Interpretations of America
The American Revolution: Moderate or Radical?
Some historians argue that the Revolution was solely aimed at achieving the limited goal of independence from Britain. There was a consensus among the Americans about keeping things as they were once the break from Britain had been accomplished The Revolution was inevitably viewed as a struggle of liberty versus tyranny between America and Britain. The Revolution was “radical in its character,” according to Bancroft, because it hastened the advance of human beings toward a millennium of “everlasting peace” and “universal brotherhood.” The imperial school believed that political and constitutional issues brought on the Revolution. The Progressive historians held that the primary causes were social and economic. Gipson claimed the British were justified in taxing the Americas and tightening the Navigation Acts after 1763, because largely British blood and money had been expended in the “Great War for Empire,” 1754-1763 (French and Indian War). Carl L. Becker, Charles A. Beard, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., and J. Franklin Jameson stressed class conflict as well as insisted the political or constitutional ideas had an underlying economic basis. Disenchantment of the merchants with British rule, said Schlesinger, arose from the economic reverses they suffered as a result of the strict policy of imperial control enacted by the mother country after the French and Indian War. The merchant class later became, in Schlesinger’s words, “a potent factor o the conservative counterrevolution that led to the establishment of the United States Constitution.” In the struggle between colonies and the mother country, the Americans emerged as the “conservatives” because they were trying to keep matters as they were before 1763. Daniel J. Boorsten argued that the revolution was conservative on the imperial as well as the local level because Americans were fighting to retain traditional rights and liberties granted to them under the British constitution. In refusing to accept the principle of no taxation without representation, Boorstin wrote, the patriots were insisting upon an old liberty, not a new right. The colonists, according to Bailyn, were convinced that there was a sinister plot against liberty in both England and America. Americans believed the conspiracy had succeeded in England and that America represented the last bastion or the defense of English liberties and the freedom of all mankind. Bailyn took issue with the Progressive historians who declared that the patriot leaders were indulging in mere rhetoric when they employed such words as conspiracy, corruption, and slavery. The colonists meant what they said; the fear of conspiracy against constitutional authority was built into the very structure of politics, and these words represented “real fears, real anxieties, [and] a sense of real danger.” Nash concluded that social changes had turned these seaport communities into “crucibles of revolutionary agitation.” The increasing poverty and the narrowing of economic opportunities resulted in resentment and rising class consciousness among segments of the artisan class. Some [New Left Historians] pictured the Revolution as a social movement – an internal struggle within the colonies – caused in part by class antagonism. Gross’s conclusion was conservative – that the townspeople had gone to war not to promise social change, but to stop it. Some of the new social historians suggested the Americans may have been caught up in a serious identity crisis as a people on the eve of the Revolution. Such historians saw Americans as profoundly conflicted toward the mother country. To Shy, the war was not an instrument of policy or a sequence of military operations solely, but rather a social process of education. The Radicalism of the American Revolution, by Gordon Wood, suggests that the Revolution ushered in a new American no longer hampered by habits of deference,...
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