The Flow of History

The American Republic: 1760-1870

The Limits of Republican Citizenship

by Elise A. Guyette

About a quarter of a century has passed since I realized that what I thought was the real historical record was actually only part of the story from one or two perspectives. What I had learned in history classes was from the point of view of white, usually elite, men and women. Their perspectives and their experiences are, of course, important to understanding the complexities of our history. However, when I became interested in the experiences of people other than elite and powerful actors, I found that I was often still reading from that privileged point of view. I only knew what they thought about people different from themselves… I wasn't getting the views of other people interpreting their own experiences and assigning their own importance to events.

From the moment I had that epiphany, I have become deeply aware of perspective. I often have moments like the one an Englishman had in the early ninteenth century when describing the Americans he met on his travels in the United States. E.S. Adby (1835) wrote in his journal,

Talk to them about common subjects, and they are as clear-headed and acute as other people; but touch upon [the topic of slavery & race] and the best educated amongst them will utter more nonsense in a given time than the most unlettered clown in the three kingdoms (p. 363).

I often thought about Adby as I was reading Gordon Wood's (2003) book, The American Revolution. When he was writing about the traditional political and military experiences of those in power, he was quite clear-headed and acute; when writing about issues of equality affecting anyone else during that period, it often seemed like downright nonsense.

A People's History of the American Revolution offers some insight into this. Ray Raphael (2002) tells us that the Revolution has been interpreted in various ways and used by various groups for their own purposes since the eighteenth-century victory (p. 7).

  • Conservatives describe the Revolution as a noble struggle of ideas about liberty and popular sovereignty against an intimidating government. They say we can't fault the founding fathers for the ethics of their time, which did not include equality for women or racial groups other than whites.
  • Liberals contend that the Revolution was a good first step toward social equality. The founders gave us the ideal - now we must gradually work to realize that vision.
  • Radicals, on the other hand, fault the revolutionaries for their failure to implement their own ideals. The ethics of their time WERE liberty, equality and justice, and we still haven't realized a society devoted to those.
  • Realists claim that the Revolution was just one more war among many in the unending struggles of groups for dominance and power, struggles that continue to this day. As Frederick Douglass (1849) wrote in a letter to an associate:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want … rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. … Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will (online).

Here I take a more or less radical-realist view.

Visionaries Out of Time or Of Their Time?

Gordon Wood (2003) takes the conservative viewpoint when he writes, "nearly every piece of writing [by the Patriots] about the future was filled with extraordinarily visionary hopes for the transformation of America" (p. 91). He contends that those who point out failures of the progressive ideas of the Revolution make "anachronistic statements suggest[ing] a threshold of success that no eighteenth-century revolution could possibly have attained," (p. xxiv-xxv).

Non-conservative historians, conversely, point out that there was an eighteenth-century revolution that emancipated all of that country's slaves ~ that was in Saint Domingue (Haiti). This was in addition to Portugal, Great Britain, Denmark and France, which had already emancipated serfs and slaves on their mainlands by 1794. We can't interpret the actions of our founders as those of great visionaries ahead of their time, on the one hand, but then say it was impossible for them to escape their times, on the other hand. Non-conservative historians see the revolutionaries as mortals who found it personally and politically difficult to implement their ideals in the real world.

I am well aware that challenging the nobility of our mythical heroes might seem irrational to some. After all,

Certain ideas become so deeply ingrained, so taken for granted, that they do not seem like ideas at all but part of the natural order. Thus when someone comes along who both perceives and TREATS them as ideas, subject to the challenges all ideas should be exposed to, it is as if reason itself were being challenged (Levine, 1993, p. 866).

In this article I challenge, not reason itself, but some very deeply ingrained ideas with which many of us have grown up.

Whose Perspectives Do We Use?

My challenges have everything to do with perspective… When I was a child, we had coloring books that had only partially drawn pictures. By brushing water on the page, the rest of the picture "magically" appeared. Our written histories are often like those old coloring books; the incomplete pictures have been drawn by conservative elites to preserve their own stories. We need plenty of brushes and water (i.e. primary sources from multiple points of view) to complete the complex pictures of real societies.

