Men of little faith: The American Revolution as a rebellion against the Modern State (1765-1850)

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Thesis type
(Dissertation) Ph.D.
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This dissertation explores the American political thought and development in the period 1765-1850. It is a study aimed at reinterpreting the American Revolution, both in terms of its temporal extent as well as its political and ideological sources and meaning. When it comes to temporal dimension the study claims that the Revolution did not end in 1783 or 1787 but continued for decades afterwards, and in terms of meaning it argues that the Revolution was not a process of gaining independence and creating a nation-state, but a process or resisting the multiple attempts at creating a centralized state in America. Revolutionary thought encompassed the patriots and antifederalists, included Jeffersonian writers and theorists in the early national period and Jacksonians in the 1830a and 1840s, to culminate with John C. Calhoun. What drove this Revolution was skepticism about both political consolidation of a nation state and economic policies of mercantilism that went hand in hand with it. It was both reactionary and liberal: reactionary in its resistance to modern state-building, and liberal in terms of its philosophy of rights and economic theory. The study deals with the two central motifs of revolutionary thought: political localism and economic liberalism. This duality is studied against the background of conventional theories which presuppose a political modernization in the form of a consolidated, centralized, enlightened state as necessary for the development of modern commerce. It is argued that a better model for understanding America is a “decoupled modernization” hypothesis. Within it economic and social modernity, most obviously expressed in a widespread acceptance of laissez-faire economic ideas, is seen as coinciding with a pre-modern localist political mindset, derived and strongly influenced by medieval principles and practices as well as by British common law. This study finds a counterintuitive combination of modern economic and social ideas and largely “antiquated,” anachronistic political theories in American early tradition. Free market economic theories were dominating the thought of American localists, from antifederalists, via Jeffersonian writhers to the champions of Jacksonian revolution, whereas their political thought transformed slowly so as do adapt to the realities of the nation state and to make peace with it, through the states’ rights philosophy
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Dobuzinskis, Laurent
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