The American history we learned in school and which we celebrate on various holidays can leave the impression that following the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and the adoption of the United States Constitution, the USA simply stood up and took its place among the great nations of the world. It would seem that the thirteen colonies joined together in harmony and the people joined hands as patriotic citizens of a new republic. But it wasn’t that smooth a transition. The final quarter of the 18th century was one of the most contentious periods in our history, and the struggles are described in “The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union” by Binghamton University history professor Douglas Bradburn.
On an individual level, former colonists and British “subjects” had to accept their new status as “citizens”, while the colonies themselves needed to define what it meant to be a state within a federal system. It was felt that the legal and political system they were trying to create was to be based on “natural law”, a powerful but uncodified philosophy built on the idea that the Rights of Man are pre-ordained. As Dr. Bradburn points out in “The Citizenship Revolution”, the Constitution guaranteed rights and freedoms, it didn’t create them. He states, “In theory, no citizen would have more power than any ther to control the other’s destiny, there would be no institutionalized ranks or artificial distinctions within the citizenry, and citizens would not be bound ut by their own consent.”
However, holding lofty ideals did not guarantee that they would work in reality. Bradburn details the many factors that caused the new republic to fall short and hindered the development of national unity . Were colonial subjects who opposed the Revolution citizens like those who fought for it? What about immigrants with their own language, customs and religion — an issue that has come around again? There was the matter of “states’ rights”, a serious sticking point in the first years of American ndependence since the states were pre-existing entities whose representatives established the Federal government. And of course there was the condition of African slaves and freemen — a black person might be a citizen in one state but not in another –which led in some cases to the bizarre status called “denizen”.
“The Citizenship Revolution” brings back many of the patriots and heroes of 1776. Founding Fathers now on opposite sides of the nation’s first great political dispute and follows the formation of political alliances with the Federalists (not to be confused with the earlier federalist and anti-federalist movements) versus the Republicans (not related to today’s GOP). It was a time of highly partisan journalism and grass-roots movements in all the states debating the Alien and Sedition Acts. Communities erected French-inspired liberty poles topped by cockades — harkening to the excesses of the American-inspired revolution in France — and both sides marched and sang to the new political anthems like “Hail, Columbia”. American political action had already begun to display a touch of carnival-like spirit, itself an expression of freedom. Bradburn’s book includes some of the song lyrics of the time.
Raise the Bill of feign’d sedition,
All its evils do away;
Send the makers to perdition,
So let every patriot pray.
Build a hell of fierce Damnation,
For our Demi-British clan —
Send to the rest, O God! Salvation,
Bless them with the Rights of Man!
Written by “A Democrat”, 1799