Was the American Revolution a Civil War?

William Ranney, Battle of Cowpens, 1845, oil, South Carolina State House“Every great revolution is a civil war,” as David Armitage has recently remarked. That insight could change the way we think about the American Revolution. Contemporaries understood it that way—or at least, they did at first. David Ramsay, the first patriot historian of the war, held that the Revolution was “originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties.” Mercy Otis Warren wrote that the fires of civil war were kindled as early as the Boston massacre. But in the narratives of these historians, the moment the United States declared independence was the moment the conflict stopped being a civil war. It was no longer being fought within a single imperial polity. Now it was a war between two nations.[1]

The assumptions that underpin that story are worth challenging: that the division between British and American became absolute at the moment of the Declaration, that a new nation was born in that instant, and that the only distinction that mattered was the one between the United States and its enemies. Of course that’s the story early patriot historians told. It was a story that projected backwards the unity and sovereignty they wanted to foster in the new nation. That picture may have looked accurate for Massachusetts, at least until disorder in the western country overtook the state in the 1780s, but on the coast of Rhode Island, in the Hudson Valley and the New Jersey “Neutral Zone”, on the Delmarva peninsula, and all across the South, things were quite different.[2] The Revolution was a story of dissolving sovereignty and contested authority, lawless violence and the search for security. Its true theorist was not John Locke, but Thomas Hobbes.[3]

Once we consider the American Revolution as a civil war, it’s easier to integrate the broader world of violence and division that often gets left out of the Revolutionary narrative: the Regulator movements of South and North Carolina, the march of the Paxton boys, land riots in Maine and New York, separatist movements in Vermont and Franklin, and the rural insurrections that swept the west up to the conquest of the Whiskey Rebels in 1794. As imperial sovereignty broke down, first in the borderlands and then in the heart of the colonies themselves, it left a disparate set of ex-colonists to construct new forms of authority. They did so in overlapping and piecemeal ways, creating struggles in the process that would continue for decades and centuries. New authorities won the allegiance of anxious Americans by offering protection for persons and property: in doing so, they promised to crush Indians and open new land for white ownership; in the south, they fought to restore the slave regime and reverse the effects of the slaves’ own “revolution within a revolution.”[4] Among themselves, they struggled to allocate power—and to locate sovereignty—within the federal union.

If we stop thinking of the Revolution as a War for Independence, in which the United States freed itself from the British empire, we can better see it as a process in which the United States, and American identity, was gradually, painfully, imperfectly constructed in the midst of imperial collapse. If we saw this and every revolution as a civil war, maybe we’d better understand the way the modern world—the nexus of state, citizen, and property—was born in and determined by violence.


[1] David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South Carolina, From a British Province to an Independent State, 2 vols. (Trenton: Printed by Isaac Collins, 1785), 2: 281; Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, 3 vols., (Boston: Printed by Manning and Loring, 1805), 1: iv, 96, 177.

[2] In working on this, I’ve found particularly useful Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert eds., An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry During the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press 1985), and Alfred Young ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press,  1976).

[3] At least two historians of the eighteenth century frontier invoke Hobbes in broadly the same way I’m doing here: Patrick Griffin, American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007) and Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[4] The phrase “revolution within a revolution” is from Gary Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 67.

37 comments on “Was the American Revolution a Civil War?

  1. Interesting post, Tom. I must admit that this is a question that nags at me. I can appreciate the arguments in favor of such a perspective, especially yours in this piece. I think it could be described as a civil war internally (i.e., in the South in the late 1770s and early 1780s), but I often find myself struggling to conceptualize the Revolution as a “civil war.” That might be because, to me, “civil war” implies a conflict within a single polity and I don’t think I consider Britain and the colonies as having comprised a single polity (even on the eve of the imperial crisis). I guess it comes down to definition, i.e., what are the conditions necessary to meet a definition of “civil war?”

    That said, my work on the Revolution focuses on how the events of seventeenth-century Britain framed the way colonists’ viewed their own contemporary political culture and conflicts. And there is no doubt that many colonists saw the Revolution as a civil war, but their uses of that phrase were based on their varying conceptions of the English civil wars not our own contemporary definition(s) of what constitutes a “civil war.” So, I guess in a sense, what is important to me is not so much whether WE can or should treat the Revolution as a civil war but what the colonists themselves meant when they used the term “civil war” and, for me, that comes down to their British historical memory, which my own work is focused on explicating.

