Posted by: N.S. Palmer | July 4, 2010

What the American Revolution Was, and Wasn’t

By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.

People on both sides of the Atlantic often misunderstand what the American revolution of 1775-1783 was about.

If you look at the writings of the American founders, many of them proclaimed that they were fighting for their “rights as Englishmen.”

They did not see political separation from Great Britain as a break from their traditional political ideals. Instead, it re-affirmed those ideals in the face of what they saw as the crown’s mistreatment of its colonial subjects. It was only later that the American revolution was re-envisioned as a radical change like the French revolution.

Americans and Britons are still much more alike than different. Our common traditions, language, and civilisation make us the most natural of friends in every area, not just the political.


Copyright 2010 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.

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  1. As a Canadian, the American Revolution has always made me sort of wistful. It’s akin to the first kid in a family moving out; the raucous and disruptive one. Doors slamming, hateful remarks, punches thrown. Still won’t come around for birthdays or the holidays but can generally be counted upon to show up with his bucket to help put out fires sooner or later. For us, you always want to be pals with your brother but at the same time, there’s a distance implicit in the fact that you don’t really endorse the way he left home.

    I’ve been convinced for a long time that the first cause of the Revolution was our unparalleled success of the French and Indian War. It did three things: it removed the French (and the Indian allies they provoked) as a threat to British America, it demonstrated for really the first time the success of American arms on a large scale, and it prompted the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which presumed to hem in the colonists. A lack of a credible threat to bind the people to the Mother Country, a newfound confidence among the colonists in their own abilities, and a resentment that they were to be denied the spoils of victory beyond the Appalachians… all that lit the fuse; the Intolerable Acts spilled gasoline on the floor… I’ve often wondered if things might not have been different for us all if we hadn’t been so successful in that war. Of course, if we hadn’t, where I’m sitting now would still be New France and I wouldn’t be here, so it’s sort of academic. But for one golden generation, it was all one place; no frontier at Niagara Falls. Hard to imagine.

    I suppose there was a time when a more moderate policy in Parliament could have retained the allegiance of the colonists, but ultimately independence of some sort was probably inevitable. The only conceivable other outcome, really, would have been for Britain to have retained the imperial capital, London as an overseas version of Washington, D.C., while the politicians and policy-makers became increasingly American by the end of the 19th century. Anything’s possible, I suppose. More likely, what’s now the US would have taken the more evolutionary path to independence countries like Canada and Australia took. Unquestionably, though, the American experience shaped Britain’s policies when the time came for her other colonies (at least the “white” ones) to spread their wings; we were aided, rather than hindered, and the path was a slower and more gradual one without the sudden break. Canada didn’t achieve full constitutional independence till 1982 (largely through our own fractiousness, not any foot-dragging on Britain’s part). Arguably, since we still share a head of state with 15 other countries, it isn’t achieved quite yet. But the lessons of the American Revolution were surely in the minds of the legislators in implementing the suggestions of the Durham Report or agreeing to endorse Canada’s and Australia’s constitutions. So in some small way, we’re the children of that revolution too, or at least its stepchildren.

    On a personal level, I remember being shaped by it in other ways. When I was a kid, just starting school, all that Schoolhouse Rock stuff was just getting rolling. I was living in Nova Scotia and watching Saturday morning cartoons out of Maine, and having America Rock wash over me between shows. It was exciting, empowering, to learn about the American Revolution, and kicking out the bad guys! There was a British kid named John in my class and even though we were friends, I can remember picking on him about it. My mother found out somehow and I showed her what I meant, calling her into the room when ABC was showing the Schoolhouse Rock song “No More Kings”. And I remember her telling me: no, honey, see those ‘evil’ guys in the red uniforms? Those were our guys. Didn’t you ever notice the crown on top of Daddy’s navy hat crest when he goes to work? See the lady on our money? That’s the Queen of England… she’s our queen, too. They have dead men from a long time ago on their money. And our flag looks like this.

    But the TV says…

    That’s TV from another country. That’s about their bicentennial. It’s not about us.

    I was quietly devastated. It was a little like finding out you’re adopted and not really who you always thought you were; that people you believed were your brothers and sisters really aren’t. In a way, there’s a part of me that never really got over it. Next time I saw John, boy, was my face red(coated)! It took me a long time… maybe into my 20s… before I really came fully to grips with the fact that when the revolution came, we went the other way… that Ontario still has the Union Jack on its flag, the motto “Ut incipet fidelis sic permanet” (typically: ‘Loyal she began, loyal she remains’) in evidence, and Ontarian mayors with German names unabashedly plant trees with plaques to commemorate the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana. A Twilight Zone USA; what-if…

    I’ve made my peace with it, of course. Ah, but it would be nice if the US were still in the fold, though, instead of the empty chair at the table. 🙂

    • (( As a Canadian, the American Revolution has always made me sort of wistful. ))

      I share your wistfulness, though from south of the border, of course. I’ve spent enough time in Canada to know that it has many enviable qualities, such as the decency of its citizens, its civility, its health care system, its relative pacifism, its cleanliness, and its relative civic order. Those are qualities that America has mostly lost, as our population and society have coarsened under assault by racial division, war, militarism, corporate control of government, and moral/cultural relativism.

