The Origins of the American Revolution: Politics and Politicized Societies

This is the fifth 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.” On Tuesday Jessica Parr raised questions about the convergence of religious and political rhetoric during the Revolution. Mark Boonshoft considered the importance of civil society and associationism, and yesterday Michael Hattem called for sharper attention to the periodization of the Revolution. In today’s post, Ken Owen argues for using politics as the lens with which to sharpen our focus on the disjunctures of the 1760s and 1770s. Tomorrow, the roundtable will conclude with a guest post from Jackie Reynoso.

7080030Revolutionary America was a politicized society. All of the most important conflicts of the American Revolution, from the Stamp Act through Independence to the ratification of the Constitution, were sharply divisive events which demanded citizens take sides. Even neutrals were compelled to give outward displays of support to either patriots or loyalists (often both!). There were very little chances to avoid conflict over such weighty issues—they would reshape and redefine friendships, families, and communities.

These are scarcely new observations, but when considering the origins and causes of the American Revolution, they are important to bear in mind. The coercive practices of revolutionary partisans made the 1760s and, especially, the 1770s, a period of marked discontinuities with the past; a period in which former shibboleths of political, social and cultural identity were challenged to breaking point. And it was the political mechanisms through which the Revolution was prosecuted (committees, town meetings, military associations and mobs) which forced the politicization of American society at this time. Clearly, the thirteen colonies which became the United States of America were diverse polities with many social, economic, and cultural divides. The Imperial Crisis, though, and the question of Independence, ultimately forced people to make reductionist choices.

This is a rather blunt opening to the fifth post in a roundtable that has thus far been characterized by a reasoned ecumenicalism as far as historiographic schools are concerned. If there has been a theme emerging in my fellow Juntoists’ considerations of the origins of the Revolution, it is the necessity of moving beyond old divides—whether of constitutional and economic history, or religious and political, or legal and social. And up to a point, such an approach is definitely right. As I argued back in April, any new synthesis of the American Revolution will require consideration of decades of social and cultural history. But there is also a need to put a sharp point on a study of the American Revolution. Ultimately, that point is politics.

This is partially a call to consider “causes” of the American Revolution as a more pressing historiographical question than the “origins” of the Revolution. There is a great (and growing!) body of work on eighteenth-century colonial history; many of these works, though, are far more focused on the decades preceding the Revolution than in explaining the forces of the 1760s and 1770s. Many of these works, indeed, point to growing links between the colonies and England in the eighteenth-century, only highlighting the disjuncture with the Revolutionary decades. Meanwhile, the political histories of the early Republic and antebellum era have raised questions of how far the Revolution lived up to its ideals—raising the question of whether we have properly understood the causes and the purposes of the Revolution in the first place.

The convergence of these questions comes back to politics and the politicized society. If we take Tom’s eloquent call from Monday to look into the political economy of the Revolution, we must be careful not to focus too much on the wider economic structures that Tom asks us to look at—for there is a clear danger that if we do so, then we lose a sense of the particularity of the events of the Revolution. If inequality and depression did not cause a break with England at other points of economic distress, how far can we use those explanations to adequately explain Independence?

Similarly, when Mark points toward the growing studies of the flourishing civil society of the eighteenth century, it is important to bear in mind that by the 1770s, that civil society had turned into a sharply political one. That is not to argue that there weren’t politics in civil society; nor is it to argue that the structures of associational life didn’t have an important bearing on how Americans chose to prosecute resistance to the British. At the same time, though, it is very different organizing a committee to enforce a non-importation agreement than it is to run a fire society or a library company. At the very least, the difference between civil society and a politicized society is large in degree. I suspect the difference may even be one of kind.

In trying to move toward a new understanding of the origins and causes of the American Revolution, we should not lose sight of the political movements and the political organization necessary to prosecute such a large effort. The work of social, cultural, religious and economic historians has given us the tools, and the broader range of vision, that we need to return to studying the revolutionary decades with renewed vim and vigor. Any new study of origins and causes, though, requires a sharp lens with which to bring this broader historiography into focus. Without highlighting the direct political experience of the American Revolution, we will not adequately understand its causes.

9 responses

  1. Really interesting stuff here, Kenneth. I think you are, for the most part, right about politics being an invaluable component that we need to take into account to truly understand the Revolution. That said, I would push back slightly by asking what your definition of politics in this case actually is?

    I ask this because I don’t think your interest is in political *ideas* and how they drove the Revolution, but in political *actions* and how these differed from the social transactions of civil society. I think this is an interesting question, but it requires us to distinguish between political actions at the local and governmental level in a way that I personally don’t think is all that valuable in an eighteenth century context. Put another way: I don’t necessarily agree that “it is very different organizing a committee to enforce a non-importation agreement than it is to run a fire society or a library company,” since the latter groups could very well have sprung up in response to lax public safety initiatives on the part of a town council, or as part of a concerted effort to curate knowledge to peddle a particular idea about history, philosophy, or economics.

