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The American Revolution was a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain, becoming the United States of America. In alliance with France and others it defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War.
Starting in 1765, members of American colonial society arguing the position "No taxation without representation" rejected the authority of the British Parliament to tax them because they lacked representation in Parliament. Protests steadily escalate to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, during which patriots destroyed a consignment of taxed tea. The British responded by closing Boston Harbor, then followed with a series of legislative acts which effectively rescinded Massachusetts Bay Colony's rights of self-governance and caused the other colonies to rally behind Massachusetts. In late 1774, the Patriots set up their own alternative government to better coordinate their resistance efforts against Great Britain, while other colonists preferred to remain aligned to the British Crown and were known as Loyalists or Tories.
Tensions erupted into battle between Patriot militia and British regulars when the British attempted to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The conflict then developed into a global war, during which the Patriots (and later their French, Spanish, and Dutch allies) fought the British and Loyalists in what became known as the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Each of the thirteen colonies formed a Provincial Congress that assumed power from the old colonial governments and suppressed Loyalism, and from there they built a Continental Army under the leadership of General George Washington. The Continental Congress determined King George's rule to be tyrannical and infringing the colonists' rights as Englishmen, and they declared the colonies free and independent states on July 2, 1776. The Patriot leadership professed the political philosophies of liberalism and republicanism to reject monarchy and aristocracy, and they proclaimed that all men are created equal.
The Continental Army forced the British out of Boston in 1776, but the British captured and held New York City for the duration of the war. They blockaded ports and captured other cities for brief periods, but they failed to defeat Washington's forces. The Patriots unsuccessfully attempted to invade Canada during the winter of 1775–76, but they captured a British army at the Battle of Saratoga in late 1777, and the French entered the war as allies of the United States as a result. The war later turned to the American South where the British under the leadership of Charles Cornwallis captured an army at South Carolina but failed to enlist enough volunteers from Loyalist civilians to take effective control of the territory. A combined American–French force captured a second British army at Yorktown in 1781, effectively ending the war in the United States. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 formally ended the conflict, confirming the new nation's complete separation from the British Empire. The United States took possession of nearly all the territory east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes, with the British retaining control of Canada and Spain taking Florida.
Among the significant results of the revolution was the creation of a new Constitution of the United States. The new Constitution established a relatively strong federal national government that included an executive, a national judiciary, and a bicameral Congress that represented states in the Senate and population in the House of Representatives. The Revolution also resulted in the migration of around 60,000 Loyalists to other British territories, especially British North America (Canada).
Historians typically begin their histories of the American Revolution with the British victory in the French and Indian War in 1763, which removed France as a major player in North American affairs. Lawrence Henry Gipson, the historian of the British Empire, states:
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 may have played a role in the separation of the United States from Great Britain, as colonists at the time wanted to continue in the economically beneficial cultural practice of taking land for one's own livelihood as part of the drive west. The lands west of Quebec and west of a line running along the crest of the Allegheny mountains became Indian territory, temporarily barred to settlement.
For the prior history, see Thirteen Colonies.
As early as 1651, the English government had sought to regulate trade in the American colonies. On October 9, the Navigation Acts were passed to ensure trade only enriched Britain, barring trade with other nations. While some argue the economic impact on the colonists was minimal, the political friction triggered was more serious, as the merchants most directly affected were most politically active. The conclusion of King Philip's War in 1678, much of which was fought without significant assistance from England, contributed to the development of a unique identity, separate from that of Britain. In the 1680s, King Charles II determined to bring New England under a more centralized administration, in order to regulate trade more effectively. His efforts were fiercely opposed by the colonists, resulting in the abrogation of their colonial charter by the Crown. Charles' successor, James II, finalized these efforts in 1686, establishing the Dominion of New England. Dominion rule triggered bitter resentment throughout New England; the enforcement of the unpopular Navigation Acts and the curtailing of local democracy angered the colonists. Encouraged by a change of government in England that saw James II effectively abdicate, a populist uprising overthrew Dominion rule on April 18, 1689. Colonial governments reasserted their control in the wake of the revolt, and successive governments made no more attempts to restore the Dominion.
Subsequent English, and later British, governments continued in their efforts to tax certain goods; passing acts regulating the trade of wool, hats, and molasses. In 1733, the Molasses Act in particular was egregious to the colonists, as a significant part of colonial trade relied on the product. The taxes severely damaged the New England economy, and, as a result, the taxes were rarely paid, resulting in a surge of smuggling, bribery, piracy and intimidation of customs officials. Colonial wars fought in America were often the source of considerable tension. Following the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, the British agreed to cede the captured fortress of Louisbourg back to France. New England colonists resented the loss of life, effort and expenditure involved in subduing the fortress, only to have it returned to their erstwhile enemy.
In 1764, Parliament passed the Currency Act to restrain the use of paper money which British merchants saw as a means to evade debt payments. Parliament also passed the Sugar Act, imposing customs duties on a number of articles. That same year, Prime Minister George Grenville proposed to impose direct taxes on the colonies to raise revenue, but he delayed action to see whether the colonies would propose some way to raise the revenue themselves. None did and Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765 which imposed direct taxes on the colonies for the first time. All official documents, newspapers, almanacs, and pamphlets—even decks of playing cards—were required to have the stamps.
The colonists did not object that the taxes were high (they were low), but because they had no representation in the Parliament. Benjamin Franklin testified in Parliament in 1766 that Americans already contributed heavily to the defense of the Empire. He said that local governments had raised, outfitted, and paid 25,000 soldiers to fight France—as many as Britain itself sent—and spent many millions from American treasuries doing so in the French and Indian War alone. London had to deal with 1,500 politically well-connected British Army soldiers. The decision was to keep them on active duty with full pay, but they had to be stationed somewhere. Stationing a standing army in Great Britain during peacetime was politically unacceptable, so the decision was made to station them in America and have the Americans pay them The soldiers had no military mission--they were not there to defend the colonies because there was no threat to the colonies.
In 1765, the Sons of Liberty formed. They used public demonstrations, boycott, violence, and threats of violence to ensure that the British tax laws were unenforceable. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty burned the records of the vice admiralty court and looted the home of chief justice Thomas Hutchinson. Several legislatures called for united action, and nine colonies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1765. Moderates led by John Dickinson drew up a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" stating that taxes passed without representation violated their rights as Englishmen. Colonists emphasized their determination by boycotting imports of British merchandise.
The Parliament at Westminster saw itself as the supreme lawmaking authority throughout all British possessions and thus entitled to levy any tax without colonial approval. They argued that the colonies were legally British corporations that were completely subordinate to the British parliament and pointed to numerous instances where Parliament had made laws binding on the colonies in the past. They did not see anything in the unwritten British constitution that made taxes special and noted that Parliament had taxed American trade for decades. Parliament insisted that the colonies effectively enjoyed a "virtual representation" as most British people did, as only a small minority of the British population elected representatives to Parliament. Americans such as James Otis maintained that the Americans were not in fact virtually represented.
In London, the Rockingham government came to power (July 1765) and Parliament debated whether to repeal the stamp tax or to send an army to enforce it. Benjamin Franklin made the case for repeal, explaining that the colonies had spent heavily in manpower, money, and blood in defense of the empire in a series of wars against the French and Indians, and that further taxes to pay for those wars were unjust and might bring about a rebellion. Parliament agreed and repealed the tax (February 21, 1766), but in the Declaratory Act of March 1766 insisted that parliament retained full power to make laws for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever". The repeal nonetheless caused widespread celebrations in the colonies.
Briggs says that unnamed modern American economic historians have challenged the view that Great Britain was placing a heavy burden on the North American colonies and have suggested that the cost of defending them from the possibility of invasion by France or Spain was £400,000 – five times the maximum income from them. Briggs rejects the analysis, saying that issue was not invoked at the time.
In 1767, the Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which placed duties on a number of essential goods, including paper, glass, and tea, and established a Board of Customs in Boston to more rigorously execute trade regulations. The new taxes were enacted on the belief that Americans only objected to internal taxes and not to external taxes such as custom duties. The Americans, however, argued against the constitutionality of the act because its purpose was to raise revenue and not regulate trade. Colonists responded by organizing new boycotts of British goods. These boycotts were less effective, however, as the Townshend goods were widely used.
In February 1768, the Assembly of Massachusetts Bay issued a circular letter to the other colonies urging them to coordinate resistance. The governor dissolved the assembly when it refused to rescind the letter. Meanwhile, a riot broke out in Boston in June 1768 over the seizure of the sloop Liberty, owned by John Hancock, for alleged smuggling. Customs officials were forced to flee, prompting the British to deploy troops to Boston. A Boston town meeting declared that no obedience was due to parliamentary laws and called for the convening of a convention. A convention assembled but only issued a mild protest before dissolving itself. In January 1769, Parliament responded to the unrest by reactivating the Treason Act 1543 which called for subjects outside the realm to face trials for treason in England. The governor of Massachusetts was instructed to collect evidence of said treason, and the threat caused widespread outrage, though it was not carried out.
On March 5, 1770, a large crowd gathered around a group of British soldiers. The crowd grew threatening, throwing snowballs, rocks, and debris at them. One soldier was clubbed and fell. There was no order to fire, but the soldiers fired into the crowd anyway. They hit 11 people; three civilians died at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident. The event quickly came to be called the Boston Massacre. The soldiers were tried and acquitted (defended by John Adams), but the widespread descriptions soon began to turn colonial sentiment against the British. This, in turn, began a downward spiral in the relationship between Britain and the Province of Massachusetts.
A new ministry under Lord North came to power in 1770, and Parliament withdrew all taxes except the tax on tea, giving up its efforts to raise revenue while maintaining the right to tax. This temporarily resolved the crisis, and the boycott of British goods largely ceased, with only the more radical patriots such as Samuel Adams continuing to agitate.
In June 1772, American patriots, including John Brown, burned a British warship that had been vigorously enforcing unpopular trade regulations in what became known as the Gaspee Affair. The affair was investigated for possible treason, but no action was taken.
In 1772, it became known that the Crown intended to pay fixed salaries to the governors and judges in Massachusetts. Samuel Adams in Boston set about creating new Committees of Correspondence, which linked Patriots in all 13 colonies and eventually provided the framework for a rebel government. Virginia, the largest colony, set up its Committee of Correspondence in early 1773, on which Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson served.
A total of about 7,000 to 8,000 Patriots served on "Committees of Correspondence" at the colonial and local levels, comprising most of the leadership in their communities. Loyalists were excluded. The committees became the leaders of the American resistance to British actions, and largely determined the war effort at the state and local level. When the First Continental Congress decided to boycott British products, the colonial and local Committees took charge, examining merchant records and publishing the names of merchants who attempted to defy the boycott by importing British goods.
In 1773, private letters were published in which Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson claimed that the colonists could not enjoy all English liberties, and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver called for the direct payment of colonial officials. The letters' contents were used as evidence of a systematic plot against American rights, and discredited Hutchinson in the eyes of the people; the Assembly petitioned for his recall. Benjamin Franklin, postmaster general for the colonies, acknowledged that he leaked the letters, which led to him being berated by British officials and fired from his job.
Meanwhile, Parliament passed the Tea Act to lower the price of taxed tea exported to the colonies in order to help the East India Company undersell smuggled Dutch tea. Special consignees were appointed to sell the tea in order to bypass colonial merchants. The act was opposed by those who resisted the taxes and also by smugglers who stood to lose business. In most instances, the consignees were forced to resign and the tea was turned back, but Massachusetts governor Hutchinson refused to allow Boston merchants to give in to pressure. A town meeting in Boston determined that the tea would not be landed, and ignored a demand from the governor to disperse. On December 16, 1773, a group of men, led by Samuel Adams and dressed to evoke the appearance of American Indians, boarded the ships of the British East India Company and dumped £10,000 worth of tea from their holds (approximately £636,000 in 2008) into Boston Harbor. Decades later, this event became known as the Boston Tea Party and remains a significant part of American patriotic lore.
The British government responded by passing several Acts which came to be known as the Intolerable Acts, which further darkened colonial opinion towards the British. They consisted of four laws enacted by the British parliament. The first was the Massachusetts Government Act which altered the Massachusetts charter and restricted town meetings. The second act was the Administration of Justice Act which ordered that all British soldiers to be tried were to be arraigned in Britain, not in the colonies. The third Act was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the British had been compensated for the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party. The fourth Act was the Quartering Act of 1774, which allowed royal governors to house British troops in the homes of citizens without requiring permission of the owner.
In response, Massachusetts patriots issued the Suffolk Resolves and formed an alternative shadow government known as the "Provincial Congress" which began training militia outside British-occupied Boston. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened, consisting of representatives from each of the colonies, to serve as a vehicle for deliberation and collective action. During secret debates, conservative Joseph Galloway proposed the creation of a colonial Parliament that would be able to approve or disapprove of acts of the British Parliament, but his idea was not accepted. The Congress instead endorsed the proposal of John Adams that Americans would obey Parliament voluntarily but would resist all taxes in disguise. Congress called for a boycott beginning on 1 December 1774 of all British goods; it was enforced by new committees authorized by the Congress.
Massachusetts was declared in a state of rebellion in February 1775 and the British garrison received orders to disarm the rebels and arrest their leaders, leading to the Battles of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. The Patriots laid siege to Boston, expelled royal officials from all the colonies, and took control through the establishment of Provincial Congresses. The Battle of Bunker Hill followed on June 17, 1775. It was a British victory—but at a great cost: about 1,000 British casualties from a garrison of about 6,000, as compared to 500 American casualties from a much larger force. The Second Continental Congress was divided on the best course of action, but eventually produced the Olive Branch Petition, in which they attempted to come to an accord with King George. The king, however, issued the declaration by the King which stated that the states were "in rebellion" and the members of Congress were traitors.
In the winter of 1775, the Americans invaded Canada under generals Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery. Overall, the attack was a complete failure; many Americans who weren't killed were either captured or died of smallpox.
In March 1776, the Continental Army forced the British to evacuate Boston, with George Washington as the commander of the new army. The revolutionaries were now in full control of all 13 colonies and were ready to declare independence. There still were many Loyalists, but they were no longer in control anywhere by July 1776, and all of the Royal officials had fled.
Following the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, the Patriots had control of Massachusetts outside the Boston city limits, and the Loyalists suddenly found themselves on the defensive with no protection from the British army. In all 13 colonies, Patriots had overthrown their existing governments, closing courts and driving away British officials. They had elected conventions and "legislatures" that existed outside any legal framework; new constitutions were drawn up in each state to supersede royal charters. They declared that they were states now, not colonies.
On January 5, 1776, New Hampshire ratified the first state constitution. In May 1776, Congress voted to suppress all forms of crown authority, to be replaced by locally created authority. Virginia, South Carolina, and New Jersey created their constitutions before July 4. Rhode Island and Connecticut simply took their existing royal charters and deleted all references to the crown. The new states were all committed to republicanism, with no inherited offices. They decided what form of government to create, and also how to select those who would craft the constitutions and how the resulting document would be ratified. On 26 May 1776, John Adams wrote James Sullivan from Philadelphia:
"Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters. There will be no end of it. New claims will arise. Women will demand a vote. Lads from twelve to twenty one will think their rights not enough attended to, and every man, who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks, to one common level".
In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, the resulting constitutions embodied:
The radical provisions of Pennsylvania's constitution lasted only 14 years. In 1790, conservatives gained power in the state legislature, called a new constitutional convention, and rewrote the constitution. The new constitution substantially reduced universal male suffrage, gave the governor veto power and patronage appointment authority, and added an upper house with substantial wealth qualifications to the unicameral legislature. Thomas Paine called it a constitution unworthy of America.
In April 1776, the North Carolina Provincial Congress issued the Halifax Resolves, explicitly authorizing its delegates to vote for independence. In May, Congress called on all the states to write constitutions and eliminate the last remnants of royal rule.
By June, nine colonies were ready for independence; one by one, the last four fell into line—Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New York. Richard Henry Lee was instructed by the Virginia legislature to propose independence, and he did so on June 7, 1776. On the 11th, a committee was created to draft a document explaining the justifications for separation from Britain. After securing enough votes for passage, independence was voted for on July 2. The Declaration of Independence was drafted largely by Thomas Jefferson and presented by the committee; it was slightly revised and unanimously adopted by the entire Congress on July 4, marking the formation of a new sovereign nation which called itself the United States of America.
The Second Continental Congress approved a new constitution, the "Articles of Confederation," for ratification by the states on November 15, 1777, and immediately began operating under their terms. The Articles were formally ratified on March 1, 1781. At that point, the Continental Congress was dissolved and a new government of the United States in Congress Assembled took its place on the following day, with Samuel Huntington as presiding officer.
According to British historian Jeremy Black, the British had significant advantages, including a highly trained army, the world's largest navy, and a highly efficient system of public finance that could easily fund the war. However, the British were seriously handicapped by their misunderstanding of the depth of support for the Patriot position. Ignoring the advice of General Gage, they misinterpreted the situation as merely a large-scale riot. London decided that they could overawe the Americans by sending a large military and naval force, forcing them to be loyal again:
Convinced that the Revolution was the work of a full few miscreants who had rallied an armed rabble to their cause, they expected that the revolutionaries would be intimidated…. Then the vast majority of Americans, who were loyal but cowed by the terroristic tactics… would rise up, kick out the rebels, and restore loyal government in each colony.
Washington forced the British out of Boston in the spring of 1776, and neither the British nor the Loyalists controlled any significant areas. The British, however, were massing forces at their naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. They returned in force in July 1776, landing in New York and defeating Washington's Continental Army in August at the Battle of Brooklyn. Following that victory, the British requested a meeting with representatives from Congress to negotiate an end to hostilities.
A delegation including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin met Howe on Staten Island in New York Harbor on September 11, in what became known as the Staten Island Peace Conference. Howe demanded a retraction of the Declaration of Independence, which was refused, and negotiations ended. The British then quickly seized New York City and nearly captured Washington's army. They made New York their main political and military base of operations in North America, holding it until November 1783. The city became the destination for Loyalist refugees and a focal point of Washington's intelligence network.
The British also took New Jersey, pushing the Continental Army into Pennsylvania. Washington crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey in a surprise attack in late December 1776 and defeated Hessian and British armies at Trenton and Princeton, thereby regaining control of most of New Jersey. The victories gave an important boost to Patriots at a time when morale was flagging, and have become iconic events of the war.
In 1777, the British sent Burgoyne's invasion force from Canada south to New York to seal off New England. Their aim was to neutralize the Yankees, whom the British perceived as the primary source of agitators. The British army in New York City went to Philadelphia in a major case of mis-coordination, capturing it from Washington. The invasion army under Burgoyne was much too slow and became trapped in northern New York state. It surrendered after the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777. From early October 1777 until November 15, a siege distracted British troops at Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and allowed Washington time to preserve the Continental Army by safely leading his troops to harsh winter quarters at Valley Forge.
In August 1775, George III declared Americans in arms against royal authority to be traitors to the Crown. Following their surrender at the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777, there were thousands of British and Hessian soldiers in American hands. Although Lord Germain took a hard line, the British generals on the scene never held treason trials; they treated captured enemy soldiers as prisoners of war. The dilemma was that tens of thousands of Loyalists were under American control and American retaliation would have been easy. The British built much of their strategy around using these Loyalists, and therefore, no Americans were put on trial for treason. The British maltreated the prisoners whom they held, resulting in more deaths to American sailors and soldiers than from combat operations. At the end of the war, both sides released their surviving prisoners.
The capture of a British army at Saratoga encouraged the French to formally enter the war in support of Congress. Benjamin Franklin negotiated a permanent military alliance in early 1778, significantly becoming the first country to officially recognize the Declaration of Independence. On February 6, 1778, a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a Treaty of Alliance were signed between the United States and France. William Pitt spoke out in parliament urging Britain to make peace in America and to unite with America against France, while other British politicians who had previously sympathized with colonial grievances now turned against the Americans for allying with Britain's international rival and enemy.
Later, Spain (in 1779) and the Dutch (1780) became allies of the French, leaving the British Empire to fight a global war alone without major allies, and requiring it to slip through a combined blockade of the Atlantic. The American theater thus became only one front in Britain's war. The British were forced to withdraw troops from continental America to reinforce the valuable sugar-producing Caribbean colonies, which were more lucrative to British investors.
British commander Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and returned to New York City. General Washington intercepted Clinton in the Battle of Monmouth Court House, the last major battle fought in the north. After an inconclusive engagement, the British successfully retreated to New York City. The northern war subsequently became a stalemate, as the focus of attention shifted to the smaller southern theater.
The British strategy in America now concentrated on a campaign in the southern states. With fewer regular troops at their disposal, the British commanders saw the "southern strategy" as a more viable plan, as the south was perceived as being more strongly Loyalist, with a large population of recent immigrants as well as large numbers of slaves who might be captured or run away to join the British.
Beginning in late December 1778, the British captured Savannah and controlled the Georgia coastline. In 1780, they launched a fresh invasion and took Charleston, as well. A significant victory at the Battle of Camden meant that royal forces soon controlled most of Georgia and South Carolina. The British set up a network of forts inland, hoping that the Loyalists would rally to the flag.
