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The American Revolution Terms

Daughters Of Liberty

The women who wove "homespun" clothing for themselves and their families during the colonial boycotts of British goods in 1765 and thereafter.

Foppery, Fopperies, Foppish, Fop

Foppery characterizes the style or behavior of a "fop," a popular eighteenth-century term for a man who is preoccupied with his clothing and his manners. It is a derisive term that connotes stereotypically effeminate behavior.


Before the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was no conception of "classes" (upper class, middle class, and so on) as we now understand them. Instead, people recognized one another's status by their formal title—if they were aristocrats or government officials—or derived some notion of a person's status from his or her occupation. Farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, and tradesmen of the colonial period were known as "middling" people; you might think of this is a sort of precursor to the middle class.187


The monarch is the king or queen, someone who inherited their title through their family. Monarchs can reign over a variety of governments, but in England—a constitutional monarchy—they are subject to the constitution and the sovereignty of Parliament, and have been since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 overthrew the absolutist kings. But there is no single, written constitution in England—it is instead the accumulated rights and protections ensured by centuries of court decisions, statutes, and tradition. This was an important difference between England and the newly independent United States, which sought to address explicitly that gaping hole by enumerating American citizens' rights from the very beginning. Notably, when the colonial leaders declared independence, they enumerated the crimes allegedly committed by King George III, not Parliament. American government was created with that rebellion in mind: hence the American Chief Executive would be elected (though not directly, because of the electoral college). Nor would he or she be treated as a divinely ordained leader.

Parliament, House Of Commons, House Of Lords

The legislative body of the English government. Parliament consists of two houses, the House of Lords (occupied by titled nobility—"Peers"—who are not elected but chosen by the monarch) and the House of Commons (with elected representatives—"MPs," Members of Parliament—from all English districts). During the American Revolution, colonists rallied around the cry of "no taxation without representation," because there were no MPs who directly represented any of the colonies. Instead, according to the English conception, each MP stood for the interests of the British Empire as a whole, and would therefore act in the best interests of all Englishmen—including the colonists. At first Americans fought against Parliamentary taxation measures, but the disagreement reached a crisis when King George, whom most colonists still considered their sovereign, angrily declared that the Americans were in a state of rebellion. Nonetheless, Parliament and its two branches provided important inspirations for the Founding Fathers when they set to work creating a new American government. When Thomas Jefferson presided over the Senate as Vice President, he developed a parliamentary law blueprint for the new government, based on that used in the House of Commons. The House of Representatives has followed about the same guidelines.

Planters, Planter

In the eighteenth century, this term applied to small-scale tobacco growers. Then it was used to refer to anyone (including the elite gentlemen) who grew tobacco. In the mid-nineteenth century, census takers defined planters as the elite—anyone who owned 20 slaves or more. Here we'll avoid the term altogether and refer to the Virginia elite as gentry, gentlemen, or elite landholders. The small farmers are called just that, or smallholders, or "yeomen."

Sons Of Liberty

An organization primarily composed of up-and-coming merchants who united to oppose the Stamp Act of 1765. They organized nightly marches in New York City that were attended by hundreds of people who cried out for "liberty," and they effectively reached out to mobilize the diverse ethnic communities of colonial urban centers and the sailors, laborers, and craftsmen of New York. Prominent leaders of the Sons included Isaac Sears, John Lamb, and Alexander McDougall. The Sons were a driving force behind some of the first colonial boycotts of British goods. Note that there is a bit of confusion here: tenants along the Hudson River (north of New York City) also called themselves the "Sons of Liberty" when they began seizing their own rented land and refusing to pay rent. But the original Sons of Liberty opposed these rebellious tenants, who were soon suppressed by a combination of British troops and colonial militia.

Tarring And Feathering, Tar And Feather, Tarred And Feathered

A practice dating back to the Crusades that began to occur around New England seaports in the 1760s. It was a pretty self-explanatory tactic, often employed by patriots against British loyalists: they covered the person in tar (readily available around shipyards) and feathers (found in any handy pillow). Clearly the result was humiliating for the victim, who probably resembled a bizarre sort of chicken, but it was also incredibly painful. The tar needed to be burning hot to apply it to a victim's skin.

A popular but unofficial punishment, both painful and humiliating, often inflicted by mobs and dating back to the Crusades. Hot tar was readily available in the colonial ports because it was used to seal the hull of ships. These same ports—especially in New England —were centers of colonial commerce, the places most hard-hit by Parliamentary taxation policies, and thus the same places where patriot mobs started angrily protesting British taxation policy in the 1760s and '70s, especially in Boston. The feathers could come from pillows or nearby chickens, which colonists commonly kept for their eggs and meat. Tar was commonly derived from coal and was extremely viscous; today we know that it is also toxic and carcinogenic because of its high benzene content. It also had to be at least 140 degrees in order to melt, so when a person was stripped naked and covered in it, he or she would almost certainly sustain at least first-degree burns, even if the tar cooled quickly. That's not to mention the sort of pain induced by pouring such material on the genitals, as often happened because the victims were usually stripped wholly or partially naked before being coated with tar and then doused with feathers. Low-ranking employees of the Customs Service were some of the most likely targets of this treatment, especially in Massachusetts during the 1760s and '70s. But British troops also tarred and feathered at least one man during the same period. There are no known cases of death by tarring and feathering during this period.

Tory, Tories, Loyalists, Loyalist

The derisive nickname that Patriots gave to the colonists who remained loyal to Britain, otherwise known as Loyalists. They were a minority in the colonies, but a substantial minority, numbering in the tens of thousands.

Whig, Whigs, Patriot, Patriots

The term "Whig" has its own meaning in the history of British politics, but in the colonies during the American Revolution, a Whig was the same thing as a Patriot, or someone who supports American independence.

Yeoman, Yeomen, Yeoman Farmer

Usually used in the term "yeoman farmer," or simply "yeoman," meaning a farmer who cultivates his own land. This term was transported to the North American colonies from England, and derives from the Middle English yoman.

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