Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Americans developed a unique system of government with revolutionary ideals – never seen anywhere else before. Americans adopted representative governments with democratic principles that allowed each person to have a voice in the decisions about their country. This atmosphere of new ideas and new political rights fostered a growing sense of a unique American identity – not found anywhere else. By the eve of the American Revolution, colonists had embraced a new identity – completely different from their English roots – that helped fuel their resistance against Britain; however, plagued by petty disagreements and discouraged by the large Loyalist population, the Americans were never able to effectively unite against the British.
During the early 18th century, the British government adopted a policy of “salutary neglect” toward the colonies, which gave Americans freedom to develop their own political systems – as long as they followed the ideas of Mercantilism. When the first colonies were chartered in the 17th century, the majority adopted some sort of political institution that gave voting rights to each and every man. In the North, most citizens were able to participate in the local Town Meetings and voice their opinions. In addition, nearly every colony had a representative assembly with elected officials. These new political institutions – that the Americans had built from the ground up, and learned to cherish – caused Americans to forge a distinctive identity. However, there were other factors that contributed to the growth of a new American identity.
The American/British victory in the French and Indian War taught the Americans that they could unite in difficult times and triumph over adversity. The victory increased American morale and promoted patriotism throughout the colonies. However, when Parliament attempted to tighten control of the colonial governments and make the colonists pay for their fair share of the war, colonists were furious at the attack on their freedoms. Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, the proud colonists felt insulted that the British government would bypass their own colonial system of taxation. Americans were upset because they felt that they shouldn’t be taxed by an assembly in which they had no representation. Combined with Parliament’s other unreasonable acts like the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act, colonists became concerned about the increasingly hostile acts of Parliament which, in their eyes, were designed to limit their rights and liberties. Parliament’s aggression towards the colonies reinforced the fact that colonist’s political, economic, and social ideas varied significantly with those of the British. In addition, a large percentage of the colonists were not British in the least, but rather Dutch, or Scots-Irish, or some other race and had no loyalty to the Crown whatsoever. Why would the proud colonists listen to an assembly 3000 miles away, when they had their own representative assemblies that spoke for their interests? It is precisely this question that colonists were asking on the eve of the Revolution.
Colonists had developed a strong sense of American identity by the 18th century, however, when the time came for the colonists to unite against the British, disorganization and uncertainty ran rampant. Organizations that were meant to be unifying factors for the colonists, like the Continental Congress, were little more than debating clubs that had to work for weeks before agreeing on anything. In addition, American resistance was further hampered by a conflict of colonial interests. Many colonists, dubbed Loyalists, were still faithful to the Crown and did not want to break away from Great Britain. Furthermore, some colonists refused to support the revolution, because they felt that a break with Britain would mean economic turmoil – a fact probably not far from the truth. Loyalists fought with the American rebels, while the rebels also fought with the British troops. Some colonists aided the Patriots, while others aided the British. In one instance, Loyalists made clothes and shoes and sold them to the British soldiers (with profits of 50 to 200 percent), while George Washington’s army was freezing in nearby Valley Forge. Such was the colonial conflict of interests.
By the eve of the American Revolution, Parliament’s aggression towards the colonists had drawn a distinction between the colonist’s political, economic, and social ideas and those of the British. Colonists had embraced a new identity that helped fuel their resistance against Britain. However, disunity plagued the Americans, and it was only with the support of the French that the Americans were finally able to gain independence.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "American Identity and Unity" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/sample-essays/american-identity-and-unity/>.
This collection of American Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short answer questions, discussion points or other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History.
1. Investigate and discuss three British attempts to settle in North America in the 16th and early 17th centuries. What challenges did these early settlements encounter?
2. What was the political legacy of the Jamestown settlement and the Mayflower Pilgrims? What ideas did these groups have about politics and government?
3. Explain how British governments encouraged or supported exploration and colonial settlement in North America.
4. Compare and contrast the three colonial regions: New England, the Middle Colonies and the Southern Colonies. How were their societies and economies similar and different?
5. Explain the role of religion in the development of colonial society between the early 1600s and the American Revolution.
6. Colonial American society is sometimes wrongly presented as a mirror of British society. Discuss how life in colonial America was different to life in Britain.
