December 1

Blog #80 – How revolutionary was the American Revolution?

One of the primary themes that I’ve wanted you to consider over this unit on the American Revolution was the concept of whether or not it was a conservative revolution (people trying to keep powers/rights that they already have been exercising for years) or whether it was truly a radical revolution (people striking out on their own by overthrowing an existing political or social order and creating a new one).   American historians have been debating the very nature of the American Revolution soon after it ended.

As we read over and study chapter 7-8 in our textbook, many of you are asking questions about the use of my analogy of the American colonies as the spoiled child / teen overeeacting to limits being placed on the adolescent by previously indulgent parent (Britain / Parliament) who now realizes that their child has grown up and needs to take some responsibility.  My attitudes about the Revolution have changed over the past five years since I’ve started teaching APUSH and have become more nuanced.  What I mean by that is that I used to believe what most of you have probably been taught – we were right and the British were tyrants, and it was just a matter of time that we asserted our unalienable rights by breaking away from the British empire to become the greatest nation in the history of the world.

The more I study the Revolution, the more I see numbers like the taxation issue (Brits were taxed 26 shillings to the colonists’ 1 shilling), and I wonder what the big deal was.  Parliament wasn’t asking the colonies to pay the debt of 140 million pounds sterling that the empire had accrued during the French and Indian War – just 1/3 of the 100,000 pounds that it cost for the soldiers to be there to protect the Indians on the other side of the Proclamation Line of 1763.  Part of me sees the Stamp Act riots as an overreaction, the Boston Tea Party as vandalism not patriotism, and that the Revolution was about how indebted the wealthy were to the British.


The pre-Civil War era (1840-1870) was filled with historians who saw the Revolution as a quest for liberty, and the most important scholar was George Bancroft who wrote a ten-volume History of the United States.  Bancroft felt that the Revolution was a “struggle between liberty and tyranny… represent[ing] one phase of a master plan by God for the march of all mankind toward a golden age of greater human freedom” (Bancroft 13).   Bancroft represented a national historian who told America’s epic story in an ultra-patriotic way.  After the Civil War, however, historians wanted to reassess the Revolution in light of the country’s amazing industrial growth.

Imperial and Progressive Schools 

The Imperial School believed that political and constitutional issues brought on the Revolution.  Britain’s colonial policies were not as unjust as Bancroft had said.  There were benefits and burdens with the Navigation Acts, and the colonists benefited under Salutary Neglect too.  Also, Imperial School historians felt that the British were justified in taxing the Americans b/c it was British blood and treasure spent during the Great War for Empire 1754-63.  American colonies were moving in the direction of more home rule which, in essence, was revolutionary, by nature.

The Progressive School emphasized that it was the economic split caused by the competition between the colonies and the mother country.  Not only that, but the Progressives placed a great emphasis on class conflict, so this Revolution was actually two revolutions – external against Britain and internal between social classes (which social class would rule America after the British left?).  Historian Arthur Schlesinger noted that usually conservative merchants played a key role in kick-starting the Revolution b/c they feared what would happen to their positions if the lower classes won the internal Revolution.

Consensus Movement

Historians in the 1950s, the consensus school of history, feel that there wasn’t class conflict during this time period, but that a “shared commitment to certain fundamental political principles of self-government” was what bound the colonists together (Bailey 140).  It was these ideas – liberty, voting, representative government, trial by jury, habeas corpus – that bound Americans together.  The leading historian of this movement was one of my favorites, Daniel Boorstin.  It was these grand, shared ideas that bound the varied colonial interests together and minimized the social and economic conflicts that could have torn the colonies apart.

After the 1950s, historian Bernard Bailyn focused on ideological and psychological factors that drove the RevolutionFront Cover.  He had read hundreds and hundreds of pamphlets from the Revolutionary era and discovered that not only were the colonists extremely literate, they were very knowledgeable in political theory.  These American writers also grew suspicious (some say too sensitive) of conspiracies, and this hypersensitivity led the colonists to begin armed revolt in 1775 at Lexington and Concord.

New Left (1960s, 70s)

Another one of my favorite historians, Gary Nash, has examined the social and economic forces that moved the Revolution along.  He pointed out the increasing gap between the social classes and lack of social mobility before the Revolution, especially among the people who lived in the countryside.  Attacks by the poor (the Paxton Boys in PA and the Regulators in N.C.) on the wealthy before the Revolution are prime examples of the frustration and resentment that laborers felt at being left out of the rapid economic change.  Unlike the Progressive historians, the New Left historians like Nash don’t pin all of the conflict upon economic conflict but include social changes as well.

Not only have you gotten a lesson in historiography (the history of the history – of the Revolution in this case), you can see that history is not a static thing and changes over time.  The history usually reflects the political and social conditions of the writers / historians living at that time.

Using what you’ve read here and in chapters 7 and 8 (“Whose Revolution?”), provide with me some insight into what you think our American Revolution was – a conservative revolution or truly radical one in nature.  Also, please provide some rationale for your answer from the ideas above and the Gary Nash article, “The Radical Revolution from the ‘Bottom Up'”. 

Due Friday, Dec. 4 by class time.  Minimum of 300 words.  


Bailey, Thomas Andrew, David M. Kennedy, and Lizabeth Cohen. The American Pageant. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. Print.

Wood, Gordon S. “Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution.” The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. London: Penguin, 2011. 25-55. Print

September 24

Blog #54 – Was the Revolution’s main cause economic, political, or social?

Historians have been debating this idea – the primary cause of the American Revolution – pretty much ever since it occurred over 200 years ago. Your job: read over the three main causes argued over by historians, and in your own words, explain which one is the most convincing. 

Economic: In examining the economic causes, historians have pointed to the damaging effects of the new emphasis that the British put on organizing their empire along mercantilist philosophies – meaning that the colonies exist only for the enrichment of the mother country and not for themselves.  Because of salutary neglect, the American colonies had been used to running things on their own – defying the Navigation Acts, printing their own money, paying very few taxes (26 to 1) – for almost 150 years.  These Navigation Acts and other laws prevented American colonists from competing with British goods on the same playing field – American goods were taxed at a higher rate than British goods (don’t forget the Hat Act of 1700).  After King George’s War in 1748, and especially after the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British began to flex their economic muscle to squeeze more money from the colonists through things like the Sugar Act and the Townsend Acts.  One of the things that was growing by 1770 was intra-colonial trade which accounted for almost 20% of the goods shipped out of New York (these things shipped to other American colonies included rum, manufactured products, refined sugar, and food).  Britain appeared to want to limit this trade as well, b/c it didn’t enrich the home country. 

 – Post French and Indian War acts like the Sugar, Stamp, Townsend, and Tea acts all appared to limit or cut out colonial businessmen.  For instance, the Sugar Act raised prices on refined sugar which was used in the production of rum, 60% of which went to the colonies or West Indies.  Under the Townsend Acts, the new Board of Commons in Boston virtually put an end to smuggling, so struggling merchants organized a boycott movement in 1768.  Merchants from Philadelphia and New York joined the non-importation movement in addition to some southern colonies. 

 – Also, we mentioned that the colonists were cash-strapped / poor because they paid for English goods with gold and silver, so that states resorted to printing their own paper money.  In fact, many merchants and upper class folks were in debt to English merchants, and with the Parliament taxing or limiting colonists’ work, they had a difficult time paying their debts. 


Social / Cultural: For social reasons, while the economy grew rapidly, not everyone was sharing in its bounty.  In the 1770s, the top 20% of the population owned about two thirds of the colonies’ wealth, while the bottom 20% owned only 1%.  Indentured servants made up part of that bottom 20% and were more often landless workers either finding jobs as tenant farmers or factory workers in the cities.  These workers were not happy with the state of things and had hoped to get better farm land from the eastern, more populous side of their colony but were shut out.  So they had to move west into the frontier to find arable (farming) land.  Since there was little land available, many of these would-be farmers moved to the cities looking for work.  In Boston, these unemployed workers vented their grievances at town hall meetings and were able by sheer numbers to out vote the “Gentlemen, Merchants, Substantial Traders and all the better part of the Inhabitants” (Zinn 60).  Historian Howard Zinn stated that men like James Otis and Sam Adams used this lower-class resentment to fuel a revolutionary fire against the British and upper class politicians beginning in the early 1760s.  In other cities, working class men demanded open meetings and roll-call votes to find out how their representatives were voting to make sure that their demands were being met.  There was a full-blown class warfare, it seems, between those who were associated with the British (usually upper class) and the middle and working classes (pro-colonies).  The British soldiers located in Boston may have inadvertantly sparked the Boston Massacre b/c they were competing with unemployed colonists for jobs (apparently the British military pay wasn’t great and there was lots of spare time).  But, the passions of the poor and middle class were apparently greater than the wealthy colonists like Adams and Otis who tried to control them, because marches and protests would often get violent and potentially bloody.  Men like Adams and Otis who tried to utilize the poor’s anger against the pro-British rich only seemed to pour gasoline on smoldering embers. 

 – Even in the countryside, Bacon-style rebellions were popping up led by the poor against the wealthy.  The Paxton Boys of western Pennsylvania marched on the capitol in 1763, Philadelphia, to air their grievances, were prepared to torch the city, and did not leave until they were calmed down by Ben Franklin himself.  In 1771, North Carolina’s Regulators were white farmers and tenant farmers who had organized against “wealthy and corrupt officials” and wanted to “democratize local government  in their counties” (Zinn 63).  The Regulators hated the existing tax system and blamed the rich for its structure.  This turned into a full pitched battle in May 1771 when the state militia defeated several thousand Regulators, after which six Regulators were hanged for treason. 

  – Though this may seem like an economic argument between the haves and the have-nots, it really focused on the lack of opportunity that new immigrants sought and natural-born colonists had sought since they’d been born here.  The massive gap between the rich and poor may have contributed to this, but so did the lack of political representation for the poor. 


Political:  The biggest argument here revolves around “no taxation without representation”.  As we read in the Stamp Act Congress document, especially part V, that the colonists felt that Parliament’s taxation was unconstitutional b/c the colonists had no representation in Parliament.  Also, in the Stamp Act document (and subsequent pamphlets and speeches), the Congress reasserted their own rights as Englishmen even though they didn’t live within Great Britain – the right to trial by jury and other such liberties and rights. The taxes themselves were not very great (and by comparison to the British people themselves), but many, including Samuel Adams, felt that these taxes were but a slippery slope on which more burdensome laws would pour down upon the colonists.  

 – The Quebec Act, in 1774, was seen as another slippery slope law.  Though Parliament was well-intentioned with this law, it preserved the French Canadians their right to practice their religion and other rights that they had been accustomed to.  However, the right to trial by jury was not one of those rights, and the American colonists saw the Quebec Act as fencing them in with Catholics, and felt that their right to a trial was in jeopardy. 

  – Enlightenment ideas, like those of John Locke, began to filter over to the colonies.  A new attitude towards government emerged, one that any government was formed by the people who were ruled by it, and that the government got its power from those same people.  John Locke’s idea about an abusive government that can be removed from power by the people was one that was adopted by Thomas Jefferson and others.  Also, Locke’s idea on natural rights was well-received by the colonists and was ensured in the Declaration of Independence. 


Pick only one of these three and make a persuasive argument for it to be the primary cause of the Revolutionary War. 250 words minimum.  Due on Thursday, Sept. 26th by class time. 

October 17

Blog #26 – A lesson in historiography

According to the handout that I gave you about Revolutionary historiography, there are two main schools of thought on how to view that time period. 

The first one, the socio-economic historians (now known as Progressives for the time period during which they wrote) felt that the AR erupted because of the economic and social inequalities endured by the poor and underprivileged between the 1750s and 1760s.  The middle-class merchants were adversely affected by the new Imperial taxes and regulations, and together with the poor, forged an alliance with the “radical groups” which actually sparked a class struggle.  You can see this in the Regulators of North Carolina and the Paxton Boys’ rebellion in addition to the several riots mentioned by Zinn in Ch. 4, “Tyranny is Tyranny.”  More people were allowed to vote, own property, and hold elected offices. A strong federal government wasn’t allowed to exist b/c the states had strong, written constitutions. 

Arthur M. Schlesinger mentioned in his 1918 book (read the text online!) on the time period that the radicals eventually lost the peace to the businessmen who wanted a stronger federal government after the AR was over because that stronger government was better at securing property rights and helped pay off a number of speculators’ debts.  Historians Mary and Oscar Handlin question Schlesinger’s assumptions by looking at class divisions both before and after the war (that there wasn’t much change), and this brings into question the whole revolutionary thesis.  

The second group of historians mentioned in our article, the conservative historians (now known as consensus because they were trying to emphasize American history as a cohesive whole and not a jumble of ideas and experiments in participatory democracy) felt that the AR really was not a true revolution.  Instead, the American colonists fought to maintain “the existing democratic social order in the colonies…[and] to protect American rights and liberties against British [tyranny].” 

For the most part, this was what I was taught in school and most likely so were you.  Our history teachers have tried to show us that after 1763, everything changed.  But in between 1607 and 1763, the time period called “salutary neglect,” English colonists developed their own democratic, legal and economic traditions mostly based on what they already knew – the English system.  As one of my favorite historians, Daniel Boorstin, wrote, the colonists adopted traditional English rights like trial by jury, free speech, petition, and assembly as well as no taxation without representation.  So, in essence, the most white male colonists already exercised these rights (b/c land was available and many more Americans owned land than did Englishmen) when the British tried to interfere w/ this awesome plan. 

Charlie Beard - A Progressive, just like it says.

The last observation in the article I gave you mentions that both groups, the Progressives and the Consensus historians, reflected the reality of the life that they were living at that time, and therefore their interpretation of the AR was influenced by that.  For instance, if someone wrote a history of an American war while America was currently at war, chances are, that historian’s view on the historic war might reflect the popularity of the current war or whether or not it was fought for a just cause. 

In this case, the Progressives wrote at the end of the 19th / early 20th Century when big corporations ruled, unions were oppressed, and working conditions were awful.  Wages were low, and hours were long.  Concerns about those present conditions (1895-1920) surely had to have influenced the Progressives.   Conversely, the Consensus historians wrote during the post World War II era (1945-1965) in which we struggled with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (and tried to put on a united front in which democracy and capitalism have always triumphed).  But at the same time, the country was torn with internal contradictions and strife (the Civil Rights era, women’s movement, anti-war campaign, widening gap between rich and poor starting in the late 60s), so historical ethnic strife was de-emphasized. 

After reading this whole thing, please answer these questions about the AR historiography:

1. Which side – Progressives or Consensus – seems to have the more persuasive argument about how to view the AR?  Why?

2. Does Howard Zinn seem to fit into these categories?  Explain your answer (I might suggest that you check out the last two links at the bottom).

3. After reading this handout and doing this blog, can you still define history as just facts, dates, and people?  Or does history include something else?  Explain. 

300 words minimum for the total blog.  Due by Friday, October 21 (yes, new due date) before class begins. 

Resources: – more detailed analysis on the historiography of the AR – simple one page summary of the major American historians and who changed the interpretations.  Includes post-1965 takes on the war. – Another great summary look at AR historiography including the latest interpretation by Gordon Wood and his groundbreaking book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992).