1. The sociopolitical climate in England in the 1760’s was marked by general conservatism. The 1600’s had been a time of great turmoil and upheaval in England.
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The country had faced a bloody civil war, the temporary overthrow of the monarchy, religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, and finally the Glorious Revolution. As a result of this turmoil, the English ruling class was generally intolerant of any type of religious or political innovation.
The Anglican Church of England dominated English life, and other Protestant denominations were forced to pay taxes to subsidize the Anglicans (Middlekauff, 1982). Of course, Catholics and Jews fared even worse, and were denied basic political rights.
Unlike other European nations, England had mixed government as opposed to an absolute monarchy. However, most members of the House of Commons were more concerned about obtaining offices for themselves than about public policy.
The King selected his ministers and usually was able to implement his policies. Most English political leaders spent little time thinking about their American colonies, but naturally assumed that the colonies were subordinate to the mother country.
By the 1760’s England had become the most powerful country in Europe, and its leaders were more concerned about its rivalry with France than about the colonies.
In contrast, the American colonies were generally more tolerant of other religions. The colonies had been settled by people looking for the freedom to practice their religion. They had left Europe to escape religious persecution, and reacted angrily to what they perceived were affronts to their rights.
While most colonies did have an official religion, members of other religions were treated better than in England. Due to the great distance between England and North America, the colonies were largely self-governing.
The colonists did think of themselves as Englishmen, but believed that they would be left to govern themselves. To the colonists, this right of self-government was a basic English right.
Immigrants from other European countries poured into the colonies throughout the 18th century, and they added to the somewhat rebellious character of the colonies. The Scotch-Irish were probably the largest immigrant group.
They were Presbyterians who had been barred from holding office in Ireland (Middlekauff, 1982). Many German Protestants also came to the colonies. Some Dutch, Swedish, and Scottish immigrants came as well. Of course, the largest “immigrant” group consisted of the African slaves, who obviously did not come willingly.
These immigrants helped create enormous population growth in the colonies (Brown, 2000). They also contributed to the growth of the American economy. Although there were many poor people in the colonies, there was likely not as much of a gap between the rich and the poor as there was in England.
Of course, there were many differences among the 13 colonies. The coastal cities seem to have had more social stratification than the backcountry. There were many wealthy plantation owners, but most colonists in the backcountry were middling farmers.
The cities contained many wealthy merchants, as well as large numbers of the urban poor. Slavery existed in all the colonies in the 1760’s, but had become more prevalent in the South by that point. In general, the colonists thought of themselves as Englishmen first, and then as residents of their colony.
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There was little sense of a unified colonial identity. This only started in change during the 1760’s, as the colonists saw the English government imposing indignities on all the colonies.
2. Following the French and Indian War, England faced the task of paying off its large national debt. Fighting a war thousands of miles away in North America was extremely expensive.
Winning the war actually added to England’s costs. England gained the colony of Canada from France after the war, but the loyalty of the largely French-speaking Canadian colonists to England was doubtful. England also felt the need to protect the 13 colonies from Indians in its newly acquired Western territories (and often to protect the Indians from the colonists).
As a result, the British House of Commons decided to maintain a standing army in North America. Englishmen had normally been wary of standing armies, but there was surprisingly little though about how the colonists would react. This may have been the first sign that Parliament regarded the colonists as something less than full Englishmen.
Of course, maintaining a standing army is also expensive. The English government recognized that keeping a standing army in North America would benefit the entire British Empire, and England actually planned to pay most of the costs (Middlekauff, 1982).
Since the troops were supposedly being kept in North America for the colonists’ benefit, though, the ministry believed that the colonists should pay a portion of the costs.
Because of this, the House of Commons imposed taxes on molasses and stamps in the colonies. The taxes on stamps were later repealed, but eventually replaced with new taxes on tea.
The colonists vehemently objected to all the taxes, and claimed that Parliament had no right to impose taxes on the colonies since the colonists were not represented in the House of Commons.
The colonists admitted that England had the right to receive tax revenue from the colonies, but they claimed that the taxes needed to be imposed by the colonial legislatures themselves.
At the time in England, the prevailing idea was that taxes were a “gift” from the people to the King. Since they were a “gift,” they could only be imposed by the people themselves in the House of Commons (Middlekauff, 1982).
The British economic problems could only have been avoided with a less bellicose foreign policy. At the time, the British and the French were battling to gain as many colonies as possible. Besides the prestige involved, both countries believed that trade with colonies would make their countries more prosperous.
