American Revolution (1775–1783)
American Revolution (1775–1783)
The English Empire was a costly endeavor that drained Great Britain’s Treasury. Financing exploits in the Americas and across the globe required creative sources of revenue. British politicians had suggested passing part of the tax burden on to colonists, but like the distinguished Sir Robert Walpole (1676–1745) had said with a smile in preparing to depart his position as overseer of the Treasury, “I will leave that for some of my successors, who may have more courage than I have.”
George Grenville (1712–1770), England’s new chancellor of the exchequer, a humorless statesman with a knack for financial figures, had no problem in requiring Americans to pay taxes. He and Parliament had made the point that much of the 140 million-pound debt the English government faced was borne by the colonies. Grenville prepared a bill for Parliament that placed a tax on sugar products meant to earn revenue for customs.
Part of the justification for the new law was that defending Americans cost the government about 320,000 pounds per year. In the preamble of the Revenue Act, or the “Sugar Act” as it was called in the colonies, Grenville had frankly stated the act’s purpose: “That revenue be raised in Your majesty’s Dominions in America for defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same.” In reality, the law taxed more than sugar and it was meant to stop the smuggling of molasses and sugar that had been taxed on paper, but from which revenue was seldom collected. Grenville did not intend to harm the rum industry. In fact, he had lowered the duty on molasses imported from the French or Dutch West Indies from six cents to three cents per gallon. Knowing that most colonial merchants were paying a penny and a half per gallon in bribes, Grenville figured that they could pay three cents in an honest tax. With the actual reduction, he became determined to accurately collect this lower charge. To put teeth in the new act, an elaborate system was designed, involving papers to be filled out by shippers. Cargo was tightly inspected and violators were tried in admiralty courts without juries, as colonial juries had proven friendly to American smugglers. The new act also taxed other merchandise, however, including coffee, raw silk, and skins.
To Grenville and British lawmakers, the new policy seemed fair and an adjustment to what was meant to have been going on for years. To merchants, it seemed a high-handed and arbitrary act that assumed every colonist engaged in commerce as a thief unprotected by the right to a jury. Additionally, the admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the venue for any relevant trials, was a great distance to travel for potential violators. And merchants who were falsely accused by inspectors or other government officials had no recourse. Because so many distillers and merchants had refused to pay the original tax, the now-enforced act came as somewhat of a shock. There was an outcry against the tax, and began the onset of the colonial argument against taxation without representation. But the Sugar Act was largely overshadowed by the Stamp Act and the crisis that followed it a year later.
The Stamp Act crisis set the stage for the inevitable conflict between American colonists and the British government ten years before the first shots were fired in the American Revolutionary War. The act itself was passed by Parliament to raise revenue for the British Empire. Colonists became outraged and expressed their dissatisfaction in the streets and in the halls of government, challenging the law on both practical and principled grounds. Other parliamentary acts had upset colonists before the Stamp Act. The Navigation Acts, the Proclamation of 1763, and the Sugar Act had all been unpopular. But the Stamp Act dispute encouraged colonists to develop an argument against taxation without representation and let the Americans prove their ability to organize and oppose the mother country.
The Sugar Act had not put much of a dent in the financial burden the empire faced, so Grenville engineered the Stamp Act in March 1765. The law mandated that all legal documents—deeds, wills, mortgages, college diplomas—had to be printed on government-stamped paper to be legally binding. Even newspapers and playing cards were subject to this tax. Almost anything formally written or printed would have to appear on special paper shipped from a central stamp office in London and distributed in America by local agents after payments of specified taxes.
Word of the new law arrived in the colonies not through the official channels of government, but far in advance of the actual law taking effect. American newspapers carried the lengthy details of the new act as early as May 1765. Colonists became outraged because they foresaw paying increased fees at every stage of a lawsuit, for advertisements, for bills of sale, and for any other custom papers. Members of Parliament viewed America’s loss as England’s gain. Colonial leaders, as they did with the Sugar Act before it, opposed the Stamp Act but with greater effort and organization from several levels of society.
One of the first official responses to the unpopular tax came from Virginian Patrick Henry (1736–1799), who introduced a series of resolutions into the Virginia House of Burgesses that bluntly denied Parliament’s right to levy the tax. These Virginia Resolves, as they were called, were printed in newspapers and encouraged other colonial legislatures to pass similar resolutions. The opposition became widespread and obvious. British Commander General Thomas Gage (1719–1787), who later was charged with quelling the Revolution, declared that this opposition was a “signal for a general outcry over the continent.”
Outraged colonists in Boston expressed themselves a little more violently in August 1765. An angry mob stoned and pillaged the house of Andrew Oliver (1706–1774), the stamp tax collector who had yet to even officially receive this new post. Members of the mob visited him the following day to suggest that further damage would be inevitable unless he resigned the office that Grenville had yet to even assign him. Oliver was also hung in effigy from a stately elm tree in a very visible spot in Boston. He could not officially resign, but assured the mob that he would not enforce the Stamp Act.
The Boston approach proved successful and more violence followed, especially against the royal Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780). On the night of August 26, 1765, the Boston mob stormed Hutchinson’s house, smashing his front door into splinters, chopping down the fruit trees in his garden, and destroying a manuscript of the history of the colony that Hutchinson had worked on for years. They ruined his library, and stole his furniture and nine hundred pounds sterling. At dawn, the rioters were still at it, trying to tear the roof off of his house.
Hutchinson survived the wreckage and publicly declared he had done everything in his power to oppose the Stamp Act. Governor Francis Bernard (1712–1779) had escaped the attack and contacted General Gage, declaring that he had no force to oppose the mob.
The Boston riots served as inspiration to encourage violent protests in other American cities from Newport to Charleston. Colonists in villages across the eastern seaboard organized themselves into groups called the Sons of Liberty. These associations declared their intentions of refusing to abide by the Parliament’s unethical tax. Meanwhile, in response to a call from Massachusetts, nine of the colonies sent twenty-seven delegates to New York for what would be termed the Stamp Act Congress. This gathering reiterated some of the points already made about Parliament’s lack of authority to tax these unrepresented colonists.
By November 1, the date that the tax was meant to begin, no single stamp tax collector was prepared to face the kind of damage done against officials in Boston. Americans also announced that not a single ship would set sail for England, nor would one be welcomed in the colonies, until this Stamp Act was repealed. One Virginia merchant planned to send several cargoes of wheat to London, but four hundred members of the Sons of Liberty persuaded him to not do so. The colonists were prepared to use economic boycotting to make their position known.
Once the violence subsided, ideological arguments against the Stamp Act could be refined, and the debate continued. Colonial leaders and statesmen clearly argued that such a tax was illegal, for the British who voted for the tax did not represent the colonists. Grenville and his British supporters argued, quite simply, that though the Americans did not vote for members of Parliament, these members were representing the colonists’ best interests much like they represented scores of Englishmen who also lacked a vote under property requirements at the time. This “virtual representation” argument was not well received by the colonists, nor did they really want token representation in Parliament. Such representation would be impractical as Americans would easily be outvoted by the English majorities.
Although most did not favor permanent representation in the British legislature, they did send Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) as a representative to testify on the colonists’ behalf. The mob violence, organization of the Sons of Liberty, and the reality of an American boycott caught the attention of lawmakers in England who welcomed Franklin’s presentation. The Pennsylvanian rehearsed to refute all arguments thrown his way before his arrival in London. On February 13, 1766, Franklin appeared in the House of Commons to field nearly two hundred questions from Parliamentarians, most of them unfriendly. When asked what would happen if the act was not repealed, Franklin responded, “A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and all of the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.” When another asked what was the pride of the colonists, Franklin responded, “To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain.” And what is their pride now, another retorted, to which Franklin replied, “To wear their old clothes again, till they can make new ones.” A week later, the House of Commons voted to repeal the Stamp Act. This dilemma had ended, but the debate about Parliament’s general right to tax the colonists without representation would continue through a series of additional taxes and the American’s principled refusal to accept them.
The Boston Massacre resulted from an encounter in early March 1770 between an angry mob of Bostonians and British soldiers who had been assigned to tame the disgruntled city. The killings were followed by a unique trial that pitted one colonial leader, John Adams (1735–1826), against his cousin, Samuel Adams (1722–1803), in a quest for justice. The massacre and its aftermath served as another event that pushed the colonists toward revolution. The trial offered some principled irony as a leading revolutionary insisted on defending the very unpopular British soldiers.
With organized opposition to unpopular taxes, confrontation and violence between British soldiers and Americans had occurred in the other colonies before the Boston Massacre. An eleven-year-old boy had been killed in one skirmish. From March 2 through March 4, hostilities between working men and the English guards had taken place in Boston. By the evening of March 5, 1770, a series of events led to a showdown between the soldiers and colonists that left five colonists dead and more wounded.
Many soldiers stationed in Boston had been removed, but two regiments still remained. One, the Twenty-Ninth, was considered an especially tough lot. After some verbal exchanges between laborers and soldiers around the harbor, March 5 proved a deadly day. Private Hugh White was guarding the Boston customhouse when some young apprentice wigmakers began to taunt him. One young lad, Edward Garrick, was particularly insulting. He accused one of White’s officers of being a shifty fellow who refused to pay Garrick’s master for a wig. White defended his superior and declared him a gentleman, to which Garrick replied there were no gentlemen in the regiment. Having heard enough, the private struck the apprentice harshly across the side of the head with the butt of his rifle. Garrick let out a harsh cry and fled the scene. White and another soldier, whose bayonet was exposed, chased him through the streets and discovered the victim seeking safety in a shop. White struck the cowering boy again.
Word of this abuse spread rapidly. Back at his post at the customhouse, White was surrounded by a half-dozen boys shouting more insults at him. Someone began to ring the bells of a church as if a fire or some other emergency required the attention of the townspeople. The gathering of angry boys turned into a huge mob of outraged Bostonians. Nearly a foot of snow lay on the ground, which had partially melted and refrozen, creating large chunks of ice. Snowballs and ice chunks began to fly toward White, occasionally hitting him in the head. The sentry stood his ground, but soon had to call for help to protect himself from the unruly protestors. Six men responded, led by a corporal. Captain Thomas Preston also arrived on the scene.
The angry crowd had grown to nearly four hundred men, many members of the Sons of Liberty. The daring horde, some drunk, surged dangerously close to the fixed bayonets and dared the soldiers to fire at them. The protestors predicted that a British soldier could not, and would not, fire onto rioters without a magistrate reading the Riot Act, a procedure required by British law to disperse crowds and restore the king’s peace. No magistrate would enforce the Riot Act with the Boston crowds, which had proven strong. Any soldier firing into a crowd without a magistrate’s prior warning would face charges of murder.
As Captain Preston approached, the men began to load their muskets. Preston tried to prevent the inevitable encounter, but with the pressure increasing, ice and insults flying, Preston could do little to stop it. Alcohol and darkness complicated matters further. Amid the confusion, Preston could hardly be heard. A club was hurled into the crowd of soldiers, knocking one off his feet. He recovered and fired his weapon. His shot hit no one and brought some distance between soldiers and colonists. Another soldier shot into the crowd and hit a victim in the head. Additional shots were fired, hitting Crispus Attucks in the chest. Attucks, a large, strong man of African descent, had been leading the crowd all evening. When the smoke cleared, Attucks and four others had been killed. Six more colonists were wounded.
For a few hours, Boston had the potential for becoming a complete bloodbath. The Sons of Liberty, who outnumbered the British soldiers by five-to-one, could have quickly armed themselves against both remaining regiments. Only a speech by Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, promising to try these men for murder, quieted anxieties. Hutchinson could not find a lawyer in Boston willing to defend the soldiers. Preston maintained that he never gave the order to fire while his men claimed he did.
The massacre was over, but justice hung in the balance. One of Preston’s friends begged attorney John Adams to defend the captain. Adams, caught between defending the lives of American victims and feeling that even these soldiers should have a defense, decided to take the case. Two colleagues had promised to assist Adams if he agreed. “Counsel,” Adams said, “ought to be the last thing that an accused man should lack in a free country.” Adams, who would later rebel against the British government in the Revolution and serve as the United States’ second president, was taking an extremely unpopular position. To complicate matters more, his cousin Samuel Adams, a founder of the Sons of Liberty and a popular leader in Boston, aggressively prosecuted the case.
John Adams faced an uphill legal battle, but stubbornly persevered. He assured that Preston and the men would be tried separately and chose jurors from the country, rather than from the irate Boston citizenry. He also found a delicate way to prove that the Sons of Liberty, and his cousin, had partially instigated the matter. He saved the necks of Preston and his soldiers.
Although a public rift occurred between the cousins, the two grew closer privately. Samuel Adams had written scathing articles regarding the trial and its outcome under an alias in the Boston Gazette, but began to realize how his Sons of Liberty needed to be tempered. The mob mentality that brought on the Boston Massacre served as a lesson for how colonists should properly oppose the British government. Crispus Attucks and the others died as martyrs. Few Bostonians forgot the incident from which justice was defined as was a more logical approach to the eventual revolution.
Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party, an organized colonial protest against the British government over a tax placed on imported tea, was no party at all. Rather, outraged Boston residents boarded British merchant ships and dumped thousands of pounds of tea into the harbor in the middle of a December night in 1773. This action was a slap in the face to the mother country, which responded with greater restrictions on the Boston townspeople. Like so many other taxes that had been placed on commodities arriving to the American colonies, leaders and townspeople thought this one unfair because the colonists had no vote in the passage of the law.
The earlier Townshend Acts had placed a tax on tea and other items, but most of these taxes were repealed. In 1771, Boston imported 265,000 pounds of tea alone, and the other colonies enjoyed the brew immensely. Americans, however, began to cut down on their consumption and boycotted the product. The British government’s concern for one of its companies engaging in the tea trade brought on additional laws that would preserve the company and bring in additional revenue for the Crown. Prime Minister Lord North and King George III had gained support for the Tea Act, a 1773 law that further taxed commodities headed for America and protected a large English company.
