|The American Revolution (1754–1781)
Before and during the French and Indian War, from about 1650 to 1763, Britain essentially left its American colonies to run themselves in an age of salutary neglect. Given relative freedom to do as they pleased, the North American settlers turned to unique forms of government to match their developing new identity as Americans. They established representative legislatures and democratic town meetings. They also enjoyed such rights as local judiciaries and trials by jury in which defendants were assumed innocent until proven guilty. American shipping, although theoretically regulated by the Navigation Act, functioned apart from the mighty British fleet for more than a hundred years. Finally, the promise of an expansive, untamed continent gave all settlers a sense of freedom and the ability to start fresh in the New World.
After the French and Indian War, the age of salutary neglect was finished. Britain, wanting to replenish its drained treasury, placed a larger tax burden on America and tightened regulations in the colonies. Over the years, Americans were forbidden to circulate local printed currencies, ordered to house British troops, made to comply with restrictive shipping policies, and forced to pay unpopular taxes. Furthermore, many of those failing to comply with the new rules found themselves facing a British judge without jury. Americans were shocked and offended by what they regarded as violations of their liberties. Over time, this shock turned to indignation, which ultimately grew into desire for rebellion. In a mere twelve years—between the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775—the colonists moved from offering nightly toasts to King George III’s health to demonstrations of outright hostility toward the British Crown.
The American Revolution had profound consequences, not only for the American colonists but for the rest of the world as well. Never before had a body of colonists so boldly declared their monarch and government incapable of governing a free people. The Thomas Jefferson–penned Declaration of Independence was as unique as it was reasonable, presenting a strong, concise case for American rebellion against a tyrannical government. Since then, his declaration has been a model for many groups and peoples fighting their own uphill battles.
Summary of Events
The French and Indian War
The North American theater of the primarily European Seven Years’ War was known as the French and Indian War. It was fought between Britain and France from 1754 to 1763 for colonial dominance in North America. British officials tried to rally public opinion for the war at the Albany Congress in 1754 but mustered only halfhearted support throughout the colonies. Nevertheless, American colonists dutifully fought alongside British soldiers, while the French allied themselves with several Native American tribes (hence the name “French and Indian War”). This war ended after the British captured most of France’s major cities and forts in Canada and the Ohio Valley.
The powerful Ottawa chief Pontiac, who had no intention of allowing land-hungry whites to steal more tribal lands, united many of the tribes in the volatile Ohio Valley and led a series of raids on British forts and American settlements. British forces eventually squashed Pontiac’s Rebellion. As a conciliatory gesture toward the Native Americans, Parliament issued the Proclamation of 1763 , forbidding American colonists to settle on Native American territory unless native rights to the land had first been obtained by purchase or treaty.
The End of Salutary Neglect
The French and Indian War also motivated Parliament to end the age of salutary neglect. Prime Minister George Grenville began enforcing the ancient Navigation Acts in 1764, passed the Sugar Act to tax sugar, and passed the Currency Act to remove paper currencies (many from the French and Indian War period) from circulation. A year later, he passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on printed materials, and the Quartering Act, which required Americans to house and feed British troops.
Taxation Without Representation
The Sugar Act was the first fully enforced tax levied in America solely for the purpose of raising revenue. Americans throughout the thirteen colonies cried out against “taxation without representation” and made informal no importation agreements of certain British goods in protest. Several colonial leaders convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York to petition Parliament and King George III to repeal the tax. In 1766, Parliament bowed to public pressure and repealed the Stamp Act. But it also quietly passed the Declaratory Act, which stipulated that Parliament reserved the right to tax the colonies anytime it chose.
The Townshend Acts and Boston Massacre
In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which levied another series of taxes on lead, paints, and tea known as the Townshend Duties. In the same series of acts, Britain passed the Suspension Act, which suspended the New York assembly for not enforcing the Quartering Act. To prevent violent protests, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson requested assistance from the British army, and in 1768, four thousand redcoats landed in the city to help maintain order. Nevertheless, on March 5, 1770, an angry mob clashed with several British troops. Five colonists died, and news of the Boston Massacre quickly spread throughout the colonies.
