America's Unfinished Revolution


Mr. Nash is an emeritus professor of history and director of the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?" Thus wrote John Adams in 1815 to Thomas Jefferson."Nobody," Jefferson replied from Monticello,"except merely its external facts. ... The life and soul of history must be forever unknown."

Not so. For more than two centuries, historians have written about the American Revolution, striving to capture the"life and soul" of which Jefferson spoke. We now possess a rich and multistranded tapestry of the Revolution, filled with engaging biographies, local narratives, weighty explorations of America's greatest explosion of political thinking, annals of military tactics and strategies, and discussions of the religious, economic, and diplomatic aspects of what was then called the"glorious cause."

Yet the great men -- the founding fathers -- of the revolutionary era still dominate the reigning narrative. Notwithstanding generations of prodigious scholarship, we have not appreciated the lives and labors, the sacrifices and struggles, the glorious messiness, the hopes and fears of the diverse groups that fought in the longest and most disruptive war in our history, with visions of launching a new age filling their heads.

Little is known, for example, of Thomas Peters, an African-born slave who made his personal declaration of independence in early 1776, fought for the freedom of African-Americans, led former slaves to Nova Scotia after the war, and completed a pilgrimage for unalienable rights by shepherding them back to Africa to participate in the founding of Sierra Leone. Why are the history books virtually silent on Dragging Canoe, the Cherokee warrior who made the American Revolution into a two-decade fight for his people's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? Can we capture the"life and soul" of the Revolution without paying close attention to the wartime experiences and agendas for change that engrossed backcountry farmers, urban craftsmen, deep-blue mariners, female camp followers, and food rioters -- those ordinary people who did most of the protesting, most of the fighting, most of the dying, and most of the dreaming about how a victorious America might satisfy the yearnings of all its peoples?

It is not hard today to understand that Americans in all their diversity entertain a variety of ideas about what they want their nation to be. Much the same was true two centuries ago. But from a distance, we don't think about our nation's birth that way. It is more comforting to think about united colonists rising up as a unified body to get the British lion's paw off the backs of their necks. That is a noble and inspiring story, but it is not what actually happened. It is assuredly not the story of radical democracy's work during the Revolution.

A people's revolution, an upheaval among the most heterogeneous people to be found anywhere along the Atlantic littoral in the 18th century, complicates the well-established narrative. It highlights the true radicalism of the American Revolution, an attitude that was indispensable to the origins, conduct, character, and outcome of the world-shaking event.

By"radicalism" I mean advocating wholesale change and sharp transformation, rooted in a dream of a better future imagined by those who felt most dissatisfied with the conditions they experienced as the quarrel with Britain unfolded. For a reformed America, they looked toward a redistribution of political, social, and religious power; the discarding of old institutions and the creation of new ones; the overthrowing of ingrained patterns of conservative, elitist thought; the leveling of society so that top and bottom were not widely separated; the end of the nightmare of slavery and the genocidal intentions of land-crazed frontiersmen; the hope of women to achieve a public voice. That radicalism was usually connected to a multifaceted campaign to democratize society, to put"power in the people," as the first articles of government in Quaker New Jersey expressed it a century before the American Revolution.

The iconic founding fathers are surely part of the story. But in reality, those in the nether strata of colonial society and those outside"respectable" society were most of the people of revolutionary America. Without their ideas, dreams, and blood sacrifices, the American Revolution would never have occurred, would never have followed the course that we can now comprehend, and would never have reverberated around the world among oppressed people down to the present day.

Many of the figures were from the middle and lower ranks of American society, and many of them did not have pale complexions. From those ranks, few heroes have emerged to enter the national pantheon. For the most part, they remain anonymous. Partly that is because they faded in and out of the picture, rarely achieving the tenure and status of men such as John Adams and John Hancock of Boston, Robert Morris and Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of New York, and Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Washington of Virginia, all of whom remained on the scene from the Revolution's beginning to the very end. The shortness of their lives also explains the anonymity of ordinary people. It is safer to conduct a revolution from the legislative chamber than to fight for it on the battlefield, healthier to be free than enslaved.

