The ideology and rhetoric of the American Revolution

Bell, Barry Ray, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levin, David, Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

In order to understand how particular ideologies were fashioned, to describe their implicit network of values, and to evaluate their creative role, the techniques of literary analysis and literary history must be applied to "ideological documents. 1 This dissertation is a tentative step in that direction. By focusing on the Declaration of Independence and The Federalist, works which bracket the turbulent period of the American revolution, I demonstrate the rhetorical complexity of each work, and suggest the ways in which each document skillfully addresses and fulfills the complex demands of ideology. Since each work mapped the problematic political realities of the period, and provided a clear and succinct model for interpreting those realities, this analysis also suggests some of the differences between the dominant republican ideologies of the 1770s and the 1780s.

In the first section, I demonstrate how the Declaration of Independence, which has by now become the touchstone for a wide variety of democratic ideals, played specific and strategic roles in l776. Ostensibly a defence of separation addressed to an attentive Europe, it served skillfully to manifest (and by manifesting, to strengthen) an alliance between the obviously diverse colonies. Jefferson succeeded in masking the ideological differences among the Patriots by conflating two of the most powerful contemporary ideologies--on the one hand, that of the Real Whigs, who contributed much of the Patriotic terminology (slavery, Roman virtue, conspiracies and so on) as well as a context of historical decline and conservative intentions, and, on the other hand, that of the Evangelicals, who utilized many of the same or closely related terms in their demands for Christian leadership and in their prophecies of millennium. By ambiguously evoking both of these systems of values, Jefferson implied their compatibility and, consequently, the compatibility of New England and the South, the urban coast and the sparsely settled frontier, the Aristocrats or bourgeoisie and the mob.

By the time of The Federalist, independence had been achieved and American nationalism was a political fact. As a result, Madison's and Hamilton's efforts could begin where Jefferson's manifesto had ended. While the fragile alliance of the Revolutionary years had attained its immediate objective, independence, the future of the country depended on their ability of secure a more lasting foundation.

The ostensible purpose of The Federalist was to mobilize support for the unratified Constitution. In a recapitulation of their arguments before the Constitutional Convention, Madison and Hamilton anticipated objections and projected the practical consequences of a federal government. The persuasive appeal of The Federalist, however, depended on more than its marshalling of facts and logic. Like the Declaration of Independence, it subtly (and symbolically) recommended nationalism by evoking the potentially conflicting ideologies left by the revolutionary struggle--including those of the Real Whigs and the Evangelicals. Moreover, in its most brilliant rhetorical strategy, it controlled the regional, religious, social and political fissures of American society not simply by hiding them but by actively harnessing their power. Virginia's Madison, the political disciple of Jefferson, and New York's Hamilton, the béte noire of the Jeffersonians, joined in an effort that preserved their differences in an exemplary display of eclectic and pluralistic principles. The Federalist is a document that anticipates, and in a sense creates, the United States both by combining divergent ideologies into a statement of pluralistic principles and by providing a novel symbolic frame for explaining republican politics.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
United States -- History -- Revolution, 1775-1783, United States -- Politics and government -- 1775-1783
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