While Europe was struggling between the Scylla and Charybdis of individualism and collectivism, however, something new was growing up in the New World — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that an ancient ideal was finally achieving practicable existence. The case of the Spanish and French colonies was different, but the British colonies in North America had been for the most part left to their own devices.
This may have been due to the unique situation of Great Britain at a critical time in the formation of the colonial culture. The English Civil War, the Great Rebellion, the "Glorious Revolution," the advent of a foreign dynasty (the Hannoverians), and so on, all tended to distract the government in London from the situation "across the pond." For our purposes we do not have to examine the reasons why the American colonies developed the way they did in any depth — although it is interesting to note that, because king and parliament seemed to spend so much time trying to bring Ireland to heel that they had little time to spare for the American colonies. We only need to appreciate the fact that America represented something new on the world scene, socially, economically — and politically; the vision of "the City on the Hill," in which man could conform himself most closely to his true nature.
Socially, despite the fact that a nobility was grafted on to the social structure (to this day there is a "Duke of New York" in exile in Canada), the British colonies of North America probably came closer to a classless society that had developed naturally (as opposed to being imposed artificially by force) than anything that had developed previously in history. This was probably due to the fact that most of the people in the colonies were originally from the middle class. The very poor and the very rich tended not to emigrate. The majority of colonists were drawn from people who wished to obtain ownership of land or other capital, or to better themselves in some other way.
Economically, while there were a significant number of individuals in the southern colonies who were regarded as aristocrats with vast holdings of land, the fact remained that colonial estates were by no means the equal of anything of commensurate size in England, nor were their owners considered all that different from their neighbors. Further, the tone of society was set not by the relatively few wealthy landowners, but by the much larger number of subsistence farmers and small artisans. The largest landowner lived in a fashion little different from his neighboring small proprietor.
In addition, the large landowners were in a condition that later generations would describe as "land poor." That is, virtually all of their wealth was in the form of land, and was difficult to turn into cash, even by mortgage or outright sale. The British colonies, unlike those of Spanish America, had virtually no official circulating media. Most of what existed in the form of coinage found its way into New England in the form of Spanish colonial "Pieces of Eight" — dollars. These usually came into the colonies as "boot" from the "Triangle Trade": molasses, to rum, to slaves. Had it not been for slavery, the final leg in the Triangle, British America would have been one of the most egalitarian societies in history.
It was, however, in politics that the situation in the colonies of British America differed most significantly from conditions that prevailed in Europe. Having been on their own during their formative period, the colonies had a tradition of self-government. They developed appropriate institutions to support the demands put on the social order by the growth of an egalitarian and largely economically classless society.
As a result, when the British government finally got around to taking a more direct interest in colonial affairs (largely as a potential source of tax revenue as well as a necessary adjunct for mercantilist policies), the colonists tended to view the increased administrative control as an unwarranted infringement of their rights and liberties as Englishmen. The fact that the English in England had far fewer effective rights than their American cousins was irrelevant. The colonists were used to being on their own, and doing for themselves. They resented being regarded as a virtual financial milch cow for British commercial and political interests, receiving no perceived benefit in return.
They had been in the habit in many cases of freely assembling and organizing for the common good without interference by or even the sanction of whatever governing authority existed. Public works were often private undertakings, funded and carried out without State assistance. Even the common defense was in many cases much less formal than in Europe, with local militias and the posse comitatus taking the place of a standing army or police force.
Now these activities, especially for the common defense in light of the Jacobite Rebellion in the 1740s in which "Bonnie Prince Charlie" came very close to regaining the throne for the Stuarts with the support of the Highland clans bearing personal arms, were viewed by King George III and his parliament not only as infringing on Royal prerogatives, but were believed to represent an actual danger to the State. It didn't help any that the British government was in desperate need of money, having managed to get itself involved in too many European wars at the same time it was trying to expand its colonial empire, and the nascent Industrial Revolution was starting its generations-long and completely unnecessary social and economic upheaval. Consequently, many traditional practices that the American colonists had long regarded as fundamental rights were limited, abolished, or suspended indefinitely.
The colonists protested, and (in a story too well known to relate here) went into revolt to protect and maintain those natural rights that they regarded as essential to their dignity as freeborn Englishmen. They had been schooled in these rights by events in the mother country, especially the "Glorious Revolution" at the edge of living memory. The Declaration of Independence was, in fact, closely modeled on the twelve charges by means of which parliament justified taking the throne away from James II Stuart and handing it over to William and Mary. As William Cobbett remarks in his History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1826),
In short, they drew up, à la "glorious," charges against their Protestant king, his late Majesty; and as the charges against James II. are found in an Act of Parliament, so the charges against George III. are found in an Act of Congress, passed on the memorable 4th of July, 1776. (§ 425)In this, the American Revolution differed significantly from the later French Revolution, due in large measure to the completely different understanding of the rights of man and the view of sovereignty. The American colonists went into revolt to defend themselves against infringement of their natural rights that they had long been in the habit of exercising.
The French Revolution (to oversimplify) was, in contrast, the application of new ideas of sovereignty and the nation State, and the actual institution of a new world order. Despite the repeated statements, possibly even sincere beliefs of America's Founding Fathers, however, the realization of a long-held ideal is not a new world order in the same sense as that represented by the French Revolution, as we will see in the next posting in this series.