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The colonists struggle for identity and unity

In 1981, Samuel Huntington argued that American identity has always been based upon political ideas, and that these ideas can reunite warring communities within a nation.

The development of America: identity and the language of revolution

By 1776, American politics had developed down a path different to that of Britain, with prominent members of its society rising up to debate the unlawful nature of the taxes imposed on the colonies. But to what extent did the work of these politicians, to encourage the ordinary folk of America to self-identify as American rather than British, actually succeed? To do so, it will consider the pre-eminence of state identity over national identity, the exclusory nature of the promulgated American identity, and the lack of international recognition of America.

  • Because the decade-long nonviolent campaign of the colonists has been overshadowed by the more celebrated revolutionary war which took its place, this case is more dependent than most on the scholarly sources, both American and British, published in one book;
  • Moreover, this form of national consciousness was inorganic; it had been created by revolutionary elites to try and create parallels between members of all the American colonies;
  • Politics forms only part of a national identity, so whilst the political writings may prove that there was a form of shared identity among colonists, namely an opposition to the policies of Britain, they do not provide a cohesive image of an American identity in 1776;
  • With each act by Parliament, opposition grew to the British control;
  • Colonial publications, such as the Pennsylvania Gazette, published tips and suggestions for women in the colonies;
  • Whilst all figures are approximate, almost one third of those living in North America in 1776 identified as Loyalists.

Whilst some elements of an American identity existed, such as the role of women and the language used by the revolutionaries, their symbolic importance was not recognised until much, much later.

States vs The Nation The lack of common identity between the thirteen colonies suggests an absence of an American identity. Despite newspapers promulgating nationalist spirit in the early 1770s, this emphasis on unity was primarily to remove the British from America, as opposed to creating America.

Moreover, this form of national consciousness was inorganic; it had been created by revolutionary elites to try and create parallels between members of all the American colonies. This suggests that whilst there were clear attempts to create a national identity across the colonies in order to further the revolutionary cause, it could not be fully developed because the identity had not grown at the grassroots level.

Instead, it was promulgated by the elites to attempt to develop popular support for independence.

John Adams Furthermore, republicanism was not the dominant political force in 1776. Whilst all figures are approximate, almost one third of those living in North America in 1776 identified as Loyalists.

Considering a further third of the population considered themselves neutral on the topic of independence, it indicates that republicanism did not have a political majority. In fact, John Adams privately worried in 1776 that the revolutionary movement was moving too fast, for it was unclear whether there would be enough popular support for the movement to continue.

  • Additionally, the economic, political and cultural ties between Britain and the colonies were still extremely strong in 1776, and remained so for many years, even after independence;
  • The movement's response was to encourage colonists to refuse to buy the goods;
  • These acts were intended to make an example out of Massachusetts, but instead unified the colonies even further by moving moderates to a more anti-British position.

This lack of unity indicates that there was no American identity by 1776 because even those who shared the view that America was better independent from Britain could not coherently make decisions for the national government. Not All Americans Are Born Equal The exclusionary aspect of American society also explains the lack of national identity by the year 1776.

  1. Colonial publications, such as the Pennsylvania Gazette, published tips and suggestions for women in the colonies. This suggests, by default, that national identity is also imagined.
  2. Some official courts closed for lack of business because the colonists created their own alternatives; others became less active. For the period of the nonviolent campaign, the movement's goals had largely to do with repealing oppressive acts of Parliament and reducing the effectiveness of British rule in the colonies, which arguably succeeded to a fairly high degree.
  3. Whilst some elements of an American identity existed, such as the role of women and the language used by the revolutionaries, their symbolic importance was not recognised until much, much later.

Whilst the founding fathers recognised that Native Americans had a legitimate claim to the land of North America, they did not necessarily see them as being part of the society they wished to create. There were approximately 600,000 slaves in the colonies in the 1770s, within a population of around 2,500,000. It is important to recognise that only Patriot-owned slaves were made this offer; Loyalist slaves were not offered such promises.