The Boston Tea Party
In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, granting the financially troubled British East India Company a trade monopoly on the tea exported to the American colonies. In many American cities, tea agents resigned or canceled orders, and merchants refused consignments in response to the unpopular act. Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts, determined to uphold the law, ordered that three ships arriving in Boston harbor should be allowed to deposit their cargoes and that appropriate payments should be made for the goods. On the night of December 16, 1773, while the ships lingered in the harbor, sixty men boarded the ships, disguised as Native Americans, and dumped the entire shipment of tea into the harbor. That event is now famously known as the Boston Tea Party.
The Intolerable and Quebec Acts
In January 1774, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, which shut down Boston Harbor until the British East India Company had been fully reimbursed for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. Americans throughout the colonies sent food and supplies to Boston via land to prevent death from hunger and cold in the bitter New England winter. Parliament also passed the Quebec Act at the same time, which granted more rights to French Canadian Catholics and extended French Canadian territory south to the western borders of New York and Pennsylvania.
The First Continental Congress and Boycott
To protest the Intolerable Acts, prominent colonials gathered in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress in autumn of 1774. They once again petitioned Parliament, King George III, and the British people to repeal the acts and restore friendly relations. For additional motivation, they also decided to institute a boycott, or ban, of all British goods in the colonies.
Lexington, Concord, and the Second Continental Congress
On April 19, 1775, part of the British occupation force in Boston marched to the nearby town of Concord, Massachusetts, to seize a colonial militia arsenal. Militiamen of Lexington and Concord intercepted them and attacked. The first shot—the so-called “shot heard round the world” made famous by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson—was one of many that hounded the British and forced them to retreat to Boston. Thousands of militiamen from nearby colonies flocked to Boston to assist.
In the meantime, leaders convened the Second Continental Congress to discuss options. In one final attempt for peaceful reconciliation, the Olive Branch Petition, they professed their love and loyalty to King George III and begged him to address their grievances. The king rejected the petition and formally declared that the colonies were in a state of rebellion.
The Declaration of Independence
The Second Continental Congress chose George Washington, a southerner, to command the militiamen besieging Boston in the north. They also appropriated money for a small navy and for transforming the undisciplined militias into the professional Continental Army. Encouraged by a strong colonial campaign in which the British scored only narrow victories (such as at Bunker Hill), many colonists began to advocate total independence as opposed to having full rights within the British Empire. The next year, the congressmen voted on July 2, 1776, to declare their independence. Thomas Jefferson, a young lawyer from Virginia, drafted the Declaration of Independence. The United States was born.
Key People & Terms
A prominent Boston lawyer who first became famous for defending the British soldiers accused of murdering five civilians in the Boston Massacre. Adams was a delegate from Massachusetts in the Continental Congresses, where he rejected proposals for reconciliation with Britain. He served as vice president to George Washington and was president of the United States from 1797 to 1801.
Second cousin to John Adams and a political activist. Adams was a failed Bostonian businessman who became an activist in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. He organized the first Committee of Correspondence of Boston, which communicated with other similar organizations across the colonies, and was a delegate to both Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775.
A Mohawk chief and influential leader of the Iroquois tribes. Brant was one of the many Native American leaders who advocated an alliance with Britain against the Americans in the Revolutionary War. He and other tribal leaders hoped an alliance with the British might provide protection from land-hungry American settlers.
A Philadelphia printer, inventor, and patriot. Franklin drew the famous “Join or Die” political cartoon for the Albany Congress. He was also a delegate for the Second Continental Congress and a member of the committee responsible for helping to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
King George III
King of Great Britain during the American Revolution. George III inherited the throne at the age of twelve. He ruled Britain throughout the Seven Years’ War, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. After the conclusion of the French and Indian War, his popularity declined in the American colonies. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson vilifies George III and argues that his neglect and misuse of the American colonies justified their revolution.
