American History for Truthdiggers: Were the Colonists Patriots or Insurgents?
Truthdig editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “Make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?
Below is the fourth installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His wartime experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.
“Who shall write the history of the American Revolution?” John Adams once asked. “Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?”
“Nobody,” Thomas Jefferson replied. “The life and soul of history must forever remain unknown.”
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Compare the tarring-and-feathering scene at the top of this article with the 1770 painting “The Death of General Wolfe” (immediately below this paragraph), which was featured in installment three of this Truthdig series. Painted by colonist Benjamin West, it shows North American colonists among those devotedly and tenderly attending the mortally wounded British general, who lies in a Christ-like pose. How did (at least some) North American colonists evolve from a proud celebration of empire into the riotous, rebellious mob portrayed in the illustration above? It’s an important question, actually, and it deals with an issue hardly mentioned in standard textbooks. Even rebellious “patriots” saw themselves as Englishmen right up until July 4, 1776. Others remained loyal British subjects through the entire Revolutionary War.
Most of the lay public tends to view the coming of the American Revolution as natural, predetermined, inevitable even. After all, “we” are the descendants of patriots with a special, anti-monarchical destiny. The British crown, with its intolerable taxation, merely stood in the way of American providence and thus was of course shunted aside in a glorious democratic rebellion. At least that’s the myth—the comforting preferred narrative.
The reality of the pre-revolt era was far more complex, influenced by diverse forces, motives, individual agency and contingency. The truth, as often the case, is messy and discomforting. Still, simplicity sells. Want to earn a bundle in royalties? Well, then avoid publishing an intricate analysis of lower-class colonial motivations. No one reads that stuff! It’s easy—just write another flattering biography of a “Founding Father.”
But just who were these “patriots”? What motivated them to seek open conflict with a powerful empire? How pure were their motives? Did they even represent a majority of colonists? And what of their tactics—did the ends justify the means? Only a fresh, comprehensive examination of this untidy, chaotic era promises satisfactory answers to these questions, the questions at the root of the United States’ very origins. Still, rest assured: The lead-up to the American Revolution has been, and will always be, a contested history. Perhaps Jefferson was right after all, and the soul of this history must remain unknown.
A Reassuring Tale: Common Explanations for the American Revolution
Taxes. Americans hate them with a unique national passion. After all, ours is a nation founded in opposition to insufferable, imperial taxation. Wasn’t it? One group certainly thought, and thinks, so. If you see the American Revolution as only a relic of the past, please note that in 2009, soon after the election of Barack Obama, a new conservative political movement arose and brought its version of history to the public square. The “tea party” was suddenly everywhere. Its supporters, mostly Republicans, even liked to dress up as colonists, adorning themselves with tricorner hats and carrying signs with anti-tax slogans. For these Americans, the past was immediate and President Obama was the new King George. However, as historian Jill Lepore has written, the Tea Party Revolution was more about nostalgia than serious scholarship. In the tea party’s telling—which coheres with the popular understanding—the revolution was surely all about taxes.
Monarchy. This is equally anathema to the citizenry and inextricably tied to authoritarian taxation. Surely, our revolution was also a Manichean battle between tyranny and democracy, between royalty and republicanism. Despite generations of critical scholarship, some version of these basic, twin explanations pervades Americans’ collective memory of revolution and independence.
We all know the basic economic and political chronology of the rebellion. It’s usually told in a nice, neat sequence: Stamp Act, Boston Massacre, Tea Act, Boston Tea Party, Intolerable Acts, Lexington and Concord. New tax, colonial protest, British suppression, next tax, etc. This is an altogether linear, cyclical narrative, and it emphasizes the anti-tax and anti-monarchical components of colonial motivation. We hardly consider the British side, and it appears self-evident that all colonists were patriots. Who wouldn’t be? The Brits were “intolerable.”
It’s not that taxation didn’t factor at all in rebel motivations—it most certainly did. Still, there are some awkward questions worth raising; like, if taxes directly caused the war then how do we explain that just about every new tax was repealed before 1775? Besides, the colonists paid far lower taxes than metropolitan Britons. In fact, the Sugar Act of 1764 actually lowered the tax on molasses—it simply sought to more stringently enforce it. The Tea Act didn’t upset colonists so much for the economic cost as for the mandated monopoly it granted the British East India Co.
Surely, other, political and cultural factors must have contributed to a rebellion that men were willing to die for. An honest analysis of the coming of revolution must grapple with the varied, complex motives of individual “patriots.” Indeed, the rebellion was as much social revolution as political quarrel.
