As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110- Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Evolution or Revolution?

Cartoon of the chains holding Americans to England before the Revolutionary War

Our story in Units I and II has moved from the early founding of the British North American colonies to the rising social, political, and economic discontent that had arisen within the colonies by the middle of the 18th Century. Today, we are moving into yet another chapter of our story - how and why the colonists revolted against England. So let's begin with the story of the American Revolution that most Americans know and love.

Discussion Goals
 “Evolution versus Revolution?”

  1. To understand how the French and Indian War pushed the colonists toward independence.
  2. To understand the road to the American Revolution.
  3. To examine the myths of the American Revolution.
  4. To explore the actions that accompanied the colonists’ transition from resistance to revolution.
  5. To review two documents that greatly influenced the course of the Revolutionary War: Common Sense and The Wealth of Nations.
  6. To discuss two important questions that historians continue to ask about the Revolutionary War:

Goal #1: To understand how the French and Indian War pushed the colonists toward independence

The French and Indian War was the colonial portion of the Seven Years War fought in Europe from 1756 to 1763. It was bloodiest Map of French forts before the French and Indian Warand most widely-fought American war in the 18th century, taking more lives than the American Revolution and involving people on three continents, including the Caribbean. The war was but one of many imperial struggles between the French and English over colonial territory and wealth both in North America and in Europe, as well as a product of the local rivalry between British and French colonists.

So, what led us into this war? For years, the French had been bulding a strong of forts from Lake Erie towards the forks of the Ohio River (present-day Pittsburgh) to limit British influence along their frontier. However, the colony of Virginia also claimed the same region.

By September 1760, the British controlled all of the North American frontier; the war between the two countries was effectively over. The 1763 Treaty of Paris, which also ended the European Seven Years War, forced the French to surrender all of her American possessions to the British and the Spanish. The results of the war effectively ended French political and cultural influence in North America. England gained massive amounts of land and vastly strengthened its hold on the continent. The war, however, also had other results.

Map of No. America in 1754Map of North America in 1763

To handle their debt, the British enacted a series of policies that became the first steps along the road to revolution. After the War, the British were essentially broke and desperately in need of income and goods to bolster their economy - income and goods that they believed were readily available from the American colonies. Thus, Parliament took two steps that were unprecedented and conflicted greatly with the colonial tradition of representative government:

Goal #2: To understand the road to the American Revolution

After the first steps toward war - the placement of British troops and the Intolerable Acts - the road to revolution still moved slowly:

In the Treaty of Versailles, signed at the same time, Britain made peace with France and Spain. 

Goal #3: To examine the myths of the American Revolution.

The Myths of the American Revolution:

Myth #1: The colonists had suffered over a hundred years of unfair taxes.

The "bottom line" - Colonists had always paid taxes, most of which were imposed by their own colonial legislature. But the new British taxes following the French and Indian War were different as they were levied directly by the King and/or Parliament. The colonists felt the new taxation laws favored England at the expense of the colonies.

Myth #2: The rule of King George III was tyrannical

So, just how did the King and the British government respond to various colonial actions? The colonists claimed King George was a tyrant - an absolute ruler who governed without restrictions and who exercises power in a harsh, cruel manner. But was the King really a tyrant?

The "bottom line" - Not until thousands of dollars worth of property was destroyed in Boston harbor did the British government - many of whose members were investors in the East India Tea Company- retaliate. For the British, as it would be for the founding fathers of the United States, the sanctity of private property was worth protecting.

Myth #3: All Americans united in a patriotic defense of independence

Did all Americans - north and south, white, Indian, slave, female and male, rich and poor - greet the Declaration of Independence with uniform enthusiasm? After the divisive experiences of the Vietnam war and the current divisions over the war in Afghanistan, it is appealing to think that there was an overwhelming consensus for Independence. But it was not so.

We do know that during the war, about one-third of all Americans continued their opposition. In fact, in 1779, there were more Americans fighting with the British than with Washington: 21 regiments of Loyalists consisting of between 6500-8000 men, compared with Washington's field army of 3488.

As the war progressed many of these neutral colonists did join the American cause, but several historians have shown that this was not an ideological or political choice: the British army behaved so badly everywhere it went, looting, raping, destroying, that it literally drove many colonists into the revolutionary camp.

The "bottom line" - Understanding that the Revolutionary War was not a unified effort - that people both supported and opposed the war - does not detract from the story. In fact, it makes it a more real, more exciting, and even more patriotic story by illustrating yet again the diversity of the people who made up the nation that would soon become the United States.

