World History 2 103 - 7.3.1 The American Revolution

As colonial societies warmed to the idea that political power should be based on the consent of the people, a growing dissatisfaction with the British Crown’s arbitrary rules and taxes propelled the colonies in North America toward revolution. Britain’s Proclamation Line of 1763 declared the Appalachian Mountains the western settlement boundary for the thirteen North American colonies (Figure 7.11). Its goals were to prevent further conflict with the French and Native Americans there, and to avoid the costs of defending the frontier when Britain was already struggling with debt from the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). The colonists, some of whom had already received land grants west of the Appalachians, viewed the edict as equivalent to tyranny and disregarded it.

The map shows the eastern half of the United States. Spanish territory on the map begins just west of the Mississippi River and the map ends in central Texas. Indian Country extends from the crest of the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Mississippi River in the west and includes Province of Quebec, East Florida, West Florida, and Indian Reserve. The thirteen British colonies are along the east coast and include Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. A line showing the Proclamation Line of 1763 borders the colonies along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains.
Figure 7.11 This map depicts the boundary Britain imposed on westward settlement of its North American colonies in 1763, to save costs and avoid conflict with Native Americans and the French. The colonists viewed it as yet another instance of the tyranny of the king. (credit: modification of work “Eastern North America in 1775” by National Atlas of the United States/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Tensions were further heightened by the imposition of taxes and commercial regulations. In particular, the Stamp Act of 1765 taxed legal documents and printed materials as a means of generating revenue for Britain, which led to widespread protests. North American colonists had paid taxes imposed by Parliament before, but the intent of those taxes had been to repay debts held by the government. Although this was also the original purpose of the Stamp Act, to pay debts accrued during the Seven Years’ War, the tax remained in place after the debt had been paid. This was the first time the colonists were expected to pay a tax intended solely to generate an ongoing source of revenue for the British government. Furthermore, colonists were unable to vote for members of Parliament and thus had no representatives to consent to this taxation on their behalf.

The Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 but merely replaced it with a variety of other taxes and duties that led to general turmoil in the colonies, especially in Boston. Indeed, in the same year the Stamp Act was repealed, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that it had absolute authority to impose taxes on the colonies and to regulate their affairs. After Parliament took the extreme step of dispatching soldiers to Massachusetts to restore order and threatened customary liberties in the process, support in the colonies for a complete break with Britain intensified.

Parliament then granted the British East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea, which angered colonial tea merchants and led to armed conflict, initiating the American Revolution in 1775. As the crisis escalated, revolutionary sentiment came to a head when the first and second Continental Congresses, assemblies of elected colonial representatives, met in Philadelphia in 1774 and 1775, respectively. The Second Continental Congress adopted the powers of government as a form of resistance to British tyranny and in 1776 approved the Declaration of Independence.

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At Monticello, a virtual exhibit called Paradox of Liberty explores the contradiction of the fight for liberty in the American Revolution taking place at a time when Thomas Jefferson and other founders owned enslaved people and supported the institution of slavery.

The Declaration of Independence was modeled on Enlightenment principles of sovereignty and natural rights, particularly the social contract theory of the writer and philosopher John Locke. Although support for independence was not universal among the colonists, and a substantial minority remained neutral or actively supported the British, twelve of the thirteen colonies ultimately approved the Declaration of Independence, the only abstention being New York. In the military conflict that ensued, Britain initially won most of the battles, but the Continental Army led by General George Washington eventually prevailed, and the British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. Some fighting continued until the fall of 1783, but peace was formally declared when representatives of the new United States and King George III of Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris in September that year, officially ending the war.

Following the war’s conclusion, the first written constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation, was drafted in 1776–1777 and ratified by the thirteen colonies in 1781. Although they named the new nation the United States of America and granted Congress the authority to coin money and make alliances, the Articles of Confederation did not enable the federal government to impose taxes or control foreign policy. These shortcomings led delegates at the Constitutional Convention to write the Constitution in 1787, which granted the federal government powers such as the authority to tax and to regulate interstate commerce. When the Constitution was officially adopted in 1789, it replaced the Articles of Confederation and significantly strengthened the country’s central governmental authority.

In theory, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution reflected the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment, but in practice, the colonists’ achievements were inherently contradictory, since many of the founders were slaveholders. Political liberty coexisted with the institution of slavery, and full constitutional rights and freedoms extended only to White men of property, a minority of the population, and not to women, African Americans, Native Americans, or many immigrants. Although women had participated in the war by leading charitable organizations and refusing to buy goods on which the British imposed taxes, they were excluded from political rights in the new republic. The institution of slavery, moreover, gained protection from the Constitution when members of the Constitutional Convention adopted the Three-Fifths Clause, which counted three-fifths of the enslaved population in the calculations on which the taxation and political representation of slaveholding states were based. By effectively implying that enslaved people were less than fully human and denying them voting rights, this clause enshrined racial prejudice in the Constitution’s foundations. Though the Three-Fifths Clause was eventually repealed in 1868, the political disenfranchisement of Black citizens persisted until the civil rights era and beyond.

The American Revolutionary War was also an unmitigated catastrophe for Native Americans. Based on the fear that a colonial victory would devastate their lands and betray their interests, Native American leaders such as Mohawk chief Thayendanegea had formed alliances with the British and provided them with strategic military support. Revolutionary armies then destroyed Native American towns and crops in western New York and Pennsylvania. At the war’s conclusion, Native American representatives were excluded from all negotiations, which ultimately resulted in significant loss of their lands and autonomy.

It may be tempting to see the American Revolution as a full-fledged victory for Enlightenment ideals of popular sovereignty and natural rights, but the actual application of these principles was spotty at best. Traditional narratives typically cite the love of liberty as its guiding principle and celebrate its democratic achievements, but its causes were far more complex. British efforts to consolidate control over the colonies in the years leading up to the war incited resistance from colonists seeking to maintain their autonomy, but the war’s roots lay in a variety of economic, political, and ideological disputes. Colonial elites sought the same rights as their counterparts in Britain, and their demands to levy taxes themselves and their resistance to the Crown heavily influenced the initial desire for independence. Merchants, however, primarily sought economic freedoms that would release them from British trade restrictions and taxes. Still others resisted British attempts to curb westward expansion and appropriate Native American lands. Ultimately, these diverse motives converged with growing popular protest and incited rebellions and violence, eventually leading to revolution.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax