The Origins of the American Revolution: Definition, Periodization, and Complexity

This is the fourth post in a weeklong roundtable about “The Origins of the American Revolution.” On Monday, Tom Cutterham kicked things off by exhorting historians to stop “separat[ing] economic from constitutional, imperial, political, or even intellectual causes of the revolution.” His post was followed on Tuesday by Jessica Parr’s post, which raised questions about the convergence between religious and political rhetoric during the Revolution. Yesterday, Mark Boonshoft considered the importance of civil society and associationism in thinking about the origins of the Revolution. The roundtable will continue tomorrow with a post by Ken Owen and on Saturday with a final guest post by Jackie Reynoso.

7080030In thinking over my contribution to this roundtable, I realized that, in the last two years, I have written at least five posts and done an episode of The JuntoCast on this very topic. In “The Return of the Revolution,” I called for a recommitment to the questions of origins and causes, something that had been hampered by synthetic studies of the late colonial period based on a consensus model. In “#RevReborn, Periodization, and the American Revolution,” I discussed the problematic uncertainty regarding periodization of the Revolution, particularly the recent trend to extend the endpoint of the Revolution and the reluctance to do the same in terms of the beginning of the Revolution. In “Have Cultural Historians Lost the American Revolution?” I tried to understand the recent relative ennui regarding study of the Revolution’s “origins and causes” in the broader context of developments in the field as a whole. And, in “The ‘Suddenness’ of the ‘Alteration’: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2,” I noted the disappointing lack of papers directly engaging the questions of origins and causes at a recent conference devoted to the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act.[1]

Along the way, I have offered a few possible points of inquiry (some well received, some decidedly not but such are the perils of blogging about historiography). I have called for a return to a reconsideration of both internal colonial political and religious conflict in the decades before the Revolution as a way of complicating the consensus narrative of late colonial politics and society and rethinking the internal dimension of the origins of the Revolution. Most “notably,” I have also called for “new cultural studies of the political origins of the Revolution,” suggesting that perhaps pre-existing cultural breaks could have helped make such a relatively quick political break possible. For my thoughts on those questions, you can refer to the pieces linked above. Today, however, I want to talk briefly about the distinction between “origins” and “causes” and a little bit more about why thinking of “cultural origins” may be productive.

What do we mean when we talk about the “origins and causes” of the Revolution? This roundtable, by name, is about one, not the other. Right? Or wrong? In talking about either, one is necessarily putting themselves in a position of having to make a large and (hopefully) synthetic argument, opening themselves up to the stock criticisms often leveled at ideas or works of synthesis. It seems to me there is a perceived connotation of grandiosity in including “origins” or “causes” in the title or subtitle of one’s work, even more so when talking about the “origins of the American Revolution” or “causes of the American Revolution.” In recent decades, the desire to avoid such perceptions gave way to the ostensibly more-inclusive but even more ambiguous phrase, “the coming of the Revolution,” which, to me, often seems to conflate the two. That is, it’s a way of talking about “origins” or “causes” of the Revolution without the perceptual baggage that would come with using the actual terms.[2]

For myself, when I use the phrase, “origins of the American Revolution,” I am referring to long-term developments in the decades prior to independence. For example, when Jack Greene talks about the constitutional origins of the Revolution, he is referring specifically to developments over a period of decades prior to independence, in which competing conceptions of the constitutional arrangement between the colonies and the mother country crystallized. Origins, to me, denote various long-term developments that made both the imperial crisis and independence possible. The phrase “causes of the American Revolution” meanwhile, seems to me to imply short-term developments, perhaps most commonly in the form of more discrete events or changes.

That seems clear enough, but indefinite ideas about periodization make it a bit more complicated.[3] Periodization is crucial to how one would perceive the ideas of long- or short-term. For example, if one is inclined to believe that the Revolution begins in 1765, then the Stamp Act resistance looks very much like one of many “causes.” However, if you believe that the Revolution began sometime between 1774 and 1776, then Stamp Act resistance looks more like part of the “origins” of the Revolution. Therefore, in terms of debating origins and causes, we need not only to distinguish between the two but, those working on the questions, also need to more clearly define their own periodization of the Revolution.

