Placing the American Revolution in Global Perspective

By Steven Pincus

Sometime in 1766 or 1767, Ezra Stiles, the popular minister of Newport, Rhode Island, and the future president of Yale College, catalogued the “struggles for liberty and revolution AD 1765 and 1766” around the world.  For Stiles, as for many contemporaries, the agitations against the Stamp Act in North America, the West Indies, and Britain were part of a global phenomenon.  Stiles noted that in “Europe” weavers took to the streets in Britain, Madrileños rioted against the policies of Leopoldo de Gregorio Marquis of Esquilache, and Corsicans took up arms to establish, albeit briefly, a form of republican government.  In “America,” new imperial policies met fierce resistance in French Saint Domingue, New Spain, New Granada, and Peru.  Stiles knew that the riots and celebrations that he witnessed first hand in Newport and Connecticut were a local instantiation of a trans-imperial phenomenon.

Stiles knew whereof he spoke. On both sides of the Atlantic a political economic crisis shook the great European empires to the core in the 1760s. The French, Spanish and British Empires emerged from the Seven Years War overwhelmed by ballooning sovereign debts. To avoid defaulting the leading ministers in all three states pursued austerity measures and sought new ways to raise revenues. In all three empires, these policies provoked massive popular resistance. Thousands, even tens of thousands, took to the streets in Madrid, in Quito, in Puebla, in Havana, in Saint Domingue, in Martinique, as well as in London. Wilkesite protests in Britain matched Parlementaire resistance throughout France. British American protests against the Stamp Act were part and parcel of pan-imperial protests against extractive imperial political economy.

All three great European overseas empires seemed on the brink of collapse in the 1760s. In all three cases, popular protests placed imperial state actors on the defensive. Many contemporaries believed that only the British Empire would survive the crisis. Yet, the French empire survived intact until the Haitian Revolution.  The Spanish Empire was even more resilient, lasting through the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. It was the British American empire that broke apart in the 1770s.  The question we should be asking is not why was there an American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, but rather why did the empire of the victors of the Seven Years War collapse well before that of its defeated imperial rivals?

To pose these questions is to reassert the importance of two themes in eighteenth century history.  First, empires mattered.  The fact that imperial policies sparked such widespread resistance, suggests that for people on the ground on both sides of the Atlantic, imperial actions were profoundly important.  Empires may have been negotiated – all state activity in all times has been negotiated.  But over the course of the eighteenth century, the social and geographical reach of the imperial states was ever-increasing. Second, political economic issues sparked the imperial crises in all three empires. Those resisting new extractive taxes may well have deployed languages of rights, but they used those languages as a lever to pry imperial reform out of imperial statesmen. Political economy and issues of sovereign debt remained a central concern of empires throughout the century. It was after all a debt crisis in the later 1780s that provided the occasion for the outbreak of the French Revolution. The issues that brought people out into the streets were new economic policies.

The British Empire in the Western hemisphere broke apart well before those of its imperial rivals because it was uniquely a popular and public empire. This, I think, had three implications.

First, in Britain party politics were organized around the political economy of Empire.  From 1696, with the establishment of the Board of Trade, imperial political and commercial issues became central to British politics. The most contentious issues in British party politics were about how best to govern the Empire. From the 1720s, establishment Whigs, from Sir Robert Walpole to George Grenville and Lord North, argued that colonial production of raw materials like sugar, rice, and tobacco provided a great source of wealth that could ultimately be used to pay down the burgeoning national debt.  In their view, extracting wealth from the colonies made it possible to lower the tax burden on English landowners. Patriots, from William Pulteney to John Wilkes argued, by contrast, that growing colonial consumption of British manufactured goods, in an era in which European states increasingly sought to restrict British access to their markets, provided the greatest hope for an expanding imperial economy. The Patriots rejected the Anglocentric assumptions of the establishment Whigs, arguing instead that it was far better to improve the economic welfare of the entire empire than focus narrowly on English landowners. As a consequence, the Patriots often encouraged the Treasury to devote resources to improving colonial infrastructure, and subsidize immigration to the colonies. Inhabitants throughout the Empire quickly became skilled at seeking partisan allies to achieve local aims. Local issues exploded into broad debates about the nature of the Empire. In France and Spain, by contrast, debates about the Empire took place largely behind closed doors in Council or in letters sent from colonial officials to royal administrators.

