Revolution in Context: An Interview with Justin du Rivage

Revolution Against Empire featuring detail from “The Anti-Stamp-Act” (Yale University Press)

The American Revolution is the keystone of the US national story and so its origins have garnered much attention from American historians. But to what extent were the Revolution’s causes imperial, transnational, or even global in nature? Justin du Rivage’s new book Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics, and the Origins of American Independence (Yale University Press, 2017) makes a powerful argument that competing ideologies of sovereignty developed on both sides of the Atlantic. In this wider context, it becomes clear that 1776 did not erupt from a divide between “British” and “American”, but from the clash between establishment, authoritarian, and radical ideologies of governance and reform.

Author Justin du Rivage (Justin du Rivage)

Justin du Rivage received his PhD from Yale. He previously taught American history at Stanford and currently works as a consultant. We recently spoke with Dr. du Rivage from his London home about the book, crossing historiographical boundaries, and his thoughts on moving between academia and the private sector.

Elizabeth C. Libero

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your background and what inspired you to study and write history?

JUSTIN DU RIVAGE

I became interested in history in college, really, because I thought it was the best way of making sense of the politics of the present. It seemed like historical narratives would give us a better understanding of the conflicts we face in our own world, and serve as a road map for understanding those. You can’t really understand present political and social conflict without history. So in that way my interest was very much driven by present concerns, and honestly I think the moment where it clicked was probably the first American history course I took in college. It was kind of a greatest hits of American historiography from the very early origins of European settlement in North America to the end of the American Civil War. We read a couple of books in that class—particularly Edward Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (year of publication?) and David Blight’s Race and Reunion (year?)–that I thought were probably more useful for understanding American politics than anything I had read in any political science or international relations class I had ever taken. I was hooked from that point forward!

INTERVIEWER

Was that part of the genesis of Revolution Against Empire?

DU RIVAGE

This project originated in my first year of graduate school when I was taking a seminar taught by Steve Pincus on the British Empire and the British state in early modern Europe. I had gone to graduate school with an interest in writing on the American Revolution and using history as a way of making sense of the American constitutional order. At that point I thought I was going to write a dissertation on the American and French Revolutions because I thought there were interesting things to be said about how American relations with France had influenced the development of American constitutionalism. But when I took this seminar in graduate school I ended up struggling with the question of why there was a revolution in British North America but not anywhere else in the British Empire. And that really was the genesis of the book, trying to explain that puzzle. The taxation element came later as a way of answering that question. But it was really in trying to find a way of explaining why you get different reactions in different parts of the British Empire–even though we know that there was radicalism in Britain and there was radicalism in Canada and in the British West Indies and, even if obviously the politics was rather different in South Asia, even there I think it is fair to say that the British Empire in India came under enormous strain between 1760 and 1785. So given that lack of stability all over the British Empire there does seem to be a really interesting historical puzzle; one that touched on a lot of the same issues that I had been interested in previously.

INTERVIEWER

That was always a frustration for me with studying American history and always wondering, why these 13 colonies? Why not Jamaica or Quebec?

DU RIVAGE

There have been a few scholars who have tried to address that question, I’m certainly not the first person who has thought about that. There are people like Andrew O’Shaughnessy and some of Jack Greene’s students who have at least considered the issue. But those scholars aside, there is so much of a desire to create a kind of national American narrative that it’s hard to get people thinking in imperial terms. The book comes from a position that eighteenth-century America was very much part of the European world and part of the British Empire, and so talking about America as a thing apart doesn’t make sense. For all of the criticism of American exceptionalism in American historiography I think a lot of historians still are American exceptionalists. They may be critics of elements of American history: the history of slavery, the dispossession of Native Americans. But they nonetheless see those things as being particular to America as opposed to part of wider global issues. That’s not true of all historians, but many American historians are quite committed to creating a national narrative. So trying to consider American history as British imperial history, for a lot of Americanists, is a bit of a stretch.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if some of that has to do with the kinds of sources people are going to or the kinds of archives?

