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Did the British colonists refer to themselves as Americans? This is a hard question to answer because there are very few primary sources left that can directly answer this question for us. Often professional historians will have to refer to linguistic analysis of how people wrote to demonstrate how they best identified in past societies.
The British Colonists did not refer to themselves as Americans up until the eve of the American Revolution. Rather they identified as inhabitants of their respective states and fellow English citizens. However, starting in the mid 17th century historians have noticed a growing trend of American identity which ultimately led to the United States of America.
This is a fascinating subject of research. There exists evidence that British Colonists began to diverge their language from British English to a more rudimentary American English during the 17th century. This indicates that around the time of the American Revolution there was a growing sense of an American identity among the British Colonists.
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Without further ado, here is an entire article on the topic of did the colonists refer to themselves as Americans.
The Growing Sense Of An American Identity During The Late 18th Century
In order to answer the question of whether or not the colonists referred to themselves as Americans we must first look at when an American identity began to form.
Towards the end of the 17th century the English language spoken in the colonies began to shift. At first this was unnoticeable but over from 1650 up through 1700 several new terms were spoken.
Legal historians have records of legal transcripts from this time period in American history. Across the colonies people began to refer to themselves as locals from a given state first, and then English citizens/subjects second.
This is interesting as it demonstrates that during the late 17th century a new form of American identity was beginning to emerge across the British colonists. However, by this point they still referred to themselves as English.
Because of this we can see the start of a growth of identity of the concept of an American nation during from 1650-1700.
The Birth of Early American Identity From 1700-1754
From 1700-1753 the British Colonists began to refer to their joint states as America. However, they were still British Colonists and identified as English.
This started to change over this time period however. From 1690-1754 newspapers started to become published in major towns throughout the colonies.
The first newspaper of the British colonies was the Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick which was published in Boston in 1689. This newspaper is special because it aired a single story that demonstrated a shift in identity.
This was a tabloid piece about King Louis XIV of France sleeping with his son’s wife. This and several other stories resulted in the newspaper being shut down by colonial authority after only one publication.
This critique of Royal Authority in the form of press would continue for the remainder of the history of the British Colonies. This shows a vital change in mindset which would continue from 1700-1754 where multiple questions of identity across the British Colonies would emerge.
On the eve of the French and Indian war which started in 1753 the British Colonists were beginning to identify with the concept of an American nation, although they still primarily identified as English people.
As a result from 1700-1754 the British Colonists began to recognize there was an American identity but they did not yet refer to themselves as Americans.
British Colonists Beginning To Assume An American Identity: 1754-1776
In between the years of 1754 to 1776 the British Colonists began to assume a quasi-unified identity of shared common interest that could be called an American identity.
This shared common identity was in no way solidified but it did start to exist after the start of the French and Indian war where the colonies would have to work together.
During and shortly after the French and Indian War the British Colonists would refer to themselves as inhabitants of a certain state and then fellow English citizens. The British colonists saw themselves as the same as their brethren back in the British Isles.
However, after the end of the 7 Years War (French and Indian War) the English Crown incurred substantial debt. Before this war the British Colonies paid nearly nothing in taxes or goods back to the English Crown. King George III ended up levying taxes on American goods to help pay back the debt from the 7 Years War with France.
Normally this would be ok, but the British Colonists up until this point had created their own form of representative government in their respective states. King George III would implement direct control over these states which included control over the legislative assemblies.
As a result of this the British Colonists began to band together to push back against the English Crown. At this point the British Colonists began to refer to themselves as Americans but also as English subjects. We have accounts of two English Clergymen in 1776 arguing over the identify of the Tea dumped during the Boston Tea Party.
One English Clergymen argues that it was just Tea, while the other argues that it was not just tea… it was ‘English Tea.’
This set a direct precedent. There was a division in identity between the English and the British Colonists on both sides of the Atlantic. This formation of identity would culminate in the creation of the Declaration of Independence where Thomas Jefferson refers to the collective identify of the British colonists as the new United States of America.
As such, sometime between the end of the French and Indian War and the Declaration of Independence we can see a shift in identity across the British Colonists. By the end of this shift the British Colonists began to refer to their collective identity as first their state identity, and then the national identity of American.
There you have it; an entire article going over the question of whether or not the colonists referred to themselves as Americans.
Generally speaking it’s near impossible to answer questions of identity across large bodies of people in history. Many historians have incorporated various methodologies and types of evidence to argue their point but for now nobody can definitely provide an answer to the concept of historical identity.
Here at The History Ace I strive to publish the best history articles on the internet. If you enjoyed this article then consider subscribing to the free newsletter and sharing around the internet.
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