The Bottom Line

What the colonists sought was control that they had already been accustomed to having. (It is that argument that Jefferson Davis used to define the Confederacy''s position in the American Civil War in his speeches after 1869; it is from his own words that I paraphrased the subtitle of this section.) Parliament was not in the colonists'' "chain of command" in 1700, and for the House of Commons to attempt to place itself there was seen as a loss to the colonists. It was change that they resisted, not what they sought; they largely felt that they were resisting an invasion of their political birthright, not that they were breaking bold new political ground. It would therefore be very easy to argue that the war was fought as a reactionary response, not as a radical one. And, as the businessmen like to say, "The bottom line is the bottom line."

The bottom line, in this case, is this: classwise, those who ruled in 1770 ruled in 1790; the Parliament, a bicameral legislature, was replaced by the Congress, itself a bicameral legislature; the King was replaced by a President, who could very easily have ruled for life, setting a tradition that the head-of-state-for-life would be chosen without the benefit of heredity (hardly a big change there; it almost sounds like the twentieth-century case of Idi Amin, who could hardly be called a revolutionary character). There is more, of course: only propertied white males had the vote, both before and after the war; the end of slavery was not exactly accelerated by the war, though there were a few (relatively minor) gains for blacks; the economic system was not changed, nor was the class structure, except to forbid a nobility that in any case did not truly exist in the colonies before the war.

Perhaps Richard Hofstadter put it best in his statement regarding progressive historians in 1968: "Since the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, it has been hard for most Americans, and especially those who make our world policies, to recapture the memory of the early United States, Constitution and all, as a revolutionary force" (Hofstadter, 284). There is certainly much validity to Hofstadter's view. Perhaps we cold-warriors are ourselves cauterized to the sensitivity of the progressive historians.

Perhaps not.