The American Revolution

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2015


The Americans winning the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was a big surprise to both the people of the American continents and the governments of Western Europe of the day.

Prior to this surprise, and for many decades following, the kingdoms of Western Europe, such as England, France, Spain and Portugal, had been on a roll. Since the days of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci (early 1500's) these kingdoms had been extending their power and influence south and west, and it had become globe-circling in the second half of the 1500's as the Spanish set up colonies in The Philippines, the Portuguese in India, and the Dutch in the Indonesian archipelago.

It is important to keep in mind that The American Revolution was a bump in this colonizing and imperializing path, not a turning point. The European-dominating would continue and get more intensive for another century and a half up until World War One was fought. (1914-18) As an example, the First Opium War didn't happen until 1839-41. This was when the British fought and defeated the Chinese empire for the first time.

But it was quite a bump, and important lessons were learned by the British in how to handle this empire-managing business.


Agricultural Age-based cultures had been improving in prosperity and technological diversity around the world for centuries. There was overall progress, but it was uneven. The rise and breakup of the Roman Empire being an example of the unevenness.

The key technology that allowed Western Europe's colonial expansion efforts to grow mightily starting in the 1500's was improved sailing ship technology. Since Ancient Greek times humans have been able to do commercial shipping up and down rivers and across the Mediterranean Sea, but the Atlantic is both much bigger and much stormier. To commercially exploit opportunities that involved crossing it required much bigger and stronger ships and ones that could travel for a couple of months without resupply. (When traveling the Mediterranean a couple of weeks is sufficient.)

The "commercial" part is important. It is only when profitable commerce is going to happen that many ships get built, many people get involved, and a large industry grows up around the activity. If you don't have commerce following an exploring effort, you get one-shots, as in, a single brave explorer or scientist backed by some kind of eccentric rich person makes a discovery... and then it is steadily forgotten about. The contemporary example of this is landing on the Moon in 1969. It was enormously exciting at the time, but the feeling surrounding that these days is, "That was neat! That was great! But... so what? What's it doing for me today?"

What made Columbus different from Eric the Red (both discoverers of North America) was the millions of people and dollars that followed up the Columbus discovery. And the key technology that made that Columbus follow-up possible was better sailing ship technology.

The key social discovery was improved cooperation. For these trading opportunities to be exploited, the rank-and-file people of these kingdoms needed to learn how to cooperate more widely. As an example, one of these long-distance trading ships would sail off and be gone for a year or more. The home towns and merchant ports that these sailors departed from needed to learn how to deal with these long departures in ways that didn't discourage the young folk from becoming sailors. One famous example of that learning happening was creating Lloyd's of London in 1688 -- the invention of insuring ships.

Thanks to this combination of improving technology and improving social skills, colonizing North America after 1500 proved steadily more profitable and attractive to many different kinds of people living in western Europe. By 1770 there were about twenty different colonies on the eastern coasts and islands of North America. There were twenty or so for good reason: lots of different groups were going over for lots of different reasons, and those many groups were prospering in many different ways. As examples, the people on the island of Barbados were prospering growing sugar cane and making rum from it. The people of Virginia were growing tobacco and making cigars.

So by the 1770's North America was a prosperous and innovative place, but the people living there did have several bones to pick with the British who claimed ownership.

The Root Problems

The root problems that caused the American Revolution to start were the differences in thinking about what a colonial empire should do for its subjects and vice versa. The root cause for this difference in thinking was the difference in environment between living in Western Europe (England in particular), living in other regions of the world that were getting colonized (such as India), and living in what would become the United States of America.

The British point of view

The West European governments got into this colonizing business because it was profitable. At first it was profitable for the merchants and sailors and then it quickly became profitable for the ports servicing them and governments controlling the ports. And as the numerous technologies being used in these trading activities improved, and the understanding of what these trading, colonizing and imperializing activities were all about improved, the profits grew even bigger. This trading business became a big and booming activity for all the nations of Western Europe.

