First, the authors’ conception of Great Britain and its colonies as two distinct powers in international politics is flawed from the outset. Britain was never in a position to treat its fellow subjects in America as a subordinate power. The colonists were Englishmen, no doubt living in distant provinces, but still Englishmen entitled to all the liberties that were the birthright of Englishmen. When it came to dealing with its subjects both at home and in the colonies, every English government inevitably had to adopt a policy of “appeasement.” Appeasement of its subjects by government was built into the heart of English culture. No people in the eighteenth century were more obsessed with liberty and more suspicious of authority. Members of the ruling classes were just as proud of England’s reputation for liberty as the lowliest of the populace. Englishmen were known throughout Europe for their insubordination and disrespect for authority; they mobbed and rioted with an abandon that shocked visitors from the Continent, who could never understand why the English failed to keep the poor in their place.
Because the English authorities were as much believers in the rights of freeborn Englishmen as the mob, they necessarily had to vacillate and conciliate in the face of disorder. Magistrates were always reluctant to use force against the people. Even after the week-long Gordon riots in 1780, which left huge parts of London in shambles and hundreds dead, Englishmen still shied away from bolstering authority at the expense of liberty. When Lord Shelburne suggested to the House of Lords that it was high time London had a police force, he was accused of being an apologist for French tyranny.
The English government’s confusion and indecision in the 1760s, its backing and retreating in the face of popular pressure, were not new. The repeal in 1766 of an act of Parliament under popular protest, about which Tucker and Hendrickson make so much, was not unprecedented. English governments had done the same earlier, most notably in repealing the 1753 act to naturalize Jews and in withdrawing an excise bill in 1733. In 1737 the British government had backed away from its harsh punishment of Edinburgh for the Porteus riots. It was simply not possible for English officials in the eighteenth century to act toward their own subjects with the firmness and forcefulness that they might have displayed, say, toward the French. To assume, as Tucker and Hendrickson have, that they might have done so is to misunderstand eighteenth-century English culture.
The same lack of familiarity with this distinctive eighteenth-century British world mars their discussion of British politics and government. Tucker and Hendrickson treat the English government as a simple single entity without fully appreciating the differences that existed between the Crown’s ministers, the members of Parliament, and the bureaucrats. They have no comprehension whatsoever of the peculiar pressures and alignments of English politics that led to the “salutary neglect” (in Burke’s famous phrase) of the colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century. They simply throw up their hands and conclude that such neglect “must remain one of the many mysteries attending the governance of the First British Empire.”
They can write in this way because they have no grasp of the problems of those Whig ministers who played upon popular fears of Tory Jacobitism and the royal prerogative in order to control Parliament and yet who had to govern what was essentially the king’s empire. In the decades prior to the 1760 accession of George III, Sir Robert Walpole and other Whig ministers knew that questions concerning this royal empire were the one thing that might unite the opposition in Parliament against them. It is not a mystery therefore that the ministers tended to keep such questions out of Parliament, even to the extent of squelching the many efforts to reform the empire brought forward by eager, tidy-minded bureaucrats in the Board of Trade and in the executive departments.
In the 1760s all this changed dramatically. The continuity and stability that had marked British politics earlier now disappeared. Ministries rose and fell and politicians shuffled in and out of offices with disturbing frequency. Between 1730 and 1760 the Board of Trade had only three presidents; yet between 1761 and 1766 it had no fewer than six. Between 1761 and 1768 six different persons were successively appointed and dismissed as secretary of state for the Southern Department, the executive officer responsible for colonial affairs, for reasons that had nothing to do with the imperial crisis. Ministers soon discovered that colonial issues were now something that could divide the opposition in Parliament. So all the earlier inhibitions against the Crown’s using Parliament in ruling the empire fell away, and long-frustrated subministers and undersecretaries with ideas for reforming the empire could at last have a say.
That all this political disarray might have contributed both to the newness and to the vacillations of British imperial policy in the 1760s one would never know from Tucker and Hendrickson’s account. Their model of international conflict does not allow for such gritty details. Although the authors are well aware of the ways in which diplomatic alignments limited the choices of British officials in the international sphere, they do not show the same understanding of the mass of other historical circumstances in which such officials were caught up. If they had, they might not have been so eager to criticize the British government for being so timid and wishy-washy in defense of its vital interests.
Ultimately, of course, Tucker and Hendrickson’s message to all such spineless governments may not have the effect they intend. After all, Great Britain did manage to recover rather well from the breakup of its first empire.
