Study Guide

The American Revolution Analysis

  • War

    On a Wing and a Prayer

    Despite their vocal and defiant protests against Parliamentary law in the 1760s and '70s, colonists went to war against the mother country very reluctantly in 1775. Historians like David Hackett Fischer have carefully noted the reticence with which most colonists approached the war. In New England, where bloody conflicts with the French and Native Americans had plagued every generation for 140 years, the overwhelming mood on the eve of the first battle with England was somber and fearful.blank">Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben. Cornwallis combined his forces with Arnold's, forming a British army of about 7,200 men. Cornwallis ordered his troops to dig in at Yorktown, a port in Virginia's tobacco country, believing that he was invulnerable to a siege since the British Navy controlled the seas and George Washington's army seemed to be preoccupied with attacking New York.

    But in late September 1781, a French fleet of some 3,000 sailors under Admiral de Grasse sailed up from the West Indies to bolster army forces under the command of Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. The siege that Cornwallis had thought an impossibility was now at hand. 

    Total American and French forces of some 16,000 dwarfed Cornwallis' 7,200-man army. The French and Americans cut off all avenues of British relief for Cornwallis, whose fate became hopeless. Unable to break the siege, Cornwallis sued for peace on October 17th, exactly four years to the day after the American victory at Saratoga.

    Two days later, on October 19th, 1781, Cornwallis formally surrendered to the combined French and American force at Yorktown. British forces marched out with their colors cased (a.k.a. no flags flying), their band playing understandably somber songs and one distinctly apropos English nursery rhyme, "The World Turned Upside Down." 

    The war was over and the Americans had achieved the impossible.

  • Race

    Revolution from Within

    Slaves weren't directly affected by stamp duties or tea taxes, but—in the words of historian Gary Nash—"nonetheless they were politicized by the language and modes of white protest and were quick to seize the opportunities for securing their own freedom that emerged from the disruptions of a society in rebellion."blank">abolitionists (Black and white), who internalized the movements' evangelical messages of equality and love for one's fellow man. Blacks both slave and free were affected by these exciting periods of revivalism, and Protestant sects from the Quakers to the Methodists to the Baptists would forever change Black ideology, organization, and even spirituality. 

    This passionate spiritual life, which was oftentimes the sole source of hope and uplift to Black people in America, also became one of their strongest connections to the new country. Belonging to American sects of Christianity—like the Baptists and by 1796, the African Methodist Episcopals—undergirded many Black peoples' sense of being American.

    Most of the African Americans who remained in the new United States prayed to a Christian God for salvation and for freedom. Thousands of them had served their country in the military. Others took up the principles of the Revolution and petitioned state governments and their fellow citizens to plead the case of their people. 

    And still others acted out the true meaning of freedom and independence by claiming their own liberty and running away from their masters. Though the rest of white America failed to fully support these dreams of freedom and equality, some whites did recognize the mistake of retaining slavery in a newly independent land. 

    And those whites who thought they could do away with both slavery and Black people at once had failed to recognize one of the most salient facts of the revolutionary era: Africans were becoming African-Americans, and they weren't going anywhere.

  • Gender

    Activism and Femininity in Times of War

    When Parliament passed duties on tea, among other items, in the Townshend Act of 1767, female Patriots banded together to support and uphold the colonial boycott. 

    American newspapers praised the ladies who sipped coffee or local herbal teas in place of the British imports. Poetesses sent their verses to the local gazettes in order to express their heartfelt devotion to the cause and their determination not to submit to the fastening of "Chains upon my country."blank">abolition during the late-18th and 19th centuries.

  • Economy

    Prosperity and Protest

    In the century after 1650, the colonies enjoyed extraordinary economic growth. The gross national product (GNP) of British North America multiplied some 25 times between 1650 and 1770, and scholars estimate that American colonists may have enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world by the time of the Revolution. These men certainly risked all for their country, and many made sacrifices or fought bravely in the war, but so did the thousands of nameless Patriots on the front lines of the battlefields.

  • Ideology

    A People Divided

    Though widespread resistance to the Stamp Act galvanized public awareness and sentiment throughout the North American colonies, "America" as we now know it wasn't even a concept in the minds of early-18th-century colonists. 

    The rudimentary communication and transportation systems of the period, combined with North America's vast territory, its diverse regions, labor systems, social hierarchies, and a long history of localized affiliations and histories, made for a dispersed and even disparate population. 

