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A decade after signing the Declaration of Independence, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush made an important observation that historians are fond of citing. “There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war,” Rush wrote in 1786. “The American war is over; but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.”
As Rush recognized, the events he consciously called a revolution had two main elements. The first, the one that had ended successfully only three years earlier, was to secure political independence from Great Britain. That story hinges on two great questions. First, how did the colonists move from resistance to revolution, from seeking to maintain their rights within the British Empire to renouncing its authority entirely? Second, once the last hopes for reconciliation had evaporated, how did the Americans prevail in a long and difficult military struggle against the greatest power in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world?
But winning independence, Rush also recognized, was only one part of the story. In his mind, the Revolution was more than a struggle for independence and home rule. It had also become a movement to establish new forms of government, modeled on republican principles that made the people the only proper source of political authority. Rush devoted the remainder of his essay to discussing how this new form of government could be “perfected.” Within a year, this effort culminated in the form of the federal Constitution drafted at Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, a Constitution whose first stated purpose was “to form a more perfect union.”
These two great themes—the achievement of independence and the “perfection” of republican governments—are the subject of the documents collected in this volume. These documents cannot capture the experience of the Revolution in its totality. No single volume, however carefully edited, could illustrate the diversity of experience and the range of issues that were felt and voiced during the quarter century of history that separates the beginning of the crisis with Britain in the mid-1760s from the adoption of the Constitution in the late 1780s.
When Benjamin Rush spoke of the Revolutionary War, he meant both the movement that led to independence and the military struggle that secured it. Defined in this way, the revolution really began in the mid-1760s, when the colonists first argued that Parliament had no authority to impose taxes or other laws on a people who sent no representatives of their own to distant London. In the crises over the Stamp Act (1765–1766) and the Townshend duties (1767–1770), Americans and Britons defined and sharpened their arguments about the nature of the British Empire and the rights and duties of its American colonies.