The development of America: identity and the language of revolution

To what extent had an ‘American identity’ developed by 1776?

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. Whilst much of Huntington’s argument can be debated, it is certainly possible to argue that some of the roots of American identity do lie within political ideas. 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? This article argues that, by 1776, the notion of an “American identity” was merely a seed planted within the soil of the war against Britain. 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. 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. Edward Countryman highlights this lack of shared identity between colonists; he comments that all they shared was ‘Britishness’ and colonial status. Throughout the 1770s, loyalties were always to the person’s colony in opposition to an American nation. Carol Berkin argues that the Articles of Confederation reinforced this, for they highlighted states’ individual sovereignty, aiming to join them in a league of friendship rather than a union. 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. Moreover, the republican ‘group’ was not unified in either its actions or beliefs; Edward Countryman called the movement a ‘series of coalitions that formed, dissolved, and re-formed’. 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. Almost all the founding fathers had divergent beliefs regarding their new republic’s future and its policies – if one class of ‘Americans’ were not homogeneous, how could thirteen states be expected to assimilate to share one common identity?


Not All Americans Are Born Equal

The exclusionary aspect of American society also explains the lack of national identity by the year 1776. 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. Furthermore, whilst they recognised that slavery was problematic – it was, as Joseph Ellis highlights, a contradiction to the principles of the Revolution – American founders could not envisage whites and blacks living in ‘social harmony’. There were approximately 600,000 slaves in the colonies in the 1770s, within a population of around 2,500,000. Excluding such a large proportion of the population from being included in national identity is problematic because despite proclaiming ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence, being ‘American’ generally meant being of European descent. Additionally, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 7 November 1775 can be used to indicate a lack of national identity because of the speed by which many slaves – up to 2,000 – ran from their homes. Dunmore’s Proclamation was the first large-scale emancipation offer in British America; it promised freedom to slaves of colonists in rebellion against the Crown. It is important to recognise that only Patriot-owned slaves were made this offer; Loyalist slaves were not offered such promises. By being their owner’s property, it is possible to argue that slaves owned by Patriots would have become subservient Americans. 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: whilst their feelings towards the British would have been complicated, slaves had a choice between perpetual servitude as an American-owned slave, or an unclear – but free – future. 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.


On the Periphery of the Globe

In 1776, America was not recognised on the world stage, neither by the British Empire nor the rest of the Old World. 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. These close ties may have made it difficult for Britons to identify differences between themselves and the colonists, making it more challenging to create an American identity which was noticeably different from the ‘oppressive’ British identity. 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. In 1983, Benedict Anderson conceived the notion of ‘imagined communities’: he argued that a nation is a socially constructed community, imagined by the people within the group. 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.


Amer3Women, 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. Women spun cotton at home in order to make their own clothes, a form of resistance against the taxation of Parliament on imported goods; the Edenton Ladies in 1774 signed and published an agreement saying they would not ‘wear any more British cloth’. Colonial publications, such as the Pennsylvania Gazette, published tips and suggestions for women in the colonies. However, it is unclear how ‘top-down’ and artificial this image of women doing their part for the Revolution is; we simply do not have the sources to suggest that every woman willingly boycotted British goods. 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, because they believed in the American state, or if they felt that it would benefit their state to do so. Additionally, not all women actually ‘obeyed’ the boycott. 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 negative reaction to these women – they were called ‘whores of the Brittish officiers’ – as well as the fact that those women refused to bow to the pressure exerted on them by Patriots indicates that not every woman was going to ‘do her bit’ for the rebellious states. This suggests that only a proportion of the colonial population adopted this ‘American identity’, meaning that whilst women boycotting British goods may have been the ‘American’ thing to do, not every woman did.


The Language of Revolution

The language employed in the political rhetoric widely published during the 1770s also shows a formation of an American identity. Thomas Jefferson’s 1774 piece, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, makes a convincing case for making a distinction between those in the colonies and those in Britain; he argues that Parliament had no authority over the colonies. Jefferson also makes a point to refer to the colonies as ‘British America’ – it is a constant reminder that he felt that the colonial subjects were different to Britons. 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. This can be seen further through Jefferson’s use of ‘we’, something echoed in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense of 1776. Paine’s language is designed to be accessible to all, and is again written to promulgate a shared identity among colonists. The use of the family metaphor within his work supports the view that an American identity had developed by 1776, because it suggests the colonies have matured to the point that they do not need a ‘parent’ looking over them. Moreover, Paine uses this metaphor to further develop the view of Britain as the ‘Other’ to define the American identity against; he says those who have left Britain have fled ‘not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster’. Nonetheless, these writings only discuss the political aspect of American identity; Jefferson argues against Parliament’s ability to tax colonists, whilst Paine disputes Britain’s conduct. 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. As discussed previously, the movement to create an ‘American identity’ was inorganic, formulated by manoeuvring elites; that even these elites could not agree upon a shared set of principles and beliefs certainly highlights this.



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? Moreover, the lack of international recognition of America in 1776 did not help with the external element of formulating a national identity; only in 1778 was the ‘American’ independence struggle legitimised, and their claims of being different to their British overseers recognised. Whilst it must be documented that there were developments towards a national identity by 1776 – for example, the role of women in boycotts of British products, and the use of ‘we’ in political rhetoric – these developments were limited in their scope. Only with the advent of a stronger central government by 1789 did it become possible to develop the American identity beyond being ‘anti-British’ – a task which arguably continues today. This article concludes that there was not a particularly strong ‘American identity’ in 1776.



Written by Victoria Bettney



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