The American Revolution

Hello everyone.

Firstly I feel the need to apologize for the lack of meaningful content over the past month or so. I have been submerged under a deluge of University coursework and since this year is when my marks beginning to truly count I could afford precious few diversions (not distractions! I really like the feedback you all give me!). Here I will display my most recent piece of work: A whopping 7300 word “warm-up dissertation” I had to complete for one of my modules.

Even though the topic is The American Revolution I hope that all my readers can hopefully get something out of it. Before I display it I think I should explain why it is presented the way it is. The purpose of the project was to get students working closely with “Primary Source Material”, that means that in order to construct my argument I needed to have consulted and analyzed documents from the time in question – in this case 1760-76 Britain and America. I had to select five different Primary Source types and show my tutors what I could discern from them whilst explaining why they contribute to a wider understanding of the topic as a whole. My introduction and conclusion address the wider debates surrounding the topic and I allude to the debate at select stages of my source analysis sections.

So, without further delay.


HIH2001 Doing History: Perspectives on Sources
“What were the causes of the American Revolution?”

Lexington The first shots of the American War of Independence were fired on the 19th April 1775 during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The battle unfolded following an attempt by the British Army regulars to seize and destroy supplies and armaments belonging to the Massachusetts militia. During the skirmish colonists, disgruntled with the actions and antipathy of the British Crown, opened fire on the British soldiers and eventually forced them into a retreat. What followed this skirmish was a conflict with a motivating drive unprecedented in world history: the simultaneous united upheaval of separate colonies and their self-forced severance from their imperial metropole. Unrest and uprisings in colonies were nothing ground breaking by the end of the eighteenth century but the scale and more importantly the ideological drive behind the American Revolution truly set it apart from anything else seen until that point in history.

Since the American Revolution was such a tectonic event, an event which set a precedent for the Age of Revolutions that followed it, it has generated an immense degree of historiographical debate that has evolved over time and continues to encourage new interpretations of its origins.[1] Unfortunately the size, scale, and implications of the American Revolution ultimately mean that historians have an extremely hard time remaining objective and impartial when studying the subject, an issue plainly reflected in its historiographical development.[2]

The progression of the historiography surrounding the American Revolution can be condensed into three distinct stages of development. First there were the contemporary depictions of the American Loyalists and Patriots as well as the viewpoint from the British elite, depictions that all came complete with the luggage of either imperial nationalism or revolutionary sentiment.[3] Viewpoints from this area can be found in the memoirs of contemporary figures such as Thomas Hutchinson, the former governor of Massachusetts, and from the ‘founding fathers’ such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Secondly there was the extensive period of Whig scholarship in the nineteenth century which considered interpretations from both sides of the conflict and attempted to create a complete picture of what actually caused the outbreak of hostilities.[4] In the Whig interpretation of the revolution, the underlying and unifying theme of the event is depicted as a providential march toward reason, liberty and democratic rule away from the tyranny, traditionalism, and absolutism of the old world; a view best summarized by the nineteenth century Whig historian George Bancroft.[5]

Thirdly and finally there was the emergence of the new schools of Imperial and Progressive studies in the twentieth century, both influenced heavily by the emergence of new social sciences during the latter part of the century.[6] As their name implies, Imperial historians came to view the actions of the British during the build-up to revolution as being entirely justifiable and focus their studies primarily on the economic and political sides of this question.[7] On the other hand the ideological field, an off-shoot of progressivism, lends itself more towards the study of ideology in relation to the revolution and has challenged established pre-conceptions of the event as a whole.[8] Modern historians such as Jonathan Israel have even gone as far to suggest that the ideological implications of the American Revolution resulted in the proliferation of ideologically-driven revolutions across the trans-Atlantic world.[9]

Given the size and impact of the American Revolution an historian is rarely left wanting for primary sources to use for answering a specific question. This portfolio will identify and assess the long and short term causes of the American Revolution while paying attention to the three primarily cited causes: Politics, Economics, and Ideology. For the purposes of this focus on causality this portfolio will begin with its first source dated shortly after the Seven Years’ War, to 1766: a speech in the British House of Commons delivered by William Pitt the Elder during a debate over the legality and implications of taxation being imposed on the American colonists. From there the portfolio examines an iconic picture drawn by the British artist Philip Dawe in 1774, a picture that, among many important things, depicts the ‘tarring and feathering’ of a British customs official by a mob of Bostonians. A petition addressed directly to King George III of England by the First Continental Congress in 1774 explicitly highlights the grievances of the colonists in their own words and demonstrates a particularly worrying sign for the British. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, serves its’ purpose as a window into the maturing mentality spreading throughout the American colonies and illustrates the role of new ideologies in the revolution. Finally, the portfolio examines one of the most famous political documents in history: The Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, which was one of the end-products of the decade of unrest which began with the end of the Seven Years’ War, can tell an historian much about the circumstances that led to its conception.