    American identity didn't yet exist. Colonists thought of themselves first as Englishmen abroad, second as Bostonians or New Yorkers or Virginians, and not at all as "Americans."

    Preexisting local feuds often intertwined with broader political issues and prompted different groups to take one side or the other as tensions escalated with the British in the 1760s and '70s. For many people, the Revolution offered an opportunity to settle old scores. 

    Along the Hudson River to the north of New York City, tenants calling themselves the Sons of Liberty—the same name but a different association from the Sons who opposed the Stamp Act—refused in the mid-1760s to pay their rent and claimed their rented lands as their own. Both British and colonial troops soon suppressed their uprising. 

    When the Revolution began, a disproportionate number of the wealthy Hudson Valley landowners—the enemies of the Sons, who had relied upon British protection—fled the colonies as Loyalists. 

    But this was a specific example in a particular region of North America. In other counties, like Westchester, New York, tenants sided with their landlords if they took any side at all. 

    Suddenly, in the American conceptualization, hard work could be seen not merely as the punishment for poverty, but as the vehicle by which one could elevate his social position, or elevate the rank of his children. The prospects of self-rule and social uplift motivated many American farmers and mechanics to mobilize against the British. The colonists had initially reacted against the perceived tyranny of Parliament, but once they embraced the concept of independence, their struggle against oppression also became a fight to establish a new society. 

    They envisioned an independent, democratic government that would provide safeguards against corruption, but they also viewed that government as the instrument through which a more egalitarian system could prevail.

  • Politics

    The French, the Indians, and the Americans

    In 1763, a worldwide imperial conflict called the Seven Years' War ended in resounding victory for the British Empire, which smashed its European rivals to emerge from the conflict as one of the largest and most powerful empires in world history. 

    North America had been just one of many fronts in the global Seven Years' War, which American colonists usually called the French and Indian War, in honor of their enemies in the conflict. In the end, the French and their Native American allies fell to British and colonial forces, leaving England officially in control of the whole part of North America east of the Mississippi River and north of Florida. 

    Of course, the several hundred thousand Native Americans who inhabited the continent wouldn't have seen it that way. But for Englishmen everywhere, the war's end was a time of triumph and liberty. Englishmen enjoyed more rights and freedoms than the subjects of any other world empire at the time. The colonists reveled in the victory they'd helped the mother country to achieve

    Colonists in 1763 would have thought the very idea of independence unthinkable, and probably downright mad.

    • Who could have foreseen that within just two years, angry mobs of Americans would attack the private residences of colonial officials?
    • Or that within five years, colonial leaders would call for a boycott of British goods?
    • Or that within seven years, five colonists would lie dead on Boston Common, shot down by British troops?

    While Britain may have been especially powerful after the French and Indian War, they were also quite broke

    Imperial wars waged on multiple continents over a period of several years were very expensive endeavors. At war's end, the British sought to recoup some of their costs from the Americans, who'd certainly benefited from the protection of British soldiers and the expansion of the realm westward. 

    So, England issued the Proclamation of 1763, prohibiting colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains, in order to avoid potentially costly and protracted frontier wars between settlers and Native Americans. This, of course, angered white settlers who'd already pushed into the backcountry of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as the elite Eastern planters who'd already speculated in the purchase of extensive land claims beyond the Appalachians. 

    American ire only increased when England went on to pass a series of taxes, designed to enlist the colonies in helping to pay off their share of the war costs.

    For 100 years, England had passed laws to regulate colonial trade in the interest of a mercantilist policy designed to ensure that imperial commerce benefited the mother country. These laws supposedly bound American colonists to trade only with English merchants and ship their products only in English vessels, even if the Americans could find better prices through foreign traders. 

    But until 1763, the imperial government in London had allowed those laws to go largely unenforced, and the colonists had since become accustomed to a sense of self-determination during this period of so-called "salutary neglect." 

    In short, the British failed to appreciate just what a century of salutary neglect had done. While lawmakers in London believed they were simply enforcing their old laws and applying new ones for the good of the entire empire—including its American subjects—the colonists interpreted the new Parliamentary acts after 1763 very differently. 

    Colonists felt that these acts were violations of their liberty, unacceptable infringements of their rights as free Englishmen. When British officials tried to take such freedoms away, Americans not only protested, but they began to think and speak of those freedoms as their essential rights.

    The Sugar Act

    British taxes and regulations on colonial commerce weren't entirely unknown before 1763, but most had gone unenforced due to a combination of Britain's salutary neglect and Americans' ingenuity in bribing, smuggling, or otherwise skirting the rules. 

