Global Impact of the American Revolution

Global Impact of the American Revolution

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4 Germany

German Hessians fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution and it's likely German political thought was influenced by the French rather than the American Revolution. The biggest obstacle to unification of the German states was its absence of a ruler. Middle class revolutionaries organized the Frankfurt Convention in Berlin to establish a constitutional monarchy. When they could not come to agreement on who should lead the monarchy, the convention failed. It was not until 1871 that Germany was unified and became part of the German Empire with Prussia. Germany thrived but its emphasis on a buildup of elite military forces caused fear and alienation among other European powers.

Which of the following are examples of the global impact of the american revolution and the u. s. constitution? select all that apply. a. the american revolution offered precedents for latin american revolutionaries. b. the u. s. constitution presented useful ideas for the reform of britain’s parliament. c. the u. s. constitution served as a model for the french constitution of 1791. d. the american revolution showed how the glorious revolution could be updated. select all that you so !

1.It affirmed that the function of government was to protect individual rights.

Both of these documents establish a clear and concise government role in the free world.

They specify that the government does not exist to rule over the citizens with absolute authorit, but to protect the citizens so they can fully exercise their liberties and prevent citizens from harming each other.

2. Its struggles with Charles I led to the English Civil War.

At that the time, the Long parliament often challenged the decisions made by Charles I, to the point where Charles can no longer mobilize the army and created financial bills as he pleased.

Because of this conflict, the Citizens of England was divided into two sides, those who supported the parliament and those who supported King Charles I. The conflict keep escalating and ended up causing the civil war.

3. Freely elected governments should impose only minimal limits on people’s actions

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believe that the government is no more than an extension of the will from the majority of the people. Because of this, he feel that governments should led the citizens have their full freedom and liberty without imposing many regulations that limit people's freedom.

4. - The American Revolution offered precedents for Latin American Revolutionaries.

- The U.S. Constitution served as a model for the French Constitution of 1791.

The american revolution showed that colonized country had the power to break free from the opression of their conqueror. Countries in latin American soon followed American footsteps to break free from the countries that colonize them.

US constitution also seen by French people as a desired model to replace the monarch system in their country. This fuel the desire that eventually lead to the French revolution. provide citizens with more rights

Before the french revolution, French was ruled by absolute monarch. Meaning that all the powers within the government fall within the hands of the nobles.

After French revolution, France became a country that ruled by democracy, Meaning that people have more rights that allow them to elect their own leaders and be involved in governmental decisions.

6. It kept the church under state control but recognized religious freedom for catholics.

Concordat of 1801 was made to clearly specify the role of the Church within the French government. Before concordat of 1801 was made, Church officials had a really high influence in government decisions. After Concordat of 1801, the french only acknowledge it as a free religious instituation and heavily limit its role in the government.

Benefits of the American Revolution: An Exploration of Positive Externalities

I t has become de rigueur, even among libertarians and classical liberals, to denigrate the benefits of the American Revolution. Thus, libertarian Bryan Caplan writes: “Can anyone tell me why American independence was worth fighting for?… [W]hen you ask about specific libertarian policy changes that came about because of the Revolution, it’s hard to get a decent answer. In fact, with 20/20 hindsight, independence had two massive anti-libertarian consequences: It removed the last real check on American aggression against the Indians, and allowed American slavery to avoid earlier—and peaceful—abolition.” 1 One can also find such challenges reflected in recent mainstream writing, both popular and scholarly.

In fact, the American Revolution, despite all its obvious costs and excesses, brought about enormous net benefits not just for citizens of the newly independent United States but also, over the long run, for people across the globe. Speculations that, without the American Revolution, the treatment of the indigenous population would have been more just or that slavery would have been abolished earlier display extreme historical naivety. Indeed, a far stronger case can be made that without the American Revolution, the condition of Native Americans would have been no better, the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies would have been significantly delayed, and the condition of European colonists throughout the British empire, not just those in what became the United States, would have been worse than otherwise.

It’s true that the American Revolution had some mixed results from the standpoint of liberty. Like all major social upheavals, it was brought off by a disparate coalition of competing viewpoints and conflicting interests. At one end of the Revolutionary coalition stood the American radicals—men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson. Although by no means in agreement on everything, the radicals tended to object to excessive government power in general and not simply to British rule. They viewed American independence as a means of securing and broadening domestic liberty, and they spearheaded the Revolution’s opening stages.

At the other end of the Revolutionary coalition were the American nationalists—men such as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and Alexander Hamilton. Representing a powerful array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests, the nationalists went along with independence but often opposed the Revolution’s radical thrust. They ultimately sought a strong central government, which would reproduce the hierarchical and mercantilist features of the eighteenth-century British fiscal-military State, only without the British. Of course, any such sharp distinction entails some over-simplification. These differences were arrayed along a spectrum, and individuals over time might alter their perspectives. Thus, John Adams started out as a radical but became a nationalist, whereas James Madison evolved in the opposite direction.

Domestic Benefits

Caplan asks what specific benefits came about because of the American Revolution. There are at least four momentous ones. They are all libertarian alterations in the internal status quo that prevailed, although they were sometimes deplored or resisted by American nationalists.

1. The First Abolition: Prior to the American Revolution, every New World colony, British or otherwise, legally sanctioned slavery, and nearly every colony counted enslaved people among its population. As late as 1770, nearly twice as many Africans were in bondage throughout the colony of New York as within Georgia, although slaves were a much larger percentage of Georgia’s population. Yet the Revolution’s liberating spirit brought about outright abolition or gradual emancipation in all northern states by 1804. Vermont, which, despite participation in the Revolution remained an independent republic until it was permitted to join the union in 1791, was the first jurisdiction to abolish adult slavery—in 1777. In 1786, the Confederation Congress also prohibited the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territory.

There is a tendency to minimize this first emancipation because slavery had been less economically entrenched in the northern colonies than in the southern colonies and because in many northern states slavery was eliminated gradually. But emancipation had to start somewhere. The fact that it did so where opposition was weakest in no way diminishes the radical nature of this assault upon a labor system that had remained virtually unchallenged since the dawn of civilization. Of course, slavery had largely died out within Britain. But the Somerset court decision of 1772, which freed a slave brought from the colonies, had a limited reach. Masters continued to bring slaves occasionally into the country and were able to hold them there. Parliament did not formally and entirely abolish the institution in the mother country until 1833.

Even in southern colonies, the Revolution’s assault on human bondage made some inroads. Several southern states banned the importation of slaves and relaxed their nearly universal restrictions on masters voluntarily freeing their own slaves. Through resulting manumissions, 10,000 Virginia slaves were freed, more than were freed in Massachusetts by judicial decree. This spawned the first substantial communities of free blacks, which in the upper South helped induce a slow, partial decline of slavery. By 1810, for instance, three quarters of African-Americans in Delaware were already free through this process.

2. Separation of Church and State: Unlike the case of slavery, the revolutionary separation of church and state was more pronounced in the South than in the North. Although the British colonies prior to the Revolution already practiced a relatively high degree of religious toleration, only four of thirteen colonies had no established, tax-supported church: Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. As a result of the Revolution, the five other southern states and New York disestablished the Anglican Church. With the adoption of the Constitution and then the First Amendment, the United States become the first country to separate church and state at the national level. Several of the New England states, however, retained their established Congregational Church, with Massachusetts becoming the last to fully abolish tax support as late as 1833. In our modern secular age, it is too easy to take these accomplishments for granted, but they were unprecedented.

3. Republican Governments: As a result of the Revolution, nearly all of the former colonies adopted written state constitutions setting up republican governments with limitations on state power embodied in bills of rights. Only Rhode Island and Connecticut continued to operate under their colonial charters, with minor modifications. The new state constitutions often extended the franchise, with Vermont being again the first jurisdiction to adopt universal male suffrage with no property qualifications and explicitly without regard to color. Going along with this was a reform of penal codes throughout the former colonies, making them less severe, and eliminating such brutal physical punishments as ear-cropping and branding, all still widely practiced in Britain. Virginia reduced the number of capital crimes from twenty-seven to two: murder and treason.

