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Why did only thirteen of Britain’s colonies rebel?

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

There are two leading explanations as to why only thirteen of Britain's New World colonies rebelled. Both focus on the contiguity of the colonies that rebelled.

Some scholars argue that thanks to British victory in the French and Indian War, these thirteen colonies suddenly became safe from French, Indian, and Spanish threats. The Caribbean and Canadian colonies, by contrast, remained highly dependent on the British Army and Navy for their survival. In the Caribbean (including East and West Florida), the threat came from the Spanish, Dutch, and French navies. In Quebec and Nova Scotia, the argument goes, the threat to English settlers came from both France and the large and potentially hostile local population (the defeated French and Indian inhabitants). Because these frontline colonies were less secure, they were more appreciative of imperial protection.

This explanation is credible for the Caribbean colonies, but it cannot explain Loyalism in Canada. The French Navy did not pose a meaningful threat to Quebec and Nova Scotia. And in Quebec, where the Americans tried to draw the French to join the rebellion, it was the small English population that was most receptive to American Revolutionary propaganda.

The second explanation is that thanks to social, religious, and commercial interactions between colonists in the thirteen contiguous colonies, settlers developed a sense of community and camaraderie; what today would be called a sense of nationhood. (Some tie this development to the Great Awakening, claiming that the revivals were multi-denominational and multi-ethnic, and also cut across regional and class boundaries.) These scholars claim that in the second half of the eighteenth century, Englishmen in different colonies came to see themselves as “Americans” and so, when the people of Massachusetts were penalized by Britain’s “Intolerable Acts” (following the Boston Tea Party), other American colonists felt a sense of kinship with the settlers of Massachusetts Bay. According to this argument, American nationhood was not a product of the American War, but a cause or prerequisite for the war.

There are problems with this explanation as well. First, it ignores the strong commercial, social, religious, and even familial bonds between the New England colonies and Nova Scotia, as well as between the Carolinas and Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Moreover, there is strong evidence that the colonists’ identity was solidly English (or British), rather than American. This evidence suggests that a sense of nationhood and community among Americans was a product of the war, not a precursor to it. Indeed, the Revolution began as an effort to preserve the pre-1763 status quo within the British Empire, rather than to secede and form an independent American republic.

There is a third option, however, which might better explain what united these thirteen colonies, but not others. If the Revolution was indeed a revolt to preserve the status-quo (that is, to protect the powers and jurisdictions of local assemblies and courts of law against Parliament’s centralizing reforms) then it might simply be the case that other colonies achieved such local autonomy without having to resort to rebellion. Nova Scotia certainly was successful in protecting its local administration from Parliamentary intrusion. In Quebec, as well, the French majority was able to retain its local courts of law, the seigneurial land-tenure system, the supremacy of French civil law, the French language, religious liberties, and the legal status of the Catholic Church. One could argue that these colonies achieved their localist goals within the Empire. By contrast, the localist goals of the colonists in the thirteen colonies were not realized within the Empire, so they wound up trying to accomplish them outside the Empire. Indeed, upon victory, these colonies enacted a constitution (the Articles of Confederation) that enshrined local self-governance for the thirteen newly-independent states.

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