The American Revolution
- Reading 1
Does it really matter?
Modern-day audiences find it difficult to identify with characters from the late
18th century. They find the characters' powdered wigs, knee breeches, and formal
speech patterns off-putting. Further, we live in a cynical age and hate being
reminded of more noble times. There is a tendency to regard Revolutionary War
stories as excessively patriotic and overly romanticized Nevertheless, the
American Revolution raises interesting questions:
- What factors led the freest and most prosperous people in the western
world to launch a revolution?
- Were American patriots justified in asserting a "right to revolution"?
- How were the American colonists, who had a long history of quarreling
among themselves, able to prevail against the world's strongest military
- How did people understand and fulfill their personal and communal
How is American not British?
The Revolution was, in part, the consequence of long-term
social, political, and cultural transformations. Between 1680 and 1776, a
distinctly American society emerged, a society that differed significantly from
Britain. In the course of a century, the colonies had diverged markedly from
Britain. A variety of long-run trends gave the 13 American colonies certain
common characteristics which made them very different from England.
1. The absence of a titled aristocracy
The colonies had no legally privileged social classes,
and they did not have many of the other characteristics of a monarchical
society. They had no standing army and had a government bureaucracy that was
smaller and far less powerful than that found in Britain. While there were
wealthy merchants and planters in the colonies, economic stratification was less
pronounced than in Britain and membership in this affluent segment of the
population was volatile and changing. To be sure, colonial society in the 18th century was, in
certain respects, becoming more aristocratic. Colonial elites increasingly
emulated the values and lifestyle of the English aristocracy. They aped the
English elites' dress and manners, and copied their furniture and architecture.
Nevertheless, compared to Britain, few Americans had fortunes large enough to
lead lives of leisure.
2. The widespread ownership of property
Except for slaves, most physical labor was performed by
people who owned their own farms or shops or could expect eventually to be
economically independent. Relatively few of the colonists were tenant farmers,
and most yeomen maintained a remarkable degree of independence. Even in the
Chesapeake region or the Hudson River Valley, where much of the land was leased,
farmers still could acquire long-term leases on relatively easy terms.
3. Religious diversity
The colonies not only displayed a religious diversity
unmatched in the western world, they were also more willing to tolerate
religious difference. Four colonies--Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and
Rhode Island--had no established church. Five other states disestablished the
Church of England even before the Revolution broke out.
4. The relative absence of poverty
In 18th century England, half the population was at least
occasionally dependent on charity for subsistence. Apart from slaves, the
American population was far better off. Nothing better illustrates the relative
affluence of the white population than the fact that the colonists were on
average three inches taller than their English counterparts.
5. A lack of urban development
In 1760, the largest city in the colonies, Philadelphia,
had just 20,000 inhabitants. In that year, the total number of Americans living
in cities or towns with more than 3,000 residents was no greater than 70,000.
The colonies had few of the attributes of an urban society: there was no
large-scale manufacturing, no stock markets, few large cities, and virtually no
banks in British North America.
6. A relative lack of deference to authority
The American colonists were far less deferential and less
willing to accept subordination than their British or European counterparts. The
colonists enjoyed the broadest suffrage of any people in the western world.
Although the right to vote in colonial America was restricted to property
owners, property owning was so widespread that roughly 80 percent of white adult
males could vote.
Although relatively few men actually voted in elections, the principle of
self-government was well-developed. To gain political office, social leaders
felt increasingly forced to make direct appeals to the people. Compared to
Britain, popular participation in decision making was much more pronounced.
Militia officers were often selected by their companies, and ministers were
often hired by their congregations.
7. The presence of slavery
In 1776, one-fifth of the inhabitants of the American
colonies lived in bondage. Most of the growth of slavery had taken place since
1680. In 1680, Africans accounted for just five percent of the population in
Maryland and Virginia. But in 1760, enslaved Africans comprised nearly 40
percent of Virginia's population. By 1776, the number of slaves in the colonies
had reached 500,000. Slavery in 18th century America was not confined to the
South. Slaves could be found in each of the 13 colonies, and were especially
numerous in New Jersey and in New York's Hudson River Valley.
The widespread presence of slavery made adult white males acutely aware of the
difference between independence and dependence. Colonial Americans knew what it
was like to be subjected to the will, authority, and domination of another
By the 1770s, a growing number of Americans had begun to see their society as
fundamentally different from European society. Their society was a "republican"
society, a society free of many of the trappings of aristocracy and of the
corruptions associated with cities and large-scale manufacturing and financial
institutions. From this perspective, Americans were simpler, more independent,
and more virtuous than Europeans.
The Road to Revolution
Unlike many modern revolutions, the American Revolution was not
rooted in economic deprivation or in the struggle of an oppressed class against
an entrenched elite. But this does not mean that the colonists did not suffer
from serious grievances.The Revolution was the product of 40 years of abuses by
the British authorities that many colonists regarded as a threat to their
liberty and property. But people do not act simply in response to objective
reality but according to the meaning that they give to events. The Revolution
resulted from the way the colonists interpreted events.
