The American Revolutionary War: Misunderstandings and Differences

Figure 1.--This painting depicts Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses making his famous speech, "If this be treason, make the most of it!" speech against the Stamp Act of 1765. The 1851 painting is by American artist Peter F. Rothermel. We notice a major misunderstanding in views of the Revolution. Often the idea is promoted tha the Revolution was brought on by King Gerorge III and that the colonial leaders were gready. And that American businessmen engaged in smuggling did not want to pay reasonable taxes. In fact, it was the the British Parliament that was the principal force behind the Revolution not the King. (Although once the Americans rebelled, the King led efforts to defeat the rebellion.) Rarely mentioned is that the British Parliament was not a very democratic body, unlike the American colonial legislatures like the Virginia House of Burges. In addition, the smuggling going was primarily violation of mercantilist British laws which were designbed to restrict the American economy. What sparked the Revolution was nothing more than the beginning of Parliament's efforts to limit the powers of the colonial leguslatures, just as they had done the Irish and Scottish Parliaments.

We notice a range of misunderstandings about the Revolution and what had become two people. This includes both the people at the time and the the popular conception today. It is understandable that misconceptions existed at the time. It seems strange, however, that these misconceptions exist today despite over two centuries of scholarship, but that is in fact the case. The underlying misconception involved here was that the British and the American colonies were fundamentally the same and that the Colonists were just transplanted Englishmen living in similar societies. This was jut not the case. First is the idea that it was a conflict between two free people. Second, that the Colonists were unreasonable and just did not want to pay even rather light taxes. Third, that the conflict was with the British monarchy, actually an English monarchy. Fourth, that British rule of the Colonies was benign. Fifth, what the purpose of the colonies were. Sixth, that the Colonists were flagrantly violating British law engaging in smuggling. Seventh, that the British were a more developed, prosperous people. Seventh, that the two peoples had a comparable ruling class. Eighth, that the Colonists were an identical people to the British. These misunderstandings and differences were all factors leading to war rather than a political, constitutional resolution of differences.

Two Free People

First is the idea that it was a conflict between two free people. This was not the case. The American Colonists were indeed an extraordinarily free people. The British people were free in comparison to the many Europeans living in absolutist monarchies. But they had much less feed than their American cousins. The Scots had been deprived of their Parliament and driven from the Highlands. They had representation in the British Parliament, but so few seats that they essentially had no real representation. The Irish still had a parliament, but one without little real power. The British Parliament controlled Ireland. And the Catholic majority (90 percent of the population) could not vote or for the most part even own property. The economic situation was actually not much better than American slaves in terms of nutrition and living quarters. There were of course more personal freedoms, but that can be overstated. The number of capital crimes were significantly increased to control the Irish. And these limitations on freedom did mot just affect the Scottish and Irish. The English also were significantly less free than the Americans. Elections to colonial American legislatures were real elections with substantial numbers of voters. There were property qualification, but they were low enough that many qualified to vote. British Parliamentary elections involved a much smaller proportion of the population. There were two kinds of Parliamentary constituencies--counties and boroughs. In the counties there were property tests, but a much smaller percentage of the British population owned land than was the case in the American colonies. The situation in the boroughs was even worse. The borough franchise varied. More than half had less than 500 voters. There were many rotten boroughs. One such seat (Old Sarum) had only four voters. [Heyck, p. 85.] American colonial legislatures also had property restrictions, but a far greater percentage of the population voted. There was nothing like the English rotten boroughs in America.

Paying Taxes

Second, that the Colonists were unreasonable and just did not want to pay even rather light taxes. Now no one likes paying taxes. The Colonial complaint was, however, that only their legislatures that they voted for had the right to levy taxes. They were not demanding representation in the British Parliament. That would have meant losing all real representation as they like the Scottish would have only a few seats. And the British did not want them there. It could have meant that over time they would have been outvoted in their own parliament. What the Colonists were demanding was that their legislatures were co-equal to the British Parliament. For the British there was no question about it, Parliament was supreme. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution established Parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy and they were not about to surrender it to colonial legislatures.

Role of the Monarchy

Third, that the conflict was with the British monarchy, actually an English monarchy. The British monarchy reigned over Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, but Parliamentary supremacy had been established. And the English controlled Parliament. Jefferson in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence cited abuses by Parliament. It was decided that this did not have the right Enlightenment sound. He redrafted it so that it referred to abuses of King George. George III took a more active role than his to predecessors, but in actuality what he was doing was trying to enforce Parliamentary supremacy.

Benign British Rule

Fourth, that British rule of the Colonies was benign. The idea was that Parliament was basically benign because it was an elective body is fatally flawed. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales lagged significantly behind the prosperity of England. Parliament was basically an English body and they took a range of actions which harmed and restricted the economies of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The English and subsequent British Parliament took many actions that contributed to the poverty of the other constituent countries parts of the British nation. English rule in Ireland was especially abusive. Irish Catholics were not allowed to vote and for the most part even own land. Whenever English commercial interests faced competition, Parliament acted to cut off promising developments in the other areas of Britain. The export of Irish cattle was prohibited (1660s). The promising development of Irish woolens was ruined by an export prohibition (1699). The British Parliament also harmed other promising developments in Ireland such as brewing and glass making (1700s). The English Parliament before the Act of Union imposed restrictions on major Scottish exports: coal, coal, linen, and salt as well as black cattle. Eventually the British would eradicate the culture of the Scottish Highlands and make it over in the English image, essentially replacing the people of the Highlands with sheep as part of the Scottish enclosures. Wales was more closely tied into the English economy. Poverty there was more related to the mountainous terrain providing less productive agricultural land. America was more isolated from England than its neighbors and its primary export (tobacco) did not compete with English agriculture, but the Navigation Acts (1663, 1673, and 1696) had from an early point constrained colonial commerce to the advantage of England.

