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Was the Big Revolution in 1775?

Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource
Etching of the Battle of Bunker Hill, fought on Boston’s Charlestown peninsula, 1775

Explaining why the North American colonists revolted from Great Britain in 1776 has never been easy. The eighteenth-century colonists probably enjoyed the highest standard of living of any people in the Atlantic world. The white colonists were certainly not an oppressed people; they had no crushing imperial shackles to throw off. Most white Americans knew they were freer and less burdened with feudal and monarchical restraints than any other people in the eighteenth century. Indeed, they keenly realized that the liberties they enjoyed actually came from the heritage and traditions of the British nation of which they were a part. They were British subjects who had all the rights and privileges of British subjects—elected legislatures, trial by jury, habeas corpus, and widespread religious toleration. Why then would they have broken away from the nation that was the source of these rights and liberties?

These peculiar circumstances made the American Revolution seem different from other revolutions. With none of the legendary tyranny that had so often driven desperate peoples into rebellion, the American Revolution has always seemed strange. To its victims, the Tories or loyalists, the Revolution was totally incomprehensible. Never in history, said Daniel Leonard, John Adams’s antagonist in the Massachusetts debates in 1775, had there been so much rebellion with so “little real cause.” Peter Oliver, who wrote the most vitriolic Tory history of the Revolution, said that it was “the most wanton and unnatural rebellion that ever existed.” The Americans’ response seemed out of all proportion to the stimuli. “The Annals of no Country,” declared a thoroughly bewildered imperial official at the outset, “can produce an Instance of so virulent a Rebellion, of such implacable madness and Fury, originating from such trivial Causes, as those alledged by these unhappy People.”

In order to explain the inexplicable, both the Patriot participants and later historians tended to argue that the Revolution appeared to have been peculiarly an affair of the mind, that the Americans had somehow reasoned themselves into revolution. The Revolution, said Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia and later Washington’s secretary of state, was a revolution “without an immediate oppression, without a cause depending so much on hasty feeling as theoretic reasoning.”

At the end of the nineteenth century, Moses Coit Tyler, the originator of what became the field of American Studies, was driven by the same logic to see the Revolution as “pre-eminently a revolution caused by ideas, and pivoted on ideas.” Tyler conceded that ideas played a part in all revolutions. But, said Tyler, in most revolutions, like that of the French, ideas had become important only when they had been given meaning and force by long-experienced “real evils.”

The American Revolution was different. It was directed “not against tyranny inflicted, but only against tyranny anticipated.” The Americans revolted not out of actual suffering but out of reasoned principle. “Hence,” Tyler concluded,

more than with most other epochs of revolutionary strife, our epoch of revolutionary strife was a strife of ideas: a long warfare of political logic; a succession of annual campaigns in which the marshalling of arguments not only preceded the marshalling of armies, but often exceeded them in impression upon the final result.

Throughout the twentieth century and into our own time this intellectual explanation of the Revolution, repeated by many historians and developed and brought to heights of refinement by Bernard Bailyn in his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, has been countered by a series of studies by progressive-minded historians. More or less conceding that the Revolution cannot be explained by imperial oppression, these progressive historians have sought the sources of the Revolution in the conflicting passions and interests of the American people themselves. But these studies, such as the ones explaining the Virginia gentry’s pressure to participate in the Revolution solely out of their internal concerns and fears, have never seemed entirely persuasive.

Now, with Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, we have a full explanation of the Revolution that doesn’t rely on its being a peculiarly intellectual affair or on its being exclusively the consequence of internal fights and clashes among Americans themselves. Although Phillips is much more sympathetic to the progressive view that the Revolution was a civil war among the colonists, he believes that the progressive historians have been too deterministic and have too often missed the complexity of economic affairs. Besides, he never intended his book to be a solution to the historiographical struggle between those who believe the Revolution was an intellectual event and those who think it was mainly a result of domestic conflicts. (The public, he says, is little interested in “historiography—the study of history and its processes”—which “is dull stuff.”)

Still, in his meticulous detailing of the thousands upon thousands of resentments, grievances, and injuries experienced by countless Americans at the hands of British officials and the many others who seemed, often unfairly, to stand in for royal authority, he makes the Revolution seem to be the consequence of tyranny after all. The subtitle of his book might have been “The Death of the British Empire by a Thousand Cuts.”

Phillips began his career writing about contemporary politics, in particular with his influential The Emerging Republican Majority (1969) that predicted the beginning of a new Republican era in presidential politics. Since then he has written many books about contemporary political and economic issues. In 1999 he made an initial inquiry into the past with his provocative The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America; this was followed in 2003 by a presidential biography of William McKinley. The paralyzed politics of the twenty-first century have more and more convinced Phillips that concentrating on today’s world is not very rewarding. Instead of analyzing further political alignments in the present, he wants “to delve back into history and examine English-speaking North America’s first political realignment, the 1774–1776 resort to war by which thirteen colonies quit the British Empire with such great consequence.”

