The American Revolution


Terms to know:

social contract
Mayflower Compact
Navigation Acts
The Seven Years' War
French and Indian War
Ohio River Valley
Proclamation of 1763
The Sugar Act
The Stamp Act
The Stamp Act Congress, 1765
The Boston Massacre
Boston Tea Party
Intolerable Acts
1st Continental Congress 1774

Discussion Question: Choose three events from this lecture, and explain what they show us about the motivations of the American colonists and the English Parliament and King during the period from 1757-1792.

The Mayflower Compact

Settlers were in the North American continent quite early after the “discovery” of America by Chris Columbus in 1492. By 1619, the people that we talk most about, the “Pilgrims” were on Plymouth Rock after a harrowing voyage, and an even more harrowing arrival. The Pilgrims were neither the first, nor the last, nor the most numerous, of the colonists. They were in some respects seeking religious freedom, which makes them convenient examples of the “idea of America” when we tell the story of freedom now. (In fact, they wanted to worship in the way they believed, but were as willing to impose their views on others as the Anglicans they were fleeing in England had been to impose upon them).

What is most interesting to me about these Pilgrims is what they did when they landed in the so-called “new world”. They wrote a “social contract”. They called it the Mayflower Compact. In it, they set out the rules for their society. It is one of the earliest examples of a conscious rendering into reality of John Locke and Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s ideas, which were commonly read by the colonial leaders in nearly every part of North America.

Locke’s influence is not limited to the colonists of New England, however. The debtor’s colony of Pennsylvania, and the immigrant and farming societies of the other 13 original colonies all show evidence, to one degree or other, of social contracts consciously applied – government according to the will of the governed.

An American tradition of self-government

For well over 100 years, by the 1760’s, American colonists had governed themselves. They had created charters, gathered in town meetings to decide how to deal with new challenges or wayward members, and traded freely with little or no interference from Parliament.

In large part, this was because Parliament in England had little or no time to think about what was going on in the North American colonies. They were too busy with the colonies in India and the Carribbean. In fact, in any given year, the tiny island of St. Croix, growing sugar on large plantations which employed primarily slaves as labor made more profit than all thirteen of the North American colonies combined. Since large numbers of parliamentarians were engaged in colonial trade , they were interested largely in where the money was.

So Parliament allowed the 13 North American colonies some leeway – in fact, was ready to allow them to govern themselves as a cost-saving measure. Since the goods and services traded between the British motherland and the North American colonies was such an insignificant part of total British colonial trade, Parliament even neglected enforcement of the Navigation Acts – laws that required goods to be traded specifically between the producing colony and the mother country, and that required taxes to be paid on the import and export of goods.

The 7-Years War (1757-1763) & a Need for Revenue

The Seven Years' War, also known in the Americas as the “French and Indian War" had its beginnings in the rivalries of France and England over colonial possessions, and in the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe. Ultimately, the contest would involve all major nations in Europe. Great Britain and Prussia made up one side of the war in Europe, facing France, Austria, and Russia on the other. But the war was fought in India, in the Americas, and in other places around the globe, as well. It was fought on land, and at sea, with armies, and with money and trade.

The war in the Americas began over a dispute about who would occupy the Ohio River Valley in North America. The French and British both wanted this territory. French colonial interests in the area were primarily economic, and based on trapping and trade with the local native Americans. British interests were more agricultural, as a number of farmers from the colonies wanted access to the fertile Ohio valley to increase their holdings and improve their incomes. In 1753, then Major George Washington began a negotiation with the French commander in the region which ended in a series of battles that were disastrous for both sides, and eventually added to the tensions which caused the war in Europe.

In Europe, the French and Austrians decided to attack Prussia over the province of Silesia. In 1756, after England declared war on France, Prussia, which Voltaire called "an army with a country" struck France and Austria. The English became involved in the war on the the European continent primarily to protect their province of Hanover, which they felt was threatened by France as it moved toward Prussia. The combination of English financial power (because of its large empire), and naval power, combined with Prussia's exceptional army made the difference and by 1763, England and Prussia had prevailed.

There were many political ramifications of this war, but the most difficult result for all sides was the tremendous expense. Both England and France had had to borrow extensively during the fighting. England, however, had a centralized banking structure and a vast trading empire, which helped to keep interest rates low and income high. France had no such modern financial structure.

The Proclamation of 1763

In 1763, in order to organize its new possessions in the North American continent, and to prevent hostilities with native Americans who lived in the lands previously occupied by the French, the English Parliament drew up the Proclamation of 1763, which set a boundary line to separate the older colonies from the newly acquired lands. The purpose of this line was to provide for orderly settlement beyond the old colonial border, and for peace and coexistence with the native American population there.

The British colonists east of the proclamation line, however, wanted more immediate access to the new land to begin building farms there. This desire led to conflicts with the English parliament over land rights and its go-slow, regulatory approach.

The Sugar Act, 1764

The Sugar Act was passed in Parliament in 1764, and was designed to help Great Britain pay the costs of the Seven Years War. It was a revision of the 1733 Sugar and Molasses Act, in which sugar and molasses were taxed by the British government as a part of their strategy to encourage trade under the Navigation Acts, and to provide for revenue. The Sugar Act, however, actually reduced taxes, to three pence from sixpence, but also expanded the number of commodities to be taxed, and provided for strict enforcement.