Even if this was true, fighting wars to gain new colonies was expensive enough to cancel out any economic gains. Imposing taxes to pay for the costs only angered the colonists, which required more troops in the colonies to keep the peace.
The political fallout in the 13 colonies was largely the result of the arrogant attitude of British officials. They looked at the colonists as wayward children rather than as fellow Englishmen.
When the colonists objected to the Stamp Act, the British government refused to even listen to the colonists’ arguments about representation. By the 1770’s, King George III believed that England always had to maintain at least one tax on the colonists simply to “keep up the right” (Middlekauff, 1982).
The taxes only angered the colonists, and many colonists decided to no longer purchase British goods. Forgetting about the taxes and simply continuing an active trade with the colonies would probably have generated more revenue for England.
The government was more flexible with its new Canadian colony, likely because it did not take Canada’s loyalty for granted. The British respected the language and Catholic faith of French-Canadians.
3. The colonists reacted furiously to British taxes in the 1760’s and 1770’s. When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, several colonial legislatures passed resolutions claiming that the House of Commons had no right to impose taxes on the colonies. Riots broke out in the colonies over the taxes, and the homes of several British officials were burned down.
The colonial reaction only stiffened Parliament’s resolve. Supporters of the taxes claimed that the colonists were “virtually” represented in Parliament. The Stamp Act was eventually repealed, but only on the grounds that the tax was inexpedient.
At the same time, a Declaratory Act was passed stating that Parliament had the right to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever (Middlekauff, 1982). The Townshend Acts were passed later to impose new taxes and punish the colonists for their defiance.
The Townshend Acts imposed taxes on tea, and used the revenue to pay the salaries of colonial officials to assert control over them. The Acts also suspended the New York colonial legislature until it agreed to quarter British troops.
Colonial resistance only increased in response to the Townshend Acts. Many colonists started boycotting British goods. More riots broke out in Boston, and British troops were eventually sent in to occupy the city and enforce the Townshend Acts.
Continued unrest eventually resulted in the Boston Massacre in 1770 (Brown, 2000). Most of the Townshend Acts were eventually repealed, but the tax on tea remained so Parliament could “keep up the right” to tax the colonies.
This tax was the motivation for the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Parliament reacted to the Boston Tea Party by closing Boston’s port and bringing the government of Massachusetts under British control with the Coercive Acts.
By this point, the political break between Great Britain and the 13 colonies was nearly complete. The colonists called for the First Continental Congress in 1774 in response to the Coercive Acts. At the Congress, colonial representatives agreed to boycott British goods and to support Massachusetts in case of British attack.
The battles at Lexington and Concord the following year completed the break, and marked the start of the Revolutionary War.
The main grievance of the colonists – taxation without representation – was legitimate. The fact that the colonists made this argument shows that they initially considered themselves to be Englishmen, with all the rights of Englishmen.
The British reaction to the protests demonstrates that they looked at the colonists as children in need of punishment rather than as fellow Englishmen. Even after repealing some of the taxes, the British imposed new taxes simply to assert their authority over the colonists.
The Townshend Acts were one of the main turning points in the crisis. The Stamp Act had already been repealed, and the controversy in the colonies was dying down. The Townshend Acts reignited the debate. Beyond the tea tax, the suspension of the New York colonial legislature showed that England had little respect for the colonists’ political rights.
Of course, it is impossible to defend all the actions of the colonists. In retrospect, rioting, burning down houses, and tarring and feathering British officials cannot be condoned.
However, most of the violence only happened after the British government completely dismissed colonial protests over the taxes. The occupation of Boston by British troops only served to further provoke the colonists, and set the stage for the American Revolution.
4. The main argument in the Declaration of Independence was that Great Britain had denied the colonists their natural rights. It argued that Britain and the colonies had a fundamental understanding defining their relationship, and that Britain had violated that understanding (Middlekauff, 1982).
Not only had Parliament imposed taxes on the colonies without their consent, but it had also disbanded colonial legislative bodies and brought colonial officials under its control. The Declaration of Independence stressed these repeated injuries, and argued that these acts had broken the political chains between Great Britain and the colonies.
The Declaration of Independence also emphasized the colonists’ repeated attempts to seek the peaceful redress of their protests. Delegates at the Second Continental Congress knew that declaring independence was a controversial step. Right up to July 1776, many supporters of the colonial cause were uneasy about taking this final step.
