Introduction: Competing Ideas

The American Revolution was the final colonial war fought during the 18th Century. But, unlike the previous wars, the revolution was not a struggle for control over the fur trade. Instead, the American Revolution was a war between rival world views.

The chart below describes the two competing world views—British (aristocratic) and American (democratic):

Great Britain
(Old School)

Thirteen Colonies
(New School)

The British believed tradition (status-quo) promoted a sense of continuity.

Americans generally believed progress could only be achieved through change.

Members of upper class have privileges not enjoyed by all, I.e. Rich ugly noble dudes do pretty much what they want when they want.

Equality for all, I.e. All people treated equally regardless of birth or inherent ugliness.

Authority exists in the king and the aristocracy (because "that's how we've always done it in the past").

Authority exists in the people (because "there are more attractive poor people than there are ugly rich people").

The government is not accountable to the common people (king cannot be removed from office for doing a bad job or being corrupt...well, I guess you can chop his head off).

Politicians are elected and directly accountable to the common people; that is, if a politician seeks re-election he/she must do a good job.

Institutions like government, etc. are established the way they are by God; therefore, you should not change or challenge them.

Institutions like government, etc. are established by and for men; therefore, change should be seen as a path to improvement.

Mayonnaise is placed on the sandwiches of everyone because it is an absolute good.

The responsibility of placing mayonnaise on sandwiches, etc. is left to the individual.

An Analogy
Read to Me

If you're still not quite sure what the Americans and British were disagreeing about, here's an analogy (a comparison) that should be of some help.

Okay. A mother (let's call her England) wants to prevent her son (Thirteen Colonies) from going out with a girl who wears a dog collar, dresses all in black, and listens to Nine Inch Nails.

Anyways, mom is still living in the past and hasn't realized (yet) that her son has grown up and has changed. Basically, the son still loves mom but he wants her to quit smothering him.

Too stubborn to give up her authority, mom throws a fit and yells, "You can't go out. Go to your room until you're 30!"

The son responds, "Psssha. Look mom, I love you but—whateverrr."

Then he goes out with his new girlfriend to mosh at the Nine Inch Nail's concert.

Then mom sits at home worrying about whether or not he's getting tattoos, body piercings—okay, okay we've learned enough from the analogy.

In the end, the American Revolution was a conflict between two opposing philosophies (world-views)—a conflict between conservatives who preferred to keep things the same and liberals who preferred to change with the times. The American Revolution was really a product of the Enlightenment (also known as the "Age of Reason"). Two of my favorite quotes from this period come from Voltaire, an irreverent and extraordinary French writer, i.e. "I hate your opinions but I would die for you to have the right to express them" and "I prefer the uncertainty of a social experiment to the certainty of tradition."

A Comparison of Britain & the Thirteen Colonies

Between 1760 to 1774 AD, two related developments took place disrupting the relationship between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies:

  1. America no longer needed the protection of England against the French
  2. Britain failed to appreciate the unique needs of the Thirteen Colonies

For decades Americans had discussed the idea of independence; however, it had always been just that—talk. The French and Indian threat before 1760 made a close relationship with England necessary. But with the English victory in the French-Indian War and the removal of this threat, the Thirteen Colonies felt secure enough (militarily) to trying going it alone. Economically speaking, the Colonies were still heavily dependent upon Britain for their well-being.

Therefore, the Thirteen Colonies became determined to ask their king for more rights. In other words, America asked King George III for greater autonomy. The British, however, did not fully understand the American request.

The British were essentially an urban society steeped in kingly traditions. They had centuries old universities, their oldest city was nearly a thousand years old. Theirs' was a world where the greatest scientific, political, and economic minds met. In short, they thought very highly of themselves (so much so their foreign policy objective was "to make the world England").

Certainly there were large cities in the Thirteen Colonies, I.e. Philadelphia, Boston, New York, etc. Yet, the Americans basically possessed a frontier mentality. They were extremely practical people who appreciated action more than words. They were a people who had hacked out an existence out of the wilderness.

The British believed everything should be sacrificed for "King and country!" The Americans were far more individualistic. They were a people that prided themselves on self-reliance and greatly valued personal freedom. The English and the Americans could not have been more different. In reality, the English viewed the American desire for more power as a form of disloyalty.

Although England was a democratic state, it was not really democratic as you and I understand the word. The English had a firmly entrenched class system. In this system, the rich enjoyed privileges not enjoyed by all; and not everyone could vote in elections. At best, you could call England a benevolent oligarchy: the elite (rich) made decisions that they felt would benefit all of society (but all of society was never consulted in the decision-making process).

In comparison, the Americans were far more democratic than the English. They believed (at least in principle) that every man was born free and equal. Therefore, every man had the right to participate in elections, own property, live where he wanted, run for political office, etc. However, the Thirteen Colonies were by no means perfect: they still practiced slavery; women could not vote or own property; and only white men could vote in elections.

