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The American Revolution (1775–1783) is significant in world history for several reasons: the opportunity to weaken Britain’s position drew the French monarchy into the conflict, which contributed to a financial crisis and the ensuing French Revolution; the rebellion inspired later changes in British colonial policy (at least where white settlers predominated); and the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence inspired revolutionaries and nationalists elsewhere in the world.
The American Revolution took place between 1775 and 1783 and pitted colonists of the thirteen British colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America against Great Britain. The revolution was triggered by increased British efforts to control the colonies from 1763 onward, efforts largely designed to expand revenues for the British treasury. New taxes and regulations on colonial economic activity infuriated many colonists, accustomed to their own semi-independent colonial legislatures and considerable commercial latitude. Patriotic societies formed, and leaders began to invoke Enlightenment ideas about liberty and about popular control over government. (The Enlightenment was a philosophic movement of the eighteenth century marked by a rejection of traditional social, religious, and political ideas and an emphasis on rationalism.) Specific issues, such as the indebtedness of many southern planters to British banks, played a role as well. The patriotic Continental Congress assembled and began discussing independence in 1774. Outright clashes between armed militia groups and British soldiers began in Massachusetts in 1775. George Washington was named commander in the summer of that year.
Perhaps one-third of the colonists actively supported the ensuing struggle for independence, whereas another large minority preferred loyalty to the Crown. (Many Loyalists—also called “Tories”— fled to Canada and were stripped of their property.) Partisans included Virginia planters and New England political radicals, who agreed on Britain as a common enemy but disagreed about social change. A number of farmers, in what was still a largely agricultural society, participated in the struggle, as did some African Americans; the first colonist killed in the struggle was, in fact, an African American sailor. The colonies declared independence in 1776.
Fighting occurred in both North and South, with British troops, bolstered by German mercenaries, often holding the upper hand. Britain was hampered by cautious tactics but also by frequent overconfidence against the amateur colonial forces. The colonists had numbers on their side—although the actual number of combatants was small, with rarely more than fifteen thousand in the colonists’ ranks at any given time. Many militiamen were part-time and ill trained, and funding was also a problem. France, and to a lesser degree Spain and the Netherlands, provided funds and weapons and direct military support after 1776, and this support was crucial in the latter stages of the revolution.
By 1781 fighting concentrated in Virginia, where the British general Charles Cornwallis had to yield to a combined French-American force at Yorktown. Desultory fighting continued for two years before a peace was signed in Paris to recognize the new United States, with territory running from Florida (ceded by Britain to Spain) to Canada, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Britain feared even greater losses to its empire if war were to continue.
The significance of the American Revolution in world history rests on several bases. It was part of the ongoing colonial struggle among European powers because the opportunity to weaken Britain’s position drew the French monarchy into the conflict. The revolution ultimately inspired later changes in British colonial policy toward greater flexibility and decentralization where white settlers pre-dominated; Canada became the first beneficiary during the first half of the nineteenth century. French expenditures in the war contributed to financial crises at home and helped lead to the need to call the Estates General (assembly) to consider new taxes and then to the French Revolution of 1789.
The example of colonial independence, the strong principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence and other writings by U.S. leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, and the institutions ultimately established by the Constitution all inspired revolutionaries and nationalists elsewhere. (During a brief period of confusion, after 1783, the United States attempted a loose confederation; the later establishment of a federal system, with checks and balances among legislature, executive, and judiciary would have the real influence in the long run.) French revolutionaries invoked the revolution in 1789 but also in 1830 and 1848; in the last revolution, a U.S.-style presidency was sought, although the effort misfired. The U.S. example loomed large in the Haitian and Latin American struggles for independence (1798 and post-1810, respectively) because it provided the first modern instance of decolonization. The South American liberator Simon Bolivar, particularly, cited U.S. precedent in his hopes for a greater Colombia, free from Spanish control.
The U.S. political philosopher Thomas Paine summed up this aspect of U.S. influence, although with some exaggeration, claiming that the revolution “contributed more to enlighten the world and diffuse a spirit of freedom and liberty among mankind, than any human event that ever preceded it.”
The revolution also deserves comparative analysis. It was not a major social upheaval, although a new generation of leaders did wrest power from their elders. Despite revolutionary principles, and some ensuing emancipations in northern states, slavery was not systematically attacked. Radical urban leaders such as Sam Adams in Boston were mainly controlled in favor of greater unity against the British, and the social structure and relations between men and women were not significantly altered. The revolution was far less sweeping than its later French counterpart. It was also unusually politically successful, compared with later independence struggles elsewhere, without a long, disruptive aftermath as in many revolutions and the Latin American independence movements. Good leadership and considerable political experience in colonial legislatures may help explain this success. The quick resumption of close economic ties with Britain after the war encouraged the U.S. economy. “New nation” difficulties, so common during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, were limited in the United States, although rifts between North and South, united during the revolution, would soon resurface.
Finally, the revolution was, of course, a founding event for the United States itself. American nationalism, only tentatively developed before the revolution, was given a considerable boost, and the new political institutions established by the Constitution worked through their formative period during the 1790s and early nineteenth century with impressive success. Opportunities for westward expansion, initially in the territories of the Midwest and deep South, followed from the revolutionary settlement as well. The United States did not emerge from the revolution as a major world power; indeed, it largely stayed free of major foreign entanglements. But the nation did begin to set its own course.
- Bender, T. (2006). A nation among nations: America’s place in world history. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Dull, J. R. (1985). A diplomatic history of the American Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Middlekauff, R. (1985). The glorious cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Norton, M. B. (1980). Liberty’s daughters. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Wood, G. S. (1992). The radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Wood, G. S. (2002). The American Revolution: A history. New York: Modern Library.
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