What Makes a “Patriot”?
There’s just one problem: Probably no more than one-third of all colonists were actually anti-imperial “patriots.” Our Founding Fathers and their followers weren’t even in the majority. That’s not so democratic! Furthermore, the motivations of the patriots were multifaceted, diverse and—largely—regional.
If only one in three colonists became dyed-in-the-wool patriots, then what of the others, the silent majority, so to speak? Well, most historians estimate that another third were outright pro-empire loyalists. The rest mostly rode the fence, too engaged in daily survival to care much for politics; those in this group waited things out to see which side emerged on top.
That story, that reality, is—for most Americans—rather unsatisfying. Maybe that’s why it never caught on and is hardly taught outside of academia.
As discussed, this was much more than just a quarrel between Americans and Britons; it was an intense debate over what British identity meant for those residing outside the home islands. The slogan “No taxation without representation!” has caught on as a prime explanation for rebellion, but even that reality was far more complex. It wasn’t just colonists who were taxed and had no proper voice in Parliament, but also many urban Britons within the United Kingdom. Tiny, rural aristocratic districts—so-called “rotten boroughs”—could count on a seat in the assembly while densely populated towns like Sheffield and Leeds went without representation. Metropolitan Englishmen no doubt had rights that were denied to their colonial cousins, i.e. a free internal trade market and the right to do business with foreign countries. However, colonists had benefits unknown in Great Britain, such as lower property taxes. In addition, there was slavery, from which some colonists profited handsomely at the suffering of fellow humans.
The varied class-based and regional motivations for patriot or loyalist association could be seen in New York’s Dutchess County, to consider only one example. In many cases, the primary motivation was the desire of middling tenant farmers to oppose their oppressive landlords. Thus, the battle lines of tenant riots in the 1760s became the dividing lines between patriot and loyalist a decade later. In Dutchess County’s south, the landlords were loyalists and, consequently, the tenants became avid patriots. Conversely, just a few miles north at Livingston Manor, the landlord was a member of the Continental Congress. Unsurprisingly, his tenants bore arms for the British.
Why We Fight—the Complex Motives of Colonial Rebels
Ideology or economics? This question about the primary cause of the American Revolution has raged among scholars for the better part of a century. There is persuasive evidence on both sides. Still, the strict binary is itself misleading. Patriot sentiment emerged for countless individual and communal reasons. Some colonists were avid readers of John Locke or British commonwealth-men like Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard. For them, it was all about ideology and independence—life, liberty and property. They were also obsessed with alleged conspiracy and corruption at the top ranks of Parliament and the monarchy.
Another group, especially in the Northern urban centers, abhorred what they saw as unfair taxation or imperial mercantilism that suppressed both free trade and a lucrative smuggling economy. Indeed, no less a figure than John Hancock himself was a famous smuggler! Still others, mainly in the Chesapeake region, desired more land and westward expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains into “Indian Country.” This had, after Pontiac’s Rebellion, become illegal due to the British Proclamation of 1763 that granted these lands to various native tribes.
Nor can we underestimate the class component of protest and rebellion. Merchants, artisans and laborers in Northern cities, such as Boston, tended to identify with the protest movement. These working and middle-class urbanites were egged on by firebrands like Samuel Adams—the failed tax collector and sometime brewer of beer. Adams founded a newspaper, the Independent Advertiser, which overtly pitched to the laboring classes the notion that “Liberty can never subsist without equality.” In the South, conversely, the landed gentry tended to be patriots, and it was the smallholders who were often loyalist. Still, any description of patriot motivations can hardly ignore class and the impulses of the uncouth urbanites, those whom historians have labeled “the people out of doors.”
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Standard interpretations of the American revolutionary movement generally make no mention of religion. This is strange considering the profound religiosity of 18th-century colonists. While prominent Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were deists or agnostics, the vast majority of the population was devoutly Christian. Part of what accounts for the dearth of religious analysis among historians is no doubt the secular bias within the academic community. Still, religious fervor in the wake of the mid-18th-century Great Awakening certainly had influence over the rebellion. In comparing the religious proclivities of metropolitan Britons and English colonists in North America, one distinct difference stood out. While most Britons in the United Kingdom were members of the state’s Anglican Church, the preponderance of colonists were Protestant dissenters—Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists—who had broken with the Church of England. One would be right to expect this inverse religious situation to influence colonial protests in the 1760s and 1770s.
