When did the war of independence first get described as a revolution? Was it so considered by the people who were engaged in it? Are there any modern students of the period who deny that it was a revolution?
OK, I’ll take a stab at this. Not easy questions to answer holistically.
European political philosophers had discussed the aspects of “revolutionary” governmental change for decades, if not centuries, prior to the American War for Independence (AWI).
The term “revolution” was notably used 80 years before the AWI. The ousting of catholic King James II in 1688-1689, replacing him with the joint protestant monarchy of his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange via the method of Dutch military conquering of Scotland, Ireland, followed by key English leadership defections, desertions, capitulations and surrender of the Lords of Parliament (a house stacked by King James II), was called “the Glorious Revolution”. While this action was primarily a regime change-- the replacement of one monarch (catholic) with a pair of monarchs (protestant) by military force -- as a condition of assuming the throne William and Mary were forced to sign a document called the “Declaration of Rights” (subsequently known as the “Bill of Rights”), which asserted several principles such as the illegality of prerogative suspending and dispensing powers, the prohibition of taxation without parliamentary consent, and the principle of holding regular parliaments. In reality, the “Bill of Rights” placed few real restrictions on the crown. It was not until 1694 that the call for regular parliaments was backed up by the Triennial Act. Following the Triennial Act, Parliament gained powers over taxation, over the royal succession, over appointments and over the right of the crown to wage war independently. However, the “Glorious Revolution” fails in the enlightenment definition of “revolution” because it wasn’t a fundamental change of government: monarchs replaced monarchs. Plus, it failed to limit the power of monarch or parliament through a body of law or enact a constitution applicable to the rights of citizens; no draft of a constitution adopted by the citizens who would be ruled by it. Last, it wasn’t a rising by the people to affect change, but rather a conquest by a foreign military alliance to impose a favorable crown succession. Because of these flaws, the Septennial Act of 1716 was able to effectively undermine the terms of the 1694 Triennial Act, and subsequent abuses of both monarchial and parliamentary power required further adaptations throughout the next centuries.
In the late 17th and early 18th century the political meaning of the term “revolution” began to be more definitively shaped by enlightenment philosophers. The revolutionary nature of the AWI was not simply a regime change, but rather the creation of an entirely new nation and the adoption of a new form of government by that nation. Though the sprawling nature of the American “continental” governate and slow communication made the form of direct democracy envisioned by enlightenment philosophers impractical (Rousseau’s theory of direct democracy), the American republican (representative) democracy met the enlightenment era philosophical definition of “democracy” and was substantively different in both form and execution from the former monarchial-based government; and it was backed by a constitution and code of law at both the state and federal levels.
Though the term “revolution” was better defined by the time of the outbreak of the AWI in 1775, it was not an appropriate term for the AWI until the point at which the colonists determined to change the nature of the conflict from one which sought to preserve their rights as Englishmen to one which sought to establish a new nation under new principles of government. We might argue that an effective “revolution” had already taken place in Massachusetts; since the colonists had created a democratic government which controlled the instruments of power (legislative, legal, executive) throughout the colony to supplant the previous governmental structures which had been suspended (disbanded) by the Crown. Arguably, after the Boston Port Act Massachusetts could have been described as fighting to preserve this newly adopted governmental structure already in place. The same argument arguably applied to Connecticut for an even greater period, since Connecticut had been governed virtually autonomously by a locally elected legislative, executive, and judicial establishment since 24 January 1639; when the delegates from assembled colonial towns adopted the first written constitution in the world composed by those it governed, known as “Fundamental Orders”. However, these two colonies were unique until Crown-appointed governors closed the offices of administration in other colonies and fled the land, being replaced by locally elected legislators, judiciary, and legal officers. The bright line might be considered the Declaration of Independence. Until that time correspondence between the Continental Congress and Britain’s ruler had focused on hope of reconciliation. Thus, the Declaration of Independence serves as that unique moment when the stated intent of the united colonies changed from reconciliation under the British monarch to independent governance of a new nation under democratic principles.
