The narrative of the 19th century is often elucidated through the ideological progressions of Nationalism and Imperialism. Supporters of the former will often push for the historical legitimacy of a specific cultural group, either through linguistic or traditional differences. And while there are inherit issues in this claim, the "rebirth" of nationalities was an effective method in rousing regional populations against their European sovereigns. This patriotic identity, often engraved more in public discontent then the desire for a separate national character, can not be downplayed -- it is without doubt, the most powerful force in global history. But the American Revolution can not claim to be uniform with other classic nationalist uprisings. Unlike the 19th century national conflict, the struggle for independence was not based in cultural or linguistic divisions. Instead, the Revolutionary War is distinct for its causes, embedded in geographical and ideological difference.
Background (Seven Years War to 1763)
English colonization of North America began in the 17th century, with the first permanent settlement established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Colonies that were established along the coastline were governed through Royal charters, each a delegation of self-governance. Crown colonies imitated the "mixed monarchy" constitutional structure of Great Britain. Each had an elected assembly which constituted the lower house of the legislature, a council appointed by the crown constituting the upper house, and an appointed governor with executive powers representing the King. All laws had to be submitted to the home government for approval, but otherwise there was little interference.
The mother country dominated foreign relations of the colonies, and, as far back as the time of Oliver Cromwell, maintained that the British parliament could bind the colonies with their acts. Usually, Parliament rarely intervened unless there was a matter of imperial concern. The Navigation Acts of the late 17th century restricted colonial trade in accordance with mercantilist theory. Other acts would impose custom duties, establish a postal system, restrain paper currency, forbid manufacturing, and authorize the seizure of private property for debt payments. However, these acts were distanced and often unenforced - salutary neglect became the unofficial policy of Great Britain.
The French and Indian War broke out in 1754 over conflicting claims of the British and French to the Ohio country. The war ended in 1763 with the conquest of French Canada and the virtual expulsion of France from mainland North America. A major consequence of this, foreseen by the French foreign minister, was that the American colonists could now afford to challenge British rule without the fear of leaving themselves at the mercy of France. British policymakers were nonetheless determined to push for various reforms. They wished to maintain a standing army in the colonies, impose taxes so the colonies would share the defense burden, and make the crown-appointed governors and judges more independent of the assemblies which paid their salaries.
Imposition of Taxes, Regulations, and Restrictions (1763-1774)
In 1764 Parliament passed the Currency Act to restrain the use of paper money that British merchants saw as a means to evade debt payments. Parliament also passed the Sugar Act imposing custom duties on a number of articles to protect the British West Indies from foreign competition. Although the Sugar Act actually lowered duties on mollasses, the collection of these taxes were systematically organized as they had never under salutary neglect. Excessive punishment was often enforced and judiciary irregularities were imposed to enforce the tax collection on the colonies. In March 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act which imposed direct taxes on the colonies for the first time. All official documents, newspapers, almanacs and pamphlets—even decks of playing cards—were required to have the stamps. The colonists objected chiefly on the grounds not that the taxes were high (they were low), but because they had no representation in the Parliament. Benjamin Franklin testified in Parliament in 1766 that Americans already contributed heavily to the defense of the Empire.
In 1765 the Sons of Liberty formed. They used public demonstrations, violence and threats of violence to ensure that the British tax laws were unenforceable. While openly hostile to what they considered an oppressive Parliament acting illegally, colonists persisted in sending numerous petitions and pleas for intervention from a monarch to whom they still claimed loyalty. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty burned the records of the vice-admiralty court and looted the home of the chief justice, Thomas Hutchinson. Several legislatures called for united action, and nine colonies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1765. Moderates led byJohn Dickinson drew up a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" stating that taxes passed without representation violated their rights as Englishmen. At the same time, however, they rejected the idea of being provided with representation in Parliament, declaring it impossible due to the distance involved. Colonists emphasized their determination by boycotting imports of British merchandise.
The Parliament at Westminster saw itself as the supreme lawmaking authority throughout all British possessions and thus entitled to levy any tax without colonial approval. Parliament argued that colonies were legally British corporate entities and were thus subordinate to the central parliament in all matters. They furthered their argument by pointing to examples of taxes that had been enacted on the colonies for decades before. Parliament insisted that the colonies effectively enjoyed a "virtual representation" like most British people did, as only a small minority of the British population elected representatives to Parliament.
Benjamin Franklin made the case for repeal, explaining the colonies had spent heavily in manpower, money, and blood in defense of the empire in a series of wars against the French and Indians, and that further taxes to pay for those wars were unjust and might bring about a rebellion. Parliament agreed and repealed the tax , but in the Declaratory Act of March 1766 insisted that parliament retained full power to make laws for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever."
Following the failure of the Stamp Act, the British assumed that the colonists only objected to "internal" taxes and not to "external" custom duties which had been imposed for decades. In 1767 the Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which placed duties on a number of essential goods including paper, glass, and tea. The Americans, however, argued against the act because its purpose was to raise revenue and not regulate trade. Angered at the tax increases, colonists organized boycotts of British goods.
On March 5, 1770 a large mob gathered around a group of British soldiers. The mob grew more and more threatening, throwing snowballs, rocks and debris at the soldiers. One soldier was clubbed and fell.All but one of the soldiers fired into the crowd. They hit 11 people; three civilians died at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident. The event quickly came to be called the Boston Massacre. Although the soldiers were tried and acquitted (defended by John Adams), the widespread descriptions soon became propaganda to turn colonial sentiment against the British. This in turn began a downward spiral in the relationship between Britain and the Province of Massachusetts. Responding to protests, in 1770 Parliament withdrew all taxes except the tax on tea, giving up its efforts to raise revenue. This temporarily resolved the crisis and the boycott of British goods largely ceased, with only the more radical patriots such as Samuel Adams continuing to agitate.
Meanwhile, Parliament decided to lower the price of taxed tea exported to the colonies in order to undersell smuggled Dutch tea. Special consignees were appointed to sell the tea in order to bypass colonial merchants. In most instances the consignees were forced to resign and the tea was turned back, but Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to give into pressure. A town meeting in Boston determined that the tea would not be landed, and ignored a demand from the governor to disperse. On December 16, 1773 a group of men, led by Samuel Adams and dressed to evoke American Indians, boarded the ships of the government-favored British East India Company and dumped an estimated £10,000 worth of tea from their holds (approximately £636,000 in 2008) into Boston Harbor. This event became known as the Boston Tea Party and remains a significant part of American patriotic lore.
The British responded to the agitation by imposing a series of laws known as the the Intolerable Acts, which further darkened colonial opinion towards the British.
In response, Massachusetts patriots issued the Suffolk Resolves and formed an alternative shadow government known as the "Provincial Congress" which began training militia outside British-occupied Boston. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened, consisting of representatives from each of the colonies, to serve as a vehicle for deliberation and collective action. During secret debates conservative Joseph Galloway proposed the creation of a colonial Parliament that would be able to approve or disapprove of acts of the British Parliament but his idea was not accepted. The Congress instead endorsed the proposal of John Adams that Americans would obey Parliament voluntarily but would resist all taxes in disguise. Congress called for a boycott beginning on 1 December 1774 of all British goods; it was enforced by new committees authorized by the Congress.
The British retaliated by confining all trade of the New England colonies to Britain and excluding them from the Newfoundland fisheries. Lord North advanced a compromise proposal in which Parliament would not tax so long as the colonies made fixed contributions for defense and to support civil government. This would also be rejected.
The Revolutionary War and Independence (1775 - 1783)
Massachusetts was declared in a state of rebellion in February 1775 and the British garrison received orders to disarm the rebels and arrest their leaders, leading to the Battles of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. The Patriots set siege to Boston, expelled royal officials from all the colonies, and took control through the establishment of Provincial Congresses. The Battle of Bunker Hill followed on June 17, 1775. While a British victory, it was at a great cost; about 1,000 British casualties from a garrison of about 6,000, as compared to 500 American casualties from a much larger force. First ostensibly loyal to the king and desiring to govern themselves while remaining in the empire, the repeated pleas by the First Continental Congress for royal intervention on their behalf with Parliament resulted in the declaration by the King that the states were "in rebellion", and the members of Congress were traitors.
In March 1776, with George Washington as the commander of the new army, the Continental Army forced the British to evacuate Boston. The revolutionaries were now in full control of all 13 colonies and were ready to declare independence. While there still were many Loyalists, they were no longer in control anywhere by July 1776, and all of the Royal officials had fled.
In April 1776 the North Carolina Provincial Congress issued the Halifax Resolves, explicitly authorizing its delegates to vote for independence. In May Congress called on all the states to write constitutions, and eliminate the last remnants of royal rule.
By June nine colonies were ready for independence; one by one the last four —Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New York — fell into line. Richard Henry Lee was instructed by the Virginia legislature to propose independence, and he did so on June 7, 1776. On the 11th a committee was created to draft a document explaining the justifications for separation from Britain. After securing enough votes for passage, independence was voted for on July 2. The Declaration of Independence, drafted largely by Thomas Jefferson and presented by the committee, was slightly revised and unanimously adopted by the entire Congress on July 4, marking the formation of a new sovereign nation, which called itself the United States of America.
The Second Continental Congress approved a new constitution, the "Articles of Confederation," for ratification by the states on November 15, 1777, and immediately began operating under their terms. The Articles were formally ratified on March 1, 1781. At that point, the Continental Congress was dissolved and on the following day a new government of the United States in Congress Assembled took its place, with Samuel Huntington as presiding officer.
After Washington forced the British out of Boston in spring 1776, neither the British nor the Loyalists controlled any significant areas. The British, however, were massing forces at their naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. They returned in force in July 1776, landing in New York and defeating Washington's Continental Army at the Battle of Brooklyn in August, one of the largest engagements of the war. After the Battle of Brooklyn, the British requested a meeting with representatives from Congress to negotiate an end to hostilities.
A delegation including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin met Howe on Staten Island in New York Harbor on September 11, in what became known as the Staten Island Peace Conference. Howe demanded a retraction of the Declaration of Independence, which was refused, and negotiations ended until 1781. The British then quickly seized New York City and nearly captured General Washington. They made the city their main political and military base of operations in North America, holding it until November 1783. New York City consequently became the destination for Loyalist refugees, and a focal point of Washington's intelligence network.
The British also took New Jersey, pushing the Continental Army into Pennsylvania. In a surprise attack in late December 1776 Washington crossed the Delaware River back into New Jersey and defeated Hessian and British armies at Trenton and Princeton, thereby regaining New Jersey. The victories gave an important boost to pro-independence supporters at a time when morale was flagging, and have become iconic events of the war.
In 1777, as part of a grand strategy to end the war, the British sent an invasion force from Canada to seal off New England, which the British perceived as the primary source of agitators. In a major case of mis-coordination, the British army in New York City went to Philadelphia which it captured from Washington. The invasion army under Burgoyne waited in vain for reinforcements from New York, and became trapped in northern New York state. It surrendered after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. From early October 1777 until November 15 a pivotal siege at Fort Mifflin, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania distracted British troops and allowed Washington time to preserve the Continental Army by safely leading his troops to harsh winter quarters at Valley Forge.
The capture of a British army at Saratoga encouraged the French to formally enter the war in support of Congress, as Benjamin Franklin negotiated a permanent military alliance in early 1778, significantly becoming the first country to officially recognize the Declaration of Independence. On February 6, 1778, a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a Treaty of Alliance were signed between the United States and France. William Pitt spoke out in parliament urging Britain to make peace in America, and unite with America against France, while other British politicians who had previously sympathised with colonial grievances now turned against the American rebels for allying with Britain's international rival and enemy.
Later Spain (in 1779) and the Dutch (1780) became allies of the French, leaving the British Empire to fight a global war alone without major allies, and requiring it to slip through a combined blockade of the Atlantic. The American theater thus became only one front in Britain's war. The British were forced to withdraw troops from continental America to reinforce the valuable sugar-producing Caribbean colonies, which were considered more important.
Because of the alliance with France and the deteriorating military situation, Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander, evacuated Philadelphia to reinforce New York City. General Washington attempted to intercept the retreating column, resulting in the Battle of Monmouth Court House, the last major battle fought in the north. After an inconclusive engagement, the British successfully retreated to New York City. The northern war subsequently became a stalemate, as the focus of attention shifted to the smaller southern theater.
Beginning in late December 1778, the British captured Savannah and controlled the Georgia coastline. In 1780 they launched a fresh invasion and took Charleston as well. A significant victory at the Battle of Camden meant that royal forces soon controlled most of Georgia and South Carolina. The British set up a network of forts inland, hoping the Loyalists would rally to the flag.
The British army under Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, Virginia where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up butso did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet after the Battle of the Chesapeake returned to New York for reinforcements, leaving Cornwallis trapped. In October 1781 under a combined siege by the French and Continental armies under Washington, the British surrendered their second invading army of the war.
Washington could not know that after Yorktown the British would not reopen hostilities. They still had 26,000 troops occupying New York City, Charleston and Savannah, together with a powerful fleet. The French army and navy departed, so the Americans were on their own in 1782–83. The treasury was empty, and the unpaid soldiers were growing restive, almost to the point of mutiny or possible coup d'état. The unrest among officers of the Newburgh Conspiracy was personally dispelled by Washington in 1783, and Congress subsequently created the promise of a five years bonus for all officers.
Peace of Paris
Peace was signed with Britain in 1783. The treaty delegated the United States all land east of the Mississipi River and south of the Great Lakes. Issues regarding boundaries and debts were not resolved until the Jay Treaty of 1795. Since the blockade was lifted and the old imperial restrictions were gone, American merchants were free to trade with any nation anywhere in the world, and their businesses flourished.
The Articles of Confederation (1783 - 1789)
The Declaration of Independence had clarified the autonomy of all the individiual states, but their collective unity remained a mystery. Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation organized the loose chain of states into a fragile federal government, bonded together by a "firm-bond of friendship." Under the Articles of Confederation, the central government's power was kept quite limited. The Confederation Congress could make decisions, but lacked enforcement powers. Implementation of most decisions, including modifications to the Articles, required unanimous approval of all thirteen state legislatures.
Congress was denied any powers of taxation: it could only request money from the states. The states often failed to meet these requests in full, leaving both Congress and the Continental Army chronically short of money. As more money was printed by Congress, the continental dollars depreciated. In 1779, George Washington wrote to John Jay, who was serving as the president of the Continental Congress, "that a wagon load of money will scarcely purchase a wagon load of provisions." Mr. Jay and the Congress responded in May by requesting $45 million from the States. In an appeal to the States to comply, Jay wrote that the taxes were "the price of liberty, the peace, and the safety of yourselves and posterity." He argued that Americans should avoid having it said "that America had no sooner become independent than she became insolvent" or that "her infant glories and growing fame were obscured and tarnished by broken contracts and violated faith."The States did not respond with any of the money requested from them.
Congress had also been denied the power to regulate either foreign trade or interstate commerce and, as a result, all of the States maintained control over their own trade policies. The states and the Confederation Congress both incurred large debts during the Revolutionary War, and how to repay those debts became a major issue of debate following the War. Some States paid off their war debts and others did not. Federal assumption of the states' war debts became a major issue in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. By 1783, with the end of the British blockade, the new nation was regaining its prosperity. However, trade opportunities were restricted by the mercantilism of the British and French empires. The ports of the British West Indies were closed to all staple products which were not carried in British ships. France and Spain established similar policies. Simultaneously, new manufacturers faced sharp competition from British products which were suddenly available again. Political unrest in several states and efforts by debtors to use popular government to erase their debts increased the anxiety of the political and economic elites which had led the Revolution. The apparent inability of the Congress to redeem the public obligations (debts) incurred during the war, or to become a forum for productive cooperation among the states to encourage commerce and economic development, only aggravated a gloomy situation. In 1786–87, Shays' Rebellion, an uprising of farmers in western Massachusetts against the state court system, threatened the stability of state government.
The Continental Congress printed paper money which was so depreciated that it ceased to pass as currency, spawning the expression "not worth a continental". Congress could not levy taxes and could only make requisitions upon the States. Less than a million and a half dollars came into the treasury between 1781 and 1784, although the governors had been asked for two million in 1783 alone.
By 1787 Congress was unable to protect manufacturing and shipping. State legislatures were unable or unwilling to resist attacks upon private contracts and public credit. Land speculators expected no rise in values when the government could not defend its borders nor protect its frontier population. The decentralized experiment of the Articles were a public failure, and many political delegates recognized the importance of a reform. Launched by James Madison in 1786, a Constitutional Convention was called to improve the status of the Confederation and increase central power. Although the initial goal was to alter the Articles, following several radical propositions, the Convention morphed into the writing of an entirely new document. The states gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 and began writing the United States' Constitution.
All agreed to a republican form of government grounded in representing the people in the states. For the legislature, two issues were to be decided: how the votes were to be allocated among the states in the Congress, and how the representatives should be elected. The question was settled by the Connecticut Compromise or "Great Compromise". In the House, state power was to be based on population and the people would vote. In the Senate, state power was to be based on state legislature election, with two Senators generally to be elected by their respective state legislatures to better reflect the long term interests of the people living in each state. The Great Compromise ended the stalemate between "patriots" and "nationalists", leading to numerous other compromises in a spirit of accommodation. There were sectional interests to be balanced by the three-fifths compromise; reconciliation on Presidential term, powers, and method of selection; and jurisdiction of the federal judiciary. Debates on the Virginia resolutions continued. The 15 original resolutions had been expanded into 23.
The Constitution was ratified by state conventions and required the consent of 9 states, although all would eventually approve. In order to convince the local conventions to support the new Federalist powers, three prominent delegates: Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, all under the name of Publius, wrote a series of commentaries, now known as the Federalist Papers, in support of the new instrument of government; however, the primary aim of the essays was for ratification in the state of New York, at that time a hotbed of anti-federalism. These commentaries on the Constitution, written during the struggle for ratification, have been frequently cited by the Supreme Court as an authoritative contemporary interpretation of the meaning of its provisions. The closeness and bitterness of the struggle over ratification as a result of the conferring of additional powers on the central government can scarcely be exaggerated. In some states, ratification was effected only after a bitter struggle in the state convention itself. In every state, the Federalists proved more united, and only they coordinated action between different states, as the Anti-federalists were localized and did not attempt to reach out to other states. The Continental Congress—which still functioned at irregular intervals—passed a resolution on September 13, 1788, to put the new Constitution into operation with eleven states. North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified by May 1790.