Social distinctions were more blurred than in Europe, although wealthy landowners and merchants dominated government and society. In politics, as in much else, there was a good deal of free discussion.

Colonists felt entitled to the rights of English citizens, and their colonial assemblies exercised much control over local affairs. Many also had an increasing sense of their own destiny separate from Britain.

Discontent in the Colonies

The French and Indian War had drained the British treasury. George III and his advisors insisted that colonists pay the costs of their own defense, including troops still stationed in frontier posts.

Growing Tensions

Parliament passed new taxes on the colonies. The Sugar Act of 1764 taxed imports, while the Stamp Act of 1765 taxed items such as newspapers and pamphlets. Although the new taxes were not burdensome, colonists bitterly resented them as an attack on their rights. “No taxation without representation,” they protested. Since they had no representatives in Parliament, they believed that Parliament had no right to tax them. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but asserted its right to tax the colonists.

Illustration of a group of seated and standing around a table with papers, quills and inkwell, engaged in heated discussion; one man’s hat has been discarded on the floor

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman served as the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence.

A series of violent clashes intensified the colonists' anger. In March 1770, British soldiers in Boston opened fire on a crowd that was pelting them with stones and snowballs. Colonists called the death of five protesters the Boston Massacre.

Then, in December 1773, a handful of colonists hurled a cargo of recently arrived British tea into the harbor to protest a tax on tea. The incident became known as the Boston Tea Party. When Parliament passed harsh laws to punish Massachusetts, other colonies rallied to help Massachusetts.

As tensions rose, representatives from 12 colonies gathered in Philadelphia in 1774. At the First Continental Congress, representatives discussed how to respond to Britain's harsh moves against Massachusetts.

Among the participants were the radical but fair-minded John Adams, the Virginia planter and soldier George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, a leading figure of the American Enlightenment.

Declaring Independence

In April 1775, the crisis between the colonists and the British exploded into war. At the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, colonists clashed with British troops—the opening shots of the American Revolution. Soon after, the Second Continental Congress met and set up a Continental Army with George Washington in command.

In 1776, Congress took a momentous step, voting to declare independence from Britain. Young Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson's political philosophy was heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers, especially John Locke. The document clearly reflects Locke's political and legal ideas, including the idea of natural law. It announced that people have “certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the Declaration, Jefferson further stated that people had the right “to alter or to abolish” unjust governments, echoing Locke's ideas about the right to revolt. He then carefully detailed the colonists' grievances against Britain, such as imposing taxes without consent, dissolving colonial legislatures at will, and depriving many colonists of their legal right to trial by jury. Because Parliament had trampled colonists' natural rights, he argued, the colonists had the right to rebel and set up a new government to protect them.

The document spelled out the political principle of popular sovereignty, the idea that all government power comes from the people.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments