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Written when political and military history dominated the discipline, J. Franklin Jameson's The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement was a pioneering work. Based on a series of four lectures he gave at Princeton University in 1925, the short book argued that the most salient feature of the American Revolution had not been the war for independence from Great Britain; it was, rather, the struggle between aristocratic values and those of the common people who tended toward a leveling democracy. American revolutionaries sought to change their government, not their society, but in destroying monarchy and establishing republics, they in fact changed their society profoundly. Jameson wrote, "The stream of revolution, once started, could not be con.ned within narrow banks, but spread abroad upon the land."
Jameson's book was among the first to bring social analysis to the fore of American history. Examining the effects the American Revolution had on business, intellectual and religious life, slavery, land ownership, and interactions between members of different social classes, Jameson showed the extent of the social reforms won at home during the war. By looking beyond the political and probing the social aspects of this seminal event, Jameson forced a reexamination of revolution as a social phenomenon and, as one reviewer put it, injected a "liberal spirit" into the study of American history. Still in print after nearly eighty years, the book is a classic of American historiography.
The Revolution and the Status of Persons
In this year 1925 we enter upon a long series of celebrations commemorating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversaries of the successive events of the American Revolution. If any of those present are able, like myself, to remember well the long series of centennial commemorations of those same events that marked the years from 1875 to 1883, and even to 1889, they will, I think, agree with me that those celebrations did more than anything else that has happened in our life-time to stimulate popular interest in American history in general, and specifically in the history of the American Revolution. The Magazine of American History was founded at once, in 1876. The Daughters of the American Revolution, a more numerous body than ever before were united in the commemoration of any portion of history, and the two societies of Sons, date from that period. A still wider, though indirect, indication of popular historic interest may be seen in the passion for what is called "colonial" furniture, a passion which distinctly flowed from these commemorations and especially from the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, for it is certain that down to that year the sway of black walnut and funereal horsehair was steadily maintained. A less popular but more fruitful blossoming of interest in history may be seen in the striking rapidity with which, in the 'eighties immediately succeeding, professorships of history were established in the American colleges and universities, and in the sudden zeal with which numbers of able young students devoted themselves to the study of their country's history.
The consequences which flowed from the celebrations of fifty years ago are so far certain to repeat themselves in our time that we may at least be sure of a speedy heightening of interest in the history of the American Revolution. The main desire that has underlain the preparation of the ensuing lectures has been the wish that whatever results, whether in learned academic research or in popular thinking, may spring from this new period of commemorations, may be marked by a wider view of the events than was taken fifty years ago. Surely it ought to be so, in view of the advances which history has made in America in fifty years, from a time when there were probably not a dozen professional students of history in the United States to a time when there are at least several hundreds.
The gain, the wider view, should show itself in three ways. In the first place, it ought to be possible for us to be much fairer to the British or Loyalist opponents of our fathers than were the men of fifty years ago. They had hardly emancipated themselves from the traditional view, generated in the heat of the old conflict, that the British statesmen of that time were monstrous tyrants, the British soldiers monstrous barbarians. There is, to be sure, an opinion abroad that the permanent maintenance of that view is an essential trait of American patriotism. It is conceded that in the study of every other war—of Athens against Sparta, or Rome against Carthage, or Parliamentarian against Royalist, or Prussia against France, or Union against Confederacy—it is the duty of rational beings to hear both sides, and not to suppose that the ultimate truth of history is to be gathered by listening solely to the immediate war-cries of one of the two contestants. An historical student who has no special affection for England, but on the other hand is not seeking any office for which he needs Irish-American votes, cannot help raising in some perplexity the question why the common-sense rules of fairness should be inapplicable to this war alone among all wars, why our histories of it should be sedulously guarded against improvement, or why writers who take a modern and detached view of it should be accused of the covert reception of British gold.
Another advance that we ought to make consists in a revision of the popular estimate of the men of Revolutionary times. Fifty years ago, and even a hundred years ago, there had become fixed in the public mind the notion that, because in the period of the Revolution there were many heroic characters and deeds, the whole American population of that time was heroic. It is pleasant to think well of a whole generation of those who have preceded us, and especially pleasant to glorify them if they were our ancestors. It may seem harmless, but when it is done in terms of comparison with later generations it is not altogether wholesome. It is not wholesome because it is not just. Nothing can be more certain than that, if we consider the whole nation and not merely the individual instances of heroic character and conduct, the patriotism of 1861, on both sides, was much more widely extended and more ardent than the much-lauded patriotism of 1776, and that of 1918 more pervasive, more enlightened, and more pure than either. How could we expect it to be otherwise, when we consider carefully the circumstances of the time? Let us distinguish between the heroes who fought and suffered and made every sacrifice to bring into existence a new nation, and the population at large, of whom so great a proportion were, as a matter of fact, however we may excuse them, provincial-minded, dubious in opinion, reluctant to make any sacrifices, half-hearted in the glorious cause. All honor to the heroes, and they were many.
