The Press and the American Revolution
As an ideological event, the American Revolution has been unparalleled in U.S. history. The independence movement forced British North Americans to formulate fundamental notions about society and government. To explain and justify their actions, and to elicit the public consent they felt they needed, the Revolutionaries fashioned ideologies out of whatever raw material was ready to hand--religious texts, English political traditions, Enlightenment ideas, common sense--making it up as they went along. Some of their formulations became institutionalized. Contemporary rhetoric is deeply imprinted with Revolutionary phrases and slogans.
But this is not to say that Revolutionary ideologies have been transmitted intact. On the contrary: the formulae crafted then became attractive abstractions to be redeployed later in different circumstances by different actors with different agendas. The formulae are so durable because they are so malleable, because they are not limited by original intent. Their "inner" or "real" meaning as texts changes depending upon who uses them for what. That's why there have been so many arguments over these formulae, so many debates, for instance, on who the "men" are in "all men are created equal."
The most durable formulae of the Revolutionary period center on the term liberty. In the popular memory, the Revolution was fought for liberty, and in the rhetoric of the Revolution, liberty was almost certainly the most frequently used abstract noun. But what the Revolutionaries meant when they used this term is far from clear.
Historians have long disagreed on the ideological import of the Revolution. In recent years, three distinct but overlapping positions have developed. Some historians say that ideology was crucial and articulate and that the characteristic ideology was "republican." Others agree that ideology was significant but maintain that the characteristic ideology was "liberal." A third group downplays the significance of ideology and points instead to social conflict as being the key to the Revolution.