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On the Upper Ohio Valley Frontier


Settlement Expansion, Commercial Agriculture, and Industrial Foundations

     In terms of economic freedoms for the common people, the founding fathers of America were not the selfless patriots as often portrayed. Indeed, the fact is that the revolutionary elite often appeared to the citizens as determined to squash democracy after the Revolution as they were to support it before the War.

     The story of democracy’s rise during the Revolution was symbolically centered on Pennsylvania. The elites’ shift in ideology resulted in tragedy for thousands of the common people. The latter had believed that they should have access to the political system and that some degree of wealth equality was required to guarantee that political freedom continued. Unfortunately, after the War, the Pennsylvania elites rejected such ideals and instead, promoted a governmental policy that channeled wealth to “moneyed men.” Ironically, by the 1780s they re-instituted the very laws they had sought to end by resorting to war. The result was a deep economic depression. Ordinary citizens protested and sought to reclaim the vision they had assumed the elites held in common with them. However, their efforts were thwarted by the founding elites’ remaking of government to restrict the meaning and practice of democracy. Having overthrown British rule, the common people discovered that the wealthy and well-born had no concern for serious democratic reform. Now they saw themselves as forced to defend the promise against what they termed the “united avarice” of the federal and state governments, which seemed determined to vigorously restrict the expansion of egalitarian democracy. The consequence was strong sense of betrayal on the part of the common people, who participated in two significant uprisings which have been misnamed the “whiskey” and “Fries” rebellions in the 1790s, both of which were stopped by the threats of federal armies.

     Thus it becomes clear that the founding elites were at times flawed in their motivations, blinded by their own overriding sense of entitlement, including such stalwart figures as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and even George Washington. It was the unsung heroes— the small-scale farmers, craftsmen, and frontiersmen of Pennsylvania—who had risked their very lives to create democracy, the people who made up the lost world of the agrarian democracy who sought to fulfill the promise of a more egalitarian society. This initial thwarting of the democratic cause of the people launched what has proven to be the beginning of an ongoing struggle between ordinary Americans and its government elites to the present day. They re-framed the constitutional language to mean: “government by some of the people (elites), but not often for the (ordinary) people.” Tyranny was seen by elites as preferable to anarchy. But a civil war between the Western Country and the U.S. was a distinct possibility. Many others preferred to move ahead in settlement expansion, commerce, and development of the trades. Increased populations meant new marketing opportunities locally and down the Ohio River on the part of farmers, fur traders, forest products, iron, naval stores, beef, and pork. Skilled craftsmen moving in from the east made more things to be purchased with better quality workmanship, especially containers for wet and dry items among farmers, merchants, and ordinary people alike.

The living history interpreters at Providence Plantation portray the lives of the ordinary people on the frontier affected by the reversed policies of our earliest state and federal governments in the post-revolutionary era, as well as people who were determined in spite of the eastern elites to make progress in the upper Ohio Valley region in establishing a unique republican democracy.