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WORLD HISTORY | MODULE 2.2 | (II) AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CONSTITUTION)

 

 

 

 

WORLD HISTORY

MODULE 2.2

 (II) AMERICAN REVOLUTION AND THE CONSTITUTION)

The American Revolution stands as one of the significant landmarks in the history of the modern world as it served as laboratories for new political ideas and institutions. The main significance of this revolution lies in the fact that it was the world’s first anti-colonial struggle which set the pattern for the future liberation of the states of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The American Revolution (1775-83) is also known as the American Revolutionary War and the U.S. War of Independence. The conflict arose from growing tensions between residents of Great Britain’s 13 North American colonies and the colonial government, which represented the British crown.

The first English settlement in America was Jamestown in 1607. Gradually the American colonies grew in size and a number of settlements were established. Thirteen colonies eventually became the United States. They were under the control of the British crown and the parliament, though in internal matters they enjoyed considerable autonomy. I.e. the colonial legislature was headed by a Governor who was in charge of colonial affairs. Though the American colonists enjoyed considerable political autonomy, in economic matters they were subject to various British mercantilist restrictions. Until 1763 however, the British mercantile control over the American colonies was rather loose and the American never thought of them as subservient.

CAUSES OF THE CONFLICT

MERCANTILISM

Throughout the last 50 years of the 17th and the first 50 years of the 18th centuries, English policies in the American colonies had been based on certain economic assumptions which led to an economic conflict. This conflict rested upon a general economic theory known as mercantilism. Mercantile policy was essentially concerned with the welfare of the mother country. The colonies were supposed to produce commodities not obtainable at home, chiefly raw materials and to use manufactured goods produced in the mother country. Colonies were to offer opportunities for the development of a large merchant marine, wealth to importers and exporters and opportunities for the investment of capital.

The first major mercantile legislation was the Navigation Act, 1651 which sought to curb colonial shipping. Apart from shipping, the British mercantilist restrictions operated in import trade, export trade, manufacture, customs, currency and land or westward expansion. Until 1763, the British mercantilist network was not very rigidly applied and American capitalism grew within the framework of mercantilist control. Americans were able to develop a parallel economy which took advantage of the weakness of British controls. But after 1763, the British decided to end the policy of ‘salutary neglect’. Salutary neglect is an American history term that refers to an unofficial and long-term 17th & 18th-century British policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws meant to keep American colonies obedient to England. Louis Hacker an economic historian has argued that the American Revolution was an economic contest between American capitalism and British mercantilism. To Hacker, the American Revolution was more an economic conflict than a political one. It was an economic revolt against mercantilism.

IDEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Bernard Bailyn argues that the American Revolution was above all an ideological, constitutional and political struggle. Assertion of political doctrines and the philosophies of John Locke and Montesquieu, by the American political theorists (like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Wilson etc.)  which justified resistance to the mother country by the colonies blew air to the American resentment against the English rule. The enlightenment was crucial in determining almost every aspect of colonial America, most notably in terms of politics, government, and religion without the central ideas and figures of the enlightenment, the United States would have been drastically different since these concepts shaped the country in its formative years. Both during and after the American Revolution many of the core ideas of the enlightenment were the basis for monumental tracts such as the declaration of independence and the constitution concepts such as freedom from oppression, natural rights, and new ways of thinking about governmental structure came straight from enlightenment philosophers.

THE SEVEN YEAR WAR (1756-1763)

The Seven Years War between France and England (1756-63) was not confided to Europe. It was fought in different parts of the world and more than that its impact created major shifts in the course of the world history. Even though the British became the mistress of a new colonial empire in two continents, in long run, it paved to crisis. As a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Britain acquired Canada. The removal of the French threat was significant for the Americans as it cleared the major obstacle on their westward expansion.  With the conclusion of the Seven Years War Britain accumulated a heavy debt and the British authorities felt that the colonies must bear a part of the cost of imperial defence. The Americans, at this time were not necessarily looking for complete independence but for an independent relationship between the colonies and the mother country.

PROCLAMATION OF 1763

As a truce with the American Indians, who had started an armed rebellion at the end of the Seven year War, the British Parliament issued a “Proclamation of 1763” which banned the expansion by the US settlers to the west of Appalachian Mountains, as this area was now reserved for the native American Indians.

Another reason for issue of such a proclamation was the lobbying by the Aristocrats in Britain, who did not want the westward expansion. They had bought land in the American colonies and made profits from the rents they extracted from the white settlers.

