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Radicals vs Conservatives

Page history last edited by Mr. Hengsterman 5 years, 10 months ago


Radicals vs Conservatives


Historian Merrill Jensen observes the inherent conflicts within the colonies that mirrored the conflicts between the colonies and Great Britain.  She sees the issues of class and political representation as being central to the internal colonial conflicts just as economic concerns and the geographic location of political power led to conflicts between the colonies and Great Britain.


By the middle of the 18th century most of the economic and political power of the colonies was located along the Atlantic coast, in the hands of merchants in the North and Planters in the South.  While those in control of colonial political institutions (the upper classes) were willing to use democratic arguments to attack the control exercised by Great Britain, they were not willing to relinquish their own control within the colonies by expanding political power to those of the lower classes and those who had moved to the western frontier. In fact they imposed property qualifications for voting and even higher qualifications for office holding, denying the poor townspeople political participation.  As the population moved westward, they refused to redistribute representative districts, leaving westerners with little or no say in their colonial governments.  While the established political leaders in the colonies complained that England set laws for them based on “virtual representation,” the colonial leaders imposed the same virtual representation on the western regions of their own colonies. Thus, “by the middle of the century a small minority of the colonial population wielded economic and political powers which could not be taken from them by any legal means. This political oligarchy was able to ignore most of the popular demands, and when smoldering discontent did occasionally flare up in a violent outburst, it was forcibly suppressed.” (Examples: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Regulator Movement)


Radicals and conservatives are not synonymous with revolutionists and loyalists. The “radicals” in the colonies were drawn from the economically and politically disenfranchised of the cities and western frontier.   While most of the poor were politically inactive, strong leaders emerged.  If the radicals hated the local aristocracy more than they hated the British, why rebel for independence? The radicals saw a close alliance between Britain and the local aristocracy.  Faced with rebellion by the masses, the aristocrats would turn to Britain to restore order.  If the colonies were separated from Britain, the radicals would have a better chance to defeat the local aristocrats.  Also, in the process of fighting Britain, the radicals would be able to arm and organize to take power in the aftermath of the independence war.   While most radicals were “revolutionists” favoring independence, not all revolutionists were radicals. Some conservatives also supported independence though most were probably opposed.


The “conservatives” were those who wanted to preserve the aristocratic or oligarchic nature of colonial government.   However, even conservatives who opposed independence supported the campaign against British violations of colonial rights. What most conservatives hoped for was to stay within the British Empire where they had close economic ties to Britain and her other colonies, while regaining the local political rights, including control of their taxes, that they had enjoyed prior to 1763. While some  joined the call for independence to secure their l rights, most conservatives sought their rights within the Empire.


As the colonial aristocracy (rich merchants and planters) launched their protests and boycotts aimed at repeal of British laws like the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties, they enlisted the lower classes in their demonstrations.  However, the leaders of the radicals used these opportunities to mobilize and organize the masses.  They were able to unite “under the guise of a patriotic defense of American liberties. Thus, used as tools at first, the masses were soon united under capable leadership in what became as much a war against the colonial aristocracy as a war for independence.”


The Articles of Confederation, the first government organized after independence and a radical victory, decentralized power  to the individual states and provided for local government and eventual statehood for the territories.  However, Shays’ Rebellion demonstrated the weakness of the Articles in protecting the property rights of the aristocracy and led to calls for a more centralized authority.  While local government and statehood provisions continued to be the pattern for governing western territories, the Articles of Confederation were soon replaced by a more centralized government in the Constitution of 1787. 



“Radicals v. Conservatives” by Merril Jensen

1. Was the conflict conservative (to keep what they had) or revolutionary (to achieve major changes)?





2.  Did the conflict with England grow from consensus among the colonists (if so, about what) or from internal conflicts among the colonists (if so, over what)?





3.  Describe the distribution of political power within the colonies on the eve of the revolution.






4.  Who were the “radicals” in the colonies?  What did they expect to achieve by separating from England?






5.  Who were the “conservatives” in the colonies? What did they hope to see happen in their relationship with England?






6.  Why did the government established under the Articles of Confederation serve the interests of the “Radicals”?






7.  Why is the adoption of the more centralized government under our present Constitution considered a victory for the “Conservatives”?



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