Virtue is not hereditary

I found Gordon S. Wood’s essays on the Revolutionary War to be very interesting. Wood deciphers many of the different social classes and their motivations behind the revolution, while also pointing out many of the complex contradictory aspects to the revolutionists’ claims. One point he makes, that I found particularly interesting, was that “society was becoming more unequal, but its inequalities were not the source of instability and anxiety” (111). Wood goes on to argue that the idea that hard work and labor paid off, and that people were chosen based on their skills and not on the family they were born in to was such a novel idea. In this way, society was becoming more and more unequal because one’s ability to be heard was based on public endorsement (and skill), rather than maintaining status quo by following in one’s family’s footsteps. While the notion of popular participation in politics was first used by colonists already in power as leverage against their opponents (royal authority), “once aroused, [popular participation] could not be easily put down” (112).

It was interesting to read Wood and the chapter from Inhuman Bondage together because both mainly focused on distinct groups, allowing many of the revolutionists’ ideals to be seen as contradictory to their actions. As Willie mentions in his post, in some ways, this seems like a case of the rich wanting to get richer by making themselves the “natural aristocracy” while the lower classes remained stagnant. While, as Willie also remarks, Wood deciphers many of the more complex issues to this, reading Inhuman Bonding shows the huge discrepancy between the revolutionists’ fight for independence and fight to preserve slavery — the epitome of dependence which they so slandered. This chapter shows how the colonists were fighting against being dependent on the British, while using their dependents to help them in the war. Emma, in her post, points out the irony here, mentioning that “America is supposed to represent freedom and a new life, yet it doesn’t” because of the enslavement. 

While I’ve only heard an aggrandized and heroic version of the origins of the Revolutionary War, Wood sheds light on the many layers of reason and motivation behind it in society at this time. I liked that he explains how the Revolution was as much social as it was political, showing the different social classes and their arguments for independence or loyalty.

It is interesting to note many contemporary parallels to things Wood mentions. For example, Revolutionists believed that courtiers relied on favors and preferments for their position and rank. Favors and preferments still happen today in politics all the time, when a politician supports another politician’s move in order to secure a returned favor in the future. Additionally, to see how children born into lower class today do not have the same opportunities for education as someone born into a more privileged family is interesting to note in light of all the revolutionary leaders stoof for. While revolutionary leaders “did not expect poor, humble men […] to gain high political office. Rather, they expected that the sons of such humble men […] would thereby rise into ranks of gentlemen and become eligible for high political office”, it is provocative to see how there is a stagnancy for those still born into lower class due to the lack of privileges they have access to. While social standing is not hereditary, opportunities still (for the most part) are. Maybe we haven’t come as far as we hoped to.

Gordon Wood and the American Revolution

I found Gordon Wood’s piece on the revolution to be refreshing. He spoke about the base issue of the war (patriot dissent of the British social system) in an effective manner. Wood’s tied in the everyday relations between Patriots and Courtiers by illustrating the dynamics of their interpersonal relationships. The soon-to-be Americans had developed a sense that rank was to be earned in the New World. Woods himself makes a reference to a Thomas Paine quote that captures this sentiment quite well. The saying goes, “virtue is not hereditary.” Clearly, this was opposite to the British social structure in which people gained their status and title form their parents.

A specific example would be of a fairly well off farmer who, through hard work, attained his wealth, yet was still subject to the rule of the political structure ran by men who inherited their titles. It is easy in this scenario to see Wood’s theory at work on a very personal level. This farmer would despise that fact that despite being a self made man, he would still have to adhere to a social and political system that, in the years leading up to that war, were not in his best interest. The loyalist aristocracy in the colonies was a tangible variable, being a group of people, that represented a violation to the values that Patriots had begun to develop. In this way, I think that Wood’s not only puts forward a great argument, but also makes it easier to understand.