4. Extinguishing the Remnants of Feudalism and Aristocracy: This is probably the most diffuse of the Revolution’s radical consequences. Quit-rents, a feudal land tax that had been paid either to colonial proprietors or to the Crown, had been due in all colonies outside of New England and were now terminated. All the new states abolished primogeniture (the sole right of inheritance to the firstborn son) and entail (a prohibition of the sale, break up, or transfer to outside the family of an estate) where they existed, either by statute or by constitutional provisions. Doing so not only eliminated economically inefficient feudal encumbrances on land titles but also was a blow against hereditary privilege and the patriarchal family, because it undermined traditional patterns of inheritance and facilitated the rights of daughters and widows to possess property. Anyone who has read a Jane Austen novel is aware that these legal props for the landed gentry still persisted in Britain into the nineteenth century. At the same time, all states except South Carolina liberalized their divorce laws.

Even the egregious treatment of Loyalists during the Revolution indirectly contributed to the erosion of feudal entitlements. The claim that only one third of Americans supported the Revolution, one third were neutral, and one third were opposed is still frequently repeated, but it is a misreading of a letter written by John Adams in 1812 referring instead to American attitudes about the French Revolution. The consensus of historians is that between 40 and 50 percent of the white population were active Patriots, between 15 and 20 percent were Loyalists, and the remainder were neutral or kept a low profile. 2 Obviously these proportions varied across regions and over time. Yet all the new states passed laws confiscating Loyalist estates. Since many of these estates were proprietary grants to royal placemen, 3 the confiscations entailed a redistributionist land reform.

The U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on titles of nobility may seem trivial and quaint to modern eyes. But such titles, still prevalent throughout the Old World, always involved enormous legal privileges. This provision is, therefore, a manifestation of the extent to which the Revolution witnessed a decline in deference throughout society. No one has captured this impact better than the dean of revolutionary historians, Gordon Wood, in his Pulitzer Prize winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution. He points out that in 1760 the “two million monarchical subjects” living in the British colonies “still took it for granted that society was and ought to be a hierarchy of ranks and degrees of dependency.” But “by the early years of the nineteenth century the Revolution had created a society fundamentally different from the colonial society of the eighteenth century.” 4

One can view this transition even through subtle changes in language. White employees no longer referred to their employers as “master” or “mistress” but adopted the less servile Dutch word “boss.” Men generally began using the designation of “Mr.,” traditionally confined to the gentry. Although these are mere cultural transformations, they both reflected and reinforced the erosion of coercive supports for hierarchy, in a reinforcing cycle. In the Revolution’s aftermath, indentured servitude for immigrants withered away, and most states eliminated legal sanctions enforcing long-term labor contracts for residents, thus giving birth to the modern system of free labor, where most workers (outside of the military) can quit at will. Contrast that with Britain, where as late at 1823 Parliament passed a Master and Servant Act that prescribed criminal penalties for breach of a labor contract. 5

Wood concludes that “Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people in the world…. The Revolution not only radically changed the personal and social relations of people… but also destroyed aristocracy as it had been understood in the Western world for at least two millennia. The Revolution brought respectability and even dominance to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history and to a degree not equaled elsewhere in the world. The Revolution did not just eliminate monarchy and create republics it actually reconstituted what Americans meant by public or state power.” 6

Would all of these outcomes have happened without a War for Independence? Surely some and possibly many of them might have eventually, but the real question is whether the American Revolution played a crucial role in initiating and accelerating these developments. Those denying its significance inevitably point to Canada, which remained under British rule and, indeed, harbored many fleeing Loyalists. Today it is a free, democratic polity, with a high standard of living, and as liberal as, or in some respects more liberal than, the United States. To understand why the case of Canada does not prove the point, we need to look back before the Revolution and examine the factors that ignited it.

British Designs

The British colonies of North America, through most of their early history, enjoyed a relatively mild imperial regime that Edmund Burke described as “salutary neglect.” Britain’s mercantilist restrictions were either not strictly enforced or non-binding. But in the mid-eighteenth century, as the colonies became more populous and more integral to the British economy, there emerged among imperial officials a clique who wished to impose tighter control upon the colonies. Finally at the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 (what in the colonies was referred to as the French and Indian War), in which the British drove the French out of North America, this clique implemented a new colonial policy.

The primary features of the new policy were: (1) stationing in North America during peace for the first time a large standing army, numbering never less than 7,500 (2) issuing the Proclamation of 1763, drawing a line along the western boundary of the colonies beyond which settlement was prohibited and (3) imposing taxes to help defray the cost of the army. All of these measures aroused the colonists’ suspicions, suspicions that were often quite valid. A 1763 internal memo within the British bureaucracy, for instance, proposed that “under Pretense of regulating the Indian trade, a very straight line be suddenly drawn on the Back of the Provinces,” which “now surrounded by an Army, a Navy and by Hostile Tribes of Indians” will make it easier to “exact a due obedience to the just and equitable Regulations of a British Parliament.” 7

Unfortunately for the British, the Proclamation line also alienated those who would become American nationalists, helping to throw them into coalition with the radicals. Until then, major land speculators such as Franklin and Washington had revered the British empire and been enthusiastic supporters of its expansion. But now the fruits of a victory to which they had contributed during the recent war were being denied them. Nor did the Proclamation line presage better treatment of Native Americans. After all, it had been the British army that had helped provoke and then ruthlessly crush Pontiac’s Indian rebellion after France had abandoned the region, even resorting to smallpox-infected blankets to spread disease during the siege of Fort Pitt. If there was ever going to be any real check on settler aggression against the indigenous populations in North America, it had already vanished with the French defeat.

Indeed, it is hard to identify any British settler colony where the aboriginal peoples were not driven from their homelands or otherwise harshly treated. Maybe so in New Zealand, but certainly not in Australia. British acquisition of South Africa in 1806 did result in the abolition of slavery and some restraints on the Dutch-descended Boer population but the country still witnessed ongoing military campaigns against the Xhosa natives, then the Zulu War, and the ultimate emergence of apartheid. As for British Canada, the dispossession of Native Americans was less bloody than in the United States but almost as thorough. The marginalization of the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia was completed to provide land for arriving American Loyalists after the Revolution. Canada had two violent uprisings among the Métis, people of mixed French and indigenous ancestry, the first in 1869-1870 and the second in 1885, both suppressed and led by Louis Riel, who was therefore hanged for treason. Beginning in 1847, the Canadian government forcibly removed aboriginal children from their families to boarding schools for assimilation in order to “kill the Indian in the child,” in the words of historian John S. Milloy. 8 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper ultimately apologized for this program in 2008.

Following the Proclamation of 1763, the relations between the colonies and the mother country went through three consecutive crises: the first over the Stamp Act (1765-1766), the second over the Townshend Duties (1767-1770), and the third over the Tea Act (1773). The first two involved British efforts to impose new taxes on the colonists, provoking colonial protests and resistance. In both cases, imperial authorities backed down, ushering in temporary but tense lulls. Once colonial opposition effectively nullified the Tea Act, however, the British government responded harshly with a series of Coercive Acts, and outright military conflict erupted in 1775.

Colonial objections to the Tea Act can be puzzling, because the act itself did not directly tax the colonists. Instead it was essentially a bailout of the British East India Company, the quintessential mercantilist monopoly, which was struggling financially. Before the act’s passage, the company was required to sell its tea exclusively in London where it paid a duty. Tea destined for shipment and eventual sale in North America would be purchased by private merchants. The colonists then had to pay an additional import tax on tea, the one Townshend Duty that had not been repealed in 1770. Under the Tea Act, the company was now given a monopoly on re-shipment of tea to the colonies along with a rebate of the British duty. The act, therefore, had the ironic effect of reducing the price of tea in the colonies.