In this way, the Sugar Act angered American colonists, who had gotten used to getting away without paying, both through the bribing of local officials and through smuggling, and who saw this as taxation without representation.

The Stamp Act

In 1765, to help cover the cost of stationing soldiers in the colonies for their defense, the English Parliament passed its fourth Stamp Act. This act, like the others, required all legal documents and all published materials to carry a tax stamp.

The Stamp Act Congress, 1765

With the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765, colonists in North America were very unhappy, and complaints about taxation without representation became louder. In response to the act, a congress of colonial representatives was elected and met in Philadelphia. There, they jointly authored a letter to Parliament in which they acknowledged their society as belonging to Great Britain, claimed a great love, respect for, and loyalty to the King, but claimed also that Parliament had no right to tax them, as they had no representation in Parliament.

Taxation & Representation

The issue of taxation and representation became a major sticking point between the colonists and Parliament, which claimed that as MP’s represented all British Subjects, and so individual colonies did not require specific representatives from within their ranks.

This response did not please the colonists, who really wanted a separate representative body physically in the colonies by which they could make and enforce laws that applied specifically to them.

Parliament would not accept this dilution of their power, nor did they accept the idea because of the probability that it would lead other colonies to try to get the same level of autonomy, which, it was feared, would lead to loss of central control of the empire, and eventual dissolution.

1767 New taxes, Quartering, protests

Beginning in 1767, Parliament, with little concern or patience for the protests of the colonists, added a number of new taxes, and required colonists in Boston to provide room and board in their houses for the growing number of British regulars stationed in North America. These requirements angered the citizens of Boston, which, as the economic and political center of the colonies in North America, and one full of activists, was also one of the most watched cities in the colonies. The citizens of Boston protested British actions, which led to more tension.

1770 – Boston Massacre

In 1770, a group of British soldiers were marching through the street occupied mostly by rope makers. Somehow, a protest began relatively spontaneously, and the soldiers ended up firing on the crowd (apparently unintentionally, and apparently without direct violent provocation). A number of people were killed or wounded, and the colonists became quite radical in the wake of this incident, which, in the colonial press at the time, took on the name “The Boston Massacre”.

Intolerable (Coercive) Acts
Boston Tea Party 1773

Among the tax changes that Parliament had made was a new policy by which for the first time tea, which Americans drank in boatloads (we were English then, too), could be exported directly from India, where it was grown and cured, to the North American Colonies. This, the English hoped, would lighten the taxes and make purchasing tea less expensive, which, they hoped, would offset the fact that new taxes had been imposed on the tea. That didn't work. The colonists protested, and a number of Bostonians dressed up as native Americans, went to Boston Harbor, and boarded a tea ship, destroying most of its cargo of tea, which, in today's dollars, would be worth millions. As many Parliamentarians were also shareholders in the British East India Company, they were understandably angry when their investment went, literally, down the drain. Parliament responded to the tea party with a number of new laws and requirements for the North American Colonies that were draconian, and together came to be known to colonists as the "Intolerable Acts."
These Intolerable Acts closed Boston Harbor, and ended Massachusetts' self-government by banning its colonial assembly. These acts targeted Boston specifically, but had economic and political impact on most of the 13 colonies of the Eastern Seaboard. The colonists had to respond to them.