Not enough Loyalists turned out, however, and the British had to fight their way north into North Carolina and Virginia, with a severely weakened army. Behind them, much of the territory that they had already captured dissolved into a chaotic guerrilla war, fought predominantly between bands of Loyalist and American militia, which negated many of the gains that the British had previously made.
The British army under Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, Virginia where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up, but so did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet returned to New York for reinforcements after the Battle of the Chesapeake, leaving Cornwallis trapped. In October 1781, the British surrendered their second invading army of the war, under a siege by the combined French and Continental armies commanded by Washington.
Historians continue to debate whether the odds for American victory were long or short. John E. Ferling says that the odds were so long that the American victory was "almost a miracle". On the other hand, Joseph Ellis says that the odds favored the Americans, and asks whether there ever was any realistic chance for the British to win. He argues that this opportunity came only once, in the summer of 1776, and the British failed that test. Admiral Howe and his brother General Howe "missed several opportunities to destroy the Continental Army.... Chance, luck, and even the vagaries of the weather played crucial roles." Ellis's point is that the strategic and tactical decisions of the Howes were fatally flawed because they underestimated the challenges posed by the Patriots. Ellis concludes that, once the Howe brothers failed, the opportunity for a British victory "would never come again."
Support for the conflict had never been strong in Britain, where many sympathized with the Americans, but now it reached a new low. King George III personally wanted to fight on, but his supporters lost control of Parliament and no further major land offensives were launched in the American Theater.
Washington could not know that the British would not reopen hostilities after Yorktown. They still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston, and Savannah, together with a powerful fleet. The French army and navy departed, so the Americans were on their own in 1782–83. The treasury was empty, and the unpaid soldiers were growing restive, almost to the point of mutiny or possible coup d'état. The unrest among officers of the Newburgh Conspiracy was personally dispelled by Washington in 1783, and Congress subsequently created the promise of a five years bonus for all officers.
During negotiations in Paris, the American delegation discovered that France would support independence, but no territorial gains. The new nation would be confined to the area east of the Appalachian Mountains. The American delegation opened direct secret negotiations with London, cutting the French out. British Prime Minister Lord Shelburne was in full charge of the British negotiations. He now saw a chance make the United States a valuable economic partner. The U.S. obtained all the land east of the Mississippi River, south of Canada, and north of Florida. It gained fishing rights off Canadian coasts, and agreed to allow British merchants and Loyalists to try to recover their property. It was a highly favorable treaty for the United States, and deliberately so from the British point of view. Prime Minister Shelburne foresaw highly profitable two-way trade between Britain and the rapidly growing United States, as indeed came to pass. Since the blockade was lifted and the old imperial restrictions were gone, American merchants were free to trade with any nation anywhere in the world, and their businesses flourished.
The British largely abandoned the Indian allies living in the new nation. They were not a party to this treaty and did not recognize it until they were defeated militarily by the United States. However, the British did promise to support the Indians. They sold them munitions and maintained forts in American territory until the Jay Treaty of 1795.
Losing the war and the 13 colonies was a shock to Britain. The war revealed the limitations of Britain's fiscal-military state when they discovered that they suddenly faced powerful enemies with no allies, and they were dependent on extended and vulnerable transatlantic lines of communication. The defeat heightened dissension and escalated political antagonism to the King's ministers. Inside parliament, the primary concern changed from fears of an over-mighty monarch to the issues of representation, parliamentary reform, and government retrenchment. Reformers sought to destroy what they saw as widespread institutional corruption.
The result was a powerful crisis from 1776 to 1783. The peace in 1783 left France financially prostrate, while the British economy boomed thanks to the return of American business. The crisis ended after 1784 thanks to the King's shrewdness in outwitting Charles James Fox (the leader of the Fox-North Coalition), and renewed confidence in the system engendered by the leadership of the new Prime Minister William Pitt. Historians conclude that loss of the American colonies enabled Britain to deal with the French Revolution with more unity and better organization than would otherwise have been the case. Britain turned towards Asia, the Pacific and later Africa with subsequent exploration leading to the rise of the Second British Empire.
Britain's war against the Americans, French, and Spanish cost about £100 million. The Treasury borrowed 40% of the money that it needed. Heavy spending brought France to the verge of bankruptcy and revolution, while the British had relatively little difficulty financing their war, keeping their suppliers and soldiers paid, and hiring tens of thousands of German soldiers.
Britain had a sophisticated financial system based on the wealth of thousands of landowners, who supported the government, together with banks and financiers in London. The British tax system collected about 12 percent of the GDP in taxes during the 1770s.
In sharp contrast, Congress and the American states had no end of difficulty financing the war. In 1775, there was at most 12 million dollars in gold in the colonies, not nearly enough to cover current transactions, let alone finance a major war. The British made the situation much worse by imposing a tight blockade on every American port, which cut off almost all imports and exports. One partial solution was to rely on volunteer support from militiamen and donations from patriotic citizens. Another was to delay actual payments, pay soldiers and suppliers in depreciated currency, and promise that it would be made good after the war. Indeed, the soldiers and officers were given land grants in 1783 to cover the wages that they had earned but had not been paid during the war. Not until 1781 did the national government have a strong leader in financial matters, when Robert Morris was named Superintendent of Finance of the United States.
Morris used a French loan in 1782 to set up the private Bank of North America to finance the war. Seeking greater efficiency, Morris reduced the civil list, saved money by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightened accounting procedures, and demanded the national government's full share of money and supplies from the confederated states.
Congress used four main methods to cover the cost of the war, which cost about 66 million dollars in specie (gold and silver). Congress made two issues of paper money—in 1775–1780 and in 1780–81. The first issue amounted to 242 million dollars. This paper money would supposedly be redeemed for state taxes, but the holders were eventually paid off in 1791 at the rate of one cent on the dollar. By 1780, the paper money was "not worth a Continental", as people said.
The skyrocketing inflation was a hardship on the few people who had fixed incomes—but 90 percent of the people were farmers, and were not directly affected by that inflation. Debtors benefited by paying off their debts with depreciated paper. The greatest burden was borne by the soldiers of the Continental Army, whose wages were usually in arrears and declined in value every month, weakening their morale and adding to the hardships of their families.
Beginning in 1777, Congress repeatedly asked the states to provide money. But the states had no system of taxation either, and were little help. By 1780, Congress was making requisitions for specific supplies of corn, beef, pork, and other necessities—an inefficient system that kept the army barely alive.
Starting in 1776, the Congress sought to raise money by loans from wealthy individuals, promising to redeem the bonds after the war. The bonds were in fact redeemed in 1791 at face value, but the scheme raised little money because Americans had little specie, and many of the rich merchants were supporters of the Crown. Starting in 1776, the French secretly supplied the Americans with money, gunpowder, and munitions in order to weaken its arch enemy Great Britain. When France officially entered the war in 1778, the subsidies continued, and the French government, as well as bankers in Paris and Amsterdam, lent large sums to the American war effort. These loans were repaid in full in the 1790s.
