“Patriotic” Interpretation of the American Revolution, Essay Example

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Essay

What may be termed the “patriotic” interpretation of the American Revolution can be said, on a prima facie viewing, to depict the confrontation in simplistic terms, namely, as an almost archetypical battle for freedom between the oppressed and the oppressor. However, in light of this same notion of archetype, we can understand such an interpretation as a quite typical approach to history, insofar as numerous historical discourses recapitulate similar conflicts in such a manner – for example, the Second World War as a ius ad bellum, intended to halt the expansion of fascist hegemony. From this perspective, the endemic American viewpoint of the war is not an exception: it represents a typical appropriation of conflict in terms of motifs such as freedom from a foreign occupier. At the same time, however, such a narrative is not wholly incorrect, when one considers the historical factors behind the cause of the conflict and the structure of the conflict itself. In terms of the latter, the depiction of the revolution as a war between a hegemonic world power and a much weaker force is a legitimate synopsis of the participants. As Stuart Murray succinctly puts it, during this time the British Empire was “newly dominant.”[1] A historically and empirically borne out discrepancy between the capabilities of the two sides clearly existed, such that the so-called “underdog” narrative of the United States is, in this sense, an appropriate interpretation. Furthermore, inasmuch as notions of the justification of the United States’ desired secession are informed by a narrative based upon a particular conceptualization of “freedom”, the portrayal of the British Empire as an oppressive force becomes more understandable. The influence of a such a concept of freedom, influenced by the philosopher John Locke, entails that government could always be considered as a threat to the rights of man.[2]  (Miller, 170) Issues such as taxation were therefore conceived as not merely issues of economic policy, but rather as direct restrictions of a particular concept of freedom that had gained currency in American political and public discourse.

Certainly, from foreign perspectives, such as the French, the American Revolution possessed relevance in terms of the potentiality it possessed to weaken the British Empire. The great European powers, developing through a colonial approach to geopolitics, therefore construed the American Revolution as a continuation of this battleground, irrespective of whatever ethical beliefs existed amongst the American Revolutionaries. Yet this is not to discount the notion that such ethical beliefs played an important role in the world-view of the revolutionaries. Insofar as the American colonies were informed by a clear philosophical and ideological position, the changes in British policy, such as the British movement away from the policy of salutary neglect, were deemed too radical a shift. Axelrod, for example, goes so far as to suggest that if salutary neglect had continued that “the thought of revolution simply may not have occurred to the colonists, and there would have been little reason for the colonies to unite, let alone rebel against the mother country.”[3] Whereas this thesis is somewhat speculative, it nevertheless clearly evinces the manner in which colonists began to conceive of the role of the British government. As soon as the government appeared to take a more authoritative approach to the colonies, thoughts of revolution emerged that were quite specific to the American context, as evidenced, for example, by the lack of a similar revolution in other colonies.

Certainly, the successes of the American Revolution cannot be traced back to the validity of an ideological position, but rather practical results. In this case, foreign powers, interested above all in geopolitical concerns, were crucial in turning the Revolution in the Americans’ favor. For example, the French offered decisive contributions in the crucial naval theatre, where the American forces were at a clear disadvantage to British sea power. Aptheker suggests that “it was the supreme consequence of naval power to the war which made the French contribution so decisive…France’s efforts were consequential in embarrassing England in terms of the European balance of power.”[4] Furthermore, some of the contributions of the French included financial support and the participation of French troops.[5] (Aptheker, 121) It is arguably such a contribution from foreign sources that has been overlooked in the more jingoistic discourses surrounding the Revolution.

This overlooked contribution is consistent with the U.S.’s own hesitance to accept foreign powers, a hesitancy that is understandable if we take seriously the narrative that a particular vision of freedom and the proper role of government played a key role in engendering the revolution: there was a danger that an alliance with another European power would merely lead to an exchange of intrusive governments. Certainly, France did approach this conflict from a perspective of geopolitics. Such an intervention would induce, from the French perspective, a clear shift in the “balance of power” within Europe through an almost proxy war in the United States. To the extent that the American Revolution was successful, France can be said to have clearly realized its geopolitical goals. Yet the relationship, clearly, did not develop in the form of a French dominance within the United States. This is not to suggest that the United States did not consider the French contributions insignificant. The treaty between the nations at the end of the conflict made clear that, from the American perspective, the “young republic places above all else fidelity and constancy in its engagements.”[6] This marks a clear intent by the U.S. to maintain a friendly alliance with the French. Perhaps the fact that this “fidelity” did not develop into French dominance within the U.S. sphere is continuous with the initial thesis about the conceptual roots of the revolution as rooted in a notion of freedom and government: the replacing of one master for another would have marked a transgression of this basic position. In this sense, it can be considered that the somewhat ideological account of the American Revolution that emphasizes freedom is certainly not without merit, as it was arguably this conceptual commitment that above all informed relations between the U.S. and their allies both during and after the war of independence.

[1] Stuart Murray, Atlas of American History. (New York: Media Projects, 2005), 22.

[2] John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959), 170.

[3] Alan Axelrod, The Real History of the American Revolution: A New Look at the Past. (New York: Sterling, 2007), 11.

[4] Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution 1763-1783: A History of the American People. (New York: International Publishers, 1960), 121.

[5] Ibid., 121.

[6] James Breck Perkins, France in the American Revolution. (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 1995), 621.

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