Drift to Independence and War of Independence

There cannot be a more disruptive scenario than for a colonial policy system to leave the Mother Country. That is as true for Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts–the three colonies chosen for observation in this history. For this history, this is the transition into the Early Republic period–the time frame studied in this volume. This Virginia chapter is longer and more detailed as I hope it will serve as the general background to the reader on the events and dynamics of this period. I will refer to these events and dynamics in future chapters, but will assume the reader, if appropriate, can return to clarify and contextualize the experience of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. This will help to concentrate on how the three colonies-states made it through the transition from colony to state, and to focus on the unique or distinctive elements incorporated from the colonial past to the Early Republic future.

In the next three modules (module-series) we will as we discuss Virginia’s drift to independence (1754 to 1775). In this intro module in the drift to Independence module-series the general background and context will apply to other other colonies as well. In the case of the United States, independence required a complete change in the nature of the policy system, from a monarchy to a democracy. True, the American colonies had all adopted democratic elections to the colonial legislature, but the character of the electoral franchise among colonies varied, and the nature of the legislature, was it sovereign or a subsidiary of the British Crown or Parliament, was fundamental to its structure and purpose.

The four modules in this “drift to Independence and War” module series are this one “Background, Context, and the Most Important Question–the Interrupted Revolution and Elites and Masses”. The second module explains in detail the implications of the Interrupted Revolution and it reveals how the colonial policy systems had effectually bifurcated during the “drift period” int an eastern core policy system and a western periphery policy system. The argument is made that the former, dominated by the longstanding economic and political elites of the colony’s (eastern) policy system controlled events, more importantly policy-making and land ownership to some degree at the expense of the western non-elites who had not been effectively integrated into the core policy system during the drift period. This is the initial foray intro to the phenomenon we define as populism. The third module concentrates on the Virginia planter elite response to events in the drift period–and the reasons why–and a major in depth prequel to our opening modules on George Washington. The fourth module in the drift series is the case study of the North Carolina War of Regulation, a case study which implicitly and explicitly contrasts Virginia with her immediate neighbor, North Carolina. It will also serve as a bridge to future chapters on the founding of the first trans-Appalachian Early Republic states: Kentucky and Tennessee. Finally, the fifty module in the drift series will detail Virginia’s distinctive reaction to the specific events in the drift period–leading to the 1775 formation of Virginia’s Revolutionary War era policy system–which will endure unchanged until the 1830’s.

Independence meant a constitution had to be developed and approved. That will start a second module-series on the Revolutionary War/pre-1800 Early Republic Virginia policy system which will conclude the Virginia chapter.

The Distinctive Path from Colonial to Early Republic: the birth of the thirteen American states.

Each of the colonies traveled down its own path to independence, war, and democracy. They shared several dynamics, in varying degrees of course, but they each made their own choices, at their own pace. In the following modules, it may be some surprise to the reader that Virginia was a leader in independence, war and democracy. It was the most populous of the thirteen colonies, and the oldest. In many ways, it was the least democratic–despite the fame associated with its House of Burgesses. If ever there was a ruling elite that established its hegemony by electoral manipulation, excluding consciously those it didn’t want to participate, Virginia was at the head of the line. Yet they led the drive to form the Articles of Confederation, not a democracy a loose government of thirteen sovereign states in a war of independence. That is the prime focus of this module. How did Virginia arrive at that decision? What factors and dynamics led it to fight for its independence in a war against a King they supported, and a political-social system that they went to great pains, including forming a supportive political culture, to imitate? Somewhere along the road, something went wrong; Virginia at first glance ought not to have done this, and certainly not to have been the colony that arguably pressed the hardest for that decision.

What makes this drift to independence interesting, to me at least, is how abrupt and expeditious that drift was–for all states. In 1754 it is no exaggeration to assert that independence, certainly war with Britain, was on anybody s agenda or wish list. By 1773 it was on everybody’s–and the sequence of actions and events that followed in the next two years drove each colony in its way and pace to the threshold of war and independence. The best clue why that abrupt change was that the first decade of this tumultous period was a war with France, the French and Indian War. It was only when that war was over, 1763-4, that the drift, actually drive, to independence seriously began. In essence, a decade after the French and Indian War the thirteen colonies were well advanced in their drive to independence and war. That war had to have had a great effect on changing the American agenda.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not a simple story of taxes without representation and white people dressed as Indians dumping tea in Boston harbor. That simple story is what we tell our young children, or to those too bored to care. Things were a lot more complicated–and remember each colony drifted to independence and war at its own pace and path. Do not expect that what we describe as happening in Virginia, happened similarly in Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. The trigger events may have been shared, but not the reaction or the pace; the people involved in each colony were different as were their background and personalities. They also wanted different things in varying priorities. The United States that followed in 1789 was our best compromise regarding those different things and varying priorities.

