All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1971

The Founding of the American Republic:1. The American Epic-1760-1800

Dr. Carson is Chairman, Social Science De­partment, Okaloosa-Walton College. He is a noted lecturer and author, his latest book en­titled Throttling the Railroads.

Several years ago, I introduced and undertook to teach a college course called “The Founding of the American Republic.” Several things moved me to do it. One was my long term interest in the pe­riod. Another was the belief that such a course would offer one of the best means for covering the basic political principles on which these United States were founded, covering them with sufficient de­tail that they would be more likely to be remembered by students than the usual much briefer coverage in broader courses. Yet another rea­son was an idea that there was some sort of unity within these years that warranted treating them in a separate course.

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 Independence, the years under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, and the early years of the Republic. In ad­dition there are biographies of most of the leading figures of the period, numerous monographs on such specialized subjects as reli­gion, economics, ideas, and so on. It may well be the most written about period of American history; most certainly, the period has been most extensively mined for docu­ments to collect and reprint. A few titles will suggest something of the depth in which it has been covered: Max Savelle, Seeds of Liberty and The Colonial Origins of American Thought; Robert A. Rutland, The Birth of the Bill of Rights; Nathan Schachner, The Founding Fathers; Leslie F. S. Upton, Revolutionary versus Loy­alist; Peter N. Carroll, ed., Re­ligion and the Coming of the American Revolution; Douglas S. Freeman, George Washington in seven volumes.

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.

3 Ibid.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.