1st Continental Congress 1774

The response was another congress, this one known as the First Continental Congress – another group of representatives sent from all the colonies to meet and draft a response to the Intolerable Acts. In it, the colonists first declared the so-called “Intolerable Acts” (Parliament called them the "Coercive Acts") null and void for the reason that they had been passed without the presence of an American Colonist elected as a representative of the colonies themselves. In short, this was another opportunity to advance the taxation without representation argument. Second, the congress, as the voice of the colonists all, proclaimed their loyalty to the British Crown. Then, the congress in its declaration called upon the colony of Massachusetts to arm itself, and sent a letter to Parliament denying its authority to make laws concerning the colonies at all.
III. The Declaration of Independence
Parliament’s response to the letter sent by, and the actions of, the First Continental Congress, was to declare the North American Colonies to be in revolt, and to require the garrison troops in the colonies to secure armories and strategic locations against the possibility of open and violent rebellion.
A. April, 1776 Lexington & Concord, Massachusetts.
In one of these attempts, General John Gage was ordered to destroy the rebels' stockpile of weapons at Concord, Massachusetts. When General Gage's forward units arrived in Lexington on the way to Concord, they met a group of colonial militia which had decided to resist. A stray shot, not ordered by either commander, caused the British troops to fire on the Americans in what became the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.
B. Thomas Paine : Common Sense
Thomas Paine, on very thoughtful, and quite recent, emigrant to the American Colonies, put down his own opinions of the growing rebellion in January of 1776. Paine was very much an enlightenment thinker, and his reason and passion swayed a large number of colonists toward supporting the rebellion (which was not supported by all American colonists, by any means).
C. Declaration of Independence
Finally, to make its intentions clear, the Second Continental Congress, elected to deal with the troubles, created the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This declaration simply tried to explain, in Enlightenment terminology, why the American Colonies had decided to rebel, what their goals were, and to appeal for help from other nations who might have resources to offer against the British.
With the Declaration, the war got into full swing, though the army of the American colonists, commanded by General George Washington, late of the French and Indian War, was really a ragtag bunch with little experience fighting, and none together. This army suffered defeat after defeat until the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, in which the Americans captured an important military garrison of the British. This victory established the possibility that the colonial rebellion was going to give the British a harder time than usual, and help thus did come from the Netherlands, France, and Russia.
IV. The United States
A. 1783 Treaty of Paris
In 1783 the British agreed to give up claims to the 13 colonies along the eastern seaboard of the North America in the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War. The Canadian colonies elected to stay with Great Britain, in a break from the solidarity of the colonial past. This established the United States of America, and the British colony of Canada, on the North American Continent.
B. Articles of Confederation
One of the first and most necessary acts of the new nation was to create a constitution (Enlightenment style) and a government. The Articles of Confederation were the result. This basic law created a loose union of the 13 colonies, including a weak central government, and established the name of the new confederation – the United States of America.
C. 1787 Constitution
What I find fascinating about the postrevolutionary period of the United States are the dissimilarities between that America and ours. The Articles of Confederation gave the states, for all practical purposes, independent country status. They pledged only to defend each other when threatened. There was no common executive, no House of Representatives or Senate, only a loose confederation of states each determined to go its own way. Most telling – and critical for the future constitution, the states had no common trade representative or policy, nor did they have a federal army to protect its interests at home, or to defend the borders of the confederation. Instead, in times of war, the articles called for each state to provide its own militia. There was no clear command and control structure, no way to clearly determine war aims, or coordinate strategy, not even common uniforms or training methods. To those that we so commonly call the “founding fathers” this realization of their dreams quickly turned into a series of nightmares.
The British, for example, purchased increasing amounts of cotton and tobacco from Southern states. The Northern states could not participate in this trade, and Great Britain was more than happy to use a divide and conquer approach – creating low price agreements with certain states and using them to pressure other states into dropping prices as well, which was devastating to the cotton and tobacco economies of the new nation.
Recognizing these problems, the “founding fathers” were forced to acknowledge that their confederation had great difficulty solving internal problems when Massachusetts farmers and Revolutionary War veterans rebelled (Shay’s Rebellion) over many of the same issues that had been the complaints of the founding fathers against Great Britain – taxes, representation, etc. The lack of a national army made it impossible for Massachusetts to get help putting down the revolt and the rebels clearly had a point.
In May, 1787, while ostensibly meeting over trade issues, George Washington led a convention which literally, bloodlessly, and secretly overthrew the first constitution of the United States, replacing it with a document that called for a bicameral representative body, an executive, and a judicial branch with certain powers governing the states in the union. This was a radical move, and one that was not approved by all Americans. In fact, though, even this constitution, as it was laid out at the time, did not provide for the politics that Americans know today. Elections to the House of Representatives were carried out by the state House of Representatives, not by the general public. Senators were chosen in a number of ways, common among them appointment by the governor of a state, or appointment by a state legislative body. The president was not elected by popular vote – in fact, the Founding Fathers did not believe that the majority of common people had enough knowledge or stakes in the nation to vote, so they created a complex system of electors who were chosen either by governors or state legislators and who cast votes for the president as members of the electoral college. Popular vote was not even used in the original 13 colonies for choosing state representatives and governors until after the War of 1812 (though states admitted after 1790 nearly all elected representatives by popular vote of citizens who paid a certain level of taxes or owned a certain amount of land. Universal male sufferage was not to come until later, and universal suffrage, including voters not only of all classes, but of both genders and all races would not be realized until after WWII. The bill of rights, which includes article 2, concering the right to bear arms; article 1, freedom of speech and assembly, and the provision for a free press was not added until later, as well. The right to privacy, which is so important to Americans today, is not, and never has been, a part of the U.S. Constitution. All of the freedom, popular elections, and media activity is part of later American history.
This overthrow of the original American government is, in its own way, a confirmation of the theories of John Locke and Jean-Jaques Rousseau, whom so many of the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution read and referred to in their thinking. The idea that a government derives its power from the people whom it governs was what in fact made it possible for George Washington and his colleagues to hold a silent revolution. The idea that a government that takes more than it returns in terms of provision for the free activity of its people should be overthrown is what has made it possible for Americans to gradually open participation in American politics to all members of our society, rather than just the priveleged few for and by whom our government was created. In our tendency to be critical, and radical is the realization of what we, as Americans, stand for. Perhaps President Theodore Roosevelt put it best when he said that the most important thing that Americans could do when the country was at war was to be critical of the government. Americans have always been radicals – radicals with differing ideals, the meeting of which have created American policy and direction. It has been that ability to modulate disagreement that has kept the American Revolutionary spirit alive, when even more violent revolutions that rocked more powerful nations, such as France were ultimately unsuccessful.

Read the Declaration of Independence in parallel with John Locke here