Frontiers

One Nation, Many Worlds

Rick Beeman presents a unique overview of political culture and practice across the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution.
August 2005
In his study, The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America, Beeman found that American ideals of democracy developed in a contradictory and decidedly undemocratic world. "America, before the Revolution, was not a nation," he explains, "but a collection of colonies whose residents' primary loyalty was not to 'America' but rather to the king, as loyal subjects." Yet, he writes, "most colonies were moving, slowly and unevenly, in the same direction' ‚ toward a democratic nation.

Beeman presents American political culture on the eve of the Revolution as confused and uncertain. Political ideals and practices varied from region to region. Opinions differed on the basic responsibilities of voters and candidates, and expectations on how elected officials should serve the population were all over the map. "Diversity may be the only generalization that we can make about eighteenth-century American political culture," he writes. Therefore, the true story of the origin of American democracy is a combination of stories.

"When we see how difficult the establishment of a democratic nation in America was, it should not surprise us that we find it more difficult in places like Iraq." - Rick Beeman

In The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America, the author synthesizes the work of colonial historians to create a unique overview of political culture and practice across the colonies. Here are a few examples from his assortment of political specimens.

Virtuous rule meant one thing on the shores of Maine, where isolated leaders bent Puritan municipal codes to adapt to the harsh, isolated frontier. It meant something else on the swamp coast of South Carolina, where Anglophile merchant planters maintained a strict slavery-based hierarchy. Even within the colony of Pennsylvania, western frontier folk had a radically different notion of public interest than easterners like Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker elites.

Wealthy and powerful colonials imitated English culture and politics with a provincial spin. Sir William Johnson, an English-style autocrat in frontier clothing, earned his baronetís title by fighting American Indians. Later he was rumored to have fathered children with them on his vast Hudson Valley estate. Being a "natural aristocrat," this master oligarch disliked fractious elections. He used his economic clout and personal prestige to orchestrate unanimous results by handpicking the candidates from among his friends and family, discouraging opposition and making sure that those who voted and counted the votes were his dependants.

After losing his first bid for public office, George Washington learned one way to earn the respect of the people. In his next attempt, he spent £39.6 on an election-day wine, beer and spirits "treat" that helped send him to Virginiaís House of Burgesses. Beeman writes that "Washington was emphatic in his belief that his hospitality on election day was not an attempt to buy votes with food and drink." Instead, the treat shrewdly demonstrated Washingtonís "liberality" as a "genuine gentry man."

While the majority of colonial Americans were barred from voting, the growing influence of the common white male and the exceptional white female could make or break a political career. Beeman examines the controversial relationship between groups such as Bostonís South End Mob (led by the shoemaker "captain" Ebenezer Mackintosh) and the Sons of Liberty (lead by Harvard graduate Samuel Adams). He also looks at Pennsylvanian Susanna Wright, a rare woman activist who distributed Election-Day campaigns materials in Lancaster County.

The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America shows us the seeds of red-and-blue state fragmentation in current U.S. politics and suggests some lessons for the troubled Iraqi elections. "When we see how difficult the establishment of a democratic nation in America was," notes Beeman, "it should not surprise us that we find it more difficult in places like Iraq."

Stephanie Brown, Cí92, is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.