Our traditional, incomplete histories of the Revolution often start (and, unhappily, end) with this picture: Imagine an eighteenth-century, colonial society of only white, male elite actors. These men are "enlightened thinkers" (by their own definition) who bring about a new republican age liberated by science, rational thinking, objectivity, and a new respect for human life. They question received ideas (from the church and the monarchy) about the world and believe in the rights of human beings and not the divine rights of Kings.

If we talk about the limits of republicanism, we might start here: The "Enlightenment" was a new way of thinking and approaching the world (except for the respect for human life part - that had been around for a long time), but it denigrated other ways of thinking. The Enlightenment's reliance on scientific rationalism and objectivity was an uncompromising and "aggressive seizure of intellectual space" (Ladson-Billings, 2002, p. 268). It said - this is the only sensible way to act and to learn anything about the world - all other ways of thinking and being are inferior.

The people marginalized in our written histories and in the original Constitution were people seen as inferior - always on the stage, actively participating in the past … but taken out of the picture because of the way the elites recast their roles. If we read about them at all, we're reading from an elite perspective that made the others either invisible or seemingly unimportant to the events. W.E.B. Dubois (1903) describes this problem of always seeing oneself through someone else's eyes as a double consciousness:

A peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity (p. 3).

Contempt and pity were reserved for those who were seen as more emotional, spiritual, and subjective -- like women and native peoples of the Americas and Africa. They were labeled inferior or lacking in republican virtue, and thus unable because of gender or race to assume full citizenship in a republic. This way of thinking ended up continuing the subjugation and marginalization of many peoples at a time when different and courageous decisions could have been made that followed the ideals in the Declaration of Independence.

Before the enlightenment, Europeans and Euro-Americans assumed that others were inferior only because of their culture - they could be taught to be "civilized" and enter society as equals. After the Revolution, however, new ideologies of a God-given inferiority were needed to explain why some people, the others, were being left out of full citizenship or even denied full humanity as the new nation implemented its ideals in the Constitution. These new ideologies from the early republic pertained to Native Americans, African Americans and women.

Native Americans and the Noble Savage

One ideology that the people of the new republic found useful was the idea of the Noble Savage. Ancient Europeans had long-ago defined many non-Europeans as having a natural liberty, unencumbered by laws or corruption, but satisfying all their appetites in a savage way. This idea again became popular in the early American republic. As a response to mounting conflicts between native peoples and land-hungry migrants who increasingly invaded the other side of the Proclamation Line of 1763, Native Americas were recast in the image of Rousseau's noble savage. In The Social Contract (1762) he wrote, "What man acquires in the civil state, moral liberty, alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty"   ( This idea was useful to people who professed a belief in liberty and justice but needed to subdue others and force them to obey a new republican government. Their natural liberty must give way to a higher liberty - obedience to the laws of the United States.

This idea, however, that Indian peoples were slaves to appetites with no laws governing them is in direct contradiction to what many of our founders personally knew about them. In a speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin said:

We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances (Grinde, 1995, p. 301).

In order to solve this problem, John Adams argued that it would be "well worth the pains . . . to collect . . . the legislation of the Indians" for study. Adams believed that in studying American Indian governments, such as the League of the Iroquois, Americans could observe the best examples of governmental separation of powers. In fact, Adams stated that the separation of powers in American Indian governments "is marked with a precision that excludes all controversy" (Grinde & Johansen).

He may have been referring to this from the "Great Binding Law" of the Iroquois Confederacy:

The Council of the Mohawk shall be divided into three parties …The third party is to listen only to the discussion of the first and second parties and if an error is made or the proceeding is irregular they are to call attention to it, and when the case is right and properly decided by the two parties they shall confirm the decision of the two parties and refer the case to the Seneca Lords for their decision. When the Seneca Lords have decided in accord with the Mohawk Lords, the case or question shall be referred to the Cayuga and Oneida Lords on the opposite side of the house.

