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Talking 'Bout A Revolution

The majority of people didn't live like George Washington!
Can we really call the American Revolution a "revolution"? According to my dictionary, revolution means "a fundamental change in political organization or in a government or constitution." It also means "an alteration or change in some matter or respect; a sudden, radical, or complete change."


Let's look at what fundamentally changed after the United States claimed independence over England. Was land distributed to the landless? Were all people allowed to participate in the new government? Was slavery abolished? Was education made available to all? Were taxes repealed?


For the majority of people who didn't own land, things stayed more or less the same after 1783. The so-called "revolution" didn't change the rules of the game - only those in charge. Now, instead of answering to British aristocrats, the masses had to obey American landowners. That's because, according to almost all state laws, the only people who could vote were male landowners. They elected other male landowners to the House of Representatives and the state legislatures, who in turn elected members to the Senate.

If this doesn't sound very democratic, that's because it isn't. Some historians have argued that the Founding Fathers weren't big fans of what we think of as democracy and tried as much as possible to keep power away from "the people."

Dee Curlee told me about the slaves and servants at Mount Vernon
OK, so maybe I'm being a little unfair with these guys. It's not like the rest of the world was welcoming people of color, women and the poor with open arms into the ballot boxes and the seats of government. In many ways, the new republic of the United States, through the Constitution, was more democratic than most other countries. It guaranteed voting rights (to a selected few), transition of power and representation.

This lady could look pretty, but couldn't vote
But it also served the special interests of the people in charge and certainly didn't alter the balance of power. Men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had a lot to protect. They owned thousands of acres of land, had many connections, and profited enormously from both. Through a combination of luck, strategic alliances and smarts, they became two of the best-known and celebrated American personalities of their time.

Consider this: both men inherited large amounts of land, as well as slaves, from their relatives. Then, they married wealthy widows who had even more land and property. They both ran for - and were elected to - the Virginia State government. (Remember, only landowners could hold office and only landowners could vote). From there, they went on to represent their state at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and became part of the nucleus of men who debated independence, fought the war against England and shaped the nascent republic.

The house at Monticello was surrounded by 5,000 acres of land
But money and connections weren't enough. In addition to land and wealth, they were both educated and considered very smart. They were prolific readers and writers - Washington owned over 800 books and wrote nearly 40,000 letters, while Jefferson had a 6,700-book library and penned 20,000 letters! They stood out from the crowd of moneyed elite for their military accomplishments (in Washington's case) and writing skills (in Jefferson's). My friend Margaret borrowed a quote from a magazine article and said, "Washington fought the revolution and Jefferson thought the revolution."

Margaret's husband Mark spent hours trying to convince me that it wasn't just money, or land, or self-interest, or even brains, that motivated them. "They risked everything!" he said. "They wanted to be revered by future generations! They wanted to be the Founding Fathers!" He didn't buy the argument that the Constitution was written solely for the purpose of benefiting the elite because, in his opinion, they all had more to lose from independence than to gain. What do you think?

I risked being reprimanded for taking this photo in Monticello's private
Kevin thinks that GW and TJ didn't risk anything. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain from a war that was essentially fought by the poor, the enslaved and the working classes. Once the war ended and a new government was being formed, nobody from the trenches was asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention. Their opinion didn't count, and neither did their interests.

So what's the verdict? Well, that depends on who you ask. People have been discussing the reasons behind the revolution and the constitution for decades now. One man in particular, Charles Beard, wrote a book called An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution back in 1913, which challenged the accepted view that the Founding Fathers had been patriotic men fighting for justice, liberty and freedom for all. Some people loved his book; others hated it. I liked it simply because it reminded me that things are not always black and white. In our haste to simplify we sometimes forget that people act for a variety of reasons: economic self-interest, ego, altruism, pride and personal vendettas. Washington and Jefferson were probably motivated by all of these factors and if you look hard enough at history, you can find evidence to support this idea.

And while you're at it, read the Constitution again. Or read it for the first time, if that's the case. Because within its articles, you'll find a document that has withstood over 200 years of political maneuverings, presidential elections, protests and amendments. It may have been used to keep "the people" from power originally, but it has also been the foundation for change and inclusion. The Constitution lives on and so does the Revolution.

(By the way, Washington and Jefferson both married women named Martha! Coincidence…?)


Please email me at: daphne@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Rebels on a Roll!
Becky - When politicians wore guns …
Making A Difference - One nation under…corporate control?
Team - How constitutional is the Constitution?
Teddy - "President for Life" and other Constitutional Convention bloopers...
Kevin - Democracy: use it or lose it!