The American Revolution changed the political and social landscape of the entire world. Therefore, it is important to fully comprehend and understand the causes of the Revolution. Only in fully appreciating the origins of the Revolution can one begin to fully comprehend the radicality of this event and its effect on world history. There are many perspectives of what drove the Revolution. Some, like Bernard Bailyn, argue that the Revolution was driven by ideology that was propagated through relatively cheap and quick ways of disseminating information. Others, like Gary B. Nash, argue that the economic and political structure of the colonies led to an irreconcilable political split between the economic interests of Great Britain and the American colonies. Still others, like T.H. Breen, claim that consumer behavior gave rise to localized political action which affected international commerce, provoked a British military response, and, eventually, led to outright economic and political rebellion in the colonies. The diversity of these perspectives does not necessarily indicate that any of them are wrong. Rather, by giving different weight and value to various aspects of life in the colonies and actions committed by those involved, one can come to a conclusion of what the origin of the American Revolution. In taking a look at each of these perspectives, one can come to their own conclusion of what the most plausible, or what was the primary, origin of the American Revolution.
In “The Ideological Origins of The American Revolution”, Bernard Bailyn argues that the American Revolution, at its core, was an ideological conflict. Bailyn explores these ideologies, their sources, and the effects they had on the conflict between the American colonies and Great Britain. To do so, Bailyn analyzes both the formal and informal writings of some of the most consequential revolutionaries, “pamphleteers, essayists, and miscellaneous commentators” (Bailyn, vi) of the American colonies. By understanding the underlying ideologies, opinions, arguments, and core beliefs of the revolutionaries, one can come to appreciate their motivation to rebel against Great Britain. More importantly, by realizing the importance of the war of words predicating the corporal battle, one can comprehend the full scope and causes of Britain’s defeat.
Before delving into the ideologies underlying the Revolution, Bailyn makes a point of discussing the relative ease information and discourse could be disseminated throughout the colonies. Bailyn makes mention of the multitude of newspapers and publication houses that were active in the colonies in the years before the war. The numerous centers for printing and publication, the versatility of the pamphlet format, the relative rapidity that pamphlets could be printed meant that, unlike in past years, opinions regarding current events could be disseminated while a given occurrence was still at the forefront of the populace’s mind. The relative low level of literacy notwithstanding, these pamphlets were widely read and the opinions contained within had a strong influence on the political opinions of the general population. The people that wrote these pamphlets were not heady intellectuals but seemingly ‘regular folk’. As a result, when these editorial pieces were read by those who were literate and/or read to those were were not, the writing had an appeal to both the most influential in civil society and the common man. The written word grew in power and influence as people began to act on the basis of these editorials. With all of this in mind, when editorials began to challenge British rule and abuses so also began the American Revolution. The written protest against British domination was also the beginning of the war for people’s minds.
The ideologies that underlie these editorials and that motivated their authors to challenge British rule did not spring up randomly. Rather, many of the arguments against British rule were, ironically, steeped in what was British tradition, albeit an extreme interpretation and development of it. Many colonists wrote citing “the tradition of the English common law. The great figures of England’s legal history, especially the seventeenth-century common lawyers, were referred to repeatedly” (Bailyn, 30). These citations were in addition to the colonists citing works from “the heritage of classical antiquity” (Bailyn, 23). Philosophers such as “Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Euripides” (Bailyn, 24) were frequently cited to the point that it was rare to find a pamphleteer that didn’t refer to classical works. Finally, many of the editorials “stemmed ultimately from the political and social theories of New England Puritanism, and particularly from the ideas associated with covenant theology” (Bailyn, 32). These theories were particularly potent as they gave a context for everyday events in “nothing less than cosmic” terms—every occurrence had a divine or grand meaning. Taken together, the colonists developed an ideology and political theory regarding the “disposition of power”.
