Rethinking the American Revolution

Rethinking the American Revolution

The legitimacy of the American War for Independence has been the subject of an ongoing debate ever since the first shots were fired on the Lexington green in 1775, and every year, as July 4th rolls upon us, it is no different. Social media is flooded with posts debating the virtue and wisdom of the conflict, with people calling it a “rebellion,” a “revolution,” a “war for independence,” and everything in-between and to either side. However, the one term not used is “civil war,” meaning a hotly contested, internal conflict. Instead, the mistaken notion that the war was fought between two very distinct ideological and cultural groups stems from incorrectly asserting that 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence was the beginning point of the war. Events have become neatly packaged for us around a myth of continual American identity; that somehow immigrants stepping ashore on this continent were instantly infused with the patriotic spirit of a new nation.[i] However, there was never a strong idea of an “us” vs. “them” between British and Americans. Nor is it true that all was quiet back in Britain, when suddenly the American colonists discovered Lockean natural rights and began shooting their redcoat overlords with cries of “no taxation without representation.” This simplistic narrative completely misses the historical context of the formation of the American colonies. Rather, the conflict had been going on long before 1776, and had its roots in the turbulent internal wars of the British Isles, which the colonists had transplanted from the mother country to their new home in the Americas.

In fact, the one hundred and fifty years preceding 1776 were a veritable volcanic eruption of rebellions, civil wars, and civil unrest throughout Britain, including no fewer than five major wars attempting to overthrow the ruling monarch (1640-1649, 1685, 1688, 1715, and 1745), numerous rebellions in Ireland and Scotland, and large-scale riots throughout the kingdom. In the fallout from these various wars, the ethnic cleansing and religious persecution was brutal, which resulted in mass migrations to America by the oppressed parties. The American colonies became, not a melting pot of Americanism, but rather a kaleidoscope of British political parties, religious denominations, and ethnicities who had all fled from whichever bully was currently in power back in Britain. Naturally each group settled next to their own kind, they formed colonies specific to their particular brand of Britishness, and as a general rule distrusted the other colonies that were different from them, even long after they had gained independence. The vast bulk of these immigrants came in four distinct waves, separated by time, geography, and culture.[ii]

The Puritan Migration: 1629-1640

The first large migration came in a short time period, from 1629 to 1640, and was made up of about 21,000 Puritan, Low Church Anglicans, primarily from around the region of East Anglia in Britain, seeking religious freedom from the High Church Anglicans under King Charles I. The Puritans settled around the Massachusetts Bay area and throughout New England, later spreading across the north east of the United States. They were predominately family-oriented, and established townships that echoed the social life they had known in England. Their goal was to create a society in the “New World” that they had been unable to form in the Old with its state sponsored religion, hierarchies, and traditions.

The Royalist Migration: 1642-1665

In England and Scotland tensions over taxation, religion, and economics between King Charles I and Parliament eventually blew into open civil war in 1642, finally resulting in the King losing his head and the formation of a parliamentarian republic. On the losing side, approximately 45,000 pro-Royalist Anglicans and their indentured servants fled from the west of England to the Chesapeake Tidewater region of Virginia, starting the second great wave of migration that lasted for about twenty-three years, from 1642 to 1665. Unlike the Puritan migrants in the north, these Royalist Cavaliers were not interested in establishing a “New Jerusalem,” instead they desired to transplant the aristocratic life they had known back in England. The southern plantation class that they formed came to be the stereotypical image commonly associated with the ante-bellum South.

The Quaker Migration: 1675-1715

Meanwhile, back in Britain, England tired of its “Puritan” overlords, and restored the monarchy in 1660 with the return of Charles II from his exile in France. However, the Anglicans that took power with him had not learnt religious toleration while under Puritan oppression, and religious dissenters continued to be vigorously persecuted across the kingdom. Thus sparked the third large migration period, stretching from 1675 to 1715 as about 50,000 Quakers and other religious independents left the North Midlands and Wales to settle in Pennsylvania, West Jersey, and the Delaware Valley. They too were seeking religious freedom; as the Puritans had from the Anglicans, and the Cavaliers had from the Puritans, the Quakers sought to escape persecution from both the Anglicans and the Puritans.

Civil War in America and Revolution in Britain

Despite this attempt to avoid persecution and war by fleeing to the colonies, Englishmen often found themselves in exactly the same position on the American side of the ocean. During the first English Civil War Anglican Virginia declared its support of Charles I and II against the Puritan Parliamentarians, and invaded and seized towns in Catholic Maryland, while also passing laws to expel Puritan dissident preachers. Later, during the brief period of the English Republic, New Englanders persecuted and even executed Quakers. Puritans from Maryland invaded Virginia in an attempt to overthrow the government there, but had to accept a truce when Charles II returned to the throne.[iii] Later, in 1676, a largely Puritan force rebelled in Virginia and sparked an uprising in Maryland, managing to seize the capital before they were crushed in a series of battles.[iv]

Political tensions meanwhile continued to increase in England as the Anglicans looked on with concern at Stuart kings flirting with Roman Catholicism. This fear eventually provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw King James II overthrown and replaced by the Dutch Protestant William III. However, the lurking fear that Catholicism would creep back onto the throne always loomed over Parliament until finally they declared in 1701 through the Act of Settlement that no Catholic could wear the crown. Parliament passed over fifty Catholic claimants until they eventually reached the German-born George I from Hanover. He was 54 when he arrived in England to receive the crown, and he didn’t speak English. This left Parliament in charge of running the kingdom and protecting the throne from angry Stuarts who had gathered around James II’s son as the rightful heir to the throne. These Jacobites, as they were called, backed mostly by the Scots and Irish, fought viciously to depose the foreign, German Georges. The last attempt for the throne was led in 1745 by the famous Bonnie Prince Charlie, and it very nearly managed to take London.

