The American Revolution (1754-1781)

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Americans Fighting for the British

The opportunity to serve side by side with British regulars during the war gave many Americans a sense of pride and confidence. It is estimated that some 20,000 Americans fought with the British against the French and Native American opposition. Washington, though he was defeated more than once during the war, was one of many colonists who gained valuable military and leadership skills that later proved useful during the Revolutionary War.

At the same time, though military service gave colonists a sense of pride, it also made many realize how different they were from the British regulars with whom they fought. Many British regulars disliked the colonists they were fighting to protect, and many British commanders refused to acknowledge the authority of high-ranking colonial militia officers.

Colonial Disunity

Furthermore, the British never managed to gain colonial support for the conflict. Many colonists, especially those living on the eastern seaboard far from the conflict, didn’t particularly feel like fighting Britain’s wars. Many colonial legislatures refused to support the war wholeheartedly until leading British statesman William Pitt offered to pay them for their expenses. Some colonial shippers were so disinterested in British policy that they actually shipped food to the French and its European allies during the conflict. In short, there was little colonial support for the war, but much colonial unity that was subversive to British war aims.

The Albany Congress

To bolster more colonial support for the French and Indian War, Britain called for an intercolonial congress to meet in Albany, New York, in 1754. To promote the Albany Congress, Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin created his now-famous political cartoon of a snake with the caption “Join or Die.”

Despite Franklin’s efforts, delegates from only seven of the thirteen colonies chose to attend. The delegates at the Albany conference agreed to support the war and also reaffirmed their military alliance with the Iroquois against the French and their Native American allies. But somewhat surprisingly, the delegates at Albany also sent Parliament recommendations for increased colonial unity and a degree of home rule. British ministers in London—as well as the delegates’ own colonial legislatures—balked at the idea.

War Spreads to Europe

American colonists and the French waged undeclared warfare for two years until 1756, when London formally declared war against France. The conflict quickly spread to Europe and soon engulfed the Old World powers in another continental war (in Europe, the war was referred to as the Seven Years’ War).

For Britain and France, this expansion of the war shifted the war’s center from the Americas to Europe and thus transformed the struggle entirely. The fighting in North America became secondary, and both powers focused their attention and resources in Europe. However, despite the diversion of resources and manpower to Europe, many key battles in the war continued to be fought in the New World.

France’s Strong Start

During the initial years of the war, the French maintained the upper hand, as they repeatedly dominated British forces. The most notorious British defeat in North America came in 1755, when British General Edward “Bulldog” Braddock and his aide George Washington chose to attack the French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley. After hacking through endless wilderness, their forces were slaughtered by the French and their Native American allies. This seemingly easy victory encouraged Native American tribes throughout the frontier to attack the British settlers encroaching on their lands.

Britain’s Resurgence

After Britain officially declared war on France in 1756, British troops—many of whom were American colonists—invaded French Canada and also assaulted French posts in the West Indies. Not until the “Great Commoner” statesman William Pitt took charge of operations in London did Britain begin to turn the tide against France. Pitt focused the war effort on achieving three goals: the capture of the French Canadian cities Louisbourg, Quebec, and Montreal. He succeeded: Louisbourg fell in 1758, Quebec in 1759, and Montreal in 1760, giving the British a victory.

The Treaty of Paris

The war ended formally with the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763. Under the terms of the agreement, France was effectively driven out of Canada, leaving Britain the dominant North American power.

Pontiac and the Proclamation of 1763

Despite the signing of the peace treaty, unofficial fighting between white settlers and Native Americans in the West continued for another three years. In one incident, a group of Native Americans, under the leadership of Ottawa chief Pontiac and supported by bitter French traders, killed roughly 2,000 British settlers, lay seige to Detroit, and captured most of the British forts on the western frontier. Though the British army quickly squelched Pontiac’s Rebellion, Parliament, in order to appease Native Americans and to prevent further clashes, issued the Proclamation of 1763 , which forbade British colonists from settling on Native American territory.

The Proclamation of 1763 angered Americans intensely: during the French and Indian War, they had believed they were fighting, at least in part, for their right to expand and settle west of the Appalachians. Many firmly believed that this land was theirs for the taking. The proclamation thus came as a shock. Many colonists chose to ignore the proclamation and move westward anyway. This issue was the first of many that would ultimately split America from Britain.

