Revolutions often fail. The French Revolution culminated in the leadership of Napoleon, a ruthless emperor who tried to conquer Europe. The Russian Revolution brought years of civil war and a brutal regime headed by Stalin that made many Russian people even yearn for a return to the days of their monarch. How did the American Revolution yield a constitutional republic with greater freedom on a large scale than the world had ever seen? Successful revolutions never begin overnight. The American Revolution was 169 years in the making. Throughout the colonial experience important stones were being laid into the foundation of American independence.
The distance British colonists enjoyed from their kings made direct rule nearly impossible. The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first representative assembly in the Western Hemisphere. The Pilgrims committed themselves to self rule in the form of the Mayflower Compact before they had ever set foot on the new continent. Town meetings were quickly the norm throughout New England. The Quaker faith made equality a practice in the community and the meetinghouse throughout the Middle Colonies. All these important steps toward independence were already realized by the American colonists before 1700. Events in the early part of the eighteenth century made independence from Britain even more inevitable.
Self-government by the people was of paramount importance to the Europeans settling in North America. The Pilgrims drafted their own system of self-rule — the Mayflower Compact — before they landed on the new continent. / Copyright 2001 by Pilgrim Hall Museum
The European Enlightenment filled the heads of educated Americans with thoughts of liberty and progress. The Great Awakening ushered in new faiths where equality between ministers and the congregation was the norm. American newspapers achieved a sound victory for a free press with the Zenger verdict. A tradition of ignoring English law was firmly established by New England smugglers, who patently ignored custom regulations. The colonists were no stranger to rebellion, as the masses from New York to South Carolina rose in demands of equality. Diverse peoples from all over Europe flocked to the British colonies with absolutely no loyalty to the British Crown.
The stage had long been set for Americans to assert their independence from their British brothers and sisters. Many events transpired between the years of 1763 and 1776 that served as short-term causes of the Revolution. But the roots had already been firmly planted. In many ways, the American Revolution had been completed before any of the actual fighting began.
The Impact of Enlightenment in Europe
Blake’s representation of Newton.
The Age of Reason, as it was called, was spreading rapidly across Europe. In the late 17th century, scientists like Isaac Newton and writers like John Locke were challenging the old order. Newton’s laws of gravity and motion described the world in terms of natural laws beyond any spiritual force. In the wake of political turmoil in England, Locke asserted the right of a people to change a government that did not protect natural rights of life, liberty and property. People were beginning to doubt the existence of a God who could predestine human beings to eternal damnation and empower a tyrant for a king. Europe would be forever changed by these ideas.
In America, intellectuals were reading these ideas as well. On their side of the Atlantic, Enlightened ideas of liberty and progress had a chance to flourish without the shackles of Old Europe. Religious leaders began to change their old dogmatic positions. They began to emphasize the similarities between the Anglican Church and the Puritan Congregationalists rather than the differences. Even Cotton Mather, the Massachusetts minister who wrote and spoke so convincingly about the existence of witches advocated science to immunize citizens against smallpox. Harvard ministers became so liberal that Yale College was founded in New Haven in 1707 in an attempt to retain old Calvinist ideas. This attempt failed and the entire faculty except one converted to the Church of England in 1722. By the end of the century, many New England ministers would become Unitarians, doubting even the divinity of Christ.
Triomphe de Voltaire / painting by Duplessis
New ideas shaped political attitudes as well. John Locke defended the displacement of a monarch who would not protect the lives, liberties, and property of the English people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that society should be ruled by the “general will” of the people. Baron de Montesquieu declared that power should not be concentrated in the hands of any one individual. He recommended separating power among executive, legislative, judicial branches of government. American intellectuals began to absorb these ideas. The delegates who declared independence from Britain used many of these arguments. The entire opening of the Declaration of Independence is Thomas Jefferson’s application of John Locke’s ideas. The constitutions of our first states and the United States Constitution reflect Enlightenment principles. The writings of Benjamin Franklin made many Enlightenment ideas accessible to the general public.
The old way of life was represented by superstition, an angry God, and absolute submission to authority. The thinkers of the Age of Reason ushered in a new way of thinking. This new way championed the accomplishments of humankind. Individuals did not have to accept despair. Science and reason could bring happiness and progress. Kings did not rule by divine right. They had an obligation to their subjects. Europeans pondered the implications for nearly a century. Americans put them into practice first.
The Great Awakening
At age six, John Wesley was rescued from a burning room in his father’s rectory, depicted here in this 19th century engraving. The dramatic incident caused him to refer to himself later in life as a “brand plucked from the burning.”
Not all American ministers were swept up by the Age of Reason. In the 1730s, a religious revival swept through the British American colonies. Jonathan Edwards, the Yale minister who refused to convert to the Church of England, became concerned that New Englanders were becoming far too concerned with worldly matters. It seemed to him that people found the pursuit of wealth to be more important than John Calvin’s religious principles. Some were even beginning to suggest that predestination was wrong and that good works might save a soul. Edwards barked out from the pulpit against these notions. “God was an angry judge, and humans were sinners!” he declared. He spoke with such fury and conviction that people flocked to listen. This sparked what became known as the Great Awakening in the American colonies.
George Whitefield / Portraits of Faith
George Whitefield was a minister from Britain who toured the American colonies. An actor by training, he would shout the word of God, weep with sorrow, and tremble with passion as he delivered his sermons. Colonists flocked by the thousands to hear him speak. He converted slaves and even a few Native Americans. Even religious skeptic Benjamin Franklin emptied his coin purse after hearing him speak in Philadelphia.
Soon much of America became divided. Awakening, or New Light, preachers set up their own schools and churches throughout the colonies. Princeton University was one such school. The Old Light ministers refused to accept this new style of worship. Despite the conflict, one surprising result was greater religious toleration. With so many new denominations, it was clear that no one religion would dominate any region.
The dramatic George Whitefield preaching in the open-air at Leeds in 1749.
Although the Great Awakening was a reaction against the Enlightenment, it was also a long term cause of the Revolution. Before, ministers represented an upper class of sorts. Awakening ministers were not always ordained, breaking down respect for betters. The new faiths that emerged were much more democratic in their approach. The overall message was one of greater equality. The Great Awakening was also a “national” occurrence. It was the first major event that all the colonies could share, helping to break down differences between them. There was no such episode in England, further highlighting variances between Americans and their cousins across the sea. Indeed this religious upheaval had marked political consequences.
The Trial of John Peter Zenger
John Peter Zenger became a symbol for the freedom of the press in the young American colonies. Seen above is a printing of the trial proceedings.
No democracy has existed in the modern world without the existence of a free press. Newspapers and pamphlets allow for the exchange of ideas and for the voicing of dissent. When a corrupt government holds power, the press becomes a critical weapon. It organizes opposition and can help revolutionary ideas spread. The trial of John Peter Zenger, a New York printer, was an important step toward this most precious freedom for American colonists.
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called The New York Weekly Journal. This publication harshly pointed out the actions of the corrupt royal governor, William S. Cosby. It accused the government of rigging elections and allowing the French enemy to explore New York harbor. It accused the governor of an assortment of crimes and basically labeled him an idiot. Although Zenger merely printed the articles, he was hauled into jail. The authors were anonymous, and Zenger would not name them.
In 1733, Zenger was accused of libel, a legal term whose meaning is quite different for us today than it was for him. In his day it was libel when you published information that was opposed to the government. Truth or falsity were irrelevant. He never denied printing the pieces. The judge therefore felt that the verdict was never in question. Something very surprising happened, however.
The first jury was packed with individuals on Cosby’s payroll. Throughout this process, Zenger’s wife Anna kept the presses rolling. Her reports resulted in replacing Cosby’s jury with a true jury of Zenger’s peers.
When the trial began and Zenger’s new attorney began his defense, a stir fluttered through the courtroom. The most famous lawyer in the colonies, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, stepped up to defend Zenger. Hamilton admitted that Zenger printed the charges and demanded the prosecution to prove them false. In a stirring appeal to the jury, Hamilton pleaded for his new client’s release. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” he claimed, “but the cause of liberty.” The judge ordered the jury to convict Zenger if they believed he printed the stories. But the jury returned in less than ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty.
Cheers filled the courtroom and soon spread throughout the countryside. Zenger and Hamilton were hailed as heroes. Another building block of liberty was in place. Although true freedom of the press was not known until the passage of the First Amendment, newspaper publishers felt freer to print their honest views. As the American Revolution approached, this freedom would become ever more vital.
Rhode Island Colonists led by John Brown burn the British revenue cutter Gaspee / Artist Unknown
The British had an empire to run. The prevailing economic philosophy of seventeenth and eighteenth century empires was called mercantilism. In this system, the colonies existed to enrich the mother country. Restrictions were placed on what the colonies could manufacture, whose ships they could use, and most importantly, with whom they could trade. British merchants wanted American colonists to buy British goods, not French, Spanish, or Dutch products. In theory, Americans would pay duties on imported goods to discourage this practice. The Navigation Acts and the Molasses Act are examples of royal attempts to restrict colonial trade. Smuggling is the way the colonists ignored these restrictions.
Distance and the size of the British Empire worked to colonial advantage. Prior to 1763, the British followed a policy known as salutary neglect. They passed laws regulating colonial trade, but they knew they could not easily enforce them. It cost four times as much to use the British navy to collect duties as the value of the duties themselves. Colonists, particularly in New England, thought nothing of ignoring these laws. Ships from the colonies often loaded their holds with illegal goods from the French, Dutch, and Spanish West Indies. British customs officials earned a modest salary from the Crown. They soon found their pockets stuffed with bribe money from colonial shippers. When smugglers were caught, they were often freed by sympathetic American juries. Smuggling became commonplace. The British estimated that over £700,000 per year were brought into the American colonies illegally.
Boston Harbor, circa 1746, was home to a successful colonial merchant fleet.
As 1776 approached, the tradition of smuggling became vital to the Revolutionary cause. This encouraged ignoring British law, particularly in the harbors of New England. American shippers soon became quite skilled at avoiding the British navy, a practice they used extensively in the Revolutionary War. Soon England began to try offenders in admiralty courts, which had no juries. All attempts to crack down merely brought further rebellion. Woe to the parent who attempts to contain the child who has been allowed to roam free.
A Tradition of Rebellion
The Gadsden Flag was an early American flag that originated in South Carolina before the Revolution. / The United States Flag Page
The American colonies had known violent rebellion long before the Revolutionary War.
Each of the original thirteen colonies had experienced violent uprisings. Americans had shown themselves more than willing to take up arms to defend a cause held dear. This tradition of rebellion characterized the American spirit throughout its early history.
One of the earliest large-scale insurrections was Bacon’s Rebellion. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a group of disgruntled citizens from the western part of Virginia eastward in search of justice. They felt their interests were not represented by Virginia’s colonial legislature. They felt Governor Berkeley had done nothing to protect them from Indian raids. These frontier Virginians felt excluded from the riches of the eastern seaboard.
Over a thousand of Bacon’s followers entered Jamestown and burned the capital city. Governor Berkeley fled until reinforcements could organize. The rebels pillaged and plundered the countryside until Berkeley’s forces crushed them. Over twenty rebels were hanged, but fear of further rebellion was struck into the hearts of the members of the wealthy Virginia planting class.
Regulators or Traitors?
Similar uprisings took place all along the colonial backwoods. In South Carolina a rebellion broke out as a result of the Regulator movement. There was anarchy on the South Carolina frontier after the Seven Years’ War.
From 1765 to 1767 outlaws roamed the landscape holding local farmers at their mercy. A band of vigilantes known as Regulators took the law into their own hands and pushed the outlaws away. The Regulators then turned their wrath on local hunters who raised a force to fight back. Near civil war conditions prevailed until the government finally agreed to institute a circuit court judicial system. A similar movement broke out in North Carolina the following decade.
Land riots took place in many colonies, but in New York they were particularly violent. Tenants of the wealthy land aristocrats demanded relief from the high rents imposed on them. When the courts ruled in favor of the land barons in 1766, the angry farmers took up arms. The governor had to bring in the Redcoats to quell the disturbance.
Not all rebellion took the form of violence. James Otis spoke against the British as early as 1761, in his speech against the Writs of Assistance council chamber at Boston’s Old State House.
In Pennsylvania, a group of Scots-Irish settlers called the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia in 1764 to protest the Quakers’ friendly Native American policy. The Paxtons lived in Pennsylvania’s hinterland and wanted both Native American land and protection from raids on their homes. A delegation, led by Benjamin Franklin met with the Paxton gang to hear their grievances. Order was restored — but just barely before the Paxtons would have attacked Philadelphia.
American colonists had proven themselves experienced rebels. Whenever they felt their rights were jeopardized, they seemed willing to take up arms. Economic exploitation, lack of political representation, unfair taxation, were among the causes that led to these clashes.
Reverberations from the rebellions reached England from 1763 to 1776. Parliament and the monarchy heard this Colonial message loud and clear: “DON’T TREAD ON ME.”
The emerging American would be ready to fight for justice and if necessary independence.
“What is the American?”
Adventurous men of diverse ethnic backgrounds who pushed the western boundaries of the colonies, created uniquely American roles. One such role is the Frontiersman, exemplified by Daniel Boone. / KTCA-TV
Michel-Guillaume de Crèvecoeur was a French settler in the American colonies in the 1770s. Coming from France he could not believe the incredible diversity in the American colonies. Living in one area, he encountered people of English, Welsh, Scots-Irish, German, French, Irish, Swedish, Native American, and African descent. “What then is the American, this new man?” He could not be sure, but he knew it to be different from anything that could be found on the European side of the Atlantic.
At the time of the American Revolution, English citizens made up less than two thirds of the colonial population, excluding Native Americans. Nearly one fifth of the population was of African descent. Of the white population, there was still tremendous diversity, particularly in Pennsylvania, America’s first melting pot. Most numerous of the non-English settler population were the Germans and the Scots-Irish.
Germans came to Pennsylvania at the turn of the 18th century in answer to advertisements in Germany placed by William Penn. The promise of religious freedom, economic opportunity and freedom from war accelerated the arrival of Germans in the 1700s. English-speaking Americans misinterpreted the word Deutsch — the German word for German — and the settlers became consequently known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Along with linguistic and cultural diversity, the Germans brought new religions to America, the most prominent of which was Lutheranism.
The Scots-Irish were twice displaced. They originated in the Scottish Lowlands, but fled to Ireland to escape poverty. They found little prosperity there, as well. In addition, the Catholic Irish had little desire to share their island with the Presbyterian Scots, so they migrated to America. Much of the best farmland had already been claimed, so many Scots-Irish moved into Appalachia. Here they frequently fought with the Indians and resented being controlled by wealthy planters and politicians — reminding them of what they had left behind.
Soon these cultures began to blend. Americans became culturally distinct from the English. Their language, culture, and religions differed greatly from those of Mother England. Most Americans were born here and never even visited England during their lives. The Germans were never loyal to England. The Scots-Irish had great resentment toward Great Britain. The ties that bound them to the British Crown were weakening fast.
The New World was only a small piece of a struggle for global domination between England and France. During the 1600s, France was the dominant power on the European continent, emerging victorious from the Thirty Years War. Louis XIV, the Sun King, built a palace at Versailles that made him the envy of every European monarch. French language, art, and literature prevailed on the continent. England, meanwhile, was in the throes of the only civil war in its history. As the century drew to a close, however, England was ready to start settling the New World.
During the century that preceded American independence, England and France would fight four major wars, with the rest of Europe often actively participating as well. Each time there was conflict, war reached the shores of North America. With each conflict, France would slowly lose influence. King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War led to the removal of French power from Acadia, now Nova Scotia. After losses were incurred during King George’s War, the French maintained their North American holdings only by ceding land to Britain elsewhere. The final blow, the French and Indian War, would remove France from the continental mainland altogether. How could momentum shift so rapidly? Much of the answer lies in the histories of France and England. But profound differences between New France and the English American colonies contributed to the outcome.
The imperial struggle took its toll on England. First, the empire incurred tremendous debt. Its attempts to recoup losses by charging the American colonists would ultimately be one of the causes of revolution. Also, the leadership experience gained by colonial fighters such as George Washington during the wars for empire would be used against the Redcoats in the decades that followed. Moreover, France did not forget the embarrassment of defeat. What better way to strike back at Britain than to provide direct aid to the colonists fighting for freedom? England would emerge in a stronger position than France, but the struggle for global preeminence would exact a massive toll from each combatant.
French explorer Champlain had visited and mapped the New England coast a number of times before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. This map of New France was drawn in 1612 and includes all of what is now New England.
About the same time John Smith and the Jamestown settlers were setting up camp in Virginia, France was building permanent settlements of their own. Samuel de Champlain led a group of French colonists through the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to found Quebec in 1608. The fur trade led fortune seekers deeper and deeper into North America. French Jesuit missionaries boldly penetrated the wilderness in the hopes of converting Native Americans to Catholicism. By 1700, France had laid claim to an expanse of territory that ranged from Newfoundland in the Northeast, down across the Great Lakes through the Ohio Valley, southward along the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and as far west as the Rocky Mountains.
There were profound differences between New England and New France. The English colonies, though much smaller in area, dwarfed the French colonization in population. Louis XIV was a devout Catholic and tolerated no other faiths within the French Empire. French Huguenots, the dominant religious minority, therefore found no haven in New France. Land was less of an issue in France than England, so French peasants had less economic incentive to leave. The French Crown was far more interested in its holdings in the Far East and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, so the French monarchs did little to sponsor emigration to North America. Eventually, the sparse French population would be no match for the more numerous British colonists as the wars raged on.
Unlike the English colonies where self-rule had been pursued immediately, the people of New France had no such privileges. There were no elected assemblies. Decisions were made by local magistrates on behalf of the French king. Trial by jury did not exist, nor did a free press. The French citizenry depended directly on the Crown for guidance. The English colonists depended on themselves. In the end, despite huge claims to North American lands, the French would be overwhelmed by more numerous, self-directed subjects of Britain.
French cultural contributions are still felt in the modern United States. Cajun and Creole food draw from French culinary traditions. We need look no further than the map: Des Moines, Detroit, St. Louis, Grand Teton, and New Orleans, to see but some of France’s enduring influence.
The French and Indian War
British Secretary of State William Pitt helped turn the tide against the French. He is also the namesake of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Round four of the global struggle between England and France began in 1754. Unlike the three previous conflicts, this war began in America. French and British soldiers butted heads with each other over control of the Ohio Valley. At stake were the lucrative fur trade and access to the all-important Mississippi River, the lifeline of the frontier to the west. A squadron of soldiers led by a brash, unknown, twenty-two year old George Washington attacked a French stronghold named Fort Duquesne. Soon after the attack, Washington’s troops were forced to surrender. Shortly after that, a second British force also met with defeat. When news of this reached London, war was declared, and the conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years War began. Americans would call this bout the French and Indian War.
The first phase of this war was a sheer disaster for Britain. Assaults on French territory ended in bitter defeat. The French and their Indian allies inspired fear on the British frontier by burning and pillaging settlements. The French struck within sixty miles of Philadelphia. Americans were disheartened. They believed that Britain was not making the proper commitment to North America.
The turning point in the war came when William Pitt took over the wartime operations. He believed North America was critical for England’s global domination. Pitt turned recruitment and supplies over to local authorities in America and promised to reimburse them for their efforts. He committed more troops and juggled the command, replacing old war heroes with vigorous young ones.
Militarily, the tide began to turn, as the British captured Louisbourg, an important strategic port the British used to close the St. Lawrence Seaway. The death blow to the French cause was struck in Quebec in 1759. Commander James Wolfe bravely sent his forces up a rocky embankment to surprise the French. The battle that followed on the Plains of Abraham killed Wolfe and the French commander, as the crucial stronghold was transferred to British hands. It would only be a matter of time before Montreal suffered the same fate.
The French chapter of North American history had ended in a bloody finale.
George Washington’s Background and Experience
Miniature portrait of George Washington painted by Archibald Robertson in Philadelphia, 1791-1792 / Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Few figures loom as large in American history as George Washington. His powerful leadership, unflagging determination, and boundless patriotism would be essential to the winning of the Revolutionary War, the creation of the United States Constitution, and the establishment of a new government as the nation’s first president. As time has passed, his legend has grown. Honesty — he could not tell a lie, we are told. Strength — he could throw a coin across the Potomac, the legend declares. Humility — he was offered an American crown, but turned it down in the name of democracy. Time may have made great myths out of small truths, but the contributions this one man made to the creation of the American nation cannot be denied.
George Washington was born in Virginia in 1732 to a wealthy plantation owner. Of all the subjects he studied, he loved math the most. This prompted young George to apprentice as a surveyor of Virginia lands in his youth. Washington walked miles and miles through his home state surveying land. In the process he learned about the natural environment and developed a deep passion for his native Virginia.
As a colonel in the British Army, Washington played a great part in starting the French and Indian War. He was ordered to deliver a message to French settlers whom the Virginia governor believed were encroaching on British lands. The French refused to yield, and instead built Fort Duquesne on the site to fortify their position. The governor sent Washington back to dislodge the soldiers, and fighting ensued. This first taste of battle was humbling to the twenty-two-year-old colonel. The French forced Washington to surrender after one third of his men had been killed or wounded. But there would be another time.
When the tide of war turned in the British favor, Washington would return to Fort Duquesne, this time in triumph. The British burnt the fort to the ground and founded Fort Pitt — later Pittsburgh — after the man they believed led the British to success. Washington enjoyed victory at last. The experience of the French and Indian War earned him a reputation as a solid leader in the American colonies. The decision to name him commander of the Continental Army in 1775 was not difficult. He had already made a name for himself. But far greater glories were yet to come.
The Treaty of Paris (1763) and Its Impact
William Pitt, the elder, was appointed by King George II to be secretary of state, in charge of military affairs and colonial policy. / Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
The fighting was over. Now the British and the British Americans could enjoy the fruits of victory. The terms of the Treaty of Paris were harsh to losing France. All French territory on the mainland of North America was lost. The British received Quebec and the Ohio Valley. The port of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory west of the Mississippi were ceded to Spain for their efforts as a British ally.
It should have been a time to revel in the spoils of war. Instead, the very victory that temporarily brought American colonists close to their British cousins would help tear them apart.
There is nothing like fear to make a group of people feel close to a protector. The American colonists had long felt the threat of France peering over their shoulders. They needed the might of the great British military to keep them safe from France. With France gone, this was no longer true. They could be free to chart their own destinies.
The experience of the French and Indian War did not in many ways bring the British and the Americans closer together. British troops looked down their noses at the colonials. Americans were regarded as crude, lacking culture. The pious New Englanders found the British redcoats to be profane. New Englanders did not like taking orders. There was considerable resistance to helping the British at all until Pitt promised to reimburse the colonists. Smugglers continued to trade with the French and Spanish enemies throughout the war. There was considerable tension indeed.
The American colonists did feel closer to each other. Some of the intercolonial rivalry was broken down in the face of a common enemy. The first sign of nationalism was seen when settlers from all thirteen colonies lay down their lives together in battle. Likewise, the joy of victory was an American triumph. All could share in the pride of success. In many ways, the French and Indian War was a coming of age for the English colonies. They had over a century of established history. They had a flourishing economy.
The Americans proved they could work together to defeat a common foe. Before long, they would do so again.
Although King George III was later burned in effigy in the streets of the colonies, his relaxed ruling style inspired little ire among the colonists in the 1760s.
In 1763, few would have predicted that by 1776 a revolution would be unfolding in British America.
The ingredients of discontent seemed lacking — at least on the surface. The colonies were not in a state of economic crisis; on the contrary, they were relatively prosperous. Unlike the Irish, no groups of American citizens were clamoring for freedom from England based on national identity. King George III was not particularly despotic — surely not to the degree his predecessors of the previous century had been.
Furthermore, the colonies were not unified. Benjamin Franklin discovered this quite clearly when he devised the Albany Plan of Union in 1754. This plan, under the slogan “Join, or Die,” would have brought the colonial rivals together to meet the common threat of the French and Indians. Much to Franklin’s chagrin, this plan was soundly defeated.
Ben Franklin sketched this cartoon to illustrate the urgency of his 1754 Albany Plan of Union. He unsuccessfully tried to bring the colonies together to defend themselves against Indian and French threats.
How, then, in a few short years did everything change? What happened to make the American colonists, most of whom thought of themselves as English subjects, want to break the ties that bound them to their forebears? What forces led the men and women in the 13 different colonies to set aside their differences and unanimously declare their independence?
Much happened between the years of 1763 and 1776. The colonists felt unfairly taxed, watched over like children, and ignored in their attempts to address grievances. Religious issues rose to the surface, political ideals crystallized, and, as always, economics were the essence of many debates.
For their part, the British found the colonists unwilling to pay their fair share for the administration of the Empire. After all, citizens residing in England paid more in taxes than was asked of any American during the entire time of crisis.
The 1770 Boston Massacre was only one in a series of events that led American colonists to revolt against Britain.
This was not the first time American colonists found themselves in dispute with Great Britain. But this time the cooler heads did not prevail. Every action by one side brought an equally strong response from the other. The events during these important years created sharp divisions among the English people, among the colonists themselves, and between the English and the Colonists.
Over time, the geographic distance between England and the colonies became more and more noticeable. It took England time to respond to Colonial provocations and to administer the settled areas of America. Further, some now questioned how it could be that a tiny island nation could contain and rule the American continent.
Before long, the point of no return was reached.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763
After Britain won the Seven Years’ War and gained land in North America, it issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited American colonists from settling west of Appalachia.
The Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the French and Indian War, granted Britain a great deal of valuable North American land. But the new land also gave rise to a plethora of problems.
The ceded territory, known as the Ohio Valley, was marked by the Appalachian Mountains in the east and the Mississippi River in the west.
Don’t Go West, Young Man
Despite the acquisition of this large swath of land, the British tried to discourage American colonists from settling in it. The British already had difficulty administering the settled areas east of the Appalachians. Americans moving west would stretch British administrative resources thin.
Further, just because the French government had yielded this territory to Britain did not mean the Ohio Valley’s French inhabitants would readily give up their claims to land or trade routes. Scattered pockets of French settlers made the British fearful of another prolonged conflict. The war had dragged on long enough, and the British public was weary of footing the bill.
Even after Britain issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, Daniel Boone continued to settle areas west of the Appalachian Mountains. This 1851 painting, Daniel Boone Leading Settlers through the Cumberland Gap, depicts the popular image of a confident Boone leading the early pioneers fearlessly into the West. / George C. Bingham
Moreover, the Native Americans, who had allied themselves with the French during the Seven Years’ War, continued to fight after the peace had been reached. Pontiac’s Rebellion continued after the imperial powers achieved a ceasefire.
The last thing the British government wanted were hordes of American colonists crossing the Appalachians fueling French and Native American resentment.
The solution seemed simple. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued, which declared the boundaries of settlement for inhabitants of the 13 colonies to be Appalachia.
