American Revolution

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The American Revolution is the series of events, ideas, and changes that resulted in the political separation of thirteen colonies in North America from the British Empire and the creation of the United States of America. The American Revolutionary War (17751783) was one part of the revolution, but the revolution began before the first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord and continued after the British surrender at Yorktown. "The Revolution was effected before the War commenced," wrote John Adams. "The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people."

The precise nature and extent of the revolution is a matter of interpretation. It is generally agreed that the revolution originated around the time of the French and Indian War (17541763), and ended with the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States in 1789. Beyond that, interpretations vary. At one end of the spectrum is the view that the American Revolution was not "revolutionary" at all; that it did not radically transform colonial society, but 'simply replaced a distant government with a local one'. The opposite view is that the American Revolution was a unique and radical event, producing significant changes that had a profound impact on world history. Most current interpretations fall somewhere in-between these two positions.

File:Map of territorial growth 1775.jpg
Before the Revolution: The 13 colonies are in red, the pink area was claimed by Great Britain after the French and Indian War, and the orange region was claimed by Spain. Note that this map does not show the bulk of British North America of that time.


Main article: Colonial America

In the early 1760's, Great Britain possessed a vast empire on the North American continent. In addition to the thirteen British colonies, victory in the Seven Years' War had given Great Britain claim over New France (Canada), Spanish Florida, and the Native American lands east of the Mississippi River. A war against France's former Indian allies—Pontiac's Rebellion—had, if not conquered, at least 'pacified' the western frontier. At this time, most white colonists in America considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown, with the same rights and obligations as Englishmen in Britain.


Main article: Colonial government in America

Philosophy and radical thought

The Enlightenment elevated natural philosophy, and began to replace arguments born of tradition and authority with those based upon observation and independent reasoning. The implications of the earlier scientific revolution began to have a greater effect on everyday life and in the conscious thought of men everywhere. Increased publication and communications between like-minded people opened up new areas to question and consideration. The early works of thinkers like John Locke became the analysis of men like Montesquieu. The "deist" views of several of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and their views on the proper form of government have roots in this European Enlightenment, and were a source for ideas regarding separation of church and state and other liberties. In addition, the ideas of "social contract" and the idealism of the "natural man" espoused by John Locke and others, gained wide acceptance in thought.

Religious trends

The Great Awakening was the American extension to the earlier religious revivals in Europe. It called into question the authority of established religious institutions; especially, but not exclusively, the Church of England, whose authority many of the colonists had come to New England to escape. The revival placed emphasis upon individual conscience and experience as the source of value in religious experience. Socially, there was also a strong element of 'class' revolt: God worked through grace that was given to every man or woman, regardless of station or level of education. This was a direct challenge to upper-class, aristocratic assumptions about the deference due to authority— it was a model of revolutionary thought to come; it was also the first event that swept through all the colonies, from New England to the Carolinas, as a generally common experience.

Road to rebellion

After the French and Indian War and Pontiac's Rebellion, newly-crowned King George III sought to overhaul his expansive North American possessions. In order to make the Empire more stable and profitable, new economic and land distribution policies were implemented. Specifically, the new British policies included the understandable desire of the crown that the colonists would shoulder a greater share of the burdens of war and the cost of their own defense, as well as the curtailment of smuggling with the colonies of the West Indies, the payment of royal tariffs and the exclusive trade with the British homeland. Colonial resentment of these new policies grew steadily throughout the decade, and had a significant impact on the emergence of "Americanism" and the outbreak of the American Revolution.

Economic disputes, 1760-70

The British national debt had risen to alarming levels during the war years and so in 1760 the Crown began a series of economic initiatives designed to extract more revenue from the colonies. These policies were 'justifiable', the reasoning went, because the colonists were enjoying the benefits of the peace that had been won.

In theory, Great Britain already regulated the economies of the colonies through the Navigation Acts, but widespread evasion of these laws had long been tolerated. Now, through the use of open-ended search warrants (Writs of Assistance), strict enforcement became the practice. In 1761, Massachusetts lawyer James Otis argued that the writs violated the constitutional rights of the colonists. He lost the case, but John Adams later wrote, "American independence was then and there born."