DU RIVAGE

I think so but I think it’s also how they use those archives. I’ll give you a very good example. My book uses a lot of political papers and a lot of parliamentary debates. When I used those sources, I tried to read them in their entirety. In Parliament, they debated the American colonies, and then they’d debate India and then they’d debate rioting in London. For the people in that room those are all of a piece, of trying to govern this empire. Americanists, when they consider a British archive, will often mine it for material on America. They won’t try and look at it obliquely and ask, what are these people talking about in domestic British politics that might influence how they’re thinking about politics in America? What are their preoccupations? And if you start to think about that, then debates about things like the cider duty or rioting in London become much more relevant for the issue of how to govern this empire. People like Pauline Maier had thought a little about this, in terms of thinking about connections between American radicals and John Wilkes, for example. But even in those cases there was less of an attempt to reconstruct British politics from the ground up than to try and figure out how Americans drew on Britain.

I don’t want to suggest that what I tried to do with the book came out of nowhere; I’m definitely standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of drawing on the work of Bernard Bailyn and many of his students, for example. But I think what I was trying to do was to take it a step further, and to take the empire as a whole and think about America’s place in it.

INTERVIEWER

One thing I noticed was that it was very seamless–it felt like one story. I never felt like I was being whisked back and forth across the Atlantic. From a writing standpoint, how did you deal with that?

DU RIVAGE

That was a challenge. As I wrote first a dissertation and then a book, I definitely had to wrestle with the question of how to organize this narrative. I could have broken it down on the level of individual paragraphs as opposed to on the level of entire chapters. And obviously characters that are kind of American intervene in the British story–Benjamin Franklin, for instance, is front and center in a lot of the story that takes place in London. The reason I focused chapters on British politics and then on American politics, was that I felt very strongly that one of the problems in American historiography was that it didn’t understand the British politics as British domestic politics.

Americans make everything about them. They have a tendency to make the British politics in American Revolutionary narratives all about America. But that wasn’t the case. There were real debates about things that mattered for America but weren’t, in the first instance, about America. The only way I could really tell that story was if I wrote about British politics and what was going on in Britain and separating it out by geography. I also was conscious that there was a danger that if I melded the two together, one narrative would kind of overwhelm the other. The British narrative might overwhelm the American narrative; or, what would traditionally happen is that the American narrative would overwhelm the British narrative. I let British politics stand on its own, until I got to the story on the ground in America, and then told that story. The only chapter where I kind of combined the stories (and then it is broken up into sections) is the Stamp Act chapter, which is kind of the fulcrum of the book.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking about the Stamp Act, another thing that was interesting to me was the way you brought taxes back to the story. In my experience, in high school, that’s what we learned: it was a revolution against taxes. But then, after high school, in college and graduate school, we discussed all kinds of other ideas about culture, creole elites, boycotting material goods, etc. You brought the taxation element back, in a different way, connecting it to the political structure and political ideology.

DU RIVAGE

If you think about the way standard American Revolutionary courses get taught in colleges, the taxes never entirely left, but you’re right, the idea that it was about taxes always seemed too obvious. One well-known historian described his own view to me as: in the first instance, the independence movement was about taxes but by 1776 it was about a whole bunch of other things, particularly sovereignty. That’s a view that is fairly common in the sense that the Stamp Act sort of touches off the imperial crisis. But Parliament repeals the Stamp Act, and the other taxes that they try to pass aren’t all that significant. So if this is about taxation without representation, then it’s really about the latter part of that formulation–it’s really about the representation bit. Ultimately it’s a conflict over sovereignty—who will rule? There are other elements you can think about, such as the way sovereignty issues was articulated through material culture or the way consumption informed colonists’ boycotts. There are other narratives that have become popular of late that make the revolution about conflicts with Native Americans or about slavery for example. And I wouldn’t say that those narratives are wrong on their own terms. But I would say that there is still a problem at the end of the day which is that British North Americans revolted against the British Empire, and they did so for political reasons. If we’re going to take the people involved at their word, taxes played a big part in that. Now that’s not to say that they can be bracketed off from a whole host of other issues of imperial governance—and in fact that’s sort of the point! Taxes are the sticking point but they represent a whole lot of other things: inequality, domination, justice. But at the end of the day they could never really reconcile the issue of taxation. In Revolution Against Empire, what I’m arguing is, ultimately the taxes are about the power of the imperial state, and what the imperial state does to the people that it governs. All of those issues are tied up in taxation. Obviously, those have offshoots to issues like, for example, whether the state would protect colonists against Native Americans. And that ties into a whole history of racial antagonism that many historians have uncovered. But taxes were the sticking point because they made possible all of those different imperial policies.

