The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents

While it was happening, no one named it the “American Revolution.” The British mentioned the American uprising. Those protesting in the colonies simply referred to it as “the Cause” and argued they were not participating in a revolution. The topic of whether it was a true revolution is still debated today.

In his delightfully readable The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783, Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities, and events of the American Revolution from the perspectives of both England and the colonists. Ellis gives vivid portrayals of and insightful insights into this period in history while challenging our conventional understandings of it, using rigorous study.

According to Ellis, the defining concern for the British was power, not money. The colonies were taxed in order to create parliamentary sovereignty, not to pay off the debt they had amassed during the Seven Years’ War. After all, trading with the American colonies was profitable for Britain, and any taxing policy that jeopardized that connection would have been too costly.

Those early colonial Americans also possessed a conservative disposition, contrary to popular belief. The British, in their opinion, were more revolutionary than they were. By taxing colonists without their agreement, Britain was causing revolutionary change, and no American representative to the First Continental Congress argued for independence.

Similarly, John Trumbull’s iconic painting “The Declaration of Independence” shows a non-existent event. The initial version was written by Thomas Jefferson alone, but Congress made 85 specific changes to Jefferson’s draft, modifying or eliminating slightly more than 20% of the text. On July 4, the final version was given to the printer, who stamped that date on the published version. Although there was no single signing day, the majority of delegates signed it on August 2.

By the end of the war, the majority of Americans believed that establishing a nation-state constituted a betrayal of the Cause. Among others, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were outliers, not leaders of the majority.

This engrossing, highly recommended book by one of America’s foremost historians will alter your perspective on the American Revolution.

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