The war finally ended in 1783 and was followed by a period of prosperity. The national government was still operating under the Articles of Confederation and was able to settle the issue of the western territories, which were ceded by the states to Congress. American settlers moved rapidly into those areas, with Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee becoming states in the 1790s.
However, the national government had no money to pay either the war debts owed to European nations and the private banks, or to pay Americans who had been given millions of dollars of promissory notes for supplies during the war. Nationalists led by Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and other veterans feared that the new nation was too fragile to withstand an international war, or even internal revolts such as the Shays' Rebellion of 1786 in Massachusetts.
Calling themselves "Federalists," the nationalists convinced Congress to call the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. It adopted a new Constitution that provided for a much stronger federal government, including an effective executive in a check-and-balance system with the judiciary and legislature. The Constitution was ratified in 1788, after a fierce debate in the states over the nature of the proposed new government. The new government under President George Washington took office in New York in March 1789. Amendments to the Constitution were spearheaded in Congress by James Madison as assurances to those who were cautious about federal power, guaranteeing many of the inalienable rights that formed a foundation for the revolution. The amendments were ratified by the states in 1791.
The national debt fell into three categories after the American Revolution. The first was the $12 million owed to foreigners, mostly money borrowed from France. There was general agreement to pay the foreign debts at full value. The national government owed $40 million and state governments owed $25 million to Americans who had sold food, horses, and supplies to the revolutionary forces. There were also other debts that consisted of promissory notes issued during the Revolutionary War to soldiers, merchants, and farmers who accepted these payments on the premise that the new Constitution would create a government that would pay these debts eventually.
The war expenses of the individual states added up to $114 million compared to $37 million by the central government. In 1790, Congress combined the remaining state debts with the foreign and domestic debts into one national debt totaling $80 million at the recommendation of first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Everyone received face value for wartime certificates, so that the national honor would be sustained and the national credit established.
The population of the 13 Colonies was not homogeneous in their political views and attitudes. Loyalties and allegiances varied widely within regions and communities and even within families, and sometimes shifted during the course of the Revolution.
The American Enlightenment was a critical precursor of the American Revolution. Chief among the ideas of the American Enlightenment were the concepts of Natural Law, Natural Rights, Consent of the Governed, Individualism, Property Rights, Self-Ownership, Self-Determination, liberalism, republicanism and fear of corruption. Collectively, the acceptance of these concepts by a growing number of American colonists began to foster an intellectual environment which would lead to a new sense of political and social identity.
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John Locke's (1632–1704) ideas on liberty influenced the political thinking behind the revolution, especially through his indirect influence on English writers such as John Trenchard, Thomas Gordon, and Benjamin Hoadly, whose political ideas in turn had a strong influence on the American revolutionaries. Locke is often referred to as "the philosopher of the American Revolution", and is credited with leading Americans to the critical concepts of social contract, natural rights, and "born free and equal." Locke's Two Treatises of Government published in 1689 were especially influential. He argued that all humans were created equally free, and governments therefore needed the "consent of the governed." In late eighteenth-century America, belief was still widespread in "equality by creation" and "rights by creation".
The Declaration also referred to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" as justification for the Americans' separation from the British monarchy. Most eighteenth-century Americans believed that nature, the entire universe, was God's creation. Therefore, he was "Nature's God." Everything, including man, was part of the "universal order of things", which began with God and was pervaded and directed by his providence. Accordingly, the signers of the Declaration professed their "firm reliance on the Protection of divine Providence." And they appealed to "the Supreme Judge [God] for the rectitude of [their] intentions." Like most of his countrymen, George Washington was firmly convinced that he was an instrument of providence, to the benefit of the American people and of all humanity.
The theory of the "social contract" influenced the belief among many of the Founders that among the "natural rights" of man was the right of the people to overthrow their leaders, should those leaders betray the historic rights of Englishmen. In terms of writing state and national constitutions, the Americans heavily used Montesquieu's analysis of the wisdom of the "balanced" British Constitution (mixed government).
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A central motivating force behind the overthrow of monarchy and aristocracy was the American embrace of a political ideology called "republicanism", which was dominant in the colonies by 1775 but of minor importance back in Great Britain. The republicanism was inspired by the "country party" in Great Britain, whose critique of British government emphasized that corruption was a terrible reality in Great Britain. Americans feared that the corruption was crossing the Atlantic; the commitment of most Americans to republican values and to their rights energized the revolution, as Britain was increasingly seen as hopelessly corrupt and hostile to American interests. Britain seemed to threaten the established liberties that Americans enjoyed. The greatest threat to liberty was depicted as corruption—not just in London but at home, as well. The colonists associated it with luxury, and especially with inherited aristocracy, which they condemned.
The Founding Fathers were strong advocates of republican values, particularly Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, which required men to put civic duty ahead of their personal desires. Men had a civic duty to be prepared and willing to fight for the rights and liberties of their countrymen. John Adams wrote to Mercy Otis Warren in 1776, agreeing with some classical Greek and Roman thinkers in that "Public Virtue cannot exist without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics." He continued:
There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society.
For women, "republican motherhood" became the ideal, exemplified by Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren; the first duty of the republican woman was to instill republican values in her children and to avoid luxury and ostentation.
Some republics had emerged throughout history, such as the Roman Republic of the ancient world, but none ever existed that was based on liberal principles. Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense appeared in January 1776, after the Revolution had started. It was widely distributed and loaned, and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the ideas of republicanism and liberalism together, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Great Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army.
Paine provided a new and widely accepted argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense is oriented to the future in a way that compels the reader to make an immediate choice. It offered a solution for Americans disgusted and alarmed at the threat of tyranny.
Dissenting churches of the day (i.e., Protestant, non-Church of England) were the "school of democracy." President John Witherspoon of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) wrote widely circulated sermons linking the American Revolution to the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the colonies, dissenting Protestant ministers (Congregationalist, Baptist, and Presbyterian) preached Revolutionary themes in their sermons, while most Church of England clergymen preached loyalty to the king, the titular head of the English state church. Religious motivation for fighting tyranny transcended socioeconomic lines to encompass rich and poor, men and women, frontiersmen and townsmen, farmers and merchants.
Historian Bernard Bailyn argues that the evangelicalism of the era challenged traditional notions of natural hierarchy by preaching that the Bible taught that all men are equal, so that the true value of a man lies in his moral behavior, not his class. Kidd argues that religious disestablishment, belief in a God as the source of human rights, and shared convictions about sin, virtue, and divine providence worked together to unite rationalists and evangelicals and thus encouraged American defiance of the Empire. Bailyn, on the other hand, denied that religion played such a critical role. Alan Heimert argued, however, that New Light antiauthoritarianism was essential to the further democratization of colonial American society, and set the stage for a confrontation with British monarchical and aristocratic rule.
Looking back, John Adams concluded in 1818:
The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people ... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.
In terms of class, Loyalists tended to have longstanding social and economic connections to British merchants and government; for instance, prominent merchants in major port cities such as New York, Boston and Charleston tended to be Loyalists, as did men involved with the fur trade along the northern frontier. In addition, officials of colonial government and their staffs, those who had established positions and status to maintain, favored maintaining relations with Great Britain. They often were linked to British families in England by marriage as well.
