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.
Revolutionary 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.