Tag Archives: Independence

A Return to Normalcy: The Virtuous Woman

In the years following the American Revolution, the role of wife and mother became of great importance. In a new nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality, the job of a virtuous woman was to ensure that the men who led the nation remained free from the corrupting influence of power and prestige. Women, virtuous women dedicated to the home and family, were believed to be vital in counteracting the temptations of the world and the dangers of political power. Women like Abigail Adams hoped for an equality that seemed inherent in the rhetoric of the Revolution, but had to settle for “inherent moral superiority” rather than equality for women.[1]

Women had been an integral part of the Revolution, and had provided support in capacities essential for success. After the Revolution came to an end, society wished to return them to their homes, a pattern that would be seen again and again in U.S. history. In some cases, the women of post-revolutionary America had fewer protections and rights than they did prior to the war. Property laws that protected and provided for a widow were not reestablished in the new nation and it would take time for new laws to replace what had been lost. [2]

The virtuous qualities of a woman were praised, but her desire for equality was not. Even women who had served valiantly during the war, found themselves pressured to return to the roles of virtuous wife and mother when the war ended. Those who did not graciously return to the parlor and leave the public life to the men, found life in the new nation a hardship not a blessing.[3] War may have disrupted the social norms, but in a post-war world, a return to normalcy was considered vital to stability and success. That meant women, although valued, were anything but equal.

[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), xii.

[2] http://www.ushistory.org/us/13e.asp;  http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/womens-history/essays/legal-status-women-1776%E2%80%931830

[3] Berkin, 139.

Ideology, Revolution, and Change: A Slow Process

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to the people of Philadelphia, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Eleven years later, the Constitution of the United States of America was created, reaffirming the goal to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence(sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” In 1789, the congress defined twelve common rights of U.S. citizens but only 10 of these became amendments to the constitution. The Bill of Rights defined what the Declaration had not; it defined which rights could be agreed upon as the unalienable rights of man. At the heart of these rights was the belief that sanctity of thought and property were key to liberty.

Beginning in the 1760s, arguments were made that government should not impinge upon these basic rights. Property was not to be surrendered unless it was done so willingly or due to the judgement of one’s peers. It was felt that the forfeiture of property was tantamount to the loss of liberty. While the social strata of the colonies was less structured than in the Old World, property was still closely associated to one’s identity and stature. The loss of property, even from taxation, was considered highly serious in nature. Laws impinging on property rights and laws which changed the colonial judicial system led most often to non-violent protestations. In many cases the laws were repealed, but they were followed by new laws equally objectionable to the colonists. During the decade leading up to the American Revolution and throughout the years of warfare, an ideology emerged that defined political representation as a fundamental right of the citizen. This was not a new ideology, but one that became well-articulated during the numerous debates of the revolutionary period. By the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the notion of a government “of the people” was becoming firmly planted in the American psyche. The Preamble stated, “We the people” rather than “We the states”. The new nation was formed with the people being the highest political unit rather than the states. In 1863, during a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he reiterated that the nation was a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The American Civil War tested the strength of the constitution and the union it had created. However, it also highlighted that even after more than half century, the ideology that had declared the equality of man and the right to political representation had not become a universal reality in the United States and its territories. It would not be until the twentieth century that all U.S. citizens would gain the right to vote, and the protection to vote without constraint due to the lack of property or social standing.

The American Revolution had not been fought with the intent to change the social dynamics of the people, but the ideology that was established through decades of debate both before and immediately after the Revolution would eventually lead to social change. In the United States this social change was slow, sometimes terribly slow and with human suffering the consequence, but with slow change came stability. While many revolutions would follow in the footsteps of the American Revolution, few of the political entities formed from those revolutions witnessed the longevity and stability of that the United States with its slow and never-ending process of ensuring “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for its people.

