What defines a civil war?

Why wasn’t the Revolutionary War (the American War for Independence) referred to as a civil war (an internal conflict of the empire of Great Britain/England)?

Or was it? Did it only become referred to as the Revolutionary War after it was over?

How did the British refer to the conflict, especially when it was going on? How about now (if different)?

Technically I’d guess it wasn’t quite a civil war - if today the USA had an overseas colony and there was a war there, nobody would just call it “the second civil war” - they would refer to where it was happening.

Generally, a colonial war between an imperial power and its colony is not regarded as a civil war. The main conflict is between the people of the colony and the troops of the imperial power, rather than among the people of the colony (although there will certainly be some that fight for the imperial power). This is true of the Latin American Wars of Independence and the colonial wars of the 20th Century as well.

A civil war is a war between multiple factions within one nation. Revolutions, by definition, are civil wars, I think. Specifically civil wars that successfully bring about a new form of government.

Colonial wars of independence are different. I don’t think the American Revolution actually counts as a revolution, because one of the main causes was that the American colonies were no longer British. So it was nation versus nation, same as when Cuba fought against Spain. “American Revolution” is a misnomer that stuck. The French Revolution, however, was a real revolution, and also a civil war.

Waited too long

I think that would be an effect, not a cause. The colonies were colonies, under British rule, until the thing was over.

More like… It wasn’t a revolution because the British government in London remained as it was. So would it be a secession? I don’t know. But not strictly a revolution.

America won the Revolutionary War, so it became a war between nations, with America the new member of nations. The Civil War was fought between two regions of America, a single nation. That’s my thinking on it. And the Civil War is referred to as The Rebellion by some in the South, and it it an apt descriptor…

This always seemed nonsensical to me. As it basically means a civil war is a war the pro-independence faction/region LOST (e.g. Biafra), and a war for Independence is one were they WON (e.g. US)

Winners write history.

Political boundaries don’t always follow ethnic and cultural ones, though. The English Civil War had English people on both sides, and the American Civil War had Americans on both sides - the American Revolutionary War had mostly Americans on one side, mostly English/British on the other. The Haitian Revolution had mostly French people on one side, mostly Haitians on the other.

There are certainly grey spots around the edges (is a South Carolinian really the same as a New Yorker?) but I think it’s useful to be able to distinguish the Haitian Revolution as a colonial war and the French Revolution as a civil war, because as wars go, those two were pretty different phenomena.

Likewise the Philippine Insurrection was not American Civil War II.

But India was a British colony, too. That doesn’t mean Indians were British. India was always a separate nation from Great Britain, even when it was under British control.

America is unique though, in that we started off in 1607 as British settlers, but our culture diverged from the motherland over the next century and a half to the point where we felt like our own separate nation. And yes, that was a cause, not an effect (well, the divergence continued during and after the war, so it was more like a cause and an effect) of the War for Independence.

The US isn’t unique in that respect, however. Basically the same thing happened in the Spanish colonies in the New World. Over time the settlers began to feel themselves different from the parent country and fought for independence. In some of these countries the conflict was more in the nature of a civil war than in the US however, since there were factions that wanted to remain with Spain.

Britain learned its lesson with its other possessions which had largely been settled by colonists from the home country. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were given enough self-government to prevent serious rebellion and eventually allowed to become independent countries peaceably.


The USA became a nation after the earlier of those two wars was over. That was the whole point. :slight_smile:

So the “Revolutionary War” was not a revolution. If it had been, the winners would have taken over governing Britain, the king would have been overthrown, etc.

What is customarily in the United States called “the Revolution”, or words to that effect, was never a revolution, and was not fought between two sovereign nations either. A colony (well, a group of colonies) fought to gain independence from the country that established the colony. It’s not strange or special; that kind of war is well known.

Britain (and before that England) was a monarchy, with an unwritten constitution in which the king continued to retain genuine executive power (albeit far from absolute), in conjunction with a parliament in which a hereditary aristocracy also maintained substantial political power (in the House of Lords), and in which the ability of the masses of common people to participate in the government of the country was severely limited, the House of “Commons” having both significant property requirements for voting, and also a radically unrepresentative system of apportioning representatives among the population. The kingdom also had an established Christian church (the Church of England), although the extent to which Catholics and Protestant dissenters from that established church were forcibly repressed was variable–they generally weren’t being hunted down and purged from the land with fire and sword, but they did suffer some real legal disadvantages (especially Catholics). They didn’t try to replace the calendar or anything like that, but the new country did replace the very ancient system of pounds, shillings, and pence with a decimal currency.

