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.

When Parliament made the attempt with the program of direct taxation that began with the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765, it was already too late. The colonists had already grown to the degree of strength needed to sustain a bid for independence. Draper insists that the British understood this before the colonists did. In resisting parliamentary measures, the colonists tried for a decade to draw a line between their own powers and those of Parliament within a British Empire toward which they retained an ever diminishing pride and loyalty. The English, schooled in the expectation of an eventual colonial independence, saw every colonial denial of total parliamentary supremacy in the light of that expectation and acted to thwart its fulfillment for as long as possible. In effect, Draper is saying that the British were right. The colonists may not have thought that they were headed for independence, may have sincerely denied any such intention, but once they challenged the supremacy that Parliament would not relinquish, they could not have stopped short of the independence that the English knew all along they really wanted.

The story as Draper tells it is fascinating. After all, it did happen. The Americans did go for independence in the end. They could not find a durable line between Parliament’s authority and their own that would enable them to stay within the Empire. It may have been as much the arrogance of Parliament as colonial growth that made compromise impossible, but it did prove impossible. Without the conquest of Canada and the new attention it brought to the colonies, the confrontation might not have come when it did. But it did come, and the expectation of it may well have contributed to its coming when it did. The prophecies may have been irresistibly self-fulfilling.

Draper is careful not to treat the events he narrates as inevitable, but the working out of the old predictions seems to demonstrate an inescapable sequence: political power will ultimately conform to changes in economic power. Draper repeatedly cites a prediction by James Harrington that when the colonies came of age they would “wean themselves.” He might appropriately have cited Harrington’s main contention that economic power begets political power, that the shift in economic power sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England from the king to the gentry had required the shift in political power from king to Parliament, a shift that also involved a struggle, and culminated in the English Civil War. Draper is offering a Harringtonian analysis, affirming that the colonists, even before they realized it, were grasping for the political power that their growth had already given them. The analysis may also remind us that ideology generally conforms to political power, even as political power conforms to economic power.

But in reducing the Revolution to nothing more than a struggle for power, Draper departs from Harrington, who he thinks “was only useful [to the Americans] to stress that when the colonies had come of age they would have a right to their own place in the sun.” That assessment neglects the fact that Harrington was a commonwealthman, indeed a republican, imprisoned Charles II as a threat to the restored monarchy and admired by the Americans not so much for his predictions of their independence as for his proposed limitation of government by a written constitution, in order to make the executive subordinate to the legislature and to keep both subordinate to the people by frequent elections, secret ballots, and rotation in office. By contrast, Draper seems to be arguing that the struggle over possession of power in the Revolution had little to do with whatever political or constitutional restrictions people may have wished to attach to it. Apart from the growth of colonial population and economic power, he says, “it would have mattered little who was right or wrong in the ideological, constitutional, and political arguments of the years after the Stamp Act.”

We may agree that such arguments might have mattered little in the ultimate outcome of a struggle for power, once it came to a trial of strength on the field of battle (though that, too, is debatable). But the struggle Draper recounts took place before the trial. It was marked only occasionally by violence and was conducted largely in words, in pamphlets, newspapers, and speeches, as well as in acts of Parliament and resolutions of colonial assemblies. The verbal struggle was ideological, constitutional, and political, and it had as much to do with the legitimation and limitation of power as with its location.

The colonists may have been mistaken in thinking that they could achieve a curtailment of governmental power within the Empire, but they embraced the necessity of independence only after Parliament had demonstrated that it would not be bound by its previous restraint in leaving them to make their own laws and levy their own taxes through their own representative assemblies. They believed that restraint to be a matter of right, embedded along with other rights, such as trial by jury, in the unwritten British Constitution. As British subjects they had been proud of those rights and had never doubted that they were entitled to them. They struck for independence when the British government refused to recognize their entitlement. They wanted not merely power but power defined and limited as they believed the British Constitution defined and limited it. Since the British government had been able to violate limits not expressly set down in black and white, they took pains to supply the deficiency at once in their own new constitutions, specifying not only what powers their governments should have but also what powers they did not and should not have. Without such a specification (such as Harrington had favored a century earlier) they could no longer trust anyone, themselves included, not to abuse power as Parliament had done.

In discounting the colonists’ constitutional arguments (which, incidentally, many constitutional historians now regard as historically valid) Draper seems to imply that constitutions are something other than instruments for the distribution and control of power. Constitutional arguments seem to take place for him on some plane isolated from the actual use of power. “In form,” he allows,

this debate was “constitutional.” It was superficially a controversy over the jurisdiction of Parliament over America. Yet the term constitutional hardly conveys what was really at stake. It was whether and to what extent Parliament’s power extended as far as the colonies. If Parliament did not have such power or if it was restricted to only as much power as the colonists were willing to consent to, the implication was that the colonies were declaring themselves to be de facto independent. This in any case was how the British saw it. The Americans were long loath to admit even to themselves that this was what they were aiming at.