    As I mentioned in my response to Jessica Parr’s post, I think one of the hardest things about the Revolution (and really, any major political event in the early modern period) is determining to what extent most people really engaged with the broader concepts driving change on a trans-colonial or trans-national level, and to what extent their reaction was localized and in response to leaders who were perhaps more tuned in to the imperial or Atlantic context than they were. The question is worth pursuing, however, and although I don’t completely agree with your answer here, I appreciate your attempt one all the same.

    • Craig, thanks for such a thoughtful comment and sorry that it’s taken me a few days to get back to you.

      My response here will be brief, but I think I’ll probably look to define ‘politicized society’ in greater detail in another post – thanks to your prompting.

      Yes, I’m looking much more at political action than political ideas. Indeed, I’d almost go so far as to say you cannot really discern political ideas except by looking at political actions – certainly ideas are a much more amorphous historical phenomenon without being pinned to specific actions. That does mean that I view the primary motors of change in the American Revolution as much more localized than histories emphasizing an imperial or Atlantic dimension would suggest; part of the reason I wrote this post as I did was to try and work out the dialectic between those two positions. Ultimately, though, I think that the mobilization of the revolution was achieved because people felt tangible results through their activities.

      As far as the differences between civil and political society go – the main distinction I see here is that in a political or politicized society, actions necessarily draw in a much larger crowd of interested observers (or affected peoples) than civil society. The example I’d talk about here is price-fixing committees. Ostensibly, these were committees designed purely to look at the functioning of trade within specific localities. But the political actions and the political claims they made forced those who ran the committee system to engage with people and interests outside of their sphere – notably, in this case, the affect merchants. It’s in that balance of interests that I think the difference lies. As I stated in the post, I am not totally sure if this is a difference of kind or of degree, but it’s a critical difference in my mind.

  2. Ken and all Junto-istas–I really find these posts thoughtful and provocative. However, in framing the question about the Revolution in terms of “causes” or “origins” aren’t you neglecting the point that Al Young made many years ago: WHOSE REVOLUTION WAS IT? The language of causes/origins seems to imply something monolithic and obscures, I think, a more precise discussion about which factors led which groups to support the cause.In other words, how do you all reconcile the idea of many paths to revolution with a discussion of causes/origins?.

    • That’s an excellent point, Rosemarie. As I mentioned in my post, the overarching theme of the roundtable seems to be that any reconsideration of either origins or causes should be “multi-faceted and complex.” as Jessica Parr put it in her post. We have decidedly used those terms in the plural and I think that is borne out in the roundtable’s raising of questions about empire, religion, culture, and politics. So, while I can see how those terms might carry monolithic connotations, I think that is due far more to the way they have been used in the past than in this roundtable. I don’t think we’ve had five posts proposing five discrete contenders for the title of “origin,” but rather five posts suggesting different aspects that, along with others, might give a more well-rounded explication of the origins of the Revolution without descending into atomization.

      I think you’re right in implying that “class” is a glaring omission in this roundtable. The question is whether that omission was purposeful or an oversight. I can’t speak for the others who contributed to the panel but I’m not sure Young’s question, in the neo-progressive/class-based way in which it has traditionally been framed, necessarily lends itself to those topics as well as it does to the topics of the course and consequences of the Revolution. Though I am happy to be convinced otherwise. And I do agree with you that questions of the role of group (and, for that matter, imperial) identity in placing colonists on a wide spectrum of allegiance provide a way to tell a socio-political story about the coming of the Revolution. In fact, our own Chris Minty has recently been working on those very questions and a number of us take group/community/network formation into account in our work (though not necessarily or directly applied to the specific question you raised).

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

  4. Craig Gallagher brings up a good point above–how do we define the political? Publications from Steve Pincus (“Rethinking Mercantilism), William Pettigrew (Freedom’s Debt); Mercantilism Reimagined eds. Philip Stern and Carl Wennerlind; and others poise similar questions. Modern concepts of politics and economics, of course, see these as two separate spheres, but this kind of thinking has largely changed or is changing (influences of 2008?). How do we reconcile these seemingly disparate spheres? The political, here, involves economic, institutional, social, and cultural–I would say especially social/ cultural. Gallagher’s thought about re-envisioning the political process(es) as local events also has to be accounted for. How did the myriad local ‘political’ events influence the big Political events (as we know them)?

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

  6. A fine contribution, Ken.

    Bathsheba Spooner: A Revolutionary Murder Conspiracy, which I’ll have published in March, examines the trial of Spooner and her three accomplices (including two British POWs) who murdered her Patriot husband. She was hanged alongside the men, despite the fact that she was five months pregnant, the child’s father apparently her seventeen-year-old American militiaman and lover. Bathsheba’s father was one of the most infamous Tories in Massachusetts, and despite evidence suggesting she was in fact pregnant, the powers in Boston could not be persuaded. Was the case politicized? Given the heated dynamics of 1778, it is highly likely.


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