Britain and its american colonies-a synopsis

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Tab 5

The American Revolution


The high cost of the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, led Parliament to pass laws that levied taxes on the American colonists. The colonists became very angry because they had never paid taxes to Britain before. They said it violated their rights because Parliament had no members from the colonies and Britain and, therefore, had no right to pass tax laws on the colonies. Over the next decade, colonists and Britain grew further apart. Many colonists wanted to separate from Great Britain. In July of 1776, the Second Continental Congress announced they were independent of Britain. They issued a Declaration of Independence that was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment. From 1775 to 1781, the colonists and Britain fought a war in North America. The colonists won and in 1783, the two sides signed a treaty in which Britain recognized the independent United States of America.


  • 1750—13 prosperous colonies grew along the eastern coast; they were part of Great Britain

  • Britain applied mercantilist policies to its colonies and passed the Navigation Acts to regulate colonial trade and manufacturing, but the policies weren’t enforced

  • The colonies were home to many diverse religious and ethnic groups

  • Social distinctions were more blurred in the colonies than in Europe, but government and society were dominated by wealthy landowners and merchants

  • Colonists felt entitled to the rights of English citizens and their colonial assemblies exercised control over local affairs


  • After 1763, relations between Britain and the colonies grew strained

  • The Seven Years’ War and the French and Indian War cost money and the British wanted the colonists to help pay for the war and for troops still stationed in the colonies

  • Britain began enforcing the Navigation Laws and passed other laws to increase colonial taxes

  • Colonists resented these measures seeing them as an attack on their rights—“No taxation without representation”

  • Because the colonists had no representatives in Parliament, they believed Parliament had no right to tax them, but Parliament claimed “virtual representation”

  • 1774—representatives from the 13 colonies meet in Philadelphia (First Continental Congress) to decide what action to take against Britain

  • The Continental Congress sets up a Continental Army lead by George Washington

  • April 18, 1775—At Lexington, Massachusetts, the 77 members of the colonial militia—the “Minute Men”—refused to disperse and allow the British through to the city, shots were fired, killing 8 Americans (the “shot heard ‘round the world” & the American war for independence begins)

  • 1776—Second Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia to vote to declare independence from Britain; they sign the Declaration of Independence (principal writer—Thomas Jefferson), a document that reflects John Locke’s philosophy and ideas from other Enlightenment thinkers

  • The Declaration claims people had the right “to alter or to abolish” unjust governments

    • It emphasizes the principle of popular sovereignty, which states that all government power rests with the people

  • July 4, 1776—American leaders adopt the Declaration of Independence

shot hear round the worldjoindiedeclarationcornwallis at yorktown-john trumbell-1797


  • Strengths of the British: 1) professional soldiers, 2) large navy, 3) money, 4) occupation in most American cities, 5) 1/3 of population in America were Loyalists to the crown, 6) many Americans refused to fight their “brothers”

  • Strengths of the Americans: 1) home field advantage, 2) rebels controlled the countryside

  • Disadvantages of the Americans: 1) few military resources, 2) little money to pay soldiers

  • 1783—Treaty of Paris officially ended the war; Britain recognized the independence of the United States of America and it’s borders: Canada-north, Florida-south, Mississippi-west (BTW—this is the second Treaty of Paris, the first one ended the French and Indian War in 1763)

  • Long Range Effects—sparked a revolutionary fever around the world, first break of a colony with Europe, first nation of any size to have no monarchy


  • Feb 1787—Congress approved a Constitutional Convention to review the Articles of Confederation, except they didn’t revise them, they threw them out and wrote a whole new system of government—the United States Constitution

  • The Constitution set up a government with 3 branches—executive, legislative, judicial; so no one branch can take control of the other, the Constitution provided for a built in system of checks and balances (Montesquieu’s idea)

  • The Constitution set up a federal system in which power was divided between national and state governments with the authority coming from the consent of the governed (Locke)

  • September 17, 1787—United States Constitution was signed

  • The Constitution created a republican (Republicanism) government in which citizens elect representatives to make and carry out laws. (Elect President and members of Congress, and guarantees each state a republican form of government.)

  • A Bill of Rights (first 10 amendments) was included to appease the Anti-federalists who backed states’ rights and the Articles of Confederation and whose signatures the Federalists needed to get the Constitution passed; the Bill of Rights protected basic rights

  • These documents put Enlightenment ideas into action, reason and reform could prevail and progress was inevitable

Enlightenment ideas that influenced the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution:

  • Separation of powers: (Montesquieu!)

  • Checks and Balances (Montesquieu!)

    • System of controls on the power of government in which each branch of government checks the power of the other branches.

  • Liberty & Equality-

    • Yes, but for a time still limited- Only White males who met certain property requirements could vote.

  • Direct democracy: Rousseau

    • public election of president and Congress

  • Popular sovereignty- (John Locke!)

    • Preamble begins “ We the people…”

    • creates representative government

    • limits government powers

  • Human rights- (Voltaire!)

    • US CONSTITUTION-Bill of Rights provides for freedom of speech and religion

    • No cruel or unusual punishment & no imprisonment without just cause

  • Constitution of the United States created the most progressive government of its day

Enlightenment ideas that sparked the American Revolution will bring changes in Europe

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