The American Revolution


What changed the relationship between the mother country and the Colonies?
How did the colonists justify their defiance and demands for independence?
Why did the Colonists win?
Why did the colonists create the Articles of Confederation as they did and what mistake(s) did they make?

Despite a period of prosperity after the colonies were established, the relationship between the colonies and the mother country turned sour, caused by how the British ran their new American empire.

The main cause of the deterioration of the relationship was the fact that the colonies were exploited by Britain’s mercantilist policies.  Private companies—not the British government—settled the Thirteen Colonies.  These companies purchased charters from the King of England to establish colonies in North America.  These colonies—such as Jamestown in Virginia, the Plymouth community in New England, and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in New York (which was eventually absorbed by the British and renamed)—were essentially established as businesses for the purpose of making a profit.

As businesses, mercantilist policies governed all decision about the colonies.  Mercantilism was the economic doctrine followed by European countries from the end of feudalism into the eighteenth centuries (when laissez faire economics replaced it as the popular theory).  Mercantilists held that a nation’s wealth consisted primarily in the amount of gold and silver in its treasury.  Accordingly, mercantilist governments imposed extensive restrictions on their economies to ensure a favorable balance of trade (which is when a country exports more than it imports).  Mercantilism led to the establishment of colonies, which were established for the sole reason of increasing the mother country’s wealth.  These colonies were investments.

Mother countries put severe restrictions on who their colonies could trade with, giving the mother country a monopoly.  They also were prohibited from manufacturing finished products with their raw materials.  All of their raw materials had to be sent back to the mother country to be turned into manufactured goods, which would be sold back to the colony at a higher price.  And the Thirteen Colonies became a chief source for key raw materials for the British—such as molasses, tobacco, and, later, cotton—as England began the process of industrialization.

Because the colonies were started as business, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted, as long as the Empire was benefiting from trade with them.  This caused the colonies to develop a tradition of self rule.  Later, when Britain attempted to exert more control of them—including trying to collect taxes from them—the colonists felt they were wronged.

The colonies—because they were established by British companies and not the government—had grown to expect to be allowed to rule themselves.

The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first representative government in the colonies.  Its members included men elected by residents to help make decisions concerning the colony.

Mayflower Compact—the agreement reached by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, just before they landed at Plymouth Rock—also shows the expectation of colonists to have self-rule. The Compact bound the settles in New England to live in a civil society according to their own laws—not the laws of British Parliament. It remained the fundamental law of their colony of Plymouth until the colony was absorbed into Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century.

Other traditions in the colonies reinforced the belief that the colonies ruled themselves.  In the northeast, the tradition of New England town meetings began in colonial times.  All members of small towns would gather to discuss and make laws.  The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1638) set up the government for the colony in that state.  This was the first written constitution.

But everything changed with the French and Indian War.  Before it, Parliament and the King allowed the colonists to do what they wanted.  After the war, they started to take more control over the colonies, which upset the colonists.  Parliament had been following an unwritten policy of salutary neglect—lack of strict enforcement of Parliamentary laws in the colonies—because it was believed that the colonies would thrive without regulation (an early example of laissez faire capitalism).  But the Seven Years’ War—the European conflict between France and Britain that the French and Indian War is part of—created problems that made Parliament seek to change how it handled the colonies.

On change was that the British tried to stop the expansion of the colonies westward in an attempt to stop further conflict with Native American tribes (many of whom fought with the French against the British).  After the war ended, Britain gained French territory east of the Mississippi River (the French still held the land west of the Mississippi).  But Native American tribes still lived in the new land.  To try to avoid conflict, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763 that established the Proclamation Line, prohibiting settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Many colonists, however, were eager to get a jump on claiming the new land acquired by the crown and settled there anyway.  British troops routinely found these settlers and evicted them and moved them back east.  To the colonists, the British were changing the rules after the game started.  If they didn’t care to enforce these rules before, it wasn’t fair that they enforce them now.

But problems really erupted over Britain’s plan to pay off the debt incurred from the Seven Years’ War.  Before the French and Indian War, the colonies had not been taxed by British Parliament as an enticement for people willing to take the risk to moving to the New World.  But the French and Indian War (part of Europe’s Seven Years War between Britain and France) put the British in debt.  Since they fought the war protecting the colonists from the French, Parliament decided that the colonists needed to pay their fair share and levied taxes on the colonies for the first time.

Parliament began passing tax laws—such as the Molasses, Sugar and Stamp Acts—and they hit the colonies during an economic depression.  Colonial reaction to the taxes was fierce.  In addition to acts of terrorism (tarring and feathering, for example) and smuggling to avoid paying, the colonist also boycotted the items taxed.  Parliament was forced to repeal the tax.

The Townsend Acts were another attempt to collect taxes from the colonies.  Among this set of tax laws was the famous tax on tea.  The colonists reacted just as violently.  During the tension caused by the Townsend Acts, the Boston Massacre occurred.  When a mob of angry colonists taunted soldiers at the Customs House in Boston, the guards fired upon the crowd, killing five.  The event was used to rally more colonists against the British.

In an attempt to calm down the tense situation in Boston, the British pull all troops out of the city.  With no troops protecting the city, rebel leaders organized the Boston Tea Party.  Three quarters of a million dollars of tea was dumped into Boston Harbor as a protest of what colonists believed was an unfair tax.

As a result, the Parliament decided that it needed to regain control of the colonies and prepares for a crackdown.  Parliament passed a series of harsh laws known as the Intolerable Acts to punish the colonies.  They declared martial law in Boston.  Designed to make them get in line, they instead make more colonist think that separation might be necessary.  The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss how to deal with these latest abuses of the British.  The discussion turns from reconciliation to separation from Great Britain.  The decision to raise an army from state militias is made.

The Revolutionary War officially began with the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.  British troops were dispatched to these towns to seize weapons being stockpiled by colonists.   When the troops got there, the local militia—nicknamed Minutemen—were waiting for them.  At Lexington, the more experienced British regulars routed the ragtag militia.  But during their march back to Boston, the militia struck back (not following the conventions of warfare at the time, of course).  Parliament was going to take this seriously and the chances of reconciliation between Britain and the colonies passed the point of no return.

In light of this, the Declaration of Independence was drafted.  The First Continental Congress adopted the document that outlined the reasons the colonist sought to separate from Great Britain.  Written by Thomas Jefferson, the document is strongly influenced for the ideas of the Enlightenment, stating that all people have Natural Rights (“all men are created equal”) and that governments are created to protect these rights—a concept called the Social Contract theory of government.  If a government doesn’t protect these rights, the Social Contract also explained, the people have the right to revolt against that government.  Since King George III and Parliament had violated the social contract, the colonists were declaring themselves independent.

Naturally, the British didn’t accept the Declaration and tried to regain control of their profitable colonies.  Despite several advantages, the British were unsuccessful in retaking the colonies in the Revolutionary War.  In 1783, the British—tired and depleted from the costly war—conceded defeat and the colonies were independent.

BEFORE: The Colonies

AFTER: The Articles of Confederation

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