Tucker and Hendrickson have equated the war for independence with the American Revolution, and for many historians that is enough: the Revolution, many believe, was merely a colonial rebellion and nothing more. But for other historians, particularly for those writing during the first half of the twentieth century and including Carl Becker, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Charles Beard, and more recently Merrill Jensen, the Revolution has always seemed to be something broader and deeper than a simple colonial war for independence. The Revolution, wrote Becker in a memorable phrase of 1909 that ushered in a generation or more of what has been called progressive history writing, was not only over “home rule”; it was also over “who should rule at home.” There were, in other words, conflicts and developments within colonial society itself that ultimately made the Revolution not just a colonial rebellion but a great democratic movement.
Tucker and Hendrickson are quite correct in assuming that the colonies were not the passive victims of British aggression. Americans were a dynamic, expansive people who were growing faster than any in the Western world and on the move as never before. These people were straining to break through what remained of the social crusts inherited from the Old World in order to become even more democratic and egalitarian than they already were. The internal conflicts and tensions experienced by these energetic and restless people not only contributed to the escalation of the crisis with Britain but eventually transformed that crisis into a real revolutionary movement with a powerful regenerative ideology. The so-called progressive interpretation, by focusing on the internal dynamics of colonial society, has made it clear that we shall never understand the world-shattering origins of the United States if we treat the Revolution as simply a colonial break from Great Britain.
This progressive interpretation of the Revolution, which treated the democratization of American society and politics as more important than the conflict with Great Britain, was largely overwhelmed by the neo-Whig interpretations of the two decades following World War II. During the past fifteen years or so, however, a number of young historians have resumed the earlier progressive generation’s attack on the traditional Whig view that the Revolution involved mainly a conservative defense of American liberties against British aggression. These historians, sometimes called the “New Left” and including Joseph Ernst, Marc Egnal, Gary Nash, Ronald Hoffman, Jesse Lemisch, and Alfred F. Young, have scoured colonial society looking for the signs of oppression and deprivation—popular discontent, class division, and poverty—that might make the American Revolution explicable in the terms common to the explanations of other revolutions. One of the best, most sophisticated, and most carefully worked out of these neoprogressive studies is the recent book, which won the Bancroft Prize, on New York during the Revolution written by Edward Countryman, a member of the faculty of the University of Warwick in England.
New York, as Becker discovered long ago, is an ideal colony in which to demonstrate that the Revolution was some sort of democratic transformation. By the eve of the Revolution New York’s ethnically diverse population was growing rapidly. In New York City the proportion of destitute had expanded fourfold in twenty years, and there were increasing numbers of artisans and other “middling” sorts—petty merchants and shopkeepers—whose political and social status was not commensurate with their economic importance. New York, moreover, was burdened with an archaic manorial system of landholding that was actually strengthening on the eve of the Revolution, although landlord-tenant relations were being defined more and more in monetary terms. Popular involvement in government and jury duty was more limited than historians have assumed. All in all, New York had a political and social system that was profoundly out of harmony with the expanding needs and desires of its populace. These internal problems and tensions, writes Countryman, contributed as much to the revolutionary movement as did the crisis with Great Britain.
In the 1760s New York erupted in a series of riots and crowd disturbances. Popular uprisings were common to the Anglo-American world of the eighteenth century, and they were certainly familiar to the province of New York. But Countryman believes that the intensity and numbers of them in these few years—between 1764 and 1775 he counts nearly sixty uprisings in New York, both in the countryside and in the City—cumulatively stretched the tenuous fabric of New York society until it ruptured. These disturbances coupled with the imperial crisis led to intensifying attacks by New York’s political leaders not only on Great Britain but on each other. Competing patrician families exploited the imperial dispute, sought the aid of the Sons of Liberty, and used Whig rhetoric to win the support of widening proportions of the people with little awareness of the implications of what they were doing. In the end all traditional political authority was undermined.
In the most interesting parts of his book Countryman shows how a revolutionary movement arose out of the crumbling old order. More than in most colonies the collapse of traditional authority left New York bitterly divided and fragmented. There was no simple dichotomy between rich and poor, merchants and artisans, landlords and tenants, as the progressive historians used to think. The break with Britain released a variety of “class, ethnic, ideological, and geographical tensions” that developed “their own momentum,” and people of diverse interests were mobilized into revolution for many different reasons. Guiding and controlling this mobilization were the hundreds of popular committees—of correspondence, of inspection, of safety—that linked communities everywhere throughout the state.