Rebirth of English Liberty, Rebirth of American Society

Paul Fischer
US History
Dec. 1, 2010

Rebirth of English Liberty, Rebirth of American Society

    The English liberties, as practiced before the Revolution, were changed or eliminated in a radical sense on both sides of the Atlantic after Independence. The Enlightenment introduced new ideas on the rights of man, allowing American intellectuals to replace the hierarchy of monarchical society. There are a number of devices that carried out this change ranging from the spread of academies and printing presses to the erosion of representative government to economic circumstances, most of which were tied intrinsically to the sudden explosion in population. The American Revolution was instigated and carried out through two forces: the power of a well educated populace accustomed to near democracy through townships and the increasing pressure of the British Crown to assert control over the colonial political system to become more and more English in style.
    Change is seen in the destruction of ancient monarchical and aristocratic ideals as the American people sought a new form of government to replace old social obligations. These social ties had become a burden to a nation ready for self-government. To understand how the old system chained down the expansion of America, physically and psychologically, it is not necessary to look farther than the education of the nation. American society, with its large middle class, had a better educated and more politically active populace than anywhere else in the British Empire. As the educated class of America grew in size, and became aware of the ideals propagated by the Enlightenment, so did the value of decentralized political power increase to the average American. This, together with the pressure from the crown in the form of reactionary rulings  gave birth to the will for Independence.

Population, Education, and Changing Politics
American revolutionary motivation differed strongly from that of France or England in the 1600’s; the colonial Americans had enough to eat and weren’t heavily taxed. Instead, the spread of the Enlightenment, as seen through the founding of academies and explosive growth in the number of printing presses in the colonies, persuaded colonial America to rise up in revolt (Lecture 21). American academies created a surplus of intellectual power in an agrarian society, leaving many overqualified and unsatisfied despite their high levels of education. The difference between England and America was not in the academy alone, but in the sheer number of academies, over one hundred and fifty, that multiplied across New England. These, combined with the efforts of self-taught politicians such as Ben Franklin fortified the will for independence in America. As this new, politically active, population emerged in North America, Thomas Paine was able to take advantage of the huge distribution network of hundreds of printing presses to ensure that hundreds of thousands of his politically charged work sold (Lecture 13). 
England prior to the Enlightenment had very low literacy rates and more importantly because only about two-fifths of the nation was landed, a select number of individuals were involved in politics. This became the paternal system in which the gentry were expected to look after the welfare of the poorer classes. As Americans questioned authority more and more, the local government felt uneasy in its position, and furthered controls over the people. The minuscule assemblies and gubernatorial offices British used to exert power created anger in the colonies, which were used to a more direct township mode of government. The political gap between assemblies and constituents is also reflected as upperclass businessmen and lawyers controlled all of the mechanics of government while a large lower-class appeared with the massive influx of German, Scotch, Irish, and various other European immigrants. The society’s polarization caused the wealthy, which once mingled easily with their inferiors, as a father with his children, to become increasingly obsessed with the working class’ ethics and morals. This continued unchecked until the Revolution, even to the point that many towns and colonies established work houses for the unemployed from the mid-1700s (Lecture 10).