7. Examine the nature of class and power in colonial American society. Which people or groups wielded power and how?
8. Describe everyday life in colonial America. Provide some comparisons between life in large cities, rural settlements and frontier regions.
9. How and why was slavery integrated into colonial American society and economics by the mid 1700s?
10. How were Native American tribes and peoples affected by the settlement of British America between the early 1600s and the mid 1700s?
Catalysts for change
1. Investigate the political participation of colonial Americans before the revolution. To what extent were ordinary people involved in local and provincial government and decision making?
2. Explain how distance shaped the relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
3. Referring to specific examples, explain why colonial assemblies sometimes came into dispute or conflict with their royal governors. How were these disputes usually resolved?
4. What was meant by the term ‘salutary neglect’? Explain how this policy worked in real terms, both for Britain and the Americans.
5. The French and Indian War is sometimes described as “a war for control of America”. To what extent was this true? What were the outcomes of this conflict?
6. What was the purpose of the British Royal Proclamation of 1763? Which American colonists were affected by this measure and how did they respond?
7. The British parliament passed two Currency Acts in 1751 and 1764. What restrictions did these acts place on the colonies and who was most affected?
8. “Smuggling” is often cited as a source of tension between Britain and colonial Americans. Define smuggling, explain who engaged in it and discuss how prevalent it was prior to 1764.
9. What are writs of assistance? Referring to specific examples, why did they generate revolutionary sentiment in colonial America?
10. The Sugar Act of 1764 lowered British customs duties on sugar and molasses. Why did it cause unrest among American colonists, particularly the merchant class?
The Stamp Act crisis
1. Focusing on the British government and the problems it faced in 1764, explained why its ministers considered introducing a stamp tax in colonial America.
2. Explain the purpose of a colonial stamp tax, how it would be implemented and which people or groups it would affect.
3. Research and discuss the role of Benjamin Franklin, during the formulation and passing of the Stamp Act.
4. Discuss the opposition to the Stamp Act in Boston in 1765. Which people and groups resisted the Stamp Act? What methods did they use to achieve this?
5. Locate three primary sources, British or American, that contain protests or criticisms of the Stamp Act. Extract and discuss the arguments they use.
6. Discuss attitudes to the Stamp Act within Britain. To what extent was the legislation supported there?
7. Locate three visual sources that contain protests or criticisms of the Stamp Act. Discuss the content of these sources and explain how they use ideas, symbols and tone to encourage opposition to the Stamp Act.
8. Referring to three specific incidents, explain how American colonists used intimidation or violence to protest against the Stamp Act.
9. What are the differences between ‘actual representation’ and ‘virtual representation’? Why did these differences become crucial in the unfolding revolution?
10. Explain why the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 and the implications this had for relations between Britain and her American colonies.
From the Townshend duties to the Tea Party
1. Discuss the purposes and content of the Revenue Acts or ‘Townshend duties’ of 1764. What commodities were affected by these duties?
2. How did the American colonists mobilise to resist the Townshend duties? Which groups or classes became involved in this campaign?
3. Summarise the ideas and objections to British policies expressed in John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer (1767-68).
4. What ideas were contained in the Massachusetts Circular Letter, written by Samuel Adams in early 1768? What were the consequences of this letter for Anglo-American relations?
5. Referring to specific people or sources, explain colonial objections to the presence of standing armies in American cities.
6. What was the background to the Boston Massacre? Why did violence erupt between Bostonians and British soldiers in March 1770?
7. Using primary and secondary evidence, explain who was more responsible for the Boston Massacre: the Boston mob or the British soldiers?
8. How did Samuel Adams and the Committees of Correspondence contribute to the American Revolution between March 1770 and December 1773?
9. Explain the purpose of the Tea Act of 1773. Which Americans were most affected by this act and how did they respond?
10. Was the Boston Tea Party a protest against British taxation, British trade regulations, or something else?
From the Coercive Acts to independence
1. Describe the punitive measures implemented in the Coercive Acts. Why did the Americans consider these acts ‘intolerable’?
2. How did the appointment of General Thomas Gage as governor of Massachusetts contribute to a revolutionary situation there?
