Study Guide

The American Revolution

The American Revolution Introduction

In retrospect, we tend to view the history of colonial America as nothing more than a prologue to the Revolution, and to assume that colonial Americans were, in some way, destined to seek independence from Britain.

Maybe it's because we can't possibly conceive of having to eat black pudding three times a week.

But colonists didn't initially think of themselves as waging a war for independence. Instead, they believed they were defending their rights as Englishmen to resist misguided and corrupt government officials and representatives and to drink cheap tea. 

That last one is a debated right but one that Shmoop 1000% supports. 

To crush the puny but egotistical cash cow colonists, the British asserted their authority. To counter these assertions, the colonists redoubled their activism, the Brits countered the Americans, and the Americans countered the Brits, until the whole thing became a giant passive-aggressive mess. 

Let's back it up. The British had raised taxes all over the place in order to pay down their war debt, and they also put limits on where and when the colonies could expand westward, despite the fact that they had just fought a war over westward expansion. The colonists expressed their opposition to these rules by rioting, burning effigies of English officials (they hadn't yet realized that hitting piñata versions of officials was much more fun and delicious), organizing vigilante associations, and boycotting imported goods. You know, the ones where the Brits made 500% profit.

The colonists' faith in King George III was dashed when he rejected their appeals and condemned their protests as an unlawful rebellion. Of course, it might have been a bit ambitious of them to hope that he would accept their protests as a "lawful rebellion."

But hey, a nation can dream, right?

Once the monarchy was permanently removed from their Christmas card list, the American Patriots went full-blown freedom fighter and set forth not only to win independence but also to build a new kind of society.

The Americans were practically insane: they were trying to unseat an aristocracy and defeat the world's most powerful navy and a great army, all while establishing a new republican government without falling prey to the forces of chaos, despotism, and the Kraken.

What is The American Revolution About and Why Should I Care?

If you don't already recognize the importance of the American Revolution, chances are you won't be able to understand or appreciate most of what follows in American history. This is the beginning of it all, the creation of the United States of America as a—well, superficially—unified and independent country. 

The story of the Revolution lies at the heart of what makes our country unique in the history of nations. The revolutionary principles that led to the nation's founding continue to influence American society, as we still turn to the founding generation seeking guidance, inspiration, or even just a useful quotation to support one contemporary political claim or another.

Whenever critics of current American policies argue that we're forsaking our historic role as a nation dedicated to freedom and equality, they're invoking the principles of the American Revolution. Hey, at least as they understand them. 

Similarly, proponents of current government policy often refer to the American Revolution and the principles of the founders to support their tactics. And when critics of patriotic sentimentalism seek to debunk the assumptions or myths of the past, they'll often point to the paradox of slavery and freedom that underlay the Revolutionary period.

For our younger readers, guess what? Many young Americans were your age when they signed up with the Continental Army and Navy, even if it was just to work as deck hands or play the drums or the fife for eight bucks a month. 

Enslaved children ran away with their mothers and fathers to gain their own freedom throughout the war, especially when the conflict distracted their owners. Some of these Black boys and girls actually fought or provided forms of critical support, like helping the cooks, looking for firewood, and doing other day labor. This could've been on both the British and American sides. 

Young stable boys in Boston were some of the first to run across town and warn Paul Revere when they overheard British officials whispering about their impending march on Lexington in April 1775. Teenage girls carried out the dangerous job of relaying the Patriots' messages to one another. Other young women carded, spun, and wove clothing, stockings, and other important items to help maintain the colonial boycott on British goods and keep their brothers, boyfriends, and fathers protected on the battlefield and warm amidst the harsh cold of the winter army camps.

And for all our readers, young and old: Did you ever wonder whether American society and government might have turned out completely different from what we got? If you haven't, you should.

For colonists from a wide variety of classes, regions, and backgrounds all envisioned independence differently. For nearly half a million enslaved Americans in the 1760s, the Revolution offered a priceless chance for freedom, whether by escaping to fight behind British lines or by rebelling, or by petitioning legislatures for emancipation, or by gaining freedom by fighting with the Americans.

For some American white women, the Revolution offered a chance to eke out more liberties than they had possessed under the rule of English common law. For the masses of poor and middling yeoman farmers, artisans, mechanics, and merchants throughout the 13 colonies, the creation of an unprecedented republican government from scratch offered not only freedom of trade with all the countries in the world, but the chance to participate in a more egalitarian society than had ever existed before. 

Although the hopes and expectations of many of these groups were ultimately disappointed, the Revolution did establish a set of principles that could be invoked later to make moral claims for a more just society.

The American Revolution Resources

Books

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride (1995)
An extremely readable, entertaining account of the war's beginning.

Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999)
A highly acclaimed work of history that studies a specific part of the world (Virginia) during the Revolution but offers some very intriguing re-interpretations of how seemingly powerless groups like poor white farmers, slaves, and Native Americans all had pivotal influence on the gentry's decision to lead the charge for independence.

Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1997)
An examination of the Revolution through women's perspectives as Kerber thoroughly researched them in diaries, letters, and legal records.

