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Continuity and change in American society, 1754-1800

The story of Rip Van Winkle helps us explore how the American Revolution changed society. It highlights the shift from monarchy to democracy, the expansion of voting rights for white men, and the limited impact on women, enslaved, and indigenous people. The Revolution brought both continuity and change.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In 1819, American author Washington Irving published a short story about a man named Rip Van Winkle. In the story, Rip lived in a sleepy village in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he spent his days hanging around the local tavern, the King George, and avoiding his wife any time she asked him to do some work on their farm. One evening, Rip was walking in the mountains when he came upon a strange group of men who gave him some liquor to drink. He fell asleep, and when we woke up the next morning, he went back into town and found that everything had changed. Instead of a sleepy village, there was a bustling town, and the inhabitants all seemed to be loudly debating over an election. One person wanted to know if Rip favored the Federalists or the Republicans, groups that he had never heard of. The King George Tavern had transformed into something called the General Washington Tavern, and outside it, someone had put up an unfamiliar flag bearing stars and stripes. Gradually, Rip realized that he had been asleep not just for one night, but for 20 years, and that he had slept through the entire American Revolution. Now, this is just a story, and it's a pretty fun one, I can't do it justice here, but I highly recommend you read it. But this story reveals a lot about how Americans thought about the amount of social change that accompanied the American Revolution. If you, like Rip Van Winkle, fell asleep in the British colonies and woke up in the United States, which aspects of life would be familiar to you and which would be completely alien? In other words, how much did the American Revolution really affect society? If we set out to answer this question as historians, what we're really doing is exercising the historical thinking skill of continuity and change. What changed and what stayed the same from before the Revolution to after it? We know that the Revolution changed the political status of the British colonies in North America, which went from being part of the British Empire to being an independent nation, but how big of a deal was that, really? Was it not much more than erasing British colonies from the map and writing in United States instead, or did I actually lead to far-reaching changes in how people lived? If we're trying to answer this question, we really only have three options. First, things changed a lot. There was a great deal of change, and things were very different after the Revolution compared to beforehand. Second, things didn't change much at all. The Revolution was a revolution in name only, and most things were the same afterwards. Or third, some things changed but other things stayed the same. When we're asking what changed and what stayed the same over time, we need to be consistent about the aspects of society that we choose so that we're comparing apples to apples. So, let's decide which aspects we're going to compare over time. There are a lot that we could choose from, religion, slavery, gender roles, class and social structures, political institutions. It's a little like a choose your own adventure book for historians. All right, I'm gonna choose political institutions, social structures, and gender roles. Why am I choosing these? Well, I guess that I'm interested in how the ideas of the Revolution, that all men are created equal and that government should represent the will of the people, played out in reality. Did the Revolution really lead to more equality for men or for women? Did government really become more democratic? So, let's pretend that we're Rip Van Winkle, taking a gander at the society around us before and after the Revolution. I'm not gonna go into a whole lot of detail here, but if there's anything you're not familiar with, just jot it down and then you can look it up when you have a chance. So, what were political institutions, social structures, and gender roles like before the Revolution? Well, first of all, there were 13 separate colonies, not just one single nation. The colonies were ruled by a hereditary monarch, the King of England, and they had virtual representation in Parliament. Colonists considered themselves Englishmen who were entitled to the rights of Englishmen. Colonies had property requirements and usually also religious requirements for voters. Economically, things weren't too bad for your average white colonist in the North, although by the eve of the Revolution, there was a growing number of poor people as land become scarcer. American colonists were generally better off than the working class back in Britain. In the South, however, the planter aristocracy ruled, with a handful of wealthy white slave owners dominating society and politics. White indentured servants still existed in both the North and the South, although the practice was becoming a little less common. Most African Americans, excepting a few free people of color in the North, were enslaved and had no hope of social mobility, save for running away. Indigenous people were taking advantage of the dueling empires of Britain and France as best they could, but after the Seven Years' War, the departure of France meant that they were dealing with Britain alone. The British government tired to prevent more conflict between white settlers and indigenous people with the Proclamation of 1763, which stipulated that the colonists could not expand west past the Appalachian Mountains. Gender roles in the American colonies mimicked those of British society pretty closely. White men did farm labor. Women cared for the home and children. A woman had no political or legal identity apart from her husband in a practice called coverture, so a married woman couldn't own property or vote. Both enslaved men and enslaved women worked in the fields. (yawns) All this history has tired me out. Let's take a little rest and come back to our chart in a minute. (crickets chirping) Ah, that was a nice nap. Hang on, what year is it? Did we sleep through the whole American Revolution? Yikes, let's finish this chart quickly. How different were political institutions, social structures, and gender roles after the Revolution? In terms of politics, things had changed. Instead of 13 separate colonies ruled by a king and Parliament, there was one nation ruled by a three-branch government, where citizens were directly represented in Congress. Instead of the rights of Englishmen, people appealed to Enlightenment ideas of natural rights, with protections from government tyranny enshrined in a Bill of Rights. Many states reduced or eliminated property and religious requirements for voting, expanding the electorate among white men. Overall, social structures were pretty similar, with the exception that the institution of slavery was being phased out in northern states, and the indentured servitude of whites was being phased out pretty much everywhere. In the South, slavery continued. For indigenous people, American independence meant that that Proclamation line was no longer being enforced and white settlers saw western lands as one of the prizes of victory in the Revolution. Gender roles also looked pretty similar to before the war. Coverture remained, and men and women continued working at the same tasks that they had prior to independence. One minor difference was the elevation in the status of white women, who earned respect for their contributions to the war effort as Daughters of Liberty. After the Revolution, they took up roles as Republican mothers who instilled civic virtue in their sons and also required more education in order to properly inculcate those values. So, what do we make of these changes in continuities? The biggest area of change was going from hereditary monarchy to democracy, expanding the vote for white men. The ideas of liberty and equality had some impact on social structures and gender roles, leading to the gradual abolition of slavery in the North and some new opportunities for women. If I were to answer our question with one of those three options, I'd say some things changed and some things stayed the same. The Revolution changed the rhetoric of rights and expanded democracy for white men but didn't have much of a positive impact on the lives of women, enslaved people, or indigenous people. Now, you could choose totally different aspects of society to look at and come up with a completely different take than me. This is what being a historian is all about. If we take care to select aspects of society to compare across time, we can answer some tough questions about how society changed. Sleep tight.