… If through any misunderstanding or obstinacy on the part of the Fire Keepers, they render a decision at variance with that of the Two Sides, the Two Sides shall reconsider the matter and if their decisions are jointly the same as before they shall report to the Fire Keepers who are then compelled to confirm their joint decision (online).

In addition, Adams pointed out that American Indian governments were so democratic that the "real sovereignty resided in the body of the people" (Grinde & Johansen, online). Personal liberty was so important to American Indians, according to Adams, that Mohawks might be characterized as having "complete individual independence" (Grinde & Johansen, online).

Although Wood (2003) gives no nod to the Iroquois, the United States Congress did in a 1987 Congressional Resolution, which reads:

Whereas the original framers of the Constitution, including, most notably George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy;

Whereas the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles, which were incorporated into the Constitution itself;

Be it resolved by the Senate (the House of Representative concurring) that,

(1) the Congress, on the occasion of the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, acknowledges the historical debt which this Republic of the United States of America owes to the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian nations for their demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of Government and their example of a free association of independent Indian nations" (online).

How, then, do we deal with Wood's contention that relocating sovereignty in the people "was one of the most creative moments in the history of political thought" (p. 159)? Perhaps it was - but the question becomes, Where did this creative thought come from? Non-conservative historians are willing to entertain the thought that it was cultural diffusion, a mixing of Native American and Euro-American thought, that gave birth to the idea of popular sovereignty. Cultural diffusion had already given birth to a new way of fighting - witness this 1775 letter from Ethan Allen to the Abenaki:

I always love Indians and have hunted a great deal with them I know how to shute and ambush just like Indian(s) and want your Warriors to come and see me and help me fight Regulars-You know they stand all along close together Rank and file and my men fight so as Indians do and I want your Warriors to join me and my Warriors like brothers and ambush the Regulars (Jellison, p. 137).

Why not borrow a new way of governing? The only European models the revolutionaries found to unite so large an area were models of conquest and colonization. To unite the states as equal partners, they needed another model, which they found in the Iroquois Confederation.

But why isn't this more widely known? Perspective is the thing … whose eyes do we view this period through? First through the conservative, enlightened thinkers of that time who marginalized Native American thought and now through conservative historians who have inherited that point of view. Native Americans still suffer from their marginalization and fight stereotyping and bias of every kind to this day.

African Americans and the Sambo Image

Another ideology that proved useful for the early republican period was that of the intellectual inferiority of Africans. Wood contends that the revolutionaries believed "only education and cultivation separated one man from another" in America (p. 102). However, he was talking of an earlier time. The sources he quotes were from the 1760s. In the aftermath of the revolution, with the denial of freedom and equality for Africans, this gradually became an unmanageable idea.

Many revolutionaries were slave-owners who struggled with the idea of enslaving others for life, especially if they believed that a cultural education could make them equal to the whites. There is no doubt that many Whites did believe deeply in the ideals of liberty, because the number of free blacks grew dramatically after the American Revolution from 60,000 in 1790 to 110,000 ten years later.

There is also no doubt that Blacks had internalized the ideas in the Declaration of Independence, as can be seen in the many petitions for freedom from slavery and the thousands of blacks who chose to fight in the war on one side or the other for their own freedom, despite the many hurdles they had to overcome.

Of our most famous founders, however, only George Washington found a way to free those he held in bondage, perhaps because he had personally witnessed their courage in war. He emancipated all his slaves in his will. Other politicians who similarly struggled with the hypocrisy of slave-labor in the land dedicated to equality for all did not bequeath freedom to those who were forced to labor for them. There were economic and political reasons, of course, for this, but during the 1790s a new ideology evolved that let those, who enslaved Africans or participated in the enslavement through the slave trade, off the hook of hypocrisy.

