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1776 | Context


18th-Century Political Philosophy

The concept of a democratic government dates to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. However, the Enlightenment, an intellectual and philosophical movement of 17th- and 18th-century Europe, had a direct influence on the founders of America.

The most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged the existing order of imperial rule, advocating instead for democracy and individual freedom. Among the most significant of the Enlightenment political philosophers are John Locke (1632–1704); François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), who wrote under the name Voltaire; and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). They developed modern political ideas of government founded on freedom and equality in order to maximize each person's potential and to improve human progress.

  • Locke argued against the concept of a monarch's "divine right" to rule, worried that a too-powerful government would inevitably oppress individuals, and reasoned that different branches of government would properly restrain too much power. According to Locke, rebellion is justified when a government becomes tyrannical by using its power unfairly over other people. Individuals were entitled to "life, liberty, and pursuit of property," as Locke wrote in Two Treatises on Government (1690). Thomas Jefferson would later change "property" to "happiness" in the Declaration of Independence.
  • Voltaire, in his prose, poetry, and plays, advocated for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state so that no all-powerful ruler could dictate people's lives.
  • Rousseau wrote about the concept of a social contract in 1762 in The Social Contract. Rousseau's theory is that a legitimate government must be based on people's consent to that government's authority to provide social order. The contract is the mutual agreement between those governed and those who govern about the form and content of that authority. Without the people's agreement to assign some rights to a government there is no social contract and no legitimate government.

The ideas of these Enlightenment philosophers about how a state should be set up to benefit society profoundly influenced colonial leaders and international revolutionaries. They helped inspire and define the American Revolution (1765–83), influenced France to support the colonists against Britain, and contributed to enduring phrases and ideas that found their way into the Declaration of Independence (1776).

18th-Century Warfare

The armies of the 18th-century primarily used warfare technology such as cannons, bayonets, and military muskets (like shotguns), which required gunpowder to shoot metal balls out of the barrels. Muskets could not shoot accurately from long distances—100 to 300 yards was the farthest musket shot could travel—so bayonets (knives) were attached to the guns and used once a path was cleared for hand-to-hand combat. Further, musket rounds, made of heavy metal, arced naturally toward the ground, pulled by gravity. The muskets were heavy and hard to aim, and they had no rear or front sights, which are aiming devices. However, muskets were easier to load and reload than the rifles they had replaced. The expression, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," attributed to a Colonial officer at the Revolutionary War's Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, aptly highlights the limitations of muskets.

As a result, 18th-century warfare relied on close-quarter combat. Soldiers stood and advanced in ranks, trading volleys of fire with the enemy, and eventually one side or the other captured the battlefield at bayonet point. A combat unit would square off or take a fighting stance against an enemy unit and advance. Well-practiced combatants could load and shoot their muskets in unison, reload and shoot in unison again, continually firing bullet after bullet. Soldiers compensated for the lack of accuracy from a distance by marching forward in straight columns pressed closely together. Speed in firing could help drive the opposing unit to withdraw from the battlefield while minimizing their own company's casualties or falling back. The faster the company's rate of unified, simultaneous "load, shoot, reload, and shoot" sequences, the greater the chance of success. As combat units drew close together, well-practiced precision shooting became possible. It also became critical as soldiers from each side sometimes began to intermingle. Often a final charge of soldiers with bayonets, or large blades attached to rifles, would capture the battleground, forcing the enemy to retreat.

This helps explain why the tactical maneuvers in 1776 played out the way they did: long intermissions between battles such the British retreat from Boston after the Continental Army gained the high ground, and the flanking efforts on both sides; the British goal to draw the Continental Army into the open field, where they could use all of their might; and the Continental Army's avoidance of open battle, where they did not have the manpower or ammunitions to confront the enemy head-on. McCullough also shows how the limitations of the weaponry and unskilled soldiers forced American General George Washington to use the element of surprise.

The American Militia

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies, still under Great Britain's rule, did not have their own army. However, each colony did have its own militia, using it predominately against Native American raids and to keep public peace. Colonial militias were composed of ordinary citizens, most of them without military experience or training. Members ranged in age from 16 to 60 years old. Throughout 1776, McCullough shows both the advantages and disadvantages of a newly assembled army. He sheds light on how miraculous any of their successes were. The British army found the American soldiers laughable. Yet men such as Colonel Henry Knox and General Nathanael Greene, who learned military practices from books, proved themselves worthy of the military leadership thrust upon them.

The British Army

By the mid-18th century, the British Royal Navy was the largest in the world. Its sizable army also was powerful, disciplined, experienced, and skilled because of rigorous infantry training. France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain vied to acquire—and retain—new colonies around the world. With its military might, Britain had gained control not only of the original 13 colonies in America, but also of Gibraltar, Minorca, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Ireland, the West Indies, Bermuda, Honduras, Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, and parts of Africa and India. Britain maintained standing armies in its colonies.

However, by the time of the Revolutionary War, Great Britain had depleted its troops and military funds because of its expansion. Defending multiple colonies over long distances was costly. At enormous expense, Great Britain had ongoing skirmishes with France over control of colonies in North America and India, leaving its troops rundown. Great Britain needed to recruit mercenaries, or soldiers for hire, from Germany to staff its forces against the American colonists in 1776. With no loyalty to the British Empire, the mercenaries could not match the spirit of colonial soldiers, who were excited by the fight for a new nation. Even the regular British infantry lacked the desire for a long-term war. Much of the war-weary British citizens simply wanted profitable trade with the colonists. In 1776 McCullough often highlights how the British Army and Naval commanders, brothers General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe, often chose to back away from fighting rather than take victories when the opportunities were wide open to them. Their characters are often portrayed as lacking the gusto or emotional investment of the Colonial Army commander in chief, George Washington, and his top generals.

