American Revolution1

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  American Revolution The first great political revolution of the modern era, the American Revolution of the 1770s and 1780s led to the independence of Britain’s 13 mainland North American colonies and the establishment of the first republic in the Americas. The meaning of the American Revolution has  been much debated ever since. Was it simply a war of national independence or a fight to establish a radical new kind of representative government? Were the aims of the revolution merely to extend traditional English liberties across the Atlantic or to create a new and broader class of civil liberties and citizens’ rights? Contentious, too, have been interpretations of the impact of the revolution on the world at large. Some historians argue that the effect was minimal, especially compared to the roughly contemporaneous but more universally influential French Revolution. The circumstances that gave rise to the American Revolution were unique, they argue, and the representative democracy to which it gave birth came to serve as a model for only a handful of other countries. Other historians contend that the civic ideas first propounded by American patriots provided an immediate inspiration for European radicals, particularly in France, and a longer-term inspiration for anti-imperial revolutionaries throughout the colonized world. Origins and War Less debatable are the causes of the revolution. These can be divided into two general classes: long-term philosophical and short-term political and economic. Like many well-educated Europeans, those in the colonies generally subscribed to Enlightenment ideas about liberty and  equality, specifically that people had certain natural rights to freedom and that all persons should  be treated equally before the law. These were not purely abstract ideas for the colonists. Sheer  physical distance from governmental authority and the absence of an established church allowed Britain’s North American subjects greater freedom of action and conscience than their compatriots in the home country. The more immediate, and better-known, cause of the revolution was imperial overreach. By besting France in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763, known in the United States as the French and Indian War), Britain took possession of much of eastern North America. But it was a costly conflict, doubling the nation’s debt. To pay it down and to subsidize the higher costs of defense, Britain imposed new imposts on the previously lightly taxed colonists, and began to  post additional troops there. In addition, it enacted legislation to more firmly anchor the colonies in the imperial economic system, thereby circumscribing the commercial opportunities of colonists, particularly merchants. These were the immediate economic grievances of the colonists. Underlying them were larger political questions of representation and self-government. The colonists, particularly the elites, had gotten used to running their own affairs, with little interference from London, and they had enjoyed more broadly representative local governments than had their fellow subjects in Britain. Now Parliament was circumcising those freedoms. When colonists complained, British officials countered that Parliament represented all the peoples of the empire. At first, many colonists, including most future patriot leaders, simply demanded a return to the freedoms they enjoyed before the Seven Years’ War, as well a confirmation of the liberties they believed they were endowed with as Englishmen. But, with Britain’s harsh crackdown on dissent in the early 1770s, open rebellion broke out. The Revolutionary War that began in 1775  was a brutal affair, with civilians frequently caught between two contending armies. Moreover, the war deeply divided the American people, with a solid minority remaining loyal to the crown to the end, sparking bitter civil conflict. After seven long years, and with the critical help of the French, the colonists prevailed and the British were forced to concede their independence. Creating a New Republic By declaring themselves independent in 1776, the colonists also set themselves the task of inventing a new government. In this, they were motivated as much by what they did    not   want as  by what they did  . Frustrated with a distant central government that claimed to represent the  people in what later historians would describe as “virtual” terms—Parliament as a collective representing the empire’s subjects as a whole—the colonists constructed a government, based on the Articles of Confederation, that tipped the balance of power more to the states than the central government, that is, closer to the people. Moreover, delegates to Congress would represent their district’s interests first and foremost, with policy resulting from the clash of these various interests--that is, between merchants and farmers, or slaveholders and advocates of free labor— and regions. While the idea of absolute representation endured as a fundamental pillar of American democracy, the weak central government proposed by the Articles of Confederation proved unworkable. Revenues could not be raised effectively, and public debt could not be retired. The terms of the document were even incapable of projecting a coherent foreign policy for the new nation. Most Americans came to agree that the constitution of the new republic needed modifying and the central government required strengthening, though how much was hotly  debated. In the end, those calling for a radical transformation won out. The Federalists, as they called themselves, wrote a new constitution that gave the central government far greater power to raise taxes, deal with debt, conduct foreign policy, and regulate internal commerce. But the anti-Federalists, or those who opposed the new Constitution, enjoyed a substantial victory of their own, winning passage of the Bill of Rights, setting narrow limits on the federal government’s  power to restrict civil liberties. Defining Republicanism Beneath the struggle over the institutional outlines of the new nation—arguably the first new republic since Italy during the Renaissance—were broader questions over the meaning of republicanism itself. With their classical educations, many of the founders were well versed in the failure of ancient democracies and republics, such as those of Athens and Rome, where  personal ambition overwhelmed civic duty. Indeed, this is precisely why they established the institutional checks and balances of both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Even beyond that, however, they believed that something more was needed: virtue, or the willingness to forgo personal profit for public good, on the part of both citizens and their representatives in government. According to this view, people who were willing to make that sacrifice earned the benefits of democracy, first among which was the ability to rise on one’s own merit rather than on rank, name, or family. Some colonials took the concept of representative democracy even further. Rejecting the idea of a political aristocracy altogether, whether based on rank or on merit, they insisted that republican ideals could be advanced only by extending the right to vote and participate in


Jul 29, 2017
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