After attending both the MCEAS and the MHS conferences on the Revolution, I am more convinced than ever that indefinite periodization not only has contributed to the perceived incoherence of “revolution studies” generally, but also the stultification of the questions of origins and causes more specifically. Indefinite periodization has also contributed to the field having less a debate about future directions in Revolution studies than having people seemingly talking past each other. In the end, it’s hard for two people have a debate about the Revolution and/or what parts of it are worthy of reevaluation if both mean something different when they say “the Revolution.”

If the roundtable to this point has had a theme, it is a desire for a more complex rendering of the origins of the Revolution that goes beyond constitutional and ideological terms, and that can take into account a variety of potential developments that made the imperial crisis and the Revolution possible. In some sense, the question that follows is: can you have that and still have a coherent synthesis of the “origins of the Revolution.” As I’ve said before, the main question one has to answer regarding the Revolution is: how do you get from 1763 to 1776 in only thirteen years? That is, how you do account for such a relatively quick political break? The answer is the combination of origins and causes.

I have called for thinking about potential “cultural origins” of the Revolution in an attempt to answer that question, in part, because it creates space for a varied set of potential origins, e.g., changes and/or divergences from Britain in economic culture, religious culture, history culture, consumer culture, political culture, or print culture, to name a few. But, in doing so, it also contains a potential conceptual framework for providing a coherent synthetic answer to that fundamentally political question.

Finally, when we are talking about rethinking and revisiting the origins of the Revolution, we are mostly talking about rethinking and revisiting the late colonial period, something I think is highly exciting and a bit overdue as we find ourselves on the other side of the halcyon days of early republic hegemony in the field.[4] In any event, the combination of the spate of conferences on the Revolution, some recent journal articles, and, dare I say, this blog have helped re-start and/or contribute to a discussion about the origins (and causes) of the Revolution.[5] And that can only be a good thing.


[1] Also see Michael D. Hattem, “Reading the Field from a Book: Some Thoughts on Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, January 12, 2015.

[2] Douglas Bradburn, “The Rise of the States: The Problem of Order and the Making of American Independence,” paper presented at the American Historical Association Meeting, January 5, 2008. Also mentioned in the introductory paragraph of Mark Boonshoft’s post.

[3] Another issue raised in yesterday’s post by Mark Boonshoft.

[4] For a post on the importance of the colonial period to understanding the early republic, particularly in recognizing continuities between the two, see Michael D. Hattem, “The Old World of the New Republic,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, August 18, 2014.

[5] For example, see David Waldstreicher, “The Revolutions of Revolution Historiography: Cold War Contradance, Neo-Imperial Waltz, or Jazz Standard?” Reviews in American History 42, no. 1 (March 2014), 23-35; Steven Pincus, “Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 69, no. 1 (January 2012): 3-34; Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher, “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward an Economic Interpretation of American Independence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 68, no. 4 (October 2011): 597-630; Andrew M. Schocket, “The American Revolution: New Directions for a New Century,” Reviews in American History 38, no. 3 (September 2010): 576-86.

7 responses

  1. I have followed this discussion with great interest. Most of what is mentioned I agree with. I wholeheartedly endorse a rejection of fissiparous history — intellectual, cultural or economic. I agree that culture matters and has to matter of defined broadly the way Michael Hattem does. And I also think there is more to religious arguments and networks than we have hitherto admitted. Nevertheless if the question is, as Hattem puts it, “how do you get from 1763 to 1776 in only thirteen years” then the scope of the argument needs to shift. This was not something that happened only in North America or mostly in North America. The years from 1763 to 1776 and beyond represented a fundamental crisis in the governance of the British Empire, and indeed of the French and Spanish empires as well. In the British Empire there was unprecedented social violence in England, increasing levels of political and economic discontent in Scotland and Ireland (the origins of the massive outmigration in this period) there was a radical transformation of the Eastern Empire, there was increasing resistance in the West Indies. Why did this happen? Well, part of the answer has to do with a revolution in imperial governance that began in the early 1760s — a point long known. This was a revolutionary transformation that was a necessary prerequisite, or cause of the Revolution. Its radical nature can only be perceived by looking at the longer term, the origins as Michael Hattem would have it. This requires reassessing the nature of the British Empire prior to the accession of George III. What was it doing? Why was it able to maintain a remarkable degree of loyalty? How was it helping to develop the empire more broadly? This requires intense work in British, West Indian, and Indian archives as wells in North American ones. In fact, I have found the most important and telling accounts of what was happening in the archives of the French foreign ministry and in the Spanish colonial archives in Seville.
    If there was a radical transformation of imperial governance in the 1760s this leads to two question: first why did it happen? Second, why was it not reversed? The answer to the first cannot be made by referring to the massive debt. Massive debt there was — but there was also massive debt in 1714, in 1748 etc. Why the change in response to debt? The second question: why was it not reversed is even more complex. Britain had just emerged victorious from the greatest world war ever fought. They had been led, as the July 1775 declaration written by Dickinson and Jefferson in some combination insists, under the leadership of a great Patriot: William Pitt. Why did his government fall? Why were his supporters unable to bring down the governments that reversed his policies? Without answering these questions it is impossible to come to grips either with the origins or causes of the American Revolution.
    To do all this we need new sources, and new perspectives. Having just concluded a massive reading of the pamphlet debates of the 1760s and 1770s on both sides of the Atlantic I am struck by how little we modern historians have adopted the perspective so often taken by the participants: comparison. Josiah Tucker in 1774 why did the British colonies express so much sustained discontent about imperial governance in the 1760s and 1770s, while the French and Spanish colonies did not. I personally think he came up with the wrong answers, but I also think he was asking the right questions.

