“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!
Beyond 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.