American Revolution (World History Notes)
This article deals with ‘American Revolution (World History Notes)’ . This is part of our series on ‘World History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.
Timeline of Colonialism in America
Part 1: Discovery of America
|1492||Ferdinand (King of Spain) sponsored Christopher Columbus to find the new land. Columbus sailed across the Atlantic to search quicker route to Asia but hit the Caribbean Island thinking he had discovered India. But he was on the other side of the world|
|1496||Amerigo Vespucci, also sponsored by Spain, reached America. He understood that he had reached a new continent (and not India). America was named after him.|
Part 2: Setting the Colonies
But the credit for discovering the Economic Potential of the land goes to English Adventurers – Walter Raleigh & Francis Drake. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, they reported on the economic potentialities of the region.
|1607||Jamestown, in Virginia, was established as the first permanent English settlement|
|1608||French settlers established Quebec, the first permanent French settlement in North America.|
|1624||The Dutch set up a colony on the mouth of the Hudson River and named it New Amsterdam. Later, the English renamed it New York.|
|1630||The Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by Puritans, led by John Winthrop, who sought religious freedom.|
|1634||The Maryland Colony was founded as a proprietary colony by Cecil Calvert as a haven for English Catholics.|
|1636||Rhode Island Colony was established by Roger Williams, who advocated for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.|
|1682||Pennsylvania Colony was founded by William Penn as a haven for Quakers and a place of religious tolerance.|
|1682||French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, claims the Mississippi River and surrounding areas for France, leading to the establishment of Louisiana.|
|1733||Georgia Colony was established as a buffer colony between Spanish Florida and the British colonies. It was also intended as a refuge for debtors.|
Why were people eager to move to new lands?
Many people were eager to go to this new world
Escape Poverty and Unemployment
- The Enclosure System in England evicted many farmers from their lands, and this surplus rural population wanted new homes and lands.
- Population Growth: The population in Europe was rapidly increasing during the 17th and 18th centuries, leading to overcrowding and limited resources. The colonies provided an outlet for the surplus population.
Political Turmoil in Britain and Mainland Europe
- To get rid of the wars of genocide going on constantly in Europe.
- Poors were sold to the wealthy and governing class to be used as slaves in wars. People thought it was better to migrate to American Colonies to avoid such a grievous fate.
- Political Turmoil in Britain: During the reign of Charles I, the supporters of the Stuart Dynasty met a defeat in the Civil War and emigrated to America.
- At the same time autocratic rule of German rulers impelled the German people to settle in the Colonies.
To get Religious Freedom
- People thought in American colonies, they could worship their God freely and get redemption from European religious and communal persecution.
- Puritans (English Protestants) were politically, religiously and economically persecuted in England. They left in the hope that they would experience liberation if they moved to the new world.
Adventure and Exploration
- Some individuals were motivated by a sense of adventure and the desire to explore new frontiers. These included explorers and traders.
- Many people who lacked the financial means to fund their journey to the colonies entered indentured servitude. They agreed to work for a fixed period (usually four to seven years) in exchange for passage to the colonies. After fulfilling their terms, they would gain their freedom and, in some cases, land or resources.
Initially, people from Britain established 13 colonies in North America – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Virginia etc. Many companies were set up, which took people from England to America. E.g., the Virginia Company targeted Virginia, the Massachusetts Bay Company targeted Massachusetts etc.
Geographically, American Colonies can be divided into two regions, i.e. North and South.
|North Colonies||– Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey & Maryland |
– Highly developed industries, mainly producing wine and sugar, were present here.
|South Colonies||– North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia |
– The warm climate was conducive to producing food grains, sugarcane, tobacco and cotton here.
– The slaves brought from Africa worked in the farmlands, which mainly grew cotton, wheat and tobacco.
The British colonies in the Americas were governed by British-appointed representatives known as Governors, who acted on behalf of the British monarch. These Governors presided over an assembly that functioned in a manner similar to a Parliament. But voting rights to elect members if the assembly were predominantly restricted to men who owned land and paid taxes.