The American settlers, who had fought in the Seven year War along the British with the purpose of westward expansion, felt cheated and thus ignored this proclamation. Their local militia forces continued to bring the area in the west under their control.

THE SERIES OF ACTS

The Grenville measures, named after the British Prime Minister who came to office in 1763 consisted of various policies to pay off the national debt, Grenville introduced a spate of legislation for the American colonies. The Proclamation of 1763, the Revenue or Sugar Act of 1764, the Currency Act of 1764, the Mutiny Act of 1765, and the Billeting Act of 1765 are few acts introduced to tax American people.

THE STAMP ACT

The most momentous of the revenue measures however, was the Stamp Act which was passed by the Parliament in March 1765. It provided that revenue stamps to be affixed to all newspapers, licences, leases or other legal documents. The colonists reacted sharply to this Act; trade with mother country fell in the summer of 1765.

 

‘NO TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION’.

 

Prominent men organized themselves into a group called the Sons of Liberty. The political scene flared into rebellion. This resulted in the Stamp Act Congress, first congress of the American colonies, consisting of delegates from 9 of the 13 colonies met in New York City in October 1765. The opportunity to mobilize colonial opinion against parliamentary interference in American affairs was seized by 27 men from 9 colonies. From the point of view of the Americans, it was impossible to consider themselves represented in Parliament unless they had elected members in the House of Commons. Thus, the Americans raised the slogan ‘No taxation without representation’.

Due to the huge protest the Parliament repealed the Act in 1766, but at the same time passed the Declaratory Act to affirm its power to legislate for the colonies. The colonists celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act and their first political victory, but passing of Declaratory Act was the beginning of more trouble. The Stamp Act crisis set the pattern of contest for the next ten years between the British and the American colonies.  Tensions escalated and on 5 March, 1770 the British troops opened fire on a crowd killing five colonists came to be known as the Boston Massacre.  The incident portrayed the British tyranny and added a spark to an already volatile situation.

Moreover in1773, the British Parliament passed a new law relating to the sale of tea by the East India Company. The measures permitted direct importation of tea into the American colonies. Although the law actually lowered the price of tea, it retained the tax without the consent of the colonials.

 

American colonists rallied behind the popular cry “No taxation without representation” to protest the taxes and other legislation forced upon them by a Parliament that contained no American representatives. Colonial Americans valued their own representative legislatures and believed it unfair that they had to subject themselves to a legislative body thousands of miles away. British Prime Minister George Grenville, however, justified the lack of American representatives in Parliament by citing the theory of “virtual representation,” which stipulated that Parliamentarians, no matter where originally elected, acted in the interests of all British subjects in the world.

 

Despite the American colonists’ desire for representation, though, “No taxation without representation” was more a symbolic protest than anything else. In reality, colonial American representatives in Parliament would have been too few in number and would have had too little political power to make much difference. Instead, the colonists’ rallying cry was based on principle, a simple articulation that they wanted more freedom and power to govern their own colonial legislatures, and less interference from Parliament.

 

BOSTON TEA PARTY OF 1773

Boston Tea Party of 1773 was a protest against this Tea tax. A ship carrying tea was anchored in the Boston port. Initially Americans did not allow the ship to unload & this resulted in a standoff for many days. Finally, when the pro-Britain Boston Governor ordered unloading, white settlers dressed as American Indians destroyed all the tea by offloading all the containers into the sea on the night of 16 December 1773. This event is known in history as the ‘Boston Tea Party’.The infuriated British responded by closing the Boston Port to all trade and by passing the Intolerable Acts of 1774.

 

PROGRESS OF THE REVOLUTION

THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS

The British cabinet of Lord North was determined to assert the authority of the British Parliament over the resisting colonies. During 1774, the British Parliament passed a series of laws, known as the Intolerable Acts. These Coercive Acts made reconciliation between Britain and the colonies impossible and further intensified the agitation. During these years, Committees of Correspondences, composed of citizens critical of Britain, had been established all over the colonies. In 1774, these Committees organized the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. This body hoped to persuade the British Government to restore self-government in the colonies and abandon its attempt at direct supervision of colonial affairs.

A few months later, the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War happened at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, known as the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Following these events, in May 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. It led the assembly to begin to conduct the government of the colonies. It chose George Washington as the commander-in-chief of the American forces and drew up a petition to the King which became known as the Olive Branch. The Olive Branch Petition, drafted by John Dickinson on July 5, 1775, was a letter to King George III, from members of the Second Continental Congress. It was an attempt to assert the rights of the colonists while maintaining their loyalty to the British crown. King George refused to read the petition and on August 23 proclaimed that the colonists had “proceeded to open and avowed rebellion.”