The Royal Proclamation of October 7, 1763
BY THE KlNG. A PROCLAMATION
Whereas We have taken into Our Royal Consideration the extensive and valuable acquisitions in America, secured to our Crown by the late definitive Treaty of Peace, concluded at Paris. the 10th day of February last; and being desirous that all Our loving Subjects, as well of our Kingdom as of our Colonies in America, may avail themselves with all convenient Speed, of the great Benefits and Advantages which must accrue therefrom to their Commerce, Manufactures, and Navigation, We have thought fit, with the Advice of our Privy Council, to issue this our Royal Proclamation, hereby to publish and declare to all our loving Subjects, that we have, with the Advice of our Said Privy Council, granted our Letters Patent, under our Great Seal of Great Britain, to erect, within the Countries and Islands ceded and confirmed to Us by the said Treaty, Four distinct and separate Governments, styled and called by the names of Quebec, East Florida, West Florida and Grenada, and limited and bounded as follows, viz.
First — The Government of Quebec bounded on the Labrador Coast by the River St. John, and from thence by a Line drawn from the Head of that River through the Lake St. John, to the South end of the Lake Nipissim; from whence the said Line, crossing the River St. Lawrence, and the Lake Champlain, in 45. Degrees of North Latitude, passes along the High Lands which divide the Rivers that empty themselves into the said River St. Lawrence from those which fall into the Sea; and also along the North Coast of the Baye des Châleurs, and the Coast of the Gulph of St. Lawrence to Cape Rosières, and from thence crossing the Mouth of the River St. Lawrence by the West End of the Island of Anticosti, terminates at the aforesaid River of St. John.
Secondly — The Government of East Florida. bounded to the Westward by the Gulph of Mexico and the Apalachicola River; to the Northward by a Line drawn from that part of the said River where the Chatahouchee and Flint Rivers meet, to the source of St. Mary’s River, and by the course of the said River to the Atlantic Ocean; and to the Eastward and Southward by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulph of Florida, including all Islands within Six Leagues of the Sea Coast.
Thirdly — The Government of West Florida. bounded to the Southward by the Gulph of Mexico. including all Islands within Six Leagues of the Coast, from the River Apalachicola to Lake Pontchartrain; to the Westward by the said Lake, the Lake Maurepas, and the River Mississippi; to the Northward by a Line drawn due East from that part of the River Mississippi which lies in 31 Degrees North Latitude, to the River Apalachicola or Chatahouchee; and to the Eastward by the said River.
Fourthly — The Government of Grenada, comprehending the Island of that name, together with the Grenadines, and the Islands of Dominico, St. Vincent’s and Tobago. And to the end that the open and free Fishery of our Subjects may be extended to and carried on upon the Coast of Labrador, and the adjacent Islands.
We have thought fit, with the advice of our said Privy Council to put all that Coast, from the River St. John’s to Hudson’s Streights, together with the Islands of Anticosti and Madelaine, and all other smaller Islands Iying upon the said Coast, under the care and Inspection of our Governor of Newfoundland.
We have also, with the advice of our Privy Council. thought fit to annex the Islands of St. John’s and Cape Breton, or Isle Royale, with the lesser Islands adjacent thereto, to our Government of Nova Scotia.
We have also, with the advice of our Privy Council aforesaid, annexed to our Province of Georgia all the Lands Iying between the Rivers Alatamaha and St. Mary’s.
And whereas it will greatly contribute to the speedy settling of our said new Governments, that our loving Subjects should be informed of our Paternal care, for the security of the Liberties and Properties of those who are and shall become Inhabitants thereof, We have thought fit to publish and declare, by this Our Proclamation, that We have, in the Letters Patent under our Great Seal of Great Britain, by which the said Governments are constituted. given express Power and Direction to our Governors of our Said Colonies respectively, that so soon as the state and circumstances of the said Colonies will admit thereof, they shall, with the Advice and Consent of the Members of our Council, summon and call General Assemblies within the said Governments respectively, in such Manner and Form as is used and directed in those Colonies and Provinces in America which are under our immediate Government: And We have also given Power to the said Governors, with the consent of our Said Councils, and the Representatives of the People so to be summoned as aforesaid, to make, constitute, and ordain Laws. Statutes, and Ordinances for the Public Peace, Welfare, and good Government of our said Colonies, and of the People and Inhabitants thereof, as near as may be agreeable to the Laws of England, and under such Regulations and Restrictions as are used in other Colonies; and in the mean Time, and until such Assemblies can be called as aforesaid, all Persons Inhabiting in or resorting to our Said Colonies may confide in our Royal Protection for the Enjoyment of the Benefit of the Laws of our Realm of England; for which Purpose We have given Power under our Great Seal to the Governors of our said Colonies respectively to erect and constitute, with the Advice of our said Councils respectively, Courts of Judicature and public Justice within our Said Colonies for hearing and determining all Causes, as well Criminal as Civil, according to Law and Equity, and as near as may be agreeable to the Laws of England, with Liberty to all Persons who may think themselves aggrieved by the Sentences of such Courts, in all Civil Cases, to appeal, under the usual Limitations and Restrictions, to Us in our Privy Council.
We have also thought fit, with the advice of our Privy Council as aforesaid, to give unto the Governors and Councils of our said Three new Colonies, upon the Continent, full Power and Authority to settle and agree with the Inhabitants of our said new Colonies or with any other Persons who shall resort thereto, for such Lands. Tenements and Hereditaments, as are now or hereafter shall be in our Power to dispose of; and them to grant to any such Person or Persons upon such Terms, and under such moderate Quit-Rents, Services and Acknowledgments, as have been appointed and settled in our other Colonies, and under such other Conditions as shall appear to us to be necessary and expedient for the Advantage of the Grantees, and the Improvement and settlement of our said Colonies.
And Whereas, We are desirous, upon all occasions, to testify our Royal Sense and Approbation of the Conduct and bravery of the Officers and Soldiers of our Armies, and to reward the same, We do hereby command and impower our Governors of our said Three new Colonies, and all other our Governors of our several Provinces on the Continent of North America, to grant without Fee or Reward, to such reduced Officers as have served in North America during the late War, and to such Private Soldiers as have been or shall be disbanded in America, and are actually residing there, and shall personally apply for the same, the following Quantities of Lands, subject, at the Expiration of Ten Years, to the same Quit-Rents as other Lands are subject to in the Province within which they are granted, as also subject to the same Conditions of Cultivation and Improvement; viz.
- To every Person having the Rank of a Field Officer — 5,000 Acres.
- To every Captain — 3,000 Acres.
- To every Subaltern or Staff Officer, — 2,000 Acres.
- To every Non-Commission Officer, — 200 Acres.
- To every Private Man — 50 Acres.
We do likewise authorize and require the Governors and Commanders in Chief of all our said Colonies upon the Continent of North America to grant the like Quantities of Land, and upon the same conditions, to such reduced Officers of our Navy of like Rank as served on board our Ships of War in North America at the times of the Reduction of Louisbourg and Quebec in the late War, and who shall personally apply to our respective Governors for such Grants.
And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them. or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds. — We do therefore, with the Advice of our Privy Council, declare it to be our Royal Will and Pleasure. that no Governor or Commander in Chief in any of our Colonies of Quebec, East Florida. or West Florida, do presume, upon any Pretence whatever, to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass any Patents for Lands beyond the Bounds of their respective Governments as described in their Commissions: as also that no Governor or Commander in Chief in any of our other Colonies or Plantations in America do presume for the present, and until our further Pleasure be known, to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass Patents for any Lands beyond the Heads or Sources of any of the Rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the West and North West, or upon any Lands whatever, which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians, or any of them.
And We do further declare it to be Our Royal Will and Pleasure, for the present as aforesaid, to reserve under our Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the Lands and Territories not included within the Limits of Our said Three new Governments, or within the Limits of the Territory granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, as also all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and North West as aforesaid.
And We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved. without our especial leave and Licence for that Purpose first obtained.
And We do further strictly enjoin and require all Persons whatever who have either wilfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any Lands within the Countries above described or upon any other Lands which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such Settlements.
And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of our Interests and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians: In order, therefore, to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We do, with the Advice of our Privy Council strictly enjoin and require that no private Person do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our Colonies where, We have thought proper to allow Settlement: but that, if at any Time any of the Said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that Purpose by the Governor or Commander in Chief of our Colony respectively within which they shall lie: and in case they shall lie within the limits of any Proprietary Government, they shall be purchased only for the Use and in the name of such Proprietaries, conformable to such Directions and Instructions as We or they shall think proper to give for that Purpose: And we do, by the Advice of our Privy Council, declare and enjoin, that the Trade with the said Indians shall be free and open to all our Subjects whatever, provided that every Person who may incline to Trade with the said Indians do take out a Licence for carrying on such Trade from the Governor or Commander in Chief of any of our Colonies respectively where such Person shall reside, and also give Security to observe such Regulations as We shall at any Time think fit, by ourselves or by our Commissaries to be appointed for this Purpose, to direct and appoint for the Benefit of the said Trade:
And we do hereby authorize, enjoin, and require the Governors and Commanders in Chief of all our Colonies respectively, as well those under Our immediate Government as those under the Government and Direction of Proprietaries, to grant such Licences without Fee or Reward, taking especial Care to insert therein a Condition, that such Licence shall be void, and the Security forfeited in case the Person to whom the same is granted shall refuse or neglect to observe such Regulations as We shall think proper to prescribe as aforesaid.
And we do further expressly conjoin and require all Officers whatever, as well Military as those Employed in the Management and Direction of Indian Affairs, within the Territories reserved as aforesaid for the use of the said Indians, to seize and apprehend all Persons whatever, who standing charged with Treason. Misprisions of Treason, Murders, or other Felonies or Misdemeanors, shall fly from Justice and take Refuge in the said Territory. and to send them under a proper guard to the Colony where the Crime was committed of which they, stand accused, in order to take their Trial for the same.
Given at our Court at St. James’s the 7th Day of October 1763, in the Third Year of our Reign.
GOD SAVE THE KING
– Royal Proclamation, October 7, 1763
Proclaim and Inflame
Despite the Treaty of Paris, many Native Americans continued to fight against European settlement of land west of Appalachia. Ottawa Chief Pontiac led numerous attacks against British and colonial expansion and settlement and his violent aggression is one reason Britain issued the Proclamation of 1763.
But what seemed simple to the British was not acceptable to their colonial subjects. This remedy did not address some concerns vitally important to the colonies. Colonial blood had been shed to fight the French and Indians, not to cede land to them. What was to be said for American colonists who had already settled in the West?
In addition, the colonies themselves had already begun to set their sights on expanding their western boundaries; such planning sometimes even causing tension among the colonies. Why restrict their appetites to expand? Surely this must be a plot to keep the American colonists under the imperial thumb and east of the mountains, where they could be watched.
Consequently, this law was observed with the same reverence the colonists reserved for the mercantile laws. Scores of wagons headed westward. How could the British possibly enforce this decree? It was nearly impossible.
The Proclamation of 1763 merely became part of the long list of events in which the intent and actions of one side was misunderstood or disregarded by the other.
The Stamp Act Controversy
When Britain repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 — only a year after it had been issued — colonists celebrated in the streets, as this satirical cartoon from 1766 depicts.
Something was dreadfully wrong in the American colonies.
All of sudden after over a century and a half of permitting relative self-rule, Britain was exercising direct influence over colonial life. In addition to restricting westward movement, the parent country was actually enforcing its trade laws.
Puttin’ on the Writs
Writs of assistance, or general search warrants, were granted to British customs inspectors to search colonial ships. The inspectors had long been charged with this directly but, until this time, had not carried it out. Violators did not receive the benefit of a trial by jury; rather, they were at the mercy of the British admiralty courts.
Worst of all, the British now began levying taxes against American colonists. What had gone wrong?
All pieces of paper fell under the Stamp Act of 1765. Legal documents, newspapers, and playing cards were also levied with the tax. Britain had several stamps to mark these documents as official.
The British point of view is not difficult to grasp. The Seven Years’ War had been terribly costly. The taxes asked of the American colonists were lower than those asked of mainland English citizens. The revenue raised from taxing the colonies was used to pay for their own defense. Moreover, the funds received from American colonists barely covered one-third of the cost of maintaining British troops in the 13 colonies.
The Americans, however, saw things through a different lens. What was the purpose of maintaining British garrisons in the colonies now that the French threat was gone? Americans wondered about contributing to the maintenance of troops they felt were there only to watch them.
True, those in England paid more in taxes, but Americans paid much more in sweat. All the land that was cleared, the Indians who were fought, and the relatives who died building a colony that enhanced the British Empire made further taxation seem insulting.
That the colonists, black and white, born here are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of Parliament, but from the British constitution, which was re-established at the Revolution with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations.
– James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764
In addition to emotional appeals, the colonists began to make a political argument, as well. The tradition of receiving permission for levying taxes dated back hundreds of years in British history. But the colonists had no representation in the British Parliament. To tax them without offering representation was to deny their traditional rights as English subjects. This could not stand.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was not the first attempt to tax the American colonies. Parliament had passed the Sugar Act and Currency Act the previous year. Because tax was collected at ports though, it was easily circumvented. Indirect taxes such as these were also much less visible to the consumer.
The Currency Act of 1764
The colonies were plagued by a shortage of legal British currency. To offset the problem, the colonies began printing their own Bills of Credit. These notes were not regulated, not backed by hard silver or gold currency, and their use and value varied depending on where they were issued. The result was confusion compounded by fear due to the erratic colonial economy. To assuage anxious British merchant-creditors, Parliament passed the Currency Act on September 1, 1764.
Essentially, the Currency Act gave Parliament control of the colonial currency system. It abolished the Bills of Credit altogether and put the colonists at a further economic disadvantage in their trade relations with British merchants.
WHEREAS great quantities of paper bills of credit have been created and issued in his Majesty’s colonies or plantations in America, by virtue of acts, orders, resolutions, or votes of assembly, making and declaring such bills of credit to be legal tender in payment of money: and whereas such bills of credit have greatly depreciated in their value, by means whereof debts have been discharged with a much less value than was contracted for, to the great discouragement and prejudice of the trade and commerce of his Majesty’s subjects, by occasioning confusion in dealings, and lessening credit in the said colonies or plantations: for remedy whereof, may it please your most excellent Majesty, that it may be enacted; and be it enacted by the King’s most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That from and after the first day of September, one thousand seven hundred and sixty four, no act, order, resolution, or vote of assembly, in any of his Majesty’s colonies or plantations in America, shall be made, for creating or issuing any paper bills, or bills of credit of any kind or denomination whatsoever, declaring such paper bills, or bills of credit, to be legal tender in payment of any bargains, contracts, debts, dues, or demands whatsoever; and every clause or provision which shall hereafter be inserted in any act, order, resolution, or vote of assembly, contrary to this act, shall be null and void.
– excerpt from the Currency Act of 1764
The Stamp Act
When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, things changed. It was the first direct tax on the American colonies. Every legal document had to be written on specially stamped paper, showing proof of payment. Deeds, wills, marriage licenses — contracts of any sort — were not recognized as legal in a court of law unless they were prepared on this paper. In addition, newspaper, dice, and playing cards also had to bear proof of tax payment. American activists sprang into action.
Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, 1765
IN CONGRESS IN NEW YORK
The members of this Congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty’s Person and Government, inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession, and with minds deeply impressed by a sense of the present and impending misfortunes of the British colonies on this continent; having considered as maturely as time will permit the circumstances of the said colonies, esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations of our humble opinion, respecting the most essential rights and liberties of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labour, by reason of several late Acts of Parliament.
- That His Majesty’s subjects in these colonies, owe the same allegiance to the Crown of Great-Britain, that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body the Parliament of Great Britain.
- That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies, are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great-Britain.
- That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.
- That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain.
- That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.
- That all supplies to the Crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British Constitution, for the people of Great-Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists.
- That trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.
- That the late Act of Parliament, entitled, An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British colonies and plantations in America, etc., by imposing taxes on the inhabitants of these colonies, and the said Act, and several other Acts, by extending the jurisdiction of the courts of Admiralty beyond its ancient limits, have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.
- That the duties imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, from the peculiar circumstances of these colonies, will be extremely burthensome and grievous; and from the scarcity of specie, the payment of them absolutely impracticable.
- That as the profits of the trade of these colonies ultimately center in Great-Britain, to pay for the manufactures which they are obliged to take from thence, they eventually contribute very largely to all supplies granted there to the Crown.
- That the restrictions imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, on the trade of these colonies, will render them unable to purchase the manufactures of Great-Britain.
- That the increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies, depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse with Great-Britain mutually affectionate and advantageous.
- That it is the right of the British subjects in these colonies, to petition the King, Or either House of Parliament.
Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies, to the best of sovereigns, to the mother country, and to themselves, to endeavour by a loyal and dutiful address to his Majesty, and humble applications to both Houses of Parliament, to procure the repeal of the Act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, of all clauses of any other Acts of Parliament, whereby the jurisdiction of the Admiralty is extended as aforesaid, and of the other late Acts for the restriction of American commerce.
– “Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress,” 1765
Taxation in this manner and the Quartering Act (which required the American colonies to provide food and shelter for British troops) were soundly thrashed in colonial assemblies. From Patrick Henry in Virginia to James Otis in Massachusetts, Americans voiced their protest. A Stamp Act Congress was convened in the colonies to decide what to do.
The colonists put their words into action and enacted widespread boycotts of British goods. Radical groups such as the Sons and Daughters of Liberty did not hesitate to harass tax collectors or publish the names of those who did not comply with the boycotts.
Soon, the pressure on Parliament by business-starved British merchants was too great to bear. The Stamp Act was repealed the following year.
The crisis was over, but the uneasy peace did not last long.
The Boston Patriots
Boston was the home for many patriots and supports of the American cause. This map shows the plan of Boston in 1775, at the height of the Revolution.
The American Revolution was not simply a series of impersonal events. Men and women made fateful, often difficult decisions that led to the great clash.
Although patriots could be found in any of the 13 colonies, nowhere were they more numerous than in the city of Boston.
Perhaps the prevalence of shipping in Boston made Bostonians especially resent the restrictions on trade. Maybe its legacy of religious quarrels with the Church of England made Bostonians more rebellious. Its long history of town meetings and self-rule may have led New Englanders to be more wary of royal authority.
Perhaps a combination of these and other factors led the city of Boston to be the leading voice against British authority. It was, after all, the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.
Furthermore, fierce patriots such as James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were all citizens of one great city: Boston.
Quick-tempered James Otis was one of the first vociferous opponents of British taxation policies. As early as 1761, Boston merchants hired him to provide legal defense against British search warrants.
His widely distributed pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved, was one of the first legal criticisms of Parliament’s taxation policies. A large man with a large heart for British liberties, he was perceived by many in London to be the center of treasonous American activity.
But Otis also saw himself as fiercely loyal to the English Constitution. Once he stormed into Boston’s Royal Coffee House to face drawn swords because his loyalty had been called into question. Violence ensued. Otis was so severely beaten that he never really recovered. The wounds he received from British made him somewhat of a martyr around Boston.
Otis was never the same mentally after the severe beating. Friends and admirers commented about his diminished verbal capacities.
Of Otis, John Adams wrote, “In short, I never saw such an object of admiration, reverence, contempt, and compassion, all at once, as this. I fear, I tremble, I mourn, for the man and his country; many others mourn over him, with tears in their eyes.” Poor Otis!
In May, 1782, Otis was killed after being struck by a bolt of lightning.
A writer and propagandist, Samuel Adams championed the American Revolution in Boston and chaired the meeting that led to the Boston Tea Party. Along with his cousin, John Adams, Samuel Adams is one of the best-known Boston patriots.
Samuel Adams was perhaps the fieriest supporter of American liberty in the 13 colonies. His mind drew a sharp distinction between the evils of the British Empire and simple American life. His skills as a political organizer drove the colonies toward declaring independence. Adams chaired the Boston town meeting that preceded the infamous tea party.
Rather unsuccessful in a series of pursuits prior to the Revolution, Adams found his calling in organizing and rabble-rousing. He served as an active member of the Sons of Liberty and the creator of the first significant committee of correspondence. As the Revolution approached, the cries for Adams’ head grew louder and louder in the streets of London.
The Destruction of the Tea is the pretence for the unprecedented Severity shown to the Town of Boston but the real Cause is the opposition to Tyranny for which the people of that Town have always made themselves remarkeable & for which I think this Country is much obligd to them. They are suffering the Vengeance of Administration in the Common Cause of America.
– Samuel Adams, letter to Arthur Lee (January 25, 1774)
John Adams, Samuel’s second cousin, was no less a patriot. His early fame as a defense attorney for the British soldiers in the trial that followed the Boston Massacre cannot be taken in isolation.
He provided the wording of the resistance message sent to George III that was adopted by the First Continental Congress. John and Samuel Adams represented the radical wing of the Second Continental Congress that demanded a taking up of arms against Britain. John Adams was also a member of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence.
The man with the famous signature — John Hancock — was also a Bostonian. Hancock earned the early ire of British officials as a major smuggler. The seizure of one of his ships brought a response from Bostonians that led directly to British occupation in 1768.
Later, Hancock and Samuel Adams were the two agitators whose arrest was ordered by General Gage after the battles at Lexington and Concord. As a man of great wealth, he had much to lose by resisting Britain. Nevertheless, he did not bend.
Paul Revere did not come from the same social class as the aforementioned patriots. As a silversmith, he was a man of humbler means, but his attitudes about Britain were anything but humble. His famous midnight ride that warned of the advancing British troops was only one of his revolutionary actions. He was also an illustrator, whose image of the Boston Massacre became iconic.
I set off, it was then about 11 o’clock, the moon shone bright. I had got almost over Charlestown Common, towards Cambridge, when I saw two officers on horse-back, standing under the shade of a tree, in a narrow part of the road. I was near enough to see their holsters and cockades. One of them started his horse towards me, the other up the road, as I supposed, to head me, should I escape the first. I turned my horses short about, and rode upon a full gallop for Mistick Road, he followed me about 300 yards, and finding he could not catch me, returned. I proceeded to Lexington, through Mistick, and alarmed Mr. Adams and Col. Hancock …
– Paul Revere, account of his ride (1775)
Not only did Paul Revere take a midnight ride, he was also a silversmith and artist. His engraving of the Boston Massacre was used by patriots throughout the colonies as Revolutionary propaganda. / Paul Revere Memorial Association
When the British suspended the Massachusetts legislature for refusing to retract its circular letter, Revere engraved the names of the 92 assemblymen who stood up to Parliament. His engravings were used by patriots as anti-British propaganda, particularly his famous engraving of the Boston Massacre.
These five were but a handful of Bostonians who became the thorn in the British side. Their brave actions encouraged American patriotism throughout the 13 colonies. As the American Revolution was dawning, the Boston patriots led the way.
The Townshend Acts
The House of Commons and the House of Lords combine to form Britain’s Parliament. Charles Townshend was a member of the House of Commons when he convinced Parliament to impose a new tax on the American colonies in 1767. / Rudolph Ackermann 1808
“Nervous tension” is the term that best describes the relationship between the American colonies and England in the aftermath of the Stamp Act repeal.
Several issues remained unresolved. First, Parliament had absolutely no wish to send a message across the Atlantic that ultimate authority lay in the colonial legislatures. Immediately after repealing the Stamp Act, Parliament issued the Declaratory Act.
This act proclaimed Parliament’s ability “to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever.” The message was clear: under no circumstances did Parliament abandon in principle its right to legislate for the 13 colonies.
In the Western Hemisphere, leaders were optimistic about the repeal of the Stamp Act but found the suggestions of the Declaratory Act threatening. Most American statesmen had drawn a clear line between legislation and taxation. In 1766, the notion of Parliamentary supremacy over the law was questioned only by a radical few, but the ability to tax without representation was another matter. The Declaratory Act made no such distinction. “All cases whatsoever” could surely mean the power to tax. Many assemblymen waited anxiously for the issue to resurface.
From infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Inquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons then given me by convincing me more fully of their truth and excellence. Benevolence toward mankind excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man, on every occasion, to the utmost of his power. As a charitable but poor person does not withhold his mite because he cannot relieve all the distresses of the miserable, so should not any honest man suppress his sentiments concerning freedom, however small their influence is likely to be. Perhaps he may “touch some wheel” that will have an effect greater than he could reasonably expect…
– John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1767)
Sure enough, the “truce” did not last long. Back in London, Charles Townshend persuaded the House of Commons to once again tax the Americans, this time through an import tax on such items as glass, paper, lead, and tea.
The Ties That Bind
As Britain continued to impose taxes on the colonists, reactions turned violent toward Tories and British officials.
Townshend had ulterior motives, however. The revenue from these duties would now be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors. This was not an insignificant change. Traditionally, the legislatures of the colonies held the authority to pay the governors. It was not uncommon for a governor’s salary to be withheld if the legislature became dissatisfied with any particular decision. The legislature could, in effect, blackmail the governor into submission. Once this important leverage was removed, the governors could be freer to oppose the assemblies.
Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, sponsored the Townshend Acts. He believed that the Townshend Acts would assert British authority over the colonies as well as increase revenue.
Townshend went further by appointing an American Board of Customs Commissioners. This body would be stationed in the colonies to enforce compliance with tax policy. Customs officials received bonuses for every convicted smuggler, so there were obvious incentives to capture Americans. Given that violators were tried in juryless admiralty courts, there was a high chance of conviction.
Townshend also pressed the Americans to the limit by suspending the New York legislature for failing to provide adequate supplies for the British troops stationed there. Another showdown appeared imminent.
Reactions in the colonies were similar to those during the Stamp Act Crisis. Once again nonimportation was implemented. Extralegal activities such as harassing tax collectors and merchants who violated the boycotts were common. The colonial assemblies sprung into action.
Boston Non-Importation Agreement
August 1, 1768
The merchants and traders in the town of Boston having taken into consideration the deplorable situation of the trade, and the many difficulties it at present labours under on account of the scarcity of money, which is daily increasing for want of the other remittances to discharge our debts in Great Britain, and the large sums collected by the officers of the customs for duties on goods imported; the heavy taxes levied to discharge the debts contracted by the government in the late war; the embarrassments and restrictions laid on trade by several late acts of parliament; together with the bad success of our cod fishery, by which our principal sources of remittance are like to be greatly diminished, and we thereby rendered unable to pay the debts we owe the merchants in Great Britain, and to continue the importation of goods from thence;
We, the subscribers, in order to relieve the trade under those discouragements, to promote industry, frugality, and economy, and to discourage luxury, and every kind of extravagance, do promise and engage to and with each other as follows:
First, That we will not send for or import from Great Britain, either upon our own account, or upon commission, thisfall, any other goods than what are already ordered for the fall supply.
Secondly, That we will not send for or import any kind of goods or merchandize from Great Britain, either on our own account, or on commissions, or any otherwise, from the 1st of January 1769, to the 1st of January 1770, except salt, coals, fish hooks and lines, hemp, and duck bar lead and shot, woolcards and card wire.
Thirdly, That we will not purchase of any factor, or others, any kind of goods imported from Great Britain, from January 1769, to January 1770.
Fourthly, That we will not import, on our own account, or on commissions or purchase of any who shall import from any other colony in America, from January 1769, to January 17 70, any tea, glass, paper, or other goods commonly imported from Great Britain.
