The Democratic Revolution
The growth of the population and wealth of the colonies, the diversity of the immigrants, and the European Enlightenment ensured that Puritanism wouldn't be the dominant religion or philosophy in the New World for long. By the early 1700s, even the Puritans were beginning to outgrow their ideas.
The population growth of the colonies during the 1700s was rapid: from 250,000 in 1700 to more than 5 million by 1800. The frontiers moved west at a rapid pace, and cities grew larger. New England and the Middle Colonies were settled by the British, French, Germans, Dutch, Scottish, Irish, and Spanish, and had more small farms and large cities; the Southern Colonies became a land of large plantations supported by slave labor.
The European Enlightenment began in the 1600s. Isaac Newton, in Principia Mathematica (1687), argued that the universe is not "a mystery moving at the whim of an inscrutable God but a mechanism operating by a rational formula that can be understood by any intelligent person" (McMichael 300). Ideas such as Newton's, and the advancements of scientific knowledge, allowed people to see the universe as rational and ordered. The English philosopher John Locke (among others) extended these ideas to the social realm, arguing that "morality is capable of demonstration, as well as mathematics." In his Treatise on Civil Government (1690), Locke put forth the idea that governments are not divinely ordained by God, but are "social contracts" in which people give up some of their liberties to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. But those rights were God-given, and when they were trampled, the people had the right to overthrow their rulers and demand the restoration of their rights. Locke published this work anonymously, but still fled to France after it was published, just to be sure of his safety, since these ideas were popular with the people, but not with the rulers, as you can imagine! Nevertheless, they had great influence.
Locke also argued against Calvinist and Puritan ideas such as predestination and original sin. In Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690), he said that the human mind is, at birth, a "tabula rasa"--a blank slate. Human beings weren't born good or bad; their characters were a result of their experiences. He said that the making of good people requires a good society. Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau agreed, saying that man is not merely free of evil--he is born naturally good.
These ideas may not seem to have much to do with democracy, but they are fundamental to it. Democracy--the rule of the majority--requires that you believe in the basic goodness of the other members of your community, so that you can trust them to have an equal voice in the political process.
The colonies were fertile ground for these ideas. The colonists, partly because of their distance from the King, were used to making their own decisions to a great extent. And as they began to make more money by their own efforts, the idea of having it controlled by a King who was miles away and didn't understand their concerns rankled more and more. In addition, there was a hunger for knowledge in an increasingly literate population. In 1700, the colonies had only one newspaper. By 1800, the number had risen to 200. Benjamin Franklin began the first important magazine, the General Magazine, in 1741. By 1800, 91 magazines had been established. Many of them were short-lived, but there were always new ones to take their place. Scores of pamphlets were published. Magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets allowed ideas--increasingly revolutionary ideas, as the century progressed--to be spread and discussed widely among the middle and working classes. Ideas weren't just for the intellectuals and upper classes. In some towns, those who were literate read publicly to the rest of the people, and they all discussed ideas and events with great enthusiasm.
In addition, there was the influence of Deism. Deism wasn't an organized movement but rather a spreading assumption, especially among intellectuals and the educated upper classes, that the world had been created by God, who set the mechanism in motion according to scientific laws and then withdrew from direct intervention. The ever-present, all-seeing, wrathful God of the Puritans gave way to a distant, benevolent God who was content to reveal himself through the glory of nature.
As people turned to science to explain the natural world, they came to agree that human society also operated by natural laws. By discovering and applying those laws, society could constantly improve. Thus, the idea of progress became important as a way of achieving goodness: by moving forward in the right way, one came closer to achieving the perfection God intended.
In their book, From Puritanism to Postmodernism, Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury point to Benjamin Franklin as the quintessential example of the age. The son of a soap maker and chandler, he grew up in Boston listening to Puritan sermons. Like many other boys of his class, he left school early and became a printer's apprentice. From then on, he educated himself. At age 17 he went to Philadelphia, which was mostly a Quaker city then, and then lived in London for two years. He returned to Philadelphia where he opened a very successful printshop. But he was ambitious, energetic, and hungry for knowledge. "Indeed the Boston spirit never left him; he remained always Puritan in his self-scrutiny and his desire to edify. But his was the Puritan conscience wholly secularized; absorbing the Deism of his day, he became a man for whom the spiritual questions of his forefathers had turned to questions of ethics, self-management, and public service...Franklin was, indeed, the new man, the American as modern, who self-consciously acquired the qualities necessary for the successful creation not only of his own but the colonies' destiny" (Ruland and Bradbury 41-42). He compiled and printed Poor Richard's Almanack, an annual volume which included farming and social advice and moral guidance ("Honesty is the best policy," "God helps them that help themselves," "There are no pains without gains," "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," etc.), wrote voluminously on a wide range of topics for newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books, invented the Franklin stove and the lightning rod, and helped to organize some of the first public services and institutions: the first library; street paving, sweeping and lighting; the American Philosophical Society; the University of Pennsylvania; a city hospital. He interested himself in revolutionary politics and became the country's first internationally recognized statesman, helping to forge the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. As he wrote in his Autobiography, he saw his life as a quest for "moral perfection." But his idea of "moral perfection" had evolved from the religious ideal of his Puritan forefathers into a quest for service to the community and social utility.