In 1763, Patrick Henry argued the Parson's Cause case. Clerical pay had been tied to the price of tobacco by Virginia legislation. When the price of tobacco skyrocketed after a bad crop in 1758, the Virginia legislature passed the Two-Penny Act to stop clerical salaries from inflating as well. In 1763, King George III vetoed the Two-Penny Act. Patrick Henry defended the law in court and argued "that a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant and forfeits all right to his subjects' obedience."

In 1764, British Prime Minister George Grenville's Sugar Act and Currency Act created economic hardship in the colonies. Protests led to the boycott of British goods, and to the emergence of the popular slogan "no taxation without representation," in which colonists argued that only their colonial assemblies, and not Parliament, could levy taxes on them. Committees of correspondence were formed in the colonies to coordinate resistance to paying the taxes. In previous years, the colonies had shown little inclination towards collective action. Grenville's policies were bringing them together.

A milestone in the Revolution occurred in 1765, when Grenville passed the Stamp Act as a way to finance the quartering of troops in North America. The Stamp Act required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the colonies to carry a tax stamp.

Colonial protest was widespread. Secret societies known as the Sons of Liberty were formed in every colony, and used propaganda, intimidation, and mob violence to prevent the enforcement of the Stamp Act. The furor culminated with the "Stamp Act Congress", which sent a formal protest to Parliament in October of 1765. Parliament responded by repealing the Stamp Act, but pointedly declared its legal authority over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

File:Boston Massacre.jpg
This exaggerated depiction of the "Boston Massacre" by Paul Revere was designed to inflame opposition to the military occupation of Boston.

The sequel was not long in coming. In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, placing taxes on a number of common goods imported into the colonies, including glass, paint, lead, paper, and tea. In response, colonial leaders organized boycotts of these British imports. The Liberty, a ship belonging to colonial merchant John Hancock, was suspected of smuggling and was seized by customs officials in Boston on June 10, 1768. Angry protests on the street led customs officials, fearing for their safety, to report to London that Boston was in a state of 'insurrection'.

British troops began to arrive in Boston in October of 1768. Tensions continued to mount; culminating in the "Boston Massacre" on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot fired into an angry mob, killing five. Revolutionary agitators like Samuel Adams used the event to stir up popular resistance, but after the trial of the soldiers, who were defended by John Adams, tensions diminished.

The Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770, and it was still theoretically possible that further bloodshed in the colonies might be avoided. However, the British government had left one tax from the Townshend Acts in place as a symbolic gesture of their right to tax the colonies—the tax on tea. For the revolutionaries, who stood firm on the principle that only their colonial representatives could levy taxes on them, it was still "one tax too many".

Western land dispute

The Proclamation of 1763 sought to limit the conflicts between Native Americans and the English settlers by restricting settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. However, groups of settlers, led for example by Daniel Boone, continued to move into the region beyond the Proclamation Line and fought violently with the Shawnees and other peoples inhabiting the area. Furthermore, the Quebec Act of 1774 extended Quebec's boundaries to the Ohio River, reestablished French civil law, and instituted toleration for Roman Catholics in that territory, an action which 'horrified' some religious refugees and colonials, who had come to New England to escape the Catholics. Proposals to post British regulars to man forts in the west further disquieted Americans eager to settle in the West, and gave the colonists the feeling of a "conquered people". Many colonists were nearly as afraid of the British soldiers as they were of the native American "Indians" and the French Catholics.

File:Gaspee Affair.jpg
Burning of the Gaspee

Crises, 1772-75

  • Olive Branch Petition -- July 5, 1775, one final attempt by the Continental Congress to appeal to King George to redress their grievances and avoid more bloodshed. The King refuses even to receive the petition.

Choosing sides

This political cartoon (attributed to Benjamin Franklin) originally appeared during the French and Indian War, but was recycled to encourage the American colonies to unite against British rule.

