American Revolution

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Why did it take America so long to declare independence?

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During the lead up to the American Revolution, and even during its first year or so, most colonists had no intention of declaring independence from Great Britain. As far as they were concerned, they were still loyal subjects of the Crown. They had their grievances for sure, but they still saw themselves as Englishmen and Englishwomen.

What they wanted was to restore their rights that they had come to enjoy over the last several generations as English subjects in North America. The colonists had come to expect both individual freedoms and the protection of England. However, English policies towards the colonies had been steadily changing since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. The government in London was using a firmer hand in managing its colonies, and many colonists chaffed at this.

By the mid-1770s, resentment in the colonies had built to such a level that many colonists felt that they had to restore their rights by force. Once this happened, it became clear to many that they had to separate fully from Great Britain and start their own nation.

This was not a light decision. Many dragged their feet at declaring independence or opposed it altogether. Some felt it was treasonous to rebel against one's country, no matter how abusive it had become. Many were afraid that an armed uprising was pure folly. After all, the British military was the most powerful in the world, and there had never been a successful revolt against it in recent times. They were afraid that the loss of life and reprisals would be inevitable and severe. However, by the summer of 1776, it had become clear to many that declaring independence was the only available course of action.

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The short answer is that it didn't want to. The American colonies were not initially interested in declaring independence from the monarchy, and many still scoffed at the idea when the Declaration was signed. Up until the actual revolution, most people just wanted some sort of representation in British Parliament and lower taxes on imported goods. They were loyal British citizens and simply wanted equal treatment.

In the end, however, they realized they would not have that luxury and therefore declared their independence. Unfortunately, many people maintained their loyalist attitude. They separate groups of loyalists and patriots had their own, smaller conflict up to and throughout the revolution because they disagreed about whether they should remain a part of Britain or should revolt.

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The primary reason it took Americans a long time to declare independence is that most of them considered themselves Englishmen, and as such, the King's good and loyal servants. Although independence was perhaps inevitable at some point, the primary cause was that Americans considered themselves entitled to all the rights of Englishmen; that this included their right to be taxed only by their duly elected representatives, rights which they believed had been denied to them. Even after the Battle of Lexingon and Concord, the members of the Second Continental Congress attempted reconciliation with Britain, maintaining their loyalty as the Kings servants, and asking only that they be treated as were their fellow subjects on the far side of the Atlantic:

The apprehension of being degraded into a state of servitude from the preeminent rank of English freemen, while our minds retain the strongest love of liberty, and clearly foresee the miseries preparing for us and our posterity, excites emotions in our breasts which, though we can not describe, we should not wish to conceal. Feeling as men, and thinking as subjects, in the manner we do, silence would be disloyalty. By giving this faithful information, we do all in our power to promote the great objects of your royal cares, the tranquility of your government and the welfare of your people.

 We ask but for peace, liberty, and safety. We wish not a diminution of the prerogative, nor do we solicit the grant of any newright in our favor. Your royal authority over us, and our connection with Great Britain, we shall always carefully and zealously endeavor to support and maintain.

 Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence similarly stated that Independence was not a matter lightly regarded:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Accordingly, Americans were reluctant to declare Independence not so much from fear of the power of the Empire, but because in many respects they hoped to remain a part of that Empire. It was only when reconciliation seemed impossible that they turned to war to free themselves.

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What you have to remember when thinking about this is what a tremendously big step it was to declare independence.  Britain was arguably the most powerful country in the world at the time.  It was the richest and the most democratic.  It would not have been obvious that it was a good idea to break away from such a country.  Partly due to these factors, many Americans were reluctant to try to become independent.  Even after the revolution started, something like one-third of colonists are believed to have been pro-British with another third or so relatively uncommitted to either side.

It would have been very scary to declare independence from the UK when being attached to it carried benefits and when the UK might well have been able to defeat your rebellion and punish the rebels.  So it really is no wonder it took so long to declare independence.

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