Fifthly, That we will not, from and after the 1st of January 1769, import into this province any tea, paper, glass, or painters colours, until the act imposing duties on those articles shall be repealed.
In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands, this first day of August, 1768.
– Boston Non-Importation Agreement (August 1, 1768)
Take It Back
In a circular letter to the other colonies, the Massachusetts legislature recommended collective action against the British Parliament. Parliament, in turn, threatened to disband the body unless they repealed the letter. By a vote of 92 to 17, the Massachusetts lawmakers refused and were duly dissolved. Other colonial assemblies voiced support of Massachusetts by affirming the circular letter.
More Information …
The Massachusetts Cicular Letter was penned by Samuel Adams in 1768. It voiced Massachusetts opposition to taxation without representation and was sent to several colonial legislatures inviting them to unite in their actions against British government. In response, Lord Hillsborough warned colonial legislatures to treat the Circular Letter with contempt and threatened dissolution to any legislative body that adhered to Massachusetts’ plea. His words fell on deaf ears as legislative assemblies throughout the colonies, including New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, rose to the occasion and accepted the petition set forth by Samuel Adams and Massachusetts.
|PERIOD||BRITISH PRIME MINISTER||EVENT|
|1762-63||John Stuart, Earl of Brute||End of Seven Years War, Treaty of Paris|
|1763-65||George Grenville||Issue Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Currency Act|
|1765-66||Charles-Watson Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham||Repeal Stamp Act, Issue Declaratory Act|
|1766-68||William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham||Issue Townshend Acts|
|1768-70||Augustus Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton||Unable to implement policy of conciliation towards colonies because of chaos in Parliament|
|1770-82||Lord North||Boston Massacre, Repeal Townshend Duties, Issue Tea Act and Intolerable Acts, American Revolution begins with Battles of Lexington and Concord|
|1782||Charles-Watson Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham||Open peace negotiations with America|
|1782-83||William Fitzmaurice, Earl of Shelburne||End of American Revolution, Treaty of Paris, 1783|
The tighter the British grip grew, the more widespread was the resistance. By 1769, British merchants began to feel the sting of nonimportation. In April 1770, news of a partial repeal — the tax on tea was maintained — reached America’s shores.
The second compromise came at a high price. It was reached only after a military occupation of Boston and the ensuing Boston Massacre.
The Boston Massacre
Crispus Attucks is a name synonymous with the Boston Massacre. He was not only the first African American to die for the revolution, he was one of the first patriots to give his life for the cause.
American blood was shed on American soil.
The showdown between the British and the Americans was not simply a war of words. Blood was shed over this clash of ideals. Although large-scale fighting between American minutemen and the British redcoats did not begin until 1775, the 1770 Boston Massacre gave each side a taste of what was to come.
No colony was thrilled with the Townshend duties, but nowhere was there greater resentment than in Boston. British officials in Boston feared for their lives. When attempts were made to seize two of John Hancock’s trading vessels, Boston was ready to riot. Lord Hillsborough, Parliament’s minister on American affairs, finally ordered four regiments to be moved to Boston.
The British Make the Americans Skittish
This print of Paul Revere’s depiction of the Boston Massacre is on display in the Diplomatic Receptions Rooms of the Maine State Department building in Washington, D.C. / U.S. Department of State
Samuel Adams and James Otis did not take this lightly. Less than three weeks prior to the arrival of British troops, Bostonians defiantly, but nervously, assembled in Faneuil Hall. But when the redcoats marched boldly through the town streets on October 1, the only resistance seen was on the facial expressions of the townspeople. The people of Boston had decided to show restraint.
The other 12 colonies watched the Boston proceedings with great interest. Perhaps their fears about British tyranny were true. Moderates found it difficult to argue that the Crown was not interested in stripping away American civil liberties by having a standing army stationed in Boston. Throughout the occupation, sentiment shifted further and further away from the London government.
On March 5, 1770, the inevitable happened. A mob of about 60 angry townspeople descended upon the guard at the Customs House. When reinforcements were called, the crowd became more unruly, hurling rocks and snowballs at the guard and reinforcements.
In the heat of the confusing melee, the British fired without Captain Thomas Preston‘s command. Imperial bullets took the lives of five men, including Crispus Attucks, a former slave. Others were injured.
Anonymous Account of the Boston Massacre, 1770
This party in proceeding from Exchange lane into King street, must pass the sentry posted at the westerly corner of the Custom House, which butts on that lane and fronts on that street. This is needful to be mentioned, as near that spot and in that street the bloody tragedy was acted, and the street actors in it were stationed: their station being but a few feet from the front side of the said Custom House. The outrageous behavior and the threats of the said party occasioned the ringing of the meeting-house bell near the head of King street, which bell ringing quick, as for fire, it presently brought out a number of inhabitants, who being soon sensible of the occasion of it, were naturally led to King street, where the said party had made a stop but a little while before, and where their stopping had drawn together a number of boys, round the sentry at the Custom House. whether the boys mistook the sentry for one of the said party, and thence took occasion to differ with him, or whether he first affronted them, which is affirmed in several depositions,-however that may be, there was much foul language between them, and some of them, in consequence of his pushing at them with his bayonet, threw snowballs at him, which occasioned him to knock hastily at the door of the Custom House. From hence two persons thereupon proceeded immediately to the main-guard, which was posted opposite to the State House, at a small distance, near the head of the said street. The officer on guard was Capt. Preston, who with seven or eight soldiers, with fire-arms and charged bayonets, issued from the guardhouse, and in great haste posted himself and his soldiers in front of the Custom House, near the corner aforesaid.
– Anonymous, “An Account of the Boston Massacre,” (1770)
Trial and Error
Five men were killed in the incident known as the Boston Massacre. Among them was Crispus Attucks, a former slave. / Henry Pelham
Captain Preston and four of his men were cleared of all charges in the trial that followed. Two others were convicted of manslaughter, but were sentenced to a mere branding of the thumb. The lawyer who represented the British soldiers was none other than patriot John Adams.
At the same time Preston’s men drew blood in Boston, the Parliament in London decided once again to concede on the issue of taxation. All the Townshend duties were repealed save one, the tax on tea. It proved to another error in judgment on the part of the British.
The Massachusetts legislature was reconvened. Despite calls by some to continue the tea boycott until all taxes were repealed, most American colonists resumed importation.
The events in Boston from 1768 through 1770 were not soon forgotten. Legal squabbles were one thing, but bloodshed was another. Despite the verdict of the soldiers’ trial, Americans did not forget the lesson they had learned from this experience.
What was the lesson? Americans learned that the British would use force when necessary to keep the Americans obedient.
THE FATAL FIFTH OF MARCH, 1770, CAN NEVER BE FORGOTTEN. The horrors of THAT DREADFUL NIGHT are but too deeply impressed on our hearts. Language is too feeble to paint the emotions of our souls, when our streets were stained with the BLOOD OF OUR BRETHERN; when our ears were wounded by the groans of the dying, and our eyes were tormented with the sight of the mangled bodies of the dead. When our alarmed imagination presented to our view our houses wrapt in flames, our children subjected to the barbarous caprice of the raging soldiery; our beauteous virgins exposed to all the insolence of unbridled passion; our virtuous wives, endeared to us by every tender tie, falling a sacrifice to worse than brutal violence, and perhaps, like the famed Lucretia, distracted with anguish and despair, ending their wretched lives by their own fair hands…
– Dr. Joseph Warren, “Oration commemorating the anniversary of the Boston Massacre,” (March 5, 1772)
If it could happen in Boston, where would it happen next?
The Tea Act and Tea Parties
The Gaspee was burned by colonists angry about taxes and British harassment of their ships.
The British were in a spot — all because of tea.
The partial repeal of the Townshend Acts did not bring the same reaction in the American colonies as the repeal of the Stamp Act. Too much had already happened. Not only had the Crown attempted to tax the colonies on several occasions, but two taxes were still being collected — one on sugar and one on tea.
Military occupation and bloodshed, whether intentional or not, cannot be forgotten easily. Although importation had largely been resumed, the problems of customs officers continued. One ill-fated customs ship, the Gaspee, was burnt to ashes by angry Rhode Islanders when the unfortunate vessel ran aground. Tensions mounted on both sides. It would take time for wounds to heal. But Parliament would not give that time.
Angry Bostonians rebelled against British taxation and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. / KTCA-TV
The British East India Company was on the brink of financial collapse. Lord North hatched a scheme to deal simultaneously with the ailing corporation and the problem of taxing the colonies. He decided to grant the British East India Company a trading monopoly with the American colonies.
A tax on tea would be maintained, but the company would actually be able to sell its tea for a price that was lower than before. A monopoly doesn’t allow for competition. As such the British East India Company could lower its prices.
The Tea Act, 1773
WHEREAS by an act, made in the twelfth year of his present Majesty’s reign, (intituled, An act for granting a drawback of part of the customs upon the exportation of tea to Ireland, and the British dominions in America; for altering the drawback upon foreign sugars exported from Great Britain to Ireland; for continuing the bounty on the exportation of British-made cordage; for allowing the importation of rice from the British plantations into the ports of Bristol, Liverpoole, Lancaster, and Whitehaven, for immediate exportation to foreign parts; and to impower the chief magistrate of any corporation to administer the oath, and grant the certificate required by law, upon the removal of certain goods to London, which have been sent into the country for sale;) it is amongst other things, enacted, That for and during the space of five years, to be computed from and after the fifth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two, there shall be drawn back and allowed for all teas which shall be sold after the said fifth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-two, at the publick sale of the united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies, or which after that time shall be imported, by licence, in pursuance of the said therein and hereinafter mentioned act, made in the eighteenth year of the reign of his late majesty King George the Second, and which shall be exported from this kingdom, as merchandise, to Ireland, or any of the British colonies or plantations in America, three-fifth parts of the several duties of customs which were paid upon the importation of such teas; which drawback or allowance, with respect to such teas as shall be exported to Ireland, shall be made to the exporter, in such manner, and under such rules, regulations, securities, penalties, and forfeitures, as any drawback or allowance was then payable, out of the duty of customs upon the exportation of foreign goods to Ireland; and with respect to such teas as shall be exported to the British colonies and plantations in America, the said dreawback or allowance shall be made in such manner, and under such rules, regulations, penalties, and forfeitures, as any drawback or allowance payable out of the duty of customs upon foreign goods exported to foreign parts, was could, or might be made, before the passing of the said act of the twelfth year of his present Majesty’s reign, (except in such cases as are otherwise therein provided for:) and whereas it may tend to the benefit and advantage of the trade of the said united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies, if the allowance of the drawback of the duties of customs upon all teas sold at the publick sales of the said united company, after the tenth day of May, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-three, and which shall be exported from this kingdom, as merchandise, to any of the British colonies or plantations in America, were to extend to the whole of the said duties of customs payable upon the importation of such teas; may it therefore please your Majesty that it may be enacted; and be it enacted by the King’s most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That there shall be drawn back and allowed for all teas, which, from and after the tenth day of May, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-three, shall be sold at the publick sales of the said united company, or which shall be imported by licence, in pursuance of the said act made in the eighteenth year of the reign of his late majesty King George the Second, and which shall, at any time hereafter, be exported from this kingdom, as merchandise, to any of the British colonies or plantations in America, the whole of the duties of customs payable upon the importation of such teas; which drawback or allowance shall be made to the exporter in such manner, and under such rules, regulations, and securities, and subject to the like penalties and forfeitures, as the former drawback or allowance granted by the said recited act of the twelfth year of his present Majesty’s reign, upon tea exported to the said British colonies and plantations in America was, might, or could be made, and was subject to by the said recited act, or any other act of parliament now in force, in as full and ample manner, to all intents and purposes, as if the several clauses relative thereto were again repeated and re-enacted in this present act.
II. And whereas by one other act made in the eighteenth year of the reign of his late majesty King George the Second, (intituled, An act for repealing the present inland duty of four shillings per pound weight upon all tea sold in Great Britain; and for granting to his Majesty certain other inland duties in lieu thereof; and for better securing the duty upon tea, and other duties of excise; and for pursuing offenders out of one county into another,) it is, amongst other things, enacted, That every person who shall, at any publick sale of tea made by the united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies, be declared to be the best bidder for any lot or lots of tea, shall, within three days after being so declared the best bidder or bidders for the same, deposit with the said united company, or such clerk or officer as the said company shall appoint to receive the same, forty shillings for every tub and for every chest of tea; and in case any such person or persons shall refuse or neglect to make such deposit within the time before limited, he, she, or they, shall forfeit and lose six times the value of such deposit directed to be made as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, bill, plaint, or information, in any of his Majesty’s courts of record at Westminster, in which no essoin, protection, or wager of law, or more than one imparlance, shall be allowed; one moiety of which forfeiture shall go to his Majesty, his heirs and successors, and the other moiety to such person as shall sue or prosecute for the same; and the sale of all teas, for which such deposit shall be neglected to be made as aforesaid, is thereby declared to be null and void, and such teas shall be again put up by the said united company to publick sale, within fourteen days after the end of the sale of teas at which such teas were sold; and all and every buyer or buyers, who shall have neglected to make such deposit as aforesaid, shall be, and is and are thereby rendered incapable of bidding for or buying any teas at any future publick sale of the said united company: and whereas it is found to be expedient and necessary to increase the deposit to be made by any bidder or bidders for any lot or lots of bohea teas, at the publick sales of teas to be made by the said united company; be it enacted by the authority aforesaid, That every person who shall, after the tenth day of May, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-three, at any publick sale of tea to be made by the said united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies, be declared to be the best bidder or bidders for any lot or lots of bohea tea, shall, within three days after being so declared the best bidder or bidders for the same, deposit with the said united company, or such clerk or officer as the said united company shall appoint to receive the same, four pounds of lawful money of Great Britain for every tub and for every chest of bohea tea, under the same terms and conditions, and subject to the same forfeitures, penalties, and regulations, as are mentioned and contained in the said recited act of the eighteenth year of the reign of his said late Majesty.
III. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall and may be lawful for the commissioners of his Majesty’s treasury, or any three or more of them, or for the high treasurer for the time being, upon application made to them by the said united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies for that purpose, to grant a licence or licences to the said united company, to take out of their warehouses, without the same having been put up to sale, and to export to any of the British plantations in America, or to any parts beyond the seas, such quantity or quantities of tea as the said commissioners of his Majesty’s treasury, or any three or more of them, or the high treasurer for the time being, shall think proper and expedient, without incurring any penalty or forfeiture for so doing; any thing in the said in part recited act, or any other law, to the contrary notwithstanding.
IV. And whereas by an act made in the ninth and tenth years of the reign of King William the Third, (intituled, An act for raising a sum not exceeding two millions, upon a fund, for payment of annuities, after the rate of eight pounds per centum per annum; and for settling the trade to the East Indies,) and by several other acts of parliament which are now in force, the said united company of merchants of England trading to the East Indies are obliged to give security, under their common seal, for payment of the duties of customs upon all unrated goods imported by them, so soon as the same shall be sold; and for exposing such goods to sale, openly and fairly, by way of auction, or by inch of candle, within the space of three years from the importation thereof: and whereas it is expedient that some provision should be made to permit the said company, in certain cases, to export tea, on their own account, to the British plantations in America, or to foreign parts, without exposing such tea, to sale here, or being charged with the payment of any duty for the same; be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, That from and after the passing of this act, it shall and may be lawful for the commissioners of his Majesty’s treasury, or any three or more of them, or the high treasurer for the time being, to grant a licence or quantity of licences to the said united company, to take out of their warehouses such quantity or quantities of tea as the said commissioners of the treasury, or any three or more of them, or the high treasurer for the time being, shall think proper, without the same having been exposed to sale in this kingdom; and to export such tea to any of the British colonies or plantations in America, or to foreign parts, discharged from the payment of any customs or duties whatsoever; any thing in the said recited act, or any other act to the contrary notwithstanding.
V. Provided always, and it is hereby further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That a due entry shall be made at the custom-house, of all such tea so exported by licence, as aforesaid, expressing the quantities thereof, at what time imported, and by what ship; and such tea shall be shipped for exportation by the proper officer for that purpose, and shall, in all other respects, not altered by this act, be liable to the same rules, regulations, restrictions, securities, penalties, and forfeitures, as tea penalties, &c. exported to the like places was liable to before the passing this act: and upon the proper officer’s duty, certifying the shipping of such tea to the collector and comptroller of his Majesty’s customs for the port of London, upon the back of the licence, and the exportation thereof, verified by the oath of the husband or agent for the said united company, to be wrote at the bottom of such certificate, and sworn before the said collector and comptroller of the customs, (which oath they are hereby impowered to administer,) it shall and may be lawful for such collector and comptroller to write off and discharge the quantity of tea so exported from the warrant of the respective ship in which such tea was imported.
VI. Provided nevertheless, That no such licence shall be granted, unless it shall first be made to appear to the satisfaction of the commissioners of his Majesty’s treasury, or any three or more of them, or the high treasurer for the time being, that at the time of taking out such teas, for the exportation of which licence or licences shall be granted, there will be left remaining in the warehouses of the said united company, a quantity of tea not less than ten millions of pounds weight; any thing herein, or in any other act of parliament, contained to the contrary thereof notwithstanding.
– The Tea Act (1773)
The British East India Company began with a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1600 and developed into an economic powerhouse. When the company faced financial ruin during the 1770s, the British government stepped in with the Tea Act to help the struggling company.
The colonists, Lord North hoped, would be happy to receive cheaper tea and willing to pay the tax. This would have the dual result of saving the tea company and securing compliance from Americans on the tax issue. It was a brilliant plan. There was, of course, one major flaw in his thinking.
The colonists saw through this thinly veiled plot to encourage tax payment. Furthermore, they wondered how long the monopoly would keep prices low.
Activists were busy again, advocating boycott. Many went further. British ships carrying the controversial cargo were met with threats of violence in virtually all colonial ports. This was usually sufficient to convince the ships to turn around. In Annapolis, citizens burned a ship and the tea it carried.
Boston, of course, reacted in a similarly extreme fashion.
The Boston Tea Party
Governor Thomas Hutchinson allowed three ships carrying tea to enter Boston Harbor. Before the tax could be collected, Bostonians took action. On a cold December night, radical townspeople stormed the ships and tossed 342 chests of tea into the water. Disguised as Native Americans, the offenders could not be identified.
I dressed myself in the costume of an Indian,equipped with a small hatchet, which I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shopof a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf,where the ships lay that contained the tea…
We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water. In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.
– Anonymous, “Account of the Boston Tea Party by a Participant,” (1773)
The damage in modern American dollars exceeded three quarters of a million dollars. Not a single British East India Company chest of tea bound for the 13 colonies reached its destination. Not a single American colonist had a cup of that tea.
Only the fish in Boston Harbor had that pleasure.
The Intolerable Acts
Britain’s House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament, helped issue a series of acts in response to the Boston Tea Party and the American colonies’ continual rebellion. / Rudolf Ackermann 1808
Someone was going to pay.
Parliament was utterly fed up with colonial antics. The British could tolerate strongly worded letters or trade boycotts. They could put up with defiant legislatures and harassed customs officials to an extent.
But they saw the destruction of 342 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company as wanton destruction of property by Boston thugs who did not even have the courage to admit responsibility.
Someone was going to pay.
The British called their responsive measures to the Boston Tea Party the Coercive Acts. Boston Harbor was closed to trade until the owners of the tea were compensated. Only food and firewood were permitted into the port. Town meetings were banned, and the authority of the royal governor was increased.
To add insult to injury, General Gage, the British commander of North American forces, was appointed governor of Massachusetts. British troops and officials would now be tried outside Massachusetts for crimes of murder. Greater freedom was granted to British officers who wished to house their soldiers in private dwellings.
This Town has received the Copy of an Act of the British Parliament, wherein it appears that we have been tried and condemned, and are to be punished, by the shutting up of the harbor and other marks of revenge, until we shall disgrace ourselves by servilely yielding up, in effect, the just and righteous claims of America….The people receive this cruel edict with abhorrence and indignation. They consider themselves as suffering the stroke ministerial…I hope they will sustain the blow with a becoming fortitude, and that the cursed design of intimidating and subduing the spirits of all America, will, by the joint efforts of all, be frustrated.
– Samuel Adams, letter to James Warren (May 14, 1774)
Colonists sometimes took out their anger over unfair taxes on the tax collector, as depicted in this drawing from 1774.
The Quebec Act
Parliament seemed to have a penchant for bad timing in these years. Right after passing the Coercive Acts, it passed the Quebec Act, a law that recognized the Roman Catholic Church as the established church in Quebec. An appointed council, rather than an elected body, would make the major decisions for the colony. The boundary of Quebec was extended into the Ohio Valley.
In the wake of the passage of the Quebec Act, rage spread through the 13 colonies. With this one act, the British Crown granted land to the French in Quebec that was clearly desired by the American colonists. The extension of tolerance to Catholics was viewed as a hostile act by predominantly Protestant America.
Democracy took another blow with the establishment of direct rule in Quebec. Although the British made no connection between the Coercive Acts and the Quebec Act, they were seen on the American mainland as malicious deed and collectively called the Intolerable Acts.
|Boston Port Act||An act to discontinue, in such manner, and for or such time as are therein mentioned, the landing and discharging, lading or shipping, of goods, wares, and merchandise, at the town, and within the harbour, of Boston, in the province of Massachusetts Bay, in North America.|
|Massachusetts Government Act||An Act for the better regulating the government of the province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.|
|Administration of Justice Act||An act for the impartial administration of justice in the case of persons questioned for any acts done by them in the execution of the law, or for the suppression of riots and tumults, in the province of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England.|
|Quebec Act||An Act for making effectual Provision for the Government of the Province of Quebec in North America.|
Throughout the colonies, the message was clear: what could happen in Massachusetts could happen anywhere. The British had gone too far. Supplies were sent to the beleaguered colony from the other twelve. For the first time since the Stamp Act Crisis, an intercolonial conference was called.
It was under these tense circumstances that the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774.
Artist John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence memorializes individuals who were engaged in the process of declaring independence rather than an actual event. Not all of those pictured were present at the reporting of the Declaration on June 28, nor were they all at its adoption on July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of Independence was a curious outcome. Remember the failed Albany Plan of Union in 1754. Benjamin Franklin’s political cartoon appeal — “Join, or Die” fell on deaf colonial ears. In 1763, it was difficult to get the original thirteen to agree on the time of day. This “coming together” will happen very gradually. We have examined the events and people that propelled the colonies to revolt. A careful examination of the stages of unity is in order.
The Declaration of Independence was a product of the Second Continental Congress. Two earlier intercolonial conferences had occurred, each building important keystones of colonial unity. The Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress brought the delegates from differing colonies to agreement on a message to send to the king. Each successive Congress brought greater participation. Each time the representatives met, they were more accustomed to compromise. As times grew more desperate, the people at home became more and more willing to trust their national leaders.
Organizations were also formed to meet intercolonial objectives. The Long Room Club, of which James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were members, was one of the earliest known organizations formed in reaction to British measures. The Association actively promoted nonimportation beyond Massachusetts. The Sons and Daughters of Liberty proved to be the most effective. The Sons of Liberty represented the radical wing of patriots through the years of crisis. They would not hesitate to scare a customs official out of town or tar and feather an enemy. Although strongest in Boston, the Sons of Liberty were active in many port cities, reaching as far South as Charleston.
“I wish you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not push such unlimited power in the hands of husbands.” -Abigail Adams in a March 1776 letter to her husband
The Daughters of Liberty performed an equally important function. If nonimportation were to succeed, women must be involved. The Daughters of Liberty ensured that women did not purchase British goods. In addition, if British cloth was not imported, more homespun cloth must be made. The Daughters of Liberty advanced this cause most effectively.
No unity could be reached without communication. Great literature was produced throughout these critical years. Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves and John Dickinson‘s famous circular letter are two such examples that were widely read in each of the colonies. Samuel Adams organized the first committee of correspondence to circulate the important arguments of the day. Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in the first three months of publication. Even the Declaration of Independence served not only to send a message to King George, but to convince many American colonists of the glory of their cause.
Stamp Act Congress
“No taxation without representation!” was the cry. The colonists were not merely griping about the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. They intended to place actions behind their words. One thing was clear — no colony acting alone could effectively convey a message to the king and Parliament. The appeals to Parliament by the individual legislatures had been ignored. It was James Otis who suggested an intercolonial conference to agree on a united course of action. With that, the Stamp Act Congress convened in New York in October 1765.
The Congress seemed at first to be an abject failure. In the first place, only nine of the colonies sent delegates. Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and the all-important Virginia were not present. The Congress became quickly divided between radicals and moderates. The moderates would hold sway at this time. Only an extreme few believed in stronger measures against Britain than articulating the principle of no taxation without representation. This became the spirit of the Stamp Act Resolves. The Congress humbly acknowledged Parliament’s right to make laws in the colonies. Only the issue of taxation was disputed.
Colonial and personal differences already began to surface. A representative from New Jersey stormed out during the proceedings. The president of the Congress, William Ruggles of Massachusetts, refused to sign the Stamp Act Resolves. In the end, however, the spirit of the Congress prevailed. Every colonial legislature except one approved the Stamp Act Resolves.
In the end, the widespread boycotts enacted by individual colonists surely did more to secure the repeal of the Stamp Act than did the Congress itself. But the gesture was significant. For the first time, against all odds, respected delegates from differing colonies sat with each other and engaged in spirited debate. They discovered that in many ways they had more in common than they originally had thought. This is a tentative but essential step toward the unity that would be necessary to declare boldly their independence from mother England.
Sons and Daughters of Liberty
Royal Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson
They were the ones who were not afraid. They knew instinctively that talk and politics alone would not bring an end to British tyranny. They were willing to resort to extralegal means if necessary to end this series of injustices. They were American patriots — northern and southern, young and old, male and female. They were the Sons and Daughters of Liberty.
Like other secret clubs at the time, the Sons of Liberty had many rituals. They had secret code words, medals, and symbols. Originally formed in response to the Stamp Act, their activities were far more than ceremonial. It was the Sons of Liberty who ransacked houses of British officials. Threats and intimidation were their weapons against tax collectors, causing many to flee town. Images of unpopular figures might be hanged and burned in effigy on the town’s Liberty Tree. Offenders might be covered in warm tar and blanketed in a coat of feathers.
Another important function of the Sons of Liberty was correspondence. These clubs could be found up and down the colonial seaboard. Often they coordinated their activities. Like the public Congresses that would be convened, this private band of societies provided an intercolonial network that would help forge unity. It should come as no surprise that the members of the Sons of Liberty and the delegates to the various Congresses were at times one and the same.
The Daughters of Liberty performed equally important functions. Once nonimportation became the decided course of action, there was a natural textile shortage. Mass spinning bees were organized in various colonial cities to make homespun substitutes. Since women often purchased consumer goods for the home, the Daughters of Liberty became instrumental in upholding the boycott, particularly where tea was concerned. The most zealous Daughters of Liberty refused to accept gentleman callers for themselves or their daughters who were not sympathetic to the patriot cause.
Of course, the winners write the history books. Had the American Revolution failed, the Sons and Daughters of Liberty would no doubt be regarded as a band of thugs, or at the very least, outspoken troublemakers. History will be on their sides, however. These individuals risked their lives and reputations to fight against tyranny. In the end, they are remembered as heroes.
