Introduction: What Started the American Revolution?
Do you ever hear a certain mantra repeated again and again until everyone seems to accept it as the fact of the matter, even if it’s not true?
The left repeated the lie that George W. Bush was an idiot again and again until everyone believed it; they left out the inconvenient truth that he went to Yale and was generally considered to be quite intelligent, if still a bad president later in life. Today, Civil War historians, amateur and professional, repeat the mantra that it was caused by slavery over and over again, leaving out the fact that states’ rights and tariffs were just as big of issues in the Southern mind as slavery, if not bigger.
And, most relevantly to this review of A Struggle for Power by Theodore Draper, you hear the line that the American Revolution was mainly caused by taxes and the British restrictions on migration to the Ohio River Valley. Some would have you believe that those are the things that started the American Revolution.
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A Struggle for Power by Theodore Draper is a book that demolishes that mantra about the American Revolution. Draper’s answer to “what started the American Revolution” is somewhat different than what the average American History historian would tell you. Although both taxes and British colonial policy are integral to Draper’s argument, his main point is that the revolution was instead a fight for power between the American colonists and the British Empire.
We had politically matured and believed that we had the right to to govern ourselves, whereas the British wanted to rule from afar, so the fight over which side had power naturally followed. That’s Draper’s view, at least, and it is one that I now agree with. After reading this summary and analysis of A Struggle for Power, perhaps you will agree.
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Summary of A Struggle for Power
A Struggle for Power by Theodore Draper is an excellent, heavily researched book about what he, Draper, perceives to be the guiding force that led to the American Revolution: a struggle for power between the colonists and their British overlords.
As I suggested in my introduction, all the usual suspects of the American Revolution are present. Taxes, the Stamp Act, the Trade and Navigation Acts and the renewed British intention to enforce them, British colonial policy about settling western lands, and the disappearance of salutary neglect after the end of the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years War) are all included in A Struggle for Power. And Draper does not just mention them; they are central to his argument.
However, his argument is novel in that, unlike L.H. Gipson’s The Coming of the Revolution, the taxes, trade acts, or other aspects of British colonial policy are the starting point of his argument about what started the American Revolution rather than the end of that argument. In his view, they symbolize a struggle for power between the colonists and their British overlords.
His evidence for that is mainly what the political leaders of the American Revolution, generally those we consider to be our Founding Fathers, said about the British policies with which they disagreed.
When discussing the Stamp Acts, British enforcement of the long-standing Trade and Navigation Acts, British attempts to control colonial migration to the western lands gained in the French and Indian War, and other spats between the imperial British and the American colonists, our Founding Fathers generally did not approach the issues by saying that the taxes or restrictions would be unbearable. Higher taxes are bad for the economy, yes, but the taxes the British were enacting were hardly confiscatory tax rates like we now have. In fact, they were quite reasonable, especially considering how much the British were spending to protect the colonies.
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Instead, the Founders and other American political theorists were concerned about and focused on the power aspect of the British imposing taxes, as Draper describes in A Struggle for Power. Their arguments about internal and external taxation, what power the Crown and Parliament had in the colonies, and other issues instead stemmed from their opinion that the colonies had a right to govern themselves and that internal taxation, far from being merely a revenue-gathering scheme, was mainly a problem because it meant that the British had power in the colonies.
Similarly, when the British passed the Coercive Acts or Declaratory Act, they mainly did so as a definitive statement that they were the ones with the power, not the Americans. According to the research and citations Draper presents, the taxes passed by the British never were going to raise much revenue. They were more about Parliament’s power in America than any real attempt to gather a substantial amount of revenue from the colonies.
So, in A Struggle for Power, Draper’s main argument is that the colonists and British were really in a struggle for power that generally started around the end of the French and Indian War and came to a head in 1774 and 1775 in Boston, the hotbed of colonial resentment and political theory.
In his view, both the British and Americans perceived the problem as one of power and were fighting over who had the power to govern the American colonies. While taxes, restrictions, and other policies were issues for both sides, they were issues not because of their practical effect, other than perhaps the most severe of the restrictions in the Coercive Acts, but rather because they represented power.
To prove his point, Draper uses speeches and writings from colonial political leaders as diverse as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry, speeches and writings from British political leaders like Lord North and Edmund Burke, and, perhaps most convincingly, data about the actions of the colonists.
That data shows that whenever the British passed an act or new regulation, colonists did their utmost to disobey it, whether the British enforced it or not. We kept smuggling when they cracked down on it, created new forges for the manufacture of iron and steel because the British said we couldn’t, and our state legislatures refused to allocate money for the salaries of British colonial governors and other officials mainly because the British government demanded that we do so. Colonial pushback and refusals to conform were caused by the disagreement over power, not by the actual content of the regulations
That evidence is a central piece of Draper’s argument in A Struggle for Power that colonial disobedience was not caused by the practical effects of British edicts, but rather because the colonists and Brish officials were in a struggle for power.
Finally, Draper uses an immense span of time and range of events to prove his thesis in A Struggle for Power. Beginning with the privileges granted in the original 17th Century British colonial charters and ending with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Draper uses events over time to show how American political thought changed as the French were pushed off of North America and as the colonies grew in population and political maturity.
That allows him to conclusively show in A Struggle for Power that in case after case, as Americans matured politically and had less fear of the French, they conceived of their relationship with Britain mainly as one of a struggle for power in the colonies rather than as a mutually beneficial relationship. That change in colonial thought and the actions that resulted of it is what, in Draper’s view, began the American Revolution; we were in a fight for power and representation, not a dispute about taxes.