Relationship with Natives
In the beginning, the colonizers established a friendly connection with the original inhabitants of America, who were known as American Indians or Native Americans or Red Indians. Unfortunately, as time passed, these indigenous people were either forcibly removed from their lands or subjected to violence resulting in their elimination.
When America was discovered, approximately 10 million indigenous people lived in the United States. However, by 1900, that number had drastically declined to less than 300,000. The Europeans employed various tactics, including wars and the spread of diseases, to exterminate the native population.
Towards the Revolution
It could never be expected that American Colonies would live forever under the subjugation of England. But around 1776, certain events took place, culminating in a revolution. It was a revolt against the social & political system of that time which had lost its significance in America.
Reasons 1: Colonial Governance
Britain considered the American colonies as part of its country and governed these lands for their benefit, neglecting the colonies’ interests. Colonists, on the other hand, were not prepared to see the colonies exploited only for profit. They wanted equality and autonomous rule for themselves.
These laws included various Navigation Acts of 1651,1660 & 1663. These ensured that
- Trade could be carried only by British ships.
- Before entering the American colonies, most European goods were required to go through Britain.
- Certain goods like tobacco & rice were declared enumerated goods that could be shipped only to Britain.
- Britain paid the colonists less than the world market prices for goods on the enumerated list, which Britain re-exported to Europe.
Some businesses, like Hancock, Wharton etc., started to contest the mercantilist policies of Britain.
Reason: No affection for England in Colonies
- A lot of people in colonies settled when they were persecuted on religious grounds. Various groups, such as the Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, and others, sought refuge in the American colonies to escape religious conflicts and persecution in Europe. The desire for religious freedom and the ability to practice their faith without interference played a crucial role in attracting these religious minorities to the colonies.
- Criminals were deported to colonies: These individuals were often sent to the colonies as a form of punishment or to alleviate overcrowding in European prisons.
- A large number of people who settled there were not from Britain: While the British played a prominent role in establishing and governing the colonies, people from various European countries, such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, and others, also migrated to the colonies in search of economic opportunities, religious freedom, and a fresh start.
- Colonists were brimming with the spirit of equality, whereas class differences prevailed in England. The abundance of land and resources and the absence of an entrenched aristocracy allowed colonists to establish themselves without the same limitations imposed by class distinctions.
Reason: 7 Years War (1756-63)
The North America was inhabited by
- Native or American Indians: They inhabited various regions across the continent, including the area west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Native Americans found themselves caught between the competing interests of European powers, particularly the British and the French. The French were not as eager to settle in Native American territories and had a more cooperative relationship with the indigenous populations.
- European Settlers who came from various European countries and established colonies along the eastern coast of the continent due to various reasons. They saw the British as potential allies in their own goals of expanding westward. They believed that if the British were successful in securing control over the region beyond the Appalachian Mountains, they could gain access to vast agricultural lands suitable for settlement. Therefore, the European settlers tended to support the British during the Seven Years’ War, hoping for British victories that would facilitate their westward expansion.
However, after the Seven Years’ War concluded in 1763, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, which announced that Britishers would not expand beyond the Appalachian mountains. Although the whole of North America was now under Britain, they created an ‘Indian Reserve’ in the area west of the Appalachian mountains where no European settler would be allowed. They did that to buy peace with Native Indians. The European settlers resented the Proclamation of 1763 as it stopped them from settling westward.
- European Settlers didn’t extend sufficient help to the British army during the war and carried on trade with France. The colonies siphoned out immense benefits during the war. But at the end of the war, they were deprived of the benefits.
- England occupied Canada in the north, and now they were relieved of French danger.
- Colonies realized their strength & learnt how to wage war.
Reason: Taxes on Colonies
Lord Greenville observed in 1763 that a good deal of money was drained to America, but very little taxes were being recovered. After the 7 Years War, the British tried to pass on the burden of defence of America to the colonists as the burden of taxes in Britain was considered relatively high. The policy consisted following.
- Navigation laws should be implemented sternly & smuggling should be prevented.
- The Sugar Act of 1764 banned the import of molasses for Rum Industry from overseas countries except for England and imposed high custom duty. The New England colony had been importing molasses from the French and Dutch West Indies for more than a century without paying import duties.