This ideology, while often attempting to combine and unite “discordant elements in the political and social thought of the Revolutionary generation” (Bailyn, 53-54), had the general point of challenging, what it regarded as, the illegitimate use of excessive power. The colonists used classical works to argue for the presence of innate rights as part of their nature as humans. English common law was cited as a basis for their rights as British citizens claiming, “a unique inheritance of liberty” (Bailyn 66). In light of British history where “though often threatened by despots who had risen in their midst, [the English people] had managed to maintain…successful control of power” (Bailyn, 66) the colonists were able to argue that disobeying authoritarian and illegitimate rule was their right and responsibility. Using the New England Puritanical ideas of a cosmic meaning being assigned to ordinary events, the colonists saw their calling in the new world as leading a great renewal challenging old rule and unsubstantiated claims to power and authority.
Bailyn’s historical analysis is similar to the cultural histories of Robert Darnton in that it makes use of unusual sources to gain a perspective into the mind of the common folk in the years leading up to a violent event. Whereas Robert Darnton referred to the Great Cat Massacre as indicative of the sentiment of common French people in the decades ahead of the French Revolution, Bailyn refers to quotes by colonists and excerpts from formal and informal pieces of writing leading up to the Revolutionary war. Instead of looking at chronologies and data of how many soldiers each side had, how much taxes were assessed, what laws were passed, or what civil rights were abridged, Bailyn looks to read the opinions and sentiments of those who lived during that time. In this way, Bailyn gains an understanding of what the general mental state of the colonists was in the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence and how far along they were in rebelling against British rule. What Bailyn succeeds in his historical analysis is pointing to the real reason that the Revolutionary War was fought and why the British failed to quell the American Revolution. The simple answer is that, in the battle for people’s minds, the British failed to mount a convincing and effective defense. The British lacked a convincing ideology to which the people could subscribe to. A country cannot win a war if it cannot win the hearts and minds of those that are party to the war. In this respect, the British lost the American Revolution not on the battle field but in the literature. In the rhetorical battle between the colonists and British tradition, the British lost the battle far before the first shot of the Revolutionary war rang out. The violence of the American Revolution was the last desperate attempt of British rule to stop what at that point was the irreversible loss of American confidence in the British crown and American recognition of the legitimacy of British rule.
In “The Urban Crucible”, Gary B. Nash argues that the American Revolution was driven by the economic structure and status of the colonial economy as well as political developments, particularly in urban areas. The economic and political loci of colonial America were seaports and the cities near them. It was there that America had contact with the rest of the world. It is also there that the effects of British trade and tax policy were most pronounced. Therefore, the origin of the war must be in the places most affected by the economically and socially detrimental British actions.
When speaking of seaports in colonial America, it is important to note that these ‘cities’ were nothing like what is considered today to be a city in terms of size. Colonial cities were relatively small, especially in comparison to the cities in Europe at the time. This smaller scale of city, however, made the social life much different than it was in European city. “The reduced scale of life in these late seventeenth century ports made face-to-face relationships important” (Nash 4). People living in the cities knew one another. Like any small town, very few things were kept secret—word went around fast. If one neighbor had a dispute with another, chances are that that dispute would be known by much, if not all, of the most active in society. It also meant that if someone was treated unjustly by the British—be it due to British economic, military, or civil policy—people would be aware. Moreover, because many civilians began to regard the British soldiers and politicians as out of touch newcomers (compared to those colonists who were in America for decades) unjust actions particularly ‘touched a nerve’. An injustice against one person was increasingly seen as an injustice against all; a symptom of rule by those that didn’t know or care about life in the colonies.
