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Social consequences of revolutionary ideals

The American Revolution sparked big ideas about equality and rights, leading to changes in voting rights, slavery, and women's status. It expanded democracy, initiated the abolition movement, and gave rise to the concept of 'republican motherhood', promoting women's education. These revolutionary ideals continue to shape our society today.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] During the American Revolution, everyone became a little bit of a philosopher. Walking down the street in Boston past coffee houses and taverns, you might hear ordinary people debating equality and natural rights. Before it was even a political revolution, the American Revolution was a revolution of ideas. You see these ideas all over the literature of the time period, perhaps most famously in Thomas Jefferson's language in the Declaration that all men are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, the idea that everyone has the natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You would see it in the most famous slogan of the revolution, no taxation without representation, the idea that the people would have a say in the laws that affect them. The revolution even went so far as to criticize the idea of monarchy, which pamphleteer Thomas Paine called absurd. These ideas criticized long-standing social norms about who deserved to rule versus who deserved to be ruled. It's likely that most of the founders thought these ideas primarily applied to the political struggle between the colonies and Great Britain, but it wasn't just elite white men who considered these radical notions and thought about how to apply them to their own lives. These revolutionary ideals increased the awareness of inequalities in society more broadly and caused some people to call for changes in voting rights, in the institution of slavery, and the status of women. One major change that the revolutionary ideals caused was an expansion of political democracy in state governments. So after the revolution, all the states wrote new constitutions. And every one of them instituted a representative government through an elected legislature. And almost all of them also reduced the property requirements for voting and office-holding, which previously had limited the franchise to wealthier white men. After the revolution, a majority of white men had the right to vote. And voting rights would continue to expand until all white men had the right to vote by the 1830s. In fact, some state constitutions, like New Jersey's, didn't specify who could vote, so long as they met the new lower property requirements. So between the revolution and 1807 when they changed the law, property-owning women and free people of color could vote. Another social change that was brought on by these revolutionary ideals was the emergence of the abolition movement to end the practice of slavery. So almost all of the founders were slave owners, and they didn't seem to notice any contradiction between the idea that all men are created equal and keeping Africans in perpetual bondage. But that did not mean that others missed the connection. During the revolution itself, many enslaved people escaped, filed petitions for freedom, or they joined the military to gain freedom on the side of the Americans, but more frequently on the side of the British who offered freedom in exchange for serving in the army. After the revolution, northern states either abolished slavery, or they began a process of gradual emancipation, so saying that enslaved people who were children might remain in slavery until they were in their mid to late 20s and then would be free, and their children would be free, so that over the course of the late 1800s and early 1900s, in most northern states, slavery was either entirely eliminated or phased out to the point that there was a very small enslaved population. Southern states did not abolish slavery in response to the revolution, and this would continue to expand sectional tensions between the north and the south until the Civil War. The last change in social values that I wanna discuss relates to women's role in the war. Women played a pretty crucial role in supporting the independence movement, and they also drew on the rhetoric of revolutionary ideas to support their claims for an improvement in status. Abigail Adams, who was the wife of John Adams, wrote to him while he was in Philadelphia working on the draft of the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson and others. She wrote, in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. In general, the revolution didn't result in a huge change of status for white women and none at all for enslaved women, but one idea did emerge that would foment social change farther down the line, and that was the idea of republican motherhood. So republican motherhood was the notion that for this new democratic American nation to work, the country was going to need virtuous citizens. And who taught men how to be virtuous citizens? Their mothers. So thinkers of the time period, particularly a Philadelphia physician and singer of the Declaration of Independence named Benjamin Rush, argued that women should receive more robust education in order to better educate their sons. So instead of only learning household skills or etiquette, women should learn philosophy and mathematics. Now, while this concept was mainly in the service of improving the education and virtue of men, it did result in the expansion of women's education and the founding of new schools and colleges for girls. And many of the girls who attended those schools would go on to be major reformers and activists in the women's rights and abolitionist movements in the 19th century. I wanna finish by just briefly taking a look at John Adams' response to his wife's letter encouraging hin to remember the ladies, which is not nearly as famous as her letter, but I think still tells us a lot about the ideas of the time period. He said, as to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere, that children and apprentices were disobedient, that schools and colleges were grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters, but your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. And there at the end he's referring to women. You can tell that John kinda takes this as a joke. He can't imagine that the ideas that he and the other founders used so persuasively in the American Revolution would lead women and African-Americans and working class people like apprentices to apply those same notions to themselves. But perhaps the joke was on John Adams after all, because that is exactly what they did.