The Conservative Revolution of 1776


Review of the Museum of the American Revolution

Philadelphia, PA

The temptation to regard the subject of our individual scholarly interest as the singularly unique, most creative, entirely unprecedented moment in the history of mankind is hard to resist.  Nevertheless, it is surprising to read in the new Museum of the American Revolution that opened on April 19th in Philadelphia, that the American Revolution confronted the Founders with a problem: “How do you create a government from scratch?”

Curators R. Scott Stephenson and Philip C. Mead would surely be right to argue that our Revolution was a key event in world history.   It did, after all, inspire independence movements across Latin America, and the failed republican revolutions in Geneva (1782), the Netherlands (1787), Belgium (1789) and France.  Those events are beyond the scope of this Museum; I bring them up to point out that all political developments are shaped by the past. The French Revolution was one of Clio’s little jokes: a democratic revolution that overthrew the very King who had sent the naval fleet that enabled the Americans to win the Battle of Yorktown. But because Bourbon royal government was centralized and dirigiste, the French had no experience of democratic government, and revolution quickly descended into bloodshed, tyranny and terror.  

The American Revolution succeeded precisely because, contrary to the curator’s sweeping assertions that “Everything Changed in 1776,” remarkably little about America changed in 1776.   The King was gone, but laws, courts, and government continued to function during the War; as new congresses smoothly replaced colonial legislatures, with many of the same men filling the seats.  The new constitutions written by the erstwhile colonies tended to be remarkably similar to their pre-war governments, featuring upper and lower legislative houses legislatures and a governor.   The curators focus a spotlight on Pennsylvania, an outlier with its unicameral 1776 constitution with no governor or upper house.   But they do mention in the fine print that Rhode Island and Connecticut didn’t even bother to write new Constitutions; they merely made a few minor amendments to their colonial charters and carried on.  Only Georgia had to start “from scratch.”  The newest colony, it was also the only one without a colonial-era legislature.

Democratic self-government had been the founding assumption in the New England colonies, while the slightly older colony of Virginia wrested control from London very early in its history.  Of course, early New England was a land of middle-class, freehold farmers, who voted for their legislators and governors, while Virginia was an aristocratic society where both Governor and the elected House of Burgesses were effectively kept under the firm control of great landowners like Washington, Madison and Jefferson, a class of men that historian Brent Tarter has memorably dubbed, The Grandees.   They constituted a hereditary oligarchy supported by slave estates kept intact by primogeniture.   The cultural gap is effectively pointed out on a wall where it is noted that when George Washington took command of the Continental Army at Boston in 1775, he “had to adjust to commanding men dedicated to… ideas of individual liberty.”    

What the Virginia grandees the Yankee soldiers of the Army camped outside Boston shared was an unyielding will to govern themselves, and a habit of self-government formed over a century and a half of running their own budgets, courts, legislatures and armies without significant help or interference from Britain until the decades just before the Revolution.   The fact that large numbers of militiamen had been killed when a New England army captured Fortress Louisburg in 1745, and that Britain almost immediately returned Louisburg to the French, was a sore point among voters in the 1770s.  Although the British Navy fought at Louisburg, British armies only began to fight American wars in the 1750s, but by that point several of the colonies had spent over a century governing themselves and fighting their own wars.  Royal armies on the ground and an increasing control from London were experienced as new phenomena in the 1750s, especially in New England, North Carolina and Virginia where men like John Adams and James Madison regarded themselves as politically active citizens of self-governing colonies, just as their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers had been before them. 

The shock of the 1765 Stamp Act was that His Majesty’s government imposed not only a tax, but a western border on people who were accustomed to taxing themselves and to regarding westward expansion as a natural process.  The British decision to enforce a border and tax Americans to pay for it led to the shocked realization that Americans had lost the right to determine their own future.

