Battle Over the Revolution

From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776

by Pauline Maier
Knopf, 318 pp., $10.00

Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774

by Richard D. Brown
Harvard, 282 pp., $10.00

The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789

by Mary Beth Norton
Little, Brown, 333 pp., $12.50

Securing the Revolution: Ideology in American Politics, 1789-1815

by Richard Buel Jr.
Cornell, 391 pp., $14.50

As everyone must know by now, the bicentennial of American independence is fast approaching. But what kind of revolution will we be commemorating in 1976? The axiom that each generation rewrites history in its own image has certainly proven true of the American Revolution.

Earlier in this century, “progressive historians” like Carl Becker and Charles Beard argued that the Revolution, like the rest of American history, was dominated by a struggle between oligarchy and democracy, between business interests and the “common man.” In their view, there were two simultaneous contests—the battle for home rule and the struggle over who should rule at home.

Opposition to British measures was begun in the 1760s among the aristocratic merchants and planters who dominated colonial society and politics. But almost from the start, they were faced with pressure from below, from the impoverished urban artisans and rural yeomen who resented their own exclusion from political power as much as they opposed British rule. Rioting was their form of political expression, and through extralegal committees like the Sons of Liberty they entered political life. In the end, these lower-class groups strengthened the commitment to independence and won a series of democratic changes in American political life, although never completely overturning the power of the oligarchy.

That, to sum it up briefly, is the progressive interpretation. Over the past twenty years it has been attacked by historians who emphasize what Americans have in common rather than what divides them. Investigations of colonial society and politics have shown that property-holding and the suffrage were far more widespread than had been believed. If colonial America was a “middle-class democracy” and if even the urban artisans were property-holding entrepreneurs rather than impoverished radicals, then surely class conflict played little part in bringing about the Revolution. In the search for causes of the Revolution, demands for social change gave way to conflicts of ideas.

To the progressives, ideologies were simply masks for economic interests. Ideas were best understood as propaganda; it was their function, not their content, that was significant. But recent writers have taken the ideas of the revolutionists far more seriously, a trend culminating in the most influential book published on the Revolution in the past two decades, Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

Based on a study of the pamphlet literature of the period, Bailyn’s book brilliantly outlined the revolutionaries’ view of history as a constant struggle between liberty and power, in which citizens had always to oppose governmental encroachments on their rights. Only within the setting of their ideological convictions about the fragility of liberty and the aggressions of power could the colonists’ reactions to British measures of the 1760s and 1770s be explained. Eventually Americans struck for independence, not to transform their society but to preserve the liberties they already enjoyed. Although the Revolution transformed some institutions—the abolition of slavery in the North is perhaps the best example—it mostly rationalized and confirmed a political and social …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Come to the Fair April 5, 1973