The American Revolution: A New Look at the Birth of a Nation

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For Americans the American Revolution is the first step of the birth of the great nation; the process of national building as the creation of a political and republican regime where each state holds powers and the overarching federal system to grant, distribute, and monitor the powers between each.

The central point, at least to the broader public, is the centrality as the main force behind a national identity that began with the revolutionary era and was sparked by a collective self-realization.

From one perspective, the one of a national and state that has been, for the most part, producing the writing of United States History, this emphasis is perfectly understandable. But for understanding how, and why a revolution occurred in North America toward the end of the 18th century and what the revolution in actuality was, does not come into that perspective.

First, it tries to hide the very remarkable fact that, to a degree, the American Revolution was a British Revolution, and second, that it doesn’t give proper attribution to the colonial and national eras that carried the revolutionary sentiment and largely shaped the accounts that followed.

For the point of this essay I will illustrate that the American Revolution, however much influential in the formation of the American country, is actually incomplete in its attempt to completely dismantle imperial structures that were created during the early modern era, and it’s a much more fascination perspective to consider the American Revolution as the first step in the overall break from more traditional governments.

As the first of many different revolutions throughout the new nation-states of Europe, the American Revolution did differ greatly from those before and any that followed it, and in doing that, it created the definition that Americans call as standard for their particular brand of democracy. But if we focus on three specific subjects: the British Imperial policy of the age that lent itself to the American Revolution, the theories of the political societies that participated in the revolution, and lastly, the very character of the republican politics created by it.

To begin, we must look at the early modern English and British Empire. As a whole, it was not a nation held together by force, making it one of the earliest, most efficient, and thoroughly centralized nation-states that was born out of the past three hundred years of western European history. [1] Like the governments that surrounded it, especially after 1560 and after the union with Scotland, it was a state made of composite governments that were characterized by a fragmented government and indirect national sovereignty. This put strain on administrative and fiscal powers, as well as resources from within and travelling in, these countries, and this is the extended transatlantic policy that we now refer to as the British Empire; it was a game not of creating an outside government to be instated in a foreign land, but that an inner government be connected to the empire as a whole. For the British, this was conducted in two phases, with the first involving the creation in America, through the internal local and individual powers in the colonies. The second included the actual creation of supremacy through negotiation between the British empire and its new land, and in this case, the colonies, through representative that hoped to come under the jurisdiction of the crown, which they would be happy to be a part of. During the beginning of this process, the British Empire was at a lack of revenue and therefore had to outsource colonization to private groups, such as the East India Trading company or wealthy individuals known as proprietors, who would create the groundwork for this system. However none of these “contractors” were able to properly gather the funds and resources necessary to implement the British colonial system, and therefore had no other alternative than to involve the cooperation and contributions of the settlers, trader,s and other individual participants in the new colony.

To achieve cooperation for colonization it was less about the activities of organizers or colonial activists, but rather a natural progression of groups and individuals that became powerful or occupying needed resources by possessing land, estates, and businesses that had previously been underdeveloped. Therefore colonization was more or less set up by the economic arrangement of towns, counties, parishes, and other political units that dominated the area by creating their own social spaces, and thereby creating their own status, capital and, power. Over all of early British America, individual community members were active participants in colonization, and were, in a very obvious way retrospectively, engaged in what can only be described as self-government. Back in Europe, only a very small fraction of the eligible male population every managed to improve his socio economic or civic status, whereas, as a result of the availability of land and other materials, much of the adult white male colonists achieved independence for themselves and their families. [2]

What this influx of independence resulted in was a rise of demands for the new money, so to speak, to be granted the same status, security of property, rights, and civic involvement as was the standard in the countries from which the came. From the colonist perspective, their government, like any metropolitan government, should be able to provide men of standing the guarantee that they would be treated as they would in the same circumstances at home, or more simply, that they would be consulted in matters of the establishment and would not be hindered with governance that went against their best interests. In addition to the fact the American colonies were so far removed from Britain, these characteristics encouraged those who were in places of power in the colonies toward roles of governance and representation for the local settlements. With these representatives, the colonies would be more willing to accept the authority of Britain, and therefore British power in the colonies, in the beginning, was little more small, local governments recognizing the overarching control of the larger, English control. [3]

After these local governments had been established however, the agents of the empire found it particularly difficult to shape them under the regulations of the British government. In fact, even after the colonies had almost all but come under British governance, the property holding individuals within these communities expected a large amount of autonomy, which included, that they only be governed by consent, especially when it came to the rights of rule by law, sanctity of private property, individual legal and civil rights, and property in land.

At this point in circumstances, the fact that Britain didn’t have the resources to only centrally govern, which was aided by the fact that the colonists wanted many individual freedoms, and had to defer from their original plan to govern the periphery from a central location; they were forced to distribute governance between the center and the different communities. What followed was an early British Empire that was only loosely associated with their mostly self-governing colonies; what ruled was not distributed from the Empire, but rather a modge-podge of nonuniform negotiations throughout the local entities.

