American Revolution

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To the extent that 1776 led to the resultant U.S., which came to captain the African Slave Trade—as London moved in an opposing direction toward a revolutionary abolition of this form of property—the much-celebrated revolt of the North American settlers can fairly be said to have eventuated as a counter-revolution of slavery.
—Gerald Horne, African-American historian[1]

The American Revolution was a period of societal turmoil in American Colonial history that dated from soon after the end of the French and Indian WarWikipedia to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. It resulted in the breakaway of thirteen British colonies in North America from the British Empire and those colonies' creation of the United States of America.

No single factor truly caused the American Revolution. Instead, it was the result of decades of increasing tensions between the colonists and the British government. After the French and Indian War, the British government sought to repair its finances by increasing taxation and trade regulations on the colonies while still denying them seats in Parliament; this led the discontented colonists to take up the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation."[2] Other factors included the British government's attempts to curtail the colonies' encroachment on Native American lands, colonial enthusiasm for the ideas of the Enlightenment, and the increased presence and power of British soldiers in response to colonial grumblings.[3]

This prolonged social upheaval led to armed revolt in 1775 that became the American Revolutionary War, but it was only in 1776 that independence was a true goal of the American Revolution. American victory in the Battles of Saratoga helped convince a previously reluctant France to intervene on behalf revolutionaries.[4] Spain and the Netherlands also joined soon after, and this European involvement sealed the deal. The Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, on terms greatly favorable to the fledgling United States. France, however, was bankrupted by the American Revolution, leading to that trouble in Paris and the rise of a certain Corsican general some 30 years later.


Eastern North America in 1775. Note position of Quebec and the 1763 boundary line.

French and Indian War[edit]

It may be said as truly that the American Revolution was an aftermath of the Anglo-French conflict in the New World carried on between 1754 and 1763.
—Lawrence Henry Gipson, American historian[5]

The French and Indian War was the North American theater of the Seven Years' War, a global colonial conflict between France and Great Britain that lasted between 1756 and 1763.[6] The war pitted French colonists in Quebec and the Mississippi area against British colonists in the Hudson Bay area and the Thirteen Colonies.[7] The war also heavily involved Native Americans, as the French had a variety of native allies and the British were backed by the Iroquois Confederacy.

Conflicts here began over the disputed Ohio area, when Lieutenant Colonel George Washington led a failed attempt to expel the French in 1754.[7] The war was enormously expensive for all sides, but it finally ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Under this agreement, the British gained French Canada, everything east of the Mississippi River, and Spanish Florida, while Spain would acquire the French Mississippi and France kept its profitable sugar-producing Caribbean islands.[8]

This war sowed the seeds that would lead to the Revolution. Great Britain had incurred a huge debt, and its government felt that the colonies should help them pay it off. The colonists hoped that the new treaty would allow them to seize new lands from the Native Americans, but they would be hampered by British proclamations.

Proclamation of 1763[edit]

American colonists had their hopes of new frontiers dashed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. King George III, who had been faced with the question of what exactly to do with all of the land he had just gained, decided it would be easiest to play nice with the Native Americans. To that end, the Proclamation included language that recognized Native American land and barred the American colonists from trying to encroach on that land unless the Native Americans agreed to sell it to the British Crown.[9] The angry colonists largely ignored the new law, but became infuriated all over again when the British Crown decided to appease the French Canadians by handing off a huge chunk of the Ohio area to Quebec in 1774.[10] Ultimately, the frontier struggles between the American colonists and the Native Americans would play into the upcoming Revolutionary War. The Americans largely failed to convince very many Native American tribes to ally with them because the natives considered the British as the lesser of two evils.

End of "salutary neglect"[edit]

Traditional historians hold that British policy towards the North American colonies before 1763 was a policy of "salutary neglect", meaning that the British essentially left the colonies to their own devices.[11] Statutory neglect also fostered an increasing sense of autonomy among colonial governors and legislatures, which had the obvious result.[12]

Attempts by the Crown to change things were met with stiff resistance from the colonists. The Navigation Acts, along with the Wool, Hat, and Iron Acts, sought to subjugate American capital to British capital, because these acts forbade the production of finished goods.[13] 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. This policy furthered a concept called "mercantilism", in which Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century economists considered it essential for a nation's welfare that it export more than it imports.[14] 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.