The English East India Tea Company, a mammoth corporation that represented England’s interests in India, was in financial trouble, partly because of colonial boycotts and partly due to company mismanagement. Roughly nine thousand tons of the product sat in London warehouses ready for the American market. Parliament had invested too much into the company to let it collapse. So the House of Commons passed the Tea Act in May 1773, which allowed the company to appoint its own agents in America to distribute tea directly to retailers. Colonists in Boston did not approve the law and became even more disturbed when the company assigned Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s sons as the local authorized distributors. In addition to violating the “no taxation without representation” argument, the law also favored a monopoly.
As the first shipments of tea arrived on three ships in Boston Harbor in late 1773, townspeople urged the ship captains to turn around and not bring the tea into the American markets. In other ports, many took this advice. But in Boston, Governor Hutchinson would not permit the ships to leave before unloading the cargo. A showdown between these two forces began and continued for days. Citizens of the city and neighboring towns were informed by handbills that stated, “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! That worst of plagues, the detested TEA … is now arrived in this harbour. The hour of destruction, or manly opposition to the machinations of tyranny, stares you in the face.” The notice invited colonists to a meeting that was to take place in Faneuil Hall. Thousands showed up for the gathering, and a later meeting took place as well. The Sons of Liberty and so many others were prepared to stand up on principle against the importation of the government-protected tea. One leader posed the question at a later meeting, “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?”
The answer to that question came late on the night of December 16, 1773. About fifty men dressed as Indians boarded the three ships and ordered the customs officers ashore. In three hours of furious work, 342 chests of tea worth roughly ten thousand pounds were destroyed. Bostonians had soundly rejected the law that protected the East India monopoly and showed their ability to organize and take drastic action. The king and Parliament did not take the action lightly. They closed the Boston port and passed additional restrictions to punish the colonists known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts.
The Intolerable Acts (also known as the Coercive Acts) were a series of laws passed by British Parliament after the Boston Tea Party. The so-called party was the colonists’ bold protest against what they perceived as an unfair tax on imported tea. Protestors had dressed as Native Americans and boarded three merchant vessels to dump a large shipment of tea into the harbor. When loyal officials reported these acts back to London, King George III (1738–1820) and Prime Minister Frederick Lord North (1732–1792) reacted by punishing these violators and the Boston community at large.
The colonists referred to these laws as the Intolerable Acts because, like the tax that preceded them, Americans could not tolerate them. The English called this legislation the Coercive Acts, which better reveals Parliament’s view of Bostonian behavior that led to the Tea Party. The first such law was the Boston Port Act, passed in March 1774. This act was meant to starve the Bostonians into submission. It stopped all shipping into or out of the port until the violators made payment for the destroyed tea, as well as the tax on it. The king also sent additional troops to Massachusetts to enforce the measure. An American onlooker residing in London wrote a friend about the new act. “I was in the Parliament House and heard the bill brought in and read,” the witness declared. “I beg you to encourage your people to be strong in opposing this diabolical proceeding. Don’t expect any mercy.”
To prevent agitators from rising again, the Parliament passed the Massachusetts Government Act, which drastically redefined how the colony would be governed. The original 1691 Massachusetts charter had provided for a representative body of elected colonists, but the law gave the king the power to appoint the colony's representatives. Governor Thomas Hutchinson had pushed for the law, which also empowered him to appoint and remove judges, the attorney general, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials without the consent of the council. In short, representation—the central right the colonists felt they had lost since the taxes began in 1764—was thrown out the window.
The Administration of Justice Act, passed in May 1774, relocated trials for capital offenses that involved British officials or soldiers. Any officers of the Crown would be tried either in another American colony or in England. Parliament assumed juries in Boston could not offer these defendants a fair trial. The colonists, on the other hand, assumed this meant a pass for any accused British officer. They feared soldiers’ treatment toward them could only worsen with no real threat of conviction.
With the new troops arriving to control these agitating colonists, Parliament had to find a way to house them. So came the fourth intolerable measure: the Quartering Act, which gave British General Thomas Gage the authority to house his soldiers in Boston homes. Colonial hosts of these soldiers would be paid rent, but did not have the right to turn the troops away, a right that had been granted in the Quartering Act of 1765.
Another infringement, though not one of the Coercive Acts, came in the Quebec Act. This law created a new government of the former province of French Canada. It altered the map and extended Quebec south to the Ohio River. One supporter acknowledged that it was to tighten the American colonies and keep them closer to the Atlantic where they could be controlled. It established the rights of French-speaking residents to worship as Roman Catholics and made a royal governorship for the area. The act irritated colonists beyond Massachusetts because it denied land claims that colonial governments had on western territory.
Some British leaders denounced the reaction by Parliament. Edmund Burke (1729–1797), a noted member and legal philosopher, urged his fellow lawmakers to “reflect on how you are to govern a people who think they ought to be free and think they are not.” William Pitt (1708–1778), a member of the House of Lords and generally respected by the American colonists, felt these were unfair measures because they punished the innocent as well as the guilty. But Prime Minister Lord North strongly disagreed, stating, “We must either control them or submit to them.” The Coercive Acts passed through Parliament by great majorities, more than four to one in most cases.
The laws were not initially so intolerable to colonists in the other parts of America, but when word of these policies and the horrible conditions that their Bostonian brothers faced reached Virginia, New York, and other colonies, sympathy for the Boston people soon emerged. Many Americans feared that the Crown would take away similar rights as those denied the violators in Boston. These policies had denied representation, supported military law over civilian law, and gave the governor unchecked powers in judicial appointments. In addition to supporting the residents of Boston, the measures resulted in the gathering of the First Continental Congress. The Intolerable Acts had served as one of the final conflicts before these two sides would erupt in the American Revolutionary War.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was a printer, author, philanthropist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, and scientist. Through his written word, political action, and diplomatic skill, Benjamin Franklin played a significant role in supporting the American Revolution. Born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts, Franklin was one of thirteen children of Josiah and Abiah (Folger) Franklin. His father worked as a candlemaker and mechanic, had his own shop, and was a respected citizen in Boston. Franklin’s formal education was limited, ending at age ten, after which when he began working for his father.
Because he did not particularly like making soap and candles, Franklin found other, more intellectually stimulating employment. Working for his brother James, a newspaper printer, Franklin became immersed in the printing business at the age of twelve. He had already educated himself by reading all the books he could obtain. Now, Franklin even began writing and publishing critical pieces himself.
When James Franklin was arrested for publishing his own critical works, Franklin took over running the print shop until 1723. He relocated to Philadelphia and worked for another printing business. After a brief tenure in Britain in 1724 where he became a master printer and bought his own printing press, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and founded a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and the annual Poor Richard’s Almanack.
Franklin continued to expand his business interests to include a bookshop, as well as partnerships with other printers. He also invented the Franklin stove and conducted scientific inquiries into electricity. In addition, Franklin began taking on public positions in the mid-1730s, including serving as the postmaster of Philadelphia and as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. By 1748, Franklin was able to retire from his business interests and focus on public life.
In 1751, Franklin, by this time well known for his electricity experiments as well as his writings, was elected to his first public office. He took a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly as a member of the Quaker party, and soon became the party’s leader. Franklin believed that representatives elected by the people, such as himself, had the right to regulate their state’s government.
Although he did have some unease on occasion about British apathy toward colonists’ concerns, Franklin behaved as a loyal subject of the Crown and encouraged colonial support of Britain's interests and activities in North America. He convinced the Pennsylvania legislative body to use money and people to help defend British interests in the French and Indian War. His primary allegiance, however, was to the colonies, which he represented in disagreements with the mother country. Franklin acted as an agent for the colonies, including Pennsylvania, on various trips to Britain from the late 1750s to the mid-1770s.
Emissary to England
After losing his seat in the assembly in 1764, Franklin remained in public office as the postmaster general for North America, a position he had held for a decade. Beginning in 1764, he also represented Pennsylvania on yet another trip to Britain. He was charged with the task of asking that Pennsylvania become a royal colony. Noting the perilous change in government, Franklin declined to complete his mission. Instead, while still in England, he spoke out against the 1765 Stamp Act that the colonists so violently opposed.
Although the Stamp Act was repealed in part because of his words, Franklin remained in Britain for nine more years. He generally remained confident in how Britain treated the American colonies and acted as the voice of the colonists in their mother country. Franklin soon began to doubt British concerns for the colonists and their needs and desires. Parliament distrust in him grew as he continued to argue against the taxation acts being imposed on the colonists. In 1774, his tenure in Britain neared its end when confidential letters from the governor of Massachusetts, which had been obtained by Franklin, were published. Dismissed as postmaster general, Franklin was also threatened with treason charges but was only reprimanded by the British government.
Franklin’s hopes to improve relations between the colonies and Britain were futile as protests continued in the colonies and Britain sent more troops. He returned in March 1775, a mere month before the Revolutionary War began. Franklin believed in the cause and joined the colonists’ revolutionary movement, and was selected as Pennsylvania’s representative at the Second Continental Congress.
In 1776, he was one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence and also began serving as a representative to France to help gain French support for the revolution. Franklin had already been working to obtain foreign aid for the cause in secret. By 1777, he used his appeal to get war supplies sent to the Americans, and by the end of the year, Franklin gained an alliance with King Louis XVI as well. This action resulted in more supplies as well as some support from the French army and navy for the Revolutionary War effort.
When the Revolutionary War essentially ended with the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, Franklin defined the terms for the peace treaty negotiated in Paris beginning in 1782. He ensured the favorable treaty included American independence and the removal of all British forces from the United States, as well as a defined western boundary and inalienable fishing rights. With the help of John Jay (1745–1829) and John Adams, the treaty was signed in 1783.
Returning to the United States in 1785, Franklin settled again in Philadelphia and continued to be active in civic and political matters. He served a three-year term as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. In 1787, Franklin attended the Federal Constitutional Convention. Although not supportive of all aspects of the Constitution, Franklin believed it should be ratified and convinced other doubters to do so for the good of the country. Having been ill for some years, Franklin died on April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia.
George Washington (1732–1799) was a Revolutionary War hero whose persistence as commander in chief of the combined American and French forces led to victory for the Americans. Washington later served as the first president of the United States and is regarded as the father of the country. Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Bridges Creek, Virginia, the son of Augustine Washington and his wife, Mary Ball. His father was wealthy and held positions of importance in Virginia, serving as a sheriff, justice of the peace, and a church warden. After his father’s death when Washington was eleven, George lived with various relatives throughout Virginia. Primarily raised by his half-brother Lawrence Washington, a rich farmer with some political standing, Washington inhabited the upper echelons of Virginian society. Though erratic in nature, he received what amounted to at least the essential education required of his time.
By the time he was seventeen years old, Washington was working in the appointed position of county surveyor. He had already learned much about the frontier by surveying the extensive holdings of Lord Fairfax in 1748, then spending two years in his official capacity throughout northern Virginia. Washington’s work as a surveyor gave him valuable familiarity with the frontier and led to the beginnings of his military experiences. In 1752, he was commissioned as a major in the Virginia militia and served during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. Washington played a role in igniting the conflict under the orders of Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie (1693–1770).
The governor ordered Washington to caution the French not to march into British territory in the Ohio Valley and then lead about 160 soldiers from Virginia to remove the French from Fort Duquesne. Although the French ultimately bested the Virginians, the clash launched the French and Indian war. Though British troops took charge of the conflict, Washington was promoted to colonel and put in charge of the Virginia soldiers who acted in support of the British regulars. He also served as the personal assistant to the British commander, General Edward Braddock. Among other conflicts, Washington took part in the campaign that resulted in the French loss of Fort Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in 1758.
After the battle at Fort Duquesne, Washington resigned his commission and went back to his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, which he had inherited after the death of Lawrence Washington in the early 1750s. While overseeing his farming operations at Mount Vernon, Washington also began his political career. In 1758, he was elected to the House of Burgesses in Virginia, representing Fairfax County. Two years later, he began serving as a judge/justice of the peace for the same county, a position he held until 1774. These experiences led Washington to question British policies toward the colonies and express his opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 as well as other British tax policies.
While serving as a representative to the First Continental Congress in 1774, Washington further stated his support of the policy of nonimportation of goods. Washington believed that if the colonies refused to import goods from Great Britain, British policy toward the colonies might change. To that end, the First Continental Congress adopted a plan influenced by the Fairfax Resolves, resolutions partially written by Washington and first adopted by his home county. Through the Continental Association, policies against importing British goods were enforced.
Another aspect of the Fairfax Resolves resulted in the formation of the Continental army. It was proposed that each county create its own militia company that colonists would control, not the governor appointed by Great Britain. Washington helmed the militia company from Fairfax County, and shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out, took on the leadership of the militia from a number of other counties. These militia companies were eventually combined to form the Continental army, which represented the collected colonists during the Revolutionary War after its launch in 1775. The Second Continental Congress named Washington the commander in chief of the Continental army on June 15, 1775. Washington also functioned as America’s de facto chief executive during the same period. He received no salary for his services and was only compensated for his expenses.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington faced challenges as commander in chief from the first. The British troops were more experienced, better armed, and had superior training. Washington sought to maintain discipline among his raw, often tattered soldiers. He also employed effective strategies to keep the enemy moving and smaller confrontations while keeping major engagements with the British to a minimum. Although he made some mistakes as general, such as during the Battle of New York in 1776, he also was capable of unexpected attacks that resulted in wins at Trenton and Princeton, for example. Washington also pulled off unanticipated moves that kept the Americans in the war, such as the winter crossing of the Delaware River.
Washington’s position strengthened in 1778 when France became allied with the American cause, and he began serving as the head of the combined forces. However, it was not until the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 that Americans seemed to make real progress. Despite low morale among American soldiers, victory was completed when the British completely withdrew by the early winter of 1783. It was Washington’s strong character and ability to hold the army together through the sheer force of his personality that ultimately resulted in the American victory.