The colonists nonetheless defied the Tea Act for several reasons. Radicals, who had been boycotting the legal importation of tea, viewed the act as a clever ruse to get the colonists to accept Parliamentary taxation in principle. The act hurt American merchants, not just those importing tea legally, but also, because it undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea, those doing so illegally. Most important, the East India Company embodied the colonists’ worst fears about British plans. If the company could be given a monopoly on tea, it could also be given a monopoly on other activities. The colonists were well aware of the company’s horrendous record in India, where its control over taxation in Bengal had contributed to a massive famine in 1770 that had killed up to ten million people, one third of Bengal’s population.

John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, a conservative who would later oppose the Declaration of Independence in the Continental Congress, put it this way: “Their conduct in Asia, for some Years past, has given ample Proof, how little they regard the Laws of Nations, the Rights, Liberties, or Lives of Men…. Fifteen hundred Thousand… perished by Famine in one Year, not because the Earth denied its Fruits, but this Company and its Servants engrossed all the Necessities of Life, and set them at so high a Rate, that the Poor could not purchase them. Thus,… they now, it seems, cast their Eyes on America, as a new Theatre, wherein to exercise their Talents of Rapine, Oppression and Cruelty. The Monopoly on Tea is, I dare say, but a small Part of the Plan they have formed to strip us of our Property.” 9

If the colonists needed any further evidence of British designs, Parliament, along with the Coercive Acts, passed the Quebec Act in 1774, establishing a new government for the former French territory. Although the act granted full religious toleration to Catholics, it also extended the province’s boundaries into the northwest territory, reinforcing the Proclamation line. With respect to governance, it vested all authority in a royally appointed governor and council, with no provision for a colonial assembly it re-instituted compulsory tithes to the Catholic Church and it restored the French seigneurial system, with its feudal privileges for distributing and managing land. Even the colonies’ French peasants (known as habitants), who constituted an overwhelming majority of the population, resented the act’s aristocratic features.

In short, there is ample evidence for a claim that historian Leonard Liggio emphasized. Without the American Revolution, British hard-liners intended to fasten on North America an imperial regime in many respects similar if not identical to British rule in India. As Justin de Rivage concludes, a group that he identifies as “authoritarian reformers” had seized control of policy to implement a sweeping “transformation of the British Empire.” 10

Global Repercussions

The potentially deleterious impact of these foiled British designs on North America is hinted at in a short article by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas. The article was a response to an essay in which Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, based on his several books on the British Empire, glorified the empire’s role in spreading economic development. Lucas responded with the obvious. The only colonies to enjoy sustained economic growth were Britain’s settler dominions: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Looking at other colonies in Africa or Asia, Lucas concludes: “The pre-1950 histories of the economies in these parts of the world all show living standards that are roughly constant at perhaps $100 to $200 above subsistence levels.” British imperialism thus failed “to alter or improve incomes for more than small elites and some European settlers and administrators.” India is the premier case, not experiencing significant sustained growth until the late twentieth century, and Lucas could have also included among the colonies that remained poor the British West Indies and Ireland. 11

The impact of the American Revolution on the international spread of liberal and revolutionary ideals is well known. Its success immediately inspired anti-monarchical, democratic, or independence movements not only in France, but also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Geneva, Ireland, and the French sugar island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti). 12 What is less well understood is how the Revolution altered the trajectory of British policy with respect to its settler colonies. Imperial authorities became more cautious about imposing the rigid authoritarian control they had attempted prior to the Revolution. Over time they increasingly accommodated settler demands for autonomy and self-government. In short, the Revolution generated two distinct forms of British imperialism: one for native peoples and the other for European settlers.

This was immediately apparent in Canada. Parliament’s Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Quebec into two colonies, Upper and Lower Canada, each with its own elected assembly. The act also ended quit-rents. Paradoxically, contributing to these outcomes was the influx of American Loyalists, many of whom embraced republican principles despite opposing independence. Nova Scotia, half the population of which was already from New England, had a representative assembly as early as 1758, and the Revolution’s outbreak forced the royal governor to propose reforms in order to maintain the colony’s loyalty. Nova Scotia received three times as many Loyalists as Quebec, leading in 1784 to the partitioning off of New Brunswick, with its own assembly.

Although Australia upon initial British settlement in 1788 began as a penal colony with autocratic rule, agitation for representative government emerged early and was consummated with the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850. British New Zealand was originally part of the colony of New South Wales in Australia, but it was separated in 1849 and got a representative government three years later. South Africa fell under sustained British rule in 1806. By 1854, the Cape Colony had its own parliament. Even in the slave colonies of the British West Indies, as the Revolutionary crisis still raged, the colonial assemblies asserted co-equality with the British House of Commons. As Sir Guy Carleton, commander-in-chief of British forces in America during the war, complained: “It is not in the Revolted provinces alone that a Republican spirit is to be found, but the tint has . . . has spread to other parts of America and to the West Indies.” 13

That brings us back to the question of slavery. A Parliamentary act of 1833 abolished slavery throughout Britain and its colonies, effective in 1834, although with an explicit exception for territories controlled by the East India Company. The act’s passage had partly been assisted by a major slave revolt in Jamaica during the previous two years, along with a tight symbiotic relationship between American and British abolitionists. The oft-repeated argument is that, without American independence, this act would have simultaneously abolished slavery in what became the United States. But this ignores the facts that British emancipation had to overcome the stiff political opposition of West Indian planters and that emancipation, by precipitating a collapse of production in the sugar islands, was costly for the British economy.

The only conceivable way Britain could have held on to all its American colonies was through political concessions to colonial elites. If American cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar planters had still been under British rule, they inevitably would have allied with West Indian sugar planters, creating a far more powerful pro-slavery lobby. Moreover, by 1833 American cotton had become more essential to the British economy than Caribbean sugar. Bear in the mind that it was the spread of cotton cultivation in the United States in the early nineteenth century that had reversed what little anti-slavery impulse had emerged during the Revolution in the southern states, inducing slaveholders to cease apologizing for slavery as a necessary evil and start defending it as positive good. Thus it is likely that, without U.S. independence, slavery would have persisted in both North America and the West Indies after 1834 and, indeed, possibly after 1865.


Any revolution that brings about benefits for a large sector of the population faces serious free-rider problems. Revolutionary activity is extremely risky and, once the revolution succeeds, excluding from any general benefits those who did not participate is difficult if not impossible. This explains why revolutions are always so messy and produce mixed results. It also explains why so few revolutions actually bestow genuine benefits. Gordon Tullock, in a classic 1971 article, contended that “Historically, the common form of revolution has been a not-too-efficient despotism which is overthrown by another not-too-efficient despotism with little or no effect on the public good.” 14 Nonetheless, sometimes people will eschew the free-rider incentive to bring about a better world, bearing costs that exceed any individual material gains. The anti-slavery movement, first sparked by the Revolution, is one clear case.

The American Revolution is another such case. The embattled farmers who stood at Lexington green and Concord bridge in April 1775 were only part-time soldiers, with daily cares and families to support. Their lives were hard. The British redcoats they faced were highly trained and disciplined professionals serving the world’s mightiest military power. Yet when they fired the “shot heard ’round the world” that touched off the American Revolution, they initiated a cascade of positive externalities that not only U.S. citizens but also people throughout the world continue to benefit from today, more than two centuries later. They had no hope—indeed no thought—of charging for these non-excludable benefits. Nonetheless, they took the risk. What better reason to celebrate the 4th of July?


[2] Robert M. Calhoun, “Loyalism and Neutrality,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, ed. By Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1991), p. 247.

[3] Royal placemen were British officials and other members of the elite to whom the Crown gave special privileges.

[4] Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1992), p. 6.

[5] Robert J. Steinfeld, The Invention of Free Labor: The Employment Relation in English and American Law and Culture, 1350-1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[6] Wood, Radicalism of American Revolution, pp. 6-8.

[7] As quoted in Bernhard Knollenberg, Origin of the American Revolution, 1759-1766 (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 92. The memo is part of the papers of Lord Shelburne, president of the Board of Trade, and was probably written by his secretary, Maurice Morgann.

[8] John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999). p. 42.

[9] John Dickinson, The Writings of John Dickinson (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1895), pp. 457-58. Dickinson wrote this passage in a pamphlet written under the name Rusticus.

