SERIES: This is the first in a Series about important episodes in American Political Development that scholars are currently reinterpreting. This Post concerns the American Revolution: interpretations that expand conventional understandings of its “when, where, and what.” Subsequent posts will treat other episodes from about 1830 to 1930.
A recent scholarly handbook notes recent reinterpretations of the American Revolution by historians (Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky eds. 2013. The Oxford handbook of the American Revolution. New York NY: Oxford University Press, 673 pages). Among thirty-three fine chapters, we note particularly those that broaden understanding of the supranational environment or deepen understanding of the subnational environment. For lack of space, we neglect excellent chapters on national topics such as the unfolding of the military war and the initial development of national institutions.)
Obviously the American Revolution was a founding event in American Political Development. Morever, as Gray and Kamensky note in their Introduction, the American public has continued to celebrate it and to read many books about its origins, particularly the roles of the Founders. Among scholars however, until recently, the Revolution had declined as a topic.
“At least since the 1960s, and arguably long before, scholars of the period have struggled to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable interpretations of the formation of the United States. Some insist that the Revolution is best understood as an intellectual event, driven by ideas about liberty, property, and tyranny articulated by a select group of elite founders. By contrast, many social historians see the Revolution not as the work of remote thinkers and theorists, but as a fundamentally popular and even populist revolt in which ordinary people challenged self-interested elites.” (1)
More recently, historians – cultural and institutional, imperial and Atlantic – have explored a variety of processes during the period. None of these processes necessarily centered on the formation of the United States, which to some extent emerged as an accidental byproduct. The 2013 Oxford Handbook surveys this recent scholarship on plural “American revolutions,” as the title of the Introduction signals. “The” American Revolution involved many different processes of different scales and content that frequently moved in different directions.
This Post pursues “when, where, and what.” The Handbook chapters proceed mostly chronologically across the whole last half of the 1700s (when). Essays treat the supranational, national, and subnational levels (where). Some of the later essays go beyond conventional political dynamics to class, gender, and culture (what). (In their Introduction, the editors treat “where” before “when.” They continue about “what,” but do not label it that.)
Temporally, the Revolution was a protracted process that began well before 1776 and lasted long after. That process did not move in a straight line following any overall inevitable historical logic. An example is the “independence” that the Revolution “declared” in 1776. (Benjamin H. Irvin “Independence before and during the Revolution,” Chapter 8, 139-158.)
Back in the 1600s, English settlers in North America had already been surprisingly “independent. England wanted a foothold in North America, but was not organized to extend an empire systematically and did not want to devote many resources to doing so. Instead, haphazardly, English monarchs granted various “charters” to various imperial companies and political associates. The resulting settlers enjoyed “benign neglect.” The monarchy relied on the settlers to “self-finance” the colonies, which limited what policies the monarchy could impose on the settlers. The extent of imperial rule was “negotiated,” which gave the settlers a lasting sense of entitlement to much autonomy. Later, this informal and uncertain status of their rights inclined Americans to written constitutions at both federal and state levels. (Craig B. Yirush, “The imperial crisis,” Chapter 5, 85-102.)
By the mid-1700s, the British began strengthening the organization of their empire. They had fought numerous wars with numerous European powers, at great cost and debt. They wanted to recover some of those costs from imperial subjects – including the settlers in America – who had benefitted from British defeat of Spanish, Dutch, French, Austrians, Indians, and others. The British wished to “include” the settlers in their modernized empire. Unfortunately the modernization involved the classic staples of revolutionary history: taxes on domestic documents, taxes on imports, and the lodging of British troops in private houses. Faced with those demands, the settlers preferred their old status, under which they benefitted from British protection without having to pay for it. To avoid such impositions, in the end (1776) the settlers declared independence.
Nevertheless, that independence long remained weak. Evidently one reason the British were willing to sign a generous peace treaty in 1783 was that they did not expect the USA to last. Therefore they did not bother to comply with some of the treaty terms, such as removing their forces from the new USA’s northern and western borders. In any case, despite formal political independence, Americans remained enmeshed in Britain’s “informal empire”: the network of trading relationships and cultural influences that pervaded the whole north Atlantic. (Eliga H. Gould “The empire that Britain kept,” Chapter 25, 465-480.)
