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“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.” 
John Adams, Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1756

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
John Adams, Letter to Abigail, July 3, 1776

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
John Adams, Letter to Abigail, 1780

Introduction. This chapter covers the era of the American Revolution. The beginning of early American history takes us through 1763, when the colonies were developed to the extent that they had the capacity to become a separate nation.  In fact, the Americans were already a different people by 1763, if for no other reason than through their physical separation from the mother country. It has been said that contact with a frontier environment changes people and the way they think, and there is much evidence to support that claim for American history well into the 19th century.  Practices that were accepted as normal in the home country did not necessarily work in America, and skills that were undervalued in Europe offered a path to self-sufficiency for many American colonists.  Life in the fields and forests of America was very different from life in the streets and alleys in London as well as in the British countryside.

We have also noted that there was a difference between the people who came to America, at least those who came voluntarily, and the people who did not. It took a certain character to leave one's hearth and home and family and travel across the ocean on a dangerous voyage into an uncertain future.  The conditions that confronted the colonists when they arrived, especially in the early decades, must have caused them to rethink the way they intended to live their lives.

As we shall see, it is ironic that the Americans who rebelled were in many ways the freest people in the civilized world in 1760.  Until then the hand of government had touched them but lightly; even where British laws sought to control their lives, as with the navigation acts, Americans found it easy to work their way around the legal restrictions imposed by the Empire. In short, the colonists had gotten used to doing things their own way.  When the British decided to change that and attempted to bring the Americans back into the fold, as they saw it from their perspective, the Americans were not so sure they wanted to go. In that sense, the American Revolution was not only about change, but about preserving a way of life to which the hardy colonists had grown accustomed.

The Larger Revoutionary Era: 1763-1800.

Why those Dates? Almost all American historians begin the Revolutionary Era with the year 1763. The Treaty of Paris of that year ended the Seven Years, or French and Indian War, and Great Britain, standing “astride the globe like a colossus,” turned her attention to her colonies as a means of securing her frontiers and beginning to ease the huge debt that resulted from decades of war. The tensions between the colonists and the mother country, which had always been present to some degree, began to sharpen, and 12 years later the war broke out.

vallley forgeThe ending date of the Revolution is not so easy to peg. The year 1783, which brought the Treaty of Paris and official recognition of American independence is certainly one possible date. Many historians extended the date to 1789, the year in which the Constitution went into effect. Certainly there is a logic in that, for it is clear that the colonies-become-states could not have survived and prospered under the Articles of Confederation, and so it is fair to argue that without the Constitution the revolution would not have been fully complete.

This author will argue that the revolution was sealed to a great extent in the year 1800 when a Republican president and a Republican Congress replaced the Federalists, who had been in power for 12 years under presidents Washington and Adams. Thomas Jefferson recognized the significance of 1800 when he called the election of that year a “revolution”; what Jefferson meant was that for the first time in the modern world, political power at the top of a nation had changed hands without the shedding of blood. There is good reason to endorse Jefferson's claim and to say that once the democratic process had demonstrated that there could be an orderly transfer of power in United States, then the true goal of the revolution had been achieved.

Despite the often contentious nature of our modern elections, we take it for granted that power will regularly change hands without bloody rioting. But in the 1790s that was no certainty, for the country was in perhaps the most agitated political state in which it had ever found itself, with the exception of the civil war years. At least one noted historian has argued that had the Republicans not won the election of 1800, the country might well have broken up or resorted to violence. Although we associate secession with the Civil War era, it was openly discussed even at that time, as the different areas of the country found themselves unable to agree on the proper course of the American nation under a Constitution which had, in some respects, been left deliberately vague.

The 1790s do, then, belong to the formative years of the Revolution, for even after the Constitution was adopted,a certain time was required for the meaning of it all to begin to settle in. For good reasons strong disagreement as to what was the true meaning of the Revolution—and even of the Constitution—existed for some time. Thus we are setting 1800 as the end date for the revolutionary era. In a real sense, however, the American Revolution has never ended, for as we debate our political differences and argue over laws, courts, politicians, and administrators, we continue to define the meaning of the American Revolution and American democracy.

