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American Revolution (1765-1783)

1. Background

In the 16th century, colonization began under the civilising mission aiming to ensure better living and welfare of the people. The European nations such as France, Holland (province of Netherlands), Spain and England, thereby, started making settlements in various places including North America. Further, the colonisation process got an impetus with the beginning of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which provided England with a constitutional monarchy, putting some limitations on the king’s powers.

Philosophers such as Voltaire considered England’s government the most progressive in Europe. However, a growing number of England’s colonists in North America accused England of tyrannical rule.

In the 18th century, England drove France out of the eastern part of the American continent and Canada. It had earlier taken New Netherlands from the, Dutch, changing its name to New York.

By the mid-18th century, there were 13 English colonies in North America along the Atlantic Coast. Landless peasants, people seeking religious freedom, traders, and profiteers had settled there. The bulk of the population consisted of independent farmers. Fishing, shipbuilding, and several infant industries in products such as wool, flax, and leather also developed in the north.  On the other hand, in the south, large plantations like feudal manors had grown up where tobacco and cotton were grown, which slave labour had brought from Africa.

Each colony had a local assembly elected by qualified voters. These assemblies enacted laws concerning local matters and levied taxes. However, they were still under the rule of the mother country. Towards the end of the 18th century, the colonists (settlers) found the laws of the English government more and more objectionable. The idea of an independent nation grew culminating into a revolutionary war earning then their freedom.

2. Causes of the American War of Independence 

2.1 Economic Causes

The colonial policy of mercantilism used by England as an ideological and economical tool was the primary cause of resentment in the American colonies. England’s policies did not encourage the American colonies to develop an economy of their own.

By 1650, the result of policies started becoming more evident. For instance, through the 1658 Navigation Acts, the English parliament had forbidden colonists to use non-British ships for their trade. Moreover, certain products such as tobacco, cotton and sugar could be exported only to England from American colonies. Heavy duties were imposed on the import of goods in the colonies from other places. The colonies were also forbidden to start certain industries like ironworks and textiles, and the settlers were forced to import these goods from England. Thus, in every possible way, the growth of industry and trade in the colonies was impeded.

The English also angered the colonists by issuing a proclamation that prevented them from moving west into new lands. English aristocrats had bought lands in America and got rents from the farmers. They wanted to keep the colonists as mere renters.

Further, as a result of continuous wars in Europe, the English government was burdened with debt. It needed money. Thus, in 1756; the English Parliament passed the Stamp Act which imposed stamp taxes on all business transactions in the American colonies. Revenue stamps up to 20 shillings were to be affixed to legal documents and other papers. In1767, Townshend duties (taxes on essential commodities e.g. Sugar, oil etc.) were also imposed. This aroused violent resentment among all sections of the colonists and led them to boycott English goods. There were uprisings in many towns and tax-collectors were killed.

“No taxation without representation.”

The colonists claimed that, since the English Parliament had no representatives from the colonies, it had no right to levy taxes on them. The revenue from these taxes was used not in the interests of the colonies but of the English.

2.2 Political Causes

The 1740 – 1763 Anglo-French rivalry reflected itself in American colonies as well. It ended in the Treaty of Paris1763 where the French agreed to withdraw from America and South Asia. The two decades of war was an expensive affair which incurred huge debts on Britain. Thereby, to recover from huge war debt, the British imposed a series of new taxes on American Colonies.

Further, the tax on tea particularly led to trouble. In 1773, several colonies refused to unload the tea coming in English ships. In Boston, when the governor ordered a ship to be unloaded, a group of citizens, dressed as American Indians, boarded the ship and dumped the crates of tea into the water. This incident is famously known as ‘the Boston Tea Party’. Consequently, the English government closed the port of Boston to all trade and precipitated the uprising of the colonies.

Image: Boston tea party incident

The colonists having no representation in British parliament demanded political rights as that of people in Britain. However, the constitutional monarchy in Britain refused to their demands, paving favourable ground for their rebellion.

That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.”

Thomas Jefferson
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2.3 Role of Philosophers

The American revolutionaries were inspired by the ideas of the English philosophers of the 17th century such as Locke, Harrington, and Milton etc. who believed that men had certain fundamental rights which no government had the right to infringe. The American revolutionary thinkers especially Thomas Jefferson were also inspired by the writings of French philosophers. Jefferson, thereby, asserted the colonists’ right to rebellion and encouraged their desire for independence.

