The Origins of the American Revolution

George Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1851) / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


By (left-to-right) Dr. Michael D. Hattem, Dr. Jessica M. Parr, and Dr. Mark Boonshoft / 08.14.2017
Hattem: PhD Candidate in Early American History, Yale University
Parr: Historian of the Early Modern British Atlantic
Boonshoft: Assistant Professor of History, Norwich University

Definition, Periodization, and Complexity

Dr. Michael D. Hattem

What do we mean when we talk about the “origins and causes” of the Revolution? This roundtable, by name, is about one, not the other. Right? Or wrong? In talking about either, one is necessarily putting themselves in a position of having to make a large and (hopefully) synthetic argument, opening themselves up to the stock criticisms often leveled at ideas or works of synthesis. It seems to me there is a perceived connotation of grandiosity in including “origins” or “causes” in the title or subtitle of one’s work, even more so when talking about the “origins of the American Revolution” or “causes of the American Revolution.” In recent decades, the desire to avoid such perceptions gave way to the ostensibly more-inclusive but even more ambiguous phrase, “the coming of the Revolution,” which, to me, often seems to conflate the two. That is, it’s a way of talking about “origins” or “causes” of the Revolution without the perceptual baggage that would come with using the actual terms.[2]

For myself, when I use the phrase, “origins of the American Revolution,” I am referring to long-term developments in the decades prior to independence. For example, when Jack Greene talks about the constitutional origins of the Revolution, he is referring specifically to developments over a period of decades prior to independence, in which competing conceptions of the constitutional arrangement between the colonies and the mother country crystallized. Origins, to me, denote various long-term developments that made both the imperial crisis and independence possible. The phrase “causes of the American Revolution” meanwhile, seems to me to imply short-term developments, perhaps most commonly in the form of more discrete events or changes.

That seems clear enough, but indefinite ideas about periodization make it a bit more complicated.[3] Periodization is crucial to how one would perceive the ideas of long- or short-term. For example, if one is inclined to believe that the Revolution begins in 1765, then the Stamp Act resistance looks very much like one of many “causes.” However, if you believe that the Revolution began sometime between 1774 and 1776, then Stamp Act resistance looks more like part of the “origins” of the Revolution. Therefore, in terms of debating origins and causes, we need not only to distinguish between the two but, those working on the questions, also need to more clearly define their own periodization of the Revolution.

After attending both the MCEAS and the MHS conferences on the Revolution, I am more convinced than ever that indefinite periodization not only has contributed to the perceived incoherence of “revolution studies” generally, but also the stultification of the questions of origins and causes more specifically. Indefinite periodization has also contributed to the field having less a debate about future directions in Revolution studies than having people seemingly talking past each other. In the end, it’s hard for two people have a debate about the Revolution and/or what parts of it are worthy of reevaluation if both mean something different when they say “the Revolution.”

If the roundtable to this point has had a theme, it is a desire for a more complex rendering of the origins of the Revolution that goes beyond constitutional and ideological terms, and that can take into account a variety of potential developments that made the imperial crisis and the Revolution possible. In some sense, the question that follows is: can you have that and still have a coherent synthesis of the “origins of the Revolution.” As I’ve said before, the main question one has to answer regarding the Revolution is: how do you get from 1763 to 1776 in only thirteen years? That is, how you do account for such a relatively quick political break? The answer is the combination of origins and causes.

I have called for thinking about potential “cultural origins” of the Revolution in an attempt to answer that question, in part, because it creates space for a varied set of potential origins, e.g., changes and/or divergences from Britain in economic culture, religious culture, history culture, consumer culture, political culture, or print culture, to name a few. But, in doing so, it also contains a potential conceptual framework for providing a coherent synthetic answer to that fundamentally political question.

Finally, when we are talking about rethinking and revisiting the origins of the Revolution, we are mostly talking about rethinking and revisiting the late colonial period, something I think is highly exciting and a bit overdue as we find ourselves on the other side of the halcyon days of early republic hegemony in the field.[4] In any event, the combination of the spate of conferences on the Revolution, some recent journal articles, and, dare I say, this blog have helped re-start and/or contribute to a discussion about the origins (and causes) of the Revolution.[5] And that can only be a good thing.


[1] Also see Michael D. Hattem, “Reading the Field from a Book: Some Thoughts on Eric Nelson’s The Royalist Revolution,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, January 12, 2015.

[2] Douglas Bradburn, “The Rise of the States: The Problem of Order and the Making of American Independence,” paper presented at the American Historical Association Meeting, January 5, 2008. Also mentioned in the introductory paragraph of Mark Boonshoft’s post.

[3] Another issue raised in yesterday’s post by Mark Boonshoft.

[4] For a post on the importance of the colonial period to understanding the early republic, particularly in recognizing continuities between the two, see Michael D. Hattem, “The Old World of the New Republic,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, August 18, 2014.

