a prologue from
The Other Revolutionaries
For most of us, the mere mention of the American Revolution sparks the imagination and sends us back to those magical mythical moments when things were more simply heroic and thus early American life mostly is remembered in a more certain black and white. Most of us recall how liberty-loving colonists were driven by a greedy and insensitive king to become revolutionaries and how those who opposed them were Tories. Such were the "good old days" of American "Mythistory."
Of course, we understand that life in eighteenth-century America was much less certain and much more complex. But most students of history would agree that the years between 1763 and 1783 were of fundamental importance in the emergence of a new nation and of an American identity. During that time, self-interested American patriots in thirteen disparate colonies came together, fought free of their foster parent, and emerged from the struggle as a new nation called the United States of America. The historical process of this reincarnation is popularly known as the American Revolution. However, the term "Revolutionary era" has come to have many different meanings and its nature has been the subject of enduring discussions for most of the last hundred years.
Clearly, at least three distinct yet interrelated revolutionary impulses emerged and gathered momentum during the two decades after the first Treaty of Paris in 1763. Each was conceived many years earlier in the American wilderness. Each had been nurtured separately in distinct colonial political, social, and economic climates. Spurred on by a new world order created by the peace treaty of 1763 and empowered by a great wave of new people, each of these seeds grew to fruition on the North American mainland during the so-called Revolutionary era. Unfolding across a vast and verdant ecological stage, the results of each of these transforming movements have shaped the progress of what can be identified as an American civilization from that time on.
Over the past century, each of these revolutionary urges has been studied from a range of historical and ideological vantage points. Most of them have sought to "explain" the Revolution; many of the explanations have some validity; none of them is wholly satisfactory. Whatever the approach, the larger American Revolution and all of its parts remains - endlessly fascinating! The chapters that follow show how three revolutionary impulses affected the lives of the people living in the city of Albany, New York during the Revolutionary era of 1763 to 1783.
Three decades beyond the celebration of the American Revolution Bicentennial, the popular perception of the Revolutionary era still is that of a war - and one replete with classic battles, Indian raids, three-pronged attacks, and rag-tag armies suffering through cold and lonely winters. Throughout the period, American colonists and their allies engaged in sometimes bloody warfare with British forces and their allies. The so-called Revolutionary War began on the defensive and escalated to a fight for independence that was at the same time a civil war sometimes alienating brother and sister and father and son. It also had an imperial component aimed at opening an expansive frontier to new settlement. From the revolutionaries' perspective, the principal elements of the martial impulse involved raising and sustaining an army and navy; supplying a long and protracted war effort; neutralizing potential internal enemies (chiefly Tories, Indians, and slaves); and protecting a dependant civilian population of loved ones (in other words the other 75% of the settler population) throughout a conflict fought on home ground and during which American property might need to be strategically sacrificed. The actual warring, however, chiefly was the province of the young men and older boys of community and countryside. Although, as we will see, most of Albany's menfolk served or opposed the martial part of the crusade for American liberties in ways other than with mortar and musket.
Second, a revolution in public life took place at every level of collective interest. This transformation was inspired by a newly articulated regard for the so-called "rights of man" and a first consideration of the nature of the relationship between colonists and crown. Even before the end of the last of the French and Indian wars, those in America began to question the fairness of their treatment within the British imperial framework. Becoming increasingly frustrated by the inequities and inadequacies of the imperial system after 1763 - particularly in relation to new British taxes and the restriction of their access to land and other resources, Americans turned to extra-legal, then illegal, and finally to overtly hostile and treasonous activities to secure an American lifestyle that mostly had evolved from its pioneering to development stage. Finally, understanding that their interests could not be accommodated within the British system, self-interested Americans opted for a separation. In the process, they began to develop an American framework for winning the war and then for growth and development.
In the operative sphere, converted colonists or ideological revolutionaries at all levels needed to establish concerted mechanisms first to engage the general population, then to mobilize resistance, then to maintain order to preserve and protect property, and finally to establish and operate a new political system. At the local level, each revolutionary committee was asked to commit personal resources to the larger crusade for American liberties by seeking to involve the maximum number of neighbors and kinfolk in the process, maintain some semblance of an orderly life at home, and guide neighbors and kinfolk through the progressive stages of resistance, rebellion, and finally revolution. In Albany's case, the crusade for American liberties entailed actually leading a revolutionary movement in the upper Hudson Valley while maintaining an admittedly self-interested, century-old European-inspired corporate lifestyle which might not prove to be compatible with the needs and aspirations of an emerging population living in the countryside.
