American Revolution

The American Revolution meant different things to different people. According to John Adams, the Revolution occurred in the minds of the American people. “The child independence” was born, Adams said, when in 1761 James Otis Jr. ( 1725–83 ) denounced the general warrants issued by the imperial government to stem smuggling by Boston merchants. The questioning of British authority was the real American Revolution.” The War was only an Effect and Consequence of it,” wrote Adams to Thomas Jefferson on August 24, 1815.

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Historians have also disagreed about the nature of the Revolution. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians emphasized the imperial conflict, with American historians arguing that British violations of American constitutional rights provoked the conflict whereas contemporary British historians believed that a handful of American dissidents seeking personal fortune and power used the financial problems after the French and Indian War to create conflict within the empire. In the early twentieth century, Progressive historians, led by Carl Becker and Arthur Schlesinger Sr., argued that the Revolution had two components—an imperial conflict over home rule and a class conflict over who should rule at home. Around 1950 opposition to this interpretation suggested that by 1763 Americans had already developed their basic democratic rights and institutions, and thus no internal class conflict existed. Other historians argued that Americans were always united on basic principles and that the British policies had forced the patriotic reaction.

A decade later, another set of historians, led by Bernard Bailyn ( 1967 ), argued that the Revolution was fought primarily over ideas and principles embedded in the writings of classical political theorists from ancient Greece and Rome and in the seventeen-century English writings associated with the conflict between Parliament and the king over the king's prerogatives. In the 1990s, syntheses of these interpretations emerged, most prominently by Gordon S. Wood. Rejecting the consensus theory, Wood demonstrated how the unleashed social, economic, and political forces of the Revolutionary era transformed America between 1760 and 1820, changing it from a static, deferential, well-ordered, monarchical society into a liberal, democratic, market-driven, commercial one. Remarkably, all of these dramatic changes were accomplished before the country experienced the full impact of the industrial, urbanization, and transportation revolutions that occurred soon afterward.


Certainly in 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War ( the Seven Years' War in Europe ), virtually no one in Britain's American colonies or in Great Britain desired or even seriously contemplated colonial independence. According to Benjamin Franklin's testimony before the House of Commons in 1766, during the debate over he repeal of the Stamp Act, the American colonies in 1763 “submitted willingly to the government of the Crown…. They had not only a respect, but an affection for Great Britain … [and] considered the Parliament as the great bulwark and security of their liberties and privileges, and always spoke of it with the utmost respect and veneration” ( 1813, 140–1 ).

Historians traditionally have said that the Revolutionary era began with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. A few historians, however, have placed the beginning of the Revolution in 1748 at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. These historians argue that by 1750 the American colonies had grown so much that Britain feared that the land might be captured by the French and Spanish, whereas others in Britain worried that the colonies might voluntarily secede from the British Empire and ally with France and Spain.

By 1750 British domestic politics had stabilized, allowing far more government scrutiny over colonial affairs. For more than a century, the imperial authorities had interfered little in colonial domestic affairs. During this period of benign neglect, local colonial leaders used the assemblies' monetary power to successfully gain control over their governments as royal governors seemed unable to restrict their assemblies. Despite their control over local affairs, colonial assemblies never overtly threatened parliamentary supremacy. Some imperial officials sensed that a dangerous change had taken place, which could presage independence. Consequently, beginning in 1748 the Board of Trade, the imperial body that administered the colonies, pressured governors to exercise greater authority over their assemblies. The outbreak of the French and Indian War gave the Board an opportunity to send troops to America not only to fight the enemy but also to strengthen the authority of governors. Britain continued to station regulars in the colonies even after the end of the war. These efforts, which continued through 1776, were denounced and usually successfully opposed by local political factions that controlled colonial assemblies. The specter of imperial oppression was raised as assembly leaders became aware of this new danger to their local autonomy. Before 1763, Parliament did not actively participate with the Board of Trade's effort to limit the authority of the colonial assemblies. That soon changed.


A number of changes at the end of the French and Indian War contributed to the imperial dispute that led to American independence. George III ( 1738–1820 1713–92 ), George Grenville ( 1712–70 ), George Germain ( 1716–85 ), Lord Hillsborough ( 1718–93 ), and Lord North ( 1732–92 ) were particularly offensive to many Americans.

