A Mighty Empire 

For those who think they “know” the American Revolution, A Mighty Empire presents a very different approach. It argues that roots of the conflict must be traced back to mid-century, and that the patriots were motivated by a desire for expansion, both territorial and economic, far more than any quest for “liberty.” 

The book focuses on five colonies: Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina.


This is Russell Menard’s review in Canadian Review of American Studies, Fall 1989.
Mare Egnal. A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. xv + 381 pp.

A central problem in the historiography of the American Revolution concerns the relationship between economic and political developments. In an older tradition the connection seemed obvious. Mercantilist restrictions, customs racketeering and grasping British merchants were thought to have burdened colonists with severe constraints, official corruption and a heavy debt. Together, it was assumed, they made life within the empire intolerable and drove colonists first into resistance and later, as British intransigence became clear, toward independence. This view now finds few defenders. Indeed, most historians are persuaded that the colonial economy was strong and flexible and that the empire delivered an impressive prosperity, especially to those privileged few who led the Revolution.

The collapse of this earlier paradigm led scholars to separate the Revolutionary process from social and economic developments. The now dominant “neo-Whig” interpretation of the Revolution asserts the primacy of political questions and roots the resistance movement in a broadly-shared ideology that persuaded Americans that British officials were engaged in a determined conspiracy to strip them of their liberties. On three counts Mare Egnal finds the new paradigm unsatisfying. Firstly, since it fails to link the motivating ideas of the Revolution to specific groups, it is unable to account for the deep divisions among the Colonial elite, to explain why some were ardent patriots, others loyal supporters of the Crown. Secondly, it is unable to account for the specifics of the independence movement, to explain why some British enactments were resisted forcefully, others barely noticed. Finally, the neo-Whig focus on one aspect of American ideology isolates a narrow set of issues from broad questions of political economy that linked the Revolutionary movement to day-to-day concerns and aspirations. True enough, Egnal agrees, America moved toward revolution to preserve their liberties, but if we are to understand that movement we must ask a further question: liberties to do what?

A Mighty Empire offers an answer in a stunning re-interpretation of the American Revolution that overcomes the weaknesses of the neo-Whig account by moving economic issues back to center stage. Egnal’s argument is clear and deceptively simple: “in every colony the revolutionary movement was led by an upper-class faction whose passionate commitment to the rise of the New World was evident well before 1763. Although the membership of this group”–the “expansionists” is Egnal’s label–“reflected the influence of self-interest, religion and national origin, what truly gave the faction its unity was its dedication to the rapid development of America” (xi). That dedication was rooted in an appreciation of American achievements and a vision of future greatness. The success of the Colonial economy nurtured the vision. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Americans were surrounded by evidence of their progress in the form of bustling port cities and lively commerce, flourishing farms and plantations, impressive accumulations of wealth and widespread prosperity and, especially, in the growth of population. Expansionists projected that progress into the future, articulating a vision of a mighty empire, the equal of any in world history. That promise might be captured more quickly, American expansionists finally came to believe, if they shook off the control of short-sighted British officials and seized the future for themselves.

A Mighty Empire works out the details of the argument through a close analysis of political and economic developments in five colonies, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina. In each, Egnal shows, coherent factions within the ruling class, divided over their commitment to promoting economic development, local sovereignty and expansion, appeared early in the eighteenth century. Those factions persisted, structuring colonial politics until the expansionists drove their more cautious ruling-class opponents off the political stage with the achievement of independence and the construction of a new nation. And in each colony, the expansionists “alternatively encouraged and checked the mobilization of the common people” (14) as wealthy patriots attempted to realize their vision of empire without unleashing processes that might challenge their ability to govern that empire’s development.

Egnal’s book is not without difficulties. He pays too little attention to ideology, offering sketches of a vague vision of the future rather than detailed analyses of specific programs. He overstates the coherence of the expansionists’ upper-class opponents, called, unhappily, the “nonexpansionists,” a diverse group defined more by their opposition than by any positive program. And he neglects contact and co-operation among expansionists across colonial boundaries, a curious omission in a book concerned to demonstrate the centrality of a broad vision of empire. Such quibbles do not detract from Egnal’s impressive accomplishment. A Mighty Empire is a marvelous book, backing bold generalization with careful attention to detail. It provides a fresh look at the Revolution that ties ideas to particular actors, clarifies a complex process while avoiding reductionism, and shows that the revolutionary movement must be understood as a struggle for the future. A Mighty Empire will shape the debate on the American Revolution among the next generation of scholars.

Russell R. Menard
Department of History
University of Minnesota