Gary B. Nash
The American Revolution played an important role in African Americans' quest for freedom. It marked the first mass rebellion by slaves in American history, gave rise to the first civil rights movement, and resulted in the first large-scale constructions of free black life. African slaves in North America knew that their natural rights were violated by their enslavement, although a confluence of events heightened their restiveness and provided them with the ideology-laden phrases that they could deploy in their struggle to secure their liberty whenever and wherever possible. The Revolution offered slaves a chance to realize this dream. African American revolutionaries saw the war as a way to quench their thirst for freedom, to end corrupt power, and to die for their natural rights.
Through their successfully waged war and also by their novel political strategies, eighteenth-century North Americans seeking home rule made history. By systematically organizing around a refusal of British goods and developing a new national taste, they politicized the everyday. Twenty years later, this politicization was reprised in the French Revolution. Whereas the new American aesthetic was defined by sobriety and domestic production, the forms generated in the French Revolutionary decade combined the symbols of Republicanism with styles connoting non-aristocratic values. The likeness and difference of the role of culture, domesticity, and gender in the American and French revolutions are represented in their iconic forms—homespun for the United States and the dress of the sans-culottes for France. Both revolutions were characterized by a consistent investment in material culture and everyday life, and gave rise to new political cultures. This reformulation is best conceptualized using the term “cultural revolution.”
When the American Revolution was over, citizens of the new nation could not agree about the event's true meaning and the best way to preserve its authentic legacy. After the new federal government was established in the 1790s, these tensions invaded the national political arena and contributed to the formation of the first political parties that became known as Democratic-Republicans and Federalists. Those who supported George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Federalist Party saw the war simply as a battle for home rule. On the other hand, those who gravitated toward Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans interpreted the Revolution as a conflict not only about home rule but also about who should rule at home. For these American women and men, the principles of equality and natural rights were the Revolution's most important legacies. This chapter discusses the national politics of the new nation following the American Revolution, and examines the origins of the first political parties, the French Revolution and mass politicization, and inclusions and exclusions in the first political parties.
P. J. Marshall
Britain valued its American colonies primarily because of their contribution to the nation's security, power, and influence in Europe. A recurring British fear was that France, Britain's inevitable enemy during the period, might invade the British Isles. Many argued that Britain must be actively engaged in Europe, and that it was a fundamental British interest to prevent the French from dominating the continent. There is a general consensus on the main trends in British foreign relations during the American Revolution. During the Seven Years' War, Britain was able to effectively distribute resources between European and global theaters of war. Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, however, it became increasingly isolated in Europe, and thus had no European ally when it tried to crush the American rebellion. The specter of a global war led the British governing elite to confront what they perceived to be their problem with the United States: owing to the weak governance of Britain's dependencies, the colonies were not capable of defending themselves or of making an adequate contribution to British efforts to defend them.
Stephen R. Conway
During the American Revolution, Britain relied primarily on its army to subdue the rebellious colonies. At its peak, the British army in North America had approximately 50,000 officers and men, constituting the largest expeditionary force sent overseas by any British governments. After nearly seven years of fighting, however, the British Parliament realized that military operations in the colonies would not crush the rebellion. The American Revolution has been linked to various myths, three of which relate to the British army and its role in the War of Independence. One myth is that the weaknesses of character and approach of the British army account for its loss in the war that it should have won. This chapter challenges the myths of the War of Independence and offers a different explanation for the failure of the British army to quash the American revolt.
During the American Revolution, tens of thousands of men served in the Continental army to fight Britain and became skilled professionals in the process. These soldiers formed deep bonds with each other, not only by fighting the enemy but also by living together, caring for each other when sick, burying their friends and enemies, tolerating their weak officers, celebrating their talented ones, foraging for food, and otherwise coping with all the hardships of army life. Created by the Continental Congress in June 1775, the Continental army fought the British until the war's end in 1783. Poor men made up the core of Continental servicemen. Officers and soldiers received very different pay. By the end of 1776, the Continental army was also dissolved. Both formal and informal punishment was consistent throughout the army. Militiamen did not receive corporal punishment, as sentenced by courts-martial or done informally by angry officers.
Direct democracy was practiced within town meetings in colonial New England, driven by four overarching principles. First, citizens had a political voice as members of a specific geographic community, rather than as individuals. Second, “the mind of the town,” as it was called at the time, could be readily determined through public discourse in meetings of the enfranchised citizenry. Third, this collective will could be relayed to higher governing bodies by issuing specific and binding instructions to elected representatives. Finally, citizens who opposed the mind of the town could be forced to abide by it through community pressure. While the American Revolution elicited its own examples of popular, democratic politics outside of official chambers, the overall trend was in the opposite direction. Formal representational structures generally superseded meetings of the body of the people by liberty trees and liberty polls, county conventions of committees of correspondence, and local committees of safety, inspection, and observation.
