Triumph of Freedom, 1775-1783

By John C. Miller | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVII
Radicals and Conservatives: The Ideological Conflict

THE American Revolution occurred during the heyday of eighteenthcentury liberalism -- indeed, it was itself a product of that liberalism. As Washington said, the United States came into existence in an auspicious period of the world's history, "an epoch when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period." Far from being a "gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition," it was distinguished by "the free cultivation of Letters; the unbounded extension of Commerce; the progressive Refinement of Manners; the growing liberality of sentiment." In framing their constitutions, it was therefore open to Americans to draw upon the accumulated wisdom of the ages and to make the new governments of America the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment.

Philosophers had long found the source of all governmental authority in the people and had proclaimed them sovereign, but this was an inheritance the people had yet to enter upon. Indeed, it seemed as unlikely that the people would become sovereign as that philosophers would become kings. Upon the continent of Europe, democracy was firmly established only in Switzerland and a few other small states; elsewhere, monarchism was ascendant. After its extinction in the fall of the Greek city-states, democracy was almost a new thing in the world; it remained for the United States to revive democracy by proving that free men were capable of governing themselves.

As yet relatively untouched by the Industrial Revolution, society in the United States was simple and predominantly agrarian in character. The great majority of whites were independent freeholders or artisans and tradesmen in comfortable circumstances; most of the people had received at least a rudimentary education and there were few important vestiges

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