Was the American Revolution a Civil War?

At The Junto, Christopher Minty asks whether the American Revolution was a civil war. In doing so he’s responding the the same question asked by Tom Cutterham last year at the same blog. By arguing that the American Revolution was more a civil war than a war between two nations, Cutterham hopes to challenge the notions “that the division between British and American became absolute at the moment of the Declaration, that a new nation was born in that instant, and that the only distinction that mattered was the one between the United States and its enemies.” He concludes, “If we saw this and every revolution as a civil war, maybe we’d better understand the way the modern world—the nexus of state, citizen, and property—was born in and determined by violence.”

Battle of Cowpens

Battle of Cowpens

I certainly have no argument against his contention that “the modern world…was born in and determined by violence.” Military historians often try valiantly to make this point to other historians who think we don’t do anything more than give narrative accounts of battles and biographies of generals. But it’s also important to understand the dynamics of that violence, or how it played out at the local level. Because Cutterham sees the war as “a story of dissolving sovereignty and contested authority, lawless violence and the search for security.” He adds “Its true theorist was not John Locke, but Thomas Hobbes.” The latter statement is certainly true, but it’s also true for pretty much all war. The American Revolution was not unique among wars in its violence. However, I would suggest he overstates the case by writing off the war as complete anarchy. If you look at the way the violence unfolded, you begin to see a logic to that violence. Continue reading

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Slavery and Southern Support for the American Revolution

Just in time for Independence Day, Vox presents an article purporting to explain “3 Reasons the American Revolution Was a Mistake.” Vox is not alone in torturing narratives to fit a particular worldview. In this case, however, the argument is one shared by far too many historians of the American Revolution, so it’s worth a response.

Henry Laurens

Henry Laurens

Matthews argues the American Revolution was a mistake because 1. “Abolition would have come faster without independence;” 2. Independence was bad for Native Americans;” and 3. “America would have a better system of government if we’d stuck with Britain.”

Taking these in reverse order, number 3 is not really worth arguing. Matthews believes a form of government that could more easily force through progressive policies that he favors would be preferable to a system that makes it much harder for any one branch of government (and any one party controlling that branch) to run roughshod over its political opponents. He’s free to have that opinion. The inability of one branch of government to ram through its prerogative, however, is a feature of the American system of government, not a bug.

Number 2 is generally true as far as it goes, but his argument is also a total mess. It essentially amounts to saying that things would have been an ever-so-slightly better shade of awful for Native Americans without independence. Number 1 is the big problem though, largely because some of the arguments included in it are so pervasive in the historiography.  Continue reading