Revolutionary War Exam
1. In a few short paragraphs, describe the social and political climate in England and how it differed in the colonies.
The main similarity between the two political climates in the 1760s and 1770s was that both societies were growing international mercantilist powers. This is the main issue and the most general way to describe the beginnings of the American Revolutionary War. For the Americans, increasing commercial and agricultural prosperity was the order of the day, and with it, a new “plutocracy” had developed, eliminating or radically altering the older agricultural hierarchy. These “new men,” of which Madison and Adams were two examples, had begun to embrace the much older Roman concept of republicanism, or a balanced government with a strong sense of local independence (Nettles, 1966, 138).
But mercantilism demanded substantial governmental regulation of the economy for national interests, which automatically meant that the American colonies were having their economic world dictated by the plutocratic London parliament, hence, the new class in America and the new ideas of republican institutions created a new political climate interested in American independence, which is another way of saying “free trade” with the rest of the world, a free trade, so to speak, under the control of the “new men.” (Nash, 1986, 203-204).
In England, social reform was underway. Many new ideas in this Georgian era, new ideas in terms of urban life and sanitation, as well as such things as prison reform and the abolition of slavery were on the minds of most English elites. Overwhelmingly, the English mind supported the war against the colonies on the basis of parliamentary domination. The American Revolution was not opposed to the crown (though this served as an easy focal point) but against the parliament, whose justification for repressing the colonies economically was to impress upon them the idea of the sovereignty of parliament and its control over the empire (Morgan, 2001, 462). The British economically were struggling with embargoes from France and Spain and sought to make this up by exploiting the American colonies. This idea of an “unruly” empire was central in the British political mind, and using America (and Ireland) as modes of compensation was not at all uncommon.
Like in America, England too was developing a politically powerful plutocracy dominant in trade and hence, the state. Therefore, it is not out of line to hold that two plutocracies were vying for control over their economic life: an imperial one in England and a national one in America, especially the major cities of Boston, New York and Charleston. In reality, both societies were developing a relatively cohesive plutocracy of commercial, urban interests that were vying with each other for supremacy, or in the American case, the independence to trade with the rest of the world, which would likely entail the throwing off of parliamentary domination (Nettles, 1966, 141-143).
2. Describe the decisions made in the British House of Commons and why these decisions were challenged by the colonists.
The above answer concerning the basic political climate is proven by the legislation of the British parliament from the 1760s to 1770s. The most odious decisions of the English legislature concerned trade and its impact on the new elites in the big cities of America. The Navigation Acts were the most important. Things like the Molasses act (and other Sugar Acts) placed heavy taxes on sugars that competed with the English supplies in the West Indies. Americans responded by widespread smuggling as an act of defiance. The Navigation Acts themselves go back to the middle of the 17th century (Nettles, 1966, 143) but their net effect was to control and shape the development of the colonies for British interests. As England became more and more isolated in Europe with substantial embargoes from France and Spain, the British parliament sought to rectify this by exploiting the taxation potential of the colonies for English gain (Nash, 1986, 203).
In addition, parliament passed the Currency Acts in 1764, which left the American colonists at the mercy of English bankers, since the colonists were prohibited from printing their own paper currency. Since earlier acts were forcing the US into a dependent relationship with Britain, the colonists were regularly needing to finance trade deficits, normally paid in precious metals. Colonial scrip would have permitted them to issue credit and hence, keep gold and silver in America. Increasing financial problems in England then forced many British plutocrats to call in American debts, causing a major run of bankruptcies (Nash, 1986, 179).
The Townsend acts were passed in 1767 that sought to tax the colonists to pay for a British controlled judiciary, a judiciary that was to try American smugglers, or in the American lexicon, patriots. Even more, the Stamp Act, passed in 1765, forced the colonies to pay a tax on many forms of printed objects, the stamp needed to be placed on these materials or else they would be considered contraband. This particular act developed the slogan that Americans needed to be consulted before any new tax could be placed upon them.
Just as obnoxious, though not directly associated with trade, were the Quartering and Billeting acts of 1765, where English troops fighting the Indians were to be quartered in American homes at the expense of the homeowner. It was often the case that localities refused to comply with these onerous regulations, causing widespread discontent both in American and England. It was rare when such provisions were not met with colonial resistance.
3. Explain the actions of the colonists and the responses by the British government that led to the political break and the Declaration of Independence.
The acts and mentality described above led to a faction of the colonists calling themselves “patriots,” that is, revolutionaries demanding independence. One of these factions called themselves the “Sons of Liberty” who engaged in acts against English shipping, at the time, in the late 1760s, they were the most militant of the patriotic opinion in America.
Widespread resistance to billeting was irritating to the British, and smuggling, as well as harsh British reactions to it, was important ways for patriots to show dissatisfaction to English parliamentary policies. Smuggling was in fact, in the American mind, merely a form of protest and a legitimate approach to free trade rather than a “crime.”
Ultimately, this led to major protests culminating in the 1770 Boston Massacre which was used to inflame colonial opinion. In reality, the Intolerable Acts (or the Coercion Acts) were far more than about billeting troops, but was part of a British campaign to restore order to Massachusetts. Colonists were regularly engaging in sabotage against British property and as always, illegal imports from Holland or Spain were regular parts of the American economy (Middlekauph, 1985, 95-100).
From the British point of view, the Americans were a petulant and spoiled part of the British empire. Paying less in taxes than subjects living in Britain, they chaffed at the small amount of taxes placed on their colonies. In effect, the British had protected the development of American industry and helped it grow. Now that the American economy was itself an elite economy, it should begin to pay for its own further growth and protection under the British empire.