“Pitt’s Speech on the Stamp Act”
Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham,
ed. William Taylor: John Pringle (London, 1838-40), Four Volumes, Vol. II, p.365

PittWilliam Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, was a British politician and prime minister who held office between 1766 and 1768. Pitt was a leading figure of the Whig party, a party that held constitutional monarchism and progressive learning at its core while vehemently opposing absolute rule. By most accounts Pitt was an incredibly gifted orator and political tactician, but above all a champion of causes concerning British subjects across the empire; resulting in his affectionate title “The Great Commoner”.[10] Pitt was an incredibly popular figure in particular among American colonists for he had successfully fought their corner during the Seven Years’ War against the French and continued to hear their grievances and promote their plights in the British parliament.[11]

The source in question depicts a speech William Pitt delivered to the British House of Commons on the 14th January, 1766.[12] Pitt’s oration revolves around the parliamentary motion to repeal the Stamp Act and serves as an incredibly revealing window into the machinations of the British political process which, in the eyes of the American colonists across the Atlantic Ocean, was arbitrarily enforcing taxation on them without proper representation.[13] This speech is an important historical source because it identifies the grievances of the colonists when disillusionment between the colonists and Britain was in its infancy but also effectively establishes a starting point for the subject of taxation as a whole.

The year this source is dated to, 1766, bears relevance as it points to what was effectively the originating point of the troubles which unfolded on both sides of the Atlantic. The Seven Years’ War had ended in 1763 and had left the British Parliament with considerable financial concerns. In order to alleviate the costs of maintaining the American colonies in the aftermath of the conflict British authorities put into practice a series of acts intended to raise revenue. The Stamp Act, the successor to the ill-fated Sugar Act of 1764, was passed in 1765. The act decreed that all printed documents in the American colonies must bear a revenue stamp, essentially taxing everything from newspapers to legal documents.[14]  What set the Sugar Act apart from the Stamp Act, which is being discussed in this speech; however that is the former had only largely affected seaboard colonies such as Massachusetts whereas the latter affected the colonies as a whole.[15]

In the early passages of his speech Pitt embellishes his reputation as a people’s politician and establishes an affinity between himself and the American colonists, “The Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England”.[16] After establishing his position on the debate Pitt, in a profound reference to his liberal Whig ideals, cites John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government by stating that taxation is not inherent to the nature of government or its legislative powers. Not only does this reference to John Locke outline Pitt’s stance on the debate but it also illustrates greater affinity between him and the colonists as Locke’s works were well known within elite social circles in the colonies and, as with Pitt, often served as a point of reference.[17] The reason behind Pitt taking a stance on the side of the colonists can be identified through his Whig ideals as the Whigs opposed any and all forms of oppressive, but in this case unrepresented, government.

Pitt’s understanding of American grievances is evidently thorough as he raises the issue of a lack of American representation within the House of Commons, “I would fain to know by whom an American is represented here?”[18] During his speech Pitt epitomized two keystones of the American cause: undesired taxation and a lack of proper representation, both recurring themes found on the road to revolution. Since the American colonies were entities separate of each other they could not have representatives stand for them in the British Parliament, therefore having no influence over which taxes were raised, how they were collected, or how they would be spent. It was considered it a violation of colonist’s rights as Englishmen, on both sides of the Atlantic as Pitt’s speech shows, to be taxed without their consent and not having the means to challenge what they saw as oppression.

Pitt is also evidently kept well informed with regards to events unfolding in the streets of American towns as his speech ends on an ominous note when he declares that “America is almost in open rebellion”.[19] While this sentence itself does not lend itself to concrete conclusions, when taken in context with the state of affairs in contemporary Boston it illustrates an ominous warning for the British authorities, a warning here being delivered by one of their own. In response to the deafening silence from the British Parliament with regards to their grievances incidents of localised mob violence were beginning to flare up around colonial Boston. A guerrilla group fashioning themselves as The Sons of Liberty were engaged in a campaign of intimidation against figures associated with the British administration. The Stamp Act was repealed shortly after Pitt’s address to the House of Commons but future British governments under the Tory Party would devise new taxation laws to generate revenue from the colonies.

Throughout the course of his speech William Pitt identifies the immediate quarrels the colonists had while they were still in their infancy. Pitt bestowed upon these quarrels rational and logical validity in the one place they could be debated, and had warned his peers what the consequences of inaction and subsequent escalation could be. This strain of inaction points to a major political cause of the American Revolution: that the future British government under Frederick North, in office between 1770 and 1778, sorely lacked empathy and did not consider the rights of the American colonists as Englishmen.[20] William Pitt died in 1778, living to see hostilities escalate as he feared they would but would not living long enough to see the outcome of the revolution.

“The Bostonians paying the excise-man or tarring & feathering”
Philip Dawe, The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering (London,1774)

If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words this mezzotint cartoon printed on the 10th January 1774 by British artist Philip Dawe could write an entire essay itself.[21] Leaden with symbolism and subtlety that can be presented in its proper historical context, this picture not only illustrates past grievances the colonists held against the British but also remains contemporarily relevant and depicts the views of British society beyond the chambers of government. Considering the publication date of this cartoon is less than a month after the events of the Boston Tea Party on the 16th December 1773, and it being created by a British artist, it seems apparent that the original intention of this cartoon was to provide a visual commentary on the Boston Tea Party. Before the advent of electronic media public figures and politicians alike relied upon the printing press to convey ideas and shape public perception of events. This cartoon printed in a mezzotint style is no exception.