Prime minister of Parliament at the close of the French and Indian War. Grenville was responsible for enforcing the Navigation Act and for passing the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Currency Act, and Quartering Act in the mid-1760s. He assumed, incorrectly, that colonists would be willing to bear a greater tax burden after Britain had invested so much in protecting them from the French and Native Americans.
A radical colonist famous for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Henry openly advocated rebellion against the Crown in the years prior to the Revolutionary War.
Royal official and governor of Massachusetts during the turbulent years of the 1760s and early 1770s. Hutchinson forbade the British East India Company’s tea ships from leaving Boston Harbor until they had unloaded their cargo, prompting disguised colonists to destroy the tea in the Boston Tea Party.
Virginian planter and lawyer who eventually became president of the United States. Jefferson was invaluable to the revolutionary cause. In 1776, he drafted the Declaration of Independence, which justified American independence from Britain. Later, he served as the first secretary of state under President George Washington and as vice president to John Adams. Jefferson then was elected president himself in 1800 and 1804.
A radical philosopher who strongly supported republicanism and civic virtue. Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was a bestselling phenomenon in the American colonies and convinced thousands to rebel against the “royal brute,” King George III. When subsequent radical writings of Paine’s, which supported republicanism and condemned monarchy, were published in Britain, Paine was tried in absentia, found guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw in England.
William Pitt, the Elder
British statesman who provided crucial leadership during the latter half of the French and Indian War. Pitt focused British war efforts so that Britain could defeat the French in Canada. Many have argued that without his leadership, Britain would have lost the war to the French and their allies.
A prominent Ottawa chief. Pontiac, disillusioned by the French defeat in the French and Indian War, briefly united various tribes in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys to raid colonists on the western frontiers of British North America between 1763 and 1766. He eventually was killed by another Native American after the British crushed his uprising. Hoping to forestall any future tribal insurrections, Parliament issued the Proclamation of 1763 as a conciliatory gesture toward Native Americans and as an attempt to check the encroachment of white settlers onto native lands.
A Virginia planter and militia officer who eventually became the first president of the United States. Washington participated in the first engagement of the French and Indian War in 1754 and later became commander in chief of the American forces during the Revolutionary War. In 1789, he became president of the United States. Although Washington actually lost most of the military battles he fought, his leadership skills were unparalleled and were integral to the creation of the United States.
A congress convened by British officials in 1754 promoting a unification of British colonies in North America for security and defense against the French. Although the Albany Congress failed to foster any solid colonial unity, it did bring together many colonial leaders who would later play key roles in the years before the Revolutionary War. To support the congress, Benjamin Franklin drew his famous political cartoon of a fragmented snake labeled “Join or Die.”
Battle of Lexington and Concord
Two battles, fought on April 19, 1775, that opened the Revolutionary War. When British troops engaged a small group of colonial militiamen in the small towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, the militiamen fought back and eventually forced the British to retreat, harrying the redcoats on the route back to Boston using guerrilla tactics. The battle sent shockwaves throughout the colonies and the world, as it was astonishing that farmers were able to beat the British forces. This battle marked a significant turning point because open military conflict made reconciliation between Britain and the colonies all the more unlikely.
Battle of Saratoga
A 1777 British defeat that was a major turning point in the Revolutionary War. The defeat convinced the French to ally themselves with the United States and enter the war against Britain. Most historians agree that without help from France, the United States could not have won the war.
An incident that occurred on March 5, 1770, when a mob of angry Bostonians began throwing rocks and sticks at the British troops who were occupying the city. The troops shot several members of the crowd, killing five. Patriots throughout the colonies dubbed the incident a “massacre” and used it to fuel anti-British sentiment.
Boston Tea Party
An incident that took place on December 16, 1773, when a band of Bostonians led by the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans and destroyed chests of tea aboard ships in the harbor. The Tea Party prompted the passage of the Intolerable Acts to punish Bostonians and make them pay for the destroyed tea.