To the English the word "democracy" was synonymous with the word "mobocracy." The English elite did not feel that poor people were educated, informed, or smart enough, to take part in elections. The elite hated everything about sharing power with the masses of poor people.

What the Thirteen Colonies needed more than anything was political reform. The British refused to reform anything. If anything, the British increased their own personal control over the affairs of America. This increase of control eventually led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (1776-1783 AD).

"No Taxation without Representation!"

In the early 1760s, most Americans did not want independence. In reality, they simply wanted a little more control over their own local affairs. But the English had other things in mind. The Colonial Wars against France were expensive. England had to cover the cost of fighting these wars somehow. Consequently, the English Parliament passed several laws to tax their loyal American subjects and pay for the Colonial Wars.

To the Englishman the paying of taxes was a way of showing loyalty to the king. To the American the paying of taxes was symptomatic of a loss of power. Since the French threat no longer existed, the Americans agreed to pay taxes but with a condition: if we pay taxes then we expect to have some say as to how this money is spent.

The rallying cry of many an American in the 1760s was "no taxation without representation!" The Americans insisted that if they paid taxes then they should have representation within the English Parliament. The English regarded the American request for representation as ridiculous and ignored it.

The Road to War

By 1774, America was on the verge of war with England. The revolution was really a civil war more than anything, e.g. Neighbor turned against neighbor, friend against friend, brother against brother. Families were literally torn apart as fathers loyal to King George III saw their sons go off to join the American Continental Army. There was no room to be neutral. If you were undecided, you were considered an enemy by both sides.

Eventually angry talk turned into angry action. As tempers flared in the Thirteen Colonies the rule of law broke down. In the ensuing chaos, armed mobs scoured the countryside in search of Loyalists (people loyal to Britain) to beat and lynch. If you were lucky, the mob only burned your home down, imprisoned you and/or sent your family into exile (or worse, forced you to live in New Jersey).

At times I have been accused of thinking too much but here's a quick question for you: how does a person become a member of a murderous mob exactly? Is it a case of being bored one night, looking out the window and saying, "The mob is out tonight. It's been a while since I lit my torch and beat someone up."

I do not understand the group/herd mentality; however, I will say this: in my opinion it appears individuals lose about 40 to 50 IQ points upon entering any sort of group. I wonder: what does that say about a classroom? ;) By the way I am just kidding. This is not a real statistic. I made it up to conform to my opinion about groups in general. I've included this disclaimer because apparently not everyone can see the difference between a joke and a fact.

Perhaps something can be learned from this: DO NOT UNQUESTIONINGLY BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU READ.

The revolution involved more than just the unlucky Thirteen Colonies. The conflict was global because it involved France, Quebec, and naval battles took place all over the North Atlantic.

Quebec was attacked because of its strategic importance to the Americans. Some American strategists believed that whomsoever controlled Quebec at the end of the war would probably win the war itself. The question in 1775, though, was whether or not the Canadiens would be an ally of, or enemy to, the American cause.1

Causes of the American Revolution

We've identified two of the primary causes of the revolution so far. They're easy to remember because they are opposites of one another. You just need to remember one to remember the other.

America wanted more decision-making power (autonomy)

Britain refused to grant America more decision-making power ( hegemony)

In addition to the philosophical causes of the revolution mentioned above, there were two or three events that influenced the American decision to ultimately rebel against Great Britain. For instance:

Taxes called the "Intolerable Acts" were passed by England. Americans found these taxes to be burdensome and humiliating.

British troops fired on American protestors in Boston, Massachusetts, I.e. The Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party.


The Intolerable Acts

The first tax imposed on the Thirteen Colonies was the infamous Sugar Act of 1764. To appreciate how disliked this tax was you need only imagine getting in between the Notorious B. I. G. and his Slurpee machine. It wouldn't be easy or pretty.

This act also taxed other items like coffee, alcohol, and clothing; it was after the Sugar Act that Americans started to chant the slogan "no taxation without representation!"

Quite pleased with themselves, the British passed a second act in 1765 called the Stamp Act. This piece of legislation placed a tax on newspapers, pamphlets, bills, legal documents, licenses, dice and playing cards.

And later that same year, London passed the Quartering Act (1765). According to the terms of this act, Americans were required to shelter and feed English soldiers at their own expense. This act enabled England to have a permanent military presence in the major cities of the colonies and pass on the cost of maintaining that force to the colonists themselves. For some reason Americans felt this act violated their right to privacy. Go figure.

The Boston Massacre

As a result of the Quartering Act, there was a permanent presence of English troops in all of the most important American cities. In Boston, politicians quickly organized protests against the English presence.