The American revolutionaries, known as Patriots (or Whigs or rebels), included many shades of opinion. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Washington represented a socially conservative faction that would later take shape as the Federalist party and are traditionally characterized as preoccupied with preserving the wealth and power of the "better sorts" of colonial society. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine are usually portrayed as representing the less economically affluent side of society, and 'political equality'. Among other dissenting minorities, a party known as the "anti-federalists", led by George Mason, considered the Constitution of the United States to be a dangerously flawed document, one which would cause greater tyranny than either Parliament or the British Crown, and walked out of the Constitutional Convention without signing it.

A great many American colonists remained loyal to the British Crown; these became known as Loyalists (or 'Tories', or 'King's men'). 'Loyalists' were often of the same well-to-do social circle that produced the right wing of the Patriots (for example Thomas Hutchinson); however, the Scottish highlanders of the Mohawk Valley and the frontiersmen of Georgia included a large number of poorer King's men. Some 'Loyalists' were American Indians, notably Joseph Brant, who led a mixed band of Indians and white farmers and laborers in the Loyalist cause. After the war, United Empire Loyalists became a central component of the populations of the Abaco islands (in the Bahamas), the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Ontario, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, where many of them fled to escape unpopularity and persecution in the colonies.

Class differences among the Patriots

Just as there were rich and poor Loyalists, the Patriots were a 'mixed lot', and often had different aims for the revolution. Wealthy Patriots viewed independence as a means of freeing themselves from British taxation and limitations on taking western land, but had every intention of remaining in control of the resulting nation. Many craftsmen, small merchants and small farmers, however, were looking at independence as a means of reducing the power and privilege of the elite. Wealthy Patriots knew that they needed the support of the lower classes, but were fearful of their more radical 'democratic' aims. John Adams (an elite more by education than by wealth) attacked Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the "absurd democratical notions" it proposed.


The boycott of British goods would have been entirely unworkable without the willing participation of American women: women made the bulk of household purchases, and the boycotted items were largely household items such as tea and cloth. And as cloth was still a basic necessity, for the boycott to work, women would have to return to spinning and weaving, skills that had fallen into disuse. In 1769, the women of Boston produced 40,000 skeins of yarn, and 180 women in Middletown, Massachusetts wove 20,522 yards of cloth.

As the Revolution progressed and economic disruption deepened, women participated directly in the food riots and tar and feathering that was the people's response to price gouging by merchants, Loyalist and Patriot alike. On July 24, 1777, Thomas Boyleston, a Patriot merchant who was withholding coffee and sugar from the market waiting for prices to rise, was confronted by a crowd of 100 or more women, who seized the keys to his warehouse and distributed the coffee themselves while a large crowd of men stood by and watched, dumbfounded.

Writing the state constitutions

By 1776, the colonies had overthrown their existing government, closing courts and driving British agents and governors from their homes, and they had elected conventions and "legislatures" that existed outside of any legal framework whatsoever— new constitutions were desperately needed in each colony to replace the superseded royal charters.

On January 5, 1776, New Hampshire ratified the first state constitution, six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Then, in May, 1776, Congress voted to suppress all forms of crown authority, to be replaced by locally created authority. Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey created their constitutions before July 4. Rhode Island and Connecticut simply took their existing royal charters and deleted all references to the crown.

The new states had to decide not only what form of government to create, they first had to decide how to select those who would craft the constitutions and how the resulting document would be ratified. This would be just the start of a process that would pit conservatives against radicals in each state. In states where the wealthy exerted firm control over the process, such as Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New York and Massachusetts, the result was constitutions that featured:

  • substantial property qualifications for voting and even more substantial requirements for elected positions (though New York and Maryland lowered property qualifications);
  • bicameral legislatures, with the upper house as a check on the lower;
  • strong governors, with veto power over the legislature and substantial appointment authority;
  • few or no restraints on individuals holding multiple positions in government;
  • the continuation of state-established religion.

