In the 16th century, European countries began to make settlements in North America. These colonies were established by France, Holland (province of Netherland) and Spain as well as England.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had given England a constitutional monarchy. Now, various laws limited the power of the English king. Philosophes 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. Infant industries had developed in such products as wool, flax, and leather. In the north, there were fishing and ship-building. In the south, large plantations like feudal manors had grown up where tobacco and cotton were grown with slave labour 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 and developed into a Revolutionary War in which the colonists gained their independence.
Causes of the American War of Independence
Economic causes :
- The colonial policy of England in economic matters 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, 1658 Navigation Acts, the English parliament had forbidden colonists to use non-British ships for their trade.
- 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. Thus 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.
- As a result of continuous wars in Europe, the English government was burdened with debt. It needed money.
- In 1765, 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.
- 1767 Townshend duties (taxes on essential commodities e.g. Sugar, oil etc.) were 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.
- 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.
- 1740 – 1763 Anglo-French rivalry reflected itself in American colonies as well. The two decades of war was an expensive affair. It ended in the Treaty of Paris-1763 where the French agreed to withdraw from America and South Asia.
- These wars resulted in huge debt on Britain. To recover from huge war debt, the British imposed a series of new taxes on American Colonies.
- 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.
Role of Philosophers
- The American revolutionaries were inspired by the ideas of the English philosophers of the 17th century. These philosophers— Locke, Harrington, Milton – believed that men had certain fundamental rights which no government had the right to infringe.
- American thinkers, especially Thomas Jefferson, were inspired by the writings of French philosophers. Jefferson asserted the colonists’ right to rebellion and encouraged their desire for independence.
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.
- The King declared their action a mutiny and ordered troops to be sent to suppress it. As a response, the colonies planned for military defence with local troops or militia.
- In 1775, 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 are, and of right ought 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 came to be known as American independence day.
War of Independence
- George Washington was put in 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.
- But an English general spoiled the plan. As the English marched south, the Americans met and defeated them. This victory of the rough American militia-men against a trained British force gave the Americans confidence.
- The French government now decided to help the colonies with troops, supplies and funds—to embarrass the English, France’s old enemy. Other enemies of English—Spain and Holland—were soon fighting the English elsewhere
- Meanwhile, trouble was brewing for Britain at home. There was a threat of rebellion in Ireland; some leaders in Parliament were opposing the war with the colonists.
- 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.
Impact of American Revolution
- The American defeat of a mighty empire like Britain encouraged other colonies to do the same.
- 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 democracy around the world in the next two hundred years.
- The American Revolution also influenced the french revolution.
- 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 started a swing between extremes of Privilege and the Deification of the Common Man. Separation of church and state. The increased importance of education to democracy.
- From 1776 to 1850, America expanded from 13 states to 50 states. From the eastern to the western coast.