the end of the 18th century two events occurred that
between them 'turned the world upside down' and 'gave
birth to the modern world'. Or at least, that is how
historians often describe the American and French
Revolutions. In the rest of this, unit we'll be
examining the causes of these events and considering
their long-term consequences.
Settling in the New World
After Columbus landed in America the Spaniards and
Portuguese claimed that all of North and South America
belonged to them. But other countries did not accept
this.The French took control of
Canada and the valley of theMississippi
river from New Orleans. The English took control of the
east coast of North America.
English first settled in an area which they called
Virginia in honour of Queen Elizabeth (the "Virgin
Queen'). In 1620 a group called the 'Pilgrim Fathers'
set sail for Virginia. Their leadership came from the
religious congregations of English Dissenters
(Calvinists) who had fled England for the relative calm
and tolerance of Holland. Concerned with losing their
cultural identity, the group later arranged with English
investors to establish a new colony in North America.
The colony, established in 1620, became the oldest
continuously inhabited British settlement and the second
successful English settlement (after the founding of
Jamestown, Virginia in 1607) in what was to become the
United States of America. Their ship, the Mayflower, was
blown off course and arrived further north in an area
called Massachusetts. The first winter was very hard and
many of the settlers died. But the local Indians helped
them to plant seed and they produced a good harvest.
Today, Americans celebrate the survival of the Pilgrim
Fathers on Thanksgiving Day. In Canada, Thanksgiving Day
is celebrated on the second Monday in October. In the
United States, it falls on the fourth Thursday of
The Mayflower leaves Plymouth, England.
Over the next century the English set up more colonies,
until by 1760 there were thirteen in all. In 1760 there
were two and a half million people living in the
thirteen colonies. About two million of the settlers had
emigrated from Europe, most of them from Britain and
Ireland. They went for various reasons. Some wanted to
escape from religious persecution. Others hoped to make
their fortunes in a new world where land was cheap and
work plentiful. As we have seen in our last unit, about
half a million Americans had no such hopes. They were
the slaves. They had been captured in Africa and sold as
slaves to white Americans who needed labourers to grow
cotton, sugar and tobacco in the hot southern colonies.
They and their children and their children's children
could never hope to enjoy the freedom of the new world.
How Britain ruled its American
The thirteen colonies were part of the British Empire.
In 1760 its king was George III. George ruled his Empire
with the advice of his parliament, which was made up of
wealthy landowners. George appointed a governor to rule
each colony in his name. Each colony also had an elected
Assembly which advised the governor about what the
colonists wanted. For many years this system worked
well. The colonists had a great deal of freedom. They
could raise their own taxes and decide how to spend most
of the money. But the governor kept them in touch with
what the king wanted.
The Seven Years' War
Seven Years' War was a global conflict fought between
1756 and 1763. It involved every European great power of
the time and spanned five continents, affecting Europe,
the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines.
The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by
the Kingdom of Great Britain (including Prussia,
Portugal, Hanover, and other small German states) on one
side and the Kingdom of France (including the
Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire,
Bourbon Spain, and Sweden) on the other. The war was
successful for Great Britain, which gained the bulk of
New France in North America, Spanish Florida, some
individual Caribbean islands in the West Indies, the
colony of Senegal on the West African coast, and
superiority over the French trading outposts on the
As far as this unit is concerned, the Seven Years' War
was significant for two reasons. Firstly, for the
French, the cost of the war and the territorial losses
incurred, seriously weakened the monarchy. This financial
debt and the later cost of military support against the
British became a central cause of the
French Revolution. (see Lesson 3). Secondly, for the
British, the cost of defending their colonies had been
enormous. The British Government decided to make the
colonialists help pay towards the cost of the war by
raising their taxes. The colonists protested at
this. They said it was not right that a parliament in
England, elected by people who lived over 3,000 miles
away could tax them. They felt that they should only pay
taxes imposed by an Assembly (parliament) they had
elected themselves. The British ignored their protests.
In 1765 the London Parliament introduced the Stamp Act.
It put a tax on documents like contracts and wills. News
of the Stamp Act caused outrage in the American
colonies. Groups of men known as the 'Sons of Liberty' organised resistance to it. Their slogan was 'No
taxation without representation'.
The campaign against the Stamp Act was successful.
People refused to pay the tax. King George's government
decided to drop the Stamp Act but they replaced it with
taxes on imported goods such as tea, glass, paint and
paper. The colonists felt this was almost as bad. In
protest, they organised a boycott of British goods.
