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A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution.

A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution Marc Egnal is nothing if not ambitious. In A Mighty Empire, he offers us a new and, he thinks, better explanation of the coming of the American Revolution. Egnal locates this explanation in a contest between two factions of the colonial elite, the "expansionists" and the "nonexpansionists." The former--"those wealthy individuals who were committed to fostering America's rise to greatness"--moved to break from Britain when the mother country showed itself unwilling to accept their claims (p. 338). The latter, tied by interest to the metropolis and looking, as it were, backward across the Atlantic rather than forward into the new continent and its apparently limitless possibilities for growth, became Tories. Egnal consciously intends his thesis to replace both the more recent neo-Whig interpretations associated with Bernard Bailyn and the older imperial and progressive explanations (pp. 2-5). But few readers are likely to be persuaded by this relentlessly monocausal argument.

To substantiate his claims, Egnal traces the pattern of eighteenth-century politics in five of the American colonies--Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina--from 1690 to 1776. Largely if not exclusively in the hands of the elite, politics in the five colonies were firmly grounded in elite interests, and by the middle of the eighteenth century the elite in each of Egnal's cases came to be divided along expansionist-nonexpansionist lines. Western land development, the causes and consequences of colonial warfare, and the impact on America of fluctuations in the British economy are given leading roles in Egnal's version of the coming of the Revolution, as is the expansionist elite's struggle to contain the social tensions that its programs of resistance to Britain threatened to unleash. Despite the colony-by-colony approach, the message is clearly that there was an overriding unity to colonial politics, transcending province and region alike, a unity supplied by the dynamic ambitions of the expansionist elite. Curiously, Egnal has relatively little to say about British policy; what matters--and here his perspective is perhaps more reminiscent of Bailyn's than he would acknowledge--is the perception of the expansionists as "slowly but inexorably [they] came to agree that the growth of America must take place outside the confines of the British empire" (p. 271).

The problem with all this is Egnal's insistence that there is a single explanation for the Revolution. If he had been content simply to urge the importance of his expansionists and their vision as part of a large pattern of causation, we might be more convinced. For he offers considerable--and often compelling--evidence that such a vision mattered in eighteenth-century America. And he is right to insist that many of the leaders of the patriot party in the Revolution shared that vision; men like George Washington and George Mason are obvious cases in point. But Egnal is unwilling to leave it at that; he cannot admit that the vision of a glorious American future may have been only one among several factors that led to the revolt. He thus dismisses the neo-Whig arguments about the role of ideology, and this despite his concession (p. 7n13) that there was nothing necessarily incompatible between the developmental views of the expansionists and the political and constitutional arguments that the neo-Whig school has identified as central to the coming of the Revolution. Surely Egnal could afford to be a little less rigid about this; if he can see in expansionism "a broad, ramifying world view" that went well beyond mere "desire for territorial growth," it is hard to understand why he thinks so little is to be gained from paying attention to ideological claims made--often enough--by the very men whose expansionist persuasion he sees as central (pp. 6-7).

Egnal's conviction that the Revolution stems from the expansionists' efforts to create an America in which their visions could become realities, and from that alone, may have led him astray in other ways as well. Colonial politics are usually thought to have been far more particularistic than he will admit, and the lack of attention to the politics of the other eight colonies that joined his chosen five is troubling in that regard. Moreover, Egnal's final chapter--in many ways, the last convincing in the book--makes large and untenable claims for the post-revolutionary significance of expansionism. Whatever the role of the expansionists in bringing about the Revolution, they can hardly be said to have remained a coherent bloc after 1783, and Egnal's position simply does not allow him to account for the differences that led men like Washington and Mason to take opposite sides in 1787-88 and thereafter, or to explain the radically opposed versions of American expansionism that sprang up after 1789.

In short, then, Egnal has given us a book that is less useful than it might] have been. Valuable for its insistence that a powerful vision of America's future greatness motivated many of the elite leaders of the revolutionary generation, the work is too much of a prosecutor's brief to carry the conviction Egnal hopes it will have. But readers are likely to find it stimulating, and it merits serious attention.

Herbert Sloan is assistant professor of history at Barnard College. He is the author (with Peter Onuf) of "Politics, Culture, and the Revolution in Virginia: A Review of Recent Work," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (1983). At present, he is working on a study of Thomas Jefferson and debt.
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Author:Sloan, Herbert
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1989
Words:899
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