Shaping the Contours of the Revolution

The Copley Family. By: John Singleton Copley, one of the most prominent early American painters of middle-class, ordinary life.

The political discourse in the years of the American Revolution parallels with the discourse of today. Just as commentators and analysts opine about trends in society, pamphleteers did the same in the Revolutionary years.

For example, pamphleteers believed that American society during the American Revolution was unique, as there was a perception that “wealth does not obtain the same degree of influence here, which it does in old countries.” John F. Roche, Joseph Reed: A Moderate in the American Revolution (N.Y. 1957), 187.

It was believed, particularly in some circles like that of the pamphleteer Joseph Reed, that the aristocratic class “was so vulnerable to challenge because his wealth and gentility seemed so recent and so insecure.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 88. Reed, and others, believed that no man ought “to forget the level he came from; when he does, he ought to be led back and shewn the mortifying picture of originality.” Id. quoting John F. Roche, Joseph Reed: A Moderate in the American Revolution (N.Y. 1957), 187.

The pamphleteers were vocal and adamantly advocating for a revolution in Pennsylvania, and more than anything, they wished that their beliefs were widely held. They were not, however. As Gordon Wood explained, “the radicals who claimed to speak for the people, and who manned the instruments of revolution—the committees and the militia companies—and wrote the new [Pennsylvania] Constitution actually feared the traditional deference of the people to their established leaders.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 89.

Those “radicals” were “continually hard put to enlarge their support and weaken their opposition, resorting on one hand to exaggerated popular rhetoric and a broadened suffrage in order to attract new groups and on the other hand to military intimidation and test oaths and disenfranchisement in order to neutralize their opponents.” Id.

This group of pamphleteers, while not nearly as effective as they hoped in shaping the contours of the Revolution, had a tremendous impact on the public as a whole. The American people, as a collective, began to understand that they should have a share in their government and actively participate in government. Id.

Much of what this group of Pennsylvanians did is recognizable and still present today. Many of the same tactics exist today, with factions of people coming forward into the public eye, sure that their beliefs are contagious.

On a final note, while it is popular for analysts and commentators to conclude that America is more divided than ever into factions and groups, one would do well to remember that from the beginning, factions have existed. Those factions did anything they could tactically to spread their beliefs and create a consensus in American society. It would be difficult to argue that modern America is any different.

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