[5] For example, see David Waldstreicher, “The Revolutions of Revolution Historiography: Cold War Contradance, Neo-Imperial Waltz, or Jazz Standard?” Reviews in American History 42, no. 1 (March 2014), 23-35; Steven Pincus, “Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 69, no. 1 (January 2012): 3-34; Staughton Lynd and David Waldstreicher, “Free Trade, Sovereignty, and Slavery: Toward an Economic Interpretation of American Independence,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 68, no. 4 (October 2011): 597-630; Andrew M. Schocket, “The American Revolution: New Directions for a New Century,” Reviews in American History38, no. 3 (September 2010): 576-86.


Dr. Jessica M. Parr

In 1781, as the American Revolution raged, a Connecticut magazine reported that a spectral George Whitefield (1714-1770) had appeared over a regiment of British troops, including Benedict Arnold. So frightened were these British regulars, the magazine claimed, that they burned their British finery. Those familiar with the consumer politics of the Revolutionary period will recognize the political statement implicit in the burning of British goods. With refinement, British clothing, textiles, and other goods had become attractive to well-heeled colonists, who emulated the latest London fashions. As T.H. Breen and others have noted, the wearing of British fashions became problematic during the Revolution. Textiles and other factories began to crop up in the northeast, the start of an American industry.[1]

George Whitefield Preaching in Philadelphia

A spectral Whitefield, scaring the pants off of a regiment of British troops merged religious and political rhetoric into a single image, implying a moral cause for those fighting for independence. Perhaps more interestingly in this case, as a leader of a unit of Continental Troops, Benedict Arnold had visited Whitefield, taking souvenirs (talismans?) from the Grant Itinerant’s coffin. The second implication to this report was that not only had Arnold chosen the wrong side, he had also chosen against the righteous side.

The Apotheosis of George Washington, by Constantino Brumidi (1865)

The precise degree to which religion influenced the American Revolution has played out repeatedly in the historiography. Historians like Bernard Bailyn have primarily ascribed a political underpinning to the origins of the Revolution, although Bailyn notes that religious rhetoric crept into the Revolutionary cause. Historians of religion, including Carla Gardina Pestana, Patricia Bonomi, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, and Frank Lambert have described the evolution of a denominationally diverse, if predominately Protestant religious culture from the colonial period onward that, included a significant number of people who were suspicious of an established church, as well as undue influence from a bishop from overseas.[2] My goal here is not to settle this debate in a short blog post, but rather to describe how I approach these questions when I teach Revolutionary religious culture to my undergraduate students.

Benedict Anderson has described nations as “imagined communities.”[3] National identity was constructed from print culture, debates over politics, the construction of national ritual, and also debates about the role of religion in American life.[4] I describe religious identity as part of a debate that begins before the American Revolution. Religious Toleration varied considerably by colony. The roots of the challenge that a young republic would face in defining and describing its religious culture pre-dated the Revolution considerably.

Connecticut minister Lyman Beecher was not a fan of religious pluralism. He described latitudinarians, Deists, Catholics, Unitarians, and others as “enemies of the truth.”

As the example of the ghost of George Whitefield demonstrates, religion became part of the Revolutionary rhetoric for some Americans, as well as deeper questions about religious liberty and the role between church and state. The American Revolution dragged on longer than expected (particularly for the British, who had envisioned a rather speedy victory). The death toll and other suffering meant that colonists looked for evidence of the righteousness of their cause. Some Revolutionary-era preachers used their pulpits to blend politics and religion for that purpose. Jonathan Mayhew, the fiery minister of Boston’s Old West Church, preached a series of sermons based on Romans 13, arguing that King George III had abused his authority and ought to repent. He was not alone—other ministers drew all manner of inspiration from The Old Testament to claim righteousness of cause. A number of revolutionary leaders, including George Washington, became subject of deification. The image from the interior of the rotunda on the Capital building, depicting George Washington being raised to the heavens (see left) provides wonderful opportunities for discussing with students both the use of religious imagery during (and after) the American Revolution, and also how this deification shaped the way people came to think of these deified leaders.

Religious rhetoric was one thread of the Revolution, although I caution my students that the reasons for the Revolution were multifaceted and complex. American religious identity would become further complicated during the Early Republic. While the United States was not entirely free of its entanglements with Great Britain (as the War of 1812 demonstrates), independence meant that a national identity—legal, political, and cultural—would have to be crafted from thirteen colonial cultures that no longer had the united cause of independence from Great Britain. The dawn of the nineteenth century also came with the additional challenge of religious pluralism that not every American wished to accommodate.


[1] Some of this material appeared in a prior post, “George Whitefield, a Revolutionary Hero?,” History News Network, June 30, 2015. The post was adopted from my book, Jessica M. Parr, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015). Also, see T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence(New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1967); id., “The Origin of American Politics,” Perspectives in American History 1 (1967); Carla Gardina Pestana, Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Frank Lambert, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006).

[4] Particularly useful here are Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: the Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Social Experience and Revolutionary Politics

Dr. Mark Boonshoft

Historians have proven more comfortable talking in more amorphous ways about the “the coming of the Revolution” or “the making of revolutionary America.” I am certainly guilty of that. Yet there are, I think, compelling reasons for approaching the Revolution this way.

