The Revolution changed the lives of virtually every American. As a result of the long struggle against British rule, the public sphere, and with it the right to vote, expanded markedly. Bound labor among whites declined dramatically, religious groups enjoyed greater liberty, blacks mounted a challenge to slavery in which many won their freedom, and women in some ways enjoyed a higher status. On the other hand, for Indians, many Loyalists, and the majority of slaves, American independence meant a deprivation of freedom.

Two pages from A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly (1787), which taught virtuous behavior to young children. The Revolution stimulated interest in improving female education.

America Triumphant and Britannia in Distress. An elaborate allegory representing American independence as a triumph of liberty, from an almanac published in Boston in 1781. An accompanying key explains the symbolism: (1) America [on the right] holds an olive branch of peace and invites all nations to trade with her. (2) News of America’s triumph is broadcast around the world, (ļ) Britain, seated next to the devil, laments the loss of trade with America. (4) The British flag falls from a fortress. (5) European ships in American waters. (6) Benedict Arnold, the traitor, hangs himself in New York City [in fact, Arnold died of natural causes in London in 1801].

In the words of one British admirer, “the genuine liberty on which America is founded is totally and entirely a new system of things and men.” A new nation, which defined itself as an embodiment of freedom, had taken its place on the world stage. “Not only Britain, but all Europe are spectators of the conflict, the arduous struggle for liberty,” wrote Ezra Stiles, a future president of Yale College, in 1775. “We consider ourselves as laying the foundation of a glorious future empire, and acting a part for the contemplation of the ages.”

Like Stiles, many other Americans were convinced that their struggle for independence had worldwide significance. American independence, indeed, formed part of a larger set of movements that transformed the Atlantic world. The year 1776 saw not only Paine’s Common Sense and Jefferson’s Declaration but also the publicationin England of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which attacked the British policy of closely regulating trade, and Jeremy Bentham’s Fragment on Government, which criticized the nature of British government.

The winds of change were sweeping across the Atlantic world. The ideals of the American Revolution helped to inspire countless subsequent struggles for social equality and national independence, from the French Revolution, which exploded in 1789, to the uprising that overthrew the slave system in Haiti in the 1790s, to the Latin American wars for independence in the early nineteenth century, and numerous struggles of colonial peoples for nationhood in the twentieth. But within the new republic, the debate over who should enjoy the blessings of liberty would continue long after independence had been achieved.


1. Colonial society was based on inequality and obedience to authority. How did the American Revolution challenge the existing order of society?

2. Why did the Revolution cause more radical changes in Pennsylvania than elsewhere, and how was this radicalism demonstrated in the new state constitution?

3. Even after the American Revolution, conservatives denied that freedom and equality were synonymous, and opposed the growth of democracy. How did conservatives resist democratization in the South?

4. What role did the founders forsee for religion in American government and society?

5. What was the impact of the American Revolution on Native Americans?

6. What were the most important features of the new state constitutions?

7. How did popular views of property rights and the marriage contract prevent women and slaves from enjoying all the freedoms of the social contract?

8. What was “republican motherhood,” and why was it significant?


1. Revolutions create change, challenge authority, and embolden marginalized groups to apply revolutionary ideals to their own situation. I low did slaves, indentured servants, women, and Native Americans use the ideals of freedom to further their causes?

2. Wartime patriots insisted that freedom of conscience was a key part of liberty. What steps were taken to protect religious freedom, and did this freedom apply to everyone?

3. Before the American Revolution, Americans commonly held that the role of government was to promote the public good. After the war, merchants and other leaders advocated free trade and free markets, ruled by self-interest, as an expression of freedom. How did this new concept of freedom for some Americans deprive others of their freedoms?

4. Patriots claimed to be fighting a war to protect liberty and freedom in America, yet these ideas did not apply to everyone. How did Loyalists and Native Americans suffer, and why were their “natural rights” not protected?

5. “Slavery” and “liberty” were the two most frequently used terms in the debate over freedom. How did they apply to the political rights of white properly owners, but then mean something entirely different when referring to African-Americans held as property?

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