Discover more from The Redneck Intellectual by C. Bradley Thompson
Regime Change, American Style
“Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin” (1826) by Thomas Cole.
**Note to Readers: Beginning with this essay, I’m hoping to publish shorter essays going forward. My goal is to increase the “open rate” amongst subscribers to The Redneck Intellectual. It’s an experiment. Let’s see how it works.
The American Revolution was more than just a successful war for independence, and it was more than just a political revolution that replaced a king with the republican form of government.
To put it grandiosely in Hegelian terms, the Revolution was a world-historical event that shook the Old World out of its dogmatic slumbers, and, more importantly, it ushered in a new moral universe.
In the Introduction to his lectures on The Philosophy of History (1837) delivered over the course of the 1820s, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel captured the philosophic meaning of the United States in these dramatic terms: “America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself. . . . It is for America to abandon the ground on which hitherto the History of the World has developed itself.” Following Hegel’s suggestion, Alexis de Tocqueville likewise predicted in Democracy in America that the world eventually become American.
I am not typically a fan of Hegel, but his assessment of America in this instance was on the mark. An entirely new kind of society previously unknown in world history burst forth from 1776. It was as though the world were being made over. Everything changed after July 4th, 1776, and not just in America but around the world.
To fully understand the kind of government and society that emerged out of the American Revolution (i.e., a modern, liberal-capitalist society), it is important to return—at least momentarily—to the pre-revolutionary period and for two reasons: first, because important cultural remnants of colonial society (i.e., the spirit of Puritanism) continued well into the nineteenth century; and second, because trace elements of America’s post-revolutionary society (i.e., the spirit of liberty) were first laid during the colonial period.
To fully understand the what, why, and how of the American Revolution is to examine what came before and after it.
The fact of the matter is that eighteenth-century colonial society was defined by two competing and overlapping cultural realities—one that pointed to the past and one that pointed to the future. The former gradually died out and the latter gradually became the prevailing cultural ethos over the course of the nineteenth century. The process by which particular cultures rise, decline, fall, and are reborn into something else typically takes centuries unless there is some cataclysmic event that accelerates the process or literally changes the course of human affairs.
American society clung to many of its premodern economic and social traditions until the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. One could still find after the Revolution and Founding remnants, for instance, a “household system” of economic production and a “moral economy” based not on the pursuit of individual profit but on social utility and the “common good.” By the end of the eighteenth century, social relations and folkways at the local level were still largely defined by the traditional manners and mores of a dying world.
As a result of the Revolution, a new philosophy that we might call Enlightenment, classical, or the Founders’ liberalism began to sweep away all the old folkways of the traditional society with breathtaking speed. Freedom (moral, political, social, cultural, religious, and economic) and the open spaces of the trans-Appalachian West liberated men and women to pursue news ways of living, producing, and trading unknown to previous generations of Americans. Work and profit for God’s glory or for the sake of King and Empire were replaced by work and profit for personal, individual benefit. This change represented a monumental shift in the way men and women saw themselves, their neighbors, and their fellow countrymen.
The transition from the one kind of society to the other was glacial, but it was unquestionably accelerated by the American Revolution and everything that came with it. (By way of contrast, French revolutionaries were so radical that they not only attempted to destroy the ancien régime with one fell swoop, but they went so far to reinvent time and space by creating a new calendar in 1793 that began ominously with Year One and they redrew the map of France according to geometric dimensions.)
Revolutionary change is complex topic that can be viewed from several perspectives. My goal in this essay and in several to follow is to indicate in general terms how and why this process of change (moral, social, cultural, political, and economic) took place and what issued from it.
The Dialectic, or Two Cultures in One
Let’s drill down a bit more to examine the contours of the two predominant cultures of pre-revolutionary, eighteenth-century American society that were competing for cultural hegemony. In the decades between approximately 1700 and 1750, the first was going-out-of-being as the second was coming-into-being.
On the one hand was the official culture of colonial America associated with the forms and formalities of what I have called the Puritan-monarchical State in a previous essay.
At the local level, colonial America consisted of hundreds if not thousands of small villages organized around the manners and mores associated with their churches and the folkways that the settlers either brought with them from the Old World or inherited from their European ancestors. The community was viewed as an organic corporate whole, held together horizontally by the fraternal bonds of Christian love.