Framing work on the Revolution in terms of causes or origins leads naturally to ending studies in 1776. I would not dispute that we need to do more of this. But the less concrete tack that I prefer to take is, perhaps, less temporally restrictive. And at the broadest level, I am interested in thinking about the Revolution as process in which the ending is as important as the beginning. When teaching or researching the Revolution, I try to understand what institutions, organizations, trends, forces, and political developments allowed American colonists to even conceive of revolution as a viable, how those shaped the experience of the war, and how they help explain the Revolution’s settlement and consequences. To a large extent, I think this comes from my training and interest in both the political and social history of the Revolution.

Work on voluntary associations, networks, and committees—in effect, the creation of social capital—has reinvigorated the study of the interconnections between social and political history, and can help us understand the continuities between the revolution’s coming, course, and consequences. This literature has been most influential in the historiography of the early republic, unsurprising given Tocqueville’s focus on nineteenth-century Americans’ predilection for voluntarism. But it has become increasingly clear that the origins of the United States’ vibrant civil society lay in the colonial and revolutionary periods. Moreover, in many places, colonial-era associational culture spurred on early agitation and resistance, and ultimately enabled outright rebellion and revolution. Fire companies, student groups, proto-political parties, militia associations, and a range of other formal voluntary associations and informal networks morphed into committees of correspondence and safety, militia companies, and military units. Colonial voluntary culture greased the wheels of mobilization for revolutionaries, it created the social capital that made Revolution possible. This history of voluntarism did not only shape patriot resistance. As work by our own Chris Minty shows, loyalism also had its roots in colonial-era social and political networks.[1]

What I want to make sure does come through here, though, is that there was and is a porous line between friendship, kinship, and formal association. So focusing on voluntary associations and committees actually puts people back at the center of the Revolution’s origins. That is a good thing. If your experience is anything like mine, students connect better with, say, George Robert Twelves Hewes’ story, than primary or secondary sources that speak to the ideological or imperial origins of the Revolution, which can seem abstract. But both matter, and they intersected in voluntary associations and group action.

The minutes of the Boston Committee of Correspondence (the New York Public Library is in the process of digitizing this collection, and it should be available soon) illustrates this well. The BCC was the vehicle through which constitutional grievances and ideological debates spread throughout New England in the early 1770s. The towns responded to the BCC’s constitutional arguments in different ways and committed to varying levels of political solidarity. Often some combination of local politics, idiosyncrasies in communal and religious life, and even personal squabbles explained the myriad ways in which towns reacted to the BCC and their policies. At the same time, the reigning ideological assumptions and political structures limited the range of options available to any individual community.[2]

Interpersonal connections and associative action help tether the Revolution’s origins to what happened once the Revolution began. In our current historiographical moment, “Committees are exciting,” as Tom Cutterham put it in his report on the third recent high-profile conference on the Revolution—“The American Revolution: People and Power,” hosted by the Huntington Library. By 1774 in some places, and by 1776 in others, committees had become de facto governing bodies. In addition to simply trying to maintain communal order, they guided opposition to Parliament and the British Army, enforced Congressional resolutions at the local level, regulated local militias and marshaled supplies, while also rooting out loyalists, attempting to limit trade with the British, and coercing allegiance to the patriot cause. This last function suggests that, though these committees drew on longstanding precedents for voluntary action that ran back to the colonial period, the Revolution also changed American associationialism, a point ably made by Jessica Roney in the final chapters of her recent book.

Revolutionary committees existed as the government itself during the liminal period between the breakdown of effective British control and the establishment of new formal institutions of governance. Their influence, though, did not ever disappear. Finally, and this may already be obvious, associative and collective action set the boundaries of belonging in post-revolutionary communities. If committees and associations policed adherence to the revolutionary movement during the 1770s, they became tools for expressing consent in the new republic. This transition opens up all kinds of interesting questions about how the violent nature of revolutionary politics gave way to stable political routines. There is a logical story that runs from the emergence of increasingly thick interpersonal networks in the colonial period, to the committees that brought down the old imperial state and served as governing bodies for a revolutionary society, and through the voluntary associations that shaped the creation of the American state and states. It is a story historians have begun to uncover. And it is certainly one worth telling.


[1] Benjamin L. Carp, “Fire of Liberty: Firefighters, Urban Voluntary Culture, and the Revolutionary Movement,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 58, no. 4 (October 2001): 781-818; Jessica Choppin Roney, Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: Origins of American Political Practices in Colonial Philadelphia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), esp. ch. 7; Mark Boonshoft, “The Great Awakening, Presbyterian Education, and the Mobilization of Power in the Revolutionary Mid-Atlantic,” in The American Revolution Reborn: New Perspectives for the 21st Century, ed. Michael Zuckerman and Patrick K. Spero (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Christopher F. Minty, “Mobilization and Voluntarism: The Political Origins of Loyalism in New York, c. 1768–1778,” Ph.D. diss., University of Stirling, 2014.

[2] Richard D. Brown’s work on the BCC obviously bears mentioning here. More generally, his work from the 1970s anticipated much of what I discuss in this essay. See Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); and id., “The Emergence of Urban Society in Rural Massachusetts, 1760-1820,” The Journal of American History 61 (June 1974): 29-51.

Originally published by The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.