The American Revolution


   The American Revolution was the product of two theoretical questions that the British could not translate into policy. The first was how to collect revenue from the colonies in order to help pay for the military and administrative machine that, in large part, benefitted the colonies. The second was how to exercise Parliamentary control over the colonies while still allowing the colonies the self-rules that was clearly spelled out in each colony's charter. The failure to resolve these questions led to a pattern of legislation and reaction that eventually produced open rebellion: the British Parliament would legislate some tax or power over the colonies, the colonies would respond with reasonable arguments and incendiary pamphlets, and the British Parliament would back off, usually not without passing another tax or assuming another power of the colonies. No-one really won in these conflicts, but both American and British wore thin from the process.

   While the American Enlightenment introduced new political theories into the American mix, such as John Locke's theories of contractual government, the colonists only began to consider breaking away from Great Britain at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. This war had primarily benefitted the American colonies; much of it was fought in North America. The cost, however, fell entirely on Britain's shoulders. Anxious to recoup this cost and help pay for the military and administrative machinery overseeing the colonies, the British Parliament passed a series of legislation designed to raise revenue from the colonies. The first piece of legislation was the Sugar Act of 1764. This act tried to raise revenue not by raising taxes on sugar, but by more rigorously collecting taxes that were already levied on sugar. In 1765, the Parliament passed the hated Stamp Act, which taxed legal documents, pamphlets, and newspapers. The colonies argued, though, that the British Parliament had no right to legislate for the colonies, including the collection of taxes. This was a decision that should only be allowed for American assemblies to make. Most of the tax that the British collected was distributed throughout the colonies; very little of it made its way back to Britain. How the money was distributed, however, wasn't the issue. The issue involved the question of who had the right to legislate for the colonies. For even though the British were distributing the tax in America, the Americans feared that if they allowed revenue to be controlled by Britain, they would effectively lose all their control over colonial government.

   So, in 1765, the colonies called the Stamp Act Congress, which officially protested the new stamp tax. In 1766, Parliament then annulled the Stamp Act, but the passed another piece of legislation, the Declatory Act. This legislation gave to British Parliament the right to legislate for the colonies.

   In 1767, the Chancellor of the British Exchequer (the body that collected revenues), persuaded the British Parliament to pass a series of laws that taxed colonial imports. The Townshend, as they're called, were bitterly resisted by the colonists. Townshend, however, was deadly serious about collecting these taxes. The laws allowed for customs agents to be sent to the colonies; in order to enforce their authority, the British government also sent armed troops to Boston in 1768. With tempers rising, the die was cast for the outbreak of violence.

   The day of March 5, 1770, a Monday, is the date at which the start of the Revolutionary War is often dated. That day, in Boston, was a day filled with problems. Relations between colonists and the British soldiers were strained and frequently violent; in the days preceding that Sunday there were numerous tavern brawls and street fights between colonists and British soldiers and supporters—in one incident, three British soldiers were beaten and driven out of the town, but returned later with reinforcements. In the icy evening of March 5, a group of soldiers, having just emerged from their barracks, were confronted by a small crowd of boys, African Americans, some Irish, and others. They traded insults with the soldiers and the two groups began to fight. The Americans, led by the African American, Crispus Attucks, managed to drive the British back to the barracks. Someone rang the town bell and confused Bostonians began to fill the streets.

   Into this fiery mix, a barber's apprentice started running down the street with blood streaming from his head. He said that a sentry had bludgeoned him with a musket and the angry crowd, with Crispus Attucks at its front, descended on the hapless sentry. Seeing himself in front of an angry mob, the sentry backed down and called for reinforcement. Seven soldiers arrived, but Attucks cried, "They dare not fire on us!" and the crowd began to taunt the soldiers to fire their muskets. A British private was struck on the head with a stick, and fired his musket straight into Crispus Attucks. Several more shots rang out, and when the smoke had cleared, five people had been shot to death.

   The Boston Massacre, as it came to be called, turned out to be the turning point in British and American relations. Even though the British soldiers were put on trial (John Adams was their defense attorney), everyone seemed to realize that the bonds between Britain and England had been irreperably severed. In a great irony of history, the first battle of the revolution was unpremeditated, and, in an even more profound irony, the first hero of the War of Independence was an African American, a former slave, whose passion and courage led the angry crowd and whose death became the first death in the long struggle.