    • Dale Tuck says:

      Were not the American colonies not an extension of Britain itself.

      In Britain, there were two distinct entities, the “rulers” and the “ruled”, the large land owners and the worker/renter. This was established in 1066 with the defeat of the English by the Normans and continues to this day. (1/3 of the land in Britain is still owned by the aristocracy) The British are an aberration in the world, never actually throwing off (killing) their ruling class and “stealing” their property..

      Was not Pennsylvania not largely a land grant to Sir William Penn. Land grants were given to encourage the financing of settlement, the building of ports, roads, etc. This was considered a reasonable cost due to the risks involved.

      We now have a group of people that, as in the rest of the world, need to solve their fundamental problem, how do we escape this business responsibility? Well, why not blame the English for the problem, disown the responsibility and if they chose to object, simply call them “traitors”. confiscate their property and “ship them back from whence they came”.

      Let’s call it a revolution!!!

  2. mattcrow says:

    I fail to see clearly the distinction between a war for independence and the contested configuration of sovereignty amidst imperial collapse. Why are those two things opposed analytically here? It seems to me that on grounds offered by Eliga Gould and Alison LaCroix, among others, we could understand those things as part and parcel of the same proces.

    It also seems to me that especially if we find language of civil war (and I absolutely agree that has a great deal to do with their historical memory of seventeenth century English constitutional crises and conflicts), then we are not really talking about a Hobbesian break down or even more moderately perhaps a Lockean one (although Hobbes and what he is talking matter to the American founding in a host of other ways). At least from the colonial perspective, the assertion is at least in large part one of continuity of a confederacy of self-governing polities, or “free states,” defending their existence as such (which is to say that imperial sovereignty as you are discussing it never really existed in the first place, and its the attempt to make it exist that contributes to the crisis of empire. You don’t have to go all the way with Bailyn’s latest book to admit that the world of colonial British North America had always been one of contested sovereignty, rebellions, anxious security, and violence). The albeit contested and incomplete sovereignties of these states are not suspended as they meet in congress and write republican state constitutions using expressly this language of reconstituting the law and maintaining a free state. It was revisionist history, but hardly a complete breakdown of what had come before, and to take that language seriously does not have to mean taking it at face-value, or ignoring the uncertainty and the violence erupting around them. On a number of fronts, Quentin Skinner’s work might also be of use here.

  3. Tom Cutterham says:

    Thanks for great comments, both. Michael, I take your position to be the standard one, in which “civil war” applies specifically to the south during the British southern strategy, but not to the conflict more broadly. My contention is that there’s something to be gained from extending that framework outward in space and time: firstly because it integrates the violence and devastation beyond the south (like in the neutral zone), secondly because it reframes the revolution as a crisis of identity and sovereignty rather than a conflict between already-existing identities/sovereignties.

    When it comes to what is meant by civil war, my point is that it doesn’t make as much sense as we often seem to think to talk about “internal” and “external” conflict. Gould, Hendrickson, and the rest have shown that much. But that’s where I think Hobbes comes in, because when he thinks about the English Civil War it’s not the contained, “internal” nature of the war that matters (and of course, that war was *not* contained to England), but the dissolution of sovereignty and the question of competing authorities. For large numbers of people and for long periods of time during the revolution, they just don’t know who their protector is, they don’t have a legitimate state. I agree with Matt that there’s a lot of continuity. But there’s also a pretty clear absence of the law in these places I’ve mentioned. As Aedanus Burke put it in 1783, of South Carolina: “our government was dissolved: it did not exist.” It’s in reconstructing the law, reconstructing the state, often in the midst of war, that the boundary lines that make American identity and citizenship get drawn.

    • I understand your point about the concepts of “internal” and “external.” However, I’m not following as to how your definition (as it seems to me) of the dissolution of sovereignty amidst competing authorities strictly defines something as a “civil war” as opposed to a “revolution.” But perhaps that’s “just” a semantical concern. As I said above, to me a civil war is defined by the fact that it is fought amongst a single polity for control of such. If you stretch it beyond that to include a conflict between an imperial motherland and its provinces, when their most immediate and local forms of government are dissimilar and when “citizens” of both have a different relationship to Parliament (i.e., they do not constitute a single polity), does it not risk the term losing any meaning at all? Forgive me if I’m misreading you here (or not making much sense, myself).