Clare A. Lyons
The American Revolution took place at a time of a revolutionary loosening of the patriarchal control and marital organization of sexuality that had characterized much of colonial society, as well as a counterrevolution against it. The Revolution and the birth of a new nation coincided with a longer period of changes in intimate behavior initiated by men and women on both sides of the Atlantic. Throughout much of western Europe, sexual behavior escalated outside of marriage, and new meanings associated with sexual practices flourished. In the new United States, sexual expression presented challenges to traditional social hierarchy. Like monarchy, patriarchy came under attack in the second half of the eighteenth century as a manifestation of illegitimate and absolute power. The second sexual revolution, launched to counter the democratic initiatives of the subalterns of early American society, was marked by attempts to define legitimate sexuality and the sexual self.
Eliga H. Gould
William Augustus Bowles was a loyalist soldier during the American Revolution who also acted as an agent for the British governor of the Bahamas. Had events gone his way, he could have become the Anglo-Creek leader of a British protectorate on North America's Gulf Coast, but instead, was considered a pirate and died in a Havana jail in 1805 while awaiting trial. Bowles's saga shows that the British Empire was not only a formal but also an informal empire. None had a greater stake in understanding how Britain's informal empire worked than the citizens of the thirteen states that gained independence from the British in 1783. It would be more accurate to see the American Revolution as the moment when Americans began to make the history that other nations and people were prepared to let them make. In this entangled history, Britain played the most significant role. Three pillars of its informal empire were commerce, diplomacy, and international law.
The American Revolution has spawned a number of creation myths, one of which relates to the wave of religious revivals that swept the colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. This chapter offers a different creation story: the pitched battle on May 26, 1771 that pitted angry farmers against the colonial militia in Hillsborough, North Carolina. The Great Awakening sparked the politicization of evangelicals in America. A process that the historian Nathan Hatch calls “the democratization of American Christianity” spanned five decades, bookended by the First and Second Great Awakenings with the American Revolution as the fulcrum point. The chapter discusses the evangelical ascendency in all its dimensions, focusing on five discrete “typologies” of evangelical Protestantism: the Insurgent, the Consumer, the Patriarch, the Martyr, and the Patriot. Each of these typologies tells us something important about both the history and the historiography of the evangelical contribution to the political crisis of the 1770s. The chapter concludes by looking at evangelical patriots and reexamining the relationship between revived religion and the American Revolution.
The success of the Federalists in the late 1780s had a profound influence on how Americans viewed the relationship between military spending, taxation, and the monetary system. For almost 100 years, the colonists funded military campaigns by means of paper money rather than direct taxes, an approach that helped finance several imperial wars and the American Revolution. By the late 1780s, however, many Federalists realized that paper money alone could not solve America's financial woes, much less pay for its defense. Although the entire era of the American Revolution was characterized by struggles over taxes and money, little attention has been paid to the financial history of the period. This chapter examines domestic fiscal and monetary policy during the American Revolution, starting with the colonists' use of paper money in the late seventeenth century in lieu of taxes. To understand the evolution of monetary and fiscal policy in this period, it considers the genuine radicalism—and ultimately, conservatism—of the American Revolution.
Harry T. Dickinson
The length, extent, and scale of the American Revolution had a profound impact on political developments across the British Isles. Britain was forced to send the largest army ever to cross the Atlantic to suppress a rebellion 3,000 miles away. In addition, early in 1778, France entered the war in support of America, followed by Spain in 1779 and the Dutch Republic in 1780. Britain therefore found itself fighting a world war with no ally, relying only on hired German mercenaries. The Royal Navy could no longer retain command of the seas of the world, and British interests worldwide were endangered. Britain even was facing the threat of a major Franco-Spanish invasion in June 1779. To meet the threat presented by the rebellion, it greatly expanded its land and sea forces, increased taxes and secured large loans, and fought a long, bloody, and expensive war. This chapter assesses the impact of the American Revolution on British politics, focusing on how it affected Lord North's ministry, the opposition in Parliament, and demands for reform in both Britain and Ireland.
Craig B. Yirush
The crisis experienced by the British Empire during the 1760s and 1770s has been linked to the decentralized nature of the empire built by the English on the far shores of the Atlantic world in the seventeenth century. The Crown, unwilling to pay the full costs of colonization, granted charters to corporations and proprietors. After delegating so much authority to the colonists, it was unable to unilaterally dictate how the empire was to be governed. For the most part, it was the colonial elites who were able to negotiate their relationship with the imperial center. This de facto decentralization did not sit well with royal officials, who wanted a more politically centralized empire and thought that colonies existed mainly for the mother country's economic benefit. To implement this contrasting vision, Parliament passed a series of Navigation Acts designed to confine colonial trade to English possessions and English-flagged vessels. In America, the debate over the Stamp Act of 1765 gave rise to a radically different view of the relationship between the mother country and its colonies.
