As England tightened its control over the American colonies, the colonists started to resist. In December of 1773, a group of colonists led by Sam Adams disguised themselves as Native Americans. They dumped British-owned tea into Boston Harbor to protest British control of the American economy. This event became known as the Boston Tea Party. Resistance to George III grew, and in April 1775, British soldiers exchanged shots with American colonists.The Continental Congress, made up of representatives from all the thirteen colonies, directed the war from Philadelphia. It appointed George Washington of Virginia as commander of the Continental Army. The war, which lasted eight years, was the longest war in U.S. history until the Vietnam War.
Washington described his army as "composed of men sometimes half-starved, always in rags, often without pay." And these soldiers had to face the best-trained army in the world. In addition, about a third of the colonists remained loyal to England. Many of them served in the English army.At first the colonists were fighting merely to get the English to stop interfering in their affairs. Then, in 1776, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. In this pamphlet he called for independence from England and pointed out why independence had become necessary. Common Sense had such an influence that the Continental Congress appointed five members, including Thomas Jefferson, to prepare the Declaration of Independence. This was issued on July 4, 1776.
The English sent an experienced general, William Howe, to command their army. Throughout the war, Washington's main problem was how to avoid a severe defeat and capture by this greatly superior army. Howe won almost all the major battles, but Washington always managed to save his army by a skillful retreat.The new nation won its first great victory in 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga, in New York. This battle was the turning point of the war. Because of it, France began sending aid to the Americans.
At this time, the fighting, which had taken place mostly in the northern colonies, moved to the south. The English sent General Cornwallis to crush the southern rebels. Late in the summer of 1781, Cornwallis set up his base at Yorktown, Virginia, along the coast. He thought an English fleet of ships would protect him there. But a French fleet surprised the English and drove off their ships. Washington then marched his army down from New York and pinned Cornwallis against the sea. The fighting ended. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, brought the war to a close.
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The Continental Congress in Philadelphia drew up the Articles of Confederation to set up and describe the new national government. The Congress still led the national government, but the Articles gave it so little power that it could not even tax the states without their permission. Most states collected their own taxes and kept the money. They quarreled among themselves about trade and other matters that Congress could do little about. With no money from the states, the Congress also was unable to pay the country's Revolutionary War debts. The new United States were not really united, and troubles were mounting.Finally, in 1787, leaders from all the states met in Philadelphia. They planned to rewrite the Articles of Confederation. But this proved hopeless. Instead they created the United States Constitution. The Constitution set up a strong central government with certain powers over the states. In 1789, George Washington became the first president elected under the U.S. Constitution.
New states created from western lands began to join the Union soon after the Constitution took effect. At the same time, the population began to increase rapidly. Pioneers like Daniel Boone led settlers into the western territories.In 1803 the United States doubled the size of its land area. President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France. The Louisiana Territory took in more than 800,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River. By this time Americans were taking a different view of themselves. The United States was no longer a tiny country trying to get established. It had grown into a large country with plenty of land for its people.
Troubles with England, however, came up again. By 1812 England and France were back at war. England cut off U.S. ships taking supplies to France. It even stopped U.S. ships and captured sailors from them to serve on English ships. France showed equal disrespect for U.S. rights at sea, but Americans remembered that France had helped fight their War of Independence against England. So the United States sided with France and went to war against England to protect its own shipping rights.The War of 1812 lasted only eighteen months. Neither the United States nor England won much in the treaty that ended the war. But the United States established its rights at sea and gained the respect of foreign nations. And the war had one other important effect. While fighting England, Americans could not import English manufactured goods as they had done in the past. So the United States built many factories during the war. By the end of the war, the United States was ready to advance into the industrial age along with Europe.
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This belief added yet more fuel to Americans' burning sense of national pride. It lay behind an idea that they called "Manifest Destiny." Manifest Destiny meant that the United States had the duty to bring democracy and progress to the Western Hemisphere, and the way to do that was to expand the territory of the United States.
The idea of Manifest Destiny also prompted the Monroe Doctrine, which President James Monroe issued in 1823. The U.S. government has upheld this doctrine ever since. The Monroe Doctrine states that European nations must not interfere with any nations in the Western Hemisphere or try to acquire new territory there.
The large territory of Texas lay on the southwestern border of the United States. Originally a Spanish colony, the Texas Territory became a part of Mexico when Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1822. Texans gained their freedom from Mexico in 1836. Ten years later, Texas became the twenty-eighth state. Soon after, the United States quarreled with Mexico over the new state's southern boundary.The Texas boundary dispute led to war with Mexico. President James Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny. He welcomed the war as a chance to take away more Mexican land as far west as California. The Mexican war ended in 1847 after U.S. armies captured Mexico City. Mexico ceded, or gave up, nearly all its land west of Texas. In return, the United States paid Mexico $15 million. President Polk peacefully obtained the Oregon Country that England had claimed. Americans had achieved their "destiny" to reach from sea to sea.
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When Texas entered the Union in 1845, the country had 28 states. There were 14 slave states and 14 free states. But because the country was expanding, this balance probably could not last. People in the South realized that northern free states might soon outnumber southern slave states. This worried southerners. They did not want antislavery northerners to dictate to them.The antislavery movement grew rapidly in the North. Leaders of the movement were called abolitionists. They wanted to abolish, or end, slavery altogether. Other northerners believed at first that just limiting slavery to certain states would be fair enough. But in 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin painted a gloomy picture of a slave's life. It became a bestseller and prompted many more northerners to rally against slavery.
By now many northerners were as wealthy as southern planters. Remember that the nation had built factories during the War of 1812. These factories were in the North, and northern businesses had captured large markets for their manufactured goods. The South, on the other hand, had continued to concentrate on agriculture. Southerners had built few factories. These economic differences plus the great issue of slavery caused the North and South to drift further and further apart.Back to Top