Anarchy and the American Revolution

By Tom Cutterham

If the opening stages of the American Revolution were about the overthrow of tyranny, then its denouement was defined by the struggle against anarchy—at least, that is, from the perspective of the new nation’s elite. So fragile was the Confederation government in the mid-1780s, they often observed, that there was every possibility the union would break into a set of warring regional confederacies. By the time armed resistance to the republican state emerged in Massachusetts in the fall of 1786, elite calls for greater government power became a clamor. “The period must be fast approaching,” wrote Henry Lee, “when these United States must determine to establish a permanent capable government or submit to all the horrors of anarchy and licentiousness.” [1]

Some twenty-first century scholars of the founding era have focused on questions of the union and its governing institutions. In their view, threats of anarchy emerged primarily from the chaos of unstable state-systems, and from the undermining tendencies of rival empires. [2] Others have placed in the foreground formal political battles between elite and egalitarian factions—especially in states like Pennsylvania. [3] Each of these realms was a source of struggle and anxiety in the first decades of independence. But beneath these larger concerns, there was also a more everyday reality. The anarchy of the American Revolution began with its most basic social relations.

John Adams’ 1776 letter to his wife Abigail, responding to her famous plea to “remember the ladies,” gives a catalogue of the social effects of the early Revolution. “We have been told,” he wrote, “that… Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.” In his letter, Adams minimized the significance of these reports just as he laughed off the question of women. But as we shall see, a nervous humor was the frequent recourse of those on the pointy end of social upheaval. [4]

Take Robert Munford’s play, The Patriots, performed in revolutionary Virginia in 1777. In this comedy, ridicule becomes a weapon directed at the leaders of Virginia’s patriot cause: men and women for whom an intoxicating sense of liberty has made them forget their proper stations in life. Of his chief antagonist, the upstart Captain Brazen, the protagonist reports that “his political notions are a system of perfect anarchy… and liberty without restraint.” More ridiculous still is the patriotic Isabella, who overturns gendered expectations by wielding a sword and berating cowardly officers. Revolutionary notions have turned the world dangerously “topsy turvy.” [5]

Both Adams and Munford deployed humor and slapstick hyperbole to simultaneously mask and vent their anxieties. Nothing went further in this respect, however, than the work of the Hartford Wits, a group of genteel Connecticut poets writing a decade later. These Yale graduates with high social pretensions were deeply troubled by the growing social turbulence of their northeastern world. Their poetic composition, published in installments from mid-1786 to mid-1787, is a veritable catalogue of resentment and reaction. In imitation of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad of 1728, it was titled The Anarchiad.

The Anarchiad versified Shays’ Rebellion alongside the emissions of paper money and other projects of democratic state governments in the period that led up to the Philadelphia Convention. It mocked democratic politicians and lamented the destruction of public credit and national honor. But in its most evocative passages, the poem describes the social upheavals that revolution had unleashed. In the process, it quite literally demonized those who disrupted their vision of the proper social order:

Matured for birth, at times on earth they rise,
Incarnate imps, and veiled in human guise;
Like man appear in stature, shape, and face—
Mix, undistinguished, with the common race;
Fill every rank, in each profession blend,
Power all their aim, and ruin all their end. [6]

In its closing installment, the poem lionized the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, pitching stronger central government as a vital bulwark against the anarchic, democratic world that it described. The poets’ message was the same one being peddled by other proponents of the convention, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Through its veil of comedy, The Anarchiad exposed the emotional undertones of the larger Federalist movement, the mixture of ridicule and fear that animated the elite response to America’s social revolution.

The triumph of the Constitution in 1788 was a moment of victory—however incomplete—for the partisans of social order. It allowed men like the Philadelphia physician, Benjamin Rush, to drop the comic overtones that Adams and Munford had adopted, and address, in all seriousness, the recent turmoil and its causes. In his medical opinion, the problem was an “excess of the passion for liberty, inflamed by the successful issue of the war.”  Such passions produced “opinions and conduct which could not be removed by reason nor restrained by government. For a while, they threatened to render abortive the goodness of heaven to the United States.” Rush named this new mental disorder, “Anarchia.” [7]

In short, anarchy seemed like a very real threat to the gentlemen who sought to lead America out of its revolution and into the sunlit uplands of a new, stable, republican society. It took the form not only of insurrection and potential dissolution of the union, but—more insidiously—of a breakdown in the relations of class and gender on which the status and power of such gentlemen relied. With increasing urgency throughout the decade after the end of war, these gentlemen did what they could to thwart what they saw as the excesses of liberty and democracy. In some ways they failed; in others, they succeeded. We see the echoes of their victory in the way we still choose to define “liberty,” as opposed to “licentiousness,” or “anarchy.”

Tom Cutterham is a Lecturer in United States History at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. His book, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic, came out this summer with Princeton University Press. He blogs at The Junto and has contributed to The Nation and The New Republic.

Further Readings:

In addition to the works cited in the notes, see Robert Martin, Government By Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic (New York University Press, 2012); and Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1982).


[1] Henry Lee to George Washington, 8 September 1786.

[2] See e.g. David Hendrickson, Peace Pact: The Lost World of the American Founding (University Press of Kansas, 2003); Max Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State (Oxford University Press, 2003).

[3] See e.g. Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: “The People,” the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2007); Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (Hill & Wang, 2007).

[4] John Adams to Abigail Adams, 14 April 1776.

[5] See Michael McDonnell, “A World Turned ‘Topsy-Turvy’: Robert Munford, ‘The Patriots’, and the Crisis of the Revolution in Virginia,” William and Mary Quarterly 61.2 (April 2004), 235-270.

[6] “The Anarchiad,” in Vernon Parrington, ed., Connecticut Wits (New York, 1969 [1926]), 464.

[7] Benjamin Rush, “The Influence of the American Revolution on the Human Body,” in Dagobert D. Runes, ed., The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (New York, 1947), 232-3.

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