United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Transform your teaching with the power of digital pedagogy. This book features: an interactive timeline, live learning feedback, embedded primary source video, automatic grading, and full customizability.

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Comparison of U.S. History Textbooks

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Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

Explore this textbook

Read the fully unlocked textbook below, and if you’re interested in learning more, get in touch to see how you can use this textbook in your course today.

Chapter 5: Road to War

Chapter Overview

If you had asked a colonist on the eve of the French and Indian War in 1754 who he was fighting for (or she was supporting), the unanimous response would have been, “But of course, for King and Country!” Although the British colonists had lived in America more or less autonomously since the founding of Jamestown some 150 years earlier, their identity was neither as colonists nor as Americans. They were wholeheartedly British subjects, loyal to their King. Yet within a generation, these same British patriots—Anglo-Americans as well as non-English Europeans and free blacks—would declare their independence from Britain and fight a war to make that declaration a reality.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, an upper class colonist from Philadelphia, was typical. (Figure 5.1). While touring the royal palace in London, Rush persuaded his guide to allow him to sit on the King’s throne. Afterward, he described his feelings:

“I gaze for some time at the throne with emotions that I cannot describe…. I advance towards the throne. I sit down on it. I am seized with a kind of awe. I feel as if…I’m on top of a mountain. All men’s passions, all men’s hopes aspire to nothing higher than this throne.”

Yet, by 1776, Rush would join 55 others in signing the Declaration of Independence. What happened?

Figure 5.1: Portrait of Benjamin Rush (1802 – 56 years old)​ [1]

Benjamin Rush, though born in the colony of Pennsylvania, was a typically patriotic Anglo-American subject, proud to be British and devoted to King George III. By 1776, however, he would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The concept of the revolutionary patriots, America’s Founding Fathers, as men singularly and unwaveringly dedicated to revolution and independence is only partially correct. They became revolutionaries, but only after numerous heartfelt reconciliation attempts had failed.

A more accurate description of America’s founders would be reluctant rebels. In 1754, a war against Mother England was unfathomable to the majority of colonists. Elite colonial leaders and commoners alike were reluctant to break away from Britain.

The road to war was also not paved in unity. Each of the British colonies was established separately from the others. The bond that held the colonies together was their common parents: Mother England and their King. Creating the unity necessary to declare and wage a war for independence represented a second challenge for colonial leaders to overcome.

Figure 5.2: Portrait of King George III (1782 – 44 years old)​ [2]

Anglo-American colonists almost universally revered their king, George III, but that outlook changed dramatically during the road to war (Figure 5.2).

Although relatively short in duration—just over twenty years—the road from loyal subjects to violent revolutionaries was a long and winding one. The revolution didn’t suddenly happen in 1776. What began as something like a family misunderstanding escalated to more serious friction and finally outright confrontation. From 1754 to 1776, the gulf between the colonists and Great Britain grew as wide and as deep as the Atlantic Ocean that separated them.

Colonial elites sought reconciliation with the British Parliament and, ultimately, King George III. Their frustration with Great Britain, however, overcame their reluctance to fight for independence. In addition, the presence of common people engaged in violent acts of resistance raised the stakes even further. Finally, the unfolding of events on the road to war reminds us that if not for a series of disruptive events, Americans today might still hold British passports and speak the King’s (or Queen’s) English. This chapter explains why that did not happen. 

Chapter Objectives

  • Understand the reasons why the Founding Fathers could be characterized as reluctant rebels.
  • Explain why the colonists turned from loyal British subjects to revolutionaries.
  • Explain the major events and pivotal figures on the road to war.
  • Understand the political principles that underlay the American Revolution.
5.01 - Level 1

What is most surprising about the Founding Fathers and their attitude toward war and revolution against Great Britain?


They would only fight against Britain with French support.


They were very reluctant to declare independence and fight for it.


The cause of the break between the colonists and Britain had more to do with slavery than anything else.


King George III was thwarted by the British Parliament in his attempts to reconcile with the colonists.

Question 5.02

5.02 - Level 3

Describe the factors that allowed Britain to expand its colonial influence across North America during the 18th century.

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.02.

Colonial Government and Life, 1754

Given a map of North America circa 1754, it would be difficult to tell that England was positioned to control the future of the continent (Figure 5.3). After all, the French and Spanish controlled far larger expanses of territory than the British. However, this map doesn’t take into account the nature of North American colonial development by the three European powers.

French colonization was concentrated in Canada, with its largest population centers in Quebec and Montreal. The fur trade drove the French colonial economy, supplemented by fisheries and farming. Scattered fur trade posts along the Mississippi and other major rivers west of the Appalachians established French land claims, but did not represent concentrated colonial development.

Similarly, the Spanish presence was closely tied to colonial Mexican interests, including mining and ranching. Catholic missions and a few small urban clusters in the present-day Southwest constituted the extent of Spanish colonial development.

In sum, neither France nor Spain had invested much in concerted North American colonial development. By contrast, the British colonies were founded on decades of economic, social, and political consolidation. As a consequence, the British held a dominant position in the fight to control the continent’s future.

This section summarizes the political, economic, and socio-cultural features that set the British colonies apart from their European competitors. It also lends insight into why in just over 20 years the colonists sought independence from Great Britain.

Figure 5.3: A map of North America in the mid-18th century belies Great Britain’s strong position in controlling the future of the continent. The North American territorial claims of England, France, and Spain would be rearranged several times before the end of the 18th century.

Question 5.03

5.03 - Level 4

How might the map above be misleading?

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.03.

Colonial Governments

By 1754, the most significant feature of colonial governments was their relative autonomy. Each colony more or less governed itself, which can be attributed to 50+ years of benign neglect by the Board of Trade specifically (established in 1696) and the British Parliament more generally. Owing to this lax administration, not to mention 3,000 miles of ocean buffer, colonial governments developed freely and independently.

Another factor that contributed to the North American colonies’ autonomy was the priority placed on the English West Indies among Britain’s colonial holdings. The Caribbean sugar plantations produced a far greater share of trade wealth, well into the 18th century, than all of the mainland colonies combined. As a consequence, the British paid more attention to the West Indies than to their North American colonies.

Although the colonies enjoyed much political independence from Britain, their governments were generally modeled after the British system. A governor, normally appointed by the King, served as the chief executive. In addition, all of the colonies except Pennsylvania had bicameral legislatures modeled after Parliament. Each was comprised of an upper House of Lords whose members were appointed by the governor, usually referred to as the Council, and a lower House of Commons whose members were elected, usually called the Assembly. The governor was also empowered to appoint members of local courts.

But where did real political power reside? At first glance it would seem that the governor was positioned to exercise the most power. However, in the wake of England’s Glorious Revolution in 1688, political power shifted back to the colonial assemblies. While the 1660 Stuart Restoration led to greater royal control of the colonies, the Glorious Revolution reestablished the superiority of the assemblies in managing colonial affairs. Consequently, power in the elected branch grew exponentially for more than fifty years, with the assemblies jealously guarding against any threats to their power. In addition, the assemblies counterbalanced the governors’ power by controlling taxation and budgets, especially in determining and paying the governor’s salary. Not surprisingly, these same assemblies eventually chafed at the imposition of greater control by Parliament over their longstanding custom of self-rule. Most of the objections to stricter Parliamentary control were born from these assemblies.

In addition to common structures of government, the colonists shared several political traditions. Among them were beliefs in representative government, bicameral legislatures, and the importance of protecting private property rights. The belief in the concept of trustee representation was a noteworthy tradition that echoed into future state governments and eventually the U.S. Constitution. Typically, representation means that the representative carries forward the views and beliefs of his or her constituents to the legislative assembly. However, colonial elites did not believe that the common people were capable of exercising political power responsibly. This widely held assumption was unquestioned in the context of pre-Revolutionary America and was reflected in the trustee representation tradition. Political decisions that benefited the common good were entrusted to the elites of colonial society because they were considered the only ones capable of rendering sound judgment about public policy.

This tradition was reflected in voting qualifications. The three main criteria were: white, male, and property owning. The property requirement usually included a minimum amount of land, so not even all white males could vote. Women and persons of color were completely excluded. Although it may appear that voting rights in colonial America were very restricted, in the mid-eighteenth century the colonists enjoyed more expansive voting rights than any other place in the world, including Great Britain.

