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America's History in the Making

Revolutionary Perspectives

Theme 1

The Enlightenment inspired many colonists to challenge England’s governance, providing an importance impetus for the Revolution.

For the thirteen colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain in the late 1700s seems, in retrospect, predictable. They had developed economic and political structures contrary to their colonial status. But Great Britain had never accepted these developments. After the Seven Years’ War (known in North America as the French and Indian War) ended in 1763, imperial discipline was imposed on its unruly North American colonies.

In 1764, Parliament started to pass bills aimed at establishing increased authority over the colonies and extracting taxes from them. It imposed the Revenue (or Sugar) Act and, a year later, the Stamp Act. Colonial reaction to the Stamp Act varied. Some unhappily submitted, while others stood together in mass opposition. The British government was surprised by the defiance, as were many Americans.

The ensuing struggle between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies would be over ideas as well as power. Growing numbers of colonists of diverse socio-economic backgrounds were advocating a new, radical understanding of government, sharply at odds with European practice. This new, subversive way of thinking was drawn from the European Enlightenment, a diffuse but profound intellectual movement that stressed human rationality and implied (or even asserted) that people could govern themselves rather than submitting to monarchs. This emphasis on humanity’s capacities and rights explains why so many patriots insisted on defending their political rights—even to the point of risking their own lives and the lives of many others in a long, bloody conflict.

Primary Sources