The causes and events leading up to the American Revolution are integral to understanding the revolution as a whole, including how it happened, why it happened, and why events developed as they did during the process itself. Many of the most important events took place between the development of the British colonies and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Thus, it is essential to have a good understanding of this background before diving into the events of the revolution.
During the 18th century, Great Britain established itself as a leading power, as a world hegemon. A striking manifestation of Britain’s leadership was its victory in the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763. The terms of the Paris Peace Treaty (1763) consolidated the position of Great Britain as the main economic, maritime, and colonial power. All French colonies in North America were annexed to Great Britain. Its government, no longer needing the support of American colonists, began to exploit them intensively: introducing restrictive laws and imposing new taxes and duties on them.
During this period, the industrial revolution in Great Britain demanded the use of the colonies not only as suppliers of raw materials but also as consumers of British manufactured goods. Due to the system of mercantilism, imports from the British Empire increasingly exceeded exports from the colonies. American colonists had to pay taxes to the British treasury, but the funds could be obtained by trading only with the British Empire itself. In addition to restricting trade with other countries, the colonies were prohibited from developing their own industrial production. The policy of mercantilism led the colonies to have a trade balance liability, which in fact, was a large indirect tax in favor of the ruling classes of Great Britain. The extensive development of plantations and farms in the southern colonies under monoculture conditions led to the dependence of landowners on English merchants and an increase in their indebtedness to merchants1. British merchants were increasingly faced with a reduction in turnover in trade with the colonies, who resorted to illegal deals with Holland. Under pressure from its commercial bourgeoisie, the British crown lifted some colonial restrictions.
Colonization had several tasks: for example, monopolizing the sales market for products of British industry and limiting local industrial production. It was also necessary to promote the interests of British fur traders, land speculators, fishers, timber merchants; development of shipping only within the English possessions and monopolizing the economic benefits of trade; the establishment of British domination in the field of colonial goods trade. The British tried to establish control over the colonies’ credit and finances, strengthen the role of the military in the life of the colonies, and preserve the interests of British investors in the colonies.
Some other political reasons were based on the British government banning colonists from settling west of the Appalachians. In the same year, the Royal Navy began to patrol along the American coast to control the trade of the colonies. Then all cases of violators of the laws on trade were transferred to the jurisdiction of the vice-admiralty courts, where the proceedings were conducted without a jury. The British Parliament passed the Currency Act regulating the circulation of paper money in the colonies. British merchants saw paper money as a way to avoid paying debts. Like all colonies, America was prohibited from issuing paper money and was obliged to pay customs duties in silver.
The North American colonies generally performed different but similar functions. Great Britain, a small island country, did not have access to all the resources available in the colonies. The various economic activities of each colonial region were critical to the success and wealth of the British Empire. Other countries, most notably France, also fought for financial control of the area. As a result of the wars in France and India (1754-1763), Britain finally gained complete, undisputed possession of the east coast of North America.
The subsequent relationship of the British with the colonists and the growing desire for self-government became “seeds” of the revolution. American colonists begin to organize resistance to the British Empire in response to high taxes, violence, and oppression. Through boycotts, protests, and sheer will, the colonists ended up in complete conflict with Britain, deciding that this was the only way to declare total independence from their home country. With the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, American colonists were ready to defend themselves and their ideas in the struggle for freedom.
Thus, dozens of different factors influenced the development of revolutionary events. Some were economic, others territorial or political. They were united by one thing: a state system that did not satisfy the needs of everyone. Consequently, qualitative changes were required, but they could only be achieved by force. This was the reason for the revolutionary mood and subsequent events.
The revolutionary state governments abolished such feudal laws as the law on inheritance of land without the right of alienation and the law establishing the birthright, according to which all land went to only one heir. These measures, integrating land into capitalist commodity circulation, contributed to progress in liberating the economy and expanding social mobility.
The fund of available lands of the young republic was expanded at the expense of the confiscation of the royal forests and the abolition of England’s rule over the vast landmass from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. In the latter case, the actual owners of the concerned lands were tens of thousands of Indians, but this circumstance did not manage to stop the Americans’ greed for land. The confiscation and sale of these territories led to a significant redistribution of land ownership, exerting a certain leveling influence, which, however, was partially canceled out by the new concentration of property in the hands of land speculators2. However, the revolution led to a broader distribution of land ownership than was the case in the pre-revolutionary period.
