I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss the culture of class, racial and gender deference that marked American society in the period before the American Revolution.
THE BREAKING POINT:
ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson would write the most famous words of America’s revolutionary era. “All men are created equal,” he stated in the Declaration of Independence. All men, and women, however, were certainly not treated as equals in America in either the years leading up to the Revolution or just after its end in the early 1780s. Taught by their ministers that to “spare the rod” was to “spoil the child,” parents punished wayward children with physical violence. Husbands were given license to physically discipline wives they considered disrespectful. As of the 1780s, almost one-third of the American population toiled as slaves or indentured servants and they too suffered physical beatings, the women among them often raped.
Until the eve of the American Revolution, which started in 1775, American schools, the Anglican church and the legal system taught the average person in the colonies that the division of humanity into the nobility and the commoners and the rule of kings was part of the divine order, as historian Gordon S. Wood notes in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution. “[Future leader of the American Revolution] John Adams recalled that in the early 1760s the Massachusetts authorities had . . .introduced new ‘scenary’ in the Supreme Court – ‘of scarlet and sable robes . . . and enormous tie wigs’ -- in order to create a more ‘theatrical’ and ‘ecclesiastical setting for the doing of justice.’ Full-length, gold-framed portraits of [English kings] Charles II and James II, said Adams, were ‘hung up on the most conspicuous sides’ of the courtroom ‘for the admiration and imitation of all men.’ ‘The colors of the royal ermines and long flowing robes were the most glowing, the figures the most noble and graceful, the features the most distinct and characteristic – these portraits of these particular Stuart kings were designed to overawe.”
In war and peace, the law treated the rich and the common man differently. “Common soldiers captured in war were imprisoned [where they often died from disease caused by wretched conditions]; captured officers, however, could be released ‘on parole,’ after giving their word to their fellow gentlemen officers that they would not flee the area or return to their troops,” Wood said. “Although English law was presumably equal for all, the criminal punishments were not; gentlemen, unlike commoners, did not have their ears cropped or their bodies flogged.”
In the decade before the American Revolution, ministers of the Church of England “tended to bolster monarchical authority . . . for example, by preaching from Romans 13 that all were subject unto the higher powers . . . for conscience sake’ . . . Even moderate Anglican preachers continually stressed the sacredness of authority and the need for subjects to honor and revere those set over them . . .” Men who would later lead a battle supposedly about liberty from a British tyrant held the lower classes in contempt. As Wood wrote, revolutionary leaders typically compared the average American to cattle, with George Washington calling the country’s masses “the grazing multitude.” Likewise, John Adams referred to the “common herd of mankind” and dismissed the “vulgar, rustic Imaginations” of the working poor, who had “no Idea of Learning, Eloquence and Genius.” Elites even assumed that the poor were biologically closer to animals. “Ordinary people were thought to be different physically, and because of varying diets and living conditions, no doubt in many cases they were different,” said Wood. “People often assumed that a handsome child, though apparently a commoner, had to be some gentleman’s bastard offspring.”
The poor and the working class were expected to show constant deference to their social “betters.” The average person had obedience, in some cases, literally beaten into him. Awe and fear often defined the relationship between rich and poor A Maryland doctor named Alexander Hamilton (not the one who served as the United States’ first secretary of the Treasury) observed that people of the lower class glanced downward “like sheep” when addressing the powerful and wealthy. One man, George Hewes of Massachusetts, remembered decades later how he trembled and was “sacred to death” when he made a visit as a cobbler’s apprentice to the stately home of future leader of the Revolution John Hancock. As Wood observes, “Indeed, we will never appreciate the radicalism of the eighteenth century revolutionary idea that all men are created equal unless we see it within this age-old tradition of difference.”
The idea of equality percolated slowly in English society back in the homeland and in the American colonies. In much of Europe the Catholic Church taught its faithful that kings ruled by divine right. “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered,” according to the Gospel of Luke, so it was inconceivable to the Church that God would allow anyone to serve as monarch over a Christian kingdom without divine approval. The king, therefore, ruled as God’s representative politically, as the Pope ruled over the church. The English king, however, never enjoyed the absolute rule held by monarchs in France and Spain. However, since Henry VIII established the Church of England, the king ruled not only over an Earthly kingdom, but he also became the nation’s religious leader as well. The Church of England portrayed the Pope as the anti-Christ, an earthly embodiment of satanic evil. This made the English king the defender of the faith. Even the most powerful of the nobility, such as those serving in Parliament, were not citizens but subjects, occupying a lower place on a God-created hierarchy of power.
The idea that God appointed Christian kings and placed them on top of a chain of being in which nobles ruled over commoners, and men over women, began to slowly unravel when the Stuart dynasty assumed the English throne in the 1600s. The Stuarts sought to achieve absolute authority like their European counterparts and to reign without the consultation with Parliament and, through marriage, the Stuart family had many family connections to the Catholic French royal family. Furthermore, James II (who reigned from 1685-1688) proposed that the British government legally tolerate Catholics, which raised the suspicions of the fiercely anti-Catholic Puritan faction in the Parliament. These differences led to violence between the Stuart King Charles I and the Parliament in 1642-1651 (which led to the beheading of the king in 1649) and in the so-called Glorious Revolution in 1688 that led to the overthrow of James II. These anti-royal rebellions posed a major challenge to the idea of the divine right of kings. If God placed the Stuarts on the English throne, then the successful Parliamentary rebels had twice made themselves enemies of God. As historian Edmund S. Morgan notes in his book Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, English philosophers like John Locke turned the concept of Divine Right on its head, arguing that
The British people, in some distant, primeval past, had expressed God’s will by creating the monarchy. This was a subtle but important change that provided an important rationale for the American Revolution. God had acted through the “people,” not the king. The king was obligated to rule in the interest of the people. A king who did not serve the greater interests, whose rule failed to guarantee the life, liberty and property of the people, was no longer legitimate and the people as a whole were morally justified in ending that king’s rule. The question now was how to define “the people.” When privileged Virginia slaveowner and plantation master Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal,” he certainly wasn’t referring to women, the poor, commoners, or African Americans. The common people, Jefferson wrote at one point, “must never be considered when we calculate the national character.” Jefferson’s words, however, acted as a solvent on the Old World hierarchy. In the coming decades, slavery opponents would insist that the “peculiar institution” made a mockery of Jefferson’s words. When women met in Seneca Falls to demand suffrage rights in 1848, they would draft “The Declaration of Sentiments” in conscious imitation of the Declaration of Independence, and paraphrase Jefferson in proclaiming “that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . .” Much of American political history from the 1770s on would be a struggle over how inclusive the United States would be when the nation defined “the people.”
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.