In twenty-two original essays, leading historians reveal the radical impulses at the founding of the American Republic. Here is a fresh new reading of the American Revolution that gives voice and recognition to a generation of radical thinkers and doers whose revolutionary ideals outstripped those of the Founding Fathers.
While the Founding Fathers advocated a break from Britain and espoused ideals of republican government, none proposed significant changes to the fabric of colonial society. As privileged and propertied white males, they did not seek a revolution in the modern sense; instead, they tried to maintain the underlying social structure and political system that enabled men of wealth to rule. They firmly opposed social equality and feared popular democracy as a form of “levelling.”
Yet during this “revolutionary” period some people did believe that “liberty” meant “liberty for all” and that “equality” should be applied to political, economic, and religious spheres. Here are the stories of individuals and groups who exemplified the radical ideals of the American Revolution more in keeping with our own values today. This volume helps us to understand the social conflicts unleashed by the struggle for independence, the Revolution’s achievements, and the unfinished agenda it left for future generations to confront.
Alfred F. Young is professor emeritus of history at Northern Illinois University and was a senior research fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Gary B. Nash is professor of history emeritus and director of the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.
Ray Raphael is the author of A People’s History of the American Revolution, Founding Myths, and several other books on the nation’s founding. He lives in northern California.
From our Q&A with the editors:
Q: The title of your book is Revolutionary Founders yet you don’t mean the traditional founding fathers. Who were the “rebels, radicals, and reformers” you are referring to?
A: These were people who wanted to apply the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence – the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – more broadly than the famous founders intended. They sought an expansion of political democracy, equality, and liberty. Most of them supported the war for independence from Britain, but some, such as Indians fighting for their own independence or slaves fleeing their masters to fight with the British, did not. Some, particularly women, fought personal battles to overcome barriers. Most, though, participated in popular movements to realize what they believed to be the true goals of the Revolution.
Q: How would you describe the contributions of the protagonists featured in Revolutionary Founders to the American Revolution? How did their concerns and approach differ from that of the traditional founding fathers?
A: Our protagonists sought to restructure social, economic, and political forms in ways that most of the traditional founding fathers resisted. They wanted “to begin the world over again,” in the words of Thomas Paine, and bequeath to their children and grandchildren a reformed, regenerated America. By contrast, most of the people we most commonly celebrate as founding fathers, including many of those who sought independence, wanted to keep traditional social, economic, or political hierarchies largely intact. There are exceptions, but with the exception of Franklin and of course Paine (whom we include in this volume), no other famous founder imagined equality on all levels.
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