New Jersey stands out as a representative example, at least among the Northern and Mid-Atlantic colonies. Most yeoman farmers were highly influenced by the Great Awakening’s revivalist teachings and became Protestant dissenters. The landed gentlemen, on the other hand, stayed loyal to the hierarchical Anglican Church. The messages of revivalist preachers were distinctly anti-authoritarian and anti-materialist, resonating among the smallholders who felt threatened by landed proprietors. When imperial taxes increased and British officials sought to assert increased control, the battle lines, unsurprisingly, cohered with religious preferences.
Colonists were fiercely chauvinistic Protestants with an intense hatred of Catholics. Thus, when Parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774, allowing religious freedom to French-Canadian habitants, many colonists threw a fit! The crown, they assumed, must be beholden to a papist, Catholic conspiracy. Such religious tolerance was unacceptable and convinced many patriots that perhaps independence was the preferred path. The old spirit of intolerable Puritan zealotry was alive and well.
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Some colonists simply resented military occupation. The British decision to send uniformed regular army troops to rebellious hotbeds like Boston had an effect opposite to what was intended. This is an old story. American soldiers in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have learned this lesson again and again as foreign military presence angered the locals and united disparate political, ethnic and sectarian groups in a nationalist insurgency. Nor were British troops—generally drawn from the dregs of English society—held in high esteem by the colonists. Most Bostonians were appalled by the uncouth manners of soldiers they described as rapists, papists, infidels or, worst of all, “Irish!”
The presence of thousands of soldiers also worsened a pervasive economic depression. Back then, off-duty soldiers and sailors were allowed to seek side work in the local economy to supplement their meager wages. They thus flooded Boston’s job market. Protests against the occupation sometimes got out of control when soldiers, thousands of miles from home in a strange land, made mistakes or overreacted. In one incident—sound familiar?—an 11-year-old Boston boy was shot dead by a trigger-happy trooper. A local journal wrote of the British occupation, “The town is now a perfect garrison.” It was not meant as a compliment.
However, no incident so inflamed the local consciousness—and our own historical memory—as the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770. In popular remembrance, and countless paintings, the event is depicted as a veritable slaughter perpetrated by heartless redcoats against peaceful patriot protesters. But hold on a moment. Was this really an accurate label? Do five dead men a massacre make? And what prompted the “slaughter”?
What started as snowball and rock throwing at British sentries quickly escalated into a raucous crowd shouting insults, a crowd armed with clubs and, in the case of one man, a Scottish broadsword. Some protesters grabbed at the lapels of a British officer’s uniform, several other rebels screamed “Fire, damn you!” no doubt confusing the enlisted soldiers. Finally, Benjamin Burdick, he with the broadsword, swung the weapon with all his might down upon a grenadier’s musket, knocking him to the floor. The soldier climbed to his feet and fired his musket at the crowd. Several fellow troopers did the same. The rest is history.
The soldiers and their officer were put on trial, certainly a strange allowance from a supposedly tyrannical regime. None other than a local lawyer, John Adams, defended the British troops and, taking mitigation into account, won their freedom. Adams took the case at great risk to his reputation, but he believed in equal justice for all, even redcoats. This narrative, no doubt, complicates the entire episode, and well it should. The revolutionary fairy tale to which we’ve grown accustomed is in distinct need of some nuance.
No one explanation exists for patriot motivations. Individual preferences, incentives and decisions are difficult to unpack. These were diverse peoples divided among themselves by class, religion and region. How, then, could one synthesize their countless motives? The historian Gary Nash offers an apt summary. The coming of the revolution was a “messy, ambiguous, and complicated” story of a “seismic eruption from the hands of an internally divided people … a civil war at home as well as a military struggle for national liberation.”
Revolutionary Tactics: Venerable Protest or Mob Rule?
When I patrolled the mud villages of southwestern Kandahar province in Afghanistan, we sought to “protect” the population from the local Taliban insurgents. It was a difficult task. When our soldiers retired back to base camp, Taliban fighters owned the night and infiltrated the rural hamlets. A popular Islamist tactic was to leave threatening notes on the doors of suspected Afghan collaborators who dared so much as speak to the American invaders. We labeled them “night letters,” just another terror tactic, and reported their prevalence to our higher command. Few of my troopers, of course, knew that colonial patriots left the same sorts of threatening notes on the doors of alleged loyalists in Boston or Philadelphia. Is there really any difference?
