American Revolution: Causes, Battles and Timeline

The image captures a significant moment during the Battle of Yorktown with American and French troops lined up in formation under a dramatic, cloudy sky. In the foreground, General George Washington, mounted on a white horse, commands the scene. Accompanying him are several officers on horseback and infantry soldiers in uniform. The background features tents and the faint outline of Yorktown, signaling the location of the battle.
The surrender of the British at the Battle of Yorktown, ending the War of Independence in the United States. Public domain painting by John Trumbull.

The American Revolution remains one of the most significant events in world history. Beginning in the 17th century, British settlements in America became more and more autonomous, and they engaged in rebellion after being incited by oppressive laws and taxes. The American War of Independence began in 1775, and its end was formally recognized only by the Treaty of Paris of 1783. During these turbulent years, George Washington led the Americans to defeat British colonial rule, but the British were able to remain in control of their Caribbean possessions. The process of independence shaped American ideals, perhaps even more so than the British colonial legacy. To understand the ideology of the United States, it is crucial to reflect upon the birth of the country.

The Thirteen Colonies

In 1494, the region of Eastern North America was designated to Spain under the Treaty of Tordesillas, but it was later conquered by the Queen of England during a religious war. The land began to be populated in the 17th century, with the founding of the Thirteen Colonies between 1607 and 1682. The first permanent British settlement in North America was founded at Jamestown, Virginia.

Over time, there emerged significant differences among the Thirteen Colonies:

  • The Southern Colonies had a subtropical climate favorable for large-scale, slave-operated plantations primarily aimed at producing crops for exportation.
  • The Northern Colonies, with a temperate climate similar to that of England, focused on agricultural production for the internal market rather than exportation. These colonies, which practiced self-government, were not strictly regulated under the colonial pact, a policy often referred to as “salutary neglect”. This policy enabled a great degree of freedom for the settlers.
  • The Middle Colonies represented a hybrid setup, combining both kinds of economic exploitation: both catering to the domestic and to the foreign market. New York, formerly known as New Amsterdam, was a prime example of this.

Throughout the 18th century, the Thirteen Colonies were in the process of developing a unique identity, marked by growing economic strength and cultural development. For instance, their population grew from around 250,000 to 1.5 million in the period from 1700 to 1760. However, this did not imply a rift between England and America, something that did not occur until the mid-18th century — that is, more than 150 years following the establishment of Jamestown.

The Rifts between England and the Thirteen Colonies

From 1756 to 1763, the Seven Years’ War pitted Britain and Prussia against France and Austria. In the Americas, this conflict gave rise to the French and Indian War, characterized by the participation of Native American tribes in both sides of the conflict. The British government won the war, then perceived the necessity for a new colonial strategy, considering the interests of French Canadians and Native Americans.

England argued that the victory in the war was beneficial for Americans, so they were expected to share in the huge financial burden of the conflict. Conversely, the colonies, which had grown accustomed to a considerable degree of autonomy, sought even greater freedom and saw less need for a robust British presence, given the diminished French threat. The Crown and Parliament, somewhat out of touch across the Atlantic, faced opposition from colonies proficient in self-governance and resentful of external interference.

At the time, England was also beginning its successful foray into the Industrial Revolution, increasing its demand for raw materials, like cotton, and consumer markets, like the Thirteen Colonies. The British no longer had the will to pursue a policy of salutary neglect. Rather than that, they began to actually enforce colonial regulations, as well as introduce new laws that were detrimental to the Thirteen Colonies.

This famous political cartoon, originally created by Benjamin Franklin, features a segmented snake with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies. The segments are arranged to form the snake, which is cut into pieces, with the head labeled "N.E." for New England and the tail labeled "S.C." for South Carolina. Above the snake, the words "JOIN, or DIE" serve as a call to unity among the colonies.
“Join, or Die”, a political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin attempting to convince the Thirteen Colonies to join forces against the British. Public domain image.

The Enforcement of Colonial Regulations

In order to organize the territories conquered during the war, notably Canada and the Ohio Valley, Britain had to take into account the wishes of the French and Native American populations. Their interests directly conflicted with those of the settlers, who were focused on expanding westward up to the Mississippi River. The British, concerned about potential conflicts with Native tribes, favored a gradual westward expansion. This led to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which barred colonial expansion west of the Allegheny Mountains to appease Native American tribes, much to the settlers’ chagrin. They saw this as a blatant disregard for their rights to the land.

In 1764, the Molasses Act was replaced by the Sugar Act, which aimed to reduce smuggling by making legally imported molasses, from Caribbean islands, cheaper than smuggled goods. This Act lowered the tax on sugar but tightened enforcement and increased revenue collection. For instance, not only did it adjust duties on molasses, but it also taxed additional items like wines and silks. In order to enforce this law, the British increased the presence of their warships and customs officials in American waters, which only heightened tensions with New England merchants who felt these measures threatened their livelihoods.

In 1765, the Stamp Act mandated that many printed materials that circulated in the colonies be produced on stamped paper from London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. This act affected a wide range of Americans, leading to discontent and organized resistance. For example, some settlers founded the group called the “Sons of Liberty”, which boycotted Caribbean products and asserted the principle of “no taxation without representation” — that is, demanding representation in the British Parliament if this body were to impose taxes on the Thirteen Colonies.

Also in 1765, the Quartering Act required settlers to house British troops, what was viewed by them as an infringement on their rights.

By then, resistance to British measures was widespread and vigorous, leading to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. Nevertheless, while doing so, the Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, asserting its authority to enact laws for the colonies unconditionally. It was a clear challenge to the principle of “no taxation without representation”.

Further strife was caused by the Townshend Acts in 1767, imposing duties on imported materials like tea, glass, paper, and paint. This led to renewed non-importation agreements and boycotts, which significantly impacted British merchants and sparked notable protests and violence, particularly in Boston. The British response to unrest included the deployment of troops to maintain order. This culminated in the Boston Massacre in 1770, with the death of five settlers and a significant escalation of tensions.

In March 1770, following this tragic development, the British Parliament repealed most taxes from the Townshend Acts, yet duties on tea remained. Three years later, a group of settlers, disguised as Native Americans, decided to stage a direct protest against the tax on tea and the perceived monopoly of the British East India Company. In the Boston Tea Party, they dumped a shipment of tea into the sea, precipitating the harshest British measures since the end of salutary neglect.

This colorful illustration portrays the Boston Tea Party, a pivotal event in American history. It shows a group of colonists, disguised as Native Americans, throwing crates of tea from a ship into the harbor. The scene is animated with crowds cheering on the dockside, some with raised fists and others throwing tea. The waterfront buildings and ships suggest this is a busy colonial port.
The Boston Tea Party, illustrated by Nathaniel Currier. Public domain image.

The Coercive Acts of 1774 intended to punish Massachusetts for revolting against the colonial powers:

  • The Boston Port Act closed the city’s port until the damages from the Boston Tea Party were compensated.
  • The Massachusetts Government Act restructured the colonial government, granting wide-ranging powers to the governor, who was appointed by the Crown.
  • The Administration of Justice Act allowed colonial crimes to be tried in any colonial court, undermining local judicial authority.
  • Another Quartering Act allowed British troops to be housed in vacant colonial buildings.
  • The Quebec Act extended Quebec’s boundary to the Ohio River and enhanced the status of the Catholic Church. This antagonized the Protestant settlers who lived in the Thirteen Colonies.

Rather than isolating Massachusetts, the Coercive Acts ended up uniting the colonies in opposition against the British. From then on, inspired by the ideas of 17th-century English philosophers, the settlers would assert their fundamental rights, such as the right to revolt and the right to political representation. These lofty ideals would make them move closer and closer to independence.

In 1774, the settlers convened in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. This gathering was marked by a division between the Loyalists and the Patriots:

  • The Loyalists, who were the majority, included bureaucrats such as judges and governors. They were less affected by British taxes, especially in the hinterlands. Because they believed Britain would win any potential conflict, they preferred to pursue political negotiations with England rather than independence.
  • The Patriots, who represented a non-negligible part of the population, saw independence as an economic opportunity. They were backed by the “Minutemen”, militias that stood ready to fight for complete autonomy at a moment’s notice.

During the First Continental Congress, each colony cast one vote. They formed the Continental Association to enforce a new boycott of British goods, including a ban on trading with the Caribbean islands (the West Indies). In peaceful terms, they decided to send a petition to the British Parliament, demanding their rights, but this ultimately proved futile. Thus, in not so peaceful terms, they also decided to encourage settlers to gather arms and form militias.

The Congress aimed to present a united front to demand concessions from Britain while avoiding overt radicalism that could fracture colonial unity. Nonetheless, the resolve for independence was strengthened, setting the stage for the American Revolution.

The American War of Independence

The Revolutionary War commenced against General Thomas Gage, a British commander stationed in Boston who was tasked with enforcing the Coercive Acts. Aware that Massachusetts settlers were amassing arms in Concord, Gage dispatched troops to seize these munitions. On April 19, 1775, British forces encountered the Minutemen at Lexington, leading to the first confrontation where several Minutemen were killed, signaling the start of hostilities. The clash, famously dubbed “the shot heard round the world,” escalated as the British moved towards Concord and were continually harassed by American forces on their retreat to Boston, suffering significant casualties.