Purpose of the Colonies

Fifth, what the purpose of the colonies were. There was no doubt in England what the purpose of the colonies were. They were to benefit England. England's interests had to come first. This of course was not how the American colonists saw their role and purpose of being. And given the hard-won doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy, secured by the bloody Civil War and Glorious Revolution. Parliament's efforts to forcibly impose Parliamentary supremacy did not bode well for the Colonists. The British Government largely let the Colonies on their own, but this was changing as the fiscal demands on the Crown were increasing and the colonies were developing.

Violation of British Law

Sixth, that the Colonists were flagrantly violating British law engaging in smuggling. We note histories of the Revolution constantly pointing out the degree to which the Colonists were involved in smuggling. This is true. The smuggling was not, however, for any nefarious purposes. They were primarily violations of the Navigation Acts, mercantilist policies which limited economic activity in the Colonies. They were a fundamental violation of one of Adam Smith's fundamental principles--Free Trade. It required American ships to first call at English ports, significantly limiting American economic opportunities. It is fascinating that in the same year the Americans declared independence (1776), Scottish economist Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations the classic text book of capitalism with its appeal for free trade.

Development and Prosperity

Seventh, that the British were a more developed, prosperous people. Here there is an interesting dichotomy, between high and popular culture. It is absolutely true that Britain dominated what might be called high culture. It is hard to compete with towering figures like John Locke (1632-1704) and Issac Newton (1642-1727). And they were only the tip of a towering edifice. Other important figures of the British Enlightenment were George Berkely (1685-1753), David Hume (1711-76), Adam Smith (1723-90), and others. The most important American figure of the Enlightenment was Benjamin Franklin, a respected scientists in Europe. What is notable about Franklin is that he rose from very humble beginnings which was not the case for the British figures of high culture. Britain of course had an elite education system that existed before the colonies even existed. Popular culture was very different. Now there was not a lot of actual money (bullion) in the Colonies, by virtually every indicator of well being (diet, housing, clothing, land ownership, health, literacy, domestic arrangements, etc., the ordinary American colonist was better off than average people in Britain. Even if you exclude poverty stricken areas (Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, and Wales, Americans were better off than the English. In fact in material terms, American slaves were better off than the down beaten Irish peasantry. One indicator of the grinding poverty in Britain was the increasing harshness of the penal system. There were 50 capital crimes in the books (1689). During the 18th century, the number if capital crimes were added and by the end of the 18th century, more than 150 offenses were made made capital crimes. Picking a pocket of 1 shilling or shoplifting items valued at 5 shillings were made capital crimes. Very few British people were hanged for murder, most were hanged for theft. English novelist Oliver Goldsmith explained it. "Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law." And note that the harshness of the penal code occurred BEFORE the Industrla Revolution had significantly changed the country. It occurred at a time that most British people lived in rural areas and mde their living by agriculture and piece work in homes.

Ruling Class

Eighth, that the two peoples had a comparable ruling class. Britain was governed by a landowning aristocracy and a growing merchant class. They controlled Parliament and ruled in favor of those groups on Mercantilist policies. This was possible because only a small part of the British people voted. And this was the case even discounting the disenfranchisement of Catholics, the vast proportion of the Irish population. The British ruling class was dominated by a land-owning aristocracy. Merchant interests were also important, but the landed aristocravy was still doiminant. Single individuals owned huge rural estates. These estates contrilled a substantial proportion of the agricultural land, leasing it out to tennsnts and cottagers. There was nothing like this. There were induviduals who owned substantial areas, but the vast proportion of land was in the hands of individuals who owned and worked relatively small family plots. This made for a huge difference in the two societies. It meant that the great majority of the Brutish public did not own land, the primary source of wealth at the time of the Revolution. A very different situation than in America. It was not difficicult for American colonists to own land. High quality agricultutal land was both plentiful and cheap. An estimated 75 percent of the adult males in most colonies were thus able to qualify as voters. [Constitutionl ...]

The People

Ninth, that the Colonists were an identical people to the British. This was not the case. It is true that there was some similarity. The dominant population of the 13 colonies were English. But the population was more diverse than in Britain. But the colonists generally came from the middle ranks iof English society. Very few English aristocrats settled in America. Nor did many Catholic Irish and Welsh during the colonial era. There were Scotts-Iriush, mostly in the western frontier areas. And unlike the situiation in Britiain they had both political influence and were well armed--and were hostile toward Britain. There were also substantial minority populations in the colonies (Dutch, Germans, Swedes, and others). There were also Catholics (Maryland). And they were all integrated into colonial society, meaning that they had the right to own land and vote.


Constitutional Rights Foundation. "Who voted in Early America" Bill of Rights in Action (Fall/Winter 1991) Bol. 8, No. 1.

Heyck, Thomas William. The People of the British Isles: A New History, from 1688 to 1870 (Wadsworth: Belmont Cslifornia, 1992), 415p.


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Created: 10:34 PM 12/16/2018
Last updated: 10:34 PM 12/16/2018