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American Revolution

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

To what extent was the American Revolution caused by an ideological commitment to republicanism?

There has been much debate surrounding the causes of the American Revolution. It has been a key debate amongst historians producing several schools of thoughts with conflicting interpretations of the revolution. They all place a different focus, some blaming short term issues while others trace the revolution back to a combination of factors. Fundamentally, no historical event can be fully explained by one single event or development. I hope to show that the American Revolution was a result of a long term process, its causes lie in the change in relationship between the American people and their English colonialists. Part of this process is the development of and commitment to a republican ideology. However such an ideology cannot be produced within a vacuum but is the result of an accumulation of social change triggered by certain grievances or objections to the existing order.

On the one hand, it has been argued that the causes of the American Revolution lay in the political changes that came about after the 1760s. The materialisation of a considerable political ideology namely republicanism has been argued to have been the key force which propelled the American people into a revolution. Comparatively, Americans had previously been content and indeed loyal to the mother country and its monarchy. Steve D. Crow even labels Virginians as ‘royalists’ and proclaims that the majority of people had once ‘sided with the King’.[1] However this is not a view that lasted but one can trace the collapse of such a view from the 1760s and perhaps even earlier. Republicanism is the political embodiment of this very shift in belief toward the mother country. America went from it being primarily controlled by English colonialists to Americans demanding sovereignty, self government and freedom from English influence. Inspired by enlightenment writers such as John Locke the Republicans believed that a legitimate state authority should be derived only through consent of the governed.[2] Through such criteria, Britain was increasingly seen as corrupt, hostile and a threat to the liberties that Americans enjoyed. The greatest threat being ‘corruption’ as colonialists were seen as royal appointees not answerable to the people, causing unnecessary taxation and being part of an inherited aristocracy: This all against the ideals of republicanism.[3] Therefore, as the strength of republicanism greatened, with it augmented the breakdown of the relationship between the English and the Americans. Republicanism is indeed a key movement which combined a number of objections to the British, an organised movement that had not before existed. The nature of the movement most definitely spurred on masses of support and marked a departure from the acceptance of British rule. However, it is questionable whether this commitment to republicanism was enough on its own to have caused the American Revolution. There are several causes that predate republicanism, these causes not as organised but certainly are key turning points in changing the attitude of the American people in favour of revolt against English control. However, the Neo-Conservative School of Thought would argue that the commitment to republicanism was indeed enough to cause the American Revolution. They place the main reason for the revolution in the ‘conservative act’ which took place as American tried to preserve a life they had started. The revolution was based upon certain ‘principle’ that they sought to protect.[4] These very principles were the foundation of the Republican agenda. Robert E Brown and Daniel J Boortsin write that the American people sought to ‘maintain the status quo’ through revolution. For example, the British imposed taxes to create capital after the French and Indian war even though it was contradictory to the constitution. Neo-conservatives argue that the Americans rebelled against this as they were protecting their existing rights of no taxation without representation. Boortsin rights ‘the patriots more true followers of the British Constitution than the British themselves.’ A natural evolution if this desire to maintain and protect ‘principles’ can be argued to have been Republicanism. This is because, Republicanism sought to condemn the ‘corruption’ of the British rule and protect American rights which have been betrayed under British rule as it became clear that the British were seeking their interests. In a similar vein the Imperial School of Thought believes that it as also political issues namely constitutional issues that caused the revolution. Historians such as George L. Beer, Charles M. Andrew and Lawrence H. Gipson are not as negative about British rule as the Neo-Conservatives. Instead they highlight the prosperity experienced by colonies under British rule. As Andrews asserts the British protected ‘American goods and ships’. Gipson puts forward the case for taxation as being just as the British had made great sacrifices “defending the North American colonies in the Great War for Empires.”[5] Nevertheless, despite this positive view of British rule the Imperial School of Thought agree that ‘constitutional’ disagreements erupted between the two countries. As Americans sought self government the British in parallel pushed for more control. Thus, the British and the colonies clashed as the fought for different gaols. Therefore, these groups of historians favour a political explanation as the main cause of the American Revolution. In this light they may than agree that a commitment to the republican ideology was indeed the main cause of the American Revolution. However, by centring their explanation of the revolution upon political developments and clashes such historians ignore other factors that were influential in creating a revolution. Others historians have brought forward the economic occurrences that in their opinion hold greater weighting when it comes to what they believe caused the American Revolution.

