Roots of Conflict
No less a person than Sir Winston Churchill once said that the greatest calamity that ever befell the British Empire was the American Revolution, and several generations of scholars have attempted to explain its causes. Not surprisingly, the first interpreters on the American side took a very patriotic, self-justificatory view: Increasing oppression on the parts of the King and Parliament finally provoked the Colonies to rebel, and the only remedy for royal tyranny had to be independence. It was a matter of a simple case of liberty versus slavery, reduced to the catchphrase “No taxation without representation.” That explanation, developed by many writers and most notably by the historian George Bancroft, satisfied most Americans until near the end of the nineteenth century, when a new commitment to scientific method in writing history made it seem simplistic and inadequate.
Arguing that the slogans and propagandistic tracts of Revolutionary leaders and activists were covers for hidden motives, historians of the Progressive school attempted to establish economic interests as the principal causes of revolution. Historians such as Louis M. Hacker and Oliver M. Dickerson asserted that the Acts of Trade and Navigation unfairly restricted Colonial mercantile enterprise, but other historians pointed out that Colonial merchants did not object to the acts, which were widely evaded and under-enforced in any case. More important, however, from the point of view of the economic determinists, were Parliamentary prohibitions against Colonial industry such as those contained in the Hat and Iron Acts. Attempts to prevent the growth of Colonial industry represented unacceptable restraints on Colonial capitalist enterprise, but historians of the so-called Imperial school noted that there was little Colonial interest in expanding local iron foundries, which were of little economic significance anyway, or in making hats for London gentlemen.
Charles McLean Andrews, Lawrence Henry Gipson, and other historians took a view more favorable to Great Britain. The Revolution, they maintained, was an outgrowth of “The Great War for the Empire,” the Seven Years War which had ended with the expulsion of the French from North America but had left the British government with a huge debt and with problems of imperial reorganization which, because of Colonial obstruction and lack of sympathy, ultimately, proved insoluble.
Conflicting interpretations of the causes of the Revolution have sometimes been designated Whig and Tory, the former term denoting emphasis on ideological and constitutional positions taken by the revolutionaries, and Tory a broad label attached to arguments depending primarily on international influences and material interests. Under one or the other label are clustered historiographical claims for causes such as those elaborated in Carl Bridenbaugh’s Mitre and Sceptre (1962), Carl Becker’s essay “The Spirit of ’76,” and not least, in the work of social historians. Bridenbaugh discovered a widespread fear throughout the Colonies, but especially strong in Puritan New England, that the King intended to establish the Church of England in the Colonies, complete with bishops and the rest of an ecclesiastical establishment. Becker’s essay posed the argument over independence as one between two generations, the older one clinging to traditional values and loyalty to the King, and the younger sensing the growing self-confidence and the rising power of the maturing Colonies. Further, it was Becker who opened up the social dimension of the issue with his insistence that the Revolution was not only a contest to see who would rule America but also which Americans should rule.
In a sense, the debate over the causes of the Revolution has come full circle. Bernard Bailyn and his students, such as Gordon Wood, have restored to a central position the ideas and beliefs, originating with the Whig “oppositionists” of England and Scotland during the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which Americans used in promoting and justifying their Revolution. Bailyn’s work on the pamphlets of the Revolution, to which his The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) is an introduction, to be followed by a multivolume work with the overall title “The Peopling of British North America,” with Bridenbaugh’s The Spirit of ’76 (1975) and works by English historians such as J. R. Pole and Esmond Wright, forms a kind of capstone to a consensus on the causes of the Revolution.
Few historians hold to a single explanation of the Revolution, whether it be the old tyranny-versus-liberty dichotomy, economic conflicts of interests, the effects of international embroilments, or the divergence of political and constitutional ideas of government, particularly the British government and constitution. The apparent consensus holds that there were many causes for the American Revolution, each of which operated differently on various groups in different parts of the country, and even on different leaders. One overarching cause, which seemed to be widely believed, involved a distinctly American understanding of the British constitution and of the historic rights of Englishmen. The fact that most Englishmen at home did not share that understanding, to the extent that they gave the subject any thought at all, was irrelevant. Indeed, Americans believed a rhetoric that was American and that set them apart from their fellow subjects across the Atlantic.
In very rough outline, that is the context in which Douglas Edward Leach’s book appears. He does not claim that the interaction of British armed forces and Colonial Americans between 1677 and 1763 constituted the only “roots of conflict” of the American Revolution. What he does say, and this is the thesis of his book, “is that Anglo-American friction caused by the presence of British regular forces prior to 1763 was indeed an important contributing factor in the coming of the American Revolution, especially in the form of intergroup attitudes and perceptions hardening into stereotypes and traditions.”
Leach, who is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of two earlier books on the military history of the Colonial period, has produced a lively and concise account of antagonisms between British armed forces and Colonial Americans from the time of Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676 until the end of the Great War for the Empire in 1763. The first serious clash between British regulars and Colonial troops came with the overthrow of the Andros regime over the Dominion of New England following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Although Governor Edmund Andros was actually deposed at Boston, it was in New York that violence flared, as a result of assumption of gubernatorial powers by Jacob Leisler, a local merchant. Already attitudes were forming: The British professionals scorned the Colonial militiamen as slovenly, untrained amateurs, and the Colonials despised and feared the regulars for the aristocratic condescension of their officers and the callousness of the soldiers.
Although Leach bends over backward to be fair to British commanders and their troops, his story is usually one of British summoning of Colonial forces and the forgetting of commitments made. A campaign projected against Canada in 1709, for which Colonial troops were mobilized in the spring, was finally canceled in October without explanation. In 1740, a joint British-Colonial operation against the Spanish stronghold of Saint Augustine ended ignominiously, while soon thereafter a joint attack on the rich Spanish base at Cartagena failed miserably with, as usual, a pitiful fraction of the American force surviving disease and deprivation. The author believes that the Cartagena experience “contributed heavily not only to the mutually antagonistic views of British regulars and American provincials, which had been developing for many years, but also to the emergence of a self-conscious Americanism with almost incalculable import for the future of the British Empire.”
All of this, in addition to the continuing deep-seated grievance against the Royal Navy concerning the impressment of Colonial seamen, contributed to the deep American prejudice against a standing army. (A regular, professional army has traditionally been discountenanced by the American people, although Leach believes that in modern times this tradition has finally been supplanted.)
Roots of Conflict is well documented, both from American and British sources, and the author provides a most useful bibliography. His book is a very welcome addition to the already bulging library on the causes of the American Revolution.
Booklist. LXXXII, August, 1986, p. 1660.
Choice. XXIV, October, 1986, p. 370.
Library Journal. CXI, July 16, 1986, p. 81.