Written by Shiva Oswal

For centuries following the military conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, historians have long argued over the causes and motivations of the American Revolution from all perspectives and ideologies. Going back all the way to Jamestown in 1607, the British colonies in America were different from other European colonies and Europe itself. Different religions were widely practiced, trade and expansion were booming, and American colonists paid some of the lowest taxes and enjoyed the highest standard of living in all of the Western World. How then did a small group of firebrands and revolutionaries not only convince a majority of the population of the thirteen colonies to give up their relative prosperity but also endure ten years of war, and then ten more years of economic hardship and political instability?

The Whigs, Progressives, Conservatives, Neo-Whigs, and the Left were samplings of the many historiographical schools of thought over the 19th and 20th centuries and each claimed to provide an answer to this centuries-old question. Clearly, the debate has gone on so long and has been approached from so many angles, that the true answer is more complex than any one of these schools of thought. Taken together though, these five schools form a foundational set of reasons why a prosperous colony would attempt to take on the strongest military on the planet.

George Bancroft was one of the leaders of the Whig school of thought, primarily active in the 19th century. Bancroft’s theories were entrenched in two main pillars: religion and freedom. The Whig School believed the Revolution to simply be “not from accidental impulse” but from the steady advancement of mankind toward modernity, in this case represented by America transcending from “servitude” to Britain to a higher form of government: democracy. Bancroft served a twist to this classical Whig interpretation by offering God as the force driving inevitable progress. Spurred by the fiery orators of the First Great Awakening, Bancroft believed that the actions of the great men of the revolution: such as Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry were sparked by the “light.…from the example of Him (Jesus)”. The Whig school assumes the heroes of the revolution, the so-called “Founding Fathers”, to be of “a race divine” and thus above the petty mortal concerns of money and power. [1]

The Progressive school of thought was active in the early 19th century and was effectively an antithesis of the Whig ideals. Led by such historians as Merill Jensen, the Progressives emphasized the role of economics, mostly untouched by the Whigs, and the power of the ordinary rabble, as opposed to a select few heroes. “Fostered by economic depression and the bungling [economic] policies of Great Britain”, colonial merchants and rich businessmen (those most affected) vented their anger against the system. Naturally, the center of business in the colonies at the time was Boston, and thus the city would become the center of the Revolution. Jensen claimed the rich and powerful merchants “incited and controlled” popular demonstrations by ordinary Americans. “Used as tools”, the masses were egged on by fanatical organizations, radical slogans, and ultimately by issues that did not concern them at all, while from behind the scenes, the merchant elite pulled the strings. Ultimately, by the 1770s, Jensen believed the merchants lost control of their puppets, who were “soon united under capable leadership” and formed the central powerbase of the Revolution. Aware of their newfound political significance, the masses fought against the power hierarchies of the colonial aristocracy just as hard as they fought against the redcoats on the field of battle.[2]

As mentioned earlier, Americans at the time of the revolution were some of the most prosperous and free people in the world. Robert Brown and others in the Conservative school of thought believed that the Americans knew that, and naturally they loathed it when Britain began to revoke their privileges. After the endless barrage of British taxes, Brown believed Americans felt “there was no doubt whatsoever that the British intended to curtail colonial democracy”, and with it everything that made America special. The Americans went to war not because they wanted something new, but out of the desire to “preserve the social order” that had existed before the French and Indian War under the period of salutary neglect. America wanted to return to the “good old days” of democracy and prosperity, and they were willing to fight rather than change the old order. [3]

Spearheaded by Bernard Bailyn, the Neo-Whig school of thought was built on the original Whig school of a century ago, except with more nuanced and defendable claims. Specifically, the Neo-Whigs gave up on the ideas of “hero worship”, which portrayed the central figures of the Revolution as god-fearing, morally impeccable men of honor, willing to die for their cause. Instead, the Neo-Whigs (especially Gordon Wood) tended to emphasize the American Revolution as humanity’s natural tendency to evolve politically, towards better social and political institutions; in this case moving from a restrictive monarchy and oligarchy to a republic. Like many historians, Bailyn believed that their “peculiar inheritance of thought had prepared [the Americans] to be the stage on which humanity made its next great leap forward”. Bailyn diverged from mainstream Whig thought by claiming “conspiratorial designs” in both Britain and America were behind “evil policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested.” Furthermore, Bailyn portrayed the ideas of Americans to be “as sincere” as the British government’s ideas (as elaborated by Edmund Burke). By highlighting the extremely complex web of political and economic connections between Britain and America, Bailyn grayed the historiographical divide marking the British as villains and the Americans as heroes. Although the drive for progress remained, Bailyn depicted both an American and a British model on how to achieve the end state. [4]

