Was the American Revolution Primarily a Struggle for Power? Was the American Revolution a true revolution? The answer may depend on how the term revolution is defined. Strict constructionists, for example, perceive revolution as producing significant and deep societal change, while loose constructionists define the term as "any resort to violence within a political order to change its constitution, rulers, or policies." Historians agree that American Revolutionaries fulfilled the second definition because they successfully fought a war that resulted in the overthrow of their British rulers and established a government run by themselves. Historians disagree, however, on the extent of social and economic change that took place in America.
Early historians did not concern themselves with the social and economic aspects of the American Revolution. Instead, they argued over its causes and refought the political arguments advanced by the rebelling colonists and the British government. George Bancroft was the first historian to advance the Whig, or pro-American, interpretation of the war. America won, he said, because God was on our side. Much of Bancroft's 10 volume History of the United States (1834-1874) was written during the period of Jacksonian democracy, when the belief that it was the Manifest Destiny of the United States to spread the ideas of freedom, progress, and democracy across the North American continent was highest.
Bancroft's view remained unchallenged until the beginning of the twentieth century, when a group of imperialist historians analyzed the Revolution from the perspective of the British Empire. These historians tended to be sympathetic to the economic and political difficulties that Great Britain faced in running an empire in the late eighteenth century.
Both the Whig and the imperialist historians assumed that the Revolution was an external event whose primary cause was the political differences between the colonists and their British rulers. In 1909, however, historian Carl Becker paved the way for a different interpretation of the Revolution when he concluded in his study of colonial New York that an internal revolution had taken place. The American Revolution, said Becker, created a struggle not only for home rule but also one for who should rule at home. This progressive, or conflict, interpretation dominated most of the writings on the American Revolution from 1910 through 1945. During this time progressive historians searched for the social and economic conflicts among groups struggling for political power.
During the cold war years of the 1950s and 1960s, American historians rejected what they considered to be an oversimplified conflict interpretation of the Revolution by the previous generation of progressive historians. These neoconservative historians distinguished the moderate American Revolution from the more extreme revolutions that had taken place in Russia in 1917 and in China and the other Third World nations after World War II. Carl N. Degler argued that upper middle-class colonists led a pragmatic conservative revolution against Great Britain, which left untouched the prewar economic and social class structure of an upwardly mobile group of colonists. Robert E. Brown, in his studies on colonial Massachusetts and Virginia, argued that America had become a middle-class democracy even before the American Revolution had taken place.
Not all colonial historians accept the neoconservative interpretation. By the 1970s a group loosely termed neo-left who had been influenced by the tumultuous events of the 1960s began to write about the impact of the Revolution on the tenant farmers, the urban poor, the slaves, women, and the Indians. These historians, led by Gary B. Nash and Alfred F. Young, rejected the male-dominated and Eurocentric framework of previous historians. They view the development of the American colonies from a tri-racial perspective that included not only Europeans but also Indians and Africans of both sexes.
The following selections look at the roles played by ideology and power in bringing about the American Revolution. Were these two forces opposite, or did they complement one another in bringing about a revolution? In the first selection, Theodore Draper plays down the importance of ideas and argues that the American Revolution was primarily a struggle for power between Great Britain and its American colonists. In the second selection, Bernard Bailyn maintains that the American Revolution was an ideological struggle against Great Britain, who in the 1760s had conspired to take away the colonists' political rights and liberties as members of the British Empire.
THE IDEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
From Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Belknap Press, 1967). Copyright Oc 1967 by the president and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted by permission. Notes omitted.
The American Revolution was above all else an ideological, constitutional, political struggle and not primarily a controversy between social groups undertaken to force changes in the organization of the society or the economy....... Intellectual developments in the decade before Independence led to a radical idealization and conceptualization of the previous century and a half of American experience, and ... it was this intimate relationship between Revolutionary thought and the circumstances of life in eighteenth-century America that endowed the Revolution with its peculiar force and made it so profoundly a transforming event.... Most commonly the thought of the Revolution has been seen simply as an expression of the natural rights philosophy: the ideas of the social contract, inalienable rights, natural law, and the contractual basis of government. But some have denounced this interpretation as "obtuse secularism," and, reading the sermons of the time with acute sensitivity, argue that it was only a respect for world opinion that led the Founders to put their case "in the restricted language of the rational century," and that the success of the Revolutionary movement is comprehensible only in terms of the continuing belief in original sin and the need for grace. Yet others have described the sermons of the time as a form of deliberate propaganda by which revolutionary ideas were fobbed off on an unsuspecting populace by a "black regiment" of clergy committed, for reasons unexplained, to the idea of rebellion. And still others deny the influence of both Enlightenment theory and theology, and view the Revolution as no revolution at all, but rather as a conservative movement wrought by practitioners of the common law and devoted to preserving it, and the ancient liberties embedded in it, intact.