The French and Indian War had saddled both Great Britain and the colonies with huge debts, payment of which required new sources of revenue. The draconian Treaty of Paris, signed February 10, 1763, which transferred French Canada and Spanish Florida to Great Britain, virtually guaranteed that France and Spain would seek revenge when the opportunity arose. Without the threat from these neighboring enemies, the American colonies felt less need for British protection, and Great Britain felt less dependent on colonial military assistance in the Western Hemisphere. The colonial military effort during the war also empowered the colonies.

This new sense of safety was shattered almost immediately when Indians led by Chief Pontiac ( 1720–69 ) attacked Fort Detroit and eastward, near Philadelphia. Before the conflict ended, two thousand settlers had been killed or taken prisoner. To forestall any future conflict with Indians, the Crown issued a proclamation on October 7, 1763, prohibiting colonial settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains from Canada to the Carolinas. Conflict over this territory had sparked the beginning of the French and Indian War. American colonists did not appreciate this exclusion.

George Grenville, first lord of the treasury and new British prime minister after the resignation of the despised Lord Bute, proposed a tax on all imported molasses into the colonies. A 1733 act taxed molasses imported from the French West Indies but did not tax British West Indies molasses. Grenville's Sugar Act lowered the 1733 tax but expanded it to include all imported molasses. Efforts were also made to reduce smuggling, which had become endemic, by holding trials in these cases in a vice admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with no jury trial and no right of appeal.

Grenville then proposed a stamp tax that required the use of stamped paper for all legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards and dice. The purpose of the Stamp Act was to collect revenue. To make the tax more palatable, stamp distributors would be Americans. The American response was immediate, widespread, vociferous, and violent, even before the December 1, 1765, the starting date of the act. Led by radicals such as Samuel Adams ( 1722–1803 ), groups of merchants and artisans soon organized, first in Connecticut and New York, but then throughout the colonies. Soon to be called Sons of Liberty, these groups were highly disciplined and quite willing to use militant force and intimidation to accomplish their goals. Homes and offices of tax distributors and other government officials were ransacked and burned, effigies were hanged and burned, petitions and resolutions in protest were sent, and nonimportation agreements were adopted to put a strain on the British economy. Before the act was to go into effect, all of the stamp distributors resigned.

Colonial assemblies and town and county meetings protested against the act. At the behest of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, twenty-eight delegates from nine colonies met in New York City on October 7, 1765, “to consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies.” After affirming their loyalty to and affection for the king and his government, the delegates felt duty bound to declare their “most essential rights and liberties” and their grievances against Parliament. Among their fourteen resolutions, the delegates stipulated that no taxes could “be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives” ( Cruger 1845, 27–29 ). They also resolved that they were not and could never be represented in Parliament. They could only be represented in their own assemblies. The Stamp Act and the expanded admiralty jurisdiction must be repealed.

Because of colonial officials' inability to enforce the Stamp Act and the impact of the nonimportation agreements on the English economy, Parliament, after a heated debate, repealed the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766. On the same day, as a face-saving measure, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which contained two provisions: (1) Parliament had the authority to pass all laws “to bind the colonies and people of America … in all cases whatsoever”; and (2) all colonial votes, resolutions, and proceedings that questioned Parliament's uthority were “declared to be, utterly null and void.” Americans rejoiced when news of the repeal of the Stamp Act arrived.

The rapprochement was short-lived. In 1767 Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which placed a tax on many imported goods. Again the colonists protested with writings, demonstrations, petitions, and nonimportation agreements. Perhaps most important was a twelve-part series by John Dickinson ( 1732–1808 ) under the title “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” in which Parliament was said to have the power only to regulate the commerce of the empire, not to levy what amounted to an internal tax. Again, the British backed down, repealing all the Townshend duties except the one on tea.

In the meantime several regiments of British regulars were stationed in Boston and New York City. The New York Assembly refused to provide barracks for the troops as required under the Quartering Act of 1765, whereupon Governor Sir Henry Moore ( 1713–69 ca. 1722–98 ) and all but two of the soldiers were acquitted. The two soldiers found guilty of manslaughter were released after being branded on the thumb.

