Overview of the American Revolution, 1763-1775

What was the American Revolution really about?
What do we think about when celebrating the 4th of July?
Why is the American Revolution so important to some people?

We can find an answer to some of those ideas by pointing to the Tea Party movement, or the recurring use of the term “patriot.” Below are some things to think about as we move into the revolutionary period of American history.

Colonial Background

When John Adams said that the American Revolution had begun in the hearts and minds of the people long before the firing began at Lexington, he was referring to the era of the Stamp Act of 1765, the first piece of British legislation to get the colonials’ backs up.  One can argue, however, that the revolution began when the first colonists left their homes to settle in America. Most of them were, in a sense, already rebelling against a life that offered them few opportunities.

A poor Englishman in 1650 or 1700 had little to no chance of becoming a landowner. He would often find himself the victim of chronic underemployment, when there was not enough work to go around. For a poor young woman, the only options for survival often seemed to be either begging or prostitution unless they were willing to turn to outright thievery. Country dwellers were beholden to the landowners, and city dwellers were lucky to find employment with merchants, blacksmiths, innkeepers or other tradesmen.

The trip to America was daunting; many did not survive the Atlantic voyage. Since large numbers of colonists came as indentured servants, their introduction to colonial America was often just as harsh and forbidding as life at home had been. The difference was that in America there was a light, however dim, at the end of the tunnel: if they could just hold out for the three to seven years of their indentures, they had an excellent chance of becoming landowners themselves, since cheap land in America was plentiful, especially on the frontiers.

By the mid-1700s thousands of colonists either born in America or having arrived from Europe themselves had begun to take advantage of America’s opportunities. Virtually all of them  considered themselves British subjects, and few were unhappy with that notion. Indeed, many colonists had brought bits and pieces of English culture with them, as the names of colonial towns and villages make clear. As long as the British continued their policy of benign neglect of the colonies, everything was fine.

True, the navigation acts that placed costs and restrictions on trade could be cumbersome; the colonists, however, found that it was easy to skirt the navigation laws with little fear of being caught or punished. Merchants and farmers began to prosper, and while the large plantations in the South or the fine homes in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia could not rival those in London or the English countryside, they were by no means humble habitations.

Behind the growing contentment of the Americans was a readiness for rebellion based upon the notion that they had carved a new existence out of a demanding wilderness and would be ready to defend and protect their homeland against any intruders, even their British relations. At the conclusion of the long series of colonial wars that had begun before 1700 and continued until 1763, Great Britain found herself strapped financially. Suddenly the colonies were recognized as a source of revenue, and benign neglect ended; when that happened, the trouble began quickly.

The colonists were used to being left alone; when the British ceased leaving them to their own devices, revolution of one sort or another was all but inevitable.


Revolution Overview

The American Revolution is the founding event in our nation’s history. The Revolution is generally dated from 1763 to 1789, from the opening of resistance to the launching of government under the Constitution. Those dates are significant, but the revolution actually began before that, and continued long after. I would argue that the seeds of the revolution were planted when the first immigrants left Great Britain. To say that the first settlers as well as later colonists came to America to find a better life implies that they were not content with the lives they were living. At discontent was probably not sufficient to foment a rebellion at home, but it's clear that the people who came to America were looking for something better than what they had.

Although much has changed in the 200 odd years since our revolution concluded, it is still safe to say that the American Revolution can still teach us much about ourselves as a nation. We are descendants of those early Americans, and many of the ideas they passed on to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still alive, however faintly, in the United States today.

One example of the leftover legacy of the colonial era is the fact that in the northeastern states and out into the Midwest, government is organized down to the village level. That local autonomy has its roots in the concept of the New England town meeting and the practice of Congregationalism. Those Northeasterners didn't need nor desire help from above. The South was organized differently, into parishes. And as the Anglican church was organized into parishes or diocese, counties tended to be the locus of government and many of the southern states. Indeed, Louisiana still refers to counties as parishes. Here in Northern Virginia where our college is located, local government as it exists in the North is hard to find. Throughout Fairfax County, for example, there are many areas such as Springfield, Burke, Great Falls, Lorton, and others, but the governing authority is that of Fairfax County with the exception of two small cities within the county limits.

When Max Weber, the German political economist, wrote his most famous work, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, he had in mind the workings of New England Puritanism, outlined by philosophers such as Benjamin Franklin. Belief in hard work, individualism, making the most of opportunities, making efficient use of time, not wasting one's resources, are all things that many Americans think of as guiding principles today. But they find their roots in pre-revolutionary America. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis expressed this fundamental American idea when he wrote: “The makers of the Constitution conferred the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by all civilized men—the right to be let alone.”

The American Revolution lived into the future in other ways . During the American Civil War both sides felt they were fighting to protect the legacy of the Revolution—the North to protect the Union so painfully created, and the South to defend what it conceived as the right to manage its own affairs. The American Revolution also stretched far beyond our shores—it was an event that touched the world. When North Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh wrote his countries Declaration of Independence, he quoted Thomas Jefferson. It is also interesting to compare our Revolution with the French Revolution—Some of the same players were involved, and there were certain similarities in the fundamental causes.

Summary of Conditions in 1763:

In 1763 the French had been driven out of North America, and Great Britain stood “astride the world like a colossus.” Although Great Britain was still a very wealthy nation, the government was deeply in debt. The officers who had fought in America during the French and Indian War carried reports of American prosperity when they returned home. The American population had grown enough for Parliament to notice. There were bills to be paid, and the British government decided it was time for the colonies to pay their share.