History: Context Matters

King George III of Great Britain and James Otis, Jr. shared more in common than merely being characters in what would develop into the American Revolution.[1] In 1762, Otis argued against the legality of the writs of assistance established by George III.[2] At the time, Otis was a well-respected member of his community, and his words would go on to inspire the very men history books would refer to as the founding fathers of the United States. George III was still new to his reign as the king and, although facing some criticism in London, was not yet showing signs of the mental illness that would plague him later in life. Both men, believing themselves to be rational and empowered to act on behalf of their fellow men through either birth or through education and profession, took differing stands on the issue of the constitutionality of the king’s authority to impose restrictions on the people of the American colonies. In short, the king was certain of his authority and Otis was certain that the king was acting without full understanding of the unconstitutionality of his actions. In 1762 neither man was suffering from mental instability, but that would not be the case a few decades later. If their words and deeds were taken out of the context of the day, with the mental instabilities both suffered later in life being attributed to their earlier actions, the interpretation of those actions would be marred and history would not be served. Context matters in the study of history. Even the most praiseworthy individuals will have said or done something that, when taken out of context, will seem to contradict how history has recorded their character.


[1] Otis (1725-1783), George III (1738-1820).

[2] Writs of Assistance Case

Further Reading

A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, More Particularly, in the Last of the General Assembly by James Otis, Jr.

Project Gutenberg version

Scanned copy of the pamphlet (automatic download) from JamesOtis.net (link to document)

A Defining Moment in History: Appomattox Court House

One hundred and fifty years ago General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, thereby signaling the end of a long and bloody war which had been fought over the question of whether a political state had a right to leave a union it had voluntarily joined. History books enumerate the varied and difficult sociopolitical causes that led to the rupture of the United States and the devastating effects the rupture had on the people and the nation. At the heart of the rupture was a central question, was the United States a federation or a confederation? Modern attempts to clarify the difference between the two types of union focus on a key difference between otherwise similar political institutions – voluntary entry and the notion that a sovereign state that enters voluntarily should in turn be able to freely exit if it chooses. In the nineteenth century, the American Civil War seemed to have determined that the United States had become a federation upon the signing of the U.S. Constitution and the dissolution of the union would not be tolerated. In the twentieth century, other confederations would seek dissolution with varied levels of success. Arguing that they had never agreed to become a federation but had only agreed to a loose confederation, political states like Slovenia managed to declare and achieve independence. Not all attempts by small political states belonging to larger political unions succeeded in achieving both independence and international recognition without first engaging in prolonged civil wars. During the American Civil War and the many civil wars of the twentieth century, the international community, particularly the great powers, felt the need to intervene usually, but not always, on the side which sought to protect the status quo. Interestingly, as important as maintaining the status quo and suppressing war might have been to the great powers, occasionally they would see value in the breakup of large unions regardless of whether the unions were federations, confederations, or empires.  In the end, it seemed to matter little how a union was defined, rather what mattered was how the other great nations could best benefit economically, politically, and socially. In the case of the American Civil War, the great powers decided that intervention would be too costly. Keeping peace in Europe was enough of a problem without throwing support behind a bunch of rebel states wishing to form a separate, more loosely bound union. Prior to April 9, 1865, there had been a debate as to whether the United States was a confederation of states voluntarily joined and with the right to freely exit. With the defeat of the South, the debate should have ended. However, despite the fact that the events at Appomattox Court House comprised a defining moment in U.S. history, the distinction between federation and confederation did not seem to solidify, at least not when secessionist rhetoric finds a foothold.

Gowing to War: Purpose and a Plan

In continuation with last week’s post about the study of the motivations of war, I decided to revisit something I wrote a couple years ago.

The Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine War were short wars by U.S. standards but had far reaching consequences. President McKinley’s “limited war strategy” was intended to gain independence for Cuba but its limited scope also included a limited understanding of the consequences of international conflict.[1] Simply put, the United States was unprepared for war. While the navy was somewhat prepared, the army struggled under continued state and congressional opposition to a strong peacetime military force.[2] As with the American Revolution and the Civil War, untrained volunteers, “who fancied they were soldiers because they could get across a level piece of ground without stepping on their own feet,” were mustered and sent to war with little opportunity for training.[3]

Lack of preparation was one of the issues faced during the “splendid little war.” Of greater issue was the lack of a clear objective for war. If independence was the objective, then it would have seemed logical for the United States to have had greater respect for the native rebels who had worn down the Spanish forces before the U.S. arrival. Rather than respecting and aiding the rebel effort, the United States went from liberator to conqueror and rejected the notion of revolution and self-governance. Rather, the United States implemented a paternalistic imperial rule over the former Spanish colonies. Although there would be efforts at nation building and promises of self-rule, economic and military dependency became the reality.