It would be impossible to capture the revolutionary involvement of all the component parts of some three million wildly diverse people living east of the Mississippi River without changes in the historical profession over the past few decades -- something akin to a tectonic plate shift. Clio, the muse of history, is hardly recognizable today in comparison to her visage of 1960. The emergence of a profession of historians of widely different backgrounds has redistributed historical property, and the American Revolution is now becoming the property of the many rather than the few. Even the best-remembered heroes are now seen with all their ambiguities, contradictions, and flaws.

When historians fix their gaze downward or write a warts-and-all American history, they often offend people who cherish a more coherent, worshipful, and supposedly annealing rendition of the past. In the history wars of the 1990s, many conservative culture warriors called historians offering new interpretations of the American Revolution -- or any other part of American history -- "bandits,""pirates," or, sneeringly,"revisionists." Yet the explosion of historical knowledge has invigorated history and increased its popularity. People who discover in accounts of the past figures like themselves -- in color or class, religion, sex, or social situation -- find history more satisfying than when it is organized around a triumphalist version in which the occupants of the national pantheon, representing a narrow slice of society, get most of the play. Narratives of glory will always have a market, and some people will always prefer an uncomplicated, single-message history. But empathy with less than oversized figures, as much in history as in literature, has a market as well.

Unsurprisingly, those of the old school do not like to hear the question"Whose history?" Yet what could be more democratic than to reopen questions about the Revolution's sources, conduct, and results? And what is the lasting value of a" coherent" history if coherence is obtained by eliminating the jagged edges, where much of the vitality of the people is to be found?

Inclusion has another claim to make: Only a history that gives play to all the constituent parts of society can overcome the defeatist notion that the past was inevitably determined. If history did not unfold inevitably in the American Revolution, then surely a great many people must have been significant actors in its unfolding. Conscious of a complex past, people today can embrace the idea that they, too, can contribute to a different future. Honest history can impart a sense of how the lone individual counts, how the possibilities of choice are infinite, how human capacity for both good and evil is ever present, and how dreams of a better society are in the hands of the dispossessed as much as in the possession of the putative brokers of our society's future.

In 1802, arriving in Baltimore after an absence from America of 15 years, Thomas Paine began a series of letters,"To the Citizens of the United States," to explain to a new generation what the American Revolution was all about. In the eighth letter, published in June 1805, he reminded Americans that their independence"was the opportunity of beginning the world anew, as it were; and of bringing forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved." For Paine, matters had gone amiss.

Indeed, African-Americans had reached a crossroads during the Revolution, with one large contingent casting their lot with the British and the others hoping against hope that white Americans would honor their founding principles by making all people free and equal. Estimates vary, but historians agree that tens of thousands of adult slaves, along with many of their children, made their declarations of independence by fleeing to England's protective flag. In that gamble, disease turned out to be their worst enemy. It is likely that not more than one-third of those who fled to the British lines survived the Revolution.

Of those who were free, most were on their way to the easternmost province of Canada as Americans celebrated peace. But once there, the British promises of land, tools, and provisions fell far short of their expectations. Black families found themselves segregated in impoverished villages, given scraps of often untillable land, deprived of the rights normally extended to British subjects, and forced to work on road construction in return for the promised necessities. Gradually they were reduced to peonage.

By 1790, after six years of hand-to-mouth existence in a land of dubious freedom, Thomas Peters concluded that his people must find their freedom elsewhere. Deputized by 200 black families, Peters composed a petition to British authorities and agreed to carry it personally across the Atlantic. Peters arrived in London at a momentous time. English abolitionists were bringing to a climax four years of lobbying for a bill in Parliament to abolish the slave trade. Though merchant slave-trade interests defeated the bill, the abolitionists won approval for chartering the Sierra Leone Company with trading and settlement rights on the African coast. The recruits for the new colony would be the ex-slaves from America then living in Nova Scotia and free black people from England ready to return to the African homeland.

