The American Revolution is celebrated as a pursuit of liberty and happiness, but its true motivations are less pure. At its core, the American Revolution was an attempt by the colonial elite to maximize profits by eliminating British involvement in the colonial economy. This attempt proved successful as class disparities were reinforced and expanded over the next 250 years.
Class disparities were not invented during the American Revolution, but the war certainly did not alleviate them. That said, the Continental Congress marketed the war as an opportunity to diminish wealth differences. The colonial elites emphasized marginal improvements for the lower middle class: “It seemed that the majority of white colonists, who had a bit of land, or no property at all, were still better off than the slaves or indentured servants or Indians, and could be wooed into the coalition of the Revolution” (Zinn 1785). This section of America was vitally important to the independence effort; failure was inevitable if the war was a battle of colonial elites against the British military. The support of this section of the colonies allowed for the continuous oppression of the lower class, made up of slaves, indigenous peoples, and very poor whites.
In some ways, the war offered an opportunity to pursue economic and social growth for a section of the middle class. In certain instances, “the military became a place of promise for the poor, who might rise in rank, acquire some money, [and] change their social status” (1751). This mobility was limited, though, and the war allowed the elites to remain complacent in addressing economic disparities. According to Zinn, “ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations — consciously or not — that war makes them more secure against internal trouble” (1768). The concern with war served as a partial distraction from concerns with class and wealth.
Despite efforts to market the American Revolution as a potential stepping stool for large swaths of America, many of the middle class citizens saw through this ploy. For example, “the southern lower classes resisted being mobilized for the revolution. They saw themselves under the rule of a political elite, win or lose against the British” (1834). In hindsight, these concerns proved to be justified.
While the American Revolution is taught as a heroic effort to escape imperialism and establish a government that promotes equality and the pursuit of happiness, this approach only tells part of the story. The revolution, and the constitution that followed, was born out of an attempt by the colonial elites to monopolize political and economic control of America. This goal, camouflaged by utilizing cultural and racial divisions, proved successful. Although the American Revolution and Constitution established the most successful government and society in the world, the founding fathers were not motivated by a sense of selflessness and concern for equality, as is often portrayed.