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Atlantic Dimensions of the American Revolution: Imperial Priorities and the Portuguese Reaction to the North American Bid for Independence (1775-83) *

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This article explains and contextualizes the reaction of the Portuguese monarchy and government to the rebellion and independence of the British colonies in North America. This reaction was a mixed one, shaped by the simultaneous but conflicting motivations of an economic interest in North American trade, an abhorrence on the part of the Portuguese Crown for democratic rebellion against monarchical authority and a fundamental requirement to maintain a stable relationship with long-time ally Great Britain. Although the Lisbon regime initially reacted very strongly against the Americans’ insurrection, later, under a new queen, the Portuguese moderated their position so as not to damage their long-term imperial political and economic interests. This article also examines the economic and political power context of the contemporary Atlantic World from the Portuguese perspective, and specifically outlines the multiple ties that existed between Portugal and the North American British colonies during the eighteenth century. The argument demonstrates that Portugal reacted according to demands created by its overseas empire: maximizing trading profits, manipulating the balance of power in Europe among nations with overseas colonies and discouraging the further spread of aspirations toward independence throughout the Americas, most notably to Portuguese-held Brazil. The Portuguese role as a fundamental player in the early modern Atlantic World is chronically underappreciated and understudied in modern English-language historiography. Despite the significance of Portugal as a trading partner to the American colonies, and despite the importance of the Portuguese Atlantic colonial system to British commercial and military interests in the eighteenth century, no scholarly treatment of this specific subject has ever appeared in the primary journals that regularly consider Atlantic World imperial power dynamics or the place of the incipient United States within them. This contribution, then, helps to fill an obvious gap in the historical literature of the long eighteenth century and the revolutionary era in the Americas.

Affiliations: 1: University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, E-mail:


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