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Age of Revolution, 1765-1825
the 1760s and 1770s many colonists began to conceive of America
as a truly "republican" society - one that emphasized
personal independence, public virtue, and a suspicion of concentrated
power as essential ingredients of a free society. They conceived
of America as a society inhabited by people who governed themselves
and enjoyed personal rights and liberties. A growing number
of colonists contrasted their society with Britain's political
corruption and bloated governmental bureaucracy.
American Revolution was not simply the result of British political
missteps, it was also a product of the way that colonists interpreted
British actions. When Britain began to tax Americans, regulate
their trade, station troops in their midst, and deny colonists
the right to expand westward, many colonists viewed these events
through an ideological prism that had been shaped by English
thinkers who had warned about the dangers posed by a standing
army, the evils of public debt, and government officials lusting
Revolution's success was not preordained. France's entry into
the conflict in 1778 (followed by Spain in 1779 and the Netherlands
in 1780) significantly aided the American struggle for independence
by transforming the Revolution into a global war.
topics in American history arouse more heated controversy than
the causes of the American Revolution. Some historians trace
the causes of the Revolution to British high-handedness: to
Britain's determination to impose policies by parliamentary
fiat rather than negotiation. Others attribute the coming of
the Revolution to designing demagogues and firebrands, like
Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry, who aroused peoples'
opinions by their words and actions.
others believe that the Revolution grew out of a growing sense
of American identity. Long before the Revolution, the colonists
began to recognize that their experience diverged sharply from
Britain's. Their population was growing faster (doubling about
every twenty years); there was greater religious freedom; land
was more widely distributed; and men had greater access to the
vote. Increasingly, the colonists contrasted American simplicity,
morality, and republicanism with British aristocratic corruption
and responded forcefully to British policies that threatened
to restrain their economic and geographical growth.
perhaps the most important cause of the Revolution lay in the
way that the colonists perceived and interpreted events. In
the years before the Revolution, the colonists embraced an ideology
which held that liberty was fragile and was threatened by the
conspiratorial designs of scheming politicians. This ideology
led colonists to interpret British policies as part of a deliberate
scheme to impose tyrannical oppression in America and reduce
the colonists to slavery.
After visiting the colonies toward the end of the French and
Indian War, the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, a minister for the Church
of England, described the Americans as too diverse and disunited
to successfully oppose British rule: "[F]ire and water
are not more heterogeneous than the different colonies in North
America. Nothing can exceed the jealousy...which they possess
in regard for each other.... [W]ere they left to themselves,
there would soon be a civil war from one end of the continent
do you think that the colonists were able to overcome a long
history of bickering and unite in opposition to British rule?
Up until 1763, most colonists took pride in their membership
in the British empire. They regarded themselves as among the
freest and most prosperous people in the world. Yet within less
than a decade and a half, they had begun to wage a revolution
against British authority.
this the main product of misguided British policies that violated
the colonists' liberties? Was the Revolution primarily caused
firebrands, like Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry,
who aroused public opinion through impassioned speeches and
actions? Was the Revolution mainly the product of ideas - including
a belief that government is the result of a voluntary agreement
between rulers and the people and that when the agreement is
broken, people have a right to establish a new government? Or
was the Revolution the largely result of the way that the colonists
perceived and interpreted British actions - as a conspiracy
to strip them of their liberties and reduce them to slavery?
Was the American Revolution a "tax revolt" launched
by people unwilling to pay the costs of government? Or was it
motivated by larger principles and grievances?
addition to conflict over taxes, the colonists were angry about
abuses of royal power, British efforts to control westward expansion,
and restrictions on trade and manufacturing.
Was conflict between the colonies and Britain inevitable? Or
could the conflict have been resolved as a result of political
Why were the Patriots able to defeat Britain's professional
army, backed up by the world's finest navy?
the Patriots adopted guerrilla warfare tactics; Britain was
unable to knock out the Continental Army or to control the American
countryside; and Americans received valuable support from France,
Spain, and the Netherlands.
would American history have been different:
If Britain had issued an emancipation proclamation, freeing
all slaves in the rebellious colonies?
If France, Spain, and the Netherlands had not intervened on
the Patriot's side during the Revolution?
Recently, a Louisiana school district voted to change the names
of all schools that are named in honor of slaveowners. The principal
author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson,
was a slaveowner. So too was George Washington, who led the
struggle for American Independence, as was James Madison, the
father of the U.S. Constitution. Do you agree with the school
could Jefferson, Washington, and Madison reconcile their commitment
to liberty with ownership of slaves? To what extent should we
empathize with people in the past?
