The 250th anniversary of the American Revolution is upon us.

This world-changing event was a decade-long rebellion by British subjects who argued that it was unjust for a government in London – thousands of miles away – to make decisions for the two million colonials residing in the 13 North American colonies. What evolved into revolution was led by a landed aristocracy – rich slave-holding planters in the south and wealthy merchants in the north. 

The anniversary of a defining event – the Boston Tea Party – occurs this year. On December 16th, 1773, 116 ruffians dressed as Mohawk Indians stormed aboard three ships in Boston harbour and hurled 342 chests of Chinese tea into the icy water. The marauders, calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, were protesting parliament’s Tea Act that levied a tax on tea and designated the British East India Company as sole North American importer.

The mob action in Boston was hailed throughout the colonies, where a boycott of tea was already underway. Abigail Adams, wife of patriot lawyer John Adams, enthusiastically endorsed the boycott. Women throughout the colonies swore off what they called ‘the pernicious herb’.

Blame the Boston Tea Party for Americans being a nation of coffee drinkers!

The British, who had already stationed soldiers in Massachusetts, responded to the tea party by closing the port of Boston, a devastating blow to a seafaring city of 15 000. 

In the colonies, anger and defiance took hold. In London both the king and parliament took note of the impasse, but historian J.H. Plumb wrote that ‘the majority of the (British) population never thought about America, to them it was the dumping ground for thieves, bankrupts and prostitutes’.

Disparate colonies

In 1774 plantation owners and business leaders called for a continental congress to ‘consult upon the present state of the colonies and the miseries to which they are reduced’. The congress was the first real effort to unite the disparate colonies. It was convened in Philadelphia in September 1774, and comprised 56 delegates including Virginia’s George Washington and Patrick Henry.

John Adams, one of four Massachusetts delegates, described the gathering as a collection of the greatest men on the continent.

At the time there was little talk of a break with England. In London Pennsylvania’s envoy to the crown, Benjamin Franklin, sought compromise, but none was found. Then in April 1775 everything changed. British regulars marched from Boston to nearby Concord to seize an illegal cache of gunpowder. Returning, they were stopped at Lexington by a colonial militia and in the fighting 293 British soldiers were killed. These were ‘the shots heard round the world’. War had begun.

Early in 1776 Thomas Paine, recently arrived from England, anonymously published a 47-page pamphlet called ‘Common Sense’, which called for independence and democratic government. The broadside was an instant best-seller and roused the congressional delegates meeting in Philadelphia. On July 4th, 1776 they issued the declaration of American independence.

The words from Thomas Jefferson’s pen resonated across Europe:

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

Idealistic words don’t win wars, and the Americans wouldn’t have won had royalist France not joined the American cause.

Final humiliation

For the British – the dominant world power – final humiliation came in 1781 when the army of Lord Cornwallis was cornered in coastal Virginia and forced to surrender to a combined force of French and Americans. Britain acceded to American independence.

Thomas Paine, out with another polemic called ‘The Crisis’, wrote that the cause of America ‘is in great measure the cause of all mankind’.

To be sure, America’s Declaration of Independence is a flawed, aspirational document. It declared that all men were created equal, but that didn’t include blacks, American Indians, or women. There was no promise to end slavery or free the 500 000 enslaved people. 

At the time of the American Revolution, only 6% of the people could vote. You had to be Christian to hold public office. In Massachusetts, Catholics could neither vote nor hold office. In most states only property owners could vote.

And yet the American Declaration of Independence and revolutionary war have inspired millions. France had its own revolution, but it descended into slaughter and was defeated.

The American Revolution challenged the divine right of kings and asserted the rights of ordinary people. It exemplified democratic principles, freedom and self-government, goals that remain unfulfilled everywhere, including in the United States of America.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at Watch