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Chapter: 12th History : Chapter 11 : The Age of Revolutions

The American War of Independence

During the Age of Discovery, adventurous seafarers explored the so-called New World and discovered new trade routes with royal support. This ensured better connectivity and profits.

The American War of Independence

During the Age of Discovery, adventurous seafarers explored the so-called New World and discovered new trade routes with royal support. This ensured better connectivity and profits.

Though Spain and Portugal took the lead in exploring the new places, establishing trade centres first and later colonies, it was Britain which established colonies all over the world and successfully controlled them over a long period of time. Though the English were the first to settle in North America, in due course of time, the Germans, the Swedes, the French, the Italians and the Dutch too went to the America and settled there. The colonisation of the New World absorbed the growing population of Europe at a time of rapid economic and demographic growth.

King James I sent an expedition to Virginia where a colony was established in 1607 and named Jamestown. Then the pilgrims from Britain sailed in a ship called Mayflower and set up a colony at Plymouth in Massachusetts. Slowly other colonies were established. The Dutch set up a colony, in 1624, near the mouth of the River Hudson and named it New Amsterdam. Later, the English acquired it from the Dutch and renamed it New York. In the early 1700s enslaved Africans made up a growing percentage of the colonial population. By 1770, more than 2 million people lived and worked in Great Britain's 13 North American colonies.

In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh set up the first colony at Roanoke Island in North Carolina and named it Virginia after the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I. However, due to the stiff resistance put up by the native Indians some of the early settlers returned to England. The Roanoke Island became a lost colony as there was no trace of it when the British sailors reached the island some years later.


Life in the Thirteen Colonies

The colonies varied much in character and the manner in which they had been acquired. They were divided into south and north. In the southern part, endowed with fertile land, agriculture was the primary means of subsistence. The slaves brought from Africa worked in the farm-lands which mainly grew cotton, wheat and tobacco. The Northern states, on the other hand, were devoid of agricultural farmlands. They created mills for cutting timber, ship-building and milling the grains. Iron and textiles were also manufactured. The harbours promoted sea-borne trade.

The transatlantic slave trade is a blot in the history of humanity. The Portuguese began the African slave trade at the opening of seventeenth century. The other nations of Christian Europe followed immediately. The first slaves to be brought to America came in a Dutch ship in 1619. The first English man who realised that lots of money could be made by seizing “unsuspecting negroes” in Africa and selling them to work on plantations in the New World (America) was John Hawkins. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for “his prosperous success and much gain.” It is estimated that more than 11 million Africans reached the Americas as slaves.

Fed up with the unsettled living conditions in Europe, people came to live in these colonies mainly to lead a free life. They also wanted to experience religious freedom and to practice the religion of their choice (for example the Puritans).The colonies were ruled by the British representatives called Governors appointed by the British monarch. The Governors had an assembly similar to a parliament. Women had no voting rights. Among the men, those who paid taxes and owned land alone could vote. Initially they built a cordial relationship with the indigenous people of America, known as American Indians and Native Americans. (They were then referred to pejoratively as ‘Red Indians’) However, in due course of time, they were dispossessed of their land or liquidated.

By the time Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, there were 10 million indigenous people living in U.S. territory. But by 1900, the number had reduced to less than 300,000. Spreading disease was one of the strategies adopted by the Europeans to exterminate the native population. In 1763, a serious uprising threatened British garrisons in Pennsylvania. Worried about limited resources, and provoked by the violence of some Native Americans, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania:“You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” Consequently, small pox was spread to the Native Americans by distributing blankets previously used by infected patients. Colonists in search of gold (1848) staged violent ambushes on tribal villages. Several wars broke out between tribes and American settlers which led to large scale deaths, land dispossession, oppression and blatant racism.


The American War of Independence : Causes

Colonial Governance: Navigation Acts

England considered the colonies as parts of its country and governed them for their own benefit neglecting the interests of the colonies. England passed laws known as Navigation Acts,

which mandated that colonial produce should be exported only in British ships. There were also laws restricting or prohibiting the manufacture of certain articles in the colonies, such as cloth.

The Seven Years War (1756–63) 

The revolt of colonies against England was a direct consequence of England’s intervention in the Seven Years’ War. During the War the colonial assemblies did not co-operate with the mother country in the way expected of them. They voted inadequate supplies and resisted the moves of England to impose certain duties on articles used by the Americans. The English conquest of Canada and removal of all danger from the French made the British government to feel secure. This in turn made the colonies jittery and less disposed than ever to submit to the dictates of England.


Taxes on Colonies

Taxes on Sugar and Molasses

In order to solve the financial crisis arising out of constant wars with other European powers, the British imposed new taxes on the colonies. The first tax imposed was on sugar and molasses, a by-product of sugar, in 1764. All the colonies in North America were forced to pay this tax and the settlers protested against this by raising the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’.

Stamp Act

In 1765, a new tax was introduced on the stamps. The settlers were forced to use stamps on all legal documents and pay the tax for the use of stamps. The settlers refused to buy them and the British traders forced the colonial government to repeal the act.

Townshend Act

Though the Stamp Act was abolished in 1766, in the very next year, an Act was passed that imposed taxes on certain goods imported from Britain. Townshend, who was the Chancellor of Exchequer in Britain, brought this act into force and hence came to be called Townshend Act.

