Nationalism and Patriotism Throughout the American Revolution

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When speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, President Donald Trump cited John Adams’ writing that the American Revolution was “effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” President Trump then went on to say, “That was the moment when America awoke…We realized who we were, what we valued, and what we would give our lives to defend.” These moving statements about the American Revolution are being used with increasing frequency by both politicians and the media as examples of American patriotism. There was far more complexity relating to political associations at the time of the American Revolution than these statements convey. This essay will examine the context surrounding the claim that a commonly-held, strong sense of nationalism was present at the beginning of the American Revolution and that this nationalism was an important cause of the war.

In order to understand the sentiment of colonists during the American Revolution, it is crucial to first examine the existing public opinions and political affiliations leading up to the war, both within the colonies and internationally. The growth of English nationalism was the primary influencer of colonists’ perception of their role in the empire and world. England experienced a “dramatic surge of national consciousness” in the 1740s. This transformation had a great effect on American culture in the period prior to the revolution and the eventual evolution of American nationalism. In the years leading up to the revolution, both the American Whigs and the Tories were pushing for continued American loyalty to the British. This is seemingly contrary to the now popular belief that there was a growing divide between the colonies and Great Britain during this time period. It is crucial to view this divide from an international perspective to truly understand its validity and causation. There was, in fact, a divide growing between the English and the rest of the empire. The new sense of nationalism in England formed “powerfully exclusionary tendencies and [a] propensity to reduce the ‘other’ to a second-rate status.” As a result of this, all members of the British Empire outside of England were demoted. The colonists’ response was to embrace this nationalism, seeking to identify themselves as British subjects, equal to the English. With an opposite mindset on either side of the Atlantic, there was a divide growing, however it was one that the colonists were fighting desperately to close.

The Stamp Act was one of the first government actions that displayed this growing disassociation between England and the American colonies. The colonists’ extreme reaction to the Stamp Act was not because of its economic implications. The reaction was caused by the principle of “no taxation without representation for which the Revolution would eventually be fought.” Though the principle’s role as a cause of the Revolution is debatable, the reasons for the colonists’ reaction are not. Adding to the violation of this fundamental principle, with the growing divide between England and the colonies, many colonists would have viewed this legislation as evidence of what they had already been experiencing. With this context, the concern of the colonists is understandable as there was now tangible proof that they were being treated as second-rate citizens, having lost the right to representation. This act was one of many actions by the British ministries that the American Whigs were opposed to.

Though the American Whigs and Tories had the seemingly similar agenda of loyalty to Great Britain, the details clearly separate the two. The Whigs loyalty was to what they considered the British national ideals and against the “misguided ministries” in power during that period. The Tories supported the same ideals despite the current policies. Essentially, the difference between the two parties was whether they believed that the actions of the British government still embodied the ideals that they clung to. Despite the contention regarding ministries, the Whigs were still adamant about their loyalty to the crown; Samuel Adams stated in a debate that with constitutional reform, the American loyalty, “to the British-imperial national ideal would remain true and undiminished.” In addition to Samuel Adams, a number of other historical patriot figures also supported loyalty to the British Empire. In one of his essays published in 1774 and 1775, John Adams used the term “national” to imply “the totality of British imperial society,” and his loyalty to it. These statements display the abundance of British nationalism expressed by the majority of colonists, which lasted until the country was on the doorstep of revolution in late 1775.

Published in 1962, Max Savelle’s “Nationalism and Other Loyalties in the American Revolution” falls victim to paying “considerably less attention to the darker face of national identity,” that T.H. Breen highlights. Without accounting for the exclusionary English nationalism during this time period, the outpouring of colonist loyalty to the British Empire loses context. These feelings were not expressed because of pride or nationalism but rather out of desperation to remain on equal footing with the rest of the British Empire. With this external motivation in mind, the previously minor distinction between the pre-revolution parties becomes a major one; it is likely that the Whigs’ support for loyalty was a necessity to achieve the equal footing with the English that would have been required to enact meaningful constitutional reforms.

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There are two crucial aspects of nationalism that need to be identified in this period in order to move forward with the claim of American nationalism. The first, which has already been addressed, is the colonial relationship with Great Britain. The second, and more important aspect, is the establishment of America as a separate and distinct entity in the minds of the people. The term “American” was not one of colonial invention; the term carried a negative context as “Englishmen began to identify the colonial population as ‘American’ persistently after 1763—a decade before Americans themselves did so.” Additionally, even with the colonies taking up arms against Great Britain, it should be noted that “the Declaration of Independence did not create an American nation, even in the minds of its signers.” This is a crucial observation that blatantly shows the lack of nationalistic motivation when declaring independence. The Declaration of Independence did have a unifying effect, as it joined the colonies together in their resistance, however these colonies were still “Free and Independent States.” Thus, it can be argued that because a nation did not yet even exist, the concept of nationalism was impossible. Despite the lack of possibility for nationalism, it can be argued that patriotism was still plausible.

