The American War for Independence as a Revolutionary War
- Michael A. McDonnellMichael A. McDonnellDepartment of History, University of Sydney
The American War for Independence lasted eight years. It was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in America’s history, and yet it was not such a protracted conflict merely because the might of the British armed forces was brought to bear on the hapless colonials. The many divisions among Americans themselves over whether to fight, what to fight for, and who would do the fighting often had tragic and violent consequences. The Revolutionary War was by any measure the first American civil war. Yet national narratives of the Revolution and even much of the scholarship on the era focus more on simple stories of a contest between the Patriots and the British. Loyalists and other opponents of the Patriots are routinely left out of these narratives, or given short shrift. So, too, are the tens of thousands of ordinary colonists—perhaps a majority of the population—who were disaffected or alienated from either side or who tried to tack between the two main antagonists to make the best of a bad situation. Historians now estimate that as many as three-fifths of the colonial population were neither active Loyalists nor Patriots.
When we take the war seriously and begin to think about narratives that capture the experience of the many, rather than the few, an illuminating picture emerges. The remarkably wide scope of the activities of the disaffected during the war—ranging from nonpayment of taxes to draft dodging and even to armed resistance to protect their neutrality—has to be integrated with older stories of militant Patriots and timid Loyalists. Only then can we understand the profound consequences of disaffection—particularly in creating divisions within the states, increasing levels of violence, prolonging the war, and changing the nature of the political settlements in each state. Indeed, the very divisions among diverse Americans that made the War for Independence so long, bitter, and bloody also explains much of the Revolutionary energy of the period. Though it is not as seamless as traditional narratives of the Revolution would suggest, a more complicated story also helps better explain the many problems the new states and eventually the new nation would face. In making this argument, we may finally suggest ways we can overcome what John Shy long ago noted as the tendency of scholars to separate the ‘destructive’ War for Independence from the ‘constructive’ political Revolution.