[10] Justin du Rivage, Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics, and the Origins of American Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 103.

[11] Robert E. Lucas, Jr., “Colonialism and Growth” Historically Speaking, 4 (April 2003): 29-31 Niall Ferguson, “British Imperialism Revisited: The Costs and Benefits of ‘Anglobalization’” ibid.: 21-27.

[12] R. R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution, 2 v. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959-1964).

[13] As quoted in Selwyn H. H. Carrington, “The American Revolution and the Sugar Colonies, 1775-1783,” in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, p. 516.

[14] Gordon Tullock, “The Paradox of Revolution”, Public Choice, no. 9 (Fall 1971): 95.

*Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is Professor of economics at San Jose State University and the author of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, the second edition of which was released in 2014.

Episode 32: The American Revolution in Global Context, Part I

Every year, Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, which commemorates our successful revolution against British colonial rule. It’s an important national moment—but it’s also an important international moment when viewed against the context of the greater British empire. At the time, the Empire was considered the most tolerant and liberal entity in the world—why and how did the American settlers come to the conclusion that they would be best served by breaking free and setting off to their own?

Guest James M. Vaughn helps us understand the little known international context of a well-known national moment, pondering questions of politics, economics, and ideas that transcend national boundaries.


  • />James M. Vaughn Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin


  • />Henry Alexander Wiencek Independent Scholar

Just last week, we celebrated the Fourth of July, the consummate national event commemorating our successful revolution against British colonial rule, but you’re here to argue that we should not regard July 4, 1776, as a strictly national moment of history but rather a global one that reflects questions of politics, economics and ideas that transcend national boundaries. One particularly important international context for this moment is the British Empire. Can you talk about the state of Britain’s empire before 1776 and how the 13 colonies fit into that?

To coin a phrase, my main interest is “de-provincializing” the American Revolution. Now, of course, the 13 colonies that revolted in 1775 were 13 provinces of the wider British empire, and it was a revolt of essentially British provincials on the far western edges of that empire. What often is missed in the American Revolution and the story of the development of the British Empire is that it didn’t just take place in an internal context of either colonial North America or the British Empire, but really in a transnational, transatlantic context of the development of a commercial and manufacturing society.

Long story very, very short: traditional agrarian civilization had begun to break up in areas of northwestern Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. And, in key places such as the Netherlands and England and other areas of northwestern Europe by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, that traditional agrarian civilization had begun to be replaced by a commercial and manufacturing society. Now, there wasn’t really multiple commercial and manufacturing societies, rather there was an interdependent, cosmopolitan commercial and manufacturing society that stretched from places like Lyon and Marseilles all the way to London and Bristol across the Atlantic to New York and Philadelphia and Boston. That was a profoundly interdependent society in which people produced and worked and exchanged the products of their labor in an ever more complex division of labor and an ever wider market with one another.

1911 depiction of Great Britain’s territory in colonial North America between 1763 and 1775. Click for higher resolution. (Wikimedia Commons)

The British Empire was fundamentally bound up with the development of that trans Atlantic commercial and manufacturing society. It was both the cause of that society to be able to rise, the founding of those colonies, the development of raw materials and staple products to be produced and sent back to Europe from those colonies, also the development of those colonies as markets for manufactured goods that were produced in Europe, and these were important to the rise of that commercial and manufacturing society. But it’s also the case that the British empire drew its strength from the development of that commercial and manufacturing society, meaning the British empire drew its revenues, its customs, its resources from the flourishing of that empire.

By the middle of the 18th century a very symbiotic relationship had developed, where the British Empire furthered the development of an ever more expansive transatlantic commercial and manufacturing society and directed the development of that also benefitted from the terms of its development, the taxes and the resources levied on the goods and commodities exchanged throughout that empire. So it was a very beneficial relationship.

You’ve touched on a really important dynamic, this trans-Atlanticism within the British empire. How did that impact the way in which American colonists interacted or thought about other British colonists in places like India and Ireland?

That is a very excellent question, because there is a complexity to the way that American colonists think about their relationship. In many respects, the conception of the American colonists is that they were like British subjects in England, Scotland and Wales itself, that is, that they were direct subjects of the British crown, and that they had their own little parliaments, just like England and Scotland and Wales had the Parliament sitting in London. And they viewed the extension of British trade and the extension of British colonies as also being about the extension of British laws and British rights. So they almost viewed themselves as a kind of “Britain West,” and, again this is by the mid-18th century, they viewed their legislature as having the same kind of status that Parliament had in Britain itself and that they were direct subjects of the crown and had all the traditional privileges and rights thereof.

Robert Clive, the Governor General of the British East India Company, meeting with Bengalese leader Mir Jafar, 1760 (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, in the context of when they begin to debate with imperial officials, specifically in the 1760s, there is a desire to both assert their traditional privileges and rights as British subjects, but they also begin to assert the Natural Rights. This is not reducible merely to an inherited British discourse of rights, but this is really trans-Atlantic Enlightenment discourse. There’s a complexity to the imperial relationship: they think of themselves as full British subjects with all the rights and privileges that metropolitan Britons have.

Can you talk about that a little more, these Enlightenment ideas that transcend national boundaries? Can you explain a little bit what those ideas are forwarding, and what role they played in the British empire?

Let me address the Enlightenment first.

It’s commonplace to say things like “Scottish Enlightenment” or “French Enlightenment” or people speak of a “Neapolitan Enlightenment,” but I would reject that, I think that there’s just one Enlightenment, and it’s about anyone who has access to it, that can read either the original languages or translations of the ideas circulated in pamphlets and newspapers, and debate and reflect on them in a coffee house, in a public square, in a tavern. What becomes really central to that enlightenment is a sense in which people begin to feel as though they’re responsible for the creation of their own world.

That’s a complex idea. Let me focus on two thinkers, both of whom were important to the American colonists: John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, both kind of classic thinkers in the social contract/Enlightenment tradition.

John Locke had fundamentally said that the basis of the polity should be life, liberty, and property. Now, what he defined property as was labor: nature transformed by labor. So, within Locke’s conception there emerged an idea that human beings created property, that property was not divinely ordained, that property was not things that people had innately in them, such as aristocrats having the property of the honorable and noble, but rather that property was something that came to be through individual endeavor and peoples’ collective endeavor to one another. And that people transformed the world and themselves and created claims to property in so doing. Locke gave a sense of the world as a product of human interaction, humans working together individually and collectively to transform the world around them.

A lecture taking place in a French salon, 1812 (Wikimedia Commons)

Rousseau, with The Social Contract and The Second Discourse on Inequality published in the 1750s and 60s gave the idea of men and women as really products of the societies they built. That there’s not immutable essence, but rather that men and women change over time given the kind of societies and historical frameworks they develop themselves.

So, what’s really important about the Enlightenment, which takes place from the late 17th to the late 18th century, and is really the fundamental background of the American Revolution, is a growing sense through Lockian idea of property being a product of labor and Rousseauian ideas of the social contract and men and women being responsible for the creation of their societies over time, there comes a sense not simply that human beings change but that human beings can be agents of their own change.

The only other thing that I want to say about the Enlightenment is that it wasn’t just an intellectual accomplishment, it was a social factor. Because of the rise of commercial and manufacturing societies, there were new urban spaces, there was an entire extra-parliamentary, extra-political culture that existed in the world of coffeehouses, in the world of taverns, in the world of theater, in the world of public discussions in the exchanges and marketplaces of Amsterdam, of Rotterdam, of Charleston, of Philadelphia, of Bristol, of Liverpool and, in that world, people came together and discussed the latest publications and debated ideas. It wasn’t noble people of blood and birth that went out, but rather, it was people who could persuade others that their ideas were right that went out.

It seems to be an interesting irony of this period that the American revolution was not an inevitable fact and that a lot of individuals like Thomas Payne and Benjamin Franklin prior to 1776 were not advocating for independence from Britain but for reform within the British empire. Can you explain a little bit how that thinking evolved?