The Declaration of Independence lists these petitions for redress, and discusses how they were brutally rejected by King George III and his ministers. Instead of listening to the colonists’ views, the King had sent troops – including foreign Hessians – to North America to crush the colonists.
As a result of these repeated injuries, Great Britain had violated the unwritten contract between the mother country and the colonies. Therefore, the Declaration of Independence argued that the colonists were justified in taking the extraordinary step of renouncing allegiance to the British crown.
Of course, the most well-known phrase in the Declaration of Independence is the assertion that “all men are created equal.” Even at the time, many Britons mocked the idea of slaveholding colonists claiming that all men were created equal. Today, the hypocrisy of the statement is obvious.
In the colonists’ defense, many of them were also uncomfortable with the contradiction. In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson unconvincingly attempted to blame King George III for the expansion of the slave trade to North America (Middlekauff, 1982).
The Second Continental Congress though it best to avoid the subject altogether, and deleted the references to the slave trade. This acceptance of slavery is the most obvious way that the United States failed to live up to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence.
However, it should be noted that the United States in 1776 did live up to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence in many ways. The colonists were fighting for the right of people to be governed by their own chosen representatives.
Great Britain viewed the colonists as subordinate to the mother country, and claimed that it had the right to bind the colonies in all cases. Also, while there were obviously great disparities in wealth in the colonies, the United States had no formal aristocracy. In these ways, the United States already lived up to the ideal of all men being created equal.
The Declaration of Independence was obviously a revolutionary document, but in some ways it was merely a re-assertion of rights already existing in the English constitution. The right to choose one’s own representatives was a uniquely English right.
The idea that taxes were the “free gift” of the people to the King was also an English concept. The colonists thought that Great Britain had grown corrupt and decadent and had forgotten these ideas. In the colonists’ view, declaring independence from Great Britain was the only way they could maintain these English principles.
5. American troops fought the Revolutionary War in an untraditional manner. Traditional European military ideas called for large armies to meet one other in battle head-on. However, General Washington knew that the Americans were severely outnumbered and lacking in military expertise.
Fighting the Revolutionary War in a traditional manner would have been disastrous. Meeting the British army in massive battles would have resulted in the destruction of the American army.
As a result, Washington fought what he called a “war of posts” (Middlekauff, 1982). This strategy called for a defensive approach. The Americans sought to hold on to territory that they already held. Early in the war, though, the Americans made little effort to recapture territory that they had lost (such as New York).
Instead of battling to retake New York City, Washington concentrated on withdrawing his troops successfully so that they could live to fight another day. This was for several reasons. Washington obviously realized that the raw, untrained American troops could not defeat the British army alone.
However, he believed time was on his side. More time would allow him to train his troops. He also knew that the British were operating on the Americans’ territory. To win the war, Great Britain had to crush the rebellion and destroy the American armies. On the other hand, the Americans merely had to stay alive to continue the war.
While the American troops used a largely defensive strategy, Washington was perfectly willing to take the offensive when his troops had the advantage of surprise. At the Battle of Trenton, American troops crossed the Delaware River and caught Hessian troops by surprise.
This victory inspired the Americans when it appeared that the war might be lost. Washington also sought to react quickly to British campaigns. At Saratoga, the British campaign failed, and the Americans captured British General John Burgoyne.
The Battle of Saratoga was a key turning point in the Revolutionary War, since it persuaded France to enter the war on the side of the Americans. It is possible that America would not have won the war without French support. At the very least, the war would have dragged on for many more years.
Obtaining the support of France was part of American strategy, though. This was one reason for Washington’s defensive posture early in the war. The Americans realized that Britain and France were ancient enemies, and that France was eager to avenge its defeat in the Seven Years War.
At the same time, the French did not want to support a hopeless rebellion. Washington realized that France would be more likely to enter the conflict as the war dragged on, so he sought to avoid early crushing defeats.
He also knew that if France entered the war, the British would be likely to focus less on America and more on French colonial possessions, such as the French West Indies.
Once France entered the war on the side of the Americans, the two sides were relatively equal in strength. At this point, the Americans adopted a more aggressive military strategy. By 1781, the Americans (along with French troops) were able to march to Yorktown and confront British troops head-on.
The Battle of Yorktown clinched America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. In the final analysis, though, American success was based more on Washington’s strategic adaptability than on any particular battle. Washington avoided overconfidence early in the war when things looked bleak, and became more aggressive once the odds were on his side.
Brown, R. (2000). Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Middlekauff, R. (1982). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.