& Terms in
Fasttrack to America's Past
Section 3: Revolutionary Years
John - a key leader in the independence movement, and later, the
president of the U.S. He was a lawyer and newspaper essay writer
who began taking an active role in politics during the Stamp Act
At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson was mainly responsible for writing the document, Adams spoke most forcefully on its behalf on the floor of the Congress. His letters to and from his wife, Abigail, along with his diary, are famous for the insight they offer into this period.
Adams was elected vice-president under George Washington, then as president in the election of 1796. He was a leading figure in the Federalist Party, which favored a strong national government and support for commerce. He kept America from becoming tangled in a war between England and France in these years, and considered that among his greatest accomplishments.
Adams was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. Bitter disagreements between the two were reconciled in their old age, and both men died on the same July fourth day, exactly fifty years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
amendment - an addition or change to the Constitution. The first ten amendments, ratified in 1791, are called the Bill of Rights.
Anti-Federalists - people who opposed ratification
Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists felt the proposed change from
the Articles of Confederation gave too much power to the national level
government. They preferred a system that kept almost all
power at the state level, where citizens could keep a close watch on
Articles of Confederation - the document that organized the 13 states into a national government during the Revolution, and for about five years after. This “first constitution” proved to be not very workable, because it gave too little power to the national level of government. As a result, a convention was called for 1787 in Philadelphia to consider changes to the Articles. The delegates decided instead to write an entirely new document, the U.S. Constitution.
bail - money that an accused person can put up to avoid being held in jail while awaiting trial. The money is returned once the trial is over. In very serious crimes, bail may not be allowed, and the accused must stay in jail. In minor crimes, bail sometimes is not required, and the accused is simply released while a trial date is set.
branches of the federal government - the three main parts of the national government as provided in the Constitution. They are: the Legislative branch, which includes Congress, the Executive branch, which is headed by the president, and the Judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court.
Cabinet - the president’s most important advisory body. It is not mentioned in the Constitution, but emerged as George Washington took charge as the first president. It is made up of the heads of the executive departments, such as the Department of State, Department of the Treasury, etc.
checks and balances - the concept by which different parts of the government keep an eye on the other parts, and prevent them from getting too far out of line. For example, the president can veto a bill passed by Congress, while Congress is given the power to impeach the president.
civil lawsuit - a legal case that grows out of a disagreement between people or groups of people, rather than criminal action. A person injured by using defective medical equipment, for example, might sue the company that sold the equipment.
common law - the “unwritten law” that is a result of the legal customs and past decisions of the courts, often tracing back hundreds of years. (Contrast with statute law, which is a result of specific action taken by Congress or other legislative body.)
constitutional government - a government with a written constitution that describes the powers, the rules, and the limits of the government. (Some forms of government have neither rules nor limits, such as dictatorships.)
Continental Army - the regular army of the U.S. that was formed in the Boston area after the fighting at Lexington and Concord in 1775. George Washington was put in charge of the new army by the Second Continental Congress. By appointing him, the Congress hoped to cement the support of the Southern colonies. This army was initially created by enlisting men from the militia units around Boston.
due process - the step-by-step process that must be followed by the government in a legal case or other action against a citizen. This principle requires the government to “follow the rules,” and exists as a protection against abusive government power.
Electoral College - the body that actually casts
elect the U.S. president. The popular vote does not directly
the president. Instead, the popular vote in each state selects
political party’s nominees for electors in that state will go to the
capital to cast their votes for president. (There are as many
allowed each state as the state’s total representation in Congress,
is, congressmen and senators.)
Enlightenment, The - the era in the late 1600s
that is sometimes also called the “Age of Reason.” During this
a number of writers in Europe began criticizing such ideas as the
right” of kings to rule. Thinkers like John Locke in England
developing new ideas about individual rights that led to modern ideas
government. For example, he wrote that all individuals are born
certain natural rights. He said a legitimate government’s
can only be based on a kind of “social contract” among the people to
the government to serve the common needs of all for
He also wrote of a right of the people to overthrow an abusive
federalism - the concept of dividing government into two layers, a national level and a state level. Under the Constitution, various governmental powers and responsibilities are split between the federal government and the state governments. This keeps many key functions close to the people in their individual states, but also provides for a national government to handle functions appropriate to that level, such as the military, trade laws, and foreign relations. (Cities, towns, and other local governments are actually part of the state layer, because they are established by state laws.)