Committees of Correspondence
Copy of Broadside from Boston, Massachusetts, 1775
Volumes and volumes of written work was emerging in the American colonies on the subject of British policies. Apart from major documents and publications, much writing had been produced as letters, pamphlets, and newspaper editorials. The arguments set forth in this way were at times very convincing. American patriots of the 1770s did not have modern means of communication at their disposal. To spread the power of the written word from town to town and colony to colony, Committees of Correspondence were established.
The first such committee was organized by none other than Samuel Adams. Working with rural patriots, Adams enabled the entire Massachusetts citizenry to have access to patriot text. In fact, Adams knew that the residents of the seacoast towns were more informed of each crisis than those of the interior. The spread of these committees across urban centers happened quickly. Adams and others urged the establishment of correspondence committees in rural inland towns as well.
The Committees of Correspondence were bold enough to use the British postal service as the means of communication. For the most part, the pen was their weapon of choice, but revolutionary sentiment did at times take other forms. For example the Committee of Correspondence in Boston gave its blessing on the raiding of the Dartmouth and the destruction of its cargo that became known as the Boston Tea Party. As the revolution drew nearer, the committees became the spine of colonial interaction. The Virginia House of Burgesses followed Adams’ lead and established a Committee of Correspondence as a standing committee in 1773. Before the Tea crisis had passed, each colony had a central committee designed to coordinate discussion with the other twelve colonies. In effect, these Committees of Correspondence were the forebears to the First and Second Continental Congresses.
Successful national organization must begin locally. Congresses and national coordinated actions do not materialize out of thin air. Without the work of thousands of local patriots — north and south, urban and rural — there can be no unified result. The Committees of Correspondence became the building blocks on which national unity could begin to build its foundation.
First Continental Congress
What do you do if you fail as a storekeeper and farmer? Become a lawyer! That’s what Patrick Henry did. By the time he became a member of the First Continental Congress, Henry was known as a great orator.
Americans were fed up. The “Intolerable” Acts were more than the colonies could stand.
In the summer that followed Parliament’s attempt to punish Boston, sentiment for the patriot cause increased dramatically. The printing presses at the Committees of Correspondence were churning out volumes.
There was agreement that this new quandary warranted another intercolonial meeting. It was nearly ten years since the Stamp Act Congress had assembled.
It was time once again for intercolonial action. Thus, on September 1774, the First Continental Congress was convened in Philadelphia.
- Quartering Act (March 24, 1765): This bill required that Colonial Authorities to furnish barracks and supplies to British troops. In 1766, it was expanded to public houses and unoccupied buildings.
- Boston Port Bill (June 1, 1774): This bill closed the port of Boston to all colonists until the damages from the Boston Tea Party were paid for.
- Administration of Justice Act (May 20, 1774): This bill stated that British Officials could not be tried in provincial courts for capital crimes. They would be extradited back to Britain and tried there.
- Massachusetts Government Act (May 20, 1774): This bill annulled the Charter of the Colonies, giving the British Governor complete control of the town meetings.
- Quebec Act (May 20, 1774): This bill extended the Canadian borders to cut off the western colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
Colonists came together at the First Continental Congress to protest the Intolerable Acts.
This time participation was better. Only Georgia withheld a delegation. The representatives from each colony were often selected by almost arbitrary means, as the election of such representatives was illegal.
Still, the natural leaders of the colonies managed to be selected. Sam and John Adams from Massachusetts were present, as was John Dickinson from Pennsylvania. Virginia selected Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Patrick Henry. It took seven weeks for the country’s future heroes to agree on a course of action.
First and most obvious, complete nonimportation was resumed. The Congress set up an organization called the Association to ensure compliance in the colonies.
Carpenters’ Hall — the meeting place of the First Continental Congress / Rushton Young
A declaration of colonial rights was drafted and sent to London. Much of the debate revolved around defining the colonies’ relationship with mother England.
A plan introduced by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed an imperial union with Britain. Under this program, all acts of Parliament would have to be approved by an American assembly to take effect.
Such an arrangement, if accepted by London, might have postponed revolution. But the delegations voted against it — by one vote.
One decision by the Congress often overlooked in importance is its decision to reconvene in May 1775 if their grievances were not addressed. This is a major step in creating an ongoing intercolonial decision making body, unprecedented in colonial history.
When Parliament chose to ignore the Congress, they did indeed reconvene that next May, but by this time boycotts were no longer a major issue. Unfortunately, the Second Continental Congress would be grappling with choices caused by the spilling of blood at Lexington and Concord the previous month.
It was at Carpenters’ Hall that America came together politically for the first time on a national level and where the seeds of participatory democracy were sown.
Second Continental Congress
This rough draft of the Declaration of Independence was handwritten by Thomas Jefferson. It is believed that it was copied from several “creative drafts.” The changes made from draft to final form help us understand more precisely the meanings the declaration committee intended. / Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Times had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Lexington and Concord had changed everything. When the Redcoats fired into the Boston crowd in 1775, the benefit of the doubt was granted. Now the professional imperial army was attempting to arrest patriot leaders, and minutemen had been killed in their defense. In May 1775, with Redcoats once again storming Boston, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia.
The questions were different this time. First and foremost, how would the colonist meet the military threat of the British. It was agreed that a Continental Army would be created. The Congress commissioned George Washington of Virginia to be the supreme commander, who chose to serve without pay. How would supplies be paid for? The Congress authorized the printing of money. Before the leaves had turned, Congress had even appointed a standing committee to conduct relations with foreign governments, should the need ever arise to ask for help. No longer was the Congress dealing with mere grievances. It was a full-fledged governing body.
Independence Hall / National Park Service
Still, in May of 1775 the majority of delegates were not seeking independence from Britain. Only radicals like John Adams were of this mindset. In fact, that July Congress approved the Olive Branch Petition, a direct appeal to the king. The American delegates pleaded with George III to attempt peaceful resolution and declared their loyalty to the Crown. The King refused to receive this petition and instead declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion in August. Insult turned to injury when George ordered the hiring of Hessian mercenaries to bring the colonists under control. Americans now felt less and less like their English brethren. How could their fellow citizens order a band of ruthless, foreign goons? The moderate voice in the Continental Congress was dealt a serious blow.
As the seasons changed and hostilities continued, cries for independence grew stronger. The men in Philadelphia were now wanted for treason. They continued to govern and hope against hope that all would end well. For them, the summer of 1776 brought the point of no return — a formal declaration of independence.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Americans could not break their ties with Britain easily. Despite all the recent hardships, the majority of colonists since birth were reared to believe that England was to be loved and its monarch revered.
Fear was another factor. Any student of history was familiar with the harsh manner the British employed on Irish rebels. A revolution could bring mob rule, and no one, not even the potential mob, wanted that. Furthermore, despite taxes, times were good. Arguments can be made that average American was more prosperous than the average Briton.
Yet there were the terrible injustices the colonists could not forget. Americans were divided against themselves. Arguments for independence were growing. Thomas Paine would provide the extra push.
Common Sense was an instant best-seller. Published in January 1776 in Philadelphia, nearly 120,000 copies were in circulation by April. Paine’s brilliant arguments were straightforward. He argued for two main points: (1) independence from England and (2) the creation of a democratic republic.
Paine avoided flowery prose. He wrote in the language of the people, often quoting the Bible in his arguments. Most people in America had a working knowledge of the Bible, so his arguments rang true. Paine was not religious, but he knew his readers were. King George was “the Pharaoh of England” and “the Royal Brute of Great Britain.” He touched a nerve in the American countryside.
A Real Paine for the British
Beside attacks on George III, he called for the establishment of a republic. Even patriot leaders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams condemned Paine as an extremist on the issue of a post-independence government. Still, Common Sense grew the patriot cause. It made no difference to the readers that Paine was a new arrival to America. Published anonymously, many readers attributed it to John Adams, who denied involvement.
In the end, his prose was common sense. Why should tiny England rule the vastness of a continent? How can colonists expect to gain foreign support while still professing loyalty to the British king? How much longer can Americans stand for the repeated abuses of the Crown? All these questions led many readers to one answer as the summer of 1776 drew near.
The Declaration of Independence
One of twenty-four surviving copies of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence done by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap in the evening of July 4, 1776.
The moment had finally come. Far too much bad blood existed between the colonial leaders and the crown to consider a return to the past. More and more colonists felt deprived by the British not only of their money and their civil liberties, but their lives as well. Bloodshed had begun over a year ago and there seemed little chance of a ceasefire. The radical wing of the Continental Congress was gaining strength with each passing day. It was time for a formal break with mother England. It was time to declare independence.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution to the Congress that declared the thirteen colonies “free and independent states.” Congress did not act on the resolution immediately. A vote was set for early July. In the meantime it seemed appropriate that some sort of explanation was in order for such a bold act. A subcommittee of five, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, was selected to choose the careful wording. Such a document must be persuasive to a great many parties. Americans would read this and join the patriot cause. Sympathetic Britons would read this and urge royal restraint. Foreign powers would read this and aid the colonial militia. They might, that is, if the text were convincing. The five agreed that Jefferson was the most talented writer. They would advise on his prose.
The declaration is divided into three main parts. The first was a simple statement of intent. Jefferson’s words echo down through the decades of American life until the present day. Phrases like “all men are created equal,” “unalienable rights,” and “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” have bounced from the lips of Americans in grammar school and retirement. All are contained in the first section that outlines the basic principles of the enlightened leaders. The next section is a list of grievances; that is, why the colonies deemed independence appropriate. King George was guilty of “repeated injuries” that intended to establish “absolute tyranny” in North America. He has “plundered our seas, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” It was difficult for Americans to argue his points. The concluding paragraph officially dissolves ties with Britain. It also shows modern readers the courage taken by each delegate who would sign. They were now officially guilty of treason and would hang in the gallows if taken before a royal court. Thus, they would “pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Debate in the Congress followed. Jefferson watched painfully as the other delegates tweaked his prose. Jefferson had wanted to include a passage blaming the king for the slave trade, for example, but the southern delegates insisted upon its removal. Finally on July 4, 1776, the colonies approved the document. The vote was twelve to zero, with the New York delegation abstaining. As president of the Congress, John Hancock scrawled his famous signature across the bottom and history was made. If the American effort was successful, they would be hailed as heroes. If it failed, they would be hanged as traitors.
When the possibility of a clash with the British became real, New England farmers began to arm themselves and train for battle. These troops were dubbed “minutemen” because they could be ready to fight in a minute. This monument to the minutemen stands in Concord, Massachusetts.
How could the Americans ever hope defeat the mighty British Empire in a military conflict?
Americans faced seemingly impossible obstacles. When the guns fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, there was not yet even a Continental Army. Those battles were fought by local militias. Few Americans had any military experience, and there was no method of training, supplying, or paying an army.
Moreover, a majority of Americans opposed the war in 1775. Many historians believe only about a third of all Americans supported a war against the British at that time.
Further, the Colonies had a poor track record of working together.
How, then, could a ragtag group of patriots defeat the British?
The Battle of Bunker Hill was not a military victory for the colonial forces, but it served as an important morale booster. The colonists inflicted heavy casualties on the larger, more powerful British forces. / John Trumbull
The early stages of war, in 1775, can be best described as British military victories and American moral triumphs. The British routed the minutemen at Lexington, but the relentless colonists unleashed brutal sniper fire on the British returning to Boston from Concord.
In June 1775, the colonists failed to prevail at Bunker Hill, but inflicted heavy casualties on a vastly superior military force. A year later, in 1776, while the British occupied New York, Washington led his army to two surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton that uplifted the morale of the patriots.
Regardless, by 1777 the British occupied Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, and sent that body into hiding. The British also controlled New York City and pretty much had their way in the waters along the Eastern Seaboard. In fact, there was no Continental Navy to speak of at this time. Meanwhile, the British began mounting a southward attack from Canada into upstate New York. This threatened to cut New England off from the rest of the Colonies.
Saratoga and Valley Forge: The Tide Turns
The Battle of Saratoga, in northern New York, served as a critical turning point. The British attempt to capture the Hudson River Valley ended with their surrender to General Horatio Gates in October. Washington, having lost Philadelphia, led his troops to Valley Forge to spend the winter. None of the world’s powers had come to the aid of the patriot cause — yet.
In early 1778, the French agreed to recognize American independence and formed a permanent alliance with the new nation. Military help and sizable stores of much-needed gunpowder soon arrived. The tide was beginning to turn.
The surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown marked the end of the Revolutionary War. This painting by John Trumbull is 12 feet by 18 feet and hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building.
A New Type of War
The British grew increasingly frustrated. The loss at Saratoga was humiliating. Capturing the enemy’s capital, Philadelphia, did not bring them much advantage. As long as the American Continental Army and state militias remained in the field, the British had to keep on fighting. And no matter how much damage the British did to American cities or private property, the Americans refused to surrender. This was a new type of war.
Having failed in the north, the British turned their attention to the south. They hoped to inspire Loyalist support among dissatisfied Americans — a hope that was never realized. Fighting continued. The threat of French naval participation kept the British uneasy.
A Stunning Defeat
In October 1781, the war virtually came to an end when General Cornwallis was surrounded and forced to surrender the British position at Yorktown, Virginia. Two years later, the Treaty of Paris made it official: America was independent.
How could the Americans ever hope defeat the mighty British Empire in a military conflict? Perhaps an even better question to ask is, How did the mighty British Empire ever expect to vanquish the Americans?
Major Battles of the American Revolution
|Date||Battle||American Commander(s)||British Commander|
|April 19, 1775||Lexington-Concord||Capt. John Parker||Lt. Col. Francis Smith|
|June 17, 1775||Bunker (Breed’s) Hill||Gen. Israel Putnam and Col. William Prescott||Gen. William Howe|
|Dec. 31, 1775||Quebec||Gen. Richard Montgomery||Gen. Guy Carleton|
|Aug. 27, 1776||Long Island||Gen. George Washington||Gen. William Howe|
|Oct. 26, 1776||White Plains||Gen. George Washington||Gen. William Howe|
|Dec. 26, 1776||Trenton||Gen. George Washington||Col. Johann Rall|
|Sept. 11, 1777||Brandywine||Gen. George Washington||Gen. William Howe|
|Sept. 19, 1777||Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm)||Gen. Horatio Gates||Gen. John Burgoyne|
|Oct. 4, 1777||Germantown||Gen. George Washington||Gen. William Howe|
|Oct. 7, 1777||Saratoga||Gen. Horatio Gates||Gen. John Burgoyne|
|Dec. 5, 1777||White Marsh||Gen. George Washington||Gen. William Howe|
|June 8, 1778||Monmouth Courthouse||Gen. George Washington||Gen. Henry Clinton|
|Sept. 16, 1779||Siege of Savannah||Gen. Benjamin Lincoln||Gen. Augustine Prevost|
|March 29, 1780||Siege of Charlestown||Gen. Benjamin Lincoln||Gen. Henry Clinton|
|Sept. 28, 1781||Siege of Yorktown||Gen. George Washington and Gen. Rochambeau||Gen. Charles Cornwallis|
American and British Strengths and Weaknesses
Despite the supremacy of the British navy in the 18th century, the Colonial naval forces won many battles. This picture depicts the naval engagement of July 7, 1777, between the American frigates Hancock, Boston, and HMS Fox, and the British frigates Flora and Rainbow.
British Strengths and American Weaknesses
The British seemed unbeatable. During the previous 100 years, the British had enjoyed triumph after triumph over nations as powerful as France and Spain. At first glance, the odds were clearly against the Americans. A closer look provides insight into how the underdogs emerged victorious.
Britain’s military was the best in the world. Their soldiers were well equipped, well disciplined, well paid, and well fed. The British navy dominated the seas. Funds were much more easily raised by the Empire than by the Continental Congress.
Some of those funds were used to hire Hessian mercenaries to fight the Americans.
… and the Hessians, who are allowed to be the best of the German troops, are by no means equal to the British in any respect. I believe them steady, but their slowness is of the greatest disadvantage in a country almost covered with woods, and against an Enemy whose chief qualification is agility in running from fence to fence and thence keeping up an irregular, but galling fire on troops who advance with the same pace as at their exercise. Light infantry accustomed to fight from tree to tree, or charge even in woods; and Grenadiers who after the first fire lose no time in loading again, but rush on, trusting entirely to that most decisive of weapons the bayonet, will ever be superior to any troops the Rebels can bring against them. Such are the British, and such the method of fighting which has been attended with constant success ….
– Lieutenant W. Hale, letter to unknown recipient (March 23, 1778)
The Americans had tremendous difficulty raising enough funds to purchase basic supplies for their troops, including shoes and blankets. The British had a winning tradition. Around one in five Americans openly favored the Crown, with about half of the population hoping to avoid the conflict altogether. Most Indian tribes sided with Britain, who promised protection of tribal lands.
American Strengths and British Weaknesses
Although American troops may not have had the military force and economic base that their British rivals had, they did believe strongly in their fight for freedom and liberty. The Continental Congress adopted this “Stars and Stripes” as its official flag on June 14, 1777.
On the other hand, the Americans had many intangible advantages.
The British fought a war far from home. Military orders, troops, and supplies sometimes took months to reach their destinations. The British had an extremely difficult objective. They had to persuade the Americans to give up their claims of independence. As long as the war continued, the colonists’ claim continued to gain validity. The geographic vastness of the colonies proved a hindrance to the British effort. Despite occupying every major city, the British remained as at a disadvantage.
Americans had a grand cause: fighting for their rights, their independence and their liberty. This cause is much more just than waging a war to deny independence. American military and political leaders were inexperienced, but proved surprisingly competent.
The war was expensive and the British population debated its necessity. In Parliament, there were many American sympathizers. Finally, the alliance with the French gave Americans courage and a tangible threat that tipped the scales in America’s favor.
Loyalists, Fence-sitters, and Patriots
After patriots tore down the statue of King George III in New York City on July 9, 1776, they melted parts of it down and made bullets to use against the British.
It is impossible to know the exact number of American colonists who favored or opposed independence.
For years it was widely believed that one third favored the Revolution, one third opposed it, and one third were undecided. This stems from an estimate made by John Adams in his personal writings in 1815.
Historians have since concluded that Adams was referring to American attitudes toward the French Revolution, not ours. The current thought is that about 20 percent of the colonists were Loyalists — those whose remained loyal to England and King George. Another small group in terms of percentage were the dedicated patriots, for whom there was no alternative but independence.
On the Fence
Often overlooked are the fence-sitters who made up the largest group.
With so many Americans undecided, the war became in great measure a battle to win popular support. If the patriots could succeed in selling their ideas of revolution to the public, then popular support might follow and the British would be doomed.
In “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine argued for independence from Britain and the creation of a democratic republic. Its publication in January 1776 immediately added fuel to the patriots’ cause.
Even with military victory, it would have been impossible for the Crown to regain the allegiance of the people. Revolution would merely flare up at a later date.
The British understood the need to attract American popular support for the parent country, as well. Some colonists who were not persuaded by the political struggle joined the British for personal gain or military glory. Some joined out of sheer loyalty to the Crown — they still believed themselves loyal British citizens. There were also many American farmers willing to sell their goods to the British for profit.
In the long run, however, the patriots were much more successful attracting support. American patriots won the war of propaganda. Committees of Correspondence persuaded many fence-sitters to join the patriot cause. Writings such as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” stirred newfound American nationalism.
Excerpt of “Common Sense”
IN the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader, than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day …
The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent — of at least one-eighth part of the habitable Globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters.
– Thomas Paine, “Common Sense” (1776)
The American Revolution not only separated neighbors and friends, it devastated many families, including the Franklins. William Franklin, pictured here, a Loyalist, rarely, if ever, spoke to his Patriot father Ben after the war.
Patriots subjected Loyalists to public humiliation and violence. Many Loyalists found their property vandalized, looted, and burned. The patriots controlled public discourse. Woe to the citizen who publicly proclaimed sympathy to Britain.
Families were sometimes divided over the revolution. Benjamin Franklin’s son, William, a Loyalist governor of New Jersey, supported the British effort during the war.
What Happened to the Loyalists?
In the end, many Loyalists simply left America. About 80,000 of them fled to Canada or Britain during or just after the war. Because Loyalists were often wealthy, educated, older, and Anglican, the American social fabric was altered by their departure. American history brands them as traitors. But most were just trying to maintain the lifestyles to which they had become accustomed. After all, history is always written by the winners.
Lexington and Concord
Ready to fight at a moment’s notice, minutemen began fighting early in the American Revolution. Their efforts at Lexington and Concord inspired many patriots to take up arms against Britain.
Britain’s General Gage had a secret plan.
During the wee hours of April 19, 1775, he would send out regiments of British soldiers quartered in Boston. Their destinations were Lexington, where they would capture Colonial leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock, then Concord, where they would seize gunpowder.
But spies and friends of the Americans leaked word of Gage’s plan.
Two lanterns hanging from Boston’s North Church informed the countryside that the British were going to attack by sea. A series of horseback riders — men such as Paul Revere, William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott — galloped off to warn the countryside that the Regulars (British troops) were coming.
It is a myth that Revere and other riders shouted, “The British are coming!” This warning would have confused a good many of the Americans living in the countryside who still considered themselves British. The Regulars were known to be British soldiers.
We set off for Concord, and were overtaken by a young gentleman named Prescot, who belonged to Concord, and was going home. When we had got about half way from Lexington to Concord, the other two stopped at a house to awake the men, I kept along ….
In an instant I saw four of them, who rode up to me with their pistols in their bands, said ”G—d d—n you, stop. If you go an inch further, you are a dead man.” Immediately Mr. Prescot came up. We attempted to get through them, but they kept before us, and swore if we did not turn in to that pasture, they would blow our brains out, (they had placed themselves opposite to a pair of bars, and had taken the bars down). They forced us in. When we had got in, Mr. Prescot said “Put on!” He took to the left, I to the right …
Just as I reached it, out started six officers, seized my bridle, put their pistols to my breast, ordered me to dismount, which I did.
– Paul Revere, “Account of Midnight Ride to Lexington” (1775)
Lexington and the Minutemen
The first battle of the war, Lexington marked the beginning of the American Revolution. Although Lexington and Concord were considered British military victories, they gave a moral boost to the American colonists.
Word spread from town to town, and militias prepared to confront the British and help their neighbors in Lexington and Concord.
These Colonial militias had originally been organized to defend settlers from civil unrest and attacks by French or Native Americans. Selected members of the militia were called minutemen because they could be ready to fight in a minute’s time.
Sure enough, when the advance guard of nearly 240 British soldiers arrived in Lexington, they found about 70 minutemen formed on the Lexington Green awaiting them. Both sides eyed each other warily, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly, a bullet buzzed through the morning air.
It was “the shot heard round the world.”
Thomas Gage was appointed commander in chief of all British forces in North America in 1763.
The numerically superior British killed seven Americans on Lexington Green and marched off to Concord with new regiments who had joined them. But American militias arriving at Concord thwarted the British advance.
This map detail Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to warn the colonists of British troops’ arrival. / Paul Revere Memorial Association
As the British retreated toward Boston, new waves of Colonial militia intercepted them. Shooting from behind fences and trees, the militias inflicted over 125 casualties, including several officers. The ferocity of the encounter surprised both sides.
Lt. Col. Smith’s Report to Gen. Gage
In obedience to your Excellency’s commands, I marched on the evening of the 18th inst. with the corps of grenadiers and light infantry for Concord, to execute your Excellency’s orders with respect to destroying all ammunition, artillery, tents, &c., collected there, which was effected, having knocked off the trunnions of three pieces of iron ordnance, some new gun carriages, a great number of carriage wheels burnt, a considerable quantity of flour, some gunpowder and musket balls, with other small articles thrown into the river. Notwithstanding we marched with the utmost expedition and secrecy, we found the country had intelligence or strong suspicion of our coming, and fired many signal guns, and rung the alarm bells repeatedly; and were informed, when at Concord, that some cannon had been taken out of the town that day, that others, with some stores, had been carried three days before ….
I think it proper to observe, that when I had got some miles on the march from Boston, I detached six light infantry companies to march with all expedition to seize the two bridges on different roads beyond Concord. On these companies’ arrival at Lexington, I understand, from the report of Major Pitcairn, who was with them, and from many officers, that they found on a green close to the road a body of the country people drawn up in military order, with arms and accoutrements, and, as appeared after, loaded; and that they had posted some men in a dwelling and Meeting-house. Our troops advanced towards them, without any intention of injuring them, further than to inquire the reason of their being thus assembled, and, if not satisfactory, to have secured their arms; but they in confusion went off, principally to the left, only one of them fired before he went off, and three or four more jumped over a wall and fired from behind it among the soldiers; on which the troops returned it, and killed several of them. They likewise fired on the soldiers from the Meeting and dwelling-house. We had one man wounded, and Major Pitcairn’s horse shot in two places. Rather earlier than this, on the road, a country man from behind a wall had snapped his piece at Lieutenants Adair and Sutherland, but it flashed and did not go off. After this we saw some in the woods, but marched on to Concord without anything further happening. While at Concord we saw vast numbers assembling in many parts; at one of the bridges they marched down, with a very considerable body, on the light infantry posted there. On their coming pretty near, one of our men fired on them, which they returned; on which an action ensued, and some few were killed and wounded. In this affair, it appears that after the bridge was quitted, they scalped and otherwise ill-treated one or two of the men who were either killed or severely wounded, being seen by a party that marched by soon after. At Concord we found very few inhabitants in the town; those we met with both Major Pitcairn and myself took all possible pains to convince that we meant them no injury, and that if they opened their doors when required to search for military stores, not the slightest mischief would be done. We had opportunities of convincing them of our good intentions, but they were sulky; and one of them even struck Major Pitcairn. On our leaving Concord to return to Boston, they began to fire on us from behind the walls, ditches, trees, etc., which, as we marched, increased to a very great degree, and continued without the intermission of five minutes altogether, for, I believe, upwards of eighteen miles; so that I can’t think but it must have been a preconcerted scheme in them, to attack the King’s troops the first favourable opportunity that offered, otherwise, I think they could not, in so short a time as from our marching out, have raised such a numerous body, and for so great a space of ground. Notwithstanding the enemy’s numbers, they did not make one gallant effort during so long an action, though our men were so very much fatigued, but kept under cover.
– Lieutenant Colonel Smith, 10th Regiment of Foot, letter to General Gage (April 22, 1775)
The first bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, marked the crossing of a threshold, and the momentum from these events pushed both sides farther apart. Following the battles, neither the British nor the Americans knew what to expect next.
Indignation against the British ran high in the Colonies — for they had shed American blood on American soil. Radicals such as Sam Adams took advantage of the bloodshed to increase tensions through propaganda and rumor-spreading. The Americans surrounded the town of Boston, and the rebel army started gaining many new recruits.
During the battles of Lexington and Concord, 73 British soldiers had been killed and 174 wounded; 26 were missing. Lord Percy, who led the British back into Boston after the defeat suffered at Concord, wrote back to London, “Whoever looks upon them [the Rebels] as an irregular mob will be much mistaken.” Three British major generals — William Howe, Henry Clinton, and “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne — were brought to Boston to lend their expertise and experience to the situation.
Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen Join the Cause
Shortly after the battle, an express rider carried the news to New Haven, Connecticut, where a local militia commander and wealthy shopkeeper named Benedict Arnold demanded the keys to a local powder house.
After arming himself and paying money from his own pocket to outfit a group of militia from Massachusetts, Arnold and his men set off for upstate New York. He was searching for artillery that was badly needed for the Colonial effort and reckoned that he could commandeer some cannon by capturing Fort Ticonderoga, a rotting relic from the French and Indian War.
Up in the Hampshire Grants, part of modern-day Vermont, Ethan Allen who led a group called the Green Mountain Boys, also had the idea to capture Fort Ticonderoga. The two reluctantly worked together and surprised the poorly manned British fort before dawn on May 10, 1775.
The fort’s commander had been asleep and surrendered in his pajamas!
This map shows details of the 1775-76 siege of Boston and outlines Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula.
On the night of June 16, 1775, a detail of American troops acting under orders from Artemas Ward moved out of their camp, carrying picks, shovels, and guns. They entrenched themselves on a rise located on Charleston Peninsula overlooking Boston. Their destination: Bunker Hill.
From this hill, the rebels could bombard the town and British ships in Boston Harbor. But Ward’s men misunderstood his orders. They went to Breed’s Hill by mistake and entrenched themselves there — closer to the British position.
Cannon for Breakfast
The next morning, the British were stunned to see Americans threatening them. In the 18th century, British military custom demanded that the British attack the Americans, even though the Americans were in a superior position militarily (the Americans had soldiers and cannon pointing down on the British).
William Howe was the commander in chief of the British army at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Major General William Howe, leading the British forces, could have easily surrounded the Americans with his ships at sea, but instead chose to march his troops uphill. Howe might have believed that the Americans would retreat in the face of a smashing, head-on attack.
He was wrong.
His Majesty’s ships opened fire on the Americans. Early in the afternoon, 28 barges of British soldiers crossed the Charles River and stormed the hills. The Americans waited until the British were within 15 paces, and then unleashed a bloody fusillade. Scores of British troops were killed or wounded; the rest retreated down the hill.
Again, the British rushed the hill in a second wave. And again they retreated, suffering a great number of casualties.
By the time the third wave of British charged the hill, the Americans were running low on ammunition. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The British eventually took the hill, but at a great cost. Of the 2,300 British soldiers who had gone through the ordeal, 1,054 were either killed or wounded.
Dear and Hon’d Mother …
Friday the 16 of June we were orderd on parade at six ‘o Clock, with one days provision and Blankets ready for a March somewhere, but we knew not where but we readily and cheerfully obey’d, …
[W]e march’d down, on to Charleston Hill against Copts hill in Boston, where we entrench’d & made a Fort … we work’d there undiscovered till about five in the Morning, when we saw our danger, being against Ships of the Line, and all Boston fortified against us, The danger we were in made us think there was treachery and that we were brought there to be all slain, and I must and will say that there was treachery oversight or presumption in the Conduct of our Officers, for about 5 in the morning, we not having more than half our fort done, they began to fire (I suppose as soon as they had orders) pretty briskly for a few minutes, then ceas’d but soon begun again, and fird to the number of twenty minutes, (they killd but one of our Men) then ceas’d to fire till about eleven oClock when they began to fire as brisk as ever, which caus’d many of our young Country people to desert, apprehending the danger in a clearer manner than others who were more diligent in digging, & fortifying ourselves against them.
– Peter Brown, letter to his mother (June 25, 1775) Massachusetts Historical Society
On July, 2, 1775, George Washington rode into Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take command of the new American army. He had a formidable task ahead of him. He needed to establish a chain of command and determine a course of action for a war — if there would be a war.
Washington was one of the few Americans of the era to have military experience. He had served with distinction in the French and Indian War.
Washington was also a southerner. Politicians from the north (such as John Adams) recognized that, for the Americans to have any shot at defeating the British, all regions of the country would have to be involved. The uprising had to be more than just New England agitation.
In London, the news of Bunker Hill convinced the king that the situation in the Colonies had escalated into an organized uprising and must be treated as a foreign war. Accordingly, he issued a Proclamation of Rebellion.
This Means War
British general William Howe ordered his troops to cross the Charles River and attack the American troops atop Bunker Hill.
The British had taken the initiative, but they, like Washington, needed to establish a plan of action. How did they plan to win the war? With the help of loyal colonials! “There are many inhabitants in every province well affected to Government, from whom no doubt we shall have assistance,” General Howe wrote. But he hedged: the Loyalists could not rally “until His Majesty’s armies have a clear superiority by a decisive victory.”
The general needed a showdown. But first he needed supplies, reinforcements, and a scheme to suppress the rebels. Almost 11 months after the shots at Bunker Hill were fired, Howe departed Boston and moved north to Nova Scotia to wait and plan.
He did win decisive victories later, but his assumption that the Loyalists would rally behind him was simply wrong.
The Revolution on the Homefront
The African American poet Phyllis Wheatley was America’s first published black poet and a patriot to boot.
Most Americans did not actively participate in the Revolution. Therefore, no study of the war would be complete without an examination of the home front.
During the war years, those Americans not involved in warfare were doing their best just trying to survive. Farmers continued to grow food, artisans continued to practice their trades, and merchants attempted to maintain their businesses. Despite efforts to maintain business as usual, the entire social landscape was changed.
War disrupts economies and brings tremendous population dislocations. Woe came to families or farmers who found themselves in the way of advancing armies. Despite stringent warnings against such behavior from officers on both sides, farms and homes were often plundered. Soldiers took grain, livestock, or whatever goods they needed.
There are recorded instances where officers from both the British and American military ordered the hanging of soldiers who stole from the general populace.
But, there are also instance from both armies where officers ordered their men to confiscate food, livestock, or goods during desperate times. The Americans, in particular, always promised to repay for what they took. The British, at times, also promised restitution.
Dwellings in cities that the British occupied also were subject to sticky fingers. Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia house served as the quarters for a British officer during the winter of 1777. The officer helped himself to some souvenirs of his time at Franklin’s house.
If citizens were thought to be colluding with the American military, their homes might be burned. At times, the homes of revolutionary firebrands or officers were set afire by a vindictive British army.
The country which we lately traversed, about fifty miles in extent, is called neutral ground, but the miserable inhabitants who remain, are not much favored with the privileges which their neutrality ought to secure to them. They are continually exposed to the ravages and insults of infamous banditti, composed of royal refugees and tories …. There are within the British lines banditti consisting of lawless villains, who devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenceless inhabitants between the lines, many of whom they carry off to New York, after plundering their houses and farms. These shameless marauders have received the names of Cow-boys and Skinners. By their atrocious deeds they have become a scourge and terror to the people. Numerous instances have been related of these miscreants subjecting defenceless persons to cruel torture, to compel them to deliver up their money, or to disclose the places where it has been secreted. It is not uncommon for them to hang a man by his neck till apparently dead, then restore him, and repeat the experiment, and leave him for dead.
– James Thatcher, MD, military journal entry describing conditions in Long Island (1780)
Was Nancy Hart simply a legend? Or was she a real-life patriot? When British troops came knocking at her door to demand a meal and shelter, they soon realized they came to the wrong house. / Louis S. Glanzman
As the British entered major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, many people fled to the countryside, looking for food and work. Traditional markets were disrupted. Farmers who one week sold their wares to their usual American customers might the next week be selling to an occupying British army.
The British blockade caused widespread unemployment. Almost anyone dependent on the foreign market was out of work, from shippers to merchants. Both armies were sometimes followed by men and women willing to work in any way for a hot meal. The Colonial economy was in shambles.
Some farmers and merchants hoped to profit from increased prices due to scarcity. Many sold their wares to the British army. Violence sometimes came in the wake of rising prices, and the Continental Congress enacted regulations to counter inflation throughout the Colonies.
When the men went off to fight in the war, American women, children, and elderly were frequently faced with the occupation of their houses, churches, and government buildings by British soldiers. This Quaker Meeting house in Long Island was set up as a hospital and a prison by the British.
Women stepped forth to fill holes left by fighting Continental soldiers. Women needed to perform tasks formerly reserved for their husbands (such as farming or running businesses).
These new and independent women of the house also had to stand up for themselves when confronted by both American and British armies. When militias appealed to the public for uniforms and food, homespun garments and farm crops came from patriotic women. And when British armies and soldiers appeared at homes being occupied by women, they did not always find a friendly face.
Some colonial women served as spies for Washington’s army, passing valuable information about troop locations and movements. Many men would have returned to bankruptcy after the war had it not been for the efforts of their spouses.
Address to the Ladies
During wartime, women have historically been called upon to show their patriotism by scrimping and saving. In many cases, as in the Revolutionary War, food and resources were very scarce because the Colonies were still largely an agrarian economy and most men who worked in the fields were away fighting.
Young ladies in town, and those that live round,
Let a friend at this season advise you:
Since money’s so scarce, and times growing worse,
Strange things may soon hap and surprize you;
First then, throw aside your high top knots of pride,
Wear none but your own country linnen,
Of Oeconomy boast, let your pride be the most
To show clothes of your own make and spinning.
What, if homespun they say is not quite so gay
As brocades, yet be not in a passion,
For when once it is known this is much wore in town,
One and all will cry out, ’tis the fashion!
And as one, all agree that you’ll not married be
To such as will wear London Fact’ry:
But at first sight refuse, tell em such you do chuse
As encourage our own Manufact’ry
No more Ribbons wear, nor in rich dress appear,
Love your country much better than fine things,
Begin without passion, twill soon be the fashion
To grace your smooth locks with a twine string,
Throw aside your Bohea, and your green Hyson tea,
And all things with a new fashion duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore,
For there’ll soon be enough here to suit ye;
These do without fear and to all you’ll appear
Fair, charming, true, lovely and cleaver;
Tho’ the times remain darkish, young men may be sparkish
And love you much stronger than ever.
– “Young Ladies in Town,” Boston Newsletter (1769)
Wars are not merely fought on the battlefield. Even in the 18th century, successful campaigns were the hallmark of a concerted effort. By 1783, the entire American population seemed battle weary, from the foot soldier to the farmer’s wife. Their sacrifices helped secure freedoms for the generations that would follow.
Washington at Valley Forge
Cold, hunger, and sickness marked the Continental Army’s stay at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. Today, Valley Forge’s wide fields are dotted with revolutionary relics, reminders of the brutal winter endured by Washington’s troops.
American spirits reached a low point during the harsh winter of 1777-78.
British troops had marched triumphantly into Philadelphia the previous autumn. Philadelphia was the largest city in the Colonies and the seat of political power. After the British swept into Philadelphia, the Continental Congress had flee to west, first to Lancaster then to York.
Washington’s army had spent the summer of 1777 fighting a string of losing battles. The Americans harassed the British army in skirmishes and minor battles for much of the fighting season. In the fall, the Americans showed pluck at the Battle of Brandywine in September and the Battle of Germantown in October. Yet the Americans were unable to keep the British out of Philadelphia.
In December, Washington marched his tired, beaten, hungry and sick army to Valley Forge, a location about 20 miles northwest of British-occupied Philadelphia. From Valley Forge, Washington could keep an eye on General Howe’s British army ensconced in Philadelphia.
At Valley Forge, there were shortages of everything from food to clothing to medicine. Washington’s men were sick from disease, hunger, and exposure. The Continental Army camped in crude log cabins and endured cold conditions while the Redcoats warmed themselves in colonial homes. The patriots went hungry while the British soldiers ate well.
Terms of enlistment were ending for many soldiers in Washington’s army. The General wondered if he would even have an army left when the spring thaw finally arrived.
Washington under Siege
Great events generate great legends. Did an Oneida woman named Polly Cooper, really ease the suffering of Washington and his troops at Valley Forge? Historians may never know for sure, but the legend lives on.
General Washington was upset that local farmers were hoarding much-needed food waiting to earn higher profits in the spring. Some farmers even sneaked grain into Philadelphia to feed the British army, who paid in gold or silver. With each passing night came more desertions. Washington grew privately disgusted at the lack of commitment of his so-called patriot fighters.
Then there was the grumbling of some in Congress and among some of Washington’s own officers. Washington’s leadership skills were openly questioned. Many said General Horatio Gates was better-suited to leading the army. After all, hadn’t he scored a major victory in October at the battle of Saratoga.? Within the environment of cold, deprivation, and rebellion, how long could Washington and his army endure?
Conditions at Valley Forge
Head Quarters, Valley Forge, February 16, 1778
Dear Sir: It is with great reluctance, I trouble you on a subject, which does not fall within your province; but it is a subject that occasions me more distress, than I have felt, since the commencement of the war; and which loudly demands the most zealous exertions of every person of weight and authority, who is interested in the success of our affairs. I mean the present dreadful situation of the army for want of provisions, and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity. It is more alarming than you will probably conceive, for, to form a just idea, it were necessary to be on the spot. For some days past, there has been little less, than a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been ere this excited by their sufferings, to a general mutiny or dispersion. Strong symptoms, however, discontent have appeared in particular instances; and nothing but the most acitive efforts every where can long avert so shocking a catastrophe.
Our present sufferings are not all. There is no foundation laid for any adequate relief hereafter. All the magazines provided in the States of New Jersey, Pensylvania, Delaware and Maryland, and all the immediate additional supplies they seem capable of affording, wil not be sufficient to support the army more than a month longer, if so long. Very little been done to the Eastward, and as little to the Southward; and whatever we have a right to expect from those quarters, must necessarily be very remote; and is indeed more precarious, than could be wished. When the forementioned supplies are exhausted, what a terrible crisis must ensue, unless all the energy of the Continent is exerted to provide a timely remedy?
Impressed with this idea, I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent the fatal consequences, we have so great a reason to apprehend. I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upons so important an occasion; and from your well known zeal, I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit. I am sensible of the disadvantages it labours under, from having been so long the scene of war, and that it must be exceedingly drained by the great demands to which it has been subject. But, tho’ you may not be able to contribute materially to our relief, you can perhaps do something towards it; and any assistance, however trifling in itself, will be of great moment at so critical a juncture, and will conduce to keeping the army together till the Commissary’s department can be put upon a better footing, and effectual measures concerted to secure a permanent and competent supply. What methods you can take, you will be the best judge of; but, if you can devise any means to procure a quantity of cattle, or other kind of flesh, for the use of this army, to be at camp in the course of a month, you will render a most essential service to the common cause. I have the honor etc.
– George Washington, letter to George Clinton (Feb. 16, 1778)
These cabins may appear sturdy from the outside, but a closer look reveals their sparse and makeshift character. Imagine sleeping on one of those bunk beds.
Help came in the form of a Prussian volunteer, Baron von Steuben. The military leader was aghast at the lack of American discipline. At Washington’s urging he trained the Continental Army, Prussian-style. The troops slowly became more professional. Among the soldiers who remained, confidence grew.
Over the course of the winter, the weather improved somewhat. Food trickled in from the surrounding countryside. Many wives of soldiers spent time at Valley Forge over the winter. Washington was able to quash those who questioned his leadership abilities.
The Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge in the fall of 1777 with about 12,000 men in its ranks. Death claimed about a quarter of them before spring arrived. Another thousand didn’t reenlist or deserted. But the army that remained was stronger. They were fewer, but more disciplined. They were weary, but firmly resolved.
The next year, 1778, brought greater fortune to the American cause. While Washington froze at Valley Forge, Benjamin Franklin was busy securing the French alliance. Now the war would be different indeed.
The Battle of Saratoga
British general John Burgoyne earned the nickname “Gentleman Johnny” for his love of leisure and his tendency to throw parties between battles. His surrender to American forces at the Battle of Saratoga marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War.
The Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolutionary War.
The scope of the victory is made clear by a few key facts: On October 17, 1777, 5,895 British and Hessian troops surrendered their arms. General John Burgoyne had lost 86 percent of his expeditionary force that had triumphantly marched into New York from Canada in the early summer of 1777.
Divide and Conquer
The divide-and-conquer strategy that Burgoyne presented to British ministers in London was to invade America from Canada by advancing down the Hudson Valley to Albany. There, he would be joined by other British troops under the command of Sir William Howe. Howe would be bringing his troops north from New Jersey and New York City.
Burgoyne believed that this bold stroke would not only isolate New England from the other American colonies, but achieve command of the Hudson River and demoralize Americans and their would-be allies, such as the French.
Some historians today are unsure if her death came at Native American hands or by other means, but the murder of Jane McCrea united Americans against the British and their Native American allies.
In June 1777, Burgoyne’s army of over 7,000 men (half of whom were British troops and the other half Hessian troops from Brunswick and Hesse-Hanau) departed from St. Johns on Lake Champlain, bound for Fort Ticonderoga, at the southern end of the lake.
As the army proceeded southward, Burgoyne drafted and had his men distribute a proclamation that, among other things, included the statement “I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction, and they amount to thousands,” which implied that Britain’s enemies would suffer attacks from Native Americans allied to the British.
More than any other act during the campaign, this threat and subsequent widely reported atrocities such as the scalping of Jane McCrea stiffened the resolve of the Americans to do whatever it took to assure that the threat did not become reality.
Instead of heading north to help Burgoyne fight the rebels in Saratoga, General Howe sailed south and embarked on a campaign to capture Philadelphia.
Round One to the British
The American forces at Fort Ticonderoga recognized that once the British mounted artillery on high ground near the fort, Ticonderoga would be indefensible. A retreat from the Fort was ordered, and the Americans floated troops, cannon, and supplies across Lake Champlain to Mount Independence.
From there the army set out for Hubbardton where the British and German troops caught up with them and gave battle. Round one to the British.
Burgoyne continued his march towards Albany, but miles to the south a disturbing event occurred. Sir William Howe decided to attack the Rebel capital at Philadelphia rather than deploying his army to meet up with Burgoyne and cut off New England from the other Colonies. Meanwhile, as Burgoyne marched south, his supply lines from Canada were becoming longer and less reliable.
I have the honor to inform your Lordship that the enemy [were] dislodged from Ticonderoga and Mount Independent, on the 6th instant, and were driven on the same day, beyond Skenesborough on the right, and the Humerton [Hubbardton] on the left with the loss of 128 pieces of cannon, all their armed vessels and bateaux, the greatest part of their baggage and ammunition, provision and military stores …
– General John Burgoyne, letter to Lord George Germain (1777)
Bennington: “the compleatest Victory gain’d this War”
As Burgoyne and his troops marched down from Canada, the British managed to win several successful campaigns as well as infuriate the colonists. By the time the Burgoyne reached Saratoga, Americans had successfully rallied support to beat him.
In early August, word came that a substantial supply depot at Bennington, Vermont, was alleged to be lightly guarded, and Burgoyne dispatched German troops to take the depot and return with the supplies. This time, however, stiff resistance was encountered, and American general John Stark surrounded and captured almost 500 German soldiers. One observer reported Bennington as “the compleatest Victory gain’d this War.”
Burgoyne now realized, too late, that the Loyalists (Tories) who were supposed to have come to his aid by the hundreds had not appeared, and that his Native American allies were also undependable.
American general Schuyler proceed to burn supplies and crops in the line of Burgoyne’s advance so that the British were forced to rely on their ever-longer and more and more unreliable supply line to Canada. On the American side, General Horatio Gates arrived in New York to take command of the American forces.
Battle of Freeman’s Farm
Mask letters, invisible ink, and secret code are the tricks of the trade for any good spy. Loyalist Henry Clinton used a mask letter to communicate with Burgoyne.
By mid-September, with the fall weather reminding Burgoyne that he could not winter where he was and needed to proceed rapidly toward Albany, the British army crossed the Hudson and headed for Saratoga.
On September 19 the two forces met at Freeman’s Farm north of Albany. While the British were left as “masters of the field,” they sustained heavy human losses. Years later, American Henry Dearborn expressed the sentiment that “we had something more at stake than fighting for six Pence pr Day.”
Battle of Saratoga
In late September and during the first week of October 1777, Gate’s American army was positioned between Burgoyne’s army and Albany. On October 7, Burgoyne took the offensive. The troops crashed together south of the town of Saratoga, and Burgoyne’s army was broken. In mop-up operations 86 percent of Burgoyne’s command was captured.
The victory gave new life to the American cause at a critical time. Americans had just suffered a major setback the Battle of the Brandywine along with news of the fall of Philadelphia to the British.
One American soldier declared, “It was a glorious sight to see the haughty Brittons march out & surrender their arms to an army which but a little before they despised and called paltroons.”
A stupendous American victory in October 1777, the success at Saratoga gave France the confidence in the American cause to enter the war as an American ally. Later American successes owed a great deal to French aid in the form of financial and military assistance.
A Word about Spies
Spies worked for both British and American armies. Secret messages and battle plans were passed in a variety of creative ways, including being sewn into buttons. Patriots and loyalists penned these secret letters either in code, with invisible ink, or as mask letters.
Here is an example of Loyalist Sir Henry Clinton’s mask letter. The letter on the left is the mask letter with the secret message decoded; to the right is an excerpt of the full letter.
Sir. W. Howe / is gone to the / Chesapeak bay with / the greatest part of the / army. I hear he is / landed but am not / certain. I am / left to command / here with / too small a force / to make any effectual / diversion in your favour. / I shall try something / at any rate. It may be of use / to you. I own to you I think / Sr W’s move just at this time / the worst he could take. / Much joy on your success.
– Henry Clinton, letter to John Burgoyne (August 10, 1777)
I shall try some thing certainly/ towards the close / of the year, not till then at any rate. It may be of use to inform you that / report says all yields to you. I own to you that I think the business will / quickly be over now. Sr. W’s move just at this time has been capital. / Washingtons have been the worst he could take in every respect. / sincerely give you much joy on your success and am with / great Sincerity your [ ] / HC
– Henry Clinton, letter to John Burgoyne (August 10, 1777)
Benedict Arnold is best remembered as a traitor; an American patriot who spied for the British during the American Revolution. But there is more to his story than this sad event.
Arnold was a fierce patriot during the Stamp Act crisis and the early years of the American Revolution. During the battles of Lexington and Concord, Arnold worked with Ethan Allen to capture Fort Ticonderoga and was named a colonel.
As a member of George Washington’s Continental Army, he led a failed attack on Quebec, but was nonetheless named brigadier general in 1776.
His next big moment came at the Battle of Saratoga. Here, Benedict Arnold was instrumental in stopping the advance of the British and in obtaining the surrender of British General John Burgoyne.
During the Battle of Freeman’s Farm, Arnold’s leg was severely wounded when pinned beneath his horse. (Both Arnold and his leg survived, there is a monument to his leg at Saratoga National Historic Park.)
Over the next two years, Benedict Arnold remained a patriot, but was upset and embittered at what he felt was a lack of his recognition and contribution to the war. In 1778, following British evacuation of Philadelphia, George Washington appointed Arnold military commander of the city.
This is where the story gets interesting.
In Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold was introduced to and fell in love with Margaret (Peggy) Shippen, a young, well-to-do loyalist who was half his age. Ms. Shippen had previously been friendly with John André, a British spy who had been in Philadelphia during the occupation as the adjutant to the British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton. It is believed that Peggy introduced Arnold to André.
Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold’s reputation while in Philadelphia was beginning to tarnish. He was accused of using public wagons for private profit and of being friendly to Loyalists. Faced with a court-martial for corruption, he resigned his post on March 19, 1779.
Following his resignation, Arnold began a correspondence with John André, now chief of British intelligence services. But Arnold had also maintained his close relationship with George Washington and still had access to important information. Over the next few months Benedict Arnold continued his talks with André and agreed to hand over key information to the British. Specifically, Arnold offered to hand over the most strategic fortress in America: West Point.
Arnold and André finally met in person, and Arnold handed over information to the British spy. But, unfortunately for both men, André was caught and Arnold’s letter was found. Arnold’s friend, George Washington, was heartbroken over the news, but was forced to deal with the treacherous act. While Benedict Arnold escaped to British-occupied New York, where he was protected from punishment.
John André was executed for spying.
Benedict Arnold was named brigadier general by the British government and sent on raids to Virginia. Following Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in 1781, Arnold and his family sailed to Britain with his family. He died in London in 1801.
The French Alliance
This coat of arms captures the spirit of the Franco-American alliance. Half of the shield is painted with the pattern of the American flag, while the fleur-de-lis (the symbol of the French king) is depicted on the other half of the shield.
Nowhere was the victory at Saratoga more noted than in France, which had been tentative in its efforts to assist the Americans. France’s interest in the American fight for independence stemmed from France’s humiliating defeat during the Seven Years War at the hands of its ancient enemy, England.
As French historian Henri Doniol has put it, “Almost immediately after the peace of 1763, it (the French Government) sought in the tendency of the English colonies to revolt against their mother country the occasion by which we would avenge ourselves upon England and tear up the treaty of Paris”.
As early as 1774, Vergennes, the French foreign minister, had sent secret emissaries to explore the American colonists’ commitment to independence. In the spring of 1776, Congress dispatched Silas Deane to France as a secret commercial agent to see if he could make arrangements for the purchase of military supplies on terms of credit. Deane also made inquiries into possible French political and even military assistance.
Thanks to Benjamin Franklin’s excellent diplomatic skills, a treaty was quickly signed between France and the United States in 1777, as seen in this picture.
The official attitude of the French government toward the American Revolution in 1776 and 1777 was essentially a recognition of belligerency. This was the case at the fall 1776 arrival of the Continental Congress’s official diplomatic mission to Europe led by Benjamin Franklin.
Watchful waiting by French diplomacy came to an end when the news of the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga reached Paris on December 4, 1777. The American victory caused a reversal of British policy toward the Americans. Lord North’s government immediately prepared to send to the America a mission with an offer of peace on the basis of home rule within the Empire — something that the Colonies would have been only too glad to accept in 1775.
Don’t Give Peace a Chance
The French and American armies weren’t always on the best of terms. During the siege of Newport, Rhode Island, the French under the Comte d’Estaing were forced to seek shelter in Boston during a severe storm. The Americans were none to happy that the French abandoned their position.
This diplomatic move became known to Vergennes, and he became alarmed that a peace between the parent country and the American rebels might be a real possibility. Two Franco-American treaties were rapidly concluded. The first was a treaty of amity and commerce, which bestowed most-favored nation trading privileges and also contained cooperative maritime provisions.
The second was a treaty of “conditional and defensive alliance.” It provided, among other things, that in case war should break out between France and Great Britain as a result of the first treaty, France and America should fight the war together, and neither would make a peace or truce with the enemy without the formal consent of the other. Nor would they “lay down their arms until the Independence of the united states shall have been formally or tacitly assured by the Treaty or Treaties that shall terminate the War.”
Excerpts from the Treaty of Alliance
If War should break out betwan france and Great Britain, during the continuance of the present War betwan the United States and England, his Majesty and the said united States, shall make it a common cause, and aid each other mutually with their good Offices, their Counsels, and their forces, according to the exigence of Conjunctures as becomes good & faithful Allies.
The essential and direct End of the present defensive alliance is to maintain effectually the liberty, Sovereignty, and independance absolute and unlimited of the said united States, as well in Matters of Gouvernement as of commerce.
