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2. Promise & Peril




The belief that the 1780s, the years after the peace with Britain, had become the really critical period of the entire Revolution, was prevalent everywhere during the decade. By the mid-eighties the oratory and writings were filled with talk of crisis to the point of redundancy: "The present crisis is critical in the extreme." . . . The evidence is overwhelming from every source—newspapers, sermons, and correspondence—that in the minds of many Americans the course of the Revolution had arrived at a crucial juncture.

Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, 19691

In the previous section we read appraisals of the new nation's challenges written by Thomas Paine and George Washington in 1783, just before the signing of the final peace treaty. Alerting Americans to the fragility of their victory, they urged them—almost pleaded with them—to put aside their regional fractiousness and unify. Here we add three later voices to the discussion, each with a different perspective of the nation's promise and peril in the 1780s. They are (1) Dr. David Ramsay, a South Carolina statesman, physician, and historian; (2) Mercy Otis Warren, a Boston writer and anti-Federalist; and (3) Rev. Richard Price, a British clergyman, philosopher, and admirer of the Revolution. You will note their conviction as they applaud the victors' achievements—but listen for their distress as they dissect the victors' weaknesses that jeopardized the young nation. Ramsay, Warren, and Price present a sample of the "voices of postrevolutionary discourse" that were, as described by literary scholar Robert S. Ferguson, "explosive and timid, hopeful and despairing, angry and complacent—often in the same moment—in a battleground of conflicted and conflicting voices over the meaning of the Revolution."2

    David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution PDF file
  • David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 1789, excerpts. From South Carolina, David Ramsay served as a surgeon in the Continental Army, and after the war he was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. In 1789 he published the first major history of the revolutionary period, still respected for its nonpartisan and clearheaded perspective. In an appendix, Ramsay offered an analysis of the positive and negative effects of the Revolution on its victors, the ingenious self-discovered Americans. While praising the abilities, virtues, and "vast expansion of the human mind" nurtured by the Revolution, he also warned Americans to rid themselves of the "great vices" engendered by the war. If they did not, they jeopardized the freedom they had fought for. (6 pp.)

  • Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution PDF file
  • Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, 1805, excerpts. Long involved in revolutionary discourse as a Boston poet, playwright, and intellectual, Mercy Otis Warren is most known for her poetry and satirical dramas published anonymously before and during the Revolution. Yet her most reflective and telling work for our time is her three-volume history of the Revolution, published in 1805 under her name. In these selections from the next-to-last chapter, completed by 1791, Warren looked back on the fragile victor, depicting the new nation "as a child just learning to walk" and as "a young heir who had prematurely become possessed of a rich inheritance." Her analysis of Americans' strengths and weaknesses as nationbuilders conveyed the fervent hope that the opportunity created by her revolutionary generation would not be lost by the next. Of the writers included in this Theme, she is the most disillusioned, exemplifying the conclusion of historian Gordon S. Wood that "nothing more vividly indicates the intensity of the Americans' Revolutionary expectations than the depth of their disillusionment in the eighties."3 (3 pp.)