In sum, while colonial elites believed in representative government, that didn’t mean they believed in democracy—at least not in the manner in which we understand it today. Based upon a long tradition dating as far back as Greco-Roman times, the masses of people were considered to be rabble or the mob. European elites had argued for centuries that empowering the people risked opening the floodgates of violence. It was therefore the responsibility of colonial elites, not the people, to uphold the traditions and beliefs that had developed during the American colonial experience.

The common institutions and traditions that developed throughout the American colonies were undergirded by a core of shared political beliefs. The above noted distrust of the people was one of them. The colonists were also wary of executive power and believed ardently that the foundation of political power rested in elected legislatures.

The most important common political belief was the concept of liberty. It served as the touchstone of the colonists’ shared political ideology and remains the bedrock of modern political democracies. It is no exaggeration to state that liberty was sacred to the colonists, an idea nurtured both by British political tradition and their own governing experiences. According to centuries-old British custom, common law, and political principles, the purpose of government was to preserve and protect liberty. Governments were to protect against arbitrary rule that limited or deprived the people of their rights. Ironically, King George III himself wrote, “The pride, the glory of Britain, and the direct end of its Constitution, is political liberty.” It was this concept of liberty and Great Britain’s violation of it that eventually bound the colonists together.

The colonial experience of governance, along with their common political traditions and beliefs—especially the concept of liberty—profoundly influenced the course of events throughout the remainder of the century. In the short term, the colonists rallied around these ideals as the basis for their declaration of independence from Britain. Later, after successfully defeating the British, the nature and contours of both state governments and the new federal government were constructed on these political foundations.

5.04 - Level 2

The feature that stands out about colonial governments in relationship to political authority in Great Britain is their [math]\text{______________}[/math].

Question 5.05

5.05 - Level 3

What structures, traditions, and beliefs were similar among the various colonial governments?

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.05.

5.06 - Level 2

In the eyes of most British North American colonists in the 18th century, with whom should political power have rested?


With the people


With the monarch


With an appointed governor


With an elected legislature

5.07 - Level 3

Which of the following features of our contemporary political system would have seemed the most preposterous to the average 18th century British North American colonist?


Bicameral legislatures


Trustee representation


Separation of church and state


Universal suffrage

5.08 - Level 4

Sort the following values from most to least based on how important they would have been to the average British North American colonist in the 18th century.




Property Rights





Colonial Economies

By 1750, colonial economic development had matured into a robust juggernaut. Although sugar remained Great Britain’s single most profitable export, the mainland colonies’ diverse trade commodities created a balanced transatlantic trade system. Profitable commodities included tobacco, rice, indigo, wheat, rum, naval stores, and furs. In exchange, the colonies received manufactured products such as glass- and metal-ware, clothing, and linen. Consumer goods also flowed back to the colonies; most notably, tea.

The map below shows how the Atlantic trade revolved around the North American colonies, including British holdings in the Caribbean where African slaves disembarked (Figure 5.4).  The majority of these Africans remained in the British West Indies on sugar plantations, but some were re-exported to the tobacco and rice plantations of the southern mainland colonies.

Figure 5.4: Transatlantic Triangular Trade Routes - Trade with Great Britain was the engine of the colonies’ economic development. Each colonial region contributed different commodities. This diverse economy resulted in the high standard of living enjoyed by the colonists.​

The standard of living in the colonies was considered among the highest in the world, rivaling and often exceeding that of their fellow Britons. The diversity of development among the various colonies contributed to the economic strength of the colonies as a whole.

By 1750, New England’s economy had evolved away from its origins of small farmers and tight-knit Puritan communities. The new, mid-18th century New England economy was based on fish and transatlantic trade, with Boston serving as the hub. The economy was linked to both the West Indies and Europe. Merchants exchanged cod and lumber for sugar and molasses from the West Indies while furs, fish, and naval stores (commodities used for building ships) were traded for manufactured goods from Britain. The Yankee traders of New England—men like John Hancock—played a crucial role in the road to war.

The Middle Colonies developed a diverse economy that matched the influx of new immigrants to the region, especially Germans and Scots-Irish. Pennsylvania led the way with an economy based on wheat and flour milling; flour accounted for three-fourths of the region’s exports. The broad economic opportunities available in Pennsylvania earned it the title “the best poor man’s country in the world.” Sitting atop Pennsylvania’s burgeoning economy was Philadelphia, the most populous city in America and second only to London in the entire British Empire.

New York’s manorial estates lined the Hudson River from New York City to Albany. However, the landlord/tenant farming system limited its economic growth, especially compared to the independent farmers who drove Pennsylvania’s economy. The lords of New York’s manor system acquired enormous wealth, but it was not shared broadly across the population. Nevertheless, New York’s economy thrived because furs, corn, meat, fish, and wheat were profitable commodities. New York City served as the Middle Colonies’ second major transit harbor as well as a major slave trade port.

The mid-18th century Southern Colonies dominated the transatlantic trade network. Ninety percent of all exports to Great Britain originated in the South, and tobacco accounted for one-third of the total. The South’s economy was divided both geographically and economically. Virginia and Maryland constituted the upper South, or Chesapeake colonies, where tobacco plantations symbolized the southern way of life. The lower South, consisting of North and South Carolina and Georgia, grew rice and indigo. These colonies exported rice primarily to the Caribbean to feed the slaves who labored on sugar plantations, while the blue dye produced from the indigo plant was used by the British textile industry.

Diversity was the hallmark of colonial economic development, a feature that thrust the future independent nation into the first rank of economic powers. But in 1750, the predominance of the slave-based southern economy demonstrates that the colonial economy was built on the backs of slaves.

5.09 - Level 2

Click on the region where indigo was produced.

Question 5.10

5.10 - Level 5

Imagine you are a merchant ship’s captain traveling the Triangular Trade Route. What items are you likely transporting within this vast network? Explain your reasoning.

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.10.

Question 5.11

5.11 - Level 5

Plot your course! Start in the Carolinas with a ship full of rice. To where do you first set sail? Where do you unload the rice, and what do you pick up at your first stop? Where do you go for your second stop, and what do you pick up there? Make at least four stops and make as wide a circuit around the Atlantic World as possible.

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.11.

5.12 - Level 2

Which of the following products was by far the most lucrative export for the British North American colonies?




Handcrafted furniture





Socio-cultural Characteristics

There was immense variation throughout mid-eighteenth century American culture. First, the colonies looked very different—literally, in racial and ethnic terms—from their image fifty years earlier. Study the graphic below (Figure 5.5).

Figure 5.5: Over the course of the first half of the 18th century, the population of Great Britain’s North American colonies grew more diverse. Despite the growing ethnic and racial diversity, the colonists would eventually unite in opposition to British policies.​

Question 5.13

5.13 - Level 3

What do the pie charts depict? What can you learn from them about British North America’s changing demographics? What lessons can you take from them? What can you conclude about mid-18th century colonial American society from the information here?

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.13.

Second, the colonies were stratified societies. Whether in the North or the South, a small elite class sat at the top. Large plantation owners like George Washington dominated the South—his Mt. Vernon estate was over 12,000 acres and he held title to another 24,000 acres (Figure 5.6). Meanwhile, northern merchants like Connecticut chocolatier Simon Huntington made a fortune satisfying the colonists’ sweet tooth. A Massachusetts shoemaker named John Dagyr annually manufactured 80,000 pairs of women’s shoes. If a colonist didn’t own a plantation or a business, the best route to success was becoming a lawyer, like Boston’s John Adams.

Figure 5.6: This map of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate was drawn by Washington himself, reflecting his skill as a surveyor. [3]​

Below the colonial elite were several middling levels of wealth. The most numerous group was independent farmers who owned enough acreage to sell a portion of their crops on the open market. Skilled craftsmen were next on the hierarchy, followed by ministers and doctors. Teachers, however, were not paid enough to be part of the middle class.

On the bottom rung of the socio-cultural ladder were indentured servants and slaves. In both cases, but especially for slaves, life expectancy depended on factors out of their control—most notably, the character of the master they served. For a slave on a large plantation in the Deep South, as opposed to a smaller farm in the Upper South, life was likely a veritable hell (Figure 5.7).

