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.”…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.