Continuity and change in American society, 1754-1800 | AP US History | Khan Academy

Continuity and change in American society, 1754-1800 | AP US History | Khan Academy

– [Instructor] In 1819, American
author Washington Irving published a short story about
a man named Rip Van Winkle. In the story, Rip lived
in a sleepy village in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he spent his days hanging
around the local tavern, the King George, and avoiding his wife any time she asked him to
do some work on their farm. One evening, Rip was
walking in the mountains when he came upon a strange group of men who gave him some liquor to drink. He fell asleep, and when we
woke up the next morning, he went back into town and found that everything had changed. Instead of a sleepy village,
there was a bustling town, and the inhabitants all seemed to be loudly debating over an election. One person wanted to know if
Rip favored the Federalists or the Republicans, groups
that he had never heard of. The King George Tavern had
transformed into something called the General Washington
Tavern, and outside it, someone had put up an
unfamiliar flag bearing stars and stripes. Gradually, Rip realized that
he had been asleep not just for one night, but for 20
years, and that he had slept through the entire American Revolution. Now, this is just a story,
and it’s a pretty fun one, I can’t do it justice here, but I highly recommend you read it. But this story reveals a lot about how Americans thought about
the amount of social change that accompanied the American Revolution. If you, like Rip Van Winkle, fell asleep in the British colonies and woke up in the United States, which aspects of life
would be familiar to you and which would be completely alien? In other words, how much
did the American Revolution really affect society? If we set out to answer
this question as historians, what we’re really doing is exercising the historical thinking skill
of continuity and change. What changed and what stayed the same from before the Revolution to after it? We know that the Revolution
changed the political status of the British colonies in North America, which went from being
part of the British Empire to being an independent nation, but how big of a deal was that, really? Was it not much more than
erasing British colonies from the map and writing
in United States instead, or did I actually lead to
far-reaching changes in how people lived? If we’re trying to answer this question, we really only have three options. First, things changed a lot. There was a great deal of change, and things were very
different after the Revolution compared to beforehand. Second, things didn’t change much at all. The Revolution was a
revolution in name only, and most things were the same afterwards. Or third, some things changed but other things stayed the same. When we’re asking what changed and what stayed the same over time, we need to be consistent
about the aspects of society that we choose so that we’re
comparing apples to apples. So, let’s decide which aspects we’re going to compare over time. There are a lot that we could choose from, religion, slavery, gender roles, class and social structures,
political institutions. It’s a little like a choose
your own adventure book for historians. All right, I’m gonna choose
political institutions, social structures, and gender roles. Why am I choosing these? Well, I guess that I’m interested in how the ideas of the Revolution, that all men are created equal and that government should
represent the will of the people, played out in reality. Did the Revolution really
lead to more equality for men or for women? Did government really
become more democratic? So, let’s pretend that
we’re Rip Van Winkle, taking a gander at the
society around us before and after the Revolution. I’m not gonna go into a
whole lot of detail here, but if there’s anything
you’re not familiar with, just jot it down and
then you can look it up when you have a chance. So, what were political
institutions, social structures, and gender roles like
before the Revolution? Well, first of all, there
were 13 separate colonies, not just one single nation. The colonies were ruled
by a hereditary monarch, the King of England, and they
had virtual representation in Parliament. Colonists considered themselves Englishmen who were entitled to the
rights of Englishmen. Colonies had property requirements and usually also religious
requirements for voters. Economically, things weren’t too bad for your average white
colonist in the North, although by the eve of the Revolution, there was a growing number of poor people as land become scarcer. American colonists were
generally better off than the working class back in Britain. In the South, however, the
planter aristocracy ruled, with a handful of wealthy
white slave owners dominating society and politics. White indentured servants still existed in both the North and the South, although the practice was
becoming a little less common. Most African Americans,
excepting a few free people of color in the North, were enslaved and had no hope of social
mobility, save for running away. Indigenous people were taking advantage of the dueling empires
of Britain and France as best they could, but
after the Seven Years’ War, the departure of France
meant that they were dealing with Britain alone. The British government tired
to prevent more conflict between white settlers
and indigenous people with the Proclamation of 1763, which stipulated that the
colonists could not expand west past the Appalachian Mountains. Gender roles in the American
colonies mimicked those of British society pretty closely. White men did farm labor. Women cared for the home and children. A woman had no political or legal identity apart from her husband in a
practice called coverture, so a married woman couldn’t
own property or vote. Both enslaved men and enslaved
women worked in the fields. (yawns) All this history has tired me out. Let’s take a little rest and come back to our chart in a minute. (crickets chirping) Ah, that was a nice nap. Hang on, what year is it? Did we sleep through the
whole American Revolution? Yikes, let’s finish this chart quickly. How different were political institutions, social structures, and gender
roles after the Revolution? In terms of politics, things had changed. Instead of 13 separate
colonies ruled by a king and Parliament, there was one nation ruled by a three-branch government, where citizens were directly
represented in Congress. Instead of the rights of Englishmen, people appealed to Enlightenment
ideas of natural rights, with protections from government tyranny enshrined in a Bill of Rights. Many states reduced or eliminated property and religious requirements for voting, expanding the electorate among white men. Overall, social structures
were pretty similar, with the exception that the institution of slavery was being phased
out in northern states, and the indentured servitude
of whites was being phased out pretty much everywhere. In the South, slavery continued. For indigenous people,
American independence meant that that Proclamation line
was no longer being enforced and white settlers saw western lands as one of the prizes of
victory in the Revolution. Gender roles also looked pretty
similar to before the war. Coverture remained, and men
and women continued working at the same tasks that they
had prior to independence. One minor difference was
the elevation in the status of white women, who earned
respect for their contributions to the war effort as Daughters of Liberty. After the Revolution, they took up roles as Republican mothers who
instilled civic virtue in their sons and also
required more education in order to properly
inculcate those values. So, what do we make of these
changes in continuities? The biggest area of change was going from hereditary monarchy to democracy, expanding the vote for white men. The ideas of liberty and
equality had some impact on social structures and gender roles, leading to the gradual abolition
of slavery in the North and some new opportunities for women. If I were to answer our question with one of those three options, I’d say some things changed and
some things stayed the same. The Revolution changed
the rhetoric of rights and expanded democracy for white men but didn’t have much of a
positive impact on the lives of women, enslaved people,
or indigenous people. Now, you could choose
totally different aspects of society to look at and come up with a completely different take than me. This is what being a
historian is all about. If we take care to select aspects of society to compare across time, we can answer some tough questions about how society changed. Sleep tight.


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