“We can see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used. We are now really another people, and cannot again go back to ignorance and prejudice. The mind once enlightened cannot again become dark.” This is how Tom Paine, the consummate pamphleteer of the American Revolutionary cause, reflected on how the long war with Great Britain pushed Americans into a concurrent search for a new and durable society based on ideas of liberty and equality.
Not everyone wanted such a double revolution—one of independence, the other of a reformed and revitalized society. In fact, many colonists didn’t even want to split from mother England and strike out on their own as a separate nation. Among those who decided to make the plunge, often reluctantly, many wanted a limited revolution, confined to achieving independence. But many more were unwilling to stake their lives and property for such a limited revolution; instead, they wanted a more democratic political system, where ordinary people had voice and vote, and a society cleansed of bondage, exploitation, and the yawning gulf between rich and poor that had gradually developed by the late colonial period. It was this splintering among those who craved independence that made the revolutionary era of almost two decades so filled with ideas, agendas for reform, and resistance to change. Paine said it best for those who hoped for a democratized society: “Can America be happy under a government of her own, ” he asked. “As happy as she please, ” he answered rhetorically; “she hath a blank sheet to write upon.”
Upon that blank sheet—wiped clean by the obliteration of legislative assemblies and courts of law at the moment independence was declared—the reformist wing of the American Revolutionists began to inscribe plans for striking at the heart of colonial inequalities and conservative governmental structures. The reformers were met with plenty of resistance from social, economic, and political conservatives, and they by no means reached all their goals. Much of what they hoped to do was unprecedented in the Euro-American world, and the boldness of it astounded even Enlightenment thinkers in Europe who yearned for a better age.