The pamphlets (of the American Revolution) do reveal the influence of Enlightenment thought, and they do show the effective force of certain religious ideas, of the common law, and also of classical literature; but they reveal most significantly the close integration of these elements in a pattern of, to me at least, surprising design, surprising because of the prominence in it of still another tradition, interwoven with, yet still distinct from, these more familiar strands of thought. This distinctive influence had been transmitted most directly to the colonists by a group of early eighteenth-century radical publicists and opposition politicians in E.g. land who carried forward into the eighteenth century and applied to the politics of the age of Walpole the peculiar strain of anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War....
Phrases that I, like most historians had readily dismissed as mere rhetoric and propaganda: "slavery," "corruption, conspiracy," ... were used so forcefully by writers of so great a variety of social statuses, political positions, and religious persuasions, they fitted so logically into the pattern of radical and opposition thought; and they reflected so clearly the realities of life in an age in which monarchical autocracy flourished, in which the stability and freedom of England's "mixed" constitution was a recent and remarkable achievement, and in which the fear of conspiracy against constituted authority was built into the very structure of politics, that I began to suspect that they meant something very real to both the writers and their readers: that there were real fears, real anxieties, a sense of real danger behind these phrases, and not merely the desire to influence by rhetoric and propaganda the inert minds of an otherwise passive populace. The more I read, the less useful, it seemed to me, was the whole idea of propaganda in its modern meaning when applied to the writings of the American Revolution..... In the end I was convinced that the fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world, a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part, lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement....
The colonists believed they saw emerging from the welter of events during the decade after the Stamp Act a pattern whose meaning was unmistakable. They saw in the measures taken by the British government and in the actions of officials in the colonies something for which their peculiar inheritance of thought had prepared them only too well, something they had long conceived to be a possibility in view of the known tendencies of history and of the present state of affairs in England. They saw about them, with increasing clarity, not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America. The danger to America, it was believed, was in fact only the small, immediately visible part of the greater whole whose ultimate manifestation would be the destruction of the English constitution, with all the rights and privileges embedded in it.
This belief transformed the meaning of the colonists' struggle, and it added an inner accelerator to the movement of opposition. For, once assumed, it could not be easily dispelled: denial only confirmed it, since what conspirators profess is not what they believe; the ostensible is not the real; and the real is deliberately malign.
It was this, the overwhelming evidence, as they saw it, that they were faced with conspirators against liberty determined at all costs to gain ends which their words dissembled, that was signaled to the colonists after 1763, and it was this above all else that in the end propelled them into Revolution.
Suspicion that the ever-present, latent danger of an active conspiracy of power against liberty was becoming manifest within the British Empire, assuming specific form and developing in coordinated phases, rose in the consciousness of a large segment of the American population before any of the famous political events of the struggle with England took place. No adherent of a nonconformist church or sect in the eighteenth century was free from suspicion that the Church of England, an arm of the English state, was working to bring all subjects of the crown into the community of the Church; and since toleration was official and non-conformist influence in English politics formidable, it was doing so by stealth, disguising its efforts, turning to improper uses devices that had been created for benign purposes. In particular, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an arm of the Church created in 1701 to aid in bringing the Gospel to the pagan Indians, was said by 1763 to have "long had a formal design to root out Presbyterianism, etc., and to establish both episcopacy and bishops."