That’s an excellent question. A very famous historian, Gordon Wood, of American history calls this process the “Americanization” of Benjamin Franklin, and I think it applies to a whole host of the revolutionary generation, as much to people like Jefferson and Adams, as to people like Paine and Franklin. And what it is, is these fundamentally enlightenment men and women who participated in a world of pamphlets and coffeehouse, of lawyerly suits, parliamentary debate, of discussion, these people that also argued in salons and debating societies — many people, not just British subjects, thought of the freest society, not just in the West but in the world in the late 18th century, as being the British empire.

Many people thought that, with the possible exception of the Netherlands, the British empire was the most religiously tolerant society, even though it had an established Church of England, it had de facto an incredible proliferation of not just Protestants but even non-Christian religiosity. It had a parliamentary system that, although very few people could vote in, that nevertheless gave relative transparency to government and was based on elections every seven years and people could riot and influence the electors. Furthermore, it had ended absolute monarchy the English revolution in the 17th century had brought divine right monarchy to an end and suggested that there has to be some kind of consent and some degree of representation in political affairs.

Now, people thought that the British Empire was the best embodiment of that. And, especially someone like Franklin, and especially someone like a young Thomas Paine were absolutely supporters of Britain’s wars against France, because they saw France as an alternative model–an absolute monarchy with an intolerant Catholic church, not allowing the same kind of freedom of discussion and association that the British world did — in fact, one of the greatest French philosophs of the 18th century, Voltaire, wrote his philosophical letters as a reflection on his time in England, and what an open and free society it was: he viewed it as a model of the future in Europe.

Ben Franklin, 1785 (Wikimedia Commons)

What happens in the 1750s and 60s is in the wake of the seven year’s war and the imperial reforms, and the coming confrontation between metropolitan ministers and officials, and radical figures like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, what begins to happen is that there is initially a movement for the reform of the British Empire, the desire that it change. There is a growing feeling that this empire and its political and social institutions are no longer adequate to the kind of new world that’s coming into being in the 18th century Atlantic. At first, they want reform, they want changes. They want things like the reform of the parliament, the expansion of the franchise, the inclusion of new groups and the right to vote. They want the colonial legislatures to have a say in producing colonial policy, or they want an imperial parliament: the colonies to be able to send representatives to London and sit in the parliament, hence the famous revolutionary cry: “no taxation without representation.” They move toward reform.

It’s only when they believe that reform is no longer possible, that Britain is irredeemably, in their view, aristocratic and oligarchic, that they come to the conclusion that there is no possibility of reform but rather the necessity of revolution. The necessity of break–that is the seabed of American independence, but it should be said that it was an incredibly difficult intellectual and political process for people like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin to come to those conclusions. They genuinely thought that, for all of its foibles, the British Empire, with all of its exploitation of Ireland, for all of its toleration of the existence of West African slavery, for all of its incredibly oligarchic politics, that it nevertheless had been the best heretofore vehicle of the expansion of prosperity and enlightenment and freedom, and so it really took a very long, complex, and difficult process for them to be willing to reject it.

Light Unto the Nations: The Global Impact of the American Revolution

Jonathan Israel, professor emeritus of modern European history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, discusses his book Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, which looks at how early Americans’ promotion of democratic republicanism, self-government, and liberty helped spur on revolutions around the world.

This season of the Tel Aviv Review is made possible by The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which promotes humanistic, democratic, and liberal values in the social discourse in Israel.

1 comment on &ldquo Light Unto the Nations: The Global Impact of the American Revolution &rdquo

This interview is the intellectual big time. Have you see the scope of Israel’s three volumes on the Enlightenment? I have two points.

1) The discussion presumes that suffrage has been consistently de jure expanded in the US (setting aside voter id laws), but this is not quite true. I’d think all or almost all States in the Union prohibit voting by felons unless they individually have their voting rights restored. But the 15th Amendment prohibits voter exclusion based on race or “previous condition of servitude.” Since the 13th Amendment explicitly links conviction of crime in a court to “involuntary servitude,” I see no way to avoid saying a felon has a “previous condition of servitude” thereby so, through the 15th, statutory denial of voting right AFTER incarceration (or parole) completed should be stricken. One might reply that voting is stripped as perpetual servitude upon conviction, but this could be used to deny any constitutional right by statute–a position SCOTUS has denied even for the incarcerated (e.g., religious rights on beards or, more forcefully, forbidding sterilization of prisoners, which indeed is forever). Why not then deny religious rights to any felon as a perpetual punishment for convicted crime, since then punishment, so servitude, would never end, so there would never be a “previous condition”?

The First Amendment with incorporation to the States under the 14th forbid such State acts with respect to speech or religion. Just as the First Amendment is free standing, so too is the 15th the States (or Congress) can define neither. Surely this issue has reached the courts. I suspect they have said that the intent of the 15th Amendment was to forbid prior slavery as rationale for vote denial the same logic was applied to the 14th Amendment in 1872. And, in any case, surely in 1870, when the 15th was ratified, servitude ended when released from jail. Here text and original intent fuse nicely. The text is free standing, and one is released from incarceration and parole after meeting statutory penalties. Thereafter, one has a “previous condition of servitude,” and that cannot be used to forbid the vote. The US illegitimately curtails the vote to this day. This view, of course, will make me many friends.

2) There is a tendency to equate individual opinions summed as the will of the people, so the vote (or a poll) become that measured will. The vote is, however, realized as a form of intergroup competition. One holds an opinion partly because allies hold it or opponents otherwise. That is, individual preference is immeasurable without group competitive context. People create their opinions to live in various social contexts, contexts in which group labels are unavoidable.

Turnout gets to this a bit. Polls do not matter if the polled do not vote getting out the vote is a form of inter group competition. (I have wondered whether poll predictive accuracy differs between, say, the US or UK and Australia, for in the latter all citizens must vote, thereby significantly changing the dynamics of intergroup competition during elections–the question is not getting out the vote but turning the marginal forced voter.) What blanket polls do is suggest areas where mobilization will fail, as in the swift decade change on gay marriage. But even here majority indifference can sometimes be trumped by minority zeal, as the indifferent may just not vote.

But intergroup competition goes beyond voter turnout–it can include, for example, shutting down some opinions as being unacceptable if spoken (we see this today in the US over charges of political correctness which drove some of the Trump election, and presently in Metoo as, I believe, in part a response to Trump). Actually, expanding suffrage is a way of altering intergroup competition. Very rich liberals such as the Kennedy’s have done this with, surprise, expectation it would enhance their vote share. (In this LBJ’s forcing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts was truly altruistic, for he correctly predicted the Democratic Party would lose the South, which it did.) Suffrage is not about releasing us all for individual deliberation. Politics is not about individual deliberation, and I think our empirical measures frustrate us because we are forced, ideologically, to assume otherwise. In Israel, one can say Sheldon Adelson’s capture of a major share of opinion formation via a free news daily is “undemocratic” only by recognizing that opinions do not float above group context. One says it is undemocratic because too much power in opinion formation is focused in too few hands. Suffrage is no longer the vote but the diverse wielding of opinion. The national right will guffaw at this, for they will say democracy is no more than the summed vote of the people. For the liberal left to win, “suffrage” must be generalized. And this is one reason why the word “democracy” itself is now under contest in Israel.

The Global Impact of the American Revolution DBQ

Ask students to consider the following questions with a partner, in a small group, or with a quick write-up:

  • How would you define an unjust government?
  • What, if anything, would lead you to take part in a violent revolution?

Lead a brief class discussion on student responses.

Distribute Handout A and introduce the following DBQ activity. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Enlightenment or Age of Reason took hold in Western Europe. This intellectual movement asserted that human reason could solve problems, and it spawned new ideas concerning human nature and society, government, and politics. As these ideas spread through the increasingly literate populations of Europe and America, political unrest erupted into revolutions, beginning with the American Revolution in the 1770s. In this activity, students will examine documents from the American, French, Haitian, and Latin American revolutions to address the following prompt: To what extent was there a connection between the American Revolution and revolutions in France, Haiti, and Latin America?

Allow students to work through the documents individually, in pairs, or in small groups.

