This page contains a brief introduction to the historiography of the American Revolution. Historiography is the study of how history is written and the different perspectives of the past provided by historians. Contrary to what some may believe, history is not a concrete narrative or set of facts. Instead, history is an ongoing discussion and debate about the past. Historians may study the same periods, people and events – but they approach these topics with different views, assumptions, priorities and methods. Historians often reach different conclusions and form different interpretations and arguments. This is particularly true for those historians who research major events like wars and revolutions, which are by their nature politically tumultuous and divisive. Historical understanding and viewpoints can also change over time, as new evidence is uncovered and new perspectives are identified and explored. American Revolution historiography spans more than two centuries, involves thousands of different historians and contains many different conclusions and perspectives. The following links contain brief summaries of its main historical movements:
The first ‘histories’ of the American Revolution took the form of biographies of notable revolutionary leaders. These early works mirrored the writings of Plutarch, an ancient historian who wrote history as though it were a record of great men and their leadership in difficult times. Books like Parson Weems’ Life of Washington and Life of Benjamin Franklin and William Wirt’s Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817) celebrated the lives and achievements of their subjects – but these books were not always based on rigorous research, critical examination or objective analysis. Instead, writers like Weems and Wirt relied on eyewitness accounts, anecdotes and the memories and recollections of others. These books were also written for effect – and indeed for profit – as much as for historical record or scholarly intent. They often exaggerated, embellished or published unverifiable facts about their subjects.
William Wirt’s biography of Patrick Henry, to cite one example, contained verbatim records of Henry’s speeches – even though no transcripts of these speeches existed. When unable to locate transcripts of notable Henry speeches, Wirt reconstructed the speeches himself. He based these reconstructions on interviews with individuals who heard Henry’s speeches – nevertheless they were recalled 30 or 40 years after the event. Parson Weems is notorious for concocting the story of young George Washington admitting to chopping down his father’s cherry tree, ‘evidence’ of Washington’s impeccable honesty. A later example of this creative hero-worshipping is Longfellow’s 1860 poem hailing the courage of Paul Revere and his ‘midnight ride’ – even though it ignores or distorts important facts about the event. According to historian Ray Raphael, the author of Founding Myths, the myths and inventions circulated by these early 19th century biographers have since hardened into accepted public truths. This has distorted many people’s understanding of the American Revolution.
For most of the 1800s serious historians presented the American Revolution as an epic story of idealism, nationalism and progress. This grand narrative portrayed the revolution as a struggle between the forces of liberty and modernity (America) and the regressive, corrupt and morally bankrupt Old World (Britain). This perspective was, needless to say, one sided. These early histories belonged firmly to the Whig school. Whig historians imagined history in general, and the American Revolution in particular, as a journey of progress and advancement. Human society was improving and progressing toward a state of political and social fulfilment, the Whigs argued, and the United States was at the forefront of this progress.
The second half of the 1800s produced more rigorous accounts of the American Revolution. These histories maintained the Whig view that the revolution was a profound event in human history – however they supported this position with more rigorous uses of evidence and analysis. These late 19th century historians portrayed the revolution as a worthy cause that was guided by benevolent and wise leaders. The revolution’s foundation documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – were painted as the culmination of Western political philosophy, democracy and liberalism. That these achievements were won with minimal bloodshed or destruction was testimony to the American people and their desire for freedom and progress. Some historians who advanced this Whig perspective include George Bancroft (History of the United States of America) and John Fiske (The American Revolution).
Whig perspectives of the American Revolution were challenged in the early 20th century. A new breed of historians, loosely referred to as the Progressives, began to ask whether the revolution was driven by economic factors and self interest, rather than progress, patriotism and benevolence. One of the first historians to challenge and deconstruct the ‘hero worship’ of the Founding Fathers was Charles Beard. His 1913 text An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, a close study of the men who drafted the Constitution, dared to suggest that the actions of the Founding Fathers were driven by self interest more than the national progress. Arthur Schlesinger (The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution) argued that a good deal of the revolutionary sentiment was whipped up by American businessmen. These merchants, Schlesinger claimed, were keen to increase their profits by shedding British trade regulations and gaining entry to British-dominated markets. Merrill Jensen (Articles of Confederation) challenged the Federalist view that the Articles of Confederation were fundamentally flawed. Jensen argued that the economic slump of the 1780s was an understandable byproduct of war, not of intrinsic weaknesses in the Articles. The Federalist attack on the Articles, Jensen contended, was driven by their personal desire for stronger controls over trade and finance.
