Lexington, Concord, and the Organization of Colonial Resistance
Lexington, Concord, and the Organization of Colonial Resistance
By mid-1774 animosity (bitterness and hostility) between Great Britain and the American colonies had reached the boiling point. Poised on the brink of war with America, the British were wondering if the Americans would really fight. Most did not think so. England's Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792) declared: "These are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men." The colonies, it was thought, could never come together and fight as one. The British felt that the people of Virginia and the Carolinas would not fight Massachusetts's battles; they were "too wise to be caught in such a mouse-trap." One British soldier wrote to his father: "The rebels are the most absolute cowards on the face of the earth."
On the other hand, some British statesmen argued that the Americans were more than willing to fight for freedom—for those same liberties enjoyed by King George III's subjects back in England. British statesman and orator Edmund Burke (1729–1797) urged the repeal of the Intolerable Acts and the withdrawal of British troops from America. He told members of Britain's Parliament they were dealing with a people "who will die in defence of their rights." Lord Dartmouth (1731–1801; for whom Dartmouth College is named) tried to convince his colleagues that armies were not the best way to reason with Americans. Even Britain's prime minister, Lord North (1732–1792)— trusted adviser of King George and designer of the Intolerable Acts—looked hard for a peaceful way out of the crisis. Their plans and pleas were all rejected by a majority in Parliament.
Members of Parliament seemed not at all concerned with ideas about liberty but only with punishment. From America, British general and colonial governor Thomas Gage (1721–1787) warned Parliament: These people "are not the despicable Rabble too many have supposed them to be… Theyare now Spirited Up by a Rage and Enthousiasm, as great as ever People were Possessed of."
The formation of the First Continental Congress
Patriot leaders (advocates of colonial authority) decided that the time was right for a formal meeting of representatives from all the colonies. Such a group could coordinate resistance to the British. As Virginia's lawmaking body, the House of Burgesses, stated: "We are … clearly of opinion, that an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes [to force the colonies to pay unreasonable taxes], is an attack made on all British America, and threatens ruin to the rights of all, unless the united wisdom of the whole be applied."
An assembly known as the First Continental Congress met at Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall in September of 1774 to discuss the colonies' next move. Fifty-six delegates—all of them men—from twelve colonies were chosen to attend (Georgia did not participate). They were men of strong beliefs and uncommon courage who knew well that their actions might be considered illegal by King George. For the most part, the delegates to the First Continental Congress were not wild revolutionaries, thirsting for confrontation. Many were lawyers, with a profound respect for the rule of law and the proper conduct of people in a civilized society. Some were wealthy merchants or planters; others, like Samuel Adams (1722–1803), were poor men.
Massachusetts was suffering the most from British oppression and needed the support of the other colonies in its ongoing struggle with the Mother Country. Well–known citizens James Bowdoin (1726–1790), Thomas Cushing, Robert Treat Paine (1731–1814), and John and Samuel Adams were chosen to represent the ailing colony. Thirty-eight-year-old John Adams (1735–1826) was the youngest of the delegates, and in his famous diary and in letters to his wife, Abigail, and others, he describes his journey to Philadelphia from Boston and his attendance at the Congress. His writings are considered the liveliest and most enjoyable version of what went on both in and out of Congress. Adams called the Congress "a nursery of American statesmen."
The group representing Virginia was quite distinguished and included Patrick Henry (1736–1799), Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), Peyton Randolph (c. 1721–1775; who was elected president of the First Continental Congress), and George Washington (1732–1799). Patrick Henry had his first opportunity to show off his speaking skills before a large group of the best-educated and most influential men in the colonies. Colonists who favored a break with England were stirred by Henry's words, but those who were afraid to sever ties found it chilling when he boldly stated: "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."