Taxation without representation[edit]

Angry Bostonians read the Stamp Act
How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?
—Samuel Johnson, English writer[15]

In 1765, the British government passed the Stamp Act, which taxed paper used for printed materials in the colonies. While Parliament felt that the colonists had an obligation to pay their fair share for the costs of the recent war, the colonists were infuriated at what they perceived to be a blatant attempt by Parliament to profit from their labor.[16] The colonists also considered the tax illegitimate since the distant London Parliament had imposed it rather than their own regional legislatures.

Parliament in no way expected the wave of resistance to the Stamp Act. Colonial mobs effectively nullified the law by either refusing to pay for paper, burning paper, rioting, or threatening British tax collectors.[17] Disgruntled colonists also formed the "Sons of Liberty", a sometimes violent political activist group that remained a force through the rest of the American colonial period.[18]

Despite Parliament later repealing the Stamp Act, it hardened its position by passing the Declaratory Act in 1766, by which it reserved the right to impose laws on the American colonies "in all cases whatsoever".[19] The debates in Parliament over the Stamp Act's repeal helped bring one Benjamin Franklin to international prominence, as many were impressed by his eloquent testimony in favor of repeal.[20] Unfortunately, Franklin's testimony left Parliament with the idea that the colonists would not object to external taxes such as tariffs.

In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which taxed goods the colonists imported from Britain, such as wine, fruits, chinaware, and paper. The British hoped that since these goods were relatively unimportant to the colonists and because the taxes started off low, the colonists would not object;[21] but alas, they were wrong again. This time the colonists organized mass boycotts of British goods. Not only did the American colonial economy suffer from this, but British traders also lost revenue, forcing them to convince Parliament to withdraw all of the regulations save for the tax on tea.[22]

Violent incidents[edit]

Paul Revere's propagandistic portrayal of the Boston Massacre

In 1770, the Sons of Liberty became increasingly furious with businesses that had not participated in the boycott of British imports.[23] The radicals would protest and pin signs on the businesses they were angry with. This caused violence when shop owner Ebenezer Richardson tried to defend himself from a mob of boys and ended up killing an 11-year-old.[23] Parliament had previously passed the Quartering Act in 1765, which required the colonists to host soldiers in their homes whenever it was required, whether they wanted to or not.[24] As a result, the British already had a military presence in many colonial cities, and that presence was already hated.

Burning the HMS Gaspee

Many already enraged Bostonians became rioters after a disagreement between a soldier and one of their own. The rioters allegedly became violent towards a group of soldiers, and the British soldiers fired in the confusion.[25] Three colonists died immediately and two more succumbed to their wounds. The British soldiers were represented by future president John Adams in court and acquitted.[26] This didn't stop Paul Revere (yes, that one) from creating a deliberately inaccurate image of the event and circulating it as propaganda.[27]

Port official tarred and feathered during the Boston Tea Party

Rigorous enforcement of trade regulations also helped lead to the Gaspee affair of 1772. The Gaspee was a British patrol schooner that harshly cracked down on American attempts to circumvent trade duties through smuggling. In 1772, the Gaspee ran aground while chasing a merchant ship. Thrilled members of the Sons of Liberty rowed out to confront the Gaspee and her crew; matters turned violent, and the patriots ended up burning the ship and kidnapping her crew.[28] The Royal Navy was infuriated, and their attempts to discover the perpetrators further kindled violent sentiment among the colonists.

