Michael A. McDonnell
The American War for Independence lasted eight years. It was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in America’s history, and yet it was not such a protracted conflict merely because the might of the British armed forces was brought to bear on the hapless colonials. The many divisions among Americans themselves over whether to fight, what to fight for, and who would do the fighting often had tragic and violent consequences. The Revolutionary War was by any measure the first American civil war. Yet national narratives of the Revolution and even much of the scholarship on the era focus more on simple stories of a contest between the Patriots and the British. Loyalists and other opponents of the Patriots are routinely left out of these narratives, or given short shrift. So, too, are the tens of thousands of ordinary colonists—perhaps a majority of the population—who were disaffected or alienated from either side or who tried to tack between the two main antagonists to make the best of a bad situation. Historians now estimate that as many as three-fifths of the colonial population were neither active Loyalists nor Patriots.
When we take the war seriously and begin to think about narratives that capture the experience of the many, rather than the few, an illuminating picture emerges. The remarkably wide scope of the activities of the disaffected during the war—ranging from nonpayment of taxes to draft dodging and even to armed resistance to protect their neutrality—has to be integrated with older stories of militant Patriots and timid Loyalists. Only then can we understand the profound consequences of disaffection—particularly in creating divisions within the states, increasing levels of violence, prolonging the war, and changing the nature of the political settlements in each state. Indeed, the very divisions among diverse Americans that made the War for Independence so long, bitter, and bloody also explains much of the Revolutionary energy of the period. Though it is not as seamless as traditional narratives of the Revolution would suggest, a more complicated story also helps better explain the many problems the new states and eventually the new nation would face. In making this argument, we may finally suggest ways we can overcome what John Shy long ago noted as the tendency of scholars to separate the ‘destructive’ War for Independence from the ‘constructive’ political Revolution.
John M. Dixon
The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions.
America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
A long revolutionary era beginning in the 1770s and continuing into the 1820s profoundly altered North American commerce. The North American movement for independence from the British empire disrupted channels of trade in people and goods as embargoes and blockades shut down major transition points between continents or islands and the Atlantic Ocean, privateering crews of different empires seized vessels, wartime activities challenged the slave trade, and the economic fortunes of many international traders forced them to migrate, find new avenues of commerce, or retire altogether. Only a handful of well-placed merchants prospered during the North American Revolution by securing military supply contracts or engaging in illicit commerce, especially in the French and Spanish Caribbean.
Despite many North Americans’ expectations for a rapid recovery after the Peace of Paris, recovery and new prosperity emerged slowly. Old connections to England, despite the revolutionary separation, recovered most quickly; but these connections were available to a small percentage of well-placed merchants, and often they were built on new foundations with new immigrants to North America. Moreover, England’s policy makers were intent upon limiting North American trade to parts of the world—especially the Caribbean—where the British empire hoped to control markets. A spike in vessel and crew seizures ensued during the 1780s. Within the Western Hemisphere, the French and Haitian revolutions also deeply unsettled many essential ties to British, French, and Spanish Caribbean markets, so that by the end of the 1790s North American merchants who wished to stay in commerce had been compelled to diversify their ports of call and seek new markets in South America, the Gulf Coast, and northern Europe. Meanwhile, the slave trade revived. When North American commerce began to flourish after the 1790s, revolutions in South America had a far less deleterious effect on the movement of goods and people. By then, the demand for provisions during the global spread of the Napoleonic wars, the opening of markets in the Far East, the expanding exporting potential of North Americans (especially flour and cotton), and their re-export commerce (especially sugar) rose above some of the constraints of earlier years.
Robert G. Parkinson
According to David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.
Two major types of print dealt with the political process of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. There were also three dozen newspaper printers in the American mainland colonies at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue every week. These weekly papers, or one-sheet broadsides that appeared in American cities even more frequently, were the most important communication avenue to keep colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a possible policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the mid-18th century.