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The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence, by Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson

How We Began

The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence.
by Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson.
Johns Hopkins University Press. 450 pp. $24.00.

The tension between history and myth—even the difference between them—is not generally understood. The Greeks are said to have invented history by separating the two; history, wrote Thucydides, was that which could be proved to have happened. Verifiability is crucial to history if it is to serve its purpose, which is to instruct us by orienting us in time and by providing a perspective whereby we can escape the provincialism of the present. Myths, on the other hand, may or may not have some basis in past actuality, but that is irrelevant to their function. The function of myths, like that of rituals, symbols, and conventions, is social: to bind a people together voluntarily and harmoniously as one people. As memories of shared experiences help hold a marriage or a family together, so myths—what people believe to be the shared experiences of their ancestors—help hold a society together.

The question is central to the present work of Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, for they have set themselves the formidable task of separating the mythological perception of the American Revolution from what can be proved to have happened. The mythical version, which arose from what Americans professed to believe at the time and which they came unquestioningly to believe throughout the 19th century, was roughly as follows. Prior to 1763, Americans were dutiful subjects who enjoyed the rights of Englishmen, including the right to live under laws of their own making; acquiesced in parliamentary regulation of trade within the empire but were not subject to interference in their internal affairs; carried more than a fair share of the burden of their own defense; and produced the goods and provided the markets that had made Britain rich and powerful.

But during the Seven Years’ War—the received version continues—the British blundered by not destroying France, thereby necessitating an expensive postwar colonial military establishment, and blundered again in the peace negotiations by not taking the rich French sugar islands, thereby throwing away an easy source of income for financing the colonial military force. The 1764 Sugar Act, the 1765 Stamp Act, and the 1767 Townshend Duties were radically unconstitutional efforts, in defiance of all precedent, to extract taxes from the colonists without their consent. The colonists resisted and largely defeated these and other constitutional innovations; but the British stubbornly insisted, in the Declaratory Act of 1766, that Parliament had the right in principle to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” After 1770 Lord North’s ministry pursued a persistent policy of forcing a showdown on the issue. Until the very end, the Americans rightly insisted that the empire could be saved if Britain would only abandon its pernicious attempt to pervert the “ancient constitution” and restore things to the way they were in 1763. Britain’s answer to these protests was to send foreign mercenaries to enforce its unconstitutional laws, and the Americans had no choice but to declare their independence.

This interpretation was challenged early in the 20th century by the “Imperial School” associated with George L. Beer, which contended that the imperial system, far from being repressive, worked greatly to the advantage of the colonists. The Imperial School came into vogue for a time during and after World War I, partly because American historians, as their share of the wartime propaganda effort, rewrote history to minimize past Anglo-American frictions, and partly because class-based interpretations were “in” for a while, and these insisted that the Revolution was less an Anglo-American dispute over home rule than a contest between upper and lower classes in America over the question, “Who Shall Rule at Home?”

The Imperial School and the class-struggle version were ultimately rejected both as non-history and as unsatisfactory myth, and modern scholars have returned to the original interpretation. Tucker and Hendrickson quote Edmund Morgan, Jack Greene, and a host of other leading contemporary students of the period; though these modify and sharpen, their final verdict is essentially the one that 18th-century Americans claimed was true and 19th-century Americans believed was true.

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Do we have, then, a rare instance in which myth and history are the same? Tucker and Hendrickson think not. With meticulous care they have reexamined every step of the process toward separation, and in every instance they find the traditional account unacceptable. Much of the supposed British blundering, for example, arose from a premise that the future would show to be unsound—that political separation would destroy the mutually advantageous Anglo-American trade—but no one could have known that before the Revolution, and within the framework of the assumption, British policy was entirely reasonable. As for Lord North, his policies more closely approximated appeasement than provocation.

On the whole, the authors argue, the British were willing to make every concession to preserve the empire short of sacrificing the fundamental principle that the Glorious Revolution had embodied in the British constitution, namely, that sovereignty resided in Crown-in-Parliament. The Americans, whatever their particular arguments in resisting particular measures, were willing to stay in the empire only on condition that that principle be rejected as far as they were concerned. In effect, what was at issue was different understandings of the way things had been before 1763—rival and incompatible myths. The issue was joined with the passage of the Declaratory Act: thenceforth any American cries for a return to 1763 were disingenuous or futile or both, for they demanded the one thing the mother country could not concede.

The cumulative effect of the authors’ point-by-point analysis is powerfully persuasive, though this is not to say that their craftsmanship is entirely unflawed. The argument is occasionally tedious, circuitous, and repetitive. It leaves out of account a fact that might have strengthened it considerably: that most Americans, until 1775, genuinely revered George III and looked upon him as a Bolingbrokean Patriot King who would exert the prerogative to preserve the constitution and protect their liberties.

More importantly, the authors assume that, for practical purposes, the colonists shared the same basic outlook—an assumption that is simply unfounded. The tobacco colonies and New England had long regarded the empire as being at best of mixed value to them, and they were suffering economic dislocations after 1763, whereas the Middle Colonies and the lower South had fully appreciated the advantages of empire and were now thriving. Moreover, New England and the tobacco colonies, having matured in the turbulent 17th century, having had little direct intercourse with Britain during the 18th, and having relatively homogeneous populations, shared (albeit from opposite perspectives) a common heritage in which resistance, deposition, and even regicide were in the last resort acceptable in the defense of liberty. The other colonies, having come to maturity only after the Glorious Revolution, having had regular contact with the mother country via both commerce and immigration during the 18th century, and having dangerously disruptive elements in their populations, thought of deposition and regicide with unspeakable horror, if indeed they were able to think of them at all. These differences in circumstances and traditions predisposed the older group of colonies toward radicalism and the newer toward caution.

Again, the authors assume that American attitudes remained fundamentally unchanged throughout the long imperial crisis; and that assumption is likewise questionable. When British troops were dispatched to Boston in 1768, Sam Adams called upon Massachusetts farmers to take up arms, and none responded; and the colonial legislature, in a petition to the Crown, expressly acknowledged Parliament as “the supreme legislative of the empire.” When the troops were sent in again in 1774, every Middlesex village and farm sprang to arms, and the Parliament’s authority was absolutely denied. A similar radicalization took place in the tobacco colonies. What had happened in between was a flukish credit boom that began in 1770 and collapsed in 1773. During the boom, New England farmers and Virginia planters bought, on credit, unprecedented quantities of British goods, and after the collapse they faced the imminent prospect of economic ruin. The Middle Colonies and the lower South, meanwhile, were largely unaffected by these developments. Their leaders were desperately seeking an accommodation as late as the spring of 1776; the leaders in the Potomac-New England axis were thinking of independence as early as the winter of 1774-75.

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Whether these flaws will prove fatal when the book is reviewed by the historical establishment, I hesitate to guess. Despite my demurrers, I find the authors’ case intellectually appealing. Nobody was especially to blame, no one fully comprehended the situation, and in the last analysis there was not much that anyone could have done to avoid the rupture. That accords with my understanding of the way things happen. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether history, a mere cerebral exercise, will prove as potent as the active social force that is myth—even among historians.

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