When the colonists first arrived in North America from England, they brought with them English ideas about how society and government ought to be run. The English government was a monarchy, a system that also shaped the nation’s society. Over time, however, the colonists’ ideas about these institutions began to change as they adjusted to the realities of life in America. Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution describes these changes within colonial society, chronicling the population’s shift from being mere British subjects to a separate Americanized identity. Wood states that the radicalism found in the American Revolution lies in the changes that took place in society. Leading up to the American Revolution, colonial society would change from one reflecting its subjection to a monarch to a republican world. According to Adam Smith, the difference between a monarchy and a republic is that monarchists preferred a sense of order while republicans wanted freedom. Today’s America embodies this love of liberty and independence born during the era of the Revolution. In the beginning, however, the colonists brought with them the idea of a monarchical society, in which there existed a strict social hierarchy to be followed and people were dependent upon one another. The king sat at the pinnacle of this hierarchy and acted as a father – a paterfamilias – to his subjects, who thus became his children. The colonists thought that even the economy ran in a way that the father was expected to provide for all of his children. When the colonists decided to break away from the monarch, they were not just breaking away from another country; they were breaking away from their parent. Climbing the social ladder in a monarchical society involved patronage: appealing to one’s superiors in order to gain their support. This stresses the dependency of each level of society upon one another. Lower classes rely upon higher-ranking members of society to recognize their abilities and to provide them with the means to rise. Without such recognition, the chances of a minor member of society rising up were slim. The patronage system also affected politics. If one wanted to move up in government, he would try to gain favor with his superiors. Sometimes one might even try to appeal to the king himself. However, the king in England could not make his influence felt three thousand miles away in the colonies. As the idea that the people should be involved in the government came to prevail, there was less of a reason for them to believe that the king was absolute. The people themselves now had a voice in how they were governed, which explains why the colonists would oppose the imposition of British taxes in 1763.
In the phrase “No taxation without representation,” the colonists were voicing their belief that they should have a say in what policies were to be enforced in America rather than Britain making all of the decisions. In everyday society, people began to disregard the old monarchical hierarchy. They stopped paying as much attention to the differences between classes and started treating each other as equals. Within families, fathers ceased to be seen as the absolute authority and children began to have a greater say in the decisions made concerning their lives. On a greater scale, this change in the relationships within colonial families serves as a good metaphor for the relationship between England and America. England was still considered the parent, but colonists were increasingly making rules for themselves and paying less attention to the monarch. By the time of the Revolution, members of American society ceased to be “subjects” loyal to the king, and had become “citizens” who, as a whole, control the government ruling over them. Each person was an equal member of the same entity. Wood calls the Revolution a war of “patriots vs. courtiers.” Courttiers were the members of monarchical society who had to rely either on birth or patronage to get to the top of the hierarchical ladder. Such was the case still in England. In America, however, patriots were independent of these connections. The colonists were fighting for the right to rule themselves, to make their own decisions and to succeed based on their own merit. In a monarchical world, the credit for success is shared with the patron, in this case England. The cause of the American Revolution lay not in the imposition of unfair taxes. Rather, the Revolution was the result of a change in how the American colonists came to view society, and how this view clashed with the ideals held by the English. Revolting against the monarch for this new take on government was indeed considered treasonous and seditious in the eyes of the English. But from the colonists’ point of view, it was the only option they had in order to assert their independence and equality.