Another pause in the public unrest was broken when Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies, informed Massachusetts authorities that the salaries of the governor, justices of the colony's supreme court, and other officials would be paid by the Crown from duties collected from the tea tax. Viewed as unconstitutional, this royal intrusion would destroy the leverage the assemblies enjoyed over royal officials. In October 1772 Samuel Adams proposed that Massachusetts towns and the other colonies establish committees of correspondence to coordinate efforts. These committees, not answerable to or dissoluble by governors, soon emerged as shadow governments. Committees of safety were appointed to serve as executive bodies that used public ostracism and various threats, including tarring and feathering, to intimidate those who might cooperate with British officials. Public demonstrations intensified when ships tried to unload cargos of tea in several ports. Radical leaders opposed the principle of the tea tax and the monopoly given to the economically distressed East Indies Company, which had huge inventories of tea. Ships in several American ports were turned away, but on the evening of December 16, 1773, a group of the Sons of Liberty disguised as Indians boarded three ships in Boston harbor and dumped the tea overboard.

Parliament reacted speedily and forcefully against this willful destruction of private property. The Coercive Acts (called the Intolerable Acts in America) closed the port of Boston, revoked the royal charter, established a military government, and provided for the quartering of troops. Another measure, the Quebec Act, granted French Roman Catholics full religious toleration and legal rights, and extended Quebec's borders southward to the Ohio River. All of the other colonies passed resolutions condemning the acts, and several sent much-needed supplies and food to Boston. Samuel Adams called for a complete trade embargo against Britain—too harsh a proposal for many. The New York Committee of Correspondence called for a continental congress to meet in September 1774.


On September 5, 1774, fifty-six delegates from all of the colonies except Georgia met in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress, which lasted seven weeks. The delegates petitioned the king and Parliament, approved nonimportation measure called the Association, and proposed to meet again the following year. War began when British troops ventured out of Boston to seize cannon and military munitions and to capture radical leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock ( 1737–93 ). On April 19, 1775, the regulars confronted minutemen on Lexington Green, where shots were fired. The skirmishing continued as the British marched toward Concord and then retreated back to Boston, suffering severe casualties along the way.

On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia, uncertain as to how to respond to the unfolding events. Seven days later, news arrived that the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, led by Ethan Allen ( 1738–89 ), had captured the strategically located Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York. On June 14 Congress voted to raise a Continental Army and the next day appointed George Washington of Virginia as commander in chief. Subsequently Congress appointed eight brigadier generals, furnished paper money to pay for the army, and approved the Olive Branch Petition, drafted by John Dickinson, which called for reconciliation. On June 17 the Battle of Bunker Hill occurred in Boston; more than eleven hundred British regulars were killed or wounded before the American militiamen withdrew. British ships attacked and destroyed neighboring Charlestown with incendiary rockets. On August 23, 1775, the king declared the colonies in a state of rebellion. In September an American army invaded Canada in an unsuccessful effort to get Canada to join the other mainland colonies in their opposition to Britain. In late November Congress voted to raise a navy.

Most Americans still hoped for reconciliation when in January 1776 Thomas Paine, who had emigrated from England in December 1774, published Common Sense, a pamphlet that denounced monarchy and called for an immediate declaration of independence. The pamphlet electrified America, as independence now seemed feasible and preferable. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee ( 1732–94 ) presented resolutions from the Virginia provincial convention calling for a declaration of independence, a confederation government, and foreign assistance. Congress appointed committees to consider each proposal. On July 2, Congress unanimously voted for independence. Two days later its formal declaration was approved.


Three days after Richard Henry Lee's ( 1732–94 1721–93 ), John Adams, Robert R. Livingston ( 1746–1813 ), and Thomas Jefferson. Adams and Jefferson were made an executive committee, and, according to Adams, he persuaded Jefferson, who “had a happy talent for composition and a peculiar felicity of expression,” to write the draft ( quoted in Schechter 1990, 455 ). The intended audience was the American people, the people of the world, and posterity.

The introduction to the Declaration of Independence states that it had become “necessary” to declare American independence. Not a matter of opinion, nor simply preferable or defendable, it was inescapable and therefore lawful. The second part consists of five sentences—202 words—in which Jefferson summarizes certain self-evident truths that embody the American philosophy of government. All men are created equal and possess “certain unalienable Rights” among which “are the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” To secure these rights the people create governments. Whenever any particular form of government “becomes destructive of these ends,” the people have the right to abolish it and institute new forms of government.