- Stamp Act of 1765: The Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a fresh tax on stamps, requiring settlers to affix them to all legal documents. However, the settlers strongly objected to this requirement, refusing to purchase the stamps and successfully pressuring the colonial government to revoke the act.
- Currency Act: The act banned the prevalent paper currency of American Colonies. Only English currency was to be used for business transactions.
- Townshend Acts of 1767: Despite the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, the following year saw the enactment of a new law that introduced taxes on a range of imported items such as glass, paper, paint, lead, and tea. The acts also authorized the use of writs of assistance, which were general search warrants, allowing British officials to search colonial homes and businesses for smuggled goods without specific cause or evidence.
In 1770, due to mounting pressure and protests, the British government repealed most of the Townshend Acts’ taxes. However, they retained the tax on tea as a symbolic assertion of authority.
It was not merely the burden of these new taxes introduced by Britain which aroused the colonists to revolt but it was also because they came in a period of economic difficulties and depression.
Reason: Economic Problems
The economic causes of the American Revolution weren’t only the burden of taxes. Following the expansion of credit to the American colonies by British merchants from 1745 to 1760, there was a slowdown in business activity during the 1760s due to the depression in Britain. With no credit coming, they started to see other aspects.
- Businessmen of the North were angry with the control over business exercised by England.
- Planters of Southern States were burdened with debts of British moneylenders. They thought that by breaking relations with England, they could escape the payment of debts.
- The middle class desired the establishment of economic, social & political democracy
Reason: Ideas & Principles
- The American Colonists held dear ideas such as economic, social & political democracy in the colonies. On the other hand, England followed mercantilist policies and imposed many restrictions.
- Ruling bodies in colonies were marginal with the status of corporations. These were subordinate to the British Parliament. They couldn’t raise taxes, and when the British Parliament imposed new irrational taxes, people started to raise the slogan “No Taxation without Representation”.
Reason: Development of Intellectual Awareness
- Pennsylvania was foremost in the field of education, where Quakers established educational institutions like University of Pennsylvania (established by Benjamin Franklin) and the Academy and College of Philadelphia.
- Harvard College was established in Cambridge city of Massachusetts
- William and Mary College was established in Virginia.
These educational institutions raised the Intellectual awareness of people.
Benjamin Franklin and the American Philosophical Society
- Benjamin Franklin, a prominent figure in the American colonies, founded the American Philosophical Society in 1743. This intellectual society served as a platform for the exchange of ideas, scientific research, and philosophical discussions.
The Rise of Newspapers
- The emergence of newspapers, such as the Boston News Letter in 1704, marked a significant development in the spread of information and ideas throughout the colonies. By the end of 1765, there were 25 different newspapers in circulation, enabling the dissemination of news, opinions, and political writings.
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”
- Published in January 1776, “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine was a pamphlet that argued for the complete independence of the American colonies from British rule.
According to historian Daniel Boorstin, Two very different societies had formed on two sides of the Atlantic. There is an argument that ‘people ceased to understand each other across the two sides of the Atlantic .’ The sense of openness and opportunity which existed in America was very different from that of England.
Lord North’s Tea Policy
- In 1770, Lord North, the newly appointed Prime Minister of England, eliminated taxes on various products, with the exception of tea. The decision to retain the tax on tea was a deliberate assertion of the British Parliament’s authority to, directly and indirectly tax the colonies.
Boston Massacre, 1770
- The presence of British forces parading on the streets of Boston drew strong criticism from the Americans. In response to this criticism, the British forces became angry and opened fire on the crowd. The incident known as the Boston Massacre revealed the aggressive and authoritarian tendencies of the British government.
Boston Tea Party (1773)
- Following the Boston Massacre, a group of approximately 100 protestors disguised as Native Americans boarded three tea-laden ships in Boston harbour and dumped 342 crates of tea into the sea. This significant event became known as the Boston Tea Party. In response to this, the British Parliament responded with harsh measures. General Gage was appointed as the Governor of Massachusetts, and British troops were dispatched to assert control over the colony.
