The American Revolution: The work of elites

October 29, 2012

The American Revolution was definitely a phenomenon of the elites. The march toward independence was possible due to a solidarity within sectors of the upper classes from all the colonies. It was the aristocrats who masterminded it from their mansions on the banks of the Potomac, the James, the Hudson, and elsewhere. “Some of them were deists and freethinkers as well, and on their library shelves could be found the works of Voltaire, Volney, Hume, Gibbon, and Tom Paine’s Age of Reason,” notes Clement Eaton.(1)

James Madison, fourth President of the United States. Painting by John Vanderlyn

According to von Borch, it was a colonial aristocratic elite espousing republican principles that articulated the revolt against England:

“Here we have what is, perhaps, the most deep-seated paradox in the emergence of America. The ‘Virginia dynasty’ of the first presidents of the independent federal State—Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—came from precisely this planter aristocracy. Within that aristocracy there developed the powers and the ideas which made the colonies independent of England and gave them a free, if conservative, domestic regime. The revolution against England was planned on the dignified estates on the banks of the Virginia streams….

“…The self-assured lords of the plantation style of living were the leaders of the anti-English revolt.”(2)

Deep within the man of the revolutionary elite was a dichotomy between aristocratic habits and republican ideas. This dichotomy has become a characteristic of American elites, a legacy from their Revolutionary past. [Gordon S.] Wood comments on this interior tension.

James Monroe, fifth President of the United States. Painting by William James Hubbard

“A New England lawyer and a Virginia planter both could fill their diaries with their private struggles between the attractions and repulsions of the world of prestige and social refinement. This kind of tension and ambivalence of attitude, when widespread, made for a painful disjunction of values and a highly unstable social situation.”(3)


(1) Clement Eaton, The Growth of Southern Civilization, 1790-1860 (New York: Harper & Bros., 1961), p. 13.

(2) Herbert von Borch, The Unfinished Society, trans. Mary Ilford, (New York: The Bobbs Merrill company, 1963), p. 216.

(3) Gordon S. Wood, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. 75.

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 259-260.



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