Historiography of The American Revolution

Historiography of The American Revolution

This excellent essay was written by Study Room. Before it became Study Room it was prodcuced by Steve Thompson, who was the  first author of this essay.  Many of the important books on the American Revolution can be found in the State library. See my post below.

Revolutions are complex, tumultuous events that invite many different interpretations and points-of-view. Writing the history of a revolution is often as contentious as participating in one. The historian must make some critical decisions that will shape the outcome of his or her research. The historian must decide which particular people, groups, conditions or historical forces are important and will be emphasised in their research. The historian must draw conclusions from the evidence that he or she locates and analyses. Historians may be influenced by other historians of their time. They may also be influenced by their own views and political ideology. Over time, perspectives of the American Revolution have shifted; schools of thought have come, gone and re-emerged in new forms. What follows is a summary of some of the prevailing schools of American Revolution historiography:

The Whigs (19th century)

For virtually the whole of the 1800s, the history of the American Revolution was told as a grand narrative, as a struggle between the forces of liberty and modernity (America) and a regressive, corrupt and morally bankrupt empire (Britain). Among the first ‘histories’ to appear in the early 1800s were biographies of notable revolutionary leaders, such as Parson Weems’ Life of Washington and Life of Benjamin Franklin, and William Wirt’s Life and Character of Patrick Henry. These early texts celebrated the lives of their subject, with little regard for objective analysis or factual analysis. Recent research suggests that these biographies exaggerate and perhaps even falsify critical facts about the revolution and those involved in it. Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry, for example, contains word-for-word records of his speeches, even though no verbatim transcript was ever made; this suggests that Wirt reconstructed the speeches himself, using considerable creative flair in the process. Historian Ray Raphael’s book Founding Myths explains that many of the commonly accepted – but utterly inaccurate – modern-day myths about the American Revolution were actually invented during the first half of the 1800s, when historical research took a backseat to literary creativity.

The second half of the 1800s saw more studious histories develop. Most were Whig histories because their underlying theme was the progress of mankind – and they viewed the role of the American Revolution in achieving this progress to be profound. Historians who advanced this perspective included George Bancroft (History of the United States of America) and John Fiske (The American Revolution). To these writers, the revolution and its foundations – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – marked the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon Western society. That it was all done with little bloodshed, minimal destruction and a popular consensus was testimony to the American people and their desire for freedom and progress. Radicals who had argued for even more change – such as Thomas Paine, with his scepticism about religion – were overlooked or ‘written out’ of the revolution.

The Progressives (early 1900s)

The Whig view did not hold ground in the early 20th century. A new breed of historians, the Progressives, challenged the view that the revolution was all about benevolence, consensus and progress. These scholars suggested that the revolution was driven more by economic factors and self-interest than it was by patriotism and conscience. One of the first to challenge the Whig conception of benevolent ‘Founding Fathers’ was Charles Beard, whose An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution dared to suggest that perhaps the constitutional drafters were shaped as much by their own class interests than grander philosophical ideas. Arthur Schlesinger’s The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution suggested that the causes of the revolution were less about tyrannical British policies than profit-driven American traders, keen to throw off the constraints of empire. And Merrill Jensen’s Articles of Confederation challenged the prevailing belief, perpetuated by Federalists and their sympathisers, that the Articles were fundamentally flawed; Jensen instead argued that America’s economic slump in the 1780s was an after-effect of war, and that the move against the Articles was driven by nationalists who favoured stronger controls over trade and finance.

Progressive historians were prominent in the first three decades of the 1900s and changed how many viewed the revolution. The Whig idea of a consensus was abandoned; colonial and revolutionary American society was much more undemocratic and divided by class conflict. The revolution unleashed popular democratic forces that became problematic in the new society. The Constitution was an attempt to quell these ‘dangerous’ forces, which reached their chrysalis in Shays’ Rebellion. The ratification debate and the divisions between Federalists and Anti-Federalists was another expression of the fundamental divisions that still existed in American society.

The Imperial School (early 1900s)

Co-existing with the Progressives was another school of historians, who preferred to view the revolution in a broader context. The Imperial School developed a more subtle understanding of the revolution. They viewed the colonies as an integral part of the British Empire; the taxation disputes and constitutional crises of the 1760s were caused by problems of imperial management and policy. Imperial historians believed the Navigation Acts and mercantilist laws were not oppressive or excessively restrictive; if they had been then the American colonies would not have flourished as they did. Lewis Namier’s Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III instead suggested the source of revolution was Britain’s political instability; a succession of inexperienced Tory ministries, confronted with pressing economic problems, adopted imperial policies without considering or fully understanding their likely impact. This generated a constitutional crisis and a shift in perceptions on both sides of the Atlantic. Other Imperial School historians include Charles Andrews (The Colonial Period) and Lawrence Gipson (The British Empire before the American Revolution).

