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Causes of the American Revolution

For the past several decades, historians have deployed new approaches to the study of the American Revolution that have fundamentally reshaped the scholarly explanation for the coming of the American war for independence. Nonetheless, most elementary and middle school American history textbooks continue to portray the pre-revolutionary era as a series of discrete political and military events that culminated, more or less inevitably, in the separation of the North American colonies from Great Britain. Little attention is given to the underlying social conditions or intellectual causes that allowed certain colonists to envision the possibility of independence. Scant emphasis is placed on the diversity of social backgrounds or economic interests that divided white colonists from one another and impeded unity. More recent accounts at least mention the participation of women and enslaved people in revolutionary activities, but few works focus in any sustained fashion on the significance of their participation or on the relationship between inclusion and exclusion in the newly emerging nation.

Although textbooks continue to refer to it as "the American Revolution," historians now believe there was not one Revolution but many.

It is, of course, understandable why textbooks, in an effort to achieve accessibility, would reduce the coming of the American Revolution to a litany of well-known historical events, such as the Proclamation of 1763, the Stamp Act, Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, the First and Second Continental Congresses, and the Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, there are immense costs to this approach. By ignoring the insights of new scholarship, these works fail to convey a sense of the long-term causes of the Revolution, the movement's tremendous complexity, and its limitations as well as its achievements. Just as important, the textbooks miss an opportunity to generate intellectual excitement in students by highlighting the ways in which the Revolution was a radical experiment in liberty whose success was never guaranteed.

A Diversity of Experiences

Although textbooks continue to refer to it as "the American Revolution," historians now believe there was not one Revolution but many. The colonists were not a monolithic group. Although most inhabitants in the colonies that rebelled against Britain were white and Protestant, and a majority were of English descent, nearly 20% of the population consisted of enslaved African Americans. Race, religion, gender, social class, and geographic region played key roles in influencing an individual's choice about whether or not to support the American cause. For example, because of their experience in governing their local communities as well as their religious beliefs as heirs of the Puritans, white New Englanders came to the Revolution out of a deep commitment to protecting their local autonomy and preserving their individual rights and liberties. In the middle colonies, where religious diversity flourished, colonists resented British attempts to curb their religious freedom and infringe on the independence of their colonial legislatures. In the southern colonies, whites of all social classes were quick to embrace the notion of liberty partly because they defined the concept in racial terms. All whites could be free because enslaved African American laborers were not. Even within these regions, people embraced the Revolution with differing degrees of enthusiasm.

Different social groups saw different meanings in the revolutionary movement. While Philadelphia merchants believed independence would increase their wealth and shore up their social position, Philadelphia artisans believed that the revolutionary promises of equality and natural rights would open up new opportunities for social advancement and political power. Native Americans hoped that by siding with the British they might forestall the advance of land-hungry Americans into their lands. Enslaved people believed that the Revolution offered them the possibility of freedom from bondage, either immediately, or over time through the passage of gradual manumission laws (see Primary Source Petition by African American Slaves to the Massachusetts Council and House of Representatives [1777]). Certain women, too, concluded that the ideals of the American Revolution enabled them to claim greater social authority and intellectual equality with men (see Primary Source "A Society of Patriotic Ladies" [1775]).

Sources of Unity

If textbooks tend to understate the degree of diversity within the colonies and ignore the wide variety of participants' motives in supporting the American Revolution, they also fail to accentuate the underlying sources of unity that enabled the colonies to overcome their differences and join together in rebelling against Britain. Most textbooks still cite John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers as the primary intellectual source of the American revolutionary tradition. However, more recent studies point to a complex amalgam of ideas that emerged from a wide variety of sources, including ancient thinkers such as Aristotle and Polybius; Renaissance leaders such as Machiavelli; and English opposition authors, called Commonwealthmen or Real Whigs, who wrote in the 17th and early 18th centuries (see Primary Source "Discourses Concerning Government" [1698]). These ideas blended with Lockean notions to produce a comprehensive ideology that inspired revolutionary fervor, spurring individuals to take action against a British regime that they believed was consciously conspiring to oppress them.

Most textbooks still cite John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers as the primary intellectual source of the American revolutionary tradition.

Other sources of unity emerged from a growing sense of British identity that developed among white colonists. Contrary to what one might expect, from the 17th into the 18th centuries colonial social practices, political ideas, and cultural norms grew more similar to, rather than different from, those of the mother country. Symbols of royal authority and celebrations in honor of the Crown became ubiquitous. White colonists from the middling and upper classes strove to imitate British styles of dress, codes of conduct, and social customs, including drinking tea. Vernacular architecture and colonial legal systems came to resemble those in England more closely than they had previously. Denominational differences, such as the division between Anglicans and Presbyterians, came to matter less than a common Protestant heritage. In addition, as colonists grew increasingly prosperous, they began to purchase substantial amounts of consumer goods from Britain, providing the material basis for a shared culture. In the decade before independence, boycotts politicized these goods and provided the basis for shared resistance against Britain (see Primary Source Teapot with Slogan, "Stamp Act Repeal'd" [1766]). Ironically, in becoming more British the colonists established the common ground that enabled them to eventually become Americans.

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

Perhaps most important, in rejecting taxation without representation, colonists were asserting their rights as Englishmen. In establishing their own nation, however, they rejected the traditional form of government, monarchy, and developed a wholly new form of republican government that was best suited to their situation. Although textbooks are generally accurate in describing this transition, they fail to convey was what was new, different, and radical about what the American revolutionaries were doing.

Even before the U.S. Constitution was written, each state, through the writing of a state constitution, established a republican government (see Primary Source Fairfax Resolves [1774]). Yet the widespread ownership of land fundamentally changed the nature of representative government. Whereas in Britain only about one-fifth of the adult male population could vote for members of the House of Commons, one-half to three-quarters of all adult white males could vote for members of their individual colonial assemblies. Once colonists became convinced that Britain was endeavoring to strip them of their liberties and reduce them to a state of slavery, they seized the reins of government for themselves. The people became the government. Instead of relying on a monarch, the government rested on the consent of the governed, first in the states, and then after 1789 with the passage of the U.S. Constitution, in the nation as a whole. To paraphrase Thomas Paine, whereas in England the King was the law, in America the law was king. This radical shift in the basis of power created the foundations for all subsequent developments in American history and forged the basis for a more just society. Although some Americans today may not want to pay higher taxes, they, unlike their colonial forbears, are represented in the legislatures that pass those levies. Unlike their forebears, if they do not like what the legislature has done, they can express their opposition at the ballot box rather than by taking up arms.

 
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