The Sugar and Stamp Acts: 1763–1766


1764 Britain begins to enforce the Navigation Act Parliament passes the Sugar and Currency Acts

1765 Parliament passes the Stamp and Quartering Acts Stamp Act Congress convenes in New York

1766 Parliament repeals the Stamp Act, passes the Declaratory Act

Key People

George III -  King of Great Britain throughout much of the colonial period; saw marked decline in popularity in the colonies after the French and Indian War

George Grenville -  Prime minister of Parliament; enforced the Navigation Act and passed the Sugar, Stamp, Currency, and Quartering Acts

Sons of Liberty -  Secretive groups of prominent citizens who led protests against British taxes and regulations; influence grew in 1765 after passage of the Stamp Act

Growing Discontentment with Britain

During the period from 1763 to 1775, in the twelve years after the French and Indian War and before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, colonial distrust of Britain grew markedly, and the emerging united national identity in America became more prominent. In just over a decade, proud British subjects in the American colonies became ardent anti-British patriots struggling for independence.

Salutary Neglect

Likewise, London’s view of the colonies changed radically after the French and Indian War. Prior to the war, Parliament barely acknowledged the American colonists, treating them with a policy of salutary neglect. As long as the colonies exported cheap raw materials to Britain and imported finished goods from Britain (see Mercantilism, below), Britain was quite happy to leave them alone. After the war, though, the situation was radically different. By the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British national debt had climbed over 100 million pounds, hundreds of thousands of which had been used to protect the British colonies in America.


Britain’s economy during the 1700s was based on mercantilist theories that taught that money was power: the more money a nation had in its reserves, the more powerful it was. Britain and other European powers, including France and Spain, actively sought new colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia to stimulate their economies and increase their wealth. Colonies provided cheap natural resources such as gold, cotton, timber, tobacco, sugarcane, and furs. These materials could be shipped back home to the mother country and converted into manufactured goods, which were resold to the colonists at high prices.

The Navigation Acts

Immediately following the cessation of the French and Indian War, British Prime Minister George Grenville ordered the Royal Navy to begin enforcing the old Navigation Acts. Parliament had passed a major Navigation Act in 1651 to prevent other European powers (especially the Dutch) from encroaching on British colonial territories; the act required colonists to export certain key goods, such as tobacco, only to Britain. In addition, any European goods bound for the colonies had to be taxed in Britain. Although the law had existed for over one hundred years, it had never before been strictly enforced.

Grenville and the Sugar Act

Because the French and Indian War had left Britain with an empty pocketbook, Parliament also desperately needed to restock the Treasury. Led by Grenville, Parliament levied heavier taxes on British subjects, especially the colonists. First, in 1764, Grenville’s government passed the Sugar Act, which placed a tax on sugar imported from the West Indies. The Sugar Act represented a significant change in policy: whereas previous colonial taxes had been levied to support local British officials, the tax on sugar was enacted solely to refill Parliament’s empty Treasury.

The Currency and Quartering Acts

The same year, Parliament also passed the Currency Act, which removed devalued paper currencies, many from the French and Indian War period, from circulation. In 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required residents of some colonies to feed and house British soldiers serving in America. These acts outraged colonists, who believed the taxes and regulations were unfair. Many also questioned why the British army needed to remain in North America when the French and Pontiac had already been defeated.

The Stamp Act

Though the colonists disliked all of these acts, they particularly took offense to the 1765 Stamp Act. This tax required certain goods to bear an official stamp showing that the owner had paid his or her tax. Many of these items were paper goods, such as legal documents and licenses, newspapers, leaflets, and even playing cards. Furthermore, the act declared that those who failed to pay the tax would be punished by the vice-admiralty courts without a trial by jury.

Colonists were particularly incensed because the Stamp Act was passed in order to pay for the increased British troop presence in the colonies. Not only did the colonists feel that the troop presence was no longer necessary, they also feared that the troops were there to control them. This military presence, combined with the vice-admiralty courts and Quartering Act, made the Americans very suspicious of Grenville’s intentions.

Taxation Without Representation

In protest, the American public began to cry out against “taxation without representation.” In reality, most colonists weren’t seriously calling for representation in Parliament; a few minor representatives in Parliament likely would have been too politically weak to accomplish anything substantive for the colonies. Rather, the slogan was symbolic and voiced the colonists’ distaste for paying taxes they hadn’t themselves legislated.

