American people in the age of the American Revolution

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

The popular upheaval after 1773 demonstrated that some of the ordi­nary people in every colony were far ahead of their leaders in opposition to Britain-and to fellow Americans who dragged their feet. In March 1775, the governor of South Carolina spoke for more than one colony when he reported to England that the “men of property begin at length to see that the manyheaded power of the People, who have hitherto been obediently made use of by their numbers and occasional riots to support the claims set up in America, have discovered their own strength and importance, and are not now so easily governed by their former Leaders.”[1]

By the spring of 1775, the people who had “discovered their own strength and importance” and their “manyheaded power” were not merely difficult to govern, but were seizing upon the ideas used against Britain and converting them into weapons in a campaign for sweeping changes and even revolution in American society. The demands for change came from almost every level of society, except from the top. But the concern of most Americans seemed to be focused on government at every level, for they believed that the future shape of American society would depend on the kind of governments created if Americans declared their independence.

By the beginning of 1776, most of the old central governments of the colonies had collapsed. Officials had fled or resigned, or were unable or unwilling to act. Courts were closed, tax and debt collections had stopped. The only effective governments were the hundreds of county, township, or village committees over which there was no central control, for, while the provincial congresses and conventions adopted policies, they had no power to enforce them.

For the first time in their history, many of the American people were governing themselves at the local level. Aside from Massachusetts, Con­necticut, and Rhode Island, the sole political right of the people in most of the colonies had been limited to voting for members of the lower houses of legislatures. Now they were electing the committees which governed their communities and many of the elections were held without regard for the old rules for voting and office-holding. Furthermore, hundreds of people who had never held office before were serving on such local committees. Patriotism, enthusiasm, and a willingness to act were as important, if not more so, than wealth, status, and old political connections as a host of “new men” acquired local position and power during the upheaval between 1774 and 1776.

The rise of such men to local power was accompanied by the destruc­tion of the appointed hierarchy of colonial governors, upper houses, judges, attorneys, secretaries, and other officials. It was a sweeping politi­cal revolution in which the political careers of more than three fourths of the men, some of whom had governed the colonies for decades, were de­stroyed forever.

The people acquired more power and more liberty than they had had before independence, and some of them at least acquired a new spirit and a new attitude toward the society in which they lived, and they made it clear that they wanted even more power and more liberty in the future.

By no means all the ideals proclaimed, the hopes created, and the goals established by the American people in the age of the American Revolution were achieved then. By no means all of them have been achieved yet, and perhaps they will always remain goals and ideals rather than achievements. John Adams understood this as he witnessed the revival of constitution- making in the 1820s and concluded that “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to liberty, and few nations, if any, have found it.” [2]

From: The Journal of American History, 1970

[1] George C. Rogers, Jr. Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charles­ton (1758-1812). Columbia, 1962, p. 78.

[2] Charles Francis Adams, ed.. The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States. Boston, 1865, vol. X, p. 397.