The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence
A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790
Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800
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 hard-nosed and iconoclastic analyses of present-day international politics and American world interests. To get some historical leverage on the present, he set out a few years back to write a history of America’s rise to world power, of which this book was to be merely the first chapter. Not only did the chapter grow into a book but Tucker’s graduate assistant, David C. Hendrickson, eventually became the book’s joint author. Tucker and his assistant thus approach the origins of the Revolution not as traditional historians. They have the world politics of the present century very much on their minds and are eager to apply their knowledge of the “science” of international diplomacy to the breakup of the first British empire.
Tucker and Hendrickson treat the crisis between Great Britain and its North American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s as if the antagonists were two separate states or powers in international politics. It is a curious approach to say the least, but it is important for the authors’ argument; for only in such a political-science view can they distinguish between status quo powers on the one hand and rising challenging powers on the other. Since the traditional Whig interpretation of the origins of the Revolution rests on the assumption that it was Great Britain that upset the status quo, Tucker and Hendrickson are eager to show the contrary: that the colonies were really the challenging power and that Britain, far from being the aggressor American Whigs said it was, was in fact throughout the crisis much too passive, too soft, too conciliatory, and too unwilling to defend its legitimate interests until it was too late. The book is therefore not another narrative history of the events of the 1760s and 1770s leading up to the Revolution but an intensive analysis of British policy carried on in the form of a running quarrel with all those Whig historians who have depicted the colonies as the victims of British aggression.
The book is divided into four parts. After Part One, which contains two chapters superbly analyzing the causes and consequences of the Peace of 1763 ending the Seven Years’ War, Tucker and Hendrickson devote five chapters to Part Two, “The Status Quo,” in order to set it straight just who was challenging whom. In this section the authors argue that the colonists’ conception of the status quo was not the same as that of Great Britain, that indeed it was a conception of the status quo that no imperial power at any time could have accepted—breathtaking in the freedom and autonomy it allowed the colonists. “Given this conception of the status quo,” the authors write, “it is not surprising that the colonists should have taken a position rising powers have but rarely taken and that they should have resisted the British measures of imperial reform in the name of the status quo.” British officials, however, had a very different understanding of the imperial relationship, one “in which the colonies remained in a clearly subordinate status” and which “enabled the mother country to take such measures as would insure the continuance of this status.” Why, the authors quite pointedly ask, should the colonists’ rather than Britain’s version of the status quo be the one accepted by historians?
From the British perspective (which is the authors’ throughout) the actions by the mother country in the 1760s were thus not radical and arbitrary changes but rather simple adjustments to an imperial relationship that Britain had pressing need of making and had every right as an imperial power to make in order to protect its vital interests. Tucker and Hendrickson are certainly right in saying that most British officials did not conceive of the Proclamation of 1763, the Sugar Act of 1764, or even the Stamp Act of 1765 as constituting any fundamental alteration of the empire. This is an explanation but hardly a justification for their actions, however, for the fact was the colonists saw the relationship differently. Whatever the legal or theoretical situation, the empire had long become something else in reality from what British officials thought it was, and Britain’s ignorance and neglect of that reality through the first half of the eighteenth century was its ultimate undoing. At any rate we ought to be long past the point where we are asking: who was responsible for the breakup of the first British Empire? From what we now know of the complexity of the event, it simply is not a good historical question to ask.
It is, however, the question that Tucker and Hendrickson ask throughout, essentially because, as they rightly complain, it is the question that the Whig historians have always implicitly asked. Like the Whig historians they too end up blaming the British, but not for the same reasons. For Tucker and Hendrickson Great Britain was at fault because when once confronted with American resistance to the Stamp Act, it showed itself unwilling to use force to back up its interests. “The authority of empire,” the authors declare, “is endangered by verbal defiance that goes unpunished. It is lost through the failure to respond effectively to active resistance.” Tucker and Hendrickson are merciless in their criticism of the British government for “asserting sovereign authority without a willingness to enforce that authority.” By repealing the Stamp Act the British government found itself on a slippery slope of concessions. Not to put too fine a point on it, “the pattern of policy that resulted—and that would persist for nearly a decade—was one of appeasement.” Thus Part Three of the book, constituting four crucial chapters dealing with the period between 1765 and 1773, is entitled “The Diplomacy of Appeasement.”
“Appeasement” is a loaded word for us, and the authors mean for us to feel its force. Do not be persuaded, they say, by British arguments that the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 was done to protect commercial interests, “for appeasement is nearly always marked by self-deception. To believe that it is undertaken for reasons other than fear and a sense of impotence is part of its pathology.” And so in the subsequent years the British government made one concession after another, retreated from one position to another. When it once took a hard line, as with Secretary Hills-borough’s response to the Massachusetts circular letter in 1768, it quickly backed away from the consequences of its momentary resolution. It had no policy at all but simply hoped that the crisis with its colonies would die away. When its officials were attacked by the colonists, it refused to back them up or protect them. Indeed, as in the case of the colonists’ sinking of HMS Gaspée in Rhode Island in 1772, it tended to blame its own officials for causing the trouble. Its timidity and irresolution only earned the colonists’ contempt, and so its authority rapidly drained away.
Only when its authority in Massachusetts was gone did the British government finally decide to act. This becomes Part Four of the book, “The Final Reckoning.” But even the Coercive Acts of 1774, which Tucker and Hendrickson say were neither “arbitrary” nor “disproportionate to the situation,” were not implemented, at least not at first. From the beginning until it was too late, the authors charge, the British government showed itself to be faint-hearted and weak-kneed, incapable of acting with force and determination to defend its quite legitimate interests. One has the feeling from the book that if only someone like Margaret Thatcher had been in charge, all might have been different.
It is a strained argument, and with its “best case” and “worst case” models and its juridical and rationalistic tone it is ultimately an unhistorical one. It is also a bit frightening, if it is at all revealing of the way scientists of international politics go about their business; for these authors after all are the sorts of scholars who advise great powers how they ought to behave in the world. Models and theories are undoubtedly good things, but they are no substitute for knowledge of particular circumstances—dense, intimate, detailed knowledge of the way particular people think and behave. That kind of knowledge of the eighteenth-century British world the authors lack. To be sure, Tucker and Hendrickson have read a great deal about the imperial crisis, and they have many shrewd things to say about what happened. And their redressing of the Whig bias in the historical literature is surely welcome. But ultimately they do not have a historical feeling for their subject.