   In many ways, this irony would be played out tragically in the years to follow. Even though African Americans were instrumental in the early battles, such as the Battle of Breed's Hill, (Bunker Hill), in 1775, George Washington issued a decree that forbid any African American, free or slave, to serve in the army. The British, however, understood the power of exploiting the resentments of African Americans, both free and slave, and declared that slavery would be abolished if they won the war. With the promise of freedom, many African Americans escaped from slavery and fought on the side of the British—this included George Washington's slaves. Washington reversed himself and allowed free men to fight; this, too, had to pass because it was nearly impossible to get white colonists to fight on the front line. When over six thousand white soldiers deserted Washington at Valley Forge, he was forced to enlist slaves into the Continental Army. It's no exaggeration to say that African Americans were instrumental in every major battle of the Revolutionary War and, in all contemporary accounts of the fighting, were the bravest and most effective soldiers of the Continental Army (I'm not making this up: this is what contemporary witnesses almost to a man all say). Haitian African Americans also joined the war, though the history books like to tell you only about the French. This crucial participation of African Americans in the war was the direct cause of the emancipation movements in the northern colonies beginning in 1777. The leaders of this movement, however, could not carry over these innovations in the south, and thousands of African Americans would continue in slavery for almost another century in a nation they had helped to build.

   The Massacre and its fallout, however, did not significantly influence British policy. In 1773, the British Parliament legislated a tax on tea imports by the East India Company. This legislation, surprisingly, also lowered the cost of tea so that the Americans actually were paying less for the imports. Nonetheless, on December 16, 1773, a shipment of Bohea tea was tossed into Boston Harbor by a gang of colonists dressed as Indians. This event, known as the Boston Tea Party, was really only one among many acts of sabotage that colonists, Bostonians in particular, had been engaging in since 1770. It was this event, however, which inspired the British government to take action.

   In 1774, the British Parliament passed a series of laws called the Intolerable Acts which closed the Port of Boston, restructured Massachusetts government, and, finally, consigned more troops to Massachusetts and allowed these troops to be garrisoned in private homes. Later the Parliament passed the Quebec Act which extended the boundaries of Quebec to the Ohio River Valley. The American colonists had been steadily expanding over the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley, particularly in Illinois. The Quebec Act was a deliberate attempt to severe the relationships between these pioneers and their colonial homelands.

   Because of this legislation, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in September of 1774. They called for self-government to be restored to the colonies, but by April, 1775, fighting broke out in battles at Concord, Lexington, and then Breed's (Bunker) Hill. The colonists lost terribly at Bunker Hill, so the British were in no mood to negotiate with the Continental Congress—a body that it did not recognize as a legitimate body.

   In May of 1775, the Continental Congress met yet again in an effort to come to terms with the British. It was becoming apparent, though, with the outbreak of fighting, that the government of the colonies had now fallen to the Congress. They then began to work out the mechanisms of self-government during the war; this included building an army and a navy. Since Britain was the only nation that traded with the colonies, the Congress had to address the issue of international trade. They didn't resolve it until April of 1776 when they declared American ports open to all international shipping. Even though the Congress was working out its own form of government from the spring of 1775, King George III did not officially declare the colonies in rebellion until August of 1775.

   The most famous and crucial act of the Continental Congress was the Declaration of Independence issued on July 4, 1776. The Declaration itself is based on Enlightenment ideas of contractual government; its form is that of a legal writ of breach of contract. In it, the Congress outlined all the areas in which Britain had failed to uphold its bonds with the colonies; the upshot of this list was a declaration that all bonds and all relationships between America and Great Britain were now null and void. The document, authored by Thomas Jefferson, included a host of grievances that the Continental Congress expunged. The most significant deletion was Jefferson's complaint against the slave trade; even though Jefferson himself owned slaves, the most rhetorically passionate section of his original draft of the Declaration is a condemnation of the slave trade. It is a great irony of history that, with both slave and free African Americans fighting in the battles, that the Congress ultimately backed off of this complaint.

   The Declaration changed the war. Up until this point it was a war of grievances: taxes, legislation, authority over trials of British soldiers and customs agents, and the garrisoning of troops. After July 4, the fight became a War of Independence.

   The British, for their part, were not fully invested in the war. Radicals at home agitated against the war, and many British were sympathetic to the cause of the Americans. Add to that the tremendous cost of prosecuting a war potentially across the entire eastern seaboard, the British never adopted a fully aggressive policy against the colonies. The war, however, was not just confined to the northern colonies. It also spread across the Appalachian mountains into Illinois; for the British, it had truly become a frontier war. In 1778, Benjamin Franklin, as ambassador to France, achieved the impossible by convincing the French king, Louis XVI, to not only support the war financially, but support it with troops as well. This, for the British, was an entirely different cup of tea. The military challenge for the British was to contain the war in such a way so that it didn't erupt into a European war. When the Spanish joined the colonists in 1779, the British really gave up hope. The War of Independence dragged on piecemeal until 1781 when George Washington defeated Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. Cornwallis's surrender effectively ended the fighting. The War, however, did not end until the Treaty of Paris in 1783 when Britain fully recognized the thirteen American colonies as independent states. England, however, did not cut of commercial ties with America; in fact, British trade with America not only enriched Americans, it was the principal driving force behind the emerging industrial revolution in Britain.

   The challenge for the Americans now was the building of a nation. By the end of the war, the colonists had become dedicated republicans, absolutely opposed to a monarchy of any sort. The English had tried this in the 1640's and 1650's and had failed miserably at it. Now the English Americans were to try their hands at forging a new, republican, modern state.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-26-97