American Revolution and Civil War

September 5, 2016
Click to enlarge

William Ranney, Battle of Cowpens, 1845, oil, South Carolina State House “Every great revolution is a civil war, ” as David Armitage has recently remarked. That insight could change the way we think about the American Revolution. Contemporaries understood it that way—or at least, they did at first. David Ramsay, the first patriot historian of the war, held that the Revolution was “originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties.” Mercy Otis Warren wrote that the fires of civil war were kindled as early as the Boston massacre. But in the narratives of these historians, the moment the United States declared independence was the moment the conflict stopped being a civil war. It was no longer being fought within a single imperial polity. Now it was a war between two nations.[1]

The assumptions that underpin that story are worth challenging: that the division between British and American became absolute at the moment of the Declaration, that a new nation was born in that instant, and that the only distinction that mattered was the one between the United States and its enemies. Of course that’s the story early patriot historians told. It was a story that projected backwards the unity and sovereignty they wanted to foster in the new nation. That picture may have looked accurate for Massachusetts, at least until disorder in the western country overtook the state in the 1780s, but on the coast of Rhode Island, in the Hudson Valley and the New Jersey “Neutral Zone”, on the Delmarva peninsula, and all across the South, things were quite different.[2] The Revolution was a story of dissolving sovereignty and contested authority, lawless violence and the search for security. Its true theorist was not John Locke, but Thomas Hobbes.[3]

Once we consider the American Revolution as a civil war, it’s easier to integrate the broader world of violence and division that often gets left out of the Revolutionary narrative: the Regulator movements of South and North Carolina, the march of the Paxton boys, land riots in Maine and New York, separatist movements in Vermont and Franklin, and the rural insurrections that swept the west up to the conquest of the Whiskey Rebels in 1794. As imperial sovereignty broke down, first in the borderlands and then in the heart of the colonies themselves, it left a disparate set of ex-colonists to construct new forms of authority. They did so in overlapping and piecemeal ways, creating struggles in the process that would continue for decades and centuries. New authorities won the allegiance of anxious Americans by offering protection for persons and property: in doing so, they promised to crush Indians and open new land for white ownership; in the south, they fought to restore the slave regime and reverse the effects of the slaves’ own “revolution within a revolution.”[4] Among themselves, they struggled to allocate power—and to locate sovereignty—within the federal union.

If we stop thinking of the Revolution as a War for Independence, in which the United States freed itself from the British empire, we can better see it as a process in which the United States, and American identity, was gradually, painfully, imperfectly constructed in the midst of imperial collapse. If we saw this and every revolution as a civil war, maybe we’d better understand the way the modern world—the nexus of state, citizen, and property—was born in and determined by violence.


[1] David Ramsay, 2 vols. (Trenton: Printed by Isaac Collins, 1785), 2: 281; Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, 3 vols., (Boston: Printed by Manning and Loring, 1805), 1: iv, 96, 177.

[2] In working on this, I’ve found particularly useful Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert eds., An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry During the American Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press 1985), and Alfred Young ed., The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976).

[3] At least two historians of the eighteenth century frontier invoke Hobbes in broadly the same way I’m doing here: Patrick Griffin, American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007) and Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[4] The phrase “revolution within a revolution” is from Gary Nash, The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 67.

Spanish Civil War Revolution Counter-Revolution and Terror c
Spanish Civil War Revolution Counter-Revolution and Terror c
Spanish Civil War Revolution Counter-Revolution and Terror
Spanish Civil War Revolution Counter-Revolution and Terror
The Tragedy of the Civil War and the American Revolution
The Tragedy of the Civil War and the American Revolution
Share this Post