Boston Massacre

In 1770, Lord North, the new prime minister of England, abolished taxes on products except tea. This was retained to assert that the British Parliament had a right to tax the colonies directly as well as indirectly. When the British forces marched on the streets of Boston, Americans criticised the British. This angered the British forces who fired against the people. This Boston Massacre brought to light the aggressive and autocratic nature of the British government.

Boston Tea Party (1773)

In the wake of the Boston Massacre, around 100 activists dressed like Native Americans, boarded the three ships carrying tea and threw 342 boxes into sea at Boston. This incident came to be called the Boston Tea Party.

The British Parliament retaliated with severity. General Gage was appointed Governor of Massachusetts and troops were dispatched with instructions to bring the colony to heel.

Intolerable Acts (1774)

Angered by the Boston Tea Party, the British parliament passed the Boston Port Bill. The Boston harbour was closed until the colonists paid for all the tea thrown into sea. Then the Parliament passed the Massachusetts Government Act, replacing the elective local council, and enhancing the powers of the military governor Gage. The third measure, the Administration of Justice Act allowed British officials charged with capital offenses to be tried in another colony or in England. The fourth intolerable Act, a replica of the Quartering Act, which was abolished, permitted the requisition of unoccupied buildings to house British troops. The Intolerable Acts (1774), also known as Coercive Acts, evoked a wave of outrage in colonies.

Quebec Act

The Quebec Act passed by the British government in 1774 awarded the territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the province of Quebec. The colonial governments of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia were angered by the unilateral assignment of the Ohio lands to Quebec, which had been granted to them in their royal charters. By permitting French Civil Law and the Roman Catholic religion in the newly carved out area, Britain also provoked the protestant colonies.

The Intolerable Acts of 1774 became the justification for convening the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia. The representatives of all the colonies, except that of Georgia, demanded the repeal of the Intolerable Acts. The Congress decided to boycott the British goods until then. They sent a representation with an olive branch (peace proposal) to the British King George III. This was known as the Olive Branch Petition. The king however refused to buy peace.


Outbreak of War

In the meantime, in 1775, at Lexington in Massachusetts, the farmers fought the British and then marched on Boston to besiege the British garrison at Bunker Hill. On 4 July 1776, all the thirteen colonies declared independence from Britain. The declaration of independence was essentially the work of Thomas Jefferson which marked the beginning of the history of an independent country called the United States of America.

The Declaration of Independence (1776)

It was Richard Lee who proposed that the colonies should be independent states. A draft committee was formed to draft the declaration of independence whose members included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.

The British army was led by William Howe while the American forces were led by George Washington. Though in the initial phases Howe made a few successful attempts by defeating Washington at Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey, Washington, through his planned military tactics inflicted defeat on the British army. In 1777, at the Battle of Saratoga, the British General Burgoyne was forced to surrender. Finally, the British forces surrendered to the American forces in 1781 at York Town. With this victory the northern colonies became free. However, Howe retained New York almost till the end of the war.

Solidarity of European Powers with Colonists

During the American war of independence, the European powers that were not on friendly terms with the British decided to support the American colonies. The countries in Northern Europe including Prussia, Sweden and Denmark formed the ‘Armed neutrality’ against Great Britain. Britain was in turmoil as it had to face hostility from its enemies as well as neutral powers.

The French, followed by the Spanish and the Dutch, helped the American colonies in this war of independence. France lent support to the Americans as vengeance against the loss of Canada. The French volunteers who crossed the Atlantic to fight for the colonists returned with ideas of individual liberty which made them intolerant of the restrictions of the Bourbon monarchy.

Thomas (Tom) Paine and Common Sense

Thomas Paine, an Englishman, wrote the pamphlet titled Common Sense (1776). In this pamphlet Paine sought to provide arguments to justify the demands of the colonists. He picked up libertarian ideas from Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau and presented them in ways the common people could understand. The pamphlet sold over 150,000 copies and had an astounding impact of people.

Many of the wealthy merchants and large landowners remained loyal to the British monarchy and influenced a large section of the population especially in New York and Pennsylvania. The colonists split into two divisions: the Patriots who wanted freedom and the Loyalists who wanted to remain loyal to the British crown. The Loyalists, called Tories, wanted the British to rule as they belonged to the Anglican Church. So a civil war in the midst of the revolution became inevitable.

Treaty of Paris

In 1783, the British Parliament decided that it was pointless to carry on the war. Lord North resigned as Prime Minister. King George lost control over the House of Commons. The new Prime Minister Lord Rockingham started the peace talks. A peace treaty was signed between the Great Britain and America in 1783 at Paris.

George Washington (1732–1799) became the first president of the United States of America. One of the founding fathers of America, he played a significant role in the American Revolution first as a military officer and later as an astute politician.

Important Provisions of the Treaty

·           Britain recognised the freedom of 13 colonies and the formation of a new country called the United States of America.

·           The area bordered by Mississippi River on the west and the 31st parallel in the south went to USA.

·           France gained certain British territories in West Indies, India and Africa.

·           Spain obtained Florida from Great Britain

·           Holland and England maintained the status quo that prevailed before the war.


Significance of American Revolution

·           The American Revolution opened up many avenues in the history of the world.

·           The concepts of democracy and republic became widespread.

·           The political and social changes were on the lines of democracy and equality.

·           USA became a land of opportunities and freedom for all settlers.

·           Education gained prominence.

·           The principle of federalism became widespread.

·           The American Revolution was a setback for colonialism. The demand of the colonies for independence against their colonial masters became widespread in many parts of the world.

·           It paved the way for a free society where every individual was given the freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal opportunities.


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