The United States has secured trade access to southern Europe, the West Indies, South America, and Asia. The cancellation by the colonies of their debts to England freed up everywhere, especially among the southern planters, considerable capital, which was invested in various areas of business activity, primarily in land speculation and the fur trade3. The war gave impetus to the development of industry, especially textile and metalworking. The growing industry contributed to self-sufficiency in meeting the needs of the domestic market. The process of government subsidization of capitalist entrepreneurship, driven by the goals of private profit, began. Having got rid of colonial subordination, the American bourgeoisie was free to invest its capital; the first banks and other joint commercial enterprises, created on a joint stock basis, appeared.
For the first time on such a vast territory, the American Revolution established a republican mode of government – for its time, the most progressive of those based on private property. Individual dictatorship and hereditary monarchy were rejected. Both in the constitutions of individual states and in the Articles of Confederation and later in the United States constitution, some principles have been embodied that guarantee a significant degree of popular sovereignty. These principles contained the following provisions: legal government requires the people’s consent; the people have the right to overthrow a despotic government by revolution; civilian power subordinates the military. The division of the legislative, executive, and judicial spheres of state administration was also adopted. Government power was limited by law, and geographic centralization of power was eliminated by granting local governments substantial independence.
The number of government posts was increased, direct appointment to which was replaced by elections. The transfer of posts by inheritance was prohibited. The circle of persons enjoying electoral rights was significantly expanded due to the reduction of the property qualification; in some states, the right to vote has ceased to be tied to land ownership. The revolution hastened the break with the Anglican church and gave impetus to the growth of dissident churches. The movement for the separation of church and state and religious freedom grew. The most advanced piece of legislation in this area was the Statute of Religious Freedom, introduced by Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia Legislature in 1779. Adopted only in January 1786, after seven years of fierce struggle, it represented the limit of the achievements of the revolutionary era in the field of relations between church and state4. It finally affirmed the principle of freedom of religion.
The revolution had a beneficial effect both on the views of whites about blacks and on the consciousness of the Negro people themselves, who began to organize to fight for their rights and put forward collective demands for various forms of facilitating their fate. They included multiple actions, from eliminating slavery to granting the right to participate in elections and receive an education. Women’s rights to property and inheritance were expanded. Significant progress has been made in women’s education: the creation of schools for girls became commonplace during the years of the revolution.
The public education business received serious state support. Part of the money and land confiscated from the loyalists was used by the state directly for educational purposes. Thus, the Transylvanian University in Lexington was founded based on eight thousand acres of land confiscated. There was a tendency for secular education to prevail over religious education. If of the ten colleges created by 1776, only one was secular, then fourteen colleges were founded over the next two decades, and of these, only four were religious organizations.
The war, through its physical effects, has led to significant advances in medical practice. During the revolution, the first medical manuals, pharmacopeias, and certification systems for doctors appeared. Criminalistics and penology have undergone considerable democratization. The concept of the innate depravity of man now gave way to a consideration of the social conditions in which the fall of the individual took place. Prison and criminal justice systems have been substantially humanized. During the years of the revolution, a movement to abolish imprisonment for debt began. Progressive shifts in the social, economic, and political fields have had a truly revolutionary impact on the nation’s life, inspiring other peoples to fight for a better social order.
The US Constitution (the first Constitution in the history of humankind in the modern sense) was the result of the activities of several prominent thinkers of their time. The Constitution reflected many of the views of the philosophers and politicians of the Enlightenment, which were advanced for their time. In particular, the Constitution fixed the general welfare of the population as one of the main goals of its adoption, established a republican form of government based on the principle of separation of powers and federalism. In addition, fundamental personal human rights were enshrined in the Bill of Rights. All this taken together gives grounds to say that the adoption of the US Constitution was a historical event and played a significant role in the development of democracy around the world. Currently, the most widespread is the view of the Constitution as a general regulator of social relations. Its essence is manifested in its primary function – searching and establishing the optimal balance of interests of various social groups, strata of society. Thus, the Constitution fixes the compromise of different social strata and improves the balance of their primary interests and values.
