The Beginning of the American Revolution

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

On September 17, 1787, Benjamin Franklin left the Independence Hall along with his fellows in Philadelphia. He knew the result of months of hard work in the Hall. When he stepped out, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” This answer, however, came at a cost: everything that led to the American Revolution.

The Constitution of the United States and Declaration of Independence on a Betsy Ross Flag background.
The American Revolution started with sophisticated bases: independent administration, religious revival, and education. (Image: Image: Mike Flippo/Shutterstock)

In the 18th century, republics were weak governments that kept failing at different levels. They were never seen as a replacement for the monarchy and its absolute power. In ancient times, the Greek city-state republics had fallen. The Roman republic had become an empire. Italian city-state republics of the Renaissance had also collapsed. There were more recent examples, too.

The commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania was a republic, but it was too democratic to survive. The Dutch Republic, a formerly dynamic and strong mercantile state, was now politically and economically collapsing. The Swiss Confederation was also too small and isolated to be seriously considered. However, when it came to America, the revolutionaries changed the assumptions and created everything that led to the American Revolution.

Learn more about 1787-The American experiment.

The American Challenge to Republic Assumptions

The Americans balanced contending interests and showed the flexibility required for a successful future. They wanted authority based on popular sovereignty, not one absolute power-holder who decides everything. Thus, they needed laws stronger than people in power, but to get these laws, they needed some people powerful enough to create such a system. The powerful yet righteous leader who made it all possible was George Washington, the first president of the U.S.

The Declaration of Independence as seen on the currency of the USA.
Republics were viewed as weak governments doomed to fail, but the American approach changed it worldwide. (Image: JohnKwan/Shutterstock)

A Republic Based on Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty was defined as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The concept rooted back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 – a movement toward sovereign states. Another event with the same goal but an incredibly different outcome was happening around the same time: the French Revolution.

The French and American Revolution ended up as two thoroughly different models of popular sovereignty, despite their similarities. They both originated from a world war, were inspired by Enlightenment ideas, some people were actors in both sets of events, and the printing press played a crucial role in both the movements. Maybe what led to the American Revolution was similar to that of the French Revolution, but the result of the first was the acceptance of American nationality.

The foundation of the revolt was based on how the Englishmen in America were treated differently compared to those in Great Britain. There were three factors leading to the independence of their American identity from the former British colonists.

Learn more about 1789-The French Revolution.

Colonial Self-Government

The first factor in separating the American identity from the British was the formation and spread of colonial self-government practices. The British administration had neglected the American colonies from the beginning. There was no centralized oversight, and the colonies were forced into administrating the states on their own to prevent chaos. Many of these immigrants were inspired by religion.

A soldier with a flag of colonies and saber over dramatic landscape.
People living in the American colonies were disgusted with the benign neglect of the British administration. They wanted to end the chaos at any cost.
(Image: Fotokvadrat/Shutterstock)

The Great Awakening

Religion was the second factor involved, but not the strictly church-dominated religion. Many people had immigrated to the colonies to escape the authorized churches in Britain and Europe. From 1700 to 1750, they faced a spirit of histrionic religious revival, later known as the Great Awakening.

The founding idea of the revival was the individual experience of conversion and piety as a way of life, as opposed to the religious rules set by the church. The political dimension of this spiritual movement was self-administration in spiritual life. John Adams, who played a key role in the American project, once said, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”

This religious revival was the base for the third factor as well.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Education and Literacy

One of the main aspects of the Great Awakening was the emphasis on people’s right to read the Bible for themselves and in their own language. However, people needed to be able to read when they got the sacred scripture in English. Along with education came new concepts, and the American colonists opened their minds to political debate.

There were wars and killing involved in the causes and the process of the American Revolution as well. Nevertheless, how it all started was the influence of some positive changes, namely, independence in administration, religious revival, and literacy.

Common Questions about What Led to the American Revolution

Q: What were the major causes of the American Revolution?

To name a few, these events led to the American Revolution: French and Indian War, taxes, laws, protests in Boston, new acts, and the first continental congress.

Q: How did the American Revolution start and why?

The exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts between the British soldiers and the colonists’ militia in April of 1775 led to the American Revolution. Many events, protests, press propaganda, followed this fight and created the conditions for a revolution.

Q: When was the start of the American Revolution?

The events from from 1775 to 1783 led to the American Revolution. The American Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and the new Constitution was prepared and presented in 1787.

Q: Why is American Revolution important?

The chief importance of the American Revolution lies in its independence from Great Britain. Like any other historical event, a combination of factors and events led to the American Revolution, and the success of the resulting republic inspired many countries to adopt the republican form of government.

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