Pennsylvania sent Loyalist Joseph Galloway (c.1731–1803) to the First Continental Congress. (He opposed the idea of colonial independence and ended up moving to England when the revolution began. Pennsylvania charged him with treason [betraying his country] in 1788.) John Dickinson (1732–1808), whose writings earned him the title "penman of the Revolution," also represented Pennsylvania. (See Chapter 3: Literature and the Arts in the Revolutionary Era,
and Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769]).
From Connecticut came Roger Sherman (1721–1793), described by John Adams as "honest as an angel and as firm in the cause of American independence as Mount Atlas." New York sent John Jay (1745–1829), a wealthy judge from an old and distinguished family. He would represent the new nation as a diplomat to Spain and France. Delaware sent patriot Caesar Rodney (1728–1784), described by Adams as "the oddest-looking man in the world … his face is not bigger than a large apple, yet there is sense and fire, spirit, wit and humor in his countenance." For this important gathering, the first of its kind, were gathered "fortunes, abilities, learning, eloquence [persuasive speakers], acuteness [sharp minds], equal to any I ever met with in my life," concluded Adams.
Getting down to business
It made sense that so many different kinds of people with different points of view would have varying opinions. Some delegates from the Southern colonies feared that those from Massachusetts wanted to take over the country. Other delegates thought that only the wealthy and well educated should have a say in decision-making for the colonies. Many delegates who were in business feared that defying England would ruin the established system of trade; instead of breaking ties with England, they wanted to find a way to restore good relations with the Mother Country.
Revolutionaries like Samuel Adams realized it was too soon to talk of independence, and they acted out of character by staying quiet for most of the First Continental Congress. John Adams recorded what went on at congressional meetings. Although he noted at one point that "it seemed as if we should never agree upon any thing," members were soon able to get down to business. In a surprisingly short time, several important documents were produced and approved.
Documents of the First Continental Congress
On October 14, 1774, Congress approved a Declaration and Resolves, which included a declaration of the rights of the colonies. This document, a model for the 1776 Declaration of Independence, stated in clear and dignified language that Parliament had no right to pass laws for the colonies. It listed every unlikable act passed by Parliament since 1763 and declared that "repeal of them is essentially necessary in order to restore harmony between Great Britain and the American colonies."
On October 20, 1774, Congress approved the Continental Association. The Association was important because it marked the first time that all the colonies agreed to join in a common goal—to penalize (punish or retaliate against) Great Britain in ways that would hurt her financially. The document stated the colonists' complaints and described plans for a boycott of British imports and exports that would remain in effect until their complaints were addressed. (A boycott is a refusal to conduct business with a certain source—in this case, Great Britain.) The colonies were one of Britain's major trading partners. One delegate predicted that the boycott measures adopted by the Association "must produce a national Bankruptcy [Great Britain would be ruined financially] in a very short Space of Time."
That same day, Congress prepared an appeal to King George III, outlining its complaints and rights and asking for his understanding. Americans still believed that King George was a fair man who was interested in the welfare of his subjects. The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774, after agreeing to meet on May 10, 1775, if the king did not respond to the complaints in a satisfactory way.
King receives documents; Franklin pleas for peace
Even though King George probably read all the documents the Congress sent him, neither he nor Parliament gave
any answer to the colonies. As far as George was concerned, the Continental Congress was an illegal body deserving no response. He did send a memo to his prime minister, Lord North, in which he said: "The New England governments are in a State of Rebellion. Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent."
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was in London while all of this was going on. A friend urged him to "contrive some means of preventing a terrible calamity and bring about a rec onciliation." For three months, Franklin met both secretly and openly with America's friends in London, trying to avoid a war for independence.
In February 1775, as Franklin worked behind the scenes, he received word that Deborah, his wife of forty-four years, had died. Grief-stricken, Franklin left London for Philadelphia. By then he was disgusted with the "extreme corruption prevalent among all orders of men in this old rotten state" of England. He
was finally convinced that Great Britain was trying to keep itself alive by consuming the strength of the colonies.
