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Overview of the American Revolution
Digital History ID 2910

Much more than a revolt against British taxes and trade regulations, the American Revolution was the first modern revolution. It marked the first time in history that a people fought for their independence in the name of certain universal principles such as rule of law, constitutional rights, and popular sovereignty.

This section examines the causes, fighting, and consequences of the American Revolution. You will read about the problems created by the Seven Years' War, and British efforts to suppress American smuggling, to prevent warfare with Indians, and to pay the cost of stationing troops in the colonies. You will also read about the emerging patterns of resistance in the colonies, including petitions, pamphlets, intimidation, boycotts, and intercolonial meetings. You will also learn about the series of events, including the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the Coercive Acts, that ruptured relations between Britain and its American colonies.

In addition, you will learn why many colonists hesitated before declaring independence and how the Declaration of Independence summarized colonial grievances and provided a vision of a future independent American republic. This chapter will discuss the composition of the British and American military forces; the Revolution's implications for the institution of slavery; and the role of the French, Spanish, Dutch, and Native Americans in the colonists' struggle for independence. Finally, you will learn why the Americans emerged victorious in the Revolution.

Summary:

The Causes of the Revolution

The roots of the American Revolution can be traced to the year 1763 when British leaders began to tighten imperial reins. Once harmonious relations between Britain and the colonies became increasingly conflict-riven. Britain’s land policy prohibiting settlement in the West irritated colonists as did the arrival of British troops. The most serious problem was the need for money to support the empire.

Attempts through the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts to raise money rather than control trade met with growing resistance in the colonies. Tensions increased further after Parliament passed the Coercive Acts and the First Continental Congress took the first steps toward independence from Britain. Before the colonies gained independence, they had to fight a long and bitter war.

The Revolutionary War

The British had many advantages in the war, including a large, well-trained army and navy and many Loyalists who supported the British Empire. But many white colonists were alienated by Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom to slaves who joined the royal army, and were inspired by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

Excellent leadership by George Washington; the aid of such European nations as France; and tactical errors by British commanders contributed to the American victory. British strategy called for crushing the rebellion in the North. Several times the British nearly defeated the Continental Army. But victories at Trenton and Princeton, N.J., in late 1776 and early 1777 restored patriot hopes, and victory at Saratoga, N.Y., which halted a British advance from Canada, led France to intervene on behalf of the rebels.

In 1778, fighting shifted to the South. Britain succeeded in capturing Georgia and Charleston, S.C. and defeating an American army at Camden, S.C. But bands of patriots harassed loyalists and disrupted supply lines, and Britain failed to achieve control over the southern countryside before advancing northward to Yorktown, Va. In 1781, an American and French force defeated the British at Yorktown in the war's last major battle.

Consequences:

1. About 7,200 Americans died in battle during the Revolution. Another 10,000 died from disease or exposure and about 8,500 died in British prisons.

2. A quarter of the slaves in South Carolina and Georgia escaped from bondage during the Revolution. The Northern states outlawed slavery or adopted gradual emancipation plans.

3. The states adopted written constitutions that guaranteed religious freedom, increased the legislature's size and powers, made taxation more progressive, and reformed inheritance laws.