      As for the “dissolution of sovereignty,” I’m not sure how broadly that applies throughout the colonies. In the South, I can see how that perception would exist among some, but for many in the northern colonies, the transition between colonial assemblies and provisional assemblies was neither so delayed nor so drastic as to give a broad sense among the populace that no sovereignty existed, especially considering that throughout 1774 and 1775 institutions of protection and inspection were being created at a fairly rapid pace on both the local and colonial level and that a number of state constitutions were being drawn up before independence was declared. I get that you’re describing this liminal moment as a temporary return to the state of nature, and while I’m sure certain people in certain places may have had that perception, I’m not sure that I see it as a broad phenomenon of any significant duration (outside of certain regions of the South, that is). And that leaves aside the question about the perception of individuals or groups in that moment as to what constituted a “legitimate state.” It seems to me that the anxiety you’re describing is more likely to have been perceived by loyalists in 1775-6 than patriots (in the North at least) from independence on. But, of course, I am just speculating as to my own sense of the moment.

      All that said, I largely agree with your last sentence, but I’m not clear on how making that argument depends on the classification of the Revolution as a “civil war” unless the term is defined by a dissolution of sovereignty but that gets back to the question of degrees in the difference between the “dissolution” and transfer of sovereignty.

  4. My ancestors were Americans on the losing side of the Revolution/Civil War. They were subjected to threats and severe violence, and forced to give up their homes/land and flee the country as refugees. So yes, it was a civil war, and one where the winning Patriots treated the losing Loyalists much more cruelly than the winning Union would later treat the losing Confederacy in the 1860s.

  5. rsubber says:

    Fascinating exchange. This is the first time I’ve heard the Revolutionary War discussed as a civil war. It seems to me there’s a de facto fly in the soup here: almost exclusively, the Continental Army and militias were fighting the land and sea forces of Great Britain, an undeniably sovereign adversary that was 3,000 miles away. The military reality seems to refute any political argument favoring the “civil war” concept. In any event, my (limited) reading of the writing and speeches of Revolutionary leaders leads me to conclude that they weren’t concerned about any armed intervention by American loyalists.

    • Dan says:

      The story is different in the North and the South. In the North, one or the other of the regular armies was always going to decide the outcome (or create a stalemate as it turned out). Everything else would be subordinated to the effort of those armies. In the South, there was really never much of a Continental Army presence, particularly after the British came south. Lincoln’s army stayed mostly in Charleston as Archibald Campbell and Augustine Prevost fanned out over most of Georgia and Prevost just about reached the “gates” of Charleston, so to speak. Lincoln’s army would subsequently surrender to the British at Charleston. It would be another 3 months before Horatio Gates would arrive with another army, which he would promptly lose at Camden. Then it was another 4 months before Greene came south.

      Furthermore, Loyalists mattered to the British far more than they did in the North. In the North they might supplement the army or support the strategy of destroying Washington’s army in other ways, but in the South they *were* the strategy. The British southern strategy absolutely would not work without the large numbers of rumored Loyalists turning out to fight with the British, and more importantly hold territory already taken while the British army moved north. Much of the historiography looks to the fact that the British lost and Cornwallis always complained about unreliable Loyalists to conclude that the Loyalists didn’t exist in the numbers the British thought they did. In reality, the Loyalists were there, but the Whigs (mainly the political leadership, with militia support) understood their importance to the British and from the earliest days of the war implemented a strategy to prevent the Loyalists from being able to provide that support. The Whigs used a combination of intimidation, armed propaganda, and violence to control the Loyalist population. Furthermore, in ways very similar to hos they controlled slave populations to prevent insurrections, the Whigs controlled the movements of Loyalists, prevented them from assembling in large groups, and intercepted any communications to prevent the royal governors (and later the British army) from being able to avail themselves of this critical group.

      In that sense, subduing and establishing control over Loyalists was actually the primary objective of the Whigs in the South. This is why it appears like a civil war, but controlling the Loyalists was fundamentally not about the Loyalists per se, but about dismantling royal governance early in the war and then preventing the British from reestablishing that authority later in the war.

    • jegrenier says:

      “The military reality seems to refute any political argument favoring the “civil war” concept.” You might want to take a look at the theory of Revolutionary War and insurgency. Military historians have been all over this for years. It is important to look at differences between North, South, Frontier, etc. You might want to pull back from the idea that the Am Rev leaders weren’t concerned about armed intervention by American Loyalists. 🙂

  6. Dan says:

    You mention these things happening “in the midst of imperial collapse.” The problem is, that imperial collapse didn’t just come from nowhere. The leaders in each of the colonies worked long and diligently to bring about that collapse. That collapse *is* the story. I’m speaking for the southern colonies here, but the majority of the violence between Whig and Loyalist was the result of the Whigs trying to prevent the Loyalists from providing support for the royal governments – and later to the British army – so they could hasten that imperial collapse and prevent the British from regaining control (and then Loyalists trying to counter those efforts). It was a struggle for control – of political authority, and of the population, and what came later in the war was a continuation of that struggle.