Fear of an ecclesiastical conspiracy against American liberties, latent among nonconformists through all of colonial history, thus erupted into public controversy at the very same time that the first impact of new British policies in civil affairs was being felt. And though it was, in an obvious sense, a limited fear (for large parts of the population identified themselves with the Anglican Church and were not easily convinced that liberty was being threatened by a plot of Churchmen) it nevertheless had a profound indirect effect everywhere, for it drew into public discussion evoked in specific form, the general conviction of eighteenth-century Englishmen that the conjoining of "temporal and spiritual tyranny" was, in John Adams' words, an event totally "calamitous to human liberty" yet an event that in the mere nature of things perpetually threatened. For, as David Hume had explained, in all ages of the world priests have been enemies to liberty.... Liberty of thinking and of expressing our thoughts is always fatal to priestly ....... and, by an infallible connection which prevails among all kinds of liberty, this privilege can never be enjoyed... but in a free government. Hence... all princes that have aimed at despotic power have known of what importance it was to gain the established clergy; as the clergy, on their part, have shown a great facility in entering into the views of such princes.
Fear of the imposition of an Anglican episcopate thus brought into focus a cluster of ideas, attitudes, and responses alive with century-old Popish- Stuart-Jacobite associations that would enter directly into the Revolutionary controversy in such writings as John Adams' Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765) and Samuel Adams' A Puritan pieces published in the Boston Gazette in 1768. And more than that, it stimulated among highly articulate leaders of public opinion, who would soon be called upon to interpret the tendency of civil affairs, a general sense that they lived in a conspiratorial world in which what the highest officials professed was not what they in fact intended, and that their words masked a malevolent design.
Reinforcement for this belief came quickly. Even for those who had in no way been concerned with the threat of an Episcopal establishment, the passage of the Stamp Act was not merely an impolitic and unjust law that threatened the priceless right of the individual to retain possession of his property until he or his chosen representative voluntarily gave it up to another; it was to many, also, a danger signal indicating that a more general threat existed. For though it could be argued, and in a sense proved by the swift repeal of the act, that nothing more was involved than ignorance or confusion on the part of people in power who really knew
better and who, once warned by the reaction of the colonists, would not repeat the mistake, though this could be, and by many was, concluded, there nevertheless appeared to be good reason to suspect that more was involved. For from whom had the false information and evil advice come that had so misled the English government? From officials in the colonies, said John Adams, said Oxenbridge Thacher, James Otis, and Stephen Hopkins, from officials bent on overthrowing the constituted forms of government in order to satisfy their own lust for power, and not likely to relent in their passion. Some of these local plotters were easily identified. To John Adams, Josiah Ouincy, and others the key figure in Massachusetts from the beginning to the end was Thomas Hutchinson who by "serpentine wiles" was befuddling and victimizing the weak, the avaricious, and the incautious in order to increase his notorious engrossment of public office. In Rhode Island it was, to James Otis, that "little, dirty, drinking, drabbing, contaminated knot of thieves, beggars, and transports... made up of Turks, Jews, and other infidels, with a few renegade Christians and Catholics "-the Newport junto, led by Martin Howard, Jr., which had already been accused by Stephen Hopkins and others in Providence of "conspiring against the liberties of the colony."
But even if local leaders associated with power elements in England had not been so suspect, there were grounds for seeing more behind the Stamp Act than its ostensible purpose. The official aim of the act was, of course, to bring in revenue to the English treasury. But the sums involved were in fact quite small, and "some persons... may be inclined to acquiesce under it." But that would be to fall directly into the trap, for the smaller the taxes, John Dickinson wrote in the most influential pamphlet published in America before 1776, the more dangerous they were, since they would the more easily be found acceptable by the incautious, with the result that a precedent would be established for making still greater inroads on liberty and property.
Nothing is wanted at home but a PRECEDENT, the force of which shall be established by the tacit submission of the colonies.... If the Parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose other duties... and thus the Parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to take, without any other limitation than their PLEASURE.
During the same years the independence of the judiciary, so crucial a part of the constitution, was suddenly seen to be under heavy attack, and by the mid-1760's to have succumbed in many places.
