Dr. Carson is Chairman, Social Science Department,
Several years ago, I introduced and undertook to teach a college course called "The Founding of the
One difficulty, of sorts, presented itself to offering such a course effectively. There was not a textbook which dealt with the period I had in mind in a unitary fashion. This could be attributed, in part, to the fact that I proposed to take the course down to the year 1800. Books which looked by their titles as if they might be appropriate did not do this. For example, Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation covers the years 1763-1776, while Forrest McDonald’s The Formation of the American Republic deals mainly with the years 1776-1790. Books which treat the American Revolution mostly deal in detail with only a small portion of the period. Richard B. Morris’s The American Revolution concentrates on the years 1763-1783, and John R. Alden’s The American Revolution covers the years 17751783. Books of readings cover a shorter period, too, as a rule. For example, Jack P. Greene has edited two extensive anthologies—Colonies to Nation and The Reinterpretation of the American Revolution—both of which are for the years 1763-1789.
A Time to Remember
There are numerous books that deal with some aspect of this period: the background to it, the coming of the revolt, the Declaration of Independence, the War for
Moreover, the events, movements, developments, and men of this time have been the subject of a great variety of interpretations and some of the most active controversies among historians. Professor Greene divides the older interpretations into three broad categories: the Whig Conception, the Imperial Conception, and the Progressive Conception. To this, he would add a panorama of interpretations that have come since World War II, many of which are revisions of earlier interpretations.
He says that the "new investigations have focused upon seven major problems: (1) the nature of the relationship between Britain and the colonies prior to 1763; (2) the nature of social and political life within the colonies and its relationship to the coming of the Revolution; (3) the reasons for the estrangement of the colonies from Britain between 1763 and 1776; (4) the explanations for the behavior of the British government and its supporters in the colonies between 1763 and the loss of the colonies in 1783; (5) the revolutionary consequences of the Revolution; (6) the character of the movement for the Constitution of 1787 and its relationship to the Revolution; (7) the nature and meaning of the Revolution to the men who lived through it."1
This list shows, too, how fragmented and specialized the study of this period has become. Interpretations have not generally been of the whole period but of some briefer span within it. Such questions as the following have been subjected to intensive study. What was the impact of British mercantilism on the American movement for independence? How many people from what areas and which segments of the population voted for delegations to ratification conventions in the states? What was the role of merchants in fomenting revolt against the British?
Just to touch upon the outlines of some of the interpretations that have been made will suggest some of the angles from which the happenings of these years have viewed. Many of these focus on why the colonies broke from England, and upon the years 176376. The oldest and most endure interpretation is that it was an improvement for liberty and from British oppression—a view that sometimes called the Whig they. There is a mercantile thesis, which may include the idea that British followed a policy of neglect" during most of colonial period, only to reverse is policy a decade or so before a revolt. Or, the mercantile they may deal much more complexly with the inner contradictions of mercantilism, their adverse effects on trade and relations long nations. There is a thesis—vigorously set forth—which is that many of the American colonies had reached such a level political and economic maturity at they no longer needed or wanted the British connection.
A Class Struggle
A major effort has been made subsume the whole of this epoch to a class struggle theory. The inception of the conflict is particularly difficult to place in this framework, but there is something to go on in pitting the British‑landed class against the merchant class both in England and America. From some such point of view, the struggle might have arisen from the efforts of Americans both to resist mercantile restrictions and the payment of their debts. Much more fertile, for class struggle theorists, was the conflict within individual colonies between tidewater aristocrats and piedmont yeomen, particularly in North Carolina. On this view the revolt from England was accompanied by a civil war within the colonies. The contest continued over the years and involved such questions as easy money, a moratorium on debts, the powers of the states versus the Confederation, and eventually split the country over the question of ratifying the Constitution.
Many historians in the twentieth century have insisted upon telling the story of the years 1763-1800 in the context of a series of contests between Liberals and Conservatives. The terms were not in use at the time, and those who pursue their use must have some of their characters reversing their positions from time to time in ways that the men need not have been conscious of doing, if they did. Still, those who wanted to break from England 1774-1776 must be, by these writers, denominated "Liberals," while those favoring continuing the British connection would be "Conservatives." Those who favored ratification of the Constitution of 1787 would be "Conservatives," while those opposing it would be "Liberals." There have been other interpretations, but the above examples give some idea of what has gone on. The epic character of the founding period of American history has frequently been obscured by the attention focused on contending interpretations, by the dredging up of selected facts which serve as grist for the mills for some partial view, by the concentration on minutiae which results in losing sight of the forest amidst the trees and shrubs, by the amplification of debates which had frequently long since been decently interred before the participants were themselves, by the quest for failings among great men and the search for imperfections among people, and by the fragmenting into parts of something which has a basic unity.