In 1773, Parliament acted again, this time passing the Tea Act to grant the financially struggling British East India Company some favorable regulations regarding tea sold in the American colonies.[29] As a result, the EIC could undersell tea procured from other sellers, mainly Dutch smugglers.[30] Colonial merchants who worked with the Dutch smugglers lost money, so they suddenly found common cause with the Sons of Liberty and allied with them. In some cities, ships bearing EIC tea were not allowed into port, and in others, the ships were allowed in but the colonists refused to pay the taxes. However, most famously, on December 16, 1773, a group of about 60 men dressed as Native Americans boarded an EIC ship in Boston and dumped about £18,000 worth of tea into the water, an event known as the Boston Tea Party.[31]

All in all, the Sons of Liberty engaged in behavior that today could be considered terrorism.[32][note 1]

The Intolerable Acts[edit]

In 1774, Parliament retaliated against the colonists' destruction of tea with the so-called "Intolerable Acts". The first was the Boston Port Bill, which closed Boston's harbor to shipping until the city coughed up enough money to compensate the East India Company for its destroyed goods.[33] The second law targeted all of Massachusetts by replacing its elected leaders with ones appointed by the Crown and by forbidding public meetings without British government approval.[33] The Administration of Justice Act responded to the Boston Massacre by mandating that British soldiers accused of crimes in the colonies would be brought back to Great Britain for trial.[34] This was borne out of Parliament's (not unreasonable) fear that the colonists would start unfairly prosecuting British soldiers for political reasons. Finally, Parliament passed a new Quartering Act that renewed the requirement for colonists to quarter troops in their homes if asked.

In response, the first Continental Congress assembled in 1774. They met in Philadelphia's Independence Hall to discuss their retaliation against the Intolerable Acts, and decided to enforce a boycott of British goods and to halt all exports to Britain if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed within a year.[35]

American Revolutionary War[edit]

British troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill

First skirmishes[edit]

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis[36]

Fearing an outright revolt among the colonies, the British government dispatched soldiers to capture the colonial American armory at Concord, Massachusetts.[37] British troops and ships also sealed off Boston to prevent word of this from reaching the rest of Massachusetts, but Paul Revere escaped from the city and went on his legendary midnight ride to warn the residents of Concord.[38]

The British troops encountered colonial militias in the town of Lexington on April 19, 1775. It's unknown who fired the first shot, but the thousands of militiamen were able to rout the British and force them back to Boston.[39] The colonial militias then laid siege to Boston with the hopes of retaking their city from its British occupiers. The British tried to break out, winning a tactical victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the inexperienced colonial militias had managed to inflict heavy casualties.[40] Dispatched by the second Continental Congress, George Washington took command of the forces at Boston, officially named the Continental Army.[41] The siege lasted through the winter until the Americans bombarded the city with heavy artillery they had captured from a British fort. This forced the British to abandon the city.

Hoping to avoid a long and costly struggle, the Continental Congress decided to contact King George III in the hopes of coming to an agreement. The message they sent, called the Olive Branch Petition, was written by Thomas Jefferson and edited by John Dickson,[42] and repeatedly denied that the colonists were seeking independence. However, the king responded with the "Proclamation of Rebellion", which declared that the leaders of the American colonists were traitors and must be suppressed.[43]

America's first ever failed invasion[edit]

Americans forced back by French Canadian and British militia

During the winter of 1775-76, the American colonists dispatched troops into British-held Quebec under the command of General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold.[44] The goal of the attack was to bring the supposed "fourteenth colony" into the American Revolution.[45] The colonials were optimistic since the engagement in Boston meant that the British could only defend Quebec city with a few hundred troops.[45]

Unfortunately, the American soldiers had few supplies and had been ordered to attack Canada in the winter. By the time they reached Quebec city, the men were eating shoe leather and candle wax.[46] Nonetheless, Arnold besieged the city as he had been ordered. It dragged through the winter months, and by the end the Americans had lost hundreds of men and been forced to leave their equipment during their rapid retreat.[45] General Montgomery had also died.