Second, the British Empire was unique in having a robust and heavily politicized newspaper press.  From the 1720s, Ireland, Scotland, the British colonies, and the English provinces all developed their own local newspapers.  Not only did these newspapers report on local affairs, they also informed their readership of imperial developments, drawing men and women in New York, Kingston, Belfast, and Edinburgh into the maelstrom of imperial partisanship. No comparable press developed in the French and Spanish colonies until very late in the eighteenth century.

Third, the British Empire much more than its French and Spanish counterparts had a tradition of representative government in the eighteenth century. Whereas Spanish audiencias and French colonial officials implemented imperial policy, the British Empire was governed through the combination of an imperial Parliament and colonial Assemblies. While the balance between Parliament and the Assemblies was never precisely defined, it was clear that the Assemblies could not enact laws contrary to British law. The imperial Parliament, however, represented largely the English landowning classes. As a consequence when the colonies or British manufacturing districts complained of legislation that treated them unfairly, Parliament had every incentive to demand enforcement of acts that would benefit the English landed classes. The French and Spanish monarchs, by contrast, saw themselves as governing their empires as a whole. They therefore responded to colonial disturbances by retreating from offensive policies. The result, in both cases, was to prolong the life and coherence of the empire.       

The second half of the eighteenth century was indeed, as Stiles suggested, an age of revolution. But to call it an age of Democratic Revolutions, as R. R. Palmer classically did, is to shift the focus from causes to outcomes, and to unnecessarily limit the field of inquiry. Imperial and political economic crisis created the conditions for revolution on a global scale. Most acts of popular resistance to imperial extractive policies failed. Not all of those that succeeded resulted in democratic or proto-democratic outcomes. To understand why some uprisings failed and why some resulted in new non-democratic regimes requires studying local conditions and the structures and cultures of resistance. But the first essential step is to analyze the preconditions of revolution that affected all European, and perhaps some non-European, empires in the second half of the eighteenth century. This requires taking seriously the institutions and structures of empires and carefully analyzing debates about political economy across those empires.     

Steven Pincus is Bradford Durfee Professor of History and Co-Director of the Center for Historical Enquiry and the Social Sciences at Yale University. He is the author of Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668 and most recently 1688: The First Modern Revolution. He has published numerous essays on the economic, cultural, political, and intellectual history of early modern Britain and comparative revolutions. You can reach him at or tweet him @PincusSteven.

Title image: One-penny stamp

Further Reading

For the French Empire, the classic introduction is Jean Tarrade, Le Commerce Coloniale de la France à la fin de l’Ancien Regime (Paris, 1972); John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti (New York, 2006); Pernille Roge, “A Natural Order of Empire: The Physiocratic Vision of Colonial France after the Seven Years’ War,”  Sophus A. Reinert and Pernille Roge eds., The Political Economy of Empire in the Early Modern World  (Basingstoke, 2013); François-Joseph Ruggiu, “India and the Reshaping of the French Colonial Policy, 1759–1789,” Itinerario 35, no. 2 (2011).

For the Spanish Empire, see Allan J. Kuethe and Kenneth J. Andrien, The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century  (Cambridge, 2014); Jeremy Adelman, Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic  (Princeton, 2006); Stanley J. Stein and Barbara H. Stein, Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III (Baltimore, 2003) Anthony Macfarlane, “Rebellions in Late Colonial Spanish America: A Comparative Perspective,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 14, no. 3 (1995).

More detailed discussion of the comparative imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s can be found in my forthcoming Heart of the Declaration (New Haven, 2017).  For the British Empire more generally, see Brendan Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat  (London, 2007); Kathleen Wilson, The Sense of the People.  (Cambridge, 1995). 

4 thoughts on “Placing the American Revolution in Global Perspective

  1. There’s lots of useful mileage in the idea of a global–or at least Atlantic–imperial crisis in the 1760s-70s. But the idea that the French empire survived the crisis of 1760s-1770s but the British empire did not holds only if you define the geography of these two empires rather differently. In fact, both empires collapsed in North America (the French had already collapsed at the end of the Seven Year’s War, the British a bit later with the American Revolution); but both survived in the Antilles (Saint-Domingue is the exception here, compared with Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique).


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