Fears of so many free blacks and of slave uprisings caused a reactionary period during which African Americans lost ground. A new ideology swept the country painting blacks as "Sambos" who were biologically suited only for slavery or second class citizenship. Both north and south latched onto the Sambo image, born on a Philadelphia stage in 1795. In John Murdock's play, "The Triumphs of Love," a vain Sambo sings, fiddles, and dances his way across the stage. The fictional Sambo accepts white standards of beauty and tries to imitate the dress and manners of whites, only to look foolish. After manumission he tries to save his wages to buy his sweetheart's freedom but uses the money on alcohol instead. The message to the white audiences was clear: blacks cannot handle freedom; they would not use full citizenship wisely.

By the early nineteenth century this weak-minded, irresponsible, grinning, child-like, servile image of black people was ubiquitous in the material culture of America (Van Deburg, 1984, pp. 10-14). The literature, theater, cartoons, toys, magazines, posters, minstrel shows, songs and jokes all used this image to counteract real images of blacks fighting for their rights that frightened so many whites. The north was flooded with dehumanizing Sambo images, which became more important in the north than in the south, where slavery controlled blacks. In the north the image controlled them (Boskin, 1970, p. 174).

African Americans did not quietly acquiesce to this new image foisted upon them, but fought it at every turn. Prince Saunders, originally an indentured servant in Thetford, Vermont, emigrated to Haiti after the Haitian Revolution to help improve the state of education, health and government in the first Black republic in the history of the world. In 1816, he published the papers of the new Republic and explained why he felt the need to do this:

[For a few individuals, their] habitual labor is the perversion, (and as far as they are able,) the absolute destruction of every object which has a tendency to show that the Blacks possess…that portion of natural intelligence which the Beneficent Father of all ordinarily imparts to his children; … such persons have endeavored to impress the public with the idea, that [our] official documents … are not written by Black Haytians themselves; but that they are either written by Europeans in this country, or by some who, they say, are employed for that purpose; … I upon my honour declare, … that all the public documents are written by … all black men, or men of colour. …Let them dispute, if they please, the existence of our intellectual facilities, our little or no aptness for the arts and sciences, whilst we reply to those irresistible arguments, and prove to the impious, by facts and by examples, that the blacks, like the whites, are men, and like them are the works of a Divine Omnipotence!" (Saunders, iii & 211).

How many of us have ever read anything like this from a black man of the period? But how many of us today can still conjur up the image of a servile Sambo in our minds? Images die hard, while real stories of courageous men and women fighting for their freedom hardly make it to the pages of our written histories.

Perspective is the thing … whose eyes do we view this period through? First through conservative, enlightened thinkers of that time who marginalized the Blacks and now through conservative historians who have inherited that point of view. Many African Americans still fight against this image as far higher percentages of black students are assigned to special education classes and lower tracks than any other ethnic group.

Women and Republican Motherhood

Another new set of beliefs set forth during the early republic was the idea of republican motherhood. Because all women were denied full citizenship, even elite white women like Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren who could obviously reason as well as a man, a new and powerful role was assigned to them in the family. A new ideology of the frail woman needing the protective space of her home was born. Within that home she would nurture and teach the next generation of patriots. This was an upper class idea not born of most women's experiences in the Revolution.

As we know, the poorest women had become "camp followers" who washed, cooked, nursed, plundered, helped with the artillery … and starved, froze, became sick, worked on the battlefields and died along with the men.

Most women, however, did not choose to go the battlefields … the war came to them. Some, including Ann Story of Salisbury, Vermont spied, hid men in their lofts, and moved ammunitions and provisions for the armies. When the Committee of Safety urged Ann and her five children to abandon her home, which was in the Champlain Valley war path, she is said to have exclaimed: "Give me a place among you and see if I am the first to desert my post!" She never did, even living in a cave dug in the banks of the Otter Creek after a group of Tories and Indians burned her cabin.