      What civilization we have left in America, we got mostly from Britain and to a lesser extent from Germanic countries. Jazz, we got mostly from Africans who were brought here in chains. America has produced some valuable intellectual innovations, but they are mostly in technology. Even our founding charters, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution were based almost entirely on ideas imported from Europe. We’re pretty good at making movies and marketing teenage pop stars, but that’s thin gruel on which to nourish a real civilization.

      You know the particulars of our separation from Britain better than most Americans do. I know that the colonists had many friends in Parliament who tried to heal the rift between them and the mother country. The British saw themselves as providing protection and public services to the colonies, while all that the colonists saw was the tax bill and a few restrictions on their freedom — both of which pale into insignificance compared to the tax bills and restrictions with which we are lumbered in the present day. (As an alumnus of a British university, I know a little about the other side of the conflict.)

      Cooler heads might have prevailed. But, what’s past is past. No one can know if all our countries would be better or worse off if America had stayed within the fold.

      In any event, I have never met an American who failed to regard Canada with the utmost respect and affection, as a brother country. All the Canadian jokes I’ve ever heard have been made by Canadians. Except in a formal legal sense, there is no frontier at Niagara Falls. You’re like a kinder, gentler, more civilized version of America (and please do take that as a compliment).

  2. I used to make jokes among my friends that the US had a revolution because it didn’t want to pay its bar tab. 🙂 Of course, I realize there’s far more to it, and over time I’ve grown to have more sympathy for the deeper reasons. It’s like the opposite of the Civil War… “states’ rights” was the umbrella code for the unmentionable fine point of “slavery”; in the Revolution, “no taxation without representation” was really just a fine point that stood in for, finally, a lot of matters of self-determination that had been troubling people for a while, but had been papered over by filial affection for Britain and British institutions… as you say, “the rights of Englishmen”. I really think it’s a shame that the American Revolution and its aftermath make such truisms seem risible to people in the US today; that what became the US willingly underwent a sort of lobotomy in the 1770s and imagined itself born in 1776 rather than merely taking full charge of a branch office under new management.

    It’s also a shame that the intransigence of Parliament and the King lost such brilliant minds for the Empire. Ben Franklin was one of the last of the Founding Fathers to turn his back on Britain, but once he crossed the Rubicon he did it with a vengeance, not the sort of lip-biting regret of men like Adams and Hamilton. Nevertheless, history, culture, and language seem to have largely caused the pieces to drift back together, albeit in new ways (ECHELON).

    I don’t mind at all the obviously kind comparisons of Canada and the US. Frankly, I (and I think most Canadians) have always conceived of Canada (English Canada, anyway), as in most regards simply “more America”; unincorporated USA. Our colonial ties and governmental conventions make that officially untrue, but there’s a strong element of practical truth to it. It has the effect that since we don’t participate directly in your political culture, we’re generally ignored and the details of our existence are largely unknown in the US. That’s just how it is.

    If I’m being honest, the affinity I feel for the United States is mostly directed at the northern and west coast states. I’ve been to many of those places and they don’t have a sense of being foreign. But the south… there’s enough of a cultural difference that I can’t deny I’m someplace else. That’s a different country. I remember being treated rudely by a border guard in Buffalo with a Georgia accent, and oddly resenting it. I knew that I was entering his country and in every technical sense right was on his side; nevertheless it didn’t feel that way in a practical sense. He was the one with the accent there, not me, if you see what I mean. It’s not hard for me to conceive of a political union with some parts of the United States; the problem is, it comes with all the rest, and I really don’t want my political future decided by people who think Sarah Palin ought to be one heartbeat away from the Button. If it weren’t for the fact that it would have meant the prolongation of slavery for generations, I could lament the fact that the North won the Civil War. It’s always felt like a forced marriage to me, right up to this day. In fact, lately, it seems increasingly obvious.

    When I was very young, it was so easy to admire and envy the US. During the Bicentennial, it seemed like the US had perfected itself. It had come through the crucible of Vietnam slightly humbled, more humane, aware of the limits of even superpower abilities. There was SALT, Camp David, Skylab as a continuation of Apollo, great movies, music, TV… And then, I don’t know, they elected Reagan and all that restraint, all that wise self-awareness, it just washed away again. The martial music started up again, the us-or-them rhetoric was back, and the budget went out the window. I’ve been waiting for good old days to come back. I’m starting to wonder if they ever will. Again, a lot of it seems to do with political culture sensible people are being hampered with from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But that’s just my take on it. I’m outside, I’m not part of it, it’s not really for me to say, finally.

    I’ve given thought for years to penning some sort of alternative history in which British arms were no quite so successful. The turning point typically is the failure of British on the Plains of Abraham. I actually have a print of a real map from 1755 in which the “Province of New York” includes about 80% of present-day Ontario, as well as pretty much everything west of Pennsylvania; the folks in Albany were getting their claims in early. Nevertheless, a friend once pointed out to me that anything pinched off on the St. Lawrence west of Montreal would have been effectively lost to the French, so it’s not hard to imagine France losing the south shore of the St. Lawrence and southern Ontario (the natural boundaries being, say, the Ottawa, French, and Mattawa Rivers) to the British, but keeping the rest. It’s fun to speculate on how history might have turned out on this continent if the imperial game had continued. It’s a fun project. As I said at the outset: wistful. 🙂


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