International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 16 mai 2018  
Unit 4 - Lesson 2 -  The American Revolution
Towards 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 the Mississippi river from New Orleans. The English took control of the east coast of North America.

The 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 November.


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The Mayflower leaves Plymouth, England.

Thirteen colonies
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.

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How Britain ruled its American colonies

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

The 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 Indian subcontinent.




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.

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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.

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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 been paid.

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 smuggling ended.

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 Congress'. The Congress 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).

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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 revolution?

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?

Activity 1

Watch the video above and answer the debatable question: how revolutionary was the American Revolution?
Discussion question: Do you think the American War of Independence might have been avoided? Explain your answer.


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:

■ Military reasons, especially the role of France
■ Cultural reasons and the inspiration of Enlightenment ideas.
■ The role of important individuals

In 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 examination.


The Battle of Bunker Hill

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 Common Sense

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 new government.'

The ideas 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 God.

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 farm

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Valley Forge

In September 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 revolution.

France comes to the aid of the Americans

But while 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

The thirteen 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 Constitution.

Which Enlightenment philosophers influenced the American Constitution?

The Americans 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 States.

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Activity 2

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?





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