While the conflict intensified, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. This meeting was dominated by a majority of Patriots, who were pushing for decisive action. They voted for war against England and established the Continental Army under the leadership of George Washington, the commander-in-chief. Despite an early defeat at Bunker Hill in June 1775, the Army attempted to invade Canada and maintained pressure on British forces.

An illustration depicting George Washington standing prominently in a crowded room, being appointed as the Commander-in-Chief. He is in the center, dressed in a blue and buff uniform, facing a group of men seated and standing around him, who are attentively listening and watching. The room is elegantly decorated, indicating the formality of the occasion.
George Washington being appointed the commander of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress. Public domain painting by unknown artist.

At this time, some settlers still wanted to reconcile with Britain, such as Olive Branch, who sent a petition to King George. These endeavors were not reciprocated by the monarch, who instead declared the colonies in rebellion. Meanwhile, British leaders tried to leverage the fear of slave uprisings in the South, a strategy that backfired and pushed more towards the revolutionary cause.

In January 1776, Thomas Paine published “Common Sense”, a pamphlet that attacked the monarchy and advocated for a republic. This document played a pivotal role in shifting public opinion towards full independence. Thus, in July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which articulated the colonies’ right to self-governance and fundamental human rights. The Declaration cited the monarchy’s “arbitrary power” as a justification for breaking with Britain.

By the end of 1776, American defeats were leading to a precarious situation in the revolution. However, Washington’s army was able to achieve victory at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, with daring strikes that revitalized American hopes. In addition, other victories in September and October 1777, in the Battles of Saratoga, helped to enhance the American military position.

In November 1777, the Second Continental Congress finalized the drafts of the Articles of Confederation, which created a defensive alliance among the Thirteen Colonies, considered as sovereign states.

As the revolutionaries asserted their strength, the French became interested in ensuring their ultimate victory, in order to upset British ambitions. In 1778, French delegates met with representatives from the Second Continental Congress and signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance, formalizing the military cooperation between them. Moreover, in 1779, the revolution got the support of Spain. Both the French and the Spanish joined a wide range of supporters of the American Revolution, among which German mercenaries and Dutch arms suppliers.

Despite Britain’s attempts to negotiate, the Americans remained steadfast in their search for independence. Facing the disintegration of its American colonies, Britain shifted its focus to the Caribbean islands, which were under attack from France. The British thought they had enough support from Loyalists there, and they feared losing these extremely lucrative sugar-producing colonies to the French.

In 1781, revolutionary troops successfully overpowered British troops, comprised mostly of American Loyalists, at the Battle of Cowpens. That same year, a combined Franco-American force cornered British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, leading to his surrender. The Battle of Yorktown was essentially the last major conflagration of the War of Independence within the United States. Yet the clashes continued in the Caribbean, where the war would come to an end only in 1782, at the Battle of the Saintes, won by Britain.

Even though the British lost control over the United States, they retained their Caribbean possessions. The new nation stretched from the Mississippi River to the Spanish-held Florida in the south and to Canada in the north. Many Loyalists and former slaves fled American territory, and the British refused to accept the independence.

The final days of the war happened in 1783, when Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris, by which the British acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States in exchange for American acknowledgement of debts owed to British merchants. The revolution secured independence, but the task of building a unified nation lay ahead, marking the beginning of a new chapter in American history: the drafting of a constitution and the first presidential terms, by George Washington and John Adams.

This painting depicts five American diplomats, including Benjamin Franklin, seated and standing around a table draped in green. Franklin, sitting in the center, looks directly at the viewer with a contemplative expression. The men are dressed in 18th-century attire, with white wigs and coats, discussing a document which one of them is holding. The background shows a curtain and a partial view of a classical building, suggesting the setting is a formal meeting room.
The American delegation at the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris, including John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Public domain painting by Benjamin West.


The American Revolution was characterized by its gradual escalation from discontent to direct confrontation. The Thirteen Colonies had a long history of autonomy, but discontent was sparked by Britain’s tightening grip on colonial freedoms, manifesting through various acts and regulations. In the time frame of a few years, this dissatisfaction would turn into iconic confrontations, such as those at Lexington, Concord and York, demonstrating the resolve of the American people. In 1783, not only did the Treaty of Paris affirm American independence, but it also set the stage for the expansion and the development of the nation. The American Revolution would end up transforming a collection of colonies into a unified nation ready to chart its own course in history.




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