Those who chose not to abandon their homes, had much to fear from both armies, but, far from being frail, they stayed and survived some terrible times. Widow Anne Willard (1779) petitioned the Vermont General Assembly for damages when troops retreating from Ticonderoga in 1777

"thro' carelessness or design of sd Troops the barn of your Petitioner Filled with hay and oats &c was set on fire & wholly consumed … the sd troops did then up & consume about 31/2 acres of Indian corn then growing and standing in her field … a large Number of Cattle Sheep &c were, by order of Col. Warner…driven to Bennington to prevent their falling into hands of the enemy & that 9 young neet Cattle & 32 Sheep were wholly lost…" (Hoyt, p. 16)

Lower class, urban women rioted in the cities and harassed shopkeepers who sold British goods. They tore down statues and melted them to make gun shot, all the while making and sending their husbands-in-arms clothing and other provisions.

Women everywhere (as in all wars) were looted, raped, widowed, left homeless, taken captive, killed, and (particular to the early Americas) sold as servants in Canada. Eliza Wilkinson wrote,

"The whole world appeared to me as a theater, where nothing was acted but cruelty, bloodshed, and oppression; where neither age nor sex escaped the horrors of injustice and violence… our nights were wearisome and painful; our days spent in anxiety and melancholy" (Raphael, 2002, p. 167).

Many women and children became homeless refugees who left their homes rather than be subjected to rape and pillage of the armies. Helena Brasher, fleeing a small town in NY lamented, "Where God can we fly from danger? All places appear equally precarious" (Raphael, 2002, p.171). And yet, when the time came to put revolutionary ideals on paper, to reward those who had fought the fight and endured pain & misery for the cause, we find Rachel Wells writing to the Continental Congress, "I have Don as much to Carrey on the warr as meney that Sett Now at ye healm of government and No Notice taken of me … Now gentlemen is this Liberty?" (Rapael, 2002, p. 175).

Instead of full citizenship in the new republic, we find the ideal of republican motherhood being set forth as the proper role for women in the early republic. We see a foreshadowing of this in the writings of Mercy Otis Warren. She suggested that women, who are frail and vulnerable, need to be sheltered from the outside world. In that protected space a woman can use her reasoning and "become what she inherently is: a mind" (Baym, 1991, online). She felt that "women in their highest development are philosophers and teachers" (Baym, 1991, online).

This new idea about the frail nature of women, caught on during the early republican period, and women were assigned the gentle role of "developing and maintaining the virtue of the citizenry …not as citizens themselves, but through their influence upon men, principally as wives, but also as mothers" (Lewis, 1994, p. 24). The family was to be the incubator for new patriots, and husbands and fathers protected vulnerable women and children, who did not have rights separate from men. The men's rights enveloped them. However, women, seen as more virtuous than men, had the power to remake the world by creating true and virtuous republican men. This is definitely an upper class idea, and elite women did have a powerful role in producing a ruling class in this country.

Most women, however, could not afford to live in a protective space in an elite household. Old options of working in businesses and as servants in others' homes continued. Poor and single women, widows and single mothers (of whom there were many after the war years) found new opportunities in the nascent industries of the new nation. Entrepreneurs who tried to expand new industries begun during the revolution found that hiring local farmers left the factory vulnerable to delays during the plowing and harvest seasons. They soon learned that their most regular and cheapest source of labor was women, especially widows and children. The new rallying cry became: With the "farmer on the land and women in the factory" the nation will move forward! (Kessler-Harris, 2003, p. 236).

So women were again called upon to help the country and many followed their dreams of economic independence into the factories of our country. By 1840, 65% of the laborers in New England manufacturing were women. In the textile industry, 85 to 90% were women. While industrializing the nation they were also challenging the role of republican motherhood assigned to them from on high.

Many of these stories, however, do not reach our textbooks. Perspective is the thing … whose eyes do we view this period through? First through the conservative, enlightened thinkers of that time who marginalized women and now through the conservative historians who have inherited that point of view. Many women still fight against this ideology of domestic work and household tranquility falling on their shoulders. Women's experiences are still seen as lesser than a man's, and women are today still systematically discriminated against in the workplace.

If we are to free ourselves from these old ideologies, we must return to the scenes of historical events and complete the pictures adding back all the people who participated in our intricate histories - only in this way will we truly begin to understand human societies in all their complexities and be able to learn how our past IS our present and what we can do to close the gap between our ideals and the realities of our world.


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