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The independence of the United States

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First of all, we will see that the causes of great and small historical events are multiple. We are going to study long-term structural elements that force change and force us to think differently. These interfering events are also called "conjunctural events" appearing at the end of the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763) that lead to an increased exploitation of the governed while new ideas make their way into the enlightenment with individuals in conditions of power that are not up to the task.

Causes of Independence[edit | edit source]

First of all, there is the demographic growth which is a long-lasting cause throughout the 18th century due to the high birth rate and the decrease in mortality, but also to immigration, the territory of the United States goes from 300,000 inhabitants in 1700 to 2.5 million in 1770.

This meant greater pressure on the hitherto narrow territory. As with most profound changes, there are several external factors that make it possible to think about the present differently, including England's victory over France in the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763), which ended with the Treaty of Paris. In the United States, this war is called the war against the French and the Indians. It was a war on the fringe of the West against French forts and territories occupied by Indian nations.

In 1763, the French ceded most of their territories. In addition, England forced Spain, which had been an ally of France, to cede Florida, which then extended to the Mississippi River, to England; it also forced France to cede Louisiana to England. All these changes in colonization were made at the expense of the Amerindian nations, which came out of it very weakened. On the other hand, since the border was little occupied, it was easier to change the dominant without major problems on the territory.

The Stamp Act Congress was held in New York's (now defunct) Federal Hall.

At the end of the Seven Years' War, there is an increase in tensions between the colony and the metropolis. First of all, the government of London impeded settlers' access to Indian territories by signing treaties with Indian chiefs. In spite of everything, the settlers will continue to advance on the Indian territories in part by buying territories in particular from the Cherokees and the Apaches.

England comes out of the war heavily in debt, for the monarch it is the settlers who have benefited the most from the war, that is why it is the settlers who must pay part of this debt through a new tax and stronger customs regulations. This is very badly received in America because these settlers were used to decentralization, to the fact that in each colony it was a legislative assembly made up of locally elected representatives who decided on taxes and their allocations.

London was constantly imposing new taxes and trying to counter American smuggling from New England to Surinam.

It is mainly the expansion of the Stamp Act that will arouse the wrath of the colonists. It's a mail tax that's going to make this literate culture furious. This new tax not decided by the colonial assemblies is an attack on the system of representation that exists, against economic progress and the freedom of the colonies; some shout conspiracy against the welfare of the colonies.

Some of the educated men echoed Locke's ideas that the role of the state is to bring welfare and security to individuals with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property.

Response of the colonies[edit | edit source]

The settlers petitioned and refused to obey; on the other hand, they launched boycotts of taxed products and even used violence against British officers. The first major episode in this rise of violence was the "Boston Massacre" which takes place in 1770 in which English soldiers kill five demonstrators.

The other big event is the "Tea Party" which also took place in December 1773 in Boston, where Bostonians very curiously disguised as Indians boarded an English ship carrying tea from the East India Company and threw the cargo of tea into the sea because it was competing unfairly with American importers.

British reaction[edit | edit source]

This British cartoon depicting the "acts" as the rape of the anthropomorphic Boston, was quickly copied and distributed by Paul Revere throughout the colonies.

London's reaction will be to punish Boston by imposing the Coercive Acts in 1774. The Coercive Acts blockaded and closed the port of Boston to all trade, imposed the King's authority over the colony of Massachusetts so that the Legislative Assembly no longer had any power, and transferred to England trials that could lead to the death penalty, while all of the Thirteen Colonies were obliged to house British troops in their own homes. The entire colonial administration was affected.

Decisive steps towards independence[edit | edit source]

Little by little, all the colonies will show their solidarity with Boston. It is the beginning of mutual aid and nationalism, which is done by defending besieged Bostonians.

In September 1774, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in the first continental congress held in Philadelphia. During this congress, the delegates declare Coercive Acts illegal, inviting the colonists to form defense militias.

This does not mean that all American settlers follow the movement, many continue to support England, they are called "Loyalists", while others protest and sign petitions, but are not prepared to take up arms that would threaten their economic interests.

In Philadelphia, some went from activism against the king to rejection by the British parliament; however, at that point they continued to be loyal to the king. Loyalty to the king is still very much alive. However, the King of England Georges III is not up to the task, proving unable to cope with events.

Journée de Lexington, engraving on the battle of Lexington by Nicolas Ponce (undated 1775-1819).