At the provincial level, colonial America consisted of 13 colonies all of which were organized and tied hierarchically, in one way or another, to the British monarchy. Mimicking the mother country, colonial political culture was conscious of, and driven by, status distinctions created by birth, rank, privilege, patronage, deference, and special rules that favored particular persons or groups for special treatment. In this paternalistic, status-based society, one’s “liberties” and “privileges” were tied to social rank.
On the other hand was an unofficial culture that was growing slowly and stealthily in the colonies beginning in the early decades of the eighteenth century. This new cultural reality was the result of two radically different forces working simultaneously to change the face of colonial society.
At the intellectual level, new philosophic ideas had landed in the colonies and were beginning to percolate down and through American society. These were the ideas of the Enlightenment, particularly the moral and political ideas associated with John Locke, which were whittling away at the last vestiges of feudalism. Locke’s moral, social, and political philosophy can be quickly summed up by identifying its key principles—reason, individualism, equality, freedom, rights, choice, consent, and limited government. The philosophy of Enlightenment liberalism represented an existential shift in how colonial Americans thought of themselves, their families and social relations, and their relationship to government.
At the ground level, freedom and the open space of the North American continent meant that men could always leave their closed, static, hierarchical, status-bound communities and move toward the frontier where nature and one’s own devices and not conventional folkways determined one’s fate. Life was, generally speaking, difficult and insecure for many people in colonial America, which meant that everyone had to work hard and save to overcome the harsh reality of a world where social and familial networks were weak and tenuous. This was particularly true for those hard-scrabble pioneers eking out a living on the frontier, where new forms of living and social organization developed that were relatively different from those back East and absolutely different from those of the Old World.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, various restraints of the Puritan-monarchical State were slowly crumbling, and a new world characterized by individual autonomy, entrepreneurial ambition, productive energy, upward mobility, commercial activity, economic competition, and wealth creation was slowly emerging. It’s hard for us in the twenty-first century to see and understand the seismic moral, social, and political shift that was slowly taking place in America.
Great Britain’s North American colonies really were a kind of laboratory, where a spontaneous, non-directed, bottom-up social experiment was taking place. The fact of the matter is that many colonial Americans throughout the first sixty years of the eighteenth century were living out the reality of Locke’s philosophic world without really knowing it as such. As long as there was a frontier in America, there would always be a state of society that mirrored or approximated the Lockean state of nature. This why Locke announced in the Second Treatise that, “in the beginning, all the world was America.”
Eighteenth-century America became, in effect, a kind of social testing ground where the Englishman’s ideas were put into practice, tested, and worked out in a new environment and social reality. The result was the winnowing away over the course of several decades of the older customs, usages, and prerogatives associated with the Puritan-monarchical State and the rise of a new spirit of American liberty and an ethic of individualism that eschewed the stagnancy of the traditional, status-based society.
Colonial America was distinguished from the Old World by many new and different principles, institutions, and folkways, but let us for the moment identify just one that symbolized the meaning of this new society and struck at the heart of the Puritan-monarchical State.
The new, liberal society that was beginning to emerge in the middle decades of the eighteenth century was no less a status society (such is human nature) than its premodern predecessor, but the standard of status was changing from birth to merit. The artificial aristocracy created by government was giving way to the natural aristocracy created by freedom.
The Americans were, according to Stephen Simpson, author of The Working Man’s Manual: A New Theory of Political Economy (1831), the first people in world history to establish a new nation “on the true basis of merit,” where the “producer suffers no disparagement from our free constitutions, whose efficiency is allowed to be complete both in theory and practice.” A merit-based society is one, he continued, that will attach reward to “industry and labor, when blended with the social and intellectual virtues,” and it will applaud “all who overcome the obstacles of life by vigor, industry, energy, and intellect.”
America’s new social ethic was decidedly in favor of meritocracy. America was emerging into the world’s first meritocratic society.
The American Revolution was, of course, the final and fatal dagger in the heart of the Puritan and monarchical ways of social organization. From the Revolution emerged a new world for new men.
But how would this new meritocratic society be organized politically? In other words, how would its political structure and organization promote a society that liberated and recognized natural talent and chosen virtue?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, shall be the topic for my next long form essay.
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**The Kindle version of my new book, What America Is, is now officially on sale at Amazon. It’s now ranked as the #1 New Release for books in the “U.S. Revolution & Founding” category!!!
Btw, I chose the white cover for the Kindle version.
The soft cover will be available in a few days and the cover will be blue!
Have a great week!