Here's our essay question:
"Which of the following two statements is the most accurate analysis of the period we have just studied (1763-1787)? Defend your point of view, drawing upon the class lectures, textbook, and Meaning of Independence. Be sure to explain why the opposing viewpoint does not deserve as much emphasis as the one you have chosen.
"Foremost in the minds of Americans in the late eighteenth century was the need to create a "more perfect Union," - a viruous, republican government dedicated to the protection of the public welfare. This goal, more than any other, was the principal cause of the American Revolution and the underlying motive for the creation of the government that followed."
"The American Revolution was a conservative one, led and directed by men of property, who sought to develop, protect, and advance their own economic interests and social positions; and who, having succeeded in expelling the British, set about to construct a government that would secure these objectives."
A Conservative Revolution
I agree with the second statement, “The American Revolution was a conservative one, led and directed by men of property, who sought to develop, protect and advance their own economic interests and social positions; and who, having succeeded in expelling the British, set about to construct a government that would secure these objectives.” If the revolution had been truly liberal, slave labor would have been a bigger deal, as it was clearly not holding to the ideals of “unalienable [human] rights” (Martin, A-3). The leading factor of going to war seemed to be a growing fear that the British were out to get them, instead of a general desire to be a free nation. Had there actually been a desire to “protect the public welfare”, the public themselves would have been more involved in the forming of the government. As it was, they were practically forced into the new government. The elites of the time did not want a society where the “better sort” was looked at on the same level as the common man. They waned a society where “the ‘better sort’ of citizens [were] the stewards who guided the people” (Martin, 136). And finally, the first few presidents were elites, more concerned with keeping up appearances than keeping an equal nation.
According to the first quote, “Foremost in the minds of Americans in the late eighteenth century was the need to create a ‘more perfect Union,’ – a virtuous, republican government dedicated to the protection of the public welfare,” the concept of slave labor should have turned more heads during the revolutionary period. There were around 500,000 African American people living in revolutionary America that were not counted as people. When the government eventually did acknowledge them, it was as three-fifths of a person. According to the Declaration of Independence, “[A]ll men are created equal”. Had this truly been the case, then African Americans would have at least been held to the same voting standards as white men. The unfortunate truth was that they were looked down upon and hardly regarded as people.
Where the first quote would have us believe that the people were trying to free themselves from a tyrannical British government, it is more truthful that American subjects were simply paranoid of a potential tyrannical British government. Suspicions began to rise when Britain began putting taxes on many American goods. People were not happy with this, and began to get angry with the British. However, the Tea Act that pushed matters over the edge was not a heavy tax, in fact, it made tea cheaper. But by this point the colonists were unwilling to accept any British rule, tyrannical or otherwise. Colonists did not trust the innocent act, convincing themselves there was some underlying motive. If this had truly been a revolution against British tyranny, there would have actually had to be some British tyranny, not just a suspicion of it.
As for a desire to “protect public welfare”, this was not quite the case either. After the United States became a free nation, they set to work forming a new government. Had there actually been a desire to “form a more perfect Union”, the people of the United States would have had more of a say. The Constitution that was drawn up did as much as possible to keep power with the elites, by emphasizing a right to property. It imposed the Electoral College, which meant that the presidential election would never actually be a vote of the people, but the vote of a few select people. Where in the past, the consent of all 13 states was needed to ratify a document, the writers of the Constitution made it so that only 9 states needed to cast the “yea” vote for it to be ratified. And despite their non-federalist nature, the writers of the Constitution began calling themselves “federalists” to make the document more appealing. Had this been an attempt at promoting public welfare, it would have been carried out fairly, instead of taking all these sneaky back roads to get the Constitution ratified.
The people that were considered to be elites at the time did not want their status to change. If they had actually wanted the nation where “all men are created equal”, they would not have been so worried about status. The elites felt that they were the “better sort” and that they should be the ones in charge of the government, and so many states had rules that only men who owned a certain amount of property could vote. This is not a society where all men are equal. Even white males, who were in the best place status-wise compared to women and African Americans, were not as good as white males with property. Where the first quote would have us believe that the general public were fighting for freedom so that they might have a chance at equality, it seems more viable that the elites were fighting for a chance to rule their country on their own, without the greater power of Britain overshadowing them.
When you look at the types of people who held the first few presidencies after the revolution, it’s obvious that the United States were not being run by the type of people who believed in equality among men. George Washington, who was indeed an honorable man, was concerned with the way his estate at Mount Vernon looked above everything else. According to The Meaning of Independence, he was constantly writing home to ensure that the upkeep of the estate was going well. Also, the book stated that Washington would have preferred to retire and stay at Mount Vernon than become president. If Washington were truly the type of president that wanted to “create a more perfect Union,” he would have been more concerned with the state of the country than the state of his property. As for Thomas Jefferson, while his intentions were good, he was an enormous hypocrite. Despite the fact that he constantly spoke out against slave labor, he himself owned about 200 slaves and he only freed 5 of these. Jefferson may have thought that he believed in an equal nation, but he was fooling himself. Washington and Jefferson are both examples of elites running the nation in such a way that elites remain at the top.
From everything I have said here, I think that it is quite clear that this was indeed a conservative revolution, beginning, middle and end. Everything leading up to it, during, and well after show that it was “led and directed by men of property, who sought to develop, protect and advance their own economic interests and social positions.” We can see it in the treatment of slaves, the paranoia of British tyranny, the drafting of the Constitution, and the first presidents. This was not a liberal revolution of ideas.
I think I did a pretty good job doing everything the question asked me to do, what do you think? Would YOU give me the 50 points on the test that it's worth?