The British colonies in America naturally mostly inherited all of this, but there were significant social differences, including a general lack of any sort of native aristocracy and (in a number of colonies) the replacement of the Church of England with other sorts of Christianity (the same was also true of Scotland, where a Presbyterian rather than an Episcopalian church was established, even after the Act of Union). The American Revolution nonetheless can be seen as a genuine “revolution” (albeit a fairly conservative one–the American “revolutionaries” frequently proclaimed they were merely fighting for their ancient and accustomed “rights as Englishment”). The American Colonies did not merely break away from the mother country simply to declare George Washington to be George I of America, or import some German princeling to be their king; they did not seek to create a native-born aristocracy, with the Earl of Poughkeepsie and Viscount Hilton Head and so forth; they did not create an established Church of the United States of any sort. They replaced a monarchy with a republic; an unwritten constitution with a written constitution, which although it had significant checks on democracy had no provisions for any sort of hereditary aristocracy (and in fact expressly banned any such hereditary nobility); the United States became probably the first country in history to officially separate religion from government.

It’s probably wise to distinguish “the American Revolutionary War” from “the American Revolution”; the social and political conditions which led to the American Revolutionary War obviously began to take shape decades before Lexington and Concord; and the transformation of the country to a secular and substantially democratic (for white males at least) republic took decades more after the Treaty of Paris–Massachusetts didn’t disestablish its state-level established church until 1833; suffrage was not extended to all white males (without property requirements) until the early 19th Century. (Similarly, it took decades before the French Revolution even arguably completed the revolutionary transformation of France from the Kingdom of France–an autocratic and Catholic monarchy–to the French Republic–a secular and nationalist state in which power is vested in the French people). Britain itself, having already undergone two revolutions of its own in the previous century (the “English Civil War” and the “Glorious Revolution”) was also well on the way to its own mostly bloodlessly revolutionary transformation from aristocratically-dominated kingdom to in-all-but-name secular democracy.

One similarity between the American Revolutionary War and the Anglo-Scottish Civil Wars (its proximate cause had as much to do with Scotland as England) was that pre-existing institutions of popular representation and legislative power felt that the central power (the King in the earlier case, the Crown in Parliament in the latter) were overstepping their powers and changing the existing balance of powers. Both started out from essentially conservative impulses: the radical constitutional changes came later (you could see the US constitution as a second go at the constitutional settlement the Commonwealth in Britain couldn’t reach in the 1640s/50s).

The difference was that the losers in America had somewhere else to go. In civil wars, they don’t.

Either it was a dismal failure as a revolution - George Washington’s troops never even saw London, and the king and the parliament went on as before - or else it was a huge success as a colonial secession. Take your pick.

Sometimes a major power (like the US) will promote the phrase “civil war” for some conflict somewhere, to help absolve it of any responsibility for intervening to try to stop it (or even to help out in a humanitarian fashion). Case in point: the Congo Wars, especially the last one that peaked around 1998 (IIRC), which were really more like “World wars” — about seven countries involved in a big way.

The point is, the Americans were never trying to change the government in London, or interfere with the king and the parliament; they were trying to change the government in America. It was not just a question of some provinces breaking away from the kingdom so they could have their own king. It was a revolution in the social and political institutions of the Americans themselves.

Something can of course simultaneously be a colonial secession and a revolution. To the extent there were a substantial number of loyalists among the American population who did not want the existing order of things changed, and supported the Crown by armed force, it could also be a civil war, too.

Nonsense. The idea that the American had to be fighting for political change in the entire British Empire for it to be considered a revolution isn’t valid. The whole point is that the Americans considered themselves to be separate from England. They were fighting for independence, but they also ended up changing the political system from a monarchy to a republic. As MEBuckner says, this was unequivocally a revolution (in addition to being a war of independence as well as a civil war).

The Latin American wars of independence are also considered to be revolutions, although they were not seeking to change the government of Spain. They also changed the form of government from monarchy to republic.

Even if the Confederacy had achieved independence in the Civil War, it would probably not be considered a revolution because they retained the same basic form of government as the US.