In states where the less affluent had organized sufficiently to have significant power, especially Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Vermont, the resulting constitutions embodied:

  • universal manhood suffrage, or minimal property requirements for voting or holding office (New Jersey went so far as to enfranchise women, a radical step that they retracted 25 years later);
  • strong, unicameral legislatures;
  • relatively weak governors, without veto powers, and little appointing authority;
  • prohibition against individuals holding multiple government posts;
  • disestablishment of religion.

Naturally, the fact that conservatives or radicals held sway in a state did not mean that the side with less power accepted the result quietly. In Pennsylvania, the propertied class was horrified by their new constitution (Benjamin Rush called it "our state dung cart"), while in Massachusetts, voters twice rejected the constitution that was presented for ratification; it was ultimately ratified only as a result of the legislature tinkering with the third vote. The radical provisions of Pennsylvania's constitution were to last only fourteen years— in 1790, conservatives gained power in the state legislature, called a new constitutional convention, and wrote a new constitution that substantially reduced universal white-male suffrage, gave the governor veto power and patronage appointment authority, and added an upper house with substantial wealth qualifications to the unicameral legislature. Thomas Paine called it a constitution unworthy of America.

War for independence, 1775-83

The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War. It ended with the surrender of British forces.

Main article: American Revolutionary War

Thomas Paine produced a pamphlet entitled Common Sense arguing that the only solution to the problems with Britain would be republicanism and independence from England.

Common Sense by Thomas Paine

America after the war

The American Revolution entrenched several noteworthy innovations: the separation of church and state, which ended the special privileges of the Anglican Church in the South and the Congregationalist Church in New England; a discourse of liberty, individual rights and equality which would prove highly appealing in Europe; the idea that government should be by consent of the governed (including the right of rebellion against tyranny); the delegation of power through written constitutions; and the notion that colonial peoples of the Americas could become self-governing nations in their own rights.

The impact on British North America

For tens of thousands of inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies, the victory of the revolutionaries was followed by exile. Approximately fifty thousand United Empire Loyalists fled to the remaining British colonies in North America, such as the Province of Quebec, concentrating in the Eastern Townships, and also Upper Canada (now known as Ontario), as well as in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia - where their presence would result in the creation of New Brunswick. Thus, the seeds of the French-English duality in British North America, which has been arguably the most prominent political and cultural feature of what would one day become Canada were sown.

Revolution beyond America

The American Revolution was the first wave of the Atlantic Revolutions that would also take hold in the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Latin American wars of liberation. Aftershocks would also be felt in Ireland in the 1798 rising, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and in the Netherlands.

The Revolution had a strong immediate impact in Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and France. Many British and Irish Whigs had been openly indulgent to the Patriots in America, and the Revolution was the first lesson in politics for many European radicals who would later take on active roles during the era of the French Revolution.

The American Revolution affected the rest of the world. The thinkers of the Enlightenment only wrote that common people had the right to overthrow unjust governments. The American Revolution was a case of practical success, which provided the rest of the world with a 'working model'.

The American Revolution set an example to the people in Europe and other parts of the world. It encouraged the people to fight for their rights, and it showed them that it was possible to win; even against the world's foremost power, Great Britain. The American Revolution encouraged many common people in France. The soldiers in France who helped America in the American Revolution spread the revolutionary ideas. The French too rose against their rulers from 1789, which is 6 years after the Treaty of Paris.

Similarly, in the early 19th century, revolutions broke out in the colonies in South America, led by Simon Bolivar against Portugal and Spain. Years later, similar revolutions occurred in Asia and other places.

Legacy and interpretations

See also

Further reading


  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1967. ISBN 0674443012.
  • Hawke, David. The Colonial Experience. Bobbs-Merrill, 1966. ISBN 0023518308.
  • Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Little, Brown, 1943; reprinted Stanford University Press, 1959. ISBN 0804705933; 1991 paperback edition: ISBN 0804705941.
  • Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1986. ISBN 0674930592.
  • Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. Viking, 2005. ISBN 0670034207.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revoluiton: How a Revolution Transformed a Monarchical Society into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0679404937.
  • Purcell, L. Edward. "Who Was Who in the American Revolution" (1993)

External links

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