President of the United States
Washington voluntarily stepped down as commander of the Continental army on December 23, 1783, at the end of the war. He then went home to Mount Vernon, where he began focusing on his estate businesses and farming while keeping abreast of land interests in the West and navigating the Potomac River. Washington’s political career was not over, however. Noting the failure of the original Articles of Confederation, he was a leader at the 1787 Federal Convention that began the ratification process for the new American Constitution. Within a few years, Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president of the United States and was also selected to serve a second term as well.
During his terms in office, Washington shaped the direction of the new country’s government. Between 1789 and 1792, he supported the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution and added several departments to the presidential cabinet. Washington also launched the federal court system and oversaw the implementation of Federalist financial policies. Washington’s second term focused on foreign policy issues, including remaining neutral as a new war broke out between Great Britain and France.
Washington’s presidency ended in 1797, and he returned to his home in Mount Vernon, but did not fully retire. War with France appeared to be imminent during the presidency of his successor, John Adams, and Washington was named commander in chief of America’s military interests. Diplomacy prevented the war and Washington remained at home, where he died on December 14, 1799.
King George III
King George III (1738–1820) was the British monarch during the American Revolution. His treatment of the American colonies caused the war for independence, and he was held responsible for the loss of the colonies. Born George William Frederick June 4, 1738, in London, England, George III was the son of Frederick Louis, the Prince of Wales, and his wife, Augusta. Frederick was the son of King George II, who was still reigning when Frederick died. George III was twelve years old at the time of Frederick’s death. Because of his mother’s coddling and overprotectiveness, George III lacked maturity and real-world experience. He was also greatly influenced by his family’s German roots, as his great-grandfather, George I, and grandfather, George II, focused much of their interest on their native German states rather than Britain.
In 1760, the twenty-two-year-old George assumed the British throne upon the death of his grandfather. As a young king, George III enthusiastically embraced his new duties and played an active role in controlling the actions of Parliament. He enjoyed the political game and expertly played opposing forces against each other to realize his personal goals. George III also used flattery and his friendship as a means of gaining the loyalty of those whom he wanted to use. Although he could be overly trusting of people, he was also inflexible about matters that were important to him.
Within a few years of becoming king, George began directing Parliament to enact measures to better control and increasingly tax the American colonies. The colonists resisted his actions and grew ever more frustrated with Parliament, the king, and his series of prime ministers beginning in the mid-1760s. George III was oblivious to the colonists’ intense disgust over the situation, and he continued to tighten his grip. American colonials saw George III as a tyrant against whom they needed to protect themselves. Their attitude further angered the king and compelled him to take actions he deemed necessary to end their disobedience.
Loss of the Colonies
By 1773, George III had his ideal prime minister in office, Lord North, who assisted in getting the Tea Act passed by Parliament. This act gave the East India Company sole control of the market for tea in the colonies, outraging Americans. In response to the act, American colonists tossed hundreds of pounds of tea into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. In response, George III had Parliament pass the so-called “Intolerable Acts” of 1774, which further restricted colonial action but also unified many colonists against the king.
The American colonists soon declared war on Britain and its king. Having declared the colonies in rebellion in 1775, George III welcomed the conflict as a chance to demonstrate to other British colonies the mother country’s power. Although British troops did well early on in the war, the frustrated Americans fought tenaciously against their oppressors. Even though they declared their independence from Britain in 1776, George III would not accept losing the colonies.
The Revolutionary War continued through the early 1780s. By this time, George had lost the support of many wealthy British allies who wanted the war to end. George III, however, had no intention of stopping, despite a devastating loss at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Battles in the American Revolution continued for two more years as George III lost power at home but still insisted he would emerge victorious. Lord North was forced out of office in 1782, and George III signed the Treaty of Paris to end the war in 1783.
After losing the American colonies, George III found his political power had decreased. He was compelled to take William Pitt the Younger as his prime minister. As Pitt’s influence increased, George III’s fell even further until Pitt resigned in 1801. Although George III regained some of his sway at this time, his mental health had not been strong for some time and this problem affected his ability to rule England.
Beginning in about 1788, George III suffered from wild emotional swings and seemed to act mentally deranged. It is now believed he had porphyria, a hereditary condition affecting the metabolism that caused these emotional extremes. George III had several serious, long-lasting episodes of mental illness. The final one began in 1810 and resulted in George III’s son, Prince George, acting as regent beginning in 1811. Also both blind and deaf by the end of his life, George III died in London on January 29, 1820. Prince George succeeded him and reigned for the next decade as King George IV.
Paul Revere (1735–1818) is an American Revolutionary War political leader best known for his night ride in 1775 to inform colonists in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, about the approach of British troops. Born January 1, 1735, in Boston, Massachusetts, Revere was the son of Apollos De Rivoire (later changed to Revere), and his wife, Deborah Hitchbourn. His father was a silversmith, and Revere became adept in working both gold and silver while employed at his father’s smithy. Upon his father’s death when Revere was nineteen years old, Revere took over the business and helped support his family, which included many siblings. During the French and Indian War, Revere also served as second lieutenant in an artillery division. He participated in the Crown Point Expedition of 1756, which failed to achieve its goal of capturing Crown Point, in present-day New York, from the French.
In the 1760s and 1770s, Revere’s career continued to expand. Because of the large number of silversmiths in Boston, he worked not just in silversmithing but also by creating copperplate engravings, making surgical and dental instruments, and repairing false teeth. By the mid-1760s, especially after the British passed the Stamp Act was enacted, Revere focused much of his energy on anti-British activities. He created a well-known political cartoon-like engraving of the 1770 Boston Massacre that emphasized Boston’s blamelessness in the matter. It is also believed that Revere participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
Revere’s most significant contributions to the Revolutionary War came by acting as a courier for various political bodies, including the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and the Boston Committee of Correspondence. He was entrusted with the task of telling the New York–based Sons of Liberty that the Tea Party had occurred soon after the event. Revere also made rides to other locales including New York City, Philadelphia, and Durham, New Hampshire, to share information, pass along warnings, and ask for help as needed.
The Legendary Ride
On the night of April 18, 1775, Revere became a legendary figure in American history when he took his historic ride to alert American troops at Lexington and Concord about the British troops marching to the area. Revere was not the only rider that night; Both William Dawes and Samuel Prescott also rode and relayed the same information, and Revere never reached his destination in Concord because the British captured him during his ride. The arriving troops ended up starting the American Revolution with the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride”
Although Revere was well known for his 1775 ride during his lifetime, it was essentially forgotten after his death. Revere and the ride again took on celebrated status because of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s well-known 1861 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Though the poem contains several historical inaccuracies, it was intended to do much more than celebrate Revere’s accomplishment. Longfellow wrote the poem to encourage those in the north to take up arms during the Civil War.
Excerpt from “Paul Revere’s Ride”
Listen my children and you shall hearOf the midnight ride of Paul Revere,On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;Hardly a man is now aliveWho remembers that famous day and year.He said to his friend, “If the British marchBy land or sea from town to-night,Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry archOf the North Church tower as a signal light,—One if by land, and two if by sea;And I on the opposite shore will be,Ready to ride and spread the alarmThrough every Middlesex village and farm,For the country folk to be up and arm.”
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “Paul Revere’s Ride.” English Poetry III: from Tennyson to Whitman. Vol. 42 of The Harvard Classics. Charles W. Eliot, ed. New York: Collier and Son, 1904–1914. On Bartleby.com.
In addition to courier activities, Revere supported the revolutionary effort in other ways. He printed currency for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and, in 1776, founded an important powder mill in Canton, Massachusetts, in which he manufactured gunpowder. In the spring of 1776, Revere’s long-standing desire to have a military commission was finally granted.
Revere became a major in a Massachusetts regiment created to secure Boston, and later was commissioned as a major in a Massachusetts artillery train charged with defending the same city. After being promoted to lieutenant colonel in November 1776, he took command of Castle Island, located in Boston Harbor, a position he held for several years. By 1779, Revere retained his command of the Massachusetts State Train of Artillery after it was reduced to only three companies.
Until the summer of 1779, Revere had not served in the field. He was then given a chance to command troops in what became known as the Penobscot Expedition. Revere’s men were to engage the enemy at what is now Castine, Maine, located on Penobscot Bay. The expedition was a total failure, and Revere was charged with disobeying orders as well as other crimes. Relieved of his command a month later, he was eventually court-martialed over the incident, but acquitted.
Although Revere’s military career was undistinguished, his silversmithing became highly regarded in New England when he focused again on the craft in 1780. Revere also owned and operated a hardware store. By the late 1780s, he expanded his business interests by opening a Boston-based foundry and casting bells and cannons, among other items. In 1801, Revere founded a new mill in Canton that produced rolled copper. This venture brought him much wealth and prestige as it produced, for example, the rolled copper used on the dome of the Massachusetts State House. Retiring at the age of 76, Revere died on May 10, 1818, in Boston.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) played a significant political and philosophical role during the American Revolution, serving as the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson later served the young United States as secretary of state, vice president, and president. Born April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia, Jefferson was the eldest son of Peter Jefferson, a farmer, surveyor, and public figure. Through his mother, Jane Randolph, Jefferson was related to a prominent Virginia family and inherited significant wealth and landholdings, where he built his estate Monticello. Jefferson also received an impressive education for an American of his time. He attended boarding schools, then studied science, history, philosophy, and literature at the College of William and Mary and studied law under George Wythe, the “Father of American Jurisprudence.”
Completing his legal education with Wythe, Jefferson began his professional career as a lawyer after being admitted to the bar in 1767. Although he had a thriving legal practice for a number of years, the American Revolution changed his destiny. As the Revolution began in 1774, the courts were suspended and Jefferson could no longer work as a lawyer. Instead, he embraced the revolutionary cause and used his legal know-how to that end.
Even before the American Revolution broke out, Jefferson served the public in elective office, one of his significant contributions to the movement. Soon after beginning his legal career, Jefferson was elected to the first elected governmental body in the colonies, Virginia’s House of Burgesses, in 1768. After the Revolution began, Jefferson served in the First Continental Congress and wrote the precursor to the Declaration of Independence, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), which pushed colonists closer to war with Britain for their freedom. In a significant example of his philosophical contribution to the revolutionary effort, Jefferson claimed in the document that the American colonists had a natural right to self-government.
The Declaration of Independence
Jefferson continued to combine leadership roles in both the political and philosophical arenas as the brewing revolution grew more heated. While serving in the Second Continental Congress in 1775, Jefferson was appointed as the head of the committee charged with writing what became the Declaration of Independence. Nearly entirely composed of Jefferson’s words, the legal document officially stated that the American colonies would no longer be part of the British Empire, but its own separate country.
In the Declaration, he built on the ideas first espoused in A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Jefferson further claimed that Americans had inalienable rights to equality and freedom, including the right of revolution. For example, while composing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson contributed the significant phrase “all men are created equal,” an idea fundamental to the foundation of the United States. The liberal, freedom-emphasizing philosophies he espoused as the spokesman for the revolutionary cause guided the movement.
Governor of Virginia
Although Jefferson’s most significant contribution to the revolution came with the Declaration of Independence, he served in other ways as well. Jefferson was elected to a seat of Virginia’s Legislative Assembly, before winning the governor’s office. Beginning in June 1779, Jefferson began acting as the governor of Virginia, when the region was significant to the ongoing war.
During his time in office, Jefferson faced some difficulties as the British temporarily won the capital city of Richmond and other territories after a 1781 invasion. Virginia was not prepared for the British assault, and Jefferson himself had little means to defend his state. Jefferson and the government retreated from the British and housed themselves in safer locations. Though Jefferson was absolved of any wrongdoing in a subsequent inquiry conducted by the Assembly, it contributed to questions about his political fitness for years afterward. He also was personally hurt by public criticism of his actions.
Despite quitting as governor by 1782 and vowing to leave public service, Jefferson began serving in the United States Congress in 1783, drafting governmental territorial regulations and helping create foreign policy for the young country. Beginning in 1784, Jefferson spent five years in Europe first as part of a commission charged with negotiating commerce treaties with other countries and later as the American representative in France. When Jefferson returned to the United States in 1789, he continued to negotiate with foreign countries as he became President George Washington’s secretary of state. Frustrated by his lack of success in improving America’s position and with war breaking out between France and Great Britain, Jefferson resigned in 1793.
Though Jefferson wanted to end his public life and retire to Monticello, his greatest political offices were yet to come. In 1796, the Democratic Republicans selected Jefferson as their presidential candidate. By losing to John Adams, Jefferson was elected to the vice presidency and served one term before running for president again. Adams lost the 1800 election to Jefferson, who was reelected for a second term in 1804.
During Jefferson’s presidency, he doubled the size of the young country through the Louisiana Purchase and enacted numerous governmental reforms during his first term. Jefferson dealt with the potential of war with Great Britain during his second term. During both terms, he had to fight several undeclared wars, including the Barbary Coast Wars of 1801 to 1805, though he personally did not believe in having a significant military.
At the end of his presidency in 1809, Jefferson finally retired to Monticello where he continued to advise members of his Democratic Republican political party, other elected officials, and subsequent presidents, including James Monroe. He also founded and planned the University of Virginia and corresponded with the leading intellectuals of the day. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, at Monticello.
Benedict Arnold (1741–1801) was an important general for the Continental army during the Revolutionary War before he defected to the British side of the conflict in 1780. Born Benedict Arnold V on January 14, 1741, in Norwich, Connecticut, Arnold was the son of Benedict Arnold IV and his wife, Hannah Waterman King. Although the family was wealthy from land and commerce interests during Arnold’s early childhood, his father lost much of the money on failed business schemes and became an alcoholic. Because his father was no longer able to afford it, Arnold’s superior education was discontinued and he lacked direction for some time. His life took a turn for the better when two cousins took him on as an apprentice at their apothecary when he was fourteen years old.
Arnold’s military career began while he completed his apprenticeship. He served in the New York colonial militia as well as during the French and Indian Wars, in which he fought in three battles. He deserted his commission both times, though his desertion during the French and Indian Wars was prompted by his mother’s imminent death.