Declaration of Independence[edit]

During the early struggle, many of the colonies began assembling their "provincial congresses" to decide on how their governments should be organized now that they had effectively separated from Great Britain.[47] Eight states did this, while three convened full constitutional conventions, and two states simply chose to revise their existing colonial charters. New Hampshire adopted the first state constitution on January 5, 1776.[47] It was intended as a bare framework only to last the duration of the war, but was an effective acknowledgement that the state would no longer be a part of the British Empire. All of the state constitutions had some form of legislature as the highest authority, recognized the importance of "separation of powers", and ensured that they would all be republics.[47]

By June 1776, all of the states were prepared to become independent of Great Britain. On June 11, Congress assembled a committee of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston for the purpose of creating a document to justify the colonies' decision to seek independence.[48] The document itself was largely written by Jefferson.

On July 4, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which ended any possibility of a peaceful understanding between the two sides. It should be noted that prior to the Declaration of Independence, the colonists actually still considered themselves to be Englishmen. In fact, the very issuing of the Declaration led to the colonists losing whatever support they had in the British Parliament.[49]

The Continental Congress also saw the importance of forming a unified front against the British. To that end it debated, created, and ratified the Articles of Confederation, a temporary legal framework which bound the colonies together as something more than an alliance but less than a country, in 1777.[50]

The Empire strikes back[edit]

The Continental Army retreats to Valley Forge

After being forced from Boston, the British set their sights on New York City. Washington predicted that the British would strike there and had fortified the city; however, during the battle itself, he committed a deadly strategic blunder by splitting his forces between Brooklyn and Manhattan.[51] As the British overwhelmed the Americans, the "Maryland 400" held them off to buy the rest of the Continental Army time to escape.[52] Washington retreated from the city rather than suffer through a siege, keeping his army intact.

On paper, the British had all the advantages: a huge, well-trained military, the world's largest navy, many Loyalists in the colonies, and deep pockets. The one fatal weakness they had, however, was overconfidence. As British historian Jeremy Black notes, "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 [...] rise up, kick out the rebels, and restore loyal government in each colony".[53] While they were wrong in this assessment, the British had a good, long series of victories.

The British seized the entirety of New York City in fall of 1776, forcing Washington to endure the lowest point of his career.[54] New York City became the main base of operations for the British for the duration of the war.[55] The British then took New Jersey, but Washington conducted his famous crossing of the Delaware River to attack the British-commanded Hessian mercenaries on Christmas[56] (Yes, he waged a literal War on Christmas).

In the summer of 1777, the British captured one of their most politically significant targets: the American capital city of Philadelphia.[57] Washington was forced to go into winter quarters at Valley Forge, and his army faced brutal hardships throughout the months there.[58]

The war goes international[edit]

French and British ships battle in the Carribean, 1780

One of the most important American military victories of the war turned out to be the battle of Saratoga in October 1777. At that point, the British were attempting to corner an American army led by Horatio Gates in upstate New York. For several reasons, only General John Burgoyne's force actually made it to the planned site of the British attack. As a result, the Americans, who were beginning to figure out how to fight a battle, greatly outnumbered the British. The resulting engagements brought a decisive American victory, and Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army.[59]

Saratoga proved significant because it persuaded the French that the American rebels had a fighting chance against the British. Seizing the opportunity to deal a defeat to perhaps their most hated international rival, France allied with the American rebels and dispatched troops and ships in addition to the military aid it was already sending.[60] IN 1778, France declared war on Great Britain and tied up much of Britain's military potential elsewhere around the British Empire, giving the North American colonies much-needed relief from the British army and fleet.

The Spanish (1779) and the Dutch (1780) also joined the French against the British, forcing Great Britain to fight a global war with no allies. The American colonies had effectively become a sideshow in their "own" war (compare Poland in World War II). The involvement of other European naval powers especially complicated things for the British, as they suddenly found themselves forced to fight through a series of Atlantic blockades in order to get more troops and supplies to their forces in their colonies.[61]

Washington and Rochambeau command troops at Yorktown

Southern campaigns[edit]

The southern colonies had been a major front of the war from the beginning, but the British only fully turned their attention there after the post-Saratoga stalemate in the north. This was because the South had the highest number of Loyalists, and the whole area had indeed fallen into a state of civil war between the Loyalists and the Patriots.[62] Similar to the later American Civil War, the South was host to raids, massacres, destruction of property, and fractured family loyalties.

