This collection of American Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short answer questions, discussion points or other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute a question to this page, please contact Alpha History.
1. Investigate and discuss three British attempts to settle in North America in the 16th and early 17th centuries. What challenges did these early settlements encounter?
2. What was the political legacy of the Jamestown settlement and the Mayflower Pilgrims? What ideas did these groups have about politics and government?
3. Explain how British governments encouraged or supported exploration and colonial settlement in North America.
4. Compare and contrast the three colonial regions: New England, the Middle Colonies and the Southern Colonies. How were their societies and economies similar and different?
5. Explain the role of religion in the development of colonial society between the early 1600s and the American Revolution.
6. Colonial American society is sometimes wrongly presented as a mirror of British society. Discuss how life in colonial America was different to life in Britain.
7. Examine the nature of class and power in colonial American society. Which people or groups wielded power and how?
8. Describe everyday life in colonial America. Provide some comparisons between life in large cities, rural settlements and frontier regions.
9. How and why was slavery integrated into colonial American society and economics by the mid 1700s?
10. How were Native American tribes and peoples affected by the settlement of British America between the early 1600s and the mid 1700s?
Catalysts for change
1. Investigate the political participation of colonial Americans before the revolution. To what extent were ordinary people involved in local and provincial government and decision making?
2. Explain how distance shaped the relationship between Great Britain and her American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.
3. Referring to specific examples, explain why colonial assemblies sometimes came into dispute or conflict with their royal governors. How were these disputes usually resolved?
4. What was meant by the term ‘salutary neglect’? Explain how this policy worked in real terms, both for Britain and the Americans.
5. The French and Indian War is sometimes described as “a war for control of America”. To what extent was this true? What were the outcomes of this conflict?
6. What was the purpose of the British Royal Proclamation of 1763? Which American colonists were affected by this measure and how did they respond?
7. The British parliament passed two Currency Acts in 1751 and 1764. What restrictions did these acts place on the colonies and who was most affected?
8. “Smuggling” is often cited as a source of tension between Britain and colonial Americans. Define smuggling, explain who engaged in it and discuss how prevalent it was prior to 1764.
9. What are writs of assistance? Referring to specific examples, why did they generate revolutionary sentiment in colonial America?
10. The Sugar Act of 1764 lowered British customs duties on sugar and molasses. Why did it cause unrest among American colonists, particularly the merchant class?
The Stamp Act crisis
1. Focusing on the British government and the problems it faced in 1764, explained why its ministers considered introducing a stamp tax in colonial America.
2. Explain the purpose of a colonial stamp tax, how it would be implemented and which people or groups it would affect.
3. Research and discuss the role of Benjamin Franklin, during the formulation and passing of the Stamp Act.
4. Discuss the opposition to the Stamp Act in Boston in 1765. Which people and groups resisted the Stamp Act? What methods did they use to achieve this?
5. Locate three primary sources, British or American, that contain protests or criticisms of the Stamp Act. Extract and discuss the arguments they use.
6. Discuss attitudes to the Stamp Act within Britain. To what extent was the legislation supported there?
7. Locate three visual sources that contain protests or criticisms of the Stamp Act. Discuss the content of these sources and explain how they use ideas, symbols and tone to encourage opposition to the Stamp Act.
8. Referring to three specific incidents, explain how American colonists used intimidation or violence to protest against the Stamp Act.
9. What are the differences between ‘actual representation’ and ‘virtual representation’? Why did these differences become crucial in the unfolding revolution?
10. Explain why the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 and the implications this had for relations between Britain and her American colonies.
From the Townshend duties to the Tea Party
1. Discuss the purposes and content of the Revenue Acts or ‘Townshend duties’ of 1764. What commodities were affected by these duties?
2. How did the American colonists mobilise to resist the Townshend duties? Which groups or classes became involved in this campaign?
3. Summarise the ideas and objections to British policies expressed in John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer (1767-68).
4. What ideas were contained in the Massachusetts Circular Letter, written by Samuel Adams in early 1768? What were the consequences of this letter for Anglo-American relations?
5. Referring to specific people or sources, explain colonial objections to the presence of standing armies in American cities.
6. What was the background to the Boston Massacre? Why did violence erupt between Bostonians and British soldiers in March 1770?
7. Using primary and secondary evidence, explain who was more responsible for the Boston Massacre: the Boston mob or the British soldiers?
