On February 18, 2014, Tom Cutterham asked, “Was the American Revolution a Civil War?” According to Cutterham, understanding the Revolution that way might be useful. If we did, he suggested, “we’d better understand the way the modern world—the nexus of state, citizen, and property—was born in and determined by violence.”
Understanding the American Revolution as a civil war is an accepted concept. In 1975, John Shy argued that the Revolution was a civil war. Since then, a number of historians have made similar propositions. More recently, in 2012, Alan Taylor delivered a talk, in New Mexico, titled “The First American Civil War: The Revolution.” There are other instances, too, and they are not hard to find or engage with. I don’t think historians will jettison the civil war framework, either. Indeed, we will be understanding the Revolution as a civil war indefinitely.
Was the American Revolution a “civil war,” though? I mean, seriously? Or, is framing the Revolution as a civil war another way to package the conflict with hopes of making it more appealing?
However packaged, framing the American Revolution as a civil war is hard. It does not fit neatly alongside other “civil wars.” The American Civil War, the English Civil War, and the Spanish Civil War were different conflicts, taking place amid contrasting social, political, and cultural circumstances.
More substantively, though, the difficulties of comparing the American Revolution to these civil wars relates to how we conceptualize the constitutional arrangement of the eighteenth-century British Empire. Were Britain’s North American colonies woven into the Empire’s fabric? Was it an organized political entity in 1775? Was the Empire working? How did Britons view the constitutional crisis? Did people in Aberdeen, Bristol, or London call the Revolution a “civil war”? What about colonists in urban centers, rural hamlets, or in the backcountry? Answers to these questions could differ, sharply, but they would provide a fascinating insight into how the conflict was perceived on both sides of the Atlantic.
Conceptualizing the American Revolution as a civil war, moreover, suggests that there were coherent groups of loyalists and patriots—groups which were in consistent opposition to one another. It didn’t work out that way, though. People changed sides as their wartime circumstances changed. The Revolution wasn’t a simple conflict between loyalists and patriots. Allegiances weren’t always volitional. People didn’t always have the luxury to “choose their own loyalty”; under strenuous circumstances, they were forced to make a decision. Put simply, their “loyalty” was often enforced.
The problem of allegiance thus begs the question: Can we really use the term “civil war” to describe a conflict involving (markedly different) people, who were not opposed to changing sides?
Clearly, then, a problem associated with understanding the American Revolution as a civil war relates to definition—what is a “civil war”? And what is a “civil war” vis-à-vis the American Revolution and its participants? How did they understand it? This last question is central. Eighteenth-century words and terms do not hold the same definition(s) or meaning(s) today.
Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “civil war” as a “war between the citizens or inhabitants of a single country, state, or community.” This is a good starting point. But we should avoid thorny issues of anachronism associated with labelling colonists citizens of a “country” or “state,” prior to 1776. This would be misleading. Indeed, one might even suggest that labelling colonists “Americans” before 1778, when France recognized the U.S., or 1783, when King George III did, is anachronistic and forward-thinking. With the OED definition, then, focusing on individual communities appears to be the most appropriate option. From this, comparative analyses might be particularly fruitful.
An example. In New York, people changed sides, a lot. In November 1778, nearly every member of a Committee of Safety, in Brookhaven, Suffolk County, took the oath of allegiance to King George III after spending some three years persecuting suspected loyalists. Further, a significant proportion of those in Brookhaven who signed the Continental Association, in 1775, took the oath, as well. Is this a “civil war”?
In contrast, in South Carolina, a bitter conflict endured. It was a divisive conflict; communities and families fought each other and neighbors attacked each other based on their beliefs. As one inhabitant put it, “They pursue each other with as much relentless fury as beasts of prey.” According to Rebecca Brannon, “South Carolina experienced a genuine civil war during the American Revolution.”
The American Revolution in New York does not equal American Revolution in South Carolina. They were different conflicts, fought under different social, political, and economic circumstances. So, if historians are to continue using the term “civil war” to describe the Revolution, we need to recognize how people’s allegiances, as well as their constitutional interpretation(s) of the British Empire vis-à-vis colonial legislatures, were rationalized and articulated in different ways, amid different circumstances, across Revolutionary America. The urban Revolution doesn’t equal the rural Revolution or the backcountry Revolution.
In the end, using the “civil war” framework is something that we’re stuck with, especially in teaching situations. (I imagine the question, “Was the American Revolution a civil war?,” is rather popular.) But, it is important to recognize the difficulties of conceptualizing the Revolution this way. So, just because David Armitage said, “Every great revolution is a civil war,” it doesn’t make it so. Indeed, we must remember, at all times, that my American Revolution wasn’t necessarily yours.
 John Shy, “The Loyalist Problem in the Lower Hudson Valley: The British Perspective,” in Robert A. East and Jacob Judd, eds., The Loyalist Americans: A Focus on Greater New York (Tarrytown: Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1975), 3; see also, Jonathan Clark, “The Problem of Allegiance in Revolutionary Poughkeepsie,” in David Hall, John M. Morrin, and Thad W. Tate, eds., Saints and Revolutionaries: Essays on Early American History (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984), 285–317.
 See Heather Schwartz, “Re-Writing the Empire: Plans for Institutional Reform in British America, 1675–1791” (Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2011).
 James H. Kettner, “The Development of American Citizenship in the Revolutionary Era: The Idea of Volitional Allegiance,” The American Journal of Legal History 18, no. 3 (July 1974): 208–42, quote at 212; see also Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1978).
 Douglas Bradburn, The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774–1804 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 3.
 Rebecca N. Brannon, “Reconciling the Revolution: Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Community in the Wake of Civil War in South Carolina, 1775–1860” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2007), ch. 1.