One of the most hotly debated topics of the American Revolution is to what extent it changed the lives of ordinary people. On many levels, the revolution seemed to benefit only those who had already enjoyed significant status, such as the colonial elites. Its main achievements were political and economic: the transference of sovereignty from a British king to Americans, the maturation of colonial assemblies into state legislatures, the release of merchants from the chains of British trade laws and duties, and the opening up of westward territories for exploration. This political impact is obvious because it is reflected in constitutions, systems of government and public records – however the social impact is more difficult to define. On the surface, the revolution did little for ordinary people because it had never initially promised to: it had been sparked by opposition to unfair taxation, standing armies and oppressive government – not the mistreatment or the rights of the poor, women, slaves or ‘Indians’. If there were social changes then they were subtle, complex and incidental, rather than being an explicit aim of the revolution.
Slavery was undoubtedly weakened by revolutionary ideas and the War of Independence, though in many ways it was also fortified in the new society. The stirring rhetoric of documents like the Declaration of Independence led many slaves to seek their freedom, either by escaping or enlisting in the Continental Army or in the various state militias. The numbers of free blacks in America increased almost threefold because of this. The wiser revolutionary leaders recognised the hypocrisy of demanding liberty while keeping people in servitude – however some of the loudest voices, like Jefferson and Washington, kept slaves all their lives. Some individuals though upheld the spirit of the revolution, granting manumission to their slaves. Abolitionist movements, in existence since before the 1770s amongst groups like the Pennsylvania Quakers, increased markedly during and after the revolution. Yet despite these advances in thinking and the liberation of some Africans from slavery, the institution itself remained as strong as ever. This was particularly true in the southern states, where slavery was essential because of labour-intensive methods of farming and the lack of a significant white workforce. This economic imperative led southern interests to defend slavery rigorously, so much so that it was factored into the Constitution via the three-fifths compromise. The Constitution also allowed the slave trade to continue, though only via a twenty-year sunset clause on the practice.
Colin Bonwick, historian
Women, though they made up about half the population, seemed to benefit little from the revolution. Thousands of women had assisted the war effort in menial or subservient ways: dutifully following regiments and working in encampments as cooks, nurses and so on. Apocryphal stories tell of individual women like Deborah Samson and Molly Pitcher who actually joined the fight, though this was extremely rare, if it actually happened at all. Despite their contribution to independence, women remained invisible in the new society in terms of citizenship. No woman held office in state or national government; no woman practised the law or enrolled for a college education; aside from a couple of notable exceptions like the chronicler Mercy Otis Warren, few women engaged in the public debates about revolution, ratification or reconstruction. Abigail Adams had famously instructed her husband John to “…remember the ladies” when developing the new political system, however her plea was not a defiant one (she was actually suggesting that as the weaker sex, women were in desperate need of benevolent leadership). Some reformers, like Benjamin Rush, talked about education for women – but it was an education in manners, gentility and the fine arts that he had in mind. Others scoffed at the idea of any education for women. When it was put to the president of Yale that women might be permitted to attend his college, he replied “But who will make our puddings?” In the new republican United States women were consigned to a similar role as they had filled in colonial society: as wives, mothers, household managers; the fairer, gentler, weaker sex.
The revolution had an almost entirely negative impact on native Americans. Most tribes had fought alongside the British, pinning their hopes to an English victory which would restrict expansion of the 13 colonies and provide some protection for their own land rights. The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy participated in devastating raids on colonial settlements in the north-east, prompting Congress and Washington to undertake retaliatory campaigns such as the Sullivan Expeditions, which wiped out native villages and farmland. The increased movement generated by the Revolutionary War brought more natives into contact with more whites – and therefore with ‘white diseases’. With no immunity to European diseases many tribal populations were decimated by these diseases, particularly the smallpox which was ravaging the eastern side of the continent during the 1770s. When the British signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to formally end the conflict, they also signed over vast regions of tribal lands to the new United States. Americans had never much recognised native claims to land ownership and the treaty simply formalised this perspective: they were now viewed as a conquered race, living illegally on American land. Over the next century waves of settlers would move westward, claiming and occupying native territories, displacing tribal groups and engaging in several ‘Indian wars’. Though the national government usually sought to obtain this land legitimately through treaties, settlers and state governments instead preferred to drive off the natives through intimidation and violence. The American Revolution therefore unleashed a wave of expansion and resettlement that would drive most Native Americans from their homeland and into a century of dispossession, disorder and death.