The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Consequences of the American Revolution

Category: 18th century

Long accustomed to a considerable degree of self-government and freed, after 1763, from the French danger, American colonists resented any attempts to make them pay a share of the cost of imperial defence in the form of assorted taxes and duties. They also resented British attempts to treat colonial legislatures as secondary to the government in London. American resistance led to the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774, and in April 1775 war broke out at Lexington and Concord in America.

The British felt the rebellious colonists had to be brought to their senses, and King George III was firmly against giving in to them. Though British governmental authority in the 13 colonies collapsed in 1775, forces were able to occupy first Boston and later New York City and Philadelphia, but the Americans did not give uр.

France was brought into the war on the American side in 1778, then the Spanish and the Dutch also joined the anti-British side, while other powers formed a League of Armed Neutrality. In 1783 Britain had to recognize American independence in the Treaty of Paris. The 13 colonies were recognized as independent states and were granted all British territory south of the Great Lakes. Florida and Minorca were ceded to Spain and some West Indian islands and African ports to France. Unfortunately, George III was not a success as king. When Britain was driven out of America after a long and bitter conflict, he grew very unpopular.

During the 1770′s, when traditional industries such as the woolen manufacture were severely hit by the disruption of overseas markets during the American Revolution, the machines that could turn out cheap cotton textiles came into their own. More and more workshops were mechanized, with the result that thou­sands of men and women who spun or wove at home had either to work as fast and as cheaply as the ma­chines or else give up their independence and become factory workers. Domestic textile working was by no means killed by industrial revolution of the late eigh­teenth century — handloom weaving, in particular, persisted until at least 1850 — but in many cases it ceased to provide a living wage.

Most domestic textile workers were at the mercy of the clothiers, who sold them their raw materials and bought their finished product, as well as rented them looms and other machinery. If these clothiers started to charge more and play less there was not much that the spinners and weavers could do about it. Even specialized workers like the framework knitters of the Midlands found it difficult to survive in the new climate: they managed to find spokesmen who would petition Parliament for them and even draw up Bills against the low wages and increased frame rents of which they complained. But the Bills were thrown out, as were many other similar measures designed to pro­tect ordinary people against the catastrophic effects of economic development, and thousands of framework knitters found their livelyhood gone.

The results of economic changes were not always bad. There were areas in which there was more work rather than less, just as there were families that could earn more than they had ever done before as long as every member of the family, however young, was pre­pared to exchange the informality of domestic labour for the long hours and harsh discipline of the facto­ry or workshop. Even in purely agricultural areas the new enclosures and the advent of large-scale capita­list farming meant new jobs and even higher pay. But few workers could be sure of finding these benefits locally: in most cases they had to go out and look for them.

The great hiring fairs, at which farmers and other employers searched for bargains among the men and women who put themselves up for hire, attracted la­bourers and maidservants from afield. The great in­dustrial centres which grew up in the North and in the Midlands, were thronged with people looking for jobs. And London, always the most powerful of the magnets which drew men to leave their homes and seek their fortunes, grew more powerful still.

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