Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World

By Nelson, Paul David | South Carolina Historical Magazine, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World


Nelson, Paul David, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World. Edited by Eliga H. Gould and Peter S. Onuf. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Pp. viii, 381; $49.95, cloth.)

This book, a collection of essays by historians of the American Revolution, sets the events of that war in a larger context than is usually the case. The writers seek to find explanations of the Republic's founding by challenging assumptions about the exceptionalism of the event, and by addressing questions from within and without the revolting American colonies. Under the able editorial supervision of Eliga H. Gould and Peter S. Onuf, the authors consider the Revolution on a global scale and use the methods of the new social history to shed light on issues that have been excluded by historians using earlier methodologies. The first third of the book discusses the reconstitution of the British Empire, from the end of the Seven Years' War to the conclusion of the Revolution. Eliga H. Gould writes that changes in British policy toward the colonies in the decade after 1763 were seen by London as enhancing American liberties-and world order-by enhancing imperial power. The colonists were not paranoid in believing these policy changes to be a deliberate attempt by British ministers to transform the empire. But, says David C. Hendrickson, the colonists disagreed with their British kinsmen on the meaning of the changes, concluding that the best way to ensure liberty and order was to decentralize power in a federation of American republics, while leaving the central government just enough power to preserve the union and conduct an effective foreign policy. These points were later codified by the rebellious Americans in their drafting of the Articles of Confederation.

Don Higginbotham comments that the military imperatives of the Revolutionary War shaped American statecraft in ways the revolutionaries themselves would not have dreamed of in 1776. Americans' need to defend their new republic compelled them to form a strong central government in 1787, even though they resisted becoming merely a copy of the centralized British Empire from which they had recently escaped. Richard Alan Ryerson notes that John Adams's understanding of British constitutional theory played a significant role in bringing about the empowerment of the centralized republican regime. Ellen Holmes Pearson describes the Americans' reception of William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), explaining how they tailored Blackstone's ideas to their particular states' needs in such a way as to avoid creation of a "federalized" common law.

The second third of the book discusses the transformation of society, politics, and culture in post-revolutionary America. Mary M. Schweitzer explains why people in different parts of the American backcountry reacted differently when asked to ratify the Constitution of 1787. Citizens in western Pennsylvania rejected the Constitution, because they believed it would be retrograde to their local liberties. …

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