8. How did Samuel Adams and the Committees of Correspondence contribute to the American Revolution between March 1770 and December 1773?
9. Explain the purpose of the Tea Act of 1773. Which Americans were most affected by this act and how did they respond?
10. Was the Boston Tea Party a protest against British taxation, British trade regulations, or something else?
From the Coercive Acts to independence
1. Describe the punitive measures implemented in the Coercive Acts. Why did the Americans consider these acts ‘intolerable’?
2. How did the appointment of General Thomas Gage as governor of Massachusetts contribute to a revolutionary situation there?
3. Though not one of the Coercive Acts, the Quebec Act (1774) also generated opposition in America. What were the terms of this act and why did the Americans oppose it?
4. Discuss the content of the Fairfax Resolves and Suffolk Resolves of 1774. What impact did these local resolutions have on the broader revolution?
5. What decisions or resolutions were made by the first Continental Congress in 1774? How did they shape the course of the revolution?
6. What attempts were made to reconcile the American colonies with Great Britain between mid 1774 and July 1776? Which people or groups favoured reconciliation?
7. Referring to specific people, groups and places, explain how the American colonies mobilised for war between mid 1774 and April 1775.
8. What ideas and arguments were advanced in Thomas Paine’s 1776 essay Common Sense? Discuss the impact of this document.
9. Describe the push for independence within the second Continental Congress. Which groups and people lobbied for a break with Britain?
10. Referring to specific phrases or passages, describe how the Declaration of Independence expressed or reflected Enlightenment values and ideas.
The Revolutionary War
1. In its first months the Continental Army was notorious for its lack of military organisation and poor discipline. How did George Washington and others turn the Continental Army into an effective military force?
2. How did American leaders convince ordinary people to enlist in the Continental Army or state militias and fight in the Revolutionary War?
3. Referring to primary and secondary sources, explain the challenges and problems faced by an ordinary footsoldier in the Continental Army.
4. What occurred at Trenton, New Jersey in late December 1776? Why is this seemingly minor event considered a turning point in the Revolutionary War?
5. Referring to at least two other nations, explain how the American revolutionaries sought the support of foreign nations during the Revolutionary War.
6. Evaluate the importance of the French alliance and support to America’s victory in the Revolutionary War.
7. How successful were the Continental Congress and state governments at supplying the war effort? What obstacles and difficulties did they face?
8. What was the Newburgh conspiracy and why did it threaten government in the new society?
9. What were Britain’s military objectives during the Revolutionary War? Why were British commanders unable to carry out and fulfill these objectives?
10. Investigate attitudes to the American Revolutionary War back in Britain. Did these attitudes change over time and did they have an effect on government policy?
Creating a nation and new society
1. Describe the national government created by the Articles of Confederation in 1781. What were the advantages and disadvantages of this form of government?
2. Why did the new United States find itself in an economic depression during the 1780s? Consider both internal and external factors.
3. How did the new United States government address the challenge of its newly acquired territories west of the Appalachians?
4. Outline the causes of unrest among Massachusetts farmers in 1786. What were their grievances and what action did they take to resolve them?
5. Explain and discuss at least three compromises that were reached during the drafting of the United States Constitution in 1787.
6. How was the issue of slavery addressed – or not addressed – in the United States Constitution?
7. Identify differences between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists in 1787-88. How did their visions for the new United States differ?
8. Focusing on three specific people, discuss the anti-Federalists and their main objections to the proposed Constitution.
9. How did the Federalist movement contribute to the successful ratification of the Constitution in 1787-88?
10. Describe the process that led to the passing of the Bill of Rights. Why was it considered necessary to incorporate these rights into the Constitution?
Evaluating the revolution
1. To what extent was the American Revolution complete by 1789? Did the revolution leave any ‘unfinished business’ or unresolved problems?
2. Why did the American Revolution lack the violence and high death tolls of more recent revolutions?
3. John Adams famously described Americans as being one third in favour of the revolution, one third against it and one third indifferent. How accurate is this claim? How many Americans supported and opposed the revolution, and did this change over time?
4. The United States political system created in 1789 is often depicted as radically different from the British political system. Was this really the case? What British structures or concepts were reflected in American systems of government?
5. Some historians have referred to the United States Constitution as a ‘counter-revolution’. What is the basis for this claim?
6. Describe the global legacy of the American Revolution. How have the political ideology and values of the revolution influenced other governments and societies?
7. To what extent did the American Revolution transform American society?
8. Research and discuss the involvement of Native Americans and African-Americans in the American Revolution.
9. Women participated in the American Revolution as homemakers, protestors or supporters of the army. To what extent did the revolution change or improve the lives of women?
10. How has folklore and myth shaped or distorted our view of the American Revolution? What are the origins of these myths?
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Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.
“Americans were still professing their loyalty to George III and their desire for peaceful reconciliation as late as 1775. Had Britain accepted the Second Continental Congress’s Olive Branch Petition, the Revolutionary War could have been avoided.” Support or refute this claim using historical evidence.
Even though delegates at the Second Continental Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to George III requesting reconciliation, the recent skirmishes and hostile American public opinion made peaceful resolution unlikely, if not impossible. The delegates of the Continental Congress appeared aware of this inevitability themselves, for at the same time that they wrote their final petition to George III, they also made defensive provisions for a navy and an army, the latter to be commanded by George Washington. Moreover, even if the delegates truly believed that peaceful reconciliation was possible, it is doubtful the American public shared this belief. The Committees of Correspondence had by 1775 become powerful distributors of anti-British propaganda to both city dwellers and rural settlers alike.
In addition, the organization and rallying that enabled the boycott on all British goods turned many colonists into patriotic Americans. This desire for independence was confirmed at the Battle of Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which simple farmers refused to retreat from the powerful British army and instead stood their ground. Thus, even though Continental Congress delegates were still petitioning for peace as late as 1775, it is highly unlikely that peace was truly possible.
What did American colonists mean by “No taxation without representation”?
American colonists rallied behind the popular cry “No taxation without representation” to protest the taxes and other legislation forced upon them by a Parliament that contained no American representatives. Colonial Americans valued their own representative legislatures and believed it unfair that they had to subject themselves to a legislative body thousands of miles away. British Prime Minister George Grenville, however, justified the lack of American representatives in Parliament by citing the theory of “virtual representation,” which stipulated that Parliamentarians, no matter where originally elected, acted in the interests of all British subjects in the world.
Despite the American colonists’ desire for representation, though, “No taxation without representation” was more a symbolic protest than anything else. In reality, colonial American representatives in Parliament would have been too few in number and would have had too little political power to make much difference. Instead, the colonists’ rallying cry was based on principle, a simple articulation that they wanted more freedom and power to govern their own colonial legislatures, and less interference from Parliament.
Which had a more profound impact on American anti-British sentiment, the 1765 Stamp Act or the 1766 Declaratory Act? Use specific examples from history to support your argument.
Although colonists protested the 1765 passage of the Stamp Act vehemently and even violently, the barely noticed Declaratory Act of 1766 had a much more profound effect on American-British relations in the long run. When Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 after protests in the colonies, it quietly passed the Declaratory Act, which reaffirmed Britain’s right to pass legislation regarding the American colonies anytime it chose. This legislative carte blanche plagued Americans from that point on until war erupted in 1775.
In 1767, Parliament used the Declaratory Act to justify the Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on tea and other items. The tax prompted angry objections, some as extreme as the Boston Tea Party, in which a group of colonists destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of British tea by dumping it in Boston Harbor. Parliament also cited the Declaratory Act in 1774 to justify the Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts, which shut down Boston Harbor and required Bostonians to pay damages for the tea they had destroyed. Both the Townshend Acts and the Intolerable Acts—backed by the Declaratory Act—brought Americans closer to outright rebellion than the Stamp Act ever had.
Suggested Essay Topics
1. Analyze the reasons for escalating anti-British sentiment in the American colonies during the prewar decade from 1765 to 1775.
2. Was the First or the Second Continental Congress more significant in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War?
3. What were nonimportation agreements and the boycott? Which had a greater effect on American-British relations?
4. Explain how three of the following altered Americans’ perceptions of Britain during the years 1763 to 1775. Which affected colonists the most and why?a) the French and Indian Warb) virtual representationc) Samuel Adamsd) the Declaratory Acte) the boycott of British goodsf) Thomas Paine
5. Compare and contrast Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence with Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense.” Which had the greater effect on revolutionary America? Use specific examples to support your argument.