UNT expert says American Revolution more about British government changing

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 - 16:03

While many Americans know that Independence Day is the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the 13 original American colonies, Americans tend to have certain misconceptions about the Revolutionary War, including what caused the war in the first place, according to a University of North Texas history professor.

Guy Chet, associate professor of history, says many students in his American Revolution course come into class thinking that the American colonists “were becoming less and less satisfied under empirical rule, and, eventually, this dissatisfaction led them into open revolt.”

“This view suggests that Americans evolved over time, from conventional British subjects into something else — Americans,” he says. “In reality, the Americans remained fairly consistent in their understanding of their role in the British Empire. It was the British government that was evolving and changing its understanding of the operation of an Empire.”

Chet points out that until the French and Indian War of 1754-63, the Empire was a loose confederation of American and Caribbean colonies, with each colony governing itself, but following “imperial instruction  and leadership in matters of defense and foreign trade.” After 1763, he says, the central British government “tried to expand its jurisdiction into these localities, which ran contrary to what the colonial population was used to.”

“So the American Revolution was about the colonists wanting to conserve the status quo, not about the colonies changing,” Chet says.

He points out two other common misconceptions about the American Revolution:

•The American Revolution originated as a tax revolt after the British

 Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773.

“Contrary to popular belief, the Tea Act didn’t raise the price of tea that was exported to the colonies — it lowered it,” Chet says. And although colonists objected to the Tea Act because they were being taxed by the British parliament in which they were not represented, and not by their own elected representatives “people don’t go to wars and risk their lives to pay lower taxes,” he says.

“To call the American Revolution a tax revolt minimizes other important issues,” he says, noting that the Declaration of Independence specifies attempts by the British government “…to extend unwarrantable jurisdiction over us.”

•The U.S. Constitution, adopted by the 13 colonies in 1787-88, outlined the government desired by the colonists when they began fighting the American Revolution.

Chet says it’s misleading to end the story of the revolution with the ratification of the Constitution, because it gives the impression that the Constitution “represented a remedy to the problems identified by the rebels.”

Instead, he says, the story ends with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the U.S., in 1781, and the peace treaty two years later. The Articles, he says, created a structure of sovereign local governments under a weak central government — the type of government the colonists fought to preserve in the British Empire.

“By contrast, the U.S. Constitution, ratified five years after the Revolutionary War, created a very different system of government than the one envisioned by the revolutionaries of 1776,” Chet says.  

Chet may be reached at 940-387-4311 or guychet@unt.edu.

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