Myth #4: Americans won the war single handedly

In reality, Americans armed themselves and outfitted their troops with money borrowed from France, Holland and Spain.

The "bottom line" - French forces were crucial to helping the Americans win the Revolutionary War. But this reliance on France and other European allies does not diminish the American victory. Rather it adds a global dimension to the struggle and it requires us to remember that winning wars usually requires the help of allies.

Myth #5: The victorious Americans immediately created a democracy

A democracy would have appalled all but the most radical of the revolutionary leaders. To men like John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, democracy simply meant "mob rule." They joined a revolution to create a republic whose laws were made by an elected representative legislature.

The "bottom line" - The Founding Fathers distrusted democracy and instead, created a republic. In so doing, they created the most free nation in the modern world. By accepting the revolutionary leaders and the framers of the constitution as revolutionary men of their time we can lay the groundwork for the ongoing, evolutionary struggle to create democracy that was the business of ordinary men and women - not simply the extraordinary men who were our founding fathers.

Goal #4: To explore the actions that accompanied the colonists’ transition from resistance to revolution

The early actions of the colonists to British reform can be described, at the very least, as acts of resistance and at the very worst, acts of rebellion. But they were not acts of revolution - indeed, not until 1775 did Americans seek to overthrow British rule and create an independent new nation. What is the difference between tPainting of the Battle of Bunker Hillhese actions - resistance, rebellion, revolution?

In the meantime, the colonists themselves took several actions that helped accompany the transition from resistance to revolution:

Goal #5: To review two documents that greatly influenced the course of the Revolutionary War: Common Sense and The Wealth of Nations

Painting of Thomas PaineCommon Sense. It is ironic that it took an emigrant from the lower classes of England, who only arrived in America in 1774, to fully grasp that America could mean a "sanctuary of freedom for humanity." Of all pamphlets and documents written during the crucial years of 1775 - 1776, Common Sense stands as the most widely read and most influential.

The Wealth of Nations. The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, was probably the most influential book ever written on market economics.  In 1766, Smith began research for his book, beginning with a study of the French and Indian war and how the British government had decided that the colonists must help pay down the war debt through tax measures.

In his almost 1000-page book, Smith attacked the 18th Century European economic system of mercantalism in which each nation’s goal was to increase exports to its colonies and other nations, limit imports from them, and then end up with a "favorable Sketch of Adam Smithbalance of trade."

His solution:

These thoughts of a free market economy greatly influenced the thinking of the American colonial leaders as they moved toward war with England.

Goal #6: To discuss two important questions that historians continue to ask about the Revolutionary War

Was the Revolutionary War also a civil war? The war between Patriots vs. Map of Loyalists and Patriots during the Revolutionary WarLoyalists was real and not surprising given the divisive nature of American society.

Was the American Revolution a revolution - a radical event that truly revolutionized American society, or an evolution - a conservative event that did not significantly change American society?

The best way to address this question is through the lens of two noted historians: Gordon Wood and Carl Degler. The following was excerpted from "Was the American Revolution a Conservative Movement?" by Gordon Wood and Carl Degler in Taking Sides, Larry Madaras and James M SoRelle (eds.), 1995.

Revolution - Gordon Wood's strict interpretation - that the Revolution was a radical event that truly changed American society.

Evolution - Carl Degler 's loose interpretation - Revolution was a conservative event that did not significantly change American society

Evolution or Revolution?
  1. The traditional telling of the American Revolution is filled with mythology: The colonists had suffered over a hundred years of unfair taxes; the rule of King George III was tyrannical; all Americans united in a patriotic defense of independence; Americans won the war single handedly; and the victorious Americans immediately created a democracy.
  2. The real story of the American Revolution is more interesting and is one that acknowledges the way in which socio-economic status, race, and patriotic allegiances complicated colonial society much as they complicate American society today. 
  3. Neither the actions of the British government nor those of the American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War were revolutionary.  Rather, British actions were consistent with and predictable of a colonial power; while colonial actions were primarily acts of resistance both against British policies and those of colonial legislatures.
  4. The actions of declaring, fighting, and winning the Revolutionary War were revolutionary: the American colonists revolted against the British government and that revolution resulted in American independence.  However, the consequences of the War were evolutionary: the War did not dramatically change the structure or content of American society.
  5. The Revolutionary War was a war of independence from colonial domination, a civil war between the various forces within American society, and a world war fought both in North America and on the European continent.    
  6. The Revolutionary War placed Americans on an evolutionary road to creating a more democratic nation.