How has the debate over the origins of the American Revolution shifted over time? What are some reasons for the changing interpretations?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In my view there's little doubt that the Civil Rights movement and changing attitudes about race have affected the way the American Revolution has been perceived, by historians and to some extent by the U.S. public overall, in recent decades.

The question has, with good reason, been increasingly asked as...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In my view there's little doubt that the Civil Rights movement and changing attitudes about race have affected the way the American Revolution has been perceived, by historians and to some extent by the U.S. public overall, in recent decades.

The question has, with good reason, been increasingly asked as to why the Founders allowed the system of slavery to continue while consciously basing the rebellion on Enlightenment values and while declaring that all men are created equal. In addition, the Native Americans largely sided with the British. Until the past fifty years, both the African Americans and the American Indians were largely written out of the history of the Revolution, ignored by white Americans who saw the struggle for independence only in terms of their own assertion of rights in the face of the British Crown's attempt to deny them. With the U.S. finally, since the 1960s, having become a post-racial society, at least in the sense that legalized racial oppression has been ended, Americans have no longer been able to disregard the role of the non-white peoples in the Revolution and the factors involving them in the causes of the war.

Apart from the (legitimate) objection to the arbitrary taxation schemes by the Crown in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, Americans objected to the Proclamation of 1763 which prohibited white settlement west of the Appalachians. Though the British probably issued the proclamation more in response to the uprising known as Pontiac's War than for humanitarian reasons, it's difficult from an enlightened standpoint today to side with the American settlers on this issue. Similarly, the non-systematic efforts by the British during the War of Independence to free significant numbers of enslaved people were an ad hoc measure to put down the rebellion rather than an attempt to dismantle the slavery system as a whole, which the British were not to do across the Empire for another sixty years. Once the conflict became an international affair with the French declaring war on Britain in 1778, the British became more concerned about preserving their territories in the West Indies with their rich plantations, and at the time, for obvious reasons, had no intention of abolishing slavery there.

Nevertheless, it appears that on balance the Patriot side was more in the wrong regarding racial issues than the British were. This doesn't invalidate the legitimate reasons the Revolution was justified, but it complicates our understanding of the war and shows the independence movement as tainted in some sense. Some recent historians have even gone so far as to claim that the Revolution was fought principally for the specific purpose of preserving slavery. This is false. The rebellion began in New England where there were the fewest number of enslaved people anywhere in the colonies, and among the reasons the Boston patriots began the war, slavery was not one of them. Yet unfortunately, we can't deny that regarding an issue nevertheless of importance to the states south of the Mason and Dixon Line, the Patriot side in general was not anti-slavery, nor was it in favor of rights for the Indigenous Americans. As stated above, our recognition of these facts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has changed much of our perception of the causes and the outcome of the American Revolution.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team