During one of these anti-English protests in 1770, an American mob taunted an English soldier standing guard at Boston's customs house. British soldiers came to the aid of the guard, a fist fight broke out, and shots were fired. Four of the protestors were killed immediately and a fifth died a few days later.

This event became known to Americans as the "Boston Massacre." The massacre helped convince many Americans that England had to be opposed.

Following the massacre, the English soldiers responsible for firing on the mob were arrested and tried in American courts. All of the soldiers were eventually found to be not-guilty. The reason for this was an American from the mob (not an English officer) had actually yelled the word, "Fire!" The solders were frightened and on edge from the crowd and therefore obeyed the "order."

Following the massacre, the English soldiers responsible for firing on the mob were arrested and tried in an American court. Interestingly, all of the soldiers were eventually found to be not-guilty. This verdict was returned because it was discovered that an English officer had not in fact given the order to fire on the crowd. Instead, an American within the mob had made his way behind the English and yelled the word, "Fire!" The soldiers, spooked and frightened, obeyed the command and fired their weapons. The American responsible for the massacre was deliberately trying to create an "incident" so as to influence his countrymen into revolution.


The Boston Tea Party

In 1773, the British passed the Tea Act. This angered American businessmen because it gave English tea companies unfair advantages over American tea manufacturers:

Firstly, the East India Tea Company of England did not have to pay taxes on profits earned but Americans companies did.

Secondly, English companies had unrestricted access to any market within the British Empire. Americans, however, were not allowed to sell their products anywhere except within their home colony (they could not even trade with other members of the Thirteen Colonies). This obviously unfair situation contributed to the growing political instability of the colonies.

The Americans attempted to improve their situation by pressuring the governor of Massachusetts to prevent England from importing tea to the colony. The governor ignored the American demands and the East India Tea Company unloaded their tea at Boston Harbor.

On December 16, 1773, the Americans organized a creative protest: 150 Americans dressed up as Mohawk warriors boarded the ships of the East India Company dumping company's tea into the waters of Boston Harbor. By the time they finished, 342 boxes of tea had been thrown overboard.

The Quebec Act

As badly as the Sugar and Quartering acts were received, the greatest insult to America's honor came in the form of the Quebec Act (1774).

The most odious provision of the Quebec Act was its legal guarantee of the rights, culture, religion, and traditions of the Canadiens. There was something inherently wrong about granting French Catholics equality with English Protestants. The Thirteen Colonies were so offended by this equality of religion provision, etc. that they wrote a letter to King George III complaining about the French Catholic Satan worshipers (an act Canadiens took note of and that came back and bit the Americans in the you-know-where when they later appealed to the French for assistance against Britain).

The equality provision granting the French religious freedom was extraordinarily radical. Even Catholics within Britain itself had none of the legal guarantees the French of Quebec possessed.2 Extraordinary times, though, required extraordinary measures: Westminster wanted to gain the active support of Canadiens (or at worst their neutrality) in the approaching conflict with the Thirteen Colonies. And this they accomplished.

Adding insult to injury, the Quebec Act also expanded the boundaries of Quebec to include most of the Ohio Valley. This region had long been coveted by the Americans. The Virginians, in particular, expected to eventually settle there once the French were removed. The French were gone. Yet, Virginians were prevented from moving into the area.3

The Quebec Act also confirmed the sole right of the Native Americans to live in the disputed territory indicated by light green on the map above. Land-hungry Americans were again hemmed in on all sides. Tension between the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain increased.

Click here to view and print the "Quebec Act Companion."


The Continental Congress

In response to the Intolerable Acts, each of the Thirteen Colonies sent representatives to Philadelphia to participate in the First Continental Congress of 1774.

The First Congress was not established to pursue outright independence from Britain. On the contrary, the purpose of the gathering was to bring some much needed focus to an otherwise disorganized movement. Congress addressed some of the problems associated with intercolonial rivalries, i.e. Connecticut versus New York, etc. and provided the Americans with an opportunity to agree upon and pursue a collective course of action.

The majority of colonial representatives believed (justifiably) that Westminster, and not the king, was to blame for Britain's anti-American policies. Thus, Congress wrote a letter directly appealing to the king to pass much needed political and economic reforms. The letter fell on deaf ears. George III, pressured by Westminster and his own sense of honor, refused to pursue any of the proposed reforms. In fact, the letter of appeal encouraged the British to send more troops to the colonies.

In April of 1775, the first clash between Colonial and regular British troops took place at Lexington (not too far from Boston). The Second Congress met a month later and its mood was much more pessimistic than the First. British aggression seemed to prove once and for all that a diplomatic (peaceful) solution with Britain could not be found. A decision, therefore, was made to establish an American Continental Army under the command of General George Washington.