The Most Christian King renounces for ever the possession of the Islands of Bermudas as well as of any part of the continent of North america which before the treaty of Paris in 1763. or in virtue of that Treaty, were acknowledged to belong to the Crown of Great Britain, or to the united States heretofore called British Colonies, or which are at this Time or have lately been under the Power of The King and Crown of Great Britain.
If his Most Christian Majesty shall think proper to attack any of the Islands situated in the Gulph of Mexico, or near that Gulph, which are at present under the Power of Great Britain, all the said Isles, in case of success, shall appertain to the Crown of france.
In order to fix more precisely the sense and application of the preceding article, the Contracting Parties declare, that in case of rupture between france and England, the reciprocal Guarantee declared in the said article shall have its full force and effect the moment such War shall break out and if such rupture shall not take place, the mutual obligations of the said guarantee shall not commence, until the moment of the cessation of the present War between the united states and England shall have ascertained the Possessions.
– Treaty of Alliance (1778)
The American war continued, as France desired. France and Britain drifted into hostilities without a declaration of war when their fleets off Ushant off the northwest coast of France on June 17, 1778. A French expeditionary force arrived in the United States in 1780. As was demonstrated at the Battle of Yorktown, the French alliance was decisive for the cause of American independence.
Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris
The outlook for General Washington and the Americans never looked better.
Although the American military was still enduring losses in 1780, the French were making a difference. The French navy was disrupting the British blockade. French commanders such as Lafayette and Rochambeau earned the respect and admiration of the American troops.
Although, the British occupied much of the south, they had still been unable to mobilize the local Loyalists. Grumbling in England grew louder over the war’s expense and duration. The morale of Washington’s men was improving. The war was by no means over, but the general could now see a bright side.
The French navy and the Continental Army conceived a daring plan to entrap Cornwallis in Yorktown. The plan worked: Cornwallis surrendered Yorktown, and three weeks later the war was over.
The Siege of Yorktown
The year 1781 found a large squadron of British troops led by Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis hoped to keep his men in the Chesapeake town until fresh supplies and reinforcements could arrive from Britain. The French and the Americans conspired to capture the British before that could happen.
A French naval unit led by Admiral de Grasse headed north from the West Indies. Washington’s army was stationed near New York City at the time. Along with a French unit from Rhode Island, Washington’s troops marched over 300 miles south toward Yorktown. Along the way, he staged fake military maneuvers to keep the British off guard.
When Washington reached Virginia, Americans led by Lafayette joined in the siege. The French navy kept the British out of Chesapeake Bay until Cornwallis was forced to surrender his entire unit of nearly 8,000 troops on October 19, 1781. The capture of the troops severely hampered the British war effort
Peace and the Treaty of Paris
John Trumbull painted Surrender of Cornwallis in 1786-87. Although Trumbull did sketch the actual scene of surrender, his painting was not meant to be a literal recording of the event. Instead, he placed Cornwallis between the French and American forces to show their united effort against England.
Despite the American victory, the British military continued to fight. But the Battle of Yorktown turned the British public against the war. The following March, a pro-American Parliament was elected and peace negotiations began in earnest.
Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay met with the British in the hopes of securing a peace treaty. The Americans played off European rivalries to reach a most favorable agreement.
In the 1783 Treaty of Paris the British agreed to recognize American independence as far west as the Mississippi River. Americans agreed to honor debts owed to British merchants from before the war and to stop persecuting British Loyalists.
David had triumphed over Goliath. Independence was achieved at last!
Articles from the Treaty of Paris
Article 1: His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.
Article 2: And that all disputes which might arise in future on the subject of the boundaries of the said United States may be prevented, it is hereby agreed and declared, that the following are and shall be their boundaries, viz.; from the northwest angle of Nova Scotia, viz., that nagle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands; along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence, from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the northwesternmost head of Connecticut River; thence down along the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree of north latitude; from thence by a line due west on said latitude until it strikes the river Iroquois or Cataraquy; thence along the middle of said river into Lake Ontario; through the middle of said lake until it strikes the communication by water between that lake and Lake Erie; thence along the middle of said communication into Lake Erie, through the middle of said lake until it arrives at the water communication between that lake and Lake Huron; thence along the middle of said water communication into Lake Huron, thence through the middle of said lake to the water communication between that lake and Lake Superior; thence through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake; thence through the middle of said Long Lake and the water communication between it and the Lake of the Woods, to the said Lake of the Woods; thence through the said lake to the most northwesternmost point thereof, and from thence on a due west course to the river Mississippi; thence by a line to be drawn along the middle of the said river Mississippi until it shall intersect the northernmost part of the thirty-first degree of north latitude, South, by a line to be drawn due east from the determination of the line last mentioned in the latitude of thirty-one degrees of the equator, to the middle of the river Apalachicola or Catahouche; thence along the middle thereof to its junction with the Flint River, thence straight to the head of Saint Mary’s River; and thence down along the middle of Saint Mary’s River to the Atlantic Ocean; east, by a line to be drawn along the middle of the river Saint Croix, from its mouth in the Bay of Fundy to its source, and from its source directly north to the aforesaid highlands which divide the rivers that fall into the Atlantic Ocean from those which fall into the river Saint Lawrence; comprehending all islands within twenty leagues of any part of the shores of the United States, and lying between lines to be drawn due east from the points where the aforesaid boundaries between Nova Scotia on the one part and East Florida on the other shall, respectively, touch the Bay of Fundy and the Atlantic Ocean, excepting such islands as now are or heretofore have been within the limits of the said province of Nova Scotia.
Article 3: It is agreed that the people of the United States shall continue to enjoy unmolested the right to take fish of every kind on the Grand Bank and on all the other banks of Newfoundland, also in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and at all other places in the sea, where the inhabitants of both countries used at any time heretofore to fish. And also that the inhabitants of the United States shall have liberty to take fish of every kind on such part of the coast of Newfoundland as British fishermen shall use, (but not to dry or cure the same on that island) and also on the coasts, bays and creeks of all other of his Brittanic Majesty’s dominions in America; and that the American fishermen shall have liberty to dry and cure fish in any of the unsettled bays, harbors, and creeks of Nova Scotia, Magdalen Islands, and Labrador, so long as the same shall remain unsettled, but so soon as the same or either of them shall be settled, it shall not be lawful for the said fishermen to dry or cure fish at such settlement without a previous agreement for that purpose with the inhabitants, proprietors, or possessors of the ground.
Article 4: It is agreed that creditors on either side shall meet with no lawful impediment to the recovery of the full value in sterling money of all bona fide debts heretofore contracted.
Article 5: It is agreed that Congress shall earnestly recommend it to the legislatures of the respective states to provide for the restitution of all estates, rights, and properties, which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects; and also of the estates, rights, and properties of persons resident in districts in the possession on his Majesty’s arms and who have not borne arms against the said United States. And that persons of any other decription shall have free liberty to go to any part or parts of any of the thirteen United States and therein to remain twelve months unmolested in their endeavors to obtain the restitution of such of their estates, rights, and properties as may have been confiscated; and that Congress shall also earnestly recommend to the several states a reconsideration and revision of all acts or laws regarding the premises, so as to render the said laws or acts perfectly consistent not only with justice and equity but with that spirit of conciliation which on the return of the blessings of peace should universally prevail. And that Congress shall also earnestly recommend to the several states that the estates, rights, and properties, of such last mentioned persons shall be restored to them, they refunding to any persons who may be now in possession the bona fide price (where any has been given) which such persons may have paid on purchasing any of the said lands, rights, or properties since the confiscation. And it is agreed that all persons who have any interest in confiscated lands, either by debts, marriage settlements, or otherwise, shall meet with no lawful impediment in the prosecution of their just rights.
Article 6: That there shall be no future confiscations made nor any prosecutions commenced against any person or persons for, or by reason of, the part which he or they may have taken in the present war, and that no person shall on that account suffer any future loss or damage, either in his person, liberty, or property; and that those who may be in confinement on such charges at the time of the ratification of the treaty in America shall be immediately set at liberty, and the prosecutions so commenced be discontinued.
Article 7: There shall be a firm and perpetual peace between his Brittanic Majesty and the said states, and between the subjects of the one and the citizens of the other, wherefore all hostilities both by sea and land shall from henceforth cease. All prisoners on both sides shall be set at liberty, and his Brittanic Majesty shall with all convenient speed, and without causing any destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other property of the American inhabitants, withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States, and from every post, place, and harbor within the same; leaving in all fortifications, the American artilery that may be therein; and shall also order and cause all archives, records, deeds, and papers belonging to any of the said states, or their citizens, which in the course of the war may have fallen into the hands of his officers, to be forthwith restored and delivered to the proper states and persons to whom they belong.
Article 8: The navigation of the river Mississippi, from its source to the ocean, shall forever remain free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States.
Article 9: In case it should so happen that any place or territory belonging to Great Britain or to the United States should have been conquered by the arms of either from the other before the arrival of the said Provisional Articles in America, it is agreed that the same shall be restored without difficulty and without requiring any compensation.
Article 10: The solemn ratifications of the present treaty expedited in good and due form shall be exchanged between the contracting parties in the space of six months or sooner, if possible, to be computed from the day of the signatures of the present treaty. In witness whereof we the undersigned, their ministers plenipotentiary, have in their name and in virtue of our full powers, signed with our hands the present definitive treaty and caused the seals of our arms to be affixed thereto.
Done at Paris, this third day of September in the year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-three.
D. HARTLEY (SEAL)
JOHN ADAMS (SEAL)
B. FRANKLIN (SEAL)
JOHN JAY (SEAL)
– The Treaty of Paris (1783)
Freedom of religion was an important issue for the colonists as the Anglican Church was seen as yet another vehicle of oppression by England. In this cartoon, a new Bishop arriving from England is driven away. The angry mob shouts: “No Lords Spiritual or Temporal in New England!”
Liberty, republicanism, and independence are powerful causes. The patriots tenaciously asserted American rights and brought the Revolution. The Revolution brought myriad consequences to the American social fabric. There was no Reign of Terror as in the French Revolution. There was no replacement of the ruling class by workers’ groups as in revolutionary Russia. How then could the American Revolution be described as radical? Nearly every aspect of American life was somehow touched by the revolutionary spirit. From slavery to women’s rights, from religious life to voting, American attitudes would be forever changed.
Some changes would be felt immediately. Slavery would not be abolished for another hundred years, but the Revolution saw the dawn of an organized abolitionist movement. English traditions such as land inheritance laws were swept away almost immediately. The Anglican Church in America could no longer survive. After all, the official head of the Church of England was the British monarch. States experimented with republican ideas when drafting their own constitutions during the war. All these major changes would be felt by Americans before the dawn of the nineteenth century.
The American Revolution produced a new outlook among its people that would have ramifications long into the future. Groups excluded from immediate equality such as slaves and women would draw their later inspirations from revolutionary sentiments. Americans began to feel that their fight for liberty was a global fight. Future democracies would model their governments on ours. There are few events that would shake the world order like the success of the American patriotic cause.
The Impact of Slavery
More than 140 slaves lived and worked at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation in Tennessee in the 1840’s
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply did not seem consistent with the practice of chattel slavery. How could a group of people feel so passionate about these unalienable rights, yet maintain the brutal practice of human bondage? Somehow slavery would manage to survive the revolutionary era, but great changes were brought to this peculiar institution nevertheless.
The world’s first antislavery society was founded in 1775 by Quakers in Philadelphia, the year the Revolution began. By 1788, at least thirteen of these clubs were known to exist in the American colonies. Some Northern states banned slavery outright, and some provided for the gradual end of slavery. At any rate, the climate of the Revolution made the institution unacceptable in the minds of many Northerners, who did not rely on forced labor as part of the economic system. Northerners did not, however, go as far as to grant equal rights to freed blacks. Nonetheless, this ignited the philosophical debate that would be waged throughout the next century.
Many slaves achieved their freedom during the Revolution without formal emancipation. The British army, eager to debase the colonial economy, freed many slaves as they moved through the American South. Many slaves in the North were granted their freedom if they agreed to fight for the American cause. Although a clear majority of African Americans remained in bondage, the growth of free black communities in America was greatly fostered by the War for American Independence. Revolutionary sentiments led to the banning of the importation of slaves in 1807.
Slavery did not end overnight in America. Before any meaningful reform could happen, people needed to recognize that the economic benefit was vastly overshadowed by the overwhelming repugnance, immorality, and inhumanity of slavery.
A Revolution in Social Law
New Yorkers topple a statue of King George III after hearing a reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, 1776. / Library of Congress
During the colonial era, Americans were bound by British law. Now, they were no longer governed by the Crown or by colonial charter. Independent, Americans could seek to eliminate or maintain laws as they saw fit. The possibilities were endless. Republican revolutionary sentiment brought significant change during the immediate postwar years.
Huge changes were made regarding land holding. English law required land to be passed down in its entirety from father to eldest son. This practice was known as primogeniture. This kept land concentrated in the hands of few individuals, hardly consistent with revolutionary thinking. Within fifteen years of the Revolution, not a single state had a primogeniture law on the books. The cries of the landless, those who formerly paid quitrents and fees to the Crown, could now be heard. Huge estates of the Loyalists were divided into smaller units. These land seizures were harshest in New England, but existed to some extent throughout the American colonies. The sale of the Penn family estate yielded over a million dollars to the new government. In addition, the Treaty of Paris granted the United States land out to the Mississippi River, which created a great opportunity for land hungry citizens to go west. Despite the fact that much of this land was gobbled up by rich land speculators, the removal of the Loyalists served to be a great social leveler.
The fight for separation of church and state was on. In Virginia, it hardly seemed appropriate to support the Anglican Church of England with tax dollars. The Anglican Church itself broke from its English hierarchy and renamed itself the Episcopalian Church. Soon they were appointing their own American clergy. Thomas Jefferson helped win the battle for religious freedom in Virginia. The Congregational Puritan churches in New England held on longer; however, by 1833, all states abandoned the practice of a state-supported church. The Revolution had sparked great changes indeed.
The Bill of Rights
Every society needs a set of rules by which to operate. After the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, they had to write their own constitutions. Impassioned with the republican spirit of the Revolution, political leaders pointed their ideals toward crafting “enlightened” documents. The result was thirteen republican laboratories, each experimenting with new ways of realizing the goals of the Revolution. In addition, representatives from all the colonies worked together to craft the Articles of Confederation, which itself provided the nascent nation with invaluable experience.
The state constitutions had much in common with each other. Fearful of a strong monarch, the states were reluctant to grant sweeping powers to a new government. Most governors were kept purposefully weak to deter an individual from aspiring to regal status or power. The legislative and judicial branches were elected regularly, so voters could hold them regularly accountable for their actions. Most states granted their people a Bill of Rights to protect treasured liberties from the threat of future despotism. Property requirements were still maintained, but in many cases they were lowered. Although the wealthy maintained a disproportionately large percentage of legislative seats, their influence was diminished. This is reflected in the post-Revolutionary transfer of state capitals from wealthy seaboard towns to the interior. At least seven states moved their centers of government. The most notable changes occurred in Pennsylvania, which moved its capital from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, and in New York, which transferred its governing seat from New York City to Albany.
Massachusetts developed an idea that would soon be implemented by the entire nation. They made any changes to their constitution possible only by constitutional convention. This inspired the nation’s leaders to ratify changes in the Articles of Confederation the same way. Truly political ideals of equality were set into place in the states before the war even came to a close.
Gate at Mt. Holyoke College, Massachusetts, founded by Mary Lyon. Lyon, Zilpah Grant, Judith Sargent Murray, and others educated in the years following the Revolution, opened the gates to further education for women.
Women’s role in society was altered by the American Revolution. Women who ran households in the absence of men became more assertive. Abigail Adams, wife of John, became an early advocate of women’s rights when she prompted her husband to “Remember the Ladies” when drawing up a new government.
Pre-Revolutionary ministers, particularly in Puritan Massachusetts, preached the moral superiority of men. Enlightened thinkers rejected this and knew that a republic could only succeed if its citizens were virtuous and educated. Who were the primary caretakers of American children? American women. If the republic were to succeed, women must be schooled in virtue so they could teach their children. The first American female academies were founded in the 1790s. This idea of an educated woman became known as “republican motherhood.”
As in the case of the abolition of slavery, changes for women would not come overnight. But the American Revolution ignited these changes. Education and respect would lead to the emergence of a powerful, outspoken middle class of women. By the mid nineteenth century, the Seneca Falls Declaration on the rights of women slightly alters Thomas Jefferson’s words by saying: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal…”
This scene, from the frieze in the rotunda of the U.S. capitol building, depicts British Major Pitcairn on a horse, backed by British soldiers at the Battle of Lexington. This engagement is considered the beginning of the Revolutionary War, with “the shot heard round the world.”
The United States was created as a result of the American Revolution, when thirteen colonies on the east coast of North America fought to end their membership in the British Empire. This was a bold, dangerous, and even foolish thing to do at the time, since Great Britain was the strongest country in the world. While American success in the Revolution seems obvious today, it wasn’t at the time.
The war for American independence began with military conflict in 1775 and lasted at least until 1783 when the peace treaty with the British was signed. In fact, Native Americans in the west (who were allied with the British, but not included in the 1783 negotiations) continued to fight and didn’t sign a treaty with the United States until 1795. The Revolution was a long, hard, and difficult struggle.
One Nation, Many Revolutions
The Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, begins with arguably one of the most important statements in U.S. history.
Even among Patriots there was a wide range of opinion about how the Revolution should shape the new nation. For example, soldiers often resented civilians for not sharing the deep personal sacrifice of fighting the war. Even among the men who fought, major differences often separated officers from ordinary soldiers. Finally, no consideration of the Revolution would be complete without considering the experience of people who were not Patriots. Loyalists were Americans who remained loyal to the British Empire. Almost all Native American groups opposed American Independence. Slaves would be made legally free if they fled Patriot masters to join the British Army, which they did in large numbers. This section reviews diverse Revolutionary experiences that helped shape the nation in different ways.
A constant question for our exploration, as well as for people at the time, is what does the Revolution mean and when did it end? Have the ideals of the Revolution been achieved even today? One of our challenges is to consider the meaning of the Revolution from multiple perspectives.
The Declaration of Independence and Its Legacy
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence occurred at high noon on July 8, 1776, in the Old State House yard in Philadelphia (what is now Independence Hall).
So begins the Declaration of Independence. But what was the Declaration? Why do Americans continue to celebrate its public announcement as the birthday of the United States, July 4, 1776? While that date might just mean a barbecue and fireworks to some today, what did the Declaration mean when it was written in the summer of 1776?
On the one hand, the Declaration was a formal legal document that announced to the world the reasons that led the thirteen colonies to separate from the British Empire. Much of the Declaration sets forth a list of abuses that were blamed on King George III. One charge levied against the King sounds like a Biblical plague: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
The Declaration was not only legalistic, but practical too. Americans hoped to get financial or military support from other countries that were traditional enemies of the British. However, these legal and pragmatic purposes, which make up the bulk of the actual document, are not why the Declaration is remembered today as a foremost expression of the ideals of the Revolution.
The Declaration’s most famous sentence reads: “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.” Even today, this inspirational language expresses a profound commitment to human equality.
This ideal of equality has certainly influenced the course of American history. Early women’s rights activists at Seneca Falls in 1848 modeled their “Declaration of Sentiments” in precisely the same terms as the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they said, “that all men and women are created equal.” Similarly, the African-American anti-slavery activist David Walker challenged white Americans in 1829 to “See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?” Walker dared America to live up to its self-proclaimed ideals. If all men were created equal, then why was slavery legal?
The ideal of full human equality has been a major legacy (and ongoing challenge) of the Declaration of Independence. But the signers of 1776 did not have quite that radical an agenda. The possibility for sweeping social changes was certainly discussed in 1776. For instance, Abigail Adams suggested to her husband John Adams that in the “new Code of Laws” that he helped draft at the Continental Congress, he should, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them.” It didn’t work out that way.
King George III showed signs of madness. He likely suffered from porphyria, a disease of the blood leading to gout and mental derangement.
Thomas Jefferson provides the classic example of the contradictions of the Revolutionary Era. Although he was the chief author of the Declaration, he also owned slaves, as did many of his fellow signers. They did not see full human equality as a positive social goal. Nevertheless, Jefferson was prepared to criticize slavery much more directly than most of his colleagues. His original draft of the Declaration included a long passage that condemned King George for allowing the slave trade to flourish. This implied criticism of slavery — a central institution in early American society — was deleted by a vote of the Continental Congress before the delegates signed the Declaration.
So what did the signers intend by using such idealistic language? Look at what follows the line, “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.”
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
These lines suggest that the whole purpose of government is to secure the people’s rights and that government gets its power from “the consent of the governed.” If that consent is betrayed, then “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish” their government. When the Declaration was written, this was a radical statement. The idea that the people could reject a monarchy (based on the superiority of a king) and replace it with a republican government (based on the consent of the people) was a revolutionary change.
While the signers of the Declaration thought of “the people” more narrowly than we do today, they articulated principles that are still vital markers of American ideals. And while the Declaration did not initially lead to equality for all, it did provide an inspiring start on working toward equality.
The War Experience: Soldiers, Officers, and Civilians
Before they could fight for independence, harsh winters during the Revolutionary War forced the Continental Army to fight for their very survival.
Americans remember the famous battles of the American Revolution such as Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown, in part, because they were Patriot victories. But this apparent string of successes is misleading.
The Patriots lost more battles than they won and, like any war, the Revolution was filled with hard times, loss of life, and suffering. In fact, the Revolution had one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. war; only the Civil War was bloodier.
A battle flag carried by Revolutionary War soldiers. The banner reads “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”
In the early days of 1776, most Americans were naïve when assessing just how difficult the war would be. Great initial enthusiasm led many men to join local militias where they often served under officers of their own choosing. Yet, these volunteer forces were not strong enough to defeat the British Army, which was the most highly trained and best equipped in the world. Furthermore, because most men preferred serving in the militia, the Continental Congress had trouble getting volunteers for General George Washington’s Continental Army. This was in part because, the Continental Army demanded longer terms and harsher discipline.
Washington correctly insisted on having a regular army as essential to any chance for victory. After a number of bad militia losses in battle, the Congress gradually developed a stricter military policy. It required each state to provide a larger quota of men, who would serve for longer terms, but who would be compensated by a signing bonus and the promise of free land after the war. This policy aimed to fill the ranks of the Continental Army, but was never fully successful. While the Congress authorized an army of 75,000, at its peak Washington’s main force never had more than 18,000 men. The terms of service were such that only men with relatively few other options chose to join the Continental Army.
Part of the difficulty in raising a large and permanent fighting force was that many Americans feared the army as a threat to the liberty of the new republic. The ideals of the Revolution suggested that the militia, made up of local Patriotic volunteers, should be enough to win in a good cause against a corrupt enemy. Beyond this idealistic opposition to the army, there were also more pragmatic difficulties. If a wartime army camped near private homes, they often seized food and personal property. Exacerbating the situation was Congress inability to pay, feed, and equip the army.
When British General John Burgoyne surrendered to the Patriots at Saratoga on October 7, 1777 (illustrated above), colonists believed it would be proof enough to the French that American independence could be won. Benjamin Franklin immediately spread word to Louis XVI in hopes the king would offer support for the cause.
As a result, soldiers often resented civilians whom they saw as not sharing equally in the sacrifices of the Revolution. Several mutinies occurred toward the end of the war, with ordinary soldiers protesting their lack of pay and poor conditions. Not only were soldiers angry, but officers also felt that the country did not treat them well. Patriotic civilians and the Congress expected officers, who were mostly elite gentlemen, to be honorably self-sacrificing in their wartime service. When officers were denied a lifetime pension at the end of the war, some of them threatened to conspire against the Congress. General Washington, however, acted swiftly to halt this threat before it was put into action.
The Continental Army defeated the British, with the crucial help of French financial and military support, but the war ended with very mixed feelings about the usefulness of the army. Not only were civilians and those serving in the military mutually suspicious, but also even within the army soldiers and officers could harbor deep grudges against one another. The war against the British ended with the Patriot military victory at Yorktown in 1781. However, the meaning and consequences of the Revolution had not yet been decided.
Thomas Hutchinson, a Supreme Court justice in Massachusetts, was the most hated man in America before Benedict Arnold, and was hung in effigy many times for being a loyalist.
The year is 1774. Whether you are a merchant in Massachusetts, a German-born farmer living in Pennsylvania, a tavern-owning woman of Maryland, or a slave-owner in the South, you share some things in common. For instance, you probably don’t like paying taxes on such goods as tea that wind up going to support the royal coffers in London. At the same time you like the notion of being part of the British Empire, the most powerful in the world.
Chances are you speak English and have many British relatives or ancestors. Or, even if you’re a German farmer with no ties to Britain, you are still grateful for the opportunity to farm peacefully in this British-ruled land. Yet, you hear murmurings — radical notions about separating from Britain are making the rounds. Those hotheads in Boston recently threw a load of tea in the harbor and the British retaliated with something called the Intolerable Acts. A confrontation is looming.
Who will you support? The radical Americans or the British? Fact is, it’s not an easy decision. Not only will your way of life be drastically affected, but whomever you choose to side with will make you instant enemies.
Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia at the start of the Revolutionary War, offered freedom to enslaved Africans and Indians for joining the British Army.
Any full assessment of the American Revolution must try to understand the place of Loyalists, those Americans who remained faithful to the British Empire during the war.
Although Loyalists were steadfast in their commitment to remain within the British Empire, it was a very hard decision to make and to stick to during the Revolution. Even before the war started, a group of Philadelphia Quakers were arrested and imprisoned in Virginia because of their perceived support of the British. The Patriots were not a tolerant group, and Loyalists suffered regular harassment, had their property seized, or were subject to personal attacks.
The process of “tar and feathering,” for example, was brutally violent. Stripped of clothes, covered with hot tar, and splattered with feathers, the victim was then forced to parade about in public. Unless the British Army was close at hand to protect Loyalists, they often suffered bad treatment from Patriots and often had to flee their own homes. About one-in-six Americans was an active Loyalist during the Revolution, and that number undoubtedly would have been higher if the Patriots hadn’t been so successful in threatening and punishing people who made their Loyalist sympathies known in public.
One famous Loyalist is Thomas Hutchinson, a leading Boston merchant from an old American family, who served as governor of Massachusetts. Viewed as pro-British by some citizens of Boston, Hutchinson’s house was burned in 1765 by an angry crowd protesting the Crown’s policies. In 1774, Hutchinson left America for London where he died in 1780 and always felt exiled from his American homeland. One of his letters suggested his sad end, for he, “had rather die in a little country farm-house in New England than in the best nobleman’s seat in old England.” Like his ancestor, Anne Hutchinson who suffered religious persecution from Puritan authorities in the early 17th-century, the Hutchinson family suffered severe punishment for holding beliefs that other Americans rejected.
American patriots used tar and feathering to intimidate British tax collectors.
