Is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence?

July 4, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

It seems to me that every year around the 4th of July I get the same question from friends and colleagues: What do you say when you are interpreting an event and the speaker brings up the 4th of July? Sometimes they refer to this event as the revolutionary war; sometimes they call it the war of independence, and to some it is just the American revolution. Which one is the correct term to describe what happened in the United States of America at the end of the 18th century?

Those of you who know me personally have seen how much I like history, so this is an issue that I have studied and researched in the past. We should start by going to the dictionary to see what the difference between the terms revolution and independence is. According to the Oxford dictionary, a revolution is: “A forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system.” It also defines it as: “A dramatic and wide reaching change in conditions, attitudes, or operation.” Webster calls it: “A total or radical change,” and “A fundamental change in political organization, or in a government or constitution; the overthrow or renunciation of one government, and the substitution of another, by the governed.” Oxford defines independence as: “The fact or state of being independent,” and independent as: “Free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority.” Webster tells us that independence is: (the) freedom from outside control or support,” and also as: “The time when a country or region gains political freedom from outside control.”

The American revolution (or war of independence) was the very first of its kind. It emerged at a time when most of the world was ruled by monarchs, and most of the people were confined to a place in society they had inherited and could not leave. It was also a movement led by wealthy intellectuals who organized, debated, compromised, and reached decisions by majority of votes.

The American movement was triggered by resentment of the economic policies of Britain, particularly the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and by the exclusion of the colonists from participation in political decisions affecting their interests. This has come to be known as “taxation without representation.” After the end of the costly French and Indian War of 1763 the British Crown needed money, so it imposed new unpopular taxes such as the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act, as well as trade restrictions on the colonies. For over a century the colonies had been fairly unattached to the Monarchy because of geography and religion. The people of the 13 colonies had made a life with very little help from the British monarch who now wanted even more of the colonists’ hard earned money, fueling growing resentment and strengthening the colonists’ objection to their lack of representation in the British Parliament.

Determined to achieve independence, the colonies formed the Continental Army, composed chiefly of minutemen, to challenge Britain’s large, organized militia. Following disturbances such as the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the war began when Britain sent a force to destroy rebel military stores at Concord, Massachusetts. After fighting broke out in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, rebel forces began a siege of Boston that ended when the Americans forced out the British troops in 1776 during the battle of Bunker Hill. The Crown’s offer of pardon in exchange for surrender was refused by the Americans, who declared themselves independent on July 4, 1776. British forces retaliated by driving the Continental Army of George Washington from New York to New Jersey. On December 25, Washington crossed the Delaware River and won the battles of Trenton and Princeton. After winning the battle of Saratoga, Washington quartered his troops through a terrible winter at Valley Forge, where they received the military training that gave them victory in Monmouth in 1778. British forces in the north were concentrated near New York, and France, which had been secretly furnishing aid to the Americans since 1776, finally declared war on Britain in June 1778. French troops assisted American troops in the south, culminating with the British surrender in 1781, bringing an end to the war on land. War between Britain and the U.S.’s European allies continued at sea. The navies of Spain and the Netherlands contained most of Britain’s navy near Europe and away from the fighting in America. The last battle of the war was won by the American navy in March 1783 in the Straits of Florida. With the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783 Britain recognized the independence of the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and ceded Florida to Spain.

This would be the story of a successful war of independence like many others throughout history. However, the military campaign is only part of what happened in America in 1776. Perhaps the most important event of the war of independence happened in a Philadelphia hall, away from the battlefield.

You see, unlike other nations that have obtained their independence from a foreign power, the thirteen original colonies were not a single entity. This was not a country trying to be independent from another. These were thirteen distinctively different peoples; they had different economies, different religious practices, different geographical circumstances, even different ethnicity. Unlike other independence movements, this was a decision made by a population with very little ties to their European monarch. Spanish and Portuguese nobility established in the rest of the Americas, they were governed by a king through a viceroy. The thirteen colonies had none of that. The immigration to what is now the eastern United States consisted of laborers, farmers, people who had been oppressed and persecuted by their European government. ) We can now see a similar situation with some of the 21st century immigration into the United States from Latin America). These people owed nothing to the crown. Ignored by the Crown, they took advantage of that freedom and successfully built a country where hard work and creativity gave them a lifestyle unimaginable for them in Europe. Two kinds of Americans participated in the movement of independence: the common hard-working individual who knew that it was wrong to give his hard-earned money to the British Monarch who had done nothing for him, and the well-educated, wealthy American segment of the population who were able to articulate this general desire shared by all Americans, and produce a blueprint for a government never seen before where all thirteen colonies, now states, would keep their independence while at the same time would unite with the other colonies for two fundamental purposes: to defend themselves from more powerful foreign nations, and to facilitate commerce and free trade among the thirteen states. They designed a system of government as far away from the powers of the monarch, with a very limited role for the government, with a divided power for checks and balances, and with an inverted pyramid structure where the government closes to the people would have more power than the government more removed from the American citizens. They elaborated this master plan in order to achieve three goals: the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and they made it clear that the government would never be able to take any of that away from the people because the people created the government to serve it, because no authority or power, or rights ever came from the government; they made it clear that all this inalienable rights came from a higher power, by the Creator. In doing so, they doomed all potential tyrants for eternity, because in the United States the government gave nothing to the people and therefore, it cannot ever take it back. It is true that in 1776 blacks were considered property, and women and also men who did not hold land could not vote. It is true that it took an even bloodier war to eliminate slavery, and another century to begin a process of true equality; it is a work in progress; but the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the true American revolution.