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

The fighting continued and in the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, the British troops dislodged the colonists but suffered heavy losses. Britain’s decision to continue the War led Continental Congress to adopt the Declaration of Independence on 4th of July 1776. The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and it remains one of the world’s greatest documents on freedom and human rights ever produced. It brought out the reasons why the thirteen American colonies had decided to separate from England, stated a common goal, and helped to politicize the stand taken by the Americans. It marked the formal beginning of the American War of Independence and a revolutionary war that was to last more than six years with fighting in every colony.

However, the Americans suffered several defeats until France entered the field in 1778. Having concluded a treaty of Alliance with the new government in 1778, France declared war against England and in 1779 Spain entered the fray as an ally of France. Finally, with the defeat of Lord Cornwallis at York Town in 1781 the revolutionary war was over and with the Treaty of Paris (1783) Britain recognized American Independence.

CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION AND NEW CONSTITUTION

In 1787, a Constitutional Convention was called under the chairmanship of George Washington in Philadelphia. The Convention proposed a constitution to provide for a federal system of government whereby political authority was decided between a central government and the states. Following this the American colonies united themselves as the United States of America.

Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and his followers campaigned for the addition of a Bill of Rights to the federal constitution.This was done through ten amendments which guaranteed many rights to the American people. The most noted of these are freedom of speech, press and religion, and justice under law.

The constitution marked the emergence of the United States of America as a nation in world history. It was the first written republican constitution ever framed in history, which is still in operation.

 

FEATURES OF AMERICAN CONSTITUTION

 

  • A Written constitution,
  • Separation of powers,
  • Checks and Balances,
  • Presidential form of Government,
  • Federal system of government,
  • Bill of Rights,
  • Dual Citizenship,
  • Supremacy of the Constitution,
  • Judicial Review,
  • A Secular State,
  • A Democratic government,
  • A Bicameral Legislature, etc

 

AMERICAN CONSTITUTION IS WRITTEN

Like other federal constitutions in the world, the American constitution is written in form.

 

FEDERAL CHARACTER

The American constitution is federal in character. America was originally a federation of 13 States but due to admission of new states, it is now a federation of 50 States. A constitutional division of powers has been made between the centre and the federating units. The constitution enumerates the powers of the centre and leaves the residuary powers to be exercised by the federating states. The constitution thus creates a weak Centre and because residuary powers have been given to the units. However, in practice, federals centre in American has become very powerful due to the application of the doctrine of “Implied Powers” as propounded by the Supreme Court of the U.S.A.

 

PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM

The constitution provides for the presidential type of government in the U.S.A. All powers are vested in the President. He is elected for a fixed period or 4 years and cannot be removed before the expiry or his tenure. Though the constitution provides indirect election of the President but in practice his election has become direct. The President is not politically responsible to the Congress. He has nothing to do with the Congress. The members of his Cabinet are neither members of the Congress nor answerable to it.

 

SUPREMACY OF THE CONSTITUTION

Supremacy of the constitution means the supreme law of the land. Neither the centre nor the states can override it.  A law or an executive order repugnant to the constitution can be declared unconstitutional and invalid by; the Supreme Courts.

 

SEPARATION OF POWERS

The U.S constitution is based on the doctrine or “Separation or Powers. Although the three wings of administration, viz the executive the legislative and the judiciary-are inter-dependent ‘and cannot be separate entirely in the interests of good government yet an attempt has been made in the American constitution to separate them as much as possible. The Congress is the legislative organ. The President is the executive who is elected directly by the people and has nothing to do with the Congress. He enjoys a fixed tenure of 4 years and is not a member of the Congress and cannot be removed by the vote of no confidence before the expiry of his term of office. He does not participate in debates, nor can he dissolve the Congress. Both are independent of each other. The Supreme Court heads the Federal judiciary and enjoys freedom in its work.

 

SYSTEM OF CHECKS AND BALANCES

Recognizing the importance of close cooperation among three organs of the government, the Fathers of the constitution introduced –Checks and Balances“. The powers of one organ were so devised as to exercise a check upon the powers of others. As for example, the President can veto the Bills passed by the legislature. The Senate shares with the President his powers of making appointments` to the various federal offices and conclusion of treaties and agreements with foreign states.