The war in the south initially went well for the British, as they captured the city of Savannah, Georgia in 1779 and then repulsed the Franco-American attempt to retake it.[63] The British took Charleston, South Carolina in spring 1780, then followed up with more battlefield victories.[62]

The year 1780 saw the tide shift, however. General Cornwallis, the British commander in the southern theater, suffered two devastating losses at the hands of the recently-appointed American General Nathanael Greene.[62] These events allowed the Patriots to trap Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. With vital assistance from the French Caribbean fleet, as well as French soldiers under the Comte de Rochambeau, General Washington besieged Yorktown and finally forced Cornwallis to surrender in fall 1781.[64]

Expanded involvement by European powers[edit]

Along with their defeat in Yorktown, the British also saw the war continue to grow in scope and cost. The war, which had begun a continent away, started drawing nearer and nearer to the British Isles. British and Dutch ships clashed in the North Sea, a battle that was tactically inconclusive but damaging to both sides.[65] French forces launched a failed attack against the island of Jersey in the English Channel.[66]

The Siege of Gibraltar by the Spanish also helped save the American Revolution. The British were forced to end a blockade against France to send ships to Spain, allowing the French to send a fleet across the Atlantic to reinforce their navy there and take part in the Battle of Yorktown.[67] From 1779 and throughout 1781, Spanish troops also attacked British positions throughout the Mississippi area, as well as in western Florida, resulting in decisive Spanish victories.[68] When the British attempted to strike back by sending an expedition against Spanish Nicaragua, their mission ended in disaster.[69]

French fleets captured colony after British colony in the Caribbean, including Tobago, Montserrat, St. Kitts, and Nevis.[70] Ultimately, however, the Caribbean theater was a failure for the French-Spanish alliance. The Royal Navy decisively thwarted France and Spain's attack on Jamaica in the Battle of the Saintes, permanently shifting the balance of naval power in the Americas far in Great Britain's favor.[71]

Hostilities in the American Revolutionary War even extended all the way to Africa, India and Indonesia, as the British and Dutch attacked each other's colonies.[72] The British successfully captured the Dutch Indian port of Negapatam,[73] but the French took the port of Trincomalee from the British in Sri Lanka.[74] The 1783 French naval victory in the Battle of Cuddalore was perhaps the most significant of the engagements in India, as it helped spark the Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the British were forced to defend their holdings in India from the emboldened local rulers.[75]

The Treaty of Paris[edit]

British representatives refused to pose for this painting of the peace agreement

The British loss at Yorktown brought the Whig Party into power, which promptly ended hostilities and began peace negotiations with the Americans.[76]

In 1783, allied and British delegations agreed to the Treaty of Paris, which granted the former colonies official independence, gave them all territory east of the Mississippi and south of Canada, and gave them access to crucial Newfoundland fishing waters.[77] After some intrigue and disagreements with their American allies, the French, Dutch and Spanish signed separate treaties with Britain;[78] France got Tobago and Senegal, the Spanish got Florida back, and the Dutch ended up losing Negapatam.[77]

Peace didn't settle matters entirely. The Brits would still intervene in the Old NorthwestWikipedia by providing the Indians there armaments and munitions to conduct a war of resistance against the American colonialists there, and press-gangings of Americans into the Royal Navy would continue for decades after the War, leading to the War of 1812, which saw a definitive resolution to these issues in which the British abandoned their Native allies to further extermination by the United States.

Aftermath of the war[edit]

Loyalist refugees[edit]

During the war, between 15% and 20% of the American population remained loyal to the British Crown, and often faced harsh persecution and violence.[79] Patriot authorities would crack down on Loyalists by confiscating their property, disenfranchising them, and even threatening them with violence.[80] Even after the British surrender at Yorktown, battles continued in the South between Patriots and Loyalists. While the Patriots promised to treat the Loyalists fairly, persecution unsurprisingly increased after the American victory.[80]

These factors created an intense climate of fear among the Loyalists after the British defeat, and many of them chose to follow the retreating British armies back to Canada and settle there.[79] Loyalists who left the United States lived in hastily erected refugee camps during the harsh winter after the war, and many of them died.[80]