    Therefore, when Parliament passed the Sugar Act, it hardly considered such a tax as new or unorthodox. The Molasses Act of 1733 had sought to regulate the same items. It levied high duties of six pence per gallon on molasses, in an effort to shut down the trade between the French Caribbean (where sugar plantations produced the molasses) and New England (where molasses was a principal ingredient for distilleries manufacturing rum). 

    The 1764 act actually cut those taxes in half, to three pence per gallon. But in contrast to the 1733 act, it also included new safeguards to ensure that it would actually be enforced. 

    For merchants, this effectively meant a change from no tax to a three pence tax. The act also provided for stronger admiralty courts, where merchants accused of smuggling could be tried without a jury. See, colonial juries were notoriously sympathetic to their fellow Americans. 

    The ultimate effect was to create anxiety among colonists whose economic livelihoods were substantially threatened by the new—well, newly enforced—taxes and regulations: these were primarily the inhabitants of port towns along the coast.

    The Stamp Act

    In 1765, Parliament followed up the Sugar Act with the Stamp Act, a direct British tax on a wide variety of printed materials: everything from playing cards to court documents, land deeds, books, newspapers, and even dice. 

    Because each of those documents had to contain the official government stamp, colonists had to pay the tax whenever they wanted to purchase any of the printed items. In one sense, the Stamp Act was merely Parliament's attempt to strengthen and enforce the long-ignored Navigation Acts, which had been passed a century earlier to ensure that valuable American exports—like tobacco—would have to travel through English ports. 

    But in another sense, the Stamp Act marked a departure from all imperial regulations that preceded it, as it was the first time the British sought to gain revenues by taxing colonial commerce directly (an "internal tax") instead of regulating trade (an "external tax"). Some of these revenues were supposed to go toward the cost of stationing British troops in North America, to ensure security and stability.

    So, American colonists responded to the Stamp Act with outrage. 

    They quickly became alarmed at the prospect of a permanent standing army in their midst. Local elites were offended by Parliament's challenge to their own authority. And a large cross-section of Americans who read books or newspapers, played cards or dice, or purchased any of the printed items specified in the Stamp Act, were angered not only by the financial burden incurred but by the principle of the matter: Parliament had directly taxed the colonists without their consent or the consent of their representatives. 

    Colonists thought of themselves as equals in the British Empire, not subordinates, and they couched their protests in language that invoked the rights of all Englishmen. If they allowed this precedent to stand, the reasoning went, then Parliament could forever run roughshod over them and their rights. 

    British officials, on the other hand, thought of the colonists as a population subject to Parliamentary authority, and believed that the London government couldn't capitulate without surrendering that authority.

    Colonial resistance became violent over the summer of 1765, when a shoemaker named Ebenezer Mackintosh led an angry mob on a building owned by Andrew Oliver, a merchant appointed to enforce the Stamp Act who was also a relative of Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson privately opposed the act, but publicly fulfilled his role as a symbol of British authority by helping to disperse the crowd. A few days later, Mackintosh led his fellow Bostonians over to Hutchinson's own house, where they broke down the front door and looted everything in sight, leaving little intact but the bare walls. 

    Hutchinson and his family, who were eating dinner when the mob approached, just barely got away in time. Mackintosh was subsequently arrested, but then released, thanks to the intervention of prominent craftsmen and merchants—a group known as "the Loyal Nine"—who led the Stamp Act opposition, but hadn't anticipated it would escalate so rapidly.

    But not all resistance was violent or threatening. In Virginia, the talented orator Patrick Henry persuaded his colleagues in the House of Burgesses to pass five resolutions that asserted the colonists' rights as Englishmen, including their right to consent to taxation. The more conservative members of the House rescinded the fifth resolve the next day, feeling it went too far by declaring that any entity attempting to assume the power of taxation—other than the General Assembly of Virginia—"has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom." 

    Though most colonists didn't have the time or luxury to read sophisticated Enlightenment treatises on political philosophy or theories on the rights of man, they understood, viscerally, the actions of Parliament—and subsequently of the king—as a threat to their liberty. That was enough. 

    In the century of salutary neglect that led up to the end of the French and Indian War, Americans had developed an understanding of their rights and their place in the British empire, and they weren't willing to submit to a different interpretation of who had the ability to tax them. 