There was a lot of cooperating being learned, but there were still plenty of situations in which betraying paid off as well. These merchants, ports and governments were all competing, and engaging in some "cheap shots" (my term) to restrict competition seemed quite logical to some of those involved. So there were plenty of moves made to restrict competition alongside those which expanded marketplaces. In the 1600's the Spanish were notorious for their mercantilist policies concerning trading with their cities around the Caribbean Sea. (they were not alone, the others came up with similar restrictions, but they were highest profile)

One result of these policies was a lot of hypocrisy and corruption among those in charge of these cities far distant from the kingdom homeland. Another more famous result was the pirates of the Caribbean (1650's-1720's) who sprung up whenever the Spanish went to war with the other Western European powers. (these are the real ones... the ones that inspired many books, movies and the Disney franchise)

This overseas trading was profitable, but a lot of work, and it was causing big social changes at home. There were a lot of people who were getting wealthy who weren't warriors, priests or landed nobility. (the powerful classes in Agricultural Age societies) These newly wealthy people thought quite differently about how the society should work. Before this trade boom such people were brushed off as a handful of harmless eccentrics. But these nouveau riche, as they came to be called in France, became more numerous and important as the boom continued.

In Britain these social changes mixed with religion, and there was a lot of religious-based unrest. The highest profile unrest went on between Catholics and Church of England/Anglican Protestants. This split started in the 1530's and the heated debate was still going strong in the 1700's. An early example of this was the contest between Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I over who should rule England and Scotland. (late 1500's) In the 1640's religion, politics and money mixed vigorously again to cause the English Civil War which deposed Charles I, tried parliamentary rule for a couple years, and then brought Oliver Cromwell to power as Lord Protector, not king. After he died the monarchy was restored -- the people of England were not ready to give up on kings yet. Contemporary with the unrest leading to the American Revolution was the arguing between Parliament and King George III (1760-1820) over how the United Kingdom should be ruled.

Just prior to the American Revolutionary War, the western European kingdoms had fought the Seven Years War. It was a bloody affair that had England allied with Prussia against at first Austria, France and Russia, and later several other European countries. The British and Prussians won. The Prussians consolidated their claims to Silesia and managed to avoid losing, which was a big surprise at the time. The British won a lot, they picked up a lot of colonial regions from the various losing kingdoms in North America, Africa and the Far East. For example, this was when England pushed the French out of North America and India.

The British were happy with the war result, but the war had been very expensive, and there was still much to argue about domestically. It was paying for the war and these domestic arguments spilling over into the North American colonies that brought this, "How should we be ruled?"-crisis to a boiling point.

The other regions point of view

Note: Keep in mind that there were a whole lot of other regions, so this part is quite generalized.

Some other regions, India being the most important to the British, were experiencing a different relation with Britain. For these other regions the British were bringing in mountains of high technology merchandise, such as textiles, to trade for local goods that were desired in Western Europe, such as silks and spices.

These regions had strong local cultures, but they were based on Agricultural Age technologies, and these locals didn't mind mixing in a lot of local competition and scheming in their governing styles. When the western Europeans showed up with both trade goods and high tech military equipment, it was quite natural for the locals to invite them to join in on these disputes with neighbors.

At first the traders held off -- they were there to trade, and fighting made enemies as well as friends. But as the substantial fruits for participating became clear, and the logic of "If we don't, some other western Europeans will." became stronger, the western Europeans became more and more active in the imperialist game in these far-off regions. They found themselves bringing order to the regions, and that widened markets.

Later in the evolution came the desire of some of the locals to imitate the industrial success of the western Europeans. "Why buy their goods? Why not make them here?" was the thinking behind these people. In general, the western Europeans didn't mind the attempt. They were happy to educate the brightest and best of their colonial lands so they could return home and transplant the success. But, in practice, the results of the transplanting were widely mixed. There were a handful of successes, such as Japan, and many, many failures, such as in the various Ottoman empire regions south of Turkey.

