The New York Times
Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nationby Alfred F. Young
While the Founding Fathers advocated a
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. As privileged and propertied white males, they did not seek a revolution in the modern sense; instead, they tried to maintain the underlying social structure and political system that enabled men of wealth to rule. They firmly opposed social equality and feared popular democracy as a form of “levelling.”
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 for future generations to confront.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times
“In these 22 provocative essays, leading historians highlight Revolutionary-era people and movements that textbooks and standard accounts skip. . . . Revolutionary Founders aims to test the parameters of what we think we know with new and reinterpreted data and fresh theories. . . . [T]hey offer challenging, surprising perspectives on the turbulent crosscurrents that shaped our nation's birth.” —American History
"[A] uniformly strong collection, [by] an impressive array of historians—among them, T.H. Breen, Eric Foner, Jill Lepore and Alan Taylor. . . . Editors Young, Nash, and Raphael have solicited wisely, with each contributor adding an important dimension to the controlling theme: ‘We cannot have too much liberty.’ Adds immeasurably to our understanding of the Revolution’s full meaning." –Kirkus Reviews
"Fast-paced and readable, this remarkable book captures an American Revolution that has long been hiding in plain sight. I emerged with a new set of heroes, a fresh appreciation for complex stories, and a new sense of our own connection to a revolutionary past." –Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship
"Revolutionary Founders brilliantly restores the struggle for social equality to the central place in the history of American Revolution, and explains how the ‘spirit of leveling’ shaped the making of the new American Republic. For anyone interested in the sources of popular democracy in the United States, Revolutionary Founders is required reading." –Ira Berlin, author of The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations
"Revolutions free the imagination, making many things seem possible that once were deemed wild visions. Revolutionary Founders introduces into the pantheon of the American Revolution those rebels, radicals, and reformers who passionately committed themselves to act on the conviction that ‘all men are created equal.’" –Joyce Appleby, author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism
Three distinguished scholars commission 22 essays about historical characters for whom the American Revolution was insufficiently revolutionary.
The Revolution was dangerous, not simply because it pitted the colonies against the world's foremost military power. It also unleashed thoughts and inflamed passions among ordinary people inspired by notions of democracy, ideas of liberty and equality that often went far beyond what the famous Founders were calling for. Indeed, to maintain control of their movement, the Founders found themselves marginalizing, suppressing or even crushing the likes of Dragging Canoe, the Chickamauga warrior; James Cleveland, the tenant farmer and opponent of Virginia's regressive poll tax; Mary Perth, the slave preacher and a founder of Sierra Leone; "Swearing John" Waller, the campaigner for religious freedom; and Timothy Bigelow, the Worcester blacksmith whose town championed a break with Britain almost two years before the Declaration of Independence. In this uniformly strong collection, an impressive array of historians—among them, T.H. Breen, Eric Foner, Jill Lepore and Alan Taylor—tells these and many other stories. Only Abigail Adams, slave poet Phillis Wheatley, pamphleteer and rabble rouser Tom Paine and perhaps George Wythe (best remembered as Jefferson's mentor, treated here as teacher to emancipator Richard Randolph) and Daniel Shays (the eponym for a rural Massachusetts rebellion that, in fact, had many leaders) qualify as characters readily known to the general reader. The remaining protagonists were simply common people—mostly overlooked in the traditional narrative of the nation's founding—convinced that the Revolution's ideals applied not only to the rich and powerful, but to them as well. Editors Young (Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier, 2004, etc.), Nash (The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution, 2006, etc.) and Raphael (Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation, 2009, etc.) have solicited wisely, with each contributor adding an important dimension to the controlling theme: "We cannot have too much liberty."
Adds immeasurably to our understanding of the Revolution's full meaning.
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Read an Excerpt
“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.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Alfred F. Young is professor emeritus of history at Northern Illinois University and was a senior research fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Gary B. Nash is professor of history emeritus and director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.
Ray Raphael is the author of A People’s History of the American Revolution, Founding Myths, and several other books on the nation’s founding. He lives in northern California.
From the Hardcover edition.
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