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America's History in the Making

Revolutionary Perspectives

Unit Overview

Independent Company Organizations

Many developments in the colonies during the decades prior to 1776 contributed to the colonists’ increasing desire to alter relations with Great Britain. The colonies’ population had increased tenfold since 1700; and their economies, particularly in the North, had become more oriented around trade, cities, and even manufacturing.

New ways of thinking accompanied these economic changes. Young men more commonly left home to seek their fortunes away from their fathers’ authority, and young men and women alike more often married whom and when they pleased. More and more churchgoers asserted that people could choose salvation, that God alone did not decide who would be saved and who would be damned. Their liberal counterparts spoke more and more optimistically about people’s capacity to invent a better stove or a better society without God’s direct intervention, and that humans were making all aspects of life better and better. This optimism in people’s capacity to shape the world fuelled a growing belief that citizens—not just kings and queens—could exercise political sovereignty.

The American Revolution constituted a sort of marriage between these material and ideological changes. Economic and social developments fitted the colonies for independence. But declaring and seizing that independence required both a series of provocative political events and an underlying sense of political rights that borrowed from the European Enlightenment. This broad intellectual and cultural movement stressed humans’ capacity to manage their own affairs reasonably and effectively.

The American Revolution, in fact, generated radical political ideas and changes, often in ways that alarmed conservative patriots. Most Native Americans and many slaves sided with the British for practical reasons. But many African Americans, women, and poor whites in the countryside and cities alike seized upon and expanded the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and rights. The hotly contested debates around state constitutions—and the final drafts of those constitutions—illustrated the wide differences of opinion on just how far the revolution in political authority should go.

Historians still disagree on how radical the Revolution was—to what extent it established political and social equality. But there is no doubt that it both broke decisively with Great Britain’s political practices, and prompted hopes and ideals that Americans and others still strive to achieve.

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