The Historic Significance of the Revolution: Points to Ponder

  • The American Revolution can still teach us much about ourselves as a nation.
  • We can also understand subsequent historic events more clearly:
    • During the American Civil War both sides felt they were fighting for the legacy of the Revolution;
    • The American experience in Vietnam had similarities with that older conflict.
  • The American Revolution stretched far beyond our shores—it was an event that touched the world.
  • It is interesting to compare our Revolution with the French Revolution—some of the same players were involved, but the results were very different.

SUMMARY OF CONDITIONS IN 1763:

  • As a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 the French are out of North America—Great Britain stands “astride the world like a colossus.”
  • The British government is deeply in debt, although Great Britain is a wealthy nation.
  • The colonies are now prosperous and large enough in population to begin to attract more attention from Parliament.
  • The idea of different-ness from Great Britain has been around for some time, but few if any Americans are thinking about formal separation (independence) from Great Britain.
  • The idea of republicanism (democracy) is not highly developed. On the contrary, it is considered a highly radical concept that is not well received, especially among the ruling classes. Republicans are seen as wild-eyed fanatics who favor mob rule. Americans are likely much more progressive than their European cousins on this issue.
  • Americans are well versed in political philosophy from reading John Locke and others. American ideology also heavily emphasizes the idea of “virtue” as a necessary component of political structurean idea from the Enlightenment.
  • Between 1763 and 1775, Americans increasingly rebel against tightening English rule and struggle to maintain the status quo which had existed before the French and Indian War.
  • The Americans assume that their own colonial legislatures are equivalents of Parliament. They believe that since they are not represented in Parliament, only their own assemblies can tax them. These ideas are sorely tried by the British.
  • Americans still believe in the British Constitution, though they see it somewhat differently from many British.
  • Bottom Line: There is no thought of independence yet, but Americans do perceive a different-ness between themselves and their British cousins.

Many theories of revolution exist, but they do not always explain what happened in America.  For example, one assumed necessary ingredient of revolution is widespread discontent, yet the average American was in general as well off as anyone in the world at that time.  Yet revolutions do tend to have certain things in common. Of necessity they start with discontent of some sort, but it is not always clear to what extent wrongs are real or perceived. In the end, it probably does not matter.  It is interesting to note that four major revolutions (the English, American, French & Russian) all began with government trying to get more money out of the people. What does that bode for modern America?

delacroix liberty

In order for a great conflagration to be ignited in human society, it is usually necessary that each party to the dispute make miscalculations concerning the intent and the courage of its adversary sufficiently profound to allow it to proceed on a course that will inevitably bring disaster.

—Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976) vol I, p. 428.

The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Suspicion, but at an epic when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, then at any former period.

George Washington

Eugène Delacroix, 1830
“Liberty Leading the People”
Oil on Canvas
Louvre, Paris

don't tread on me

Points to keep in mind on the American Revolution:

  • The American Revolution is not over until 1787—without a stable system of government it could easily have come unraveled.
  • In the Civil War both sides will lay claim to the “Spirit of ‘76.”
  • The revolutionary leader as “wild-eyed radical” is a cliché. Many have been sober, mild individuals. Some American leaders were almost boring in their lack of revolutionary passion.  Washington was a very non-revolutionary figure who was one of the least radical Americans, yet he was technically guilty of treason.
  • The rank and file (soldiers) often come from the working classes.
  • Do not underestimate the power of revolutionary rhetoric (though the sting goes out after a while.)
  • American leaders were the American aristocracy, men of "striking respectability and social standing." The 56 signers of the Constitution were educated men (22 lawyers, 5 doctors, 11 merchants, 12 ministers or ministers’ sons.)
  • The “establishment” provides the leadership. There were moderates and extremists among them, but most eventually embraced independence.
  • Important question is whether revolutions change anything substantial.  “Permanent” change is assumed to be part of the result of any revolution and generally will include:
    • Transfer of property from one group to another;
    • Changes in the ruling class;
    • Changes in attitudes about institutions;
    • Changes in the institutions themselves;
    • None of the above seem to have been major outcomes of the American revolution ....
    • ... Which is not to say that no new ideas took holdthey did.
  • Where a tradition of rebellion exists, it is generally easier to get things started

What were the real causes of the American Revolution?

