The revolution proved to be as much a social revolution as a military one. A primary precept of the revolution was that all men are created equal. Americans were tired of dealing with aristocrats who were born on third base but thought they hit a triple. And they were even more tired of being taxed by them.
There were few means in which a person could climb the social ladder in the late 18th century. But the influence of the enlightenment provided a few additional ways to succeed in a world accustomed to granting power only to men of high birth. These were military glory, literary esteem, scientific recognition, and wealth by commerce.
In this series we will discuss those founders who rose to prominence through the military. Marshall glory has long been a means for men born in lower classes to move up in social status. Napoleon said it best: “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
George Washington, the son of a planter in a backwater provence
As a provincial British officer, an ambitious young Washington led an expedition that ended with a handful of scalped Frenchmen and the world’s first global war. Events during the French Indian war (or the Seven Years War as the Europeans called it) did not fare much better. Washington was directly involved in the loss off fort Necessity and an unfortunate participant in the Braddock expedition disaster. But Americans hungered for a war hero they could call their own, and Washington behaved honorably enough during these events to avoid any lasting political and military shame.
As the first Continental congress struggled to decide who was going to take control of the unwieldy militia mob that surrounded Boston at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, a distinguished Washington sat in full dress at the proceedings. No one in that first Continental Congress could point to another man with the appropriate experience to head up militia against the British. Standing at over six feet tall, Washington’s distinguished demeanor and imposing presence surly looked the part. John Adams (so he claims) proposed that Washington should fill the role of General of the Continental Army.
As the war progressed, the British famously refused to recognize Washington’s rank. But by the end of the war, they grudgingly recognized him as General Washinton.
It is a fortunate thing when one beats the British. You don’t lose rank. Ask Napoleon. A man recognized throughout the world as the Emperor of France was addressed (much to his irritation) as ‘General Bonaparte’ as he spent the remaining years of his life in exile on the remote island of Elba. One could only imagine Washington’s fate if he had failed against the British. The American general and future President would of met the hangman’s noose as a Major.
Next up, the fascinating rise of Alexander Hamilton…
That period included yet a third revolution. 1776 was the year that Adam Smith published: An inquiry into the nature and causes of THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. The center of the economic universe had been Venice prior to the expansion into the new world. Markets forces were unleashed here very organically without being choked by a feudal system or ironclad aristocracy. “The Wealth of Nations” is considered to be a seismic shift in economics on par with Newton’s work in physics and Darwin’s “on the origin of species” is to biology. It greatly influenced Hamilton, who personifies the unbridled social and economic changes. Where else could a bastard son of a West Indies shop owner fulfill his intellectual potential as Washington’s right hand man both logistically in war and first Secretary of the Treasury? The American economy would grow to be the largest in the world in a mere 100 years due to this 3 way revolution. Smith was scottish, but the greatest test tube of discovery was America.
Great comment! Hamilton’s establishment of a national bank that assumed state debts incurred during the war was a stroke of genius. I wonder how much of Smith’s work went into Hamilton’s thinking.
Jefferson, after first acquiescing to the idea of a national bank, described it as one of his biggest mistakes. He envisioned an agricultural utopia free of shady bankers and centralized power. Perhaps he was not on board with The Wealth of Nations?
I also come across John Locke quite a bit when describing the influences of the founders. That and radical Whig ideology. Neither of these topics I can speak confidently about.