Battles at Lexington and Concord: Two views
Since the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774, Boston had been awhirl in anger, protests, and rioting. Still, many patriots hoped war could be avoided. They were well aware that England was a formidable enemy (a major fighting force), while the widely scattered colonies had scant military experience. But, just in case the worst happened, the patriots decided to collect some weapons and store them in Concord, a small town about twenty miles northwest of Boston. Companies of minutemen were formed (men who could be ready to fight on a minute's notice), and committees of observation were appointed to watch and report on the activities of British troops.
In April 1775, British General Thomas Gage (1721–1787), then governor of Massachusetts, heard about the weapons buildup in Concord. He had been ordered by King George to take some definitive action and show Bostonians who was boss. Gage decided to send troops to Lexington and Concord to seize the weapons stashed there and to capture John Hancock (1737–1793) and Samuel Adams, two colonial freedom-fighters who were in hiding from British authorities. Massachusetts patriot-spies found out about Gage's plans almost instantly. On the night of April 18, Paul Revere (1735–1818) and William Dawes (1745–1799) rode from Boston to Lexington and Concord, respectively, to prepare Americans for the arrival of British forces. From their legendary rides came the famous line: "The redcoats are coming."
As British soldiers made their way across the Massachusetts countryside, church bells rang, warning drums beat, and guns were fired to alert citizens of their approach. At dawn on April 19, between 40 and 75 patriot soldiers gathered at
Lexington to greet part of the British force of 700 men. Realizing they were outnumbered, the Americans were about to disband when the first shots were fired—shots that were "heard 'round the world." Eight Americans were killed and one British soldier was wounded. Each side claimed the other fired first. Though undeclared, the American Revolution had begun.
The British called for reinforcements. Before they arrived, 700 British soldiers marched on Concord, where they met resistance from a force of about 450 Americans. Again, guns fired, with each side denying responsibility for the first shot. The British began a retreat to Boston but met with even more resistance all along the way. When the smoke cleared, 49 Americans lay dead, and more than 40 were wounded or missing. On the British side, 73 were killed, 174 were wounded, and 28 were missing.
Immediately, propaganda artists set to work offering wildly differing versions of the events of April 19, 1775. (Propaganda is biased or distorted information spread by persons
who wish to present only their point of view and thus further their own cause.) The Massachusetts Spy of May 3, 1775, presented this version of events:
AMERICANS! forever bear in mind the BATTLE OF LEXINGTON! where British Troops, unmolested and unprovoked, wantonly [maliciously] and in a most cruel manner fired upon and killed a number of our countrymen, then robbed them of their provisions, ransacked, plundered and burnt their houses! nor could the tears of defenceless women, some of whom were in the pains of childbirth, the cries of helpless babies, nor the prayers of old age, confined to beds of sickness, appease their thirst for blood!—or divert them from their DESIGN OF MURDER and ROBBERY!
In England, it was reported that Americans had scalped British soldiers, both dead and dying. A British soldier's account of the Americans' treatment of his comrades appears in John C. Miller's Origins of the American Revolution. According to the soldier, the Americans were "full as bad as the Indians for scalping and cutting the dead Men's Ears and Noses off, and those they get alive, that are wounded and can't get off the Ground." The British army claimed to have burned only those houses from which patriot soldiers were firing and accused the Americans at Lexington of firing first. What's more, they complained, the Americans did not fight fairly, but "ran to the Woods like Devils," running from tree to tree, taking shots at the British, then falling to their bellies to reload, instead of remaining standing to present a fair target.
General Gage's report to the British secretary of war made the incident seem unimportant: "I have now nothing to trouble your lordship with, but of an affair that happened here on the 19th." When members of the British government heard the gory details that came later, they were stunned. Great Britain had never had to use force to control its American sub jects. Clearly, the conditions were ripe for a war, and what was more, America had proved that her fighting men were not afraid to stand up to trained British soldiers.