With regards to the economy of the colonies, the effect of injustices committed by the British was more pronounced not only because people knew one another, but also because the people of greatest consequence were few in number. To highlight the wealth disparity, “the bottom thirty percent of wealth holders had only a slight hold on the community’s resources, possessing about three percent of the total assets” (Nash 19). What this meant is that if a British economic or tax policy affected one of the wealthier members of colonial society particularly hard, it could undermine the entire economic system as all those dependent on that individual were affected as well. For example, if a wealthy individual employed many workers at the seaport and handled trade for craftsmen and farmers, all those people would be adversely affected if the wealthy individual suffered. Hence, when the British began to impose steep taxes, these taxes, like the stamp act, most directly affected those in cities who were the wealthier members of society, but also affected all those dependent on the wealthier individuals. Moreover, since the British military was primarily a naval power, British military operations were focused on the seaports. Therefore, many of the most egregious injustices committed by the British military that were cited as reasons for rebellion, were committed in cities with large seaports and harbors, like Boston.
Then, like now, economics weighs heavily on politics. The colonies experienced economic crises before the American Revolution that influenced the colonist’s political stances. One case that highlights the beginnings of discontent against the British is the state Massachusetts economy in the early 18th century. Massachusetts, essentially, endured a period of stagflation with ever increasing prices coupled with a recession. While “Bostonians had no name for it and were unsure of the cure, but they could see its effects in idled ships, rising prices, and widespread distress” (Nash 82). The cause, however, seemed to be quite clear to the colonists as “the excess of imports over exports kept hard money flowing from Massachusetts to England”. This trade imbalance made it seem as if the British were bleeding the colonists dry. In addition, as in most recessions, those who had the least financial security were most negatively affected. The result was a rise in populist politics in the colonies. While eventually this period of stagflation receded, its effects remained ever present in the collective mind of the colonists. When the British imposed additional taxes and restricted colonial trade only to Britain, with whom they had a trade imbalance, populist sentiments were further enflamed.
This rise in populist sentiment fueled animosity toward a government which increasingly viewed as distant and lacking legitimacy over colonial affairs. Therefore, when a number of highly publicized clashes between the British and the colonists occurred, the reaction of the colonists was swift and severe. The British, rather than find a way to amicably placate the colonist’s economic concerns, only further exasperated them by imposing further restrictions on civil life and economic operations, including the blockade of Boston Harbor. Nash argues that the American Revolution finds its origins in the colonial economy and the populist politics which it enabled. The fundamental premise of this argument is that the standard of living and ability to provide for one’s family can be sufficient cause for which to rebel against the powers that be if a government is perceived as being part of the economic problem rather than the solution. This economy-driven politics view of the history of the American Revolution contrasts with the oft cited view that the American Revolution was a fight for democracy and ideologies centered around freedom and independence. While freedom, political autonomy, and independence from illegitimate rule were certainly goals when the fight had begun, these only attained their status when they were recognized as solutions to the socioeconomic and political problems that the colonists were facing. As such, these ideals, while worthy, cannot be considered the origins of the Revolution. Rather, the problems, injustices, and objectives that the Revolution sought to address and rectify ought to be considered the origin and driver behind the American rebellion against British rule.
Nash’s arguments are particularly convincing because of the sources that he utilizes. Rather than stitch together a story based on pamphlets, literature, or asymmetrical sources. Nash uses more traditional sources of information. He points to the most powerful actors of the day, the wealthiest members of the colonial economy and the British government, and assigns credit, or rather blame, for the Revolution at their feet. Some may argue that Nash’s focus on economics is analogous to Marx’s method of historical analysis. However, this view is relatively short sighted. Instead, Nash’s historical method is best compared to Ranke’s method of writing a historical narrative. Nash focuses on the most influential actors and their behaviors, beliefs, and actions. Moreover, he utilizes primary source material that renders his narrative methodological and factually sound. This contrasts with T.H. Breen’s choice of sources which can be, at times, questionable in terms of what facts and concepts are derivable and/or what conclusions can be drawn from them.
In “The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence”, T.H. Breen argues that “the colonists’ shared experience as consumers provided them with the cultural resources needed to develop a bold new form of political protest. In this unprecedented context, private decisions were interpreted as political acts; consumer choices communicated personal loyalties” (Breen, xv). In other words, the daily actions of civilian life took on a political meaning and influenced the conduct and structure of national politics. Whether someone bought or did not buy imported goods or frequent certain establishments was considered indicative of their political position. The effect of collective action among the colonists led to pressure being applied to relatively influential enterprises. By choosing to boycott imported goods and deprive British merchants and, more notably, British tax revenues of needed funds, the colonists were able to send a political message.
This form of political expression, according to Breen, is distinctly American. Of course, the concept of an individual refusing to purchase goods from a given person is as old as time. However, the organized public “consumer boycott was a brilliantly original American invention” (Breen, xvi). In other words, the idea of organizing a mass rejection of trade with and excision of a given entity from a local market as a form of mass political protest was an original American idea. The usage of the boycott allowed for “an effective means for distinguishing supporters from those people who suffered humiliation as ‘the friends of the government’” (Breen, xvi). In this way, peer pressure drove people to participate in the consumer rebellion as “one’s relation to everyday goods became a measure of patriotism” (Breen, xvi). Not wanting to be ostracized in society and, this form of rebellion being a non-violent, boycotting was very effective in gathering a large following. This act of commerce, or, more aptly, lack of commerce, had large implications for very influential actors in British politics. These actors attempted to use their influence in British politics to counter the effects boycotts. Those colonists who were relatively non-political began to see the and “discover the radical political implication of their own actions” (Breen, xvi) demonstrating the power each person truly held. Boycotts against imported goods quickly morphed from being economic protests and turned into politically motivated movements.
Breen covers the history of the Revolution in a relatively unusual way. Most historians, after discussing the economic motivations of the colonists and their rejection of high taxation and trade limitations, immediately begin to discuss the military, diplomatic, and political actions of the Revolution separate from commerce. That is not how Breen leads his narrative. Instead, Breen focuses on how consumer goods and the colonial economy continually influenced and, in fact, was one of the original areas of rebellion. In a way, this makes sense. Most people do not have military strength or the courage to fight. Many are also ignorant of politics and do not seek ideological pursuits of independence and freedom. Most people desire to have a peaceful and fulfilling life without want or economic entrapment. The initial actions of consumer rebellion were exactly that. The participants, buoyed by the social acceptability of and peer pressure toward refusing imported goods, were principally motivated by a desire to be able to live a good life. This action however also demonstrated the efficacy and political implications of their actions. They began to see how much direct influence politics and governmental power had on their lives and how much change in their livelihood could be affected by their own actions or lack thereof. This was the origin of the Revolution, what started out a communal message of rejection against a reduction or inhibition of one’s standard of living became a political force for autonomy and, eventually, independence.
As sources, Breen uses examples of what goods colonists needed and bought, what goods colonists found ways to do without or replaced with domestic produced goods, and what goods represented the British government. He refers to books, pamphlets, and other documents encouraging people to refuse imported goods and that tie consumer goods to injustices and push toward political action. Breen also uses sources that are a little unorthodox. He uses clipping from newspaper advertisements, documents discussing different goods, paintings of imported goods, and other media that one would not consider to be primary source documents of the origins of the American Revolution. He uses such sources to cast a light on what was going through the mind of the colonists and the colonists understanding of commercial value. More importantly, he showed how big and radical of an action rejecting imported goods was. To refuse to purchase these goods from Britain is akin to modern Americans refusing to purchase consumer electronics from China. Those imported products were a staple in colonial life and a symbol of status and higher culture. To not have these objects or to refuse these goods was unusual to say the least. In other words, by showing the reader into the mind and desires of the colonists, what they considered familiar and what they desired, Breen is able to cast a light on the implications of consumer actions and how they drove otherwise routine purchases to carry political implications.
