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.
Erik R. Seeman
Death is universal yet is experienced in culturally specific ways. Because of this, when individuals in colonial North America encountered others from different cultural backgrounds, they were curious about how unfamiliar mortuary practices resembled and differed from their own. This curiosity spawned communication across cultural boundaries. The resulting knowledge sometimes facilitated peaceful relations between groups, while at other times it helped one group dominate another.
Colonial North Americans endured disastrously high mortality rates caused by disease, warfare, and labor exploitation. At the same time, death was central to the religions of all residents: Indians, Africans, and Europeans. Deathways thus offer an unmatched way to understand the colonial encounter from the participants’ perspectives.
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.
Alexander B. Haskell
Bacon’s Rebellion (1676–1677) was an uprising in the Virginia colony that its participants experienced as both a civil breakdown and a period of intense cosmic disorder. Although Thomas Hobbes had introduced his theory of state sovereignty a quarter century earlier, the secularizing connotations of his highly naturalized conceptualization of power had yet to make major inroads on a post-Reformation culture that was only gradually shifting from Renaissance providentialism to Enlightenment rationalism. Instead, the period witnessed a complicated interplay of providential beliefs and Hobbist doctrines. In the aftermath of the English civil war (1642–1651), this mingling of ideologies had prompted the Puritans’ own experimentation with Hobbes’s ideas, often in tandem with a Platonic spiritualism that was quite at odds with Hobbes’s own philosophical skepticism. The Restoration of 1660 had given an additional boost to Hobbism as his ideas won a number of prominent adherents in Charles II’s government.
The intermingling of providentialism and Hobbism gave Bacon’s Rebellion its particular aura of heightened drama and frightening uncertainty. In the months before the uprising, the outbreak of a war on the colony’s frontier with the Doeg and Susquehannock peoples elicited fears in the frontier counties of a momentous showdown between faithful planters and God’s enemies. In contrast, Governor Sir William Berkeley’s establishmentarian Protestantism encouraged him to see the frontiersmen’s vigilantism as impious, and the government’s more measured response to the conflict as inherently godlier because tied to time-tested hierarchies and institutions. Greatly complicating this already confusing scene, the colony also confronted a further destabilizing force in the form of the new Hobbist politics emerging from the other side of the ocean. In addition to a number of alarming policies emanating from Charles II’s court in the 1670s that sought to enhance the English state’s supremacy over the colonies, Hobbes’s doctrines also informed the young Nathaniel Bacon Jr.’s stated rationale for leading frontiersmen against local Indian communities without Berkeley’s authorization. Drawing on the Hobbes-influenced civil war-era writings of his relation the Presbyterian lawyer Nathaniel Bacon, the younger Bacon made the protection of the colony’s Christian brotherhood a moral priority that outweighed even the preservation of existing civil relations and public institutions.
While Berkeley’s antagonism toward this Hobbesian argument led him to lash out forcibly against Bacon as a singularly great threat to Virginia’s commonwealth, it was ordinary Virginians who most consequentially resisted Bacon’s strange doctrines. Yet a division persisted. Whereas the interior counties firmly rejected Bacon’s Hobbism in favor of the colony’s more traditional bonds to God and king, the frontier counties remained more open to a Hobbesian politics that promised their protection.
Although often attributed to the Odawa ogima, or headman, Pontiac, the conflict that bears his name was the work of a large and complicated network of Native people in the Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, and Mississippi Valley. Together Native Americans from this wide swath of North America identified their collective dissatisfaction of British Indian policy and, through careful negotiation and discussion, formulated a religious and political ideology that advocated for the Britons’ removal. In 1763, these diverse peoples carried off a successful military campaign that demonstrated Native sovereignty and power in these areas. Although falling short of its original goal of displacing the British, the coalition compelled the British Empire to change its policies and to show, outwardly at least, respect for Native peoples. Many of the peoples involved in the struggle would wage another such pan-Indian campaign against the United States a generation later.
In many ways, the anti-British campaign of 1761–1766 mirrored another anti-imperial campaign that followed a decade later. Like the American Revolution, the anti-British advocates of Pontiac’s War developed an ideology that specifically critiqued not only British policy but often questioned imperialism altogether, built an unstable and delicate coalition of diverse and sometimes antagonistic peoples, and sought to assert the participants’ independence from the British. However, the participants in Pontiac’s War were sovereign and autonomous indigenous nations, only recently and nominally allied to the British Empire, not British colonists, as in the American Revolution. Together these anti-British activists mounted a serious challenge to the British presence in the trans-Appalachian West and forced the British Empire to accede to many of their demands.
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.
Lisa T. Brooks
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.
King Philip’s War was both a colonial war and an indigenous resistance movement, which broke out in the summer of 1675 in the Wampanoag country and in Plymouth colony, but quickly spread throughout the coastal and interior native homelands and New England. Losses per capita were greater than any other war in American history. While sometimes regarded as a singular moment of conquest in the birth of New England, it also was known as the “first Indian war,” a conflict over land and jurisdiction among New England colonists and native nations that continued not only until the first Treaty of Casco Bay, which ended the war in 1678, but through nearly one hundred years of warfare and diplomacy, in which native people in the Northeast sought to adapt to colonization and draw settlers into indigenous protocols and networks. Indeed, in many ways, the war itself was a result of the failure of New England colonists to engage successfully and appropriately with the longstanding protocols of indigenous nations, as well as the steadily increasing demands for more and more land, threatening native subsistence and survival.
Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration.
By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations.
Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property.
Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
The military history of the American Revolution is more than the history of the War of Independence. The Revolution itself had important military causes. The experience of the Seven Years’ War (which started in 1754 in North America) conditioned British attitudes to the colonies after that conflict was over. From 1764, the British Parliament tried to raise taxes in America to pay for a new permanent military garrison. British politicians resisted colonial objections to parliamentary taxation at least partly because they feared that if the Americans established their right not to be taxed by Westminster, Parliament’s right to regulate colonial overseas trade would then be challenged. If the Americans broke out of the system of trade regulation, British ministers, MPs, and peers worried, then the Royal Navy would be seriously weakened.
The War of Independence, which began in 1775, was not the great American triumph that most accounts suggest. The British army faced a difficult task in suppressing a rebellion three thousand miles from Britain itself. French intervention on the American side in 1778 (followed by the Spanish in 1779, and the Dutch in 1780) made the task still more difficult. In the end, the war in America was won by the French as much as by the Americans. But in the wider imperial conflict, affecting the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, West Africa, and South Asia, the British fared much better. Even in its American dimension, the outcome was less clear cut than we usually imagine. The British, the nominal losers, retained great influence in the independent United States, which in economic terms remained in an essentially dependent relationship with the former mother country.
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.