Figure 5.7: One of the most psychologically and emotionally wrenching aspects of slavery was the slave auction. Husbands and wives were separated from each other and children were even sold away from their families.​ [4]

The vast majority of colonists—about 96%—lived in rural areas, so the rhythm of their lives was rooted quite literally in the land. The seasons and the demands of plowing, planting, harvesting, and other farming tasks created a consistent backbeat to everyday life.

Spotlight on Primary Source

Question 5.14

5.14 - Level 2

Based on the first part of the podcast above, how did the story of Mercy Wheeler reflect a major change in religious authority?

Click here to see answer to Question 5.14.

Beyond the bonds of a common rural, agricultural lifestyle, religion provided social cohesion for many colonists. A wide diversity of Protestant denominations dominated colonial faith communities. Even though only a minority of colonists belonged to a parish and many did not regularly attend Sunday services, Protestant Christianity sustained cultural unity. Ministers were among a community’s most important leaders (Figure 5.8).

A minority of Catholics and Jewish believers were at best tolerated; more often than not, they had to survive outright hostility. The exceptions were Pennsylvania, the model colony of Quaker tolerance, Maryland, the Catholic refuge established by Lord Baltimore, and New York City, where Muslims worshiped alongside Christians.

A series of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening developed in the 1730s and 1740s. Common people and colonial elites alike were swept up by the exhortations of preachers like Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” reminded the faithful that their eternal fate hung in the balance of everyday life. Unless they were born anew and rededicated their lives to Christ, they would be “cast into the fire” for eternity. Such emotional “fire and brimstone” preaching was the stock in trade of numerous itinerant preachers, none more famous than George Whitefield. This Anglican minister arrived from England in 1739 and proceeded to ignite an evangelical side of faith that divided American Protestantism into New Light or Old Light adherents. The former embraced the emotional and personalized faith of the revivalists, while the latter represented the existing, traditional church, which leaned more toward the head than the heart.

The Great Awakening catalyzed changes in American spirituality that profoundly altered the colonial religious landscape. The New Lights split Protestantism, but at the same time increased the number of practicing Christians, evidenced by the emergence of new denominations like the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. To train ministers for these nascent sects, new colleges were founded, including current Ivy League schools like Princeton for New Light Presbyterians and Brown for Baptists. Unwittingly, all of these new denominations spurred a sense of religious toleration that affirmed religious freedom. Eventually, too, the black church surfaced from the religious ferment of the Great Awakening, evolving into a central institution of African American culture.

It is also apparent that the Great Awakening’s religious impact resulted in parallel, political consequences. Within a generation, common people who questioned the authority of ministers were psychologically prepared to question political authority. Without that ingrained sensibility, the road to war likely would have been much tougher to sell to the colonial masses.

Figure 5.8: Churches were the center of rural colonial life. Religion also played an important role in the justification for revolution, as ministers offered assurance that the cause of independence was spiritually righteous. [5]​

5.15 - Level 3

Which of the following western intellectual movements was the most similar to the Great Awakening that swept across the British North American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s?


Age of Enlightenment


Protestant Reformation




Romantic Movement

Besides their profound religious sensibility and rural lifestyle, American colonists were not overtly different from Americans today in their search for diversions and pleasures to enjoy. The most common form of entertainment was music. Concerts and musical theater were eagerly attended, and singing and playing instruments were commonly enjoyed in the home. Dancing was a natural accompaniment to the colonists’ delight in music. Thomas Jefferson claimed that George Washington was the finest dancer in Virginia.

Taverns were important meeting places for political plotting, gossip, and the usual merriment associated with such venues. Alcohol, particularly hard cider and rum, was consumed in quantities that would startle many people today—including a drink at breakfast.

Courtship and marriage patterns became less rigid as the colonies matured. By the mid-eighteenth century, women did not marry at such a young age, nor did they have as many children. Women exercised somewhat greater choice in their marriage partner—the most important decision a woman made in her lifetime. The increasing balance of men and women meant that they could marry later and have fewer children. Because complications related to childbirth were a leading cause of death for colonial women, life expectancy improved as family size decreased.

At the same time, however, women remained subservient to men. From a modern perspective a woman lost her identity once she married—legally, economically, and socially. Women literally belonged to their husbands. In the context of colonial mores, however, marriage was considered a pathway to identity, arguably as much for men as for women. Moreover, colonial women could enhance their social standing through marriage. While mid-18th century women remained second-class citizens, the institution of marriage underwent changes throughout the revolutionary era that signaled the emergence of modern notions about marriage.

As the country moved into the contentious years leading up to the war, America was characterized by an increasingly diverse population, a society marked by distinct class separation but with an emerging middle class, a dominant agrarian lifestyle, the important role of religion, and a clear separation of women and persons of color from the generally positive picture of mid-eighteenth century colonial life.

Question 5.16

5.16 - Level 4

Explain the demographic changes that took place in the Britain's North American colonies in the first half of the 18th century. What do they tell us about colonial society and its relationship with itself and the world around it?

Click here to see answer to Question 5.16.

An Emerging American Identity

A uniquely American identity emerged out of each individual colony’s political independence, economic development, and socio-cultural beliefs. What were its hallmarks? Politically, an unwavering devotion to the concept of liberty; economically, a pragmatic, can-do spirit of innovation combined with a singular devotion to exploiting the vast natural resources at their disposal; socially and culturally, a society that was dominated by a colonial elite, but spread the wealth across a broad swath of the population. The stain of human bondage, however, would cast a long and ultimately tragic shadow across the rest of United States history. It was not only America’s original sin, but it remains to this day the great paradox of American history and life.

Though the colonies and colonists shared an American identity, they did not necessarily share a vision of what the future United States would look like as one nation. The failed Albany Plan of Union is a good reminder that the colonies were initially unwilling to cede their independence to a national body. The brainchild of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the plan intended to create an alliance from the seven colonies that met in Albany, New York for purposes of military defense and coordination of policy toward Native American tribes. A Grand Council with representatives from each colony would devise policies and operate under a president general appointed by the King. Exercising the independent spirit that characterized colonial governments, colonial legislatures refused to support the plan despite Franklin’s “Join, or Die” plea (Figure 5.9).

Figure 5.9: Benjamin Franklin hoped to join together the separated colonies into a defense alliance against Native Americans, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy. It would take more than concern about colonial-tribal relations, however, to unite the colonies.​[6]​

Given this resistance, how and why did the colonies come together to fight for their independence as a United States of America? The story began in 1754 in a remote area of Pennsylvania, where an ambitious 22-year old Virginian named George Washington entered the world stage. 

5.17 - Level 3

Click on the segment of the snake representing the colony that allowed the greatest degree of religious tolerance.


Reflecting the reach of the British Empire, the Seven Years War (1756-1763) was fought on four continents, hence its characterization as the first world war. The major fighting involved the British and the French, but all of the major European powers were involved to some extent. The French and Indian War predated the onset of the Seven Years War in Europe, beginning in 1754, and represented the North American theatre of the conflict.

The cause of the war was a land dispute between the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies, the French, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the unaffiliated Native Americans living in what was called the Ohio Valley—what is now Pittsburgh, at the confluence of the Ohio, Alleghany, and Monongahela rivers.

The French, aware of the colonists’ creeping encroachment into territory they considered theirs, began building fortifications across the region, reaching north to Lake Erie and south along the Alleghany. These forts were intended to supplement their existing line of defense, including Fort Niagara near Lake Ontario and northeast to Montreal, Quebec, and Louisburg, guarding the entrance to the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Iroquois were equally interested in maintaining access to if not control of the region, and they skillfully used their position to play the French against the British and vice versa. Finally, the British colonists of Virginia and Pennsylvania were no less determined to muscle their way into the region. Land grants of tens of thousands of acres were dispensed freely into the disputed territory by King-appointed proprietors.

It was at this point in time that the youthful, ambitious George Washington entered the scene (Figure 5.10). In late 1753, Washington was dispatched to the region with a message from the Virginia governor insisting that, in the name of King George III, the French were trespassing on British territory and should leave the region. In response, the French continued building fortifications, including the strategically located Fort Duquesne (in present-day Pittsburgh). Although rebuffed by the French, who simply claimed that the land belonged to their king, Washington made a name for himself by publishing the story of his wilderness adventures, from surviving a fall into the frigid waters of the Allegheny River to fending off an Indian’s assassination attempt.