The American Revolution was not, initially, an enlightened pursuit of freedom. Of course, post-revolutionary documents exalt the grand cause of liberty and freedom. However, most people cannot be motivated to compromise their standard of living or risk compromising their family for the sake of an abstract, uncertain, unproven, and high-risk concept. Instead, what truly motivates most people to take substantive political action is the realization that failure to react politically undermines their own standard of living and those whom an individual cares for. Therefore, to understand the origins of the American Revolution one must consider the colonists not as crusaders of liberty but as consumers seeking a better standard of living. In addition, to grasp the radicality of the colonists’ action, one must comprehend the scope of what the colonists were facing and what value boycotted goods had to them. Through this way, one can come to know that the American Revolution was, at its origin, a pursuit of a better life through consumer politics and not an ideological crusade of political renewal.
Between these three perspectives of what the origins of the Revolutionary war were, the most convincing is Gary B. Nash’s “The Urban Crucible”. This is not to say that the other two books are not well written arguments or that they do not make valid points—they do. However, Nash’s usage and treatment of sources is most credible. He uses chronological data and respectable primary sources to plot the development of the American Revolution. In seeking an origin he looks for actions and events that, had they not occurred, would have outright prevented the American Revolution from occurring. There is a very convincing argument to be made that had the British not undermined the economy of seaport towns and cities, the American Revolution would not have gathered enough political, social, or financial support to rebel against the British. The American side of the Revolution was a poor rag tag team of unprofessional fighters. Had the American side not had the support of seaport towns and, more importantly, the economic and political elites, the ideas of rebellion would not have been discussed in public discourse. Moreover, if American-British trade was healthy and leading Americans to prosperity, there would be substantive, and some would say unsurmountable, opposition to rebelling against the British. Due to British economic policies, in conjunction with civil injustices, the battle for people’s wallets was lost. After the blame for economic malaise fell on the British, consumers were motivated to start boycotts and mount substantive opposition through their role as consumers. As tensions flared between the colonial consumers and influential British economic and political actors, ideological and political radicality. With that grew more open opposition and dissent in the published literature of the day.
The events and dynamic Nash argues is the origin of the American Revolution set up and predicate the events that Breen and Bailyn argue are the origins of the American Revolution. Moreover, the point that Nash argues is far more crucial and central to the development of the American Revolution than are the points made by Breen and Bailyn. That being said, Breen’s focus on consumer politics is not without merit. Breen’s acknowledgement of how the boycott and consumer political action developed into an effective tool of political expression is not without merit. In fact, in reading Breen’s book, one can see how consumer action grew in influence in American, and indeed world, history. As the individuals in the world consume more and consumer products grow in total world GDP, the actions of consumers will carry more weight and influence over those in power. Therefore, Breen’s book is more aptly a narrative regarding the origins of modern American political action.
Regarding Bernard Bailyn’s book, there exists one area of doubt that ideology was the origin of the American Revolution. Namely, seldom is a person randomly attracted to an ideology for the arguments it makes or the rhetoric it stokes. In other words, one might be momentarily convinced of an ideology based on a well-written pamphlet. But if that ideology is not reinforced by the lived experience of the person, faith in the ideology will quickly dissipate. On the other hand, if the ideology puts into words what is already the lived experience of the person, that ideology will grow to be a stronger portion of that individual’s life. The point is that origins of ideology being influential on a person’s belief is that the ideologies tenets are reflected in the person’s life. As such, the origins of that person embracing a given ideology do not rest with the propagation of the ideology but the lived experience that made that ideology convincing.
With all this in mind, it is important to remember that American Revolution is not a topic in which there will be many new discoveries. These authors of these books came to different conclusions not because they had access to different sources, even though some of these books were written decades apart. Rather, the authors focused on different sources and drew different conclusions based on the weight they assigned different aspects of colonial life and events that predicated the Revolution. Based on that, the way to determine which analysis is best is by looking at which ‘origin point’ of the Revolution is more crucial to the mere existence of the Revolution and which analysis uses the most credible sources. On both counts, Gary Nash’s “The Urban Crucible” succeeds in utilizing credible and relevant primary sources documents and identifying an event and dynamic of colonial life without which the American Revolution would have never occurred.
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