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 Formal representational structures generally superseded meetings of the body of the people by liberty trees and liberty polls, county conventions of committees of correspondence, and local committees of safety,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.
Paul Dover and Hamish Scott
This chapter charts the emergence of diplomacy in its modern sense—the peaceful and continuous management of relations between states—during the early modern centuries. It was brought about by two central changes: one functional, the other geographical. The principal roles of an ambassador were providing information, representing his ruler, and conducting negotiations, and these were all established by the sixteenth century. Initially the first two were more important than the third, but by the second half of the period examined the conduct of negotiations had become the most important dimension of a diplomat’s role. The second transformation was an extension of the network of diplomacy, from its origins in the Italian peninsula to Western Europe and—by the eighteenth century—to Eastern Europe as well. These changes were not linear in nature, but collectively they created the diplomatic system and culture which prevailed until the First World War.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
This chapter examines the relationship between the political protests that led to the American Revolution and the commercial expansion which stimulated the production and marketing of goods. It begins with a brief survey of the history and historiography of the period 1763–1774, focusing on the relationship between events and transformations. In particular, the chapter discusses the Stamp Act of 1765 and the rise of tea drinking in North America. The 1763 Treaty of Paris ended a long war between Britain and France over control of North America. Although the British won the war, they had to deal with a huge wartime debt. The government looked to North America for a solution, triggering a decade-long conflict over taxes. The chapter also considers the Tea Act of 1773, the Boston Tea Party, and the political power of goods. Finally, it looks at the importation, marketing, and production of goods in colonial British America.
This article discusses the political aspects of witch-hunting. It suggests that the political system of the state, its changing distribution of power, and its inherent tensions must be regarded as some of the many factors which influenced witch-hunting. However, witch hunts also helped shape administrative structures and they provoked political tensions. Indeed, the witch trials helped to shape the map of Europe. The two most aggressive types of witch-hunting agency – the grassroots witch-hunters’ groups and the special witch-finding institutions of the princes – were eventually doomed to failure because they ran contrary to the general trend of state formation.
The American Revolution took place during the latter part of a century of development in thinking about rights. Between the English Revolution of 1688–1689 and the French Revolution of 1789, ideas about rights expanded around the Atlantic world, and discussions of rights in America widened to include larger segments of the colonial and early national population. The central political philosophy of the American Revolution was thus based on rights. Revolutionaries recognized two basic kinds of rights: natural and civil. According to the most widely accepted political theory of the day, God gave human beings natural rights, some of which they used to create civil governments. In turn, governments could presumably confer civil rights on their subjects or citizens. For American revolutionaries, both natural and civil rights should be committed to writing.
Michael A. McDonnell
In a book first printed in 1775, a young Englishman named Andrew Burnaby argued that the British colonies were too divided to act independently of Britain. His views were confirmed by historians of colonial America; the economies, politics, and societies of the colonies were shaped by differing origins, separate histories, diverse climates and topographies. This internal division was exemplified by the stark separation between social elites and their various dependents—women, children, tenants, servants, slaves, wage laborers, and others. The search for Revolutionary consensus has often obscured persistent, perhaps even heightened, division on the eve of the American Revolution. This chapter examines colonial politics on the eve of American independence. It discusses the end of the British colonial government during the period 1774–1775, the onset of conflict in 1775–1776, and the emergence of a new American nation divided against itself.
When delegates met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 1787, they all agreed that democracy was ruining America, and believed that the nation needed a new federal government with the power to override the states and form “a stronger barrier against democracy.” For two centuries, those arguments have formed the dominant interpretation of the Confederation period. Historians argued that democracy in the states had produced the era's problems and viewed the Constitution as the only real solution. This chapter examines just what America's founders perceived democracy to be. It shows that many of the period's problems had little to do with the democratic form of government, claiming instead that the real culprit was fighting a long and expensive war with few financial resources. Unlike Britain or any of the other great powers, the United States had little hard currency reserves because the British had designed trade and taxation to insure the flow of specie into the empire and away from the colonies.