*At their core, conservatives want to keep society the way it is (or change it back to how it was) because they feel things are fine. Liberals, on the other hand, perceive something wrong in society and wish to make changes to remedy the problem.
So how is it that both liberals and conservatives claim the American Revolution and the ideas of the Founding Fathers as their own? The easy answer is that any American can justifiably claim the Revolutionary generation as their forefathers because they started our country. The slightly more complex answer is that the American Revolution had two sides to it, each appealing to either the conservatives of the time or the liberals.
The reality of the country’s separation from Great Britain in the late 18th century was that the majority of people living in or near the 13 colonies/states did not have their lives changed very much. Any African-American or Native American probably went on doing the same routine. The same holds true for women. For people in these groups, there wasn’t any dramatic difference in what life looked like and the word revolution seems out of place when describing their experience.
In fact for even most white men the American Revolution didn’t alter their existence either; the ability to vote and hold office became a reality for white male property owners but most would not hold office and after voting life resumed as usual. The exception to this rule was the elite ruling class of colonial society. For them things changed in a big way. They were the people who were able to turn bigger profits because they would not be restricted to British trading partners; they were the ones that would hold offices and thereby create laws to benefit themselves; they were the ones to benefit from the revolution. And while the people at the top of society changed (British nobles to American elites) the structure of society remained intact. After all colonial elites weren’t looking to change a structure that was making lots of money for British lords and merchants, they simply wanted that money going into their pockets. From this perspective the American Revolution was a conservative event.
But to make the reality of the American Revolution possible the colonial elites had to convince the working class to fight and potentially die. To do this they employed very liberal ideas and philosophies. Phrases such as “all men are created equal” reflect a liberal perspective and a radical departure from the feudal system that was still in place throughout Europe. For colonial elites to envision and to create a country that allowed all property holders to vote and hold office was still a liberal idea eve if not entirely new. But to allow people to go out and claim land as their own was a major difference from the pre-Revolutionary years. While the reality of the American Revolution was more conservative, the philosophy behind it and the potential of the newly formed United States was extremely liberal.
The two sides of the American Revolution is how both conservatives and liberals can realistically claim that the other side is doing things that are un-American. But I must say that the conservative point of view is a bit rigid. Because while the Founding Fathers did create a country that ultimately looked and operated like the former colonies, they also put into place the mechanisms for change. Conservatives often proclaim that the Founding Fathers would object to some piece of proposed legislation or some cultural shift in American society. But such proclamations, even if they are true, are beside the point because the Founding Fathers expected the country to evolve; their understanding of how the United States should look and operate is not necessarily the same as our understanding in 2014. And it’s probably best that we don’t have the same outlook they did because that would imply that the country hadn’t changed much in the past 240+ years.
The liberal emphasis on the concepts behind the American Revolution yields a much more useful view on American society. By referring back to those ideas liberals have helped push the country to include more types of people and extended citizenship privileges and the equality of opportunity that early pioneers envisioned.
Conservatives and liberals are both right about the beginning of our country. But one group is also right about the future of our country.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.