Loyalists had a great impact on their new home of Canada. Their distrust of American-style "mob rule" led them to push the Canadian government into adopting its incrementalist path to legal independence rather than any rapid change or revolution.[80]


Battle of the Chesapeake: see France's money (literally) go down the drain

The American Revolutionary War imposed a crushing financial burden on all parties involved. The fledgling United States especially had trouble financing the war effort. From the beginning of the war, the French government shipped a huge amount of material and financial aid to the American colonies, but much of it came in the form of loans.[81] Congress had neither the political authority nor will to impose any taxes on the American population (guess why?), and were thus forced to simply print more paper money to deal with the interest on that debt.[81] This naturally led to catastrophic rates of inflation. Luckily, the United States had their teetering economy salvaged by a massive 1782 loan from the government of the Netherlands, which was greatly sympathetic to the American cause for historical reasons.[82] Nonetheless, the American government still struggled to pay off the various loans due to Congress' lack of tax authority under the Articles of Confederation.

France spent huge amounts of money on its global engagements against the British, and further piled onto its already heavy national debt. While Great Britain had an efficient taxation system, the French system was horribly inefficient and thus unable to cope.[83] This helped kick off a worsening financial crisis that would plague France for the rest of the century and would help spark the French Revolution.

International recognition[edit]

France was the first nation to recognize American statehood, in 1778, an event which also accompanied the signing of a formal alliance between the two nations.[84] The Dutch Republic naturally recognized the United States shortly after France.[85] The reluctant Spain recognized the United States third after much hand-wringing regarding the fact that they still hoped to get Gibraltar back in the Paris peace conferences.[85] Surprisingly, the Kingdom of Sweden came shortly thereafter, as its king happened to be a good friend of Benjamin Franklin.[85] Great Britain and her lesser union partner, the Principality of Brunswick-Lüneburg (later called Hanover), finally gave in and acknowledged U.S. independence and statehood in the Paris treaty.[85] Perhaps strangest of all, the freaking Pope reached out to the U.S. in 1784 in the hopes of establishing trade relations between the United States and the Papal States.[85]

Morocco is occasionally claimed to be the first nation to recognize the United States.[86] This is because Morocco's Sultan Sidi Muhammad Ben Abdullah opened technically diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1777 by unilaterally declaring that American ships were free to enter Morocco's ports as part of a diplomatic program he hoped would increase trade revenue.[87] However, Morocco only formally recognized the U.S. in 1786, when it signed the US—Morocco Peace and Friendship Treaty, which is actually the longest unbroken treaty relationship in American history.[88]

Articles of Confederation[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Articles of Confederation

Immediate postwar reforms[edit]

Following the end of the Revolutionary War, the states embarked on various reforms. Several states enshrined freedom of religion in their constitutions, and every Southern state ended the Anglican Church's status as the state religion. Several states established state universities, while private universities also flourished. Numerous states reformed their criminal codes to reduce the number of capital crimes. Northern states invested in infrastructure projects, including roads and canals that provided access to Midwestern settlements.[89] The states also took action regarding slavery, which appeared increasingly hypocritical to a generation that had fought against what they saw as tyranny. During and after the Revolution, every Northern state passed laws providing for gradual emancipation or the immediate abolition of slavery. While no Southern states provided for emancipation, they did pass laws restricting the slave trade.[90]

Problems with the Articles[edit]

Independence Hall, Congress' principal meeting place from 1777 to 1783

Throughout much of the American Revolution, 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? And if so, how many and what powers should it 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. In 1781, however, the Articles of Confederation, which had been written in 1777, were finally ratified by all of the states.[91] This form of national government was intentionally very weak, and just about every aspect of it emphasized the rights of the states to act independently. For instance, Congress was unicameral and gave each state one vote, a supermajority of nine out of 13 states needed to concur for any national legislation, and the Articles could not be amended unless by unanimous agreement among the 13 states.[92]

There was also no president or executive branch whatsoever; however, there was a "President of the Continental Congress", a largely ceremonial position totally unrelated to the modern presidency, which functioned vaguely similar to the current position of Speaker of the House.[note 2][93] The position held so little influence that few men actually wanted to take the job or bother serving in Congress to begin with, instead preferring to serve in positions back in their home states. Those who did actually take the position struggled with the lack of influence, to include being unable to convince members to bother showing up, even to vote on important matters like the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War.[94] Out of the ten men who held the position from 1781 onward, only two completed the full one-year term, with the others having found some reason (usually related to health) to quit early.