Boston in Massachusetts took a lead in these
developments. It was a prosperous port with a population
of over 16,000. Many British soldiers (who were known as
'Redcoats' because of the colour of their uniform) were
stationed there. Relations were bad between the soldiers
and the citizens of Boston. One reason for that was that
the Redcoats, who were very badly paid, often took
part-time jobs. They were willing to work for low wages
and this cut the wages of the local people.
The Boston Massacre
On 5 March 1770, a dispute broke out between a group of
soldiers and some citizens. The soldiers opened fire.
Five people were killed and seven were injured. This
became known as the Boston massacre and passed into
American folklore as an example of British cruelty.
At last the British backed down. They removed all taxes
except one on tea, which they kept to show that they had
the right to tax the American colonists. The Americans
then began to smuggle in tea for which the tax had not
The Boston Tea Party
Most British tea came from the East India Company. The
company was in deep financial trouble and the government
decided to help it by cutting the tax on tea to America.
This made the company's tea cheaper than the smuggled
tea. But many merchants would have lost money if
In Boston people attended a protest meeting on 16
December 1773. They decided to go aboard the ships and
dump the tea in the harbour. A group of men disguised
themselves as Indians. They climbed onto the three tea
ships in the harbour and emptied the tea into the sea.
Three hundred and forty-two tea chests were destroyed.
It was said at the time that the pile of dumped tea was
so high in the harbour that some of it was falling back
onto the ships. Later some people went so far as to give
up eating fish caught in Boston harbour 'because they
had drunk of the East India Tea' .
The Intolerable Acts
King George was outraged when he heard about the Boston Tea Party.
He wanted to punish Boston. Parliament passed Acts which
closed the port and reduced the power of the
Massachusetts Assembly. The Americans called these
measures 'the Intolerable Acts'. Other colonies watched events in Boston with dismay. They decided
that they must make a united stand against King George
and the British parliament.In September 1774 each of the
thirteen colonies sent representatives to a meeting in
Philadelphia. The meeting called itself the 'Continental
decided to boycott British goods until the Intolerable
Acts were removed. But at this stage they were still
loyal to King George. They just wanted him to let them
decide on their own taxes. They were not yet looking for
independence from Britain.
The first shots are fired
Meanwhile, in Boston, some citizens were arming. They called
themselves the Minutemen because they were ready to take
action at a minute's notice.The British appointed General
Gage to restore order in Boston. He learned that the
Minutemen had a large store of arms in Concord, near
Boston, and he planned to seize it.On the night of 18 April 1775,
British troops set out for Concord. But the rebels
learned of their plans and sent messengers to warn the
surrounding countryside. The most famous messenger was
Paul Revere (right).
At Lexington, on the road to Concord, rebels clashed with British
troops. Eight Americans were killed and ten were
wounded. Later that day a second battle took place in
Concord. The British were forced to retreat to Boston.
The Americans now placed Boston under siege. The War of
Independence had begun.
How revolutionary was the
In political science, a revolution (Latin: revolutio,
"a turn around") is a fundamental change in political
power and political organisation, which occurs
relatively quickly when the population revolt against
their oppression (political, social, economic) by the
incumbent government. To some extent, the American
revolution clearly was a revolt that resulted in a
change in political power and organisation. The American
Patriots overthrew the government of the British and
installed a new system of government based upon
significantly different principles. (See the Declaration
of Independence below). But how 'fundamental' was the
change? Was post-revolutionary USA significantly
different from pre-revolutionary colonial America?
Watch the video above and answer the
debatable question: how revolutionary was the American
Discussion question: Do you think the American War of
Independence might have been avoided? Explain your
The American War of Independence
When war began between Britain and the American
colonists, it seemed likely that Britain would win. It
was the most powerful country in the world at that time.
The British government had a trained army and one-third
of the people in the colonies remained loyal to them.
The colonists who supported the struggle against Britain
were known as the Patriots. At first they did not have
an army or even a leader. Three things helped the
Patriots to win against the odds:
reasons, especially the role of France ■ Cultural
reasons and the inspiration of Enlightenment ideas. ■ The role
of important individuals
the text that follows, highlight the importance of
military, cultural and individuals in different colours.
You can these notes to write an essay plan ready for the
The Battle of
At this time an
American army was besieging General Gage's troops in
Boston. Washington set out to lead it, but before he
arrived the Americans were defeated in a battle at
Bunker Hill. Washington found the American army in
terrible shape. He set out to impose discipline.
Soldiers who deserted were executed and one officer was
whipped in front of his men. Washington wanted to drive
the British from Boston. In March 1776 he began to
bombard the city with cannon fire. American troops now
surrounded Boston and the British commander General Howe
realised that he could not hold out. On the night of 17
March the British troops left Boston.