    • Steve, thanks for your very thoughtful and insightful comment. As you may have seen, Tom Cutterham suggested the importance of reconsidering the imperial context in the initial post. Similarly, David Waldstreicher has drawn attention in a recent article to what he favorably referred to as the “neo-imperial turn” in recent scholarship on the Revolution. Also, Ken Owen has recently written a post about the importance of politics in thinking about these questions. All three of you make persuasive cases. I would suspect that most people who want to see a reconsideration of the origins of the Revolution understand that developing a more global imperial perspective is a necessarily critical part of any reconsideration worthy of the name. I would suggest that truly coming to grips with origins and causes will require rethinking both external imperial and internal colonial developments and, ideally, understanding the interrelationships between the two.

      • I agree and Barry Shain made the same point in his impressive new collection of documents on the Declaration of Independence (Yale UP). But I worry that folks have not taken on the full implications of the neb-imperial turn — it means actually working in British, French, Spanish, West Indian, Indian archives as well as North American ones. (not just looking at a few items in the CO series at Kew). It also means, as you say connecting this to local colonial developments. I suppose I am in agreement with you that these can no longer be separate enterprises — one cannot assume that specialists in say British politics will tell the imperial story onto which we can map our own local findings or vice versa. Imperial historians need to spend time in Charleston, Boston, Kingston. Early Americanists absolutely must spend time in Edinburgh, Bristol, and Belfast.

        My other point was less neb-imperial than comparative. Things may seem like peculiar developments unless one compares them to what is going on in other empires. So I also think we collectively need to begin to familiarize ourselves not only with the literature about French and Spanish America, but actually begin to work in those archives as well.

      • I should have added that I agree with Cutterham’s point that Bunker did well to recover ideology nut needed to tell a longer term story. I also liked a great deal in Waldstreicher’s piece in the WMQ (thanks to David for bringing it to my attention last January). I also agree with David that slavery — or more properly the political economy of slavery is a central part of the story. But then again we have been blinded into thinking there was not a profound debate about the political economy of slavery. There was such a debate. The Patriots on both sides of the Atlantic, in pamphlets, political memoranda, essays in newspapers developed a profound a critique of slavery. That critique received its first airing in the 1730s and 1740s, and then revived with a vengeance in the 1770s. Most Patriots on both sides of the Atlantic expected in the 1770s that slavery would be abolished. The Somerset decision did not scare them into reaction; but led many to bemoan Mansfield’s limited decision. (The Patriots eagerly reprinted and summarized Hargrave’s far more radical legal statement).
        To summarize Bunker is right to think about imperial political economy being developed in an imperial scale. Waldstreicher is right that slavery was absolutely part of that equation. What needs to be added is the emergence and development of a transatlantic debate about political economy that emerged in the later years of the War of the Spanish Succession, was relayed in numerous publications, and mss circulating on both sides for he Atlantic (and in the East Indies as well), and engaged with French and Spanish political economic thinking.

  2. Pingback: The Origins of the American Revolution: Politics and Politicized Societies « The Junto

  3. Pingback: The Origins of the American Revolution: Empire « The Junto

  4. Pingback: Considering origins, causes, and ways to look approach the American revolutionary period « The Historic Interpreter


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: