History of the American Revolution
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Our digital history of the American Revolution transpired in British North America between 1765 and 1791. The thirteen North American Colonies declared their independence from the British and went on to defeat them in the American Revolutionary War of 1775 – 1783. In so doing, they gained independence from the British Crown and established the United States of America, the first constitutional liberal democracy of modern times.
In a sense, the history of the American Revolution began as a tax rebellion. American colonists objected to British demands that they help shoulder the costs of their own defense against the French and their Indian allies in the French and Indian War. Furthermore, they insisted on no taxation without direct representation, an idea which the British supposedly guaranteed but derided. Before, the colonies had enjoyed a large measure of self-governance by colonial legislatures. But tensions over taxation led to the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed taxes on newspapers and other documents. As a result, the animosity of editors and influential attorneys was assured. In protest, several colonies convened a Stamp Act Congress. But when the British repealed the Stamp Act, tempers began to settle down.
Tensions worsened again with the passage of the British imposition of a wide range of duties with the Townshend Acts in 1767. With unrest worsening, Britain deployed troops to Boston in 1768, where an incident precipitated the Boston Massacre in 1770. Although the British repealed most of the Townshend duties in 1770, they kept the tax on tea in order to remind the colonies of its right to tax them. Further incidents compounded the crisis, such as the burning of the British ship Gaspee off Rhode Island in 1772, the colonists’ passage of the Tea Act of 1773, and the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 that dumped a cargo of British tea into Boston harbor. Then, the British then enacted harsh laws that deprived the Massachusetts Bay Colony of its rights of self-government.
In response, the other colonies rallied in sympathy with Massachusetts, and formed a Continental Congress in 1774 to plan their resistance to Britain. The Congress declared British King George III to be a tyrant and declared themselves to be free and independent states on July 4, 1776. The Patriots rejected rule by monarchy and aristocracy in favor of liberalism and republicanism. While the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal, this proposition remained largely hypothetical for African Americans, Native Americans, poor white men, and women.
Then, hostilities erupted at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. British troops sent to commandeer a store of military supplies were fired upon by local Patriot militia and troops of newly formed Continental Army. Soon, British forces in Boston found themselves under siege by land and their forces were compelled to withdraw by sea. The, the colonies formed a Provincial Congress in support of the Continental Army led by General George Washington. The Americans invaded Quebec in the winter of 1775–76 in an attempt to recruit colonists there to their cause. But they were rebuffed just in time for Britain to save Canada from becoming part of the United States.
Early British victories seemed on the verge of turning the revolution into a rout of the Americans. But the tide began to turn when the Continental Army defeated a British army at Saratoga in October 1777, which convinced France to enter the war on the side of the United States. While the Royal Navy’s efforts to blockade American ports proved ineffectual, the British managed to capture and hold other cities. In the South, Britain tried to enlist the aid of Loyalists there, but it sparked fraternal atrocities and reprisals and failed to destroy the American army.
Meanwhile, in the South, British general Charles Cornwallis had captured an American army at Charleston, but failed to enlist enough support from Loyalists there to take control of the area. At last, in the fall of 1781, Cornwallis’ army was trapped at Yorktown by a combined American and French force. This effectively put an end to any British hope for victory. The 1783 Treaty of Paris formally ended the war and recognized the independence of the United States. With this, the United States acquired most of British lands east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes, while the British kept northern Canada and Spain took Florida.
The Revolution resulted in American independence and the end of British mercantilism in America. For the moment, world trade was opened up to the United States. The Americans adopted a constitution that replaced the weak Articles of Confederation with a national government structured as a federal republic. This new government would be based on a tricameral structure with an elected executive, a national judiciary, and a Congress that represented the states in the Senate and the general population in the House of Representatives. As a republic founded on the consent of the governed, it enacted a Bill of Rights. This was comprised of the first ten amendments, which guaranteed the fundamental civil rights that had justified the revolution.
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Revolution Index | Society: Nationalism • Race • Reforms • Women | Culture: Art • Learning | Religion | Economy | Roots: Seven Years’ War • Grenville Program | The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: British Offensive | Bunker Hill | Second Continental Congress | “Common Sense” | Declaration of Independence | Loyalists | New York | New Jersey | Valley Forge | Canada | Saratoga: Fiasco | European Aid | The South: Turning of the Tide | Yorktown | Peace: Spain • Peace Talks • Jay’s Treaty: Ratification