The colonists didn't necessarily see it that way. They had their own bills to pay, and a certain sense of differentness from Great Britain had been around for some time. Nevertheless, at that time few if any Americans were thinking about a formal separation, that is independence, from Great Britain.

The Enlightenment, which we have Lori discussed, have generated new ways of thinking about how the world functions and how it could function better. The idea of republicanism (democracy), although not yet highly developed, was gaining currency in some quarters. For some of a more conservative bent, it was considered a highly radical concept and was not well received, especially among the ruling classes. For many, republicans were seen as wild eyed fanatics who favored mob rule. Because of the nature of life in colonial America, where birthright and inherited benefits carried relatively little weight, progressive ideas such as republicanism found much more fertile ground in which to develop on the American side of the Atlantic. Americans were also well versed in political philosophy from reading John Locke and others. American ideology also heavily emphasized the idea of “virtue” as a necessary component of political structure—another idea from the Enlightenment.

As Great Britain began to tighten the screws on the colonists after 1763, the colonists struggle to maintain the status quo which it existed before the French and Indian War.  Americans assumed that their own colonial legislatures were the equivalence of Parliament. They believed that since they were not represented in Parliament, only their own colonial assemblies could tax them. Americans still believed in the British Constitution, though they saw it somewhat differently from many British. In conclusion, although there was no conscious thought of independence in America in 1763, Americans quickly began to see that in many ways they were drifting farther apart from their British cousins.

Theory of Revolution

Many theories of revolution exist, but they do not always explain what happened in America. For example, one assumed necessary ingredient of revolution is widespread discontent, yet the average American was generally as well off as anyone in the world at that time. Yet revolutions do tend to have certain things in common. Of necessity they start with discontent of some sort, but it is not always clear to what extent wrongs are real or perceived. In the end, it probably does not matter. It is interesting to note that four major revolutions (the English, American, French and Russian) all began with government trying to get more money out of the people.

Points to keep in mind on the American Revolution:

The American Revolution is not over until 1787—without a stable system of government it could easily have come unraveled.
The revolutionary leader as “wild-eyed radical” is a cliché. Many have been sober, mild individuals. Some American leaders were almost boring in their lack of revolutionary passion. Washington was a very non-revolutionary figure who was one of the least radical Americans, yet he was technically guilty of treason.

We tend to think of the American Revolution is having been led from the top, by people like Washington, Jefferson, Adams and others. The ordinary working-class people, however, did not need much prodding to take up the revolutionary cause. After all, it was the foot soldiers who ended up fighting revolution. And although the power of rhetoric can inspire and motivate, the sting tends to go out after a while unless the people buy into the ideas being put forth.

Nevertheless American leaders of the revolution were the American aristocracy, men of "striking respectability and social standing." The 56 signers of the Constitution were educated men—22 were lawyers , 5 were doctors, 11 were merchants and 12 were ministers or ministers sons . Thus the  “establishment"—to borrow a modern phrase—provided the leadership. There were moderates and extremists among them, but most eventually embraced independence.

Another important question to ask about the revolution is whether anything substantial really changed. Most revolutions include things like transfer of property from one group to another, changes in the ruling classes, changes in attitudes about institutions and practices or changes in the institutions themselves, and none of those things seem to have been major outcomes of the American Revolution.

On the other hand, as historian Gordon Wood has pointed out, the American Revolution was one of the most radical events in modern history. What it did change was the fundamental relationship between the government and the people. The idea of virtue, mentioned above, was seen as important in a Republican society. As in this society created by the American Revolution, the virtue to be found in government necessarily resided with the people. It was, as Lincoln famously said, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. If the people lacked virtue, the government was sure to fail.

So what can we say about the real causes of the American Revolution?  First, the colonists had developed a sense of national identity—the isolation of the colonial period evolved into a spirit of common interest. As Ben Franklin said, “We had best hang together, or we shall surely hand separately.” That national identity was facilitated in part by the fact that the colonies had and efficient Postal Service, and as a revolutionary feelings developed they establish committees of correspondence so that the other colonies would know what each one had in mind.

Patrick Henry's “Liberty or Death” speech showed unity of purpose. Evidence existed that people felt bound to each other. The Revolution began in the early 1760s with Otis’s protest against Writs of Assistance. John Adams claimed it began in the “Hearts and Minds” with the Stamp Act of 1765. As we said above, the seeds of rebellion had actually been planted when the colonial settlements became established.

In outlining the causes of the Revolution we must acknowledge that in many ways, the British had no one to blame but themselves; their governance of the colonies was an unending stream of insensitivity and inflexibility: the real cause of the war was “imperial mismanagement”—they failed to consult the colonists on almost all major policy issues, feeling that what was good for the Empire was good for all its parts. They insisted upon treating the colonies as "dependent children." Connected to that failure was the British idea of “virtual representation,” which the colonists rejected. Even so, Americans read the worst possible motives into everything the British did, and exaggerated their complaints, even in the Great Declaration (which has been called by another historian the “defense brief for the treason trial.”) But though they may have exaggerated what they saw as British intentions, there was plenty of fuel for the fire.

The real key to the idea of revolution (in the opinion of your author) is that prior to the American revolution, the responsibility for honest, virtuous, or just plain good government, resided in the hands of the power structure—the aristocracy. From 1776 onward, that responsibility lies in the hands of the people. Tom Paine made that point most eloquently in Common Sense. Thus, as Gordon Wood says, the American Revolution was “the most radical and far-reaching event in American history.” On the other hand, principles were involved, and perhaps Americans saw those principles more clearly than most in 1770. Bottom line: the American Revolution could have been avoided, but sooner or later America was bound to become independent.

The American Revolution is covered in detail in the next section.

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Updated December 16, 2016