Thomas Paine and
Although war had
started, the Patriots were still not sure if they wanted
to leave the British Empire. Most of them were descended
from British settlers and they were still loyal to King
George. All this changed in January 1776 when a pamphlet
called Common Sense appeared. It was written by an
Englishman, Thomas Paine. In a plain and
easy-to-understand style, he urged Americans to declare
their independence and become a republic. Over 150,000
copies of Common Sense were sold and it had a huge
impact on the Patriots.
The Declaration of independence
On 4 July 1776
the Congress issued the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson, a delegate from Virginia, wrote it. It
claimed that King George had failed to protect the
rights of the American people and stated that:
A Prince, whose
character is thus marked by every act which may define a
tyrant, is unfit to be a ruler of a Free People.
Below is the most
famous extract from the declaration.
'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men
are created equal; that they are endowed by their
Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among
these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
that to secure these rights, governments are instituted
among men, deriving their just powers from the consent
of the governed; that whenever any form of government
becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of
the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute
contained within this extract were very advanced for the
time. It says that a person has certain rights given to
him/her from God. To protect these rights, people form
governments. If governments fail to protect these rights
then the people have a right to form a new government.
Jefferson is saying that the British government, by
behaving as it did, lost the confidence of the American
people. Therefore a new government should be formed in
its place. These ideas were to have a lot of influence
in France in 1789. Kings or queens ruled most countries
in Europe, including France, at the time. They saw their
power to govern as coming not from the people but from
Which enlightenment philosophers do you think most
influenced the American Declaration of Independence?
The Declaration of Independence raised American spirits
but in 1776 and 1777 the war went badly for them.
Washington found it hard to keep his army together.
Unlike the British, who had full-time soldiers, his army
was made up of ordinary men who joined up for six months
at a time. Many of them were farmers and when their six
months was up, they often went home to look after the
1776, the British captured New York, which became the
British base for the rest of the war. In 1777, British
forces under Lord Cornwallis captured Philadelphia where
the Congress met. This was a major blow to the new
republic. Washington and his men were forced to retreat
to a wild and lonely spot called Valley Forge. Here his
army spent the winter of 1777-8 in horrible conditions.
Food was short and rations were reduced to one-eighth of
normal. Disease was widespread and over 2,500 men died.
Many soldiers deserted, and Washington and his officers
struggled to maintain discipline. Washington won the
admiration of his men by remaining with them at Valley
Forge. A French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette, was
there too. He greatly admired what the Americans were
doing. Later he played a major role in the French
France comes to the aid of the Americans
Washington and his men were suffering in Valley Forge,
another American army defeated the British at Saratoga.
When news of this reached Europe, King Louis XVI of
France decided the Americans might win. He declared war
on Britain. He wanted revenge for the British conquest
of Canada. French help was vital to the Americans.
French troops were useful but the French navy was even
more important. It made it difficult for the British
navy to bring guns, ammunition and fresh soldiers to
equip the British armies in America.
The final event
in the war showed how important the French fleet was.
Washington trapped a small British army under their
commander-in-chief, Lord Cornwallis, in Yorktown. A
French fleet arrived in the harbour and prevented
Cornwallis from escaping. Cornwallis had no option but
to surrender. He said he was ill and sent his
second-in-command, General O'Hara. Washington sent his
second-in-command, General Benjamin Lincoln, to accept
the British surrender on 19 October 1781. When the
British Prime Minister, Lord North, heard this news he
said, 'Oh God! It is all over!’ It was. The British had
lost their thirteen American colonies.
A new Constitution for the United States
colonies then had to decide how they would govern
themselves. Should they have a king or a president, and
how much power should they give him? It took them five
years to work out a new Constitution (a set of laws for
governing a country). Here are some of the points in it:
■ The head of the
government would be the President. He was to be elected
and to hold office for four years. ■ There were to
be two Houses of Congress: the House of Representatives
to represent the people and the Senate to represent the
states (formerly the colonies). ■ The
Constitution guaranteed human rights to citizens. These
included the right to free speech, to a fair trial and
to freedom of religion. No one in Europe had such rights
at that time. ■ A Supreme Court
would make sure that all laws agreed with the
Enlightenment philosophers influenced the American
chose this as their flag. The thirteen stars and stripes
represent the original thirteen states. Later, a new
star was added whenever a new state was formed. How many
stars are there today? In 1789, the Americans invited
Washington to be the first President of the United
Write an essay
plan that explains why the Patriots won the war against
Britain. Firstly explain why the British were expected
to win and then plan three paragraphs that explain why
they lost: one on military reasons, one on cultural
reasons and the inspiration of Enlightenment ideas and
one on the role of important individuals. For each paragraph
follow the Point Explanation Example method. In
conclusion, which do you think was the most important
reason for the defeat of the British and why?