AP US History
American Revolution DBQ
Although many believe that the American identity was forged by the time of the Revolution and that the colonists fought as an American people, this is not the case. While the colonists had developed a sense of unity as a single polity, many still considered this polity as rightfully part of the British Empire by the time of the Revolution. The economies of the colonies, as well as the new culture which grew place in the colonies, had worked to unite the colonists through shared experiences and beliefs, creating a stronger sense of unity. Finally, the colonists had started to develop differing opinions with regards to representation, freedom, and rights from the British, resulting in a division between the two groups that would eventually lead to the Revolution. By the eve of the Revolution, the colonists had developed a strong sense of unity and identity as a single entity as Americans but had not entirely shed their identity as British subjects, which caused conflicting attitudes towards revolution to arise.
By the eve of the Revolution, most colonists had begun to see all the colonies as a distinct and united polity, but many still considered it as a rightful part of the British Empire. One major event which caused the idea of a united colonial identity to grow was the French-Indian War, or, as it was known worldwide, the Seven Years War, which was fought from 1754 to 1763. In North America the conflict started as tensions rose between the French and British colonists over land claims, mainly over the fertile Ohio River Valley. To ensure their claim the French built forts along what they considered the border, claiming the Ohio River Valley for themselves. This led to retaliation by the colonists, who sent out militia forces to take the land for themselves. After several skirmishes along the border war broke out in full, with the British sending troops to aid the colonies in the war. This event united the colonists as it tied them together under a single conflict, with every colony being affected by the war and participating in it, creating greater bonds between the colonists. These bonds also resulted in the colonists starting to consider themselves as a single entity, rather than many different colonies with different backgrounds and politics, as now they were connected through the war. This growing sense of political unity is the cause of the next major unifying feature of the colonies, the Albany and Continental Congress. Between 1754 and 1776 the colonists formed several congresses consisting of representatives from each colony to discuss issues which affected all of them so that they could reach a consensus. They addressed factors such the Intolerable Acts, taxes and laws levied against the colonies following the Boston Tea Party to punish and coerce the colonies. The Continental Congress worked in organizing protests and demonstrations across all the colonies. This clearly indicates the American sense of unity by the eve of the Revolution, as they began to address political problems as a united entity. The unity was clearly displayed in American politics and media, appearing in Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Join or Die” drawing for the Pennsylvania Gazette (Doc. A), depicting a snake divided into 8 pieces, each of which representing a part of the American colonies. Drawn in 1754, the sketch shows that even at the beginning of the French-Indian War the Americans were started to see themselves as a distinct group from the British and other colonies. Laws such as the Intolerable Acts also demonstrated how the British regarded the American colonies as a single entity too, as the British response to acts in Boston was to coerce all the colonies as though they were one community. British Parliamentary member Edmund Burke, an avid supporter in ending the American Revolution through reconciliation rather than force, wrote in notes which he had prepared for a speech to Parliament in 1776 that one could not “Govern America as you govern an English town” (Doc. B). He treats America as a single political entity so far removed from England by “a mighty Ocean” (Doc. B) that it cannot be administered by Parliament, and must rather operate autonomously within the British Empire. Even the British Parliament saw America as a single entity rather than several divided colonies. The American political unity also allowed for the furtherment of the American identity, with Americans beginning to regard themselves as being defined politically by their colonial roots, with their own political background and allegiances towards the colonial America, not the British. Despite this growing sense of political identity and unity, the Americans had not yet forged a political identity that was completely separate from Britain, and even on the very eve of the revolution most Americans believed that they should remain as part of the empire. In John Dickinson’s “Declaration for the Causes of Taking up Arms”, commissioned by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, John discusses the reasons for Americans taking up arms against the British in what would become the American Revolutionary War. He refers to the colonies as the “United Colonies of North America” (Doc. E), showing their new identity as the colonies and not British, while at the same time stating that the colonists do not intend to establish “independent states” (Doc. E) from Great Britain. The declaration discusses how the Americans wish to see the current political order remain, with Americans as a distinct part of the empire, rather than breaking political bonds altogether. Despite having a very strong political sense of identity and unity as Americans on the eve of the Revolution, most Americans still associated themselves as British subjects.
