What Was The American Revolution? Historians have evaluated the American Revolution through many lenses ever since its conclusion.
Their interpretations have spanned from the Whig interpretation of George Bancroft. Who argued that the revolution was inevitable, to Charles McLean Andrews’ Imperial interpretation, claiming that there was no moral difference between the British and the colonists, and that the movement for independence could only be considered a struggle within an empire.
In order to analyze the American Revolution, one must first consider Britain’s relationship with their American settlements prior to the colonial fight for independence.
The Seven Years War left the British in debt, and Britain turned to the colonies to recuperate funds. The Seven Years War further enriched wealthy colonists and left poorer colonists unemployed.
This increased income inequality and resulted in increased class tensions within the thirteen colonies.
The colonial elite redirected the lower class’ outrage towards the British crown, fueling the movement for independence.
Civil unrest spread through the colonies after the British imposed taxes following the Seven Years’ War, leading to an increased wealth disparity.
After Britain instituted the Stamp Act in March of 1765, riots broke out in Boston, and mobs burned an effigy of the Massachusetts stamp distributor, leading to his resignation. By the end of the year, all of the original stamp distributors had stepped down from their positions.
By 1766, groups such as the Sons of Liberty, formed in many colonies and organized resistance to British colonial policies.
In November of 1773, after Britain passed the Tea Act, businessmen formed the members of the Boston Sons of Liberty, such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Who organized the Boston Tea Party, and propagated resistance to the British.
Political leaders aimed to mobilize the population against England. Colonial leaders saw the unique opportunity presented by British policies. And were able to convert common colonial disdain for the British.
American intellectuals used Enlightenment ideas to unite the upper and lower classes of colonial America in their desire for independence. Yet lacked radical economic objectives.
In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine appealed to the grievances of the lower class to form a bond between the upper and lower classes against England. For example, Paine spoke out against the property qualifications necessary to vote in order to appeal to lower classes.
Furthermore, Paine made “Common Sense” accessible both linguistically and physically. Copies were distributed and available to everyone, allowing poorer colonists to participate in intellectual debates, which was rare. Paine also used emphatic rhetoric, simple language, and understandable biblical references to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers. For example, Paine stated “‘Tis time to part.”
Pushing further his argument that the only way to move forward for the colonies was to be independent from Britain.
The Declaration of Independence continued the goal of separation from Britain. Moreover, it appealed to the masses similarly to “Common Sense.” However, the Declaration of Independence lacked radical ideals. John Locke stated in Two Treatises of Government that three of the fundamental rights are life, liberty, and property. The Declaration drew from Locke’s ideas but changed the fundamental right of property to “The pursuit of happiness.”
The Declaration sought to get popular support for separation from Britain without the wealthy writers having to relinquish a significant part of their land and wealth. Despite patriotic sentiment and separationist ideas, the American Revolution was conservative because it lacked radical economic objectives within the colonies.
Of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, sixty nine percent held office within the colonial regimes. And twenty-nine percent held office in executive branches. Forty percent of signers had obtained higher education at a time when it was rare, and twenty-one percent of them came from generational wealth or prominent families.
Gordon S. Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution argues that the American Revolution was radical because the ideas of liberty and freedom set the groundwork for more radical movements, such as abolitionism and women’s rights.
Furthermore, the American Revolution lacked the extreme enforcement and execution of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror that was present in the French Revolution. Degler argues this. Stating that separationist intellectuals in the colonies could not be compared to the likes of Robespierre, Danton, Lenin, and Trotsky in terms of the radicalness of their ideas and their political reach.
All of these considerations suggest that describing the American Revolution as the “American War for Independence” is arguably more precise.
Although the colonies were no longer under imperial control. The political leaders of the new nation remained similar as well as of the same economic class and race.
Describing the American War for Independence as a “revolution” implies that there was a fundamental change in political organization and power. Which there was not.
A change in administration occurred, but not a radical transformation in political structures. The American change in administration and ideologies but lack of a radical transformation of economic and political structures suggests that the American War for Independence was not radical in its nature nor its effects.