The American Colonies’ Tipping Point

Battle of Princeton painting by John Trumbull

JMC fellow William Anthony Hay reviews Patrick Griffin’s book The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century in the Claremont Review of Books.


These States, United

By William Anthony Hay
From the Claremont Review of Books

Victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) united Britain and its American colonies. Despite this, however, the new conflicts that arose in the following decade led to the colonists’ revolt and ultimately American independence. Historians of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic empire have long grappled with identifying the causes of that shift—only in retrospect did it appear inevitable. Many colonists in the war’s aftermath considered themselves Englishmen. Benjamin Franklin wrote of America happy “under the best of kings…happy too in the vigor and wisdom of every part of administration, particularly that part whose peculiar province is the British plantations.”

But as the partnership’s terms changed, imperial patriotism faded. A disillusioned Franklin complained in 1767 that “every man in England seems to consider himself as a piece of a sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself into the throne, and talks of our subjects in the same colonies.” Rather than sharing in the war-forged empire, Americans watched as longstanding practices of self-government were challenged by British efforts to standardize imperial structures under their more direct control. Colonial opposition initiated an escalating cycle of resistance that led to the shots heard around the world at Lexington and Concord.

While many historians consider the Stamp Act the turning point, Patrick Griffin, a Professor of History at Notre Dame, locates the pivotal moment in the ascendency of George and Charles Townshend. The brothers pursed an imperial reform program in Ireland and the American colonies that attempted to make them provinces of a Greater Britain. In The Townshend Moment: The Making of Empire and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Griffin explores the forces that drove imperial reform and the reactions to it, by taking seriously the ideas and principles that informed the political culture. He concludes that, in effect, the attempt to impose order on the complex, organic, colonial system brought revolution.

Continue reading at the Claremont Review of Books >>



William Anthony HayWilliam Anthony Hay is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the College of Arts & Sciences Institute for the Humanities at Mississippi State. He specializes in British History and International Relations since the eighteenth century.  Elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2009, Hay is a past-president of the Southern Conference on British Studies. Along with research grants from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Earhart Foundation, he has held fellowships at the Lewis Walpole Library and Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University and the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Hay is currently writing a book tentatively entitled King George’s Generals: Strategy, Policy and Britain’s War for America, 1763-1781. Boydell & Brewer will publish Hay’s latest book Lord Liverpool: A Political Life in Spring 2018.  His first book The Whig Revival, 1808-1830 (Palgrave: 2005) examines the political realignment that brought the Whigs to power in 1830 through an alliance with provincial interests. Hay writes regularly for publications including the Wall Street JournalNational Interest and Literary Review.  Before coming to Mississippi State, Hay directed a program on European politics and U.S. foreign policy at Foreign Policy Research Institute.  Hay received his Ph.D. Modern European and International History from the University of Virginia in 2000.

Learn more about William Anthony Hay >>




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