The Second Continental Congress
When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, he was greeted with the news that British troops had marched on Lexington and Concord. A few days later, in retaliation, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys would seize Fort Ticonderoga, New York, a key fortification held by the British (see box titled "Ethan Allen Avenges Deaths at Lex ington and Concord"). The news of the taking of Fort Ticon deroga would not be considered good by the Continental Con gress. Members wondered how England would react to this act of aggression. Congress passed a resolution stating that the material seized at the fort should be held in storage until it could be returned—when harmony was restored between the colonies and Great Britain.
On May 6, Franklin was chosen to represent Pennsylva nia at the Second Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was appointed Virginia's representative. Jefferson would speak little at that meeting, but he would soon prove that his reputation of a "masterly Pen" (according to John Adams) was well deserved.
Since King George would not listen to their grievances, delegates forming the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. This time they met in the more spacious State House. John Hancock of Massachusetts, then a fugitive from British justice for his resistance to British oppression, was elected president of the Congress. Within five weeks, Congress would face the agonizing reality that war with Great Britain was inevitable (could not be avoided).
The Battle of Bunker Hill
The seaport city of Boston lies at the mouth of the Charles and Mystic rivers. The Charles River separates Boston from the Charlestown peninsula, site of Breed's and Bunker hills. (A peninsula is a piece of land that juts out into the water.) South of Boston is another peninsula called Dorchester Heights.
In the early summer of 1775, the British controlled Boston. The two peninsulas around Boston were not yet claimed by either the British or the Americans, although American soldiers were lined up all around them. If the colonists could mount heavy guns atop the hills overlooking Boston on the Charlestown and Dorchester peninsulas, the British hold on Boston would be threatened. Britain's General Gage decided to take possession of the hills, but the Americans learned of his plan and devised one of their own.
As the British lay sleeping on the night of June 16, 1775, about 1,000 American militiamen under the command of Colonel William Prescott (1726–1795) joined General Israel Putnam (1718–1790) to dig trenches at the top of Breed's Hill; then, they sat down inside them. Spotting them the next morning, the men of the British warship Lively opened fire. The Americans, unaccustomed to the noise of battle, began to panic and run away. Colonel Prescott encouraged the men to stand firm. When, later that day, British General Howe and about 2,000 heavily armed men rowed across the Charles River to attack, General Putnam is said to have ordered the Americans to hold their fire until they saw "the whites of their eyes."
It was not the British fighting style to charge uphill, but they did it anyway. Clad in their red coats and carrying packs of equipment weighing nearly a hundred pounds each, they approached the American militiamen (who now numbered about 3,000) in disciplined waves—and became easy targets for the Americans at the top of Breed's Hill. The redcoats were repelled by colonial forces the first two times they tried to take the hill. On their third attempt, however, the British confronted the American rebels, who, by this time, were out of ammunition. After trying unsuccessfully to defend themselves with rocks, bayonets, and the butts of their muskets, American forces fled from Breed's Hill to nearby Bunker Hill. (Breed's Hill, then, was the true location of the battle, even though the ordeal is referred to as the Battle of Bunker Hill.)
When the smoke cleared, the British were in possession of both Breed's and Bunker hills. They could take little satisfaction in their "victory," however. About 1,150 highly trained soldiers were wounded or dead; the American force suffered 140 deaths and hundreds more injuries. The Americans— poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly organized—had put up a tremendous fight, retreating only when they finally ran out of ammunition. General Gage reported to his superiors in London: "The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear." The British, who remembered the disorganized battles of Lexington and Concord and thought they were in for an easy time, were stunned to realize they were in for a hard fight. The siege (persistent attack) of Boston would last a full year.