The arguments has been made that the American Revolution was the result of Economic factors. More specifically the American Revolution was a struggle amongst colonial classes for economic hegemony. This would only be achieved with the removal of the constraints that the English had eventually created upon the American markets and therefore only by the removal of the English influence. This is certainly the stance taken by the Progressive School of Thought which includes historians such as Carl Becker, Charles Beard, Arthur M. Schlesinger and Merlin Jenson. Carl Becker writes the American Revolution was a ‘contest for home-rule and independence’. Home-rule being the final goal for certain classes as the way in which they could gain economic hegemony. Also, Arthur M. Schlesinger in ‘The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution’ puts forward the argument that it was the major merchants and traders within colonies that ‘spearheaded’ the revolution.[6] The merchant class was a fundamental sector of American society in maintaining ‘imperial stability and union'[7]. Indeed, the Committee of Merchant in Philadelphia wrote to the Committee of Merchants in London highlighting that they consider merchants as the ‘chains that bind both countries together.[8] The collapse of this ‘chain’ was the result of much agitation against parliament after 1763 as economic policies such as the Stamp and Trade act were injurious to their commerce. In their opposition toward such economic policies they were able to rile mass criticism toward the English and call into question the legitimacy of English parliament. However, it could be argued that the merchants did not seek rebellion but only reform as a group which were still loyal subjects to the mother country. However, while this may certainly have been the case initially it is clear that merchants became desperate and most certainly rebellious toward the English as their economic situation became more desperate. For example, Virginia farmers became distressed as English policies made their survival almost impossible. English merchant creditors tried to repossess dept from plantation owners only serving to encourage further resentment toward the British.[9] Indeed the Virginia Assembly drew up a memorial ‘expressive of a revolt against the domineering and grafting rule of the merchant creditors’.[10] Thus, such historians find internal conflict between social classes regarding economic power rather than external struggles with the English as the main cause behind the American Revolution.

An effective argument is put forward by Carl Becker in The Histories and Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760 -1776. In this he outlines a ‘duel revolution’ stating that the ‘American Revolution was the result of two general movements; the contest for home-rule and independence, and the democratization of American politics and society’.[11] In his ‘duel thesis’ Becker to an extent combines and comes to a compromise with the conflicting theories presented by historians in regards to the American Revolution. Through this thesis, the causes do not lie solely in just economic or political factors but are a combination of internal colonial struggles for democratization but also a struggle for home-rule. In this respect I would regard this as the most convincing of all arguments that have been presented. While Historians are right in putting to the forefront political issues, the do not by any means make an argument which leaves economic issues as unimportant and irrelevant. Also, historians that concentrate only on economic factors are in doing so ignoring the links that these economic factors had in shaping and evolving a ‘spirit’ amongst the people which then materialised and organised itself politically. Overall, I would agree with Becker’s interpretation as it is not oversimplified but considers many different factors and fundamentally delineate the crucial transformation that occurred in the relationship between the colonists and the British.

Bibliography

Books

Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Sr. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (Beard books: Washington.2001)

Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution, (Vintage Books: New York 1991)

Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr, the American Revolution the Critical Issues (Brown: Boston. 1971)

Woody Holton, Forced Founders, the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, (University of North Carolina Press: USA. 1999)

John C. Wahlke, the Causes of the American Revolution, (Heath and Company: Massachusetts. 1973)

Esmond Write, Causes and Consequences if the American Revolution, (Quadrangle Books: Chicago. 1966)

Online Journals

Philip Gould, “Virtue, Ideology, and the American Revolution: The Legacy of the Republican Synthesis,” American Literary History 5 No.3 (2001), www.JSTOR.org

[1] Crow, “Your Majesty’s Good Subjects”: A Reconsideration of Royalism in Virginia, 1642-1652, www. JSTOR.org PAGE 1

[2] Gordon S. Wood, the Radicalism of the American Revolution, (Vintage Books: New York 1991) Page 263

[3] Woody Holton, Forced Founders, the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, (University of North Carolina Press: USA. 1999) page 196

[4] John C. Wahlke, the Causes of the American Revolution, (Heath and Company: Massachusetts. 1973) page 173

[5]Lawrence H. Gipson “Connecticut Taxation and Parliamentary Aid Preceding the Revolutionary War”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Jul., 1931, www.JSTOR.org page 725

[6] The American revolution ad critical issue Robert f.berkhofer jr brown and company 1971 boston

[7] Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Sr. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (Beard books: Washington.2001) page31

[8] Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Sr. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776 (Beard books: Washington.2001) page 36

[9] Woody Holton, Forced Founders, the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, (University of North Carolina Press: USA. 1999) page 211

[10] The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution, 1763-1776By Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Sr. 2001 – beard books Washington page 36

[11] John C. Wahlke, the Causes of the American Revolution, (Heath and Company: Massachusetts. 1973) page13


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