Those who were self-made settlers in these colonies accepted the authority of the British not because it provided them protection against war, or because it was enforced upon them, but because it afforded them a degree of national identity and emphasized their inherent Englishness and all the legal and political legacies that followed that. In this respect, it is clear to contemporaries that English dealt more liberally with America and its other colonies than any other Western European nation. The sense of self-governance that was afforded the colonists was similar to that of the English people, so much that Adam Smith noted: “ the liberty of English colonists” was “complete.” Indeed, he further observed: “The government of the English colonies is perhaps the only one which, since the world began, could give perfect security to the inhabitants of so very distant a province.” [4]

If we agree with Smith and other historical indicators, that the British Empire was largely made of a consensus of individual governments and a loose national identity association, then it can be said that the colonies that emerged in British America were socially and politically unlike its contemporaries in the Western world in every way. [5] While the colonists sought to create a new England—social order, hierarchical institutions of state and church, etc. that existed across the Atlantic—the circumstances of the American socio and economic conditions meant they were largely unable to create such infrastructures. With the availability of land but the lack of labor and the individual settler’s attention toward industry, the societies of the New World were very much removed from their older counterparts. Along with large amounts of land, the new settlers had more family formations, more social and economic mobility, less poverty, less social rigidity, and less influence from both political and religious establishments.

For starters, the class structure in America allowed for the landowners and the workers to have more social interaction with one another, and therefore, the six decades before the revolution were characterized by many opportunities for new property, new connections, and most importantly, were able to demand their share of local authority and governance. As a result of this freedom the settlers never established the social structures to establish an aristocracy, or legally established ranks, and therefore lacked the constant challenge of social hierarchies by those below. Essentially, the colonies, with their unranked societies in some ways, were able to strive for the same status and same opportunity under the law as their neighbor, with no backlash or need to unify; this particularly is the foundation for the revolutionary and early republican America. [6]

Not only did the British Americas exhibit classlessness early on, but the colonies also exhibited a very large sense of republicanism long before 1776. In the Wealth of Nations Adan Smith was clear that America was both republican in “their manners…and their governments.” [7] What with the reach of the economy and politics so widely spread out over the area, government was central, more or less, and broad. Political leaders of the time who arose from smaller, narrower interests, when introduced to the wider community, was required to cater to the ambitions of the public realm, and the wider interests they held. In a sense, the popular politics that were created under the idea of colonization, were enacted by civil offices that employed settlers in a way, by enforcing laws that they created in their individual pursuits of happiness.

In relation to the overarching English government and society, the colonists experienced a fairly inexpensive and hands-off political sphere. Government establishments of civil or bureaucratic interest were small and mostly employed by volunteers, and with little poverty, there was no compensation needed for maintaining the poor. In addition to religious freedom and no standing armies, the public expenditure of the New World was very different from the budget and politics of the Old World. The settlers also benefitted from a degree of political enlightenments and fond, but slight, ties to Britain that ultimately made them wary of foreign dominance and created a preference to keep power in local hands.

In these local governments, the Scottish immigrant and lawyer in Pennsylvania James Wilson concluded that the settler society was not “the scaffolding of government” but rather the opposite was true, that the government was “the scaffolding of society.” The law existed to improve and protect the lives of the citizens, and a measure of a good government was how well it maintained “the peace, happiness and prosperity, the increase, and the affections of the people.” [9]

However, the character of these social constraints were never without a certain tension from another, unsaid social impulse; the need to create in the colonies a cultural space and society that was notably English. Settlers did not think of themselves as “Americans;” they considered themselves to be Bretons, changing and shaping the very nature of the territories that their home country held. In this sense, the colonists established roads, markets, towns, taverns, courthouses, churches, stores, and property lines that mirrored their ancestral homeland, rather than maintain the indigenous landscape that was beginning in European settlements elsewhere, such as in India and Africa. In this endeavor, they established the need for civil rights, individual rights, and property division. For those involved in this transformation, namely merchants, artisans, settlers, and land developers, it was a civilizing project that made them acutely aware of the obvious changes they were engaging in. Felling forests, creating fields, orchards and other harvestable land, and introducing domesticated animals, brought the land to their version of civilization, and out of the apparently rude wilderness that it was in on its own. This process was a part of English settlement since the beginning, in 1607, and not only established a sense of traditional structure that the English were used to, but it instilled in the makers a connection with one another and the land which they had, in their minds, improved, to be productive and efficient to their economic endeavors.

This togetherness created in the critical, physical creation of community joined their ties of culture, tradition, language, and added such new ideas as economic opportunities, their enjoyment of their individual freedoms, as well as their achievements in creating something from a barren wasteland. In the beginning of the colonial era this tied the settlers closer to Britain, their homeland, but later the growing gap between their ideals and those of the crown added to the difference in the economic structures of the Old and New Worlds, and therefore created obstacles that stood in the way of the colonists and the retention of their “Britishness.”