Washington returned the next year, but this time with a contingent of soldiers and instructions to push the French out. After attacking a small party of French soldiers, Washington was forced to construct a hastily but appropriately named fort: Necessity. His inexperience, however, was clearly evident in choosing a location surrounded by higher ground, from which the French and Indians saw everything Washington and his men were doing. A torrential rain flooded the fort and Washington surrendered in a day. It was an inauspicious beginning to Washington’s military career. Even in losing, though, Washington was able to buff his name and standing, a talent that would ultimately lead him to command the colonial army in the war for independence 13 years later.

The French and Indian War had officially begun. The British, believing that all that was needed was a “real” army of British regulars, sent a force of 1,000 men under the command of General Edward Braddock. They were joined by 2,000 Virginia volunteers under Washington’s command; their mission was to capture Fort Duquesne. The 1755 expedition was a disaster, with one-third of the combined British and colonial force killed, including General Braddock. The much smaller force of French and Indians successfully employed guerrilla warfare tactics, ambushing the British and Virginians still fighting in the 18th century manner of marching in rank under the open sky. In another irony of history, Washington would remember the tactics the French and Indians used so successfully against him when he later commanded the colonial army in the Revolutionary War. In the meantime, Washington’s military record stood at 0-2.

5.18 - Level 1

What caused the French and Indian War?


King George's insistence that the Iroquois Confederacy be split apart.


Mobilization of French troops planning to invade Virginia.


A land dispute involving the Iroquois Confederacy, the French, and the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania.


The creation of a colonial defense alliance against the French and the Iroquois Confederacy.

5.19 - Level 2

The French and Indian War was just one component of a much larger conflict between Britain and France known as what?


The Seven Years War


The Thirty Years War


The Hundred Years War


World War I

Figure 5.10: George Washington commanded the Virginia regiment that fought alongside British forces under the command of General Edward Braddock at the beginning of the French and Indian War. Ironically, one of Washington’s early life goals was to earn British military rank, an honor he never achieved.​ [7]​

With the exception of a successful campaign to secure French forts in Nova Scotia, the situation did not improve for the British through 1757. In fact, the French edged their way into the western New England, pushing into northern New York and within 100 miles of Philadelphia. By now, the full-scale Seven Years’ War was well underway in Europe, where things were not going any better for Great Britain.

British fortunes changed when Prime Minister William Pitt personally took charge of the war effort. His critical decision was to rely almost exclusively on colonial forces, albeit under British command, to fight in North America, thus preserving British troops for the fighting in Europe. In order to ensure colonial participation, Pitt agreed that Britain would assume the cost of the war effort—a decision that later came back to haunt colonial-British relations.

The colonists responded as loyal British subjects. In 1758, some 20,000 volunteers stepped forward, and another 20,000 followed in 1759. Under the command of several competent British generals, especially Jeffery Amherst and James Wolfe, the colonial forces ran off a string of victories over the French, including conquests of Forts Duquesne and Louisburg in 1758 and Quebec in 1759 (Figure 5.11). With the fall of Montreal in 1760, the war in North America was essentially over.

Figure 5.11: General James Wolfe led the campaign that secured Quebec during the French and Indian War. Wolfe, along with General Jeffery Amherst, succumbed to battlefield wounds in leading their respective armies to victory.​ [8]

A second factor that improved British fortunes was the dissolution of the French and Indian alliance in 1758. The Iroquois Confederacy resented the lack of respect shown by the French, and most either opted out or switched sides and fought with the British.

The war itself was fought with a ferocity that belied the usual 18th century standards of warfare. Scalping was not uncommon on either side, and an early form of germ warfare was even practiced when the British distributed blankets infected with smallpox to Native Americans.

The official treaty, ending both the conflict in North America and the global Seven Years’ War, was negotiated in 1763. The Treaty of Paris, sometimes referred to as the Peace of Paris, ended the French presence in North America. As shown on the map below, North America was now essentially divided between Great Britain and Spain, with the Mississippi River acting as the primary border (Figure 5.12).

Figure 5.12: Great Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War resulted in the expulsion of the French from North America, with the former French claims divided between Spain and England along the Mississippi River. A source of tension between the colonists and England emerged over settlement of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains.​

Almost immediately upon ratification of the treaty, however, tensions festered between the colonists and Mother England. One intervening development would have important consequences for the colonial-British relationship. Rightly fearing that the Anglo-American victory over the French would result in colonial encroachment into the now British-held lands west of the Appalachians, an alliance of tribes united under the leadership of an Ottawa chief named Pontiac. The ensuing attacks on British forts across a broad front, including the Great Lakes, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, was known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. The rebellion required a significant and successful British military response.

Aware of the tensions between colonists and Indian tribes in the western territories, as well as the costs associated with continual military occupation of the region, the British sought a diplomatic solution. The Proclamation of 1763 drew a line across the western foothills of the Appalachians and temporarily prohibited colonial expansion beyond it. From this decision, the mixed legacy of the French and Indian War began.

On the one hand, the experience reinforced the Anglo half of the colonists’ Anglo-American identity. They had fought willingly for their King as loyal British subjects. On the other hand, the decision to prohibit colonial expansion into the newly acquired territories frustrated the colonists. After all, they had fought and died to obtain control of the western lands and did not understand why they could not occupy them.

The costs associated with military occupation of the region further exacerbated the situation. British troops remained in the western regions in order to keep peace with the Indian tribes still living there. The British felt it reasonable that the colonists should bear the cost since the occupation was to their benefit, but the colonists felt no such obligation. British troops spread across the world were simply one of the costs of Empire.

So began the road to war. A basic family misunderstanding about post-French and Indian War America, and who would pay for the fruits of victory, sowed the seeds of greater tensions between Mother England and her colonial offspring.

Question 5.20

5.20 - Level 4

What sparked Pontiac’s Rebellion? Why did the British opt for a diplomatic solution?

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.20.

5.21 - Level 1

[math]\text{______________}[/math] was the prime minister who led the military turnaround in the French and Indian War.

Question 5.22

5.22 - Level 5

Pretend that you are a British official. Explain to North American colonists why they cannot violate the Proclamation Line. (Bear in mind the state of the British empire at the end of the French and Indian War.)

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.22.


The second step on the road to war was marked by increased friction between the colonists and the British government. The newly enthroned (1760) King, George III, now entered the picture. The colonists expressed their loyalty to him while simultaneously denouncing Parliament’s efforts to rein in the colonies and secure a greater financial contribution for meeting the costs of empire. The misunderstanding, stemming from the aftermath of the French and Indian War, escalated into more direct and pointed showdowns.

To address the increased costs of the empire stemming from the Seven Years’ War, Parliament decided it needed to reorganize colonial administration. Measures were instituted to increase efficiency and ensure that all trade revenue due the British Crown was collected. This increased control over colonial affairs immediately raised red flags. For virtually the entire 18th century, the colonists had governed themselves with little interference from Parliament. Suddenly, the colonists had to deal with a more assertive Parliament wishing to flex what it believed were its rightful powers to oversee the American colonies.

Writs of Assistance

The first signal of Parliament’s new intentions occurred in 1760, during the French and Indian War. To prevent illegal smuggling, British customs agents were authorized to make use of a dubious legal document called a writ of assistance. Essentially, the writs granted customs officials broad search and seizure authority. Normally, granting a search warrant required clear probable cause and a specific list of goods to be seized. Conversely, the writs of assistance had no such standard and allowed British officials to search businesses and homes without meeting either standard.

Colonial objections swiftly followed. Use of the writs betrayed a time-honored and cherished ideal found in the British constitution—namely, that a man’s home was his castle. The argument was dismissed since the practice was legal in Great Britain, but this encroachment on colonial liberty echoed through the years leading up to 1776.

