General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman
with an American-born wife, commanded the garrison at Boston, where
political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. Gage's main duty
in the colonies had been to enforce the Coercive Acts. When news reached
him that the Massachusetts colonists were collecting powder and military
stores at the town of Concord, 32 kilometers away, Gage sent a strong
detail from the garrison to confiscate these munitions.
After a night of marching, the British troops reached
the village of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and saw a grim band of
70 Minutemen -- so named because they were said to be ready to fight
in a minute -- through the early morning mist. The Minutemen intended
only a silent protest, but Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the
British troops, yelled, "Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!"
The leader of the Minutemen, Captain John Parker, told his troops
not to fire unless fired at first. The Americans were withdrawing
when someone fired a shot, which led the British troops to fire at
the Minutemen. The British then charged with bayonets, leaving eight
dead and 10 wounded. It was, in the often quoted phrase of Ralph Waldo
Emerson, "the shot heard 'round the world."
Then the British pushed on to Concord. The Americans
had taken away most of the munitions, but the British destroyed whatever
was left. In the meantime, American forces in the countryside mobilized,
moved toward Concord and inflicted casualties on the
British, who began the long return to Boston. All along the road,
however, behind stone walls, hillocks and houses, militiamen from
"every Middlesex village and farm" made targets of the bright red
coats of the British soldiers. By the time the weary soldiers stumbled
into Boston, they suffered more than 250 killed and wounded. The Americans
lost 93 men.
While the alarms of Lexington and Concord were still
resounding, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,
on May 10, 1775. By May 15, the Congress voted to go to war, inducting
the colonial militias into continental service and appointing Colonel
George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief of the American
forces. In the meantime, the Americans would suffer high casualties
at Bunker Hill just outside Boston. Congress also ordered American
expeditions to march northward into Canada by fall. Although the Americans
later captured Montreal, they failed in a winter assault on Quebec,
and eventually retreated to New York.
Despite the outbreak of armed conflict, the idea of
complete separation from England was still repugnant to some members
of the Continental Congress. In July, John Dickinson had drafted a
resolution, known as the Olive Branch Petition, begging the king to
prevent further hostile actions until some sort of agreement could
be worked out. The petition fell on deaf ears, however, and King George
III issued a proclamation on August 23, 1775, declaring the colonies
to be in a state of rebellion.
Britain had expected the Southern colonies to remain
loyal, in part because of their reliance on slavery. Many in the Southern
colonies feared that a rebellion against the mother country would
also trigger a slave uprising against the planters. In November 1775,
in fact, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, offered freedom to
all slaves who would fight for the British. However, Dunmore's proclamation
had the effect of driving to the rebel side many Virginians who would
otherwise have remained Loyalist.
The governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin, also
urged North Carolinians to remain loyal to the Crown. When 1,500 men
answered Martin's call, they were defeated by revolutionary armies
before British troops could arrive to help.
British warships continued down the coast to Charleston,
South Carolina, and opened fire on the city in early June 1776. But
South Carolinians had time to prepare, and repulsed the British by
the end of the month. They would not return South for more than two
COMMON SENSE AND INDEPENDENCE
In January 1776, Thomas Paine, a political theorist
and writer who had come to America from England in 1774, published
a 50-page pamphlet, Common Sense. Within three months, 100,000
copies of the pamphlet were sold. Paine attacked the idea of hereditary
monarchy, declaring that one honest man was worth more to society
than "all the crowned ruffians that ever lived." He presented the
alternatives -- continued submission to a tyrannical king and an outworn
government, or liberty and happiness as a self-sufficient, independent
republic. Circulated throughout the colonies, Common Sense
helped to crystallize the desire for separation.
There still remained the task, however, of gaining
each colony's approval of a formal declaration. On May 10, 1776 --
one year to the day since the Second Continental Congress had first
met -- a resolution was adopted calling for separation. Now only a
formal declaration was needed. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia
introduced a resolution declaring "That these United Colonies are,
and of right ought to be, free and independent states...." Immediately,
a committee of five, headed by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was appointed
to prepare a formal declaration.
Largely Jefferson's work, the Declaration of Independence,
adopted July 4, 1776, not only announced the birth of a new nation,
but also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become
a dynamic force throughout the entire world. The Declaration draws
upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, but one
influence in particular stands out: John Locke's Second Treatise
on Government. Locke took conceptions of the traditional rights
of Englishmen and universalized them into the natural rights of all
humankind. The Declaration's familiar opening passage echoes Locke's
social-contract theory of government:
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 a 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.
