Andrew O'Shaughnessy with Trevor Burnard

Blog •

Andrew O’Shaughnessy – Visiting International Fellow

This Spring we were delighted to welcome Professor Andrew O’Shaughnessy as a Visiting International Fellow. In the blog below, he reflects on his time at the Institute.

Andrew O'Shaughnessy
Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy Professor of History, University of Virginia

It was a pleasure spending February and March as Visiting International Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute. I was there to complete a book with Trevor Burnard, entitled ‘An Imperial History of the American Revolution’, in which we use a transnational, comparative, imperial approach to help us better understand the American Revolution. My visit included a conference on the topic of the book on March 3, in which we were joined by scholars from France, Germany and Britain. I also gave a paper on behalf of us both at a workshop, part funded by the Institute, entitled ‘“Le Transnationalismes, Crises et Révolutions,” Un Projet IDA institute des Amérique – RÉSEAUX THÉMATIUES’, at the Campus Condorcet in Paris-Aubervilliers on the 10 March. Much of the current writing on the revolution is from a national rather than from an imperial perspective. This was not always the case. During the first half of the twentieth century, the imperial approach was dominant not only for the American Revolution but also for the study of early America.

In his 1957 landmark article ‘Revisions in Need of Revising’, Yale historian Edmund Morgan pronounced the end of the imperial approach to colonial and revolutionary America.  However, he conceded that it had previously been the most fertile and fruitful methodology, and so it has proved to be.  In 2014, in a historiographical article, David Waldstreicher and Michael McDonnell concluded that ‘much of what goes under the trendy label of Atlantic history is really neo-imperial history.’  They suggested that historians of the Atlantic avoided identifying themselves as such because of the pejorative associations of the term ‘imperial’.  But with the adoption of a new imperial approach, which is much broader, less metropolitan and more inclusive, there is a renewed interest in the imperial perspective among historians such as Kathleen Wilson, Patrick Griffin, Julie Flavell, James Fichter, Steven Pincus, James M. Vaughn, Elizabeth Mancke, Max Edelson and Justin du Rivage.

British policy towards America was similar to a series of parallel initiatives throughout the British Empire ... Indeed, we claim that the causes and intentions of these policies are more comprehensible when appreciated in the broader imperial context - the revolution was a result of change on the British side, not the American.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy

As noted by Stephen Conway, the UCL keynote speaker at the conference, ‘The mainland colonies reacted to British initiatives much more than they set the agenda.’ This echoes the argument of a 1997 article by T.H. Breen, who claimed that American historians had not sufficiently absorbed ‘a rapidly changing English historiography’ which helps explain British policy towards America. He observed that ‘it was still possible for someone writing about the American Revolution simply to ignore the English side of the story.’

This remains true. Yet the imperial policies that precipitated the revolutionary crisis were shaped by seven different governments between 1760 and the outbreak of the American Revolution. Historians have often treated these policies as having been disjointed and unsystematic. They argue that the policies had frequently been introduced at the behest of different departments and interest groups, such as the merchants and planters of the West India lobby. In the words of J.C.D. Clark, they were ‘a series of pragmatic responses to administrative problems’”

Our book was conceived with the view that the imperial approach retains value for the study of the American Revolution. The domestic and national approach currently most favored by historians is often misleading and distorting, encouraging the impression that there was no scheme or coherence to the politics. The imperial approach offers a more profound understanding of the long-term causes of the American Revolution by considering changes and trends elsewhere in the empire and in Britain not just within America.

By looking at colonies which did not rebel, several of which were slaveholding colonies in the British Caribbean, an area where both myself and Trevor Burnard have special expertise, we can better explain those that did.  In our book, we show how the study of the loyal colonies helps us to refine and prioritize different explanations of the revolution. Similarly, the Revolutionary War is better understood as a war of empires which overstretched the resources of Britain, in which European navies played a key role, and in which the last battle was fought in India. The final chapter discusses the extent to which the newly independent United States became an imperial entity and the impact of the revolution on the British Empire.

While the primary focus of our book is upon broadening our perspectives upon the American Revolution, the imperial approach also offers a valuable comparative context for social history of the period. There has long been a tradition of the comparative history of slavery both within the empire and between empires, and Trevor Burnard has added chapters to the book with titles such as ‘An Empire of Slavery’. There is in addition a growing comparative literature upon indigenous peoples and gender in the context of imperial history. A good example of the benefit of the imperial approach to social history is the use of enslaved and indigenous peoples in military service during the war when the British had to resort to arming native and enslaved peoples, Sepoys and Irish Catholics on an unprecedented scale. This led to the creation of the largest slave army in the world in the Caribbean with the West India Regiments in the 1790s.

We now have a draft of the book and will spend the next couple of months revising it. I am very grateful to all those who helped my visit be so productive, especially Trevor Burnard and Sophie Blanchard.

(References for the citations are available by contacting Andrew directly at

Last updated