The third and longest part of the Declaration denounces the king and others (his ministers and Parliament) for “a long train of abuses and usurpations” leading to “absolute Despotism.” The fourth section lists the actions of the American people in trying to obtain redress of their grievances and a denunciation of the British for turning a deaf ear “to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” The conclusion declares the united colonies free and “Independent States.” In many respects, the Declaration of Independence is the literary expression of the concept of American liberty in the same way that the Statue of Liberty is a visual expression of that concept.


European countries watched with great interest as the conflict between Britain and the colonies intensified. France and Spain were especially eager for revenge as they sought to weaken the power and wealth of Britain.

In November 1775 the Second Continental Congress named a secret committee to communicate with friends in Britain, Ireland, and other countries. The committee soon started meeting secretly with a French envoy, who indicated that France wished America well while disclaiming any desire to recapture Canada. Desperately needing war material, especially gunpowder, Congress soon started smuggling French goods through St. Eustatius in the Dutch West Indies. The new French king, Louis XVI ( 1754–93 ), was advised by his controller general, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot ( 1727–81 ), to avoid war with Britain and pay off the country's huge debt. The new French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes ( 1719–87 ), advised just the opposite. In one of the great documents in American history, Vergennes advised the king, in his report titled “Considerations,” that France should secretly aid the Americans. Inevitably, Vergennes said, France and Britain would again be at war; better to be so with the American colonists as allies rather than as enemies. In May 1776 the king formally adopted Vergennes's advice, and secret financial aid started flowing from France to America.

In September 1776, Congress sent a three-man diplomatic committee to France consisting of Silas Deane ( 1737–89 ), Arthur Lee ( 1740–92 ), and Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, the last to arrive, landed in France in December 1776. He would become America's sole minister to France in 1778.

With the Declaration of Independence and the news of the surrender of a 5,500-member army at Saratoga, in New York, the French felt confident that reconciliation between Britain and its colonies was unlikely. On February 6, 1778, after bringing its fleet into combat readiness, France signed two treaties with the United States— a treaty of alliance and a treaty of amity and commerce. Both parties agreed not to make peace with Britain before the other had also reached a settlement. France again disclaimed any intention to recapture Canada but indicated that it would attempt to capture British islands in the West Indies. War commenced between Britain and France on June 17, 1778. In July 1778 a French fleet arrived off the coast of New York. Two years later, French general Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau ( 1725–1807 ), led an army of 6,500 to serve as an expeditionary force taking up residence in Newport, Rhode Island. France continued to send supplies and provide financial aid to the Continental government.

Spain, a traditional British enemy, secretly negotiated with France. Spain's navy also needed upgrading. In late 1779 Congress sent John Jay, its former president, to be the first US minister to Spain, but Spain refused to recognize the United States for fear that it would set a bad precedent for Spain's New World colonies. Thus, although Spain secretly aided America, no treaty of alliance between the two countries was signed. On April 12, 1779, Spain signed a secret treaty with France, and on June 21 Spain declared war on Britain, hoping to regain Florida, the Mediterranean island of Minorca, and Gibraltar.

With the surrender of the British at Yorktown in Virginia in October 1781, all of the belligerents realized that the fighting must soon end. On February 27, 1782, Parliament voted to end the war. Lord North resigned as prime minister on March 20, 1782. Peace negotiations began in Paris in the spring of 1782 with John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Laurens ( 1723–92 ) negotiating with Richard Oswald ( (1705–84 ), an old Scottish merchant, for the British. A preliminary treaty was signed on November 30, 1782, a general armistice was reached on January 20, 1783, and the final treaty of peace was signed on September 3, 1783.


In 1776 approximately 2.5 million people lived in the thirteen mainland colonies. Almost 500,000 enslaved blacks were scattered throughout all of the colonies, most densely in the South. About 750,000 of the white inhabitants were not of English origin. The colonies contained about 500,000 adult white men and about 1.25 million women and children. New England was the most densely settled, the South the least. Philadelphia was the largest city, with a population of about 35,000; next was New York, with about 25,000; and Boston, with about 15,000. No town in Virginia had more than 3,000 inhabitants, but Virginia was the largest colony both geographically and in population. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were next in population.