Being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

John Locke

3. Declaration of Independence

The representatives of the 13 American colonies met as a group in what is called the First Continental-Congress at Philadelphia in 1774. This Congress appealed to the English King to remove restrictions on industries and trade and not to impose any taxes without their consent. However, the King declared their action as a mutiny and ordered the  troops to be sent to suppress it. As a response, the colonies planned for military defence with local troops or militia. Thus, in1775, the first battle of the revolution was fought when a thousand British soldiers met the colonial militia.

In the declaration on 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress asserted that “all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The Declaration advanced the principle that the people are the source of authority and affirmed the people’s right to set up their own government. It also stated that the American colonies had been oppressed by the English government and that these United Colonies have the right to be free and independent states.

Up to this time, the colonists had been fighting for their rights as Englishmen. After the Declaration in 1776, they fought for their right to be an independent nation. And the day of 4th July came to be known as American Independence Day.

Image: Presentation of second draft of declaration of Independence.

4. War of Independence

During the course of war, George Washington was put in the command of the American forces. The first battle took place in and around Boston. The English sent a force to Canada with the plan to march it south to meet another English force, and so cut the American colonies in half. However, the plan failed to be implemented in its full swing because as soon as the English marched towards the south, the Americans met and defeated them. This victory of the rough American militia men against a trained British force gave the Americans much need confidence to fight the British army.

Moreover, to embarrass England, its old enemy France came forward to help the colonies with troops, supplies and funds. While other enemies of English—Spain and Holland—were soon fighting the English elsewhere.

Meanwhile, trouble was also brewing for Britain at home. There was a threat of rebellion in Ireland; and some leaders in Parliament were too opposing the war with the colonists.

Ultimately, the war ended in 1781 when the English commander, Cornwallis, (later to become governor-general in India), surrendered. Two years later, in 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed and the English recognised the independence of its 13 former colonies.

5. Impact of American Revolution

The American Revolution had a huge impact on the erstwhile global politics. The American defeat of a mighty empire like Britain encouraged other colonies to do the same. The American Revolution also influenced the French revolution.

Moreover from now onwards, the United States of America had an official constitution, or book of rules on how the country should be governed. It also had a Bill of Rights that guaranteed certain rights and freedoms to its citizens. These documents helped to spread the democracy around the world.

In the US, the realization that Westward Expansion was now possible altered perceptions from the level of the individual family to National Policy. The rejection of Aristocracy also started a swing between extremes of Privilege and the Deification of the Common Man. This also led to the separation of church and state; and the increased importance of education to democracy.

Thus, as a result, from 1776 to 1850, America expanded from 13 states to 50 states.

6. Summary

The American Revolution began in 1775 as an offshoot to the imperial and mercantile interests of England leading to the colonization of America. The presence of England resulted into domination and suppression of indigenous people, denying them necessary social-political and economic rights in parity with their English counterparts. This raged the people and the colonization finally ended with the rise of enlightenment scholars such as Locke, Milton and Jefferson who along with the occurrence of French revolution, on the other side, encouraged the demand for equal rights and an independent democratic order in the colonies, leading ultimately to the war for independence and the formation of the United States of America.

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

7. Multiple Choice Question

1] The glorious revolution of 1688 provided England:
a) Republican form of government
b) Constitutional monarchy
c) Authoritarian government
d) Monarchical government

Show Answer

Ans: b) Constitutional monarchy

2] The Anglo- French rivalry ended into:
a) Treaty of Versailles
b) Treaty of Westphalia
c) Treaty of Paris
d) Treaty of peace

Show Answer

Ans: c) Treaty of Paris

3] Which of the following is the economic cause for American revolution?
a) England favoured the rise of big industries in America.
b) Encouragement of trade
c) Distortion of trade and imposition of undue taxes
d) Land revenue system

Show Answer

Ans: c) Distortion of trade and imposition of undue taxes

4] What is Boston tea party incident?
a) The dumping of tea into sea by American Indians.
b) The establishment of tea plantation in Boston.
c) Protest in Boston due to imposition of tax on tea.
d) Occurrence of violence due to tea trade.

Show Answer

Ans: a) The dumping of tea into sea by American Indians

5] Who encouraged colonists right to rebellion?
a) Milton Friedman
b) Voltaire
c) Thomas Jefferson
d) Edmund Burke

Show Answer

Ans: c) Thomas Jefferson

6] The declaration of independence came on:
a) 4 July 1774
b) 4 July 1776
c) 8 March 1775
d) 8 March 1176

Show Answer

Ans: b) 4 July 1776

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