For the much larger number of African-Americans who remained in America, the 1783 treaty recognizing the independence of the United States was only a diplomatic nicety. In fact, it narrowed their options. With no British military establishment offering freedom to black refugees, African-Americans had to carry on the struggle for freedom and equality within a victorious white American society still rankling at the British escape hatch that had offered freedom to slaves. Regarding American soil as their own, since it was the place where their toil and tears had made the land flourish, as well as, in most cases, their place of birth, they would have to pursue their agenda of freedom and equality within the bosom of the new, white republic.

Free black Americans congregated in inland towns and seaboard cities where they saw the best opportunities to find jobs, marriage partners, and black churches. By 1800 their numbers had grown to about 3,500 in New York City, 6,400 in Philadelphia, and 1,350 in Baltimore. In spite of animosity, they created the foundations of black urban life -- churches, schools, self-improvement societies, mutual-aid associations -- while cultivating an ethic of self-reliance that became a key attribute in making the long walk to freedom and equality.

Although the one-tenth of African-Americans who lived in the postwar North began fashioning new lives for themselves, the greatest radical reform of the revolutionary era pertinent to black Americans, the abolition of slavery, slipped away. The prospect of liberty for slaves was real enough at war's end, but it vanished in a few sorrowful years. Of all the missed opportunities in American history, that was the most tragic.

American Indians, too, suffered disastrous losses in the war of the American Revolution. Many had fought with the British. Then the white population's buildup, which had caused straitened economic conditions in seaboard settlements, found a safety valve in Western land, with people pouring across the Appalachians even before the peace treaty with Britain was signed.

Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader, played a crucial role in attempts to forge a pan-Indian alliance that could stem the white tide, trying to gather many tribal leaders together for a grand parley at Detroit late in 1786. He had just returned from England, where he did not receive what he most hoped for -- military support. But the British gave Brant generous compensation for Iroquois losses in the war and enough encouragement to return home determined to rally Britain's wartime Indian allies for further resistance to the overweening Americans. In December, 10 nations of the Ohio country spoke as one in an address to the Continental Congress, calling for a reconsideration of shotgun treaties. They had not been conquered, they insisted, and they had not lost their land except by intimidation and fraud.

Congress paid little heed. Nor were the Western tribes able to maintain a united front, beset as in the past by intratribal and intertribal disputes. Once reorganized after ratification of the Constitution, the United States would do exactly what Pennsylvania's president, John Dickinson, promised in addressing the tribes: Unless they quit resistance to the treaties forced on them,"we will instantly turn upon them our armies that have conquered the king of Great Britain." Preferring death to supine retreat, the Western Indians resisted, supplied by the British from Detroit and other posts in Lower Canada.

Can the pro-British stance of most American Indians and their resistance after the war to onrushing white settlers be counted as a failure of judgment on their part? No. Had they sided with the Americans, they would have fared no better, as the dismal postwar experience of the Tuscaroras, Oneidas, and Catawbas demonstrates. The Oneidas and Tuscaroras, though guaranteed in 1784 that they"shall be secured in the possession of the lands on which they are now settled," quickly lost most of their land to white settlers' depredations. Repeated petitions to Congress about the loss of their land and for aid in relieving the sordid poverty they had sunk to by the time Washington became the nation's first president brought them little in return. Thinking itself merciful, Congress awarded the Stockbridge people $200 and the Oneida $148 per year.

The spiritual heirs of war-tempered Indian chiefs were a new generation of resistance leaders in America's heartland -- Tecumseh, Black Hawk, Red Jacket, Handsome Lake, Sequoya, and many others. In their three-decade struggle to defend their homelands, ending with the War of 1812, they lost in the proximate sense. What they won, however, was a piece of history, for they kept lit the lamp of resistance and passed on their revolutionary struggle to their children and their children's children.

The revolutionary radicalism of small producers also continued after the war and, at times, even intensified. That would not have happened absent the reassertion of power by conservative revolutionaries in the latter years of the war -- men bent on constraining popularly elected state legislatures. Postrevolutionary agrarian radicals were fortified with the righteousness of men who had fought and shed blood on the battlefields where independence had been won. The key natural right they threw in the faces of the great proprietors and companies that controlled the price of land after the war was the old argument advanced by the Green Mountain Boys and Carolina Regulators: The farmer's labor improved wilderness land and gave him legitimate title to it.