By the early 1760s, Arnold’s father had died, and Arnold had founded his own apothecary in New Haven, Connecticut, with the help of a cousin. A successful business and family man, Arnold made his fortune as a merchant during the 1760s. He accumulated much of his money at sea by trading horses and livestock in Canada and the West Indies on ships he owned. Arnold was also believed to occasionally engage in smuggling. The knowledge he gained from his naval activities would prove useful when the Revolutionary War broke out in the 1770s.
Before the American Revolution began, Arnold served as a captain of citizen soldiers in New Haven in 1774. He later joined the Patriot Army as a colonel in 1775 after the war broke out. Leading men to Boston in 1775, Arnold was involved with battles that led to the capture of both Fort Ticonderoga in New York and a British fort in Canada. In one of his early significant military operations, he led a group of one thousand American soldiers trying to occupy Quebec, Canada.
During the doomed combat in Quebec, Arnold suffered serious injury when he was shot in the leg. Although Arnold’s forces were unable to complete the task and hold Quebec, his spirited, or perhaps obstinate, actions and leadership ensured his promotion to brigadier general in the Continental army. Despite requiring months of recovery time for his leg wound, Arnold was still able to contribute to the war effort by demonstrating his military skill at sea. In 1776, Arnold helmed a fleet of ships that engaged British gunboats at two sites in New York: Lake Champlain and Valcour Island. His ships won both battles. It was his naval triumph at Valcour Island that especially brought him fame during the revolution.
Though Arnold had successes as a military officer for the revolutionaries, his violent temper and personal resentment of higher authorities sometimes created problems for him. He was often in conflict with other officers as well as Congress and faced court-martial on several occasions. In 1777, Arnold considered resigning his commission because other junior officers were promoted ahead of him, though he did eventually receive a promotion to major general. Only the personal intervention of his friend General George Washington ensured that Arnold remained in military service after he threatened to quit on this as well as another occasion.
Despite such issues, Arnold continued to act as a brave leader for the Americans. In 1777, he was in charge of a successful attack on British troops in Danbury, Connecticut. His skills as a military planner also led to the American victory at the key Battle of Saratoga, defeating British General John Burgoyne (1722–1792). However, during the battle, Arnold suffered injuries to the same leg shot in Quebec, and he was unable to command troops in the field again. Instead, in 1778, he became the governor of Philadelphia, a post he used to further his own business and personal interests.
Arnold’s political loyalties started to undergo a transformation during this time. Influenced by his second wife, Margaret “Peggy” Shippen, who came from a secretly loyalist family, Arnold’s change of heart also was shaped by the French who joined the American side of the conflict. Though he was court-martialed in 1778 for misusing government property while serving in Philadelphia, Arnold was given a new position of power that same year: fort commander at West Point in New York.
Soon after taking over this post, Arnold made a deal to sell the West Point fort to the British for a significant sum of money, 20,000 pounds sterling. The deal was never completed because Arnold’s treason was discovered when the go-between carrying related documents was captured. In 1780, he defected to the British side, which immediately made him a brigadier general. Arnold was put in charge of British forces acting against Americans. British troops under his command raided towns in Connecticut and burned both Richmond, Virginia, and New London, Connecticut.
The British never fully trusted Arnold, and he was not allowed to deal with any military matters of importance or sensitivity. Though the British rewarded him with an audience with King George III in 1781 and a large estate in Canada several years later, his attempts to volunteer again for military service were refused. Arnold focused again on merchant activities in both Canada and England. By the end of his life, however, Arnold’s business interests as well as his health were failing miserably. He died in debt in London on June 14, 1801.
A Revolutionary War military leader from South Carolina, Francis Marion (c. 1732–1795), dubbed the “Swamp Fox,” successfully used guerilla military tactics to attack British forces. Born around 1732 in Berkeley County, South Carolina, he was the grandson of Huguenot immigrants. Raised primarily in Georgetown, South Carolina, Marion grew up in an economically modest household. His education was minimal at county schools, and it is believed he was not completely literate. When he was fifteen years old, Marion went to sea, but after being shipwrecked and spending several adrift days at sixteen, he returned to work as a farmer on his family’s land.
Early Military Career
Marion first gained military experience, including guerilla techniques, by fighting American Indians in a militia company headed by William Moultrie in 1761. Holding the rank of lieutenant, Marion participated in the Cherokee Expedition. He impressed his superiors by successfully leading a party of thirty men on a mission to remove Native Americans from an important mountain pass. Though twenty-one of his soldiers died, Marion became a highly respected member of his community for these accomplishments. After his service ended, he continued to farm on land he had leased in South Carolina.
By the early 1770s, Marion owned his own plantation located on the Santee River near Eutaw Springs. When the Revolutionary War started in 1775, Marion joined the Second South Carolina Regiment, an infantry unit also headed by Moultrie. Holding the rank of captain, he helped remove the British-appointed governor from his home state and capture British forts in Charleston’s harbor. Promoted to major, Marion also played a significant role in the defense of Charleston, South Carolina, by commanding heavy guns at Fort Sullivan in June 1776. Promoted again to lieutenant colonel, Marion was given command of the Second South Carolina Regiment in 1778 and insisted on maintaining a disciplined force despite the lack of significant action. His regiment did fight in Savannah, Georgia, in 1779, but was defeated in its attempted assault.
When the city of Charleston fell to the British in May 1780, Marion would have been captured had he not been at his home in St. John’s Parish because of a broken ankle. The Americans’ southern force was then decimated in South Carolina in August 1780 at the Battle of Camden. Because the Americans had few organized troops left in the South and with British forces gaining the upper hand, Marion organized his own small volunteer in South Carolina. It became the primary American military presence in the state for some time.
Marion employed guerrilla warfare techniques to engage the British in 1780 and 1781. Basing his operations in the swamps of South Carolina, Marion commanded small groups of mobile troops in a campaign of harassment against the British. He was able to befoul the British communication system, disrupt supply lines, and take both British scouting and foraging parties hostage. Marion also rescued American soldiers held prisoner and hassled those living in the state who remained loyal to Great Britain. The British hunted Marion, but he was able to use his knowledge of the swamps to evade them. This maneuver led to the nickname “Swamp Fox.”
Marion also battled the British with more traditional means, primarily after Marion and his men helped Nathanael Greene remove the British from North Carolina. Greene’s lieutenant, Henry Lee, took troops to Marion, who was by then a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia. Marion also recruited troops and organized a brigade headquartered at Snow’s Island. Lee and Marion led troops into battles in 1781, capturing Fort Watson and Fort Motte, among other triumphs. One significant victory came at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781, when British troops were forced to retreat to North Carolina. Marion was in charge of the right wing of American soldiers in the successful attack.
In 1781, Marion was also elected to South Carolina’s senate and focused most of his attention on politics instead of military matters. Though he had antagonized Loyalists during the war, he acted to ensure they would be treated with mercy. Marion was reelected in 1782 and 1784, but continued to be active in his military brigade on occasion. At war’s end, Marion was named the commander of Fort Johnson, a post he held until 1790. He was again elected to the state senate in 1791. Living on his plantation with wife Mary Videau, Marion died on February 27, 1795.
General William Howe
During the early days of the American Revolutionary War, General William Howe (1729–1814) was the commander of British army troops stationed in America. He was born on August 10, 1729, into a noble family. After receiving some of his education at home, Howe also attended Eton from 1742 to 1746.
Early Military Career
When Howe was seventeen years old, he joined the army and soon began distinguishing himself as a soldier. In 1747, he was promoted to lieutenant and was stationed in Flanders during the War of Austrian Succession. Howe’s abilities, combined with powerful connections, led to several quick promotions, including captain in 1750, major in 1756, and lieutenant colonel in 1757.
After being chosen to represent Nottingham in the House of Commons in 1758, Howe first went to the North American continent during the French and Indian War. In 1759, he served under General James Wolfe during the siege of Quebec. Howe himself was the commander of the British attack on and capture of Montreal in 1760. Two years later, Howe was an adjunct general as part of the siege on Havana, Cuba, which was then held by the Spanish. By the end of the war, Howe had distinguished himself as a military officer and was known for his valor and leadership skills.
Command in the Colonies
Promoted to major general in 1772, Howe disagreed with British policy in the American colonies and did not want to serve in the American theater of the Revolutionary War. However, when ordered to take a command in May 1775, Howe took on the post as second-in-command to General Thomas Gage because he believed it was his duty to do so. It is believed Howe was also sure that a settlement with the rebel colonists could be negotiated with his help.
After arriving in the colonies, Howe found that negotiations were not possible. Howe demonstrated his courage at the battle of Bunker Hill as well as the attack on Breed’s Hill. Although the British won the battles, it was a high cost. In October, his military prowess was rewarded with two promotions: he was made a full general and named the commander-in-chief of the British forces in the American colonies. Although Howe had some successes as British commander, his failures cost his country important military losses.
Though Howe had to evacuate British troops from Boston in March 1776, he was able to shift his troops first to Halifax then to New York, and later successfully invaded both Manhattan and Long Island. By the end of the year, however, Howe’s slow troop movements, inadequate manpower and supplies, and the British inability to break up General George Washington’s army resulted in important gains for the colonists. In December 1776, the Americans won unexpected battles at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey, and Howe again let a chance to capture, if not destroy, Washington slip through his fingers.
By 1777, Howe had devised a new strategy for the British military against the colonial rebels so that he could engage and defeat the army helmed by Washington. Howe’s plan involved attacks on both the American capital of Philadelphia and New York state. Although Howe originally planned to move troops over land for the Philadelphia engagement, he changed his mind and decided to move them by sea. Despite failures to position troops until August, the British successfully captured Philadelphia, but this victory did not do as much to further the British cause as Howe had hoped because of defeats in New York.
Howe had accepted General John Burgoyne’s word that he had sufficient troops to complete his task. Burgoyne decisively lost the Battle of Saratoga to the Americans in part because no British troops were ready to move in support of him when his men were besieged. Burgoyne was forced to surrender to the Americans in October 1777. The loss at Saratoga deeply damaged the British cause, and Howe sent in his resignation shortly thereafter. It was accepted the following spring, after which Howe returned to Britain.
At home, Howe was widely criticized, but he defended his actions in America at a Parliamentary inquiry and through the printed word. He asserted that he had acted to best serve Britain’s military interests and denied he tried to placate the American colonists. Despite events during the Revolutionary War, Howe continued to have a distinguished military career in Britain, holding significant commands in England during the French Revolution. He also served as governor of Berwick, England, from 1795 to 1808, as well as governor of Plymouth from 1808 until his death on July 12, 1814.
Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was an influential writer whose work, especially the pamphlet Common Sense, played an inspirational role in starting the American Revolution. Born January 29, 1737, in Thetford, England, Paine was the son of Joseph Pain and his wife, Frances Cocke. (Thomas Paine added the “e” to his surname later in life.) Paine’s father made his living farming and fashioning women’s corsets and whale-bone corset stays. The family was poor and Paine’s education was limited.
When he was thirteen years old, Paine began working. He first joined his father and learned his trade, but soon decided to try other professions. For at least two decades, Paine drifted through a number of jobs, including sailor, manufacturer, tax collector, schoolteacher, grocer, and shop worker. Though Paine’s formal education had ended early, he also spent significant time in self-education, often reading about science and politics.
In 1774, the direction of Paine’s life changed when he met the important American colonist Benjamin Franklin, who was impressed by Paine’s intellect. Franklin convinced Paine that the colonies would be an ideal place for him and even wrote recommendation letters to help him find employment there. When Paine arrived in Philadelphia later that same year, he began working at the Pennsylvania Magazine as a writer and editor.
Paine soon played a key role in igniting the Revolution. He used the power of the printed word to influence political events. The colonists were divided on the topic of declaring their independence from Great Britain. Many were open to considering the idea, though some still believed that the colonies and mother country could reconcile differences. One supporter of independence, Benjamin Rush, told Paine that he should pen a publication backing his cause and calling for action. Paine then wrote Common Sense, a fifty-page pamphlet published anonymously on January 10, 1776. Common Sense was a sensation, with over 500,000 copies eventually purchased. It was also reprinted in several European countries and translated into German.
In the pamphlet, Paine urged his readers to take arms against King George III for a number of reasons. He argued that Great Britain taxed the American colonies to excess, and furthermore, it did not make sense for such a far-off country to oversee political affairs in America. Paine also stated that the British monarchy was an immoral form of government. Common Sense achieved its goal, finally tipping the balance in many colonists’ minds toward independence.
Service to the Revolution
Paine did not just use the written word to help start the Revolutionary War. He also served as a soldier in the early days of the war when the patriots were losing ground. In 1776, he had a commission in the Continental army. Paine served under General George Washington and was part of the troops’ retreat across New Jersey.
In addition, Paine continued to push the revolutionary cause through his writing. From 1776 to 1783, he wrote and published sixteen Crisispapers that further encouraged Americans to continue their fight for independence. In the papers, Paine eloquently explained why their patriotism was so important at this critical time.
Excerpt from the First Crisis Paper
These are times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.… The heart that feels not now, is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole.… [H]e whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.
Though Paine continued to produce influential pamphlets and his writings were popular, he suffered from further financial difficulties in part because he would not take any profits from their publication. During the war, he held posts such as the federal Secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, until he was forced to resign due to his publication of privileged information, and a clerkship for the Pennsylvania General Assembly. But when the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, Paine was impoverished until the grateful states of Pennsylvania and New York provided him with money and a farm, respectively, for his war-related activities.
The French Revolution
After living on his farm and focusing on inventing for some time, Paine again used the written word to support a revolutionary movement. After the 1789 French Revolution, he wrote The Rights of Man to express his belief in the cause of the rebels who wanted to bring down the French monarchy and King Louis XVI. Paine’s book went through several editions in 1791 and 1792 and became a best seller in France as well as Britain and the United States.
In The Rights of Man, Paine argued that Europeans were unhappy with their monarchical and hereditary governments that led to widespread poverty, the inability of people to read and write, high unemployment, and wars that broke out on a regular basis. Paine specifically referenced the situation in Great Britain and called for armed revolt against the king. Charged with treason by the British, Paine made his way to France in 1792.