My Thoughts on A Struggle for Power
A Struggle for Power covers a wide span of time and variety of taxes, regulations, and descriptions of British colonial governance. So, it is longer than some other books about the American Revolution that I have recently reviewed. But, because all the evidence and detail Draper presents in A Struggle for Power is used to prove his thesis, the book does not seem all that long. Instead, it is a convincing and relatively quick read that might change your views of what started the American Revolution.
I, for one, had my mind changed by Draper’s arguments. I came in to reading A Struggle for Power by Theodore Draper with the thought that the American Revolution began because of British policy and taxes. While that line of thinking about what started the American Revolution is by no means wrong, it is, according to Draper, incomplete.
It is incomplete because, as you probably gleaned from my summary of A Struggle for Power, those issues and disagreements over colonial policy were only the visible aspects of a struggle over which side had power. The colonists thought that they and their state legislatures were responsible for passing laws in America and creating and collecting taxes. On the other hand, the British thought that they, as the mother country, were the ones with the power. The disagreements and the fight that followed were a result of that basic difference of opinion over which side had the power, not the substance of the laws in question.
In my opinion, the thesis of A Struggle for Power about what started the American Revolution is a much better and more complete depiction that the one that is usually presented.
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I was always confused about why the colonists were so upset over a small tax that they would riot and risk their lives, liberty, and fortunes to fight against that tax. Sure, as a libertarian-leaning young conservative, I hate taxes as much as the next guy, if not more so. But a small tax on goods that only affected a small portion of the population does not really seem like a reason to launch a continent-wide revolution that killed tens of thousands of men that had been countrymen a few short years earlier.
The heroic events in Washington’s Crossing or His Excellency: George Washington, for example, could not be explained by a small tax on paper or a law about importing tea that actually lowered the cost of tea for the average person! I could not comprehend why, other than as a matter of principle, Americans would be so furious about those taxes that they would revolt against a superpower.
However, the idea that what started the Revolution was not those taxes but instead a deep-seated and irreconcilable difference over which side had the power to govern does make sense. Sovereignty and the desire to be governed by one’s peers and countrymen rather than an imperialistic foreign power is a believable spark for revolution.
It’s why the French Resistance was willing to take on the Nazis, why the Afghan mujaheddin were willing to take horrific casualties but keep fighting against the invading Soviets, and perhaps why the Iraqi resistance to our troops was so severe and brutal.
A Struggle for Power bridges that gap between raising taxes and revolting because it pins the blame over what started the American Revolution on a disagreement over which side had the power to govern and with which governing body (Parliament or state legislatures) that power rested, rather than on the taxes themselves.
On a separate note, I found A Struggle for Power to make a compelling argument because of the research Theodore Draper presents in it. Every page, other than perhaps a handful, have a number of citations so that the reader can see from what sources Draper is drawing evidence for his arguments. The best argument or thesis is useless if it is not supported. That’s the whole point of using logic and reasoning. Draper ensures that his arguments in A Struggle for Power are compelling and believable by using an appropriate amount of research to back them up.
And what wonderful and varied sources he uses! Books from The Wealth of Nations to works by L.H. Gipson are cited, as are primary source documents from both the colonies and Great Britain, and modern scholarly sources about what started the American Revolution and research into the acts passed by the British.
Because all of the research he presents is supportive of his argument despite coming from a wide array of people, time periods, and types of sources, I found A Struggle for Power to be a very compelling and enlightening read.
Draper’s thesis about what started the American Revolution and the research he uses to support that thesis is what makes A Struggle for Power a book about early America that you should read. That is the essence of what I thought about A Struggle for Power.
Conclusion: What Started the American Revolution? A Struggle for Power between Great Britain and America
I think that A Struggle for Power is a book that needs to be required reading. Even if the whole thing is not read, just reading selected passages from it could prove enlightening to students of the American Revolution. It, better than many other books I have read, settles the question of what started the American Revolution.
Our Founding Fathers and their countrymen were not greedy men that revolted and fought a war because they wanted to avoid paying a small tax on certain goods. Rather, they were imbued with courage and revolted against the greatest superpower on Earth because they felt that they were being ruled unjustly. Sovereignty is precious, and by the early 1770s, many in America were convinced that they had the right to govern themselves.
There were other factors, of course. The taxes were unpopular and, regardless of colonial representation in Parliament, perceived to be unjust. The replacement of salutary neglect with a much more intrusive British government infuriated the colonists. And heated rhetoric from both sides prevented tempers from receding cooling off and cooler heads prevailing and keeping the peace.
But, at the root of it all, the root of what caused the Founding Fathers to begin the world anew, was a struggle for power. A fight over the basic essence of which governing body had the right to govern in America. That disagreement is what, in Draper’s view in A Struggle for Power, is what started the American Revolution. Now that I’ve read A Struggle for Power and have seen the remarkable amount of evidence within it, I think I agree with Draper. A small tax did not start the American Revolution and lead to the creation of the American Republic. A struggle for power did.
And that is why you need to order and read A Struggle for Power. I know a recommend a large number of books and just came out with a list of books that conservatives should read. But, if you want to understand the origins of our nation, as all good Americans should, then you should read A Struggle for Power. It is long and, at times, dense. But it will expand your mind and show you what started the American Revolution.
By: Gen Z Conservative
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