How revolutionary was the American Revolution? Political:
The principle of republicanism, espoused by Thomas Paine and other thinkers during the American Revolution came to dominate American political thought in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Republicanism involved the idea that people would elect officials to make political decisions and also included the rejection of hereditary privileges. These ideas very much ran counter to the political situation of most of the rest of the world; however the concept of a republic was not invented in the United States. The ancient Roman Republic served as both a model and a cautionary example for the founders of the American Republic.
While republicanism was a somewhat novel idea in the late eighteenth century, it should not be confused with democracy. Democracy was actually a term with a negative connotation for many of the founding fathers. Men like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton looked down on the “lower orders” and feared that too much democracy would lead to mob rule. Thus, in the early days of the American republic, all states maintained some economic qualification for voting. In most states, only property owners could vote and even in the most egalitarian state – Pennsylvania – being able to vote required payment of a poll tax.
Perhaps what was most revolutionary about the politics of the American Revolution was that the 1770s and 1780s were the great age of constitution writing. In 1776, the Continental Congress instructed the thirteen states to write constitutions. The first national constitution – the Articles of Confederation – was written in 1777. And the current Constitution of the United States was written in 1787. The idea of writing down fundamental laws and government principles that could not be fundamentally altered was a major departure from the English model of an unwritten constitution that consisted of the body of legal precedents (common law) going back to the twelfth century. Most of the state constitutions also included bills of rights to prevent state governments from violating people’s natural rights.
The most revolutionary aspect of the economics of the American Revolution was the severing of the mercantilist relationship between colonies and mother country. Coincidentally, Adam Smith’s great treatise on the workings of markets – The Wealth of Nations – was written in 1776. Being freed from mercantilist restrictions allowed the United States to develop a mixed economy that leaned heavily toward laissez-faire capitalism, but which had limited government involvement. This system of free enterprise contributed to the rapid economic growth of the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In terms of practical economic impacts, the end of mercantilism meant new opportunities for American trade to expand to international markets, but it also meant the loss of reliable consumers of American goods in the British Empire. Before and during the war, boycotts of British goods and the policy of nonimportation had stimulated American manufacturing and the first American factory would be built in 1793 in Rhode Island. Finally, during the war the Continental Congress and state governments had printed vast amounts of paper money, which contributed to massive inflation (see figure below). During and after the war, a class of profiteers emerged who gained money through supplying the Continental Army and through speculating in government issued bonds.