A chapter in the Handbook on foreign relations in the late 1700s makes interesting points. It was not only Britain that did not take the new USA seriously: other powers too scorned American diplomats and agreements. Federalists and Jeffersonians had contrasting diplomatic philosophies. “Legalist” Federalists adhered to the European notion that foreign affairs should be decided by sovereigns but that sovereigns should not interfere in each others’ domestic affairs. “Naturalist” Jeffersonians derived their diplomatic precepts from natural law, according to which people were naturally free, happy, and peaceful. The naturalist approach “became the prevailing language of American foreign relations and an important element of American national identity (Opal, 597). This Handbook doesn’t cover the 1800s, but the USA long remained militarily vulnerable (as in the War of 1812), and economically dependent (for trade, investment, and technological innovation). (J. M. Opal “The republic in the world, 1783-1803,” Chapter 32, 595-611.)
Spatially, the process of Revolution extended well beyond coastal North America in all directions: EAST across oceans to the empires of the British and other European powers; WEST on the continent to frontier settlers and interior Indians; NORTH to French and then British Canada; SOUTH to related processes in the American South and British Caribbean. (Even around the world, to related processes in Europe and Asia.)
Traditional narratives focused on bilateral interaction between British and Americans (sometimes with a nod to the French). However, from a broader “maritime” perspective, the geopolitics of the time really centered not on America but on Europe! The Revolution involved multilateral relations of Britain with other European powers and other overseas colonies. Britain’s relations with America were often influenced by Britains relations with other colonies such as Ireland, the West Indies, and India. (P. J. Marshal “Britain’s American problem: The international perspective,” Chapter 1, 15-29.)
European states were most concerned with their power in Europe. Those European states expanding overseas had to allocate resources effectively between Europe and overseas. Most European states believed that their power in Europe could be strengthened by their acquiring overseas empires (commercial or territorial). By the mid-1700s, this was particularly so of Britain, which had achieved some supremacy within Europe but, without allies, had to rely on her overseas possessions to maintain it. Most British strategists would have preferred to keep the North American colonies. But, it turned out, Britain could do nicely – perhaps even better – without them. For much of 1776 to 1783, Britain was fighting mostly to retain not its North American colonies but its other colonies.
Oddly, British anxiety about Europe sharpened Britain’s analysis of America. Colonial officials anticipated that Americans might decide to declare independence long before Americans drew that conclusion. Colonial officials saw three main weaknesses in the architecture of their empire. First, the constitutions of the various colonies were not uniform, making uniform policies toward those colonies impossible. Second, the empire lacked effective mechanisms for resolving disputes between colonies, exacerbating the conflicts and complicating central administration. Third, defenses of the colonies were in disarray. (Irvin, 141-142) The American colonies recognized the same three weaknesses among themselves as they attempted to organize a national government.
At the national level, too – from a “continental” perspective – the American Revolution was multi-faceted. The traditional narrative tells what propelled the coming-together and rising-up of most “colonials” against British “oppression.” Older historians categorized colonials mostly as either revolutionaries, loyalists (to the British), or (would-be) neutral. Newer historians find many more categories and conflicts. Among other things, as noted, because early British imperialism had been haphazard, the colonies had different forms of government. Michael McDonnell suggests that these differing governments had promoted different societies.
In any case, the thirteen colonies deeply distrusted each other. Often the “Revolution” seems to have been more an opportunity to fight each other than to fight Britain, which helped drive the process of revolution. At the same time, each colony contained numerous and deep social divisions, which sometimes energized revolution and sometimes paralyzed it. “Out of this fractiousness arose just enough of a coalition of very unlike-minded people to support independence – a very fragile independence.” (117). (Michael A. McDonnell “The struggle within: Colonial politics on the eve of Independence,” 103-120.)
At the subnational level, too, the American Revolution was multi-faceted. Older historians noted various rebellions in the backwoods interior and recognized the presence of “Indians” beyond. Newer historians elaborate on these and place them into their supranational context. For example, in the early 1990s, one of the reasons why Washington and Hamilton were so stern in putting down a western Pennsylvania revolt against taxes on whiskey (which farmers used for preservation and exchange) was that they did not want to allow turmoil that might invite meddling by foreign powers (Opal, 603). (On the interior, see William B. Hart “The unsettled periphery: The backcountry on the eve of the American Revolution,” Chapter 2, 31-46.).