We sit here in the Promised Land,
That flows with Freedom's honey and milk;
But 'twas they won it, sword in hand,
Making the nettle danger soft for us as silk.
But let us not forget that a large part of their heroism had to be expended in overcoming difficulties which need not have existed but for the slackness and indifference of their fellows. For instance, no episode of the history of the Revolution affords a finer example of patriotic sacrifice than the winter's encampment at Valley Forge; but why were the sufferings at Valley Forge encountered? Simply because the country at large, with whatever excuses, did not support the war, and the army which was waging it, with any approach to the ardor which was shown in 1861, on both sides, or in 1918. Clothes and shoes and blankets and tents were lacking. Who does not know what would happen if an American army of the present day were found to be destitute even of chocolate drops? It would not be three days before the metropolitan dailies would be voicing loudly a nation's wrath, and car-loads of chocolate drops would be rushed promptly to every camp. Let us be fair to the moderns, and not fabricate an imaginary golden age in the undeveloped America of 1776.
Thirdly, and closer to the immediate purpose of these lectures, it is to be wished that in the coming commemorations and in our future thinking we may consider the American Revolution in broader aspects than simply the political and the military. Fifty years ago, it was these that engrossed attention, and indeed most that has been written since then about the Revolution has been narrowly confined to these two aspects, the political and the military, including of late the naval. Every move in the political struggle for independence from Great Britain, every action of the Continental Congress, has been described over and over again. Every battle and every skirmish in that long and dragging war has had its historian, or has been the theme of meticulous articles or controversial pamphlets. Meanwhile, even in this age when social history is so much in fashion all over the world, few writers have concerned themselves with the social aspects of our American revolutionary history.
How different is it with the Frenchmen's study of the great French Revolution! Forty or fifty years ago they were in much the same state as we: every move of the politicians, every picturesque happening in Paris, every march or engagement of the revolutionary armies, was eagerly chronicled by intelligent but more or less conventional historians; but in more recent years the horizon of the French historians of their revolution has broadened, and more attention has been given to the prodigious effects of the French Revolution upon the constitution of French society than to the political events, more to the march of the revolutionary ideas than to the march of the revolutionary battalions, and quite as much to the progress of the revolution in the provinces as to the dramatic events that marked its development in Paris. The result has been that the French Revolution is now seen in its true proportions and effects, not simply as the downfall of monarchy or the securing of equal political rights for all individuals, but chiefly as a social movement, French and European, of vast dimensions and of immense significance.
Perhaps some may be moved to say at once: But this is precisely to ignore the most salient contrast between the American Revolution and the French. The men of our Revolution, they will say, were neither levellers nor theorists. Their aims were distinctly political, not social. They fought for their own concrete rights as Englishmen, not for the abstract rights of man, nor for liberty, equality, and fraternity. The French rose in revolt against both a vicious political system and a vicious social system. With enthusiastic ardor they proceeded to sweep away abuses of all sorts, and to create, not simply a new government, but a new France and indeed, to their own imaginations, a new heaven and a new earth. That they cared more for the social than for the political results of the Revolution was evident when, after a few years, believing it impossible to retain both, they resigned political freedom and threw themselves into the arms of the young Corsican who gave promise of preserving for them their new social system. Not so, it will be said, the Anglo-Saxon. He had no wish to destroy or to recast his social system. He sought for political freedom, but he had no mind to allow revolution to extend itself beyond that limited sphere. As Burke said, he was "taught to look with horror on those children of their country who are prompted rashly to hack that aged parent to pieces and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds and wild incantations they may regenerate the paternal constitution."
