The American Revolution as a Conservative Movement
The American Revolution is often analyzed by historians as a conservative movement to maintain the status quo. However, the American Revolution was partially conservative and partially liberal, contributing to the nuance of the issue. Politically, the revolution was revolutionary because the governmental institutions that resulted from it were radically different than the inherited governmental systems of Great Britain. These governmental establishments amplified Enlightenment ideas and divided sovereignty (federalism), notably different from Britain’s political system. Additionally, the Bill of Rights was established in the United States and its ideals of freedom of religion, speech, and press (among others) were dissimilar to those of Britain. However, the United State’s governmental institutions continued to be similar to Britain’s in some ways – elite white men continued to have voting rights whereas African Americans and Native Americans did not. Economically, the American Revolution was conservative. The agricultural economies of the South prevailed while the merchants in the North continued to profit through commerce and industry. Socially, the American Revolution was also conservative. Cultural values and class structures did not significantly change. Women’s role in society was not altered – the idea of “Republican Motherhood” persisted and women were expected to stay at home and teach “domestic virtues”. A combination of conservative and revolutionary ideas and values were reflected through the American Revolution.
The American Revolution occured in the context of the French and Indian War, a worldwide struggle between the British and French (both formidable European powers), in which both nations were vying for power. The superpower competition between Britain and France led to the French and Indian War as both countries were competing for dominance around the globe. Additionally, these two powers were highly involved with the economic policy of mercantilism, in which trade was used for the purpose of augmenting the nation’s power at the expense of a colony’s powers’. As a result, the French and Indian War had profound effects on the British Empire and the American colonies. It greatly expanded England’s territorial claims in the New World. The war greatly enlarged Britain’s debt as financing it had been a major drain on the treasury. Additionally, it generated substantial resentment toward the Americans among Britain leaders, many of whom were contemptuous of the colonists for what they considered American military ineptitude during the war. They were angry as well that the colonists had made so few financial contributions to a struggle staged largely for American benefit. These factors persuaded many English leaders that a major reorganization of the empire, giving Britain increased authority over the colonies, would be necessary in the aftermath of the war. The war also had an equally profound but very different effect on the American colonies. It forced them, for the first time, to act in concert against a common foe. The war was an important socializing experience for many men who served in the colonial armed forces. The French and Indian War ultimately helped shape the American response to British imperial policies, a type of resistance that was reflected in the American Revolution.
Politically, the American Revolution was revolutionary. As a result of the war, Americans adopted a powerful, new ideology, focusing on sovereignty and freedom. Specifically, they stood for ideas such as the opposition to taxation, representation, sovereignty, fear of military oppression, and natural rights. Opposition to taxation was reflected through the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party. The Americans had become acclimated to a large degree of self-government, however, once the British imposed taxes for the sole duty of collecting revenue, they began to retaliate. The Townshend Duties and the Tea Act were examples of Britain’s attempt at enforcing stronger influence over the colonies. The Americans insisted that taxation could only be passed if they had a voice in the British parliament. Furthermore, they wished to have their petitions to Britain heard and treated with respect. Additionally, the Americans had a fervent desire for representation. They rejected the idea of virtual representation that Britain had imposed and demanded for actual representation, where each member of parliament sat on behalf of a number of their electors, enabling every person to have a voice in their parliament.
The Americans also had an ardent desire for sovereignty, in which they would receive political autonomy – the right of a nation’s government to rule itself and not be commanded by others. Americans were also fearful of military oppression – Britain was the world’s leading military power at the time of the Revolution and standing soldiers were permitted. Sometimes, these standing soldiers posed significant problems – for example, during the Boston Massacre, standing soldiers fired (it is argued if they did this on purpose or by accident) which resulted in the death of five innocent people. The various Quartering Acts of 1765 and 1774 required Americans to house and feed British soldiers in their own homes, which was despised. Natural rights were valued, where man is born with certain rights that no government could take away; these rights are life, liberty, and property. These policies and ideas combined supports the idea that the American Revolution was politically revolutionary because it brought about new ideals and values that differed from Britain’s. However, in some ways the revolution was politically conservative as elite white men continued to have the majority of voting rights in the country.
Economically, the American Revolution was a conservative movement that maintained the status quo. The economic policies and ideals of the United States did not significantly alter during and after the revolution. The southern regions of the country maintained their agricultural dominance, focusing on farming and tremendous profits through growing cash crops. The northern regions of the country preserved industry and commerce among the merchant class. This economic distribution in goods and production was seen during the colonial times and persisted even after the American Revolution. Furthermore, it continues throughout the mid 1800s, where sectional tensions especially grew.
Socially, the American Revolution was also a conservative movement. Class structures did not widely develop and the culture of the country did not considerably change. Women’s role in society did not remarkably transform, it relatively stayed the same as before the revolution. Women were responsible for staying home and performing domestic tasks, such as educating the children, cooking, sewing, and gardening. Through this, ideas such as “Republican Motherhood” arose, in which the children at the time should be raised to uphold the ideals of republicanism. However, during the revolution, women’s roles fluctuated, such as the camp followers that followed men into the war and facilitated them through nursing and cooking. Ironically, women going into the war still performed the same domestic roles as they did at home. Overall, after the American Revolution, women’s roles stayed the same as they were before. Men were responsible for farming in the South and commerce in the North and were the income producers in the family. Additionally, they are the ultimate authority over the family at the time, similar to before the revolution had begun.
The American Revolution is partially revolutionary and partially conservative. The revolution was politically revolutionary whereas it was economically and socially conservative. The American Revolution continues today – people are currently pushing for the pursuit of happiness, making their ideals come true. Once the seeds of revolution were planted during the American Revolution, its ideals were entrenched into American society and continue to grow until today.