Sugar Act

The first act of Parliament that revealed its new attitude toward the colonies passed in 1764. The Sugar Act, though it actually reduced the import tax on molasses from the French West Indies, included stricter enforcement measures. Presumably, a net gain in revenue would result since smuggling provided no revenue. The most onerous aspect of the measure, however, were the new criminal justice procedures put into place. Accused smugglers were no longer tried in colonial courts, where they were often treated sympathetically. Instead, trials were held in vice admiralty courts where only a judge ruled. Because there was a financial incentive for judges to convict smugglers, colonists correctly perceived that they didn’t stand a chance, especially since the constitutional right to a trial by jury was also denied to them.

Figure 5.13: Sugar cane was an enormously profitable commodity. Sugar, molasses, and rum were staples of the transatlantic trade routes. The Sugar Act was intended to ensure the British government received its percentage of the trade. Note the white overseer directing the sugarcane processing operation.​ [9]

Listen to the portion of this podcast entitled, “Sugar in Your Tea Party?” The important role of molasses in colonial trade is discussed as well as how molasses smuggling contributed to the American Revolution (Figure 5.13).

Spotlight on Primary Sources

Question 5.23

5.23 - Level 2

What role did molasses smuggling play on the road to war between the colonies and Great Britain?

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.23.

Stamp Act

No taxation without representation!” This famous phrase was a major rallying cry for the colonists in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The legislation that sparked this battle cry was called the Stamp Act (1765). The law broke a longstanding economic oversight tradition that the colonists had accepted as legitimate. The colonists acknowledged regulation of trade by Parliament as valid, but drew the line at taxation; this was something that the colonists did to and for themselves. The Stamp Act, however, imposed a direct tax on the colonists by an act of Parliament rather than by their own elected colonial assemblies (Figure 5.14).

The specifics of the measure were reflected in its title. Special stamped paper was used for the recording of virtually all business and legal transactions. What distinguished the Stamp Act from the Sugar Act was that while the latter essentially only affected shipping interests, the former was an internal tax that directly affected all colonists.

Figure 5.14: The Stamp Act required the use of specially embossed paper for virtually any financial transaction, so it affected all colonists. The “No taxation without representation!” rallying cry was the result of this legislation because it was a direct tax imposed by Parliament rather than by colonial assemblies taxing themselves. This skull and crossbones stamp makes clear the colonial view of the Stamp Act.​​ [10]​

From the British perspective, the Stamp Act provided much-needed revenue for administration of the empire, particularly to pay for British troops stationed in America. Since the colonists were the direct beneficiaries of the tax, Parliament believed it was a fair and reasonable measure.

The colonial objections centered on the fact that this was the first time that Parliament had imposed a direct tax on the colonists. More to the point of “no taxation without representation,” the colonists had no representation in Parliament.

Parliament’s defense against this representation argument was based on a concept referred to as virtual representation. All members of Parliament took into account the needs and perspectives of all British subjects, regardless of where they lived in the empire. The virtual aspect of this argument is similar to our modern understanding of virtual reality. That is, from a colonial perspective this type of representation was artificial or simulated.

The taxation and representation argument also revealed that each side viewed the colonial-British relationship very differently. For the colonists, the relationship was a loose one in which they possessed broad legislative autonomy, a belief reinforced by over 150 years of self-rule. The British assumption, however, was that Parliament had always possessed the authority to govern the colonies, even if they hadn’t exercised that power for a very long time. This fundamental difference in assumptions about the nature of the relationship between the colonists and Great Britain led to elevated friction on the road to war.

Question 5.24

5.24 - Level 5

What is the idea behind “virtual representation”? Can you make an argument for its effectiveness?

Click here to see the answer to Question 5.24.

Stamp Act Resistance

Resistance to the Stamp Act took three parallel forms. The first path was the traditional manner of petitions and resolutions. Acting of their own accord, various colonial assemblies forwarded their objections to Parliament. More important, however, was the calling of an all-colony Stamp Act Congress in the fall of 1765. The gathering of representatives from nine colonies drafted a series of resolutions that reflected the colonists’ loyalty to King George III, but at the same time clearly asserted what they believed were their fundamental rights as Englishmen.

The preamble to the actual resolutions affirmed the colonists’ allegiance to King George, but also claimed that “…subjects in these colonies are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.” In other words, the colonists should be treated in just the same way as they would if they lived in England.

In the resolutions that followed, the delegates made their taxation without representation argument. Once again, they invoked their rights as Englishmen to buttress their point: “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives.” Since the colonies had no representatives in Parliament, they believed taxes could not be imposed on them.

The second, parallel form of action was bolder and more direct. Led by such groups as the Loyal Nine and the Sons of Liberty, mobs of lower and middle class men engaged in violent acts of intimidation, the most famous of which was hanging an effigy of Boston’s stamp man, Andrew Oliver, in what came to be called Liberty Tree.

The mob proceeded to destroy Oliver’s warehouse office and ransack his home. Oliver resigned the next day. This pattern of intimidation was repeated across the colonies so that by November 1, 1765—the date when the Stamp Act was to go into effect—all stamp distributors had either resigned or fled in fear.

The third form of resistance proved decisive. As the colonies represented 40% of their market, a colonial boycott of all British goods created a panic among British manufacturers and in turn caused them to lobby Parliament to rescind the Stamp Act.

It is in this context, too, that we witness the emergence of women as important players in the drama that lay ahead. The Daughters of Liberty, a group of upper middle class women, played a minor role in the Stamp Act crisis. As economic sanctions continued as a resistance measure, though, colonial women’s role expanded and represented a key component of colonial solidarity.

Stamp Act Repealed

Parliament revoked the Stamp Act in 1766, but not without an important condition. At the same time as the measure was withdrawn, Parliament immediately passed the Declaratory Act, which held that Parliament had the right, in all cases and under all circumstances, to impose legislation on the colonies—including taxation measures. Though viewed as a face-saving measure by colonial leaders, Parliamentary leaders viewed it as a clear affirmation of their constitutional authority, regardless of the views of the colonists.

The three-pronged strategy of resolutions, mob action, and economic boycotts was repeated in the coming years until the exasperated colonists came to the conclusion that Parliament and King George III simply didn’t understand the problem.

Townshend Duties

The next Parliamentary salvo followed a year later, in 1767, with a series of measures known as the Townshend Duties. Motivated by the same desire to raise revenue, finance minister Charles Townshend sought to avoid colonial objections to taxation measures like the Stamp Act by using the guise of trade regulation.

First, Parliament created a new Board of Customs Commissioners whose charge was to strictly enforce trade laws already on the books. The second element of Townshend’s plan was the Revenue Act, which levied an import tax on certain goods destined for the colonies—most significantly, tea.

A more suspect motive for raising revenue further antagonized the colonists. One of the most effective means for controlling royal governors was the colonial assembly’s power of the purse. In particular, governors’ salaries were established and paid for by the colonial assemblies, thus providing a clear incentive for governors to acquiesce, if not turn a blind eye, to assembly measures they might otherwise oppose. Townshend proposed that money raised from the import taxes be used to pay the governors’ salaries, thus removing one of the colonists’ last checks against overweening imperial authority.

By now, however, the colonial interpretation of acceptable Parliamentary regulation measures had evolved beyond the “no taxation without representation” principle. Any Parliamentary act designed to raise revenue was considered a violation of the representation principle, even if it was deemed a trade regulation measure as Townshend had argued.

This argument found its most articulate champion in the voice of John Dickinson, a Pennsylvania lawyer. In his Letters from a Farmer, so named because lawyers were not well-respected at the time, Dickinson restated many of the arguments initially raised against the Stamp Act. His signal contribution was to connect the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties in the colonists’ minds. By doing so, Dickinson re-energized colonial opposition.

It is also in the context of the Townshend Duties that women’s roles in pre-revolutionary actions took on new importance. Once again, economic sanctions were employed to pressure Parliament. This time, however, the economic boycott took on a new twist. Colonial women took the lead in a non-consumption campaign in which they, as chief purchasers of consumer goods like tea or clothing, could exercise economic pressure that was distinct from previous non-importation efforts. If the people were unwilling to consume something, importation of those British goods ceased altogether.

The second part of women’s heightened political involvement revolved around the domestic task of spinning yarn and wool into cloth. In order to replace the previously imported British textiles, women organized spinning bees as a public expression of solidarity. As if anticipating future women’s rights advocacy, colonial women transformed the personal into the political, turning the sewing of clothes for their families into a form of protest.