In addition to this, he took time to address the obvious confusions that would arise. Specifically, he noted that the very values Americans used as reason for separation from Britain would conflict with the fact that slavery still existed after the revolutionary war. This is an issue that Wood’s did not delve into, as his piece was on the revolutionary war. But is important nonetheless and comes up in our other texts. As Ness noted in her blog post, it is a large part of Davis’s argument in his book Inhumane Bondage, and essential to understanding the progression of events between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War

The Role of Slaves before the American Revolution

For the first time all semester, it seems that two of our readings differ greatly with one another. Wilentz, as noted in “American History from a Canadian Perspective,” focuses primarily on the struggle of colonists to achieve an established democracy. Wilentz notes that slavery was a concern at constitutional conventions—particularly during discussion of a three-fifths clause—but his analysis stopped there. In contrast, Davis writes his chapter with an emphasis on the role of slaves. He starts with pointing out this contradiction: “though slaves throughout history had yearned for their own liberation…the American rhetoric and ideology of freedom brought a wholly new perspective to blacks whose ears—and whose understanding of contradictions—were at least as sensitive as those of their masters” (Davis 144). Davis also points to historical recounts, including a quote from a historian who argued, “Americans began haphazardly but with detectable acceleration to legislate Negroes into an ever-shrinking corner of the American community” (Davis 145). He also acknowledges the growing petitions from slaves to establish their own liberation.

Interestingly, Davis discusses the then-common dissent of slavery throughout the colonies. However, some colonists saw the inscription of slaves to be fundamental to their “freedom.” Alexander Hamilton wrote, “if we do not make use of them [the slaves] in this way, the enemy probably will…an essential part of the plan is to give them freedom with their muskets” (Davis 148). Davis foreshadows a conflict of the civil war—the argument over slavery—manifesting itself in the days before the American Revolution. He highlights that as soon as 1777, northern colonies were already outlawing slavery. Lastly, he notes, “today we can see that such fears [of African Americans] were based on a profound but unacknowledged racism that made the white fear of black crime and economic dependence almost universal” (Davis 153). Davis concludes by noting, “the very idea of slavery is a fiction or fraud, since liberty and equality are fundamental rights that no one can legitimately lose” (Davis 156).

I appreciate Davis’s discussion of the role of slaves (and slavery) in the colonies. As the aforementioned post highlights, Wilentz portrays the “romantic” version of the build-up to the American Revolution. Davis instead examines the apparent contradiction between colonists’ liberalization and slaves’ entrapment, which is an observation not present enough in contemporary American history.

The Paradox of American Democracy

America has long been celebrated as a country founded upon individual liberty and universal equality. However, as freedom expanded in early America, so did slavery. Exploring this paradox in their respective books, The Rise of American Democracy and Inhuman Bondage, both Sean Wilentz and David Brion Davis explain why this happened.

Davis highlights the apparent contradiction of the American Revolution by referencing Samuel Johnson’s quote on Americans during this momentous period: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” While the Americans attempted to promote liberty and free themselves from British “enslavement,” they also protected the institution of slavery of Africans (Davis 144). This paradox appeared in the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 as well, as slavery was intentionally avoided in the final draft. As the author of “Democracy and Slavery” mentions, slavery persisted in the early history of the United States because the infant government was not in the position to abolish it completely. Doing so would mean alienating the southern states whose economies depended upon the dehumanizing institution. Therefore, compromises had to be made if there was to be any Union at all (Davis 155).

The specifics of the compromises are covered well in Wilentz’s book. The delegates who met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787 decided that the federal government had no say on slavery in the states, deemed slaves three-fifths of a citizen for the purposes of representation in both the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, promised slave owners the return of their runaway slaves, and guaranteed the transatlantic slave trade for another two decades (Wilentz 14). As a result, slavery became deeply embedded in America and would cause numerous problems in the near future – two points touched upon by the author of “Democracy and Slavery.” Davis brings up a fantastic point that if these compromises were not made, “the Founding Fathers could take no immediate and effective actions to secure America’s borders, or strengthen the nation’s shaky credit, or attract foreign investment and diversify the economy” (Davis 155).