In the Declaration, Jefferson linked Locke's principles
directly to the situation in the colonies. To fight for American independence
was to fight for a government based on popular consent in place of
a government by a king who had "combined with others to subject us
to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged
by our laws...." Only a government based on popular consent could
secure natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Thus, to fight for American independence was to fight on behalf of
one's own natural rights.
DEFEATS AND VICTORIES
Although the Americans suffered severe setbacks for
months after independence was declared, their tenacity and perseverance
eventually paid off. During August 1776, in the Battle of Long Island
in New York, Washington's position became untenable, and he executed
a masterly retreat in small boats from Brooklyn to the Manhattan shore.
British General William Howe twice hesitated and allowed the Americans
to escape. By November, however, Howe had captured Fort Washington
on Manhattan Island. New York City would remain under British control
until the end of the war.
By December, Washington's forces were nearing collapse,
as supplies and promised aid failed to materialize. But Howe again
missed his chance to crush the Americans by deciding to wait until
spring to resume fighting. In the meantime, Washington crossed the
Delaware River, north of Trenton, New Jersey. In the early morning
hours of December 26, his troops surprised the garrison at Trenton,
taking more than 900 prisoners. A week later, on January 3, 1777,
Washington attacked the British at Princeton, regaining most of the
territory formally occupied by the British. The victories at Trenton
and Princeton revived flagging American spirits.
In 1777 Howe defeated the American army at Brandywine
in Pennsylvania and occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental
Congress to flee. Washington had to endure the bitterly cold winter
of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, lacking adequate food,
clothing and supplies. The American troops suffered less because of
shortages of these items than because farmers and merchants preferred
exchanging their goods for British gold and silver rather than for
paper money issued by the Continental Congress and the states.
Valley Forge was the lowest ebb for Washington's Continental
Army, but 1777 proved to be the turning point in the war. In late
1776, British General John Burgoyne devised a plan to invade New York
and New England via Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Unfortunately,
he had too much heavy equipment to negotiate the wooded and marshy
terrain. At Oriskany, New York, a band of Loyalists and Indians under
Burgoyne's command ran into a mobile and seasoned American force.
At Bennington, Vermont, more of Burgoyne's forces, seeking much-needed
supplies, encountered American troops. The ensuing battle delayed
Burgoyne's army long enough to enable Washington to send reinforcements
from the lower Hudson River near Albany, New York. By the time Burgoyne
resumed his advance, the Americans were waiting for him. Led by Benedict
Arnold -- who would later betray the Americans at West Point, New
York -- the Americans twice repulsed the British. Burgoyne fell back
to Saratoga, New York, where American forces under General Horatio
Gates surrounded the British troops. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne
surrendered his entire army. The British lost six generals, 300 other
officers and 5,500 enlisted personnel.
In France, enthusiasm for the American cause was high:
the French intellectual world was itself in revolt against feudalism
and privilege. However, the Crown lent its support to the colonies
for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons: the French government
had been eager for reprisal against Britain ever since France's defeat
in 1763. To further the American cause, Benjamin Franklin was sent
to Paris in 1776. His wit, guile and intellect soon made their presence
felt in the French capital, and played a major role in winning French
France began providing aid to the colonies in May
1776, when it sent 14 ships with war supplies to America. In fact,
most of the gun powder used by the American armies came from France.
After Britain's defeat at Saratoga, France saw an opportunity to seriously
weaken its ancient enemy and restore the balance of power that had
been upset by the Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War). On
February 6, 1778, America and France signed a Treaty of Amity and
Commerce, in which France recognized America and offered trade concessions.
They also signed a Treaty of Alliance, which stipulated that if France
entered the war, neither country would lay down its arms until America
won its independence, that neither would conclude peace with Britain
without the consent of the other, and that each guaranteed the other's
possessions in America. This was the only bilateral defense treaty
signed by the United States or its predecessors until 1949.
The Franco-American alliance soon broadened the conflict.
In June 1778 British ships fired on French vessels, and the two countries
went to war. In 1779 Spain, hoping to reacquire territories taken
by Britain in the Seven Years' War, entered the conflict on the side
of France, but not as an ally of the Americans. In 1780 Britain declared
war on the Dutch, who had continued to trade with the Americans. The
combination of these European powers, with France in the lead, was
a far greater threat to Britain than the American colonies standing
THE BRITISH MOVE SOUTH
With the French now involved, the British stepped
up their efforts in the southern colonies since they felt that most
Southerners were Loyalists. A campaign began in late 1778, with the
capture of Savannah, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, British troops drove
toward Charleston, South Carolina, the principal Southern port. The
British also brought naval and amphibious forces into play there,
and they managed to bottle up American forces on the Charleston peninsula.
On May 12 General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered the city and its 5,000
troops, the greatest American defeat of the war.
But the reversal in fortune only emboldened the American
rebels. Soon, South Carolinians began roaming the countryside, attacking
British supply lines. By July, American General Horatio Gates, who
had assembled a replacement force of untrained militiamen, rushed
to Camden, South Carolina, to confront British forces led by General
Charles Cornwallis. But the untrained soldiers of Gates's army panicked
and ran when confronted by the British regulars. Cornwallis's troops
met the Americans several more times, but the most significant battle
took place at Cowpens, South Carolina, in early 1781, where the Americans
soundly defeated the British. After an exhausting, but unproductive
chase through North Carolina, Cornwallis set his sights on Virginia.
VICTORY AND INDEPENDENCE
In July 1780 France's Louis XVI had sent to America
an expeditionary force of 6,000 men under the Comte Jean de Rochambeau.
In addition, the French fleet harassed British shipping and prevented
reinforcement and resupply of British forces in Virginia by a British
fleet sailing from New York City. French and American armies and navies,
totaling 18,000 men, parried with Cornwallis all through the summer
and into the fall. Finally, on October 19, 1781, after being trapped
at Yorktown near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, Cornwallis surrendered
his army of 8,000 British soldiers.
Although Cornwallis's defeat did not immediately end
the war -- which would drag on inconclusively for almost two more
years -- a new British government decided to pursue peace negotiations
in Paris in early 1782, with the American side represented by Benjamin
Franklin, John Adams and John Jay. On April 15, 1783, Congress approved
the final treaty, and Great Britain and its former colonies signed
it on September 3. Known as the Treaty of Paris, the peace settlement
acknowledged the independence, freedom and sovereignty of the 13 former
colonies, now states, to which Great Britain granted the territory
west to the Mississippi River, north to Canada and south to Florida,
which was returned to Spain. The fledgling colonies that Richard Henry
Lee had spoken of more than seven years before, had finally become
"free and independent states." The task of knitting together a nation
SIDEBAR: LOYALISTS DURING
THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Americans today think of the War for Independence
as a revolution, but in important respects it was also a civil war.
American Loyalists, or "Tories" as their opponents called them, opposed
the Revolution, and many took up arms against the rebels. Estimates
of the number of Loyalists range as high as 500,000, or 20 percent
of the white population of the colonies.
What motivated the Loyalists? Most educated Americans,
whether Loyalist or Revolutionary, accepted John Locke's theory of
natural rights and limited government. Thus, the Loyalists, like the
rebels, criticized such British actions as the Stamp Act and the Coercive
Acts. Loyalists wanted to pursue peaceful forms of protest because
they believed that violence would give rise to mob rule or tyranny.
They also believed that independence would mean the loss of economic
benefits derived from membership in the British mercantile system.
Loyalists came from all walks of life. The majority
were small farmers, artisans and shopkeepers. Not surprisingly, most
British officials remained loyal to the Crown. Wealthy merchants tended
to remain loyal, as did Anglican ministers, especially in Puritan
New England. Loyalists also included some blacks (to whom the British
promised freedom), Indians, indentured servants and some German immigrants,
who supported the Crown mainly because George III was of German origin.
The number of Loyalists in each colony varied. Recent
estimates suggest that half the population of New York was Loyalist;
it had an aristocratic culture and was occupied throughout the Revolution
by the British. In the Carolinas, back-country farmers were Loyalist,
whereas the Tidewater planters tended to support the Revolution.
During the Revolution, most Loyalists suffered little
from their views. However, a minority, about 19,000 Loyalists, armed
and supplied by the British, fought in the conflict.
The Paris Peace Treaty required Congress to restore
property confiscated from Loyalists. The heirs of William Penn in
Pennsylvania, for example, and those of George Calvert in Maryland
received generous settlements. In the Carolinas, where enmity between
rebels and Loyalists was especially strong, few of the latter regained
their property. In New York and the Carolinas, the confiscations from
Loyalists resulted in something of a social revolution as large estates
were parceled out to yeoman farmers.
About 100,000 Loyalists left the country, including
William Franklin, the son of Benjamin, and John Singleton Copley,
the greatest American painter of the period. Most settled in Canada.
Some eventually returned, although several state governments excluded
the Loyalists from holding public office. In the decades after the
Revolution, Americans preferred to forget about the Loyalists. Apart
from Copley, the Loyalists became nonpersons in American history.