Virtual Representation

In defense, Grenville claimed that the colonists were subject to “virtual representation.” He and his supporters argued that all members of Parliament—no matter where they were originally elected—virtually represented all British citizens in England, North America, or anywhere else. To the colonists, the idea of virtual representation was a joke.

The Stamp Act Congress

Unwilling to accept the notion of virtual representation, colonists protested the new taxes—the Stamp Act in particular—using more direct methods. In 1765, delegates from nine colonies met in New York at the Stamp Act Congress, where they drafted a plea to King George III and Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act.

The Sons and Daughters of Liberty

Other colonists took their protests to the streets. In Boston, a patriot group called the Sons of Liberty erected “liberty poles” to hang images of tax collectors and even tarred and feathered one minor royal official. People throughout the colonies also refused to import British goods. Homespun clothing became popular as colonial wives, or Daughters of Liberty, refused to purchase British cloth.

The Declaratory Act

Parliament eventually conceded and repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, which overjoyed the colonists. Quietly, however, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act to reserve Britain’s right to govern and “bind” the colonies whenever and however it deemed necessary.

The Declaratory Act proved far more damaging than the Stamp Act had ever been, because it emboldened Britain to feel that it could pass strict legislation freely, with few repercussions. It was during the aftermath of the Declaratory Act, from 1766 to 1773, that colonial resistance to the Crown intensified and became quite violent.

The Boston Massacre and Tea Party: 1767–1774


1767 Townshend Acts impose duties on goods, suspend the New York assembly

1768 British troops occupy Boston

1770 Parliament repeals all duties under the Townshend Acts except tax on tea Boston Massacre occurs

1773 Boston Tea Party occurs

1774 Parliament passes Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts Parliament passes Quebec Act

Key People

Thomas Hutchinson -  Governor of Massachusetts during early 1770s; instituted policies that prompted the Boston Tea Party

Charles Townshend -  British member of Parliament who crafted the 1767 Townshend Acts

The Townshend Acts

Parliament wasted little time invoking its right to “bind” the colonies under the Declaratory Act. The very next year, in 1767, it passed the Townshend Acts. Named after Parliamentarian Charles Townshend, these acts included small duties on all imported glass, paper, lead, paint, and, most significant, tea. Hundreds of thousands of colonists drank tea daily and were therefore outraged at Parliament’s new tax.

Impact of the Townshend Acts

Fueled by their success in protesting the Stamp Act, colonists took to the streets again. Nonimportation agreements were strengthened, and many shippers, particularly in Boston, began to import smuggled tea. Although initial opposition to the Townshend Acts was less extreme than the initial reaction to the Stamp Act, it eventually became far greater. The nonimportation agreements, for example, proved to be far more effective this time at hurting British merchants. Within a few years’ time, colonial resistance became more violent and destructive.

The Boston Massacre

To prevent serious disorder, Britain dispatched 4,000 troops to Boston in 1768—a rather extreme move, considering that Boston had only about 20,000 residents at the time. Indeed, the troop deployment quickly proved a mistake, as the soldiers’ presence in the city only made the situation worse. Bostonians, required to house the soldiers in their own homes, resented their presence greatly.

Tensions mounted until March 5, 1770, when a protesting mob clashed violently with British regulars, resulting in the death of five Bostonians. Although most historians actually blame the rock-throwing mob for picking the fight, Americans throughout the colonies quickly dubbed the event the Boston Massacre. This incident, along with domestic pressures from British merchants suffering from colonial nonimportation agreements, convinced Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts. The tax on tea, however, remained in place as a matter of principle. This decision led to more violent incidents.

The Tea Act

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, granting the financially troubled British East India Company an exclusive monopoly on tea exported to the American colonies. This act agitated colonists even further: although the new monopoly meant cheaper tea, many Americans believed that Britain was trying to dupe them into accepting the hated tax.

