Ken Owen, Michael Hattem, Roy Rogers, and Liz Covart discuss the coming of the Revolution, including both its long-term origins and short-term causes, and debate the importance of imperial identity, popular participation, ideas and ideology, and the character of the resistance movement.
What do we mean when we say the “coming of the Revolution?” What were the Revolution’s origins and its causes? How far back can we go in looking for the former and how close to 1776 can we go in looking for the latter? Historians have debated these questions since the war itself was still raging. At the heart of this debate is the question: How did the colonies get from 1763 to independence in 1776 in only thirteen years? That is to ask, how did the political break between the colonies and the mother country happen so quickly after almost two centuries of imperial ties. In the twentieth century, historians have offered interpretations about the causes of the Revolution that focus on ideas, economics, and politics. But, following a burst of work on the questions of the coming of the Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, subsequent generations of historians have largely abandoned the question, turning their attentions instead toward the consequences of the Revolution. With so much time gone by, however, perhaps it is time for historians to reconsider the questions of the origins and causes of the American Revolution once again.
- What is the difference between the “origins” and “causes” of the Revolution?
- What is the interrelationship between them?
- How far back in time can we go when seeking the origins of the Revolution?
- When did the Revolution begin?
- What role did “imperial identity” play in the origins and causes of the Revolution?
- How important was the role of political institutions in the causes of the Revolution?
- Why did colonists believe they were entitled to autonomy within the British Empire?
- When was independence actually possible?
Liz Covart is an independent historian and host of the “Ben Franklin’s World” podcast. She received her PhD from the University of California at Davis, where her dissertation focused on revolutionary Albany. Liz blogs at Uncommonplace Book and writes for a number of online history websites and publications. She also offers social media consulting services for writers.
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BE THE HISTORIAN
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If we’re talking the process of the Revolution, we could push it back to the Plymouth landings with the Mayflower Compact, where the signers of that compact declared that they had the power to regulate their own politics.
What town or village in any other English territory had that power? That’s really when the long, slow process of revolution began, as New Englanders established their political institutions.
If we’re talking the Revolution as “event”, I really have to argue that it happened from 1773 to 1775 (and I’ve felt this way for awhile now), with the escalation in resistance in New England in particular, but also in other key colonies such as South Carolina and Virginia. The resistance to British political rule was that of resistance *within* Empire, not resistance leading to rebellion. The Boston Tea Party was the catalyst. Even though many prominent Americans disagreed with the action, the reaction by Parliament was so overwhelming that it pushed American colonists over the edge from resistance to revolution.
The war itself was just the point where the people said “Now we’re going to fight to separate ourselves from England”. It was the means by which revolution was finalized, not the revolution itself.
I think Liz’s comment early in the episode actually ties in all the various strands together. The Revolution was about the colonists not having power and protection within the English state. They were treated as second class citizens in the economic front, on the cultural front. They felt they were treated as second class citizens on the religious front, and on the political front.
They had that power within a burgeoning American state, and when that power was threatened, it exploded into violence and revolution.