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“”John Hancock: "And I, John Hancock, with one stroke of my pen, set all Americans free."
Bystander: "The only people you set free were rich, white dudes like yourself!"
John Hancock: "I think my good friend and supervisor, Paul Revere, can address that."
Paul Revere: "...I'm out."
|—The typical Revolutionary War historical re-enactment|
The American Revolution was the 1776-1781 struggle by the thirteen British North American colonies to break free of the British Empire. After some key military victories, the Americans were sent military aid by the French. British General Cornwallis surrendered to combined American and French forces at Yorktown in October 1781, and soon after, the Treaty of Paris was drawn up and signed between the former colonies and the British. The French were not invited.
Traditional historians hold that British policy towards the North American colonies pre-1763 was a policy of "salutary neglect," meaning that the British essentially left the colonies to their own devices. Revisionists have proposed an alternate interpretation: acts like the Wool, Hat, and Iron Acts actually subjugated American capital to British capital, because these acts forbade the production of finished goods. Instead, the colonies could only harvest the raw materials and send them to Great Britain, leaving American colonial merchants at a considerable disadvantage to merchants in Britain. However, in a place like America with very little industry, scarce land, and abundant labor, it made sense at the time for the colonists to sell raw materials and buy finished products.
1763 marked the end of the Seven Years' War (called the French and Indian War in the US), a war between the French with their Indian allies and Britain in North America. The British were in desperate need of money, having incurred a large amount of war debt; they also left troops in the colonies (which was a new thing there), and expected the colonists to contribute somewhat to their own defense. To this end, Parliament began to issue revenue raising acts like the Tea Act and Stamp Act. These were taxes that hit the colonists directly in their pockets, and begot considerable opposition (not least because the colonists wondered why the troops were staying when their biggest threat, France, was now out of the picture). The Stamp Act in particular drew ire, as it most affected higher-class colonists like lawyers; representatives from several colonies actually met in the "Stamp Act Congress" to discuss a response. This only foreshadowed much greater colonial organization, such as the Continental Congress.
Another act of Parliament that angered the colonies was the Quebec Act, which, among other things, allowed French settlers, who were now British subjects, to move into territory forbidden to American settlers (past the Appalachian Mountains). These were the same French who had fought against the colonists in the Seven Years' War. The Coercive Acts were passed simply to punish the colony of Massachusetts.
The Revolutionary War
Relations between the colonies and the Crown reached a boiling point after the passage of the Coercive Acts. In 1775, a local militia intercepted 1,000 British troops on their way to Concord, Massachusetts. The ensuing skirmish was known as the "shot heard 'round the world." The following year, in the summer of 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which ended any possibility of a peace agreement.
One of the most important American military victories of the war was the battle of Saratoga (1777). It was significant in that it persuaded the French that the American rebels had a fighting chance against the British, and seizing upon an opportunity to deal a defeat to their international rival, France allied with the rebels and sent troops and ships in addition to the military aid it was already sending. France declared war on the UK and tied up much of its military elsewhere around the Empire, giving the colonies much-needed relief from the British army and fleet.
Under a combined siege from both the French and American armies, British General Cornwallis surrendered in 1781. News of the defeat ended major military operations in America.
The Treaty of Paris
In 1783 American and British delegations agreed to the Treaty of Paris, which granted the former colonies official independence, defined their borders, and gave them access to crucial Newfoundland fishing waters.
Through much of this period, political thinkers debated exactly what form a new government should take and how much power this new form of government should have. There were some ground rules, e.g. a republic and not a monarchy, and that all free men should have a say in it, but many questions still persisted. How much democracy should be allowed, and how much is too much? Should there be an executive, if so how many and what powers should he have? How much power should be vested in a legislature? What is the best way to arrange power sharing between the states and the national government?
These questions were largely ignored during the war years as the Continental Congress struggled with the more pressing issue of winning the war. The Continental Congress adopted a preliminary constitution known as the Articles of Confederation. However, after the Continental Army went home, the Articles' weaknesses were soon exposed. The national government was pretty much unable to do anything during this period. Massachusetts was rocked by Shays' Rebellion and needed external help to keep the peace, but the Articles effectively prohibited other states from intervening. Merchants in Rhode Island discovered they could get wealthy due to the lack of a centralized monetary policy, while the rest of the nation suffered from staggering inflation.
In 1787 delegates from 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island being the exception) met in Philadelphia to try and revise the Articles. Almost immediately they voted to scrap them and start over. They drafted a new document that was much more flexible than the Articles of Confederation but also listed specific powers granted to the national government and denied to the states. It also included a unitary executive, a provision which many Americans feared would lead to monarchy. Finally, it tried to find the right amount of democracy, not so much that things would devolve into mobocracy but just enough to prevent government tyranny.
After a contentious ratification debate, the United States Constitution was eventually approved (again, Rhode Island being the last of the original 13 to do so) in 1788. A major reason for this debate was the lack of a Bill of Rights, which was eventually approved as the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. George Washington was elected to be the first President and served two terms in that office.
While the revolution was arguably over at this point many of the questions raised above influenced the American political debate and continue to do so to this day.
Traditional and revisionist historians disagree about the roots of the revolution, over the question of whether or not there were two revolutionary impulses at work. The traditional view is that the revolution was only a struggle to throw off abusive colonial rule. Revisionists, however, posit that there was another impulse: the desire not just to throw off the British but also to further democratize American society. Other people think there may have been multiple impetuses to the movement.
- 30 Rock, "Winter Madness"