Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Significance of the American Revolution

Or perhaps it was 'only' a rebellion.

But a rebellion was a "Big Thing" in the 18th century, and according to Walter McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner, this rebellion was especially significant for Americans by "making them aware of the 'new men' they had become":

Americans ceased to behave and self-consciously started to act. (312)

What does this mean? Think of "behave" in the sense that a behavioral psychologist might use the term: conditioned behavior. Or in the sense that parents use in telling their children: "Behave yourself!" With the great rebellion, Americans stopped behaving and started self-consciously acting up -- or acting out a new role as citizens of a republic rather than subjects in a monarchy.

What was different about Americans, compared to Europeans? Several things:

American sons and daughters increasingly left their homes and hometowns, married whom they pleased, changed churches, and chose their own trades. Americans as a whole rebelled against the metaphor of a "mother country" nurturing her colonial children. The men of 1776 were in most cases the first of their families to obtain a college education, wealth, or social prestige. They imagined something Europeans considered outrageous and, in their settings, impossible: that every man might aspire to education, wealth, prestige, and power. Just as shocking was the founding Americans' concept of virtue. To be sure, their views of human nature were derivative, but they carried into practice the astounding proposition that what others damned as sin or vice might "have the virtue" of enriching lives, expanding liberty, and fostering the pursuit of happiness. Commerce was "next to religion in humanizing mankind" . . . [and] Americans craved equal opportunity, equal rights, and a broadly expanded franchise. (311)

In other words, Americans differed from Europeans in demanding the freedom to choose their own lives as individuals in a democratic republic whose legitimacy was based on the concept and practice of equality before the law and whose expansion was based on commerce as a source of power and prestige.

Not everybody benefited from these things. American women were freer than European women but still derived most of their advantages through their husbands and sons, American Indians lost out as white Americans took more and more land without the restrictions imposed by the British crown, and African Americans gained nothing from the new system beyond the dubious 'distinction' that each African-American male had come to possess through being worth 3/5 of a man.

Yet, this new political system contained this seeds of greater liberty and justice for all.


At 1:42 AM, Blogger Hypersonic said...

Times change and so do nomenclatures and terms but the methods and philosophies behind them remain the same. What's the difference between a modern North-American commercial empire such as-oh, let's say - Wal-Mart and it's policies to induce smalltown, middle american virues through commercial enteprise, and the British Empire imposing English attitudes on it's colonies? Not a lot I think.
I must take exception to the idea that the New American Republic ( I hate the term american to imply the United States, as there are a couple of other Americas down here as well)pioneered new philosophies, both political and social. Because the former colony's tabla was almost rasa it moved a mite faster, but the same values and systems were already existing in Europe at the time, though they had several centuries of history to go against, whereas the U.S.A. had lots of ideas and adventurous people to try them out all concentrated into an area that was about the size of France.

At 4:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Alistair, for the comment.

McDougall does not mean that America pioneered new ideas in the 18th century. Everything intellectual that was concentrated in the American mind came from Europe, primarily England, and McDougall deals with this earlier in his book.

What was new were the social consequences of putting these inherited ideas into practice in a new environment, i.e., the egalitarian tendencies (versus European hierarchy) and status explicitly based on commerce (versus European status of birth). These were pretty significant social changes in the 18th century.

I did not use the expression New American Republic, but the United States was the only republic in the Americas in the 18th century.

I understand the critique of America as synonymous with the United States of America, but I have noticed that when Latin Americans say that they do not like the Americans, they do not mean themselves or Canadians. Neither does anyone else. Looks like we are stuck with the term.

I have to disagree with you on commercial empires and the British Empire. I do not think that the word empire is being used in the same way in the two expressions.


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