Colonial American society was highly deferential. Political preferment in royal colonies was largely a factor of family and economic connections in England. Colonial governors rewarded friends with positions and generous land grants. These placemen (persons rewarded with public office) supported the new imperial policy.

A second group of elites came from well-to-do families not so favorably connected to those in power in England or in their colony. These elites often opposed the imperial policy. A third group of elites consisted of self-made men who had built their fortunes in business, in speculation, or in war profiteering. These men often opposed the imperial policy and came to advocate independence, but they wanted to maintain a hierarchical social, political, and economic society, naturally with them at the apex. They did not wish to empower the masses.

A small group of radical leaders effectively led yeoman farmers, merchants, artisans, and the more common laborers. Committed to the Enlightenment concept of republicanism, these radicals (men such as Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams) advocated independence and a radical change in the institutions of government. The elite feared these radical leaders not only because they would lose their control over government but because they believed that republicanism in the short term would lead to the tyranny of the multitude and in the end to anarchy.


It is uncertain how many Americans remained loyal to Britain during the Revolution. Some Loyalists left America, some took up arms and fought for their king, whereas others avoided taking a public stance. More Loyalists (perhaps 100,000) per capita emigrated from America during the Revolution than Frenchmen from France during the French Revolution. Colonial officials and Loyalists who emigrated from America to Britain always maintained that there were huge numbers of Loyalists who kept a low profile for fear of incarceration, banishment, physical punishment, or execution. These expatriot Loyalists (men such as Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver) consistently gave bad advice to Parliament and the succession of British ministers.

The punishment of Loyalists and pacifists intensified whenever the danger of British forces increased. In Morristown, New Jersey, a local court sentenced 105 suspected Loyalists to be hanged. Offered reprieves if they would enlist in the Patriot army for the duration of the war, four prisoners refused the offer and were executed. The others chose to serve in the army.

Religion often predisposed some to Loyalism. Many Anglicans, especially Anglican ministers, remained loyal to their king. Pacifists were often Loyalists or at least were assumed to be Loyalists, especially Quakers and Moravians. In late 1777, just before the British captured Philadelphia, twenty wealthy Quaker and Anglican merchants suspected of being spies were arrested and, without trials, were exiled to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where they remained under house arrest for almost a year. Most states passed laws disenfranchising Loyalists and authorizing the confiscation and sales of their estates. In some states disenfranchisement continued after the war.


In 1776 approximately 200,000 Indians from eighty-five different nations lived east of the Mississippi River. The Declaration of Independence denounced the British for using Indians to mercilessly attack Americans. During the war most Indians allied with the British, a few tribes fought with the Americans, and a few remained neutral. Among the Iroquois in New York, the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, and Cayuga fought with the British, whereas the Oneida and Tuscarora allied with the Americans, as did the Christianized Stockbridge of Massachusetts and the Catawba in the Carolinas. The British also had allies in the Miami, Wyandot, Delaware, and Shawnee in the Ohio River Valley, and the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creeks in the South. Those Indians who allied with the British did so because they felt that the British would be victorious, that they had better trade relations and Indian agents, and that the British offered them the best chance to retain their homeland against the relentless landacquiring Americans.

Approximately 13,000 Indian warriors fought with the British, a much smaller number with the Americans. Indians were often used as scouts, had war parties that raided on the frontier, and joined Loyalists and British regulars in larger coordinated attacks. Indians played an important role in the Battle of Oriskany in central New York in 1777, which helped lead to the critical American victory at Saratoga a few months later. The Iroquois participated in repeated attacks in the Mohawk River Valley in 1778 and 1779, and again from 1780 to 1782, killing and capturing isolated farm families and decimating more than a dozen villages. These attacks were temporally interrupted but persisted until the 1779 expedition led by General John Sullivan ( 1740–95 ) that destroyed thirty Indian villages and burned much of their crops in the field in western New York and northern Pennsylvania.

In the Treaty of Peace of 1783, the British ceded all of the land east of the Mississippi to the Americans with no consideration for the Indians—no matter on which side they had fought. After the war, the tribes primarily dealt with the state governments and were continually pressured into giving up large portions of their land.


