A kinder, gentler Revolution?

We’ve reached that point in the term when my classes are studying the Age of Revolutions, specifically the American and French ones.  One benefit of trying to teach all of history in one fell swoop is that you get to compare far-flung events with each other.  Because they fit together both chronologically and topically, most world history texts treat these two upheavals together.

The American Revolution, so we’re told, was a pretty civil affair in which small armies came together to swap volleys from time to time, but otherwise there were no great shake-ups of the sort that happened in Europe, where huge citizen armies raged across the continent and the guillotine did a brisk business.

Personally, I’ve always wondered if the American Revolution might have been somewhat closer to its French counterpart than we often assume.  During a seminar in grad school, a classmate of mine once raised the question of why there was no reign of terror during the American Revolution.  I responded with another question: What about the Loyalists?  If you were a Tory militiaman captured by rebel partisans and facing summary execution, or a pro-British property owner who’d just had his property sequestered and been driven out of town, or a royal officeholder about to be tarred and feathered, you probably wouldn’t have agreed that the American Revolution was a cakewalk.  The end result of being fitted with a Patriot rope is pretty much the same as getting dragged to the guillotine, as far as the person on the business end is concerned, even if people in the latter category vastly outnumbered the former.

Britain welcomes Loyalist refugees, in a metaphorical engraving from 1783. From Wikimedia Commons

Only about ten or fifteen percent of the Tories actually fled the country, and a few of those who did leave ended up returning.  This may not sound like the behavior of a persecuted class.  But J. M. Roberts, in a chapter dealing with the two revolutions of the late eighteenth century from his one-volume history of the world, notes that “fewer fled from France during the Revolution than from the American colonies after 1783.  A much larger proportion of Americans felt too intimidated or disgusted with their Revolution to live in the United States after independence than the proportion of Frenchmen who could not live in France after the Terror” (pp. 734-35).  He also notes that most of those who lost their lives in France did so “in the provinces, often in conditions of civil war and sometimes with arms in their hands” (p. 734).  It’s something to think about, at least.

I’m not denying that the French Revolution took a more radical and nastier turn than its American counterpart.  For one thing, the French Revolution had a class angle; for another, Washington and the other top-tier American leaders fought their war along conventional, disciplined, professional lines.  There were doubtless other factors, too many and too complex to be the subject of a blog post, which put the brakes on America’s revolution.  Still, I think we should be cautious when we generalize about the tameness of that conflict, because we risk forgetting those rare occasions when the gloves came off—and the Americans who clung to their monarch and found themselves on the wrong end of history.


Filed under American Revolution

3 responses to “A kinder, gentler Revolution?

  1. The books do tend to brush over the nastier side of the Revolution. And the nastiness wasn’t short-lived either. The Sons of Liberty in Boston can perhaps be credited for getting the momentum of Revolution going. But they were also ruthlessly brutal in their persecution of Tories over the course of the 10 years prior to the war. I’ve read accounts of tarring and feathering and other sadistically creative “punishments” that are the stuff of nightmares!

  2. Michael Lynch

    Yeah, the Sons of Liberty did a number on Thomas Brown in GA–tied him to a tree and roasted his feet.


  3. Pingback: Our civilized, God-fearing, English-speaking Revolution | Past in the Present

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