By contrast, Patriots by number tended to be yeomen farmers, especially in the frontier areas of New York and the backcountry of Pennsylvania, Virginia and down the Appalachian mountains. They were craftsmen and small merchants. Leaders of both the Patriots and the Loyalists were men of educated, propertied classes. The Patriots included many prominent men of the planter class from Virginia and South Carolina, for instance, who became leaders during the Revolution, and formed the new government at the national and state levels.
To understand the opposing groups, historians have assessed evidence of their hearts and minds. In the mid-20th century, historian Leonard Woods Labaree identified eight characteristics of the Loyalists that made them essentially conservative; opposite traits to those characteristic of the Patriots. Older and better established men, Loyalists tended to resist innovation. They thought resistance to the Crown—which they insisted was the only legitimate government—was morally wrong, while the Patriots thought morality was on their side.
Loyalists were alienated when the Patriots resorted to violence, such as burning houses and tarring and feathering. Loyalists wanted to take a centrist position and resisted the Patriots' demand to declare their opposition to the Crown. Many Loyalists, especially merchants in the port cities, had maintained strong and long-standing relations with Britain (often with business and family links to other parts of the British Empire).
Many Loyalists realized that independence was bound to come eventually, but they were fearful that revolution might lead to anarchy, tyranny or mob rule. In contrast, the prevailing attitude among Patriots, who made systematic efforts to use mob violence in a controlled manner, was a desire to seize the initiative. Labaree also wrote that Loyalists were pessimists who lacked the confidence in the future displayed by the Patriots.
Historians in the early 20th century, such as J. Franklin Jameson, examined the class composition of the Patriot cause, looking for evidence of a class war inside the revolution. In the last 50 years, historians have largely abandoned that interpretation, emphasizing instead the high level of ideological unity. Just as there were rich and poor Loyalists, the Patriots were a 'mixed lot', with the richer and better educated more likely to become officers in the Army.
Ideological demands always came first: the Patriots viewed independence as a means to gain freedom from British oppression and taxation and, above all, to reassert what they considered to be their rights as English subjects. Most yeomen farmers, craftsmen, and small merchants joined the Patriot cause to demand more political equality. They were especially successful in Pennsylvania but less so in New England, where John Adams attacked Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the "absurd democratical notions" it proposed.
The war became a personal issue for the king, fueled by his growing belief that British leniency would be taken as weakness by the Americans. The king also sincerely believed he was defending Britain's constitution against usurpers, rather than opposing patriots fighting for their natural rights.
At the time, revolutionaries were called "Patriots", "Whigs", "Congress-men", or "Americans". They included a full range of social and economic classes, but were unanimous regarding the need to defend the rights of Americans and uphold the principles of republicanism in terms of rejecting monarchy and aristocracy, while emphasizing civic virtue on the part of the citizens. Newspapers were strongholds of patriotism (although there were a few Loyalist papers), and printed many pamphlets, announcements, patriotic letters and pronouncements.
According to historian Robert Calhoon, the consensus of historians is that 40–45% of the white population in the Thirteen Colonies supported the Patriots' cause, 15–20% supported the Loyalists, and the remainder were neutral or kept a low profile. Mark Lender explores why ordinary folk became insurgents against the British even though they were unfamiliar with the ideological rationales being offered. They held very strongly a sense of "rights" that they felt the British were violating – rights that stressed local autonomy, fair dealing, and government by consent. They were highly sensitive to the issue of tyranny, which they saw manifested in the British response to the Boston Tea Party. The arrival in Boston of the British Army heightened their sense of violated rights, leading to rage and demands for revenge. They had faith that God was on their side.
The consensus of scholars is that about 15–20% of the white population remained loyal to the British Crown. Those who actively supported the king were known at the time as "Loyalists", "Tories", or "King's men". The Loyalists never controlled territory unless the British Army occupied it. Loyalists were typically older, less willing to break with old loyalties, often connected to the Church of England, and included many established merchants with strong business connections across the Empire, as well as royal officials such as Thomas Hutchinson of Boston. There were 500 to 1000 black loyalists who were held as slaves by patriots, escaped to British lines and joined the British army. Most died of disease but Britain took the survivors to Canada as free men.
The revolution could divide families. The most dramatic example was when William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin and royal governor of the Province of New Jersey, remained loyal to the Crown throughout the war; they never spoke again. Recent immigrants who had not been fully Americanized were also inclined to support the King, such as recent Scottish settlers in the back country; among the more striking examples of this, see Flora MacDonald.
After the war, the great majority of the 450,000–500,000 Loyalists remained in America and resumed normal lives. Some, such as Samuel Seabury, became prominent American leaders. Estimates vary, but about 62,000 Loyalists relocated to Canada, and others to Britain (7,000) or to Florida or the West Indies (9,000). The exiles represented approximately 2% of the total population of the colonies. Nearly all black loyalists left for Nova Scotia, Florida, or England, where they could remain free. When Loyalists left the South in 1783, they took thousands of their slaves with them to be slaves in the British West Indies.
A minority of uncertain size tried to stay neutral in the war. Most kept a low profile, but the Quakers, especially in Pennsylvania, were the most important group to speak out for neutrality. As Patriots declared independence, the Quakers, who continued to do business with the British, were attacked as supporters of British rule, "contrivers and authors of seditious publications" critical of the revolutionary cause. Though the majority of Quakers attempted to remain neutral, a sizable number of Quakers in the American Revolution nevertheless participated to some degree.
Women contributed to the American Revolution in many ways, and were involved on both sides. While formal Revolutionary politics did not include women, ordinary domestic behaviors became charged with political significance as Patriot women confronted a war that permeated all aspects of political, civil, and domestic life. They participated by boycotting British goods, spying on the British, following armies as they marched, washing, cooking, and tending for soldiers, delivering secret messages, and in a few cases like Deborah Samson, fighting disguised as men. Also, Mercy Otis Warren held meetings in her house and cleverly attacked Loyalists with her creative plays and histories. Above all, they continued the agricultural work at home to feed their families and the armies. They maintained their families during their husbands' absences and sometimes after their deaths.
American women were integral to the success of the boycott of British goods, as the boycotted items were largely household items such as tea and cloth. Women had to return to knitting goods, and to spinning and weaving their own cloth — skills that had fallen into disuse. In 1769, the women of Boston produced 40,000 skeins of yarn, and 180 women in Middletown, Massachusetts wove 20,522 yards (18,765 m) of cloth.
A crisis of political loyalties could disrupt the fabric of colonial America women's social worlds: whether a man did or did not renounce his allegiance to the King could dissolve ties of class, family, and friendship, isolating women from former connections. A woman's loyalty to her husband, once a private commitment, could become a political act, especially for women in America committed to men who remained loyal to the King. Legal divorce, usually rare, was granted to Patriot women whose husbands supported the King.
In early 1776, France set up a major program of aid to the Americans, and the Spanish secretly added funds. Each country spent one million "livres tournaises" to buy munitions. A dummy corporation run by Pierre Beaumarchais concealed their activities. American rebels obtained some munitions through the Dutch Republic as well as French and Spanish ports in the West Indies.
