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About this book

Colin Bonwick expands and updates the well-received first edition, and incorporates fresh material drawn from recent scholarship. The structure and argument of the book remain as before, but in particular Bonwick pays greater attention to Native Americans, African Americans, and white women. Though the book traces the attainment of independence, it focuses especially on the internal revolution that created republican governments, and considers the extent of social change. It concludes by examining the development of the American union.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
The American Revolution, after 200 and more years, is superficially well known but inadequately understood. General narratives mostly treat it as a colonial rebellion. They see it as the culmination of almost 200 years of American development and equate it primarily with the growing resistance to imperial policy that led to an outbreak of hostilities at Lexington in April 1775. Such processes moved ‘inexorably’ to British recognition of the United States eight years later, as one distinguished historian has put it. Ironically, the argument was put with stark clarity by a British army officer when he told his father that the causes of the developing rebellion ‘are to be found in the nature of mankind; and [I think] that it proceeds from a new nation, feeling itself wealthy, populous, and strong; and being impatient with restraint, are struggling to throw of that dependence which is so irksome to them’.1 Thus the achievement of political independence was the Revolution’s grand objective, besides which all other matters paled in importance. According to this familiar story, it came to a climax with the Declaration of Independence in 1776; thereafter it was almost synonymous with the war and certain victory. Daniel Boorstin has taken the argument ot its extreme by declaring that ‘properly speaking, 1776 had no sequel, and needed none. The issue was separation, and was accomplished.’2 In other respects, it is frequently argued, the Revolution was scarcely revolutionary at all.
Colin Bonwick

1. Land, Peoples and the Economy

Abstract
Thirteen British colonies were developing and maturing rapidly in mid-eighteenth-century America. Their European and African populations were multiplying at a pace far quicker than in the Old World — though at the expense of the indigenous population. Their economy was expanding, and increasingly included highly profitable engagement in overseas trade. This rapid growth was a product of human enterprise, coming from the colonists’ ability to exploit the potential of a rich and extensive natural environment. It set the context for the Revolution, created a platform from which it could launch, and did much to shape its development.
Colin Bonwick

2. Social, Political and Intellectual Patterns

Abstract
The nature of the social, political and intellectual platform from which the Revolution was launched did much to mould its character. Contemporary Europeans were mistaken in believing that American society was more or less homogeneous. Within a common underlying pattern, social mores varied considerably. Unquestionably there was no counterpart for whites to the stark contrast between the degradation of the poor and the gross wealth, privileges and power of the aristocracy that disfigured many parts of the Old World. Yet substantial differences in wealth and income were clearly visible in every part of the colonies, and the existence of social hierarchy was generally acknowledged by all, if frequently resented by the less fortunate. In some areas the social fault-lines were blurred, in others sharp and steep; the rivalries they provoked contributed substantially to the outcome of the Revolution. Ironically, it can be argued that American society was becoming more, not less differentiated, and in some ways closer to, not further from, the character of English society as it moved towards independence. In contrast, the formal political structure of American life was remarkably, though not totally, uniform — though the colonial practice of politics was increasingly divergent from traditional British behaviour. But social relationships and political structures by themselves were insufficient to dictate the process of change. The colonial mind was a distinctive component of a much wider North Atlantic culture system and also played an important part in shaping the Revolution, especially as Americans began to seek justification for their resistance to British policy and later to reflect on the nature of their republic.
Colin Bonwick

3. The Coming of the Revolution

Abstract
The nature and pace of American development changed spectacularly after 1763. Long-term demographic and economic growth continued, although there was considerable short-term disruption. Development, mobility and change were themselves disturbing, and their effects were aggravated by the emergence of major problems that previously had been only latent. Almost every colony was affected. Economic difficulties developed, and a number of dysfunctional processes disturbed the prevailing social order; in some colonies the supremacy of local elites was questioned. Arguably this made the colonists more sensitive to what they interpreted as provocation from outside. Externally, American relations with Britain, previously harmonious on the whole, degenerated into bitter conflict. The imperial crisis aggravated domestic tensions as well as drifted to war. In so doing it triggered a drastic transformation of American society and politics.
Colin Bonwick

4. Achieving Independence

Abstract
It took eight years to conclude the Revolutionary War. Colonial objectives were initially defensive and limited in scope. In the early stages Americans fought to protect their liberty and preserve their autonomy; beyond this few initially possessed a clear sense of constructive purpose. For 14 months they struggled to contain the British by force while debating what their ultimate goal should be. Even in Massachusetts some last traces of loyalty to the Crown continued for more than a year of warfare because of the traditional respect for the good name of the King.1 During the summer of 1776 they defined their objective as total separation and declared independence. Yet declaring independence was not the same as achieving it. George III’s government regarded their actions as no more than rebellion and remained determined to crush it. The imperative interests of individual states often conflicted with the equally imperative needs of Congress. For its part, Congress still faced innumerable challenging problems with no certainty of success. On several occasions Britain appeared on the verge of success, notably as early as 1776 and again in 1779–80, for American forces were weak and British military and naval power enormous by comparison. Both sides took a chance in abandoning political negotiation in favour of war, but the scale of the risks was asymmetrical. The British government assumed without thinking twice that the rebellion would be easily crushed and therefore that the risk was negligible. The Americans took a vast risk in challenging one of the strongest powers in the world.
Colin Bonwick