From the American point of view, the British parliament was far away, the British were upset at American developments ideologically and economically (though these were one and the same) and hence, sought to increasingly place taxes on Americans without their consent in order to control them. Since the British parliament had done the same thing to British subjects in Ireland, there was really little reason do disagree with this approach.
The American response was protest, riot (on occasion) and the most simple method of protest: to merely ignore the new British laws. Most colonists refused to use the British stamps and most British laws that effect American business were widely flouted. In 1766, the Declaratory Act is passed that makes it clear that England has the right to rule America and American consent is not necessary for English laws to take effect. By 1769, major boycotts of British trading gets underway, with massive refusals to deal with British products whenever possible, giving more and more ammunition to smugglers and others seeking to circumvent British laws. In the early 1770s, isolated skirmished erupt between British troops and Sons of Liberty, and the English largely respond by repealing many of the acts already described as a form of conciliation. By now, it is too late and the colonists are already organizing inter-state organizations to fight the British. It is here when the Intolerable acts are placed on Americans as a means of restoring law and order. The Coercion acts most of all, represents the last straw and it is here, in 1774, when the local American militias begin arming themselves (Middlekauf, 1985, 94-100, this is a basic summary of the colonial response to the above described acts).
Hence, there is a general give and take where, over the 1760s and early 1770s, the English seek to begin taxing the prosperous Americans. It seems the Currency Acts were the harshest, and brought genuine pain to many Americans. Reactions to this were uneven, but generally concerned boycotting and occasional, isolated acts of violence. Ultimately, the Coercion, or Intolerable acts were passed that placed the colonies on basically a war footing.
4. Analyze the Declaration of Independence as a
political document and as a humanitarian statement.
While the famous lines, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are constantly quoted, when comes next is almost never quoted: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Why is this the case? The concept of rights and liberties that is so central to republican forms of government do not only form the benchmark to which all governments are measured, but if these are violated, they are also the benchmarks by which all revolutions are measured. The Declaration is not a statement of rights, but a statement of the possibility and moral necessity of revolution. This is also not a revolution of words or pamphlets, but of guns and blood.
The Declaration then goes from general considerations to the specifics of the American case and to this end lays out a series of abuses that, oddly, are all placed on the back of the monarch, a monarch that was a secondary figure next to parliament. Parliament passed the above acts with the monarch as little more than their puppet in terms of money and power. Placing the blame on the monarch is dishonest here.
But after the list of grievances, the writers of the Declaration hold that there have been warnings and appeals to the British concerning these. Only after these were exhausted has the colonists sought independence. Hence, revolution looks like this:
First, the revolutionaries must be aware of their rights under God. Rights are not the creations of social convention or of the state, but derive from God, the creator of nature itself. Hence, these cannot be changed. But revolution can only, morally, be based on these rights and for no other reason.
Second, there must be a regular procedure for airing grievances before any revolutionary activity can begin. Jefferson writes, “We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations. . .” Hence, before violence, there must be the use of peaceful means of redress. But when these fail, lastly, the acts of independence and all that implies, that is, the use of violence, become necessary and hence, moral. It is necessary because the rights of man are central and cannot be violated; moral because the revolution is based on these rights. Hence, the Declaration can be seen as a manual, so to speak, for revolutionary movement at any time (text of the Declaration from ushistory.org).
6. Explain how, in the first year of fighting, the American army was able to fend off and keep free to challenge the more numerous, better trained British army and its adjuncts.
The best explanation for this situation is the American use of unconventional tactics in warfare. Guerilla war was used regularly by the Americans while the British still adhered to European norms of warfare. Guerilla tactics were adopted to compensate for the British superiority in numbers and materiel.
The Americans sought to wear down the British forces and their adjuncts from the Indian Tribes or from Germany using hit and run tactics and also the rather unpleasant tactic of killing officers. All of this was basically compensatory. The basic approach was to reject the “volley” method of shooting that developed in the 18th century on the European continent, and instead, to use no clear line of fire. In fact, there was no “line” at all, but a series of irregular positions where firing the musket would lead to a short, tactical retreat. This confused the British forces not used to these kinds of warfare. This specific tactic was called the Phoenix approach, where the American force would appear, shoot, and disappear, only to reappear again (Stough, 1980)
These tactics were largely credited to Francis Marion. His method was to use hit and run tactics as well as to disrupt communications (Benjamin, 2007, 2). The British were slow to respond to these tactics, as it went against all their training. The British basically used their overwhelming naval superiority as a means of compensating for the revolutionary tactics used by the American colonists.
Hence, the Americans used their primary advantage: they knew the territory and the people were willing to shelter them. Both of these are absolutely necessary for the development of unconventional warfare. Such warfare was used against the British in Jamaica and Ireland, successful in the former, disastrous in the latter. Hence, it seems odd that the British would find this so surprising, but it is very clear that the historical record credits this for American victory.
Benjamin, Carl. (2007). “Francis Marion: father of Modern Guerilla Warfare.” Associated Content Articles. (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/303048/american_revolution_francis_marion.html?cat=37, accessed June 27, 2009)
Middlekauph, Robert (2005) The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution (1763-1789). Oxford University Press
Morgan, Kenneth (2001). The Oxford History of Britain. Oxford University Press
Nettles, Curtis (1966). “British Mercantilism and the Economic Development of the Thirteen Colonies.” American History, Bool I: To 1877. Ed. Abraham Eisenstadt. Crowell, 137-147.
Nash, Gary B (1986). The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origin of the American Revolution. Harvard University Press.
Stough, Andrew (1980). “The American Revolution: January 1780.” Papers of the Sons of the American Revolution. (http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/home.html, accessed June, 29, 2009)