History review: ‘Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution,’ by Thomas P. Slaughter

“Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution,” by Thomas P. Slaughter

Special Contributor

Published: 28 June 2014 02:14 PM
Updated: 28 June 2014 02:14 PM

Every man possesses a myth, Yeats wrote, that if we knew it “would make us understand all that he did and thought.”

This is true of not only historical figures but historical events. Part of the task of the historian is to navigate the reader through the mists of the past and arrive at a new place of understanding. Thomas Slaughter has done just that with his new interpretation of the American Revolution, Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution. The book takes the reader beyond the familiar area of what happened in the revolution and instead focuses on the less familiar areas of why.

In Slaughter’s telling, the American colonies functioned as independent long before they became a nation. To Slaughter, the roots of the American Revolution began more than a century earlier as the British empire increasingly reigned supreme in many areas of the world. An inherent tension existed with the American colonies almost from the beginning, he writes. “Colonists continued to strive for independence within the empire, while British administrators continued to believe that the colonists were aiming at independence from the empire.”

For a while, this tension remained under control. But as Slaughter traces the series of events leading up to 1775, he shows that the eruption into armed conflict had been building for decades.

When the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764, it did so on what it saw as strong legal grounds. A government can and must have the right to raise revenue from its citizens. But the colonists saw things differently. For more than 150 years, Slaughter writes, the colonies “had experienced an exception to parliamentary sovereignty due to the impossibility of taxing them or governing their internal affairs from afar.”

In response to the Sugar Act, Boston lawyer James Otis stepped forward to argue that “in a state of nature no man can take my property from me without my consent: If he does, he deprives me of my liberty and makes me a slave.” Borrowing heavily from Locke’s definition of sovereignty, Otis essentially predated Jefferson’s argument by 10 years.

To Slaughter, this represents the real roots of the American Revolution: the conflict between a sovereign empire and a group of colonies that liked running its own affairs.

The argument could never be settled with words. To the British, the colonists’ argument seemed nothing short of a pursuit of “anarchy and confusion.” To the colonists, the British actions seemed overbearing and unnecessary. And so the road to revolution began many years before the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia to declare their independence.

Slaughter’s book provides a wealth of research that is fastened together into a coherent, brisk narrative. Anyone interested in learning about the roots of conflict that help explain the American Revolution should make sure to read this book.

Kasey S. Pipes serves as the Norris Public Policy Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College and authored “Ike’s Final Battle: The Road to Little Rock and the Challenge of Equality.”



The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution

Thomas P. Slaughter

(Hill and Wang, $35)