Therefore, my friends and colleagues, when asked the question is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence, you should pause and remember that it was a military war of independence because it severed the ties between the United States and the British crown, but it was also a revolution because it went far beyond breaking away from the monarch, it created a brand new system with a limited role by the government, with checks and balances, and with the triple goal of protecting life, liberty, and guaranteeing the pursuit of happiness to all those in the United States. Therefore, as you answer the question, remember John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, signing his name at the bottom of Jefferson’s master piece, with huge letters so that King George III “could see it all the way across the ocean” and answer that it depends on what you are addressing: the military movement or de fundamental change in government; and if they ask you for a term to describe it all, then in my opinion you should say: The revolutionary war. Now I ask you all, limited to the question posed in this post, to share your opinion and comments about this issue.

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§ 11 Responses to Is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence?

  • Melinda GonzalezHibner says:

    Great post, Tony!! Happy 4th of July!

  • […] Any interpreters in the house? Tony Rosado, an American English<>Spanish interpreter, recently wrote an informative and concrete text about the Fourth of July. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, you might perceive the Fourth of July differently. Is this American holiday referred to as the American Revolution, or the War of Independence? While this holiday is long gone, this text outlines some of the challenges interpreters may face when interpreting a particular historical or cultural concept presented by lecturers, conference guests, authors. And even though Rosado focuses on an American holiday, the arguments he presents may easily be applied to historical or cultural holidays on this side of the border and beyond. For example, if a Canadian interpreter is asked to convey concepts related to Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Québec’s national holiday, in another language, how will the interpreter succeed? What about Cinco de Mayo (Mexico), Commemoration Day (Belarus), Armistice Day (Belgium), or Qingming Festival (China)? Read Rosado’s article here: Is it the American Revolution or the War of Independence? […]

  • Laura says:

    Hello. I am studying this period for my history A-level (in England) and I would like to thank you for this article- it has been very useful. My syllabus officially calls it the ‘war of independence’ which is, I believe, the term more widely used in Britain. I like having the word ‘independence’ in there because then it involves the two countries whereas ‘revolution’ can be within a country (like the French revolution). This is also why I like your phrase ‘revolutionary war’ better than simply ‘the American revolution’, because ‘war’ implies two different countries, although less explicitly. A silly question perhaps, but could the problem not best be solved by calling it the ‘revolutionary war of independence’ to get in both terms?

  • Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  • Cecilie says:

    Hi. I’m studying this period for my exam in Denmark. I just wanna thank you for this article, it was a big help to me.

  • xPnosa says:

    Given that revolutions turn out to be a regressive and often oppressive, and fruitless endeavor, we should restrict the use of the word when describing the events associated with 1776. War of Independence separates us from all others on this continent, and Europe. In fact, perhaps it’s time to call the events started in 1775 as the American Phenomenon since no other has ever matched its legacy and scope.

  • Asif raza says:

    very bright concept such an amazing stuff it is.

  • Daughter of the American Revolution says:

    I am researching the Declaration of Independence and would like to expand the perspective a little. In the years leading to the English colonies declaring Independence and declaring themselves states, there were many people on both the European and American continents contemplating rights, liberties and freedom. Certainly there were more histories being made from the perspective of each country which involved these ideas of civil rights, but particular to England, the later movement towards Independence was influenced by three events: the regicide of Charles 1 in the early 1600s – Parliament reasserted its privileges over the King as granted in the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the Seven Years War/French and Indian War. Up until 1763, the majority of the colonists were quite proud to be English subjects. The formerly relaxed administration by the Crown and Parliament changed as they needed revenue to repay the Seven Years War. Influential leaders of the colonies were motivated by personal interest and a concern, with view to prior events in England that bore an uncanny resemblance to events unfolding in the American colonies, that the King and Parliament were once again overstepping the bounds of unalienable rights and liberties granted the English subject. A comparison of the complaints in 1649 bears an uncanny resemblance to the Intolerable Acts, for example. With regard then to the question which term? War of Independence or Revolutionary War? Perhaps Revolutionary War would parallel the events of 1649 and 1688 – where the colonies were in a state of revolt (Kings words in 1774-75). On the other hand, not only did the colonies revolt (but still remain English colonies after a war), but they actually turned their back on the mother country and declared themselves an independent nation. In this sense, the term War of Independence is perhaps more appropriate.

  • L Roy says:

    I know some Brits who (jokingly) call it Traitor’s Day. Very tongue in cheek.

  • Ne says:

    Nice article. Its also important to add that likely the only reason the rebellion and eventually declaring independence was possible, was due to France and Spain (Pacte de Famille) seeking revenge on Britain after several defeats especially the seven year war, in which France was crushed in North America. These European rivals supported anything that would destabilse the British in a never ending attempt to be the strongest. Offering support, financial and military, blockades and distractions. Without the other rivals, it would be hard to see how the colonies as they were would have been able to achieve the victory they did. Ironically the revolution spread to influence France and the royals lost their heads along with many others.

    • Thank you for your comment. Britain’s conflicts with Spain, and especially with France, were important factors; however, there were many other contributing elements, including the most important: the spirit and determination of the American patriots, and the ideas of our founding fathers.

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