The Reluctant Revolutionaries

The American Revolution, which officially began this week (July 4) in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, has been called a conservative revolution when compared with, say, the French Revolution of the 1780s or the Russian Revolution of 1917.   In the latter two cases, fiery radicals fought to seize power from a sovereign ruler, while in America’s revolution conservative property owners fought to regain powers they believed were theirs by right as self-governing Englishmen.

There is much truth to this argument, which is not to say there weren’t radicals in America in the 1770s; there were, many of them publishing incendiary pamphlets, organizing violent protests or, as in the case of the Boston Tea Party, destroying British property.  Certainly men such as Sam Adams, sometimes called America’s first terrorist, were radicals, and Boston in particular and Massachusetts in general were hotbeds of ideologues calling for revolution and independence from Great Britain.

But the American Revolution never would have succeeded were it not for the decision by many moderates, mostly from the middle colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, to join their more radical brethren in rebelling against British rule.

In most cases, these men did so only after carefully reviewing the pros and cons of breaking with the mother country—and there were many cons.  Unlike Puritan New England and the slave-holding South, whose economies were mostly agricultural, the middle colonies, located along the Atlantic seaboard, had developed successful businesses based on trade with Great Britain, and they also were dependent upon capital invested by Great Britain.   In other words, good Anglo-American relations were critical to the economies of the middle colonies.  These middle colonies also understood that the British presence in America protected them from other foreign powers, Spain in particular, as well as the unfriendly Indian tribes on their frontier.

These moderates also knew that war with Britain not only meant the end of this mutually beneficial relationship, it also meant that if America lost the war—a very real possibility given that Britain was then the world’s mightiest military power—it would not just be the radicals, but these moderates as well, who would lose their property, their livelihoods and quite possibly their lives.

So why did the moderates join?  At first because they hoped that a unified front of defiance would convince the British that war with the colonies was indeed possible and that it would be as harmful to Britain’s economic interests as to America’s.  When that failed, and when the threat to their rights and liberties became manifest, they realized that no other outcome except war and independence was possible.   More in sorrow than in anger these moderates became revolutionaries.