BostonThe setting of this scene in Boston can be established through a process of elimination and common sense. As William Pitt demonstrated the events unfolding in Boston were general knowledge to the public on both sides of the Atlantic and the setting of this scene against the backdrop of a harbour, in this case the Boston Harbour, narrows down the potential locations to practically one place. If this was not enough the very title of the cartoon using ‘Bostonians’ makes this deduction very straight forward. Those with both a keen eye and a keen understanding of colonial Boston will recognise the Liberty Tree in the top-right corner of the background. The Liberty Tree, bearing its own name in this cartoon as a means of informing an otherwise potentially unaware audience, remains an iconic landmark in Boston and was the place where mobs would gather to protest against the British authorities. An upside down poster bearing the title “Stamp Act” can be seen on the trunk of the tree. The poster being upside down and it being attached to the Liberty Tree is a reference to the act being overturned and defeated by the colonists.

The first element of the cartoon that is striking is the event being depicted in the forefront of the scene: The tarring and feathering of an individual, a British customs officer, by a mob of Bostonians. Tarring and feathering was a form of public humiliation, an intimidation tactic used by pressure groups against select individuals, usually people of significance in order to make a statement.[22] The identity of the victim portrayed in this scene can be, through a process of affiliation and study of various testimonies, identified as John Malcolm. [23] Malcolm, the customs officer of Massachusetts in 1773-74 not only had a poor standing among the local population due to his position as a loyalist but also had an unfortunate history of being the target of angry mobs.[24] In this context the noose tied to one of the Liberty Tree’s branches makes sense as Malcolm was, again according to testimonies, once threatened with hanging by such an angry mob when he refused to denounce the British.[25] Malcolm’s attackers can be identified, through the  as the Sons of Liberty, a grass-roots pressure group that possessed a flair for mob violence and occasionally arson to achieve their goals through coercion.[26] A truly discerning eye can even identify the ringleader of the Sons of Liberty through his attire. The man in the centre of the group seen wearing a tanner’s apron is Ebenezer Mackintosh; a tanner and shoemaker who the British authorities were aware of as being a volatile activist, but also weary of imprisoning out of fear of making him a martyr.[27] When one considers the cartoon’s British authorship the depiction of John Malcolm, the loyalist, being unjustly demeaned and victimised by a sinisterly and depravedly depicted mob is understandable. It is interesting to note however that Dawe places the focus of this scene on the tarring and feathering of Malcolm rather than the relatively larger event, The Boston Tea Party, being portrayed in the background. Whether this was a populist gesture from Philip Dawe at the behest of his publishers as a means of manipulating British public opinion or not remains open to interpretation.

The teapot in the hand of one of the mob members, seen being forcibly poured into Malcolm’s mouth, is also highly symbolic as the publication date of this cartoon places it in the midst of the events surrounding the Tea Act. The Tea Act was the fourth act passed by the British parliament implemented to directly tax the colonists for the maintenance of the colony. Despite the third act, the Townshend Acts of 1767, being repealed by parliament the taxation on tea that had been a part of it remained and resulted in a flashpoint between the colonists and the British. The Boston Tea Party, depicted in the top left corner of the cartoon, took place on the 16th December 1773 when the Sons of Liberty boarded British ships loaded with cargoes of tea and in an act of defiance against the Tea Act dumped the entire cargo of the ships into the Boston Harbour. Public acts of defiance and dissent, such as the tarring and feathering of administration figures like John Malcolm were nothing new to the American colonies but the Boston Tea Party signified a serious escalation. The Boston Tea Party being portrayed here was a crucial event in the history of the American Revolution as it threw the existence of major protests in the colonies into the wider public sphere, the purpose of this very image, and resulted in the Coercive Acts of 1774 being passed as a reprisal.[28]

The Coercive Acts of 1774 mark the point when revolutionary events in America began to rapidly escalate, in Massachusetts especially. Swiftly implemented in response to the Boston Tea Party depicted in this image the Coercive Acts or ‘Intolerable Acts’ as they were labelled by the colonists brought the full force of colonial law to bear on Boston. The Coercive Acts shut down Boston harbour, dissolved the Massachusetts colonial legislature and subjected Boston to military occupation and martial law. [29] Commerce was severed, the colony lost the right to govern itself, and a heightened military presence ensured the recession of public disorder. However, rather than fulfil its intended purpose to deter future grandiose acts of public protest the Coercive Acts drew the colonies closer together in support of Massachusetts.[30] This cartoon is a valuable historical source for portraying not only the events of the Boston Tea Party but also by rightfully connecting it with the events which preceded it in this context and illustrating the economic causes of the American Revolution.

“Petition to King George III”
John Dickinson, Petition to King George III (Philadelphia, 1774)

CongressThe British government and their colonial authorities, who had up until this point been dealing with individual colonies such as Massachusetts, now found themselves at odds with a collective assembly consisting of all thirteen American colonies.[31] The First Continental Congress, the authoring body of this source, met in Philadelphia on the 5th September 1774 to discuss the measures it could take to present a united front to the British without escalating tensions further. This organization, despite its name, was not the first instance that Americans had colluded with each other to pursue a goal – rather it was the next step in organized resistance. During the era of the Sugar Act and Townshend Acts a dialogue between colonies had emerged which took the form of the Committees of Correspondence, a shadow government which helped organize boycotts and protests against the British.[32] Present at the meeting of the First Continental Congress were fifty-six delegates from the colonies: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams – the latter of whom established the very first Committee of Correspondence years earlier.[33] During their first meeting the Continental Congress drafted a petition addressed directly to King George III of England.[34] The fact that this redress of grievances had the English monarch as its solely intended recipient is hugely significant as it shows that a sizeable majority of colonists, represented by the First Continental Congress writing this letter, still considered themselves as subjects of King George III and wished to remain a part of the British Empire. This petition is an incredibly interesting historical document because it depicts a polarizing dichotomy the colonists faced in the wake of the Coercive Acts: They wanted to be given the right to govern themselves but at the same time wanted to remain subjects of an imperial system of government.[35] It is a crucial document to analyse in order to explore the developing political causes of the American Revolution. This aim, to remain colonial subjects whilst seeking redress, is made clear from the outset of the petition “Most gracious sovereign, we your majesty’s faithful subjects – by this our humble petition beg leave to lay our grievances before the throne”.[36] What this document’s intended recipient suggests to historians is that the individual colonial assemblies did not trust the British government under Frederick North, the same prime minster who had imposed apathetic taxation then the Coercive Acts on the colonies, to hear their plight in a fair manner. The ire of the colonies was not directed at the British monarchy at this stage in the timeline of the revolution, only at its’ government.

