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Societal Impacts of the American Revolution

12b. A Revolution in Social Law

Destruction of George III's Statue
Library of Congress
New Yorkers topple a statue of King George III after hearing a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776.

During the colonial era, Americans were bound by British law. Now, they were no longer governed by the Crown or by colonial charter. Independent, Americans could seek to eliminate or maintain laws as they saw fit. The possibilities were endless. Republican revolutionary sentiment brought significant change during the immediate postwar years.

Huge changes were made regarding land holding. English law required land to be passed down in its entirety from father to eldest son. This practice was known as primogeniture. This kept land concentrated in the hands of few individuals, hardly consistent with revolutionary thinking. Within fifteen years of the Revolution, not a single state had a primogeniture law on the books. The cries of the landless, those who formerly paid quitrents and fees to the Crown, could now be heard. Huge estates of the Loyalists were divided into smaller units. These land seizures were harshest in New England, but existed to some extent throughout the American colonies. The sale of the Penn family estate yielded over a million dollars to the new government. In addition, the Treaty of Paris granted the United States land out to the Mississippi River, which created a great opportunity for land hungry citizens to go west. Despite the fact that much of this land was gobbled up by rich land speculators, the removal of the Loyalists served to be a great social leveler.

The fight for separation of church and state was on. In Virginia, it hardly seemed appropriate to support the Anglican Church of England with tax dollars. The Anglican Church itself broke from its English hierarchy and renamed itself the Episcopalian Church. Soon they were appointing their own American clergy. Thomas Jefferson helped win the battle for religious freedom in Virginia. The Congregational Puritan churches in New England held on longer; however, by 1833, all states abandoned the practice of a state-supported church. The Revolution had sparked great changes indeed.

On the Web
Evolution of the Founding Documents as Symbols
Today we see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as symbols of our right of self-determination and our democratic government. But they became symbols over time. This excellent article from the National Park Service explains how perceptions and events of the 1800s changed how Americans thought about these documents.
Land in Georgia: Pine Barrens Speculation
This site describes how the headright system of land distribution gave way to large land grants. The resulting land fever led to wholesale fraud and a scandal three times larger than Georgia itself!
The Northwest Ordinance
Following the American Revolution, new government leaders had to develop a plan to deal with the new lands accumulated as a result of the Treat of Paris. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, helped the citizens of the New United States settle this area. Background information and the original document are available at this Earlyamerica.com website.
Finally free to enact its own laws after the Revolution, Georgia fell victim to graft and corruption. Reformers launched a counter-attack, threatening to shoot the legislators. Holding a magnifying glass between the sun and copies of the Yazoo land bill, they summoned "Holy Fire from Heaven" to consume the evil laws.
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