This too was not a new problem. The status of the colonial judiciary had been a controversial question throughout the century. The Parliamentary statute of 1701 which guaranteed judges in England life tenure in their posts had upon them, consequently, and upon the whole principle of "prerogative" courts that abuse was hurled as the effect of their enhanced power was felt. "What has America done," victims of the decisions of these courts asked, "to be thus particularized, to be disfranchised and stripped of so invaluable a privilege as the trial by jury?" The operations of the vice-admiralty courts, it was felt, especially after their administrative reorganization in 1767, denied Americans a crucial measure of the protection of the British constitution. "However respectable the judge may be, it is however an hardship and severity which distinguishes [defendants before this court] from the rest of Englishmen." The evils of such prerogative invasion of the judiciary could hardly be exaggerated: their "enormous created powers... threatens future generations in America with a curse tenfold worse than the Stamp Act."
The more one looked the more one found evidences of deliberate malevolence. In Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson's elaborate patronage machine, long in existence but fully organized only after the arrival of Governor Francis Bernard in 1760, appeared to suspicious tribunes like Oxenbridge Thacher and John Adams to constitute a serious threat to liberty. The Hutchinsons and the Olivers and their ambitious allies, it was said (and the view was widely circulated through the colonies), had managed, by accumulating a massive plurality of offices, to engross the power of all branches of the Massachusetts government thereby building a "foundation sufficient on which to erect a tyranny."
Bernard had all the executive, and a negative of the legislative; Hutchinson and Oliver, by their popular arts and secret intrigues, had elevated to the [Council] such a collection of crown officers and their own relations as to have too much influence there; and they had three of a family on the superior bench.... This junto, therefore, had the legislative and executive in their control, and more natural influence over the judicial than is ever to be trusted to any set of men in the world.
With encouragement, no doubt, from England, they were stretching their power beyond all proper bounds, becoming "conspirators against the public liberty."
The same evil of plural office holding, tending to destroy the protective mechanism of the separation of powers, was observed to be at work in South Carolina. In both cases the filiation between the engrossing of offices in England and in America could be said to be direct. The self-seeking monopolists of office in the colonies, advancing themselves and their faithful adherents "to the exclusion of much better men," Adams wrote somewhat plaintively, were as cravenly obedient to their masters in power in England as their own despicable "creatures" were to them. How deep this issue ran, how powerful its threat, could be seen best when one noted the degree to which it paralleled cognate developments in England....
Meanwhile an event even more sinister in its implications had taken place in the colonies themselves. On October 1, 1768, two regiments of regular infantry, with artillery, disembarked in Boston. For many months the harassed Governor Bernard had sought some legal means or excuse for summoning military help in his vain efforts to maintain if not an effective administration then at least order in the face of Stamp Act riots, circular letters, tumultuous town meetings, and assaults on customs officials. But the arrival of troops in Boston increased rather than decreased his troubles. For to a populace steeped in the literature of eighteenth-
century English politics the presence of troops in a peaceful town had such portentous meaning that resistance instantly stiffened. It was not so much the physical threat of the troops that affected the attitudes of the Bostonians; it was the bearing their arrival had on the likely tendency of events. Viewed in the perspective of Trenchard's famous tracts on standing armies and of the vast derivative literature on the subject that flowed from the English debates of the 1690's, these were not simply soldiers assembled for police duties; they were precisely what history had proved over and over again to be prime movers of the process by which unwary nations lose "that precious jewel liberty." The mere rumor of possible troop arrivals had evoked the old apprehensions. "The raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against the law," the alarmed Boston Town Meeting had resolved....
And then... came the Boston Massacre. Doubts that the troops in Boston constituted a standing army and that it was the purpose of standing armies to terrify a populace into compliance with tyrannical wills were silenced by that event, which, [Andrew] Eliot assured [Thomas] Hollis, had obviously been coming. It "serves to show the impossibility of our living in peace with a standing army. A free people will sometimes carry things too far, but this remedy will always be found worse than the disease. Trenchard's History of Standing Armies, with which you formerly obliged me, is excellent... Unless there is some great alteration in the state of things the era of the independence of the colonies is much nearer than I once thought it, or now wish it." The same response was generally broadcast in the narrative of the Massacre, written by James Bowdoin and others for the Boston Town Meeting, which was distributed everywhere in the English-speaking world. This famous pamphlet stressed the deliberateness of the shooting and the clarity of the design that lay behind the lurid event; nor was the parallel to the St. George's Fields murders neglected. The acquittal of the indicted soldiers did not alter the conviction that the Massacre was the logical work of a standing army, for it accentuated the parallel with the English case which also had concluded with acquittal; and in Boston too there was suspicion of judicial irregularities. How the murderers managed to escape was known to some, it was said, but was "too dark to explain." ...