  • A sense of national identity—the isolation of the colonial period evolved into a spirit of common interest. “We had best hang together, or we shall surely hang separately” (franklin). The Colonies had a good postal service, etc., which eased communication.
  • Patrick Henry's “Liberty or Death” speech showed unity of purpose. Evidence existed that people felt bound to each other.
  • The Revolution began in the early 1760s with Otis’s protest against Writs of Assistance. John Adams claimed it began in the “Hearts and Minds” with the Stamp Act of 1765. The seeds had actually been planted when the colonial settlements became established.
  • There were in fact many reasons for discontent, and no avenues for redress of grievances. Yet it was an anti-colonial war for independence.
  • Americans believed that, “We had always governed ourselves”—dissenting tradition
  • The American Revolution has been called conservative, but it was truly revolutionary if you include events through 1787. Whatever else, the Revolution produced the most profound political document ever conceived by man.
  • Was the Revolution really justified? Was it treason? Civil War? Were there really moral imperatives?
  • In many ways the British had no one to blame but themselves; their governance of the colonies was an unending stream of insensitivity and inflexibility: the real cause of the war was “imperial mismanagement”—they failed to consult the colonists on almost all major policy issues, feeling that what was good for the Empire was good for all its parts, all the while treating the colonies as "dependent children."
  • Connected to this failure was the British idea of “virtual representation,” which the colonists rejected.
  • Bottom line: the American Revolution was not inevitable, though eventual independence probably was.

Americans have much in their history that prepares them for rebellion:

  • An “experienced and self-confident group of political leaders” has control and support of the major segments of the population.
  • A prospering commercial and agricultural economy exists.
  • Decades of changes in social, family, religious, and ethnic conditions have undermined traditional deference to authority.
  • During French and Indian War legislatures had become in their own eyes “Little Parliaments.”

The Nature of the American Revolution.  Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a relatively recent book (and a Pulitzer Prize winner), makes a number of interesting points about the American Revolution:

  • Woods's introduction reinforces the idea that has persisted that the American Revolution was “conservative.”
  • But when viewed in terms of social change, it was “as radical as any in history.”
  • Life in the 18th century was oppressive everywhere, and by comparison Americans were quite free.
  • Yet significant social change was not likely to happen without a revolution, and the American revolution did that—it destroyed the concept of an aristocracy, gave status to the working classes and brought respectability to ordinary people.
  • The real key to the idea of revolution (in the opinion of this web author) is that prior to the American revolution, the responsibility for honest, virtuous, or just plain good government, resided in the hands of the power structure—the aristocracy. From 1776 onward, that responsibility lies in the hands of the people. Tom Paine made that point most eloquently in Common Sense.
  • Bottom line: it was “The most radical and far-reaching event in American history.”

Other historians see the American Revolution in different ways.  Norman Gelb, in Less than Glory, takes on some of the “myths” surrounding the events of 1776.  For example:

  • The revolution was not inevitable. America probably would have become independent sooner or later anyway.
  • All things considered, and compared with the rest of the world, American colonists had it pretty good.
  • The British handled things badly, but they had their own problems at home.
  • Americans read the worst possible motives into everything the British did, and exaggerated their complaints, even in the Great Declaration (which has been called by another historian the “defense brief for the treason trial.”)

On the other hand, principles were involved, and perhaps Americans saw those principles more clearly than most in 1770. Bottom line: it could have been avoided, but sooner or later America was bound to become independent.

American Revolution Home | Updated September 8, 2019