning point, however, came when American elites underwent a paradigm shift whereby they came to regard themselves as a unique nation, and not merely an offshoot of a larger (and superior) British nation. This realization can be seen in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, one of the pivotal publications leading up to the American Declaration of Independence, where Paine characterizes America as a child of “Europe” as a whole rather than of Britain in particular, thus laying the foundation for a new American self-conception that diverges from the old conception of America being a mere derivative of Britain. Weir compares this American self-realization of uniqueness to the coming-of-age of a child, and the subsequent conflict between adolescent and parent as the adolescent (in this case, America) seeks to forge his own path separate from the parent (in this case, Britain).
The idea of equality was essential to the changing dynamic of the American-British relationship. By propounding the idea that “all men are created equal,” American elites could directly attack the British treatment of colonials as their social inferiors, while at the same eliminating their own inferiority complex vis-à-vis British elites. Indeed, the newly-proclaimed virtue of equality allowed American elites to occupy the moral high ground, and transform their sense of inferiority into one of superiority. In due course, the desire for “equality” became intrinsically connected with the American desire for “liberty,” for a man could not have true liberty unless he was on an equal social and political footing with other men, including those men whom he previously deferred to as his superiors.
As a result of the American Revolution, the idea of equality was manifested in several ways, one of which was the equalization of religion before the state. Prior to the American Revolution, many states had their own officially established religions, which were favored over other, non-established religions. Oftentimes, this official favoritism could lead to adherents of non-official churches being persecuted; one striking example of this can be seen in 1771 when a Baptist preacher was physically assaulted and whipped by Anglicans in Virginia, a state with an official Anglican establishment. 2 The most effective means of preventing such instances of sectarian violence from occurring was to withdraw the state from the business of religion altogether, which had the effect of making all religions and their adherents (or at least all Christians) equal in the sense that none of them were more or less privileged than any other. By allowing every society of Christians to enjoy “full, equal, and impartial liberty,” as advocated by the anonymous author of The Freeman’s Remonstrance against an Ecclesiastical Establishment, the young American republic could guarantee its stability and avoid internal “war, bloodshed, and slaughter.” 3 Following Virginia’s formal abolition of state religion in 1786, other states soon followed suit, so that by the early 19th century most of America was secularized.
Virginia played a pioneering role not only in the movement to abolish ecclesiastical establishments and equalize religions, but also in the advocacy of equality in general. As is well-known, it was Thomas Jefferson – a Virginian – who penned the famous lines “All men are created equal” in America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, and following the realization of independence, it was the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans who remained the staunchest proponents of the revolutionary idea of equality. The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans were most prominent and enjoyed the widest support in the South, which ironically was also the bastion of slavery. This apparent contradiction can be resolved if we look a bit closer at the Democratic-Republican conception of equality in the context of the American South, and what exactly it implied for southern society. Unlike in the North, where social divisions were almost entirely predicated on class distinctions, society in the South also had the added element of race; a black person in the South was almost invariably a slave, and thus almost invariably a social inferior of even the lowest white man. This racialized social reality enabled the emergence of a horizontal concept of “white solidarity,” where all white men regardless of class were seen as equals in relation to non-whites (particularly blacks). In contradistinction, the elitist Federalist ideal of a non-egalitarian, vertical society held more currency in the north. Paradoxically, it was precisely the overt racism of men like Jefferson, who proclaimed in his Notes on Virginia that blacks were innately (i.e. biologically) inferior to whites, that made the ideology of (white) social egalitarianism possible and acceptable. 4
This reality of the racial limitations of equality naturally leads one to question the degree to which the American Revolution brought any significant change for non-white men. When it comes to blacks, the most significant changes in their status happened in the north, where slavery gradually died out in the decades immediately following the Revolution. For instance, the number of slaves in Pennsylvania fell from about 10,000 in 1775 to just 795 in 1810; likewise, the number in Connecticut fell from about 5,000 to 310 over the same time period, and in Rhode Island the numbers fell from 4,373 to just 108. 5 Overall, the total number of slaves in all states north of Maryland fell from 55,102 to 31,258 between 1775 and 1810. However, it is important to keep in mind that the number of slaves in the North were quite small to begin with when compared to the South, and nowhere in the North did slaves play an essential economic role comparable to their role in the Southern plantation economy. This fundamental difference between North and South can be summarized as a difference between a “slave society” and a “society with slaves.” A region with a “slave society” (such as South Carolina, Jamaica, or Haiti) is a region where slavery is fundamental to the functioning of the economy, where the social and political elite are usually slaveholders, where a primary purpose of government is the control and regulation of slaves, and where slaves were viewed more as possessions or belongings than as people; in contrast, a “society with slaves” is one where slaves exist, but are marginal to the society as a whole, as was the case in Northern states. 6 Naturally, it is much easier to eliminate slavery in a “society with slaves” when compared to a “slave society,” because the elimination of slavery in the former would not have the fundamental transformative effect as it would have on the latter. In this sense, it is questionable if we can even use the term “revolutionary” when describing the gradual decline of Northern slavery following the American Revolution. Although attitudes towards slavery certainly changed in the North, the very marginal nature of slavery meant that no major economic or social revolution accompanied these changing attitudes.
