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From British Colony to Independence:
the American Revolution, 1701 to 1791

The Colonists | From Lexington to the Negotiated Settlement, 1775-83 | Articles of Confederation and Hard Times to Shay's Rebellion | Inventing the United States Constitution | The Bill of Rights and Constitution's Ratification

American Revolutionary War

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin
painted by Jean-Baptisste Greuze in 1777

King George III

King George III

Tea Party in Boston Harbor

A Tea Party in Boston Tea Party in Boston Harbor, enlarged

The Colonists

Between 1707 and 1775, 145,000 Scots are counted as having entered England's colonies along the Atlantic coast of the Americas. In this same period, around 100,000 Germans came, looking for economic opportunity, running from war and, to a lesser extent, from religious persecution. England had few people interested in migrating to the colonies, but England's courts sent around 50,000 convicts, who were employed as field hands, largely on tobacco plantations, and treated as slaves, including punishment by whipping. Some of the descendents of the English settlers from the 1600s looked upon the arrival of the Scots and Germans as a buffer against the Indians, the French or Spanish, or as labor for their farms. And some were worried about their English culture being diluted.

A population of roughly 275,000 whites in 1700 grew to around 1.5 million in 1755. New Englanders grew from 33,000 in 1660 to around 700,000 in 1780, more than ninety percent of them direct descendants of those who had come by 1660. The number of slaves grew from around 25,000 in 1700 to roughly 470,000 in 1755 and to 567,000 by 1775. The decades after 1700 were of the great slave importations and auctions. By mid-century, white convict labor was overwhelmed by slaves from Africa. The northern colonies were around two percent slave. At mid-century, the populations around Chesapeake Bay were about 40 percent slave, and slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina by two to one. Slaves worked the plantations in field gangs, many of their masters leaving control of them to overseers and African slave-drivers. In South Carolina, owners stayed away from their rice fields, where the death rate from malaria was high. In Charlestown, an afro-white population developed, white men having fathered numerous children of African mothers. Slaves were more than half of Charlestown's population, working as house servants, dockworkers, boatmen and artisans. And a few of those of African heritage were free.

Where slaves were more numerous, they were more feared, and control over them was more intense and brutal. In New England, where slaves were few and less feared, slaves could own, transfer and inherit property, and whites and blacks were considered equal before the law. The Puritans viewed slaves as part of the master's family and due what they thought of as the liberties granted by God – which, of course, did not include freedom from slavery. In New England, most slaves were farmhands. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, some worked in ironworks.

Those slaves recently bought at auction blocks often tried to escape, frequently in groups, encouraged by their numbers and on a few occasions they killed a few of their oppressors in the process. In 1733, a decree by Spain gave slaves that had escaped from a British colony refuge in its colony of Florida, and by 1738 the Spanish were employing escaped slaves as militiamen.

Benjamin Franklin, a slave owner in Philadelphia, described the reaction of people to their enslavement. Some slaves, he wrote, are mild tempered and kind people. "But the majority," he added, "are of a plotting disposition, dark, sullen, malicious, revengeful and cruel in the highest degree." (Gary B Nash, Red, White and Black, Fourth Edition, p 181)


Colonists had brought with them from Europe that continent's concerns about the hereafter, salvation of the soul and brotherly love. But they did not see people from Africa as brothers, and many slave owners resisted conversion to Christianity by their slaves. The slave owners feared that baptism would encourage their slaves with a sense of equality and that the slaves would consider baptism a stepping-stone to freedom.

Some Quakers were slave owners, but in the 1730s a few Quakers had begun to challenge slavery. The Quakers were the third largest Protestant denomination, after the Congregationalists and Anglicans – and before the Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed. The Quakers were opposed to violence and for humility and hard work. Some believed that whites should do their own work rather than have slaves do it for them. And they believed that everyone was capable of receiving the "light" of God’s spirit and wisdom, including people from Africa. In 1758, the Quaker John Woolman traveled through the colonies spreading an anti-slavery message. In New York, New Jersey and New England, where it was easier to be against slavery, the Quakers enacted rules for themselves that forbade their trading in or holding slaves. Quakers also opposed the enslavement of Indians and expansion against Indians in Western Pennsylvania. The Quakers were most numerous in Eastern Pennsylvania and were opposed to disturbing the tradition of good relations with the Indians that had been created by William Penn.