While in France, Paine faced further difficulties. Though he supported the French rebels, he did not believe King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette should be executed. When Maximilien de Robespierre became the head of the new French government, he imprisoned Paine in 1794 for espousing such beliefs. Paine’s potential execution was deterred by James Monroe, then an American representative in France and later an American president. Paine spent eleven months in jail, during which he began writing his controversial book on religion, The Age of Reason, which was published in 1794 and 1796. Like his earlier works, this book sold well in the United States, Ireland, Britain, and France.
Because of the controversy surrounding Paine’s book, his public criticism of Washington for not helping him out of prison, and his perceived support of Robespierre’s bloody reign of terror, Paine’s return to the United States in 1802 was not received well by the American people. He again suffered financial difficulties and spent the last years of his life as an impoverished alcoholic who was often ill. Paine died on June 8, 1809, in New York City.
British General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) led troops at the decisive Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and surrendered, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War. Born on December 31, 1738, Charles Cornwallis was born into a prominent British noble family. He received his education at Eton College and Clare College, Cambridge, England.
Early Military Career
Cornwallis began his military career when he was about eighteen years old. In 1756, he joined the First Foot Guards as an ensign. After a brief stint at a Turin-based military academy in 1757, Cornwallis saw action during the Seven Years War as a part of a regiment assigned to Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick. He took part in battles in Europe, including Kirch-Denkern, Wilhelmstadt, and Lutterberg. By 1761, he was named a lieutenant colonel in the Twelfth Regiment.
While Cornwallis was establishing himself as an experienced, talented military man, he also began a political career. In 1760, he was elected to the House of Commons, representing a family borough in Suffolk. When Cornwallis’s father died in 1762, he became the second Earl Cornwallis and took over his father’s seat in the House of Lords. While serving in the House of Lords, Cornwallis disagreed with the severe treatment of the American colonies as laid out by King George III and his prime minister, Lord North. Despite this opinion, he did have the king’s favor as one of his advisors and a lord of the bedchamber. In 1770, Cornwallis was given the esteemed position of constable of the Tower of London and also joined the privy council.
Service in the Colonies
After being promoted to the rank of major general in 1775, Cornwallis was sent to the colonies in a military capacity in 1776. He had the command of ten regiments of British troops dispatched as reinforcements for Generals Henry Clinton (1738–1795) and William Howe. After arriving in America, Cornwallis saw action in New York in late summer and early fall of 1776. He also had a role in the British occupation of New Jersey. In 1777, Cornwallis participated in the Battle of Brandywine as the commander of a division of troops helmed by Howe.
Cornwallis soon grew frustrated with the British military response to the revolting colonists, primarily because of his new superior. When General Henry Clinton became the commander of British military interests in America, he put a conservative strategy into place. Clinton was already critical of Cornwallis for not seizing General George Washington when he had the chance on several occasions. Clinton was also threatened by Cornwallis’s position as his designated successor, and he regarded Cornwallis as arrogant. Thus, Clinton and Cornwallis had a tense relationship at best.
Despite this situation, Cornwallis continued to play his role on the battlefield. During the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, Cornwallis commanded some British troops counterattacking men led by Nathanael Greene as Clinton directed the British retreat from Philadelphia. After spending much of 1779 on leave in Britain with his dying wife, Jemima Tulkiens, Cornwallis returned to America and resumed his military position in 1780. He helped plan and take part in the attack on Charleston, which resulted in the city’s surrender in May 1780.
Command in the South
By the middle of 1780, tensions with Clinton eased as Cornwallis essentially took charge of British troops located in the South. Although Cornwallis still reported to Clinton, distance and the political support of George Sackville Germaine, the English secretary of state for the colonies, allowed Cornwallis freedom to run his command as he pleased. In addition to turning South Carolina into a supply base desperately needed by the British, Cornwallis led troops to victory at Camden while marching on the Carolinas.
Cornwallis’s strategy, however, contributed greatly to Britain’s eventual defeat. The bold general believed that the best way to defend the land Britain had regained in the South was to attack Virginia. But Cornwallis had neither enough troops nor the support of enough Loyalists to complete this mission. Cornwallis also kept changing his mind on the approach his strategy would take. By the time he was forced to surrender to General George Washington after being defeated at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, Cornwallis had lost about 25 percent of British troops serving in America.
In spite of this failure, Cornwallis was generally not blamed for the loss in Britain, and his career continued to thrive. Though he initially refused it several times, he took on the post of the governor general of Bengal in India in 1786, a position of greater responsibility than the one he held in America. Cornwallis was able to build up British rule in India as well as other parts of Asia. As an administrator, he was a reformer who improved Britain’s civil administration and took on corruption in Britain’s India Company. Also a military leader in the colony, Cornwallis made the best of the troops available from the India Company and essentially won the Third Mysore War in the early 1790s.
After going back to Britain and being given the title of marquess, Cornwallis continued to act in his government’s interest as both a diplomat and military expert in several significant hot spots, including Ireland, Flanders, and India. After returning to Bengal in 1805, he died on October 5, shortly after his arrival there.
John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones (1747–1792), arguably the most important American Revolutionary War naval hero, valiantly contributed to significant victories by the Continental navy. He was born simply John Paul in 1747 in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, the son of a gardener who was employed at a local estate. Jones’s education was minimal, and at the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a ship owner in Whitehaven and went to sea. Jones’s employer took him on trading expeditions to Virginia and islands in the Caribbean. Working for other mariners after his master went bankrupt, Jones gained valuable experience as a merchant sailor through the 1760s, including stints with slave traders. By the time of his twenty-first birthday, Jones was a merchant ship captain himself. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, he worked on trading voyages in the West Indies.
Because of a fierce temperament, Jones also faced legal troubles as a young adult. He was once acquitted of murder in Scotland for the death of one of his crewmates a few months after Jones flogged him. In the early 1770s, the crew of another of Jones’s ships, the Betsy of London, mutinied in Tobago after he decided not to pay them under the expected terms. The mutiny turned into a fight, and Jones murdered the mutineers’ leader. He spent the next two years in hiding to avoid being arrested for the crime. By 1774, Jones joined his brother in Virginia and added the Jones surname as a further way to conceal his identity.
About a year after he came to Virginia, Jones joined the Continental navy as a senior first lieutenant. Rejecting a chance to helm his own ship, Jones elected to serve first aboard the Alfred, a ship he helped to outfit. He wanted to gain firsthand knowledge of the military skills needed for naval combat. The Alfred helped severely damage a powerful British vessel, the Nassau.
In the spring of 1776, Jones accepted the captaincy of the Providence. Jones soon distinguished himself as a captain and later as the commander of one of the best fleets in the Continental navy. He captured a number of British merchant ships, used his skills as a sailor to get the better of some of Britain’s best warships, and destroyed British fishing boats as well. Having developed a reputation for being an aggressive sailor who acted boldly in battle to engage, not avoid, the enemy, Jones also displayed a sharp sense of seamanship.
Jones took command of the Alfred in the winter of 1776 and continued his distinguished service. His naval career took on a new dimension in 1777, when he became the commander of the Ranger. Under congressional orders, he took the ship to France to relay news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in September 1777. After achieving this goal in early 1778, Jones staged raids along the British coast and captured British ships and prisoners over a twenty-eight-day period. These triumphs made his name known internationally.
Remaining in Europe, Jones continued his military service by working for the French against the British while sailing under an American flag. He took command of the Bonhomme Richard and headed a small flotilla. Jones continued his military success by capturing a number of British ships as his ships traversed the seas around Britain. Again showing his prowess as a captain in the battle off Flamborough Head, Jones cemented his reputation as a naval hero in September 1779. He won his famous clash with the Serapis, a British fighting ship that was quicker and carried more arms than the Bonhomme Richard. Jones won his victory through boldness and bravery.
It was during the battle with the Serapis that Jones was asked to surrender and uttered his legendary response: “I have not yet begun to fight.” Although Jones did refuse to surrender to the British captain, it is unlikely that he spoke that specific phrase because it was not mentioned in accounts of the battle until a half-century later. But, as with many of his other victories, Jones showed he understood that a battle could be won in part by wearing the enemy down and winning psychological advantage. After his triumph, the U.S. Congress honored Jones with a resolution indicating America’s gratitude.
Now famous, Jones continued to be lauded in the United States and France. Helming the Ariel, a ship on loan from the French for carrying military goods to America, Jones returned to the United States in early 1781. He campaigned to be promoted to rear admiral in the Continental navy, but was not given the advancement. Lacking other opportunities, Jones went back to Europe as a representative of America, sent to claim the prize monies owed to the United States for his war accomplishments.
Briefly returning to the United States in 1787, Jones was honored with the only gold medal given to a Continental navy officer as voted by Congress. He returned to Europe in 1788 and became a rear admiral in the Russian navy. Serving the Russian Queen Catherine the Great, Jones was stationed on ships in the Black Sea where he fought the Turks and helped capture a Turkish fortress at Ochkov. His stint in Russia ended by the fall of 1789 as court politics and jealous mariners damaged his position.
Jones then moved to Paris, where he spent the last two years of his life in poor health. After his death in 1792, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the French city. In 1905, Jones was re-interred at the American Naval Academy. The academy built a crypt to house Jones’s remains in 1913, where his grave remains to this day.
General Lafayette (1757–1834), also known as the Marquis de Lafayette, was a French military general who helped the Americans win their Revolution and also played a significant role in his native country after the French Revolution. Lafayette was born Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier on September 6, 1757, in Chavagnac, Auvergne, France. His family was wealthy French nobility, and Lafayette was part of their title. After the deaths of his father, mother, and grandfather by the time he was thirteen years old, Lafayette inherited the family fortune. He then received some of his education in Paris, where he studied at the Collège du Plessis.
Lafayette’s military career began when he was still a teenager. In 1771, he joined the French army and spent the next five years in active service. Lafayette began his military career as a musketeer. Within three years, he was promoted to second lieutenant, then captain in the Noailles Regiment. He was compelled to retire at the age of eighteen due to reforms of the French military. After marrying Marie Adrienne de Noailles in 1773, Lafayette spent several years in the royal court life of Versailles.
Service in the American Revolution
When the American Revolution broke out in the mid-1770s, Lafayette asked King Louis XVI’s permission to go to the colonies and assist their cause against the British, France’s long-standing nemesis. Louis turned Lafayette down, but the former soldier used his own money to purchase a ship and fill it with supplies. Lafayette then sailed to America to offer his services and military experience to the rebellious colonies.
Arriving in North Carolina in June 1777, the nineteen-year-old Lafayette was given an honorary military commission of major general by the Continental Congress. He had no command, but began serving General George Washington as his assistant. Lafayette encouraged the Americans in their cause, and also saw military action under Washington, participating in battles in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Lafayette’s exemplary performance in these clashes led to his commanding a division of American troops in December 1777 and the summer of 1778.
Securing French Assistance
In 1778, the Americans asked Lafayette to return to France to obtain help for their cause. Because of his earlier disregard of Louis XVI’s royal order, Lafayette was arrested when he arrived home in 1779. His punishment was short-lived as Louis XVI decided the political gain from having the Americans as allies was more important. The French king agreed to provide some aid for the Americans, and Lafayette returned to the United States in the spring of 1780.
Upon his arrival, Lafayette took charge of the French auxiliary forces that France loaned to help the Americans fight the British. A year later, Lafayette was put in charge of defending Virginia. Lafayette’s actions and military maneuvers helped trap British General Cornwallis, resulting in the decisive American victory at Yorktown in 1781. On October 19, 1781, Cornwallis surrendered and the American Revolutionary War had essentially ended.
Return to France
Lafayette was lauded as a hero when he went back to France in 1782. Although he continued to assist American causes in Europe, Lafayette focused primarily on his own country. He was then given the rank of brigadier general in the French army, but spent more of his energies on his political career and served as a member of the Assembly of Notables from 1787 to 1788. When the French Revolution began in 1789, Lafayette was forced to combine his military and political backgrounds.
A believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, Lafayette played several leadership roles in the beginning of the French Revolution. He successfully suggested the adoption of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” After the Bastille prison fell on July 14, 1789, Lafayette was put in charge of the Parisian national guard. His position of power and popularity eroded over time, as he wanted the French rebels to take a more restrained stance and adopt a government modeled on the British Parliament and American Constitution. As radicals ruled the day, Lafayette stepped down as national guard commander in 1791.
French Military Command
When France declared war against Austria and Prussia in 1792, Lafayette served as commander of the Army of the Ardennes. He led an invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, but had no backup and was forced to withdraw. Because of his continued political statements against radical action and lack of support among his troops, Lafayette went to Austria, where he was regarded as a prisoner of war. He was released in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France. Though Bonaparte did not want Lafayette to return to his home country, Lafayette defied this order in 1799. Upon his return, he was recognized as a retired general and given a pension.
After spending more than a decade at his country estate in Lagrange, France, and avoiding political action, Lafayette returned to politics after Napoleon abdicated in 1814. Lafayette then stood for election to the Legislative Chamber, and again influenced French politics. He called for Napoleon’s permanent resignation and also served in the Chamber of Deputies as the liberal leader in opposition to the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII and Charles X.
Lafayette’s exploits in America had not been forgotten. In 1824, the year he left the chamber, he returned to the United States at the invitation of the American government. There, he was lauded with a tour of the developing country, welcomed by citizens in each state, and given gifts of cash and land by the United States Congress. Fifteen months later, Lafayette returned to France, where his heroism was again acknowledged.
In 1830, Lafayette had his last political day in the sun during the next revolutionary era in France. He again stood as the prominent voice of moderate republicanism and commanded the French national guard, while reluctantly supporting the constitutional kingship of Louis Philippe. After being dismissed in 1831, Lafayette again became a symbol of opposition. Politically, he was essentially irrelevant by the time of his death on May 20, 1834, in Paris.