In sum, both authors explain why the Founding Fathers compromised on slavery. For the most part, they were not the self-interested hypocrites that history has made them out to be. Instead, they were men who made a calculated decision to delay the emancipation of slaves in order to strengthen the Union. The rich political history that both Wilentz and Davis offer is something that has been noticeably absent from Taylor’s narrative.

Revolutionary Freedom

America was formed on the basis of freedom for all. One new bit of information that I learned from reading Davis’ Inhuman Bondage was that the “white colonists rose in revolt against what they perceived as British effort to ‘enslave’ them” (144). This being said, there is a double standard in how the revolutionaries perceived their oppression and how they oppressed their own slaves. How it is that men who so desperately wanted to be free were able to “own” another human being as property? Isn’t that what the whole point of what the revolution was about, so that Great Britain could not “own” the colonists anymore? As our classmate brought to our attention in “Freedom at Last?” how could we as a new nation base our constitution on freedom for all men, when slavery still existed and was such a large part of the economy? All of these questions are ones that I would have loved to ask to out forefathers and revolutionaries.

During the revolution, slaves were often entrusted with weapons and enlisted to fight. Or, slaves would manage to escape during the wartime and were enlisted to fight against their previous owners. Some owners who enlisted their own knew that their slaves would not want to fight for their owners freedom when they in turn would not get their own. Some owners went as far as promising their slaves their freedom if they chose to fight for their masters’.

I thought Davis did an excellent job in depicting how slaves were treated and their feelings during the Revolutionary War. I was surprised but enlightened at the fact that the revolution, based on the idea of freedom for all, was not in fact “freedom for all”.

Early Division Between the North and South

The opening chapter in Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln offers a description of the general state of the colonies in the 1770s. Throughout the chapter, Wilentz establishes his central argument that as a result of the Revolutionary War, Americans became enthralled with the idea of democracy. In particular, patriotism and democracy, two influential ideals that emerged during the Revolutionary War, inspired many people of middle class status to become involved in the political process. Wilentz notes that, “The Revolution’s democratic impact forever changed the context of American politics and culture and brought ordinary Americans into public and political life, which fundamentally altered how they perceived themselves and each other” (11). Wilentz goes on to categorize one example of this newfound middleclass political involve as being Shays Rebellion of 1786. In response to overbearing financial policies imposed on middle class workers, Daniel Shays led a group of similar working-class people to revolt and interfere with the local court system. While this example displayed the unregulated nature of democracy, Shays ability to create a formidable uprising at the grassroots level clearly shows the impact that even working class people had during this time.

While colonial political power extended to the common white man and wasn’t left solely to aristocrats, there certainly existed a divide between the northern and southern colonies. As Olivia highlights in her blog post entitled “The Revolutionary War as a Precursor to the Civil War?” the rift between the two sides was clearly attributed to slavery. As we discussed in class yesterday, however, it is possible that other factors may have been at play during early colonial independence that formulated the division between the two regions. Although southern delegates eventually were allowed to continue slavery under the education, a source of division between the two sides could also be attributed to the Revolutionary War’s key events occurring primarily in the north. For example, while Wilientz highlights the increased democratic processes that began to take shape in everyday colonial life after the Revolutionary War in the north, similar events in the south were not recounted. While there most likely are examples of the increased sentiments of democracy seen in the south as well, the lack of evidence in Wilentz’s text begs the question as to whether a grassroots uprising like Shays Rebellion would have had the same effect in the south. If not, one could make the argument that the ideals of democracy did not permeate as deeply in southern colonies as they did in the north which, in addition to their varying opinions of slavery, would further divide the two sides.

The Paradox of the Revolutionary War

Both in chapter 7 of Inhuman Bondage by Davidson Brion Davis and chapter 1 of The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz, the authors outlined the struggle and strife in the colonies during the Revolutionary War.  Calling out for freedom, British colonists fought for freedom under the oppressive British rule and started forming democratic ideas for the future.  As Wilentz describes in his chapter, it was not an easy transition from a split social system to equal democracy for all.

