The Revolutionary War
The Revolutionary War was, of course, monumental. But it also was a very unusual phenomenon. Seceding from the most powerful country in the world was judged by most then to be an impossible feat, and many Americans thought it ludicrous to carry out actions against a powerful king. “American tradition would have you believe that there was almost no opposition of the Revolutionary War,” writes historian Margaret Smith. “In fact, there was strong opposition to the war of independence in parts of the 13 colonies.” As most war historians will admit, Americans were outnumbered, vulnerable in many ways and without many of the military tools to wage such an important war.
Then why did the colonists attempt such a feat? In order to judge whether the revolution was necessary, it is important to understand the reasons why so many colonists and men of power supported the break with Great Britain. Obviously, the social and governmental structure of the 13 colonies was very different from that now binding the 50 states now part of America. The American people enjoyed many of the rights granted to their English brethren – considered by many to be the “freest people in the world” – and were governed according to basic civic principles transplanted from overseas: private property rights, basic democratic representation, local administration and the common law. Because they were extensions of the worldwide British Empire, colonies benefited from the protection of the English army and navy, as well as the steady stream of choice consumer goods that poured in from across the Atlantic Ocean.
Yet, anyone who enjoys the freedoms granted by the current government in the United States would have balked indeed at the restrictions enacted by King George III, then the leader of Great Britain. With the Proclamation of 1763, he banned settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains; with the Currency Act, he prohibited colonists from issuing much needed paper money. Even though afforded many de jure freedoms, colonists were, by 1759, forced to be loyal to a king who ruled from afar, subjected to random searches, expected to pay taxes that largely funded Britain’s numerous wars and denied appropriate representation in Parliament, the mother country’s governing body. Acts such as the following:
Taken together, these legislative measures threatened the “apparent” balance of power between the king, governors, councils, assemblies and colonial subjects. The loss of this balance added fuel to the fires that had been building in the minds of many colonists.
There has been considerable debate among historical scholars about the traditional narrative of the American Revolution and why colonists actually overthrew their mother country. Reporter and historian Kenneth C. Davis sums up two contrasting viewpoints:
The established traditionalist view is that the American Revolution was fought for liberties that Americans believed they already possessed as British citizens. The more radical political and economic viewpoint holds that the Revolution was simply a transfer of power from a distant British elite to a homegrown American power class that wanted to consolidate its hold over the wealth of the continent.
Both theories are valuable, but the truth most likely lies somewhere in the middle. Even after independence, the colonies were defined by a de facto class system, denied suffrage to women and other groups and continued the cruel practices of slavery; contrary to the lofty ideals stated in the Declaration of the Independence, prosperity was a privilege not afforded to all.
However, as early as 1777, the new democratic system had made many changes from the previous era. Moreover, the reasons cited by the colonists for declaring independence and ultimately for waging war were very influential in the drafting of the Articles of Confederation. This primitive national constitution did unite the colonies for diplomatic purposes, but it had many shortcomings. The biggest problem was that the government was largely decentralized and could not tax its citizens, leaving the country without any means to accumulate wealth. This weakness was not an accident; it was a direct reaction to the concentration of authority in a single entity, namely a king who could tax at will.
The current U.S. Constitution, written to replace to almost powerless Articles of Confederation, also bears the influence of many problems that angered colonists under British rule. Policies that were hated most in the days of the colonies were those that were most avoided, and one look at the Bill of Rights indicates the direct relation of pre-Revolution rule on the formation of the United States. The drafters of the document were careful to change the following practices despised under British rule. The quartering of troops in private homes was banned by Amendment III. Unreasonable searches and seizures – and the writs of assistance that had permitted them in the years before independence - were outlawed by Amendment IV. And the maintenance of state militias was legalized by Amendment II.
Moreover, the concepts of freedom triumphed by many Americans and – at least theoretically by national law - were born from the political turmoil caused by Great Britain’s somewhat unfair rule over the colonies. It is important to remember that the inalienable privileges granted by the Bill of Rights were not always inalienable. The first series of amendments were, in fact, a reassuring way for the first politicians to prove that basic rights would not be taken away by the new government.
Perhaps the most significant development inspired by the American Revolution was the birth and maturity of a distinct national culture. While the basic civic and social structures were largely unchanged by the shift in power, Americans began to take pride in their new nationality and to form their own ways of life. The art and the literature of the period expressed these sentiments clearly.