J. Franklin Jameson

J. Franklin Jameson wrote a landmark work in 1926. More accurately, it was a collection of four lectures that were subsequently collected into a hundred-page book. His basic premise was that the war was a social revolution. He made four main arguments (coincidental with the four lectures), which follow.

First, Jameson argued that the status of persons was changed. He maintained that slavery was ended in a significant region by the war, and that abolitionism became fashionable and real as a political force. In order to contest this conclusion, it is a simple thing to counter-argue that since Massachusetts had but five slaves in 1776, it seems that slavery was definitely on its way out before the war even began in earnest. And it would also be obvious to point out that abolitionism was certainly not new to England and her colonies before and during the war; the younger Pitt was a moderate abolitionist, as were other members of Parliament. In short, the arguments regarding the status of people and how that status changed as a result of the war really do not hold up under scrutiny.

Second, Jameson argued that the nature of the land promoted change in the people. He claimed that the geography of New England made for revolutionary thought among small-holders and freemen that was not so evident among those in the tidewater South. But the colonists were "different sorts" to begin with; the Pilgrims and Puritans of the North were outcasts before they came across the Atlantic. The middle-staters of Pennsylvania—--the Quakers—--and especially Maryland—--Catholics, Huguenots, and Presbyterians—--were already in search of a place where they could be different and be at least quasi-independent. To lay the responsibility for the revolution on mountains and streams, thereby ignoring the nature of the people before they arrived, is a bit much to swallow. Were the colonists changed by the land, or were the human changes to the land merely a reflection of the ideas the colonists had with them already, and of the institutional-cultural heritage of these people? At the very least, it is a chicken-and-egg question, but to me it seems that the latter argument is the accurate one.

In this same vein, Jameson cites the end of primogeniture as a social-revolutionary aspect of the war. To illustrate the inaccuracy of this interpretation, one need only mention that primogeniture was abolished in Britain over time without a war at all. It seems that the trend away from primogeniture was already afoot in the British world (of which the colonists were a part, and of which even in 1776 most wished to remain). War or no war, primogeniture would almost certainly have receded, as it did, and has, in virtually all European countries.

In addition, Jameson claims that the frontier unleashed a revolution. His view is that the frontier itself was in some way responsible for revolutionary attitudes and thoughts, as if the land itself changed the way that the residents thought. For the sake of brevity, let me say only that Turner's frontier thesis is a much more convincing picture of American history than is Jameson''s. In short, Turner argues that the frontier throughout American history has attracted and promoted certain types of people and certain types of behavior. Jameson implies that the frontier made revolutionaries, and that when the war was over, they stopped being revolutionary. Turner makes the point from the opposite pole: the frontier, by its very nature, provided an environment where people who would otherwise have been misfits and malcontents could flourish and achieve a modicum of what would then certainly have been termed "respectability." Jameson''s argument virtually anthropomorphizes the frontier, while Turner casts the region in a more proper role: that of a passive agent.

Third, Jameson discusses business and industry. He discusses how the war caused the Agricultural Revolution to be visited upon the Americas. In Europe, where land was at a premium, peasants had had to adopt new methods in order to survive their growing population. By contrast, in the Americas, land was cheap and plentiful, so new methods were not required. Nonetheless, it seems safe to argue that the methods adopted in the colonies would have been adopted eventually, war or no war, when the population density made it sensible to do so.

Along similar lines, Jameson suggests that the war caused a revolutionary growth and change in war and commercial industries: paper, salt, powder, cannons, and muskets all had to be manufactured to fight the war. Of course, after 1918, when the industrial nature of warfare had become painfully evident, and (perhaps not?) coincidentally when Jameson wrote, it is easy to see how he made this conclusion. But it is also easy to see, even with the benefit of the same hindsight that Jameson could have used, that the growth of industry and commerce would almost certainly have occurred anyway, war or no war. Napoleonic France was not converted into an industrial power, despite nearly twenty-five years of virtually non-stop warfare that was of a far greater magnitude than was the American "Revolution." It is far more sensible to argue that the industry and commerce of the Americas would have developed as a result of trade with Europe, with or without a war. Lastly, many participants argued at the time that the colonies were economically weakened as a result of the war for a significant period; how is it that Jameson concluded the exact opposite one hundred fifty years later?

Fourth, Jameson argued that thought and feeling changed. At first, this claim seems the most plausible. It is not. (Perhaps it is the least implausible?) He suggested that the war was a precursor to the European revolutionary fervor of the 1830s; this perhaps has some validity, but the fervor of the 1830s was a more peasants-against-the-aristocracy sort of thing than it was a taxation-without-representation sort of thing. Another difference was nationalism, a decidedly made-in-France phenomenon. Greeks, for example, rose up against the Ottoman Turks in 1830 in order to establish a Greek state. This was not the nature of the American war, for no foreign power of different ethnicity held sway in the colonies; certainly no Germans rose up in Pennsylvania in order to establish a German-style state out of the old British colony. Indeed, Germans tended toward loyalist sensibilities.

Jameson argued that the war had the effect of creating more colleges and of diffusing religious faith. This certainly is a description of cultural contact with Europe more than it is a description of a result of a war. These very things took place in Europe before and after the American war; sometimes these phenomena were accompanied by violence and armed struggle, and sometimes not. The Americas were already religiously diverse, and it probably comes as no surprise that my conclusion is that the growth of colleges was accompanied by, and was a result of, a substantial growth in the population. This rather leaves the war out of the picture; for wars seldom create things, but instead tend to destroy or impede them.

In conclusion, it should be pointed out that Jameson makes no political arguments outside of suffrage. (One generally thinks of dramatic political changes as being a result of a "revolution.") He discusses political institutions not at all. He is only concerned with who had the vote. But even before the war, the colonies had wider suffrage than the European countries from which the people and their forebears came; how is this a revolutionary outcome? Were these people not fighting to preserve that which they already had against the growing influence of the House of Commons, which threatened to take their self-determination away?

Slavery was already receding in the colonies; it was evolving away—--in Vermont in 1777, Pennsylvania in 1780, Rhode Island and Connecticut in 1784; if the revolution was the cause, why then did abolition, albeit gradual, continue its march in New York in 1799 and New Jersey in 1804? The American variety of slavery was already "less bad" than in many, if not most, other countries, regardless of what twentieth-century movie and television productions might have you believe. Was the country not already progressive?

But let us continue, in order that others may be individually considered, before I paint a general picture.