The Origins of the American Revolution: A Roundtable

“The origins and causes of the Revolution remain the two least studied parts of the Revolution in the last thirty years.” So we suggested in these pages back in spring. Was that assessment correct? Where have historians got to in understanding the origins of the revolution; and where do we still need to go? All this week, members of The Junto will weigh in on the question of causes, in an effort to take stock. This is not intended as a definitive overview of current scholarship. Rather, we’ll be exploring our own idiosyncratic approaches to revolutionary origins, and to the recent scholarship that interests us. We invite you to join in the conversation!

Empire on the EdgeBeyond any new discoveries of evidence and perhaps new technological capacities, every new generation of historians has something unique to contribute to the study of the past—a consciousness of its own time and place. History is written on a tightrope between then and now. Even telling the same story again will always come out differently. Each time you walk the tightrope, there’s a slightly different view. In Nick Bunker’s recent trade book, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (Knopf, 2014), that slight shift of view comes from the economic crisis that took hold in 2008. At his most interesting, Bunker presents the revolution as a story of concatenating crises, how states try to deal with them, and how they are transformed in the attempt. The dominant context for Bunker’s account is not ideological or cultural. It’s what Sven Beckert would call “war capitalism”—the entwined processes of empire and commerce.

The early chapters of Bunker’s book, collectively titled “An Empire of Speculation,” portray a global commercial ecology driven, principally, by the ambitions of British merchants and imperialists in China and the Indian subcontinent. “The British had created a trading system that resembled a giant hedge fund,” a fund that “had come to be an essential source of imperial revenue.” Defending and enforcing that system in turn became an essential function of the imperial state. Of course, the British government could never completely control commerce. It fought a constant battle against vast networks of “smugglers” stretching from Canton to Rhode Island via Amsterdam and Lorient. It also had to deal with the political consequences of taxation and economic fluctuations. Thus the Gaspée incident in 1772 and the financial crash of the same year set the scene for the real central event of Bunker’s story: the near-collapse of the East India Company, and the chain of contingencies that led from there to the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

What distinguishes Bunker’s approach from that of, say, David Waldstreicher and Staughton Lynd, is that Bunker never seeks to make a strong distinction between so-called “economic” and “constitutional” causes of the revolution. Rightly, I think, he approaches commerce and the empire as two sides of the same coin. Nor does he claim that ideas didn’t matter. “In Boston resistance to the tea arose from principle or ideology, call it what you will. In the background, of course, there lay an economic grievance, a sense of frustration at the town’s relative decline that could not be halted inside the empire; and certainly no one wished to pay more for a cup of tea. But… the Tea Party would be driven be ideas.” Bunker’s account captures the importance of the “nexus” of forces and processes that Jack Rakove emphasised in his response to Waldstreicher and Lynd.

There are, of course, limitations to this book. An Empire on the Edge is effectively written from London’s perspective, and it has little to say about the local politics of Boston or anywhere else. It invokes ideas and traces their immediate transmission, but it doesn’t analyse them or their history. Its strength lies in reconstructing the meandering progress of Lord North and his government towards the war, punctuated by frequent crises but by just as many distractions and lulls. It leaves an all-too-plausible sense of how the rulers of a mighty empire often could not see further than the length of Whitehall, or the next election, or the next week’s share price. There were plenty of things those rulers might have done differently (as Bunker often interrupts his narrative to point out), yet the revolution was by no means a result of their failure. Much the same could be said of our own recent financial crisis. As always, the appearance of contingency should point us towards the system in the background.

My hope is that books like Bunker’s mark the end of a fruitless debate among historians that has tried to separate economic from constitutional, imperial, political, or even intellectual causes of the revolution. We’ll always gain much more from looking at how these things worked together than from trying to disentangle them—we should see history less as a neatly compartmentalised TV dinner and more as, I don’t know, a kedgeree? That need not mean a retreat to straightforward narrative. One of the things I like most about An Empire on the Edge is how it uses detailed storytelling to reframe the enormous questions historians are interested in, without trying to answer them itself. Having read it, I’m more convinced than ever that we need a new approach to the political economy of empire, and a new history of the “war capitalism” that lay at the origins of the American Revolution.

21 responses

  1. Often, I’ve found that historians outside the field of legal-constitutional history downplay or even ignore the constitutional dimension of the origins of the Revolution, and that some historians within the field write as if the legal-constitutional dimension is the only one that matters. I have tried in my work to treat both dimensions of the matter. It would be grand if we had more work that would both treat these dimensions of the issue together and, if possible, trace links between them.

    • RBB says it very well – constitutional/legal history of the Revolution tends to be all or nothing, perhaps because of its rigorous and specialized traditions, but some of us have tried to do something about that. I thought that the piece I co-authored with Staughton Lynd, kindly linked by Tom Cutterham, reflected this sensibility. After all, it had “sovereignty” in the title, right after “free trade”! My contribution to this was to stress, as I have elsewhere, how slavery could and did bring together economic and political/constitutional concerns — while providing particularly intense incentives for the patriots’ rhetorical emphasis on principles rather than power or money.

      To Tom’s list of non-academics who have written clarifying and to some extend genre busting books on the coming of the Revolution, I would add Kevin Phillips’ 1775 (2011) and, going back a bit, Theodore Draper’s A Struggle for Power (1996), a more detailed look at the imperial controversy on both sides of the Atlantic –, taking seriously the actors and arguments and not reducing them to ideology — than had been published in some time. I have a few more words on this historiography (reviewing Phillips and 5 other books) in the March 2014 Reviews in American History.

