Factionalism in America During the Revolution

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Factionalism in America During the Revolution

FACTIONALISM IN AMERICA DURING THE REVOLUTION. Throughout the Revolution, America was split into hostile factions on the grounds of race, religion, social and economic interests, and politics, making it impossible to speak in sweeping generalities about "Americans." In many instances factionalism amounted to regionalism—New Englanders opposing New Yorkers, northerners finding little cause for compatibility with southerners, Tidewater elites competing with those living inland, and nearly everyone looking askance at Rhode Islanders as a home to all sorts of to all sorts of wild and fuzzy ideas about tolerance. Boundary disputes were at the base of animosities between colonies, particularly New York and New Hampshire (and much of the rest of New England) over the region that became Vermont. The Wyoming Valley was the scene of conflict before and after the Revolution, and Pennsylvania struggled with Virginia for control of what became western Pennsylvania, particularly Pittsburgh. There were also specific regional animosities; for instance, people living on New England's northern frontier despised the merchants of Albany for selling guns and ammunition to the Indians.

The white population of the colonies was predominantly Anglo-Saxon, the New Englanders being particularly proud to trace their ancestry in America back more than one hundred years. Considering themselves members of founding families, they often held newer immigrant groups, such as the Scots-Irish, Germans, and Huguenots, in contempt. Many of these newer arrivals gravitated toward the frontier, where they soon had economic as well as ethnic and religious differences with the older settlements. Settlers in western Pennsylvania came to feel ignored by the province's Quaker oligarchy, and they were denied proportional representation in the legislature. The same held for the western counties of all the southern states, even after the drafting of constitutions during the Revolution. Class divisions also became evident during the war, as many farmers and artisans favored paper currency and schemes such as the land bank, only to be frustrated by the wealthy oligarchs who preferred specie or hard money. Such class divisions often had deeper roots, the memory of the Regulator troubles in the Carolinas and the rent riots in New York and New Jersey often determining political allegiances during the Revolution. Just because these factions often shared a commitment to American independence did not mean that they united in concerted opposition to a common foe. Often they were looking beyond the victory over Great Britain, recognizing that the structuring of government and society during the Revolution could have significant long-term consequences.

Complicating these divisions further were the sharp political divisions aroused by the Revolution. Though historians have been unable to determine with great precision the number of those committed to independence and of those who sought to retain British rule, it seems fair to say that at least one-fifth of the colonies' white population remained loyal to the crown. Even Patriots were keenly divided between those with a more conservative vision who feared that the Revolution might unleash an excess of democracy and radicals who hoped to attain precisely that end. What the former particularly feared was that the rhetoric of revolution might extend to the enslaved people of America, who accounted for between one-fourth and one-third of the new nation's total population. For slaves, it was the British and not the Patriots who offered freedom. Similarly, the other often-forgotten portion of America's population, the Indians, understood that a British victory would help to preserve their lands.

While most of these problems persisted after the war against Britain had been won, some of these divisions especially plagued the efforts of Patriot leaders to attain unity during the Revolution. New England leaders, who dominated the period of resistance to British measures from 1763 to 1775, realized that they needed the support of other colonies, particularly Virginia, if the Revolution were to succeed. Hence, they went to considerable lengths to avoid giving the impression that they wanted to dominate either Congress or the Continental army.

Although the necessity of appointing generals with an eye to equitable state representation resulted in the elevation of many incompetents to positions of military leadership, these were often pushed into assignments where they could not do too much harm to the cause. Only in the Northern Department did factionalism seriously jeopardize military operations. There, the New England-New York antagonisms soon became evident. As commander in chief of this department, General Philip Schuyler did not receive the wholehearted support of the New England colonies during the Canada invasion. He encountered a lack of cooperation that verged on treason in his opposition to Burgoyne's offensive, and it was pressure from the New England delegates in Congress that led to his replacement by Horatio Gates. Regionalism loomed large in the American effort against the Bennington raid and in several other frontier battles. It also figured in the so-called Conway Cabal. Class conflict underlay much of the animosity of the common soldier for Congress in the last years of the war, fueling mutinies, resistance to orders, and declining morale. In this context, Washington deserved special credit for balancing many of these factions and holding his army together until 1783.

SEE ALSO Bennington Raid; Burgoyne's Offensive; Conway Cabal.


Young, Alfred F., ed. The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976.

                             revised by Michael Bellesiles