Posted by: Ed Darrell | January 30, 2008

Vocabulary: Words and phrases of the American Revolution

Watch for updates to this post, for all definitions.

For events leading up to the American Revolution, there are several terms and phrases students should expect to see on tests. These are terms students should know very well:

No taxation without representation.” – Rallying cry for the American colonists in their dispute with Britain. Colonists rush Stamp Tax collector in protest After 1763 and the end of the French and Indian War, Britain imposed on American colonists a series of taxes to help pay for the war. Americans thought the taxes unfair and unjust, partly because they had contributed men, munitions and money during the war, but also because the taxes were imposed by Parliament and Americans were not allowed to have a representative in Parliament, so they had no voice in the imposition of the taxes. Remember, the English Bill of Rights, in 1689, banned the imposition of taxes on citizens Especially hated was the Stamp Act, which taxed official documents. Americans said they would stay loyal to the crown (the king), but they asked for representatives to protest, and perhaps change taxes. “No taxation without representation,” was a short, clear summary of the political position of the colonists. (In the image at right, from the Constitution Center, angry colonists mob a Stamp Tax collector, to protest the tax.)

petition – a petition is a formal request for action, submitted generally to a legislative body, but perhaps to anyone in power. Frequently a petition will take the form of a request, or a demand, for action, signed by many people who support the action.

unalienable rights – a phrase from the Declaration of Independence. (see image at right). An unalienable right is a basic human right which cannot be taken away by government, and in Ben Franklin’s view, also cannot be given away by the person. Here is the key phrase in the Declaration: “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.”

Declaration of Independence, NARA image

tyrant – generally refers to a person who holds almost absolute power in a nation or organization, and who rules cruelly. Originally it meant an illegitimate ruler. In the Declaration of Independence, mention is made of the “tyranny” of King George III of England.

boycotta protest in which protesters withhold payment of money to the party against whom they have grievances. This form of protest was named after Charles Boycott, who was a land agent for an absentee landord in Ireland in the 1880s. Because the landlord was not present, the land renters had no recourse for grievances or problems. The great Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell recommended that all the people affected by Boycott’s oppressive land management should withhold their rent, a protest that succeeded dramatically.
colonial grievances – complaints the colonies had, or have, against the colonial power. In this unit, it is the grievances of the thirteen English colonies in America against Parliament and King George III. Certainly the grievance include the oppressive taxes, such as the Sugar Tax and the Stamp Tax; the Declaration of Independence lists 28 specific items of grievances.

mercantilism – an economic theory, prevalent during colonial times of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, which held that the prosperity and strength of a nation depended on its supply of capital; in this case, capital generally meant the supply of gold. In short, mercantilism suggests that the richer a nation’s treasury is, the more powerful the nation is. Holding colonies from which money could be essentially mined was an important way for European nations to boost their national treasuries. Mercantilism differs from modern capitalism in several important ways, including its emphasis on the government’s holding of the money instead of private ownership, its discouragement of importing of goods, and in the way it almost requires the government to impose protectionist tariffs to protect domestic businesses, which has the unintended effect of reducing trade and prosperity. Mercantilism does not account for growing markets that can make everyone richer.

revolution- a dramatic change in direction. In history, the word usually refers to a sudden political overthrow brought about from within a given political system, such as the American Revolution, which threw off British monarchy. The word is borrowed from physics, where it means an orbital motion about a point, or a turning or rotation about an axis. In the study of history, revolutions are often rebellions, such as the French Revolution (1789), or the Russian Revolution (1917). It may also refer to less quick and less violent changes, such as the Industrial Revolution (circa 1780 to 1880).

Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson – the chief author of the Declaration of Independence (read it here). Jefferson was a great Renaissance Man, a true polymath who excelled in political theory and practical politics, the study of history, architecture, and agriculture, though he was generally a financial failure in his personal life. Jefferson followed Ben Franklin as the new nation’s Minister (Ambassador) to France under the Articles of Confederation. He was Secretary of State to George Washington’s presidency, and Vice President in the administration of John Adams. Jefferson defeated Adams in the nasty election of 1800, but got the presidency only after the House of Representatives broke the electoral college tie between Jefferson and his vice president running mate, Aaron Burr. Jefferson’s presidency is known for cementing the freedoms under the Constitution, and for the Louisiana Purchase.

George Washington – Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, the army of Americans who stood up to, and defeated, the British Army, in the American Revolution. Washington modeled his life on the stories of the life of the great Roman citizen and dictator, Cincinnatus; following Cincinnatus’ example, Washington resigned his command when the war was over, rather than seek power for himself. Washington won election as our first president under the Constitution, and again followed Cincinnatus’ example when he stepped out of office after two terms. Richard “Lighthorse Harry” Lee eulogized Washington as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington is known as “the father of his country.” (Click on the Gilbert Stuart, full-length “Lansdown” portrait of Washington at right, to go to an interactive version at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery site.)

Samuel Adams, famous J. S. Copley portrait Samuel Adamsfirebrand patriot who organized the Sons of Liberty in Boston, a secretive group who invented original ways to protest British taxation and other oppressions. For example, the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans and tossed crates of tea from British freight ships into Boston Harbor — the “Boston Tea Party.” Samuel Adams was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a cousin to John Adams, the second president. Samuel Adams was a brewer of beer, after whom a modern beer is named.

Articles of Confederation – an agreement between the 13 British colonies in America on a form of government to get them through the war; the agreement was proposed in 1776, but not ratified fully until spring 1781; the war ended in October 1781. The Articles required that all 13 colonies approve major laws; the Articles allowed no taxing power to the Continental Congress, which made raising money difficult, and then impossible; and the Articles provided no means of settling disputes between the colonies. For these reasons, Madison and Hamilton proposed to amend the charter. The amending convention realized the Articles were unsalvageable, however, and it wrote the Constitution instead.

French and Indian War – a war between the French and British in colonial America more than ten years before the American Revolution, with Native American tribes fighting alongside the two European powers. It was the American part of the Seven Years’ War. It ran, in America, for nine years, from 1754 to 1763. It was the fourth colonial war between France and Britain; it resulted in the British conquest of New France east of the Mississippi, and Spanish Florida. This created Britain’s claim to Canada. As a bizarre result of the war, England proclaimed that American colonists could not establish residences west of the Appalachian Mountains, along a line known as the Line of the Proclamatio of 1763. This was a sore point with the colonists, who badly wanted to expand their colonies west into the Ohio Valley. During the war, American Indians fought on both sides, but for political reasons it became known as the French and Indian War, in America. In Europe it was even more muddled, the Seven Years’ War being started in a dispute between Austria (France’s ally) and Britain.


  1. thank you very much for your information, it helped me very much for my test


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    Otherwise, of course, your comment is just static.

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  6. Try this site for those definitions. You could also use Wikipedia.

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