Rich and Poor, a New Emphasis on Equality
    The gap between rich and poor was rapidly increasing: in 1772 the percentage of poor in Philadelphia had risen eight-fold over twenty years. This encouraged the demise of old patriarchal ties as people became free to move about as they wished, and did so in greater numbers than ever before. In many colonies, the minuscule and often ineffective colonial assemblies irked Americans accustomed to more direct representation. As the economic disparity between rich and poor increased exponentially, so did colonists’ dissatisfaction with their inability to wield power in the colonial system (Lecture 13). This became clearly evident by 1763 as the British Empire, ruled by foreign born, German speaking Monarchs and their corrupt ministers, bungled the Stamp and Sugar Acts, paving the path for radicals and their American Revolution. These “intolerable” acts, while economically insignificant, exacerbated feelings of political frustration for many Americans, who felt that the former local government was unable to keep up with the influx of . The common people’s desire for influence combined with republican ideals introduced by the Enlightenment calling for equality and redefining the old understanding of liberty to encompass all men, especially since many land-owning Americans were not well-born. This sentiment is echoed by William Moraley’s description of American farmers, “instead of finding the Planter Rack-rented, as the English Farmer, you will taste of their liberality, they living of Affluence and Plenty” (Fischer 220).
As the population boomed, and with the expulsion of the French from North America, it would seem as though the colonies were prepared in the middle of the 18th century to unite politically, but instead deep divisions were created. The mishandling of this opportunity is seen in the intolerable acts, a series of legal taxes and other actions that were intended to bind the colonies closer to the empire, but instead resulted in a greater rift. The abnormally small assemblies as compared to population were standard in England, as were dirty elections and rotten boroughs, but were relatively new with the burgeoning population of the colonies. As all of these corruptions began to appear in America after the Seven-Years War, neither the old colonists accustomed to some political liberty nor the immigrants who sought to find it were satisfied. Pennsylvania, with a population of over 250,000 in the 1770’s, still only had thirty-six members in its assembly and less than 10 percent of the population was able to vote for a limited number of candidates. America had been self-governed on a local level for the most part and so reactionary governments of the mid-1700’s were presented by revolutionaries such as Thomas Payne and Samuel Adams as dangerously unrepresentative and caused by the monarchy’s influence (Lecture 11). In the midst of the enlightenment, the local governments of America were becoming more and more reactionary. All of this impacted and in some capacity caused the breakdown of ancient aristocratic ties between gentry and the people in the colonies.
Monarchical Ideals Changed or Replaced by Enlightenment
    While the colonial American government was much less monarchical and reactionary than in the motherland, it changed in the mid-1700’s and became more English after the Seven-Years War, which incurred massive military debts on Britain, and expelled France from North America (Lecture 11). This was due to a number of coinciding factors, especially a massive population boom, that, while lacking the entire social upheaval which occurred in Europe, still had profound effects on both upper and lower classes in America and impacted the society so that the early British colonies were transformed into pre-revolutionary America. As Lockean ideals of equality, to which a sense of moral responsibility was added, pervaded the society the driving forces behind the American Revolution were created. The extent to which these Enlightenment ideals penetrated colonial society cannot be entirely measured, though they were certainly recognized by colonial leaders: John Locke was actually commissioned to write the constitution of North Carolina.
Colonial politics were changed by the Enlightenment, during which many great writers of pre-war America spoke of republicanism, and intellectual thought became increasingly republican in form. While freedom of speech did not exist in the manner it does today, the ability to speak or print without fear of prosecution was key to building the road towards independence. Matthew Lyon of Vermont is an example of how after the Revolution the power of speech and publication could be used cohesively to promote a populist agenda without the assent of authorities, even from jail. Federalists were terrified of his sort of populist, rural influence in American politics. Their reaction was to implement Alien and Sedition laws, which undermined many of the ideals of democracy but reinforced nationhood. Artisans and workers became involved politically by voting ordinary representatives into office, contrasting sharply with the “men of learning, leisure and easy circumstances” that leaders such as Charles Nisbet, president of Dickinson College, envisioned as leading the nation. This was the result of unprecedented numbers of printing presses and public access to revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment, which colonists not only understood, but also implemented in the new nation.
Fear of Democracy, Victory for the Common Man
    This transition of power, which occurred without the consent or agreement of the country’s new leaders, infuriated new political leaders. The rise of Jeffersonian, and later Jacksonian, ideals exacerbated the problem for New Englanders such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, who looked to the British empire as a model (Lecture 19). From the beginning, the first of ‘The Federalist Papers’ by Alexander Hamilton recognizes the danger posed by certain classes of men who “hazard” a diminution of power (Lecture 17). Fear of foreign domination was to be feared, but far worse for the federalist government would be the domestic tyranny that could occur in a new democracy. These processes are found in the Constitution and the electoral college as well, which are just a few of the political machinations geared to promote a distinctly Federalist agenda. Despite these formidable obstacles, the success of these “commoners” in both governing and effecting democracy in America proved to be among the most extreme effects of independence. During the Revolution, fear of domestic oppression is exemplified by conflicts over turnpikes, foreclosures and war bonds. Each of these shows how in conflicts between speculators, the poor, rural farmers had virtually no access to legal or political machinations, and were instead forced to take largely ineffective measures of their own. The transition was fueled by the monarchist nature of the colonies after population increased in the 1700’s as England exerted greater influence over its colonies. The spread of the Enlightenment to America allowed the common people used to redefine English liberties in order to counteract the expanding power of England.
    Thus the redefinition and expansion of English liberties in America in such a way as to be extended to all people equally represents the most radical and important part of the Revolution, and was a source of irritation to most Federalists even before 1810 (Lecture 17). This was a refutation to people such as John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, who believed that “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” The former sense of English liberties in America had changed, irreversibly. This aspect of the Revolution was made possible by both the forces of a wide base of education and literacy in America as well as the pressure of oppression as once local and relatively democratic, certainly independent colonial politics were ineffectively controlled by the debt-ridden British Crown.

Works Cited:
Fischer, Kirsten, and Eric Hinderaker. Colonial American History. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. Print.
Hamilton, Alexander. “The Avalon Project : The Federalist Papers No. 1.” Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Web. 03 Dec. 2010. .
Opal, Jason. “US History to 1865.” Stewart Biology Building, Montreal. September-December 2010. Lecture.

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