Whatever goals President McKinley might have had in justifying war, they seem to have gone with him to his grave.[4] While Cuba would achieve a semblance of independence once the war ended, the Philippines would find itself embroiled in further war and facing an arguably unwanted annexation. The United States would become an empire by default more than by plan. McKinley’s little war would also have unexpected, long-term consequences on U.S. military strategy.

The Spanish American War and the Philippine War which created a new empire, would encourage future generations to believe that a guerrilla opposition could be snuffed-out with enough oppression, pacification, and force. While McKinley had not recognized the nature and consequences of international war coupled with imperial occupation, later presidents would justify future international wars based on the perceived successes of these conflicts. Only after it was too late would they realize that occupying islands cut off from allies and supplies was and easier task than occupying lands connected to supply networks. In a time when photographic war journalism was in its infancy, and the atrocities of war could still be ignored by civilians in the United States, pacification policies, total suppression of civilians and combatants, and a torched earth policy could subdue an enemy without public outcry. The United States would learn eventually that people may cry for war when national interests are at risk, but they have little stomach for war or the devastation war brings when faced with the brutal reality of war. Former U.S. secretary of state and retired general Colin Powell once said, “War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support.”[5] More importantly, a nation should only go to war when the president understands the clear purpose of the proposed war and has weighed the consequences, short-term and long-term, thoroughly.


[1] Allen R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. rev exp. (New York: Free Press, 1994), 286.

[2] Ibid., 303.

[3] Ibid., 290.

[4] Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 3.

[5] Tim Russert, “Powell’s Doctrine, in Powell’s Words.” The Washington Post, October 7, 2001. http://www.mbc.edu/faculty/gbowen/Powell.htm (accessed September 11, 2012).

Unexpected Consequences: Revolution

Prior to the twentieth century, war was most often the product of the elite rather than the common man. Assuredly, war had an impact, both direct and indirect, on the laborer. Whether from conscription, taxation, or proximity to the combat and the combatants, war could wreak havoc. War could also quickly change boundaries and cause forced changes in allegiance. Entire regions could become disputed territory as powerful states weakened and weaker states grew strong. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led the rulers of Europe to seek a balance of power that would prevent the outbreak of wide spread war. For approximately a century they succeeded in quelling the rising nationalistic zeal that threatened to reignite the flames of world war. However, revolutionary ideologies were not contained even as rulers tried to contain revolt. While notions of self-determination, democracy, and equality were discussed by liberal minded thinkers, the ruling class held fast to the notion that not all men were ready or capable of self-rule. In some cases, outright racism was the justification for the continuation of imperial dominance and all the ills that imperialism wrought on subjugated peoples. In other cases, benign paternalism justified policies that increased inequality and protected the status quo. Regardless of the grand rhetoric of the time that promoted equality and brotherhood, paternalistic elitism, the belief that some were better suited to govern than others, remained the consensus of the day.

As the twentieth century dawned, changes in society due to industrialization were creating unrest. The outbreak of World War I ratcheted up the change. Women went to work in greater numbers, particularly women who belonged to the middle class.  Men, who had once been viewed as expendable laborers, became a valuable commodity. Total warfare left no civilian untouched and caused soldiers to question the futility of war. As fighting dragged on and depravation increased, patriotic citizens on the battlefield and home front struggled to find justification for the continued support of a war that seemed less and less justifiable.

In Russia, the seeds of revolution found fertile ground as the citizens lost faith in an old system that seemed to bring endless suffering. Elsewhere the notions of liberty, self-determination, and equality caused subjugated peoples to question why they should remain the possessions of rulers in distant lands rather than be allowed to govern themselves. While Allied nations fought to prevent the invasion, subjugation, and annexation of small nations like Belgium and prevent territorial losses in France, the same nations clung fast to their territorial holdings in other regions of the world. The brutality and futility of total war also caused many within Europe to question whether the empires that governed them did so with any consideration for their needs and their security. Ethnic unrest, nationalistic zeal, and distrust for those with different cultural habits increased as the war continued. The seeds of revolution were cast wide, some to find fertile ground immediately and others to remain dormant for decades, but all to produce the fruit of conflict and bloodshed. Revolution was not the goal of those who declared war in 1914 but revolution was the unexpected consequence.