The majority of free persons in the colonies read only the Bible. Other books available in the colonies were largely religious tracts and sermons, and an intellectual, Christian elite read some of the ancients, such as Cicero and Seneca, and authors of the Enlightenment. Different interpretations of scripture continued, as in Europe, and among the ranks of various denominations a split developed between those called rationalists and those called evangelicals. The rationalist approach to religion respected the critical and empirical inquiries of science that had produced revelations such as the nature of gravity. The rationalists believed more in intellectuality and had respect for the learned men in positions of authority within the churches. They tended to discard Calvinist notions about an arbitrary and punishing God, viewing God as more forgiving and more generous in rewarding good behavior. The Evangelicals favored emotion and complained about the loss of intensity in faith. The Evangelical tradition produced "born again" revivals, including the Great Awakening, which began in the 1720s in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In the 1730s the Great Awakening appeared again in the Massachusetts colony, where thousands gathered to see the evangelist George Whitefield, from England, deliver his dramatic performances and to receive "divine fire."

The Evangelicals were holding their revivals in fields and barns and shattering the monopoly of the educated clergy on religious discourse. The revival meetings were viewed with discomfort by the more educated and more wealthy as a threat from common folk. Established clergy disliked the preaching by evangelical women, and they quoted the command "Let your women keep silence in the churches." They called evangelical preachers "haranguers" and "social incendiaries."

The Great Awakening inspired conversions to Christianity among slaves. In 1758, a slave congregation – Baptist – was allowed on the plantation of William Byrd in Mecklenburg, Virginia. Slaves adopting Christianity tended to look to Moses for his having led the Israelites from slavery.


The colonies were growing commercially, enough that in 1748 Benjamin Franklin, at the age of 42, removed himself from the daily operations of his printing business and aspired to genteel status – although he disliked pomposity. The life of a gentleman was defined in part by freedom from manual labor, but Franklin's gentility had a practical side. He continued to respect work, and he believed tradesmen and merchants as worthy as landed gentry. Franklin had acquired wealth from sales of his book, Poor Richard's Almanac, which was second in sales after the Bible, his book selling around 10,000 copies every year, beginning in 1733. Franklin was interested in science. When a young man he had stopped attending church to have more time to read on his own.

Prosperity in the colonies arose with agriculture, the crafts and trade. There was the iron industry, commerce in whiskey, rum, shipbuilding, supplies for ships, trade in animal hides and timber, and fishing. Agriculture dominated the economy: the growing of tobacco, rice, wheat, corn and hemp. The north was largely small farms. South Carolina was the most wealthy of the thirteen colonies, derived largely from rice plantations. Virginia prospered from tobacco growing – tobacco needing more care in its cultivation and therefore more supervision of plantation slave labor.

There was a shortage of investment capital in the colonies, but the colonists were in a land of abundant natural resources, taxation was light, and the freedom of commerce that had risen among the Dutch and English was alive and well. By 1770, the median income for white colonists was as high if not higher than median incomes for people in European nations. Prosperity changed the appearance of towns and villages. Some merchants built three story homes – in New England usually with brick, and in Pennsylvania usually with stone. Wooden homes for those of more modest wealth were often painted inside and out.

Northern cities had wealthy businessmen, lawyers and government officials. Below them in prestige and wealth were the shopkeepers and craftsmen. Roughly half of city populations were without property, many of them recent immigrants from Europe. Tax records show that in the cities the bottom 30 percent owned nothing and the wealthiest ten percent owned 60 percent of the wealth. People with property, and high-ranking members of the churches, felt threatened by what they thought of as the envy of those without property. And those without property were not allowed to participate in the political life of the community.