The right to participate in democratic self-government was, of course, not available to women, minors, imbeciles or men too poor to pay taxes, any more than it was available to black slaves, Indians or to the people of most other British colonies.  It was a right that the prosperous adult white men reserved to themselves, which is why the oddest thing about this Museum is the repeated insistence that this was a Revolution made by “diverse peoples.”   So many other reviewers of this Museum have covered this topic that I will not discuss it except to say that by focusing so much attention on women, enslaved Africans and Amerindians as major players in the Revolution, the Museum distorts the reality of being black in colonial America. 

Black men, especially in Northern colonies, were often sent to the Army as substitutes for their owners or to fill local quotas, part of the larger reality of a Continental Army that was overwhelmingly manned by men with few choices: the landless, the poor and the unskilled, the captured British and German soldiers who chose fighting for America over prison, indentured servants promised freedom and land if they enlisted for the duration: and enslaved African Americans enticed by the promise of freedom at the War’s end, a promise made by both Armies that was only sometimes kept.  Even a few women served, a handful passing for as men, more following their men to work as laundresses and cooks, fill ammunition, or stepping forward to load guns in battle; a common practice in European Armies of the era.  Middle class men fought the War’s early battles, and they participated as auxiliaries whenever the war moved into their home regions, but by the winter of 1776 the Continental Army was almost entirely composed of men with few choices, including black men.  The fact that they served shoulder-to-shoulder with whites in northern regiments contributed to the Revolutionary-era abolition of slavery in the post-war North.  

Eighteenth century America was a place in which poor men, including poor black men, served in an Army that men with better choices were reluctant to join, very like modern America; but this is not the past that the Museum chooses to show.    In room after room, we are shown an eighteenth century world in which black Americans actively choose which side to support, a world in which African-Americans write eloquently about their right to liberty, a world where white Americans agonize over slavery as a moral dilemma.   The reality is that the great compromise that enabled the Continental Congress to function was a tacit agreement to sweep slavery under the carpet.   We may be appalled that Jefferson could demand liberty while personally owning over a hundred human beings.  And distressed that our Founding Fathers, men who filled volumes with their letters and essays, wrote so little about slavery.    But this, not the Museum’s more congenial portrait of a Revolutionary generation tormented by the injustice of America’s great and terrible founding sin, is the reality of our founding moment.   The men who made the Revolution decided that the immorality of black chattel slavery had to be ignored if they were to work together to free their privileged selves from British rule.

Although some slaves were able to free themselves by enlisting, the Museum’s vision of a “diverse” America in which African Americans, Native Americans, and women – “Remember the ladies!” - worked together to make a Revolution is a tour de force of curatorial misrepresentation. 

The reality is that the Revolution was conceived and carried out by a remarkably homogeneous group of English-speaking, male, British-American Protestants.   And that it was a deeply conservative revolution, led by privileged and successful men who intended not to change the world they had inherited, but simply to free themselves from British rule and continue to live in a society not very different form the world of their fathers.   Thomas Paine, an egalitarian, liberating, leveling sort of revolutionary, left in 1787 to work for a broad franchise in England, then went to France to join a Revolution that truly did aim to change everything.   

Only once the fighting starts at Lexington Green does the Museum begin to deploy a remarkable collection of artifacts to powerful effect. A series of rooms describing The Darkest Hour, the winter of 1776-77, is a story notably well told: the small, steadily shrinking, colonial army retreating towards the west and south, losing steadily to the power of British arms.  In one alcove, a young soldier in retreat from the Battle of Trenton unexpectedly stumbles into the arms of his brother, arriving with the relief troops.  The retreating soldier, one of 700 who fled across the Delaware under General Ewing, was emaciated, clothed in rags, and so filthy that his own brother failed to recognize him.  I read this story about the artists James and Charles Wilson Peale as a voice read the words that Thomas Paine wrote in that dark December, “These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country…”  And I was moved to tears.

Posted on 29 May 2017

DIANA MUIR APPELBAUM is the author of Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England, (UPNE, 2002). She is at work on a book tentatively entitled "Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy."