Jonathan Clark
‘The American Revolution: Fulfillment of or Departure from the British Legacy?’

Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting
Pittsburgh,  October 14, 2006

The importance of the subject at this moment

We are living in interesting times; perhaps too interesting. As an historian, let me say only one thing about them. The current diplomatic situation is more than a set of practical problems; it calls in question the USA’s understanding of itself, in a way that even the Vietnam War did not do. As the organizers of this conference rightly understand, it all comes down to the interpretation of the American Revolution. 

The public ideology of the USA

Teaching in a US university, I am struck by one remarkable absence: there is almost no interest in the history of political thought. What the USA has instead is an historical interpretation of its Founding. But this is not self-sufficiently domestic: any interpretation of the Revolution depends on an historical interpretation of Anglo-American relations. 

So Britain and the USA still matter to each other more than we might expect. In the eighteenth century, the American colonies were of modest geopolitical importance; today Britain is of modest geopolitical importance; but it is of considerable importance how the two relate to each other. This is ultimately about nations’ self-understandings and whether they validate each other or contradict each other. Today, their interrelation depends above all on the intellectual sustainability of the old interpretation of the American Revolution. 

We might briefly identify that problem by saying that the account embodied in the Declaration of Independence will no longer work: that is, the idea that there had been, as its authors wrote, ‘a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism’; that George III’s ‘direct object’ had been ‘the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States’, as he had already established ‘an Arbitrary government’ in Canada. 

This was stirring rhetoric, but it will not do as historical explanation. And it is a problem that we pretend is not there. It’s the gorilla in the corner of the room. The English-speaking polity on both sides of the Atlantic was preoccupied with ‘liberty’, and the American Revolution was a civil war, not a war in which one party was devoted to liberty and the other was against it. That’s what makes it hard to answer questions like ‘what does the USA really stand for today?’ 

The general pattern in late eighteenth century

A civil war is a conflict over interpretation; but enemies often share an analysis, and merely put different valuations on it. So it was here. On both sides of the Atlantic, there was disagreement about the imperial problem in the 1760s and 1770s. But the pattern of argument was similar. 

In Britain, the monarchist position blamed the revolution on society in general (the decay of hierarchy, subordination, allegiance); the middle position blamed everything on George III and his ministers (as did Burke); the radical position explained a libertarian revolution in relation to the libertarian nature of British society in general. 

Similarly in the colonies: Loyalists blamed rebellion on the unhappy nature of colonial society in general; centrists blamed it on George III and his ministers; the revolutionary extreme celebrated the exceptional and libertarian nature of colonial society in general. 

So there was never agreement within the colonies on the cause of the Revolution. Consequently, there has always been a debate within the USA over whether the Revolution was politically radical but socially conservative, or politically conservative but socially radical. That is: politically radical and socially conservative, meaning a decisive political break but one that left much else in colonial society intact; or politically conservative but socially radical, that is, the minimum political change, but this minimum contradicted by the wide implications of natural rights theory for all men, and finally all women, everywhere. 

The balance of this debate has shifted over time. In our own day, we have seen the US become a force for militant intervention and social reconstruction around the world. Not coincidentally, in our own day the prevalent American understanding of the American Revolution has shifted from presenting it as socially conservative to depicting it as socially revolutionary. The USA’s ‘grand narrative’ has not been essentially revised: rather, more and more social groups have bought into it. Metaphorically as well as literally, Thomas Jefferson now has black descendants. As modern US society has changed more than any other western society, people outside it better appreciate that its origins were, indeed, revolutionary. And the more revolutionary they were, the less indebted they were to ideas and practices that were hegemonic in Britain, although they might have drawn on lesser traditions. If you think this is a problem, you might think we need historical explanations of it. If you don’t think it’s a problem, then that is the problem. 

Recent developments

So what has changed in our understanding of the Revolution? Let me draw your attention to some trends in scholarship, mostly outside the group of US historians who specialize in the Revolution. What I offer is primarily a British perspective. 

First, what has happened in the historiography of eighteenth-century Britain means that the minimalist or centrist position, blaming everything on George III and his ministers, has collapsed. Briefly, Burke was wrong. We are now looking at polarized options: even some US historians are drawn to examine the revolutionary nature of 1776, others are drawn to shore up the old image of a moderate, prudent Founding, the work of philosopher kings.

Second, British historians are now cautious about using ‘ideal types’. We no longer see a conflict in 1776 between a homogeneous ‘Britain’ and a homogeneous ‘America’. We acknowledge the variety of groups involved. We accept that ‘America’ was not just settled by ‘the British’, but by different groups from different parts of the British Isles, including Ireland and Scotland. Colonial North America too we now see as a chequer board of different cultures more than as a melting pot. 

Third, British historians adopt a comparative perspective. In the British Isles, we see some men in favour of the repression of the rebellion, others undecided, others in favour of  American independence as a common cause of freedom, exploiting the occasion for their own British ends. On this side of the Atlantic, Burke counted 26 British colonies; in 1776 13 rebelled, 13 did not. Even within those that did rebel, some men favoured armed resistance, some were undecided, some were Loyalists. This new understanding of the Revolution is closer to a civil war within the English-speaking polity, not a war of national liberation. 

Fourth, British historians appreciate that the outcome of the war was not determined by what the King’s armed forces did, or by what the American patriots did. It was determined by the military intervention of the world’s then superpower, France. France intervened not to set up a new social experiment, but to weaken Britain and to destabilize North America in the hope that France might re-establish its position on the continent. So the outcome in 1783 neither vindicated nor discredited any single set of British or American values. It merely gave an opportunity for some people in the new republic to make hegemonic certain interpretations of what its values were, and similarly within the British Isles. 

Fifth, this approach shows British historians that some questions were strikingly lacking as issues in the Revolution. Take democracy. There was a sophisticated colonial debate on colonial grievances in 1763-76, but it did not involve universal manhood suffrage. This was a new doctrine devised in Britain in the 1760s and 70s; it did not spread to the colonies. Nor did the colonial debate involve republicanism: colonists did not go into the revolution with a republican blueprint. Equally absent were ‘radicalism’ and ‘liberalism’: these are the proper names for two ideologies coined in England in the 1820s and 30s. They were not present in the colonies in the 1770s. So if not these things, what? As the age of ‘modernism’ recedes from us, historians give more attention to the role of religion in the Revolution as a source of motives and as a political moblizer. The USA emerges as the land the Protestant Dissenters made. What makes this outcome inescapable today is the fact that militant Islam implicitly sees it like that. 

Sixth, from a British perspective natural rights language in the eighteenth century was not a free-standing secular discourse. What made it plausible were the denominational social constituencies it addressed. The Declaration of Independence contains the claim ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’: the historian asks why they were self-evident, and to whom. For most contemporaries, that was a matter of their fundamental religious beliefs. 

Seventh, we appreciate that nationalism was a later formation. There was no ‘America’ in 1776 to fight the Revolution; the Revolution came first, and the Revolution created America. That is another reason why present-day citizens of the USA cannot validly look back on the eighteenth century and say ‘in 1776 we did this’. The Founders were not ‘we’ but ‘they’, quite different people. Present-day US citizens cannot revert to the Founding and ask ‘what, then, is our creed?’ The American republic since 1783 has had many creeds. Most of them were literally Creeds, that is, rival codifications of Christian belief. 

Eighth, British academics now look closely at what people meant by ‘liberty’, or ‘freedom’. We are aware that Isaiah Berlin’s analytical distinctions, ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’, are really two sides of the same coin. When we see demands for freedom from in 1776, we now ask ‘freedom to do what?’ 

Ninth, British historians (but almost no American historians) now explore counter-factuals: the other plausible things that might have happened. The outcome of the Revolution meant that one account of the options became hegemonic in the USA. This was the English Whig antithesis that dated back at least to the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81. Whigs claimed the choice was: liberty or slavery? Liberty, involving freedom from, security of property, and Protestantism; or slavery, involving subjection to, poverty, and popery. Most of the historical writing of the twentieth century implicitly accepted that account of 1776. But what if the options had been different: between on the one hand independence via world war and social revolution (which is what happened), and on the other hand independence a few decades later via political conflict, negotiation and compromise? If those were the options, we can begin to appreciate how the path actually taken was not determined by European norms but promoted a society importantly different from those norms. 

The era of the American Founding saw major disagreement. The task of historians is to record these disagreements. We cannot suppress them to announce that Britain ‘stood for’ one thing, and that ‘America’ stood for another thing. But we can record that independence made it possible for people to claim that the USA stood for one thing. 

Today’s problem

Every country has a ‘myth of origins’; but they tend to be revised over time. This has not happened with the USA: within popular culture, the world of Hollywood and Borders, the currently prevalent account of the Revolution is still strangely untouched. At academic level, it is increasingly bypassed. The great historians who kept in repair the ‘grand narrative’ of the Revolution through the 1970s and 80s are now in retirement, or no longer with us – men like Bernard Bailyn, Daniel Boorstin, Henry Steele Commager, Jack P. Greene, Oscar Handlin, Louis Hartz, Merrill Jensen, Benjamin Labaree, Forrest McDonald, Edmund Morgan, Clinton Rossiter, Gordon Wood. The younger generation of academic historians in the US have overwhelmingly turned away from that grand narrative; they champion the new agenda of social history that conservatives parody as ‘race, class and gender’. This means that the old story of the Revolution is left largely in the hands of the popular historians: they ply their trade well, but essentially they sustain the familiar story, adapted to the demands of present-day US public culture. Or it is in he hands of US political scientists, who are not historians. Keynes pointed out that those who think they have no economic theories merely repeat the views of dead economists; so it is with historical theories. 

Meanwhile the rest of the world changes. US society changes even more: the grand American research libraries, like the Clark, the Newberry, the Folger and the Huntington, monuments to an early twentieth-century US vision of US origins and transatlantic links, are increasingly deserted. Historians of Britain in US universities are fewer and fewer in number, and find themselves more and more intellectually isolated. 

Why was this not obvious before? Because there were overwhelming strategic reasons for not seeing it. Essentially, Britain bought US participation in two world wars and the Cold War by accepting the conventional US interpretation of the Revolution. The Revolution had been a battle for liberty, and against tyranny. It was all the fault of George III and his ministers. The causes of the Revolution were external to the colonies, and the ‘ostensible causes’ of the Revolution were the true ones. The US was therefore an essentially libertarian state – whatever it actually did. This, I suggest, is now problematic for profound reasons.


There is no one British legacy that the USA can be for or against. There is no one message or set of values embedded in the American Revolution. The British experience was diverse: from regicide to divine right monarchy, from the Peasants’ Revolt to peaceful hierarchy, from the proto-communism of the Levellers and Diggers to Adam Smith and Margaret Thatcher. The US is diverse: from white liberty to black slavery, from the decencies of ‘American Gothic’ to the expropriation and murder of Native Americans, from the Atlantic Charter, D Day and the Marshall Plan to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. We may wish to focus on the more pleasing parts of the story. But there is one thing we cannot escape, the gorilla in the corner of the room: the American Revolution was a revolution. 

Meanwhile, the understanding of the American Revolution entrenched in US popular culture has, in a broader perspective, stood still. It might be said that it has become a litany, a rhetorically-asserted and endlessly repeated ceremonial invocation leading from the Stamp Act through the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence and the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord to the framing of the Constitution of 1787. The scholarship which supports it is excellent; the idealism and patriotism of its believers is beyond question; the conventional account is indeed not wholly wrong; but it is only part of the story, and is therefore fatally flawed. One phenomenon in our own day suddenly reveals its irrelevance to explaining the predicament in which the USA now finds itself: the rise of militant Islam. In the face of this challenge, recourse to the old, secular, libertarian ‘grand narrative’ of the American Founding seems merely beside the point: it no longer provides the USA with a usable analysis of its nature and public purposes. 

What accentuates the problem is that the USA has undergone a further revolution in the last fifty years – and has thereby become more like itself, more true to the mainstream of its history from the seventeenth century, expressed in and made hegemonic by the Revolution of 1776.  It has not become more like some twentieth-century, sanitized version of John Locke. In a secular age it has become more like its denominational founders: more Manichean; more antinomian; more like the world that the Protestant Dissenters made; more of a nation engaged, as President Bush said, on a crusade.