Those with property were proud of their refinement, of their furniture and their other accumulations. They attributed their success to hard work and favor from God. Plantation owners enjoyed entertaining their peers, avoiding the common folk awkward in the presence, who lacked self-confidence, ease, grace.

Some more modest white folk disliked the leisure that appeared with prosperity and wealth. Benjamin Franklin criticized the students at Harvard for their frivolity, luxury, stealing, lying, idleness and frequent use of strong drink. Quakers, clinging to respect for work, complained about frivolity among youths, including shooting matches, singing, dancing and other gatherings that they called disorders.

The Scottish and German men on the western frontier with the Indians also had a strong work ethic. They complained that Indians were not using their lands properly, that it was a violation of "the Laws of God & Nature that so much land should lie idle while so many Christians wanted it to labor on to raise their bread." (Alan Taylor, American Colonies, p 322)


On the frontier, small communities of Scott-Irish, living in small cabins, were interested in learning and in learned ministers joining their settlement. Plantation owners hired tutors for their children or they sent their children to England for schooling. In Philadelphia, languages, mathematics, and natural science were provided the citizenry in private schools with no religious affiliations. There were also the Quaker schools, providing an elementary education for their children, and there were Quaker schools that taught classical languages, history and literature. Among the Quakers, those who could pay tuition did, but schooling was free for the poor. Germans in Philadelphia either taught their children reading and writing at home or sent them to church schools. The daughters of wealthy merchants in Philadelphia were taught French, music, dancing, painting, singing and dance. Girls in Puritan New England learned household tasks at home, and a few were taught to read. As late as the 1770s, few women in New England could sign their name.

Education among adults was altering the explanation for mental disorders and altering its treatments. Insanity was increasingly seen as the work of natural causes rather than of the devil. Medical doctors were replacing religious ministers as leading authorities on insanity. Doctors, however, were still in the twilight regarding understanding illness. For all forms of mental derangement as well as for other illnesses they were treating patients with bleedings, bowel and emetic purges.

By the 1770s, the colonies had 37 newspapers, 7 colleges and something like 4,400 college graduates – a little more than two for every thousand white persons.

Conflict with the Mother Country

Britain's king and parliament expected their colonists to obey their laws and to maintain an interest in the mother country's place in the world. The colonists were expected to provide England with raw materials and to buy finished goods from England, or goods that passed through England and to the colonists on English ships.

Also, for advantage to merchants in the mother country, a Woolens Act had been passed by parliament, banning colonists from selling woolen goods or hats. Another act forbade the felling of white pines on public lands, such pines to be reserved for use as masts by the British Navy. A law forbade the building of new iron forges and mills. A tariff was collected by the mother country on molasses imported into the colonies from the French West Indies, to the dislike of New Englanders who needed it to produce rum. But the colonists continued to do whatever business they could get away with – not unlike Chinese merchants in the 1500s who violated prohibitions by their government on trade.

A spirit of self-government had arisen in the colonies. Between the years 1721 to 1742, Britain's Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, had encouraged this with a policy called "salutary neglect." Wishing to concentrate on European matters, Walpole relaxed colonial regulations and allowed the colonists to govern themselves. Each colony had an assembly of representatives elected by respected men – men who owned at least a little property. These assemblies enforced the colony's laws, collected taxes, budgeted expenditures and pursued a few small public works programs.

Colonists saw their government as based on Britain's constitution, which they viewed as the most advanced constitution in the world – a constitution known for balancing the interests of the monarchy, the nobility and the common people. Many colonists saw themselves as free, but many also saw their monarch as a father to his people, to whom they owed obedience. The Scots, Irish, Dutch and French in England's colonies were less attached to England's king, George II. The Germans were also less attached, although George II was a German monarch (from Hanover) who spoke little English.