Congress instructed delegates to amend the Articles of Confederation. However, during the debate, proposals were made that implied an entirely new form of government. After intense discussions that lasted throughout the summer of 1787, a plan was developed that established three branches of national power: executive, legislative and judicial. A system of checks and balances has also been developed to ensure that none of the branches gains more authority than the others. Representation of each state in the national legislature was one of the most controversial. Delegates from the larger states wanted the population to decide how many representatives a state could send to Congress. The smaller states called for an equal number of representatives.
The solution was the so-called Connecticut compromise, according to which Congress should consist of two chambers, lower and upper (representatives and the Senate). The states delegated an equal number of representatives to the Senate and proportional to the lower house. Slavery was another provocative issue. In some northern states, it has already been outlawed, but the northerners still compromised. The meeting decided that each state must resolve this issue independently, and it is not necessary to prescribe it in the Constitution. Many delegates from the northern states believed that the South would not join the Union without agreement on this issue. In the end, it was decided that only three-fifths of the total number of slaves in each state would be counted in determining the population of each state (for tax purposes and to determine the number of representatives from each state in Congress). In addition, Congress could not ban the slave trade until 1808. All fugitive slaves were ordered to return to their masters.
The Constitution has constantly evolved, both through amendments and the practice of the Supreme Court. Another feature of the Constitution is its “incompleteness:” the founding fathers deliberately excluded many issues from the Constitution, referring them to the sphere of state regulation. Nevertheless, certain provisions and entire parts of the Constitution were criticized. In particular, the undemocratic nature of indirect elections has been repeatedly noted. Indirect presidential and Senate elections were introduced because many of the Founding Fathers believed that in direct elections when.the people would directly elect governing bodies. In this case, the majority of votes would belong not to the enlightened population but to the masses, which would ultimately harm democracy. Indirect Senate elections were abolished in 1912 (Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution), but the president was still elected by the electoral college.
At the Constitutional Convention, the procedure for electing the president was the subject of heated debate: at least seven different proposals were put forward, and the process for electing the president by electors became a compromise between supporters of direct elections and supporters of elections by the House of Representatives. Critics of this system point to two significant issues. First, state-elected electors can theoretically vote for a candidate from another party (the law does not prohibit this). There have already been four such cases in the history of the United States, although this has never influenced the overall outcome of the vote. Second, under such a system, a situation is possible when a candidate who wins the presidential election gains fewer votes across the country than the losing candidate. Such cases in the United States history also took place (the last two times happened in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2016).
Another object of criticism is the limits of freedom of speech. The First Amendment explicitly prohibits the issuance of laws restricting free speech, and for this reason, freedom of speech in the United States extends much further than in most countries. There are very few restrictions, such as criminal defamation and perjury. One of the most famous attempts to constitutionally restrict freedom of speech is the amendment banning the public burning of the US flag. This bill has been put to the vote in Congress six times since 1995 but has never received the required number of votes (most recently in 2006). Earlier, the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson found that the burning of the American flag fell under the protection of the First Amendment.
Blakemore, Erin. 2020. The Story of New France: The Cradle of Modern Canada. National Geographic. Web.
Clark, Christopher. 2007. Who Built America? Vol. 1: Working People and the Nation’s History, 3rd ed. Mass.: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Masur, Louis. 2003. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: With Related Documents, 2nd ed. Mass.: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Public Broadcasting Service. N.d. From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery. Public Broadcasting Servive. Web.
- Clark, Christopher. 2007. Who Built America? Vol. 1: Working People and the Nation’s History, 3rd ed. Mass.: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
- Public Broadcasting Service. N.d. From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery. Public Broadcasting Servive. Web.
- Blakemore, Erin. 2020. The Story of New France: The Cradle of Modern Canada. National Geographic. Web.
- Masur, Louis. 2003. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: With Related Documents, 2nd ed. Mass.: Bedford/St. Martin’s.