The Causes of the American Revolution

By John C. Wahlke | Go to book overview

Charles M. Andrews: A NOTE ON THE ECONOMIC INTERPRETATION

Economic interpretations of the American Revolution, of which Louis Hacker's are the most notable, did not go long unchallenged. When Hacker's article "The First American Revolution"appeared in the Columbia University Quarterly ( 1935), Charles McLean Andrews, at Yale, was midway in the writing of his four-volume work, The Colonial Period of American History ( 1934- 1938). This excerpt, from Vol IV, is Andrews' critique of the economic interpretation.

WRITERS of the economic determinist school, who of late years have been reviving a faith in the economic interpretation of history and seeking a place in the historical sunshine, believe that the Revolution was either an attempt of "the American merchant and planter-capitalism" to obtain "release from the fetters of the English Mercantile System" ( Hacker, The First American Revolution and A Graphic History) or a movement "to free [ America] from the colonial ban upon her industries" ( Beard, A History of the Business Man).

These and other similar theses can be maintained only by a system of clever, ingenious, and seemingly plausible but really superficial manipulations of fact and logic in the interest of a preconceived theory; by generalizations based on the grouping of occasional and widely scattered data; and by dependence on the statements of secondary authorities -- statements frequently unfortified by proof and sometimes demonstrably untrue. Even Dr. Lipson, a writer not averse to an economic interpretation of history and one whose opinions the economic determinists are inclined to respect, is unable to accept these explanations and sums up the situation as follows.

The extent to which economic factors were responsible for the American Revolution cannot easily be measured. At first sight it is natural to attribute the disruption of England's first empire to a policy avowedly designed to make the oversea settlements "duly subservient and useful." Yet contemporary English opinion held that the colonies "felt the benefit more than the burden" of the Acts of Trade, and the view appears on the whole well-founded. Irksome as their disabilities may seem on paper, the working of the system was not unduly onerous in practice. It was modified by concessions such as those which enabled the colonies to carry on trade direct with southern Europe in certain "enumerated commodities," or it was evaded with the open connivance of the American authorities. This lax administration of the system helped to bring the authority and prestige of the mother country into disrepute; and habitual disregard for the laws of the parent state fostered a spirit of independence, which made any attempt at enforcement of the laws appear a gross act of tyranny. The efforts to suppress smuggling and administer the Acts of Trade with greater rigour, by substituting vice-admiralty courts for juries and employing the navy, were the more deeply resented because the colonies had grown accustomed to the latitude which alone made the Acts tolerable. Against their disabilities, real or nominal, must be set the reciprocal advantages which the colonies enjoyed in the shape of the protection, the credit and the market

____________________

From Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History, IV, with permission of the Yale University Press. Copyright, 1938, by the Yale University Press.

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