Events of the War of Independence
Suppressing Laws of Lord North or Intolerable Acts (1774)
The Boston Tea Party presented a challenge to the authority of the British Parliament. King George III and Lord North perceived this event as a direct challenge and responded by implementing five strict measures in an attempt to assert control.
- Firstly, the port of Boston was placed under an embargo until the damages caused by the Boston Tea Party were paid, which resulted in severe economic hardship for the city of Boston.
- Secondly, the appointment of Massachusetts advisors, previously elected by the colonists, was now done by the British Emperor, stripping the colonists of their influence in the selection process.
- Thirdly, murder cases in the American colonies were transferred from American courts to courts in England, undermining the autonomy of the colonial legal system.
- Fourthly, British forces were deployed in Massachusetts.
- Lastly, the British government awarded the territory between the Ohio & Mississippi rivers to Quebec, which angered the colonial governments of Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. This unilateral assignment of land to Quebec contradicted the terms of their royal charters, leading to additional discontent among the colonial governments.
These measures were widely condemned in America as they were seen as infringements on colonial rights, autonomy, and self-governance.
1st Intercontinental Conference of Congress or Philadelphia , 1774
- Colonialists denounced the newly enacted repressive laws. Virginia and other colonies joined in this condemnation. The citizens of Virginia proposed a gathering of representatives from all colonies in Philadelphia, leading to the first Intercontinental Conference of Congress in September 1774. Representatives from all colonies, except Georgia attended the conference.
- The primary objective of the conference was not to demand complete independence but rather to seek autonomy in internal affairs. However, as a measure of leverage, the decision to boycott British goods was also communicated. The colonies aimed to assert their rights and assert their ability to govern themselves in matters that did not involve direct interference from Britain.
- The war between the government and the public had started even before another conference of Congress could be convened. Gaize (British Governor General) learnt that at Concord (a village 18 km from Boston), rebels were collecting arms, and he sent troops to seize the weapons.
- On April 19, 1775, the British troops marched towards Concord. However, the colonial militias, consisting of thousands of volunteers, were already prepared to defend their rights and resist British authority. The clash between the British troops and the colonial militias occurred in the towns of Lexington and Concord. The British soldiers faced significant resistance and suffered losses.
- These battles marked a significant turning point, as they demonstrated that armed resistance against British forces was not only possible but also carried the potential for success.
2nd Intercontinental Conference of Congress or Philadelphia Congress, 1775
- Another intercontinental conference was convened in Philadelphia in May 1775, following the outbreak of hostilities between British forces and colonial militias in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. This intercontinental conference brought together representatives from the thirteen colonies to address the growing tensions with Britain and to discuss further courses of action.
- John Hancock – a rich businessman, presided over the conference meetings. Great leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were also there. George Washington was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of America. Washington was a respected military leader from Virginia and had gained recognition for his role in the 7 Years’ War.
- On July 4th, 1776, the 2nd Continental Congress took a monumental step by adopting the Declaration of Independence. Drafted primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration declared the thirteen colonies as independent states, no longer subject to British rule.
Battle of Saratoga, 1777
William Howe (British General ) achieved success in 1776 at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and Philadelphia fell. But in 1777, British General Burgoyan at Saratoga was defeated by Washington, and this defeat encouraged some of the European powers like France, Holland and Spain to launch a war against Britain. In Feb 1778, Compromise was reached between the colonies and France.
- Nobody would settle a peace pact individually with England.
- War would continue until American colonies achieved complete freedom.
Battle of Yorktown, 1781
- The participation of France and Spain with their marine force proved to be a turning point in the war. American and French armies became so superior that British Commander in Chief Lord Cornwallis surrendered on 19 Oct 1781 in Yorktown
Paris Pact of 1783
But France and Spain continued their war against England. At last War of American Independence ended in 1783 with Paris Pact.
- England recognised the Independence of American Colonies.
- France obtained Saint Louisia & Tobago in West Indies and Senegal & Gouri in Africa.
- Spain got Florida & Isle of Minorica in the Mediterranean Sea.
- The boundary of America was demarcated along the Ohio River.