With that as background, you ask whether the American colonists recognized the AWI as “revolutionary” in its own time. The answer is an unqualified “yes”. Many of those we consider “founding fathers” were students of the enlightenment and studied the political and social philosophy espoused by Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, etc. They were aware of the elements of revolution and used the term in private correspondence long before the advent of open warfare with Britain. But, if we consider the advent of true “revolution” to have occurred at about the time that colonists determined to fight for self rule, then acknowledgement of the AWI as a “revolution” would have had to occur after that moment. It absolutely did, on both sides of the Atlantic and Europe. These are but a very few applicable examples:
- April 1776, William Henry Drayton’s charge to a South Carolina Grand Jury: Carolinians: heretofore you were bound - by the American Revolution you are now free. The change is most important, most honorable, most beneficial… Unexpected, wonderful and rapid Movements, character the British and American Revolutions - They do not appear to have been premeditated by Man.
- 21 March 1778, Thomas Paine, “American Crisis”: “… this distinguished era is blotted by no one misanthropical vice. In short, if the principle on which the cause is founded, the universal blessings that are to arise from it, the difficulties that accompanied it, the wisdom with which it has been debated, the fortitude by which it has been supported, the strength of the power which we had to oppose, and the condition in which we undertook it, be all taken in one view, we may justly style it the most virtuous and illustrious revolution that ever graced the history of mankind.”
- 1779, Congress ordered the publication of a book titled, “Observations on the American Revolution” written by Governor Morris in Philadelphia (“Observations on the American Revolution”)
Last, as to whether any serious historians disagree with calling the AWI a “revolution”: There is probably some discussion regarding the theoretical meaning of “revolution”, but I’ve not read anything from a serious historian disputing the AWI as “revolutionary” (let them speak now or forever hold their peace). Even Marxist theorists agree that the AWI was “revolutionary” because it determined the forms of bourgeois political form, as well as capitalism and the free market economy that altered empire-colony subsidiary relationships.
Some modern scholars have started describing the AWI as a “civil” war based on the type of fighting that occurred, which is worthy of comment. A “revolutionary” war is by definition fought amongst people of the same country; that does not make it “civil”. That is the nature of all “revolutions”: some citizens will support change, others will oppose it. While the broad object and effect of the AWI was politically “revolutionary”, at least in the sense of the enlightenment era term, the conduct of the war in some areas became partisan in nature; or even a “feud”. In many areas of the country there was a decided preference for independence and self-governance, but in others the balance was more narrow, and the causal factors of strife more local and more personal. In colonies like Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Virginia the fight for principles of individual rights versus submission to demands of an unrepresentative Parliament may have been clear; in other areas of the country, especially the southern frontiers where government had little real effect on daily life and neither side had the resources necessary to exert military control over a vast region, the grand revolutionary principles often faded against personal realities. In those areas differences in religion, affiliation of preachers, economic status, recency of migration, and family ties (both regional and trans-Atlantic) affected allegiances. Differences were also based on a variety of local issues such as prior land disputes, previous legal and familial alliances, or the latest outrage or atrocity committed by either side. Whenever the instruments of government break down, mob rule takes over, and principled advocacy isn’t as important as protecting kin, clan, and hearth. For various reasons, the AWI in the southern regions, particularly in the southern “back country” 1780-1782, became a partisan fight for survival rather than for revolutionary principle.
That is not sufficient region to brand the entire AWI as a “civil” war. When a population fights among itself, whether for revolutionary or civil issues, the fighting can be vicious and the broader purpose becomes indistinguishable. Though in some places at times the AWI fighting took on this partisan aspect, the overall purpose and effect of the AWI, taken broadly, remained “revolutionary” in nature: throwing off the mantle of old government to create a new form of government; and a new nation where none previously existed. For that reason the AWI parallels, and even exceeds, the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions. All of these featured bitter neighbor-on-neighbor partisan fighting and vicious purges of opponents, yet the political goal and end results of substantive changes in form of government define all of these, including the AWI, as “revolutionary”, not “civil” wars.