Progressive historians were prominent in the first three decades of the 1900s and their perspectives changed how many viewed the American Revolution. The Whig belief in a national consensus, a revolution free of divisions and disagreements, was largely abandoned. Colonial attitudes to Britain and the revolution became more complex and divided than previously assumed. Colonial and revolutionary American society was no longer seen as calm, idyllic or homogenous. According to Progressive historians, the American Revolution unleashed a popular democratic spirit that was important for the completion of the revolution, however it became problematic for America’s upper classes after 1783. American elites saw a strengthened constitution as a way to calm and disperse this popular democracy, which reached its zenith in the farmers’ rebellions of 1786-87. The ratification debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists highlighted some of the fundamental political divisions that survived in post-revolutionary America.
The American Revolution, they argued, was supported by a consensus of the people (they are sometimes known as ‘Consensus historians’ for this reason). Colonial Americans were more politically aware than their counterparts in Europe; they understood the causes of the revolution and accepted the idea of independence and republican democracy with little opposition or hostility. A great number of American colonists participated in the revolution by attending town meetings or serving in county and provincial assemblies. They were literate, reasonably informed and alert to their rights as free subjects of Britain. When these people perceived that their rights were being infringed, they sought to separate from England and restore their self government. They were seeking to preserve the rights and freedoms they had previously enjoyed – not to radically change the social or economic order. As a consequence, conservative historians came to view the American Revolution as a war for independence, more than a true revolution.
The last half of the 20th century saw a revival of Whig approaches to the revolution. The two main protagonists of neo-Whiggism are Bernard Bailyn (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) and his former student Gordon Wood (Radicalism of the American Revolution). Both Bailyn and Wood view the revolution as a social and political upheaval, underpinned and fuelled by new ideas. Bailyn’s focus on documents, especially the production of pamphlets and broadsides, painted the revolution as a political event, fuelled by discussion and debate as much as by grievances or conditions. Wood’s focus is more on social transformation. He argues that most Americans wanted a society different from that of Old World Europe. Restrictive traditions like monarchy, hereditary privilege, social hierarchies, deference and primogeniture were challenged and replaced. Americans desired a meritocracy, where talent, ability and initiative – rather than family, titles or privilege – would determine one’s status in society. Both Bailyn and Wood considered the American Revolution a radical development. It marked an important step in the progress of human civilisation.
The American Revolution has also been studied and interpreted by left wing historians, both moderate and radical. Focusing on class, economic conditions, race, gender and ‘unheard voices’, these historians have explored the role ordinary people played in the unfolding rebellion. Jesse Lemisch’s Jack Tar versus John Bull, for example, places sailors at the heart of revolutionary events in the 1760s and 1770s. Colonial seamen were involved at several levels: they feared impressment by the British navy; they were involved in maritime smuggling and customs evasion; they also belonged to radical mobs and committees. Gary Nash (The Unknown American Revolution) describes a colonial society filled with political disorder, riddled with class conflict and driven by a fundamental distrust of authority. Edward Countryman (The American Revolution) and Ray Raphael (The First American Revolution) also consider the roles and contributions of ordinary people in the advancement of revolution. Radicals like Thomas Paine, who was often overlooked or dismissed as a minor figure by Whig and conservative historians, features strongly in left wing histories.
On the radical Left are historians like Francis Jennings and Howard Zinn, who consider the American Revolution not as a true revolution but the disingenuous work of elites. According to Zinn (People’s History of the United States) the revolution began as a series of responses, aimed at harnessing and controlling popular anger. The colonial elites, Zinn argued, wanted to divert popular anger away from colonial governments and focus it on the British. Zinn suggests the causes of the American Revolution contrived, artificial and managed by the colonial aristocracy. He likens the revolution to an act of theft, as colonial elites manipulated popular sentiment to “carve off” part of the British empire for their own benefit. These historians regard much of the political ideology and rhetoric of the revolution as hollow propaganda. Cries of “liberty” and “representation” were recruiting slogans, they argue, rather than a sincere promise of things to come. The Constitution was passed to protect the status quo and place a full stop on revolutionary sentiment, rather than to deliver a better life for ordinary people.
For information about specific historians of the American Revolution, please visit our historians page.
This page was written by Steve Thompson and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
S. Thompson & J. Llewellyn, “American Revolution historiography”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/american-revolution-historiography/.