Phillips cites many instances in which ethnic or denominational affiliation was a better predictor of loyalties than economic interest was. For example, the Quaker merchants of Nantucket remained loyal to the Crown, or at least neutral, while their Congregational fellow-merchants on the mainland, with similar economic interests, became fervent Patriots. Congregationalists remembered a long history of conflict with royal, Anglican authority dating back to before the English Civil War, while Quakers remembered Charles II as the friend and protector of William Penn, and remembered the persecution of Quakers by Congregationalist authorities a few generations earlier.
This fine-grained detail supports Phillips’s thesis that the American Revolution was a civil war, not only between different parts of the English-speaking world, but within the colonies as well. Often loyalties were chosen for immediate and fairly arbitrary reasons: If the Hatfields declared for the Congress, the McCoys would typically declare for the King.
Particularly useful is Phillips’s detailed explanation of how Lord North’s government infuriated so many Americans and moved them to action. Americans have traditionally understood the run-up to the Revolution as a matter of taxation and lack of representation, and of acts of high-handed arrogance such as the East India Company’s official tea monopoly. Contrarians have pointed out that Americans received defense from the Empire that cost far more to provide than was received from America in tax revenue, that Britons paid far more than Americans per capita in taxation, and that before too long, independent Americans were paying higher taxes to their own federal government than they ever had paid to the Crown, for public goods that were for a long time inferior.
Phillips makes it clear that although these contrarian arguments are technically true, they are irrelevant. The real root of the Empire’s problem was that the mercantilist paradigm, which had overseen a period of great growth and prosperity, had become the engine of its own destruction. Mercantilism held that colonies should be sources of raw materials for their metropolis, and in turn be captive markets for the mother country’s manufactures and sophisticated financial services. The Navigation Acts and the decisions of the Board of Trade were all based on this theory. But America had grown so prosperous and populous that, inevitably, it wanted more, better, and cheaper manufactured goods and financial services than Britain was able or willing to supply, and America had more products than the British Empire was able to absorb. Home manufacture and free trade with non-British markets, both illegal, were what America wanted and needed. Mercantilist theory, and the crony-capitalist interests of Britain’s corrupt Old Whig system, worked together to deny these wishes. Americans of that time argued — as Phillips shows, justifiably — that although the formal, overt tax burden on them was low, the hidden taxes of the monopoly system and the opportunity costs of the mercantilist regulatory system were enormous, and were hampering American development.
Furthermore, the British Empire was by 1775 getting rich not so much because of its mercantilist system as in spite of it. Phillips indicates that the previous decades of marvelous growth and prosperity were in substantial measure owing to widespread, even endemic flouting of the Navigation Acts and the manufacturing-licensing system. Americans and Britons alike smuggled at will, with only a token and inadequate revenue-collection system to occasionally harass them. When they were caught, juries would refuse to convict them. (Phillips relates that smuggled Dutch gin was so cheap in England that coastal villagers used it to clean windows.) Americans opened up and expanded iron foundries without licenses or greatly in excess of what licenses permitted. Far from being primarily a resource provider, America had, as its biggest pre-Revolutionary export, ships: A third of the Empire’s merchant fleet was American-made, and by 1775 half of the Empire’s shipbuilding capacity was in America.