Was the American Revolution a Conservative or Radical Movement?

In the introduction to American Nations, Colin Woodard embraces Wilbur Zelinsky’s “Doctrine of First Effective Settlement” as a central theory to his belief that North America has been and continues to be composed of eleven different nations of people with unique and sometimes divergent cultural values. Part one of American Nations convinced me that at least nine of these nations (with two not established yet) existed as unique cultural entities prior to the American Revolution. Do these nations continue to exist separately from each other during and after the Revolution?

Woodard spends chapters ten and eleven going through the usual explanations for why the colonists decided to rebel against the British monarchy (The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, the Intolerable Acts, etc.). The British, according to Woodard, had displayed a sense of “arrogant triumphalism” towards their colonial subjects following the French and Indian War of 1756-1763. An “aggressive new elite” had emerged in England, hell-bent on subjugating “the American colonies to their will, institutions, bureaucracy, and religion.” Woodard argues that the various nations of America—rather than fighting one unified battle against the British—engaged in six separate wars of liberation, sometimes for and sometimes against the British. To quote Woodard:

1. “Yankees fought not for the universal rights of man, freedom of religion, or the liberties of their ruling class, but in defense of the way they’d always lived their lives and regulated their affairs.”

2. “New Netherlanders were generally suspicious of the rebel cause . . . Unlike the nations around them, they didn’t feel the need to defend their sovereignty because they never truly had it, given that the Dutch West India Company, the Duke of York, and crown governors had all ruled the place without reference to local opinion.”

3. “The pacifist midlands did its best to remain neutral in a conflict which most of its inhabitants had wanted no part in. Even after Lexington and Concord, leading figures such as James Wilson and John Dickinson opposed independence . . . the result, in mid-1776, was the assumption of power in Pennsylvania by a vocal patriot minority.”

4. “Until the Battle of Lexington, the Deep South’s all-powerful ruling class was ambivalent about fighting a war of liberation. This was not surprising, given that the region’s identity was based on hierarchy, deference, inherited privilege, and aristocratic rule—all in perfect accord with the aims of the British ruling class . . . in reality, the planters had been forced into independence in order to preserve slavery.”

5. “Greater Appalachia—poor, isolated, and not in control of a single colonial government—had the most complicated involvement in the wars of liberation. The Borderlanders seized on the pretext of the “revolution” to assert their independence from outside control, but . . . this took different forms in each region, sometimes in each community.”

6. “Tidewater was largely spared from the fighting until the final phases of the war, but it committed large numbers of officers and troops to fight on other fronts. The gentry, accustomed to giving orders and having them followed, assumed they would dominate the Continental Army’s officer class . . . [In June 1775, Virginia Royal Governor John Murray] called on loyalists everywhere to rally to him [in the Chesapeake] and issued a proclamation offering slaves their freedom if they took up arms for the king, a proposition that turned Tidewater against him.”

What does Woodard conclude about the nature of the American Revolution?

 The event we call the American Revolution wasn’t really revolutionary, at least while it was underway. The military struggle of 1775-1782 wasn’t fought by an “American people” seeking to create a united, continent-spanning republic where all men were created equal and guaranteed freedom of speech, religion, and the press. On the contrary, it was a profoundly conservative action fought by a loose military alliance of nations, each of which was most concerned with preserving or reasserting control of its respective culture, character, and power structure.

Not revolutionary. Conservative. Not fought for the principle that all men were created equal (damn the Declaration of Independence!). Six different wars of liberation, six different sets of goals and objectives for fighting, six different nations looking out for themselves first and foremost.

The problem with this conservative, non-revolutionary thesis is that many recent scholars of the American Revolution would most likely disagree or at least raise questions about it. Gordon Wood, one of the most preeminent Revolutionary-era historians—perhaps the preeminent historian of that era—would take issue with it. I know this because he wrote a book in 1991 titled The Radicalism of the American Revolution (a book never mentioned in Woodard’s footnotes). Let us look at Wood’s introduction on pages 3-8:

 We Americans like to think of our revolution as not being radical; indeed, most of the time we consider it downright conservative . . . The American Revolution does not seem to have the same kinds of causes—the social wrongs, the class conflict, the impoverishment, the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth—that presumably lie behind other revolutions . . . in fact, the colonists knew they were freer, more equal, more prosperous, and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and monarchial restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century.

We have tended to think of the American Revolution as having no social character, as having virtually nothing to do with the society, as having no social causes and no social consequences. It has therefore often been considered to be essentially an intellectual event, a constitutional defense of American rights against British encroachment (“no taxation without representation”), undertaken not to change the existing structure of society but to preserve it . . . consequently, we have generally described the Revolution as an unusually conservative affair, concerned almost exclusively with politics and constitutional rights, and, in comparison with the social radicalism of the other great revolutions of history, hardly a revolution at all.

Few scholars would disagree with the notion of different colonial regions fighting in the Revolutionary war for different reasons. But Gordon Wood demonstrates that the very structure of colonial society changed. America was no longer a land of disparate colonies but a land represented by the Second Continental Congress, which was composed of more than 300 members throughout the duration of the war and filled with representatives from each of the thirteen colonies. People in different regions connected to each other in new ways and worked together to govern a new society based on republicanism and free of monarchial reign (yes, even those in Tidewater and the Deep South). In sum, each of Woodard’s nations begin to inch closer militarily, politically, socially, and culturally.

If Woodard’s arguments about the conservative, selfish nature of the Revolution are true, why didn’t six independent and sovereign states emerge in the war’s aftermath? Why did Yankees agree to let Tidewater aristocrats like George Washington command their forces, and why did they agree to fight with troops from other regions within the colonies? If “Yankeedom [effectively] won its independence in 1776,” as Woodard asserts in chapter eleven, then why did Yankeedom continue to fight and have its soldiers die for another nation’s war? Why continue to send delegates to the Second Continental Congress? Was Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence written for the Tidewater gentry, or was it written for all of Woodard’s nations in at least a partially unified conflict?

Woodard fails to address these questions, leaving me largely unsatisfied with his interpretation of the American Revolution. While acknowledging that the Revolutionary War is not my research specialty, I believe there are too many holes in these arguments and, ultimately, I believe the Revolution to be a pretty radical movement in the history of American society.