“Mr. Trade”: The American war blamed for economic hardship in Britain (Library of Congress)

INTERVIEWER

That came across really strongly when you compared the ways people were questioning what was going on in Bengal, and the East India Company collecting the diwani taxes there, and questioning what was appropriate for the British government to do. So what came across to me in the book was that taxes are a way to enact or manifest what people feel is the government’s role.

DU RIVAGE

Absolutely right. One of the “aha moments” for me in this project was sitting in the Huntington Library in Southern California and coming across a letter from George Grenville, where he basically makes an argument against the idea that Parliament can pass laws but it can’t raise taxes in the absence of representation. He says, well, you know all taxes aren’t just revenue measures. They’re ultimately about governance. They’re about shaping behavior. They’re about encouraging and discouraging certain kinds of behavior. What he was driving at is that taxes are the mechanism by which you create the kind of state you want with the kinds of people that you want. That ties in with Bengal in the sense that for American revolutionaries what they saw going on in Bengal was absolutely what they didn’t want to see happen in North America. And for them what was going in Bengal and the debates over Bengal were about what kind of empire they were going to have, and to what end were they going to use political power in the economic sphere?

It’s very much a question about who gets what, and what the empire in Bengal looks like is that they’re basically mining it for everything they can, with no respect for the people who are there. In terms of imperial subjects, it would be very easy to say, “ok the British were imperialists, and they looked down on South Asians.” Which they did. Even if there wasn’t the sort of nineteenth-century scientific racism in the eighteenth century, there was cultural chauvinism in spades. Many British people, even more progressive voices, looked down on South Asians. But it doesn’t follow from that that everybody saw what the British Empire should be doing in South Asia in the same way. Views about the empire in South Asia definitely existed on a continuum. There were certainly many voices that were critical of British policy in South Asia and saw it as coterminous with what was going on in the American colonies. I think that it’s significant that the British acquire the diwani in the same year as the Stamp Act crisis occurs. It’s not something that American historians have paid enough attention too, but they are big inflection points for the whole British Empire. Peter Marshal does pay attention to this, but to my knowledge, it doesn’t really play a big role in your standard American history course. The Stamp Act is the story; the diwani isn’t the story. But when you consider the principle actors: George Grenville’s ally is Robert Clive and it’s Clive and Grenville who are really the engineers of trying to get this Indian land revenue. So I think the Bengal piece is absolutely critical for understanding the wider ambitions of these reform projects. Going back to what I said before, Americans have a tendency to make the revolution all about them, and they were obviously an important part in imperial reform, but only a part.

INTERVIEWER

I agree, and I think looking at it in context doesn’t take away from that at all. It’s still an American story, but it’s that context that shows why it is an important one, and that clarifies some of the causes and attitudes better. This also relates back to your point about looking at the sources in the context they occurred.

DU RIVAGE

When I think about the archival strategy that I used, with key words to pull things out of archives, obviously things like “Stamp Act” or “American Revolution” or “colonies” were things I searched. But I was also looking for things like “riots”, “taxes”, any number of different domestic taxes like the cider duty and excise tax. This is another reason why the taxation element was useful because it focused my research on a specific topic that touched on a lot of other issues. By looking for those different kinds of things in the archives, you get a much wider view of what British politics was about in the time and how the American revolution fits in.

INTERVIEWER

So speaking of widening our views, can you tell us about how you came to leave academia for the private sector? And do you have any advice for historians considering career paths outside of academia?

DU RIVAGE

It was in part a combination of circumstances and opportunity, and in part a certain set of intellectual preoccupations that are at the heart of the book that led to me moving into the private sector. I have always been very interested in, and the book is very much about, the relationship between the economy and the politics of the state. I have always wanted to understand that better, that’s why I wrote the book. That is ultimately a contemporary interest. I’m kind of a presentist in the sense that I think the questions that we should ask and our ultimate concern should be about the present, because that’s where we live and face enormous challenges socially and politically. So I think we should be focused on addressing issues and concerns in the present. But I’m also kind of a historian’s historian who believes you should find the answers in the archives and be guided by the circumstances in the past; the world that people experienced in the past. That’s always been a tension that historians have faced.