The American patriots were alarmed by what they saw as a conspiracy against
their liberty. They feared that the corruption and the abuses of power by the
British government would taint their own society. And, further, they were
troubled by the knowledge that they had no say over a government three thousand
1754: For the fourth time since the 1680s, Britain and France go to war. The
conflict is known as the Seven Years' War in Europe and the French and Indian
War in North America.
1763: The French Indian War ended, and France ceded Canada and the Ohio River
Valley to British rule. To prevent the colonists from rushing into territories
vacated by the French and provoking conflict with the Indians, Parliament
adopted the Proclamation of 1763, forbidding the colonists from purchasing land
west of the Appalachians. To enforce the Proclamation, the royal government
stations 10,000 troops in the colonies--the first time a standing army has been
stationed in the colonies in peacetime. Britain also ordered western settlers to
vacate Indian land and restricted Indian trading to traders licensed by the
British government. For the first time, westward expansion was placed in the
hands of royal officials.
1764: To maintain the army and repay war debts, Parliament decided to impose
charges on colonial trade. It passed the Sugar Act, imposed duties on foreign
wines, coffee, textiles, and indigo imported into the colonies, and expanded the
customs service. Britain required colonial vessels to fill out papers detailing
their cargo and destination. The royal navy patrolled the coast to search for
smugglers, who were tried in special courts without a jury.
1765: To increase revenues to pay the cost of militarily defending the colonies,
Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required a tax stamp on legal documents,
almanacs, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards. This was the first direct
tax Parliament had ever levied on the colonies and a violation of the principle
that only the colonies' legislative assemblies could impose taxes. Suspected
violators were tried in admiralty courts without juries. Colonists boycotted
British goods and intimidated stamp distributors into resigning. They protested
the Stamp Act on two grounds: that it represented taxation without
representation and that it deprived colonists of the right to trial by jury.
Outside of Georgia, no stamps were ever sold. London merchants ultimately
persuaded Parliament to repeal the act.The Stamp Act made many Americans realize
for the first time that the British government could act contrary to the
1765: Parliament unanimously passed the Declaratory Act, asserting its right to
make laws governing the colonists.
1765: Parliament approved the Quartering Act, requiring colonial governments to
put up British soldiers in unoccupied buildings and provide them with candles,
bedding, and beverages. When the New York Assembly resists, the British governor
suspended the assembly for six months.
1767: Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, imposed new duties on
imports of glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea to the colonies. The Townshend
Acts also expanded the customs service. Revenue from the acts paid the salaries
of colonial governors and judges and prevented colonial legislatures from
exercising the power of the purse over these officials.
1770: British soldiers under Captain Thomas Preston fired on a Boston crowd,
killing five and wounding six. In a subsequent trial, in which John Adams
defended the soldiers, all but two of the soldiers were acquitted of murder.
After discovering that the Townshend duties have raised only 21,000 pound
sterling (while sales of British goods in the colonies have fallen more than
700,000 pounds), the British government repealed all the Townshend duties,
except the duty on tea, to remind the colonists of Parliament's power to tax.
1773: Parliament passed the Tea Act that authorized the East India Company to
bypass American wholesalers and sell tea directly to American distributors.
Cutting out the wholesalers' profit would make English tea cheaper than tea
smuggled in from Holland. Colonists in Boston, disguised as Indians, boarded
three vessels and dumped 342 canisters of British tea into Boston harbor. The
British government responded harshly; it closed Boston harbor to trade; modified
the Massachusetts colonial charter; forbid town meetings more than once a year;
called for the billeting of British troops in unoccupied private homes; provided
for trials outside the colonies when royal officials are accused of serious
crimes; and named a general to serve as Massachusetts' royal governor.
1774: The Quebec Act enlarged French Quebec to cover the area as far west as the
Mississippi River and as far south as the Ohio River. French law prevailed in
this area and the Catholic Church would have a privileged status there.
1774: In September, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to
orchestrate resistance to British policies. It declared that all trade with
Britain should be suspended.
1775: British General Thomas Gage was ordered to use military force to put down
challenges to royal authority in the colonies. To curtail colonial military
preparations, he dispatched royal troops to destroy rebel supplies at Concord,
Massachusetts. On the night of April 18, Paul Revere and William Dawes alerted
patriots of the approach of British forces. Revere was seized and Dawes was
turned back at Lexington, Mass., but the Concord militia moved or destroyed the
supplies and prepared to defend their town. On April 19, British redcoats
arrived at Lexington and ordered 70 armed "Minutemen" to disperse. A shot rang
out and drew fire from the British soldiers. Eight Americans were killed. The
British moved on to Concord, destroyed the supplies they found, then returned to
Boston, as American patriots fired from behind hedges and walls. British losses
were 65 dead, 173 wounded, and 26 missing. American casualties were 49 dead and
46 wounded or missing.
1775: In May, the second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia and
appoints George Washington commander-in-chief.
1776: On July 2, the Continental Congress approved a resolution that begins:
"that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and