The Political Effects of the American Revolutionary War

Most people know that the American Revolutionary War led to the creation of the United States, but its related documents had a global impact.

Jul 16, 2022By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
declaration independence 1776
The United States Declaration of Independence (1776), via the University of Virginia, Charlottesville

 

In 1775, armed combat began in what would swiftly evolve into the American Revolutionary War. The Declaration of Independence, written the following year, declared the birth of a new nation. However, the effects of the Revolutionary War go far beyond simply removing British control of the Thirteen Colonies: the War and related documents and decisions would have worldwide impacts. Britain, France, and Spain were all significantly affected by the American Revolutionary War, which would, in turn, affect large portions of the globe. The intentional creation of a new nation from colonies was a groundbreaking innovation, setting the stage for future independence movements in Africa and Asia over 150 years later.

 

Before the American Revolutionary War: The Political Situation in 1775

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Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride in 1775, via The Paul Revere House

 

In 1775, political conflict had become violent between the Thirteen Colonies on North America’s eastern seaboard and Britain. In April, British troops were prepared to march and destroy caches of weapons held by opponents of British control. After Paul Revere’s famous Midnight Ride to alert colonists that the “British are coming!” (in reality, “Redcoats” instead of British because the colonists still considered themselves British), the first shots of the Revolutionary War occurred at Lexington and Concord on April 19. The famous “shot heard around the world” signaled the first major organized uprising of a colony against its owner nation.

 

The political situation that sparked an armed rebellion against Britain, or “the Crown,” involved British suppression of colonial self-government and economic stability. After the French and Indian War, the colonies were taxed heavily to pay for “their” war against the French, essentially having to pay for “protection” by British Redcoats. This upset the colonists, as they had fought valiantly in the war and certainly did not see themselves as asking for British “protection.” After a decade of escalating tensions between the colonies and Britain, many colonists were ready to declare independence over the issue of “taxation without representation.”

 

How Taxation Without Representation Led to the American Revolutionary War 

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An image of the Boston Tea Party protest in 1773, via Yale University, New Haven

 

Political grievances between the colonies and Britain essentially boiled down to taxes. Despite seeing themselves as loyal and productive citizens of Britain, colonists did not have their own representatives in Parliament, Britain’s legislature. In 1765, many colonists began protesting the Stamp Act, which was effectively a sales tax imposed on the colonies by Britain. Virginian Patrick Henry is credited with coining the popular argument “No taxation without representation!”

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The taxation dispute intensified in 1773 when Britain imposed a tax on tea and gave the East India Company a monopoly on exporting tea to the colonies. Angry colonists vowed to boycott this tea and made good on their threats on the night of December 16. Protesters dressed as Native Americans dumped chests of tea into the harbor. Britain responded with the Intolerable Acts in 1774, punishing the colony of Massachusetts for the “Boston Tea Party.” Tensions increased further, setting the stage for armed rebellion.

 

The Declaration of Independence

TAn image of Thomas Jefferson and his Declaration of Independence, via The George Washington University, Washington DC 

When war began in April 1775, the colonies did not yet consider themselves an independent nation. However, Britain’s harsh responses led many to seek complete independence from the Crown. In 1776, the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, formally declared that the colonies considered themselves to be a new, separate nation. Its famous lines, notably that “all Men are created equal” and that we have “unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” have inspired millions.

 

Politically, the Declaration of Independence is important because it began the lengthy and often halting journey toward equality for all citizens. Although women and minorities were treated very unequally in 1776, especially enslaved people, the famous words of the Declaration could not be taken back. It also emphasized the concept of popular sovereignty, or power of the people. This differed from other nations, where popular sovereignty was seen more as a top-down grant of rights – such as Britain’s Magna Carta (1215) – than a grassroots movement that granted power to elected leaders.

 

American Revolutionary War Treaties

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The French fleet at the Battle of the Capes (Battle of the Chesapeake), 1781, via the National Park Service

 

The American Revolutionary War had significant political ramifications in Europe. At the time, Britain was the dominant world power with a huge, globe-spanning empire. In the colonies, the War was not going well: the British were winning virtually every engagement that could be considered a battle. In 1778, however, the new United States of America scored a major political victory by signing a Treaty of Alliance with Britain’s primary European rival, France. The fledgling United States needed weapons and supplies, while France both respected the bravery of the Americans and wanted revenge on Britain for the Seven Years’ War.

 

France’s ally against Britain, Spain, joined the war in 1779 with the Treaty of Aranjuez. Having received the territory of Louisiana back from France at the end of the French and Indian War, Spain used this land as a base of operations to attack the British along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Combined, the fleets of France and Spain outnumbered Britain’s ships. Together, French and Spanish combat support led to the British defeat at Yorktown in 1781 and gave the United States a formal diplomatic footing to become an independent nation.

 

In the United States: Revenue Bills

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A banner for the U.S. House of Representative Ways and Means Committee, via Ways and Means Republicans

 

The issue that sparked the American Revolutionary War, taxation without representation, would be directly addressed in the new nation. Under the nation’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, taxation was strictly limited. Today known as the federal government, the central government could not impose taxes on citizens or the thirteen states. Taxation resided almost entirely with the individual states, which would tax each other’s goods. Within just a few years, tax rebellions began erupting in the states.

 

After the alarming Shays Rebellion led to a calling for national reform, the imposition of taxes was still a sensitive issue. Although anti-tax sentiment had cooled with public realization that a stronger government that could maintain public order was necessary, the new US Constitution still specifically ensured that central government taxation would reside closest to the people. The Origination Clause of the Constitution states that federal tax laws (revenue bills) can only originate in the House of Representatives. Today, this usually means within the Ways and Means Committee.

