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.
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About the Author
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.
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.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Alfred F. Young, Ray Raphael, and Gary B. Nash: “To Begin the World Over Again”
Part I: Revolutions
Alfred F. Young: Ebenezer Mackintosh: Boston’s Captain General of the Liberty Tree
Ray Raphael: Blacksmith Timothy Bigelow and the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774
T. H. Breen: Samuel Thompson’s War: The Career of an American Insurgent
Gary B. Nash: Philadelphia’s Radical Caucus That Propelled Pennsylvania to Independence and Democracy
Jill Lepore: A World of Paine
David Waldstreicher: Phillis Wheatley: The Poet Who Challenged the American Revolutionaries
Part II: Wars
Philip Mead: “Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings”: The Betrayals of Private Joseph Plumb Martin, Continental Soldier
Michael A. McDonnell: “The Spirit of Levelling”: James Cleveland, Edward Wright, and the Militiamen’s Struggle for Equality in Revolutionary Virginia
Cassandra Pybus: Mary Perth, Harry Washington, and Moses Wilkinson: Black Methodists Who Escaped from Slavery and Founded a Nation
Jon Butler: James Ireland, John Leland, John “Swearing Jack” Waller, and the Baptist Campaign for Religious Freedom in Revolutionary Virginia
Colin G. Calloway: Declaring Independence and Rebuilding a Nation: Dragging Canoe and the Chickamauga Revolution
James Kirby Martin: Forgotten Heroes of the Revolution: Han Yerry and Tyona Doxtader of the Oneida Indian Nation
Part III: The Promise of the Revolution
Gregory Nobles: “Satan, Smith, Shattuck, and Shays”: The People’s Leaders in the Massachusetts Regulation of 1786
Terry Bouton: William Findley, David Bradford, and the Pennsylvania Regulation of 1794
Wythe Holt: The New Jerusalem: Herman Husband’s Egalitarian Alternative to the United States Constitution
Woody Holton: The Battle Against Patriarchy That Abigail Adams Won
Sheila Skemp: America’s Mary Wollstonecraft: Judith Sargent Murray’s Case for the Equal Rights of Women
Richard S. Newman: Prince Hall, Richard Allen, and Daniel Coker: Revolutionary Black Founders, Revolutionary Black Communities
Melvin Patrick Ely: Richard and Judith Randolph, St. George Tucker, George Wythe, Syphax Brown, and Hercules White: Racial Equality and the Snares of Prejudice
Seth Cotlar: “Every Man Should Have Property”: Robert Coram and the American Revolution’s Legacy of Economic Populism
Jeffrey L. Pasley: Thomas Greenleaf: Printers and the Struggle for Democratic Politics and Freedom of the Press
Alan Taylor: The Plough-Jogger: Jedediah Peck and the Democratic Revolution
List of Contributors
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Substance: Anthology of articles by historians about lesser-know figures from the US revolutionary and Constitutional era. Highlights those who opposed the Federalists and fought for the rights of the less-wealthy colonial Americans, the native Americans, and the slaves. Gives less-familiar views of better-know figures such as Tom Paine, whose full views are usually slighted in the standard history books.Style: Most of the essays are easy to read and generally contain enough contextual information for the non-expert. Don't know how much of the data & interpretation is "real" or "puffed"; most writers don't sound overtly revisionist (e.g., Marxist, etc.) , but all have obvious sympathies for their subjects rather than their opponents.Includes: Ebenezer Mackintosh (Alfred F. Young); Timothy Bigelow (Ray Raphael); Samuel Thompson (T. H. Breen); Philadelphia Caucus (Gary B. Nash); Thomas Paine (Jill Lepore); Phillis Wheatley (David Waldstreicher); Private Joseph Plumb Martin (Philip Mead); James Cleveland, Edward Wright (Michael A. McDonnell); Mary Perth, Harry Washington, Moses Wilkinson, black Methodists (Cassandra Pybus); James Ireland, John Leland, John Waller, Baptists (Jon Butler); Draggng Canoe, Chickamauga (Colin G. Calloway); Han Yerry and Tyona Doxtader, Oneida Nation(James Kirby Marin); "Satan, Smith, Shattuck, and Shays" (Gregory Nobles); William Findley, David Bradford, Pennsylvania Regulation (Terry Bouton); Herman Husband, New Jerusalem (Wythe Holt); Abigail Adams (Woody Holton); Judith Sargent Murry, ERA (Sheila Skemp); Prince Hall, Richard Allen, Daniel Coker, Black communities (Richards S. Newman); Richard and Judith Randolph, St. George Tucker, George Wythe, Syphax Brown, Hercules White (Melvin Patrick Ely); Robert Coram, populism (Seth Cotlar); Thomas Greenleaf (Jeffrey L. Pasley); Jedediah Peck, "The Plough-Jogger" (Alan Taylor).