Separation Anxiety

Eric Foner

  • A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution by Theodore Draper
    Little, Brown, 544 pp, £25.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 316 87802 2

The American Revolution is the subject of a rich and complex historical literature. In the 19th century, George Bancroft, the father of American historical writing, portrayed it as the culmination of a long, divinely-inspired progress – the triumph of freedom and democracy on the North American continent. The seed of liberty, planted by the earliest settlers, reached its inevitable flowering in national independence.

Early in this century, Bancroft’s self-congratulatory narrative came under attack from two sources. The ‘Progressive’ historians saw the struggle for independence as a social movement that not only pitted colonists against the mother country, but downtrodden artisans and small farmers against the American élite. ‘Who should rule at home’, Carl Becker famously maintained, was as central to the conflict as ‘home rule’, and the democratisation of American politics as much an object as nationhood. At the same time, the ‘Imperial’ school of historians sought to place the struggle for independence within the broad context of the history of the British Empire. London’s efforts to tax the colonies arose not from a conspiracy to impose tyranny on America, but from the financial problems brought on by the Seven Years’ War. Resistance was inevitable, for over the course of the 18th century the colonies had gradually grown in population, economic strength and political self-consciousness, and had come to expect more and more self-government.

The most recent generation of scholars, inspired above all by the work of Bernard Bailyn, has moved the ideas of the revolutionaries to centre stage. One can only explain the feverish American resistance to mild British measures like the Sugar and Stamp Acts, they insist, by understanding that they were refracted through an ideology inherited from Country Party writers in Britain, who viewed politics as a never-ending contest between liberty and power, with government exhibiting an inexorable tendency to infringe on the rights of citizens. Today, some historians differ with Bailyn’s delineation of colonial ideology (an intense debate has ensued over whether Americans should be described as Lockean liberals, determined to protect the individual’s natural rights, or classical republicans, concerned with civic virtue and the common good). And they have broadened this cast of characters to include women, blacks and others outside the ‘political nation’. But few doubt that the coming of the Revolution must be explained in large measure in ideological terms.

Theodore Draper’s A Struggle for Power, the most recent account of America’s path to independence, studiously ignores this vast body of historical writing. Promoted by its publisher as a radical reappraisal, the book is in fact a throwback to an earlier mode of historical interpretation. In treating the colonial period as of interest only insofar as it culminated in independence, it is reminiscent of Bancroft. In its top-down approach and its central thesis – that ‘the Revolution was basically a struggle for power between Great Britain and its American colonies’ – it recalls the Imperial school. (Indeed, when Draper cites other historians they are likely to be long-forgotten practitioners of Imperial history like Charles McLean Andrews, Samuel Beer and Herbert Osgood.)

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