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The American Revolution
Between 1775 and 1787, Americans struggled to win a war and make peace, all while trying to
build stable republican governments on both the state and national levels. By 1783 and the Treaty
of Paris, there was little doubt that Americans had achieved their first two goals, but serious
questions remained about the future of republican government, especially at the national level.
Despite problems that would have stopped lesser commanders, George Washington and his
Continental army stunned the Western world by holding the British army at bay and winning just
often enough to finally convince British politicians that peace (and American independence) was
the only realistic alternative. Meanwhile, the Continental Congress, blessed with some remarkable
diplomats, secured an alliance with France in 1778 that contributed significantly to the success of
the war effort.
But once the war ended, the coalition of the thirteen states that had come together to defeat
the British gradually drifted apart. The American government that the British threat had held
together was now under attack at home. To complicate matters further, Americans struggled to
balance the power of government with their concepts of republicanism and individual liberty. State
government dealt with the matter, during the war, by drafting new constitutions that reflected the
strength of republican values by placing considerable power in the hands of legislatures and much
less in the office of the governor. But what to do on the national level? Was a weak central
government necessarily the answer? Could the country function under the Articles of
Confederation without an executive? Adding to the debate were postwar economic problems that
produced Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts and threatened the entire republican experiment. On
the eve of the momentous Constitutional Convention of 1787, many Americans wondered whether
the Revolution’s republican rhetoric had a practical meaning for the new country. The question was
as simple as it was troubling: Could Americans achieve order without sacrificing liberty?
A thorough study of Chapter 5 should enable the student to understand:
1. The historical debate concerning the nature of the American Revolution and the reasons for
disagreement among historians
2. The aim of the Declaration of Independence, the reasons for its issuance, and the ideas that
influenced it
3. American war aims and the problems encountered by revolutionary governments, state and
national, in carrying out a protracted war
4. American and British military strategy throughout the course of the war, and the reasons for
the eventual success of the former
5. The significant contributions of George Washington to the successful outcome of the
American Revolution
6. The diplomatic triumphs of Americans who negotiated the French alliance of 1778 and the
Treaty of Paris of 1783
7. The major ideas and structures of the new state constitutions of the Revolutionary era
8. The main features of the Articles of Confederation and the reasons for its creation
9. The problems faced by the federal government under the Articles of Confederation and how
those problems were addressed
1. How the thirteen colonies were able to win American independence from the most powerful
empire of the eighteenth century
2. How the American Revolution was not simply a war for independence, but also a struggle to
preserve and expand republican government on the state and national levels
3. The political and economic problems of the 1780s and how they were addressed
1. How did conflicts and rivalries among European nations both help and hinder the American
struggle for independence?
2. Which groups of Americans were the most likely to remain loyal to England and why?
3. Initially, most Americans believed they were fighting for a redress of grievances within the
British Empire. Why, then, did they change their minds and issue the Declaration of
Independence in 1776?
4. Read the Declaration of Independence (in the Document and Tables section of the text).
Discuss its overall philosophy. Who was the intended audience for the document? What
“rights” did it offer as a justification for revolution? What made it a compelling expression of
ideas that had already been circulating in the colonies?
5. Compare and contrast the British and American conduct of the war. How did each side
propose to “win”? How realistic was each side’s assessment of the other? How did each
prewar assessment influence the ultimate outcome of the war?
6. On the basis of the text section titled “Debating the Past,” outline the schools of thought
regarding the causes of the American Revolution. Define each school of thought. Which, if
any, seems to be the most intellectually satisfying to you and why? Do you think the text
subscribes to one of the schools of thought? Why or why not? What do these various
interpretations reveal about our efforts to understand our revolutionary heritage?
7. Was the American Revolution both a social and a political revolution? Was it either? Was it
more a social than a political revolution? Or vice versa?
8. Examine the relative successes and failures of the Articles of Confederation. Was this
government capable of providing the stability that the new nation needed? Why or why not?
9. How did revolutionary ideology challenge the way minorities were treated in America? To
what extent did minorities benefit from this ideology? Why did some minorities find their
circumstances improved, but others did not?
10. How did new American state constitutions differ from colonial charters? How did those
constitutions, as well as the Articles of Confederation, reflect revolutionary ideology?
1. Identify the colonies in rebellion.
2. Identify the major geographic features of these colonies: rivers, lakes, bays, and so on.
3. Identify the major towns in these colonies.
4. Identify the major battle sites, indicating the date and who won.
5. Identify the states with western land claims and those without.
6. Note the dates these western lands were ceded to the United States.
7. Identify the British, French, and Spanish possessions in North America after the Treaty of
Paris of 1783.
8. Locate the major rivers and lakes in the possessions in Exercise 7.
9. Identify the areas affected by the Ordinance of 1784, the Ordinance of 1785, and the
Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
1. Note the invasion routes taken by the Americans against Canada and by the British against
the rebelling colonies. What geographic factors influenced the selection of these routes, and
how did these factors influence the outcome of the invasions?
2. What were the most strategic locations in the thirteen colonies? What geographic factors
made these locations strategic?
3. Compare the distances covered by the British army in the South with the distances covered in
New England and the middle colonies. What problems did these distances create for the
4. Why was the war in the South “truly revolutionary”? How did the geopolitical situation in the
South contribute to this quality?
5. Why was the question of western land claims so important in the ratification of the Articles
of Confederation? What advantages were to be gained from western lands?
6. How did the Ordinance of 1784 propose to deal with the lands ceded to the national
government? What is significant about this with regard to political development of the West?
7. How did the Ordinance of 1787 (the Northwest Ordinance) differ from the Ordinance of
1784? What factors caused these differences?
8. Note the territory held by Spain. How did Spanish holdings (especially along the Gulf of
Mexico) threaten the westward movement of Americans?
9. Why did the Ordinance of 1785 appeal to land speculators? How was territorial land
organized for sale and use? Which groups were upset with this ordinance?
These questions are based on the preceding map exercises. They are designed to test students’
knowledge of the geography of the area discussed in this chapter and of its historical
development. Careful reading of the text will help students answer these questions.
1. The map in the text identifies the states’ western land claims and reflects the results of the
Peace of Paris of 1783 that ended the American Revolution. Considering the fighting, what
claims did the United States have to land in the West, and why was it not able to gain more?
2. If Americans agreed on nothing else, they knew they wanted a republican government. How
did the western land claims, and their resolution, fit into this desire? Had the problem of
western land claims not been resolved, how might the republic have been threatened?
3. How did the geography of America work to the advantage of the revolutionaries and to the
disadvantage of the British?
Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995)
Lawrence D. Cress, Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War
of 1812 (1982)
Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976)
Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary War (1991)
Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence (1983)
Calvin Jillson and Rick Wilson, Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination and Choice
in the First American Congress, 1774-1789 (1994)
Susan Juster, Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics & Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England
Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America
Liberty, PBS video documentary (1997)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture (1997)
Cathy D. Matson and Peter S. Onuf, Union of Interests: Political and Economic Thought in
Revolutionary America (1990)
Gary B. Nash, Race and Revolution (1990)
Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978)
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992)
Alfred E. Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution (1999)