Egalitarianism and Republican Idealism
The American Revolution celebrated an egalitarian ethos that saw all men as born equal and equally entitled to enjoy the rights endowed by their Creator. It was this firm conviction that helped persuade many of the conservative leaders of society to open their ranks to men of humbler background. The revolutionary generation did not live up to its ideal. It did lay the ideological foundation for the later expansion of civil rights in the United States.The Rise of New Men
From the start, the struggle against Britain drew on a broad base of popular support. The leaders of the resistance to British legislation and then the war for independence needed the help of people from the lower and middle classes. From the mobs led by men like Crispus Attucks to the Committees of Correspondence, ordinary people made their presence felt in the Patriot movement and began rising to prominence. War accelerated this process.
As states rewrote their constitutions during the war, many frontier districts received more equitable representation in their legislatures. This introduced many rough-hewn backwoodsmen into chambers that had been dominated by “gentlemen.” In the towns and cities, small tradesmen and members of the working class enjoyed unprecedented influence. Small farmers benefited from the democratizing effects of the wartime constitutions.
An attempt was made to eradicate residual emblems of inequality. Some feudal remnants in the law were repealed. The popularity of bills of rights, proudly specifying and defending what was due every citizen, was a measure of the new assertiveness of ordinary Americans.The Virtues of a Republic
Americans of the revolutionary generation grew up the subjects of a king. It took a while, even after Lexington and Concord, for many revolutionaries to shed their reflexive monarchism. When they did so, the monarchy became the symbol of what they were rebelling against. In Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, King George III assumed responsibility for many evils more properly attributed to Parliament.
During the Revolution, it became customary to address all citizens as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” while conducting business. Before this time, these titles had been reserved for the upper classes.
Patriots self-consciously embraced republicanism. The classics were a central component of any gentleman's education, and American leaders looked to ancient Greek and Roman precedents as they shaped their new government. Like the heroes of the classical world, Patriots saw themselves as fighting for a liberty tempered by a selfless devotion to the common good. George Washington was only the most conspicuous American Cincinnatus, leaving his plow to repel the red-coated enemy.
Central to American republicanism was the conviction that power came from the people. This introduced a note of heroism into every life. A republic could only be as strong as the virtue of its citizens. Should Americans succumb to an effete love of ease and luxury, the United States would degenerate into tyranny, like the vaunted republics of Greece and Rome. Thus the success of the American experiment required active and hardworking citizens, self-sufficient enough to be independent of any corrupting reliance on politicians and government. Hence Jefferson's ideal of an American republic peopled by yeoman farmers, taking advantage of the limitless land provided by a beckoning west. The wide diffusion of property in the United States would be the best defense against tyranny.