Benjamin H. Irvin
Historians of the American Revolution have long argued that American colonists were late and reluctant to sever ties with Britain. They characterized American independence as a natural and unavoidable consequence of the original settlers' unique sense of godly duty and a logical result of republican institutions long in the making, a vision of America's founding that passed largely unchallenged by the nation's nineteenth-century historians. During the twentieth century, this narrative of predestination was challenged by academic historians, who questioned its nationalistic and teleological qualities, and who instead viewed independence as one possible consequence of events that unfolded in the 1760s and 1770s. This chapter discusses American independence before and during the Revolution, the process of dismantling long-established colonial governments throughout the thirteen colonies, the drafting of new constitutions, the forging of confederation, and the establishment of foreign relations during the period of American independence.
Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky
Graham Russell Gao Hodges
The American Revolution enabled ordinary people to enjoy political freedom. The story of how the common people of the early American cities made and inherited the war has been intertwined with the meaning of American independence from Britain. After winning that freedom, all working people seemed to have a greater opportunity, whether through politics, an independent economy, or personal liberty. Historians have studied the roles of artisans or mechanics (as they were then known) in order to understand the common people of urban, Revolutionary America. Artisans asserted greater political freedom as a Revolutionary heritage and eventually joined forces with southern agrarians to form a Republican Party that competed with the dominant Federalists. By 1800, they played a key role in the election of President Thomas Jefferson. Aside from politics, two other factors that changed traditional craft relationships among artisans were the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of capitalist labor relations. This chapter explores how American workers between the American Revolution and the War of 1812 confronted shared challenges and different obstacles shaped by gender, race, and region.
Loyalism was a dominant theme of the American Revolution. Most loyalists were ordinary Americans who wished to remain connected to the British Empire. Over the past 200 years, the numbers of loyalists have been estimated from roughly 20 percent of the population of the colonies up to 33 percent. The exact number of loyalists could not be determined either because many loyalists hid their political allegiances, or their allegiances were too shifting and mutable to count. What is clear is that many loyalists chose to remain in the newly independent United States and weather the conflict. A nationalist narrative of the American Revolution has successfully alienated and excluded loyalists, but it was later displaced by a global narrative of empire and circumatlantic cultural and economic flows. This new circumatlantic perspective led to the dissociation of the geographic space of British North America with a particular identity. In terms of political ideals, loyalists seem to be no different to patriots, with both camps claiming the inheritance of the rights of Englishmen and British political thought.
Max M. Edling
James Madison, the chief architect of the United States Constitution, drafted an introduction to notes from the proceedings of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Unlike modern interpreters, which tend to view the U.S. Constitution as the blueprint of a liberal democratic society that protects the rights of individuals and minorities from the actions of overbearing majorities, Madison saw the Constitution as a plan of union between independent state-republics. It represented an attempt to reform the already existing union between the states that had been put in place by the chapters of Confederation. Until recently, few historians regarded international politics and problems of federalism as the main impetus for constitutional reform. Instead, it was usually argued that the Constitution was primarily an attempt to counteract the alarming revolutionary democratization of state politics. In recent years, historians have begun to focus on foreign affairs and federalism—the very issues emphasized by Madison.
Jane T. Merritt
The relationship between native peoples and the emerging United States during the era of the American Revolution was a complicated one. From the onset of Lord Dunmore's War in 1774 to the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Indians in North America faced a dilemma on whether they would fight, for whom they would fight, and why they would fight. Most Native Americans initially thought that the Revolution was an isolated disagreement between white colonists and their mother country. However, the Revolutionary War evolved into a continent-wide struggle that the Indians could not avoid. Individual Indians joined both the Continental and British armies as regular soldiers or as scouts, guides, mariners, and diplomats. Indian involvement in the American Revolution has often been interpreted as the story of a people who picked the wrong side, lost, and were destined to move west and disappear. However, history shows that Native Americans not only participated in the American Revolution, but also survived the long-term changes it produced.
In May 1774, Alexander Hamilton set off from his home in Annapolis and embarked on a journey from Delaware to modern-day Maine. His travels took him to eight very different colonies, and he recorded his impressions of the diverse customs and habits of the people he met in a journal that he called Itinerarium, which offers a glimpse into manners in colonial America and provides an intimate ethnography of social relations during the period. Historians who view the American Revolution as the indispensable determinant of American democracy have failed to see what Hamilton saw. Hamilton found out that men who laid claim to worldly estate were considered genteel, whereas men without wealth were not seen as gentlemen. Historians have argued that the Revolution was a watershed in social as well as in political relations, but Hamilton's Itinerarium shows that democratic manners were prevalent long before the imperial crisis.