The colonial resistance to the Townshend Duties once again resulted in victory, but as with the Stamp Act, an asterisk was attached. Nearly all of the Townshend Duties were revoked, save for one prominent item: the tax on tea.

One other measure that came to prominence under Townshend’s authority was the Quartering Act, a law passed in 1765 that required colonial governments to provide housing and provisions for British troops. Here again, the colonists argued that they were being taxed, albeit indirectly, to provide for the British troops. New York was the only colony that resisted, but even they eventually succumbed to Parliamentary pressure. The Quartering Act and its reinforcement in 1774 served as a potent symbol of British occupation.

As the colonies moved into the third and final stage on the road to war—confrontation—both sides had firmly established their positions. Parliament was asserting what it considered its rightful authority to regulate the affairs of the American colonies, including taxing them. The colonists, on the other hand, were equally determined to stand up for what they believed were their rights as Englishmen and their sacred liberty.

The confrontation finally came to a head in Boston on March 5, 1770.

5.25 - Level 2

Match the examples of resistance to the Stamp Act with the group most closely associated with them.


Resolutions and petitions


Sons of Liberty


Mob actions


Colonial elites


Economic sanctions




Religious leaders


Free blacks


By 1770, the colonists were beginning to believe that the Stamp Act was not an isolated incident. Evidence was quickly mounting, indicating a pattern in which the British government sought to control the colonies directly without the colonists’ participation or consent.

From the British perspective, it was simply an issue of the colonists contributing their fair share to the maintenance of the empire. The colonists were a part of the empire, benefiting from its rule and protection, and therefore should help pay for it. To Parliament and many in the British public, the colonists had enjoyed a free ride for long enough.

Boston Massacre

By 1770, Boston was ground zero for anti-British activities. With 4,000 British troops—highly visible “Redcoats”—in a city of 16,000 people, Boston had the appearance of an occupied city. Tensions were exacerbated when the British troops sought part-time work, meaning that they were, in effect, taking jobs from Bostonians.

On the evening of March 5, 1770, a mob confronted nine British soldiers (Figure 5.15). Debris, sticks, and snowballs, some with rocks packed into them, were hurled at the soldiers. Accounts of the cause vary, but eleven colonists were struck down, five of whom were killed. Among the dead was Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and Native American descent, who was later portrayed as the first martyr in the struggle for independence.

Figure 5.15: Paul Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre was widely circulated. Its one-sided portrayal of the event was adeptly used as a propaganda weapon by Boston radicals.​ [11]

Sobered by Boston Massacre event, and conscious that a precipice had been reached, both sides took a step back. In the ensuing trial, where the British soldiers were defended by future President John Adams, only two were found guilty and both received a light punishment. For their part, the British removed troops from Boston. Over the next two years, a relative quiet settled over colonial quarrels with Parliament.

5.26 - Level 4

Click on those parts of this depiction of the Boston Massacre that could be used for propaganda purposes.

The appearance of calm, however, was deceptive. In the absence of a common enemy in Parliamentary action, the colonies turned against each other in a series of border disputes. New York and New Hampshire fought each other over land claims in Vermont, while Pennsylvania colonists took issue with both Connecticut and Virginia over what they considered encroachments into their territory. As the colonists approached war, colonial divisions would have to be overcome in order to launch a united front against Britain.

What ended the period of relative calm was the action of yet another prime minister, Lord North. One of the goals of the revoked Townshend Duties was to use the proceeds to pay royal governors rather than allowing the colonial assemblies to control governors’ salaries. This economic bargaining chip was the assemblies’ ace-in-the-hole when it came to pressuring a governor to do—or not do—something that the colonies desired. By rekindling this issue, North galvanized the hibernating resistance.

Committees of Correspondence

Enter Samuel Adams, one of the most admired (or despised if you were British) of the Boston radicals (Figure 5.16). Sam Adams’s contribution to the cause of independence rested on his skill as a propagandist. His incendiary prose could transform a simple dispute with Parliament into a public relations nightmare for the British and further fan the flames of colonial resistance. This time, however, his efforts were not limited to Boston. He jump-started a communications network called the committees of correspondence that stretched across New England and eventually morphed into a major inter-colonial communication system. Sharing information, especially in rural areas where most colonists lived, was critical to creating colonial unity in the final years leading up to the war.

Figure 5.16: Among the Boston radicals, Samuel Adams stood out for his keen sense of the moment and his ability to exploit events for propaganda purposes. Although he had a lisp and didn’t speak very well, there was no one more hated—or feared—by the British than Sam Adams and his pen.​ [12]

5.27 - Level 2

Place the following events that led up to the creation of the Committees of Correspondence in the correct chronological order.


Sugar Act


Boston Massacre


Stamp Act


French and Indian War


Townshend Duties

Boston Tea Party 

Unsurprisingly, the next flashpoint of conflict occurred in Boston. This time, however, there were no pauses or detours on the road to war. The story of the Tea Act, passed in 1773, is tied to the East India Tea Company, which held exclusive import rights on tea. Owing in part to the colonists’ persistent refusal to buy taxed tea, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Parliament, however, considered it too big to fail. Parliament believed the colonists would welcome the Tea Act because it effectively reduced the price of tea, the colonists’ nonalcoholic drink of choice—but they underestimated the determination of colonial resistance, led by the committees of correspondence.

Once again, the issue centered on the principle of taxation and representation. The colonists believed that by continuing to buy tea, no matter how cheap it was, they were tacitly approving Parliament’s taxation power. Prior to the Tea Act, the customs duty had been paid in Britain before re-shipment to the colonies. Now it was paid by the colonists. And because the money was used to pay royal governors, the colonies lost their one method to check gubernatorial prerogative. A third significant factor was that the tea would be sold directly by British agents rather than through colonial merchants like John Hancock.

The lines had been drawn. Would the colonists cave into economic self-interest and buy cheaper tea? Or would the resistance continue based on principle?

According to customs regulations, once a ship laid anchor it had to pay the appropriate duties within 20 days. Three tea-laden ships in Boston Harbor were the target of about 50 men dressed as Mohawk Indians. The costumes weren’t meant as a disguise; rather, the Indian image represented their American identity. They were neither British in outlook nor in their allegiance—they were Americans.

There was no party atmosphere at the Boston Tea Party (Figure 5.17). It was an orderly affair in which the men pointedly avoided collateral damage to the ships. The captains of each ship cooperated and were unharmed. The whole job took about three hours and ended with over 300 chests of tea dumped into the harbor. The aftermath was described as “one of the quietest nights Boston has enjoyed in some time.”

Figure 5.17: Although it appears from this rendition of the Boston Tea Party that there was a partying mood, in fact the action was carried out in a quiet and orderly fashion. Bystanders watched silently.​ [13]​

5.28 - Level 2

To which of the following policies of the British government did the colonists’ well-known call for “No Taxation without Representation” not apply?


Townshend Duties


Stamp Act


Declaratory Act


Tea Act

5.29 - Level 2

Why did the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party decide to dress up as Indians?


They wanted to hide their identities from British authorities


They wanted the drive a wedge between the British and native peoples


They wanted to highlight their new, distinctive identity as Americans


They all came directly from a costume party

The Intolerable Acts

While non-consumption and acts of intimidation were indirect forms of resistance, the Boston Tea Party was a shot across the bow aimed right at Parliament. The reaction was swift and decisive. First, Boston Harbor was closed until the tea was paid for. Second, the Massachusetts charter established in 1691 was revoked and new, more stringent controls were placed on its organization and structure, thus limiting its representative design. Third, anyone charged with a capital crime would no longer be tried in Massachusetts. The proceedings would occur in Britain, thus ensuring that British soldiers were protected against murder charges like those that followed the Boston Massacre. Jaded colonists called this measure the Murder Act. Fourth, the Massachusetts governor was authorized to quarter British soldiers in empty private buildings. Taken together, the four measures were called the Coercive Acts. With General Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, appointed governor, the implications seemed clear. Boston and the rest of Massachusetts would be brought to heel, at gunpoint if necessary.