5. Framing New Governments

Abstract
Victory in the War of Independence was only part of the Revolution. Though literally essential, it was primarily an enabling act that permitted the simultaneous and more fundamental civil process of founding a republican system. Few Americans anticipated the need to establish new governments until the exigencies of war made it imperative, for unlike twentieth-century nationalists, the revolutionaries of 1776 had not spent decades preparing for the establishment of an independent regime. But once the necessity became evident, many immediately appreciated the exceptional chance that presented itself; as John Adams declared: ‘When, before the present epocha (sic), had three millions of people full power and a fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive?’ 1 Transformation of the colonies from being subordinate members of a monarchic empire directed from the centre into an independent self-governing nation required both considerable, and quick, thought and long-term commitment. It was a complex task which had to be undertaken at two levels: individually by each of the 13 states, and collectively as a single union. The difficulty was compounded by the need to undertake it within the context of the War of Independence that impinged severely on it in several states, and whose outcome was uncertain until after it was complete. Each government faced three tasks. First, it would have to conform to a set of political values acceptable to its constituents; second, it would need to be compatible with the social structure of each state; and third, be sufficiently effective to prosecute the war, impose its authority on those who rejected its claim to legitimacy and implement whatever policies it chose to formulate.
Colin Bonwick

6. Politics in the States

Abstract
For most of the Revolutionary era the individual states remained as much the primary stage for political and social activity as their predecessors the colonies had been before 1775. Many of the ideological principles so eloquently articulated in the Declaration of Independence could be implemented only within their domain for they, not Congress, retained responsibility for most of the duties of government. Congress directed the war but initially possessed little further authority. Each state determinedly defended its sovereignty and controlled its own finances, trade and economic policy; it also dealt individually with a host of political and social issues. In spite of the calls of national politics, many able men served as state governors or legislators, among them James Bowdoin and John Hancock in Massachusetts, Jonathan Trumbull in Connecticut, George Clinton in New York, John Dickinson in Pennsylvania and Delaware, Charles Carroll of Carrollton in Maryland, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison in Virginia, and John Rutledge in South Carolina. Under the particular circumstances of founding a nation they were obliged to be more activist than colonial administrations had been, even though the state constitutions proclaimed the merits of limited government. Their actions were central to the Revolution, and their record of effective administration far better than contemporary and later critics have allowed.
Colin Bonwick

7. Problems of Independence

Abstract
Numerous problems faced the new regime and tested it from every direction. Independence was no guarantee of survival as a single society, and the 1780s has been aptly if misleadingly labelled the ‘Critical Period’. The end of the war brought a post-war economic depression, and Congress constantly faced severe financial problems. Some difficulties probed the sectional rivalries among states possessing different or opposed interests, others posed questions concerning the distribution of authority between Congress and the states, and others raised the issue of the balance between conservative and more democratic government. Foreign relations posed more problems, especially since their resolution often impinged on domestic affairs. The one clear success was western policy which dealt, first, with the Native Indian inhabitants of the lands recently acquired under the peace treaty with Britain and, second with the treatment of white settlers in the vacated territory. Some difficulties (especially economic recession) were beyond the capacity of any government to overcome, though mistaken policies could aggravate them. One great advantage possessed by the new regime was that there was no alienated and disgruntled minority. Those who had opposed the Revolution accepted its verdict, and the few Loyalist refugees who returned to the United States after the war acquiesced in the outcome of the Revolution.
Colin Bonwick

8. The Philadelphia Convention

Abstract
The Philadelphia Convention deliberated throughout the summer of 1787. Though due to begin its business on 14 May, it only commenced work on 28 May when seven states were represented. It concluded its deliberations on 17 September by recommending to Congress a draft constitution that altered the structure of national government and drastically changed its relationship to the states and the people.
Colin Bonwick

9. The Revolution Completed

Abstract
Completion of the Revolution required ratification and then implementation of the federal Constitution. The first stage was to place the Constitution before conventions elected in each state for the sole purpose of considering whether it should be ratified. The process of ratification was slow and uncertain and provoked bitter public debate. Not until June 1788 did the ninth state necessary for it to come into effect ratify; the major states of Virginia and New York were not among them, though Virginia was only four days late and New York quickly followed. Neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island ratified before the new regime came into operation in April 1789. Disagreements centred on three elements: ideology, socioeconomics and political tactics. All were interactive, and all were especially concerned with the issues involved in strengthening the Union. But ratification was only a necessary stage, not a conclusion. It remained to bring life to the revised Union, for the principles, procedures and allocation of powers so carefully devised at Philadelphia were little more than statements of hope and intent; they were anything but self-enforcing. A new government had to be constructed which could implement in practice the theoretical principles of the new regime. This was the literally vital contribution of the first President and Congress. National politics under the Constitution also needed structures and organs through which a multitude of competing interests could be articulated. This was the function of the party system that developed during the 1790s.
Colin Bonwick
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