The turning point was the passage of the Tea Act and the resulting Tea Party in Boston in December 1773. Faced with this defiant resistance to intimidation, the powers at work in England, it was believed, gave up all pretense of legality, "threw off the mask," John Adams said in a phrase that for a century had been used to describe just such climactic disclosure, and moved swiftly to complete their design. In a period of two months in the spring of 1774 Parliament took its revenge in a series of coercive actions no liberty-loving people could tolerate: the Boston Port Act, intended, it was believed, to snuff out the economic life of the Massachusetts metropolis; the Administration of Justice Act, aimed at crippling judicial processes once and for all by permitting trials to be held in England for offenses committed in Massachusetts; the Massachusetts Government Act, which stripped from the people of Massachusetts the protection of the British constitution by giving over all the "democratic" elements of the province's government, even popularly elected juries and town meetings, into the hands of the executive power; the Quebec Act, which, while not devised as a part of the coercive program, fitted it nicely, in the eyes of the colonists, by extending the boundaries of a "papist" province, and one governed wholly by prerogative, south into territory claimed by Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts; finally, the Quartering Act, which permitted the seizure of unoccupied buildings for the use of troops on orders of the governors alone even in situations, such as Boston's, where barracks were available in the vicinity.
Once these coercive acts were passed there could be little doubt that "the system of slavery fabricated against America... is the offspring of mature deliberation." To the leaders of the Revolutionary movement there was, beyond question, "a settled, fixed plan for enslaving the colonies, or bringing them under arbitrary government, and indeed the nation too." By 1774 the idea "that the British government, the King, Lords, and Common, have laid a regular plan to enslave America, and that they are now deliberately putting it in execution" had been asserted, Samuel Seabury wrote wearily but accurately, "over, and over, and over again." The less inhibited of the colonial orators were quick to point out that "the MONSTER of a standing ARMY" had sprung directly from "a PLAN systematically laid, and pursued by the British ministry, near twelve years, for enslaving America"; the Boston Massacre, it was claimed, had been "planned by Hillsborough and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston." Careful analysts like Jefferson agreed on the major point; in one of the most closely reasoned of the pamphlets of 1774 the Virginian stated unambiguously that though "single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day... a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery." ...
The fact that the ministerial conspiracy against liberty had risen from corruption was of the utmost importance to the colonists. It gave a radical new meaning to their claims: it transformed them from constitutional arguments to expressions of a world regenerative creed. For they had long known, it had been known everywhere in the English-speaking world in the eighteenth century, that England was one of the last refuges of the ancient gothic constitution that had once flourished everywhere in the civilized world....
And if now, in this deepening gloom, the light of liberty went out in Britain too, in Britain, where next to "self preservation, political liberty is the main aim and end of her constitution"-if, as events clearly portended and as "senators and historians are repeatedly predicting.... continued corruption and standing armies will prove mortal distempers in her constitution"-what then? What refuge will liberty find? "To our own country," it was answered, must we look for the biggest part of that liberty and freedom that yet remains, or is to be expected, among mankind.... For while the greatest part of the nations of the earth are held together under the yoke of universal slavery~ the North American provinces yet remain the country of free men: the asylum, and the last, to which such may yet flee from the common deluge....
Now, in 1774, that "future occasion" was believed to be at hand. After the passage of the Coercive Acts it could be said that "all the spirit of patriotism or of liberty now left in England" was no more than "the last snuff of an expiring lamp," while "the same sacred flame... which once showed forth such wonders in Greece and in Rome... burns brightly and strongly in America." Who ought then to suppress as "whimsical and enthusiastical" the belief that the colonies were to become "the foundation of a great and mighty empire, the largest the world ever saw to be founded on such principles of liberty and freedom, both civil and religious... [and] which shall be the principal seat of that glorious kingdom which Christ shall erect upon earth in the latter days?" America "ere long will build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain; will adopt its constitution purged of its impurities, and from an experience of its defects will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor and brought it to an untimely end." The hand of God was "in America now giving a new epoch to the history of the world."