During the Revolutionary War when colonists cried for liberty from England, and while yeomen, artisans, and elites were struggling to find a balance in democracy, slaves were watching and observing these political movements.  Learning from the people who were subjugating them to slavery, African Americans learned to fight for their own freedom and liberty.  The paradoxical nature of this time period puts into motion the ideas that would lead to the Civil War.  Many of the freed colonists realized contradiction of keeping slaves, especially after they too had just fought for their own freedom.  Davis’ story about the slave named Prince was the perfect example of this paradox.  Having served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, Prince told his master that it was unfair that the colonists could go to war for their liberty but Prince and other slaves did not have any liberties.

Like Mike talks about in his blog post titled, “Democracy and Slavery,” Davis points out that the United States were too weak to be able to abolish slavery without the destruction of the Union.  The South was economically dependent on the use of slaves in fields, and slavery was such a big issue that if the United States were to abolish it at this point in history, the Union might not have formed.  Although slavery would last for a few more decades, the Revolutionary War and its aftermath acted as a catalyst for the war by showing the inconsistency in the ideas of the American people.

Unnoticed Tension in Revolution

I found Gordon Wood’s ideas in his piece Radical Possibilities of the American Revolution to be a good reminder that sometimes the unstated obvious can provide new revelations about history.  Reminding us that there was “no mass poverty, no seething social discontent, no grinding oppression”, the sentiment established in the Taylor readings of a successful colonization process is revisited (Wood 110).  The foreground for political participation at this time came at the whim of the gentry elite.  The reading describes this as encouragement from above to participate in politics, which seems to be derived from the upper class desire to gain even more independence and wealth at the expense of the lower classes.

Furthermore, he parallels a number of  social groups experiencing the revolution differently.   For instance, Wood mentions the social assault between the couriers and the patriots.  These opposing groups seemed to provide a basis for the desired political system of the elite gentry.  The paper also makes the connection between the independence that these colonists were fighting for and the continued dependence, which the disenfranchised peoples at the time were experiencing.  Specifically, women and African Americans experienced the fight for independence without the benefit of independence.

Wood evokes another paradoxical relationship when relating how the aristocratic landholders in the colonies were fighting for independence (something they had a substantial amount of compared to the lower class colonists) from fellow aristocrats in England.  This seemed to be a classic case of the rich getting richer and establishing themselves as the “natural aristocracy” while the poor fell to the wayside.  This is not to discount the fight waged for independence in the war to come but as Wood points out there is much more to the equation than seems at first glance.  There seems to be social tension within the colonies themselves, although it may have gone unnoticed by the lower-middle classes.

As Alex writes in his post from early today, there is a “broad spectrum” of factors to be considered when looking at the revolution occurring in America.  I found the approach that Wood takes to be very interesting and very novel as compared to the other readings regarding the political and social environment surrounding the revolution.

American History from a Canadian Perspective

I found it fascinating to read Wilentz from somewhat of an outsider’s perspective, not being American and having never studied American history or read the American constitution. I have been told repeatedly told by American students at Davidson that I should not be considered an international student because “there’s really no difference better Canada and the US”. Reading Wilentz, the cultural differences and the historical roots of those differences become abundantly clear. Even Wilentz writes, “The Revolution’s democratic impact forever changed the context of American politics and culture and brought ordinary Americans into public and political life, which fundamentally altered how they perceived themselves and others.” Though I share many of the American cultural values including freedom, independence, property rights and class mobility, these values are not tied to my identity as a Canadian, but my identity as human being. I think these values are rooted in American identity because they are directly rooted in the events and teaching of American history, in a way that they are not in Canada – we got our independence in 1867, the last province joined in 1949 and we didn’t have a national flag specified by statue law until 1965.