The other thing to note is that most delegates and members, whether moderate or radical, come from the wealthiest families in the territory. They are mostly merchants, lawyers, a few craftsmen and others, but at heart they are mostly merchants, planters, the aristocracy of these 13 colonies.

In order to obtain the support of the population, they mobilized the merchants of the time, lawyers, skilled workers, craftsmen and taverns. However, these leaders are not revolutionaries, they want to overthrow the local hierarchy in order to regain their local power which collapses with the Coercive Acts.

It is only in 1775 that the settlers take up arms at Lexington, making Massachusetts the cradle of independence; this occurred following incidents with British troops and American militiamen that resulted in further deaths.

At that time, a Second Continental Congress is meeting in Philadelphia. It is there that the decision is made to form an army to defend the colonies against the British, which will be entrusted to George Washington.

The delegates choose Washington because he's patriotic, committed, rich with slaves and plantations. In the minds of the delegates, if one is rich, one is incorruptible because one will not want to get richer, especially since he is a man from Virginia, therefore from the South, with the idea of expanding the movement that has taken place until now, especially in the North.

With the election of a man from Virginia, the idea is that the union of the Thirteen Colonies will really be manifested.

The presentation of the final text of the declaration to Congress.
Table by John Trumbull.

The Declaration of Independence[edit | edit source]

Washington's task is not going to be easy. Many of these American settlers are not prepared to enlist to risk their lives in a war. Here comes a man who will allow a decisive step in this movement. He is an Englishman who is radical, Thomas Paine, which exposes England's predatory nature towards her colonies, describing her as ready to devour her colonies, breaking the taboo of the link with the king and his ministers. He asserts that there is nothing more England can put right, there is nothing left to negotiate, because the English monarchy has gone too far, it is necessary to focus on the American and consider its own future: "the last link is now broken".

Constitution of the United States as proposed by Thomas Paine in "Common Sense", 1776

In "Common Sense", he projects the idea that America is the only bastion of freedom on earth. The book sells 120,000 copies for a population of 300,000 including slaves. This shows the high literacy rate and the extraordinary resonance of this pamphlet.

It will sustain the enthusiasm of the Second Congress of Philadelphia at the same time as English troops begin to retreat and abandon the city of Boston.

Delegates from North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts put forward a motion to support colonial independence. On July 4, 1776, all the delegates from the Thirteen Colonies adopted a declaration of independence.

According to the declaration, all men were created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, including life, liberties and the pursuit of happiness. To guarantee these rights, governments must be just and have the consent of the governed. When a government destroys its rights, it is the duty of the governed to form another government and if necessary by revolt.

There follows a long list of 23 attacks and violations of the rights of settlers by the King of England. All these accusations establish that he is basically a Tiran. It goes on to state that the Americans tried everything before responding to England by war to liberate themselves, and that is why "we, the representatives of the United States of America assembled in assembly taking as our witness the supreme judge of the universe, and on behalf of the people and their colonies, publish that the United Colonies are entitled to be free and independent states free from all allegiance to England. The colonies may make peace, enter into alliances, display commerce, and do all that an independent state can do; and in support of this declaration we affirm our allegiance to divine providence.[8] ».

This is the first time that men have used these ideas to justify the birth of a political entity.

First of all, it is a "men's affair"; women are totally absent, Indians are mentioned among the accusations against the king as "merciless savages" while slaves and slavery are never mentioned. The equality of men declared in the opening is reserved for adult white men.

Continuation of the war[edit | edit source]

The war will continue until 1781, often it will be guerrilla warfare. The American troops, led by Washington, will count between 4,000 and 7,000 men. England, on the other hand, would have up to 35,000 men, including a number from Russia.

Capitulation of Cornwallis to Yorktown - John Trumbull (1820).

The English make two appeals to the slaves to flee their masters and join the English troops against a promise of freedom. They will serve in the army, but mostly as labour, few will win their freedom at the end of the war.

The end of the war is accelerated by the entry of France on the side of the independentists. It is a help from the loyalist France of Louis XVI for a revenge on England. The aid arrived in 1780 with 6,000 men under the command of the Count de Rochambeau. Many of these men will come from Haiti and Santo Domingo.

French aid will be decisive in contributing to Britain's surrender after the Siege of Yorktown which meant England's capitulation leading to the recognition of American independence in September 1783 by a peace treaty in Paris.

From then on, the frontiers will continue to widen.