Preparing for all-out war
At the end of June, word of the Battle of Bunker Hill finally reached Philadelphia. The Continental Congress found itself in a peculiar position. Many Americans were in a fighting mood, but war still had not been formally declared. A major question was, what kind of war—or peace—preparations should be made, if any? John Adams reported to a friend that the delegates in Philadelphia wanted to be prepared for any eventuality, so they planned "to hold the Sword in one Hand and the olive Branch [a symbol of peace] in the other." With these goals in mind, the Second Continental Congress—still hoping for reconciliation—petitioned for peace but simultaneously made preparations for war.
A majority of members of Congress supported John Dickinson, who wanted to continue the colonial appeal to King George. So yet another petition (the Olive Branch Petition) was prepared and sent to the king. John Adams called the whole procedure "silly." Although the petition was mild in tone, it was described in England as more "threats hissed out by Congress."
Like Adams, other members of Congress were convinced that reconciliation with Great Britain was no longer possible. Adams grew impatient, writing, "I was determined to take a Step, which should compell [congressmen] … to declare themselves for or against something. I am determined … to make a direct Motion that Congress shall adopt [an army] and appoint Colonel [George] Washington Commander of it." Adams's motion was made and passed.
Why General Washington?
George Washington was a logical choice for the post of commander in chief of the American army. He had performed brilliantly as a citizen-soldier on the British side in the French and Indian War (1754–1763; see Chapter 1: The People of the New World). Some historians speculate that if the British had promoted Washington at the end of that war, as he wished, he might have remained loyal to the Mother Country throughout the American Revolution. But he was not promoted, and when the British began placing heavy taxes on American colonists, Washington objected strongly.
Washington was a wealthy Virginia planter, and Virginia was the largest and wealthiest American colony—the one to which the other colonies looked for leadership. Washington was a commanding figure ("six foot two inches in his stockings and weighing 175 pounds"), and he was ready for another wartime adventure. The only member of the Second Continental Congress to attend sessions wearing a military uniform, Washington promised John Adams that if he were chosen to lead an army in battle: "[I'd] raise one thousand men, [feed and clothe] them at my own expense, and march myself at their head." John Adams noted: "There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington. A gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and his friends, sacrificing his ease and hazarding all in the cause of his country!"
The nomination of Washington as commander in chief of a new Continental army was heartily approved by Congress on June 15, 1775. George Washington then made his way to Boston, and on July 3 he assumed command of the 17,000 soldiers in the American army.
"Our cause is just. Our union is perfect"
As Congress adopted measures to put the colonies in a state of readiness for war, it seemed a good idea to explain its actions to the world—to let the world know the justice of its cause. So on July 6, 1775 Congress adopted the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. It stated: "Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable." Congress declared that Americans were of "one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live [as] slaves."
Before adjourning on August 2, 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed commissioners to discuss the upcoming war with Native Americans and established a national postal system with Benjamin Franklin as its head.
On August 23, 1775, King George issued a Proclamation of Rebellion. In it, the king's men in the colonies were ordered to "exert their utmost endeavours to suppress such rebellion, and to bring the traitors to justice." On the same day Congress received this news, it received two other shocking pieces of information: 1) King George was planning to hire German soldiers to fight for him in a war against America, and2) the British navy had, without cause, burned down the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.
For More Information
French, Allen. The First Year of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Harper, 1950.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. Edited by John R. Alden. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
Adams, John. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words. Edited by James Bishop Peabody. New York: Newsweek, 1973.
Alden, John R. The American Revolution: 1775–1783. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.
Draper, Theodore. A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1996.
Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.
Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959.
"American Revolution Timeline: Conflict and Revolution, 1775–1776." The History Place. [Online] Available http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/revolution/revwar-75.htm (accessed on January 20,2000).
"American Revolution Timeline: Prelude to Revolution, 1763–1775." The History Place. [Online] Available http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/revolution/rev-prel.htm (accessed on December 17,1999).
"Continental Congresses" and "The Battles of Lexington and Concord." DISCovering U. S. History. [Online] Available (password required) http://www.galenet.com (accessed on January 25, 2000).