Once France, Spain, and the Netherlands joined the American colonies in fighting the British, the American Revolution became a world war. The four European belligerents all had their war goals. The West Indies became a major battleground as the British and French navies devoted great effort in protecting their own islands and trying to capture their enemies' colonies. Spain concentrated its wartime effort in recapturing its former settlements along the lower Mississippi River and the coasts of East and West Florida. The Netherlands restricted its fighting to the high seas.

The war on mainland America can be divided into two phases: the northern war ( 1775–78 ) and the southern war ( 1778–81 ). As commander in chief, Washington maintained a Fabian strategy, avoiding combat unless absolutely necessary or only when his army had numerical superiority. This strategy frustrated some delegates to Congress and some army officers, who plotted to replace Washington with a commander more inclined toward offensive action. These covert schemes all failed, especially after reports circulated of Washington's heroics at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey in June 1778.

At first the British had contempt for the American military, thinking its soldiers to be country bumpkins who would never stand up against the power and bravery of the British army and navy and the 30,000 professional German mercenaries who fought with them. That attitude persisted well into the fighting.

Britain's initial strategy was to capture New York City and adjacent counties to use the port for staging various campaigns. The primary goal was to separate and subdue New England—the source of most of the prewar disturbances—from the other colonies. When the British failed to obtain this objective, particularly with the capture of General John Burgoyne's 5,500-man army by the Americans at Saratoga in October 1777, the British changed their strategy. Thinking that Loyalists were more numerous in the South, they shifted their military attacks there, capturing Savannah, Georgia, on December 29, 1779, and Charleston, South Carolina, on May 12, 1780. Generals Henry Clinton ( 1730–95 ) and Charles Cornwallis ( 1738–1805


The peace negotiations that had begun in Paris in the spring of 1782 were completed by December of that year. A preliminary treaty was signed by John Adams, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Laurens on November 30, 1782. Soon thereafter the three other belligerents signed separate peace agreements with Britain. The final treaty of peace was signed on September 3, 1783.

The treaty acknowledged the independence of the United States, with the Mississippi River as its western border. The right to navigate the Mississippi from its sources to the ocean was guaranteed to both the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States. All military activity was to cease, and prisoners of war were to be released. No runaway slaves, artillery, or archival records were to be taken away with the evacuating British army. Americans were to retain their traditional fishing rights on the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Creditors would not meet with any lawful impediments in collecting prewar debts. Congress was to recommend to the states that the rights and confiscated property of Loyalists be returned to them, and no future confiscations or prosecutions would be undertaken for wartime activities. A secret provision stipulated that the southern boundary of the United States would be lower if the Spanish retained possession of East and West Florida, higher if the British retained possession.


The Virginia resolutions submitted to Congress on June 7, 1776, called not only for independence but for “a plan of confederation.” A government that united the states was necessary to gain independence and maintain a safe and peaceful existence after independence. On June 12 Congress appointed a committee to draft articles of confederation. On July 12, 1776, Chairman John Dickinson reported the first draft, which called for a strong general government; but during the months of intermittent debate that followed, various powers shifted from the general government to the states, so that the final proposal adopted on November 15, 1777, created a permanent alliance of independent states. Congress ordered three hundred printed copies of the Articles and submitted its proposal o the states along with a cover letter that explained the difficulties involved in writing the constitution.

The Articles were to go into effect when ratified by the legislatures of all thirteen states. Most of the states ratified quickly. The exception was Maryland. As a state without any western land claims under its colonial charter, Maryland wanted the states with large land holdings, especially Virginia, to cede their western lands to Congress for the good of the Union before they would ratify the Articles. With a worsening military situation and a potential invasion by Cornwallis, the Maryland legislature conceded and ratified the Articles on February 2, 1781, without, however, elinquishing its “right or interest … to the back country,” relying on the other states to see the “justice” of its claim. aryland's delegates in Congress signed the Articles on March 1, 1781, thus adopting the new form of government.