Spain did not officially recognize the U.S. but became an informal ally when it declared war on Britain on June 21, 1779. Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, general of the Spanish forces in New Spain, also served as governor of Louisiana. He led an expedition of colonial troops to force the British out of Florida and keep open a vital conduit for supplies.
Most Native Americans rejected pleas that they remain neutral and supported the British Crown, both because of trading relationships and Britain's effort to establish an Indian reserve and prohibit colonial settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. The great majority of the 200,000 Native Americans east of the Mississippi distrusted the colonists and supported the British cause, hoping to forestall continued colonial encroachment on their territories. Those tribes that were more closely involved in colonial trade tended to side with the revolutionaries, although political factors were important as well.
Except for warriors and bands associated with four of the Iroquois nations in New York and Pennsylvania, which allied with the British, most Native Americans did not participate directly in the war. The British did have other allies especially in the upper Midwest. They provided Indians with funding and weapons to attack American outposts. Some Indians tried to remain neutral, seeing little value in joining a European conflict and fearing reprisals from whichever side they opposed. The Oneida and Tuscarora, among the Iroquois of central and western New York, supported the American cause.
The British provided arms to Indians, who were led by Loyalists in war parties to raid frontier settlements from the Carolinas to New York. They killed many settlers on the frontier, especially in Pennsylvania and New York's Mohawk Valley.
In 1776 Cherokee war parties attacked American colonists all along the southern frontier of the uplands throughout the Washington District, North Carolina (now Tennessee) and the Kentucky wilderness area. While the Cherokee launched raids numbering a couple hundred warriors, as seen in the Cherokee–American wars, they could not mobilize enough forces to fight a major invasion of colonial areas without the help of allies, most often the Creek. The Chickamauga Cherokee under Dragging Canoe allied themselves closely with the British, and fought on for an additional decade after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
Joseph Brant of the powerful Mohawk nation, part of the Iroquois Confederacy based in New York, was the most prominent Native American leader against the rebel forces. In 1778 and 1780, he led 300 Iroquois warriors and 100 white Loyalists in multiple attacks on small frontier settlements in New York and Pennsylvania, killing many settlers and destroying villages, crops and stores. The Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga of the Iroquois Confederacy also allied with the British against the Americans.
In 1779 the Continentals retaliated with an American army under John Sullivan, which raided and destroyed 40 empty Iroquois villages in central and western New York. Sullivan's forces systematically burned the villages and destroyed about 160,000 bushels of corn that comprised the winter food supply. Facing starvation and homeless for the winter, the Iroquois fled to the Niagara Falls area and to Canada, mostly to what became Ontario. The British resettled them there after the war, providing land grants as compensation for some of their losses.
At the peace conference following the war, the British ceded lands which they did not really control, and did not consult their Indian allies. They "transferred" control to the United States of all the land east of the Mississippi and north of Florida. The historian Calloway concludes:
Burned villages and crops, murdered chiefs, divided councils and civil wars, migrations, towns and forts choked with refugees, economic disruption, breaking of ancient traditions, losses in battle and to disease and hunger, betrayal to their enemies, all made the American Revolution one of the darkest periods in American Indian history.
The British did not give up their forts in the West (what is now the eastern Midwest, stretching from Ohio to Wisconsin) until 1796; they kept alive the dream of forming a satellite Indian nation there, which they called a Neutral Indian Zone. That goal was one of the causes of the War of 1812.
Free blacks in the North and South fought on both sides of the Revolution, but most fought for the patriots. Gary Nash reports that recent research concludes there were about 9000 black Patriot soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy, and state militia units, as well as privateers, wagoneers in the Army, servants to officers, and spies. Ray Raphael notes that while thousands did join the Loyalist cause, "A far larger number, free as well as slave, tried to further their interests by siding with the patriots."  Crispus Attucks, who was shot dead by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre in 1770, is an iconic martyr to Patriots. Both sides offered freedom and re-settlement to slaves who were willing to fight for them, recruiting slaves whose owners supported the opposing cause.
Many African-American slaves sided with the Loyalists. Tens of thousands in the South used the turmoil of war to escape, and the southern plantation economies of South Carolina and Georgia especially were disrupted. During the Revolution, the British tried to turn slavery against the Americans.
Historian David Brion Davis explains the difficulties with a policy of wholesale arming of the slaves:
But England greatly feared the effects of any such move on its own West Indies, where Americans had already aroused alarm over a possible threat to incite slave insurrections. The British elites also understood that an all-out attack on one form of property could easily lead to an assault on all boundaries of privilege and social order, as envisioned by radical religious sects in Britain's seventeenth-century civil wars.
Davis underscored the British dilemma: "Britain, when confronted by the rebellious American colonists, hoped to exploit their fear of slave revolts while also reassuring the large number of slave-holding Loyalists and wealthy Caribbean planters and merchants that their slave property would be secure". The colonists accused the British of encouraging slave revolts.
American advocates of independence were commonly lampooned in Britain for what was termed their hypocritical calls for freedom, at the same time that many of their leaders were planters who held hundreds of slaves. Samuel Johnson snapped, "how is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the [slave] drivers of the Negroes?" Benjamin Franklin countered by criticizing the British self-congratulation about "the freeing of one Negro" (Somersett) while they continued to permit the Slave Trade.
During the war, slaves escaped from across New England and the mid-Atlantic area to British-occupied cities, such as New York. The effects of the war were more dramatic in the South. In Virginia the royal governor Lord Dunmore recruited black men into the British forces with the promise of freedom, protection for their families, and land grants. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to British lines throughout the South, causing dramatic losses to slaveholders and disrupting cultivation and harvesting of crops. For instance, South Carolina was estimated to lose about 25,000 slaves, or one third of its slave population, to flight, migration or death. From 1770 to 1790, the black proportion of the population (mostly slaves) in South Carolina dropped from 60.5 percent to 43.8 percent; and in Georgia from 45.2 percent to 36.1 percent.
When the British evacuated its forces from Savannah and Charleston, it also gave transportation to 10,000 slaves, carrying through on its commitment to them. They evacuated and resettled more than 3,000 "Black Loyalists" from New York to Nova Scotia, Upper and Lower Canada. Others sailed with the British to England or were resettled as freedmen in the West Indies of the Caribbean. But slaves who were carried to the Caribbean under control of Loyalist masters generally remained slaves until British abolition in its colonies in 1834. More than 1200 of the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia later resettled in the British colony of Sierra Leone, where they became leaders of the Krio ethnic group of Freetown and the later national government. Many of their descendants still live in Sierra Leone, as well as other African countries.
About 60,000 to 70,000 Loyalists left the newly founded republic; some migrated to Britain. The remainder, known as United Empire Loyalists, received land and subsidies for resettlement in British colonies in North America, especially Quebec (concentrating in the Eastern Townships), Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. The new colonies of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and New Brunswick were expressly created by Britain for their benefit, where the Crown awarded land to Loyalists as compensation for losses in the United States. Britain wanted to develop the frontier of Upper Canada on a British colonial model. But about 80% of the Loyalists stayed in the United States and became full, loyal citizens; some of the exiles later returned to the U.S.
