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How Historians View the American Revolution

In the 200 years that historians have written about the American Revolution, four major arguments, or schools of thought, have emerged. Each of them presents a firm argument about what the Revolution really meant and how we should view it. Which school of thought is right and which is wrong is ultimately for you to decide.

Covered in glory: The first historians

These people actually lived the event. Whether Loyalist or patriot, they wrote colorful, biased accounts espousing the justice and glory of their cause. The Tory Thomas Hutchinson wrote a popular account presenting a negative view of the Revolution. This was countered by David Ramsay's History of the American Revolution, which portrayed the patriot cause as just and inevitable. Mason Locke Weems wrote the first biography of George Washington, playing loose with the facts, turning him into a folk hero. As you would expect, these first historians had some difficulty being objective about the great events they had experienced.

Later, in the 19th century, a new generation of historians, who had not been alive during the war, compiled the basic documentary history of the war that we use today. To these historians, the Revolution was morally right, a unique turning point in human history. American victory was inevitable so that the nation could fulfill its destiny of freedom.

It was all about economics: The determinists

The determinists, writing in the early 20th century, argued that the Revolution was about class conflict. All the rhetoric about republicanism, inalienable rights, and equality was so much window dressing to justify hard-core economic motivations. These historians said that the struggle wasn't just about independence but about empowering an elite ruling class of Americans here at home. They pointed to the wealth of many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and contended that they merely used the Revolution to further their own grip on power.

The Revolution was conservative: The Neo-Whigs

After World War II, a new school of thought emerged. A group of historians who called themselves Neo-Whigs (a term that implied conservatism) argued that the Revolution was neither unique nor radical. Instead, it was simply a conservative reaction to protect American rights and property from Parliament. The republican ideology was real enough, they conceded, but in the end, the patriots were simply conserving rights they already enjoyed. Thus, the American Revolution didn't represent anything brand new or radical beyond one group protecting its interests against another.

It was radical and ideological: The debate today

In the last couple of decades, the pendulum has swung back in favor of the radicalism and ideological nature of the Revolution. This new group of historians argues that the revolutionaries were motivated by ideology, had much to lose, and that their Revolution was something quite radical by the standards of the age. The Revolution represented a real change in the social life of America, they say, in favor of more equality, more economic opportunity for ordinary people, and greater individual autonomy.

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