Professor Trevor Burnard
Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
In today’s blog, Professor Trevor Burnard reflects on the recent workshop held at the Wilberforce Institute on the subject of the American Revolution and imperial history.
On 3 March, the Wilberforce Institute hosted a small and highly successful workshop to consider how the American Revolution was, in the words of the keynote speaker, Stephen Conway, of UCL, an event usefully seen through an imperial perspective.
The American Revolution is an important event in not just American history but in the history of the world. One of the ways in which it has an enduring importance is its role in redefining the British Empire in the late eighteenth century so that by the nineteenth century British imperialism was different to what it been in the previous century. We sometimes think of the empire with America as the first British Empire. Even though historians have been anxious to show that imperialism did not change all that much after the loss of the American colonies (to become the United States of America), it is clear that it was an event of truly historical importance in the history of imperial Britain. At a stroke, a major part of the population of the British Empire – including most of the people of that empire who were White Protestants and who thought of themselves before 1776 as Britons living overseas rather than foreigners to British customs and practices – departed the empire. The American Revolution was the first successful settler revolt in history, a counterrevolution against actions by the imperial government, which American Patriots considered tyrannical. It was also very much an imperial event, being part of a whole set of policies enacted by Britain after the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) to reconfigure a new and greatly enlarged empire.
Now is a good time to connect imperialism with the American Revolution and see the links between them. Imperial history has suddenly come back into favour after having been considered in the second half of the twentieth century as irredeemably old-fashioned and irrelevant. That has changed in the twenty-first century. As Krishan Kumar argues in Visions of Empire (2017), `the study of empires, for all their faults, engages current beliefs in multiculturalism, diaspora, migration and multinationalism.’(p. 3) In addition, the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026 is getting closer, encouraging us to rethink the American Revolution in the light of contemporary matters and an ever-changing historiography.
The workshop was designed to engage with the connection between this event and British imperialism, which is the subject of a forthcoming book by Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute, and Andrew O’Shaughnessy, former director of research at Monticello and professor at the University of Virginia. Andrew, who is currently a fellow at the Wilberforce Institute, will be applying his great knowledge of the imperial dimensions of the American Revolution to this joint effort. He published The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire in 2014.
Trevor and Andrew were joined by scholars from France, Germany and Britain, who presented papers on military aspects of imperialism in the American Revolution and participated in two workshops on the wider European contexts of the War of American Independence and on recent trends in the writing on empire and revolution.
The workshop was extremely stimulating, and at times provocative, and served as a first event in the four-year lead-up to the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution under the auspices of the British Group in Early American History. It is also part of America2026, a large-scale European grouping of scholars who are determined to see the American Revolution as an intrinsic part of European and European imperial history. Andrew will continue the involvement of the Wilberforce Institute with America2026 on 10 March at a seminar in Paris on ‘Transnationalismes, Crises and Révolutions’.
John Trumbull‘s painting, Declaration of Independence, depicting the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War.