- Summarize short and long-term consequences of the American Revolution
- Explain Loyalist and Patriot sentiments and responses to the Revolutionary War
The American Revolution has many short and long-term consequences. Perhaps the most important immediate consequence of declaring independence was the creation of state constitutions in 1776 and 1777. The Revolution also unleashed powerful political, social, and economic forces that would transform the new nation’s politics and society, including increased participation in politics and governance, the legal institutionalization of religious toleration, and the growth and diffusion of the population, particularly westward. The Revolution affected Native Americans by opening up western settlement and creating governments hostile to their territorial claims. Even more broadly, the Revolution ended the mercantilist economy, opening new opportunities in trade and manufacturing.
The new states drafted written constitutions, which at the time was an important innovation from the traditionally unwritten British Constitution. These new state constitutions were based on the idea of “popular sovereignty,” the idea that the power and authority of the government derived from the people. Most created weak governors and strong legislatures with more regular elections and moderately increased the size of the electorate.
A number of states followed the example of Virginia and included a declaration or “bill” of rights in their constitution designed to protect the rights of individuals and circumscribe the prerogative of the government. Pennsylvania’s first state constitution was the most radical and democratic. They created a unicameral legislature and an Executive Council but no genuine executive. All free men could vote, including those who did not own property. Massachusetts’s constitution, passed in 1780, was less democratic in structure but underwent a more popular process of ratification. In the fall of 1779, each town sent delegates—312 in all—to a constitutional convention in Cambridge. Town meetings debated the constitution draft and offered suggestions. Anticipating the later federal constitution, Massachusetts established a three-branch government based on checks and balances between the branches. Independence came in 1776, and so did an unprecedented period of constitution-making and state-building.
The Continental Congress ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781. The articles allowed each state one vote in the Continental Congress. But the articles are perhaps most notable for what they did not allow. Congress was given no power to levy or collect taxes, regulate foreign or interstate commerce, or establish a federal judiciary. These shortcomings rendered the postwar Congress weak and largely ineffectual.
Political and social life changed drastically after independence. Political participation grew as more people gained the right to vote, leading to greater importance being placed on representation within government. In addition, more common citizens (or “new men”) played increasingly important roles in local and state governance. Hierarchy within the states underwent significant changes. Society became less deferential and more egalitarian, less aristocratic, and more meritocratic.
The Revolution’s most important long-term economic consequence was the end of mercantilism. The British Empire had imposed various restrictions on the colonial economies including limiting trade, settlement, and manufacturing. The Revolution opened new markets and new trade relationships. The Americans’ victory also opened the western territories for invasion and settlement, which created new domestic markets. Americans began to create their own manufactures, no longer content to rely on those in Britain.
Despite these important changes, the American Revolution had its limits. Following their unprecedented expansion into political affairs during the imperial resistance, women, enslaved laborers, and Native Americans also served in various capacities during the war. However, the Revolution did not result in civic equality for these groups.
The American Revolution in effect created multiple civil wars. Many of the resentments and antagonisms that fed these conflicts predated the Revolution, and the outbreak of war acted as the catalyst they needed to burst forth. In particular, the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had deeply divided populations. Loyalty to Great Britain came in many forms, from wealthy elites who enjoyed the prewar status quo to escaped enslaved laborers who desired the freedom that the British offered.
Historians disagree on what percentage of colonists were Loyalists; estimates range from 20 percent to over 30 percent. In general, however, of British America’s population of 2.5 million, roughly one-third remained loyal to Great Britain, while another third committed themselves to the cause of independence. The remaining third remained apathetic, content to continue with their daily lives as best they could and preferring not to engage in the struggle.
Many Loyalists were royal officials and merchants with extensive business ties to Great Britain, who viewed themselves as the rightful and just defenders of the British constitution. Others simply resented local business and political rivals who supported the Revolution, viewing the rebels as hypocrites and schemers who selfishly used the break with the Empire to increase their fortunes. In New York’s Hudson Valley, animosity among the tenants of estates owned by Revolutionary leaders turned them to the cause of King and Empire.
During the war, all the states passed confiscation acts, which gave the new revolutionary governments in the former colonies the right to seize Loyalist land and property. To ferret out Loyalists, revolutionary governments also passed laws requiring the male population to take oaths of allegiance to the new states. Those who refused lost their property and were often imprisoned or made to work for the new local revolutionary order.
William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s only surviving son, remained loyal to Crown and Empire and served as royal governor of New Jersey, a post he secured with his father’s help. During the war, revolutionaries imprisoned William in Connecticut; however, he remained steadfast in his allegiance to Great Britain and moved to England after the Revolution. He and his father never reconciled.
As many as nineteen thousand colonists served the British in the effort to put down the rebellion, and after the Revolution, as many as 100,000 colonists left, moving to England or north to Canada rather than staying in the new United States. Eight thousand Whites and five thousand free Blacks went to Britain. Over thirty thousand went to Canada, transforming that nation from predominately French to predominantly British. Another sizable group of Loyalists went to the British West Indies, taking their enslaved people with them.
Hannah Ingraham on moving to Nova Scotia
Hannah Ingraham was eleven years old in 1783, when her Loyalist family left New York for St. Anne’s Point in the colony of Nova Scotia. Later in life, she compiled her memories of that time.