In hindsight and with attention to later political revolution, the American Revolution was distinctive in its qualities due to its particular communities and local governments. [10] Unlike other revolutions, it was not the result of social, religious, or political internal turmoil, and other than a few concessions, most of the colonies experienced economic prosperity in the years leading to the revolution. What made this revolution difference was the fact that it originated in Britain, not in America; as the crown’s leaders began to increasingly enjoy the expansive and economic potential of the colonies, they also began to fear that their original angle to give freedoms to the colonists would somehow lead to the Empire’s loss on investment.

With this fear on their minds, the Empire began to develop a new sense of imperial command that, while not coming to full fruition until the 19th century, completely changed from their loose policy and self-governance to one that was more strongly unified and with a clear, central power. [11] This began to appear in the legislation to the colonies, and the directives were not conducive to the settlers ideas of happiness, calling, for the first time, into question how strong the settlers ties to Britain actually were. It can not be a surprise to anyone reading this that the colonists took the measures made by the crown to heart, believing that the legislation being enforced was an attack on their way of life, their local communities, their self-governance.

In addition to the settler’s general distaste and resentment for the new measures, the Bretons reacted to the colonists failing to fall in line with their wishes to be a result of the settlers being “Other,” certainly not British, and hardly better than the natives that lived in North America with them. This, in turn, influenced the decision for independence in 1776, making the American Revolution a settler revolt, and a direct response to imperial pressures that challenged the settler’s freedom to self-govern and to deny the settler’s a British identity.

Once the decision to reject the monarchy and the British ties were decided, as well as the adoption of a more republican form of government, the revolt leaders were not in charge of a violent transformation; no radical political or social undertaking was a part of their revolution due to the specific governments they had built between 1607 and 1776. [12] One commentator said: “when the people of the United Colonies separated from Great Britain, they changed the form, but not the substance of their government.” [13] Everywhere within the colonies, the political authority saw no change; the predominant groups among the population maintained their authority, which had a problem of it’s own. Unlike the French Revolution, the American Revolution was an uprising of different factions—as a national identity would not begin until the late 1760s and 1770s—and for another century the government in America would, largely, be most powerful in the individual states. Settler leaders continued to prefer a small, and inexpensive government that didn’t have things like a peacetime military, and above all, was concerned with due justice, civil order, and the protection of private property.

The American revolution also didn’t try to create and large social construction of any kind—the point of the American revolution was to pursue individual rights in the face of a government trying to take away those freedoms. It had no need to change the status quo. Therefore the social atmosphere of America continued to be open, and generally more liberal, than their Western counterparts, and good social status was fundamentally more egalitarian and wealth driven than anything related to familial ties. Private property remained in the hands of their owners (with the exception of those who opposed the revolution) and with slavery at its peak, the economic viability of the nation was more or less secure. Chief Justice John Marshal later noted: “all contracts and rights, respecting property, remained unchanged by the Revolution.” [15]

While many scholars are intent on comparing the American Revolution to the other revolutions in Europe at the time, it is disingenuine is it is emphasizing it’s revolutionary character and radical discontinuity with the (short) past of the American colonies, as the early government of America was merely the continuation of their self-governance before they cut ties with England. What is a better indication of the extreme advances America has made as a world power on the international stage in the years following their independence, when their was infinitely more at stake in the transformation of the country.

  1. This subject is explored more fully in Jack P. Greene, Negotiated Authorities: Essays in Colonial Political and Constitutional History(Charlottesville, Va., 1994).
  2. For a fuller consideration of these matters, see Jack P. Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993), 63–129.
  3. Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607–1788 (Athens, Ga., 1986), deals at greater length with the issues treated in this and succeeding paragraphs.
  4. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), in R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, eds., The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1976–83), 2: 572, 583–84, 586.
  5. This subject is discussed at length in Greene, Intellectual Construction, 63–129.
  6. Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988), provides a general account of colonial British-American social development.
  7. Smith, Wealth of Nations, 585.
  8. James Wilson, Lectures on Law, in Robert Green McCloskey, ed., The Works of James Wilson, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), 1: 86, 88, 233.
  9. Samuel Williams, Natural and Civil History of Vermont, 2 vols. (Walpole, N.H., 1794), 2: 415.
  10. The interpretation advanced here is developed more fully in Jack P. Greene, “Empire and Identity from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution,” in Wm. Roger Louis, ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1998–99), 2: 208–30.
  11. See Elizabeth Mancke, “Another British America: A Canadian Model for the Early Modern British Empire,” Journal of Commonwealth and British History 25 (1997): 1–36.
  12. For a contrary view, see Gordon S. Wood,The Radicalism of the American Revolution(New York, 1992).
  13. Chief Justice Morrison Waite, quoted by E. L. Jones, “The European Background,” in Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Galman, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the United States, Vol. 1: The Colonial Era(Cambridge, 1996), 109.
  14. Jackson Turner Main, “Government by the People: The American Revolution and the Democratization of the Legislatures,”William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 23 (1966): 391–407.
  15. John Marshall, as quoted by Jones, “European Background,” 109.

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