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Colonies and Empires Index

15th Century 'Voyages of Discovery'
In the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries

European Settlement in North America

Introduction
The First Colony : Virginia
The Pilgrim Fathers
The Mayflower and the Mayflower Compact
Plymouth Settlement
The First Thanksgiving

The Origins of Canada

Introduction : New France
The Hudson Bay Company
France Claims the Mississippi River

The Struggle between France and Britain
for North America

Introduction
The Seven Years' War
The Fall of Quebec
The Treaty of Paris

The American War of Independence

Introduction
Britain Taxes its Colonies
The Boston Massacre
The "Boston Tea Party"
The First Continental Congress
The War for Independence Begins
The Second Continental Congress

History Chapters Main Index

American Victories

General George Washington

General George Washington

 

It was extremely difficult for Washington to convert his "Continentals" into an efficient fighting force. They were short of money and supplies, and lacked training and discipline. However, the task was not much easier for the British. Although, as in the war against France twenty years earlier, the British Navy could control the Atlantic and block any ships sailing to the Americans' assistance, it was difficult to put a regular British army into the field to fight. Officers were poorly trained and had often obtained their commissions because of family or political connections, rather than through merit. In the end, 18000 German mercenaries from Hesse had to be hired to assist in the fighting.

The British strategy was to split the colonies geographically into two by sending armies south from Canada, down the Hudson River, and north from New York, up the same river. Movement could only take place in Spring and Summer, which slowed the whole process down for years. In October 1777, a British army was trapped at Saratoga, New York, and surrounded, outnumbered and, with no hope of rescue, was forced to surrender.

This defeat shook the British Empire. France, which had secretly been helping the Americans anyway, now signed a Treaty (February 1778) and prepared to send men and ships to the Americans' assistance. Spain and Holland also went to war against Britain.

In October 1781, a second British army was trapped at Yorktown, Virginia. In front of it were 16000 American soldiers under Washington, and to its rear a French fleet. "I nearly think this Empire is ruined," said George III on hearing of the defeat.

It was now only a matter of time before Britain got out of the war as best it could, leaving the colonies their independence. In 1783, at the Peace of Versailles, the colonies' independence was recognised and small colonial gains were given to France and Spain.

 

BRITAIN : ISLAND STATE TO EMPIRE

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Colonies and Empires

The Declaration of Independence

 

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

 

In Congress, July 4th 1776, the Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, ,the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. -

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. -

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it 15 is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and 25 to provide new Guards for their future security. -

Such as been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former System of Government.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of Absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

 

The Declaration of Independence

The original Declaration of Independence

 

The Constitution of the USA

It was the Thirteen Colonies who had won their independence from Britain, but certainly not a united, single country. After 1783, there remained little to bind the Thirteen Colonies together. The mother country had been defeated in war and each colony was happy to go its own way again.

The Continental army was neglected and each individual colony, (now called a state), started minting its own money, making its own laws and imposing import duties on goods from other states. Some states were even preparing to raise their own army and navy and to sign treaties with European countries.

The possibility of war between the newly independent states was very real. One state, Rhode Island, printed lots of paper money and allowed its' merchants to settle debts in other states with the worthless currency.

To prevent crises like this, each state sent representatives to Philadelphia in May 1787, to prepare a Constitution. These were educated men who were determined to use the ideas of the Enlightenment. They decided that America would be a Republic. This was unusual at the time; only Genoa, Venice and Holland were republics at the end of the 18th century. The head of state would be a President, and there would be two assemblies; an Upper House, called the Senate, and a Lower House, called the House of Representatives. Together the two houses were called Congress. There would also be a Supreme Court.

Each of the three branches - Executive (President), Legislative (Congress) and Judiciary ( Supreme Court) - was meant to closely examine the other two. In this way no one branch of government could become too powerful and nobody could exercise tyrannical power. This Separation of Powers can be traced back to Montesquieu and Locke.

It was important to define what powers lay with the Federal Government, in the capital and which powers were left to the states. So that no single state could claim to be the seat of the Federal government, some land was set aside on the banks of the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland. It was named the District of Columbia and it was here that the capital would be built.

The decisions made at Philadelphia were written down and became the world's first constitution. In 1789, George Washington was chosen as President and the capital would be named after him.

Americans claimed to have stood up to and fought a tyrannical mother-country. Having beaten Britain in the war, they had set up a republic based on the idea of liberty, equality and justice. Enlightened people all over Europe were happy to see this new nation created. Within two years the same idea would be applied in France.

 

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