CHAPTER 5 The American Revolution: From Elite Protest to Popular
This chapter covers the years that saw the colonies emerge as an independent nation.
The colonial rebellion began as a protest on the part of the gentry, but military victory
required that thousands of ordinary men and women dedicate themselves to the ideals of
I. STRUCTURE OF COLONIAL SOCIETY
In the period following the Seven Years' War, Americans looked to the future with great
optimism. They were a wealthy, growing, strong, young people.
A. Breakdown of Political Trust
There were suspicions on both sides of the Atlantic that the new king, George
III, was attempting to enlarge his powers by restricting the liberties of his
subjects, but the greatest problem between England and America came down to
the question of parliamentary sovereignty. Nearly all English officials assumed
that Parliament must have ultimate authority within the British Empire.
B. No Taxation Without Representation: The American Perspective
The Americans assumed that their own colonial legislatures were in some ways
equal to Parliament. Since Americans were not represented at all in Parliament,
only the colonial assemblies could tax Americans.
C. Ideas About Power and Virtue
Taxation without representation was not just an economic grievance for the
colonists. They had learned by reading John Locke and the
"Commonwealthmen" that all governments try to encroach upon the people's
liberty. If the people remained "virtuous," or alert to their rights and determined
to live free, they would resist "tyranny" at its first appearance.
II. ERODING THE BONDS OF EMPIRE
England left a large, expensive army in America at the end of the French and Indian War.
To support it, England had to raise new revenues.
A. Paying Off the National Debt
In 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act, which was clearly designed to
raise revenue and not just regulate trade. Merchants protested, but most
American ignored it.
B. Popular Protest
The Stamp Act united the gentry and the mass of the population. The protest
spilled into the streets, and groups of workingmen, organized as the Sons of
Liberty, rioted and pressured tax collectors to resign. Boycotts became popular
and allowed women to enter the protest. The more moderate protestors met at a
Stamp Act Congress and petitioned the King and Parliament for repeal.
C. Failed Attempt to Save the Empire
The American protest coincided with a political crisis in England. A new
government took office, sympathetic to English merchants whose business was
hurt by turmoil in America. The new ministry wanted to repeal the Stamp Act,
but dared not appear to be giving in to the Americans. Repeal was therefore tied
to the Declaratory Act of 1766 which claimed that Parliament was sovereign
over America "in all cases whatsoever." While the crisis of 1765 did not turn into
rebellion, the Stamp Act controversy did cause the colonists to look upon
English officials in America as alien representatives of a foreign government.
D. Fueling the Crisis
In 1767, Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer, came up with a new
set of taxes on American imports of paper, lead, glass and tea. Townshend also
created the American Board of Customs Commissioners in order to ensure
rigorous collection of the duties. Americans again resisted. The Sons of Liberty
organized a boycott of English goods, and the Massachusetts House of
Representatives sent a circular letter urging the other colonial assemblies to
cooperate in protesting the Townshend Acts. When the English government
ordered the Massachusetts assembly to rescind its letter, ninety-two of the
representatives refused, and their defiance inspired Americans everywhere.
E. Fatal Show of Force
In the midst of the controversy over the Townshend taxes, the English
government, in order to save money, closed many of its frontier posts in
America and sent troops to Boston. Their presence heightened tensions. On
March 5, 1770, English soldiers in Boston fired on a mob and killed five
Just when affairs reached a crisis, the English government changed again. Lord
North headed a new ministry and repealed all of the Townshend taxes except for
the duty on tea, which North retained to demonstrate Parliament's supremacy.
E. Last Days of the Old Order, 1770--1773
Lord North's government did nothing to antagonize the Americans for the next
three years, and a semblance of tranquility characterized public affairs. Customs
collectors in America, however, contributed to bad feelings by extorting bribes
and by enforcing the trade acts to the letter, while radicals such as Samuel
Adams still protested that the tax on tea violated American rights. Adams helped
organize committees of correspondence that built up a political structure
independent of the royally established governments.
F. The Final Provocation: The Boston Tea Party
In 1773, Parliament aroused the Americans by passage of the Tea Act. This act,
designed to help the East India Company by making it cheaper for them to sell
tea in America, was interpreted by Americans as a subtle ploy to get them to
consume taxed tea. In Boston, in December 1773, a group of men dumped the
tea into the harbor.
The English government reacted to the "Tea Party" with outrage and passed the
Coercive Acts, which closed the port of Boston and put the entire colony under
what amounted to martial law.
At the same time, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, establishing an
authoritarian government for Canada. The English considered this act in isolation
from American affairs, but the colonists across the continent saw it as final
proof that Parliament was plotting to enslave America. They rallied to support
the Boston colonists and protest the British blockade.
The ultimate crisis had now been reached. If Parliament continued to insist on its
supremacy, rebellion was unavoidable. Ben Franklin suggested that Parliament
renounce its claim so that the colonies could remain loyal to the king and thus
remain within the empire. Parliament rejected this advice.
III. STEPS TOWARD INDEPENDENCE
Americans organized their resistance to England by meeting in a continental congress.
This section traces the major events, from the seating of the First Continental Congress
in September 1774 to the decision for independence in July 1776.
A. Shots Heard Around the World
On April 19, 1775, a skirmish broke out between Americans and English troops
in Lexington, Massachusetts. The fighting soon spread, and the English were
forced to retreat to Boston with heavy losses.
B. Beginning "The World Over Again"
The Second Continental Congress took charge of the little army that had emerged
around Boston by appointing George Washington commander.
The English government decided to crush the colonists by blockading their ports
and hiring mercenary troops from Germany. Royal governors urged slaves to
take up arms against their masters. These actions infuriated the colonists.
Thomas Paine, in his pamphlet Common Sense, pushed them closer to
independence by urging Americans to cut their ties to England.
On July 2, 1776, Congress voted for independence, and on July 4, Congress
issued the Declaration of Independence, a statement of principles that still
challenges the people of the world to insist upon their rights as humans.
IV. FIGHTING FOR INDEPENDENCE
In the ensuing war, the English had a better-trained army than did the Americans, but
England's supply line was long, and the English army faced the task not only of
occupying terrain, but also that of crushing the spirit of a whole people.
A. Building a Professional Army
Washington realized that America would eventually win independence if only he
could assemble enough able troops and keep his army intact.
B. Testing the American Will
During July and August 1776, English forces routed the American army on Long
Island, captured New York City, and forced Washington to retreat through New
C. "Times That Try Men's Souls"
As Washington's army fled toward Philadelphia, the English military authorities
collected thousands of oaths of allegiance from Americans, many of whom had
supported independence. The cause seemed lost, but Washington rekindled the
flame of resistance by capturing two English outposts in New Jersey, Trenton
D. Victory in a Year of Defeat
In 1777, General John Burgoyne led English forces out of Canada in a drive
toward Albany, New York. Americans interrupted Burgoyne's supply lines and
finally forced him to surrender at Saratoga, New York.
General William Howe, who was supposed to help Burgoyne, instead decided to
capture Philadelphia, which he did easily. Washington's discouraged army spent
that miserable winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
E. The French Alliance
France supplied the Americans with arms from the beginning of hostilities. After
Saratoga, England feared an open alliance between France and America and
proposed peace. Parliament offered to repeal all acts passed since 1763, to
respect the right of Americans to tax themselves, and to withdraw all English
troops. The Americans, however, preferred full independence and allied
themselves with France in 1778.
F. The Final Campaign
After 1778, the English turned their attention to securing the South. They took
Savannah and Charleston, and in August 1780, routed an American army at
Camden, South Carolina. Washington sent General Nathanael Greene to the
South to command American forces, and Greene's forces defeated English general
Lord Cornwallis in several battles. When Cornwallis took his army to Yorktown,
Virginia, for resupply, Washington arranged for the French navy to blockade
Chesapeake Bay while the Continental Army marched rapidly to Yorktown,
where Cornwallis was trapped. He surrendered his entire army on October 19,
1781. The English government now realized it could not subdue the Americans,
and began to negotiate for peace.
V. THE LOYALIST DILEMMA
Americans who had remained openly loyal to the king during the Revolution received
poor treatment from both sides. The English never fully trusted them, and the patriots
took away their property and sometimes imprisoned or executed them. When the war
ended, more than one hundred thousand Loyalists left the United States.
VI. WINNING THE PEACE
Ben Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay negotiated the peace treaty that ended the
Revolutionary War. By playing France against England, the Americans managed to
secure highly favorable terms: independence and transfer of all territory east of the
Mississippi River, between Canada and Florida, to the Republic.
VII. CONCLUSION: PRESERVING INDEPENDENCE
The American Revolution was more than armed rebellion against England; it was the
beginning of the construction of a new form of government. The question had yet to be
decided whether this would be a government of the elite or a government of the people.
August 6, 2008