Interpretations about the effect of the Revolution vary. Contemporary participants referred to the events as "the revolution". Greene argues that the events were not "revolutionary", as the relationships and property rights of colonial society were not transformed: a distant government was simply replaced with a local one; the Revolution is still sometimes known outside the United States as the American War of Independence.
Historians such as Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Edmund Morgan accept the contemporary view of the participants that the American Revolution was a unique and radical event that produced deep changes and had a profound effect on world affairs, based on an increasing belief in the principles of the Enlightenment, as reflected in how liberalism was understood during the period, and republicanism. These were demonstrated by a leadership and government that espoused protection of natural rights, and a system of laws chosen by the people. However, what was then considered "the people" was still mostly restricted to free white males who were able to pass a property-qualification. Such a restriction made a significant gain of the revolution in the short term irrelevant to women, African Americans and slaves, poor white men, youth, and Native Americans. Only with the development of the American system over the following centuries would "a government by the people", promised by the revolution, be won for a greater proportion of the population.
Morgan has argued that in terms of long-term impact on American society and values:
After the Revolution, genuinely democratic politics became possible in the former colonies. The rights of the people were incorporated into state constitutions. Concepts of liberty, individual rights, equality among men and hostility toward corruption became incorporated as core values of liberal republicanism. The greatest challenge to the old order in Europe was the challenge to inherited political power and the democratic idea that government rests on the consent of the governed. The example of the first successful revolution against a European empire, and the first successful establishment of a republican form of democratically elected government, provided a model for many other colonial peoples who realized that they too could break away and become self-governing nations with directly elected representative government.
The Dutch Republic, also at war with Britain, was the next country to sign a treaty with the United States, on October 8, 1782. On April 3, 1783, Ambassador Extraordinary Gustaf Philip Creutz, representing King Gustav III of Sweden, and Benjamin Franklin, signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the U.S.
The American Revolution was the first wave of the Atlantic Revolutions: the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Latin American wars of independence. Aftershocks reached Ireland in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and in the Netherlands.
The Revolution had a strong, immediate influence in Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and France. Many British and Irish Whigs spoke in favor of the American cause. In Ireland, there was a profound impact; the Protestants who controlled Ireland were demanding more and more self-rule. Under the leadership of Henry Grattan, the so-called "Patriots" forced the reversal of mercantilist prohibitions against trade with other British colonies. The King and his cabinet in London could not risk another rebellion on the American model, and made a series of concessions to the Patriot faction in Dublin. Armed Protestant volunteer units were set up to protect against an invasion from France. As in America, so too in Ireland the King no longer had a monopoly of lethal force.
The Revolution, along with the Dutch Revolt (end of the 16th century) and the 17th century English Civil War, was among the examples of overthrowing an old regime for many Europeans who later were active during the era of the French Revolution, such as Marquis de Lafayette. The American Declaration of Independence influenced the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence led to laws ending slavery in all the Northern states and the Northwest Territory, with New Jersey the last in 1804. States such as New Jersey and New York adopted gradual emancipation, which kept some people as slaves for more than two decades longer.
The democratic ideals of the Revolution inspired changes in the roles of women.
The concept of republican motherhood was inspired by this period and reflects the importance of Republicanism as the dominant American ideology. It assumed that a successful republic rested upon the virtue of its citizens. Women were considered to have the essential role of instilling their children with values conducive to a healthy republic. During this period, the wife's relationship with her husband also became more liberal, as love and affection instead of obedience and subservience began to characterize the ideal marital relationship. In addition, many women contributed to the war effort through fundraising and running family businesses in the absence of husbands.
The traditional constraints gave way to more liberal conditions for women. Patriarchy faded as an ideal; young people had more freedom to choose their spouses and more often used birth control to regulate the size of their families. Society emphasized the role of mothers in child rearing, especially the patriotic goal of raising republican children rather than those locked into aristocratic value systems. There was more permissiveness in child-rearing. Patriot women married to Loyalists who left the state could get a divorce and obtain control of the ex-husband's property. Whatever gains they had made, however, women still found themselves subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands, disfranchised and usually with only the role of mother open to them. But, some women earned livelihoods as midwives and in other roles in the community, which were not originally recognized as significant by men.
Abigail Adams expressed to her husband, the president, the desire of women to have a place in the new republic:
I desire you would remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.
Zagarri in 2007 argued that the American Revolution created a continuing debate on the rights of woman and an environment favorable to women's participation in U.S. politics. She asserts that for a brief decade, a "comprehensive transformation in women's rights, roles, and responsibilities seemed not only possible but perhaps inevitable." But, the changes also engendered a backlash that set back the cause of women's rights and led to a greater rigidity that marginalized women from political life.
For more than thirty years, however, the 1776 New Jersey State Constitution gave the vote to "all inhabitants" who had a certain level of wealth, including unmarried women and blacks (not married women because they could not own property separately from their husbands), until in 1807, when that state legislature passed a bill interpreting the constitution to mean universal white male suffrage, excluding paupers.
In the first two decades after the American Revolution, state legislatures and individuals took actions to free numerous slaves, in part based on revolutionary ideals. Northern states passed new constitutions that contained language about equal rights or specifically abolished slavery; some states, such as New York and New Jersey, where slavery was more widespread, passed laws by the end of the 18th century to abolish slavery by a gradual method; in New York, the last slaves were freed in 1827.
While no southern state abolished slavery, for a period individual owners could free their slaves by personal decision, often providing for manumission in wills but sometimes filing deeds or court papers to free individuals. Numerous slaveholders who freed their slaves cited revolutionary ideals in their documents; others freed slaves as a reward for service. Records also suggest that some slaveholders were freeing their own mixed-race children, born into slavery to slave mothers.
The American Revolution has a central place in the American memory. As the founding story, it is covered in the schools, memorialized by a national holiday, and commemorated in innumerable monuments. Thus Independence Day (the "Fourth of July") is a major national holiday celebrated annually. Besides local sites such as Bunker Hill, one of the first national pilgrimages for memorial tourists was Mount Vernon, George Washington's estate (near Washington City), which attracted ten thousand visitors a year by the 1850s.
Crider points out that in the 1850s, editors and orators both North and South claimed their region was the true custodian of the legacy of 1776, as they used the Revolution symbolically in their rhetoric. Ryan, noting that the Bicentennial was celebrated a year after the United States' humiliating 1975 withdrawal from Vietnam, says the Ford administration stressed the themes of renewal and rebirth based on a restoration of traditional values, and presented a nostalgic approach to 1776 that made it seem eternally young and fresh.
Albanese argues that the Revolution became the main source of the non-denominational "American civil religion" that has shaped patriotism, and the memory and meaning of the nation's birth ever since. She says that specific battles are not central (as they are for the Civil War) but rather certain events and people have been celebrated as icons of certain virtues (or vices). Thus she points out the Revolution produced a Moses-like leader (George Washington), prophets (Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine), disciples (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison) and martyrs (Boston Massacre, Nathan Hale), as well as devils (Benedict Arnold), sacred places (Valley Forge, Bunker Hill), rituals (Boston Tea Party), emblems (the new flag), sacred holidays (Independence Day), and a holy scripture whose every sentence is carefully studied and applied in current law cases (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights).
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