Causes of Failure of English Forces
The defeat of England was surprising because England was thought to be invincible after the 7 Years’ War; England had a vast Empire to keep its war machinery running; a large army, and well experienced Generals. On the contrary, George Washington had a small force and had never managed more than 4000 soldiers, and faced a shortage of food, weapons and cannons.
- Planners of British war policy underestimated the strength of America & were overconfident in their power. Along with this, certain Whig leaders like Pitt, Burke and Charles Fox had sympathy with Americans. Many soldiers of the British army didn’t fight with a dashing spirit.
- England was 3000 km away from America and found it hard to send provisions to the army in time.
- Theatres of war were scattered over an area of 1000 km. Colonists were well acquainted with the geographical situation of the land.
- George Washington’s competent & efficient leadership: People loved him because of his patriotism. He commanded his army with strict discipline but earned the complete loyalty of his companions by dealing with them with love. His leadership kindled deep faith in the minds of colonists. On the other hand, nothing could be expected of the army of European mercenaries fighting against them.
- The open participation of France, Spain and Holland tilted the balance in favour of the colonies.
- British forces lacked the skill to deal with guerrilla warfare, and the American war was fought on this strategy.
Was it Freedom Struggle or Revolution ?
It was an radical idea because
- Undoubtedly, laws passed by British Parliament during 1760 aggravated public discontent. Similarly, the economic issues agitated the people. The colonies felt irritated that the English had the monopoly of marketing the crops of tobacco & tea as well as imposing taxes. But the economic burden alone wasn’t the last straw on the camel’s back. The incidence of taxes was normal & didn’t adversely affect the economy of colonies, but Americans were against the principle that was at the back of taxation & is reflected in the slogan ‘No Taxation without Representation’. The chief issue was the principle of taxation & the political ideology of Thomas Jefferson & John Adams which insisted that the supreme sovereignty should vest in independent American Legislative Assemblies and not in the British Parliament.
- The US declared itself to be a republic and became the first country in the world without a monarchy.
- It introduced the idea of equality before the law (‘All men are created equal’). It was a radical idea that nobility and clergy would not enjoy any special benefits.
- The idea of Fundamental Rights was there in the Declaration of Independence. Later in 1791, the Bill of Rights was passed. It has radical ideas like ‘no deprivation of the right to property without due process of law’ etc.
- The USA became the first country in the world to implement the ideas given by the Enlightenment thinkers.
- It inspired the French Revolution.
- After the Revolution, the patriarchal control of men over their wives declined, the latter gaining the right to hold property separately, make contracts, and do business without their husbands. All the states except South Carolina introduced liberal laws on divorce. The American Revolution ended feudal forms of land tenure and supported a more enlightened attitude towards the family.
- The American Revolution was partly a reaction against the manipulation of offices and patronage by the Crown. Local officials like sheriffs, judges, militia offices and justices of the peace were dependent on royal favour in all the royal colonies except Virginia, more so than similar functionaries in Britain. The exit of several leading members of the old colonial society no doubt created space for what Jefferson called “the aristocracy of virtue and talent”.
But there were some issues as well.
- According to Franklin Jameson, American Revolution was ‘Of the Bourgeois, By the Bourgeois, For the Bourgeois’. It was basically a Bourgeois revolution, and common people had no place in it. Indeed, the nature of the Revolution wasn’t popular, and all sections didn’t join the Revolution on their own. The revolutionary army was led by gentlemen Farmer like George Washington. Common people were recruited as they were hired labour.
- Men and women were not considered equal. The Declaration of American Independence announced that ‘all MEN are created equal.’ Women didn’t get the right to vote until the 1920s.
- No propertied class didn’t get the right to vote until 1856.
- Blacks and Native Americans didn’t get citizenship. Moreover, slavery continued in the USA even after American Revolution.
- Expansion beyond the Appalachian mountains happened, and Indians lost their land. They were butchered in the process.
On the basis of the above analysis, we may agree with historians who say that the War of Independence was not only a struggle for Independence but a social change struggle against the special rights of traditional aristocracy in colonies.