A World Turned Upside Down: the Impact of the French and Indian War

Let’s be crystal clear: it was Virginia that started the French and Indian War. Whether global politics and economics and the personalities of kings brought England and France to the threshold of war, I leave to others. But the trigger that started the war was Virginia, and the man who pulled the trigger was a young twenty-one year old George Washington. Virginia’s Royal Governor Dinwiddie loaded Washington’s gun, and the Virginia Ohio Company may have pointed it in the direction of Ohio and France–but it was Washington that got us into the War of Jenkin’s Ear (the Seven Years War), as far as I am concerned. What in God’s name was Washington doing a few miles south of Lake Erie? Why did he eventually build a fort, Fort Necessity in downtown Pittsburgh? A commentator of the time, Voltaire commented upon receipt of the news that Washington had surrendered Fort Necessity to the French “Such was the complication of political interests that a cannon shot fired in America could give the signal that set Europe in a blaze[1]

A war that consumed the better part of a decade, a very expensive war, with lots of Americans drafted or volunteering for militia service, produced a victory for the English and the colonists–a victory that effectively removed their greatest threat and fear, Catholic France, from North America. Of that much we can be sure. That within twelve years the American Revolution, launched by thirteen colonies, was also an undisputed reality. How are these seeming facts and undisputed realities related? Is the relationship salient to our economic development, bottoms-up history of the American Republic?

It is impossible to ignore these questions as it is the twelve years that passed between the two events. As far as “birthing” a new nation, a twelve year pregnancy seems awfully short.

To the extent we think about these questions at all, today most of us probably agree the answer revolves around how Great Britain treated the colonies after its 1763 victory over the French.  The colonies were “driven into a war for independence because the British launched after 1763 what amounted to a zero-sum clash between American liberty and British sovereignty over the colonies. Jefferson saw it this way, for example, in his work “Causes and Necessities” in which he explains why the colonies drifted toward independence–and war–during the period previous to 1775. Summarized by Joseph Ellis, Causes and Necessities” the period as:

Before 1763 the empire was harmonious and healthy … Then all of a sudden “the [British] ministry finding all the foes of Britain subdued took up the unfortunate idea of subduing her friends also. … The colonists are innocent bystanders being acted on by an aggressive British government. The political conflict invariably takes the form of a moral dichotomy … The key feature was the apparent extremism  of the contrast between American virtue and British corruption, which itself depended upon the implicit presumption that sinister forces were conspiring in London’s faraway corridors of power to deprive unsuspecting colonists of their liberties [2] 

This line of thinking was consistent with much of Jefferson’s approach to politics. It would reappear in the early 1790’s in his dispute with Washington/Hamilton and the Federalist Tribe. But the key is that America was driven into independence to preserve is god-given liberties and right of self-government. A simple listing and description of post-1763 British enactments is all that is necessary to explain how in July 1776 delegates from the thirteen colonies signed a Declaration of Independence. From our perspective that story line seems plausible, but the British plausibly counter the War was fought to defend the colonies from the French, and they should pay their fair share of its exceedingly high expenses.

The response to that observation, however, opens the door and reveals dynamics latent within Jefferson’s argument: that response argues the colonies, its individual citizens, have the Englishman’s right to representation in the decisions that involve the colonies, i.e no taxation without representation–and that implies some level of colonial right of self-government. The none too obvious reality, however, was that few Englishmen possessed the electoral franchise in 1776, and that English democracy itself was in an exceedingly pre-modern distinctly rudimentary level, even compared to several American colonies. American colonists were demanding a democracy the typical Englishman did not have–and that raises the notion that after the French and Indian War American colonial expectations were on a radically separate course than those of the British government and the King.

Freed of the French threat, it seems colonials determined they had a right to their own policy agenda, separate, distinct and often diametrically opposed to their Mother Country. When the Brits did not respond favorably to that agenda, of course, Americans had the right to resist and assert their own demands to Parliament.That these notions of a separate identity, self-government, policy agenda, and a different level of civil and political liberties instantly arose with the signing of a peace treaty and end of a war strains my credibility. I suspect these notions had been long in the making–and as we examine each of the colonies, we will see evidence that supports a more than one hundred year development of a “separate identity”–a notion that could only gather momentum when the colonies became saturated with German, Huguenot, Scots-Irish and whatever other ethnic immigration poured into our ports of entry. That this separate identity was a consensus among Americans, is itself challenged by the great numbers of Loyalists that resisted the Revolution, and the large numbers that left the victorious United States in the aftermath after Yorktown and the Peace of 1783. From their perspective, the Revolution bordered on a Civil War.