The Border Folk Migration: 1717-1775

These final struggles in the English civil wars spurred the final, and largest migration, which stretched from 1717-1775, and was comprised of Scots, Irish, Scots-Irish, and English border folk. While these people did not always share the same ethnicity with one another (they were not strictly speaking all “Celtic”), they did share a common culture. These clans had developed in the disputed lands of the three kingdoms through wars that stretched hundreds of years back before the days of Wallace and Bruce. In their lands the wars had been the longest, the fiercest, and the most vindictive, and as a result the inhabitants had emerged as an extremely resilient and warlike people. Cattle raiding was a common form of livelihood, and their fierceness and independence made them unwelcome neighbors. So when they showed up in the Pennsylvania area, seeking to escape from a thousand years of governmental tyranny and dynastic wars, the Quakers were both terrified and disgusted, and promptly encouraged them to move on towards the unsettled Appalachian back country. And so it was along the stretch of mountainous land from Pennsylvania to Georgia, wedged between the English colonists on the coast and the stretching wilderness of the interior, that these border-folk found themselves settling in a land that they were uniquely adapted for.

American Mosaic and British Politics

If there was a single phenomenon throughout this narrative, it was that dissidents were oppressed by whomever was in charge at the time. Later in the 18th century, with all the non-conformists having fled the civil wars in Britain to the Americas, it was only a matter of time before persecution from the British ruling elite followed them there too. By 1775 religious dissidents made up two thirds of America’s religious population, in contrast to a mere 7 percent in England.[v] Later, King George III and other British elites would openly complain that the American War for Independence was a rebellion of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, in defiance of Anglican, Parliamentarian rule, but even this was an overly simplistic reading.[vi] Loyalties in the 1776 war were determined by a complex web of distinct cultures and entangled past history.[vii] There was too much division in the colonies for any real sense of a single American identity. Illegal protests like the Boston Tea Party did not achieve colonial unification. Instead Britain’s oppressive reactions to these acts proved more unifying than anything the colonists did.[viii]

The British government cracked down on the colonists by passing the Coercive Acts, known in the Americas as the “Intolerable Acts,” which included a long list of economic controls in an attempt to squeeze the colonist’s into submission. Immediately the colonists pursued legal action in court, as any good British subject would, arguing from their colonial charters and the English Bill of Rights that such actions were illegal as well as immoral. They sent a redress of grievances to Parliament in October of 1774, and to King George III, in July of 1775, along with a reaffirmation of their loyalty to the Crown. But the Continental Congress never once mentioned independence even though fierce fighting had already been ongoing since April 1775.[ix]

When the Continental Congress finally declared independence in 1776, they did so very hesitantly, and only after the King had all the members declared as traitors, ordered their execution, landed thirty thousand British troops and German mercenaries in New York, and had sent word to the Indians on the frontier to raid the colonies. Only then did the English Civil War end and the American War for Independence begin, and even so there were many Americans that did not want to rescind British rule. More Tories fled from the colonies than Frenchmen would later flee the French Revolution, and approximately half of the militia battles were fought entirely between American Loyalists and Independents.[x] Meanwhile, despite the British elite’s low opinion of backwards colonists, a huge number of Englishmen, many of them religious dissidents in Parliament and on the street, loudly denounced their government’s war against the colonies. A huge concern was that if they allowed their government to conduct such tyranny against Englishmen in the colonies, then they would be just as capable of conducting tyranny at home.[xi] Thus, the origins of the American war for independence was not founded in novel American ideas of natural rights or anti-taxation without representation, but was rather the final expression of a series of vicious fights that had their seed deep in the roots of British conflicts over power, politics, and religion. It could be said that at no point did the American dissidents demonstrate their Britishness so much as when they rebelled.




[i] We see this myth propagated in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where he claimed that “four score and seven years ago our fathers set forth on this continent, a new nation,” mistakenly claiming that the signing in 1776 formed a single state. However, the 1783 Treaty of Paris was made, not between Britain and America, but individually between Britain and thirteen separate countries.

[ii] For an exhaustively detailed and fascinating examination of these four “folkways” see David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a cultural history) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[iii] Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-america (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 55-59.

[iv] Ibid., 66. Border battles occurred between nearly all the colonies, even as late as the 1770’s (Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution [New York: Viking, 2012], 176).

[v] Ibid., 74.