Coercion has always been central to revolutions. Like it or not, the American variety was no exception. The patriot minority used threats and violence to enforce their narrative and their politics on the loyal and the apathetic alike. There was little democratic about it. Discomforting as it may be, the patriot movement was hardly a Gandhi-like campaign of peaceful civil disobedience. Patriots were passionate, they were relentless, and they were armed. Firearms were ubiquitous in the colonies, more so, even, than in Britain. Guns are as American as apple pie. So is street violence.
This was a barbaric world. Colonists slaughtered natives, beat slaves and publicly executed criminals, often leaving their bodies to rot in the town square. Alcohol abuse was endemic, and drinking men regularly settled tavern disputes with fists and knives. The patriot crowds abused tax collectors, loyalists and their social betters across the urban North. Tar and feathering, a favored and famous tactic, was far from the playful embarrassment of our imaginations. Rather, the act of putting molten tar onto human skin left many an unlucky loyalist in unimaginable pain and physically scarred. Many of the government bureaucrats so tortured were simply doing their jobs and sought only to make a living for their families. This was terrorism.
Arson and looting were often rampant as the mobs took on a life of their own. In 1765, a patriot crowd tore down the home of loyalist politician Thomas Hutchinson. In New York City, another rabble pillaged carriage houses and theaters. The motive: opposition to a relatively modest tax increase. In our collective memory, of course, such rebels are heroes. This is strange, as modern-day racial protests—Ferguson or Baltimore—are regularly pilloried as riotous criminal actions. Our patriot forebears were morally ambiguous, complex figures. Their tactics straddled the line between resistance and riot. The same could be said of the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or other urban racial outbursts. Of course, the irony is lost on us.
The Other Americans: Rebellion Through the Eyes of Loyalists, Indians and Blacks
“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
—Samuel Johnson, English writer (1775)
Further tarnishing the heroic narrative of patriot ascendancy is one inconvenient fact: Most slaves preferred British to colonial rule, and most slave-holding planters were themselves patriots, especially in the South. As was the case in early colonial Virginia, American slavery and American freedom grew side by side in the late 18th century, a contradiction at the very heart of the colonial and early republican experience. This pattern endured as colonial “patriots” moved from resistance to rebellion against imperial authorities. Many modern apologists for our slave-owning founders insist that these men were merely a reflection of their time and place; a time, we are to suppose, when everyone supported slavery. Thus, we cannot critique the motives or point out the inconsistency in our esteemed forebears. Yet an honest look at the revolutionary era complicates the apologist narrative.
Indeed, the ostensibly tyrannical British practiced very little chattel slavery within the United Kingdom itself. In fact, in the Somerset v. Steuart case of 1772, England’s highest common law court ruled that chattel slavery was illegal. This judgment spooked many Southern colonial gentlemen, who began to fear the British metropolitan authorities were “unreliable defenders of slavery,” and this convinced many to join the patriot cause.
The slaves also asserted themselves and contributed to the fears of white planters. Although slave revolts were extraordinarily rare, the very threat of uprising terrified gentlemen in the Chesapeake and Deep South. In one sense the fear was justified. In South Carolina, for example, slaves constituted 60 percent of the colony’s population. During the pre-revolutionary protest movements, some slaves met in secret to discuss ways to take advantage of the growing rift between patriot and loyalist colonists. Slaves also recognized the contradiction between planters clamoring for liberty while these very same men enslaved thousands of Africans. Richard Henry Lee, of a prominent Virginia family, explained to the House of Burgesses why the slaves would not support the patriots: “from the nature of their situation, [the slaves] can never feel an interest in our cause, because … they observe their masters possessed of liberty which is denied to them.”
Adding insult to injury, in early 1775, soon after the first shots were fired in Massachusetts—at Lexington and Concord—the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, threatened to, and eventually did, offer freedom to the slaves as a punishment to rebellious planters. This confirmed the worst fears of the landed class. Ambivalent slave owners were thereby pushed into open rebellion, and already patriot-inclined owners—such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry—became even more radicalized.
While slavery was statistically more prevalent in the South, the peculiar institution was still a continent-wide phenomenon. Even Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, published advertisements in his newspapers for the sale of slaves and printed notices about runaways. Though Franklin spoke out against slavery, he himself owned five slaves, which, unlike George Washington, he never freed.
Colonial unity trumped abolitionist sentiment, even in New England. The patriots of Boston knew they needed the support of slave-saturated Virginia to win concessions from British authorities. Thus, in 1771, when an anti-slavery bill came before the Massachusetts Assembly, it failed. As James Warren wrote in his explanation to John Adams, “if passed into an act, it should have [had] a bad effect on the union of the colonies.” The first generation of Americans had an opportunity to grant basic human dignity to hundreds of thousands of chattel slaves; instead they chose their own “liberty.”