The leather-apron men of the inland towns and sea-board cities wrestled with less-than-rosy prospects in the wake of the United States' world-shaking victory over Britain. Many of them were expectant capitalists, hoping for a surge in American-manufactured goods and optimistic about the release of American producers from British mercantilist policies. That often allied them with merchants and lawyers. But for many others, particularly in the lower trades such as shoemaking, coopering, and tailoring, the postwar economic slump and the closure of the huge British West Indian market to American products caused great pain.

What galled craftsmen in particular after the war was the willingness of seaport merchants to import a flood of British goods. That set artisan against merchant, a fracture repaired only when the economy revived later in the 1780s. Out of that conflict, artisans began to understand the need to band together as interest groups. Thus tradesmen and small manufacturers formed cross-craft societies in all the cities -- predecessors of central trade unions.

In 1810 Abigail Adams was still nudging her aging mate about the need to"destroy the foundation of all pretensions of the gentlemen to superiority over the ladies." With all the power he had acquired as an internationally acclaimed diplomat and second president of the United States, John Adams had done little to advance women's rights. But Abigail and many of the women of her generation, although failing to get recognition for women's full rights as citizens, were conceding nothing.

Long before American women became fully involved in the radical abolition movement of the 1830s, their revolutionary-era mothers had become privately involved in benevolent and educational institutions serving the nation's interest. In every city after the war, women founded charitable societies to relieve the miseries of widows, orphans, prostitutes, and the illiterate. The organizing, writing, publicizing, and speaking skills that women honed within those organizations primed them and their daughters for the abolitionist, suffragist, temperance, penal, public-education, and other reform movements of the 1820s and beyond.

In The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 as the Declaration of Independence reached Britain, Adam Smith had written that" civil authority, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all." That was precisely what conservative revolutionaries had in mind as they tried to squash the popular movements of the early war years."Freedom,""security," and"order" were the watchwords of their revolution. Challenging them from below were those who honored the watchwords"equality" and"equity." For them, the Revolution was visionary and experimental. They did not expect it to have an endpoint, final victory, or triumphant success. Rather it was a revolution of beginnings, of partial achievements, of deferred dreams -- in short, a continuing process in which the transformative work was to be passed like a torch to the next generation.

To think of the American Revolution as incomplete is very different from arguing that it was a failure, even for those with the most expansive ideas about a truly free, just, and equal society. Revolutions are always incomplete. Almost every social and political convulsion that has gone beyond first disruptions of the ancien régime has depended on mass involvement; and that in itself, in every recorded case of revolutionary insurgency, has raised expectations that could not be completely satisfied. So it was with the American Revolution.

Related Links

  • Cliopatria Blog:"America's Unfinished Revolution": A Symposium

  • This article was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted with permission of the author. This essay is adapted from The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, published in July 2005 by Viking. Copyright © 2005 by Gary B. Nash.

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    Kenneth Chad Keith - 7/23/2005

    Another chapter in the first American Revolution, that is seldom mentioned in textbooks involves the Southern Civil War between patriots and tories. In the four Southern colonies(GA,SC,NC,VA), the most decisive battles of the war were fought between neighbors and relatives. I have heard many people refer to the Southern Revolution of the 1860's as the war that pitted brother against brother. However, I feel that sentiment more aptly fits the Revolution of the 1780's. For those unfamiliar with the battles of Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Ninety-Six, Camden, Guilford Courthouse, Yorktown, and others, you should educate yourself. These battles were the most decisive in defeating the British(Regulars and Tories). Too bad the textbooks are printed in New York, instead of Atlanta. Maybe we'd get some credit, where credit is due.

    James Spence - 7/20/2005

    Why does Mr. Nash speak in past tense? A quick scan of American events each day provides interesting evidence of an America constantly reinventing itself, for good or worse. It's not "so it was with the American Revolution" but "so it is with the American Revolution". The revolution continues.