The extension of Parliament’s power over the colonies was indeed at stake, but the question of its extension was nothing if not a constitutional one. Questions of governmental power in Anglo-American history have generally been constitutional questions, and constitutional limitations of governmental power have often come into existence after and as a result of, not to say the objective of, a struggle for power. The distinction is not merely semantic. When the colonists maintained that they could be taxed only by their own consent given through their representatives, they believed they were affirming a constitutional limitation of government already established in the seventeenth-century struggle for power in England that they so often cited for precedents. Their outrage at England’s attempt to tax them arose from their dismay at Parliament’s provincial interpretation of representation to mean only what took place at Westminster, where they were said to be represented by stretching the concept to a meaningless length. (It could as plausibly be said that the whole world was represented there.) Parliament, it seemed to them, was violating the very principle on which its own authority rested.

Isolating constitutional arguments from reality makes it plausible for Draper to portray the Americans as scarcely knowing or admitting to themselves what they really wanted when they disavowed a desire for outright independence and contended that they wanted nothing more than a return to the relationship that existed before 1763. That relationship had been marked by little constitutional conflict, except as implied in the clashes between governors and assemblies. A ramshackle system, it had nevertheless worked until Parliament tried to fix it and in doing so led the colonists to define the constitutional principles that had made it satisfactory to both parties. Draper’s emphasis on the British expectation of a colonial bid for independence leads him, I think, to exaggerate the colonists’ flouting of imperial policy under those principles before 1763. Later royal governors were not quite as helpless as those whose letters Draper quotes at length from the early part of the century. In the two or three decades before 1763 many governors enjoyed an accretion of power that made the implementation of British colonial policy less precarious than it once seemed. If the colonists were growing in strength, so in many ways was the imperial control exercised by royal governors through traditional channels.

In Massachusetts, for example, later to be a center of revolutionary activity, the royal governor had gained not a dominating but at least a respectable power in the colonial assembly itself. As the historian John Murrin has shown, he had been able to use his prerogative of appointing justices of the peace to influence a sizable bloc of representatives and to shift a good deal of governmental power to the county courts where the justices presided. Disputes over the governor’s salary came to an end after 1735, when the assembly, while declining to grant a permanent salary, agreed to make an annual grant the first business of every session. “In effect,” Murrin tells us, “the governor obtained a guaranteed salary, which he had never had before, while the House agreed never again to use its most effective weapon. This settlement took constitutional questions out of politics for the next generation, guaranteed the governor’s political independence, and thus inaugurated the royal era of Massachusetts history.”2 Not every colony experienced such a “royal era,” but in eighteen colonies, including some that later participated in the Revolution, the British were able to establish salaries for governors independent of assembly control.3 Thus, when the colonists offered a constitutional definition of the relationship that existed before 1763, they were demanding restoration of a system that had worked for England as well as for themselves and that generated neither discontent nor aspirations of independence.

Draper sees the colonists, even before 1763, as straining at the leash, impatient with the restrictions imposed by parliamentary regulation of their trade and manufactures, violating those restrictions at every opportunity. But the economic growth that made the colonies strong and ever stronger took place within the limits established by Parliament in the so-called Navigation Acts, which required the colonies to purchase all European products from England and to sell their major exports in England. It is misleading to claim that “one of the most cherished colonial freedoms had been the freedom to smuggle,” that is, to evade customs duties or to import European goods directly from foreign countries and export to them the commodities, such as sugar and tobacco, that were supposed to be sent to England. Smuggling undoubtedly existed, and smugglers do not leave the archives needed to measure their activities, but enough records of legitimate trade survive for historians to assign the prosperity of the colonies to it.

In the vain attempt to define a limit to Parliament’s authority over them, colonial spokesmen left intact its authority to regulate their trade. Even when they came to the point of denying Parliament any authority at all, as they generally did by 1774, they continued, in the Continental Congress of that year, to express a willingness to submit voluntarily to such regulation. And in the Declaration of Independence, when compiling their long (and inflated) list of grievances, they were careful to exclude the Navigation Acts. Before the fighting began, it was not unrealistic for the colonists to hope that the struggle for power could be settled within the Empire. They had a greater knowledge of the way the Empire had worked and a greater knowledge of themselves than Draper gives them credit for.

The Revolution was indeed a struggle for power. And Draper’s account is a forceful reminder that the arguments over the limitation of power took place only because power itself was in dispute. His book restores to a central place in the Revolution the simple clash of wills that can be neglected in searches for a larger meaning. Yet there was a larger meaning. It can be found in the constitutional limitation of power that the Americans thought they had enjoyed before 1763 and affirmed as their right there-after. They knew what they wanted from the beginning, and it was precisely what they said they wanted: not power alone but just power derived from the consent of the governed. That was the objective to which they ultimately and successfully pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

  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.

  2. 2

    History and Theory, Vol. XI, No. 2, “Review Essay” (1972), pp. 226-275. This essay has had almost as much influence on historical interpretation as the books it reviewed.

  3. 3

    Leonard W. Labaree, Royal Government in America (Yale University Press, 1930; Frederick Ungar, 1958), p. 335.