A fifth piece of legislation, known as the Quebec Act, established Catholicism as the official state religion in Canada, created a new government without a legislature, and extended Quebec land claims into the Ohio Valley, a region still claimed by various colonies. Its significance lay in what the legislation portended for the thirteen colonies. Would their governments be reorganized along these lines? Would they be denied their birthright of political and religious liberty? The Quebec Act, as well as the four Coercive Acts, were viewed as unacceptable breaches of English liberty and hence were collectively referred to as the Intolerable Acts.

5.30 - Level 1

In what year did the Boston Massacre occur?

5.31 - Level 1

In what year did the Boston Tea Party occur?

5.32 - Level 2

Click on the area most directly impacted by the Intolerable Acts.

First Continental Congress

Yet again, the British Parliament and prime minister underestimated colonial resolve. What they believed was merely an act of punishment designed to isolate Massachusetts had the opposite effect. The committees of correspondence swung into action and galvanized the First Continental Congress. Delegates from twelve of the colonies convened a meeting in Philadelphia in September 1774 to create a unified front of opposition. The Congress agreed to institute a colony-wide trade boycott beginning December 1st, calling it the Continental Association. Local safety committees supervised the boycott and meted out punishment to violators. In addition, if no progress was made in restoring American rights, the import boycott would be extended to American exports the following year. The other significant decision to come out of the meeting was a petition to King George. The Congress hoped that he would intervene with, if not remove, the government ministers responsible for these violations of the British constitution—of British liberty.

The petition to George III was a clear indication that despite the apparent unity of purpose and resolve, there remained an important faction of colonial elites who were reluctant to push too far too soon. More moderate colonial leaders, such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and John Jay of New York, sought some measure of compromise. They sensed where the road was leading, but sought a detour away from independence and war.

Events, however, took on a momentum of their own outside the control of colonial leaders. In rural areas of Massachusetts and elsewhere, colonists created shadow governments, intimidated less than committed patriots, and most significantly, stockpiled weapons, and formed and drilled militia units.

Lexington and Concord

The palpable uneasiness that existed over the winter of 1774-75 was broken by “the shot heard ‘round the world.” On April 19, 1775, British troops were dispatched to Concord, Massachusetts to take possession of military supplies and arrest resistance leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock. This is when and where Paul Revere literally rode into American history, attempting to forewarn rural colonists that “The British are coming!” (Figure 5.18).

Figure 5.18: Paul Revere was arrested along with fellow courier, Billy Dawes, but a third rider, Samuel Prescott escaped and delivered “British are coming” alarm to Concord.​​ [14]

Meanwhile, on their way to Concord, the British garrison was met by a band of New England militia called minutemen at the village of Lexington (Figure 5.19). The skirmish ended with eight minutemen killed and a single British casualty. By the time they reached Concord, however, a much larger militia force had assembled to meet the British troops.

Figure 5.19: This depiction captures the small scale nature of the skirmish at Lexington. [15]​

The ensuing battle forced the British to retreat back to Boston. Along the way, they were harassed by minutemen employing guerrilla war tactics, picking off British redcoats from hidden locations with what today would be called sniper fire. The day’s fighting resulted in 273 British casualties, including 73 killed, out of a force of 700. The colonists suffered 95 casualties. By the time the British reached Boston, 20,000 militiamen had surrounded the city.

The significance of Lexington and Concord was that for the first time, colonial militia had fired on British troops. In doing so, the confrontation stage on the road to war appeared to reach its point of no return. This was further reinforced by the convening of the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775. The delegates approved the creation of a continental army under the command of George Washington.

However, the reluctant rebel theme remained a force among the delegates. Led by John Dickinson, the Congress produced one last attempt at reconciliation in the form of the Olive Branch Petition to King George (Figure 5.20). In language reminiscent of the Stamp Act Resolutions, the petition affirmed colonial devotion to the King. This time, though, the Congress didn’t mince any words in asserting three clear demands: the repeal of the Intolerable Acts, a cease-fire at Boston, and negotiations to end the turmoil and restore American rights.

Figure 5.20: John Dickinson typified the reluctant rebel. A staunch supporter of reconciliation, his eleventh-hour Olive Branch Petition sought to avert war with Great Britain. Although Dickinson voted against the Declaration of Independence and refused to sign it, he was one of only two Continental Congress members to serve in the military during the Revolutionary War. [16]

While the Continental Congress was meeting, events outside Philadelphia took on a life of their own. On the day that Congress convened, Ethan Allen and a ragtag band of militia units, acting on their own authority, besieged Fort Ticonderoga in northern New York. Captured cannons were transported to Boston for its defense. By mid-June, all eyes were once again on Boston.

Question 5.33

5.33 - Level 5

John Dickinson had been a leading critic of British policies toward the colonists. Why, then, do you think he pushed for reconciliation and voted against independence?

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Bunker Hill

Colonial units had secured strategic, high ground positions on the outskirts of Boston. Breed’s and Bunker hills were the scenes of the last major military confrontation prior to the declaration of independence. British forces attacked on June 17, 1775 in order to neutralize cannons that threatened British ships in Boston harbor. The ensuing battle resulted in over 1,000 British casualties, half of its attacking force, compared to about 300 on the colonial side, comprising one-third of those engaged. Although the British succeeded in achieving their objective, the Battle of Bunker Hill reinforced colonial solidarity (Figure 5.21). In Britain, the battle served as the death knell of restraint and tolerance.

Figure 5.21: The Battle of Bunker Hill, though ultimately lost, represented the point of no return for the colonists. This painting accurately depicts the difficulty that the British faced in overcoming the colonists’ strategic high ground position.​ [17]​

King George III received the Olive Branch Petition simultaneously with news of the fighting at Bunker Hill. He refused to even accept the petition, and Parliament declared the colonies in a state of rebellion in December 1775. It appeared that the die had been cast for revolution, independence, and war.


1776 is a year that will forever be associated with the American Revolution. And yet when the year began, there still remained a core of allegiance to King George III and Mother England. Given the events reviewed thus far, such sentiments seem out of place, even inexplicable. But those psychological and emotional beliefs were real—the reluctance to rebel—and represented the final challenge in the quest for independence.

Common Sense

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, provided crucial arguments for cutting the apron strings that still held many colonists to Mother England (Figure 5.22). Paine had only arrived in the colonies in late 1774, but he quickly made an indelible mark on American history through his 50-page pamphlet. Written in plain, uncompromising language, Common Sense told Americans what they already believed in their hearts, but were unable to embrace as political truth: that monarchies were inherently undemocratic and by their very existence a threat to liberty. According to Paine, over 100,000 copies were printed in just three months, making it a bestseller.

Figure 5.22: Thomas Paine had failed at numerous occupations, but his pamphlet brought to an end the emotional bond that prevented many colonists from taking the final step toward independence. [18]​

With the psychological bond broken, one task remained: a declaration for independence.

Declaration of Independence

By the summer of 1776, numerous communities and colonies had already adopted resolutions for breaking away from Britain. On July 2, 1776 the Second Continental Congress formally endorsed independence and the creation of the United States of America. The formal task of justifying independence was borne by a committee that included Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Virginia delegate, Thomas Jefferson. It fell to Jefferson to write the initial draft, which he accomplished in a day (Figure 5.23). Subsequent revisions were extensive, but his stirring preamble was left virtually untouched.

Figure 5.23: Thomas Jefferson is forever associated with the Declaration of Independence. His words not only explained the reasons for separation from Great Britain, but also provided broad justification for all future independence movements.​ [19]

The document is divided into two parts. The preamble constitutes the broad rationale for independence with its invocation of natural rights and John Locke-inspired Enlightenment thinking. Jefferson’s eloquence echoes throughout history with such phrases as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” His words are aptly referred to as American scripture.

The second part is a list of specific grievances that ultimately led to the break from Britain. Each grievance begins with “He,” referring to King George III. This phrasing was purposeful and intended to reinforce the colonists’ longstanding position that Parliament never possessed the right to legislate for the colonies. The litany of complaints can be traced directly back to the events and actions on the road to war, everything from “imposing taxes on us without our consent” (Stamp Act) to “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” (Quartering Act). In sum, this section made clear that the colonists were justified in their declaration for independence.

Together, the two parts combine the broad language of human rights, words that transcended time and place forevermore, with the concrete justifications needed for the colonists themselves as much as for their British brethren.

