A Conservative Revolution

The American Revolution did not spark a vast social upheaval like those associated with the French and Russian Revolutions. The struggle for independence did not pit one class against another. The men who served in Congress or led the Continental army never sought to restructure society. Although the shape of American government changed, it was always rooted in traditional practice and principles. Because of this, the American Revolution has been described as a conservative revolution, making it unique among the major revolutionary movements of the modern era.

How revolutionary was the American Revolution?

Historians have long debated the nature of the American Revolution. Some have emphasized the ideological impetus for American independence and regarded the revolution as essentially conservative. Others have stressed social transformation in America and concluded that the revolution was a radical event. Debate will continue as historians relate this history to constantly changing times.

Men of Substance

Most of the leaders of the American Revolution were men of property, members of the elite that had governed the colonies before the break with Britain. They were landowners, merchants, and lawyers. They were not an aristocracy; American society was too fluid for that. There was room at the top for the self-made man. Nor was the gap between rich and poor as wide as it was in Europe. Nevertheless, the men who oversaw the struggle for independence saw themselves as the natural leaders of a social order that was fundamentally just.

Some of these men worried about the social consequences of their revolution. They did so even as they followed the logic of their own political ideas and encouraged a wider pool of men to participate in government. New men took advantage of the proffered opportunities and won positions of leadership in Congress, the states, and the army.

John Jay expressed a common concern when he wrote the revolution was “giving rank and Importance to men whom Wisdom would have left in obscurity.” John Adams echoed Jay's sentiments. He feared that a growing democratization of American politics would lead to a debasement of public life. He grumbled that a new generation of American leaders “will obtain an Influence, by Noise not Sense, by Meanness not Greatness, by Ignorance not Learning.”

The Limits of Change

In the short run, the fears of these men were misplaced. Though space was created for the rise of new men in American politics, they did not sweep all before them. For a time, most of the traditional leaders of American society received the deference that they believed was their due.

Emblematic of the vitality of the old order was the public ascendancy of George Washington. No democrat, Washington had labored hard to create what he considered a proper and necessary distance between officers and men in the Continental army. His old-school hauteur was legendary.

A pair of younger men, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, once decided to test Washington's reserve. Hamilton bet Morris a fine dinner that Washington would never tolerate any familiarity from him. At a reception, Morris walked up to Washington and put his hand on his shoulder, saying, “My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well.” Washington removed Morris's hand and glared at the young man until he made a hasty retreat.

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