Some scholars have argued that economics and class conflicts caused the American Revolution. However, most experts now endorse the traditional theory that the Revolution was a political conflict, caused by irreconcilable differences about how the American colonies should be governed. By 1776, the British were committed to the view that Parliament must exercise unchallenged authority in all parts of the empire, including the power to tax Americans without their consent. Americans believed that they were entitled to certain fundamental rights, the "rights of Englishmen," which put certain activities beyond the reach of any government. Inability to compromise on these ideas led in 1775 to an appeal to arms.
Because of the strong bands of law, loyalty, faith and blood uniting the two peoples, many Americans were surprised that a war against the British had occurred. Most Americans believed themselves to be as English as their kin in the mother country, differing from them only in living in another part of the empire. Even on the eve of declaring independence most Americans would have been happy with what is today called "dominion status," which would have meant owing allegiance to the British monarch but otherwise enjoying political autonomy.
Since it began in 1775, the fighting was bloody. The Revolution, concluded by a preliminary peace treaty in the fall of 1782, was, after the Civil War, the costliest conflict in American history in terms of the proportion of the population killed in service. It was three times more lethal than World War II.
The brutality of the war convinced leading American statesmen such as George Mason (1725-1792) that enduring hostility would exist between Britain and America. Mason wrote in the autumn of 1778: "Enormities and cruelties have been committed here, which not only disgrace the British Name, but dishonour the human kind. We can never trust a People who have thus used us, Human Nature revolts at the idea."
Although hostility remained after the war, many Americans continued following British ways as eagerly as ever. In the 1790s one of the two leading American political parties sought a "rapprochement" with Britain -- a powerful testimony to the strength of what Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), in the Declaration of Independence, called the "ties of our common kindred."
The Stamp Act
The Stamp Act, which taxed Americans for stamps imprinted on a wide variety of legal and official documents, was the first measure passed by the British parliament to arouse widespread antagonism in the thirteen colonies. Taking effect on November 1, 1765, it was considered by both British and American leaders as a precedent-setting measure because of the important point it established, the right of parliament to lay an internal tax upon the colonies.
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This is a proof sheet of one-penny stamps, submitted for approval to the Commissioners of Stamps by an engraver on May 10, 1765. Under the Stamp Act, one-penny stamps were to be used on newspapers, pamphlets and all other papers"being larger than half a sheet and not exceeding one whole sheet."
Proof Sheet of 1d Stamp Duties for Newspapers, 1765. Board of Inland Revenues Stamping Department Archive, Philatelic Collection, The British Library (34)
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The Repeal of the Stamp Act
The Stamp Act generated intense, widespread opposition in America. Colonists convened an intercolonial Stamp Act Congress in New York in the fall of 1765 and called for a boycott on British imports. Bowing to the pressure, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. In this cartoon, a funeral procession to the tomb of the Stamp Act includes its principal proponent, Treasury Secretary George Grenville, carrying a child's coffin, marked "Miss Ame-Stamp born 1765 died 1766."
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The "Boston Massacre"
On March 5, 1770, a mob, marching on the Customs House, was fired upon by a detachment of British troops who were being verbally and physically abused by the Americans. British soldiers were acquitted in a trial in which they were defended by John Adams (1735-1826). The engraving by Paul Revere (1735-1818) of the massacre was derived from the work of future Loyalist, Henry Pelham (1749-1806). A masterpiece of anti-British propaganda, it inflamed American sentiments.
Paul Revere. "The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5, 1770." Boston: 1770. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (38)
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The Boston Tea Party
The Tea Act, passed by the House of Commons on April 27, 1773, was regarded in America as a strategy to induce the colonists, by lowering the price of tea, to consume more of it and therefore acknowledge the principle of British taxation. On December 16, 1773, a group of Bostonians, disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded the tea ships docked in Boston Harbor and dumped all 342 chests into the water, goading Britain into harsh retaliatory legislation, known as the Intolerable Acts.
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The Patriotic Ladies of Edenton
One way the Americans responded to the Intolerable Acts was to boycott British products. This satire, appearing in London in March 1775, was inspired by a newspaper report that a society of ladies in Edenton, North Carolina, had agreed to refrain from drinking tea.
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Continental Congress Asserts Loyalty to the King
As one of its final acts, on October 25, 1774, the First Continental Congress adopted a respectful petition to George III (1738-1820). Written by John Dickinson (1732-1808), the petition asserted that had it not been for Parliamentary oppression, Americans would be "recommending ourselves by every testimony of devotion to your Majesty and of veneration to the state from which we derive our origin." It is signed by the members of the First Continental Congress.