Success or failure, the efforts to industrialize brought with them lots and lots of social discontentment, and that unrest and discontentment would go on for decades -- the Chinese effort at industrializing being an example of that. It went on for over a hundred years and supported at least three civil wars -- in the chaos it got kind of hard to tell when one ended and another began.

The American point of view

Thinking in the American environment was dominated by the wilderness: It was close, it was big, it had a lot of opportunities that could be exploited, and that exploiting was greatly benefited by inventing and then spreading around a lot of new styles of cooperating.

What Americans wanted most from the empire was help in exploiting the opportunities the wilderness was offering. The highest profile example of this was keeping trade routes safe and keeping overseas markets open to American goods. When the empire was doing these things it was doing just fine... just fine. This style of ruling is often called "doing so with a light hand".

The two biggest sore points were when the empire closed markets and when it asked the Americans to participate in wars it was fighting with European enemies, such as when the British were fighting with the French and Spanish. These were wars that started in Europe and spread to North America. In North America these were called the French and Indian Wars(1689-1763) and in North America they would also pick up harsh nicknames such as King William's War and the War of Jenkins' Ear. The Americans were not happy to be spilling blood, money, time and attention over what they saw as European arguments. As mentioned above, the last one was called the Seven Years War (1754-1763) in Europe and it was harsh and bloody there and in North America.

The capper -- the action that started the serious protesting -- was when the British parliament voted to add taxing to the other interfering issues. The Boston Tea Party was a partly theatrical protest against a tax that was being added to tea purchases. This adding taxing came as the Seven Years War ended. The British had won, but it had been expensive and they wanted the colonies to help pay for it.

The War

The protesting transformed into armed insurrection in 1775. Boston became the early hotbed. In July of 1776 the American colonies declared what they were fighting for: the Continental Congress voted for The Declaration of Independence. Prior to that declaration the colonials were fighting for better treatment while still remaining part of the empire -- "Taxation without representation is tyranny."-type thinking.

The first part of the war was exciting. There was much maneuvering and marching and battles fought up and down the east coast from Boston to Savannah. And as the conflict progressed Britain picked up a lot more enemies. Ironically, this was a war that spread from North America to Europe when the French entered the war in 1778 and the Spanish in 1779. And the fighting then spread around the world to places such as India. As this happened the importance of the outcome in North America diminished for the British: winning in Europe and India became higher priority.

After the colonials' victory at siege of Yorktown in 1781 the fighting in North America wound down. It took a while for tempers also to cool, but in 1783 a treaty was signed. And Britain recognized the former thirteen colonies as now being the United States of America.

The Aftermath

This conflict is called a revolution for good reason. Lots of thinking around the world was changed by its outcome. Here are some of the reasons.

o The colonials cast out the imperialists. This was a first in the last two hundred years.

o The Americans chose to experiment with becoming a republic and democracy rather than installing a king. This wasn't the first democracy, the Swiss had one installed, but it was a first for a large country and a former colony.

As mentioned at the beginning. This outcome was a surprise, and the rest of the world took notice -- especially those people who were industrializing, such as those nouveau riche French mentioned earlier. This outcome was a big inspiration for these other people to think about doing things differently.

Changes in British thinking

The British did a lot of soul-searching too. They came to recognize that this imperialism/colonialism adventure they were on -- white-hot as it was at the time -- would not last forever, and, that if they put their thinking caps on, they could prepare for a better aftermath.

Their colonial policy shifted to preparing the colonies for independence, and the result was a good one: the post World War Two British Commonwealth. From the point of view of achieving a smooth transition into independence and retaining goodwill, the British post-imperial governing structures worked out much better than those set up by the French, Spanish or Dutch.


The Americans winning the American Revolutionary War was the big world-wide surprise of its day. It was a big change all by itself, and it inspired people all over the world to change their thinking about their relation with their empire of the day.

The "shot heard round the world" is an apt description of it.


--The End--