History Hangs on a Philosophy
Many of these tendencies have been aggravated by the tendency among historians toward empirical data unillumined by philosophy but given its meaning by ideology. This is not to be taken to mean that facts are not indispensable to history, nor that the work of finding and substantiating details is not valuable, nor that anyone attempting to write an account of these years can be anything but grateful for the scholarship that has gone before. It is rather to observe that the fruits of research and study have so often been presented in such a way that the mind loses hold or does not grasp much that is momentous about the founding of these United States.
There is no need, of course, to go to the opposite extreme, to ignore the debates and the divisions, to glorify riotous behavior, to describe the Founders as if they had not personal interests involved in their decisions, or to pretend that there was unity where there was diversity. The epic character of these years does not depend upon the purity of all the participants nor the disinterestedness of their behavior. It depends upon grasping what they wrought by pursuing a course over the period of a generation despite their imperfections, their divisions, their selfishness, and their shortsightedness. By their fruits ye shall know them, we are told in Scripture, and it is these fruits which give unity to an era and an epic cast to what was done.
The Story Unfinished in 1789
The American epic occurred between 1763-1800, with a background laid before that time and some filling out occurring after. The political foundations of these United States were set during these years. Seventeen eighty-nine does not make a good terminal date for the founding of the Republic; the Constitution was at that point only a "piece of paper." It had not yet had the breath of life breathed into it by the determination and actions of men; it did not even have a Bill of Rights. An experiment began to become an actuality within the next decade or so, and the story needs to be continued for several years beyond the inauguration of the government in 1789.
Strictly speaking, there is no American epic, or, if there is, it is according to the fifth meaning in the American College Dictionary, i. e., "something worthy to form the subject of an epic." An epic, essentially, is a "poetic composition in which a series of heroic achievements or events, usually of a hero, is dealt with at length as a continuous narrative in elevated style." The models for the epic in Western Civilization are the Iliad and the Odyssey. Epics frequently have as their subject the founding of a city, a nation, or the coalescing of a people. They usually have to do with legends and myths, with early accounts of a people that go back before any historical record, accounts that have been passed along by word of mouth.
But this serves mainly to point up the differences between the founding of the United States and most countries which had preceded it in history. The origins of most nations are available to us mainly in myths and legends; they go back to a time when the memory of man does not run contrary to their existence. Little enough is known of the coming of the Anglo-Saxon peoples to what then became England, much less about their antecedents on the continent. The establishment of English monarchy is, for us, a tangled web of chronicle, legend, lore, and historical glimpses of shadowy figures who had acquired such sobriquets as Ethelred the Redeless. Even more so was this the case with Rome and Greece, and it is only somewhat less so with France and Spain.
The Characters Were Real
These United States, by contrast, came into being in what is for us modern times with what that connotes of literary record, events substantiated from many independent sources, and the characters definitely historical ones with not even a shadow of a doubt that some of them might have been mythical or combinations of several actual persons.
Poetry has rough going in dealing with prosaic factual materials. Heroes can hardly surface or survive the minute probing of their lives by modern biographical techniques. Elegant language requires an informing vision which has not fared well in the midst of a naturalistic outlook. Prosaic history under the tutelage of professionals has replaced epic poetry; irreducible facts which will stand careful scrutiny have tended to supplant elegantly worded narratives. We have gained in exact knowledge quite often at the expense of impoverishing the spirit; those who seek sustenance from the past have asked for bread and been tendered a stone instead.
Even so, there are the makings of an epic in the men, events, documents, and developments of the years 1763-1800. Every schoolboy once learned the rudiments of the stuff of epics: "Give me liberty or give me death"; the midnight ride of Paul Revere; "the shot heard round the world"; "Taxation without representation is tyranny"; the making of the flag by Betsy Ross; Nathan Hale’s "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country"; the heroism of George Washington: at Kip’s Bay, crossing the Delaware, at Valley Forge; the villainous treason of Benedict Arnold; "millions for defense but not one cent for tribute," and so on.
