Fundamental Leaps and Peripheral Transmutations

Let's go back in time - way back in time - to A Revolution. Let us do this so as to more deeply understand our present time period. Let's take it back to the very beginnings of our country, where we were only colonies burgeoning with not much more than pipe dreams and possibility. How did we get to where we are now? What exactly was the American Revolution and who exactly was it fought for? What were the ideals behind each group and how can we use the lessons of the past to help us maneuver our current mental and emotional landscapes?

A boy and a girl, both aged two grow up together as siblings in the same home with the same parents. Both children are well-taken care of and tended to, being fed the same foods, given the same warm beds to tuck into each night and the same caring, parental arms to embrace them should distress cross their young minds. However, when the young boy goes off to school to be educated, his mind cultivated for the challenges he will meet as an adult, the girl is “confined and limited” to the duties of the home. One is empowered and encouraged to explore the corners of his young and unfolding intellect, the other falls victim and is deterred by unconscious, prohibitive yet customary child-rearing practices. Although by their nature the boy and girl are intellectual equals, the boy goes on to accomplish a great many achievements, while the girl grows into a bitter woman, and because her mind is untrained by proper education, giving her the ability to reflect on greater ideas, her diminished sense of self diminished, she is thus preoccupied by destructive pastimes such as gossip, and other such trifling thoughts such as “the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment".(Murray, 14) 

“As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is lead by the hand through all the flowery paths of science. Grant that their minds are by nature equal, yet we shall wonder at the apparent superiority, if indeed custom becomes second nature; nay, if it take the place of nature, and that it doth the experience of each day will evince.” (Murray   )

This anecdote as described by Judith Sargent Murray in her most important work, the feminist essay, On the Equality of the Sexes, illustrates the world as experienced by women before, during and after the American Revolution. The essay analyzes and criticizes the traditional cultural narrative of male superiority as it relates to the abridgment of female education and its effects on the overall mental and financial enterprises of the female population. The essay was published in the era of the revolution, a time when fundamental leaps in a country’s independence were made in addition to many less visible, peripheral transmutations. Although it is obvious that the clearest winners of the American Revolution were the free white men, women, African Americans and although on a much smaller scale the Native Americans, did in fact benefit from the revolution when the progressions made during the era is viewed through the lens intangible success – many seeds for future equality were sown - as opposed overt expression of liberty.

During the 1760s and 1770s women’s domestic activities took on great political meaning: when men went off to become soldiers, it was the women that began to take ownership of the responsibilities of running the family farms and businesses. Women were slowly moving into more traditional male roles and learned to excel at hiring farm workers and selling crops. Such ownership of these ventures can be attested to in the letters that wives wrote to their husbands during the war – one example being that women had evolved from earlier periods in the war when describing the family farms as “yours” (the husband’s) to “ours” and more so several years later going so far as to call the farms “mine”.  Such ownership – even though mostly in thought though in deed as well – would not have transpired had it not been for the revolutionary landscape of the time.

Women benefited from the revolution in another way as well: a republican motherhood became the newest credo for women. Because Americans knew that their republican government would fail unless ordinary men lived and breathed political virtue, it became the responsibility of women to instill this patriotism in their sons and daughters, making motherhood and child-rearing a civic act. One could say, emboldened by the spirit of the revolutionary times, the collective American mind had been opened so as to receive such radical ideas as espoused in Murray’s On the Equality of the Sexes. The need to have mothers properly instruct their children in virtue, to fulfill this republican motherhood, was a catalyst for new fields becoming available to women in history, philosophy, and political theory. In her essay, Murray argued that women are not intellectually or otherwise inferior to men, but in fact have been extremely prohibited in the development of their mental faculties, stating that the “province of imagination hath long since been surrendered to us” and that traditional female roles such as “seamstress” and “chef” do not bring out the breadth of expansive creativity that lie dormant because education has been deprived to them. During these times of the early republic, there were a great many that did believe a woman’s place was solely in the domestic realm – what changed after the American Revolution was that there was now a space for women like Murray to make her voice heard – a voice that was in stark contrast to the conventional themes carried on by generations , a voice that spoke of such treatment as degrading treatment such as the denial to access to education.

