U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Downplaying the American Revolution

Just about 240 years ago, on April 19, 1775, hostilities erupted in Massachusetts between British troops and colonial militia in what came to be known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord. This event traditionally marks the beginning of the American Revolution—though, as with much else, many historians have suggested other markers.(1) For instance, the Massachusetts Historical Society’s recent conference on the American Revolution, which marked the 250 year anniversary to the passage of the Stamp Act, suggests that 1765 stands out as a key moment as well. In that conference, which received significant attention from our colleagues at The Junto, historians came together to revitalize the historiography of the American Revolution. Indeed in the keynote delivered by Woody Holton he argued that the scholarship of the American Revolution has suffered from an “originality crisis.”

Though I did not attend the conference and cannot do full justice to its themes, I thought it would be a productive intellectual exercise to argue that, if anything, we have been making too much out of the revolution and should turn our attention elsewhere. I have always found the American Revolution as a weird event, and I must confess that the more I teach it the less I am sure what Americans wanted out of this so-called “revolution.” To be sure, I do think that in several regards the revolution marked a crucial watershed moment in world history and certainly in the history of the US. However, as American historians I wonder if we do not pay more attention than necessary to this event and too little to others. In the next two posts I will take a shot at arguing against the significance of the American Revolution. I do so in the spirit of polemics so please feel free to give me a hard time.

I will divide my argument into two parts. The first (in this post) will suggest that the stakes during the American Revolution were never very high. The second installment next week will argue that we would do better to couch the revolution in a larger longue duree approach that regards the early modern world as a transitionary period marked with fits and starts, and that the revolution was merely one of those fits—and not one of the more momentous ones at that.

The argument that the American Revolution was in some way a misunderstanding—that the stakes were never as high as the people fighting it and leading it made it out to be—is actually a relatively old one. Both progressive and republican historians suggested as much. The progressives argued that the revolutionary potential of the early period was stymied by a counter revolution of American elites—and so, ultimately, did not achieve much. Whereas the republicans—yes, even Gordon Wood—implied that though the leaders of the revolution were quite serious in their tirades against oppression, they let their paranoid impulses get the better of them. Nonetheless, I do think we need to remind ourselves of this theme since we keep relating to the revolution as momentous.

If we take the cue from the recent conference marking 250 years to the passage of the Stamp Act, the events that led to the revolution started with protests against taxation. After the Seven Years War (1754-1763) British policy makers sought to address their debilitating debts and to fund a significant standing army in the Americas. To the British it seemed only fitting that the colonists, for whom British soldiers supposedly fought during the war, should help with the financial burden through taxation. Furthermore, the British Empire, as part of its efforts to bring more order into its affairs—a result of enlightenment logic that also pervaded the Bourbon reforms in the Spanish Empire, for instance—sought to ensure that Britain capitalized on its colonial possessions. After all, if you do not tap the full financial potential of the colonies why would you go to such lengths for them in the first place?

To many of the American colonists, who only recently felt quite proud about the British successes in the Seven Years War, this somehow seemed deeply unjust. Although they mostly felt privileged to live in what they usually regarded as the best system of governance in the world, many felt horribly maligned by the various taxation acts.

Admittedly, I am probably much more inclined to look quite favorably at the idea of taxation than any 18th century Briton, but this always sounded to me quite fair. In my classes when I ask students if they would support the American Revolution, almost always most say that they would, and every time I am surprised that they find the revolutionary cause compelling.

At least according to the traditional accounts of the revolution, it boiled down to a conflict over a principle. For the American protestors-turned-rebels it was the conviction that only directly representative bodies could impose taxes according to the British constitution. British administrations and their supporters, by contrast, clung to the notion that, above all else, the constitution stipulated that the British Parliament was the ultimate sovereign body, and thus exerted full authority over all the colonial holdings of the British Empire. Furthermore, even once it should have been clear that the British wanted primarily to uphold this principle and were willing to let go of a substantial stream of revenue, a critical mass of American colonists wanted a full concession to their demands from Parliament. They feared that compromising would establish a precedent and would constitute a slippery slope. And so, ultimately, when we examine the language of the colonists, who invoked concepts such as tyranny and slavery, it seems as quite an over-reaction.

What’s more, historians, for all their obsession with the revolution, have been searching for answers as well. Attempting to account for what prepared the ground for the revolution, they have looked to the First Great Awakening, the role of the market, the contentious relationship between British soldiers and colonists during the mid-century wars, and republican ideology as possible explanations. But does not the need for such interpretations imply that they too are not exactly sure what the revolution was about?

Though one can certainly choose to approach this “mystery” as an incentive to search for more compelling interpretations, I wonder if we should not just elect to regard the revolutionaries as wrongheaded.

Ok, so here I certainly should get into hot water: how much different would things be if the revolution did not happen at that time? Are not other economic, social, cultural, and perhaps epistemological developments more significant than the revolution? Or to put it otherwise, would changes in realms other than the political not have occurred along quite similar lines had the revolution been lost or had it played out differently?

[1] I am particularly partial to Ray Raphael’s argument in The First American Revolution that the “real revolution” in New England was well underway by this time and would be quelled once the Continental Congress assumed control over events .

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Before I engage in the spirit of polemics, let me state that this post is a nice piece.

    The “originality crisis” to which Professor Holton refers, in my opinion, shows the success of the handful of history departments which produce the majority of revolutionary scholars in socializing their graduate students. Is it a coincidence that the most original interpretation on the adoption of the federal constitution, A Revolution in Favor of Government, was written by a Swede, Max Edling?

    Your piece, and from what I have read second hand of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s meeting have tended to travel down the familiar path of the American Revolution as being simply “taxation without representation.” The battles over taxation and federal or lack there of the British Empire was a necessary but not sufficient cause for rebellion.

    Aziz Rana is another scholar who wasn’t socialized in the study of colonial British America. I found his discussions on settler colonialism and how it related to British attempts to justly administer a multicultural empire. Hence the opposition to The Proclamation line of 1763 and the Quebec Act which protected the indigenous peoples and those absolutist French Canadians. I found the first couple of chapters of Rana’s Two Faces of American Freedom illuminating.

    Of course, how do historians explain the Southern colonies lack of interest in the Revolutionary cause until the 1770s? Was it simply over the Somerset decision, and were they motivated to rebel over the fear of losing their slaves?

    Lastly, I pose a question concerning the practice of history. Aren’t all revolutions that are continuously examined end up being characterized as not being revolutionary.

  2. Thanks for this. I haven’t read Rana yet, but it seems like I definitely should. And it’s a good point about Edling and Rana, I agree that Americans have a hard time thinking about the American Revolution.
    As for the south, I think you are right as far as South Carolina is concerned, but many Virginian gentlemen were prone to the paranoid republican impulses no less or perhaps even more than northerners.
    As for revolutions in general, I agree that to a certain extent you can make that case with many of them, if not all, of the so called “revolutions.” However I think that the American revolution is the most prone to such an argument compared to say the French, Russian, Haitian, and English revolutions. In all the above cases both the actions and the ideas seem more “revolutionary,” in my mind.

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