After France’s defeat in Canada, Britain remained the only power left in Eastern North America. The colonies were now free to spread over the vast continent and increase their wealth.
Therefore, for the British Government, it was natural that the colonists, whose prosperity was increasing, should contribute to the British economy.
The financial measures affecting trade and the arbitrary taxes decided in London soon became intolerable to the colonists. They now have the opportunity and the financial means of standing on their own feet and managing their own affairs.
Instead of being treated as equal partners, the American colonists were considered by the Prime Minister as second-rate citizens or children :
“This is the mother country. They are the children, they must obey and we prescribe”. (William Pitt)
More than a rebellion against patriarchal authority, the War of Independence, was in fact the first modern political revolution.
It started with the universal democratic slogan: “no taxation without representation”.
By rising against Britain the colonists exploded the myth of English liberty while using at the same time the principles that the people of England themselves had established one century before in the Glorious Revolution.
Origins of the Revolution
Several circumstances had put a strain on Anglo-American relations in the 18th century.
First, Britain merchants manipulated the House of Commons into voting a series of protective acts that were detrimental to the colonial economy.
Further restrictions were imposed through arbitrary taxation decided in London.
Another dissatisfaction came from the costs of British European’s war to which they were forced to contribute.
1763: the Royal Proclamation prohibited any British settlement west of the Appalachians, which created a major land problem in the colonies and restricted economic expansion.
So economic and patriotic motivations were closely linked in creating a feeling of rebellion.
The insurrection in New England
In May 1765, the Virginia Colonial Assembly voted a series of resolutions to tax the colonists. The latter started to organize themselves into activist groups such as the “Sons of Liberty” led by Samuel Adam.
Britain answered by a demonstration of strength and sent mercenary troops to various American cities. Several resistance groups denounced that measure as a hostile invasion.
In March 1770, the Boston”s Sons of Liberty attacked the British local garrison. British soldiers opened fire upon the crowd. This tragic incident, known as the Boston Massacre, is one of the triggers of the War of Independence against Britain.
In 1772, a new tax was imposed on tea: the Tea Act was interpreted as another demonstration of authority from the part of Britain.
A group of Bostonians wearing Indian costumes went on board a tea clipper in Boston harbor and managed to throw several thousand pounds of tea into the sea: the “Boston Tea Party” was followed by severe punishment.
A continental congress of the colonies answered by prohibiting British imports and militias were formed to resist British troops.
The Loyalists, i.e. the colonists who wanted to remain British were very often badly treated by the Patriots: they were caught, whipped, tarred, and feathered to expose their shame.
The first real battle took place in June 1775, outside Boston at Bunker Hill. There, the American volunteers managed to resist and to succeed over British troops for the first time.
The Spirit of 1776
In January 1776, the Englishman Thomas Paine published a pamphlet against Britain: it launched the spirit of 1776.
His book, Common Sense questions the necessity for America to remain within the British colonial empire:
“Does America be America of shop-keepers and farmers benefit by remaining under British rule? The plain answer of common sense is no.”Thomas Paine, Common Sense
The book immediately sold over 120,000 copies.
In May, the American Congress adopted a resolution inviting the colonists to establish independent State Governments. In June, the delegates for Virginia submitted to Congress a resolution for independence. Therefore, the Founding Fathers appointed a committee to elaborate a Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft in his highly rhetorical style. A revised version was finally approved by Congress on July 4th, 1776, by the delegates of all the 13 colonies, except for two New York representatives who abstained.
The Meaning of the Declaration of Independence
The American Declaration of Independence represents a revolutionary vision both of mankind and its institutions.
In its preamble, it insists on the vital necessity of separation and independence, seen as part of the natural evolutionary process inherent to human nature:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to separate…
It also clearly states the principle of “equality” and the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as natural human rights.
Yet, Jefferson”s intention of putting slavery out of law as contrary to human rights was not carried into the final version because of the opposition from the Southern states.
The text of the Declaration of Independence consists of a list of criticisms against the British state, represented by the King. The form of this document is the same as the British Bill of Rights of 1689.
Moreover, both texts protest against autocracy, religious and political tyranny, and unfair representation. The conclusion finally declares the united colonies as “free and independent states”.
Thanks to the Declaration of Independence, a decisive step was taken towards the future, as one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams stated it: “the river is passed, the bridge is cut away”.
But the conflict with Britain lasted for 7 more years before General G. Washington”s victory, thanks to French help, brought about Britain”s final acceptance of the colonies’ independence at the Treaty of Paris on September 3rd, 1783.
The 13 states were formerly acknowledged as one nation, whose territory extended from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River.
A federal constitution was made public in 1787: it established a model of interstate relationships according to the principle of divided sovereignty. It also set up a republican system in which no branch of the government could exercise any despotic authority over the others.
Yet, the major contradiction remained in the nation of the rights of man in the late 18th century: the first modern democracy had 20% of slaves in its population.