Howard Zinn, a radical leader of the New Left movement, turned the debate on the American Revolution upside down by painting the “stable, coherent, effective and acknowledged local political and social elites” (Jack Greene) of the American colonies as the villains, and the British government as the heroes! Through “the fanfare of patriotism and unity”, the colonial elites channeled the angst in Boston and elsewhere against the British and Indians for their own scheming purposes. According to Zinn, the American elite had caused “the inferior position of blacks [and women], the exclusion of Indians from the new society, [and] the establishment of supremacy for the rich and powerful”, which under the lens of the radical Left were all signs of political and social sin. On the other hand, noble British actions to protect Indians with the Proclamation of 1763, expel the aggressive French from their territory, and justly levy taxes against the relatively rich (remember taxes in America were over 20x lower than they were in Britain), were all socially and politically good deeds! From the Left’s perspective, the American elite sparked the Revolution to throw off the tempering influences of Britain, who were attempting to morally regulate the greed and ambition of the American elite. Likewise, the Constitution was the document which put the agenda of the rich into writing, while barely appeasing “small property owners…to build a broad base of support”. [5]

From the perspective of a centrist, modern audience, many of these historical interpretations seem to have gaping irregularities, or at the very least purposeful omissions. The Whig school of the 19th century outlined the idea of the Revolution being an instrument for the constant political and social evolution of mankind toward higher forms, parallel to the evolution of technology. However, the original Whig theories of George Bancroft were heavily watered down due to bias in favor of the colonists, and were heavily reliant on religion to provide an ultimate foundation, even though many of the Founding fathers were deists or even atheists!

Providing a stark contrast to the Whigs, Merill Jensen and the Progressive School emphasized the role of the masses, not individual elites, as being the spark behind the Revolution. Additionally, while the Whigs mostly glossed over economic factors, the Progressives crafted their theories around them. Certainly, Jensen is more believable than Bancroft due to the obvious impact of British taxation in sparking the war to some degree, but his nuanced claims about the masses fighting the colonial aristocracy during the war are taken too far.

Robert Brown’s Conservative ideas about America fighting for a ‘return to normalcy’ before the French and Indian War, are convincing, especially since the Constitution and the English Bill of Rights are so similar. Definitely, Americans before 1763 enjoyed a high standard of living with all the techne of Great Britain, but with only a fraction of the taxes and poverty. Surely, preserving such a way of life was worth fighting over, as the colonists did against the French. However, most of the colonies’ prosperity came directly from the motherland (Britain), and it would have been obvious that engaging in a war with ‘the hand that feeds you’ would have been most likely futile, and certainly economically disastrous. Also, with the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, America and Britain were changing so rapidly technologically that by the time the war was over, the pre-1763 world was only a distant memory that no longer existed!

The Neo-Whig school of thought spearheaded by Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn served as a foil to the Conservatives. By taking the best of the Whig ideas and scrapping the worst, the Neo-Whigs crafted a theory that best fit the evidence. Clearly, in America in the 1760s and 1770s there were talented orators and lawmakers who desired change, and with their direct writings they desired liberty and progress from restrictive Britain. By challenging the black and white notion of British tyranny and American heroism, the Neo-Whigs provided a small yet important twist setting them apart from more mundane studies of the American Revolution, while simultaneously best fitting the hard evidence of the Revolution.

Finally, the Neo-Left school of Howard Zinn was simply too mired in late 20th, early 21st century politics, mixing in personal political views and temporal chauvinism with the actual evidence. Although their theories are certainly novel, the New-Left still held up to a black and white theory of the American revolution (albeit reversed from the Whigs), which simply does not hold up to historical scrutiny.

To conclude, the American Revolution has been studied and interpreted historiographically in many different ways and from many perspectives for over a century. Over time, five theories emerged as forerunners for their time periods: the Whigs, Progressives, Conservatives, Neo-Whigs, and The New Left. All of these theories were influenced by the biases of their time period, and by the personal biases of their leaders, but when considered as whole, they more or less sum up the causes of the American Revolution: from causes as varied as God’s calling, to the work of a hidden conspiracy. Ultimately, Bailyn and Wood of the Neo-Whig school probably came up with the most compelling individual school of thought by taking old ideas and giving them modern, nuanced twists.


1. George Bancroft, History of the United States of America from the Discovery of the Continent, New York, 1890, Volume III, pp. 382-83.

2. Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation, quoted in Edwin Rozwenc and Donald Schultz, Conflict and Consensus in the American Revolution, Boston, D.C. Heath Co., 1964, pp. 47, 49-50.

3. Robert Brown, Middle-Class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts, 1691-1780, New York, Harper & Row, 1969, pp. 404-405.

4. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1967, pp. 58-59, 85-93.5. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States:1492-Present, (3rd ed.) Routledge: New York, 2003, 59-60, 89, 99, 102. 

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