56 Introduction to Literature of The Revolution

Wendy Kurant

The American eighteenth century—often called the Revolutionary or Early National period because it coincided with the establishment of the soon-to-be United States—was one punctuated by warfare and nation building. The country’s first major experience with warfare in the century came with the French and Indian War. Part of the broader Seven Years War, this North American phase began in 1754 with territorial disputes over the upper Ohio River Valley by traders and settlers of New France and traders and setters of the Virginia and Pennsylvania colonies. The dispute escalated when both territories established forts in the area and escalated again when they called their respective mother countries into the argument. The fight between the colonies was another extension of the historic enmity between France and England and was also mirrored by enmities between different Native American tribes who allied themselves to the side which best served their interests and desire to defeat rival tribes. The North American phase of the war concluded in 1760. The larger conflict was not settled until 1763, and France was compelled to cede Canada and lands east of the Mississippi to England.

American colonies’ participation in the French and Indian War affected the American Revolution in two ways: American militias gained valuable military experience that was put to use in the later conflict, and American dissatisfaction with England erupted once they started getting the bills from the war. The British government and public felt that it was only right that the American colonists   help pay the costs of conducting the French and Indian War since it was on their behalf. The American colonists disagreed since they had no representation in the government that decided what to tax and how much. American resentment of and resistance to England peaked with the so-called Intolerable Acts of 1774, which added the insult of usurped governance to the injury of taxation. Among other things, the Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston until the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party was repaid. It also put the Massachusetts government under direct British control and required American colonists to quarter the British soldiers there to enforce that control. In response, all the colonies with the exception of Georgia convened the First Continental Congress and sent a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to England in late 1774. England’s reply was to send troops to put down colonial resistance, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 initiated the American Revolutionary War.

Soon after those battles, the colonists set about establishing a government. The Second Continental Congress met to draft the Articles of Confederation. Codifying a loose connection among sovereign states with a limited central government,  the Articles also established the new name of the country and a bicameral federal legislature, one side with representation proportionate to population and the other with equal representation. Completed in 1777 and finally ratified in 1781, the Articles proved to be problematic after peace with England was officially declared with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While the new Congress had the power to pass laws, it lacked the power to enforce them, and it became clear within four years of nationhood that a new plan was needed.

When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, they all agreed to the rule of secrecy—no details of the new Constitution would be leaked until the draft was complete and offered to the states for ratification. It was only when the draft was released in 1789 that the national debate about its principles began in earnest. Two major positions quickly coalesced. The Federalists, who included George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, supported the Constitution as written, favoring a strong central government composed of executive and judicial branches added to the legislative branch and relatively weaker state governments. Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry  were  leery  of  the  consolidation  of  power by a federal government headed by a President, arguing that the Constitution replicated a system like the one from which they had just separated. They wanted strong state governments because they thought states would be more likely to protect individual freedoms. Anti-federalists ultimately influenced the new form of the federal government by the addition of the Bill of Rights, designed to protect individual rights from the power of the federal government. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights containing ten amendments were finally ratified by the last state in 1790.


Becoming America, Wendy Kurant, ed., CC-BY-SA