Great Britain


Imperialism, in general, is a political system in which one country controls a lot of other countries or territories. The type of control is usually military, economic, or religious. To survive an imperial country depends on unifying government and trade. The imperial government needs to control the local government, and it needs to benefit economically from its trade, land, or resources. Countries have competed for territories throughout history, and the most victorious established vast empires. History has recorded a succession of imperialist rule, from the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, the Roman empire of Augustus Caesar, and the Mongolian Empire of Attila the Hun to the empires of the Mediterranean, western Asia, and South America.


Mercantilism was a widespread economic practice in Western European from the 16th through the 18th centuries; it became the impetus behind many of the wars between Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands during that period. Each nation competed for territories in North America in order to amass fortunes through colonization. Eventually Great Britain vanquished its competition to become the world's largest and wealthiest empire in history.

Key to Great Britain's growth was its focus on retaining economic superiority over the colonies it controlled. By making sure to export (sell to other countries) more than it imported (bought from other countries), more money flowed into Great Britain than went out. This type of economic policy generated income for Great Britain's workers while increasing profits for the monarch, investors, and the owners of the means of production (i.e. those who own the tools, machinery, or technology). When practiced ruthlessly, mercantilism leads to exploitation. For example, Great Britain tried to shut out the colonists from manufacturing, allowing the colonists to only supply the raw materials for goods and products. Great Britain kept the more lucrative manufacturing for itself. As a result, the colonists resented having to pay more for goods they could manufacture for themselves but were not allowed, under British policy and rule, to manufacture.

McCullough makes a point to show the lengths Great Britain and King George III would go to maintain control of the 13 colonies. Privately in a letter to his wife, General Washington's aide-de-camp Joseph Reed marvels over the fact that the British have "come 3,000 miles at such risk, trouble, and expense to rob, plunder, and destroy another people because they will not lay their lives and fortunes at their feet" However, not everyone in Parliament felt the colonies ought to be retained or attacked by the British; many members sympathized, at least ideologically, with the Americans.

The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War ultimately determined what country would take control over the North American colonies. This series of battles was part of a global war between Great Britain and France for territorial control. In 1752 France decided to enforce its claims to Allegheny and Ohio by building armed forts. The governor of Virginia sent George Washington to order the French to leave the Allegheny Valley. France's refusal to leave initiated the French and Indian War in 1754, with France and Spain allied against Great Britain. After France lost in major conflicts (battles of Quebec 1759 and Montreal 1760), the French government finally signed the Peace Treaty of Paris in 1763. According to the treaty, nearly all of the territory east of the Mississippi—in both Canada and continental North America—was ceded to Great Britain.

As a result of the cost of more than a decade of these war campaigns, Great Britain needed to raise revenue quickly. First, it transferred the cost of operating a standing army in the colonies to the colonies themselves. It also levied new taxes on the colonies, including the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the Tea Act of 1773. These taxes, according to British Parliament, were to help pay for the expense of providing security to the colonies. However, the colonists felt these taxes were unfair. This became the root of the tensions leading directly to the Revolutionary War.

Colonial America

The original 13 American colonies at the beginning the Revolutionary War were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.

It took just under 170 years from the founding of the first, tenuous settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, to the founding of the 13 American colonies to create the road to the revolution that threatened the British empire of King George III in 1775. Yet in 1775 King George was at the height of his power. He reigned over an empire that was rooted in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland but then reached halfway around the world. To the west, the empire included parts of Canada and the 13 American colonies, and to the east, parts of India. London, the largest city in Europe with a population of 750,000 people, was regarded as the capital of a booming empire.

Social Composition

Colonial women and men married early and often had many children, and the average life expectancy was higher than in Great Britain. These factors, along with continued European immigration, contributed to a substantial increase in population that reached more than two million people living in the 13 colonies by 1770. The number of enslaved peoples also increased, partly through births, but largely through slave trade. Men, women, and children were enslaved and brought through ports of entry such as Charlestown, South Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island, and while the overwhelming majority lived in the southern colonies, many also were worked in northern colonies on farms, in homes as servants and domestics, as stevedores, and as assistants to craftsmen.

Slaves and indentured servants were at the bottom of the social structure. Stevedores, fishing and whaling crews, and unskilled laborers struggled because they were at the mercy of economic fluctuations. In northern cities, merchants were among the wealthiest, with shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen forming a middle class. Apprenticeships were a common route for journeymen, especially for relatives. Ben Franklin, for example, was apprenticed to his brother's print shop. In the country, farmers who owned their own land tended to do well, while tenant farmers often had to struggle to survive. In the South, the owners of large plantations accumulated wealth and power, and many followed English pursuits such as horse racing. McCullough deftly highlights, through George Washington's awareness of and concerns about, the regional differences between soldiers and how those differences acted as a looming threat capable of tearing the new army apart and dissolving the attempt at independence. Despite the disparate population, all 13 of the colonies would pull together for a revolution against Britain.

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