In the South, where slavery formed the foundation of the economy, hardly any progress was made in the post-Revolutionary period with regards to the rights of slaves, and there was no revolutionary change in social and economic structures. The external slave trade continued until its final ban in 1808, and during the two decades between the ratification of the Constitution and the American ban on slave imports, the South imported some 240,000 black slaves, which is nearly equivalent to the number of slaves imported into all of British North America in the previous 150 years. 7 Thus, far from revolutionary ideology promoting a distaste for importing human chattel, there was in fact a great acceleration in the slave trade in the years immediately following the American Revolution, at least in the South where slavery was of vital economic importance. Moreover, the institution of slavery itself would continue to survive (and indeed, thrive) for over half a century afterwards, until its final demise in the aftermath of the Civil War. Rather than being contained, slavery expanded into new states like Alabama as the American republic itself expanded into new lands. This persistence and expansion of slavery was facilitated and legitimized by the emergence of a “white solidarity” that was intimately tied with the revolutionary ideal of “equality,” as described above. In the American South, the Revolution could be described as a boon for the poor white man, but as a bane for the enslaved bondsman, to whom the idea of equality did not extend.
However, if white slaveholders were unwilling to treat enslaved blacks as their equals for obvious reasons, a few enterprising and politically conscious blacks were more than willing to embrace the revolutionary ideology of egalitarianism. Among the most famous of the black revolutionaries who fought for egalitarian ideals was a man named Gabriel, who led an eponymous slave rebellion at the turn of the 18th century after being imprisoned for assaulting a white man. The fact that Gabriel and his followers were leading a politically conscious rebellion is demonstrated in their decision to avoid harming any Quakers, Methodists, Frenchmen, or poor white women without any slaves, as well as their decision to fly a flag bearing the words “Death or Liberty,” an inversion of Patrick Henry’s famous utterance. 8 Although Gabriel was ultimately killed and his rebellion quashed, the very occurrence of such a phenomenon demonstrated that the ideals of the American Revolution had percolated at least to some blacks, even if their white masters largely repudiated an all-embracing egalitarian ideology and limited the ideal of equality to fellow whites.
Other blacks, however, embraced alternative worldviews that differed considerably from Gabriel’s vision, and even repudiated the American Revolution and the fledgling Republic altogether. Boston King, for instance, was one of many black slaves who joined the British Army during the Revolutionary War, and associated “liberty” not with the American republic but with the British monarchy. Boston King became a devout Christian, and had memoirs composed after the Revolution to garner support from middle- and upper-class Britons for missionary activities in Africa. His life demonstrates not only the reactionary nature of the “revolutionary” Patriot cause in the South (at least when it came to slavery and racial equality), but also the potentially liberating and revolutionary impact of religion on black lives. It was during the latter portion of the 18th century that Christianity, especially of the Methodist and Baptist varieties, began spreading extensively among blacks of the American South; the attraction of slaves to these particular varieties of Christianity was due to their egalitarian and anti-hierarchical teachings, which naturally held much appeal to the enslaved population. Although the formation of black churches and the spread of egalitarian ideology via Methodist and Baptist Christianity could indeed be called a radical movement, this religious awakening does not seem to be connected to the American Revolution and the Patriot ideology. In other words, blacks embraced egalitarian ideologies in spite of, not because of, the American Revolution, as the lives of anti-American Black Loyalists such as Boston King demonstrate.
Besides blacks, another important group that did not receive the benefits of egalitarianism were women. Indeed, as alluded to previously, the rebel Gabriel himself implicitly identified the similarities between blacks and women when he stated that poor white women without slaves would not be harmed by his followers, thus identifying women as a “fellow” disenfranchised group that existed outside of dominant power structures, akin to black slaves. The historian Rosemarie Zagarri believes that an opportunity briefly emerged following the American Revolution to extend equal political rights to women, and for a while there were visible signs of progress being made on this front, including some female participation in politics and public discourse (as seen, for instance, in Mercy Otis Warren’s correspondence with President John Adams, and the publication of her history of the American Revolution in 1805), and a recognition that women possessed rights similar to men. 9 However, by the 1820s, there was a counter-revolutionary backlash that saw women more marginalized than perhaps ever before, leading to what Zagarri calls “a new era of political invisibility.” 10 Although women continued to read and write about political matters through the 19th century, they were not accorded the equal public space and chance for public participation that seemed to be within their grasp in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, when the revolutionary ideology of equality appeared to momentarily cross sexual/gender lines (as reflected, for instance, in the brief enfranchisement of qualified women in New Jersey state by 1797, only to be lost by 1807). Instead, women remained largely confined to their pre-Revolutionary roles as “guardians of virtue,” whose main purpose was to temper the passions of men.