It is indeed true that our Revolution was strikingly unlike that of France, and that most of those who originated it had no other than a political programme, and would have considered its work done when political independence of Great Britain had been secured. But who can say to the waves of revolution: Thus far shall we go and no farther? The various fibres of a nation's life are knit together in great complexity. It is impossible to sever some without also loosening others, and setting them free to combine anew in widely different forms. The Americans were much more conservative than the French. But their political and their social systems, though both were, as the great orator said, still in the gristle and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood, were too intimately connected to permit that the one should remain unchanged while the other was radically altered. The stream of revolution, once started, could not be confined within narrow banks, but spread abroad upon the land. Many economic desires, many social aspirations were set free by the political struggle, many aspects of colonial society profoundly altered by the forces thus let loose. The relations of social classes to each other, the institution of slavery, the system of land-holding, the course of business, the forms and spirit of the intellectual and religious life, all felt the transforming hand of revolution, all emerged from under it in shapes advanced many degrees nearer to those we know.
These are only assertions. They cannot be adequately proved in a few lectures. It will content the lecturer if he can partially illustrate their truth, and if some who hear him are convinced that here is a field of history deserving further and deeper study. Meantime we might profitably consider for a moment whether it is intrinsically probable that our revolution was unlike other popular revolutions, in having no social results flowing from the political upheaval. Is there such a thing as a natural history of revolutions? Nation differs from nation, and age from age, but there are some uniformities in human nature, some natural sequences recurrently presenting themselves in human history. Not all political revolutions, it is true, have had important social consequences. One notable variety of revolution is that whereby one reigning individual or one small group of individuals holding supreme power is supplanted by another individual or small group, without any serious alteration of the system. Such are those "palace revolutions" whereby Jehu the son of Nimshi succeeds Jehoram the son of Ahab, or the tsar Alexander supplants the tsar Paul, without more disturbance of the social system than when "Amurath to Amurath succeeds" in a wholly peaceable manner. But it is the other variety, popular revolutions, which we have in mind. This is the variety which figures most largely in modern history. A popular revolution usually consists in the transfer of political power from the hands of a smaller into those of a larger mass of the citizens, or from one great section of the population to another. As the result of such a revolution, we expect to see the new group exercising its new-found power in accordance with its own interests or desires, until, with or without fixed intention of so doing, it alters the social system into something according better with its own ideals. After the peaceful English revolution known as the passing of the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832, we look to see the new Parliament, chosen by a wider suffrage and representing now the middle classes, passing a mass of legislation that brings the social state of England into better conformity with middle-class ideals. After the American Civil War, which shifted the seat of political power from the planting aristocracy of the South to the manufacturing and commercial classes of the North, we look to see legislation and the growth of custom whereby the American social system takes on forms congenial to the minds of the new possessors of power. But indeed we do not need to look farther into the past than the last nine years, to observe how the greatest of all revolutions, the one destined evidently to be the most momentous in its consequences, beginning with the overthrow of a tsar and the substitution of a republic, speedily escapes from the control of those who would keep it purely or mainly political, and transforms Russian society by 1925 to an extent which no one would in 1913 have dreamed to be possible.
If then it is rational to suppose that the American Revolution had some social consequences, what would they be likely to be? It would be natural to reply that it depends on the question, who caused the Revolution, and that therefore it becomes important to inquire what manner of men they were, and what they would be likely, consciously or unconsciously, to desire. In reality, the matter is not quite so simple as that. Allowance has to be made for one important fact in the natural history of revolutions, and that is that, as they progress, they tend to fall into the hands of men holding more and more advanced or extreme views, less and less restrained by traditional attachment to the old order of things. Therefore the social consequences of a revolution are not necessarily shaped by the conscious or unconscious desires of those who started it, but more likely by the desires of those who came into control of it at later stages of its development.
You know how it was with the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. At first it was the affair of moderate statesmen, like Pym and Hampden, or moderate generals like Essex or Manchester, earls, who would not push the king too hard, but before long it fell into the hands of men like Cromwell, whose spirit is shown by his bold declaration, "If I should meet the king in battle, I would as soon fire my pistol at him as at any man." Now when we examine the interesting mass of constitutional and social legislation enacted by the parliaments of the Commonwealth, we see in it the work of men of far more advanced views than those of Pym and Hampden, to wit, of radicals who had come into control of the movement in its latest stages.
Or again, take the French Revolution. Everyone knows how its history is marked by distinct successive periods, in each of which the control is exercised by a group more radical and extreme than its predecessors; and the same has been true of the great Russian revolution. Now, widely as our American Revolution differed from these, do not let us suppose that it escaped every trait of conformity to the natural history of such movements. Certain it is that, in some of our states at least, it fell ultimately into quite other hands than those that set it in motion.
Excerpted from The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement by J. Franklin Jameson. Copyright © 1926 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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