The petition does an amicable job of collecting the list of grievances the colonists felt and presenting them in a coherent and logical manner. The first grievance detailed is that “A standing army has been kept in these colonies ever since the conclusion of the late war, without the consent of our assemblies.”[37] The “late war” that is being alluded to is the Seven Years’ War which took place between 1754 and 1763. The cost of keeping this standing army in the colonies is what caused the British government to levy taxes upon the colonists in the first place and is arguably the greatest long-term economic cause of the American Revolution.[38]

The next grievance raised that bears relevance is that “The commander-in-chief of all your majesty’s forces in North America has, in time of peace, been appointed governor of a colony.”[39] This is a direct reference to the military occupation of Boston in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party and the martial law imposed by the commander of the colonial British army Thomas Gage.[40] It is this same force based in Massachusetts under General Gage’s command that went on to take part in the Battle of Lexington and Concord, effectively igniting armed revolution across America.

Another issue worthy of scrutiny the petition highlights is that “officers of the customs are empowered to break open and enter houses without the authority of any Civil Magistrate founded on legal information.”[41] This is a reference to the General Warrants and Writs of Assistance which came about as a result of American traders smuggling goods into Boston to elude the taxation imposed by the Sugar Act of 1764.[42] This particular grievance is interesting because it highlights a sentiment that will later become a direct cause of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the amendment which denies authorities the right search and seize property without proper cause. As the petition draws to a conclusion the members of the Continental Congress epitomize their dichotomy by re-affirming their allegiance to the British crown, “We ask but for peace, liberty, and safety. Your royal authority over us, and our connection with Great Britain, we shall always carefully and zealously endeavour to support and maintain.”[43]

However, despite the list of grievances seemingly increasing with each passing year demonstrating a continuing deterioration of Anglo-American relations the most significant element of this entire petition lies in the title of its sender and the implications it presented to its recipient. The very name ‘Continental Congress’ vehemently displays a united front in opposition to British interests in America and displays an ‘us versus them’ mentality ripening among the colonies. For its time the formation of the First and subsequently the Second Continental Congress, the latter of which produced the Declaration of Independence in 1776, were nothing short of ground breaking in the respect that these were previously separate colonies, albeit on the same continent, that were in the process of collectively challenging their imperial metropole in this fashion.

Despite the intentions of the congress this petition was read aloud to both the British House of Commons and then to King George III by Prime Minister Frederick North but in both cases it was dismissed and never warranted a reply despite the effort the colonists had put into compiling it.[44] The colonist’s last hope of reconciliation with both parliament and the British crown had faded and now the two distinctly defined sides, the Continental Congress and the British establishment faced an uneasy stalemate.

“Common Sense”
Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776), ed. Isaac Kramnick (London, 1975)

The role of ideas and new world ideology in the process of causing the American Revolution is hotly debated. As a relatively recent development, made possible through the emergence of the progressive-ideological school of thought, the role of the Enlightenment in providing impetus for the American Revolution remains a polarizing subject in academic circles to this day. By the time Common Sense had entered circulation on the 10th January 1776 the Battle of Lexington and Concord had passed and American colonists were fighting against the British. Although one would be well within reason to suggest that this instantly disqualifies any source beyond the point of Lexington and Concord from being a source capable of analysing the causes of the American Revolution it is important to recognize that, at this stage, this conflict was not yet a revolution. Despite hostilities having commenced the colonists were in the process of debating among themselves the nature and purpose of the conflict they now found themselves embroiled in. Americans were torn between two mind sets when hostilities broke out. The sentiment highlighted in the previously analysed petition persisted: Conservatives envisioned the conflict as a means of the colonies fighting against a corrupt British government while radicals and patriots saw themselves fighting for complete separation from the mother country. Into this state of confusion an “incendiary” pamphlet written by Thomas Paine was thrust.[45]

Common SensePaine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, is today considered a masterpiece of revolutionary writing by many.[46] Debates continue to rage over the true impact Paine’s pamphlet had on the development of American society and its’ contribution to the American Revolution. However, in the case of causality the publication of Common Sense not only preceding a huge surge in popular support for the patriot cause and the Declaration of Independence is too much of a coincidence to be such and therefore one can argue that it truly engineered a tectonic shift in sentiment.[47] Despite being an open advocate of republicanism and being distinctly anti-monarchical Thomas Paine was not actually an American, he was an Englishman from Norfolk who had arrived in the colonies a mere six months before publishing his work.[48] The reasons behind Thomas Paine writing Common Sense are debateable but one account depicts him as an idealistic man with a grudge against the structure of British society who had come to the colonies following an encounter with Benjamin Franklin during the Americans’ diplomatic mission to deliver the aforementioned petition to King George III.[49] If this account is to be believed Paine’s resentment of his homeland, and the contemporary affairs of his new home in America, may well have driven him to write his pamphlet. It is also interesting to note that Paine initially published Common Sense anonymously, most likely out of fear of reprisal from the British authorities. That fact alone hints at the social causes of the American Revolution by illustrating the oppressive system of British rule during this period.