The conservative nature of gender roles and relations during the Revolutionary period is reflected in the accounts and narratives of contemporary women, such as those of the Baroness von Riedesel, Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, and Mary Jemison. The account of the Baroness von Riedesel shows that both American and British armies during the War shared similar attitudes towards women, which were remarked upon favorably by the Baroness; for instance, the Baroness noted that American soldiers had refused to kill a woman from the British camp who was fetching water for the British army, out of respect for her sex. 11 The account of Elizabeth Johnston is notable for her relative lack of agency, and the fact that she constantly followed (and was reliant upon) other men both before, during, and after the Revolutionary war, demonstrating continuity rather than change in gender roles. And the account of Mary Jemison shows that although she played a more active and independent role during the War than Johnston, such as by performing labor to obtain her own wages, 12 Jemison’s relative independence was due to her specific sociocultural environment, and was not a consequence of the American Revolution itself. Thus, in all three cases, the American Revolution failed to provoke any significant transformative change in gender relations or gender roles, and the societal expectations for women that existed prior to the War (which varied between different groups of women) continued to persist in the post-Revolutionary period.
Finally, we should say a couple words about Native Americans, who – probably more than any other group – were extensively marginalized in the decades following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. The Native Americans, as with blacks and women, did not receive the benefits of the revolutionary ideology of egalitarianism. Not only were the more “savage” Indian nations (who retained their own culture and refused to assimilate into Euro-American civilization) deemed inferior to white Americans, but even the “Civilized Nations” such as the Cherokee (who adopted literacy, Christianity, and plantation agriculture) were denied an equal footing with whites, as seen in the well-known forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands in the 1830s. The fundamental inequality between whites and Indians can be seen in several primary sources from the post-Revolutionary period, such as the diplomat Hendrick Aupaumut’s narrative of an embassy to the western Indian nations. In Aupaumut’s narrative, which involves Aupaumut personally delivering messages from the U.S. government to various Indian groups, one can perceive a fundamental lack of equality between the Indian nations and the U.S. government, and a tendency for the U.S. to impose unilateral demands on Indian nations for the sake of obtaining peace. The Delaware civil chief named Big Cat was aware of this inequality in U.S.-Indian diplomatic negotiations, and insists that if the U.S. government truly desires peace, then it should be willing to make compromises with Indians that involve both sides in an equal capacity. In particular, Big Cat states that the U.S. government must manifest its power and its desire for peace by “withdrawing the Big knifes here referring to white American frontiersmen from the forts which stands sic on our land.” 13 However, the unwillingness of the U.S. government to deal with Indians as equals and seek compromises of the sort proposed by Big Cat meant that hostilities would inevitably continue between Native America and Euro-America, and the persistence of the white American attitude towards Native Americans as unequal inferiors demonstrates another limit of the revolutionary idea of equality.
In conclusion, the American Revolution can be said to have different effects on different groups of people, and the degree to which the American Revolution can truly be described as “revolutionary” varies depending on which particular group one focuses on. For poor whites, particularly in the South, the American Revolution can indeed be described as “revolutionary,” insofar as it promoted a then-radical sense of social equality and intra-racial solidarity that transcended class divisions. Likewise, the Revolution resulted in the manumission of many blacks in the northern states, though the extent to which this was “revolutionary” is questionable given the marginal economic importance of slavery in the North. However, for groups such as black slaves in the South, women (regardless of race), and Indians, the American Revolution can hardly be described as “revolutionary.” In the case of women, there was a brief window during which revolutionary change might have been possible, but this window had closed by 1820 or so, and women’s status and role in society remained conservative rather than being transformed. Even those groups that benefited from the revolutionary idea of equality largely did so as a consequence of the marginalization of other groups; for instance, the acquisition of millions of acres of farmland to provide poor white Americas with an opportunity to be free, equal yeoman farmers for another millennium (as desired by Jefferson) was possible only because Indians were viewed as unequal inferiors to whites, which facilitated the appropriation of their lands. Thus, as Seth Rockman has succinctly summarized in his article “Liberty is Land and Slaves: The Great Contradiction,” the triumph of liberty (and equality) among a segment of the American populace was contingent on the oppression of other American groups, to whom the revolutionary idea of equality did not extend. The American Revolution was therefore characterized by a fundamental contradiction between lofty ideals and ground reality, due to the contradictory, exclusive manner in which the former were applied. In many cases, the ideals of the American Revolution served to perpetuate and even enhance the pre-Revolutionary sociopolitical order, which can be seen in the persistence of black slavery, traditional gender roles, and settler encroachment on Indian land in the post-Revolutionary era.