What began in 1775 as an uprising against British authoritarianism and taxation without representation morphed in 1776 into a conscious and deliberate creation of a new nation-state, founded on Enlightenment ideals. Although imperfect, this intentional creation helped implement unique sociocultural effects during and after the American Revolutionary War. Today, some of these sociocultural effects remain prominent and have guided our traditions and norms. Many have spread worldwide, with other nations adopting the ideals and beliefs of America’s Founding Fathers and the framers of the US Constitution. Let’s look at how society and culture changed in America and Europe as the result of the American Revolution.
America’s Cultural Heritage: English Tradition
Prior to the Revolutionary War, America had been a British colony for around 150 years. In the early 1600s, settlers from England began arriving on the northeastern coast of North America, quickly founding early settlements in modern-day Virginia and Massachusetts. Many of these early settlers were leaving Europe in search of religious freedom. The two first waves of colonists to New England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans, thought the Church of England needed to be reformed.
Although most settlers leaving England for America were considered separatists, they brought English culture with them. And while other nations, including France and the Netherlands, also established nearby settlements, the English dominated in what became the Thirteen Colonies. Until the Revolution, most white colonists considered themselves British and partook of British traditions, including using British-made goods and enjoying tea time.
The Break with Britain
Tensions between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain surged in the years after the French and Indian War, which was the North American part of the Seven Years’ War. Although Britain, including its Thirteen Colonies, had defeated France in both Europe and North America, the financial cost was steep. To recoup the costs of the war, Britain imposed new taxes on the Colonies, beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765. Colonists were angry, as they had no representation in Parliament to argue against this tax. Taxation without representation became a harsh criticism of the Crown.
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As tensions between the Colonies and Britain rose during rounds of escalating disputes, the individual colonies drew closer together and began considering themselves unified as Americans. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, the thirteen colonies were ready to fight as one. By 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, the colonies considered themselves a new, united nation.
The Revolutionary War & American Culture: Militia
As colonies, the new United States of America did not have its own standing army to fight the British. While the British Redcoats were well-trained and well-equipped, the colonies had to scramble to raise a military. Few companies in the colonies could make arms, and money printed by new states was often not trusted by those who could sell arms. Thus, the new Continental Army was ill-equipped to stand strong against the Redcoats on its own. Filling the gap and aiding in the Revolution were militias, or part-time military units composed of volunteers.
Militia units, while often unable to defeat formations of Redcoats in open battle, helped free up the Continental Army by providing defense and training functions. Many men who received basic training as part of a state militia could later join the Continental Army as full-time soldiers. Members of militias, who brought their own muskets and rifles, helped instill an American cultural respect for the idea of the right to bear arms. Since the colonies did not begin the war with their own standing army, the belief in a self-armed militia remains an American institution.
The Revolutionary War & American Culture: Diplomacy
The Revolutionary War likely could not have been won by the Thirteen Colonies, now the new United States of America, on their own. Fortunately, the United States quickly proved adept at diplomacy and winning foreign allies. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is known as America’s first diplomat for negotiating with France and securing the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. French military assistance would prove crucial to the war, including the penultimate victory at Yorktown in 1781.
Americans were also able to garner Spain’s support in the Revolutionary War by arguing that ending the British monopoly on trade with the former Thirteen Colonies would open up opportunities for Spanish companies. Also, kicking the British out of the eastern seaboard would keep desirable Spanish territory further south, including Florida, safer from eventual incursion. Without good American diplomatic skills, Spain might have done far less to help defeat the British in North America, aiding their French allies as required but going no further.
Post-War American Culture: Anti-Tax
One of the most direct reasons for colonial rebellion against Britain was taxation without representation. American disdain for taxation without representation and unfair taxes like those imposed by the Stamp Act of 1765 and Tea Act of 1773 created a cultural dislike for taxes. In fact, taxes were so disliked and distrusted that America’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, did not allow the central government to levy any taxes on the states or the citizens. However, the lack of taxation led to a central government that could not maintain infrastructure and public order, exemplified by Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-87.
