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Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism
Contrary to popular belief, the reality of the economic and social situation in America has not always demonstrated equality for all people – there was in fact nearly as much class separation in America as in Britain. As Gary Nash correctly argues in his article “Social Change and the Growth of Prerevolutionary Urban Radicalism”, it was this very gap between rich and poor, growing steadily in the late 1700’s, that led to the radical ideology of the Revolution.
In Britain, a primary reason for moving to the North American colonies was economic – the extremely wealthy landowners were steadily becoming wealthier and acquiring more private property with little concern for the financial interests of the poor and middle classes – the small farmers, artisans, and merchants. A crucial belief (reinforced by several of the leaders of the small original colonies, such as John Smith) was that in America, all started equally, and anyone who worked could become wealthy. However, by principle, any society that grows to be larger than simply small towns will develop a separation of classes and wealth. As Nash’s statistics make clear, this was exactly what the Americans saw – the wealth of the colonies quickly shifting into the hands of the few, leaving the poor and middle classes largely in a state of financial insecurity with little aid from their wealthier counterparts.
However, ironically, from this widening gap between the rich and poor sprung one of the first major instances where America distinguished itself from other countries – the poor came together and turned against the rich. They pushed for reforms such as allowing poor men to vote in assemblies (instead of the rich who they believed did not represent their interests) and creating a Land Bank to deal with economic depression, instead of accepting their fate as they had been forced to in Britain. The separation of wealthy and poor – initially seen as an evil which defied all the principles of America (equal representation and wealth for all who worked) – paradoxically was one of the biggest contributing factors in the solidification of those very same principles in the minds of the Americans. Nash does an excellent job of squelching the idealistic view of the gatherings as brave protest in the name of the country’s liberty (which they were not) while still demonstrating their great influence on the radical ideology of the revolution. As he explains, one must keep these revolts of the lower classes in context – they were not the heroic, revolutionary acts that some describe them as. The poor were highly misguided and manipulated into these beliefs by middle classmen seeking to profit. Many reforms did not even last long. However, their importance can be seen in the events that came later – events so crucial to American history as the Revolution. The radical idea that a group of oppressed people could come together in the pursuit of equality and liberty for all (even under such small-scale circumstance as a group of poor men lobbying for their right to be represented in a local assembly) was the very same idea that was repeated in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
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