The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence
by Robert W. Tucker, by David C. Hendrickson
Johns Hopkins University Press, 450 pp., $24.00
A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790
by Edward Countryman
Johns Hopkins University Press, 388 pp., $24.50
Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800
by Jay Fliegelman
Cambridge University Press, 328 pp., $24.95
The American Revolution has always appeared to be a strange revolution. It seems very different from the other great modern revolutions, the French and Russian, which presumably arose out of real oppression and real deprivations. The eighteenth-century colonists who revolted were not by any stretch of the imagination an oppressed people. They had no crushing monarchical or imperial chains to throw off. There were few vestiges of feudalism left in colonial America, and there was little of the widespread poverty still afflicting France and Britain. Nowhere in America was there anything comparable to the vile and violent gin-soaked slums of London. In America there were no great aristocrats like those of eighteenth-century England who built such magnificent palaces for themselves. William Byrd’s Virginia Westover was one of the largest of colonial mansions. Yet it was scarcely a tenth of the size of the marquess of Rockingham’s country house, Wentworth Woodhouse, which was longer than two football fields.
In America there was no titled nobility to speak of, no court, no powerful overarching established church. Most of the white population was composed of freeholders, and most of them could vote. In short, the eighteenth-century colonists were freer, had less inequality, were more prosperous and less burdened with cumbersome feudal restraints than any other part of mankind in the eighteenth century, and more important they knew it. Why then a revolution? Why should such a free and prosperous people want to change things? The objective political and social reality does not seem capable of explaining a revolution.
Most historians, from Moses Coit Tyler to Edmund S. Morgan, have conceded the unusual character of the American Revolution. It was not, they say, a typical social revolution; instead, it was a peculiarly intellectual affair. Americans revolted not out of actual suffering but out of reasoned principle; they revolted not against tyranny inflicted but tyranny anticipated. The American Revolution, many historians have suggested, was designed not to change but to preserve the existing social order. It was a rationally conservative movement involving mainly a constitutional defense by the colonists of their political liberties against the abrupt and unexpected encroachments of the British government. If the British government had not tried to change the empire in the 1760s and 1770s, the colonists would never have rebelled.
Since this was largely the view of the Whig patriots who led the Revolution, historians who have repeated it have not inappropriately been called “Whig” or “neo-Whig” historians. This interpretation of the Revolution as a principled defense of American rights against British encroachments (“no taxation without representation”) is intrinsically slanted toward the patriots; however subtly presented, it aims to justify the Revolution. It is against this Whig bias in our history writing that Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson have written their new study of the origins of the American Revolution.
Robert W. Tucker, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, has not previously written about eighteenth-century American history. He is in fact best known for his …