While America’s anti-tax culture eased somewhat after the failure of the Articles of Confederation to provide for a cohesive country, the Origination Clause of the new US Constitution declared that any bill dealing with federal taxes (revenue bills) must originate in the House of Representatives. In the original Constitution, prior to the 17th Amendment in 1913, only US Representatives were directly elected by voters, thus placing taxation closely with the people. America’s original desire for minimal taxation remains a cultural staple today, which is one reason why the US stands almost alone among industrialized democracies in terms of minimal government provision of social welfare and health care.
Post-War American Culture: Land Brings Opportunity
While nations in Europe had been fully settled for centuries, America was a new nation with vast swaths of unsettled land to its west after the Revolutionary War. This land offered tremendous opportunity for those willing to settle it. In fact, land was often used as payment for military service in the Revolutionary War. Veterans could receive up to 640 acres of land. Since most Americans were farmers during this era, land was synonymous with wealth and earning potential.
For almost a century after the Revolutionary War, the ability to move west and settle unclaimed land, ignoring the fact that the land was often home to Native Americans, was a staple of American culture. While European nations had to develop complex social class and legal institutions to maintain order due to their closed geographic systems, America enjoyed a “pressure relief valve” of open land. People dissatisfied with the status quo could simply move west into the frontier and try their hand at a new life. This spirit remains part of American culture despite the “end of the frontier” circa 1890.
Post-War American Culture: Oceans & Isolationism
America was quickly confronted with a paradox: although it had required foreign political alliances in order to win our freedom from Britain, it soon wished to reject foreign political entanglements to ensure our own well-being. In the 1796 Farewell Address of the first US President, George Washington, foreign political entanglements were strongly cautioned against. Ironically, one of the catalysts for Washington’s insistence on isolationism and political neutrality was likely the American-inspired French Revolution (1789-99), which became extremely violent by the early 1790s.
The United States sought to avoid European alliances in its early decades despite being drawn into conflicts with European powers. Again, another paradox emerged: although European powers could harass US shipping and commerce in the Atlantic Ocean, the vast gulf provided by the ocean kept America relatively safe from invasion. Thus, America could avoid taking sides in European conflicts despite its strong trade relations. Until World War II, the US fluctuated through periods of greater or lesser political support for various overseas allies. Even today, America’s original cultural preference for isolationism still enjoys some political support when it comes to monetary aid for foreign allies.
Post-War American Culture: Right to Bear Arms
While militias became enshrined in American culture due to their importance in the Revolutionary War, the right to bear arms was codified a decade later in the Bill of Rights added to the US Constitution. In the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, it is stated:
“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. Because the United States only won its independence through force of arms, gun ownership has held a key place in American culture.”
During the Revolutionary War era, it was the arms of private citizens, rather than a standing army, that generated the bulk of American might. However, gun ownership has been tightly regulated in most other developed nations. This has created a culture clash between the US and its European allies on par with cultural clashes over the lack of universal health care and far less government funding for social welfare and higher education. Partisan struggles over gun control legislation have become more intense even within the United States.
International Cultural Effects: Revolution & Independence
The American victory in the Revolutionary War sparked a growing international movement for independence from colonial and imperial powers, as well as domestic movements to overthrow or limit the power of monarchies. From the French Revolution of the 1790s to the Latin American independence movements of the 1810s, as well as the Greek war for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, the United States was an inspirational model. Thus, American political culture spread internationally in the decades after the Revolutionary War. In South America, revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, after whom the nation of Bolivia was named, was directly inspired by American founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
America’s cultural heritage of encouraging freedom and democracy has led to appeals from other countries over the years, especially during the anti-colonial movements of the mid-20th century. While the United States did not always live up to its heritage and encourage European powers to give up their colonies, such as seizing its own colonies in the Pacific, its track record has been arguably admirable overall. Hopefully, the US will continue to exemplify the noblest parts of its post-Revolutionary War culture.