At all levels, the political revolution was driven by the common denominator of the removal of a royal or British interest from its preemptive place of central consideration and its replacement with an essentially America-based agenda - one that was fundamentally instead of peripherally responsive to increasingly demanding American needs. Second, in a climate of war, the New Order was charged with politicizing the people - most of whom appeared at-best ambivalent regarding abstract ideals such as liberty and equality. Local committees accomplished this by confronting the people at-large about redressing American grievances, by raising critical issues, and then seeking to polarize the general population into friends and enemies. Each person would be called on to subscribe to or join the crusade for American liberties as soldiers, civilian workers, and as contributors and investors. Those who refused were to be punished - meaning the removal of the most obvious Tories and the stilling or neutralizing of those who hesitated or refused to become revolutionary supporters. In the meantime, the revolutionaries devised mechanisms for utilizing the confiscated resources of a large and important Tory and non supporter population. Third and most arduous, the political revolution struggled to find ways to replace British experience and financial resources with organic American assets.
Inherent in the removal of the overseas overlord which relegated almost all colonists to servile roles, the political revolution gave previously disenfranchised Americans hope for more of the opportunities for a better life that previously had been reserved for the crown and its patronage cliques. The questions of "equality" and issues of "inalienable rights" widely popularized by pro-revolutionary preachers first inspired and then sustained rank-and-file Americans - including the working class (which included everyone except the major merchants and a few intellectuals who were most aware of what was at stake and at risk), and after them, large and culturally diverse immigrant minorities, women, and even slaves.
The third major initiative impacted on everyone and would be the logical consequence and the most desirable outcome of the successful end of the war and the coming of the new political order. This tangible benefit was what most patriots would be fighting for. By the mid-1760s, Americans were eager to take possession of all of the resource-rich land east of the Mississippi. Informed and inspired by a large influx of new European emigres, by the 1770s, Americans were becoming interested in adapting the phenomenal transformation then sweeping western Europe to exploiting America's resources for profit - a phenomenon we now call the Industrial Revolution. Those ambitions would be denied by a British ministry which saw the American colonies as a resource base and a plantation for supplying raw materials for the English Industrial Revolution. In other words, Great Britain sought to limit American expansion and development in order to fulfill its own imperial/industrial destiny. However, with the winning of the war against Great Britain, Americans became owners of half a continent and now would decide how the vast natural resources of their continent would be divided-up and used. This unbridled development impulse was made possible by the removal of Britain from the policy-making tips of the American political, social, and economic pyramids, and brought on an expansion of the parameters of American life. As a result of the war and the political revolution, farmers and traders became developers, manufacturers, and capitalists.
Although well under way in western Europe, the Industrial Revolution first came to America during the Revolutionary era - born of wartime need and made possible by the rejection of British mercantile restraints. Because America's major supplier was now the enemy, Americans were forced to make many of the metal, wood, and animal and cloth-based products formerly imported from Great Britain. Having neither the capital nor the technical expertise needed, America's odyssey from colony to commonwealth was not smooth. A dearth of finished tools and weapons, clothing, and other supplies - a general condition of colonial life, became acute during the war years. Americans suffered scarcity and shortages with a recently enlarged and concentrated civilian population struggling to survive against the needs of British and Revolutionary armies. After the war, manufacturing and development became the cornerstones of American patriotism with the encouragement of native industries and internal improvements. Based on an American agenda for exploitation of its abundant natural resources, America's new economic leverage brought with it an awakening - a shedding of its colonial cocoon, new ways of doing things, and an emergence or coming of age.
Each of these basic themes in the struggle for independence was national in scope and exploded on the American consciousness during the so-called "Revolutionary era." The war and the political and economic revolutions profoundly effected all native and newly arrived Americans in cities and towns, in the countryside, and on the frontier. The Other Revolutionaries will explain these three American Revolutions in social terms. The chapters that follow reveal that each of them had a profound impact on the people of colonial Albany - an emerging urban center. Our vantage point in this will be through the lives of rank-and-file participants - "the people" - who for the first time represented a most critical element of the process!
This introductory chapter or Prologue was last revised in January 1998. It introduces three levels of concern in the lives of those living during the so-called "Era of the American Revolution." Consider this essay to be in-progress!
first posted: 7/3/01; revised 2006