After students have worked through the documents, lead a class discussion of the following questions:

1. What patterns do you see across these documents?

2. Were there similar causes to the revolutions, based on these documents?

3. In what ways do the documents list similar grievances?

4. To what extent do you see evidence of John Locke?

5. Based on these documents, did these revolutions follow a similar path? Explain.

6. What information do you not have in these documents that would help you address the prompt?

Have each student write a thesis statement to address the DBQ prompt: To what extent was there a connection between the American Revolution and revolutions in France, Haiti, and Latin America? Evaluate student thesis statements using the AP DBQ Rubric.

Why the American Revolution Matters

The American Revolution was shaped by high principles and low ones, by imperial politics, dynastic rivalries, ambition, greed, personal loyalties, patriotism, demographic growth, social and economic changes, cultural developments, British intransigence and American anxieties. It was shaped by conflicting interests between Britain and America, between regions within America, between families and between individuals. It was shaped by religion, ethnicity and race, as well as by tensions between rich and poor. It was shaped, perhaps above all else, by the aspirations of ordinary people to make fulfilling lives for themselves and their families, to be secure in their possessions, safe in their homes, free to worship as they wished and to improve their lives by availing themselves of opportunities that seemed to lie within their grasp.

No one of these factors, nor any specific combination of them, can properly be said to have caused the American Revolution. An event as vast as the American Revolution is simply too complex to assign it neatly to particular causes. Although we can never know the causes of the American Revolution with precision, we can see very clearly the most important consequences of the Revolution. They are simply too large and important to miss, and so clearly related to the Revolution that they cannot be traced to any other sequence of events. Every educated American should understand and appreciate them.

First, the American Revolution secured the independence of the United States from the dominion of Great Britain and separated it from the British Empire. While it is altogether possible that the thirteen colonies would have become independent during the nineteenth or twentieth century, as other British colonies did, the resulting nation would certainly have been very different than the one that emerged, independent, from the Revolutionary War. The United States was the first nation in modern times to achieve its independence in a national war of liberation and the first to explain its reasons and its aims in a declaration of independence, a model adopted by national liberation movements in dozens of countries over the last 250 years.

Second, the American Revolution established a republic, with a government dedicated to the interests of ordinary people rather than the interests of kings and aristocrats. The United States was the first large republic since ancient times and the first one to emerge from the revolutions that rocked the Atlantic world, from South America to Eastern Europe, through the middle of the nineteenth century. The American Revolution influenced, to varying degrees, all of the subsequent Atlantic revolutions, most of which led to the establishment of republican governments, though some of those republics did not endure. The American republic has endured, due in part to the resilience of the Federal Constitution, which was the product of more than a decade of debate about the fundamental principles of republican government. Today most of the world’s nations are at least nominal republics, due in no small way to the success of the American republic.

Third, the American Revolution created American national identity, a sense of community based on shared history and culture, mutual experience and belief in a common destiny. The Revolution drew together the thirteen colonies, each with its own history and individual identity, first in resistance to new imperial regulations and taxes, then in rebellion, and finally in a shared struggle for independence. Americans inevitably reduced the complex, chaotic and violent experiences of the Revolution into a narrative of national origins, a story with heroes and villains, of epic struggles and personal sacrifices. This narrative is not properly described as a national myth, because the characters and events in it, unlike the mythic figures and imaginary events celebrated by older cultures, were mostly real. Some of the deeds attributed to those characters were exaggerated and others were fabricated, usually to illustrate some very real quality for which the subject was admired and held up for emulation. The revolutionaries themselves, mindful of their role as founders of the nation, helped create this common narrative as well as symbols to represent national ideals and aspirations.

American national identity has been expanded and enriched by the shared experiences of two centuries of national life, but those experiences were shaped by the legacy of the Revolution and are mostly incomprehensible without reference to the Revolution. The unprecedented movement of people, money and information in the modern world has created a global marketplace of goods, services and ideas that has diluted the hold of national identity on many people, but no global identity has yet emerged to replace it, nor does this seem likely to happen any time in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, the American Revolution committed the new nation to ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship and made them the basis of a new political order. None of these ideals was new or originated with Americans. They were all rooted in the philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, and had been discussed, debated and enlarged by creative political thinkers beginning with the Renaissance. The political writers and philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment disagreed about many things, but all of them imagined that a just political order would be based on these ideals. What those writers and philosophers imagined, the American Revolution created—a nation in which ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship are the basis of law and the foundation of a free society.

The revolutionary generation did not complete the work of creating a truly free society, which requires overcoming layers of social injustice, exploitation and other forms of institutionalized oppression that have accumulated over many centuries, as well as eliminating the ignorance, bigotry and greed that support them. One of the fundamental challenges of a political order based on principles of universal right is that it empowers ignorant, bigoted, callous, selfish and greedy people in the same way it empowers the wise and virtuous. For this reason, political progress in free societies can be painfully, frustratingly slow, with periods of energetic change interspersed with periods of inaction or even retreat. The wisest of our revolutionaries understood this, and anticipated that creating a truly free society would take many generations. The flaw lies not in our revolutionary beginnings or our revolutionary ideals, but in human nature. Perseverance alone is the answer.

Our independence, our republic, our national identity and our commitment to the high ideals that form the basis of our political order are not simply the consequences of the Revolution, to be embalmed in our history books. They are living legacies of the Revolution, more important now, as we face the challenges of a world demanding change, than ever before. Without understanding them, we find our history incomprehensible, our present confused and our future dark. Understanding them, we recognize our common origins, appreciate our present challenges and can advocate successfully for the revolutionary ideals that are the only foundation for the future happiness of the world.

Above: Detail of Liberty by an unidentified American artist, ca. 1800-1820, National Gallery of Art.

Impact of the French and American Revolutions

The French Revolution had important consequences for every major country in Europe. What was particularly remarkable about the impact of the French Revolution on Britain was its profound and abiding influence on the ideological climate and its impact on the development of politics inside and outside parliament.

Throughout Britain the French Revolution was the most important subject of debate in literary, philosophical and political circles. Most of those who took an interest in what was happening across the Channel responded in either a highly positive or a profoundly negative fashion. This increasingly sharp division of opinion provided a major stimulus to extra-parliamentary reformers while also encouraging the growth of popular loyalism, and re-shaped the political fortunes of the two major groups in parliament, led by William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox respectively. British opinion thus became polarized between those who thought French principles and actions should set an example to the British people and those who believed that they should oppose everything the French Revolution was seeking to achieve.

The dramatic first months of the French Revolution inspired a positive reaction among men of liberal views both inside and outside parliament. To such men as Charles James Fox, Richard Price and Robert Southey the old world seemed to be passing a way and the regeneration of all human institutions seemed to be at hand. France was seen to be throwing off the shackles of tyranny and leading mankind to a more rational age when liberty, equality and fraternity would improve the human condition forever. Many veteran reformers, who had been campaigning for political change since the 1760s, hailed the outbreak of revolution in a country long regarded as the prime example of absolute monarchy and were galvanized into a renewed debate on what reforms needed to be achieved. By the early 1790s, inspired by French notions on the rights of man, most British campaigners for parliamentary reform had adopted the demand for universal manhood suffrage and for a full democratization of the electoral system. There was widespread agreement that the right to vote should be attached to the person and not to the property of man. To deny any man the franchise was to cast a slur on his moral character and to assert that he was less than a man. The possession of wealth was no proof of moral worth or civic virtue, and nor was poverty any evidence of the lack of these qualities.