The Articles provided for a unicameral Congress with no separate executive. The states retained their sovereignty, freedom, and independence, as well as all powers that were not expressly delegated to Congress. Delegates to Congress were to be elected annually in a manner to be determined by the state legislatures and could serve only three years within any six-year period. Each state was to choose two to seven delegates but was to have only one vote in Congress, despite the vast differences in the sizes of the states. Congress could send and receive ambassadors and enter into treaties. Most important matters—the power to enter into treaties, declare war, borrow money, admit new states, and so on—needed the approval of nine states. Amendments to the Articles needed to be approved by Congress and ratified by all of the state legislatures. Congress was limited in its judicial powers. It could create a court to try piracy and other felonies committed on the high seas and an appellate court to consider cases of captures and prizes. Through a cumbersome process Congress could create a commission to settle land disputes between states. Congress could set the standard of weights and measures, regulate the alloy and value of coins, regulate trade with Indians, and establish and maintain post offices. It was to meet at least once annually. States were to pay their own delegates to Congress, who were subject to recall. Congress could not regulate commerce or levy taxes without the approval of the states. It had no coercive power and could not act directly on individuals. Even before the Articles were ratified, amendments were proposed to strengthen the powers of Congress, but none of those amendments were adopted.


Similar uncertainty in other colonies led to a resolution of Congress drafted with a preamble both written by John Adams and adopted on May 10 and 15, 1776. It called on the colonies to jettison their colonial charters and adopt constitutions amenable to the people, not to the king. New York delegate James Duane ( 1733–97 ), a reluctant revolutionary, complained to Adams that the resolution smacked of independence. Adams replied, “No, it is independence.”

Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published in January 1776, had called for new democratic state constitutions that would abandon the structure of both the British and colonial governments. He asserted that old and complex concepts of separation of powers and balanced government were no longer needed. New republican forms of governments, in which the people would be their own governors, should be structurally simple and uncomplicated.

Paine's proposal frightened John Adams, who anonymously responded in a short pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, published in Philadelphia in March 1776. Adams wanted Americans to adopt republican forms of government. “There is no good government but what is Republican” ( 2000, 243 ). He explained that “the very definition of a Republic is ‘an Empire of Laws, and not of men’” (243). But there was “an inexhaustible variety” of republics with endless “possible combinations of the powers of society” (244). His best combination consisted of a system based on separation of powers into three distinct branches of government. The bicameral legislature would include a lower house that would “be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large” (244). An upper house was also necessary??a senate or a council to be elected by the assembly??because “a people cannot be long free, nor ever happy, whose government is in one Assembly” (244). There should be a governor, elected annually by the assembly, who should be armed with a veto, but “stripped of most of those badges of domination, called prerogatives” (245). In addition the great officers of state should be elected by joint ballot of the legislature. A requirement for rotation in office should limit the terms of all legislators and 0fficers of state, perhaps service for only three years, then exclusion for three years. The senate would serve as the mediator between the assembly and the governor. The judiciary should be nominated by the governor and confirmed by the senate or, if a more popular government was desired, judges should be elected by the joint ballot of the legislature or the election by one house with the concurrence of the other. The judiciary would serve as a check on the legislature and the governor, and they, in turn, would check the judiciary. Judges should serve for good behavior and their salaries should be “ascertained and established by law” (265).

Pennsylvania followed Paine's advice, and its constitution of 1776 became the most democratic constitution adopted during the Revolutionary era. It called for a unicameral legislature elected annually without a separate executive or judiciary. Every bill introduced needed to be published in a newspaper before being reconsidered in the next legislative session, thus in essence making the people the second branch of the legislature. A supreme executive council served as the executive, but had no legislative function.

All of the other colonies drafted new constitutions except Connecticut and Rhode Island, which merely revised their liberal colonial charters by eliminating references to the king and the imperial government and substituting the authority of the people instead. New Hampshire and South Carolina replaced their temporary constitutions with new constitutions. Georgia and the independent district of Vermont followed Pennsylvania's model. New York departed from that model, writing a constitution in 1777 that provided for a separation of powers with a popularly elected governor. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, primarily written by John Adams, was congruent with his recommendations inThoughts on Government, as was the 1784 New Hampshire Constitution.


Determining the percentage of white adult men who could vote is difficult. It varied with each state. Voter turnout often depended on the importance of the election or how contested it was. For instance, ten times as many voters cast ballots in the highly contested 1787 gubernatorial election in Massachusetts as in the noncontested election the preceding year. Weather might also affect voter turnout.

Most new state constitutions reduced colonial property qualifications for voting by 50 percent or eliminated them altogether, allowing taxpayers the right to vote. Some states provided for, in essence, almost universal manhood suffrage. In most other states, 50 to 80 percent of males met the minimum requirements for voting for the assembly. Larger property holdings were often required for voting for senators and governors when they were popularly elected. Some states (such as New York) allowed freed black men to vote; most probably did not extend the suffrage to them.

