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Don’t Tread On Us

A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution

by Theodore Draper
Times Books, 544 pp., $35.00

This masterful narrative by one of our most acute political analysts can be enjoyed simply as a lucid account and explanation of the quarrel between England and its colonies that eventuated in American independence in 1776. The story has often been told before; but while Draper has few new details to add, he brings to it an instinct for the jugular and a worldly perspective that make the Revolution more intelligible in human terms than it has often appeared to be in other scholarly discussions. Draper’s Revolution, as the title suggests, was first and foremost a struggle for power.

Draper is something of an expert on struggles for power, for he has dealt with several in his previous work: struggles within the left wing of the American labor movement out of which came the American Communist Party, struggles in Cuba through which Castro was able to take over the country, struggles within the staff of the National Security Council that accompanied the Iran and Contra affairs, struggles within the Allied command in the Second World War. In these earlier studies part of the problem was to identify the participants and the (often hidden) issues and ideas dividing them. Here the participants are obvious, and the burden of Draper’s argument is to show that what divided them was not issues or ideas but mainly the desire for power. He tells the story in vivid detail, with many quotations from the participants, to show how each side viewed the other and how each grew toward a strength that threatened the other, until there was no way out but war.

Draper’s insistence that this was primarily a struggle over power implies that others have found something more or less than power involved in the contest, which is indeed the case. Although Draper is too good a scholar to stray into polemics, his book can be read—and I think he intends it to be read—not merely as the gripping story that it is but also as a corrective to an intellectual interpretation of the Revolution that has prevailed among most scholars for the past thirty or forty years.

That interpretation, though with many variants, has emphasized the political and constitutional rights the colonists claimed for themselves as British subjects, rights which they thought a corrupt administration, bent on tyranny, was attempting to deny them and would ultimately deny to their countrymen in Britain as well. The premise of the interpretation has been that the colonists’ objections to Parliamentary taxation were genuine and decisive, that they believed and acted on what they said and based their beliefs on a widely held, though disputed and perhaps outmoded, understanding of the British Constitution. It is admitted that they were not wholly consistent, that they objected at first only to taxation by a Parliament in which they were not represented, and then moved to denying such a Parliament any authority over them at all, before finally declaring total independence of British authority. But the emphasis of this view is on what Bernard Bailyn called, in a seminal book, “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” an emphasis on political and constitutional ideas as motivating forces.

Draper is not the first to challenge the key role of ideology in the Revolution. Neo-Marxist scholars have done their best to discount the importance of ideas expressed in pamphlets and newspapers and speeches by upperclass leaders of the Revolution and emphasized a posited discontent among the inarticulate lower class. Draper gives short shrift to this kind of challenge. He acknowledges the existence of an “anonymous mass of the poor to the middle stratum” whose support of the Revolution “generally expressed itself in destructive local violence, which suddenly flared up and just as suddenly subsided.” But whatever discontent may have moved the lower classes, it was “mainly expressed against the British rather than their own elite.” “In the end,” he says, “the elite managed to hold on to its leadership and to direct the Revolution where it wanted it to go.”

Where the leaders wanted it to go, however, is not to be found, he asserts, in what they told themselves they wanted or imagined they wanted in the years before 1776. He does not suggest that they were hypocrites, mouthing talk about rights that was mere camouflage for tax-dodging, a view commonly implied if not expressed by the so-called Progressive historians of the 1930s, like Charles Beard. Rather he thinks that the colonists did not quite know at first what they wanted, namely the removal of all the restraints that membership in the British Empire imposed on them. It took them ten years or more to recognize that their quarrel with the British Parliament, once started, was irreconcilable. They could not have been satisfied with anything short of total independence, nor could the British have been satisfied with anything short of total subjection; because each side wanted a power that the other could not allow.

Draper gives a detailed account of the course of the political and constitutional arguments on both sides, as the colonists worked their way toward recognition of what they really wanted. He does so to show “the intellectual struggle that preceded the outbreak of hostilities.” But he is convinced that “something of longer range and deeper significance [than the arguments indicated] was driving the Americans to an ever more extreme resolution of the conflict.”