The Conservatives (mid-1900s)

Another school of historians emerged post-World War II, including Daniel Boorstin (The Colonial Experience), Edmund Morgan (The American Revolution: A Review of Changing Interpetations) and Richard Hofstader (The United States: the History of a Republic). Their fundamental contention was that the revolution was fought to protect what already existed in America; it did not attempt to generate something new. These scholars argued that colonial America had already evolved into a free and functional society, democratic in comparison to Europe, with a strong consensus about government. They dismiss the idea of class conflict, arguing that colonial rebellions and uprising took place on the lawless fringes of colonial settlement. Most Americans instead accepted the idea of self-government, participating in town meetings, county and provincial assemblies; they were literate, reasonably informed and alert to their rights as free subjects of Britain. When they perceived these rights were being infringed, they sought to separate from England – not to radically change the social or economic order in America. Conservative historians therefore see the American Revolution as a war for independence and change in government, more than a true revolution.

The Neo-Whigs (later 1900s to today)

The last part of the 20th century saw a revival of Whig approaches to the history of the revolution. The two main protagonists of this neo-Whig view are Bernard Bailyn (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) and his former student Gordon Wood (Radicalism of the American Revolution). Both view the revolution as a social and political upheaval generated by ideas. Bailyn’s focus on political expressions, particularly the production of pamphlets and broadsides, showed that the revolution was fuelled by discussion and debate as much as action. Wood’s focus is more on social transformation: he argues that Americans wanted to create a society that was distinct from the ‘old world’ of Europe. Monarchy, hereditary privilege and social hierarchies were challenged, to be replaced by a meritocratic republican society where talent, ability and initiative would determine one’s status. Both historians suggested that the revolution was truly radical and marked a important step in the progress of human civilisation.

The Left (later 1900s to today)

The revolution has also been deconstructed and interpreted by moderate and radical left-wing historians. Focusing on class, race and gender, these writers go to greater lengths to explain the role ordinary people played in the unfolding rebellion. Jesse Lemisch’s Jack Tar versus John Bull, for example, places sailors at the heart of revolutionary events; colonial seamen feared impressment, were complicit in maritime smuggling and were active contributors to radical mobs and committees. Gary Nash’s Unknown American Revolution paints a revolutionary society that was politically disorderly, riddled with class conflicts and driven by a mistrust of authority.  Edward Countryman (The American Revolution) and Ray Raphael (Founders) also consider the role ordinary and often unheralded people played in the advancement of revolution. Radicals such as Thomas Paine, once overlooked by historians, were again included in the narrative. On the radical left, historians such as Francis Jennings and Howard Zinn dismiss the American Revolution as the disingenuous work of elites, eager to snatch political control from the British. They regard the political ideology and rhetoric of the period as hollow propaganda, little more than a recruiting slogan; the Constitution was more about protecting the status quo and imposing order than it was empowering the people of America.

Responses

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. The problem ith those who think that the Revolution was a disingenuous work of elites, eager to snatch political control from the British is that they left in the constitutional heritage with the force of law, from the very beginning, two clear constitutional statements that supported the more egalitarian society and restrictions on accumulations of wealth and power. See my The Cornerstone Brief and Secrets of the Forgotten American Revolution. published in 2015. Edward D. Campbell

  3. “That it was all done with little bloodshed…”

    I don’t think so. Revolution was 2nd deadliest war in US history,
    in percentage of population killed, after the Civil War

  4. Very interesting and helpful. I started looking into this about 2 years ago when the anniversary of 1812 started reminding me of questions I’d had since I heard a second opinion on that topic after moving from the US to Canada as a teenager.

    I’m puzzled by the absence of any mention of Mercy Otis-Warren’s rather front-&-center-seat “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution in 2 vols” [1805]. It strikes me as a rather glaring omission, especially as some refer to Otis-Warren as the first American feminist, and the author made an effort to be gender-neutral elsewhere. She did, after all, have a brother who signed the Declaration, and regularly supped with John Adams and others. I can’t imagine professor Thompson believes she was “just a woman,” nonetheless, she’s hardly “just a Whig.”

    http://oll.libertyfund.org/?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1872&Itemid=27

    • It’s because her work is often seen as more of a primary source than a historiographical treatment, she was writing about an event that happened not long ago, and there were many flaws in her book.

  5. very interesting to read this- takes me back to 2nd year American History at York University, in Toronto. I get really annoyed by popular depictions of the American War of Independence / Revolution which portray it as a monolithic event, and portray the entire conflict purely from the Whig historiographical perspective.

  6. Thank you! I just [Feb. 6, 2013] came across a history lecture on iTunes made by a Stanford prof (“How Radical was the Revolution and How Reactionary was the Constitution? (April 21, 2009)”), and he referred to himself as a “Neo-Whig.” Your article was super helpful – thanks!

  7. Steve Thompson wrote this essay for Year 12 students doing the VCE Revolutions Course in Victoria, Australia. The essay refers directly to important works and historians which you can check out yourself.
    David Hone


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