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The War Begins
British troops, sent to confiscate American arms and supplies, were resisted by Massachusetts militiamen at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. This broadside printed at Salem, Massachusetts, a few days later dramatically displays the coffins of the forty Americans killed. The British were reported to have suffered 65 dead, 180 wounded, and 27 missing.
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Battle of Bunker Hill
On June 17, 1775, the British attacked an earthen redoubt erected by American troops led by Colonel William Prescott (1726-1795), on Breed's Hill, just below Bunker Hill, on the Charlestown Heights commanding Boston. The British drove the Americans out after three frontal assaults at the cost of 1500 casualties. This picture of the battle was drawn shortly after the conflict by Lieutenant Thomas Page, British General William Howe's aide-de-camp.
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The Burning of Charlestown
Charlestown, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Harassed by musket fire from the town, the British forces were ordered to set it afire, which they did by a heavy bombardment. Built of wood, the town's buildings were consumed by flames almost immediately.
"View of the Attack on Bunker's Hill with the Burning of Charlestown." Engraving after Millar. In Edward Bernard, The New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England. London: Alex. Hogg, . Early Printed Collections, The British Library (47)
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Washington Appointed Commander in Chief
On June 19, 1775, two days after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress selected George Washington (1732-1799) to lead the Continental Army. His commission, seen here, named him"Commander in Chief of the army of the United Colonies and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them and of all others who shall voluntarily offer their services and join the said army."
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Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) composed this draft of the Declaration of Independence. It was corrected (seen in the margins) by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and John Adams, and was approved by the Committee on June 28 and submitted to Congress. Congress approved it on July 4, 1776, but not before making substantial changes, including the deletion of Jefferson's famous denunciation of slavery.
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The British take New York
Early American optimism that a hastily assembled army of soldiers fresh from the plow and the shop could prevail against the powerful professional forces of Great Britain was dashed in the campaign around New York City in the summer of 1776. Seen here is the British Army entering New York in mid-September 1776 after it was abandoned by Washington's forces.
Francis Xavier Habermann. "L'Entré triumphale de troupes royales a Nouvelle Yorck." Paris: J. Chereau, [177?]. Hand-colored engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (51)
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Pictured here are the Queen's Rangers, as commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806). His unit campaigned throughout the war and surrendered with Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) at Yorktown in 1781. In 1791 Simcoe was appointed first British governor of Upper Canada.
John Graves Simcoe. A Journal of the Operations of the Queen's Rangers, from the End of the year 1777, to the Conclusion of the Late American War. Exeter: Printed for the Author, . Early Printed Collections, The British Library (52)
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This map shows the fortifications the Americans built in 1777 along a fifteen-mile stretch of the Delaware River below Philadelphia in a futile attempt to prevent British ships from reaching and attacking the city. The American forts at Mud Island, Red Bank, and Billingsgate can be seen.
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A Victory at Sea
This depiction is of John Paul Jones' famous victory over the Serapis, September 23, 1779, off Flamborough Head in the North Sea. In command of the smaller Bon Homme Richard, Jones (1747-1792) succeeded by lashing his ship to his adversary's and raking it with musket fire. The battle has been called "one of the most desperate and sanguinary sea fights in naval history."
B.F. Leizalt. "Combat memorable entre le Pearson et Paul Jones. Augsburg: 1779 1780." Engraving after a painting by Richard Paton. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (54)
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The Surrender at Yorktown
This etching is a fanciful French representation of the surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, depicted in the upper center as a walled medieval town. The French army, dressed in blue, is in the foreground and the American army, in red, is in the background between which the British army is seen leaving the field. The French fleet, whose command of the seas was decisive, is depicted as being anchored in the York River.
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The American Rattlesnake
Published when peace negotiations had begun, this etching suggests the futility of further British efforts to suppress forcibly the Americans. The American rattlesnake boasts: "Two British Armies I have thus Burgoyn'd, And room for more I've got behind." A sign is posted over a vacant third coil:"An Apartment to Lett for Military Gentlemen."
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Treaty Map, 1782
Called by a distinguished scholar, "the most famous map in the history of American diplomacy," this map has been variously called "Mitchell's Map," "the Red-lined Map," and "King George's Map." It was the map used by the British and American peace negotiators in Paris in the fall of 1782 to delineate the boundaries of the original territory that became the United States.
John Mitchell. A Map of the British Colonies in North America with the Roads, Distances, Limits and Extent of the Settlements. London: Jefferys & Fadden, 1775, with hand-written additions, 1782. Enlarged version Map Collections, The British Library (58)
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The Loss of America
The loss of America was troubling to many Britons, among them poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827). Blake related the American Revolution to the French Revolution, during which this drawing was made, and believed the two events might portend some sort of cosmic upheaval. Here, England's angel, Albion, mourns the loss of America which, in Blakes's view, has made a giant breach in the fabric of Britain's well being.
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