As he sees it, the ideological interpretation makes too much of the colonists’ adherence to the English commonwealth tradition of Milton and Sydney, perpetuated by the “eighteenth-century Commonwealth-men” who mounted a vocal but unavailing opposition to the Whig oligarchy in England. Preoccupation with that tradition has led historians to emphasize constitutional issues and to neglect a longer line of English thinking about colonies that stressed the likelihood of their seeking independence as they grew in size and strength and therefore in power. Draper demonstrates with a host of quotations that the English already in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had mixed feelings about their colonies. Colonies might be useful as sources of raw materials for the country that founded them and as captive markets for its manufactures; but as colonies grew, they could become competitors rather than servitors, and in the end would throw off all subordination. If colonies were not kept under strict control, Charles Davenant warned in 1698, they would be “like offensive Arms, wrested from a Nation, to be turn’d against it, as occasion shall serve.” And David Hume in his History of England complained that the colonies would surely go off on their own “after draining the mother country of inhabitants.” This line of reasoning was as old as colonization. Indeed, even in the sixteenth century, before England had any colonies, the chief proponent for founding them, Richard Hakluyt, conceded that they might ultimately “aspire to government of themselves” and attain it.1

The likelihood of such an outcome was magnified by the fact that when the English launched their colonies, they did it, as Draper observes, “on the cheap.” English colonies were the product of private enterprise, authorized by the king at a time when the king was truly sovereign, but they were paid for by corporations and individuals who hoped to profit from them. Although they remained legally subject to royal control, usually through a royally appointed governor, the actual colonists were expected, both by the king and by their backers, to pay for their own government and defense, taxing themselves through their own representative legislative assemblies. The governors appointed by the king usually had to rely on those assemblies to pay all the expenses of government, even the governors’ own salaries. As a result the assemblies attained a power that posed an increasing threat to imperial control.

By the opening of the eighteenth century the governors were deluging the king’s ministers in England with complaints of their helplessness to carry out the instructions sent them. Draper cites the case of Robert Hunter, who after two years of fruitless struggling with the New York Assembly, wrote to his superiors in 1711 that “without a speedy and effectual remedy her Majesty can make no state of any government in this place, and in a little time the disease may prove too strong for the cure.” Eleven years later, he tells us, Governor Samuel Shute reported from Massachusetts that “the people here pay little attention or no defference to any opinion or orders that I receive from the Ministry at Home.” But this was the era when British policy toward the colonies was one of “salutary neglect,” and Draper shows that the governors’ pleas for a show of power from home went unheeded. By the middle of the century, neglect was beginning to look not so salutary. The colonies were growing in population at a rate unheard of in Europe, doubling every twenty-five years. It was apparent that in less than another century they would overtake the mother country. Predictions of ultimate independence now took on a more immediate relevance. Already the colonies comprised so large a portion of the market for English manufactures that England’s economy was more dependent on them than they were on England. And as they grew, their very growth undermined their usefulness, for their original scarcity of labor no longer inhibited their engaging in manufactures competing with England’s.

Draper argues that the English government failed to confront the implications of this growth until the 1760s, when the conquest of Canada from the French doubled the national debt and brought the overseas empire suddenly to national attention. If new colonies in America were worth acquiring or defending at such a price, it was time for Parliament to take a hand in the way all the colonies were governed. Parliament had long since gained a dominant position over the king in the government in England. Neither its members nor the king himself ever doubted that its supremacy extended to the colonies, though it was a supremacy hitherto exercised only in the regulation of colonial trade, with local government left to the colonial representative assemblies and the royal governors. The assemblies, exercising the same power of the purse that had driven parliamentary ascendancy over the king, had come to regard that power, within their boundaries, as their exclusive right, and they had used it to gain their own superiority over the royal governors. They did so, Draper explains, by delaying or withholding funds for crucial government activities and by doling out the governors’ salaries only on a year-to-year basis. Parliament assumed too easily that it could ignore the assemblies: by levying its own taxes directly on the colonists, it could preempt whatever power of the purse the assemblies might have supposed they had. It could even legislate directly for the colonies if it chose to do so. Parliament and the colonial assemblies were thus on a collision course which would become apparent as soon as Parliament attempted to exercise its presumed supremacy.

  1. 1

    E.G.R. Taylor, editor, The Original Writings and Correspondence of the Two-Richard Hakluyts (London, 1935, Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, LXXVI, LXXVII), pp. 142-143.

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