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...

(The entire section is 1332 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, August, 1986, p. 1660.

Choice. XXIV, October, 1986, p. 370.

Library Journal. CXI, July 16, 1986, p. 81.