I wrote the book in the midst of the financial crisis and its aftermath. In writing the book I became increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t throw myself into the issues we face right now. Big issues about how the economy functions very differently for different people, the way power articulates itself through the economy, and the growth of wealth inequality–those issues I could only really address obliquely through the book. And while those issues were very much live issues in the eighteenth century, the world was very different then, and you can’t write a good book about the American Revolution if you try to map the present back on to the past. One example is that the book is very much about the rise of austerity politics. Arguments in favor of austerity today largely focus on cutting the welfare state. But there wasn’t really an eighteenth-century welfare state in the way it exists now. (Not to say that there weren’t sort of little welfare states at the local level.) So if you’re really concerned about wanting to make a mark in the present, you are limited as an eighteenth-century historian within a history department. That’s probably a good thing from a standpoint of being a good historian because you should be limited by those things. History is very useful for making sense of the present, but it doesn’t work very well if you try to impose the present on it.

So there are limits to what you can do as a historian. Toward the end of the book I was hungry to really try and understand better how the financial system and the economy and the state interact with each other in the here and now, and to bring the skills and experiences that I had developed as a historian into that. A lot of it depends on luck and circumstances. Certainly it was tied to my wife getting a job in the UK. We always had a two-body problem, and so her taking a job in the UK was an opportunity for me to take this new step and to leave academia, at least for the moment, and try to really understand how the financial system works, how regulation works, and to really engage with contemporary issues in a meaningful way. They are many of the same issues I treated as a historian. And certainly at some point I would be very interested in finding a way to combine the two because I think the world of contemporary politics and finance is somewhat distant from the knowledge and experience of most historians.

INTERVIEWER

That conflict between wanting to do excellent history and also have a positive impact on the present and future community—I’ve felt that myself, even as a PhD student.

DU RIVAGE

To sort of crib Marx a little bit, the philosophers have tried to interpret the world but really the point is to change it. Historians who have also tried to be activists in their historiography have sometimes been successful in writing really good historiography but it’s a high-risk activity, and it’s a high-risk activity because being a good historian and being a good activist, or even if you’re not an activist, being a person who is trying to make meaningful change in the present, are two different things. I do think you kind of have to choose, even if maybe your life goes through different phases between them. It’s difficult to do both at once; at least I’m not capable of doing both at once!

INTERVIEWER

Maybe down the road!

DU RIVAGE

I do think–and this is certainly the spirit that informed the writing of the book–I do think we would benefit from more engagement with history from people who are engaged in those present concerns, whether they be in the academy or in business, law, and politics. Certainly, some people are very much engaged with that but I think we would benefit from more, and by the same token I think historians would benefit from more engagement with other fields and other methodologies. And certainly there are historians who are very far from antiquarians but I do think there is a fair amount of antiquarianism in the discipline that would benefit from a little bit more engagement with at least ideas and people in politics, law, and, dare I say it, business and finance. Some historians already do this, but I think more is probably better.

INTERVIEWER

This compartmentalization happens even within academia where even sub-fields in the same discipline can become somewhat insular.

DU RIVAGE

I do think that the lack of crossover in different sub-disciplines is unfortunate and we would benefit from more overlap. Certainly that was one of my motivations for moving into the private sector. My interests crossed a lot of different borders in terms of the writing of history, and I tried to straddle an American historiography and a British imperial historiography, and not just Atlantic history that has very much been in vogue. It was a bit of a challenge in the historical profession as it currently exists. In the private sector, you can pragmatically approach problems, as opposed to being expected to write to a certain set of historiographical problems that were defined by time and geography. I was keen to do something that would allow me to solve problems and to deploy a full suite of intellectual tools to solve those problems.

Britannia and America Reconcile (Library of Congress)

History has certainly opened up a lot in the last thirty to forty years in terms of multi-disciplinary approaches, the rise of transnational history, Atlantic history, different kinds of interdisciplinary history. Yet from the standpoint of how the discipline is structured, the Americanists are over here, and the Europeanists over there; the modernists are over here, and the early modernists are over there. For me, coming to history with a desire to understand a certain set of issues and problems, that set of divisions was very frustrating and almost self-defeating in a way. I hoped moving into the private sector or leaving the academy for the public sector would be an opportunity to bring different pieces together intellectually to solve problems.

There needs to be a lot more backwards thinking: where are we trying to get to, and what are the best steps to get to that end point? There are different approaches we might take to build an intellectual universe that is useful to other human beings. I don’t think the acquisition of knowledge should be a selfish endeavor. I think it should be about helping people, particularly given the contemporary political and social moment.

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