The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The War of Independence and Its Effect on Britain

Category: 18th century

English settlements in North America emerged early in the 17th century. The first English colony, Virginia, was established in 1607, however, not until the twenties of the 17th century did these settlements form a permanent basis of the English colonies.

From the very beginning there were considerable differences between the colonies in the south and in the north of North America. On the north-eastern coast the plain stretched for about 80 kilometres inland to the foothills of the mountains which formed a barrier not easily passable for the early colonists. The rivers were only partially navigable, this meant that trade with the interior was very much limited. ‘JThe settlers who reached the northern colonies in the period of the persecution of the Puritans were mostly of yeomen, small farming, peasant or tradesman origin. This, combined with the comparatively poor productivity of the land in contrast to the almost tropical fertility of the southern colonies, led to the development of farming on a smaller scale. Those colonists who had greater possibilities of capital investment or of raising loans turned their attention to the manufacture of the articles required for farming, building, etc, or to trade, especially to trade with Europe and later with other parts of the world and the American continent itself. Hence the northern colonies experienced the rapid development of capitalist industrial production. The rich mineral resources of coal and iron ore contributed to the development of heavy industry.

The colonies which developed along the south-eastern fringe were, in the first place, of a different nature geographically and climatically. Apart from the warm favourable climate, there was a broad fertile plain waiting only for the felling of the virgin forests to allow the development of large-scale plantation cultivation of such southern crops as cotton, tobacco, rice based on the ruthless exploitation of Negro slaves transported from Africa] The English feudal families very soon used to the full their advantages in securing royal monopolies and charters for the settlement and exploitation of the land and its inhabitants.

The English government regarded the American colonies both as sources of cheap raw materials for the home industry, and as a market for English manufacturing goods. The last thing which the English government and the English manufacturers wished was that the colonies should become independent economically This fact was decisive in determining the attitude of the English government in the 1770s of the 18th century, when the American colonies first tried to attain economic independence of England and finally insisted on political independence as a necessary condition.

The local Indians were ruthlessly exploited and driven from their lands. The white settlers seized the best lands and did everything to exterminate the original population of North America.

During the 18th century the economic importance of the American colonies grew still further, especially as sources of raw materials and agricultural products. The plantation-owners in the South did not encourage industrial development being content with the tremendous profits they derived from the sale of agricultural products and of slaves, whom they bred like cattle on their plantations. In the North industry developed despite the attempts of the British government to limit it. These restrictions were most serious and they increased the growing antagonism between the American colonies and the mother country.

In 1750 the English Parliament forbade the construction of iron works in America. In 1754 it prohibited the manufacture of textiles in the colonies and decreed that they should be imported from England. The poor farmers were indignant when in 1763 the English king closed the western lands to settlement. The colonists seized the lands in defiance of the orders from England and repeatedly rose up in revolt against the colonial authorities. Discontent had now become general.

In 1765 the Stamp Act was passed by Parliament according to which a stamp bearing the state emblem was required on all legal papers referring to commercial transactions; even newspapers were heavily taxed. This tax would have imposed a heavy burden on the population. Attempts to enforce the Stamp Act led to uprisings of the population in Boston and other towns. The resistance was so unanimous that the British government was forced to abolish the Stamp Act. But Parliament soon imposed new taxes and sent troops to the American colonies.

These laws enraged not only the American bourgeoisie, but also the American people who were developing a feeling of national identity enhanced by the oppression of the English government. This feeling was used by the American bourgeoisie to achieve their economic and political independence.

For almost ten years after the Stamp Act the American colonies and the mother country were in constant dispute due to the obstinacy of the English government which tried to subdue the colonies by most unpopular means. Eventually these hostilities broke into open war known as the War of Independence (1775-83).

When in December 1773 the English merchants of the East India company brought to Boston a large cargo of tea subject to a tax, the Bostonians boarded the ships and threw the bales of tea into the harbour. That was the famous Boston tea-party. In retaliation the English government closed the American ports imposing an embargo in 1774. This decree roused a storm of indignation in the colonies. That same year the American colonies sent their delegates to a congress in Philadelphia which appealed to George III to abolish the restrictions on trade and industry. The congress requested too that the colonies should not be taxed without their consent. The famous cry of rebels for many years had been, ‘No taxation without representation’. The colonists wanted their own American parliament.

The English government would not tolerate such an attitude. For the English bourgeoisie America was only a market from which they could import cheaply and to which they could export with profit. George III replied with a demand for the complete submission of the colonies. Open hostilities broke out between the ‘red-coats’, the English army, and the American colonists. The war thus began in New England, with battles at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, and elsewhere near Boston. The English troops won most of the engagements but, finding themselves in an unfriendly region far from their base of supplies, finally evacuated the city.

