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The American Identity: Revolutionizing the American Revolution

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Alan Zheng

Ms. Sheptyck

APUSH Period 7

23 October 2017

The American Identity: Revolutionizing the American Revolution

        On July 4th, 1776, 442 days following the “shot heard round the world” at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the independence of the United States of America from Great Britain. Historians highly debate which of certain factors have caused the colonists to revolt and call for reform. Some say that the Americans did so mainly to restore political and economic norms with Britain. However, even though the partial reinforcement of older British institutions was a motive that did spur the American Revolution, the emerging American identity had a significant impact on the Revolution’s inception, continuation, and legacy by influencing the development of new ideals concerning political structure, extension of rights, and British relations due to both British neglect and oppression.

        Before the French and Indian War, England followed a policy of salutary neglect, allowing the colonies to foster their own more democratic, self-governed political systems (to a certain extent) as long as they still adhered to the mercantilist relationship. However, after the Peace of Paris and the Proclamation of 1763, England abandoned this policy and felt the need to solidify control and let the colonies take the brunt of the war debt through taxes, which angered the colonists, since they had no say in this seemingly unjustified taxation (Newman and Schmalbach 72). Some agree with Daniel Boorstin, who writes in his essay Revolution Without Dogma, “The argument of the best theorists of the Revolution … was not, on the whole, that America had institutions or a culture superior to the British. Rather their position… was that the British by their treatment of the American colonies were being untrue to the ancient spirit of their own institutions” (97). The colonists think that these “institutions” have been violated because the taxation without representation, and Boorstin says they just want to have more significant voices than the current ones through royal governors, which were being muffled. Starting from here, some colonists started to see themselves in opposition to the crown. Boorstin refutes the possibility of any American identity, identifying the source of revolution as the effort to reestablish a relatively fair relationship with Britain.  However, the resistance to these new English reforms only “had emboldened people who previously counted for little in the political arena to find a mind of their own” (Nash 124). During Britain’s salutary neglect, the colonists became somewhat accustomed to having more individual say concerning the government, with “more and more ordinary people … participating in electoral politics” (Wood 117). When Parliament started these taxes and enforced laws such as the Quartering Act and Stamp Act, the Americans felt that their individual power had been taken away.  Eventually some Americans saw the “monarchical techniques of personal influence and patronage as ‘corruption’... tearing at the bonds holding the traditional monarchical society together” (Wood 118). This shows that Americans wanted to go further than simply restoring British institutions; they wanted to also break free of them and create a novel structure of government. The democratic traits the local institutions grew out of the British neglect were some of the political seeds of the flowering American identity, as well as the will to create a non-monarchical society.

        In addition to new thoughts about government, Americans were also having new thoughts about rights and privileges. Prior and after the revolution, colonists, including women and slaves, started striving for more individual rights. Even though most of them would not actually get these rights at the end of the revolution, the ideas for them were fairly new. As England tightened their control on the colonies, people felt that their individual privileges were becoming increasingly limited, causing rebellion.

        The traditional role of a woman in the 18th century was to manage the household, to cook and provide food, and to raise the children. However, as America developed both politically and economically, they realized they could do so much more. When the colonists were boycotting British goods or when British ended all trade with the Americans during the war, women helped out by spinning their own cloth for clothing and other textile-related goods. Some women went to provide as nurses, serve as cooks, or even fight undercover as soldiers. These feminist thoughts echoed throughout history, long after the Treaty of Paris even to today. Women did not have any political voice in America, and some were vexed by the restrictions placed on them. Judith Sargent Murray writes in her Equality of the Sexes: “ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours” and “I dare confidently believe, that from the commencement of time to the present day, there hath been as many females, as males, who, by the mere force of natural powers, have merited the crown of applause; who, thus unassisted, have seized the wreath of fame” (168). Murray almost sees masculine superiority as hostile and oppressive to women, a great contrast to the traditional feminine ideology, or perhaps lack of one, found earlier in the 17th century and early 18th century. Even more famous women, such as Abigail Adams, John Adams’ wife, had feminist ideals. She wrote in a letter to her husband, “If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation” (110). When Adams says “Representation,” she refers to both to the way women are seen by their husbands and by their government. She wanted men to start treating women less like inferiors and perhaps even grant women the chance to attain political power. Never had women had these rights in British society or even question them, but here in America, women began to want the same privileges as men. A movement began to improve the education of women to give them more means to support themselves. During the Revolutionary era, both male and female authors, including Murray, began to call for improvements to female education, trying to close the sex gap.

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