The first aspect that any reader will find instantly striking about Common Sense is just how radically different it is from contemporary Enlightenment publications in terms of vocabulary and writing style, and by how remarkably simple it is to follow.[50] Paine’s work shies away from utilizing Latin and other upper-class literary conventions in writing that were common among the works of his relative contemporaries such as Locke and Voltaire. This demonstrates that Paine fully understood his intended audience: The American people. By using a straightforward and non-exclusive writing style Paine ensured that his work could blanket-cover a substantial audience while not sacrificing the embedded themes of his pamphlet.[51]

The themes of Common Sense are undeniably revolutionary. The pamphlet is neatly divided into four sections each highlighting particular topics that were relevant for his audience, making it easy and compelling to read. Paine delivers savage blow after savage blow against his homeland of England, specifically its monarchy and its relationship with America. The first attack Paine launches is against King George III and against the monarchical system in general. Paine declares that “In England a king hath little more than to make war and give away places; which, in plain terms, are to impoverish the nation and set it apart by the ears.”[52] This is a statement that would have resonated strongly with Americans on two accounts: firstly through their shared experience with the Seven Years’ War and secondly through the obstinacy of King George III made clear through his refusal to answer the petition written by the First Continental Congress.

The second attack Paine launches consists of several points and is directed at the British Parliament. Paine’s firstly accuses the British government of conducting affairs to benefit itself and not its overseas subjects.[53] He then goes on to criticize the manner in which Britain has conducted itself when dealing with the grievances of its subjects, “Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor do savages make war upon their families.”[54] Paine ends this attack on the British government by delivering a resounding truth, the fact that “Europe, not England, is the parent country of America.”[55] This statement on the diversity of America is logically sound when one examines the contemporary ethnic make-up of the colonies and sees that Englishmen no longer constituted the majority.[56] Colonists would have otherwise reacted well to the analogies Paine draws from Britain’s handling of its subjects during the period of taxation as well as his belief that Britain puts its own interests ahead of its people’s.

Above all it is important to consider that when Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense the full program of the revolution had not yet been given to the colonists. Hostilities were certainly underway, and the colonists were certainly fighting against the British, but nobody knew what for exactly. Not even the Second Continental Congress that formed on the 10th May 1775 had put forward a revolutionary program and the schism created by the sentimental ties of monarchical allegiance had resulted in a gridlock between conservatives and patriots. The themes of independence, republicanism, democracy, and inter-colonial unity found within Common Sense resonated exceedingly well with its audience. Through the work of Thomas Paine, and by an extension the enlightenment, the American Revolution was now given the mind-set required for generating a mandate and the means to bring method to madness. This is the greatest contribution Common Sense provides to any scholar studying the American Revolution: It embodies the concept of ideology in relation to events and does so from the grass-roots level of American society.

Despite the publication of Paine’s work some conservatives and moderates were still unconvinced by his argument. However, the remaining unconverted colonists cast aside their allegiance to the crown when news spread that King George III had enlisted the services of German mercenaries to fight against his own subjects.[57] King George’s actions played right into what Paine had preached and resulted in the overwhelming majority of Americans, save for die-hard loyalists, finally turning against the British Empire. After independence was achieved Thomas Paine was denounced as a traitor by Englishmen. Abandoning his homeland indefinitely Paine travelled to France where he would later bear witness to the French Revolution.[58]

The Declaration of Independence
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Philadelphia, 1776)

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on the 4th July 1776. By the time the delegates gathered the thirteen American colonies had been engaged in open warfare with the British for over a year. Given the time that had passed since the Battle of Lexington and Concord the delegates knew that they themselves and their countrymen were past the point-of-no-return and reconciliation with Britain was now impossible. Left with no alternative course of action the delegates appointed the delegate from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, to write one of the most famous political documents in history: The Declaration of Independence.[59] The original signed copy of the Declaration of Independence survives to this day and is on display at the National Archives based in Washington D.C., for the case of this analysis however an online transcript from the same institution will be referred to. Certain references to individual passages will be footnoted based on their location within the document.