First Continental Congress
A meeting convened in late 1774 that brought together delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies (Georgia abstained) in order to protest the Intolerable Acts. Colonial leaders stood united against these and other British acts and implored Parliament and King George III to repeal them. The Congress also created an association to organize and supervise a boycott on all British goods. Although the delegates did not request home rule or desire independence, they believed that the colonies should be given more power to legislate themselves.
French and Indian War
A war—part of the Seven Years’ War fought in the mid-1700s among the major European powers—waged in North America from 1754 to 1763. The British and American colonists fought in the war against the French and their Native American allies, hence the American name for the war. After the war, the British emerged as the dominant European power on the eastern half of the continent.
Those who chose to support Britain during the Revolutionary War. Loyalists were particularly numerous in the lower southern states, but they also had support from Anglican clergymen, wealthy citizens, and colonial officials. Thousands served in Loyalist militias or in the British army, while others fled to Canada, the West Indies, or England. A large majority of black slaves also chose to support Britain because they believed an American victory would only keep them enslaved. Native Americans sided with the British, too, fearing that American settlers would consume their lands if the United States won.
An economic theory predominant in the 1700s that stipulated that nations should amass wealth in order to increase their power. Under mercantilism, the European powers sought new colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia because they wanted sources of cheap natural resources such as gold, cotton, timber, tobacco, sugarcane, and furs. They shipped these materials back to Europe and converted them into manufactured goods, which they resold to the colonists at high prices.
Those who supported the war against Britain. In January 1776, the English émigré philosopher and radical Thomas Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense, which beseeched Americans to rebel against the “royal brute,” King George III, declare independence, and establish a new republican government. The pamphlet sold an estimated 100,000 copies in just a few months and convinced many Americans that the time had come to be free of Britain forever.
An uprising led by the Ottawa chief Pontiac against British settlers after the end of the French and Indian War. Pontiac united several Native American tribes in the Ohio Valley and attacked British and colonial settlements in the region. The forces under Pontiac laid siege to Detroit and succeeded in taking all but four of the fortified posts they attacked. Although the British army defeated Pontiac’s warriors and squelched the rebellion, Parliament issued the Proclamation of 1763 as a conciliatory gesture to the Native Americans, recognizing their right to their territories.
Second Continental Congress
A meeting convened in 1775 by colonial leaders to discuss how to proceed after the recent Battle of Lexington and Concord. The Congress decided to try one last time to restore peaceful relations with Britain by signing the Olive Branch Petition. In the meantime, they prepared for national defense by creating a navy and the Continental Army and installing George Washington in command of the latter. At this point, many believed that war was inevitable.
Stamp Act Congress
A meeting convened in 1765 in New York to protest the Stamp Act. Delegates from nine colonies attended and signed petitions asking Parliament and King George III to repeal the tax. It was the first time colonial leaders united to protest an action by Parliament.
The French and Indian War: 1754–1763
1754 George Washington’s forces initiate French and Indian War Albany Congress convenes
1755 Braddock defeated
1758 British take Louisbourg
1759 British take Quebec
1760 British take Montreal
1763 Treaty of Paris ends French and Indian War Pontiac attacks Detroit British issue Proclamation of 1763
George Washington - American general whose forces helped start the French and Indian War in western Pennsylvania in 1754
General Edward “Bulldog” Braddock - British general who proved ineffective in fighting Native American forces during the French and Indian War
William Pitt - Major British statesman during second half of the French and Indian War; successfully focused war efforts on defeating French forces in Canada
Pontiac - Ottawa chief disillusioned by the French defeat in the war; organized unsuccessful uprising against settlers after the war’s end
The Beginning of the War
Unlike the previous wars between European powers in the 1700s, the French and Indian War was begun in North America—in the heartland of the Ohio Valley, where both France and Britain held claims to land and trading rights. Westward-moving British colonists were particularly aggressive in their desire for new tracts of wilderness. The French, in order to prevent further British encroachment on what they believed to be French lands, began to construct a series of forts along the Ohio River. Eventually, the two sides came into conflict when a young lieutenant colonel from Virginia named George Washington attacked French troops with his small militia force and established Fort Necessity. Washington eventually surrendered after the French returned in greater numbers.