Taxes and other Conflicts

Colonists in America disliked the disdain of government officials sent to them by England. Class prestige was bigger in England than was common in the colonies, and many in England looked upon those in the colonies as a crude and beneath them. When a provincial agent in England (beginning in 1757) Benjamin Franklin was subjected to this, and some of his biographers were to suggest that it contributed to Franklin taking a commanding role in the coming revolt for independence.

Other conflicts between colonists and England had connections with the Seven Years' War in Europe (1755-63) – a war called the "French and Indian War" in the colonies. The colonists were expected to do their part in helping the mother country fight those endangering them on the frontier. It was a war fought largely with British troops, with a small number of colonists participating – among them a major, in his twenties, named George Washington. In place of the colonists providing troops, they were expected to help the mother country's troops, called "regulars," with food and shelter. The colonists were also expected to obey the law against selling goods to the enemy: the French and Spanish. But colonists did, with Frenchmen and Spaniards in the Caribbean area willing to pay good prices for food for their slave populations.

The Seven Years' War impoverished England's treasury, encouraging the English to negotiate an end to the war. This was accomplished in 1763, to England's advantage. France lost its possessions in the Americas to England, except for a few small islands in the Caribbean and on the St. Lawrence River. England emerged from the war with its military still in the Americas. To reduce the burden on its troops, the British government in 1763 decided to keep white settlers and Indians apart by banning new settlements beyond the frontier mountains. The ban annoyed settlers, while the British looked forward to withdrawing its troops from the frontier.

England sought relief from what was now a large national debt, and it expected the colonists to help with taxes. Tax rates in the colonies had been low compared to rates in the mother country. And in the colonies, in place of taxes, user fees were prevalent. The new taxes, embodied parliament's Revenue Act and the Stamp Act, were followed by riots in the colonies and boycotts of British goods. The rioting and the strong-arm tactics of activists called the Sons of Liberty disturbed some well-to-do colonists. They preferred British taxation to mob rule. Britain's parliament responded to resistance to their taxation with appeasement and repealed the Stamp Act. Some taxes remained, and parliament also passed the Declaratory Act, stating that the colonies and plantations were "subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and Parliament of Great Britain." The act stated that parliament had the "full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever." Colonists remained disturbed by their lack of political power and what some called taxation without representation.

In the early 1770s the mother country tried to help its economically distressed East India Company. It gave the company the right to sell tea directly to the colonists, at a cheaper price, rather than to colonial importers. Importers were upset and began a boycott of the East India Company's tea along the Atlantic coast. In late 1773, in Boston, some angry businessmen disguised themselves as Indians and threw 342 chests of tea into the harbor waters – to be known as the Boston Tea Party. The mother country chose to retaliate against the lawbreakers. King George III, in his thirteenth year of rule, viewed the matter in absolute terms. Either the lawbreakers were going to triumph, he proclaimed, or his authority would triumph. His agents closed Boston Harbor, and the powers of the mother country's governor in Massachusetts were expanded. Local elections in Massachusetts were curtailed. Town meetings were forbidden, and colonists were obliged to pay for the tea dumped into the bay.

Closing the harbor meant economic ruin for Boston. People in the twelve other colonies also felt threatened, believing that if the mother country was inclined to punish the Massachusetts colony in this manner they might also decide at sometime to do the same to them. And they sent food and money as relief to Boston.

Among leading men in the colonies much letter writing took place, which led to an agreement for a "Grand Congress" in Philadelphia. In the early summer of 1774, every colony except Georgia selected delegates to the congress. Delegates from Canada were also invited, but they did not attend.

The Congress met in September – to be known as the First Continental Congress. Among the delegates were George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The Congress supported a boycott of trade with the mother country -- a boycott to have member committees in communities in each of the colonies.

In a concluding document signed in October, titled a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, they complained of parliament having claimed "the right of power to bind the people of America" with statues of all kinds and of having created "commissioners with unconstitutional powers." They wrote of "grievous acts and measures" to which "Americans cannot submit," and they announced their intention to address "the people of Great Britain" and "his Majesty," in hope of resolutions.


Copyright © 2002-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.