Another factor which contributed to the rise in an American identity and a stronger unity among the colonists was the economic relationships and similarities that had begun to form in the colonies. One major economic factor which tied the colonists together was the effects of British mercantilism on colonial economies and society. The British passed many laws with regards to their colonies in an effort to follow the mercantile economic theory of reducing national imports and maximizing national exports for the country as a whole. The colonies were seen as a source of raw materials not found in England, which could be sent to England for manufacturing rather than importing raw materials from elsewhere. Laws included the Navigation Acts, which restricted colonists from trading directly to foreigners, forcing them to first sell their materials to England for manufacturing first. Laws such as these were largely opposed by the colonists, as it reduced their trading potential to only one nation and laws were also passed to reduce the manufacturing capabilities of America, which was also largely opposed. All this led to greater unity among the colonists, as each shared in the injustice of these acts, which tied them all together. Another economic factor that united Americans and helped form their identity were the protesting that occurred to oppose the Stamp Act, Townshend Duties, Sugar Act, and the Tea Act. Nearly all colonists found these laws as unbearable, despising the idea of finally being taxed directly by Parliament after so many decades of neglect while still not having actual representation in Parliament, and in response, many colonists banded together to protest against these acts as well as boycott certain British goods. This aided in forming strong bonds between Americans, who again could bond over shared grievances and a common cause, but also aided in forming the American identity as one which opposed taxation, and many other forms of government, without representation. In response to these protests and boycotts, and especially to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, or, as the colonists knew it, the Intolerable Acts. These acts resulted in Boston being blockaded from trade by the British until the radical revolutionaries’ spirits were broken. At least five colonies sent aid to relieve Boston, as recorded in documents recording the donations sent for the relief of Boston, and not all colonies were from New England, with colonies such as South Carolina sending a “shipload of rice” (Doc. G) to aid the inhabitants of Boston. The aid sent by other colonies clearly demonstrates an existing unity between the colonies in 1774 and 1775, when the provisions were delivered, as colonies from different regions such as New England and the Carolinas all sympathized with the inhabitants of Boston and desired to aid them. By 1774 colonists from all walks of life and all regions shared a sense of unity with other colonists, enough to aid each other in times of need. Economic events and factors such as organized protests and unanimous opposition to mercantile policies show that the Americans had developed a relatively strong identity and unity by the eve of the Revolution.
A major factor which drove the development of a strong and united American people and identity was the development of a unique culture with social bonds. Culturally the American people were a melting pot of many different ethnicities, leading to a multicultural people. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, a French-American writer, wrote in his Letters from an American Farmer, written in 1769, that the American is a “new man” (Doc. H) who as an American leaves “behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners” (Doc. H) as he creates a new identity different from his European forefathers. The American identity was one which had a diverse background but was built in spite of it. The identity threw off differences entirely, and although they never forgot their place of origin, they identified with their new home instead. This new identity developed its own views on everything from religion and government, further separating the American identity from its European relatives. Crevecoeur writes that Americans have forgotten “that mechanism of subordination” (Doc. H) which allowed for them to submit beneath European monarchs and autocracy. This, along with the American view regarding actual representation over virtual representation, which grew as a result of the American form of government in most colonies consisting of legislatures using actual representation, meant that the Americans had a cultural identity which held very different values from Britain and most of Europe at the time. The colonists had a stronger sense of individual rights and representation, with the idea of republicanism being very popular with colonists on the eve of the Revolution, as expressed in documents such as Common Sense by Thomas Paine. This unique cultural identity aided in uniting the colonists before the Revolution as it allowed for them to unify behind their shared ideals of freedom and equality. Richard Henry Lee, an American statesman from Virginia known for supporting full independence from Britain in the Second Continental Congress, wrote in a letter to his grandson Arthur Lee in 1774 that “all N. America is now most firmly united and as firmly resolved to defend their liberties ad infinitum” (Doc. C). The colonists were able to justify their rebellion and attract new members as they were simply defending rights which had been ingrained in their culture for decades and this acted as a unifying factor across the colonies even before fighting began as it justified acts such as the Boston Tea Party. However, not all Americans shared this attitude towards natural rights regarding freedom and representation. American clergyman Mather Byles wrote to fellow minister Nathaniel Emmons, an ardent Patriot, and author Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton that he would rather be “ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away” (Doc. D) than by “ three thousand tyrants not a mile away” (Doc. D), demonstrating a lack of faith that a government with actual representation in the colonies was any better than a monarchy. This demonstrates that the American identity revolving around freedom and personal liberty was not entirely accepted and unified. Although many colonists were united by the new cultural identity which they had formed in America, there were still colonists who believed that British rule was adequate and acceptable, showing that they had not entirely shed their identity as British subjects.
By the eve of the Revolution, the colonists had developed a strong sense of unity and identity as a single entity as Americans but had not entirely shed their identity as British subjects, which caused conflicting attitudes towards revolution to arise. The colonists had developed a united political identity of their own, but many still thought it appropriate to stay within the British Empire. The colonists had developed shared feelings with regards to the economic standing they held in the British Empire, opposing mercantilism and direct taxation from Parliament. They had also formed a unique culture in America, one built on an ideology which held freedom and representation in high regard, and this allowed for the colonists to unite behind the concept of restoring their rights which they saw as being infringed upon by the British, although many still saw British rule as acceptable. The development of differing identities within a single state would occur again prior to the Civil War in America. The Southern and Northern parts of America developed different identities socially, economically, and politically, causing much tension in the country and again starting a war during which one part attempted to break from another, only in the Civil War the rebels lost. Politically the Southerners were Democrats, supporting the ideals of strict constructionism and slavery, while the North were at first Whigs and then after their dissolution in 1854 they became Republicans. The North was pro-business and industry, opposing the Southerner’s agricultural leanings. Economically the North was centered around factories and manufacturing, while the South was more agricultural, causing a division in ideals and identity. Socially the North was more urban, while also supporting equality between classes and races. The South was rural, strongly class divided, and pro-slavery. All of these factors show that the North and the South had developed into stark contrasts of each other, and as a result of a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, being elected and attempting to pass laws limiting slavery in newly formed states the South attempted to split from the United States to form a new nation. The factors behind the Civil War mirror the Revolution in many ways and show that identity and unity are key factors in a country’s stability and structure no matter the time period.