The Boston Tea Party

In response to the unpopular act, tea agents in many American cities resigned or canceled orders, and merchants refused consignments. In Boston, however, Governor Thomas Hutchinson resolved to uphold the law and ordered that three ships arriving in Boston Harbor be allowed to despoit their cargoes and that appropriate payment be made for the goods. This policy prompted about sixty men, including some members of the Sons of Liberty, to board the ships on the night of December 16, 1 773 (disguised as Native Americans) and dump the tea chests into the water. The event became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The dumping of the tea in the harbor was the most destructive act that the colonists had taken against Britain thus far. The previous rioting and looting of British officials’ houses over the Stamp Act had been minor compared to the thousands of pounds in damages to the ships and tea. Governor Hutchinson, angered by the colonists’ disregard for authority and disrespect for property, left for England. The “tea party” was a bold and daring step forward on the road to outright revolution.

The Intolerable Acts

The Tea Party had mixed results: some Americans hailed the Bostonians as heroes, while others condemned them as radicals. Parliament, very displeased, passed the Coercive Acts in 1774 in a punitive effort to restore order. Colonists quickly renamed these acts the Intolerable Acts.

Numbered among these Intolerable Acts was the Boston Port Bill, which closed Boston Harbor to all ships until Bostonians had repaid the British East India Company for damages. The acts also restricted public assemblies and suspended many civil liberties. Strict new provisions were also made for housing British troops in American homes, reviving the indignation created by the earlier Quartering Act, which had been allowed to expire in 1770. Public sympathy for Boston erupted throughout the colonies, and many neighboring towns sent food and supplies to the blockaded city.

The Quebec Act

At the same time the Coercive Acts were put into effect, Parliament also passed the Quebec Act. This act granted more freedoms to Canadian Catholics and extended Quebec’s territorial claims to meet the western frontier of the American colonies.

The Revolution Begins: 1772–1775


1772 Samuel Adams creates first Committee of Correspondence

1774 First Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia Boycott of British goods begins

1775 American forces win Battle of Lexington and Concord Second Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia Second Continental Congress extends Olive Branch Petition King George III declares colonies in state of rebellion

Key People

John Adams -  Prominent Bostonian lawyer who opposed reconciliation with Britain during the Continental Congresses

Samuel Adams -  Second cousin to John Adams and ardent political activist

George III -  King of Great Britain; declared colonies in state of rebellion in 1775

Patrick Henry -  Fiery radical famous for his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech

George Washington -  Virginia planter and militia officer; took command of the Continental Army in 1775

Committees of Correspondence

In 1772, Samuel Adams of Boston created the first Committee of Correspondence, which was primarily an exchange of ideas in letters and pamphlets among members. Within a few years, this one committee led to dozens of similar discussion groups in towns throughout the colonies. Eventually, these isolated groups came together to facilitate the exchange of ideas and solidify opposition to the Crown. The Committees of Correspondence proved invaluable in uniting colonists, distributing information, and organizing colonial voices of opposition.

The First Continental Congress

In response to the Intolerable Acts, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies (Georgia chose not to attend) met at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774 to discuss a course of action. The delegates were all fairly prominent men in colonial political life but held different philosophical beliefs. Samuel Adams, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and George Washington were among the more famous men who attended.

Although rebellion against the Crown was at this point still far from certain, leaders believed grievances had to be redressed to Parliament and King George III. The delegates met for nearly two months and concluded with a written Declaration of Rights and requests to Parliament, George III, and the British people to repeal the Coercive Acts so that harmony could be restored.

Natural Rights

The First Continental Congress marked an important turning point in colonial relations with Britain. Although some delegates still hoped for reconciliation, the decisions they made laid the foundations for revolt. Even though American colonial leaders had petitioned Parliament and King George III to repeal taxes in the past, never had they boldly denounced them until this point, when they claimed that Britain’s actions had violated their natural rights and the principles of the English constitution.

This appeal to natural rights above the king or God was groundbreaking because it justified and even legalized colonial opposition to the Crown. It converted the riotous street mobs into people justly defending their freedoms. In other words, the Americans were not in the wrong for resisting British policy. Rather, Britain was to blame because it had attempted to strip Americans of their natural rights as human beings. Thomas Jefferson later extrapolated these legal appeals in the Declaration of Independence.

The Boycott

The Continental Congress delegates decided that until the Coercive Acts were repealed, a stronger system of nonimportation agreements, including a new boycott of all Britigh goods, should be organized and administered throughout the colonies. Patriotic colonists argued that the purchase of any British-produced goods—especially those goods made from American raw materials—only perpetuated the servile relationship the colonies had to London under the system of mercantilism.

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