An epic is not for schoolboys alone; hence, it must probe more deeply into the background of a people. These years had an unusual crop of men, major and minor characters who would fit well amidst the elegant language of an epic: James Otis, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Hancock, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Gouverneur Morris, Horatio Gates, Baron von Steuben, Marquis de Lafayette, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Marshall, and many, many others who have been well called Founding Fathers.
Events abound, many of which have a symbolic ring to them, events which call to mind crises, resolutions, and climaxes, such as: the Stamp Act, the Stamp Act Congress, the Boston Massacre, the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party, the Coercive Acts, Lexington and Concord, the meeting of the Second Continental Congress, the declaring of independence, the Battle of Saratoga, the Franco-American Alliance, the Battle of Yorktown, the Treaty of Paris, Shay’s Rebellion, the Constitutional Convention, the XYZ Affair.
Even the documents of these years have an epic quality to them: the elegance of the language, their philosophical tone, and the vision with which they call an imperial rule to account as well as set forth the new direction for a people. The story of these years is encapsulated in the documents for which these titles stand: the Suffolk Resolves, the Circular Letters, Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, the Novanglus Letters, the Olive Branch Petition, Summary View of the Rights of British America, Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, The Crisis, the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Bill of Religious Liberty, the Constitution, the Federalist, Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.
Conflicting Ideas at Work
What gives dramatic character to any series of episodes which make up an epic is conflict. Of conflicts, there were more than enough during these years: Parliament versus colonial assemblies, King against American congresses, the opposition of loyalists to revolutionaries, Redcoats against Continentals, Federalists versus anti-Federalists, Conservatives (or whatever they should be called) against Jacobins, the partisan conflict between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, and nationalists versus states-righters, not to mention such more subtle conflicts as those between establish parliamentarians (or antidisestablishmentarians) and disestablishmentarians or between mercantilists and proponents of laissez-faire. What was right and who wrong may not always have been as clear as partisans liked to think, but many of the conflicts were worthy of the combatants.
What takes these men, events, documents, developments, and conflicts out of the ordinary and raises them to epic proportions are the great ideas which were espoused, which informed and enlivened them. Professor Clinton Rossiter has noted the habit the people of this time had "of ‘recurring to first principles,’ of appealing to basic doctrines…. Few men were willing to argue about a specific issue… without first calling upon rules of justice that were considered to apply to all men everywhere."2 The following are some of these ideas: natural law, natural rights, balance of power, separation of power, limited government, freedom of conscience, free trade, federalism, and republican forms of government. As Rossiter says, "The great political philosophy of the Western world enjoyed one of its proudest seasons in this time of resistance and revolution."3 To which should be added, it had its finest season in the laying of the political foundations during the constitution making years.
Perhaps the greatest wonder of all during these years is what these men wrought out of revolution. The modern era has had revolution aplenty, and then some. All too often they have followed what is by now a familiar pattern, that is, great proclamations of liberty and fraternity, the casting off of the old rules and restrictions, the subsequent loosening of authority, the disintegration of the society, and the turning to a dictator to bring a more confining order. Though some have tried to tell the story of America during these years along such lines, the interpretations are always strained. Clearly, the Americans avoided most of the excesses associated with revolutions.
Building Upon a Heritage
Many things may help to explain this, but one thing is essential to any explanation. Americans did not cut themselves off from their past experience, from ideas and practices of long standing, or from older traditions and institutions. In their building they relied extensively upon ancient and modern history and that which had come to them through the ages. What separates this as an epic from abortive revolutions is that these men brought to a fertile junction their heritage—which contained several great streams, namely, the Classical, the Christian, and the English—, their experience, and contemporary ideas. The Founders stood on the shoulders of giants, though it sometimes requires giants also to attain such heights.
An epic poem might well ignore these antecedents in order to attribute all that was accomplished to the heroes of the time. An historical account—even one which acknowledges the epic proportions of what occurred—cannot well do so.
Thus, it is appropriate now to relate something of the heritage and experience which went into the founding of the American Republic.
Next: The English Heritage
1 Jack P. Greene, ed., The Reinterpretation of the American Revolution (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), pp. 18-19.
2 Clinton Rossiter, The Political Thought of the American Revolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963), p. 52.