Washington was not chosen to lead necessarily because of his ability as a military strategist (though he had plenty of experience with war). Instead, he was chosen because of his reputation. Washington was respected throughout the colonies north and south by both poor and rich alike. Congress believed he could unify the otherwise motley crew of disaffected colonies into an effective fighting force.

The Second Congress officially declared America's independence in 1776. Although the war technically started with the clash at Lexington and the American siege of British troops at Boston, etc. the publishing of the Declaration of Independence is considered by most historians as the official start of the revolutionary war.5

Click here to view and print the American Declaration of Independence.

Open Letter to Quebec

During the time of the First Continental Congress (1774), both American politicians and newspapers alike complained bitterly about the Quebec Act. In 1775, however, the official American position with respect to Canada had changed: a friendly Quebec was recognized as strategically important to the success of their cause.

America's Congress, confident that the Canadiens wanted the British out of North America as bad as they did, sent the French a letter entitled an Appeal to the Inhabitants of Quebec. In this appeal, America urged Canada to make common cause with them against the "English tyrant."

The letter insisted that the French were deluded if they thought they were free. The Quebec Act, it was implied, was an empty and opportunistic gesture, a promise that would be broken once circumstances changed and favored Britain. The Americans, on the other hand, could guarantee that the rights and liberties of the French would be preserved in a union of all the North American colonies—from "Georgia to Nova Scotia."

If the French chose to support the wrong side (Britain) in the conflict, the Americans threatened Quebec would be destroyed. The author of the letter, Henry Middleton, warned the French that you "are a small people, compared to those who with open arms invite you into fellowship. A moment's reflection should convince you which will be most for your interest and happiness, to have all the rest of North-America your unalterable friends, or your inveterate enemies."

Click here to view and print an Appeal to the Inhabitants of Quebec.

Many French Canadiens empathized with the Thirteen Colonies situation; however, the previous letter sent to George III equating Catholicism as a form of Satanism convinced the French that the Americans were two-faced, i.e. Middleton aruged that Catholics and Protestants co-existed peacefully in Switzerland. Perhaps this peaceful co-existence could be established in North America? Or maybe pigs would someday fly? The Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup? The Americans were selling but the French were not buying.

If you want the French to ally with you in a war, I'd say insulting their religion by calling it "Satanic" is at best counter-productive. (More recent events, i.e. FIFA World Cup 2006 Championship, seems to bear this out; that is, it isn't too smart to say anything negative about a French guy's religion or his mother and/or sister.)

The main problem with the American proposal was that they offered the French nothing new to consider. The French already enjoyed freedom under the Quebec Act. Arguably, an alliance with America may have eventually led to a limited form of self-rule for Quebec (the key word here is limited though). The Canadiens viewed the Americans rightly with suspicion. They did not place too much stock in their promises of tolerance and religious freedom.

France was an important ally of the United States during the Revolutionary War. Perhaps France would have used its position to influence America to make good on her promises of religious freedom for the Canadiens?

For the Americans had always been anti-French (and the French knew it). If the Americans believed the French were anxious to be free, they were right. But if the Americans felt that the Canadiens were anxious to become an uncertain minority within an American empire, the Americans were sorely mistaken.6

The British must have been happy that the Canadiens did not side with the Americans; however, it is worth noting that the French offered no significant military assistance to the English either. The British governor (Carleton) had naively believed that the French would actively support the British because of the freedoms they received under the provisions of the Quebec Act. The reality was that the majority of French were more concerned with their own daily lives to bother supporting either the Americans or British.7


Mixed Reaction in Quebec

Even before America declared her independence, plans had been made and preparations undertaken for the invasion of Quebec. British authorities in Quebec ordered the French militia to assemble and defend the homeland. Surprisingly very few Canadiens actually responded to the order. The situation became so desperate that Carleton was forced to declare martial law. One British commander actually threatened to blow up Montreal himself if no one volunteered for the militia. The seigneurs (French landowners) tried to convince their tenant farmers to take up arms against the invading Americans. But it was no use. The farmers treated the landowners like Frankenstein and turned them away with pitch forks (not even kidding).8

The greatest ally of the British at this time was the Catholic Church. Both governors Carleton and Murray had worked to support the ancient privileges enjoyed by the Church in Quebec. In response, the Church did what it could to convince Catholics not to side with the Americans. The bishop of Quebec actually threatened Canadiens with damnation if they supported the Americans.

American politicians labelled the French "Satan worshippers" and the Catholic Church threatened the people with "Satan" if they supported the Thirteen Colonies. Talk about a no-win situation.

Instead of frightening the French into obedience, all the Church accomplished was undermining its own authority. The bishop of Quebec lost his credibility by siding so obviously with Governor Carleton. The best the British could hope for from the Canadiens was a militant neutrality.9