    Through a series of precipitous actions and reactions on both sides of the Atlantic, that initial difference of opinion spiraled into a challenge to monarchical rule itself by 1776. When Parliament offered the colonies a return to the status quo ante bellum on March 16th, 1778—that is, they offered to grant all American demands short of independence—it was too late. 

    By that time, the American Congress, and most of the American people, were dead set on gaining self-determination.

  • Religion

    Religious Freedom: The First Great Awakening

    The First Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept North America in the early and middle years of the 18th century, marked a pivotal moment in the history of the American colonies. 

    In ways that could scarcely be understood at the time, the Great Awakening prepared the British subjects of North America for a radically different ideology and society. Throughout the colonial period, and even in the early years of the independent United States, most colonies or states had established churches—churches legally recognized as the official state church. 

    Different colonies privileged different Christian sects. For example, Congregationalism (the descendent of Puritanism) was the official state church for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. And Anglicanism was the established faith in most colonies, including Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Along with official recognition came special privileges, like financial support from public taxation. 

    Before the Great Awakening, colonial Americans harbored no expectation that there should be any separation between church and state.

    The Great Awakening changed that, as fervent Christian revivalists attacked state-supported religion as an obstacle to true faith. Up and down the continent, stirring evangelical sermons roused the masses to a more impassioned expression of their faith, and in the process, these converts deserted from the established churches in droves. The religious revival of America's common folk combined theological revolt with social uprising, as lower-class evangelicals abandoned the wealthy established churches of the elite. 

    As historian Gordon S. Wood writes, "Hundreds of thousands of Virginians [...] found the established Anglican church unable to satisfy their emotional and moral needs and began forming new ordered evangelical communities that rejected outright the high style, luxurious living, and the preoccupations with rank and precedence of the dominant Anglican gentry."

    The Church of England lost members—most of them ordinary people who owned little to no property—to the Separate Baptists, New Light Presbyterians, and Methodists. Many of these new splinter sects fostered an even more individualistic philosophy than that which was first embraced during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. 

    That initial Reformation had already persuaded people to question authority and think for themselves. When such behavior was reinforced and further radicalized in the Great Awakening, it didn't bode well for a monarchy that relied upon submissive, deferential subjects to obey its laws and do its bidding. 

    Of course, the social tensions heated by the Great Awakening didn't immediately boil over, but rather, simmered for decades. More than 40 years passed between the Awakening and the coming of the Revolution.

    And even the Revolution didn't end the tradition of established churches in America. While state legislatures challenged the existence of these churches during the period of Revolutionary ferment, in many states, these entrenched religious institutions persisted well into the early-19th century. Still, the new sects recognized the radical potential of the Revolution, and pressed for more reforms against the established churches to reduce public taxation for their support, and to ensure more freedom of worship for all colonists. 

    Freedom of worship for individuals—and freedom from government influence for churches—led to a flowering of Christian spirituality in America. The radical anti-establishment sects of the Great Awakening eventually grew to become America's largest churches. 

    By the 1840s, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the country, with over one million members, and the Baptists weren't far behind.

  • Diplomacy

    The End of the Middle Ground

    For centuries, since Europeans had landed on their shores, the Native Americans of North America had negotiated with, battled with, traded with, and sought to maintain a mutually agreeable dynamic with whites. And vice versa. 

    Some tribes favored certain tactics over others, and many of them experimented with different approaches to their white neighbors, from seeking a coexistence with them to trying to conquer them. Until 1763, many Native American nations had carefully played the English and French off each another, but the total defeat of the French in the Seven Years' War ended the viability of this strategy for tenuous coexistence by leaving the British without a real rival for colonial power in North America.

    The American Revolution presented a new opportunity for tribes who sought to capitalize on conflict among the whites by forcing each side to present them with gifts and postwar promises. Even the tribes that tried to remain neutral were forced to take sides. Most ultimately allied with the British, who were better connected to tribal representatives and had more of the trade goods—like firearms, alcohol, blankets, and knives—upon which the Native Americans had long since become dependent. 

    When the British lost the war, those Native American allies of England were even more thoroughly dispossessed of land and property than their white Loyalist counterparts.blank">Constitution, would be able to resolve these lingering and oftentimes unforeseen dilemmas over how to realize the promise of liberty that the Revolution unleashed. The United States became celebrated for that promise, which simultaneously motivated citizens at home and abroad to press the country to fully realize its revolutionary potential. 

    In the hundreds of years to follow, many patriots died for the cause of realizing a better America that truly lived up to its founding principles of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.