The power of senates and governors were greatly reduced and their ability to check assemblies was diminished if not removed entirely. Except in Massachusetts and New York, governors no longer had a veto power, and in both those cases, the legislatures could override the veto by a two-thirds vote of both houses. Judges were usually appointed by the assemblies that controlled the salaries of all public officials. Outside of government, the Revolutionary experience with mobs and extralegal bodies set precedents for the turbulent decade that followed the end of the war.

A wide variety of social changes also occurred during the Revolutionary years. The status of landholding changed. Primogeniture and entail were repealed in most of the states. Many of the confiscated Loyalist estates were broken up and sold in smaller parcels. The public domain established by states ceding their western lands to Congress provided not only a source of revenue for the new country, but also inexpensive lands that could be easily purchased by most free men.

Slavery was affected by the war. Many slaves—men and women—obtained their freedom by running away from their masters and joining the British. Many others joined the American army and navy, and became free because of their service. Virginia, with the largest slave population, enacted a law in 1782 that made manumission during one's lifetime or in one's will easier, a measure that helped free 10,000 slaves during the next eight years. The first state abolition societies were founded during this time, and the northern states, starting with Pennsylvania, passed gradual emancipation acts, which provided that children born to slave mothers after a certain date would be free. The children would remain with their mothers until they reached adulthood, when they would be free to venture out on their own. Twelve of the thirteen states followed the example set in the Continental Association of 1774 and prohibited the African slave trade. In Massachusetts the Supreme Court, using the state's Declaration of Rights provision, which stated that all men were created equal, ruled in 1783 that slavery was unconstitutional. Vermont also prohibited slavery in its constitution.

The Revolution brought a new secularism to America. Several states disestablished their churches, and fewer states mandated taxes to support the salaries of ministers. In Virginia, Jefferson's bill for religious freedom, drafted in 1779, was shepherded through the legislature by James Madison in January 1786. Being a Protestant was still necessary, however, to vote and hold office in eleven of the thirteen states. That requirement would be removed for office holding in the new federal Constitution of 1787.

Most states recodified their laws, greatly reducing the penalty for most crimes. In Virginia the recodification, drafted by a committee chaired by Jefferson, reduced the number of capital crimes from about forty down to only two—murder and treason.

The war years saw the role of women expand greatly as men were off fighting. When the men left for public service, women ran the farms and the family businesses. Nevertheless women could not vote or hold office, and after the war most were forced to return to their familiar status. Single women and widows, however, owned property and exercised many legal rights. Printers such as Ann Timothy in Charleston, Mary Holt in New York, and Elizabeth Oswald in Philadelphia ran newspapers after the death or during the absence of their husbands. Mary Catherine Goddard assisted her brother William in printing the Maryland Journal. She also served as postmistress of Baltimore. Like many other women, Mercy Otis Warren ( 1728–1814 ), the author of plays and histories of the Revolution and wife of Massachusetts political leader James Warren, and Abigail Adams ( 1744–1818 ), the wife of John Adams, greatly influenced their husbands on many issues.

All of American society became less deferential. More than 100,000 Loyalists emigrated from America during the war, many of whom had formed the colonial aristocracy. Those who remained in America or returned after the end of war had their fortunes greatly diminished. Patriot yeoman farmers, town artisans, professionals, and merchants were empowered by their wartime experience.

After the end of the war, American prosperity returned but lasted for less than two years before the country was mired in a postwar depression. The Confederation Congress was unable to coordinate a national strategy to combat the political, economic, and diplomatic problems facing the country. In 1787 a new Constitution was proposed, debated, and adopted. One of the key issues in the debate over ratifying the federal Constitution was whether it was a counter-revolution, reversing much that had been accomplished during and after the Revolution, or the fruition of that struggle, which would now end in a strong and lasting Union.

SEE ALSO Articles of Confederation ; British Constitution ; Constitution ; Declaration of Independence ; Federalism, Theory of ; Federalism in American History ; State Constitutions: History ; Washington, George .


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John P. Kaminski
Center for the Study of the American Constitution University of Wisconsin–Madison