Seeds of the American Revolution

Historian Kevin Phillips explains the political and economic events that spurred the American Revolution.

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While many Americans learn that the Revolutionary War began with the writing of the Declaration of Independence, historian Kevin Phillips makes the case that the revolt began much earlier. In 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, Phillips lays out the political, economic, and cultural landscape that led to the first European colonial revolt and ultimately to the war that changed the world. Phillips recently spoke to U.S. News about the events and factors that he feels have often been overlooked. Excerpts:

What will surprise readers about the American Revolution?

In July of 1775, Congress in Philadelphia passed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. That was the one that sent King George up the wall. And in August, the King released a proclamation that declared the 13 colonies in revolt. So, in some respects, that was the declaration, not the Declaration of Independence, that sent the British to a decision that was war. There was so much in motion by late 1774, and the fighting began in early 1775. That was the beginning of the revolution.

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What were the factors behind the revolt?

There's no single causation. It was economics, philosophy, religion, ethnicity, a sense that Britain was beginning to try to squelch the American colonies. They were becoming too large, too much of a threat commercially. Some in the British government thought that as they moved over the mountains, and they got away from the coast, they would psychologically abandon Britain.

How was religion a factor?

In the old colonies, in New England, [they had the] Congregational Church. In Virginia and South Carolina it was the Church of England, but it was a permissive Anglicanism. It was the church of the colonial gentry; it wasn't the church of the crown of England. Some of the churches that had been connected with European populations, for example Dutch Germans and the Swedes in the middle colonies, leaned towards the British side because they were afraid of the American churches. They wanted to maintain their European orientation.

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Did all 13 colonies support the revolution?

What I call the vanguard colonies in the revolution were Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Connecticut. The least active, the most divided, the most unsure of what they wanted to do were the middle colonies, particularly New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and by some calculations Maryland. That was where there was the least sense of wanting to venture in this new direction. It made a huge difference that the vanguard colonies were as old as they were, as self-confident as they were, and as willing to bite the bullet as they were.

What role did communications play?

Communications became enormously important because there was a huge lag between decisions made in Britain or in the colonies, and the ability of news to travel one way or the other across the Atlantic in any speedy way. The colonists took very good advantage of this. They organized their communications to spread the word of revolutionary developments very quickly in New England and up and down the sea coast. They could move news from Boston down to Virginia in two and a half or three weeks, which sounds extremely slow, but at that time it was very efficient. That helped spread revolution.

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Did slaves have a role in the Revolution?

There were about 500,000 blacks in the 13 colonies. In the northern colonies, in particular in New England, most would have been free blacks. Further south, they were probably 95 percent slaves. In the South, the British appealed to the slaves to run away, and they could enlist in the British Army and be freed. Something like 15,000 to 20,000 did so or tried to do so. [But] in the larger perspective, the British failed to stir up the slaves in any major way. In New England, blacks were significant in their enlistment in the Continental Army. By 1781-82, one French observer reported that about a quarter of the troops with [George] Washington in New York in the last days of the revolution were blacks.