David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Another Pulitzer Prize winner, and a very accessible and engaging account of the pivotal year of independence, from multiple perspectives.

Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (2007)
A fantastic narrative history of the conflict from a preeminent historian.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991)
A Pulitzer-Prize winning book from one of the Revolution's biggest fans. Wood argues that America's was indeed a radical Revolution, within its context. The book seeks to couch the events of the 1760s and '70s (and thereafter) in a much broader political, social, and cultural context so that you can understand what the Western world was like before, during, and after the American war for independence.

Music

Various Artists, Music of the American Revolution: The Sounds of Ancient Fifes and Drums (2003)
You never knew you'd be so captivated by the sweet whistling fife coupled with the deliberate rumble of marching percussion. This collection of Revolutionary era classics include "Yankee Doodle," "The World Turned Upside Down," "Janizary's March," "First of September," and dozens of other marches heard on the battlefields of the past as well as in parades and concerts of the present.

Hesperus, Early American Roots (1997)
A fantastic offering from the Hesperus Early Music Ensemble, this disc includes 22 performances based on 18th-century ballads, hymns, and cotillion tunes. See if you can pick out the unique sounds of baroque violins, recorders, violas da gamba, and other period instruments.

Various Artists, Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty (1996)
No taxation without representation! This selection of popular music from the years leading up to the Revolutionary War reflects the spirit of protest and resistance that filled the streets, homes, taverns, and churches.

Barry Phillips, The World Turned Upside Down (1992)
Barry Phillips' collection of popular music from the Revolutionary era includes quaint folk songs, lively dance tunes, and other elegant compositions played in homes, taverns, and even on the war front.

Images

An Iconic, If Erroneous, Painting
George Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze.

Give Me Liberty, Or...
Patrick Henry in the House of Burgesses. Engraving from painting by PH. Rothermel.

Inventing the Boston Massacre
Paul Revere's effective propaganda; his 1770 engraving entitled "The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on Mar. 5, 1770."

Tea, Anyone?
The destruction of tea at Boston Harbor. Lithograph by Sarony and Major, 1846.

Movies & TV

John Adams (2008)
HBO has produced a vivid dramatization of life and events leading up to, during, and following the American Revolution. Based on historian David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Adams, the series of seven episodes is extremely valuable as a means of imagining what daily experiences were like for men, women, and children during the colonial era, and for understanding the motives of the colonists.

The Crossing (2000)
Actor Jeff Daniels stars as General George Washington in this made-for-TV dramatization of the Continental Army's perilous journey across the Delaware River and its daring attack on the town of Trenton.

The Patriot (2000)
Mel Gibson stars in this Hollywood blockbuster film about a French and Indian War hero who, in hoping to avenge his son's death, joins the war for American independence.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Set in the early years of the new republic, this is the ghoulish tale of young Ichabod Crane, a man sent to investigate the decapitations of three victims in the town of Sleepy Hollow. The headless horseman responsible for the murders, Crane discovers, may be intimately connected to the recent Revolutionary War.

April Morning (1988)
What or who provided the fire that lit the fuse of revolution? Director Delbert Mann's Emmy-nominated film provides one theory for the events leading up to that "April Morning" in 1775 when the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired.

Revolution (1985)
In an unlikely casting, actor Al Pacino (a.k.a Tony Montana, a.k.a. Scarface) plays Tom Dobb, a colonial fur trapper who joins the Continental Army in search of his son. Hugh Hudson's film is a pertinent tale of the chaos of war and the toll it can take on a family.

Websites

First-Hand Perspectives
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School contains several primary-source documents from both the colonists and Parliament during the revolutionary era.

Visualizing Independence
The audiovisual holdings on the American Revolution in the National Archives provide a diverse array of images, from contemporary engravings, paintings, and later images that show how the Revolution was mythologized in American memory.

Fighting for Independence
The U.S. Army website includes an online history detailing the military component of the American Revolution.

The Struggle for Liberty
PBS has produced a companion website to its Liberty! series on the American Revolution.

Historical Documents

Yale Avalon Project's Revolution Era Documents
We already mentioned this one, but it bears repeating. Yale Law School has compiled several primary-source documents from both the colonists and Parliament during the revolutionary era, and put them all on this page for your convenient perusal.

An Initial Attempt at Unity
The Albany Plan of Union (unsuccessful), developed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hutchinson in 1754.

"Poor Richard" Tells His Story
You can read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography online.

The Stamp Act
We've got an entire learning guide devoted to the much-hated Stamp Act of 1765.

Colonial Government
The Continental Congress statement of October 20th, 1774, declaring "the Association" of colonies who would boycott British goods.

A Last Resort
The Continental Congress, Petition to the King, July 8th, 1775, known as the Olive Branch Petition.

The Declaration of Independence
Enough is enough for the colonists. So, they—well Thomas Jefferson—whips up a very detailed document explaining why they need independence. We have an entire learning guide on this one.

The Art of Independence
An essay on the "Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence."

America Triumphant
The Articles of Capitulation under which British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to the allied American and French forces.

Treaty of Paris
Check out our entire learning guide for this treaty, which made the U.S. of A. official.