Ken Owen, a blogger and professor with the Junto, wrote a review of a review on December 27 that I find pretty interesting. The original review, written by Jack Rakove–his Revolutionaries is a book you absolutely need to check out–of Kevin Phillips’ book 1775: A Good Year for Revolution–talks about the political loyalties of the Revolutionaries. In short, once the patriots identified as “American” they were on the fast track to independence.
As Owen points out, this binary split in loyalties is far too tight. At the beginning of the war, the split–at least evident in the primary documents–is between “patriot” and “loyalist”. Though I’m not quite certain when the term “American” became the calling card of the rebelling colonists, it would appear that “American” as a source of differentiation may have come into popular use long before the Revolution. As countless historians have pointed out (everyone from Bailyn to Wood to Meyer on down to Phillips himself) loyalties were still tied to Great Britain for a long time, even during the war, though colonists often referred to themselves as “American”. Owen is right: just because the designation “American” was thrown into the mix doesn’t mean that their loyalties were exclusively to a united cause against Great Britain. Titles and loyalties didn’t always add up.
Scholars shouldn’t assume designations that have become tied in the popular conception to the patriots’ cause (liberty, freedom, United States, etc. etc. etc.) all came about by 1775. Many key phrases came into popular usage only in the decade prior to the American Revolution. Some were not in the lexicon throughout the war. Others quickly gained prominence and held that prominence. Further information will be released in an essay this summer, available online, which I will post a link to later.