Federalists - people who favored ratification (approval) of the U.S. Constitution. Most tended to be from the wealthier classes, or were involved in finance or commerce. Alexander Hamilton was a prominent Federalist. Many of these people later formed the Federalist political party in the 1790s.
Franklin, Benjamin - a printer in Philadelphia who
became a key
figure in the push for American independence, and later, an important
in the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
grand jury - a panel of citizens that decides if
evidence to accuse someone of a crime.
Alexander - an aide to George Washington during the Revolution who
went on to argue successfully for ratification of the U.S.
Born in the British West Indies, he was sent to New York by relatives,
and was in college there as the Boston Tea Party occurred.
began writing pamphlets supporting the rebellion against Britain, and
made captain of an artillery unit. He led an assault at Yorktown
in that last battle of the Revolution.
Hancock, John - the Massachusetts political leader whose name is first - and largest - on the Declaration of Independence. He had been active in organizing opposition to the British in the Boston area, and was among those who had to flee Concord when the British marched there in 1775. Hancock was president of the Second Continental Congress when the Declaration was written. After the Revolution, he served as governor of Massachusetts.
Patrick - the famous Virginian best known for declaring, “Give me
or give me death!” in 1775. Although he received little formal
in youth, he later studied law, and became well known for his powerful
speaking style. He became a member of the House of Burgesses, and
delivered a strong attack on the Stamp Act in 1765. Over the next
decade, he was a leader of the most radical opponents of British rule
Hessians - a nickname the colonists gave the hired German soldiers, or mercenaries, used by the British in the American Revolution. A large group of Hessians was captured at Trenton in a famous attack led by George Washington.
House of Representatives - the “lower house” of
The number of Representatives a state gets is based on the state’s
There are presently 435 members. Every ten years, following the
adjustments are made to reflect population changes.
idealism - a belief that human society can be made better, and that one should work toward that goal. In the American Revolution, the belief that older forms of government could be replaced by government based on the choices of ordinary citizens was very idealistic.
inflation - a general rise in the level of prices. In the Revolution, paper money was printed in such large quantities that it led to rapid inflation of prices. An excess or rapidly growing supply of paper money is often at the root of inflation. In modern times, a year-to-year increase of three to five percent is considered normal. During the Revolution, inflation at times ran well over 100 percent a year.
Thomas - the Revolutionary era leader from Virginia who was the
author of the Declaration of Independence. He was born near
and later built his famous hilltop home, Monticello, nearby.
attended the College of William and Mary at a young age after his
died. There, he became well known for his intense interest in
and knowledge of all kinds.
judicial review - the right of the Supreme Court to review laws passed by Congress and determine whether they are constitutional or unconstitutional. While this right is not spelled out in the Constitution itself, it was established in a famous 1803 Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison. This power thus became a part of the system of checks and balances in the federal government.
legislature - the part of the government that discusses and votes on laws. In America, Congress is the legislature at the national level, and there are state legislatures to make laws at the state level.
Lexington & Concord - the two towns near
first shots of the American Revolution were fired in April, 1775.
The British, worried about spreading talk of rebellion, were marching
Concord to seize weapons and rebel leaders there. Warned by Paul
Revere, 70 minutemen from the area assembled at Lexington. Shots
were fired, and eight colonists were killed. The British marched
on to Concord, but found little left to seize. On the way back to
Boston, swarms of minutemen fired on the British soldiers, killing more
[Locke, John - an English writer and philosopher who lived during the Enlightenment era and developed the social contract theory of government. In his famous Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690) he developed the idea of natural rights to life, liberty, and property. He also attacked the idea of the “divine right” of kings, and suggested that individuals in a society have a right to revolt when their natural rights are abused. His writings had a profound impact on American colonists like Thomas Jefferson as they developed their own ideas during the Revolution.]
Loyalist/Tory - two common terms for the people during the American Revolution who remained loyal to England, and opposed independence.
Madison, James - the Virginia political
leader who is
“the father of the Constitution,” and who later served as fourth
of the U.S.
minutemen - the most active and committed members of the volunteer militia units in Massachusetts. They were pledged to be ready in a minute’s notice to defend against the British as tension mounted in 1775.
Paine, Thomas - an English immigrant to the
whose pamphlet Common
Sense was a key factor in swinging public opinion toward
in the early part of 1776.
Patriots - Americans during the Revolution who favored and supported the effort to break away from British control. Historians estimate that about one-third of the colonists were committed Patriots as the fight began.
[plead the 5th - see "take the 5th."]
[probable cause - the level of evidence or reasonable grounds needed to obtain a search warrant from a judge, as stated in the Bill of Rights. It does not need to be proof, but must be more than merely a hunch or suspicion.]
ratify - to officially approve or confirm, especially by a vote of a governmental body. After the Constitution was written, the states held special conventions to ratify or to reject the document. By July, 1788, all but two states had voted to ratify the Constitution, and the new government began organizing.
republic - a form of democracy in which laws are made not by a direct vote of the people, but by representatives elected by the people. The United States is a republic.
Revere, Paul - the silversmith in Boston who rode toward Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, to warn the minutemen that the British were coming to seize weapons stored at Concord. He was also a print maker whose famous image of the Boston Massacre portrayed it as a savage slaughter of colonists. He was among the colonists who dressed as Indians and dumped British tea overboard in the Boston Tea Party. He served in the Revolution in the Boston area, and after the war, set up a business to make sheets of copper used in buildings and ships.
of law - the principle that laws, rather than the arbitrary
of rulers, should govern the affairs and disputes of a society.
concept is among the most important ideas developed in world history,
traces back in various forms to ancient civilizations around the
Sea. The famous Code of Hammurabi in ancient Babylonia and Roman
law were both early expressions of the concept. In England, the
Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689) were important steps
search warrant - a document that police and other officials must normally get before they can enter a private home to search for evidence of a crime. To get a search warrant, police do not need proof of a crime, but need probable cause. The search warrant must also state specifically what is being sought. These requirements, set forth in the Bill of Rights, are vitally important, because they establish that a citizen’s home is a special, private place that is safe from arbitrary invasion by the government.
Continental Congress - the meeting of delegates from the
that assembled at Philadelphia in May of 1775, after the fighting at
and Concord. The delegates voted to establish the Continental
and named George Washington as its commander in chief. But the
also declared loyalty to King George III, and asked that he help
normal relations. The king, however, proclaimed that the colonies
were in rebellion, and approved a plan passed by Parliament to cut off
all colonial trade.
Sedition Act - a law pushed through Congress by
Party in 1798 that made it a crime to speak or publish criticism of
officials or the federal government. The law, which clearly
the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech rights, was intended to
silence newspapers published by supporters of the Republican
(John Adams, a Federalist, was president at the time, and the country
involved in a very serious dispute with France.)
Senate - the “upper house” of the U.S. Congress. There are two U.S. senators from each state, and they serve six year terms. Originally, they were appointed by each state’s legislature, but in the early 1900s, a constitutional amendment set up direct election of senators by the voters. Senators tend to be older and have more political experience than members of the “lower house” - the House of Representatives. Since they serve longer terms, they are expected to take the “long view” of the nation’s affairs, rather than cast their votes according to the swings of public opinion. (In many state governments, the upper house of the legislature is also often called the State Senate.)
separation of powers - the principle of dividing government power among different parts of the government so no one part gets too much power. It can be seen clearly in the Constitution, with its division of the national government into three main branches, the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial.
social contract theory - a political theory which
governments are formed as individuals form a kind of “social contract”
among themselves. With this contract, they each agree to give up
a small part of their individual liberty to enjoy the benefits of a
society. This theory, also called the social compact theory, was
developed during the Enlightenment by writers like John Locke.
influence can be seen in the Declaration of Independence in the lines
state, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
take the 5th - making use of the right guaranteed by the 5th amendment (in the Bill of Rights) to avoid testifying against oneself.
tyrant/tyranny - A tyrant is a ruler who is oppressive, cruel, or arbitrary. Tyranny is the condition under such a ruler.
Virginia Declaration of Rights - a historically important document adopted by delegates writing a constitution for Virginia in June of 1776. The declaration lists most of the key principles of government that were written into the national Declaration of Independence and later, the Bill of Rights. George Mason was the principal author.
George - the Virginia plantation owner who rose to command the
Army during the Revolution, and later served as the first president of
the United States.
Whiskey Rebellion - a rebellion by farmers in
in 1794 against a federal tax on the production of whiskey. The
was adopted by Congress to raise money for the federal
But farmers resented the tax, which they claimed robbed them of their
(Farmers in frontier lands often turned their grain crops to whiskey,
that was cheaper to transport than bulk grain.) Before long,
were refusing to pay the tax, and were even threatening federal tax
Copyright 1999, 2015 by David Burns. All rights reserved.