If that wasn't enough, the Articles also denied the right of taxation to the national government. This meant that the national government was completely unable to manage America's debt crisis, and as a result, the country repeatedly defaulted on its loans.[81] States also had their own debts to foreign creditors which the federal government couldn't manage. These problems would not be rectified until the reforms of Alexander Hamilton.

Pennsylvania Mutiny[edit]

Before 1783, the Continental Congress met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Its greatest threat after the war came not externally, but from its own soldiers. After the war, Congress and the states were largely unable to pay soldiers' salaries on time, even though they were still performing operations.[95] Pennsylvania state militias based around Philadelphia were among the worst off, as Pennsylvania's state government, headed by an executive council and its president, John Dickinson, was not paying them.[95]

Things came to a head when around 80 soldiers mutinied and started to march on Independence Hall, sparking rumors that they were about to attack Congress and rob the Bank of North America.[95] When Congress demanded that Dickinson send troops to quell the revolt, Dickinson refused. When the mutiny grew to about 400 people, Congress finally decided to abandon Philadelphia and move the capital to Princeton. Congress spent much of the 1780s moving around the country attempting to find a suitable capital city.

Shays' forces routed at Springfield

Shays' Rebellion[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Shays' Rebellion

In 1786, Massachusetts farmers, facing economic woes and unusually high rates of taxation, revolted under the leadership of disgruntled war veteran Daniel Shays.[96] Shays had fought in battles such as Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, before retiring without being paid. He was then sued by the state for failing to pay his debts. It's quite understandable that Shays was pretty goddamn pissed.

Whereas the movement began with protests, it culminated with Shays and his mob attacking the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts.[96] Despite being outnumbered, Massachusetts state militia were able to fend them off. Although it was a failure, Shays' Rebellion came as a great shock to the American public. It became apparent that the Articles of Confederation had prevented the national government from being able to manage its own finances, leading to the financial crisis that had brought so many farmers to the point of desperation. Additionally, George Washington's personal concerns about the rebellion finally brought him back into politics.[96] The Constitutional Convention began just a year later.

Constitutional Convention[edit]

Washington at the Constitutional Convention
See the main article on this topic: United States Constitution

In 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states (Rhode Island being the exception) met in Philadelphia to attempt to revise the Articles. Almost immediately they voted to scrap them and start over, drafting a new document that was far more flexible but also listed specific powers granted to the national government and denied to the states. It also included a unitary executive, a provision that 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 of the United States, and served two terms in that office.

While the revolution was arguably over at this point, many of the questions raised above influenced American political debate, and continue to do so to this day.[note 3] The issue of slavery being foremost among them, for obvious reasons.

Dual impulses[edit]

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. Others believe there may have been multiple impetuses to the movement: Thomas Payne lamented that the revolution had resulted in a new aristocracy rather than a truly free government.

See also[edit]


  1. Although the tired mantra "your terrorists are our freedom fighters" applies here.
  2. Because of the similar titles, some smartypants people like to erroneously claim that John Hanson was actually the first president of the United States, since he was the first PotCC elected by Congress after the Articles of Confederation came into effect. He wasn't even the first PotCC (Peyton Randolph was), and Samuel Huntington was the sitting PotCC when the Articles were ratified; and as above, the position wasn't even remotely similar or related to the office of President that we all know and (mostly) love today.
  3. However, societal chaos didn't stop with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, as the struggles of the early American Republic arguably continued until at least the War of 1812, if not even the American Civil War.


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