    The idea that the Revolution was really an accident of mob violence and personal vendettas has been rather over-blown. For example, historians tend to refer to the examples of tarring and feathering in the South as the acts of mobs. They use words like “mob” and “crowd,” but don’t ever bother to look into the names of the people leading these attacks on Loyalists – at every such incident of “mob” violence, it is almost always the same few handful of revolutionary leaders (members of the Councils of Safety, delegates to the Provincial Congresses, etc.) who are leading the show. This was much more of a centrally-directed affair then recent historiography has suggested, and it mostly remained that way even as the British won conventional battles from 1779 on. Holding territory didn’t matter when the Whigs still maintained control of the population and the British didn’t understand the difference.

    There was a logic to the events as they unfolded, and an objective they were trying to achieve. So while there was violence between Loyalist and Whigs, the violence was not really about themselves as much as it was about the broader issue of British rule. I would argue the Revolution was still very much about freeing themselves from the British (and maintaining that freedom). The Loyalists, particularly in the South, were the tool by which the British would retain control, and the Whigs needed to prevent the British from being able to use that tool.

  7. […] Was the American Revolution a Civil War? Early Americanists […]

  8. “Revolution”? A bunch of deadbeat northern merchants ally themselves with Southern slaveholders who see the writing on the wall to escape their responsibilities.

    Sure, that qualifies as a Revolution if Mussolini’s March on Rome is anything but a power grab.

    The original Tea Party? As bogus as the current one: a bunch of drunken town louts dressed up in racist pretend Indian outfits throw tea in the harbour, egged on by the town elders, men more of florid verbal self-expression, happy to see anything that can express their unhappiness with paying taxes. Even, fer goshsakes, a regressive consumption tax.


  9. […] Should we think of the American Revolution as a civil war? […]

  10. Jake says:

    Also check out Griffin’s new book, America’s Revolution, which uses the struggle to extend and reimpose sovereignty as the central frame. It adds even more depth to the “civil war” question.

  11. […] Being A Voluntourist Why Some Bostonians Refuse Shelter In The Dead Of Winter, And How They Survive Was the American Revolution a Civil War? How Self-Branding Killed Individuality: On the Decline of the Renaissance Man The Math That […]

  12. jcharbison says:

    Civil Wars are always called “Revolutions” when they’re being fought. It’s only after the violence recedes that historical interpretation exposes the conflict for what it truly was.

  13. […] Tom Cutterham on the question of whether the Revolution was a “civil war” […]

  14. jafo says:

    You can look at it anyway you want. The highly trained British were still beat twice by peasant farmers. I know, I know, France helped us. But, what other choice did America have? The Brits brought in 1,000s of German Soldiers, aka Hesians. And also turned the Native Americans against the Americans, along with a majority of the African Americans. And the British still got beat.

    The fact remains: US Flag now wave outside, not Fly the Union Jacks, lol. It was a military defeat, and one of the worse defeats Britain faced, outside of Japan kicked their butts in WW2.

    • Mark Atkin says:

      Trying to deny your history won’t make it go away. The truth is the only true Americans at that time were the Native Americans. The colonists were essentially British, hence a civil war. Look at the Patriots flags of the time, all bearing a Union Jack.
      The only part of your diatribe that holds up is the fact that without French connivance, the result would in all likelihood been very different.
      Finally your true colours are revealed in your cheap dig about the British defeat by Japan, a nation who at the same time also kicked America’s butt throughout the Pacific.
      Luckily for the world at large both Britain and America thoroughly crushed the Japanese Empire, administering a far bigger defeat on their armed forces.

  15. jafo says:

    America caused the British Empire to collapse. The Brits couldn’t manage their colonies after their defeat in the USA. Now Britain is nothing more than a puny country in decline. Britain thanks to America, can still get its infulnce through, like before. This is why, America is the most important British partner. Without America in 2014, Britian would fade up like Holland and France. Britain is nothing more than a legend. The British navy is also now a joke. Japan and South Korea have better navies than the Royal Navy. All of this talk about Britian is useless, Because all powers emerge from other countries. Well, except for China. Because before Britain, China was the World Super-Power and they’re on their way to that title again.

