The Geopolitics of the American Revolution

War

Jeremy Black
University of Exeter

Cross-posted from the American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull

The image is clear, the message obvious. Across a sun-kissed meadow, dappled with shade, lines of British soldiers, resplendent in red, move slowly forward, while brave American Patriots crouch behind trees and stone walls ready to blast these idiots to pieces. Frequently repeated on page and screen, the image has one central message: one side, the American, represented the future in warfare, and one side, the American, was bound to prevail. Thus, the war is readily located in both political and military terms. In each, it apparently represents the triumph of modernity and the start of a new age: of democracy and popular warfare. The linkage of military service and political rights therefore proved a potent contribution. Before these popular, national forces, the ancien régime, the old order, with its mercenaries, professionals, and, at sea, unmotivated conscripts, was bound to crumble, and its troops were doomed to lose. Thus, the political location of the struggle, in terms of the defining struggle for freedom, apparently helps locate the conflict as the start of modern warfare, while, considering the war in the latter light, helps fix our understanding of the political dimension. Definition in terms of modernity and modernization also explains success, as most people assume that the future is bound to prevail over the past.

In making the war an apparently foregone conclusion, this approach has several misleading consequences. First, it allows most historians of the period to devote insufficient attention to the fighting and, instead, to focus on traditional (constitution-framing) and modish (gender et al) topics, neglecting the central point about the importance of war in American history: no victory, no independence, no constitution, no newish society. Second, making the British defeat inevitable gravely underrates the Patriot (not American, as not all Americans fought the British) achievement. Third, making British defeat inevitable removes the sense of uncertainty in which contemporaries made choices. Continue reading “The Geopolitics of the American Revolution”

Brexit, the American Revolution, and the Problem with ‘Independence Day’

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Simon Hill
University of Chester

On Thursday 23 June 2016 the British electorate voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the European Union (EU). On election night the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage declared this to be Britain’s ‘independence day.’ With ‘independence day’ on pro-Brexit lips, US pundits have been quick to connect 2016 with 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski, for example, was among the first ‘to welcome the mother country to our revolution.’ And, in a similar act of transatlantic camaraderie, the Republican magazine National Review has accordingly rebranded the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence as ‘Amerexit.’

Critics have since been quick to point out some of the big historical problems with proclaiming the 23rd June as Britain’s ‘independence day’, including the common association between it and the outbreak of the American Revolution. And of course it’s worth noting that the EU referendum vote and the American Revolution (1775-1783) have obvious differences, not least that in the former the question of independence was settled by the ballot box, whilst in the latter it was decided by the barrel of a gun. Nevertheless, let’s assume for the moment that there are some useful comparisons to be drawn between the American Revolution and Brexit. If so, is 1776 the ideal date for comparison, as many pundits have recently suggested? I would suggest instead that events during the latter years of the American Revolution share far more in common with today. Continue reading “Brexit, the American Revolution, and the Problem with ‘Independence Day’”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Samurai and Courtesans colour photos from 1865. Felice Beato was one of the first people to photograph the far east – and he made life bloom with colour. Here are his rare hand-coloured shots of Edo-era Japan See them at the London Photograph Fair, 23 & 24 May 2015.
Samurai and Courtesans colour photos from 1865. Felice Beato was one of the first people to photograph the far east – and he made life bloom with colour. See his rare hand-coloured shots of Edo-era Japan here and at the London Photograph Fair, 23 & 24 May 2015.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From Disney’s fanciful film about African colonization to how the Civil War changed the world, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”