Perhaps the most interesting group of Loyalists were enslaved African-Americans who chose to join the British. The British promised to liberate slaves who fled from their Patriot masters. This powerful incentive, and the opportunities opened by the chaos of war, led some 50,000 slaves (about 10 percent of the total slave population in the 1770s) to flee their Patriot masters. When the war ended, the British evacuated 20,000 formerly enslaved African Americans and resettled them as free people.
Along with this group of black Loyalists, about 80,000 other Loyalists chose to leave the independent United States after the Patriot victory in order to remain members of the British Empire. Wealthy men like Thomas Hutchinson who had the resources went to London. But most ordinary Loyalists went to Canada where they would come to play a large role in the development of Canadian society and government. In this way, the American Revolution played a central role shaping the future of two North American countries.
Revolutionary Changes and Limitations: Slavery
Born into slavery in 1760, Richard Allen purchased his own freedom for $2000 at the age of 20. He became a devoted Methodist preacher and founded the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794.
The American Revolution, as an anti-tax movement, centered on Americans’ right to control their own property. In the 18th century “property” included other human beings.
In many ways, the Revolution reinforced American commitment to slavery. On the other hand, the Revolution also hinged on radical new ideas about “liberty” and “equality,” which challenged slavery’s long tradition of extreme human inequality. The changes to slavery in the Revolutionary Era revealed both the potential for radical change and its failure more clearly than any other issue.
Slavery was a central institution in American society during the late-18th century, and was accepted as normal and applauded as a positive thing by many white Americans. However, this broad acceptance of slavery (which was never agreed to by black Americans) began to be challenged in the Revolutionary Era. The challenge came from several sources, partly from Revolutionary ideals, partly from a new evangelical religious commitment that stressed the equality of all Christians, and partly from a decline in the profitability of tobacco in the most significant slave region of Virginia and adjoining states.
The decline of slavery in the period was most noticeable in the states north of Delaware, all of which passed laws outlawing slavery quite soon after the end of the war. However, these gradual emancipation laws were very slow to take effect — many of them only freed the children of current slaves, and even then, only when the children turned 25 years old. Although laws prohibited slavery in the North, the “peculiar institution” persisted well into the 19th century.
James Forten was a noted Philadelphia businessman and abolitionist.
Even in the South, there was a significant movement toward freeing some slaves. In states where tobacco production no longer demanded large numbers of slaves, the free black population grew rapidly. By 1810 one third of the African American population in Maryland was free, and in Delaware free blacks outnumbered enslaved African Americans by three to one. Even in the powerful slave state of Virginia, the free black population grew more rapidly than ever before in the 1780s and 1790s. This major new free black population created a range of public institutions for themselves that usually used the word “African” to announce their distinctive pride and insistence on equality.
Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The most famous of these new institutions was Richard Allen‘s African Methodist Episcopal church founded in Philadelphia.
Although the rise of the free black population is one of the most notable achievements of the Revolutionary Era, it is crucial to note that the overall impact of the Revolution on slavery also had negative consequences. In rice-growing regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the Patriot victory confirmed the power of the master class. Doubts about slavery and legal modifications that occurred in the North and Upper South, never took serious hold among whites in the Lower South. Even in Virginia, the move toward freeing some slaves was made more difficult by new legal restrictions in 1792. In the North, where slavery was on its way out, racism still persisted, as in a Massachusetts law of 1786 that prohibited whites from legally marrying African Americans, Indians, or people of mixed race. The Revolution clearly had a mixed impact on slavery and contradictory meanings for African Americans.
Revolutionary Changes and Limitations: Women
Playwright, essayist and poet, Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) is considered one of the first public champions of women’s rights in the U.S.
The Revolutionary rethinking of the rules for society also led to some reconsideration of the relationship between men and women. At this time, women were widely considered to be inferior to men, a status that was especially clear in the lack of legal rights for married women. The law did not recognize wives’ independence in economic, political, or civic matters in Anglo-American society of the eighteenth century.
Even future First Ladies had relatively little clout. After the death of her first husband, Dolley Todd Madison, had to fight her deceased spouse’s heirs for control of his estate. And Abigail Adams, an early advocate of women’s rights, could only encourage her husband John, to “Remember the Ladies” when drawing up a new federal government. She could not participate in the creation of this government, however.
The Revolution increased people’s attention to political matters and made issues of liberty and equality especially important. As Eliza Wilkinson of South Carolina explained in 1783, “I won’t have it thought that because we are the weaker sex as to bodily strength we are capable of nothing more than domestic concerns. They won’t even allow us liberty of thought, and that is all I want.”
The Dolley Madison silver dollar was minted as a tribute to Madison’s work in Washington, especially during the War of 1812.
Judith Sargent Murray wrote the most systematic expression of a feminist position in this period in 1779 (but not published until 1790). Her essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” challenged the view that men had greater intellectual capacities than women. Instead she argued that whatever differences existed between the intelligence of men and women were the result of prejudice and discrimination that prevented women from sharing the full range of male privilege and experience. Murray championed the view that the “Order of Nature” demanded full equality between the sexes, but that male domination corrupted this principle.
Like many other of the most radical voices of the Revolutionary Era, Murray’s support for gender equality was largely met by shock and disapproval. Revolutionary and Early National America remained a place of male privilege. Nevertheless, the understanding of the proper relationships among men, women, and the public world underwent significant change in this period. The republican thrust of revolutionary politics required intelligent and self-disciplined citizens to form the core of the new republic. This helped shape a new ideal for wives as “republican mothers” who could instruct their children, sons especially, to be intelligent and reasonable individuals. This heightened significance to a traditional aspect of wives’ duties brought with it a new commitment to female education and helped make husbands and wives more equal within the family.
Susanna Haswell Rowson (1762-1824), in the preface to her novel Charlotte Temple, dedicates the book “to the many daughters of Misfortune who, deprived of natural friends, or spoilt by a mistaken education, are thrown on an unfeeling world without the least power to defend themselves from the snares not only of the other sex, but from the more dangerous arts of the profligate of their own.”
Although “republican motherhood” represented a move toward greater equality between husbands and wives, it was far less sweeping than the commitment to equality put forth by women like Judith Sargent Murray. In fact, the benefits that accompanied this new ideal of motherhood were largely restricted to elite families that had the resources to educate their daughters and to allow wives to not be employed outside the household. Republican motherhood did not meaningfully extend to white working women and was not expected to have any place for enslaved women.
Nevertheless, this new way of understanding elite women’s relationship to the broader world began long-term changes whose later influence would be profound. For example, the 1790s saw the expansion of new kinds of books aimed for a female audience and often written by women. Susanna Haswell Rowson‘s tale of seduction Charlotte Temple (1791), for example, was a best-selling novel well into the 19th century. This new form of popular writing reflected and helped further expanded education and literacy for women. The female heroines of these novels frequently provided examples of the unjust suffering of women in a male-dominated world.
Revolutionary Limits: Native Americans
Mohawk Indian Thayendanega, also known as Joseph Brant, served in the British army as an interpreter of native languages during the Revolutionary War.
While the previous explorations of African American and white female experience suggest both the gains and limitations produced in the Revolutionary Era, from the perspective of almost all Native Americans the American Revolution was an unmitigated disaster. At the start of the war Patriots worked hard to try and ensure Indian neutrality, for Indians could provide strategic military assistance that might decide the struggle. Gradually, however, it became clear to most native groups, that an independent America posed a far greater threat to their interests and way of life than a continued British presence that restrained American westward expansion.
Cherokees and Creeks (among others tribes) in the southern interior and most Iroquois nations in the northern interior provided crucial support to the British war effort. With remarkably few exceptions, Native American support for the British was close to universal.
This drawing shows an Iroquois warrior dressed for battle.
The experience of the Iroquois Confederacy in current-day northern New York provides a clear example of the consequences of the Revolution for American Indians. The Iroquois represented an alliance of six different native groups who had responded to the dramatic changes of the colonial era more successfully than most other Indians in the eastern third of North America. Their political alliance, which had begun to take shape in the 15th- century, even before the arrival of European colonists, was the most durable factor in their persistence in spite of the disastrous changes brought on by European contact. During the American Revolution, the Confederacy fell apart for the first time since its creation as different Iroquois groups fought against one another.
The Mohawk chief Thayendanegea (known to Anglo-Americans as Joseph Brant) was the most important Iroquois leader in the Revolutionary Era. He convinced four of the six Iroquois nations to join him in an alliance with the British and was instrumental in leading combined Indian, British, and Loyalist forces on punishing raids in western New York and Pennsylvania in 1778 and 1779. These were countered by a devastating Patriot campaign into Iroquois country that was explicitly directed by General Washington to both engage warriors in battle and to destroy all Indian towns and crops so as to limit the military threat posed by the Indian-British alliance.
In spite of significant Native American aid to the British, the European treaty negotiations that concluded the war in 1783 had no native representatives. Although Ohio and Iroquois Indians had not surrendered nor suffered a final military defeat, the United States claimed that its victory over the British meant a victory over Indians as well. Not surprisingly, due to their lack of representation during treaty negotiations, Native Americans received very poor treatment in the diplomatic arrangements. The British retained their North American holdings north and west of the Great Lakes, but granted the new American republic all land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. In fact, this region was largely unsettled by whites and mostly inhabited by Native Americans. As a Wea Indian complained about the failed military alliance with the British, “In endeavoring to assist you it seems we have wrought our own ruin.” Even groups like the Oneida, one of the Iroquois nations that allied with the Americans, were forced to give up traditional lands with other native groups.
When British General John Burgoyne marched from Canada to Albany, some of the Native American warriors he enlisted began killing settlers. When the news of Jane McCrea’s murder reached major cities, many young Americans enlisted to fight.
Despite the sweeping setback to Native Americans represented by the American Revolution, native groups in the trans-Appalachian west would remain a vital force and a significant military threat to the new United States. Relying on support from Spanish colonists in New Orleans as well as assistance from the British at Fort Detroit, varied native groups continued to resist Anglo-American incursions late into the 19th century.
This ongoing resistance resulted in treaties with the United States that would much later be the basis for redressing some illegal losses of Indian lands. Although the meaning of the Revolution for most Native American groups was disastrous, their continued struggle for autonomy, independence, and full legal treatment resulted in partial victories at a much later date. In some ways, this native struggle showed a more thorough commitment to certain revolutionary principles than that demonstrated by the Patriots themselves.
Revolutionary Achievement: Yeomen and Artisans
In his painting The Residence of David Twining, (1787) Edward Hicks portrays the farm of a prosperous Pennsylvania politician. While most yeomen did not have farms of this size and obvious wealth, the painting illustrates the American agrarian ideal — hard work, self-employment, and living close with nature will result in moral virtue and good citizenship.
The Revolution succeeded for many reasons, but central to them was broad popular support for a social movement that opposed monarchy and the hereditary privilege. Diverse Americans rallied to the cause to create an independent American republic in which individuals would create a more equal government through talent and a strong commitment to the public good. Two groups of Americans most fully represented the independent ideal in this republican vision for the new nation: yeomen farmers and urban artisans. These two groups made up the overwhelming majority of the white male population, and they were the biggest beneficiaries of the American Revolution.
Paul Revere’s silver shop may have looked like this, with several apprentices and journeymen aiding master craftsmen in the varied and difficult labor of silversmithing. / Paul Revere Memorial Association
The yeomen farmer who owned his own modest farm and worked it primarily with family labor remains the embodiment of the ideal American: honest, virtuous, hardworking, and independent. These same values made yeomen farmers central to the republican vision of the new nation. Because family farmers didn’t exploit large numbers of other laborers and because they owned their own property, they were seen as the best kinds of citizens to have political influence in a republic.
While yeomen represented the largest number of white farmers in the Revolutionary Era, artisans were a leading urban group making up at least half the total population of seacoast cities. Artisans were skilled workers drawn from all levels of society from poor shoemakers and tailors to elite metal workers. The silversmith Paul Revere is the best- known artisan of the Revolution, and exemplifies an important quality of artisans — they had contact with a broad range of urban society. These connections helped place artisans at the center of the Revolutionary movement and it is not surprising that the origins of the Revolution can largely be located in urban centers like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, where artisans were numerous. Like yeomen farmers, artisans also saw themselves as central figures in a republican order where their physical skill and knowledge of a specialized craft provided them with the personal independence and hard-working virtue to be good citizens.
Not only was Paul Revere a leading patriot in Massachusetts, he was one of the most well-known silversmiths of the time.
The representatives elected to the new republican state governments during the Revolution reflected the dramatic rise in importance of independent yeomen and artisans. A comparison of the legislatures in six colonies (New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina) before the war reveals that 85 percent of the assemblymen were very wealthy, but by war’s end in 1784, yeomen and artisans of moderate wealth made up the majority (62 percent) of elected officials in the three northern states, while they formed a significant minority (30 percent) in the southern states. The Revolution’s greatest achievement, and it was a major change, was the expansion of formal politics to include independent workingmen of modest wealth.
The Age of Atlantic Revolutions
This illustration from 1783 appeared in a history of Britain with the caption, “The Manner in which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent of the King of England, throughout the Different Provinces, on July 4, 1776.”
The American Revolution needs to be understood in a broader framework than simply that of domestic events and national politics. The American Revolution started a trans-Atlantic Age of Revolution. Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense (1776), permits a biographical glimpse of the larger currents of revolutionary change in this period. Paine was English-born and had been in the American colonies less than two years when he wrote what would become the most popular publication of the American Revolution.
Paine foresaw that the struggle to create an independent republic free of monarchy was a cause of worldwide importance. For Paine, success would make America “an asylum for all mankind.” After the war Paine returned to England and France where he continued his radical activism by publishing a defense of the French Revolution, in his most famous work, The Rights of Man (1791). Paine also served as a politician in revolutionary France. His international role reveals some of the connections among different countries in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.
When word of the French Revolution spread to the enslaved blacks on plantations in Haiti, 13 years of rebellion and war ensued. The end of the Haitian Revolution marked the beginning of the first independent black nation in the west.
The French Revolution surely sprung from important internal dynamics, but the connection between the French struggle that began in 1789 and the American Revolution was widely acknowledged at the time. As a symbol of the close relationship, the new French government sent President Washington the key to the door of the Bastille, the prison that had been destroyed by a Parisian revolutionary crowd in one of the great collective actions of the French Revolution. For a time, most Americans celebrated the French overthrow of an absolutist monarch in favor of a constitutional government.
However, in 1792 and 1793 the French Revolution took a new turn with the beheading of the king. Thus began a period of radicalization that saw significant action on behalf of oppressed groups (from the poor to women to racial outcasts). Unfortunately, this period was also marked by rapidly rising violence that was often sanctioned by the revolutionary government. This violence swept beyond the boundaries of the French revolutionary republic, as it soon became locked in a war that lasted to 1815 against a coalition of traditional European powers headed by Great Britain.
Americans heralded the French Revolution as the coming of an age of democratic governance on both sides of the Atlantic. This painting, Fall of the Bastille illustrates the bloody events of July 14, 1789.
The winds of the Age of Atlantic Revolutions soon carried back across the Atlantic to the French colony of St. Domingue in the Caribbean. Here, enslaved people responded to the Paris government’s abolition of racial distinctions with a rebellion that began in 1791. Long years of violent conflict followed that ended with the creation of the independent black-run Republic of Haiti in 1804. The United States had been joined by a second republican experiment in the New World.
In comparison to the French and Haitian Revolutions, the lack of radical change in the American Revolution is glaring. The benefits of the American Revolution for the poor, for women, and, perhaps most of all, for enslaved people, were very limited. Nevertheless, the American Revolution did transform American society in meaningful ways and it accomplished its changes with comparatively little bloody violence. Most notably of all, the American Revolution created new republican political institutions that proved to be remarkably stable and long lasting.
As Abraham Lincoln viewed it half a century later on the verge of the Civil War, the Union had to prevail so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
For all its limitations, the American Revolution had also built a framework that allowed for future inclusion and redress of wrongs.
The Stamp Act ended up being a major catalyst toward the American colonies organizing an active resistance to British rule. The Continental Congress was the first political manifestation of the proto-nation.
The American Revolution began the process of creating a new nation in a number of different ways; by protesting British rule through legal and extra-legal actions; by waging a war to end America’s status as a colonized territory; and by designing new forms of government for what Patriots hoped would become independent states.
The process of making new rules was crucial to the Revolutionary struggle. Many scholars think it was the most distinctive and most important aspect of the Revolution. Making new rules and new organizations of government began very early in the resistance movement. In fact, the development of new political organizations preceded the war and played a central role in making the Revolution happen when and how it did. New groups calling themselves Sons of Liberty and the Stamp Act Congress met in 1765; Committees of Correspondence to share information about the resistance movement were formed in 1772, and the Continental Congress first met in 1774.
The struggle and solidarity of the Continental Army is illustrated in this H. Charles McBarron, Jr. painting, The Battle of Guilford Court House, March 15, 1781.
The First Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia was a bold, new, all-colony assembly that drew leaders from all of the 13 colonies except Georgia. As its name suggests, its purpose was to act on a continental scale. Perhaps its most important early action was to call for an economic attack against Britain through a unified boycott of British goods. To enforce this colony-wide program the Congress called for the formation of local political bodies in every town that were called Committees of Safety and Inspection. The British government was outraged by these new American rules and declared the Continental Congress an illegal organization. The period of negotiation between Britain and America seemed to have come to an end.
As the Continental Congress had not specified what flag their naval vessels shoud fly, captains were left to their own devices. A rattlesnake with 13 rattles was a popular choice.
When the Continental Congress met for the second time in 1775, the situation had gotten much worse because fighting had erupted the previous month in Concord and Lexington. Although the war had begun and the Congress had organized the Continental Army, the colonies had not declared their independence and many leaders in Congress still hoped to reconcile with Britain. The crucial turn toward creating new rules for new governments separate from the British Empire would not come for another year, but would happen before the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
On May 10, 1776, the Continental Congress directed the colonies to suppress royal authority and to create institutions based on popular rule. As a result, the crucial Revolutionary act of creating new governments received its earliest attention at the state level where the former colonies began to make new rules for themselves.
James Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence and was the Advocate General for France in America from 1779 to 1783.
The states now faced serious and complicated questions about how to make their rules. What did it mean to replace royal authority with institutions based on popular rule? How was “popular sovereignty” (the idea that the people were the highest authority) to be institutionalized in the new state governments? For that matter, who were “the people”?
Every state chose to answer these questions in different ways based on distinctive local experiences, but in most cases colonial traditions were continued, but modified, so that the governor (the executive) lost significant power, while the assemblies (the legislative branch, which represented the people most directly) became much more important. We’ll focus on the new rules created in three states to suggest the range of answers to the question about how to organize republican governments based upon popular rule.
John Adams remarked that the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 was “so democratical that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” He would be elected to the Presidency in 1796.
Pennsylvania created the most radical state constitution of the period. Following the idea of popular rule to its logical conclusion, Pennsylvania created a state government with several distinctive features. First, the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 abolished property requirements for voting as well as for holding office. If you were an adult man who paid taxes, then you were allowed to vote or even to run for office. This was a dramatic expansion of who was considered a political person, but other aspects of the new state government were even more radical. Pennsylvania also became a “unicameral” government where the legislature only had one body. Furthermore, the office of the governor was entirely eliminated. Radicals in Pennsylvania observed that the governor was really just like a small-scale king and that an upper legislative body (like the House of Lords in Parliament) was supposed to represent wealthy men and aristocrats. Rather than continue those forms of government, the Pennsylvania constitution decided that “the people” could rule most effectively through a single body with complete legislative power.
Many conservative Patriots met Pennsylvania’s new design with horror. When John Adams described the Pennsylvania constitution, he only had bad things to say. To him it was “so democratical that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” Clearly, popular rule did not mean sweeping democratic changes to all Patriots.
South Carolina’s state constitution of 1778 created new rules at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Pennsylvania. In South Carolina, white men had to possess a significant amount of property to vote, and they had to own even more property to be allowed to run for political office. In fact, these property requirements were so high that 90 percent of all white adults were prevented from running for political office!
John Rutledge served as both South Carolina’s president and governor. The state’s original constitution, drafted in 1776, called for the election of a state president. But changes made to the document in 1778 saw the state’s chief executive become known as “governor.”
This dramatic limitation of who could be an elected political leader reflected a central tradition of 18th-century Anglo-American political thought. Only individuals who were financially independent were believed to have the self-control to make responsible and reasonable judgments about public matters. As a result poor white men, all women, children, and African Americans (whether free or slave) were considered too dependent on others to exercise reliable political judgment. While most of these traditional exclusions from political participation have been ended in America today, age limitations remain, largely unchallenged.
The creation of the Massachusetts state constitution of 1780 offered yet another way to answer some of the questions about the role of “the people” in creating a republican government. When the state legislature presented the voters with a proposed constitution in 1778, it was rejected because the people thought that this was too important an issue for the government to present to the people. If the government could make its own rules, then it could change them whenever it wanted and easily take away peoples’ liberties. Following through on this logic, Massachusetts held a special convention in 1780 where specially elected representatives met to decide on the best framework for the new state government.
This idea of a special convention of the people to decide important constitutional issues was part of a new way of thinking about popular rule that would play a central role in the ratification of the national Constitution in 1787-1788.
Articles of Confederation
The paper money issued by the Continental Congress was known as “Continentals.” Not backed by silver or gold, the currency did not retain its value, and the saying “not worth a Continental” took root.
While the state constitutions were being created, the Continental Congress continued to meet as a general political body. Despite being the central government, it was a loose confederation and most significant power was held by the individual states. By 1777 members of Congress realized that they should have some clearly written rules for how they were organized. As a result the Articles of Confederation were drafted and passed by the Congress in November.
This first national “constitution” for the United States was not particularly innovative, and mostly put into written form how the Congress had operated since 1775.
Even though the Articles were rather modest in their proposals, they would not be ratified by all the states until 1781. Even this was accomplished largely because the dangers of war demanded greater cooperation.
The purpose of the central government was clearly stated in the Articles. The Congress had control over diplomacy, printing money, resolving controversies between different states, and, most importantly, coordinating the war effort. The most important action of the Continental Congress was probably the creation and maintenance of the Continental Army. Even in this area, however, the central government’s power was quite limited. While Congress could call on states to contribute specific resources and numbers of men for the army, it was not allowed to force states to obey the central government’s request for aid.
Revolutions need strong leaders and willing citizens to succeed, but they also need money. By curbing inflation and stabilizing the early economy, Robert Morris helped ensure the success of the American Revolution.
The organization of Congress itself demonstrates the primacy of state power. Each state had one vote. Nine out of thirteen states had to support a law for it to be enacted. Furthermore, any changes to the Articles themselves would require unanimous agreement. In the one-state, one-vote rule, state sovereignty was given a primary place even within the national government. Furthermore, the whole national government consisted entirely of the unicameral (one body) Congress with no executive and no judicial organizations.
The national Congress’ limited power was especially clear when it came to money issues. Not surprisingly, given that the Revolution’s causes had centered on opposition to unfair taxes, the central government had no power to raise its own revenues through taxation. All it could do was request that the states give it the money necessary to run the government and wage the war. By 1780, with the outcome of the war still very much undecided, the central government had run out of money and was bankrupt! As a result the paper money it issued was basically worthless.
Robert Morris, who became the Congress’ superintendent of finance in 1781, forged a solution to this dire dilemma. Morris expanded existing government power and secured special privileges for the Bank of North America in an attempt to stabilize the value of the paper money issued by the Congress. His actions went beyond the limited powers granted to the national government by the Articles of Confederation, but he succeeded in limiting runaway inflation and resurrecting the fiscal stability of the national government.
Evaluating the Congress
The town of Marietta, Ohio, was one of the first settlements in the Northwest Territory.
The central failure of the Congress was related to its limited fiscal power. Because it could not impose taxes on the states, the national government’s authority and effectiveness was severely limited. Given this major encumbrance, the accomplishments of the Congress were quite impressive. First of all, it raised the Continental Army, kept it in the field, and managed to finance the war effort.
Diplomatic efforts helped the war effort too. Military and financial support from France secured by Congress helped the Americans immeasurably. The diplomatic success of the treaty of alliance with France in 1778 was unquestionably a major turning point in the war. Similarly, the success of Congress’ diplomatic envoys to the peace treaty ending the war also secured major — and largely unexpected — concessions from the British in 1783. The treaty won Americans’ fishing rights in rich Atlantic waters that the British navy could have controlled. Most importantly, Britain granted all its western lands south of the Great Lakes to the new United States.
After the colonies and France signed treaties of alliance and commerce in 1786, King Louis XVI helped fund the revolutionary war effort.
While granted the western lands from the British, actual ownership of this land and how to best settle it was enormously controversial. Although states had ceded their own claim to western land to the national government as part of their ratification of the Articles of Confederation, this threatened to reemerge as a postwar problem. Many Americans had ignored legal restrictions on western settlement and simply struck out for new land that they claimed as their own by right of occupation. How could a national Congress with limited financial resources and no coercive power deal with this complex problem?
The Congressional solution was a remarkable act of statesmanship that tackled several problems and did so in a fair manner. The Congress succeeded in asserting its ownership of the western lands and used the profits from their sale to pay the enormous expenses associated with settlement (construction of roads, military protection, etc.). Second, the Congress established a process for future states in this new area to join the Confederation on terms fully equal to the original thirteen members. The new states would be sovereign and not suffer secondary colonial status.
When artist Benjamin West began this work of the delegates to the Treaty of Paris, he started by painting the members of the American delegation (shown). West planned to complete it by including the British delegates, but the British men refused to pose and the painting was never finished.
The actual process by which Congress took control of the area of western lands north of the Ohio River indicated some of its most impressive actions. Three laws regarding the settlement of this Northwest Territory established an admission policy to the United States based on population, organized the settlement of the territory on an orderly rectangular grid pattern that helped make legal title more secure, and prohibited the expansion of slavery to this large region which would eventually include the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
The resolution of a potentially crisis-filled western land policy was perhaps the most outstanding accomplishment of the first national government. A political process for adding new states as equals was created. A partial solution to the national revenue crisis was found. Together these policies fashioned a mechanism for the United States to be a dynamic and expanding society. Most remarkably of all, Congressional western policy put into practice some of the highest Revolutionary ideals that often went unheeded. By forbidding slavery in the Northwest as an inappropriate institution for the future of the United States, the Congress’ achievements should be considered quite honorable. At the same time, however, there were people whose rights were infringed upon by this same western policy. The control of land settlement by the central government favored wealthy large-scale land developers over small-scale family farmers of ordinary means. Furthermore, Native Americans’ claim to a western region still largely unsettled by whites was largely ignored.
Like the contradictory elements of the Revolution, the record of first national government includes achievements and failures, and these two qualities often could be found intertwined within the very same issue.
The Economic Crisis of the 1780s
The slave trade followed a triangular route between Europe, Africa and the Americas. European goods such as cloth and guns were traded for slaves in Africa, who were then taken to the Americas to work on plantations. The plantations produced products such as sugar and tobacco, which, in turn, were shipped back to Europe for sale.
The economic problems faced by the Congress deeply touched the lives of most Americans in the 1780s. The war had disrupted much of the American economy. On the high seas the British navy had great superiority and destroyed most American ships, crippling the flow of trade. On land, where both armies regularly stole from local farms in order to find food, farmers suffered tremendously.