Major Battles and Events
Lexington and Concord
By the spring of 1775, the dispute between American colonists and the British government had reached a fever pitch. Disagreements over taxes and other acts of Parliament aimed at colonists had raged for ten years. Tensions between those living in and around Boston, Massachusetts, and the mother country were even greater because outspoken Bostonians had protested more actively, which sometimes resulted in violence. They had organized efforts against King George III and his prime minister. Samuel Adams and other leaders had formed the Sons of Liberty, an opposition group that argued “no taxation without representation.”
The Boston Tea Party enraged Parliament. The king and Parliament responded by passing a series of laws to punish Boston residents. General Thomas Gage, already the commander of the English forces in the colonies, became the new governor of Massachusetts. The king thought a military commander like Gage could better control these unruly dissenters.
These events drove a bigger wedge between the Americans and the British. Leading up to April 1775, rumors circulated as to when a rebellion would occur. The First Continental Congress had already taken place, and a Second Continental Congress was planned. General Gage had concerns that the Sons of Liberty and others might rebel. He also got word that colonial leaders had stockpiled weapons inland at Lexington and Concord. Concord, about eighteen miles east of Boston, and Lexington a few miles closer, both lay in present-day Massachusetts. Gage and other military leaders constructed a plan to ensure that potential rebels would not have these arms for a possible uprising.
On April 16, 1775, silversmith Paul Revere got word that Gage’s troops planned to take the patriot’s magazines. He did not know the exact details, but he and other American leaders developed a counterplan to assist the Minutemen of Massachusetts when this mission began. Revere had planned to cross the Charles River and ride into Lexington to warn the militiamen. He also came up with a backup plan in case he could not cross the river. In the Old North Church, which had already become a regular venue for the voices of discontent to organize against the British, lamps would hang to warn that the Redcoats were coming and by what route: “One if by land, two if by sea.”
Gage’s plan was kept as secret as possible. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith was selected to lead a column of twenty-one companies to destroy these American munitions. Smith was to march to Concord, burn and dismantle the stockpile, and return to Boston. Only top commanders were privy to the scheme. British troops had been told to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. After the soldiers had turned in for the night of April 18, their sergeants put their hands over the sleeping soldiers’ mouths as they awoke them. They slipped out of their barracks and onto the Boston Common. From there, some 600 to 800 soldiers departed at about 10:30 at night. Though the British followed every precaution they could to not disturb townspeople, onlookers noticed their departure from Boston across the water toward Lexington and Concord. Paul Revere had a friend place the two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church while he crossed the harbor. Once on land again, he borrowed a friend’s horse and headed to warn the Minutemen that the British were coming.
William Dawes, a shoemaker, joined Revere in the effort to warn fellow patriots. They took separate routes from Boston, but met again at Lexington where they informed Captain John Parker’s company. The American response to Smith’s mission involved communication from several points between the church and the weapons caches at Lexington and Concord. Alarm bells in hamlets along the way and patriot gunshots signaled that the British troops were on the way.
Captain Parker had assembled his militiamen on the Lexington village green, ready for the Redcoat’s approach. A detachment from Smith’s column came within view of the Minutemen in Lexington. Parker had told his men to stand their ground, but not to fire unless fired upon. He also reportedly said, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Details of events after this are hazy. After shots were fired (who shot first is also disputed), a British officer directed his men to fire toward Parker’s militia. Eight Americans were killed and ten were wounded.
The exchange at Lexington took about a half hour. By this time, Smith had rejoined the detachment and wanted to fulfill his mission. At Concord, word of the battle of Lexington soon arrived. Colonel James Barrett was organizing 250 Minutemen from Concord. He knew it would take time for the British to find the hidden ammunition and cannon. So as they filed into Concord, Barrett ordered his men atop a low ridge about 1,000 yards north of the bridge over the Concord River. From here, Barrett’s men could see the town.
The British came into Concord and found some of the stored ammunition. Some time after 10:00 a.m., these weapons were placed in the middle of the road and burned. By this time more than four hundred Minutemen had arrived prepared to battle at Concord. Barrett’s men, ready to retaliate anyway, saw the smoke from atop the ridge and assumed the British were burning the town. A few minutes later, the militia advanced toward the bridge. The patriots’ first shots killed three British soldiers and wounded eight others. After much indecision, Colonel Smith ordered his men to return toward Boston. About one mile toward Lexington, these British soldiers came into view of American marksmen planted out of sight. Their accuracy was devastating, and Redcoats collapsed at the hand of American gunfire.
General Gage sent reinforcements under Commander Hugh Percy. If it were not for Percy, the British would have suffered a complete massacre. Percy arrived at Lexington and provided a safe return for the exhausted Redcoats who had made the journey from Boston to Concord and were now returning.
Before the British soldiers returned to Boston, an estimated 3,500 colonials had responded to the calls to arms from Revere and others. The British suffered a total of seventy-three casualties and 200 were injured or missing. Colonists lost forty-nine men, thirty-nine suffered wounds, and twenty-six became missing. Percy responded to the fight, “Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken.” Protecting most of the weapons and running the Redcoats back to Boston gave the colonists high morale. It also signaled to the British that the chances for a peaceful solution to the conflict were basically impossible. The Revolutionary War had begun.
Soon after shots were fired to begin the American Revolution, British Fort Ticonderoga became an attractive prospect for the American side. The fort, a dilapidated structure that housed only about fifty men, many who were invalids, was probably not seen as the grandest conquest. But controlling such a strategic location could be an advantage in the early stages of the war. It sat in north central New York on the west side of Lake Champlain, north of Albany, where the lake empties into the Hudson River. With Canadians not joining the American rebels, military leaders and onlookers alike predicted that the British would travel southward from Canada to cut off New England from the other colonies. Securing Fort Ticonderoga would decrease the chances for this British strategy. The fort, though short on manpower, held over fifty cannons that could be useful to the colonists.
The taking of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, is a unique story from the Revolution. The war effort in 1775 was rather unfocused and uncertain. The Continental army was not a fine-tuned organization. Minutemen and other volunteers received orders from various authorities. The infant Congress, state assemblies, and local committees differed on how to carry out the war. Perhaps more confusing was the question of which officer was in charge of the attack on the fort. Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen led the mission. Arnold, known to history as a traitor, was an ambitious young man from a modest background. His first military exploits came in the French and Indian War. As revolutionaries began to dissent against the British, Arnold was an active member of the Sons of Liberty in his native Connecticut. When Arnold arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he offered his plan to take Ticonderoga to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. With some reluctance, the Committee gave Arnold a provisional commission to gather four hundred men for the mission.
Ethan Allen of Vermont was an equally flamboyant character. He was the eldest of six sons who grew up under the tutelage of their independent-minded father. Ethan Allen thus developed as a freethinker, learning from reading the Bible and Plutarch’s Lives. When he was about to embark on a formal education at seventeen, his father died, forcing him to take over the family farm. This likely strengthened his self-reliance, but limited his polished language and sophistication. When revolution began, he was a large, strong man, and a self-taught, enterprising philosopher. Allen showed excess in nearly everything he undertook. He became a natural leader of the Green Mountain Boys, rugged soldiers from Vermont who harassed royal officials.
Arnold and Allen met before they each could reach Ticonderoga. Upon their meeting the question immediately arose: Who would be in charge of this mission? Arnold immediately insisted that his commission gave him the authority to lead, but Allen refused to yield. From a practical standpoint, Allen’s loyal Green Mountain Boys gave him qualifications to rival Arnold’s commission. It was decided that they would jointly share the command. On May 9, 1775, the two officers and about three hundred men waited on the east side of the lake for the right moment to take the fort. After some discussion, about eighty of these men, led by both Arnold and Allen, crossed the lake on a barge and arrived at the fort before dawn. The exact manner in which the fort was taken is of course disputed. Versions told by Arnold, Allen, and their men differ. Apparently, a sleepy sentry lowered his musket at this group, and Allen swatted it away with his sword. The leaders quickly made it to the officers’ quarters and announced they were taking the fort. The British commanders were certainly surprised and appeared half-dressed to face the attackers. The result was clear no matter who told the story. The young, disorganized American effort had actually taken Ticonderoga and seized some one hundred guns without a death for either side.
When word of American accomplishments at Ticonderoga reached Congress, a debate about the propriety of the attack began. Surprisingly, delegates were not unanimously elated. At this early point in the war, some still hoped to reconcile with King George III. The battles at Lexington and Concord could be viewed as acts of defense. But this was an aggressive assault on the king’s property. Congress decided, over the opposition of the New England delegates, that the successful attackers should abandon the fort. The valuable supplies and weapons should be taken, the Congress said, but only after a careful inventory had been made to guarantee proper payment back to the British when harmonious terms between an independent America and the king resumed. When this decision of Congress reached New York and New England, colonists were shocked at such absurdity. Why would the rebels give up such a strategic point that had been effectively won? With enough prodding, the Congress reversed its decision and colonials maintained the fort until British General John Burgoyne forced them out in the summer of 1777 in his Saratoga campaign.
The battle of Bunker Hill took place between the American colonists and regular British troops in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1775. This was the first large-scale battle in the American Revolution. The colonists had yet to officially create the United States and at the time of the battle, there was not yet a unified position for a war against the mother country. The bloody Bunker Hill battle left the British wary of their opponent’s strength. The Americans, as well, suffered great setbacks, including the death of one of the most respected revolutionary leaders, Dr. Joseph Warren (1741–1775).
The clash, which actually took place on Breed’s Hill, near Bunker Hill, occurred as both British and American military leaders were strategically preparing for war. After the initial shots at Lexington and Concord, the British had sent three major generals—William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne—along with additional reinforcements to tame the colonies. The British commander of the American colonies, Thomas Gage, now had over five thousand troops to quell the colonial uprising. The volunteer American army consisted of about fifteen thousand men under the direction of an overly cautious Artemas Ward (1727–1800). The British generals arrived and began to prod General Gage to act more aggressively toward the uprising. They concocted a scheme to take the American forces on the Dorchester peninsula, which included Bunker Hill, Breed’s Hill, and the city of Charlestown, strategically located across the water from the city of Boston. Americans overheard the plan and communicated it to the charismatic and respected Dr. Warren.
American Colonel Israel Putnam (1718–1790) convinced Warren that it was unwise to wait for the British to attack. He convinced Warren to take the high ground on the Dorchester peninsula and to fortify these hills, making the British pay if they attempted to follow through with their plans. Soon, American Colonel William Prescott (1726–1795) was given orders to take three regiments atop the peninsula and protect Bunker Hill. At nine o’clock on the evening of June 16, Putnam, Prescott, and twelve hundred men marched through the largely deserted town of Charlestown with three regiments plus a few hundred men from companies of Connecticut and New Hampshire. Most residents had fled inland for fear that the British might burn the city. Once the commanders arrived, a debate ensued about which hill provided a better position. Both options sat atop this peninsula overlooking Boston. Breed’s Hill was lower in elevation, but closer to Boston. The American army had no cannons powerful enough to reach the city or the British ships in the harbor from the higher Bunker Hill. Prescott and Putnam decided to station themselves on Breed’s Hill. After hours of diligent work, Prescott’s men built an earth bastion 160 feet long and eighty feet high, with enormously thick walls. Two British ships, the HMS Livelyand the HMS Somerset, opened fire on the structure, but neither caused the fort any real damage.
By morning, another four hundred colonists joined the men atop Breed’s Hill. That afternoon, General Howe and 2,200 British troops headed to displace the Americans from their position. Howe was determined to reassert Britain’s power over the colonists, especially after the retreat from the earlier skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. He bombarded the city of Charlestown and launched a frontal assault. The colonials were hardly affected physically by the cannon fire, but became fearful of their aggressive opponent. Many of the officers from two of the Massachusetts regiments announced their exhaustion and withdrew, leaving Prescott with only three hundred of his own men and about two hundred of the Connecticut volunteers. One cannon ball tore the head off a soldier, causing a panic to carry through the garrison. Prescott ordered the corpse to be buried to calm his men.
Then the Redcoats eventually charged the hill. With limited powder and supplies, Putnam issued his famous order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” They waited, followed that order, and the enemy began to drop. Sharpshooters killed an estimated ninety-six men, causing the others to retreat. Howe and other British soldiers made additional charges up the hill, facing similar setbacks. Shots were also coming from houses within Charlestown. At the request of one of the British officers, the Royal Navy began to shoot heated cannon shots into Charlestown homes, burning over three hundred houses. Residents of Boston took to their rooftops to watch the battle.
In the immediate aftermath of this battle, neither side likely viewed it as a victory. Dr. Warren fought to the end, even with a bayonet wound to his arm. Outside the fort he tried to rally his men to take a stand, but was struck in the head by a bullet. He fell and died without a sound. The aftermath to the British army was gruesome as well. Bleeding Redcoats scattered from the hill across the Charles River into Boston. For the British, nineteen officers and 207 men had been killed, 40 percent of its fighting force. The American side lost 140 soldiers and suffered 301 wounded.
The Battle of Saratoga, which took place in the summer of 1777, proved to be a turning point in the American Revolution, especially for the American colonists. The British strategy to advance against the rebellious Americans was simply to divide and conquer by cutting off New England from the mid-Atlantic colonies. Saratoga, New York, lay on the Hudson River north of Albany and south of the American-held Fort Ticonderoga. British General John Burgoyne and his fighting force of about five thousand men (some of which were Canadians and Native Americans) were stationed in Canada. He invaded New York by way of Lake Champlain and planned to pursue the enemy down the Hudson. The British master plan included General Barry St. Leger’s (1737–1789) maneuvers up the St. Lawrence River through Lake Ontario and then eastward down the Mohawk Valley to Saratoga. A third British group would arrive from New York City on the Hudson. The plan, if successful, could have brought the American rebels to their knees.
From London, Burgoyne was instructed to press on to Albany, a path that would prove treacherous for him. His Canadian and Native American assistants helped him handle the terrain. By September 12, 1777, a confident American army occupied a position on the west bank of the Hudson, called Bemis Heights. Burgoyne had already reclaimed Fort Ticonderoga and arrived in the area on September 13, but did not encounter Americans until September 18, when a colonial patrol seeking food fired on his men on an abandoned farm. Burgoyne had only a vague idea of the encampment at Bemis Heights, but decided to attack it the following day.
