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:

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 person.

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 miles away.

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 colonies' interests.

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 independent."

Reading 2