DeclarationThe value of the Declaration of Independence as a primary historical source is substantial. The declaration serves a dual purpose as it simultaneously summarizes and sets in stone the reasoning and plight of the thirteen colonies. In some ways the content of the declaration represents an evolved viewpoint of that seen in the petition the First Continental Congress wrote to King George III in 1774. Where the declaration differs though is in the manner in which it addresses its readers; this document unlike its predecessor was intended for a massive audience, essentially the entire population of America rather than just one person. One was a petition personally addressed to a king and the other was a testimonial statement addressing two societies now not just separated by an ocean, but by differing sets of ideals.[60]

Thomas Jefferson, himself an enlightenment figure, adopts similar writing conventions to those used by Thomas Paine only months earlier: the declaration shuns classical terminology and presents its case in a coherent and simple manner in order to guarantee blanket coverage.[61] The declaration consists of three distinct sections: a brief but necessary preamble detailing what the document is, a list of twenty-seven charges against King George III, and a resolute conclusion. The preamble summarizes the fundamental principles of American self-government and the reasoning behind such. The list of charges against King George III presents numerous examples of violations of said principles. Finally the conclusion rallies Americans to action for a new nation: “The United States of America”.[62]

Despite the Declaration of Independence and Common Sense sharing writing tropes and some common themes the declaration is ultimately its own creation. The declaration is perhaps best known for a statement located in its’ preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”[63] At its core this simple sentence is a direct attack on divine law and the concept of hereditary privilege and succession, essentially a subtle attack on the English monarchy that the colonists are now declaring themselves divorced from.[64]
To put this message in other words: no one man is endowed with rights superior to anyone else. This is one of the absolute fundamental principles the American government was founded upon and signifies a monumental departure from the ideals of British society which had held sway over the colonies for so long.

After declaring the right of subjects to overthrow a system of government if it no longer represents the interests of its people, one of the many references to what was written in Common Sense, the declaration then delves into an extensive list of causes to justify its’ conception.[65] However, rather than merely re-iterate that which had already been highlighted the declaration expands upon previously established points of contention and adds to the list of offences the King and Government of Britain has committed against the American people. Among the familiar grievances, which with the declaration have now officially become reasons for independence, present are about a standing army being kept in the colonies in a time of peace, unwanted and excessive taxation, and the wanton dissolution of colonial legislatures. New among the list of causes however are recent revelations such as the monarchy ordering foreign mercenaries to kill Americans. This passage re-iterates the reason that so many conservatives and moderates who remained reluctant to finally accept independence; the revelation that mercenary armies were being employed by the British crown to subjugate its own people.[66]

During its conclusion the declaration emphasises that the American people earnestly attempted to reach a diplomatic solution; “Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”[67] Not only is this passage truthful as evidence of colonist attempts to avoid open conflict and separation have been analysed in this portfolio, but it also echoes a similar phrase from the recent publication of Common Sense. This is not to suggest that Thomas Jefferson plagiarised Thomas Paine in some fashion, rather it implies that both works represented the manifestation of the contemporary American mentality and that the declaration in particular was the final product of a revolutionary process. Jefferson himself admitted this several years after the war concluded, in a personal letter to Henry Lee in 1825: “it [the declaration of independence] was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”[68]

Ultimately the content and the tone prevalent within the Declaration of Independence make it a fascinating historical source in the study of the American Revolution. Unlike the petition the First Continental Congress had written, a letter that had a somewhat pleading and anxious tone evident in its composition, the Declaration of Independence represented evolved points of view in a much more confident and defiant manner. Considering its content and future implications the Declaration of Independence’s message transcends time and circumstance – making its value as not only a crucial source for any study of the American Revolution but for revolutionary history in general exceptionally potent.[69]


The analysis of these five sources, spanning the time period of a decade, has documented the long-term and short-term causes of the American Revolution. The Seven Years’ War, direct taxation, a lack of parliamentary representation, an escalation of social unrest through the obstinacy of King George III and his government, the first and second continental congresses, the misconduct of the British authorities and military in the colonies and the rise of republicanism through the enlightenment culminated in the American colonies rising up in revolution against Britain.[70] In addition to this the portfolio has addressed questions that developed during the historiographical debate of the topic; specifically the respective roles of ideology, politics, and economics.

The portfolio has illustrated that the starting point for the entire revolution was the end of the Seven Years’ War, a war which had eliminated the presence of other imperial powers on the continent and made the requirement for a standing army surplus to requirements. The failure of the British to address the continued military presence in the colonies resulted in the seeds of distrust being sown.[71] These seeds were allowed to flourish into genuine resentment through excessive taxation implemented by the British government without the approval of the colonists and their enforcement by local authorities backed by the British military. A lack of meaningful and productive communication between colonists and British policy-makers, despite the former going out of their way to reach out to the latter, resulted in the colonists instead turning to each other and forming the committees of correspondence which would eventually mature into the first and second continental congresses.

Battle_of_bunker_hill_by_percy_moranContinued obstinacy from the British resulted in what began as passive protests such as boycotts becoming grandiose demonstrations seen with the Boston Tea Party.[72] Following the Boston Tea Party events can be identified as a case of escalation with the implementation of the Coercive Acts in particular meaning that it was no longer a question of if hostilities would break out, it was a question of when they would. Relations between the Americans and the British reached boiling point with the Battle of Lexington and Concord which signified the beginning of war between the two sides. Recognising that relations were then beyond repair Americans harnessed ideas contained within enlightenment writings and the republicanism inherent within it. Through this the revolution, despite having previously begun, had now reached its penultimate form and presented a front to the British as the United States of America.

