Revolutionary Bloodshed: 4 Violent Uprisings that Changed the World

George Washington crossing the Delaware River. Mount Vernon

Revolutions are violent. Success can only occur if common people are willing to take up arms and fight for a new world order. Since the first voyage of Christopher Columbus, European powers fought wars to gain control of territory in the New World. By the eighteenth century there were three major players in the Atlantic World: France, Great Britain, and Spain. Each of these empires had colonized native people in the New World, passed laws to populate their new territory with Europeans and slaves, and reaped the benefits of an expanding commodities exchange in the Atlantic World. Things were looking good. But unbeknownst to imperial powers, change was in the air.

The seventeenth century saw the introduction of the idea of self. John Locke was a philosopher that introduced the idea that people could, and should, govern themselves using their own free will. Enlightenment ideas sparked the formation of new religious orders based upon self-determination. As colonists contemplated ideas of liberty, self-government, and freedom a wave of revolution began to sweep through the empires of the Atlantic World. Below are the four Atlantic World revolutions that resulted in new nations and ushered in the modern era of self-government. The intent here is to focus on the reasons for and the tactics used to achieve independence.

The Bostonians Paying the Exise-man, or Tarring and Feathering, 31 October 1774, painting by Philip Dawe. Public Domain

The American War for Independence 1775-1783

The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years War in 1763. Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal had been at war, fighting for control of land in the New World. When France accepted defeat, it relinquished most of its North American territory in order to retain its sugar islands in the Caribbean. Great Britain controlled most of the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. The lives of most of the colonists in British North America did not change.

Day to day life in the American colonies remained much the same. Along the coast, port cities connected the backcountry to the growing Atlantic World exchange of goods and people. Merchants and shopkeepers sold British-made goods to farmers who grew wheat and corn. Planters in the Chesapeake grew tobacco while rice plantations expanded along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. Backcountry farmers planted crops, milled them, and then shipped them to merchants in port cities like Boston, Baltimore, and Charleston.

Ships docked in port city harbors. Laborers unloaded the ships of rum, tea, Madeira wine, furniture, fine china, tin cups, and farming implements. Very few items were made in the colonies. By law, the American colonists harvested raw materials and shipped them to London where laborers made them into goods. The goods were then shipped back to America via Africa and the Caribbean. When the King proclaimed that Parliament raise taxes on all British colonies to pay for the war debts during the Seven Years War, things in America turned violent.

The public house was the center of American colonial life. With low literacy rates, men and women relied upon the literate to read the latest pamphlet or news report in the pub. As they drank, discussions over taxes became heated. When news of tax acts were read in the pub, the sober and drunk alike began their own debates about government. Many debates ended in typical barroom brawls. Rifts overtook the colonial population. Men and women either declared their loyalty to the crown as Loyalists or they declared their support for a free American government as Patriots. Claiming neutrality did little to fend off violence from Loyalists and Patriots.

Numerous events forced the Patriots into war with Great Britain. The Quartering Act forced colonists to house and feed British soldiers. Patriots were not permitted to discuss any sort of revolutionary ideas in their own homes if they were forced to house and feed British solders. To do so would be viewed as an act of treason and the punishment could be death. The constant presence of British troops in colonial homes forced the creation of secret societies.

Patriots began to form secret societies with the sole purpose of protecting the rights of colonists. While these secret societies formed throughout the colonies, the most famous were the Sons of Liberty. Under the cover of darkness, members of the secret societies would attack the homes of Loyalists or merchants that sold British-made goods. Neighbors turned on each other. Violence and terror spread across all of the colonies.

In spite of the violence already consuming the colony, the catalyst for war was the Currency Act of 1764. Shopkeepers, planters, and farmers had used local paper money to pay debts. British merchants had been accepting the local currency as legal tender. Once the Currency Act of 1764 was implemented, colonists could only use legal money backed by the Crown. Legal tender was hard to come by and practically nonexistent outside of the port cities. When creditors called in their debts, those that could not pay in legal tender suffered repossession of livestock, eviction, or time in jail.

Sparking the violence were drunken mobs. Men and women would storm jails to break out debtors whom they felt were imprisoned unjustly. As news of new taxes and policies were read in the pubs, more drink flowed, and the more vocal the debates of representation. When drunken men and women spilled out of the pubs, they attacked people whose job it was to collect the taxes. Throughout the colonies, representatives of the crown set out to collect taxes from store merchants and farmers. Many were greeted with the violent and painful act of being tarred and feathered and then paraded through the town square.

The mob mentality acts of violence came to a head in Massachusetts. After years of protest and acts of violence against neighbors and the Crown, shots rang out in New England. On the morning of April 19, 1775, the British Regulars opened or returned fire in Lexington, Massachusetts. Later in the afternoon, the Battle of Concord resulted in a Patriot defeat. The American War for Independence had begun.

The American War for Independence was fought on land and sea. In 1778, after years of supplying the Americans with weapons, France officially entered the war. France declared war against Great Britain while declaring the Colonies a sovereign nation. Finally, in 1781, the tide turned dramatically for the Americans when the British Regulars suffered high rates of casualties. The loss of soldiers forced General Cornwallis to surrender to General Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. The war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, when Great Britain officially recognized the United States of America as a sovereign nation.

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  • Douglas Payne

    You never heard of the Russian Revolution??

  • William Bryan Estes

    The defining movement of the 20th century. Without the Russian revolution there would be no Nazis. Douglas is right to call you out.