Some older “continental” historians looked at the new USA’s relations with frontiersmen from the point of view of the frontiersmen. Some newer continental historians have looked at the new USA’s relationship with the interior from the point of view of Native Americans. Trying to fend off European settlers, they fought hard and formed alliances, both with each other and with European powers. (There is no chapter about Indians in the new Oxford Handbook, but Hart includes them as part of the interior “mixed multitude.”)
The process of revolution transformed not only the conventionally political, but also class and race, gender and culture. Here one pair of dynamics was radicalization versus “backlash.” Another pair was religiosity versus secularism.
Radicalization versus backlash
“Revolutionary radicalization.” As Wood explained, to achieve independence from Britain, settler elites had to mobilize settler masses against Britain. An unexpected byproduct was to mobilize settler masses also again settler elites. After learning to denounce foreign British “tyranny” and “corruption,” settler masses would no longer accept domestic elite “privilege.” The Handbook notes details. Some “masses” – such as urban small artisans and rural small farmers – already had traditions of collective mobilization to protect their group interests. The Revolution drew on and strengthened that propensity, which soon fed into the gradual formation of an egalitarian opposition to the elitist Federalists. The late 1700s saw a shift from Federalist ideology, which was elitist, paternalistic, and resisted change, toward Jefferson ideology, which was egalitarian, rights-conscious, and promoted change. (Rosemarie Zagarri “The American revolution and a new national politics, Chapter 26, 483-498.)
“Revolutionary backlash.” As just noted, the Revolution advanced the rights of white males without property against white males with property. Ordinary white males then took precautions against anyone advancing against them, such as women or blacks. At the beginning of the Revolution, in some colonies, women or blacks had been allowed to own property and, as property owners, to participate in politics (even to vote, at least in New Jersey). By the early 1800s, far from further expanding those rights, white male politicians had curtailed them. As they removed qualifications of wealth and property for voting, they added restrictions on gender and race. (Again Zagarri. See also her 2007 book Revolutionary backlash.)
So women’s formal political participation actually regressed. Nevertheless, their informal political participation deepened, laying foundations for 1800s women’s activism. The revolution relied heavily on the “home”: not just on self-reliance by the “home” country in general, but production in the family home in particular. That was women’s sphere, and it was women who produced the commodities that Americans no longer could or would import from Britain (such as textiles). That production was not just economic but also political. It was not just for domestic purposes but also, in effect, for national purposes. Recognizing the symbolic significance of “homespun” fabrics, even some elite national leaders dressed in them on occasions of political ceremony (as Washington at his inauguration). (Leora Auslander “America’s cultural revolution in transnational perspective,” Chapter 33, 611-632, with comparisons to revolutionary France.)
Secularism versus religiosity
Secularism. Older historians, who focused on elites, typically narrated the Revolution as guided by an elite ideology of secularism. Many Founders were intellectuals interested in such early modern thinkers such as Locke, a late 1600s critic of absolute monarchy and advocate of individual consent. Many Founders were lawyers who debated traditional English rights and Enlightenment universal natural rights. Some were Deists and rationalists of a continental French sort.
Religiosity. Some newer historians, more interested in masses, give more weight to mass religiosity. A revisionist argument has been that a 1720s religious Awakening provided an essential rehearsal for 1770s political Revolution. 1720s rebellion against ecclesiastical authority contributed to a general political culture conducive to 1770s rebellion against imperial authority. A chapter in the Handbook agrees that the 1720s Awakening politicized Evangelicals and produced a new style that “prized personal experince over book learning, idiosyncratic truth over the authority of tradition, and the “priesthood of all believers” over religious hierarchy.” (409) However, Susan Juster argues that the argument that “the 1720s caused the 1770s” projects backward onto the 1700s a kind of Evangelical mobilization that finally emerged only in the 1820s (“the Second Awakening”). Thus the interaction between Evangelicalism and Revolution too was a long-run process.
Susan Juster focuses instead on the actual 1770s involvement of specific kinds of Evangelicals: insurgents, consumers, patriarchs, martyrs, and patriots. She particularly highlights a 1771 North Carolina battle of angry farmers against colonial militia. The farmers were Scots-Irish Presbyterians rebelling for religious liberty against “political and religious oppression” at home by the Anglican elite that the colonial militia represented. That occurred four years before insurgent Minutemen in Massachusetts rebelled for political liberty against oppression from abroad being defended by British regulars. (Susan Juster “The evangelical ascendency in revolutionary America” Ch 22, 207-426.)