The speech William Pitt delivered to the House of Commons in 1766 demonstrates that awareness of the problems taxation were causing in the American colonies were known to the British establishment from an early stage and that the colonists held grievances over a lack of representation. It also demonstrates that for the time that they were in power the Whig Party of Britain, in accordance with their liberal ideology, was genuinely concerned about the direction unrepresented taxation could take Anglo-American relations.[73] The analysis of Philip Dawe’s cartoon depicts a pivotal moment in origins of the American Revolution in a manner that is simple to digest and understand in its proper context. In addition to portraying the events of the Boston Tea Party the cartoon also provides a commentary on the civil unrest that gripped colonial Boston and did so in a manner that provides an insight into the way that the British public may have reacted to such events. Through analysing the petition that the First Continental Congress wrote to King George III of England one can discern a number of hugely revealing facts. Firstly the very name of the sender, ‘First Continental Congress’, reveals that Americans have begun the process of presenting themselves not as subjects of the British Empire but rather as a community that was beginning to assert itself independently. Secondly, the fact that the petition was addressed to and was intended to be solely read by the King of England, completely circumventing the House of Commons, demonstrates that Americans had lost faith in the British government – a government which no longer held a majority of Whig figures such as William Pitt willing to hear their grievances.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense illustrates the role of ideas in causing the American Revolution to finally fully mature into an uprising which stood for more than just taxation. An analysis of the pamphlet reveals the ideals that played a role in giving the American Revolution a distinct uniqueness. Asides from appeasing his audience by attacking the British monarchy and government Paine’s work contains a substantial republican undertone that served as a means of romanticising the revolution and successfully encouraging greater participation in the conflict from Americans who had previously been reluctant to strive for independence.[74] On top of its obvious enlightenment-inspired republican overtones The Declaration of Independence embodies the extensively developed mentality of an American people who had only ten years previously only been at trivial odds with the British. It served as the framework of the American political establishment and did so in a manner that vehemently distanced itself from Britain.

Ultimately the American Revolution came about as a result of three separate strands of grievance intertwining and eventually converging: Economics, Politics, and Ideology. Tensions originated on the grounds of unrepresented taxation brought about as a direct consequence of the Seven Years’ War. Relations worsened when colonist attempts to reach a resolution with Britain over this matter proved fruitless and the obstinacy and antipathy of the British monarchy exasperated relations further. As tensions escalated and open conflict commenced between the two sides the colonists began to develop a keener consciousness of their interests as a people independent from their overseas rulers. Through the works of Thomas Paine and an emerging sense of national pride as Americans colonists began to the think of themselves as just that: as being Americans instead of British subjects.[75] Sentiments such as these were left to ripen under the very noses of the British before they were fully disclosed with the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence.

Critics of the progressive-ideological theories, usually Imperial historians, on the revolutionary nature of the American Revolution have argued that the events which led to the creation of the United States of America were not actually revolutionary at all but rather a culmination of political, economic, and social trends among the colonies.[76] Despite such criticisms often neglecting to account for the colossal shift in mentality the colonists demonstrated this counter-argument does indeed hold some ground. The American Revolution, in its’ purest sense, was not perfectly attuned to the ‘Age of Reason’ as it only took on revolutionary ideals later in its timeline, but it was however well attuned to the Age of Revolution and romanticism that followed it.[77]


Primary Sources,

Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, ed. William Taylor: John Pringle (London, 1838-40), Four Volumes, Vol. II, p.365

Philip Dawe, The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering (London, 1774)

John Dickinson, Petition to King George III (Philadelphia, 1774)

Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776)

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Philadelphia, 1776)

Secondary Reading,

Armitage, David, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard, 2009)

Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard, 1967)

Beacroft, B; Smale, M, The Making of America (Essex, 1982)

Bancroft, George, History of the United States, from the Discovery of the Continent (New York, 1889)

Boyer, Paul; Clark, Clifford; Hawley, Sandra; Kett, Joseph; Rieser, Andrew; Halttunen, Karen, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (Stamford, 2011)

Bonwick, Colin, The American Revolution (Basingstoke, 1991)

Black, Jeremy, George III: America’s Last King (Yale, 2006)

Cave, Alfred, The French and Indian War (Connecticut, 2004)

Cogliano, Francis; Phimister, Kirsten, Revolutionary America, 1763 – 1815 (London, 2010)

Cogliano, Francis, Revolutionary America: A Political History (London, 2000)

Fisher, Herbert, A History of Europe (London, 1957)

Gould, Eliga; Onuf, Peter, Empire and Nation (Baltimore, 2005)

Gilje, Paul, Rioting in America (Indiana, 1999)

Harrison, Frederic, Chatham (New York, 1905)

Hofstra, Warren, Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America (Lanham, 2007)

Israel, Jonathan, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Democracy (Princeton, 2010)

Israel, Jonathan, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790 (Oxford, 2011)

Kallich, Martin; MacLeish, Andrew, The American Revolution through British Eyes (Illinois, 1962)

Kramnick, Isaac, Common Sense (London, 1975)

Langley, Lester, The Americas in the Age of Revolution (Yale, 1996)

Mackey, Richard, American Revolutionary Influences on the French Revolution (Indiana, 1976)

Morgan, Gwenda, The Debate on the American Revolution (Manchester, 2007)

Miller, John, Origins of the American Revolution (Stanford, 1959)

Morgan, Edmund, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Carolina, 1953)

Nicolson, Harold, The Age of Reason (Glasgow, 1960)

Nash, Gary; Smith, Carter, Atlas of American History (New York, 2007)

Smith, Daniel, Tax Crusaders and the Politics of Direct Democracy (London, 1998)

Wolf, Edwin, The Authorship of the Address to the King Restudied (Williamsburg, 1965)

Wood, Gordon, American Revolution (London, 2003)

