Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries Americans developed a unique system of government with revolutionary ideals – never seen anywhere else before. Americans adopted representative governments with democratic principles that allowed each person to have a voice in the decisions about their country. This atmosphere of new ideas and new political rights fostered a growing sense of a unique American identity – not found anywhere else. By the eve of the American Revolution, colonists had embraced a new identity – completely different from their English roots – that helped fuel their resistance against Britain; however, plagued by petty disagreements and discouraged by the large Loyalist population, the Americans were never able to effectively unite against the British.
During the early 18th century, the British government adopted a policy of “salutary neglect” toward the colonies, which gave Americans freedom to develop their own political systems – as long as they followed the ideas of Mercantilism. When the first colonies were chartered in the 17th century, the majority adopted some sort of political institution that gave voting rights to each and every man. In the North, most citizens were able to participate in the local Town Meetings and voice their opinions. In addition, nearly every colony had a representative assembly with elected officials. These new political institutions – that the Americans had built from the ground up, and learned to cherish – caused Americans to forge a distinctive identity. However, there were other factors that contributed to the growth of a new American identity.
The American/British victory in the French and Indian War taught the Americans that they could unite in difficult times and triumph over adversity. The victory increased American morale and promoted patriotism throughout the colonies. However, when Parliament attempted to tighten control of the colonial governments and make the colonists pay for their fair share of the war, colonists were furious at the attack on their freedoms. Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, the proud colonists felt insulted that the British government would bypass their own colonial system of taxation. Americans were upset because they felt that they shouldn’t be taxed by an assembly in which they had no representation. Combined with Parliament’s other unreasonable acts like the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act, colonists became concerned about the increasingly hostile acts of Parliament which, in their eyes, were designed to limit their rights and liberties. Parliament’s aggression towards the colonies reinforced the fact that colonist’s political, economic, and social ideas varied significantly with those of the British. In addition, a large percentage of the colonists were not British in the least, but rather Dutch, or Scots-Irish, or some other race and had no loyalty to the Crown whatsoever. Why would the proud colonists listen to an assembly 3000 miles away, when they had their own representative assemblies that spoke for their interests? It is precisely this question that colonists were asking on the eve of the Revolution.
Colonists had developed a strong sense of American identity by the 18th century, however, when the time came for the colonists to unite against the British, disorganization and uncertainty ran rampant. Organizations that were meant to be unifying factors for the colonists, like the Continental Congress, were little more than debating clubs that had to work for weeks before agreeing on anything. In addition, American resistance was further hampered by a conflict of colonial interests. Many colonists, dubbed Loyalists, were still faithful to the Crown and did not want to break away from Great Britain. Furthermore, some colonists refused to support the revolution, because they felt that a break with Britain would mean economic turmoil – a fact probably not far from the truth. Loyalists fought with the American rebels, while the rebels also fought with the British troops. Some colonists aided the Patriots, while others aided the British. In one instance, Loyalists made clothes and shoes and sold them to the British soldiers (with profits of 50 to 200 percent), while George Washington’s army was freezing in nearby Valley Forge. Such was the colonial conflict of interests.
By the eve of the American Revolution, Parliament’s aggression towards the colonists had drawn a distinction between the colonist’s political, economic, and social ideas and those of the British. Colonists had embraced a new identity that helped fuel their resistance against Britain. However, disunity plagued the Americans, and it was only with the support of the French that the Americans were finally able to gain independence.
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