In the past many British reformers had maintained that their demand for an extension of the franchise was based on a traditional right based on England’s ancient constitution. Many of the leading radical theorists of the early 1790s however abandoned an appeal to history and stressed instead the natural and inalienable rights of all men. Thomas Paine, for example, deliberately abandoned any appeal to the past and insisted that each age had the right to establish any political system which would fit its own needs. The present age must be free to reject the tyranny of the past and to inaugurate a new age of liberty. All men must be allowed their natural and inalienable rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. The authority of those in power must be limited and must be subject to the sovereignty of the people. A written constitution must place limits on the executive and the legislature, and must clearly set out the civil rights of all subjects. Thomas Paine would have gone further than most parliamentary reformers to democratize the elections to the House of Commons. He condemned all hereditary honours, titles and privileges. He saw no justification for a monarchy or an aristocracy and clearly favoured a democratic republic. Few other British reformers wanted to go as far as this and only a handful (and Paine was not among them) campaigned for votes for women. On the other hand, a few reformers had become interested in a range of social and economic reforms. Quite a number of reformers favoured educational reforms, changes in the legal system, the abolition of church tithes and the repeal of the game laws. Paine argued for a reduction in taxes on the poor and for a property tax on the rich which would fund such social welfare reforms as child allowances, maternity grants and old age pensions. Thomas Spence went further still and wanted to abolish private property and to put all land and natural resources in each parish under the control of and for the benefit of every man, woman and child living in it.

The consequences for the political and propertied elite of reforms such as these, and the alarming example set by the French revolutionaries who used violence and terror to achieve the changes which they desired, stimulated a profound conservative reaction in Britain. Conservative theorists such as Edmund Burke denounced the radical concept of natural rights, all abstract general principles and reforms based on speculative theories as the sure and certain road to political upheaval and social anarchy. They insisted that human beings were so unequal in body, mind, talents and fortune that they could not lay claim to an equal share of political power. Conservative propaganda aimed at a mass readership used more pragmatic arguments than these and adopted simple, direct language and a more impassioned tone. This propaganda sought to convince the middling and lower orders of Britain that French principles and the ideas of British radicals posed a terrible threat to everything that they held most dear. British subjects were warned that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose if they were seduced by radical principles. The French revolutionaries were condemned for rejecting Gods laws and arrogantly putting their trust in human reason. Whereas the British people were secure in their lives, liberty, property and religion, the French were experiencing terror, social anarchy and military dictatorship. This virulent propaganda set out to paint the French in the blackest colours and to accuse them of spreading terror, oppression and desolation across Europe. To restrain them, the British people must be prepared to make enormous sacrifices and to wage a veritable crusade against the French Revolution.

To disseminate their radical ideas far and wide British reformers established dozens of new political societies in most of the urban centres. By far the most important of these was the London Corresponding Society, founded by Thomas Hardy, a humble shoemaker, in January 1792. Branches soon spread across the capital and 3000 or more members were recruited, though it was never a mass society and it failed to attract large numbers of the poor. A radical society in Sheffield attracted nearly as many members, but most radical clubs were much smaller. Nearly all of them were formed by the commercial and professional middle classes and by skilled craftsmen, but their propaganda, public meetings and their petitioning campaigns did raise the political consciousness of large numbers of people.

In its determination to resist the spread of French principles the British government used its legislative and judicial powers to suppress radical activity. Faced with government repression, most radicals did not know how to respond. The majority lost heart or at least moderated their conduct. As a last desperate resort a minority turned to conspiracy and violence as the only means of achieving their political objectives. By the late 1790s a militant remnant of the British radical movement had assumed the conspiratorial, subversive and violent character that the majority had always repudiated. Groups of United Englishmen were formed in London, Lancashire and West Yorkshire, while bands of United Scotsmen appeared in central Scotland. Arms were gathered and secret drilling took place, but these groups lacked numbers, cohesion and a clear strategy. Without French support they had little prospect of success and most of their leaders were arrested in 1798.

In the years after 1789 parliamentary politics in Britain were marked by a rallying behind William Pitt’s government of the vast majority of the propertied elite. Pitt’s determination to oppose both revolution abroad and radical change at home was very popular with the propertied classes represented in parliament and dominant in most parliamentary constituencies. There was widespread backing for his repressive policies which destroyed the radical movement as an effective force.

While events in France increased the parliamentary majority of Pitt’s party of government in the years after 1789, they also played a major role in dividing the parliamentary opposition led by Charles James Fox and condemning it to nearly forty years in the political wilderness. Frequently outmanoeuvred by Pitt, the opposition suffered from divided counsels and erratic judgement and had tied itself closely to the unpopular and irresponsible Prince of Wales. The internal problems facing them, however, were greatly exacerbated by their inability to unite in their response to the French Revolution and the French war. This parliamentary opposition disintegrated between 1792 and 1794 largely because Burke, Portland and other conservative members could no longer accept the Foxite view that French revolutionaries and domestic radicals posed little threat to the political and social order within Britain. The anxiety created by prolonged war proved even more alarming than the political changes within France and it reduced even further the support for the Foxites both within parliament and among the political elite as a whole.

The Foxite view of the French Revolution was dominated by British assumptions and expectations. They mistakenly believed that the French were about to establish a constitutional monarchy on the British model. Even when the French revolutionaries turned to violence, the Foxites claimed that it was the absolutist powers of Europe, aided and abetted by the reactionary Pitt, who were more to blame than the French for the descent into anarchy, terror and dictatorship. The war against France was condemned as unjust and unnecessary. Such attitudes as these, sustained in the teeth of the evidence, ensured that the Foxites would never command a majority among the political elite so long as the French threat remained. At the same time the Foxites failed to enlist the enthusiastic support of radicals and reformers outside parliament because their commitment to parliamentary reform was at best ambivalent and almost invariably lukewarm. They failed to find and extend the middle ground in an age when political opinion was sharply polarized by events in France. Although the Foxites eloquently argued the case for peace and bravely tried to stem the tide of reaction, their efforts were condemned by most of the political elite as defeatist and unpatriotic and were rejected by the radicals as half-hearted and insincere.

In their different responses to the French Revolution and the French war the Pittites and the Foxites were divided more than any other recent governing party and opposition by a yawning political and ideological gulf. Previously divided mainly on the question of the royal prerogative, the two groups now increasingly differed over their attitudes to domestic reform, the French Revolution and the issues of war and peace. These major ideological differences propelled both groups towards greater party organization. Although the Younger Pitt always regarded himself as an independent Whig, his critics increasingly applied the label Tory to his administration because it defended the royal prerogative, supported the privileges of the Church of England, cultivated patriotic sentiment in the nation at large, encouraged militant loyalism, and suppressed radical dissent. As the party which remained critical of royal power, advocated religious toleration, supported a moderate extension of civil liberties and opposed reaction at home, the Foxites succeeded in retaining the old Whig label for themselves.

Britain and the American Revolution

The American Revolution can be regarded as a civil war in which the British people on both sides of the Atlantic disputed about their constitutional interpretations of the past and over their constitutional visions for the future. The people in America and the people in Britain were divided internally on the wisdom of the political arguments advanced by American patriots and British imperialists. In the colonies, there were many Americans who remained loyal to the British empire and the British constitution. In Britain there were many who sympathized with the American patriots and who protested against the policies put forward by the British government in the 1760s and 1770s. Throughout the American Revolution successive British governments secured comfortable majorities to support their imperialist policies towards the American colonies. In recent years however historians have shown that large numbers of people in Britain opposed the government’s American policy.

Faced with an American empire greatly increased in size by 1763 and already burdened by a huge national debt and very heavy taxes, British government ministers tried to revise its imperial machinery. It also tried to reduce the costs of empire while seeking to get the colonists to bear more – but only a part – of the burden of defending this North American empire. The colonists were asked to pay some of the costs for billeting British troops. And a new form of tax – an internal Stamp Tax imposing a duty on published papers and financial and legal documents – was introduced in 1765 in order to meet some of the costs of imperial defence. These government measures were not a conspiracy to deprive the colonies of their rights and liberties. From a British point of view they were legal decisions made by the government and enacted by parliament in order to get the Americans to pay part of the costs of their own defence.

In their opposition to the decisions taken by the British government, the American colonists challenged the right of the British government and the British parliament to pass such legislative acts. They raised the old British slogan of no taxation without consent long used by the British parliament against the British monarch and argued that they did not give their consent to British acts of parliament because they were not represented in the Westminster parliament. In response, the British government and a majority in parliament were determined to defend the constitutional principle of the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. They were convinced that the British constitution had brought the British people of the whole empire many valuable benefits. This constitution was praised for saving Britain from the evils of absolutism and an authoritarian church. It had produced the rule of law and government by consent, the defence of property and the liberties of all subjects, and an unparalleled period of economic prosperity, military success and imperial expansion. It had, in particular, produced the essential objectives of all good government: liberty and stability under the rule of law and a law based on the consent of the people achieved through representative institutions. These arguments persuaded a majority of the political elite to support the American policies of successive British ministries, but many in Britain were opposed to these policies and to the constitutional principles that underlay them.

There were always British critics of the government inside and outside parliament who warned that British taxes and coercive measures would alienate all the American colonies and that war would be a disaster to all British interests. Critics in parliament condemned the ministers and regarded the drift to war as fatal and ruinous. William Pitt and Edmund Burke made major speeches urging compromise with the American colonists. Outside parliament Adam Smith and Josiah Tucker, the two leading economists of the day, argued that the colonies were beneficial to Britain only because of the trade across the Atlantic. This trade would continue to exist and would continue to benefit Britain even if Britain exercised no political control over the American colonies. As independent states the former colonies would continue to want to sell their raw materials to Britain and to buy British manufactured goods. It was therefore best not to fight, but to let the American colonies go their own way towards political independence. Large numbers of middle class men in London and many provincial cities also believed that the trade links with America were much more important than any political control over the internal affairs of the colonies. These men organized petitions against the Stamp act of 1765, and helped to secure its repeal in 1766, and they did the same in opposition to the coercive acts of 1774 and in favour of compromise with the Americans in 1775-6. Thousands of British people signed these petitions, opposed government policies and urged the need for peace. In March 1776 the Common Council of the City of London condemned the war with America and even tried to block the government’s efforts to recruit men into the army and the navy.

Many British critics of the government’s American policy sympathized with arguments advanced by the American colonists. Some opposition politicians in parliament insisted that the American colonists enjoyed all the liberties of British subjects in Britain, and that included the right to be taxed only by their own colonial legislatures. Radical propagandists such as Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, John Cartwright and James Burgh frequently argued that the government of the colonies must be based on consent and they supported the principle of no taxation without representation. They were critical of attempts to impose an internal tax on the colonies and they condemned coercive measures and opposed the war with the colonies. But these men wished to retain the British empire and to keep the links between Britain and the colonies. They found it difficult however to devise a political system which would maintain the empire, preserve liberty in all parts of it, and yet not have to grant the colonists full independence. Several proposals were made to allow the colonies to elect MPs to the British House of Commons so that colonists would enjoy representation in the imperial legislature. It was soon realised that this was impractical. The colonies were too far away so that colonial MPs could not easily keep in touch with the situation back in the colonies travel would be slow living for months every year in London would be very expensive and no agreement could ever be reached on how many American representatives should sit in the Westminster parliament.

Rather than force the American colonies to remain in the empire, British liberal and radical opinion had concluded by 1778 that the war should be ended and Britain should freely concede American independence. These men hoped that good human and commercial relations would be restored with the former colonies this would be more beneficial for both sides than a military victory for one side. Although they could not persuade the British government and a majority in parliament to accept American independence as early as 1778, Britain did eventually accept that the war was not worth continuing and peace was made in 1783.

The British defeat in the War of American Independence and loss of the American colonies were major disasters for Britain. Many in Europe thought Britain would rapidly decline into a second-rank power. These expectations were not realised however. The worst consequences of defeat were short-lived. Defeat produced government instability for a year or two, but William Pitt led one of the strongest governments in British history between 1784 and 1801. It was widely expected that American independence would destroy all Britain’s Atlantic trade and seriously weaken her economy. In fact, by the 1790s Britain was once more America’s greatest trading partner, buying the vast majority of Americas exports and supplying the vast majority of her imports. The British economy rapidly recovered from the war and industrial innovation very soon made Britain the leading manufacturing nation on earth and the richest power in the world. Britain lost her finest colonies in America in 1783, but she kept Canada and many islands in the West Indies and soon developed a second vast empire in India, Australia and the Far East.

The American Revolution had its most important impact within Britain on men of liberal or radical views who had sympathized with the American arguments during the 1760s and 1770s. The American crisis alerted men to the dangers posed to British liberties by the amount of political patronage controlled by the king and the extent of his influence over parliament. Slowly but surely, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, royal patronage was cut back and the ability of the crown to influence the membership of the House of Commons was severely limited. The monarch began to play a much less significant role in politics. British failure also encouraged a major revival of radicalism. By 1780 British radicals and already proposed a series of reforms to democratize the House of Commons including votes for all adult males. It took many years to achieve these reforms but it was the American Revolution that taught British radicals what reforms to demand to make parliament accountable to the people and not just to the propertied elite. It was the American patriots who taught British radicals to demand a much more democratic franchise and to strive to increase the political influence of ordinary British subjects. They also taught British reformers how to organize political campaigns and how to achieve reforms without too much domestic upheaval. The lessons which Britain did not learn from the American Revolution was the dangers posed by the sovereignty of parliament and the advantages of a written constitution approved by the people and an extensive Bill of Rights.

The impact of the Revolutionary War

The way prisoners-of-war were treated during the American Revolutionary War – and indeed through much of the 18th century – was different from today. Prisoners were generally treated well, however, they were expected to pay for their own food and supplies. Exchanges of prisoners between sides were common, as was the use of parole. Many captured soldiers were also encouraged to defect and enlist in the opposing army large numbers took up this option, either to avoid imprisonment or simply to facilitate their escape. American soldiers and sailors who refused to defect and who weren’t paroled or exchanged were mostly kept on prison hulks: huge ships or barges kept permanently at anchor in American harbours. The most notorious of these was HMS Jersey (see picture) which held thousands of American servicemen in appalling conditions off New York City. As many as eight a day died from disease, starvation or beatings, their bodies either thrown overboard or buried in shallow graves along the shoreline. Overall it is believed that five times more Americans died in British captivity than in battle during the War of Independence.

A little-known fact about the American Revolutionary War is that it took place during the worst smallpox epidemic in the colonies’ history. This highly contagious viral disease, which caused severe skin deformation and a substantial death rate, had killed an estimated six million Aztecs and Incas in the 16th century. It had been used as a biological weapon during the French and Indian War, with British settlers giving smallpox-infected blankets to French-allied tribes. It is believed that as many as 125,000 people – not only American soldiers but civilians, British troops, slaves and natives – perished from smallpox between 1775 and 1782. Some native tribes particularly were decimated by smallpox, making them more susceptible to invasion and slaughter in the 1780s and beyond. Although Edward Jenner would not invent a smallpox vaccination until 1796, many Americans during the revolution practised a crude form of inoculation: small cuts would be made in the skin and pus from an infected patient would be smeared onto the open wound. Although the patient would become sick with the disease, they generally recovered. It is recorded that John and Abigail Adams had their children inoculated in this fashion George Washington also ordered several Continental Army units to be inoculated at the first signs of a smallpox outbreak. Although the death toll from the war was dwarfed by the numbers of smallpox deaths, because immigration to America continued at high levels in the war years there was no marked drop in population.

“This does not mean that Americans were correct when they alleged that the British intended the deaths of so many captives… the thousands of Americans who perished in New York during the Revolution were the victims of something well beyond the usual brutalities and misfortunes of war, even eighteenth-century war – a lethal convergence, as it were, of obstinacy, condescension, corruption, mendacity and indifference. Though the British did not deliberately kill American prisoners in New York, they might as well have done. Did Americans treat their prisoners any better? Not necessarily, though circumstances were such that their capacity for inhumanity in this context was never fully tested.”
Edwin G. Burrows, historian

Americans who served in the Revolution War: 217,000
Total American deaths in battle: 4,435
Total non-fatal casualties or serious wounds: 6,188
Last American Revolutionary War veteran, Daniel F. Bakeman, died April 5, 1869 (age 109)
Last American Revolutionary War widow, Catherine S. Damon, died November 11, 1906 (age 92)

Watch the video: The Global Impact of America First (February 2023).

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