That colonial agriculture, trade, and manufacturing should not compete with that of the Mother Country–but instead should support or subsidize the latter–only added the tension generated by colonial self-interest arising from its economic base. If one accepts this, the pregnancy for the birth of our nation was very much longer than the twelve years after the French and Indian War. Without the threat of France, the thirteen colonies could more likely survive on their own. From that point on their relationship with their Mother Country changed, so had colonial expectations and identity.

the More Important Question

The most important question is not why our drift to independence was unleashed after the War–but is rather “what” was unleashed. The question “what” has dominated much of the literature generated by historians of the Revolution, and the answer(s) to that question are vitally central to the type of policy system arising out of the Revolution–and the policy outputs (economic development) these systems produced. In fact, one might hint that the two wings of American economic development (Mainstream ED and Community Development) relate to the “what”, and equally important, the “what not” that was created by the Revolution in the thirteen colonies. Simply (if not crudely) did the drift to independence and the Revolution involve a social revolution, a political revolution–or which we are vitally interested in, an economic revolution. The answers to that question have cycled through the generations of historians since the Revolution itself.

Pauline Maier presents in her From Resistance to Revolution a brief historiography of that two century debate [3]. Acknowledging she is a partisan in this historical debate, Maier boils the debate down into “modern” “take away”.

a ‘Progressive’ story of a revolutionary struggle, not only against Britain, but for power within America, one that pitted wealthy ‘conservatives’ against poor and often disenfranchised ‘radicals” ….the ‘Mob’ according to Progressive writers, radicals had supposedly created during the Stamp Act (1765) crisis turned out to have had deep roots in the colonial … and English, past…. (T)he ‘old colonial mob’ (however) did not disappear with Independence …[Rather] it survived and left its mark on the history of the United States [4] 

Simply put, there were two revolutions that developed in the 1765-1775 decade. The first, the radicals and their Mob, and a second, the wealthy conservatives–who Maier argues “won” and as winners do, wrote the history of the Revolution. The “Founding Fathers” are the wealthy conservatives, and to them we supposedly owe our Constitution (minus, I would add, the Bill of Rights). Essentially, the early resistance was generated by radical “populist” activists, who mobilized their Mob following in a radical social, economic and political revolution, not just a war of independence. The radicals and the mob activated the wealthy conservatives, splitting them into two groups, our Loyalists and those that wanted a separate self-governance of the colonies, a political or limited revolution. The latter with greater resources and access to to the levers of government and dialogue with the British moved throughout the decade, in response largely to a series of objectionable British government legislation to a position where by 1776 a national independence movement was launched by the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia. Say it another way, the Continental Congresses seized “control”, i.e. leadership over the comprehensive colonial revolutionary movement, to which the activists and Mob joined. The social and economic agendas of the radicals and the Mob had seemingly been put aside in a forlorn struggle for independence.

An unexpected and remarkable victory over Britain resulted. The 1783 Peace Treaty legitimized a weak federation of thirteen separate  and sovereign colonies, renamed “states”, that had conducted the war, so to speak, and like the proverbial dog that chased the car–and caught it–was left to govern it. The states during this period each followed the path of politics preeminent in that state, with each state accordingly creating its own policy system. These state policy systems enacted state constitutions, which either the activists and their Mob dominated and/or wrote, or were shaped to some degree by the Founding Father wealthy conservatives. The first wave of American state constitutions as a whole reflected the debate and confrontation between wealthy conservative establishment (Founding Fathers) and the “populist” radicals and their deplorables–we, the reader might notice have substituted contemporary labels to replace the colonial monikers.

The Articles never stood a chance of surviving the vicissitudes of global politics, or of economic competition. Between 1783 and 1787  several populist uprisings augured a re-intensified populist movement with a radical economic, social and political agenda–that scared the hell out of the wealthy conservatives. In a matter of four years a Constitutional Convention was called, called for by people like Washington and Madison, Hamilton and a ton of Founding Fathers. They wrote and secured approval for our Constitution in 1789. That Constitution was approved only after a compromise had been reached with “Anti-Federalists”, a loose and varied coalition of wealthy, really conservative Founding Fathers, and their allied populists. Uniting around a common political and economic agenda embraced by a political tribe that called themselves “Federalists”, they envisioned among other matters, a strong and active national government. From the perspective of the radicals and populists, their revolution had been “interrupted”. Once again, the wealthy conservatives had seized control over the commanding heights of politics and economy, and had limited the scope of the larger revolutionary movement. From 1789 to 1800 these Federalists held an increasingly fragile hold on the the national government, losing control over most state governments. In 1801 they lost control over the national government.