Yet as with most progress comes the inevitable downslope and although there were many wins for women, there was still a long way to go in terms of suffrage and the change in inheritance laws which placed them still at a severe disadvantage.  However, prior to the revolution, women did not dare think that they might be intellectual equal to men or even imagine a future where they may one day have the right to put their skills as farmers and shopkeepers out into the public. Although not perfect, these rumblings that were cracking the traditional foundations believed in until revolutionary times, set the stage and signaled to a future of women’s rights including that of the all-important female right to vote.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783 the American Revolutionary War came to an end, giving the colonies independence from Britain, and with it, came the most important and overt “win” for Americans, particularly free, white men. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine says, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.” Women were not the only group concerned with their general admittance to assorted opportunities, education, and social position. For African Americans, the world post-revolutionary war was complicated. When the cotton gin was invented, growing cotton became immensely profitable, and planters required more land and slave labor. Conversely, the American Revolution allowed thousands of black Americans their freedom as well. In the north, many slaves went to claim freedom, with Massachusetts and Vermont abolishing slavery, planting the seeds of its future extinction. The African-American’s dedication to freedom and removal from a slave society is illustrated in the story of a slave named Thomas Peters. Joining the British military in 1776, as a sergeant in a unit of support troops, when Britain evacuated New York 1783, approximately 10,000+ attained their freedom by fighting for Britain, where they were settled in Nova Scotia after the war and Peters became the leader of a large group of black loyalists that “argued that the British had not lived up to their promises of land grants and fair treatment in exchange for their loyalty and service” and “…Peters convinced the British to resettle 1,200 black loyalists in Sierra Leone, Africa, a British colony” (www.ncpedia.org). It was here that they lived as free men with their own government, and served as the foundation for what was to be the modern African republic. Again, although imperfect, the revolutionary era did provide a humble, yet, important chasm dividing the old way from a beacon of possibility for the future.

While there was a mixed bag of achievements and shortcomings from the female and black populations resulting from the revolutionary era, of all the groups populating this time period, the Native Americans suffered the biggest blows and experienced what many consider “an unmitigated disaster.” It had become clear to the Indians that an independent America would prove a much greater challenge to Indian interests than a maintained British alliance. Native Americans were not represented at the bargaining table in Paris and despite the fact that Britain had never purchased the region between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, they ceded this area to the former colonists despite the substantial amount of aid the Native Americans provided to Britain. In additional to the fact that the protection of 1763 was gone, settlers could move west of the Appalachian Mountains, now considered “free territory” although already inhabited by Native Americans. Lastly, not only where the Native Americans absent from the Treaty of Paris, they are also absent from the musical Hamilton. Gary Nash believes African Americans to be the forgotten people; however, it appears as though the Native Americans are the true invisible people of the revolutionary era – and beyond. While most groups went on to experience future success, freedom and individual rights (the Native Americans received but a modicum of recognition, comparatively speaking), it was not until later down the line that the real changes took root. As Dr. Snyder said in the July 7, 2017 video lesson, Repercussions, “If the vast majority of Americans of the founding era received few lasting benefits of the American Revolution, I would argue that the long term prospect was brighter.” Truly, during the founding era, women, African Americans and Native Americans did not receive equal treatment yet the seeds had been planted. There was no going back to the archaic ways of being or thinking pre-revolution. Once the idea of equality had occurred to women, to blacks, there was no “un-thinking” it. Every revolution begins in the minds of the people, and those thoughts - although may seem paltry to what the spirit and scope a revolution inherently promises – are the humble beginnings for great change. Who won the revolution? Everyone won, because “…the whole subsequent history of the United States can be truly summed up as a struggle between the ideals of the declaration of independence the circumstances of its creation and the prospect to which all of these ideals finally came to fruition.” (Synder) It may have seemed that the free white men had yet again triumphed over the vast majority, yet the peripheral transmutations were the beacons of freedom yet to be bestowed.