What would you have done if you had been an African American
during the Revolution? Would you have responded to Lord Dunmore's
proclamation granting freedom to slaves who fled behind British
lines? Would you have enlisted in the Continental Army?
our daily lives, Americans tend to give little thought to the
importance of ideas. In fact, however, ideas - often simplified
and misunderstood - have immense power. They can even change
the course of history. At various times in the past, gripping
ideas have consumed the popular imagination. That was very much
the case with the "Declaration of Independence" and
its ideals of liberty, equality, and popular self-government.
The "Declaration of Independence" would inspire many
groups of peoples - including enslaved African Americans and
women - to demand greater rights.
did Britain close the west to settlement? Was Britain right
or wrong to prohibit settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains?
proclamation was designed to prevent frontier warfare between
Indians and colonists, who committed frauds and abuses in
acquiring Indian lands.
did the colonists, most of whom lived within fifty miles of
the Atlantic seaboard, view the Proclamation as oppressive?
colonists feared being walled in along the eastern coast,
which would result in overpopulation and social stratification
along rigid class lines.
do you think accounts for the intense opposition to the Stamp
Act by the colonists?
was the first direct tax Parliament levied in the colonies
and violated the principle that only assemblies directly elected
by the people could impose taxes. Further, the act also provided
that violators would be punished summarily, without jury trials.
Adams infuriated his cousin Samuel Adams when he agreed to defend
soldiers involved in the Boston massacre. After reading Deacon
John Tutor's account of events in Boston, would you have been
willing to defend the soldiers? Why or why not?
might debate whether it was more important to defend the principle
of rule of law than to let it appear that Boston was governed
by mob rule.
do you think that the colonists argued that Parliament was attempting
to reduce them to slavery? Why did they choose that particular
word? In what precise ways, according to the Continental Congress,
was Parliament stripping the colonists of their freedom?
restricting trade; illegally imposing oppressive taxes; depriving
colonists of the right to trial by jury; blockading American
ports; and nullifying colonial charters.
does the Continental Congress propose to protest British policies?
adopting non-importation and non-exportation agreements, including
a prohibition on the slave trade.
would Jefferson accuse the British King of forcing the colonists
to engage in the slave trade?
the British government had vetoed attempts to restrict or halt
slave importations. Why do you think that the Continental Congress
ultimately deleted this clause from the final version of the
it smacked of hypocrisy.
the British and the Patriots recognized that slavery might play
a pivotal role in the outcome of the Revolution. Lord Dunmore,
the royal governor of Virginia, promised liberty to slaves who
joined British forces and later John and Henry Laurens urged
the Continental Congress to recruit an army of three thousand
slave troops. Although some five thousand African Americans
served in the American army during the Revolution, there were
few efforts to foment slave unrest as a way to win the Revolution.
Why didn't Britain or the Patriots make greater efforts to exploit
they were unwilling to risk a social revolution and the loss
of support from slaveholders.
historians say the Revolution was also a civil war. How does
the story of Lucy Knox support that claim?
loyalties tore her family apart.
her husband, General Henry Knox, fought against the British,
Lucy Knox managed the family business and finances. What does
her 1777 letter suggest about the impact of the war upon her
life and her attitudes?
war encouraged a new independent spirit.
the popular image of a Revolutionary army consisting primarily
of citizen-soldiers, most soldiers were landless, unskilled,
and many were unfree, either indentured servants and slaves.
After reading Washington's letter, ask students to describe
the hardships that these soldiers faced.
October 1787, Sir Henry Clinton made Britain's last formal attempt
at a reconciliation with the colonies. What arguments does he
make in support of reunion and why did the Patriots refuse the
warns the Patriots that thus far Britain had waged a limited
war and that if the Americans formed alliance with Britain's
enemies, then the British were justified in using every means
in their power to suppress the Revolution. The Patriots declined
the offer because the foreign alliances had made independence
a realistic possibility.
today we take an American victory in the Revolution for granted,
no one in 1780 knew what the future would bring. As Virginia's
governor, Thomas Jefferson witnessed two British invasions of
his state; the capture and burning of Richmond; and a raid on
his own home at Monticello. At the time, would you have felt
confident or pessimistic about an American victory in the Revolution?
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