All such appointments and treaties must be ratified by 2/3rd majority in the Senate. Through this Power, the Senate controls the internal administration and external policy of the President. The organization of the federal judiciary is determined by the Congress and the judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. The Supreme Courts can declare the laws ‘passed by the Congress and executive, action taken by the President ultra-wires if the same are in clash with any provision(s) of the constitution.

 

JUDICIAL REVIEW

The constitution provides for the Judicial Review, of the legislative enactment. The federal judiciary can declare any legislation or executive action null and void if the same is found to be inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution. The Judiciary thus acts as the guardian and custodian of the constitution and fundamental rights of the citizens. The Supreme Court has so interpreted the constitution that it has adapted it to the changing needs of society. It has enlarged the power of the Congress.

 

REPUBLICANISM AND U.S CONSTITUTION

The U.S.A. is a republic with the President as the elected head of the State. The constitution derives its authority from the people. Moreover, the constitution makes it binding upon every constituent state to have the republican form of government.

 

DUAL CITIZENSHIP

The U.S. constitution provides for dual citizenship for the people of the United States. An American is the citizen of the U.S.A. and also of the state wherein he or she is domiciled. It is in contrast with the idea of single citizenship as incorporated in the constitution of Pakistan where every citizen irrespective of domicile is the citizen of Pakistan alone.

 

SPOIL SYSTEM

This is an interesting feature of the American political system. The system is associated with the name of President, Andrew Jackson. According to this system, when a new President takes over the charge of administration, appoints afresh all-important officials of federal government. The entire administration of the previous President is streamlined. The system is known as “Spoil System- because important jobs are, distributed among, the henchmen of the President or his Party without taking into accountability; .experiences or talent of the men appointed.

 

Some other features of American constitution are:

  • Conventions,
  • The Bill of rights,
  • Division of Powers etc.

AMERICAN SUCCESS

The fierce spirit of liberty drove the Americans to success. From the beginning, the British authorities did not attach much importance to the revolutionary effort of the Americans and they mainly relied on mercenary soldiers to suppress them. H.R Anderson has rightly commented- ‘that the colonies won their independence against great odds was due mainly to three factors: Nature, Washington and France. The remoteness of the American continent and British ignorance of American geography contributed to the success of the Americans. With extra ordinary military leadership of George Washington, the military reached to the level of success. The third factor, external help from other countries helped the situation. The active cooperation provided by France helped to steer the Americans to Victory.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE REVOLUTION

In history of the modern world the American Revolution stands as a significant landmark. It was world’s first anti-colonial revolution. It led to the birth of a new nation which has to become, over the course of time, the greatest workshop of democracy. The American people influenced the French society to rise against the Ancien regime. American Independence was also a great blow to the invincible image of Great Britain. Richard Hofstadter has argued that the American Revolution was conservative in character. From one perspective the American Revolution was a conservative movement based on the defence of American rights against the encroachment of the British government intent on exploiting the colonies for economic gain.

A ‘conservative movement’ is where people seek change, but only the smallest of changes and believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society. The American people, according to this argument, rebelled against English authority to preserve rather than change the existing structures of society. It was not fought for the principle that all men were created equal. There were different classes of people who were neglected throughout the period, especially women, black, slaves, etc.

By its example, the American Revolution inspired many revolutionaries in Europe later in the 19th century. It encouraged Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America to rebel and gain their independence.

The main achievement of the American Revolution was the establishment of a republic. This republic was, however, not truly democratic. The right to vote was limited. Negroes— most of them still slaves—American Indians, and women had no vote.

the most important contribution of American Revolution was its contribution to ideas of Liberty, Equality, Fundamental Rights, Nationalism and anti-colonialism.Thus American Revolution was a revolution in ideas and system of Polity and it impacted the future events, the most prominent of them being the French Revolution of 1789.

PREVIOUS YEARS’ QUESTIONS

  1. “No Taxation without representation.” Comment.                      (2006, 20 Marks)
  2. “How far is it correct to say that every feature of the American Constitution was ultimately of English Origin?                                (2010, 20 Marks)
  3. “The American Revolution was essentially as economic conflict between American capitalism and British mercantilism.”                                (2012, 10 Marks)
  4. “American Revolution seems to have come with remarkable suddenness. A roster of talented leaders emerged during 1763 to 1775 to make it happen.” Elucidate.

                                                                                                                      (2014, 20 Marks)

  1. Explain the main features of the US Federal Constitution              (2016 10 Marks) 
  2. “The American War of Independence transformed Europe as well as America.”                                                                                                                        (2018 10 Marks)

                                                                                                                 

29/09/2020
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