No one called it the “American Revolution” while it was happening. The British spoke of the American rebellion. Those protesting in the colonies merely called it “the Cause” and insisted they were not engaged in revolution. Even now, the question of whether it was a true revolution remains controversial.
Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution from the perspectives of both England and the colonists in his eminently readable The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783. Using rigorous scholarship, Ellis offers vivid portraits of and penetrating insights about this period in history, while challenging our conventional understandings of it.
For the British, Ellis argues, the defining issue was power, not money. Imposing new taxes on the colonies was a way to establish parliamentary sovereignty, not to reduce the debt they accumulated during the Seven Years’ War. Trade with the American colonies was lucrative for Britain, after all, and any taxation policy that put their trade relationship at risk would have been too costly.
Also counter to the narrative we usually hear, those early colonial Americans had a conservative character. From their perspective, the British were more revolutionary than they were. Britain was causing revolutionary change by taxing colonists without their consent, and even then, no American delegate to the first Continental Congress advocated for independence.
Likewise, John Trumbull’s famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence,” depicts an event that never happened. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original version on his own, then Congress made 85 specific changes to Jefferson’s draft, revising or deleting slightly more than 20% of the text. The final version was sent to the printer on July 4, and the printer put that date on the published version. Most delegates actually signed it on August 2, although there was no single signing day.
By the end of the war, a majority of Americans felt that the creation of a nation-state was a distortion of the Cause. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, among others, were outliers, not leaders of the dominant opinion.
This riveting, highly recommended book by one of America’s major historians will change how you see the American Revolution.