When the fighting came to an end in 1781, the economy was in a shambles. Exports to Britain were restricted. Further, British law prohibited trade with Britain’s remaining sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Thus, two major sources of colonial-era commerce were eliminated. A flood of cheap British manufactured imports that sold cheaper than comparable American-made goods made the post-war economic slump worse. Finally, the high level of debt taken on by the states to fund the war effort added to the economic crisis by helping to fuel rapid inflation.
There were 32 cannons on the lower gundeck of Her Majesty’s Ship Victory, each attended by a 6-man crew. The War of American Independence (as the British call it) was the ship’s first wartime assignment.
This economic crisis was a grave threat to individuals, as well as to the stability and future of the young republic. Independence had been declared and the war had made that a reality, but now the new republican governments, at both the state and national level, had to make difficult decisions about how to respond to serious economic problems. Most state legislatures passed laws to help ordinary farmers deal with their high level of debt. Repayment terms were extended and imprisonment for debt was somewhat relaxed.
However, the range of favorable debtor laws passed by the state legislatures in the 1780s outraged those who expected to be paid by debtors, as well as political conservatives. Political controversy about what represented the proper economic policy mounted and approached the boiling point. As James Madison of Virginia noted, the political struggles were primarily between “the class with, and [the] class without, property.” Just as the republican governments had come into being and rethought the meaning of popular government, economic crisis threatened their future.
Since 1787, people from around the world have come to tour Independence Hall, where the Constitution of the United States was signed.
The 1780s has often been termed the “critical period” for the new nation. The dangers posed by economic crisis and the disillusionment that came with the collapse of Revolutionary expectations for dramatically improved conditions combined to make the decade a period of discontent, reconsideration, and, in the end, a dramatic new proposal for redirecting the nation. Just as the Revolution had been born of diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives, even among the Patriots, so too, ideas about the future of the United States in the 1780s were often cast in dramatic opposition to one another.
The new plan for the nation was called the Federal Constitution. It had been drafted by a group of national leaders in Philadelphia in 1787, who then presented it to the general public for consideration. The Constitution amounted to a whole new set of rules for organizing national government and indicates the intensity of political thought in the era as well as how much had changed since 1776. The proposed national framework called for a strong central government that would have authority over the states. At the same time, the proposed Constitution also centrally involved the people in deciding whether or not to accept the new plan through a process called ratification.
The modern day Northampton courthouse, built in 1884 on the same site as the courthouse where Shays’ Rebellion occurred.
The crisis of the 1780s was most intense in the rural and relatively newly settled areas of central and western Massachusetts. Many farmers in this area suffered from high debt as they tried to start new farms. Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn’t respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money). As a result local sheriffs seized many farms and some farmers who couldn’t pay their debts were put in prison.
These conditions led to the first major armed rebellion in the post-Revolutionary United States. Once again, Americans resisted high taxes and unresponsive government that was far away. But this time it was Massachusetts’s settlers who were angry with a republican government in Boston, rather than with the British government across the Atlantic.
The farmers in western Massachusetts organized their resistance in ways similar to the American Revolutionary struggle. They called special meetings of the people to protest conditions and agree on a coordinated protest. This led the rebels to close courts by force in the fall of 1786 and to liberate imprisoned debtors from jail. Soon events flared into a full-scale revolt when the resistors came under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army. This was the most extreme example of what could happen in the tough times brought on by the economic crisis. Some thought of the Shaysites (named after their military leader) as heroes in the direct tradition of the American Revolution, while many others saw them as dangerous rebels whose actions might topple the young experiment in republican government.
Patriots or traitors? Farmers from western Massachusetts followed petitions for economic relief with insurgency in the fall of 1786. A group of protestors, led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, began a 6 month rebellion by taking over the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton; the goal was to prevent the trial and imprisonment of debt-ridden citizens.
James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts, was clearly in the latter group. He organized a military force funded by eastern merchants, to confront the rebels. This armed force crushed the movement in the winter of 1786-1787 as the Shaysites quickly fell apart when faced with a strong army organized by the state. While the rebellion disintegrated quickly, the underlying social forces that propelled such dramatic action remained. The debtors’ discontent was widespread and similar actions occurred on a smaller scale in Maine (then still part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania among others places.
While Governor Bowdoin had acted decisively in crushing the rebellion, the voters turned against him in the next election. This high level of discontent, popular resistance, and the election of pro-debtor governments in many states threatened the political notions of many political and social elites. Shays’ Rebellion demonstrated the high degree of internal conflict lurking beneath the surface of post-Revolutionary life. National leaders felt compelled to act to put an end to such popular actions that took place beyond the bounds of law.
A Cast of National Superstars
Benjamin Franklin was the premier scientist, author, businessman and all-around scholar of his time.
At the same time that Shays’ Rebellion attempted to force the government to take a new course of action in response to hard times, another group of Americans gathered to consider a very different vision for the future of the republic. The group was especially concerned about economic policy and the way that competing state policies often worked at cross-purposes. Responding to such concerns, the Virginia legislature called for a convention to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786 to discuss commercial matters. Only twelve delegates came from five states, but they agreed to meet again the next year in Philadelphia.
When Shays’ Rebellion erupted in the interim, this group had even stronger reasons to meet to discuss plans for responding to the range of problems in the “critical period” of the 1780s. Following on the possibility of widespread popular unrest as evidenced by Shays’ Rebellion, the Congress, in January 1787, directed the meeting to consider revisions to the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia brought together all the great leaders of the United States (unless they came from Rhode Island).
The Philadelphia Convention drew fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to send anyone to a meeting about strengthening the power of the central government). Most of the delegates had gained national-level experience during the Revolution by serving as leaders in the military, the Congress, or as diplomats. The impressive group included many prominent Revolutionary leaders like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Robert Morris. Some of the older leaders of the Revolution, however, were not present. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were abroad serving as diplomats to France and England, respectively.
Meanwhile, key local leaders like Sam Adams of Boston had lost his bid to be a delegate, while the Virginian patriot Patrick Henry was elected, but refused to go because he opposed the purpose of the Convention. In their place were a number of younger leaders, who had been less prominent in the Revolution itself. Most notable among them were the Virginian James Madison and the West Indian-born New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton.
Charles Willson Peale drew these sketches of the Maryland State House, site of the Annapolis Convention of 1786.
These national “superstars” did not, however, include people from western parts of the country, nor did it include any artisans or tenant farmers. Indeed, there was only a single person of modest wealth whom we could consider a yeoman farmer. These were superstars and that meant that they did not reflect anything close to the full range of American society. Partly because the delegates had already served as national representatives, they shared a general commitment to a strong central government. Many were strong nationalists who thought the Articles of Confederation gave too much power to the states and were especially concerned about state governments’ vulnerability to powerful local interests. Instead, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention aimed to create an energetic national government that could deal effectively with the major problems of the period from external matters of diplomacy and trade to internal issues of sound money and repayment of public debt.
The Tough Issues
In spite of the common vision and status that linked most of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, no obvious route existed for how to revise the Articles of Confederation to build a stronger central government.
The meeting began by deciding several important procedural issues that were not controversial and that significantly shaped how the Convention operated. First, George Washington was elected as the presiding officer. They also decided to continue the voting precedent followed by the Congress where each state got one vote.
James Madison is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”
They also agreed to hold their meeting in secret.
There would be no public access to the Convention’s discussions and the delegates agreed not to discuss matters with the press. The delegates felt that secrecy would allow them to explore issues with greater honesty than would be possible if everything that they said became public knowledge.
In fact, the public knew almost nothing about the actual proceedings of the Convention until James Madison’s notes about it were published after his death in the 1840s.
The delegates also made a final crucial and sweeping early decision about how to run the Convention. They agreed to go beyond the instructions of the Congress by not merely considering revisions to the Articles of Confederation, but to try and construct a whole new national framework.
The assembly room inside Independence Hall is where the Constitution was signed in 1787.
The stage was now set for James Madison, the best prepared and most influential of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention. His proposal, now known as the Virginia Plan, called for a strong central government with three distinctive elements.
First, it clearly placed national supremacy above state sovereignty.
Second, this strengthened central government would have a close relationship with the people, who could directly vote for some national leaders.
Third, Madison proposed that the central government be made up of three distinct branches: a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. The lower house of the legislature would be elected directly by the people and then the lower house would elect the upper house. Together they would choose the executive and judiciary.
By having the foundational body of the proposed national government elected by the people at large, rather than through their state legislatures, the national government would remain a republic with a direct link to ordinary people even as it expanded its power.
After deliberating for months, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved their new Constitution in September 1787.
Madison’s Virginia Plan was bold and creative. Further, it established a strong central government, which most delegates supported. Nevertheless, it was rejected at the Convention by opposition from delegates representing states with small populations.
These small states would have their national influence dramatically curbed in the proposed move from one-state one-vote (as under the Articles) to general voting for the lower legislative house where overall population would be decisive.
The Virginia Plan was unacceptable to all the small states, who countered with another proposal, dubbed the New Jersey Plan, that would continue more along the lines of how Congress already operated under the Articles. This plan called for a unicameral legislature with the one vote per state formula still in place.
Although the division between large and small states (really between high and low population states) might seem simplistic, it was the major hurdle that delegates to the Convention needed to overcome to design a stronger national government, which they all agreed was needed.
After long debates and a close final vote, the Virginia Plan was accepted as a basis for further discussion. This agreement to continue to debate also amounted to a major turning point. The delegates had decided that they should craft a new constitutional structure to replace the Articles.
This was so stunning a change and such a large expansion of their original instructions from the Congress that two New York delegates left in disgust.
Could the states ever form a more perfect union?
Constitution Through Compromise
Roger Sherman was the only man to sign all 4 of the important Revolutionary documents: The Association of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
“Representation” remained the core issue for the Philadelphia Convention. What was the best way for authority to be delegated from the people and the states to a strengthened central government?
After still more deeply divided argument, a proposal put forward by delegates from Connecticut (a small population state ), struck a compromise that narrowly got approved. They suggested that representatives in each house of the proposed bicameral legislature be selected through different means. The upper house (or Senate) would reflect the importance of state sovereignty by including two people from each state regardless of size. Meanwhile, the lower house (the House of Representatives) would have different numbers of representatives from each state determined by population. Representation would be adjusted every ten years through a federal census that counted every person in the country.
By coming up with a mixed solution that balanced state sovereignty and popular sovereignty tied to actual population, the Constitution was forged through what is known as the Connecticut Compromise. In many respects this compromise reflected a victory for small states, but compared with their dominance in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation it is clear that negotiation produced something that both small and large states wanted.
Other major issues still needed to be resolved, however, and, once again, compromise was required on all sides. One of the major issues concerned elections themselves. Who would be allowed to vote? The different state constitutions had created different rules about how much property was required for white men to vote. The delegates needed to figure out a solution that could satisfy people with many different ideas about who could have the franchise (that is, who could be a voter).
George Washington presided over the signing of the U.S. Constitution. Take note of the famous “Rising Sun” chair and Syng ink stand.
For the popular lower house, any white man who paid taxes could vote. Thus, even those without property, could vote for who would represent them in the House of Representatives. This expanded the franchise in some states. To balance this opening, the two Senators in the upper house of the national government would be elected by the state legislatures. Finally, the President (that is, the executive branch) would be elected at the state level through an electoral college whose numbers reflected representation in the legislature.
To modern eyes, the most stunning and disturbing constitutional compromise by the delegates was over the issue of slavery. Some delegates considered slavery an evil institution and George Mason of Virginia even suggested that the trans-Atlantic slave trade be made illegal by the new national rules. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia where slavery was expanding rapidly in the late-18th century angrily opposed this limitation. If any limitations to slavery were proposed in the national framework, then they would leave the convention and oppose its proposed new plan for a stronger central government. Their fierce opposition allowed no room for compromise and as a result the issue of slavery was treated as a narrowly political, rather than a moral, question.
The delegates agreed that a strengthened union of the states was more important than the Revolutionary ideal of equality. This was a pragmatic, as well as a tragic, constitutional compromise, since it may have been possible (as suggested by George Mason’s comments) for the slave state of Virginia to accept some limitations on slavery at this point.
The slave trade was always a controversial issue in the history of the United States.
The proposed constitution actually strengthened the power of slave states in several important respects. Through the “fugitive clause,” for example, governments of free states were required to help recapture runaway slaves who had escaped their masters’ states. Equally disturbing was the “three-fifths formula” established for determining representation in the lower house of the legislature. Slave states wanted to have additional political power based on the number of human beings that they held as slaves. Delegates from free states wouldn’t allow such a blatant manipulation of political principles, but the inhumane compromise that resulted meant counting enslaved persons as three-fifths of a free person for the sake of calculating the number of people a state could elect to the House of Representatives.
After hot summer months of difficult debate in Philadelphia from May to September 1787, the delegates had fashioned new rules for a stronger central government that extended national power well beyond the scope of the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution created a national legislature that could pass the supreme law of the land, could raise taxes, and with greater control over commerce. The proposed rules also would restrict state actions, especially in regard to passing pro-debtor laws. At the end of the long process of creating the new plan, thirty-eight of the remaining forty-one delegates showed their support by signing the proposed Constitution. This small group of national superstars had created a major new framework through hard work and compromise.
Now another challenge lay ahead. Could they convince the people in the states that this new plan was worth accepting?
The Flag Room — The United States is born.
A framework for a new and stronger national government had been crafted at the Philadelphia Convention by a handful of leaders. But how could their proposed system be made into law?
Could they convince the public that the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation needed to be strengthened? The Articles required that any changes in constitutional law be presented to the state legislatures, and that any successful alteration required unanimous approval. Since the new proposal increased the power of the national government at the expense of state sovereignty, it was a certainty that one, and probably several more, state legislatures would oppose the changes. Remember, that Rhode Island had refused to even send a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention because it opposed any stronger revisions in the Articles, much less the sweeping proposal that ended up being produced there.
Aware of the major challenge before them, the framers of the new plan crafted a startling new approach through a ratifying procedure that went directly to the people. By this method, the Constitution would become law if nine of the thirteen states approved it after holding special conventions to consider the issue. Building on a model adopted by Massachusetts in passing its state constitution of 1780, the framers suggested that constitutional law was of such sweeping significance that it would be inappropriate to have it approved though ordinary political channels.
The caption under this cartoon, which appeared in 1788 in the Massachusetts Centinel, stated “The Pillar of the Great Federal Edifice rises daily.” It depicts Massachusetts as an addition to the “Federal Superstructure,” indicating Massachusetts’ impending ratification of the Constitution.
Instead, special conventions should be held for the people to evaluate such important changes. Politicians in Congress were well aware of the weaknesses of the current central government and shared the framers’ sense that the state legislatures were very likely to oppose the new plan, so Congress approved the new terms of this unusual, and even illegal, ratification route. Surprisingly, so too did state legislatures that began arranging for the election of special delegates to the state ratification conventions.
A great debate about the future of the nation was about to begin.
Along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, James Madison penned The Federalist Papers.
The supporters of the proposed Constitution called themselves “Federalists.” Their adopted name implied a commitment to a loose, decentralized system of government. In many respects “federalism” — which implies a strong central government — was the opposite of the proposed plan that they supported. A more accurate name for the supporters of the Constitution would have been “nationalists.”
The “nationalist” label, however, would have been a political liability in the 1780s. Traditional political belief of the Revolutionary Era held that strong centralized authority would inevitably lead to an abuse of power. The Federalists were also aware that that the problems of the country in the 1780s stemmed from the weaknesses of the central government created by the Articles of Confederation.
For Federalists, the Constitution was required in order to safeguard the liberty and independence that the American Revolution had created. While the Federalists definitely had developed a new political philosophy, they saw their most import role as defending the social gains of the Revolution. As James Madison, one of the great Federalist leaders later explained, the Constitution was designed to be a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”
Leading Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, was commemorated with his portrait on the 3¢ stamp.
The Federalists had more than an innovative political plan and a well-chosen name to aid their cause. Many of the most talented leaders of the era who had the most experience in national-level work were Federalists. For example the only two national-level celebrities of the period, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, favored the Constitution. In addition to these impressive superstars, the Federalists were well organized, well funded, and made especially careful use of the printed word. Most newspapers supported the Federalists’ political plan and published articles and pamphlets to explain why the people should approve the Constitution.
In spite of this range of major advantages, the Federalists still had a hard fight in front of them. Their new solutions were a significant alteration of political beliefs in this period. Most significantly, the Federalists believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States did not lie in the abuse of central power, but instead could be found in what they saw as the excesses of democracy as evidenced in popular disturbances like Shays’ Rebellion and the pro-debtor policies of many states.
How could the Federalists convince the undecided portion of the American people that for the nation to thrive, democracy needed to be constrained in favor of a stronger central government?
Patrick Henry delivers his famous “If this be treason, make the most of it!” speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
The Antifederalists were a diverse coalition of people who opposed ratification of the Constitution. Although less well organized than the Federalists, they also had an impressive group of leaders who were especially prominent in state politics.
Ranging from political elites like James Winthrop in Massachusetts to Melancton Smith of New York and Patrick Henry and George Mason of Virginia, these Antifederalist were joined by a large number of ordinary Americans, particularly yeomen farmers who predominated in rural America. The one overriding social characteristic of the Antifederalists as a group was their strength in newer settled western regions of the country.
On August 31, 1787, George Mason declared he would “rather chop off my right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.”
In spite of the diversity that characterized the Antifederalist opposition, they did share a core view of American politics. They believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States lay in the government’s potential to become corrupt and seize more and more power until its tyrannical rule completely dominated the people. Having just succeeded in rejecting what they saw as the tyranny of British power, such threats were seen as a very real part of political life.
To Antifederalists the proposed Constitution threatened to lead the United States down an all-too-familiar road of political corruption. All three branches of the new central government threatened Antifederalists’ traditional belief in the importance of restraining government power.
The President’s vast new powers, especially a veto that could overturn decisions of the people’s representatives in the legislature, were especially disturbing. The court system of the national government appeared likely to encroach on local courts. Meanwhile, the proposed lower house of the legislature would have so few members that only elites were likely to be elected. Furthermore, they would represent people from such a large area that they couldn’t really know their own constituents. The fifty-five members of the proposed national House of Representatives was quite a bit smaller than most state legislatures in the period. Since the new legislature was to have increased fiscal authority, especially the right to raise taxes, the Antifederalists feared that before long Congress would pass oppressive taxes that they would enforce by creating a standing national army.
The preamble of the United States Constitution: Most of the world’s democracies have based their constitutions on this document.
This range of objections boiled down to a central opposition to the sweeping new powers of the proposed central government. George Mason, a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention who refused to support the Constitution, explained, the plan was “totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the state governments.” The rise of national power at the expense of state power was a common feature of Antifederalist opposition.
The most powerful objection raised by the Antifederalists, however, hinged on the lack of protection for individual liberties in the Constitution. Most of the state constitutions of the era had built on the Virginia model that included an explicit protection of individual rights that could not be intruded upon by the state. This was seen as a central safeguard of people’s rights and was considered a major Revolutionary improvement over the unwritten protections of the British constitution.
Why, then, had the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention not included a bill of rights in their proposed Constitution? Most Antifederalists thought that such protections were not granted because the Federalists represented a sinister movement to roll back the gains made for ordinary people during the Revolution.
The Antifederalists and Federalists agreed on one thing: the future of the nation was at stake in the contest over the Constitution.
The Ratification Process: State by State
The man behind the signature: This portrait of John Hancock was painted by John Singleton Copley.
The ratification process started when the Congress turned the Constitution over to the state legislatures for consideration through specially elected state conventions of the people. Five state conventions voted to approve the Constitution almost immediately (December 1787 to January 1788) and in all of them the vote was unanimous (Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia) or lopsided (Pennsylvania, Connecticut). Clearly, the well-organized Federalists began the contest in strong shape as they rapidly secured five of the nine states needed to make the Constitution law. The Constitution seemed to have easy, broad, and popular support.
However, a closer look at who ratified the Constitution in these early states and how it was done indicates that the contest was much closer than might appear at first glance. Four of the five states to first ratify were small states that stood to benefit from a strong national government that could restrain abuses by their larger neighbors.
This copy of the Constitution was used by delegates to the New York ratification convention.
The process in Pennsylvania, the one large early ratifier, was nothing less than corrupt. The Pennsylvania state assembly was about to have its term come to an end, and had begun to consider calling a special convention on the Constitution, even before Congress had forwarded it to the states. Antifederalists in the state assembly tried to block this move by refusing to attend the last two days of the session, since without them there would not be enough members present for the state legislature to make a binding legal decision. As a result extraordinarily coercive measures were taken to force Antifederalists to attend. Antifederalists were found at their boarding house and then dragged through the streets of Philadelphia and deposited in the Pennsylvania State House with the doors locked behind them. The presence of these Antifederalists against their will, created the required number of members to allow a special convention to be called in the state, which eventually voted 46 to 23 to accept the Constitution.
The first real test of the Constitution in an influential state with both sides prepared for the contest came in Massachusetts in January 1788. Here influential older Patriots like Governor John Hancock and Sam Adams led the Antifederalists. Further, the rural western part of the state, where Shays’ Rebellion had occurred the previous year, was an Antifederalist stronghold. A bitterly divided month-long debate ensued that ended with a close vote (187-168) in favor of the Constitution. Crucial to this narrow victory was the strong support of artisans who favored the new commercial powers of the proposed central government that might raise tariffs (taxes) on cheap British imports that threatened their livelihood. The Federalists’ narrow victory in Massachusetts rested on a cross-class alliance between elite nationalists and urban workingmen.
A revolutionary leader in Massachusetts, Samuel Adams founded Bowdoin College when he was governor of Massachusetts. At the time, Maine (where Bowdoin College is located) was part of Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts vote also included an innovation with broad significance. John Hancock who shifted his initial opposition to the Constitution led the move toward ratification. Satisfied that certain amendments protecting individual rights were going to be considered by the first new Congress that would meet should the Constitution become law. This compromise helped carry the narrow victory in Massachusetts and was adopted by every subsequent state convention to ratify (except Maryland).
By the spring conventions in the required nine states had ratified, and the Constitution could become law. But with powerful, populous, and highly divided Virginia and New York yet to vote, the legitimacy of the new national system had not yet been fully resolved.
After the Fact: Virginia, New York, and “The Federalist Papers”
The Federalist Papers were a series of essays by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison written for the Federalist newspaper.
The convention in Virginia began its debate before nine states had approved the Constitution, but the contest was so close and bitterly fought that it lasted past the point when the technical number needed to ratify had been reached. Nevertheless, Virginia’s decision was crucial to the nation. Who can imagine the early history of the United States if Virginia had not joined the union? What if leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison had not been allowed to hold national political office? In the end Virginia approved the Constitution, with recommended amendments, in an especially close vote (89-79). Only one major state remained, the Constitution was close to getting the broad support that it needed to be effective.
Perhaps no state was as deeply divided as New York, where the nationalist-urban artisan alliance could strongly carry New York City and the surrounding region, while more rural upstate areas were strongly Antifederalist. The opponents of the Constitution had a strong majority when the convention began and set a tough challenge for Alexander Hamilton, the leading New York Federalist. Hamilton managed a brilliant campaign that narrowly won the issue (30-27) by combining threat and accommodation. On the one hand, he warned that commercial down state areas might separate from upstate New York if it didn’t ratify. On the other hand, he accepted the conciliatory path suggested by Massachusetts; amendments would be acceptable after ratification.
America’s first native sculptor, John Frazee, was unhappy with the amount of foreign artists doing work for the new Capitol. He was more than happy to do this very classical looking bust of John Jay.
The debate in New York produced perhaps the most famous exploration of American political philosophy, now called The Federalist Papers. Originally, they were a series of 85 anonymous letters to newspapers, which were co-written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Together they tried to assure the public of the two key points of the Federalist agenda. First, they explained that a strong government was needed for a variety of reasons, but especially if the United States was to be able to act effectively in foreign affairs. Second, it tried to convince readers that because of the “separation” of powers in the central government, there was little chance of the national government evolving into a tyrannical power. Instead of growing ever stronger, the separate branches would provide a “check and balance” against each other so that none could rise to complete dominance.
The influence of these newspaper letters in the New York debate is not entirely known, but their status as a classic of American political thought is beyond doubt. Although Hamilton wrote the majority of the letters, James Madison authored the ones that are most celebrated today, especially Federalist, Number 10.
John Jay contributed to the Federalist Papers and was in charge of foreign affairs for the fledgling nation.
Here Madison argued that a larger republic would not lead to greater abuse of power (as had traditionally been thought), but actually could work to make a large national republic a defense against tyranny. Madison explained that the large scope of the national republic would prevent local interests from rising to dominance and therefore the larger scale itself limited the potential for abuse of power. By including a diversity of interests (he identified agriculture, manufacturing, merchants, and creditors, as the key ones), the different groups in a larger republic would cancel each other out and prevent a corrupt interest from controlling all the others.
Madison was one of the first political theorists to offer a profoundly modern vision of self-interest as an aspect of human nature that could be employed to make government better, rather than more corrupt. In this he represents a key figure in the transition from a traditional republican vision of America, to a modern liberal one where self-interest has a necessary role to play in public life.
The Antifederalists’ Victory in Defeat
1987 marked the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
With the narrow approval of the Constitution in Virginia and New York, in June and July 1788, respectively, the Federalists seemed to have won an all-out victory. The relatively small states of North Carolina and Rhode Island would hold out longer, but with 11 states ratifying and all the populous ones among them, the Federalists had successfully waged a remarkable political campaign of enormous significance and sweeping change.
The ratification process included ugly political manipulation as well as brilliant developments in political thought. For the first time, the people of a nation freely considered and approved their form of government. It was also the first time that people in the United States acted on a truly national issue. Although still deciding the issue state-by-state, everyone was aware that ratification was part of a larger process where the whole nation decided upon the same issue. In this way, the ratification process itself helped to create a national political community built upon and infusing loyalty to distinct states. The development of an American national identity was spurred on and closely linked to the Constitution.
This maps shows how the U.S. in 1789 was divided into 4 federal court districts. Take note that Rhode Island and North Carolina had not ratified the Constitution and weren’t part of the districting.
The Federalists’ efforts and goals were built upon expanding this national commitment and awareness. But the Antifederalists even in defeat contributed enormously to the type of national government created through ratification. Their key objection challenged the purpose of a central government that didn’t include specific provisions protecting individual rights and liberties. Since the new national government was even more powerful and even more distant from the people, why didn’t it offer the kinds of individual protections in law that most state constitutions had come to include by 1776?
To the Antifederalists, the separation of powers was far too mild a curb against the threat of government tyranny. As a result states beginning with Massachusetts ratified the Constitution, but called for further protections to be taken up by the new Congress as soon as it met. This loomed on the unresolved political agenda of the national Congress and the adoption of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) is a legacy of the victory-in-defeat of Antifederalists. Their continued participation in the political process even when they seemed to have lost on the more general issue had immense importance.
The Constitution was created out of a tough-minded political process that demanded hard work, disagreement, compromise, and conflict. Out of that struggle the modern American nation took shape and would continue to be modified.