One of the most polarizing issues of semantics in the modern world is the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Some categorize the words as synonyms, while others believe that nationalism has a negative, fascist context and that patriotism has a positive connotation. Regardless, of these stances, the crucial conclusion of this debate, relative to the American Revolution, is whether patriotism can exist without the existence of a country. Given that both sides of this modern debate believe that patriotism focuses on a set of ideals, it is possible that with this definition, patriotism did exist prior-to and during the revolution. Before the emergence of a national patriotism, there was state patriotism. Though this patriotism would later conflict with and delay the emergence of national patriotism, the emergence of state patriotism was essential for the unification of colonists in the fight against Great Britain. Savelle notes that without the existence of an identifiable national identity, the emergence of local patriotic feeling was “entirely natural.”

These localized instances of patriotism were united by “fervent loyalty [to] ‘the Cause.’” This cause was enough to unite the separate states for long enough for a sense of nationalism to begin to form. Savelle states that, while united and fighting for a common cause, the “mingling of New Englanders, southerners, and Middle State men…must have tended to dull the sharpness of state loyalty distinctions.” He concludes that this unified effort is ultimately what led to the development of American nationalism. Though nationalism may have eventually developed near the end of the war, its presence at the beginning was far from widespread, if present at all. Michael A. McDonnell’s “War and Nationhood: Founding Myths and Historical Realities” starkly opposes this picture that Savelle is painting. McDonnell states that “although some of these soldiers may have forged new and harmonious continental ties with their southern or northern compatriots, many, it seems, had their existing prejudices and suspicions reinforced.” This sectionalism resulted not in eventual nationalism, but in conflict between the various colonies. These conflicts of interest also extended outside of the Continental Army, with between 40 to 60 percent of the population remaining neutral through the war. With the majority of people not taking sides in the conflict, it can hardly be argued that the average colonist felt a strong sense of patriotism during the Revolutionary War.

As was made evident by President Trump’s speech at the United Nations, it is a commonly-held belief that the American people rose up together to fight for liberty. The main culprit behind the spreading of this misconception is George Bancroft’s History of the United States. Bancroft’s writing was heavily influenced by his Jacksonian principles, seeking to strengthen the perception of the common man during the Revolution. There are gross exaggerations in his history resulting from his “compulsion to create myths [being] stronger than the good resolutions of the scholar.” There were two primary effects of this compulsion that made permanent impacts on American historiography. The first of these is “the image of a wicked King.” While previous historians had explained the conflict as a disconnect between two powers, Bancroft described the war as “a conscious plan to subvert liberty” with George III having “’an antipathy to philosophical freedom.’” Though this creation of a hero vs. villain narrative results in misunderstandings and exaggerations, it is a somewhat prevalent theme of historians in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The second common misconception created by Bancroft was that the Acts of Trade and Navigation were major causes of the revolution. This view was biased by Bancroft’s personal political beliefs in low tariffs and a laissez-faire economy. Page Smith notes that “the historians of the eighteenth century made no distinction between fact and interpretation.” This is crucial for understanding how the modern narrative of the Revolution came into existence.

The presence or absence of patriotism in the American Revolution is largely dependent upon the historian and historiographical era. The conclusion seems to be changing every few decades, dependent upon the needs of the current political and social climate. With respect to Bancroft, his interpretation of historical events was “already serving the social needs and aspirations of an explosively expanding nation.” David Ramsay, one of the first to write a detailed history of the American Revolution, had an “absence of rancor against Great Britain.” Conversely, Bancroft’s writings zealously described the patriotism of the revolution, to the point of creating false narratives. Next, Arthur Schlesinger moved away from the hero-patriot stance to idolize the working class. In the historiographical eras from the 1960s and onward, the interpretations have moved back and forth countless times. Modern historians seem to have reached the general consensus that, despite some instances of patriotism, these were the minority and a strong sense of national pride did not exist until well after the Revolutionary period. This conclusion is supported by the fact that “the Founding Fathers looked ahead, rather than to history, to rally support for the new nation.” Had the Revolution truly been a case of colonists rising up as one to fight Great Britain, it would be a topic frequently utilized to unify the new country, rather than one that was avoided. This may also be why the historians who lived through the Revolution don’t tout patriotism and nationalism the same way that later historians do.

Despite the abundance of resources relating to the topic, there is no obvious answer to whether patriotism was commonplace leading up to and during the American Revolution. Despite the isolated stories of patriotism, such as the American sailors aboard Jersey or the service of Nathan Hale, there seems to be significantly more accounts of differing loyalties and ideals within the colonies during the Revolutionary period. Because of the quantity of evidence supporting the division of Americans rather than their unification, it can be tentatively concluded that patriotism was not a cause for the Revolution. Additionally, the timeline of events suggests that there was little, if any, patriotism at the start of the Revolution; widespread patriotism would not occur in America until the end of the Revolutionary War at the earliest. Because major disagreements between states continuously occurred well after the Treaty of Paris, it can be argued that localism persisted over nationalism until the signing of the American Constitution in 1789. Only once the war was won and the country was legitimized through the documentation of the Constitution could nationalism truly be found in the minds and hearts of the people.

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