The “North” American Revolution Emerges

This outline begins with a brief survey of the 13 colonies, including their origins, similarities, and differences. I stress the contingency and uncertainty of the colonists’ development as a unified group of peoples. This sense of unity emerges out of a series of colonial wars that the English fought, especially with the French in the 1750s and 1760s. In these decades, we begin to see the emergence of a sense of an “American” identity among the English colonists. By the 1770s, Englishmen in the Americas increasingly see themselves at odds with Englishmen on the other side of the Atlantic. The outline concludes with the emergence of a colonial crisis and the move toward independence in 1775 and 1776.

The 13 colonies were part of the larger process of European conquest, but they were different than most of the other American colonies.

A. In many ways, the 13 colonies were very much like the French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.

  1. The colonies from Maryland and Virginia to Georgia developed plantation agriculture and African slavery to produce cash crops for export to Europe.
  2. A relatively small white elite dominated the colonies as they subjugated and annihilated Native Americans and African slaves.
  3. The “English” elite consisted of recent immigrants from England, as well as English families with long roots in North America.
  4. Like many of the American colonies, the roots of rebellion emerged out of the grievances of colonial elites frustrated with the reassertion of imperial authority.

B. The differences with the Iberian colonies, however, were dramatic and would move the 13 colonies along a fundamentally different historical path.

  1. Many of the colonists—especially in New England—had fled the homeland to get away from the king’s authority, whereas the Iberian colonists hoped to work their way up through the monarchical system.
  2. The power of the monarchy was considerably weaker in England than in Spain and Portugal, and the political culture was already moving toward greater individual rights.
  3. New England, in particular, did not develop slavery and plantation agriculture but became a center for shipping, commerce, and trade.

C. Many historians of the United States throughout the last two centuries have focused on the differences and stressed the exceptionalism of the “American” experience and the American Revolution.

  1. I want to stress the similarities in the processes across all of the Americas while not losing sight of the distinctiveness of the U.S. experience.
  2. The United States is an exceptional nation but not as much as we would like to think.

Imperial conflicts, especially between the English and the French, set the stage for the emergence of colonial unrest and the American Revolution.

A. After nearly half a century of what has been labeled “salutary neglect,” England rediscovered its North American colonies, largely prompted by war and conflicts with the French and Native Americans.

  1. The English colonies in North America were settled in a fashion very different than the conquest in Latin America.
  2. When the period of salutary neglect began in the early 18th century, the oldest colonies had been in place less than a century.
  3. Economic activity in the colonies had also expanded rapidly and dramatically in the first half of the 18th century.
  4. War and its costs compelled the British Crown and Parliament to end salutary neglect with a series of reforms in its Atlantic empire.
  5. King George’s War in the 1740s was the first stage of these emerging conflicts that began to reveal important differences in the interests of English colonists and the English government.
  6. Most historians, however, point to the Seven Years’ War, or the French and Indian War (1756–1763), as the pivotal moment in the emergence of conflict between colonists and Crown.
  7. In the larger colonial scheme, the result of the war was the expulsion of the French from North America and the division of the continent between England and Spain, east and west of the Mississippi.

B. The rising costs of fighting wars in North America and continually defending the mainland colonies became the festering sore that would eventually produce a rupture between colonists and Crown.

  1. From the early 1760s to the mid-1770s, the English Crown and Parliament enacted a series of imperial reforms to defend and maintain the American Empire.
  2. The taxes and duties they levied became a powerful divisive force between England and the 13 colonies.
  3. The Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend duties galled the American colonists and goaded them to action.

Within a few decades, the English began to develop a sense of identity as Americans.

A. Taxation and the increasing presence of British authority in the form of troops proved to be the catalysts for this change.

  1. Time and again in the 1760s and 1770s, the British government pressed the issue of its authority over the colonists, more precisely, over its right to tax the colonials.
  2. In March 1770, British troops fired on a hostile crowd in Boston, killing five in what became known as the Boston Massacre.
  3. The passage of the Tea Act spurred the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 to protest the English legislation.
  4. In response, the English Parliament passed a series of Intolerable Acts, cracking down on the colonists.

B. The colonists responded by calling the First Continental Congress in 1774.

  1. At this crucial moment, the colonists stood on the brink of making a full break with England.
  2. They were on the verge of defining themselves as an independent people in control of their own destiny.
  3. In early 1775, open fighting would break out and the die would be cast.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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