[vi] In fact, my own narrative outlined here is also an obviously simplified history, which does not mention the role of minorities that had come to call America home, such as the Dutch, Germans, Swedes, and French.

[vii] Despite previous animosity towards the Hanover kings, Scottish Highlanders, transplanted to the Carolinas after the Jacobite rebellions, were almost entirely Loyalists because they were more concerned about local persecution from the majority Presbyterian population (Ibid., 426 ff).

[viii] When Boston merchants destroyed the East India tea, Parliament responded with treating all of Boston with collective guilt, and punished the entire population by cutting off their trade and putting them under military control until reparations would be paid. Parliament’s response was clearly meant as a warning to the other colonies against resisting imperial economic controls (Ibid., 7 ff).

[ix] These were the Petition to the King (Declaration of Rights and Resolves) on October 1, 1774, and The Olive Branch Petition (July 5, 1775), followed by The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms (July 6, 1775), which was a legal defense of colonial actions. Individuals often did talk about secession and independence, but there was no mention of it in the legal documents and resolves sent to Parliament and the King. Instead, these documents were all clear attempts at reconciliation, which were unfortunately ignored by the British government.

[x] Ibid., xvi.

[xi] Ibid., 381 ff; Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars, 238-268; Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Random House, 1984), 137 ff.


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  1. About to get into American colonial history and the War for Independence with my government class. I kind of just want to have you in as a guest lecturer for the next couple of weeks.

    What are some good books I could read on colonial history and our British heritage?

  2. What?! You’ve read Peripheries and Center? I read that for my high school thesis. I thought it was something super obscure, but I loved it.

    Thanks, George, I’m gonna try to get these.

    • Thanks, Lukas. You’ve got a lot of good material over there. Really appreciate it.

  3. I needed this for some clarification. I’m actually starting a series on my blog that is on the history I am learning, or rather relearning. Just small things that I find interesting or that I had to dismantle and relearn. The first one will be on the Boston Massacre. Basically I want to leave the reader questioning and seeking answers for themselves.

    • I hope that the resources I’ve provided here can do the same thing: point people in a direction for them to learn more. Good luck with your own writing, and I would love to see where you go with it.

      • It has, thank you. I’m trying to get as many points of view and understand the characters involved. My hang up right now is the British point of view of taxation. My understanding is that the British gov’t was saying you do have representation. Afterall, the long standing tradition of representation was that those in Parliament spoke for all the people. It is impractical for you to have your own representation from across the ocean. Whereas, the colonist were saying, “you can’t possible represent us because you have no idea what goes on around here.” It’s not that the colonist didn’t want to pay taxes (samuel adams was a tax collector, which I found rather ironic). It’s that they want only their own colonial gov’ts to tax them. I’m finding their grievances rather ironic considering the form of govt they created in the end which placed them right back where they started.

        • Originally the colonies started with the stance that Parliament couldn’t tax them because they weren’t represented in Parliament, and then later on during the taxation troubles they switched to claiming that not only were they not represented in Parliament, but due to the distance they never could be. Meanwhile Parliament was saying that regardless of representation, it is the right of the mother country to tax its colonies. To which the colonists replied that regardless of their status as colonies, they still had the rights of Englishmen living in the mother country to not be taxed by Parliament without representation. The whole affair was clearly a legal discussion for the courts. Too bad the British government didn’t take the colonies’ legal complaint seriously and actually discuss the matter in Parliament. Instead they just kept trying to pass further legislation to see if they could get the colonies to back down and thereby tacitly grant Parliamentarian supremacy, which would undoubtedly have opened the door to even further Parliamentarian overreach.

        • It’s hard to get the full scope of the situation because like many politics, all the moving pieces and people involved are far more complex than the textbooks typically make them out to be. On top of the legal dispute over who had the right to tax the colonists, you also had the Whigs and Tories in Parliament, the former generally favoring a lighter approach to the colonies, the latter favoring more control, and the internal parliamentary dispute contributed to 5 Prime Minister turn-over during this period (1763-1776), as well. From the colonial perspective, the only legitimate taxing authority were their own colonial legislatures. I explain it to my students this way: We wouldn’t want the UN having the ability to tax us here in America any more than the colonists wanted the English parliament to tax them. Not a perfect analogy, but it helps make the point. They were okay with parliament regulating trade, and hence taxes like the Sugar Tax were generally not rejected on principle, but the Stamp Act stirred a lot of unrest. (Still, after a century of neglecting enforcement of the the Navigation Acts, attempts to enforce tariffs after the French and Indian War certainly contributed to rising tensions.) A key problem was that many in Parliament saw all the colonists as politically homogeneous, and thus lumped in Georgia and the Carolinas, for example, as recipients of the Townsend Acts, which increased taxes with the purpose of ensuring British control over the colonial governors (by being able to pay them directly), who had been largely dependent on the colonial legislatures for their salaries; control the money, control the governor’s actions, right? Thus what might otherwise not have bothered some of the southern colonies, or even Virginia, the wealthiest and most powerful of the colonies, ended up bringing them into the conflict because of retaliation to actions by the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts, for example.

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