The Saratoga confrontations consisted of two battles, one at Freeman’s Farm and one at Bemis Heights. At about ten in the morning on September 19, Burgoyne advanced southward toward the American position with over four thousand of his men, leaving the others behind to guard boats, supplies, and to act as a reserve. The attacking group divided into three columns traveling on the west side of the Hudson. By 1:00 p.m., communicating with gun signals, the three divisions were ready to advance against the Americans.
American General Benedict Arnold felt the best strategy was to meet the enemy in the woods rather than in an open area. Arnold sent a division of riflemen to meet Burgoyne’s group coming from the west. The detachment encountered one of the British columns, but was eventually driven back and formed a line along the south end of Freeman’s Farm, in a clearing of about fifteen acres. Then Arnold arrived and assumed command. Here, some of the fiercest fighting of the Revolution took place. The real victor in this part of the battle, however, was the German General von Riedesel (1738–1800), a career soldier now fighting for Burgoyne and the British. Americans lost about three hundred in this fight.
The following day, Burgoyne announced that he wanted to attack again, though his senior officers advised against it strongly. On that day he also received a letter from General Henry Clinton, a ranking officer in the king’s army, planning to move forward from New York City to assist Burgoyne. Burgoyne decided to wait for him, which proved a fatal decision. It took Clinton two weeks to get his expedition underway, and the second attack did not take place until early October. The British, who enjoyed a degree of success at Freeman’s Farm, now suffered from reduced rations, and their horses died of starvation. Burgoyne’s men were shivering in the cold fall nights while still wearing their summer uniforms. With over eight hundred sick men—a combination of victims from Freeman’s Farm and from cold weather—Burgoyne faced a great setback. American General Benjamin Lincoln (1733–1810) added to Burgoyne’s troubles. At a strategic point between Lake Champlain and Lake George, his troops captured 243 Redcoats, freed one hundred American prisoners, and destroyed British supplies. He also disrupted the line between Burgoyne and Canada. Additionally, many of the Native American scouts deserted Burgoyne after facing American rifles.
Meanwhile, the Americans strengthened their position, and General Lincoln, who had been operating on the east side of the Hudson, brought his men across to join Arnold. By early October, the Continental army had a strength of about 11,000 soldiers.
With these setbacks, senior British officers recommended retreat, but Burgoyne would not hear of it. His overconfidence caused him to bet that he would be eating Christmas dinner at his destination in Albany. With this goal, he decided on another attack. On October 7, he took two thousand men and ten cannons to the American left flank. The second skirmish of Saratoga, the Battle of Bemis Heights, was about to take place when the British general sent a reconnaissance team of 1,600 to find a weak point in the American line, to no avail. Americans soon discovered and mauled this detachment, and twice attacked the main British forts. The British lost 1,200 men while Americans suffered half that. On October 17, Burgoyne formally surrendered his army to General Horatio Gates (1726–1806).
As the winter of 1777–1778 began, General George Washington decided to move the Continental army into winter quarters at Valley Forge. Soldiers resided at this camp, which was twenty-one miles west of British-occupied Philadelphia. Washington wanted to station his men safely during the cold winter, but also wanted to be able to defend the American interior. Valley Forge was at the junction of the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek. In reality, it was no valley but a two-mile long, thickly wooded high ground above the river.
Valley Forge is most remembered for the horrible condition that soldiers faced there. Upon arrival, one Connecticut doctor recorded he was “sick, discontented, and out of humor,” and that none of the basic amenities were available. His descriptive list of inadequacies went on: “poor food, hard lodgings, cold weather, fatigue, nasty clothes, nasty cookery, vomit half the time, and smoked out of my mind.”
When the soldiers set up the encampment, Washington’s men began to construct huts made mostly from materials they gathered from the local woods. Parties of twelve men erected these makeshift dwellings, and the general offered a prize of twelve dollars for the best and most rapidly built hut in each regiment. These shelters typically measured sixteen feet in length and fourteen feet wide, with walls just over six feet tall. Straw, moss, and mud filled the gaps between logs, but rain often washed this bonding away, leaving openings for the cold winter wind. Washington, trying further to encourage a good design, offered one hundred dollars to the soldiers who could devise the best roof.
The general initially occupied a tent atop an adjacent hill, but once the encampment was established, he and his slave, Billy, moved to a house in the nearby hamlet of Valley Forge. Many officers lived in dwellings similar to those of the rank-and-file soldiers, but not nearly as crowded. To make collecting materials easier, a bridge was built across the Schuylkill River. Desperate soldiers became notorious for stealing anything from locals that was not nailed down. More than a thousand huts filled the camp and depleted the woods.
The lack of supplies and the bitter winter made for widespread illness. The revolutionaries suffered physically, and also mentally. By December 1777, Washington’s force had shrunk by over two thousand men, “unfit for duty, because barefoot and otherwise naked,” he noted. By February, the total number of soldiers unfit for battle reached nearly four thousand. Many men lost fingers and toes to frostbite. The fires that barely removed the winter chill made the soldiers sick, filling their lungs with smoke. When soldiers had to go on watch, those remaining in the huts lent them clothes for outdoor duty. Smallpox became another issue. Once inoculations were ordered, the remedy itself damaged some receiving it. Lice and bedbugs on the makeshift bunks made for an uncomfortable, itchy rest. Some tried to endure their woes by drinking themselves numb and died frozen outside near a fire. Some very severe cases were sent fifty miles away to the nearest hospital in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Many did not survive that journey. One particular bachelors’ quarters in the town, designed to sleep 250 men, housed over 750 patients laying practically one on top of the other on straw pallets on the floor.
These conditions brought Washington additional problems, including desertion and resignations. The common penalty for desertion was one hundred lashes. Two chronic deserters were eventually hanged on the parade ground in front of a detachment from every brigade.
The misery at Valley Forge did not result from the lack of wealth in America. During the winter of 1777–1778, Americans feasted on fine food and lived rather comfortably in cities and villages throughout the thirteen states, much like during the economic stability before the war started. This became rather obvious to the soldiers when they received letters from their wives and relatives. Realizing this disparity in conditions likely caused additional desertions and resignations. It also showed the inability of Congress, the governing body charged with overseeing and financing the American effort in the war, to provide resources for Washington and his men. This problem marked the beginning of a tense relationship between the government and the military during the war.
Washington received criticism for the decision to go into winter quarters. The Pennsylvania Assembly spoke out against being still rather than driving British General William Howe out of the state. One of his top officers claimed the location must have been chosen based on “advice of a speculator, a traitor, or a council of ignoramuses.” Washington was no doubt criticized further when reports of the camp’s conditions reached beyond Valley Forge. But the same doctor who recorded the ill conditions assured that the general’s conduct was “uncensurable.”
The American army finally departed the camp in June 1778. The death toll from starvation and frigid temperatures in the Valley Forge experience was about 2,500.
Bonhomme Richard Versus Serapis
The largest sea battle between British and American naval forces during the American Revolution occurred on September 23, 1779, off the coast of Great Britain between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis. American naval officer John Paul Jones had received his orders to lead his first independent command as early as August 1776. By the time of the encounter between his Bonhomme Richard and the British Serapis, Jones had attained the rank of commodore and had already taken the fight to the enemy across the Atlantic. There he captured seven British ships, raided a Scottish harbor, and defeated a Royal Navy sloop in a fierce fight. In the month before this famous encounter, Jones had circled the British Isles to capture seventeen merchant ships and take more than five hundred prisoners. English newspapers began to ask, “Where is the British navy?”
His long and intense battle against the Serapis resulted in an American victory and made Jones legendary. Through bravery, tenacity, improvisation, and will, Jones defeated the Serapis, leaving England’s newspapers asking the same rhetorical question.
The Bonhomme Richard was a converted merchant ship with forty-two twelve-pound guns. It was named in France in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s popular and long-running Poor Richard’s Almanack. Aboard the ship were Jones’s officers, crew, and French soldiers acting as marines, totaling about 380 men from various countries. The frigate Serapis, captained by Richard Pearson, was a new, double-decked ship with fifty-four guns. Twenty of these were eighteen-pound cannons. Thus, the British ship could discharge three hundred pounds of iron cannonballs, while the Bonhomme Richard could manage only 204. Naval historians would assert, too, that heavier cannons were favored to a greater quantity, because they could do more damage. This put the British ship at an even greater advantage. The Serapis also had a copper sheathing on its bottom, which made it faster than the Bonhomme Richard.
Sailing up the English coast, Jones engaged the enemy ship so closely that a verbal exchange was made between he and Pearson before guns were fired. “What ship is that?” Pearson asked in true English bombast. “Come a little nearer and I will tell you,” responded Jones. The Serapis fired and the battle was underway. Jones soon rammed his adversary. He then backed off and circled the Serapis, coming so close that the muzzles of each ship’s guns were almost touching. Knowing the odds were against him, Jones planned to board the ship and take over. The British sailors, however, beat him back.
His first plan did not succeed, but this would be Jones’s finest hour. The larger guns of the Serapis destroyed those on the Bonhomme Richard. But Jones never gave up. He released British prisoners from the galley and forced them to man the pumps to keep his ship afloat. By this point, half of his crew was dead. The chief gunner had abandoned his position to haul down the American flag and surrender. Jones would not have it. To stop him, Jones hurled his own pistol, striking the surrendering sailor in the skull and knocking him unconscious. Jones manned one of his own nine-pound guns in order to take out the sails of the enemy ship.
The American vessel, however, suffered as much if not more than the British ship. It became obvious to Jones that the only way to win was to hold on tight to the Serapis. An American who had boarded dropped a grenade on the gun deck of the Serapis, hoping to hit enemy sailors below. His grenade landed in the middle of loose powder and cartridges, killing several and igniting the ship. Pearson had had enough. Unable to get his men to take the ship’s colors down, he had to do so himself. Night had arrived, and about 150 men of the Bonhomme Richard’s crew were killed or wounded in this four-hour battle. The British total of losses and wounded reached 117.
It was early in this clash that Jones, when asked to surrender, reportedly declared, “I have not yet begun to fight.” There is no written record of Jones’s famous declaration until 1825, and Jones himself never claimed to have said these words. Yet, with his bravery and determination in this battle against Pearson and the British navy, few have questioned if the phrase was worthy. After the surrender, Jones and his crew abandoned the sinking Bonhomme Richard and sailed the Serapis to neutral Holland.
The last major battle of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Yorktown earned the American colonists a victory over the British. Both sides were worn down by 1781. Parliament had partially lost interest in waging this war and the American treasury was depleted. On March 20, British General Charles Cornwallis and his men had arrived from Wilmington, Delaware, in Yorktown, a small town on the banks of the York River in coastal Virginia on Chesapeake Bay. Cornwallis felt that taking the colony of Virginia and advancing on into the Carolinas were the keys to winning the war. He had asked fellow General Henry Clinton, in New York at this time, to assist him in dividing the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. But miscommunication and differences of strategic opinion—many of the same reasons the British failed at Saratoga—allowed George Washington’s army, assisted by the French, to win this battle.
British troop strength at this time numbered about 7,000, because Clinton did send a few men from New York. Washington and American ally French General Lafayette had planned to attack New York City. On August 14, Washington learned that French Admiral François Joseph de Grasse (1722–1788) would arrive from the West Indies to assist the Americans, not in New York, but in the Chesapeake Bay. When the American plans fell into enemy hands, and after receiving news from de Grasse, Washington saw a unique opportunity to pin Cornwallis and about one-quarter of the British forces in America in the Yorktown area. Most of the British force occupied a fortified camp on the south side of the mouth of the York River, with some across the water at Gloucester Point.
By September 1781, the combined French and American forces under Washington’s command numbered 14,000. Additionally, patriot forces from Virginia arrived, taking the total toward 20,000 against Cornwallis’s troops still under 10,000. The British were hemmed in with two options: starve or surrender.
The American bombardment began on October 9 after the army positioned heavy cannons aimed toward the British. At 3 p.m., the Americans began heavy firing toward Yorktown that lasted six days. Cornwallis was shocked by the American capability. He had erroneously assured his men that their only opposition would be light artillery. On the contrary, one of the initial targets was the general’s headquarters in town. The American cannons shattered the three-story Georgian house that he had occupied. By October 14, the American forces had advanced within 200 yards of the British fortifications. British redoubts (forts) nine and ten were especially crucial to Washington’s success. He assigned two light infantry units to take them, one American under Colonel Alexander Hamilton and one French commanded by Lafayette. Soon, nearly one hundred heavy guns faced the enemy at point-blank range. The allied effort proved a rather easy task.
Cornwallis became desperate. Clinton’s reinforcements from New York, meant to arrive by sea, were delayed by indecision and horrible weather. Cornwallis gambled by trying to take his army out of Yorktown across the river and to the British outpost in Gloucester. He knew he would have to face his enemy to retreat northward, but felt he could overcome the smaller French and Virginian units. In the middle of the night on October 16, British troops boarded sixteen Royal Navy flatboats and ferried across the river successfully. Empty boats made their return to Yorktown for another round, but faced a heavy storm, which put a stop to this retreat plan. Soon after this delay, the general’s men informed him that they had only one hundred mortar shells remaining. The numbers of sick and wounded were growing. Cornwallis sought advice. Every one of his officers suggested surrender. As ignoble as it may have seemed, these men were confident that they had done all they could do. Cornwallis accepted the advice and began to dictate a historic letter to Washington offering a formal surrender: “Sir, I propose a cessation of hostilities for twenty four hours, and that two officers may be appointed by each side … to settle the terms for the surrender of the posts at York and Gloucester.”
The fighting was over. Soon not only the battle, but the entire conflict would end. The surrender ceremony was most formal. At 11 a.m. on October 19, Cornwallis signed the final draft of the surrender document, and over 7,000 British soldiers became prisoners of war. At roughly the same moment, General Clinton finally departed New York expecting to either assist his fellow general, or to arrive to greet a victorious Cornwallis. Like much of the world, Clinton was surprised to find how the Americans had finally defeated the British, several miles and two hundred years from the first British colony founded in America.
