The American Revolution

  • Introduction

The American Revolution can be briefly studied in a timeline of 18 years starting from 1765 and ending in 1783. In North America, the British had established 13 colonies on the west coast of the Atlantic Ocean. After the Seven Year War, the influence of the French in rest of North America finally came to an end. 

  • Reasons for American resentments against the British

While the British Mercantilism or Mercantile capitalism created an environment of resentment among the White Americans, the Seven Year War created conditions, which became the immediate trigger for the American Revolution.  

1. Mercantile Capitalism  

Mercantile Capitalism was the British policy in the 18th century. It was based on the idea that the Government should regulate the economy at home and colonies abroad, so as to increase the national power and achieve a positive Balance of Trade.  A positive balance of trade is achieved when a country is a net exporter of goods (in value terms). This policy manifested in form of placing trade barriers on the colonies and establishing a monopoly of the British companies on trade done by the colonies. Such restrictions, which were part of the British colonial policy of Mercantile Capitalism, prevented the Americans from developing their indigenous industry. The colonies were barred by British law from using the non-British ships for trade. The export of certain raw material goods from American colonies could only be made to Britain. Further, a very heavy duty was levied on import of non-British goods into America. Such trade barriers are the characteristic feature of Mercantile Capitalism.

Further, the Americans were forbidden by law to setup industries like iron works & textiles. The exports of finished iron and textile goods were very profitable to the British businessmen and thus, the Americans were forced to fund the British growth in these sectors of the economy.

2. Proclamation of 1763

The aim of American Revolution was to end the British Colonialism in North America. As a truce with the American Indians, who had started an armed rebellion at the end of the Seven year War, the British Parliament issued a “Proclamation of 1763” which banned the expansion by the US settlers to the west of the Appalachian Mountains, as this area was now reserved for the native American Indians. Another reason for issue of such a proclamation was the lobbying by the Aristocrats in Britain, who did not want the westward expansion. They had bought land in the American colonies and made profits from the rents they extracted from the white settlers. The American settlers, who had fought in the Seven year War along the British with the purpose of westward expansion, felt cheated and thus ignored this proclamation. Their local militia forces continued to bring the area in the west under their control.  

3. Role of Enlightenment Thinkers

The Enlightenment or the “Age of reason” was a movement that began in 1600s with ideas proposed by thinkers like Hobbe and Locke on the form of government and the rights of the people. It reached its height in mid 1700s. Hobbe was pro-Absolute Monarchy and gave the concept of Social Contract which means that – because all people behave in self interest, people should give up some of their rights to the government, which in return should provide law and order to the society. On the other hand, Locke had a positive view of man and believed that man can learn from experience. He favoured the concept of Self-government. According to Locke, all people are born free and equal, with three natural rights—life, liberty, and property. The purpose of government, said Locke, is to protect these rights. If a government fails to do so, citizens have a right to overthrow it. (This right to insurrection was also made part of the Jacobin constitution in the French revolution.)

These modern thinkers and philosophers played an important role in American and French Revolution. Around 1750, many Thinkers were challenging the status-quo and demanding freedom and liberty for the people. They placed before the people, the idea of a democratic form of governance. They helped in development of ideas of Republicanism and Liberalism that militated against colonialism. English Philosophers like Locke, Harrington and Milton believed that men have fundamental rights, which no government can infringe. In 1690, Locke had defined the three natural rights of man. Montesquieu had described the principle of Separation of Powers in 1748. Thomas Paine of France argued that it was absurd that a continent (North America) be governed by an island (Britain). The Enlightenment thinkers in mid-1700s in France gave following ideas, which influenced both, the American Revolution and the French Revolution:

  • The idea of Reason: Enlightenment thinkers believed truth could be discovered through reason or logical thinking. Reason, they said, was the absence of intolerance and prejudice in one’s thinking.
  • The idea of Nature: To them, what was natural was also good and reasonable. They believed that there were natural laws of economics and politics, just as there were natural laws of motion.
  • The idea of Happiness: A person who lived by nature’s laws would find happiness. Philosophers were impatient with the medieval notion propagated by the Church that people should accept misery in this world to find joy in the life after death. They wanted well-being on earth, and they believed it was possible.
  • The idea of Progress:  The philosophers were the first Europeans to believe in progress for society. With a scientific approach, they believed, society and humankind could be perfected.
  •  The idea of Liberty: The philosophers envied the liberties that the English people had won in their Glorious Revolution (1688). In France, there were many restrictions on speech, religion, trade, and personal travel. Through reason, they believed, society could be set free.

 4. Recovery of (Seven Year) War Expenditure:

The Seven Year War had cost a lot of money to Britain. When they decided to make up for the costs of war by taxing the people in British colonies in North America, the latter opposed it.  

5. No Representation in British Parliament:

The British Parliament enacted the Stamp Act in 1765, which imposed stamp taxes on all business transactions in the British colonies in USA. E.g. revenue stamps of some amount were made mandatory for all legal documents. The Americans responded by boycotting the British goods and soon many uprisings in the towns followed where the tax collectors were exterminated.  Since the British Parliament had no American representation, the American leaders opposed the right of Britain to levy any taxes on them. Moreover, the Americans felt that the money thus collected was used in interest of the British and not for development of the peoples of America. In the Massachusetts Assembly, the leaders of all 13 colonies gathered and adopted the slogan of No Taxation without Representation. The threat by the American leaders to stop the import of British goods forced the British into repealing the Stamp Act.  Further, the Americans opposed the tax on consumer goods imported by the colonies by cutting British imports by half, which coerced the British into withdrawing all taxes except on Tea. The tax on Tea was not very high but it was not withdrawn by British because they wanted to retain their right to levy tax in US colonies. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was a protest against this Tea tax. A ship carrying tea was anchored in the Boston port. Initially the Americans did not allow the ship to unload and this resulted in a standoff for many days. Finally, when the pro-Britain Boston Governor ordered unloading, the white settlers dressed as American Indians destroyed all the tea by offloading all the containers into the sea. The infuriated British responded by closing the Boston Port to all trade and by passing the Intolerable Acts of 1774 (They were called Coercive Acts by the British. Intolerable Acts was the term used by Americans.)

6. Intolerable Acts of 1774 & the Philadelphia Congress

The 1st Continental Congress in Philadelphia (1774) , which had representatives from 12 colonies (Georgia did not participate because it wanted British help in dealing with militancy of American Indians) was held in response to the Intolerable Acts/Coercive Acts passed by the British Parliament earlier in 1774 to punish the colony of Massachusetts for the incident of Boston Tea Party by taking away its right of self-government. The Americans also appealed to King George III to remove restrictions on indigenous industries, allow Americans to trade with all the countries at reduced tariffs and not to tax the American colonies without their consent. Britain interpreted these demands as a Mutiny and attacked the colonies in 1775. This led the American representatives to proclaim the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (drafted by Thomas Jefferson), which had the following points:

• That all men are created equal.

• That they are endowed by their creation certain inalienable rights like right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

• Republicanism, i.e. the principle that people are the source of authority and it is people’s right to setup their own government.

• Independence, i.e. the American colonies are oppressed by the British government and these United Colonies are and ought to be free and independent states. The principle of states coming together to form the US Federation can be read between these lines.)

The Declaration of Independence document did two things – it summarized the political philosophy of Enlightenment thinkers like Locke in form of “self evident truths” and it listed the grievances to justify the breaking of ties between the colonies and the mother country.