    • Beckett says:

      This article and it’s replies were incredibly interesting and informative until this point.
      Now it is simply descending into anglophobia.

    • “America caused the British Empire to collapse. The Brits couldn’t manage their colonies after their defeat in the USA. Now Britain is nothing more than a puny country in decline.”

      Actually, recent studies suggest that the loss of the American colonies taught Britain major lessons about how to manage their colonies in the 19th century leading to the second British empire.

    • Mark Atkin says:

      Your ignorance is staggering.

    • Jacob, a rather ill informed post which strays somewhat from the subject. It should be remembered that before the rebellion, notary Americans such as Franklin, Adams, Washington, etc considered themselves as being English, franklins father was an Englishman, Washington was financed by the families estate in Essex, north east of London. Nearly all of the signatories of the declaration were English or British. The original cry was not one of independence but of representation, the first flag of the United States had the Union Jack where the 50 stars now sit. As for Britain being a puny nation, may I remind you that Britain gave America the electronic computer, working radar, the television, jet engine, World Wide Web, antibiotics, they were the first to split the atom, they gave us the steam engine, our laws, our language and most of our culture, oh yes, the telephone, radio, Anglo Italian. dolly the sheep, the stones, beetles, Queen and the Queen. They gave the world Golf, soccer, rugby American footballs origin, rounders, baseballs origine, table tennis, badminton, rules of tennis, rules of boxing. In 2008 the Japanees trade of commerce proclaimed that of the most relivent modern inventions, Britain accounted for 52 % and the USA 24% not bad for a small puny country, is it?

    • william leadbeater says:

      Hi Jafo, perhaps when you see you school teacher next term you should ask for a little revision as far as History is concerned. China has never been a World Power and Britain, which is undoubtedly a small country about the size of Florida is no longer the world Policeman. The British Empire, as it was did not fall to pieces when those Americans who had sworn an Oath to the King chose to renege, Washington for one, gained their Independence with the help of the French. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were given Independence and the rest too following the second world war. As for Britain being Puny , well Jafo, you are using a British invention, the computer to send messages over another British invention, the WWW in the English language. you live under common law, that’s English common law and you use the same form of Democracy, although in Britain you do not have to be a multi millionaire to run for President/Prime-minister. The Japanese Trade of Commerce, only a few years ago announced that Brtain was responsible for 52% of the most meaningful inventions of the modern world, America came second with 24% Check it out Jafo.
      I think we tend to believe Hollywood and Fox News when the real world is so very different.

  16. […] Tom Cutterham, Was the American Revolution a Civil War? […]

  17. pastnow says:

    Reblogged this on pastnow.

  18. Miguel Hernandez says:

    It is said that approximately 1/3rd of the largely Anglo-American civilian population residing in the 13 British colonies were actively for independence, I/3rd were against it and 1/3rd were neutral. Each of the first two sides took up arms by forming militias and engaging in other actions (spying for instance) designed to advance their cause. Even given the geographical separation between the England and the colonies, the Revolutionary War/ the War for American Independence was an internal violent dispute between the British Crown and British subjects living in America.

    At the time, Great Britain was not a foreign power and the the United States was not yet a nation even though it declared so. It was just a loose confederation of British colonies Furthermore, the conflict that had a significant class warfare aspect with its attending economic, social and political/ideological components. In sum a very strong argument can be made for the civil war classification of this conflict

    In any event there really is no one name or category that can be given to this conflict and its name depends on the context in which it is being written about and otherwise discussed.
    One could make an argument for instance that it was a “World War” because it was also fought on land and sea beyond the borders of the 13 colonies and by numerous sovereign nations like France, Spain, Holland and others as belligerents.

  19. […] Tom Cutterham, “Was the American Revolution a Civil War?,” The Junto, February 18, […]

  20. […] did you (or she?) know that she was wading into an intense and ongoing historiographical debate. Tom Cutterham and Chris Minty could not be reached for […]

  21. […] the American Revolution was a civil war. In doing so he’s responding the the same question asked by Tom Cutterham last year at the same blog. By arguing that the American Revolution was more a civil […]

  22. […] Junto debate about whether or not we can see the War of American Independence as a civil war. Tom Cutterham and Christopher F. Minty have both put forward some excellent arguments outlining the strengths and […]

  23. […] Was the American Revolution a Civil War? […]


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