Where are we going with this “Interrupted Revolution” Thing:

An Optional Insight into the Future of the Early Republic Policy System Evolution as it Copes with the Interrupted Revolution

We have earlier argued the War was the result of two major “movements”: a popular, mass anomic, volatile, egalitarian reaction that fed and developed into resistance “associations” such as the Sons of Liberty and Non-Importation Associations; and, an wealth-propertied (elite) movement that was much more tempered, prone to negotiation, and focused more tightly on economic than political rights. The issue of enormous consequence to our economic development history, and even more so to American history, was that the latter, with more resources and an insider tract on the established dominant colony policy system and economic base, were able to seize “control” of the “commanding heights” of the overall “Patriot” movement. This gave rise to the nation of the “interrupted revolution”–that will dog our history at least to the Civil War. It will also spur the development of two distinct approaches to how and why Americans can and should conduct state and local economic development. That story and its path is a dominant theme of this volume.

The drift to Independence and War resulted in the formation of colony-level confederation, the Articles of Confederation. The Articles asserted, but only marginally assumed, responsibility for negotiations, the Declaration of Independence and the conduct of the War that followed. That the first movement, the popular anomic movement, ever identified with the national confederation is a matter for conjecture, but it is clear that colony, now state, level policy systems did. To meaningfully access the Confederation, one went through the newly-founded revolutionary state policy systems and their delegates. That obviously favored the leaders of the second movement who enjoyed prime access.

From the Declaration onward, the second movement was in charge–and their leadership, our Founding Fathers, Leaders of the first movement, Patrick Henry, Ethan Allen, Sam Adams, Thomas Paine–and many others including George Mason– have been reduced to “quotes in history books”, dismissed from future discussion as to their role in our history. As the reader shall discover, the leaders of the first movement did not “fade away”; they were important, and highly impactful players in their state/local governments, and in our economic development history. They will one day rise to national power, less in 1801 than in 1828–but that is another story we shall later tell.

Both movements shared a concern with taxes, but that concern seemed more rooted on who imposed those taxes for what purposes (qui bono). Taxation was almost always linked to representation, and that triggered the issue of colonial self-government versus the superiority of Parliament over colonial legislatures. As also observed by Wood, both movements came together under the common “Patriot” label, lending considerable credence to our belief that Americans had long since decided they were Americans, whatever that meant. That Patriot transcended colony/state policy systems South Carolina Patriots could meet with equal standing with Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Patriots. Loyalists, of course, were self-defined. Patriot were zero-sum labels. In this context, “America: Love It or Leave It” was very real and apt slogan.

The Declaration of Independence proved to be both a trigger event, the end of negotiations and the commencement of a war of independence. The Continental Army became the visible expression of that, and its commander became a charismatic personification of America’s determination to become a sovereign nation, apart from Great Britain. Much more than the Articles of Confederation, the Army was the symbol of national unity that united both movements into a more coherent whole. As to state governments, they held the loyalties of most of the Patriots that resided in their state, and they became the primary level of policy-making throughout the Articles period. The 1789 Early Republic Constitution challenged the primary role of the states, almost by definition, with notions of a strong(er) national government. Since 1789, long after we left the Early Republic period, the role of the national government versus the state government has been a fault line of American politics, political culture, and economic development policy-making. Two hundred and fifty years later, there appears little consensus on the role of the states in our system, and their relationship to national government–a lot of rhetoric and assertions of “fact and truth” perhaps, but not consensus. Each of us as individuals may have made our “peace” with what we think the Revolution and the American Republic was and is–but there is little to no consensus that is sustainable above that individual determination and definition.

Our history centers on state and local government, and the effect of their political culture on economic development policy-making. In the period we are describing in this chapter, there is no strong national government. The states were colonies of the British Empire, and then in the Revolutionary Era they were independent sovereign states who had joined in a common Articles of Confederation to fight and upon victory “coordinate” the interrelations of the thirteen sovereign nations. The interlude between English colony and the United States of America (1789) was about fifteen years. That period is a sort of limbo, a period of neither “here nor there” in most of our histories and for all practical purposes it is a faint and distant memory in the perceptions of most Americans today. As the reader hopefully will see, this period proved highly impactful in the formation of our present day states and local governments. In this module we are entering into the period, the political limbo, in which colonies transformed themselves into independent states, and then into a sovereign nation composed of co-sovereign states.