American colonials struggle against the British Empire, 1765 - 1775

However, the fact that so many slaves ran away, with more stopped before they could reach the British, suggests that those of African descent preferred to identify with the British in opposition to the Patriots. However, we must recognise that the Proclamation promised freedom to any slave who joined the British Army: Nonetheless, we must recognise that these slaves were promised independence by the British, which would have been a major driving force to explain their attempts to join the British Army.

  • Michael Green argues that there is an external as well as internal component to the notion of identity, supporting the view that there was no strong American identity in 1776, because the country was not recognised internationally;
  • This does not mean he was arguing for independence — even in December 1775, the call for reconciliation remained strong — but it indicates that Jefferson felt there was a common identity amongst colonists;
  • The growing refusal of colonists to buy British imports became an important stimulus to the quality and capacity of their own manufacturing.

Members of Parliament viewed those in the colonies as being as British as those in Britain, showing that despite the discourse about the differences between Britain and the colonies, Britain still did not recognise that there was a distinction between the two. Additionally, the economic, political and cultural ties between Britain and the colonies were still extremely strong in 1776, and remained so for many years, even after independence.

Furthermore, legitimisation of the American state and thus their identity independent from Britain was withheld by France and other Old World countries until 1778. Michael Green argues that there is an external as well as internal component to the notion of identity, supporting the view that there was no strong American identity in 1776, because the country was not recognised internationally.

  1. Michael Green argues that there is an external as well as internal component to the notion of identity, supporting the view that there was no strong American identity in 1776, because the country was not recognised internationally. Following the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 the movement turned to armed struggle.
  2. Opponent, Opponent Responses, and Violence Opponents.
  3. Instead, it was promulgated by the elites to attempt to develop popular support for independence. Members of Parliament viewed those in the colonies as being as British as those in Britain, showing that despite the discourse about the differences between Britain and the colonies, Britain still did not recognise that there was a distinction between the two.
  4. The Stamp Act placed a tax on all documents, ranging from trade documents to playing cards to court documents.
  5. Also very limited, because most colonists still saw the British as fellow countrymen and were aware that violence would alienate their supporters in Parliament and in the colonies and the UK. With each act by Parliament, opposition grew to the British control.

This suggests, by default, that national identity is also imagined. However, despite this internal creation of belonging, an aspect of national identity is closely tied to politics; this means that without political recognition from abroad, it becomes much more difficult to promulgate an identity as being legitimate. A modern example of this would be Tibetan culture; without political legitimisation of their culture, their individual Tibetan identity is under threat.

Therefore, the lack of international recognition of an American identity indicates that it was not particularly strong, for political recognition is certainly an aspect of national identity.

Women, Women, Women… However, this is not to say that there was no form of American identity forming by 1776. It appears that some women supported the Revolutionary spirit by actively participating in the boycott of British goods. Colonial publications, such as the Pennsylvania Gazette, published tips and suggestions for women in the colonies.

Moreover, we do not have numerous sources from women of all classes; we do not know whether they boycotted the goods because they were pressured to, the colonists struggle for identity and unity they believed in the American state, or if they felt that it would benefit their state to do so. Some women refused to change their hair from the British fashion, or to change their style to the more modest and simple style republicans had adopted.

The Language of Revolution The language employed in the political rhetoric widely published during the 1770s also shows a formation of an American identity.

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This does not mean he was arguing for independence — even in December 1775, the call for reconciliation remained strong — but it indicates that Jefferson felt there was a common identity amongst colonists.

Politics forms only part of a national identity, so whilst the political writings may prove that there was a form of shared identity among colonists, namely an opposition to the policies of Britain, they do not provide a cohesive image of an American identity in 1776.

Conclusion It is apparent that by 1776 a strong American identity was yet to develop. Whilst the identity had its political seeds germinating, a lack of strong central government meant that state loyalties remained superior to national loyalties. A lack of cohesion within the republican class cannot have helped develop a national identity; when there is debate over every aspect of the new republic, how can we expect a strong national identity to form?