 

The Right to Bear Arms in the American Revolutionary War

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Militiamen in North Carolina during the American Revolutionary War, via the National Park Service

 

A few years after the ratification of the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights was written to protect citizens’ civil liberties. The second of these initial ten amendments to the Constitution was the “right to bear arms.” Many may be unaware that the “right to bear arms” is not related to self-defense or hunting but rather to militias: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

 

The importance of volunteer militias in the American Revolutionary War has led to the unique enshrinement of the right to bear arms. While gun ownership is often strictly limited in other industrialized nations, the fact that the United States only won its independence with the help of armed citizens has kept gun ownership relatively protected. The belief of gun rights proponents in relation to the Constitution is that an armed citizenry is necessary to oppose tyranny and, if needed, overthrow a corrupt and oppressive government. However, this belief is very controversial, and gun control vs. gun rights debates are perennial political hot spots in the United States.

 

Outside the United States: The French Revolution

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A scene during the French Revolution (1789-99), via The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

 

French military aid during the American Revolutionary War led directly to America’s victory and independence from Britain. However, the expense of the war ended up hurting France economically. The new United States sought loans from its three foreign allies: France, Spain, and the Netherlands, but defaulted on repayments to the first two. A growing economic crisis in France in 1788 and 1789 sparked the French Revolution, which was politically influenced by its American predecessor.

 

Protesters in France were inspired by American success in overthrowing British rule and sought their own overthrow of tyranny in the form of an oppressive monarchy. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which sparked the birth of the French republic, was allegedly influenced directly by the American Declaration of Independence. France’s National Assembly, created in 1791, is thought to have been directly influenced by the US Constitution and its bicameral legislature (Congress).

 

Outside the United States: Latin American Revolution

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An image of South American revolutionary figure Simon Bolivar, via the National Geographic Society

 

While the French overthrew their ruling monarchy during the violent French Revolution, Spain saw no such widespread reform. However, the uniting victor in the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, quickly took control of Spain as part of the continent-spanning Napoleonic Wars. With Spain occupied by France in the Peninsular War, the time was ripe for Spain’s colonies in Latin America (Central America, South America, and the Caribbean) to seek their own independence. Shortly after Napoleon invaded Spain in 1807, Spain’s colonies in South America began revolting. Spain was unable to both fight the French and the insurrections in its colonies.

 

Although the Spanish monarchy was restored in 1814 upon Napoleon’s defeat, a powerful revolutionary figure named Simon Bolivar made a comeback in Venezuela in 1817. In the Battle of Boyaca in 1819, Bolivar surprised the Spanish and inspired a widespread revolt. The tide of war shifted against the Spanish across Latin America, giving Bolivar credit as the primary freedom fighter against the Spanish monarchy. Bolivar was inspired by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, giving a political link between the American Revolution and the Latin American independence movements against Spain.

 

Outside the United States: Canada

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A map of Loyalist settlement in Canada, via the University of Ottawa

 

After the American Revolutionary War, Britain shifted its focus to its remaining colonies. Canada received a boost in population during and after the War as Loyalists, American colonists who remained loyal to Britain, chose to move north. Between 40,000 and 50,000 Loyalists ended up settling in British Canada. The end of the War also caused a distinct separation between the new United States of America and British Canada, whereas there was little distinction before the war.

 

Early in the Revolutionary War, the Thirteen Colonies attempted to convince Canada to join their cause, including by force. However, invading Canada proved unsuccessful. The British were able to shore up Canadian loyalty by appealing to the French Canadians in Quebec more adeptly than their more aggressive and somewhat anti-Catholic American rivals. The resettlement of Loyalists in southern Canada near the US border helped solidify Britain’s hold on Canada, and Canadians resisted American invasion attempts during the War of 1812.

 

Outside the United States: Australia

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The arrival of 11 penal ships in Australia, 1788, via the New South Wales Government

 

While the British were in Canada well before the American Revolution, Australia only saw organized British settlement beginning in 1788. Allegedly, the loss of the Thirteen Colonies allowed the British to focus their resources elsewhere, and thus they settled in Australia. The British were motivated to settle due to the explorations of the French, who arrived only at Botany Bay days after the British. Although Captain James Cook had landed at Botany Bay earlier, in 1770, the decision to colonize was not made until 1786, when the British Prime Minister decided to create a penal colony on the newly-discovered continent.

 

Prior to 1788, Britain had transported prisoners to its Thirteen Colonies, where up to 40,000 prisoners had labored to fulfill their sentences. Later, other British settlers voluntarily moved to Australia, similar to earlier settlement in America. Had the United States remained the Thirteen Colonies, it is probable that many of the British settlers who traveled to Australia would have settled in the Thirteen Colonies instead, as the overseas journey was considerably shorter.

 

Outside the United States: Anti-Colonial Movement

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A letter from Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh to the United States, 1946, via the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

 

After World War II, the British Empire could no longer be maintained. For decades, Canada and Australia had gained increasing self-rule. Japan, which had taken over France’s colonies in East Asia, withdrew in defeat. Suddenly, previously-occupied colonies had a chance at self-determination. The United States, torn between its anti-colonial heritage and desire to maintain strong alliances with colonial powers Britain and France, typically encouraged a negotiated end to European colonialism. In 1946, the US freed its remaining colony, the Philippines, which it had taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

 

In 1946, Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh wrote to US President Harry S. Truman, appealing for American intervention in French plans to re-colonize Vietnam. The letter appealed to American support of self-government principles. The US chose instead to support France in its efforts to maintain its colonies (French Indochina), although these were unsuccessful. The end of French control in Vietnam in 1954 swiftly led to the lengthy Vietnam War.



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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.