It is the period in which they were “born” as sovereign entities who governed themselves. The initial state constitutions of the thirteen states were written in this political limbo–and several are still in effect. These constitutions were copied by the thirty-seven states that followed, and the constitutions they copied, and the specifics of what they copied were deeply impacted by the migrations from the thirteen states. The people in these migrations “socialized” the new states into the patterns and structures they had experienced in the initial home state. This is logical because most of the home states had been around as colonies for literally a hundred to one-hundred and fifty years previously. As the reader plods through these modules in this and the chapters that follow, it ought be kept in mind the states were effectively sovereign and independent nations in the own right. The are the center of gravity in economic development policy-making, politics in general, and each state exercised its own foreign policy–which until 1789 was conducted through the Articles of Confederation, but before that, until independence from England was achieved in 1783, each state had their own ambassadors to England or France–and their own relationships one on one with the British King, Parliament and the colonial Board of Trade.

Each state had a unique colonial period and when the home state wrote their respective revolutionary era state constitutions they decided what of that colonial experience, heritage and structures they wanted to bring into the brave new democracy they were creating. As we shall discover in this chapter and the several that follow in Part 1, most states simply incorporated much of their distinct colonial experience into the new revolutionary war state constitutions. Local government, its structures and its relationship to the state government, in particular was a hard reality that constitution writers were not about to reorganize and reconstruct. For the most part they just left it alone and built it into the new state constitution.

What this module series will begin do is introduce the reader to the 1760 to 1789 reality that the English colonies immediately during the “drift to Independence and War”, 1763 to about 1776, were badly integrated as a coherent government. The western “counties and towns” of each state were usually newly settled at the time of the Revolution, town and urban centers were minuscule if they existed at all. Most western counties were under Native American influence and often attack. Almost impossible to get to (it meant crossing the state’s version of the Appalachians, in a safe. comfortable and timely fashion, the western geographies of each state were very minimally governed. As we shall develop in these chapters, they were remarkably pretty much on their own, with separate “frontier” economic bases, and the most rudimentary of local governments. Equally important, they had been recently “settled” by what amount to “hordes” of new ethnic immigrants recently arrived in America. The residents of the western counties were often ethnically, religiously, and culturally different from the residents of the coastal established colony. The new western residents had their own version of the American Dream, untainted by over one hundred and fifty years of eastern colonial experience.

They were all “future Americans” but western residents were by no means clones of the colony’s East. The lived in two different worlds, and to complicate matters the West was governed by the elites and government institutions of the East, who as we shall also discover, were not especially sensitive to, or even in agreement with, the hopes, fears, and policy expectations. It is easy for us today to think of Americans on the eve of the American Revolution as “one big happy family” determined to overthrow tyranny, and set up the modern world’s first democracy. They weren’t. Like most families, they were dysfunctional and when they got together in one room, they quarreled. As we shall discover, East and West of each colony-state drifted into independence and fought the Revolutionary War wanting different things, and for different reasons. This we shall discover affected their constitution-writing, because the initial state constitutions were mostly written by elites from the East. It is a complicated story that will unfold through Part 1, but geography played a big role in Early American policy-making and the East-West schism seriously affected the making of economic development policy–even way back in 1760. More importantly, it also affected state-local and national-state policy-making and partisanship.

This period is both pre-capitalist and pre-industrial. America’s first true factory open up in 1791-4. We were an agricultural society with ninety percent or so of Americans tied to the land and agriculture. The proletariat, the pre-Marxian proletariat (Marx wrote in the 1860’s) were farmers of some type. Most of the elites, certainly in the South where Virginia lie, were also (plantation) farmers. Residents in the western counties of each colony were almost exclusively farmers, homestead, subsistence or yeoman farmers. In the East by the 1770’s a wealthy elite had evolved, and it dominated the politics and policy-making of the colony government, and often the local government as well. What the yeoman farmers and the wealthy eastern elites shared, and quarreled over, was how to participate in the dominant economic base of that period, agriculture. The chief unit of that economic base was the parcel of land; to farm and live one, to reside and use as the individual entry into the dominant economic base of that time.

Say it another way, the initial nexus of American economic development strategy-making involved land. Land acquisition and development was the first American economic development strategy as we entered the modern world. Land was the midwife of our birth as a profession and policy area.




[1] Virginius Dabney, Virginia: the New Dominion (University Press of Virginia, 1971), pp. 108-9

[2] Joseph Ellis, American Spinx:the Character of Thomas Jefferson (Vintage, 1996) pp. 48-9

[3] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution : Colonial radicals and the development of American opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (2nd Ed) (W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), “Introduction to the Norton Paperback”, v-xiii)

[4] Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, pp. vi-vii.