Thursday, February 21, 2008

The American REVOLUTIONS

One of the biggest problems with the historiography of the American Revolution is that we often view it as being a massive force of radical change, which literally swept across the colonial countryside. We rarely examine the revolution at a microscopic level, but instead subscribe to the notion that the American Revolution encompassed any and all radical changes in colonial American society. Changes in religion, culture, employment, travel, economics, and social structure are rarely examined on an individual level, but are instead considered components of the whole.

Instead of viewing the revolution at a macro level, I believe that one can gain a better understanding and appreciation of the American Revolution by examining the numerous individual revolutions, which together created the atmosphere of independence. After all, the Founding Fathers (and the entire revolutionary generation as a whole) understood the revolution in these terms.

First off, I think it is important for us to ascertain just how long the American Revolution (as a whole) lasted. The war, which was merely a byproduct of all the revolutionary movements, lasted eight long years, but the Revolution itself lasted much longer.

The Great Awakening: Prior to the Stamp Act, Boston Tea Party, etc., colonial America was gripped by a religious revolution that literally transformed the way people understood deity. Instead of completely relying on a pastor for one's salvation, the Great Awakening inspired common citizens to develop an individual relationship with God. Salvation, in essence, became a personal endeavor. This new movement brought about a greater understanding on personal independence, which would play a large role in American Independence. Religions themselves began to actively recruit converts by promoting education, social programs, and community activism. In every sense of the word the Great Awakening was a religious revolution.

Breakdown of Traditional Social Constructs: Gordon Wood is without question the premiere historian on this issue. In his Pulitzer Prizewinning Book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Wood suggests that one of the most important factors that led to independence was the transformation of the American social ideology. Instead of following the traditional social norms of Britain, in which the gentry class enjoyed the finer things of life, American colonial structure permitted a common civilian to climb the social ladder of success. By no means does this suggest that every member of colonial American society was on the same social level. Instead, we should think of colonial America as a society with less social tradition and less social disparity between elites and commoners. Wood's example of British v. colonial homes is a good illustration of this idea. Wood points out that in Britain, a common gentry would have enjoyed an estate of roughly 50-100 bedrooms, dozens of servants, and a large amount of land. In colonial America, however, the typical home of an American gentleman was 10-15 bedrooms, with much less land. The difference between the social world of Britain and America is another key ingredient in the push for independence.

The Market Revolution: Historian Charles Sellers is the foremost expert on the Market Revolution. His research has literally transformed our understanding of Jacksonian America, and of capitalism in America. Contrary to popular belief, good old-fashioned American capitalism did not begin with the Puritans in 1620. Instead, colonial America relied on the neighborhood exchange system of economics, in which each family provided for itself. There were no large markets in the early years of the United States. In fact, very little money was printed or used as a means of conducting business. Colonial families literally banded with their neighbors, creating a neighborhood exchange system, which became very anti-capitalist in nature. It was rare for colonial families to ever sell their surpluss of goods to a larger market. Instead the surplus was traded with one's neighbors, in exchange for their services.

The Market Revolution, which came along in the early years of the 19th century, changed all that. Americans began to specialize in the production of a specific good or service, which was sold for a profit. The rise of the textile industry helped to fuel this newly emerging market economy, which transformed the American perspective on labor. Instead of viewing labor as a loathsome activity that was reserved for the poor of society, labor was seen as a noble endeavor. The ideology of putting in a "hard day's work" was born. It is here that the "American Dream" was born.

The Transportation Revolution: In many ways, the Transportation Revolution is a byproduct of the Market Revolution. Colonial American society was literally situated in a savage world. The thick forests of the east, combined with its often-harsh climates, made life difficult for early colonists. The road system in the early years of the American Republic was virtually non-existent. Families that lived on the frontier lands had a very difficult time traveling to the coast or to the cities. In fact, 90% of colonists never traveled further than 30 miles from the place they were born.

The Transportation Revolution would change all that. With the advent of the steam engine, railroads, and the canal system, Americans had a much easier time getting around. Businesses and farms found these new advancements extremely advantageous for shipping and distributing their goods. Missionaries were able to stretch their web even further, thanks to the new advances in transportation. Citizens could now be better informed, thanks to the quicker exchange of information between cities.

These are just a few of the many revolutions that took place before, during, and after America's war for independence. A closer look into these individual events will show that they are, in reality, all linked. It is likely that one would not have existed without the other. When taken all together, they help to create a society that was able to embrace even further changes to their way of life. In short, these are the REVOLUTIONS of the American Revolution.

8 comments:

Lindsey Shuman said...

I completely agree. The term "The American Revolution" is such a blanket term that covers so many smaller revolutions. I am not by any means suggesting that we should shun the term "The American Revolution" because, after all, there was an American Revolution. But I do think that it would be smart to remember the smaller revolutions that made up the large one.

Brad said...

My favorite of all the "revolutions" to learn about has been the Market Revolution. That is an absolutly fascinating topic that is relatively new to American historiography.

Good stuff! =)

David Mabry said...

Too many books...too little time. America is full of revolutions which would in time tranform the world. The Market Revolution is on my list of must reads.

Brad said...

The Market Revolution is one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It has become a topic that I am extremely fascinated in. Though the book is long, is is for sure worth reading.

Brad said...

I wanted to mention that the book "The Market Revolution" has been given the distinguished recognition by historians as being one of the most important works of history in the past 50 years. It really is an excellent book.

Ever since I read the book, I have been fascinated with the Market Revolution. In fact, I am working on a post that involves it.

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