Ethan Allen Avenges Deaths at Lexington and Concord
Ethan Allen (1738–1789) was a very colorful character, a man used to speaking his mind in a forceful if sometimes inelegant way. According to Albert Marrin in The War for Independence, "He was said to be strong as an ox and brave as a lion. Settlers spent wintry nights telling about how he bit off the heads of nails and strangled bears with his bare hands."
In 1775 Allen was the commander of the Green Mountain Boys, a gang of young fighting men who were trying to prevent the New York colony from taking over their land in the "Green Mountain" area that later became Vermont. Allen and his "boys" sympathized with the struggle of the Massachusetts colonists against British policies.
By the spring of 1775, a Continental (colonial) army had not yet been formed and war had not been declared. Congress had authorized only defensive fighting, and Lexington and Concord fit that description. After the battles at Lexington and Concord, many Americans were ready for war—and they knew they were going to need weapons to fight that war. The Connecticut Committee of Safety approached Ethan Allen about taking Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain in New York. The fort, which was held by the British, had a good supply of cannons and other assorted weapons. Allen was glad to be of help, for news of the battles at Lexington and Concord had "electrified [his] mind" and made him "fully determined … to take part" in the American struggle.
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety asked noted military leader Benedict Arnold for his assistance. On May 9, 1775, Allen, Arnold, and about 83 men crossed Lake Champlain under cover of darkness. At dawn, they surprised the fort's sleeping inhabitants, forty-five British officers and men who, according to Allen, were "old, wore out, and unserviceable." They took the fort without a single shot being fired. Allen told the fort's commander they did it "in the name of the great Jehovah [je-HOH-vah; God] and the Continental Congress."
Fighting Near Boston Shocks Americans
No formal declaration marked the opening of the Revolutionary War, but the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17,1775) was an unmistakable sign that allout war was just around the corner. The bloody incident was a tremendous shock to Americans. Soldiers and civilians alike were affected by the slaughter and its aftermath, as is made clear in the following excerpts. In the first, Colonel William Prescott describes the death of a soldier:
The … man … was killed by a cannon ball which struck his head. He was so near me that my clothes were besmeared with his blood and brains, which I wiped off, in some degree, with a handful of fresh earth. The sight was so shocking to many of the men that they left their posts and ran to view him. I ordered them back, but in vain. I then ordered him to be buried instantly.
The rest of the quotations are taken from the writings of Abigail Adams, wife of Congressman John Adams. In her letters she describes the battle scene at Bunker Hill, complains that Congress is not doing enough to relieve the sufferings of the citizens of Boston, and comments on the condition of prisoners of war. John Adams was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress when the battle took place. Abigail was left in charge of the family farm in Braintree, just south of Boston. From the top of Penn's Hill in Braintree, she could see the fighting going on at Bunker Hill. "The constant roar of the Cannon is so [distre]ssing that we cannot Eat, Drink, or Sleep," she wrote. She and her neighbors feared that the British army would soon be upon them unless Congress acted. "Does every Member [of Congress] feel for us?" she asked. "Can they realize what we suffer? And can they believe with what patience and fortitude we endure the conflict…?"
Bostonians were forbidden to leave their homes. Food was scarce, and British soldiers made life for the colonists virtually unbearable. In a letter to her husband, Adams describes the conditions endured by Americans taken prisoner at Bunker Hill:
Their living [conditions for Americans] cannot be good, as they can have no fresh provisions; their [the British] beef, we hear, is all gone, and their own wounded men die very fast, so that they have a report that the bullets were poisoned…. I wouldnot have you be distressed about me. Danger, they say, makes people valiant. Hitherto [up until now] I have been distressed, but not dismayed. I have felt for my country and her sons, and have bled with them and for them.
Sources: Richard Wheeler, Voices of 1776, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972, p. 41. Lynne Withey, Dearest Friend, New York: The Free Press, 1981, pp. 60–68. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995, pp. 150–51.