Young, Alfred, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston, 2000)

[1] Richard Mackey, American Revolutionary Influences on the French Revolution (Indiana, 1976), p.57

[2] Gwenda Morgan, The Debate on the American Revolution (Manchester, 2007), p.4

[3] Morgan, The Debate on the American Revolution, p.3

[4] ibid, p.3

[5] George Bancroft, History of the United States, from the Discovery of the Continent (New York, 1889), pp.173-175

[6] Morgan, The Debate on the American Revolution, p.51

[7] Harold Nicolson, The Age of Reason (Glasgow, 1960), p.174

[8] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard, 1967), pp.26-27

[9] Jonathan Israel, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790 (Oxford, 2011), p.443

[10] Frederic Harrison, Chatham (New York, 1905), p.158   Found Within: The American Revolution Through British Eyes (Illinois, 1962) ed. Martin Kallich: Andrew Macleish, p.10

[11] Edmund Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (Carolina, 1953), p.298

[12] Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, ed. William Taylor: John Pringle (London: John Murray, 1838-40) Four Volumes, Vol. II, pp.365-67   Found Within: The American Revolution Through British Eyes (Illinois, 1962) ed. Martin Kallich: Andrew Macleish, pp.10-16

[13] Daniel Smith, Tax Crusaders and the Politics of Direct Democracy (London, 1998), p.22

[14] Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, pp.54-55

[15] James Ferguson, The American Revolution (New York, 1974), pp.73-74  

[16] Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham

[17] John Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Stanford, 1959), p.170

[18] Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham

[19] Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham

[20] Herbert Fisher, A History of Europe (London, 1957), p.772

[21] Philip Dawe, The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering (London, 1774), (Last Accessed: 02/12/13).

[22] Paul Gilje, Rioting in America (Indiana, 1999), pp.47-48

[23] Alfred Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (Boston, 2000), pp.46-48

[24] Ibid, p.47

[25] Ibid

[26] Gilje, Rioting in America, p.40

[27] Ferguson, The American Revolution, p.77

[28] Lester Langley, The Americas in the Age of Revolution (Yale, 1996), p.31

[29] B. Beacroft; M. Smale, The Making of America (Essex, 1982), p.39

[30] Gary Nash; Carter Smith, Atlas of American History (New York, 2007), p.64

[31] Ferguson, The American Revolution, pp.92-93

[32] Gordon Wood, American Revolution (London, 2003), pp.35-36

[33] Paul Boyer; Clifford Clark; Sandra Hawley; Joseph Kett; Andrew Rieser; Karen Halttunen, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (Stamford, 2011), p.113

[34] John Dickinson, Petition to King George III (Philadelphia, 1774) (Last accessed: 05/12/13)

[35] Francis Cogliano; Kirsten Phimister, Revolutionary America, 1763 – 1815 (London, 2010), p.2

[36] Dickinson, Petition to King George III (Introduction)

[37] Ibid (List of Grievances)

[38] Eliga Gould; Peter Onuf, Empire and Nation (Baltimore, 2005), pp.62-63

[39] Dickinson, Petition to King George III (List of Grievances)

[40] Colin Bonwick, The American Revolution (Basingstoke, 1991), p.79

[41] Dickinson, Petition to King George III (List of Grievances)

[42] Boyer; Clark; Hawley; Kett; Rieser; Halttunen, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, pp.97-98

[43] Dickinson, Petition to King George III (Conclusion)

[44] Edwin Wolf, The Authorship of the Address to the King Restudied (Williamsburg, 1965), pp.192-193

[45] Wood, American Revolution, p.54

[46] Ferguson, The American Revolution, p.100

[47] Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, p.451

[48] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, 1776), ed. Isaac Kramnick (London, 1975), p.25 (Editor’s Introduction)

[49] Ibid, pp.26-29 (Editor’s Introduction)

[50] Ibid. p.65

[51] Wood, American Revolution, p.54

[52] Paine, Common Sense, p.81

[53] Ibid, p.84

[54] Ibid, p.84

[55] Ibid. pp.84-85

[56] Colin Bonwick, ‘The American Revolution’ (Basingstoke, 1991), p.19

[57] Beacroft; Smale, The Making of America, p.40

[58] Paine, Common Sense, pp.32-35 (Editor’s Introduction)

[59] Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Philadelphia, 1776), (Last accessed: 06/12/13)

[60] Israel, Democratic Enlightenment, p.456

[61] Jonathan Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Democracy (Princeton, 2010), p.46

[62] Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Conclusion)

[63] Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Introduction)

[64] David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard, 2009), p.94

[65] Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Clauses)

[66] Jeremy Black, George III: America’s Last King (Yale, 2006), p.224

[67] Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence (Conclusion)

[68] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Federal Edition (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5). Vol. 12. Chapter: TO HENRY LEE (Last Accessed: 06/12/13)

[69] Wood, American Revolution, p.56

[70] Fisher, ‘The American Revolution’, p.767

[71] Warren Hofstra, ‘Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America’ (Lanham, 2007), p.127

[72] Alfred Cave, The French and Indian War (Connecticut, 2004), p.82

[73] Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, p.20

[74] Gould: Onuf, Empire and Nation, p.81

[75] Nicolson, The Age of Reason, p.189

[76] Francis Cogliano, Revolutionary America: A Political History (London, 2000), p.216

[77] Nicolson, The Age of Reason, p.190

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