Although the American Revolution is often presented, along with the Civil War, as one of the turning points in American history, it was, in many ways, not so much a single moment of revolutionary uprising but the continuance of a separatist spirit that had its roots deep in the beliefs of the Puritans who had established the colonies in the seventeenth century. As Edmund Morgan explains, Puritan doctrine was very much grounded in a faith in the right of the individual to monitor the workings of government and, more importantly, to take action against a government or legal body that was not fulfilling its contract or covenant with the people: “As long as the government did its job,” Puritans believed, “the people must give it all the assistance in their power.
But if the governors failed in their sacred task and fell prey to the evils they were supposed to suppress, then the people must rebel and replace the wicked rulers with better ones” (Morgan, 19). “We shall be as a city on a hill,” as John Winthrop proclaimed, and with such a visible position came, too, a person’s responsibility for monitoring the workings of themselves and of their government. Such vigilance soon developed into two distinct, though not unrelated, pressures that created the potential for conflict within the new colonies: concerns over the power and vision of governing bodies, especially as such issues pertained to the levying of taxes and passing laws, and concerns over the control of land both individually and as a collective looking to expand holdings into territories traditionally controlled by first nations peoples.
Underlying much of what developed through to the mid-eighteenth century was a growing unrest within the colonies with the system of imperial governance. As Davidson et al. summarize neatly, “[c]olonials [had long been] of two minds about England’s government. While they praised the English constitution as the basis of all liberties, they were alarmed by the actual workings of English politics” (112). To the always vigilant colonists, this “chaotic and inefficient system of colonial administration worked well enough” (114), securing “[e]conomic growth and political autonomy” that allowed colonialists to “be English in America, enjoying greater economic opportunity and political equality” (115) than they could in England. Indeed, “[i]f imperial arrangements had remained as they were in 1754, the empire might have muddled on indefinitely. But because of the French and the Indians on the American frontier, the British empire began to change” (115).
And it was the outbreak of the primarily European French and Indian War (1754-1763) that in many ways set the stage for the Revolution of 1775. As American colonists fought, at times hesitatingly, alongside British troops, they came to recognize both the pride they took in their country and the differences between themselves and the British regular troops, who often dismissed or ignored the advice of local militia officers. More importantly, following the capture of France’s major forts in the Ohio Valley and Canada, the colonists were confronted with a series of political gestures that left them increasingly isolated in terms of local territorial rights and increasingly pressured economically, neither of which served to calm the unrest. With the end of the French and Indian War, and pressured even more by Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Imperial Parliament moved quickly, first issuing the Proclamation of 1763 (which forbid American colonists from taking native lands without treaty or purchase) and the Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and feed British regulars. The pressure on personal and collective territory was intensified in the mid-1770s
As pressures on land and territory grew through imperial decisions, so to did economic pressures, initially through such acts of taxation as the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and most tellingly, the Declaratory Act, which allowed Parliament to tax the colonies anytime it chose. The restless spirit of the colonies turned to violent protests against what came to be known as the practice of taxation without representation, culminating in the violent resistance of the Boston Massacre (1770) and the famous tax revolt of the Boston Tea Party (1773). The reaction of the Parliament in the form of the Coercive Acts (1774) effectively underscored the isolation felt by the colonists, who saw this lineage of legislation as a thinly veiled plot to enslave them (Davidson, 139). To protest the Coercive Acts, the colonists took a first step toward revolution, bringing together the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774; the members returned to Puritan rhetoric by way of raising support, articulating a mistrust of the Imperial Parliament as a system tainted by “vice, extravagance, and corruption” (Davidson, 140).
In spring of 1775, when the militiamen of Lexington and Concord joined forces to repel a British takeover of a local militia arsenal, the now-famous “shot heard round the world” signaled, in many ways, the beginning of the Revolution. At the same time, however, it was a shot that had been building for decades as an Imperial Parliament, distanced geographically and politically from the people it was to govern, moved from a tradition of neglect to a heavy-handed ruling of a people whose roots were set deeply in the revolutionary spirit of their Puritan founders.
Davidson, James West, William E. Gienapp, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle,
and Michael B. Stoff. Nation of Nations: Concise Narrative of the American Republic. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Morgan, Edmund S. The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Boston: Little,