Men like Benjamin Franklin were not about to sit around waiting for a king to tell them what to do, and they were not interested in awaiting his permission. When the king closed the doors of the assembly halls to them because he did not like their decisions, they simply moved to the taverns and continued their meetings. The revolution began in the colonies long before the Revolutionary War began.
Trouble had been brewing for a long time in the colonies before the Revolutionary War began and independence was declared. The Boston Massacre took place in 1770; the Boston Tea Party in 1773; the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774; the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in April 1775. Patrick Henry gave his famous and inspirational speech in 1775:
They tell us, sir, that we are weak--unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger. Will it be the next week or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people armed in the holy cause of liberty and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election [choice]. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged. Their clanking may be heard on the plains or Boston! The war is inevitable--and let it come!! I repeat it, sir, let it come!!!
It is vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace--but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God--I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
"Give me liberty or give me death": this was not empty rhetoric. Over 200 years later, the Revolution and its outcome seem inevitable. But that's because we know what happened. The men who undertook this huge enterprise had no idea what would happen. They risked everything to state their minds and make their declarations. Patrick Henry's speech was treasonous, and so was the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Treason carried a penalty of death--and a particularly gruesome death, as you can see from this sentence handed down by a British judge in 1775:
You are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for, while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King's disposal; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in May and June of 1776, and wrote in a letter to a friend that "it was intended to be an expression of the American mind." The Continental Congress debated it and altered some parts of it--most famously, removing Jefferson's call to end slavery--and finally signed it on July 4, 1776. (Independence had formally been declared on July 2, 1776).
Jefferson was responsible for some of the most important ideas that stand as the basis for American democracy. Schoolchildren are taught the phrase from the Declaration of Independence, "fife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but those ideas needed to be codified in law, and Jefferson helped to achieve that. While he was writing the Declaration of Independence, he was also writing the constitution for the state of Virgina, which contains many of the principles to which Jefferson dedicated himself, and which found their way into the United States Constitution: the rights of the citizen against totalitarian control, broad-based suffrage, abolition of primogeniture and entail, the control of military authority by elected citizens, and the separation of church and state. He proposed a system of tax-supported elementary schools for all boys and girls, secondary schools for the better students, and a system of scholarships for the most talented so that they could attend university. Jefferson also advocated the abolition of slavery, but was unable to get either his own state or the United States to adopt it during his lifetime. He warned that failing to do so would cause such a rift in the nation that war would inevitably result, but was (not surprisingly) unable to persuade people to change a system upon which their own fortunes depended.
The separation of church and state was one of Jefferson's greatest concerns. In Virginia there were still on the books laws that stated that heresy to the Church of England was punishable by death; that denial of the Trinity was punishable by three years in prison; that freethinkers and Unitarians could be considered unfit parents and deprived of their children. Similar laws existed in all of the states. Jefferson knew that, although those laws were no longer enforced, that could change if the spirit of the times changed. He considered eliminating them and protecting everyone's religious freedoms from governmental interference one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.
During the Revolutionary years, he was consumed by a sense of urgency and worked at fever pitch. He knew that the time for reform was short-lived. In 1781 he wrote,
Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, and the Treaty of Paris formally ended the American Revolution in 1783. The Constitution was ratified in 1789, and Washington was elected the first president. It was time to begin to establish an "American" identity and literature.
In 1783, the year the United States achieved its independence, Noah Webster stated, "America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics, as famous for the arts as for arms." This was more easily said than done. The first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy, appeared in 1789. Susannna Rowson's novel Charlotte Temple was published in 1791--in England (although it was reprinted over 200 times in the United States). Both of the novels had American settings and were based loosely on American events, but they closely followed English traditions and styles. The poetry being written at the time did not deviate from English forms and meters; the first plays (Thomas Godfrey's The Prince of Parthia, 1767, and Royall Tyler's The Contrast, 1787) followed English dramatic conventions.
Indeed, the Founding Fathers, while they were educated men, did not place a high priority on the arts. Their first concern was the health of the new nation. John Adams wrote to his wife from Paris, in 1780:
I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, Natural History, Naval Architechture, Navigation, Commerce, and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.
As Adams predicted, the first uniquely American literary voices in fiction, poetry, and drama would appear in the next century.
For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1
2. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature.
3. Richard Ruland & Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism.
4. Fawn M. Brodie. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.
--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.
--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.