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Just as hunger for land had sparked off the French and Indian War two decades earlier, so too did land speculation motivate many patriots to oppose the crown. The gentlemen of Virginia, including Washington, Jefferson and Henry, were heavily invested in large tracts of trans-Appalachian land. Jefferson alone claimed 5,000 acres. Their plan was to sell, at a profit, of course, their holdings to small farmers. Thus, when the British authorities drew the Proclamation Line of 1763 and ceded land west of the mountains to placate native unrest and avoid costly frontier wars, the planter class felt betrayed. How could the crown accede to Indian “savages” occupying their God-given lands?
There was also a class component to planter frustration. The Proclamation Line was, of course, an imaginary border, and the British had neither the inclination or military manpower to police it. Despite the law, lower-class farmers jumped the line and set up homesteads across the mountains. From the point of view of gentlemen speculators, these squatters were stealing their land. And, because the Proclamation Line made such settlements illegal, the speculators could not claim title to the land and demand recompense.
Native Americans recognized the threat to their tribal lands and saw the British authorities as their best chance to hold back the settlers. Indeed, in hindsight, we can see that the Proclamation of 1763 might have represented the last chance for genuine native autonomy in North America. These tribes were also far from isolated, backcountry actors. In fact, their trade in deerskins actually tied them to the commercial Atlantic economy to a larger extent than most middling Anglo farmers. Recognizing their leverage, the Ohio Country tribes sought confederation in an anti-British coalition, the better to threaten imperial officials and gain concessions for continued autonomy and protection from the colonists. It worked. The last thing that the deeply indebted British needed was another Indian war.
The Virginians, however, could not care less what the crown wanted. In the fall of 1774, the land speculators tried one last time to obtain the native land. Using a minor Indian raid as the pretext, the colonists launched a devastating attack on Shawnee and Mingo settlements in an attempt to conquer present-day Kentucky. In the short term, an army of 2,000 Virginians achieved its goals and forced the tribes to grant territorial concessions. However, recognizing that the tribes had signed away the land under duress, the crown authorities refused to recognize the land grab.
Like the black chattel slaves of the coastal plantations, the native tribes of the frontier felt no loyalty to the patriot cause. In fact, the imperial status quo better served slave and Indian interests than the faux “liberty” of colonial rebels. The fact that the most vulnerable populations of colonial America opposed revolution and eventually sided with the British most certainly challenges the triumphalist, egalitarian patriot narrative. Indeed, on the issues of slavery and native relations, the British appeared far more liberal than the colonists who were, themselves, seeking their own–in Jefferson’s phrase—“Empire of Liberty.” That empire would prove far more tyrannical for slaves and natives than what King George offered.
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The story of the rebellion that became a revolution, a history of 1763-1775, is nearly impossible to synthesize in one essay, one chapter, or even one book. What, then, can we say? Perhaps only this: The revolution was made by a “coalition of diverse social groups,” motivated by a range of individual grievances, often at odds with one another. The patriots were by no means always democratic, and the loyalists were hardly all tyrannical monarchists. Slaves and Indians were no fans of colonists’ hypocritical, exclusivist notions of (white) liberty and freedom and often favored the crown. There is much to be proud of in the colonial revolt and, too, very much to be ashamed about. Indeed, in the truest sense, we historians are best served when we dutifully and agnostically describe the past in all its diverse, even ugly, manifestations.
Sometimes the myth is more powerful, more influential, than reality. No doubt this has been true of the lead-up to the American Revolution. To critique the motives and tactics of the “patriots” or our Founding Fathers (notice the capitalization!) is to invite rebuke and passionate defensiveness. This is, perhaps, understandable. After all, if the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock represent our first chosen origins myth, then, most certainly, the American Revolution must stand as the second. Who we are, at least who we think we are, is acutely wrapped up in the revolutionary narrative. To question that account is to question us. Yet that is what intellectual honesty and the challenges of the present demand of us—to examine America’s founding origins, warts and all, and strive toward a truly more perfect union.
To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
● James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle, and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 6: “Imperial Triumph, Imperial Crisis, 1754–1776” (2011).
● Alfred Young and Gregory Nobles, “Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding” (2011).
● Edward Countryman, “The American Revolution,” Chapters 1-3 (1985).
● Gary B. Nash, “The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America” (2005).
● Woody Holton, “Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia” (1999).
Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.
[The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]