Of all the texts we have read this semester, the first chapter of The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz comes closest to what I think of as how American (and North American) history is traditionally told. Each page is peppered with the names of white men in prominent economic or political positions. (I also wonder if this is how American history is told because of the US culture often values individual identity, representation of every individual and the possibility of upward mobility for everyone) Even when the chapter discusses class differences, the discussion is limited to a comparison between the lifestyles and beliefs of urban and rural dwellers. At the end of the chapter, Wilentz does briefly discusses slavery in the context of the Philadelphia convention and summarizes the results as “the final draft avoided explicitly mentioning slavery […] But delegates effective barred the government from taking any action against slavery in the states”. But, Wilentz does not discuss the impact of these events, nor does he mention anywhere the efforts by slaves of free Blacks to fight for and promote democratic values. By contrast, David Brion Davis focuses exclusively slaves and free blacks in this time period in chapter seven of Inhuman Bondage. He details attitude towards slavery and changes to slave ideals of freedom, as well as chronicling the roles slaves played in revolutionary effects and the misgiving of many whites to involve slaves. Davis provides a parallel history that fills in many of the gaps in Wilnetz chronicle. Olivia provides a really valuable analysis of in her blog post “The Revolutionary War as a Precursor to the Civil War?” of Davis and the role of slavery in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, demonstrating the value of analyzing history from multiple perspectives.

Still, these chapters were the only historical texts you had read on American history, you would never know that there were Native peoples living in North America. Admittedly, we have moved forward on the timeline from European arrival an early interactions and I don’t mean to imply that Wilentz or Davis are responsible for telling those parts of American history, however having read Taylor with his attention to marginalized populations, I am left wondering in what ways Native people were directly or indirectly involved in shaping the new American state.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Wilentz, Sean. The Rise of American Democracy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.
*Olivia Rosen, “The Revolutionary War as a Precursor to the Civil War,




Freedom at Last?

Chapter 7 in Inhuman Bondage discusses the impact of slavery in the American Revolution.  Whenever I think of the American Revolution, I think of the colonists and Britain. This chapter helped to gain a new insight- the plight of the slaves.   One key point the author was trying to make in this chapter is that the colonists were rebelling against Britain for feeling like they were being enslaved, but yet they were enslaving others. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (144) I never thought of it this way. It is ironic that the colonists felt that their rights are being infringed upon, when they enslaved Africans. This point truly is one of the most important in the entire chapter, and it drives the entire revolution.  It is really persuasive because America is supposed to represent freedom and a new life, yet it doesn’t.

Warfare is a time of chaos for slaves. Slaves can rebel against their owners and escape, or can be enlisted and fight against their enemies.  Why would slaves want to fight if in the end they didn’t even receive their liberty? Both sides tried to use slaves in their favor. The colonists didn’t necessarily want the slaves to fight for them, but they were in need of numbers. Britain tried to get slaves to leave their masters and join them. They said that “all slaves captured while they were serving the rebels were to be sold for the benefit of their captors; but all slaves who deserted the rebels were given an assurance that was hardly clear.” (150) Slaves took this as emancipation, and thousands took advantage of it, leaving Georgia’s economy in ruin.

Granted, some colonists realized the ironic nature behind their resentment of Britain. “The period from 1765 to the early 1790s produced countless numbers of tracts, pamphlets, broadsides, sermons, speeches, and editorials that challenged the basic core of slavery: the belief that human beings could be ‘animalized.’ (156) Because of this, the revolutionary war can be seen as the precursor of the Civil War. The North generally was against slavery, and many states even made it illegal. The South was dependent on it. They needed the slaves for their economies, and it even mentioned they would start a war if the government tried to make slavery universally illegal. It was only a matter of time before the two conflicting sides battled again. In my classmate’s post below Democracy and Slavery, they made a very interesting point that the Civil War could possibly have been avoided if the 1784 Continental Congress outlawed slavery in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Ohio. While this is an interesting point, I can’t help but disagree because the other regions of the south were so explicit on their desire for slavery, and that is stated within the text.