Many philosophes felt that England had the most progressive government. However, despite the Glorious Revolution and constitutional monarchy, the American colonies still accused the English ruler of tyranny. The enlightenment ideas moved them to try and overthrow the most powerful empire on earth and create their own country.

  • Britain and Its American Colonies
    • During the 1600-1700s, British colonists had started a large settlement along the east coast of North America. With George III as the king of Great Britain in 1760, the colonies grew greatly, expanding from around 250000 to 2150000 people in just 70 years. These people thrived, earning money from trade with European nations.
    • As the population grew, a separate idea also grew. The colonists had been living in America for nearly 150 years and all 13 colonies had their own governments. The colonists felt more “Virginian” or “Pennsylvanian” than British. However, they were still expected to follow British laws.
    • The British Parliament passed a law called the Navigation Act in 1651. This law stopped colonists from trading valuable products with anyone except Britain. Also, colonists had to pay high taxes on French or Dutch goods. Even so, these policies benefited both colonies and motherland. Despite these restrictions, colonial merchants still thrived. This did not last long.
  • Americans Win Independence
  • The North American continent erupted into war in 1754. The English and French fought, the French and Indian War, until 1763, when Britain and her colonists won and seized almost all the French land in North America.
  • However, the war caused Britain to rack up a huge debt. Britain decided to pass the Stamp Act, a law where colonists were forced to pay a tax in order to get an official stamp put on wills, deeds, newspapers, etc.
  • American colonists were outraged. Prior to this tax, they had never paid taxes directly to the government. Colonial lawyers claimed that this was a violation of their rights as they were being taxed without representation (in Parliament).
    • Growing Hostility Leads to War
      • The conflict between the colonists and Britain grew. Many colonial leaders began to favor independence from Britain. In 1773, a group of colonists dumped British tea into the harbor, the “Boston Tea Party”. This infuriated George III who used the navy to close the port of Boston.
      • These harsh tactics made many moderate colonists mad. In 1774, representatives from all the colonies except Georgia met to form the First Continental Congress. This group protested and complained to the king. When the king ignored the complaints, they decided to form the Second Continental Congress.
      • On April, 1775, British and American soldiers fought in Lexington, Massachusetts. This spread to Concord. The second congress decided to raise an army for battle under George Washington’s command.
    • The Influence of the Enlightenment
      • The colonial leaders took enlightenment ideas and used them to justify their independence. The colonists were denied the same political rights as people in Britain, therefore, they were rebelling against a tyrant who had broken the social contract.
      • In 1776, the second continental congress issued the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, and based on Locke and Enlightenment ideas. The Declaration demanded natural rights and that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed…with certain unalienable rights…life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
      • This document also included a list of George III’s abuses of power and declared their separation from Britain, claiming to be absolved from allegiance to the British crown.
    • Success for the Colonists
      • The British and the Colonists went to war. At first, the Americans looked like they were going to lose – they were a small poorly trained army fighting the most powerful country in the world. However, the Americans won in the end.
      • Their victory is primarily attributed to their motivations, overconfident British generals, and time. The long fighting the soldiers had to do was costly and caused taxes to skyrocket on British citizens.
      • Finally, France shared a common enemy: Britain. The Americans and French joined together and fought the British. The Americans won their independence.
  • Americans Create a Republic

    After declaring independence, the 13 states created a constitution, a plan for government called the Articles of Confederation. These articles established the US as a republic where citizens elect representatives.

    • A Weak National Government
      • The 13 states created a loose confederation so they could keep most of the power. The Articles created a deliberately weak government: the Congress. Congress could declare war, enter treaties, and make money. However, it has no power to collect taxes or regulate trade. Passing laws was hard as at least 9 of the 13 states needed to approve.
      • These limits created problems as the Congress needed money but they could only request contributions. Also, some states began to tax trade between states.
    • A New Constitution
      • The problems in the system helped colonial leaders decide to make a strong national government. The Congress in 1787 approved a Constitutional Convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.
      • Delegates from states argued over decisions on how to govern the states. The enlightenment ideas greatly influenced this system of government.
    • A Federal System
      • The delegates did not trust a central government controlled by 1 person. They created 3 branches, legislative, executive, and judicial. This system included checks and balances so no one person had excessive power. Despite the central government, local governments were still preserved. Power was divided between the national and state governments.
    • The Bill of Rights
      • To gain support, the Federalists (supporters of the constitution) added a Bill of Rights, protecting basic rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion.
      • These documents was a turning point, and this optimistic view on reason and reform spread across the world. However, the ruling classes did not give up easily and violence soon erupted in France.