George Washington (1732—99), a rich planter from Virginia, defender of the interests of the propertied classes and outstanding organizer was appointed commander-in-chief of the troops of the rebel colonies.

Meanwhile, representatives of the colonies had met in the First and Second Continental Congresses in Philadelphia, and the latter body functioned as a de facto government during most of the war. On July 4, 1776 Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence drawn up by a group of bourgeois intellectuals headed by Thomas Jefferson, a progressive bourgeois democrat of his time and an opponent of slavery. $t declared the independence of the 13 American colonies and proclaimed the following principles: ‘… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness. However, these ‘unalienable rights’ did not apply to Negroes — the Declaration did not abolish slavery.

After the fighting around Boston had ended, the British then captured New York by driving out the smaller American force under Washington, but they suffered a severe disaster when an army of 5,000 English ‘red-coats’ under General Burgoyne was captured at Saratoga in October 1777. The battle proved itself a decisive engagement, since it convinced France that the colonies could soon win their independence and thus brought French aid. A year later Spain did the same. Holland too took the side of the rebels. Russia’s positive neutrality in the War of Independence was a factor which also contributed to the American cause for freedom against England.(Benjamin Franklin, an outstanding diplomat, brilliant scientist, prominent public and political figure, and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence had already gone to Paris in search of such aid, was now able to sign treaties of commerce and alliance. French aid meant that England now had an enemy near home, and that she could not devote her full attention to AmericaJ The British next transferred the war to the southern colonies. However, the struggle of the rebellious American colonies against the English ended in the victory of the Americans. |In 1781 the English army under General Cornwallis was trapped by a combined”French and American force by land and a French fleet by sea at Yorktown and surrendered. The surrender of Cornwallis virtually ended the war. In the Treaty of Versailles (1783) the American colonies gained independence. The English recognized the independence of the colonies. Thus ended the War of Independence which V. I. Lenin called a war of ‘the American people against the English robbers who oppressed and kept America in colonial slavery.

The War of Independence in North America was a bourgeois revolution which led to the creation of an independent republic, the United States of America.

The English colonial cause in America was doomed to failure, because it was an unjust war directed against a people struggling for independence. The colonists successfully applied the tactics of guerrilla warfare against the mercenary army of the English crown. \The War of Independence was a struggle of the popular masses of the colonies headed by the bourgeoisie against the English landed aristocracy and the colonial authorities supported by the crown. At the same time it was a bourgeois revolution which overthrew the power of the landed aristocracy and brought to power the American bourgeoisie in the North in alliance with the slaveholders of the South. The American bourgeoisie made use of the struggle of the masses against the English in order to come to power and having come to power it intensifed the oppression of the popular masses.

The greatest blow to the hopes of the masses in the American revolution was the first Constitution, prepared by the Federal Convention of 1787. The lawyers, land-speculators, planters, capitalists who formed the Convention saw to it that no dangerous powers would be granted to the masses, and that any amendment to the Constitution called for by the popular masses would be granted formally after a long delay. The democratic forces in the country did not have a substantial say in the making of the Constitution. It primarily guaranteed the rights and privileges of the bourgeoisie of the North and the slave-owners of the South.

Nevertheless the revolt of the American colonies and the heroic struggle of their people dealt a severe blow at the reactionary forces in Europe, Britain included. The War of Independence was the first mass freedom movement ever faced by the British in a colonial possession and it split British public opinion. Many of the left Whigs had opposed the war and had sympathized with the colonies. The Corresponding Societies which emerged in England in the nineties of the eighteenth century were influenced not only by the ideas of the French revolution but they also experienced the social impact of the War of Independence. Thomas Paine (1737 —1809), a bourgeois democrat who became an ideological leader of the popular masses in England played an outstanding role in the War of Independence. In 1775 he published his famous pamphlet Common Sense in which he justified the idea of the separation of the colonies. The War of Independence increased social tension in England. The Gordon riots in London (headed by George Gordon) in which many working men participated manifested the feelings of hatred among the people against the rich upper classes.

The War against the American colonies was lost. The results meant a defeat for the king’s policy of personal government. The Tory arid right Whig politicians who brought the country to the brink of political bankruptcy had to go, and in 1783 William Pitt the Younger became prime minister in the country at the age of 24. His reforms as well as his policy of ‘free trade’ — that is free capitalist development, were aimed at patching up the political and financial system in the country and encouraging industrial development in order to avert the growing political and social discontent and to increase Britian’s hold of the colonies, especially that of British rule in India. He sponsored an India Bill (1784), which provided a government board, headed by a secretary of state in the Cabinet, to control political and military affairs in India. Such a move was intended to increase British power in her most important colony. Measures were taken to consolidate British rule in Canada, and the colonization of Australia was started in 1788.

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