  2. Has anyone read John Miller’s Ideological Origins of the AR?

    I ordered a copy a few days ago and read the introduction on line. It seems like he was wrestling with both the economic and ideological facets simultaneously back in the 40s and 50s.

  3. Bunker offers devastating detail about the ill-informed, patronizing, self-serving, doctrinaire and sometimes feckless actions of Lord North and the British government in the years that led to the sanguinary clash of British regulars and American farmers-militiamen on the road from Concord, through Lexington, to Boston on “that famous day and year.”

    Further, Bunker describes the half-cocked military moves by Lord North and his ministers, in the years leading up to the disastrous outing to Lexington-Concord. The king and his government were not prepared to wage war successfully in North America, partly because they waited too long to believe that the colonists actually would fight, and partly because they disdained the colonials’ fighting capacity, and partly because they put higher priority on their Caribbean sugar colonies, and partly because they were pre-occupied with the military threat posed by France and various European intrigues.

    Bunker does not speculate on a question that occurs to me: after that first shot was fired at Lexington, did the British really commit themselves to winning the war?

    The king and his government made the commitment to fight. They did not, however, at any time before or during the war, commit all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to the military campaign to regain dominion in North America. At the commencement of fighting, a British victory was not immediately feasible. Perhaps it did not become feasible.

    The analysis of the planning and wrangling in Lord North’s war room suggests that the British wanted to win, but didn’t push the right buttons to bring victory within their grasp.

    • It’s true that Bunker pays considerable attention to personalities and failures, but I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of his overall argument, Rick. Blaming North, or any other British official, isn’t the point here (and see Andrew O’Shaugnessy’s latest on the question of blame in the military context!). Its the systems surrounding those individuals that actually matter, isn’t it?

      • Thanks, Tom, I agree that outcomes are determined by men and women acting within and constrained by organizations and systems, in the context of their times. I respect the effect of structures and contingencies. Thanks, too, for the reminder about O’Shaughnessy’s book, I haven’t yet read The Men Who Lost America but it’s on my list.

      • Not entirely sure I agree. The systems matter, but I think Am Rev historiography is beginning to move in a direction in which no one has any ability to do anything through their own actions. If you look at the military perspective, it’s commonplace now to argue the British never really had a chance, the outcome was foreordained, the constraints the British faced elsewhere in the world would keep them from ever achieving military success, Cornwallis and the British could have never conceived of doing anything other than what they did. It’s nearly impossible to read the letters of Cornwallis and, say, James Wright, royal governor of Georgia in 1780-1781, and suggest individual choices were not critical to the course of the war. Even within the system, different people can conceive of doing things in very different ways – systemic forces do not make individual choices irrelevant.

  4. Seems like a must-read as far as overcoming old debates of political economy vs. ideology. In the consciousness of colonists themselves politics, economics and principle were meshed together so how can the imperial contradictions which wrought the Revolution be delineated into distinct/independent “factors”?

    But, then again, at the risk of raising yet another old (tired?) debate – what people are we talking about when we try to understand revolutionary colonists? Weren’t there multiple and even contradictory political movements occurring at once which only contingently and imperfectly cohered into a drive toward independence by 1775/6? I haven’t yet read Bunker’s book, but I’d be interested to know, despite his London focus, which people or groups he outlines as major revolutionary subjects in the colonies.

    • There’s always “multiple and even contradictory … movements occurring at once which only contingently and imperfectly cohere[]” to explain any event of course.

      I think when we say the “cause” we’re really referring to the most significant cause or causes. Of course nothing as significant as the Revolution could be said to truly have one and only one cause as it required the actions of many on both sides of the Atlantic to bring it about. And even individuals often do things for more than one reason.

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  6. I’m late to this, Tom, but I find your review of Bunker’s book compelling, especially your point about how historians have long artificially seperated economic and constitutional issues from one another. It seems to me that disputes over the latter in British America almost always followed from the former, whether we’re talking about the Virginia Company’s charter, the implementation of the Caroline Navigation Acts, the impact of the asiento on royal oversight in the colonies, all the way up to the East India Company’s short-lived team monopoly in the 1770s.

    • Sorry, hit post before I was finished. I wanted to add that the first forays into the battle between colonial jurisdictions and the English/British government were always over company rights or the Crown’s revenue from Atlantic trade. Phil Stern’s book on the East India Company taught us that these issues also informed the government’s disputes with British colonies in Asia, too.

      • Thanks for the kind words, Craig, and for the book recommendation. If I ever get any time, I really feel like going on an East India Company kick…

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    • Tom Cutterham, reviewing Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (Knopf, 2014) states that “what distinguishes Bunker’s approach from that of, say, David Waldstreicher and Staughton Lynd, is that Bunker never seeks to make a strong distinction between so-called “economic” and “constitutional” causes of the revolution.” This trend is something that can be found in many recent historical works concerning both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, in the forward of Mercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and Its Empire, Philip J. Stern and Carl Wennerlind make a similar argument stating that what we (modern) have distinguished between political and economic was not so distinct in the eighteenth century. Both Cutterham and Michael Braddick (in reference to Mercantilism Reimagined) refer to the 2008 stock market debacle, which seems to have reminded us that the political and economic are indeed not distinct.

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