  • Richard Price, Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution PDF file
  • Richard Price, Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, 1784, excerpts. A British moral philosopher, economic thinker, and Presbyterian minister, Richard Price championed the American Revolution, and he offered his Observations as "the means of making it a benefit to the world." In the Enlightenment foundations of the Revolution, he drew hope for "a new era in the history of mankind"—one based on civil liberty, just ownership of land, sound economic principles, and wisely distributed political power. While applauding the Americans, he also alerted them to their precarious position. Nurture your infant nation with your ideals, guard against the age-old frailties of human nature, or the Revolution may prove to be "an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery" instead of a beacon of hope. (His piece is also valuable for its clear one-by-one rundown of the immediate postwar problems—a rare find in the writings of the day.) (9 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Overall, what did Ramsay, Warren, and Price define as the promise and peril of American independence in the 1780s?
  2. What did they herald as the greatest achievements of victory? as the most valuable attributes of Americans for creating a stable nation?
  3. What did they signal as the greatest dangers to the "newborn nation"?
  4. What guidance and suggestions did they offer?
  5. How did each judge the health of American religion and moral character after the Revolution? How were these factors critical to the nation's future?
  6. How did education contribute to the success of the Revolution? How did it factor in the postwar health of the nation?
  7. Did education conflict with American optimism?
  8. According to Ramsay, how did the Revolution improve American life?
  9. What specific achievements, necessitated by the war, did Ramsay pinpoint as significant for the nation's survival—and indicative that it would survive?
  10. According to Ramsay, how did the spirit of the Revolution jeopardize the nation's unity?
  11. How did the Revolution "injure the morals of the people engaged in it"? Why would it require much time and patience to "reproduce a spirit of union" among the people?
  12. To Warren, why did Americans' lack of political sophistication jeopardize the new nation? What might cause liberty to be "bartered in a short time as a useless bauble"?
  13. According to Rev. Richard Price, why was the Revolution, next to the introduction of Christianity, "the most important step in the progressive course of human improvement"? Why were Americans a people "to whom a station of more importance in the plan of Providence has [never] been assigned"?
  14. From Price's Observations, compile a list of the top postwar challenges facing the new nation. Which items on the list surprise you? Why are the economic problems so daunting?
  15. Continue this chart for an overview of the "advantages and disadvantages" of the Revolution as seen by the American and European commentators in this Theme, and to compile their recommendations for the new nation's survival and triumph. What patterns do you find? What issues were presented with the greatest urgency?
  16. Continue the list of metaphors for the new nation that appear in this Theme's texts (they include Warren's "a child just learning to walk"). What do the metaphors suggest about Americans' hopes and fears in the 1780s?
  17. How did Ramsay, Warren, and Price view the necessity of union among the thirteen states, as stressed by Thomas Paine and George Washington in their 1783 farewell statements (Section #1)?
  18. How did Ramsay's and Warren's essays convey their perspective as American Patriots? How did Price's convey his perspective as an admiring Briton?
  19. How did Ramsay's and Warren's essays illustrate their Federalist and anti-Federalist positions (respectively) during the debate over the Constitution?
  20. From the recommendations of the writers in this Theme, compile a list of eight to ten items entitled How to Keep Your New Nation or How to Lose Your Independence. Which item will you place first? Why? (As a model for a satiric how-to-lose essay, see Benjamin Franklin's Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, 1773 (CRISIS #9).
  21. Use the readings in Sections 1-3 to amplify the statement by literary scholar Robert S. Ferguson that "the voices of postrevolutionary discourse are explosive and timid, hopeful and despairing, angry and complacent—often in the same moment—in a battleground of conflicted and conflicting voices over the meaning of the Revolution."2

Framing Questions

  • How did Americans envision independence and nationhood in the first years after the Revolutionary War?
  • How did they begin to construct a national identity separate from their colonial identity as British subjects?
  • In what ways was the new nation like "a child just learning to walk"? What postwar challenges most reflected this "state of infancy"?


Ramsay, History
Warren, History
Price, Observations
 6 pp.
 3 pp.
 9 pp.
18 pp.

Supplemental Sites

David Ramsay, overview (

Mercy Otis Warren, overview (Wikipedia)

Richard Price, overview (Online Library of Liberty)

"The Righteous Revolution of Mercy Otis Warren," by Ray Raphael (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

Full text of works (Online Library of Liberty) "Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (The University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1969), pp. 393-394. Quote ("The present crisis is critical in the extreme") from the Boston Independent Chronicle, 31 August 1786.
2Robert S. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment: 1750-1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1994; paperback ed., Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 190.
3 Wood, p. 395.

Dr. David Ramsay, oil portrait attributed to Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1796, © Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association, Charleston, South Carolina, Accession No. XX1914. Reproduced by permission.
Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis), oil portrait by John Singleton Copley, ca. 1763. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Winslow Warren, 31.212; photograph © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced by permission.
Dr. Richard Price, oil portrait by Benjamin West, 1784. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Wales.

Banner image: Final design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782, by Secretary of State Charles Thomson (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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