This new book, which Phillips calls his “second psychological holiday from national politics and the ups and downs of the Republicans and Democrats,” is very different from The Cousins’ Wars. While that earlier work of history swept through centuries, from the English Civil War of the seventeenth century to the American Civil War of the mid-nineteenth century, 1775 concentrates on a single year of the American Revolution.

Phillips was led to this emphasis on the year 1775 by what he believes is the present’s “Fourth of July boosterism” and its “excessive immersion in 1776 as a moral and ideological starting point” of the United States. He believes we need to get beyond the handful of great men who drew up the Declaration of Independence and pay attention to the thousands upon thousands of lesser figures, all those ordinary folk, who made the Revolution possible.*

By his own deep and arguably excessive immersion in the events and circumstances of the period, he has concluded “that in many respects, 1775 was more important than 1776.” The Revolution was no spontaneous uprising; it was long in preparation. By 1774 if not earlier many Americans seem to have been primed for rebellion. Their instantaneous and widespread reaction to the Coercive Acts of 1774, which closed the port of Boston, nullified the Massachusetts charter, interfered with the town meetings, and appointed a general as governor of the colony, suggested as much. The colonists were not about to cut the British Crown any slack whatsoever. The Pennsylvania governor reported back that the

general Temper of the People, as well here, as in other Parts of America, is very warm. They look upon the Chastisement of Boston to be purposely vigorous, and held up by way of intimidation to all America; and in short that Boston is Suffering in the Common Cause.

How did British authority, never deeply rooted to begin with, slip away so suddenly? By 1775, Phillips recalls, much of the necessary underpinning of the Revolution had already been created. The Patriots had already swept aside their royal governments and forced their royal governors to flee to British warships. They had already created congresses in their various provinces, formed hundreds of local committees of observation, inspection, and safety, installed dozens of seaport regulators, and established many other popular grassroots organizations. “By mid-1775,” writes Phillips, “credible local governments were administering no-nonsense loyalty oaths and exercising control of the local militia.”

As early as the winter of 1774–1775 the colonists had begun importing gunpowder and arms across the Atlantic from Sweden, Hamburg, Holland, the Austrian Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, and West Africa’s Slave Coast. In April 1775 at Lexington and Concord and two months later at Bunker Hill the colonists had inflicted surprisingly heavy casualties on the once-invincible British army. All these achievements made the colonists optimistic, even cocky, about their abilities to stand up to the mother country. That optimism, Phillips suggests, was essential to get the Americans through the failures and disillusionments of the subsequent year of 1776. His point, emphasized over and over again, is persuasively established. Well before the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, the Americans had achieved de facto independence from Great Britain. “As 1775 ended,” Phillips writes, “the only place the British still controlled was occupied Boston.”

Phillips’s book is not a narrative of the year 1775. It is not a story that proceeds chronologically from one event to another. It is instead a collection of twenty-six chapters, each of which analyzes specific issues and events that occurred in what Phillips refers to as the “long” year of 1775, from the summer of 1774 to the summer of 1776. Because of their analytical nature the chapters inevitably include some repetition and lots of cross-referencing, e.g., “as we saw in Chapter 14.” The chapters jump from a discussion of religion in the colonies and the growing antagonism to the Anglican Church to a description of the many economic roads to revolution, including the colonists’ debts, their paper money problems, their smuggling and rum production, their obsession with the acquisition of western land, their antagonism to the Navigation Acts, and their many efforts at economic self-determination.

In each of his chapters Phillips describes the early alienation of various groups and occupations from British authority. Everywhere the increasingly complex British regulations and the punitive enforcements by placemen and other officials who scarcely understood the localities they were dealing with created multiple resentments, injuries, and grievances. In other words, the colonists’ sense of frustration and anger went well beyond their legal claim of “no taxation without representation.” Beneath all the rhetoric of revolution, says Phillips, was a myriad of popular complaints and injustices that could be blamed, justly or not, on royal authority and the British imperial structure.

Phillips builds his case for revolution by amassing all these colonial grievances, frustrations, and injuries, however small some of them may have been. For him the Revolution was the consequence of many different causes—economic, political, social, ethnic, and religious. Sometimes his accounting for the multiple causes becomes schematic. Calvinism, he says, may not have been “a principal ideological or theological driver of the American Revolution. But it might have been among the six or eight most important.” He thinks that the belief in a Crown conspiracy to tyrannize the colonists and deprive them of their liberty as an explanation for the Revolution, which was central to Bernard Bailyn’s famous book, is too “narrow” and “parochial,” for it excludes religion and economics. Nevertheless, he adds, “‘conspiracy’ might have been a factor in giving ideology a greater than usual relevance and zest.” Generally, however, Phillips does not want to “try to allocate percentages” to his lists of causes. Indeed, none of the various causes or factors by itself was “all-determining,” but collected together they seem to be overwhelming.

  1. *

    Phillips’s book powerfully reinforces the argument of T.H. Breen’s recent work, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (Hill and Wang, 2010). Unfortunately, Phillips does not seem to have used Breen’s book. 

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