Even in the last hour, Jefferson’s draft expressed regret and sadness that the relationship had come to this state of affairs. He wrote that “we might have been a free and great people together,” but this last expression of reluctance was removed by the committee and not included in the final draft.

The Declaration was dated July 4, 1776, though the 56 signatories were not obtained for another three weeks.


If the Declaration of Independence was the last word for the new citizens of the United States of America, it’s fitting that King George III should have the last word for the British. After receiving the double message of the Olive Branch Petition and the slaughter at Bunker Hill, he declared: “The lines have been drawn. Now blows must decide whether they are to be our subjects, or independent.”

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 5.01

Class Discussion 5.01 - Level 4

How did the colonists view King George III and their collective status as Englishmen? How did Benjamin Rush, for example, symbolize those views and the changes seen in the larger colonial population?

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Class Discussion 5.02

Class Discussion 5.02 - Level 3

What features of colonial governments, traditions, and beliefs are still a part of the American system of government? Identify specific features that have their origins in colonial governments and ideologies.

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Class Discussion 5.03

Class Discussion 5.03 - Level 4

The issue of taxation and representation was the nexus of the division between the colonists and Great Britain. What was each side’s argument? Why were the two sides unable to resolve this issue?

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Class Discussion 5.04

Class Discussion 5.04 - Level 4

To what extent were the events of the confrontation stage as much about the psychology of resistance as they were about actual acts of resistance? That is, how was the “reluctant rebels” theme apparent in the events of the confrontation stage?

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Class Discussion 5.05

Class Discussion 5.05 - Level 5

Considering all the factors on the road to war, was the American Revolution inevitable? What were the critical points on the road to war? What would have been required to avoid war? Was there a point of no return?

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Suggested Additional Material

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

Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996).

Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997).

____________. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (1972).

McCullough, David. 1776 (2005).

Morgan, Edmund and Helen. The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (rev. ed. 1963)

Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (1982).

Walddman, Steven. Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Freedom in America (2008).

Young, Alfred. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999).

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 5.02

Britain had invested more social and political capital in their colonies than either France or Spain, both of whom focused primarily on economic factors rather than developing the culture of their colonies.

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Answer to Question 5.03

It reflects land claims only and does not take into account the nature of colonial development.

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Answer to Question 5.05

Common structures included bicameral legislatures with one elected chamber, a governor, and a local court system. Traditions that were shared included a belief in representative government based upon the concept of trustee representation, the protection of private property rights, and voting qualifications that limited political participation to white, property owning males. A strong belief in liberty was reflected in the distrust of central authority and the parallel belief in elected legislatures as the primary means of expressing political power. It’s important to note that the colonists did not believe in democracy as we understand the term today. The common man was not believed capable of exercising political authority.

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Answer to Question 5.10

Traveling from England to either Africa or the colonies, my cargo would include manufactured goods and iron products, finished commodities that neither region has available. Sailing from the colonies, which region I sailed from would determine the nature of my cargo. From New England, my cargo would included timber, fish, and naval stores; from the Middle Colonies, flour and furs; from the Upper Southern Colonies, tobacco; or, from the Lower Southern Colonies, rice and indigo. From Africa, my primary cargo is slaves, that I would transport to the West Indies. The route between the West Indies and the colonies would include slaves and sugar, or its byproducts, rum and molasses. Each commodity, including West African slaves, reflects what was most profitable to transport from the region I sailed from.

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Answer to Question 5.11

With my cargo of rice, I set sail for the West Indies. There, I pick up slaves and return to the Upper Southern Colonies where I exchange the slaves for tobacco. I then set sail for England with my cargo of tobacco which I exchange for manufactured goods and iron products that I take to West Africa. I complete the circuit by obtaining more slaves and set sail for the West Indies to begin the process over again.

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Answer to Question 5.13

The pie charts depict the diversification of the colonial population. Slavery is growing at a rapid pace, nearly doubling in 50 years. There is also significant population growth from outside the British Isles; namely, a burgeoning German population. The most significant demographic change is in the reduction of the percentage of English and Welsh ethnic groups, the original colonial immigrants. The lesson of these demographic changes is that opportunity will attract new immigrants. It can also be inferred that the commodities based on plantation slavery--tobacco, rice, and indigo--were doing well and required more slave laborers. In conclusion, mid-18th century colonial America’s demographic profile is becoming more diverse and is changing rapidly.

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Answer to Question 5.14

Because she was a common person, and a woman, her story and subsequent fame had the effect of de-institutionalizing and democratizing religion

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Answer to Question 5.16

Colonies became more diverse ethnically and racially.

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Answer to Question 5.20

Pontiac’s Rebellion was sparked by the fear that following Great Britain’s victory over the French the colonists would move into lands occupied by various Indian tribes west of the Appalachians. The British chose a diplomatic solution in order to mollify the Indian tribes, at least temporarily, avert continued bloodshed, and lessen the cost of a military occupation of the newly acquired lands.

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Answer to Question 5.22

The Proclamation Line of 1763 is a measure designed to prevent further bloodshed. Owing to the length and costs of the French and Indian War, we are not in a position to provide adequate military protection for you from potential Native American aggression. We are grateful for your contribution to our victory, but we ask for your patience in addressing this situation.

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Answer to Question 5.23

Molasses smuggling contributed to the growing friction between the colonists and Great Britain when, as part of its efforts to increase revenue to pay for the Seven Years’ War, the British clamped down on the longstanding colonial practice of smuggling molasses from the French West Indies. The British West Indies was unable to provide enough molasses to satisfy New England’s rum industry, so enterprising traders turned to smuggling. When the British sought to enforce the long ignored Molasses Act of 1733, New England colonists rebelled against this change in the status quo.

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Answer to Question 5.24

The idea behind “virtual representation” is that although the colonists did not have direct representation in the British Parliament, they were represented to the extent that members of Parliament took into account the needs and wishes of all subjects across the British empire, including the North American colonists. It was arguably an effective system of representation because Parliament viewed issues through a broader lens than one that would have been narrowly defined by the selfish interests of representatives from the various colonies.

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Answer to Question 5.33

John Dickinson is the personification of the “reluctant rebel.” He believed ardently in the rightness of the colonists’ position on matters of taxation and regulation, but he disagreed with the means by which they could be most effectively addressed. Dickinson’s view was that Parliament and the King could be made to understand the colonists’ issues without resorting to war. He was also mindful of the fact that if war came, it would essentially be a civil war, with British colonists killing British soldiers, and vice versa.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 5.01

Discussion should focus on the colonists’ strong identification as Englishmen who happened to live in America, not as “Americans” as a new people. Rush was typical in his self-identity as an Englishman. But he would change into an anti-British American as the colonists moved toward independence. This discussion can also profitably segue into the concept of “reluctant rebels.”

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Answer to Class Discussion 5.02

Hopefully, students will be able to make connections to two-chamber legislatures, governors, republican (representative) government, the concept of liberty, etc. Democracy should also be discussed and why the colonists/America could be considered undemocratic (from today’s perspective) while at the same time be viewed as highly democratic (the 18th century context). This is a good opportunity to discuss and better understand the concept of trustee representation. The question of how democratic the colonies were also raises the larger issue of presentism when analyzing past events, people, and beliefs.

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Answer to Class Discussion 5.03

Discussion should lay out the arguments for both sides. For the colonists, the “no taxation without representation” argument should be explored beyond the face value of the statement. What did “representation” mean to the colonists? The British counterpoint of virtual representation also requires deeper exploration. What, by contrast, did “representation” mean to the British?

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Answer to Class Discussion 5.04

Students will need to be sensitive to the still strong feelings of allegiance to the King and to England. This is also an opportunity to return to the reluctant rebels theme discussed after the introductory section (and in-class discussion question #1), but this time with more concrete and specific events and actions to support the discussion.

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Answer to Class Discussion 5.05

This is a useful question for helping students understand, and avoid, viewing history as inevitable (since that’s the way it happened). Students will have several options to consider along the road to war and should utilize examples from the three stages (misunderstandings, friction, and confrontation) in their arguments.

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Image Credits

[1] Image by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mémin courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain. 

[6] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[7] Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration ARC# 532914 in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[9] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[11] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[12] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[13] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[14] Image courtesy of the National Archives ARC# 535721 in the Public Domain.

[15] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[16] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[17] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[18] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[19] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.