University of Tasmania

File(s) under permanent embargo

Sensible Britons and the American Revolution

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-17, 13:26 authored by Anthony PageAnthony Page

In terms of its impact on Britain, historians have long treated the American Revolution as the poor cousin of the French Revolution. Following E P Thompson's Marxist emphasis on the 1790s as the start of The making of the English working class (1963), scholars have devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to studying British popular politics and intellectual developments in the last decade of the eighteenth century. The American Revolution has traditionally attracted less attention outside American national historiography.

In British history, the American war has been studied mostly as a problem of high politics. British historians have written many fine studies of the complex politics of the 1760s through to the war of 1775-83. While American historians have searched long and hard for long term social and economic causes of their revolution, British historians have tended to view the war as primarily a failure of politics. Ian Christie argued that 'the Revolution was a human tragedy, for which certain men were responsible, more particularly because, in Great Britain, the politicians who had the common sense and vision were out of power (owing to their own weakness and limitations) and those who were in power lacked the vision'. John Cannon has argued that Britain was little affected by the loss of America. Economic ties reconnected after 1783 and Britons moved on with their lives at the centre of an empire that was still strong in the West Indies and Canada, and expanding in the eastern hemisphere.

There have been some impressive studies of the impact of the American Revolution on British popular politics. H T Dickinson has written a number of influential studies of popular politics in the eighteenth century and edited an important volume of essays on Britain and the American Revolution (1988). James E Bradley has analysed a wealth of empirical detail on Dissenting religion and political agitation during the American crisis. Eliga H Gould's The persistence of empire: British political culture in the age of the American Revolution (2000) has provided an insightful study of the strength of loyalism. While of high quality, however, the quantity of such studies has long been dwarfed by the 1790s industry.

In recent years, however, scholars have begun to emphasise the importance of the period before the French Revolution. The impact of war on the development of state and society in the middle decades of the eighteenth century is now attracting attention. In The British Isles and the War of American Independence (2000) Stephen Conway has detailed the significant impact the war had on state and society in Britain. In British history, according to Sarah Knott, 'where once the French Revolution, and its ricochets, was the fin-de-siècle story of transformation, now the years of the American war are the location of all manner of historical change.'


Publication title

Enlightenment and Dissent








School of Humanities


Enlightenment and Dissent

Place of publication

Garreg-Wen, Bronant, Ceredigion, Wales SY23 4JD UK

Rights statement

Copyright 2012 Enlightenment and Dissent

Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Expanding knowledge in history, heritage and archaeology

Usage metrics

    University Of Tasmania



    Ref. manager