In fact, the war began in 1776 and ended in 1781 and England did not recognize independence until 1783. Compared to other independences, this is a rapid process.

Revolution or reaction?[edit | edit source]

In the United States, independence is called "the American Revolution". Not all historians agree with this, it's a debate that has been going on for two centuries.

For the proponents of the revolution thesis, this independence represents a radical break from the Americans in the monarchical context of the time because it was not only a reaction against the British Empire, but it destroys all ties with the traditional monarchy. The relationship between state and society is completely upset and projects the "United States".

For those who support a conservative reaction, what is at the root of all this is an attempt by Americans to restore the freedoms they had before, particularly the freedoms of trade; it would be a movement that would have sought to take back what existed.

Both interpretations are true.

In order to have a revolution, you have to:

  1. mass mobilization of the population;
  2. Fighting between different ideologies;
  3. Concrete struggle for power.
  4. a profound transformation of social and economic structures.
Great Seal of the United States. It shows the 13 states and the 13 stripes that represent the 13 states that are part of the United States. The eagle represents war, holding in its paws the olive branches for peace and the arrows of war. It is written in Latin "e pluribis unum" which means "united in one".

As far as the Thirteen Colonies of the United States are concerned, we have the first three points, but not really the fourth, whereas as far as Santo Domingo and Haiti are concerned, we have all these elements.

In the framework of the United States, mobilization is weak, on the other hand, at the end of the war there is no real upheaval in society and structures; it is the same people who continue to govern, while serfdom remains and explodes.

The fact remains that the new nation innovates in many ways:

  • it is the first independent country in the Americas;
  • the United States adopts a republican and federalist system;
  • the idea of hereditary nobility is rejected.

However, this is far from a democracy, because for politicians, the people are the lower people, and democracy refers to disorder and violence.

The delegates at the constitutional convention will face each other in the design of a legitimate government that must represent the will of the governed, including the key question of who will be able to vote.

This new country, calling itself the United States of America, appropriates the name America and soon becomes, for the inhabitants of these former colonies, "The America". It is an appropriation that is being made to the great displeasure of the Americans when they gain their independence.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

  • Photographie interactive de la déclaration
  • Site des Archives nationales américaines
  • Bibliothèque Jeanne Hersche
  • Hérodote.net
  • Transatlantica, revue d'études américaines. Dossier spécial sur la Révolution, dirigé par Naomi Wulf.
  • Nova Atlantis in Bibliotheca Augustana (Latin version of New Atlantis)
  • Barnes, Ian, and Charles Royster. The Historical Atlas of the American Revolution (2000), maps and commentary excerpt and text search
  • Blanco, Richard L.; Sanborn, Paul J. (1993). The American Revolution, 1775–1783: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. ISBN 978-0824056230.
  • Boatner, Mark Mayo III (1974). Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (2 ed.). New York: Charles Scribners and Sons. ISBN 978-0684315133.
  • Cappon, Lester J. Atlas of Early American History: The Revolutionary Era, 1760–1790 (1976)
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, and Richard A. Ryerson, eds. The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War: A Political, Social, and Military History (5 vol. 2006) 1000 entries by 150 experts, covering all topics
  • Gray, Edward G., and Jane Kamensky, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2013) 672 pp; 33 essays by scholars
  • Greene, Jack P. and J. R. Pole, eds. A Companion to the American Revolution (2004), 777 pp – an expanded edition of Greene and Pole, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (1994); comprehensive coverage of political and social themes and international dimension; thin on military
  • Herrera, Ricardo A. "American War of Independence" Oxford Bibliographies (2017) annotated guide to major scholarly books and articles online
  • Kennedy, Frances H. The American Revolution: A Historical Guidebook (2014) A guide to 150 famous historical sites.
  • Purcell, L. Edward. Who Was Who in the American Revolution (1993); 1500 short biographies
  • Resch, John P., ed. Americans at War: Society, Culture and the Homefront vol 1 (2005), articles by scholars
  • Symonds, Craig L. and William J. Clipson. A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution (1986) new diagrams of each battle
Works by Thomas Paine

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Aline Helg - UNIGE
  2. Aline Helg - Academia.edu
  3. Aline Helg - Wikipedia
  4. Aline Helg - Afrocubaweb.com
  5. Aline Helg - Researchgate.net
  6. Aline Helg - Cairn.info
  7. Aline Helg - Google Scholar
  8. Déclaration unanime des treize États unis d’Amérique réunis en Congrès le 4 juillet 1776