3. Though not one of the Coercive Acts, the Quebec Act (1774) also generated opposition in America. What were the terms of this act and why did the Americans oppose it?
4. Discuss the content of the Fairfax Resolves and Suffolk Resolves of 1774. What impact did these local resolutions have on the broader revolution?
5. What decisions or resolutions were made by the first Continental Congress in 1774? How did they shape the course of the revolution?
6. What attempts were made to reconcile the American colonies with Great Britain between mid 1774 and July 1776? Which people or groups favoured reconciliation?
7. Referring to specific people, groups and places, explain how the American colonies mobilised for war between mid 1774 and April 1775.
8. What ideas and arguments were advanced in Thomas Paine’s 1776 essay Common Sense? Discuss the impact of this document.
9. Describe the push for independence within the second Continental Congress. Which groups and people lobbied for a break with Britain?
10. Referring to specific phrases or passages, describe how the Declaration of Independence expressed or reflected Enlightenment values and ideas.
The Revolutionary War
1. In its first months the Continental Army was notorious for its lack of military organisation and poor discipline. How did George Washington and others turn the Continental Army into an effective military force?
2. How did American leaders convince ordinary people to enlist in the Continental Army or state militias and fight in the Revolutionary War?
3. Referring to primary and secondary sources, explain the challenges and problems faced by an ordinary footsoldier in the Continental Army.
4. What occurred at Trenton, New Jersey in late December 1776? Why is this seemingly minor event considered a turning point in the Revolutionary War?
5. Referring to at least two other nations, explain how the American revolutionaries sought the support of foreign nations during the Revolutionary War.
6. Evaluate the importance of the French alliance and support to America’s victory in the Revolutionary War.
7. How successful were the Continental Congress and state governments at supplying the war effort? What obstacles and difficulties did they face?
8. What was the Newburgh conspiracy and why did it threaten government in the new society?
9. What were Britain’s military objectives during the Revolutionary War? Why were British commanders unable to carry out and fulfill these objectives?
10. Investigate attitudes to the American Revolutionary War back in Britain. Did these attitudes change over time and did they have an effect on government policy?
Creating a nation and new society
1. Describe the national government created by the Articles of Confederation in 1781. What were the advantages and disadvantages of this form of government?
2. Why did the new United States find itself in an economic depression during the 1780s? Consider both internal and external factors.
3. How did the new United States government address the challenge of its newly acquired territories west of the Appalachians?
4. Outline the causes of unrest among Massachusetts farmers in 1786. What were their grievances and what action did they take to resolve them?
5. Explain and discuss at least three compromises that were reached during the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787.
6. How was the issue of slavery addressed – or not addressed – in the United States Constitution?
7. Identify differences between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in 1787-88. How did their visions for the new United States differ?
8. Focusing on three specific people, discuss the anti-Federalists and their main objections to the proposed Constitution.
9. How did the Federalist movement contribute to the successful ratification of the Constitution in 1787-88?
10. Describe the process that led to the passing of the Bill of Rights. Why was it considered necessary to incorporate these rights into the Constitution?
Evaluating the revolution
1. To what extent was the American Revolution complete by 1789? Did the revolution leave any ‘unfinished business’ or unresolved problems?
2. Why did the American Revolution lack the violence and high death tolls of more recent revolutions?
3. John Adams famously described Americans as being one third in favour of the revolution, one third against it and one third indifferent. How accurate is this claim? How many Americans supported and opposed the revolution, and did this change over time?
4. The United States political system created in 1789 is often depicted as radically different from the British political system. Was this really the case? What British structures or concepts were reflected in American systems of government?
5. Some historians have referred to the United States Constitution as a ‘counter-revolution’. What is the basis for this claim?
6. Describe the global legacy of the American Revolution. How have the political ideology and values of the revolution influenced other governments and societies?
7. To what extent did the American Revolution transform American society?
8. Research and discuss the involvement of Native Americans and African-Americans in the American Revolution.
9. Women participated in the American Revolution as homemakers, protestors or supporters of the army. To what extent did the revolution change or improve the lives of women?
10. How has folklore and myth shaped or distorted our view of the American Revolution? What are the origins of these myths?
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