[Father] said we were to go to Nova Scotia, that a ship was ready to take us there, so we made all haste to get ready. . . . Then on Tuesday, suddenly the house was surrounded by rebels and father was taken prisoner and carried away. . . . When morning came, they said he was free to go.
We had five wagon loads carried down the Hudson in a sloop and then we went on board the transport that was to bring us to Saint John. I was just eleven years old when we left our farm to come here. It was the last transport of the season and had on board all those who could not come sooner. The first transports had come in May so the people had all the summer before them to get settled. . . .
We lived in a tent at St. Anne’s until father got a house ready. . . . There was no floor laid, no windows, no chimney, no door, but we had a roof at least. A good fire was blazing and mother had a big loaf of bread and she boiled a kettle of water and put a good piece of butter in a pewter bowl. We toasted the bread and all sat around the bowl and ate our breakfast that morning and mother said: “Thank God we are no longer in dread of having shots fired through our house. This is the sweetest meal I ever tasted for many a day.”
What does this excerpt tell you about life as a Loyalist in New York or as a transplant to Canada?
The American revolutionaries came from many different backgrounds and included merchants, shoemakers, farmers, and sailors. What is extraordinary is the way in which the struggle for independence brought a vast cross-section of society together, animated by a common cause.
During the war, the revolutionaries faced great difficulties, including massive supply problems; clothing, ammunition, tents, and equipment were all hard to come by. After an initial burst of enthusiasm in 1775 and 1776, the shortage of supplies became acute in 1777 through 1779, as Washington’s difficult winter at Valley Forge demonstrates.
Funding the war effort also proved very difficult. As military technology improved over time, the cost of equipping soldiers only increased. The Continental Congress resisted taxing the citizens to pay for the war effort especially because questions about the right to tax contributed to the desire for independence. While Congress relied on the states for some assistance, lack of funds forced it to print $200 million during the war. That amount did not factor in how much the states printed and how much counterfeit money the British spread in an effort to destabilize the American financing effort. Therefore, the value of the “continental,” as the currency was known, depreciated rather quickly. Congress also borrowed money from other nations and from wealthy patriots through interest-bearing loan certificates. In dire times, both the British and the American armies simply took what they needed from the civilian population. They entered homes to confiscate food and clothing, and even furniture they could burn to keep warm. Military leaders on both sides tried to stop such looting, but they did not always succeed.
The cost of supporting the patriot cause did not just come in the form of public debt. Economically speaking, the war impacted the combatants and their families. The government’s decision to print money caused inflation, especially as goods became scarce in British-occupied cities. According to historian Harry M. Ward, goods imported from the West Indies like rum and sugar increased over 500 percent. Even worse, beef cost $.04 a pound in 1777 and $1.69 a pound in 1780, which amounted to about a 4,000 percent increase in the price. Because so many men left home to serve in the army, wages also went up for farmhands and laborers, however, wages did not keep pace with prices. Moreover, those serving in the military often did not receive their pay on time and sometimes not at all. Thus, all people on the home front struggled to get by, but the poor suffered most. Congress as well as the individual states experimented with wage and price controls, but that did little to improve the situation for most Americans. Frustration led to at least forty food and price riots during the conflict, led mostly by women. For example, in 1777, Boston’s women assaulted wealthy merchant Thomas Boylston for refusing to sell coffee at a fair price. To deal with the worst of the war’s economic consequences, private organizations and sometimes local governments coordinated relief efforts because the Continental Congress seemed unwilling to help.
In 1783, when the war finally ended, the public debt was approximately $43 million and the new government had difficulty in paying all of its obligations, including those to the very men who had fought in the war. Many veterans were not fully compensated for their service. Some were promised grants of land in lieu of payment during the conflict, only to lose their grants due to mishandling, unwieldy government regulations, and speculator’s schemes. Many veterans applied for pensions in the years following the wars, tracking down former comrades to certify that they had indeed served, only to be denied their pension on a technicality, such as not proving six month’s continuous service, or for no clear reason at all. For many veterans who had suffered economically by neglecting their farms and businesses to serve, and then who were never properly paid for their trouble, being denied their rightful pensions was a painful loss—one that would cause problems for the new American government by the end of the 1780s.
Would you have joined the Revolution?
While many people today say that they would have quickly joined the cause of the patriots during the Revolutionary War, whether or not you would have actually done so would have been strongly influenced by your location, your race, your gender, your level of political involvement and awareness, and a plethora of other things, like your family, occupation, and personal opinions. This video from the Origin of Everything examines the question, “Would You Have Joined the American Revolution?”
Critical Thinking Questions
- Describe the backgrounds and philosophies of Patriots and Loyalists. Why did colonists with such diverse individual interests unite in support of their respective causes? What might different groups of Patriots and Loyalists, depending upon their circumstances, have hoped to achieve by winning the war?
- How did the colonists manage to triumph in their battle for independence despite Great Britain’s military might? If any of these factors had been different, how might it have affected the outcome of the war?
Articles of Confederation: the initial governing document of the United States, ratified by the Continental Congress in 1781
confiscation acts: state-wide acts that made it legal for state governments to seize Loyalists’ property
Continental currency: the paper currency that the Continental government printed to fund the Revolution
mercantilism: Mercantilism, a state-assisted manufacturing and trading system, created and maintained markets, and ensured the subordination of the colony to the mother country