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.
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.
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.
Alexander B. Haskell
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.
Since the publication of Thomas J. Wertenbaker’s unabashedly Whiggish Torchbearer of the Revolution: The Story of Bacon’s Rebellion and Its Leader (1940), historians have taken pains to keep their interpretations of Bacon’s Rebellion clear from even the whiff of ideological anachronism. As a result, most late-20th-century analyses of this largest of uprisings in the 17th-century English American colonies stress its nonideological character, an interpretive stance that has typically involved recourse to various incarnations of what we might call a social-functionalist explanation, that is, an explanation that, on the basis of certain presumed characteristics of 17th-century Virginian society (for example, its autonomy from English government, its failure to reproduce certain traditional aspects of English society, and its exploitative conditions between wealthy planters and poorer landowners, tenants, servants, and slaves), draws conclusions about its susceptibility to social division and collapse without giving much, if any, weight to ideological disagreement. More recently, however, this determined materialism appears to be yielding to a new willingness to give ideology a greater analytical role, as suggested by Stephen Saunders Webb’s and Kathleen Brown’s identification of Nathaniel Bacon Jr. as a recognizable “republican,” David Hackett Fischer’s and Holly Brewer’s suggestion that Governor Sir William Berkeley deserves to be seen as following in the mold of “Stuart absolutism,” and Peter Thompson’s argument that the Baconites employed a class-based language of “commonalty” that linked them to the Cromwellians of the English civil war.
Here, casuistry, the determination of lawfulness and unlawfulness when God’s will is unclear, will be offered as the most plausible description of the language that both animated and divided the Baconites and Berkeleyites as well as the most cogent explanation for why the conflict spiraled so quickly into civil war. In particular, I will focus on the intense exertions by both sides to identify the location of “rebellion,” a label associated palpably with sin (in addition to treason against the king) and thus simultaneously a rhetorical weapon of pronounced moral (as well as legal) significance and, no less dreadfully, a powerful starting point for justifying extraordinary punitive measures against the persons so designated, including the plundering of their estates and the purging of the commonwealth of such malignant bodies and souls.
The Puritans were a group of people loosely defined through their shared adherence to the reformed theological tradition, largely following the work of John Calvin. Beginning in the 16th century, the Puritan movement took root in specific regional locales throughout Germany, Scotland, the Low Countries, and England. Following Queen Elizabeth’s settlement of 1559, which mandated conformity with the Church of England, the church’s authority splintered further as Protestants clashed with the episcopal polity, or church hierarchy. Religious conflict intensified from the 1580s through the end of James I’s reign, through repeated appeals to antiquity and patristics (writings from early Christian fathers) as pleas for further reform. Religious tension and persecution under the repressive regime of Archbishop Laud caused Puritans to leave England in search of new lands and communities.
When the Pilgrims and Puritans migrated to North America in 1620 and 1630, respectively, they did so with the intention of contesting the power of the crown to mandate religious uniformity. They believed in a Calvinist-based religion that espoused a separation of church and state, but that also privileged the spiritual authority of the individual to such a degree as to leave no clear signposts about how the disparate individuals practicing these faiths should form communities. Puritan congregations in New England allowed laymen as well as women new forms of spiritual self-discovery as they orally translated the evidence of grace recorded upon their souls into communal knowledge and a corporate identity that fashioned itself as a spiritual beacon to the world. Missionary encounters soon redefined Puritan faith, theology, and pious practices. Puritan identity in 17th century North America reconstituted itself through a particular confluence of interaction with foreign landscapes, native tribes, Africans, and new models of community and social interaction.
Susanah Shaw Romney
On the mid-Atlantic coast between 1624 and 1664, the Dutch developed a successful and expansive colony, one that depended on particular interactions among women and men from American, European, and African backgrounds. Unlike some other colonial efforts, such as Jamestown, New Netherland had white women colonists from its inception. In contrast to Plymouth and other English settler colonies, a population of African men and women did the crucial work of establishing the colony’s initial infrastructure in its first years. What is more, a thriving cross-cultural trade between Netherlanders and Munsee, Mahican, and Mohawk residents of the region nurtured the development of the infant colony. Looking at the colony’s establishment and growth reveals that complex interactions among ethnically distinct families gave New Netherland its particular form and character. As European and African populations took root, many households engaged in the frontier trading economy, creating a web of connections reaching into multiple indigenous villages. Women and men cooperated to sustain this trade over long distances by relying on marriage and the economic unit of the household to organize production and exchange. In addition, the colonial government used these households to stake claims to the ground and to define Dutch jurisdiction, just as they recognized that residence by Indian or English households determined where Dutch power ended. Thus ethnic and gender relations shaped not only the colony’s internal hierarchies, but also its economy and its very boundaries.