This American Revolution glossary contains definitions of key terms and concepts related to events in America between 1763 and 1789. Words from A to K. This glossary has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors. If you would like to suggest an important term or concept for inclusion in this glossary, please contact Alpha History.
Absolutism refers to a political system or ideology where all power and sovereignty is vested in a single ruler, such as a king or emperor.
Actual representation is a political condition where voters or citizens elect individuals to act on their behalf in an assembly or parliament. Each voter is said to be directly represented in the assembly. American revolutionary writers argued for actual representation over the British system of virtual representation.
Anglicanism is the form of Protestant Christianity practiced by the Church of England. Anglicanism was the state religion of Great Britain during the American Revolution.
Appalachians (or Appalachian Mountains)
The Appalachians are a 1,500 mile long mountain range in eastern North America. Before 1763 the Appalachians served as a natural border between the British colonies in the east and French territory to the west.
Arbitrary power refers to government or leadership where decisions are made without any consultation or negotiation with those affected by them.
The aristocracy is an elite social class, usually defined by titles, privileges, wealth, landed estates and political influence.
Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation was the first constitution of the United States. It was drafted in 1777 and formally adopted in 1781. It bound the 13 American states together in “a firm league of friendship” and created a new national government, albeit one with limited powers. It was eventually replaced by the United States Constitution.
An artisan is a skilled worker or manufacturer. Colonial American artisans usually lived in cities or towns and worked in fields such as silversmithing, machinery or construction.
An atheist is a person who denies or rejects the existence of God. Atheism was an unpopular position in America at the time of the revolution. Several revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, were accused of being atheists.
Boston Caucus (or Caucus Club)
The Boston Caucus was a political club active in Boston for much of the 18th century. The Caucus met in taverns and its membership was comprised mainly of small businessmen and the middle class. During the revolutionary period the Caucus was led by Samuel Adams and exerted a strong influence over elections, appointments and responses to British policy.
The Boston Massacre refers to confrontation between civilians and British soldiers in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770. After being provoked by the crowd the soldiers opened fire, killing five civilians and wounding others.
Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party refers to the dumping of large amounts of imported British tea into Boston Harbour. It was carried out by the Boston Sons of Liberty on December 16th 1773. The Coercive Acts were Britain’s response to this inflammatory protest.
boycott (see non-importation agreements)
British East India Company
The British East India Company was, at the time of the American Revolution, the world’s largest company. It had a virtual monopoly on British colonial trade in India and Asia.
A broadside is a poster sized sheet or pamphlet. It usually expresses strong, critical or angry political views.
An economic principle that suggests a country’s wealth is defined by the amount of precious metals it holds. It was a sister theory of mercantilism. British governments adopted policies to ensure that more gold and silver entered Britain than left it.
Catholicism is the oldest of the Christian religions and the state religion of France and Spain in the 18th century. The vast majority of American colonists were Protestant Christians who feared the spread of Catholicism in North America.
A charter is a constitutional document that authorises the settlement, colonisation and government of a particular area. Most of the British colonies in North America were founded on a royal charter, issued by the British monarch. These charters provided authority for the formation and operation of colonial assemblies.
A coercive measure or action is designed to influence, force or punish another party.
Coercive Acts (or ‘Intolerable Acts‘)
The Coercive Acts were four pieces of legislation passed by the British parliament between March and May 1774. The purpose of the Coercive Acts was to force Massachusetts to comply with British policy in the wake of the Boston Tea Party. The four separate Coercive Acts were the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, the Boston Port Act and the Quartering Act.
A colonial assembly was a political legislature in the British colonies in North America prior to the revolution. Colonial assemblies were responsible for passing laws and raising taxes within their particular colony. They were nominally under the authority of a royal governor.
colonial scrip (see scrip)
A colony is a region or territory settled and governed by another nation (the colonising power or ‘mother country’). Colonies are utilised for land, labour, resources and profit.
Committees of Correspondence
The Committees of Correspondence were civilian groups formed in colonial America around 1772. They organised letter writing and distribution, in order to circulate news, intelligence and revolutionary sentiment.
Committees of Safety
The Committees of Safety were civilian watch groups active in colonial America between 1770 and the end of the Revolutionary War. Their main role was to monitor and report the numbers and movements of British soldiers. They were particularly active in Massachusetts in the months before the Revolutionary War (1774-75).
A confederation is a political alliance or union. Confederations are usually loose agreements that do not restrict the sovereignty or rights of their member-states. The first national government of the United States (1777-89) was a confederation of the 13 states.
The Confederation Congress was the first national government of the United States. It existed during the operation of the Articles of Confederation (March 1781 to March 1789).
A congress is a formal meeting of representatives or delegates. In the context of the American Revolution it can refer to the first Continental Congress (1774), the second Continental Congress (1775), the Confederation Congress (1777-89) or the United States Congress (1789 onwards).
A constitution is the fundamental law of a nation, setting out its political system and its government structure and powers. A constitution establishes important political branches or offices, outlines their functions and defines the extent and limits of their power.
Constitutional Convention (or Philadelphia Convention)
The Constitutional Convention was a meeting of state delegates that assembled in Philadelphia between May and September 1776. The purpose of this Constitutional Convention was to discuss amendments to improve the operation of the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the delegates voted to replace the Articles and draft a new national constitution.
The Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the 13 American colonies. It assembled twice in Philadelphia during the American Revolution. The first Continental Congress (September-October 1774) gathered to formulate a response to the British parliament’s Coercive Acts. The second Continental Congress (March-May 1775) was responsible for war preparations and the passing of the Declaration of Independence.
creditor (or lender)
A creditor is someone who loans money to another party (a debtor).
The Currency Act was an act of the British parliament, passed in 1764. It imposed British control over paper currency in the American colonies.
The Declaratory Act was legislation passed by the British parliament in March 1766. It asserted the parliament’s right to pass laws for British colonies “in all cases whatsoever”. The Declaratory Act had no immediate practical impact on the American colonies, however it was viewed as an ominous sign of things to come.
A debtor is a party who owes money to another party (a creditor).
A debtors’ court is a state court of law that deals with with defaulters (debtors who are unable to repay their creditors). Debtors’ courts could order the seizure of property, foreclosure on mortgages or prison terms. The rulings of debtors’ courts were a contributing factor to Shays’ Rebellion (1786).
Deference describes gestures of respect or subservience to those of superior wealth, rank or status. Shows of deference in 18th colonial America included bowing, curtseying, saluting and the use of titles.
Deism is a modified form of Christianity that emerged during the Enlightenment. Deists accepted the existence of God but they did not believe that God interfered with the human or natural worlds. Many deists believed in a ‘clockwork universe’ that was created by God but operated on natural laws, without his involvement.
A duty is a form of taxation levied by the government. Most duties are customs duties, levied on goods purchased and imported from abroad. Other forms of duty include stamp duties (levied on contracts and documents) and excise duties (levied on goods sold domestically).
Emancipation is the act of freeing slaves by decree, legislation or manumission.
An empire is group of colonies under the political and/or economic control of a powerful nation (the imperial power or ‘mother country’). At the time of the American Revolution, significant global empires were ruled by Britain, France, Spain, Holland and Portugal.
The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that emerged in the mid 1600s and was prominent in both the American and French Revolutions. Enlightenment thinkers were driven by curiosity and undertook rational investigation into the natural and human worlds. The Enlightenment raised questions about traditional beliefs, such as religion and monarchy. It also produced new political theories and ideas, such as John Locke’s theory of natural rights.
The ‘Evil Genius’ is a demonic figure that occasionally appears in 18th century political propaganda. The Evil Genius represented sinister or malevolent forces and influences. He was often portrayed giving bad or malicious advice to political leaders.
In politics, the executive is a person or group responsible for the leadership and day to day administration of the government. In Britain executive power rested with the monarch, the prime minister and his cabinet. In the United States from 1789, executive power rested with the president.
Federalism describes a political system where power and sovereignty are shared by different levels of government, such as national and state governments.
A fort is a large defensive structure, capable of withstanding attacks from enemy forces. In pre-revolutionary America forts were built along the frontier, both to secure territory and provide protection to settlers during a Native American uprising.
The Founding Fathers were the American political leaders who framed the national government of the United States between 1776 and 1789. Signatories to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and participants in the Philadelphia Convention (1787) are generally considered to be Founding Fathers.
The frontier is the edge of a settled area that fringes wild or unexplored territory. In colonial America the frontier was seen as a remote, disorderly and sometimes violent region. It was also quite lawless and not under close government control.
A garrison is a military unit posted permanently in a town, city or area, usually to provide it with defence and protection.
A governor is a political figure appointed to represent the monarch in a colony. Governors are responsible for representing royal power and upholding and enforcing imperial policies. In colonial America, royal governors were in theory the highest political authority in the colony. Over time, however, many royal governors relinquished at last some of their power to colonial assemblies.
hard money (or specie)
Hard money describes currency which has intrinsic value, such as gold or silver coin. It holds its value more steadily than paper money, which is easily devalued.
The Hessians were regular soldiers from the German kingdom of Hesse. They were hired by the British government to provide military service during the Revolutionary War.
House of Burgesses
The House of Burgesses was the colonial assembly in Virginia prior to the American Revolution. It was based in the Virginian capital Williamsburg. Among its members were George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson,
House of Commons
The House of Commons is the lower house of the British parliament. Its members are elected.
House of Lords
The House of Lords is the upper house of the British parliament. Its members are British peers (those who possess noble titles).
Impeachment is a process for removing elected politicians and public officials by placing them on trial. The United States Constitution provides facilities for impeachment.
Imperialism is the political and economic system that justifies the creation and maintenance of empires.
Impressment is the practice of forcing civilians into military service. It was occasionally practiced by the British Royal Navy in colonial America, usually when the victims were vulnerable or drunk. Impressment was a cause of tension between colonial Americans and the British military.
Indentured servitude was a form of forced labour practiced in the 18th century. Most indentured servants were petty criminals or had defaulted on debts. They were arrested, detained and ‘sold’ as unpaid labour, usually for a fixed period of time.
Journal of Occurrences
The Journal of Occurrences was a series of newspaper articles, published anonymously in New York in 1768-69. These articles recounted events in Boston, focusing on the poor behaviour, violence and intimidation of British troops stationed there. Samuel Adams is often cited as the author of some or all of these articles, though evidence for this is lacking.
This page was written by Steve Thompson and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
S. Thompson & J. Llewellyn, “American Revolution glossary A-K”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/americanrevolution/american-revolution-glossary-a-k/.