Later in the day on October 19, 1781, the failed British troops marched out to the field designated for formal surrender. The British bands played an ironic tune, “The World Turned Upside Down,” expressing their surprise and dismay of this turn of events. With French soldiers lined up on one side and Americans on the other, Lafayette noticed how the Brits looked only in the direction of the French forces. The French, a world power and a challenging adversary before, were easier for the defeated British to stomach, while they could not easily look the once-underdog rebels in the eyes. Lafayette responded by ordering his musicians to play “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” at which time the surrendering soldiers began to face the Americans.
Following the same reluctance, British Brigadier General Charles O’Hara (1740–1802)—Cornwallis had failed to show up for surrender—offered his sword to the French general. Count de Rochambeau (1725–1807) then ordered O’Hara to hand it over to General Washington. The American commander then directed O’Hara to hand over his sword to his second in command. The British soldiers then piled their muskets in the open field. Meanwhile, Washington had sent one of his aides to travel to Congress in Philadelphia to report the good news. The Congress received word in two days. London awaited the results for nearly two weeks of agonizing suspense. When British officers finally received word, they reported the surrender to Prime Minister Lord North, who responded, “Oh, God. It’s over. It’s all over.” The peace agreements would be ironed out by parties from both Britain and the United States at the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
The Home Front
In January 1776, Thomas Paine published a slim pamphlet that was to define the American struggle for independence. The cover read: Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America. In straightforward language, it laid out the political, economic, and military arguments for a definitive break with England. Within three months, almost 120,000 copies of the tract sold throughout the colonies. Americans found a common resolve in its pages, one that would help change the emerging conflict from a rebellion into a revolution.
Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737. There, he pursued his father’s corset business, but failed. He also tried teaching, shopkeeping, tax collection, and marriage, all with little success. In 1774, he was fired from his post as a tax collector for agitating on behalf of his fellow excise officers. Unemployed, he met and befriended Benjamin Franklin in London. With Franklin’s letters of recommendation, Paine immigrated to America. He settled in Philadelphia, writing for the Pennsylvania Magazine, where his accessible style and plain reasoning quickly found an audience.
Paine arrived at a time when Americans were not committed to the cause of complete independence. They felt outrage over the Intolerable Acts, partially because such measures were seen as violations of the colonists’ rights as British subjects. Despite the siege of Boston, many people thought that the Crown would relent under pressure. Many hoped to return to the conditions that had existed in 1763. Paine, a passionate revolutionary, thought such sentiments were simply wishful thinking.
Common Sense Arguments
Paine condensed his thoughts on the American situation into Common Sense, a 46-page pamphlet, divided into four sections. First came a reflection on the nature of government and on the British Constitution in particular. Paine argued that all government was at best “a necessary evil,” designed to bring freedom and security to the people, in the absence of perfect virtue. The most natural government, he proposed, was a legislative body of elected officials. The British Constitution was burdened by the Crown and Peerage, therefore “imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise.”
The second part of the tract attacked the monarchy. Paine invoked the Bible to make a case against the institution, pointing out that God had cursed the Hebrew people for requesting a king. He ridiculed the British monarchy, whose right to rule was based on “a French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives.” Even more than the origin of royalty, Paine deplored its propagation. Hereditary succession was “an insult and imposition on posterity,” saddling future generations with idiots, children, and tyrants as leaders.
Paine then shifted from theory to the practical concerns of the time. America could no longer dream of reconciliation, he wrote, after hostilities had broken out at Lexington the previous April. He urged his readers to embrace the opportunity of independence. Britain would never defend America’s interest as its own. Union with Britain meant enmity with Britain’s enemies, dragging Americans into foreign wars and closing off half of Europe to American trade. Any ties of kinship or affection between the two countries had been severed by King George III’s conduct.
Paine further declared that as things stood, all attempts at delay amounted to cowardice. “Wherefore, since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats.”
The fourth chapter set about reassuring readers that America could successfully fight England, both economically and militarily, particularly on the sea. Paine spoke of American expertise in shipbuilding, its enormous store of natural resources, and the necessity of building a fleet and defending its own coast.
Finally, Paine laid out the central thesis of his work: that America should openly declare its independence and immediately form a unicameral, republican government. That way allies and enemies would know where they stood: not as masters and rebels but as two sovereign nations at war.
Common Sense was an instant success, winning praises from many of the nation’s leaders, including George Washington. John Adams approved the pamphlet’s general sentiments, though he scoffed at the proposed political system. He also worried what effect such a popular pamphlet would have among the people.
The immediate effect was to bring a huge number of Americans into the cause of independence. In two years, more than 500,000 copies had been printed, one for every five colonists at the time. The work contributed to a growing clarity and unity of purpose, which lead to the Declaration of Independence later that year.
Aftermath of Common Sense
In December 1776, Paine enlisted in the army. In the service he composed a series of “Crisis” essays, which were printed to bolster morale over the course of the war. George Washington had the first of these read aloud to his men before the Battle of Trenton:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.
After the war, Paine moved to Europe, where he continued to pursue his vision of an ideal society. In 1792, he was given a seat in the Convention by the revolutionary government of France, in recognition of his pamphlet The Rights of Man. The English accorded him a different honor for his work, trying him in absentia for treason. Paine later fell out of favor in France for opposing the execution of Louis XVI and was imprisoned in the Bastille at the height of the Reign of Terror.
After his release, Paine wrote The Age of Reason, which tore down orthodox Christian doctrine in favor of Deism. He also published his “Letter to George Washington,” which denounced the president for silently conspiring in his Parisian imprisonment. Neither made him popular in the United States, and when he returned there in 1802, Paine found himself an outcast. He died in 1809, in poverty and obscurity.
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence, signed by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, broke off ties between the American colonies and the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson had drafted the one-page, world-shaking proclamation in a little more than two weeks. But in another sense the Declaration was the product of a long string of fateful events.
American radicals like Patrick Henry and Benjamin Franklin had dreamed of self-determination for years. But public opinion, though increasingly anti-British, was not prepared to cast off the Crown altogether. Samuel Adams had counseled patience: “Wait till the fruit is ripe before we gather it.”
The outbreak of armed conflict in Massachusetts, however, significantly changed the national mood. Then, early in 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” triggered a tidal wave of pro-independence sentiment among the people. By March, the British had been driven from Boston by the Continental army, and it seemed possible that they could be driven from the continent altogether.
Crafting the Declaration
In April, North Carolina’s Provincial Congress passed the Halifax Resolves, authorizing their delegates to vote for independence. On May 27, the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794) put forward a resolution to the Continental Congress, calling for the severing of all political connection with Great Britain, the formation of foreign alliances, and the creation of a colonial confederation government.
John Adams, an outspoken Bostonian lawyer, seconded the motion when it was brought forward. Congress created a committee to draft a formal statement, consisting of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Robert Livingston (1746–1813), and Roger Sherman (1721–1793). Adams asked Jefferson to write the document. A young, quiet member of Congress, Jefferson was initially reluctant, saying that Adams should do it. Adams gave three reasons for his nomination. First, that Jefferson, a Virginian, should take charge of a Virginian initiative. Secondly, that he himself was “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular,” and third, that Jefferson was the far superior writer.
After a few weeks, Jefferson showed his composition to the committee who passed it on to Congress with only minor changes. Adams said he was “delighted” with the work, especially with the passages condemning the slave trade. It contained no original ideas, but summed up the philosophical and practical case for revolution. Echoing the theories of John Locke, Jefferson asserted that all government existed by the consent of the governed, to protect their rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” When any government fails in this duty to its people, the people have the right to replace it.
The Declaration then methodically listed the colonies’ grievances against King George III, calling him “a Tyrant, … unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Some contemporaries expressed discomfort at the charges levied directly at the king, rather than at his Parliament. John Adams considered it too personal, “too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document.”
In conclusion, the British were reminded that the colonies had sought to resolve their complaints through normal imperial channels, only to have their petitions summarily dismissed. Having no other choice, they proclaimed themselves free states.
Debate began on July 1. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania argued that they should still try to reconcile with Britain, since they were not strong enough to win a war. Adams countered that King George III and his ministers had left no hope of compromise, and that war had already begun. Pennsylvania and Delaware still held out against independence. The New York delegation had not received the go-ahead from their state legislature.
The next day, key Pennsylvanians opposing independence decided to withdraw from the vote. Caesar Rodney (1728–1784), having ridden eighty miles all night on horseback in the rain, arrived at the last moment to change Delaware’s vote. In the end, the Congress voted twelve to nothing in favor of dissolving all ties to England, with New York abstaining for the time being. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2 would be “solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Even though the colonies—now states—had voted for separation, they still had to publish the official justification of their actions. They devoted the next two days to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The document was first read aloud, without interruption. Then the assembled body went through it paragraph by paragraph. Altogether they made over thirty changes, removing a quarter of the original text. The section relating to slavery was struck out entirely; it had accused the Crown of “violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him.”
Jefferson did not feel that he could objectively participate in the deliberations. He therefore sat silently, “writhing a little,” through the severe criticism of his work. Benjamin Franklin took pity on the young author, telling a comic story in an attempt to relieve his suffering.
On July 4, after a long strenuous day plagued by heat and horseflies, the delegates ratified the amended document. According to tradition, John Hancock (1737–1793) joked that his large, distinctive signature ensured that King George could read his name without his spectacles.
Everyone present was aware of the personal risks they were undertaking. They understood that the Declaration of Independence contained an implicit declaration of war. The Crown would certainly view all the signatories as traitors and act accordingly. Hancock apparently addressed the members, exhorting them all to be unified, to hang together. “Assuredly we must hang together,” Franklin is said to have remarked, “or we will certainly hang separately.” Indeed, five of the signers were captured, tortured, and killed by the British. Twelve others had their homes burned to the ground.
The proclamation was then distributed to the public, who received it with public celebrations. In one instance a statue of King George III in Bowling Green, New York, was torn down and melted into bullets. The Declaration’s influence reached past the fledgling United States. In France, the Declaration served as a model for the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” a few years later. It has continued to inspire through the centuries, not only revolutionaries, but those who hold, as self-evident, a belief in the equality of mankind.
The Great Awakening
Thirty years before the Revolution, from about 1739 to 1745, America underwent a revival in religious interest, which came to be known as the Great Awakening. Powerful itinerate preachers and revival meetings sprang up throughout the colonies. Many viewed the phenomenon as an “outpouring of the Holy Spirit.”
George Whitefield (1714–1770) had been a member of the “Holy Club” at Oxford University in England, along with Methodist founding brothers John (1703–1791) and Charles Wesley (1707–1788). During an illness in 1735, he felt a moment of inspiration, which he called his “New Birth.” He became convinced that true religion was only to be found in a personal experience of God. Whitefield proceeded to stir congregations across England with his emotional sermons. His preaching also attacked the more conventional clergy, berating them for spiritual emptiness. He soon found most of the pulpits of the Anglican Church closed to him. Undaunted, he organized immensely popular open-air services. In 1739, Whitefield exported his dynamic new church experience to the New World.
Whitefield toured the middle colonies, drawing huge crowds. A magnificent showman as well as a powerful orator, he exhorted his listeners to renew their personal faith and to be united with Christ. He shouted, stomped, acted, sang, and almost always wept. Even his crossed eyes—a result of an early bout with measles—were endowed with spirituality. It was said they allowed him to keep one eye on heaven and another on hell.
Benjamin Franklin, famous for his skepticism, found himself moved by Whitefield’s eloquence. Apparently Franklin had attended a revival meeting determined not to give a penny at the collection, but ended up putting all his money in the basket. Whitefield was a very able fundraiser, frequently taking up collections for an orphanage for Georgia’s poor, among other things.
Whitefield was also one of the first religious figures to employ new marketing strategies in his evangelism. He distributed printed materials, sent advance publicity, and took out newspaper advertisements to bring people to hear his message. His methods were very effective. Franklin wrote in his autobiography: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious.”
Christian revivalists were not unknown in the colonies at the time. Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764) had preached throughout the Delaware valley in the 1720s, and he joined Whitefield’s ministry with zeal. Perhaps the most famous American of the Awakening era was Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a Congregational minister from Connecticut. He did not have the flamboyance of other preachers, generally speaking in a monotone. Nevertheless, when he delivered his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” he was forced to pause until the crowd calmed down because so many in the audience screamed, sobbed, or fainted.
James Davenport (1716–1757), a Long Island minister, led a wild revival in Connecticut and Rhode Island. His followers built a bonfire to burn their earthly possessions, including theology books and even their clothes. He was brought to court for disturbing the peace, where he was judged “disturbed in the rational faculties of his mind.”
New Lights and Old Lights
Mainline clergy at first welcomed the renewed interest in religion, but soon found themselves the targets of attacks from itinerant pulpits. Edwards taught that human emotion, not reason, best led the soul to God. This called into question the value of highly educated ordained ministers, who could discuss the finer points of their theology but left the congregation asleep on Sunday. In 1740, Tennent published his sermon “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry,” in which he described most ministers as ungodly hypocrites.
Traditionalists were appalled by new trends in worship: improvised prayers, rejection of liturgy, hymns, and shouting. The revivalists disregarded denominational boundaries, because they insisted that salvation rested with the individual. For the first time, parishioners left their home churches to join another if their old pastor was not charismatic enough.
Local churchmen responded angrily, condemning the revivalists as ignorant rabble-rousers. One Reverend Timothy Cutler described a meeting in these terms: “Came one Tennent, a minister impudent and saucy; and told them all they were damned, damned, damned! This charmed them; and in the dreadfullest winter I ever saw, people wallowed in the snow night and day for the benefit of his beastly braying.”
At the time, many colonies still had state-sponsored churches supported by tax money. Some legislatures tried to force the new churches to pay tithes to their old churches, or to fine ministers who preached in someone else’s territory. Connecticut went further, refusing to recognize any clergyman without a Yale or Harvard degree.
Soon, almost every denomination in America was split into two camps, dubbed by some the “New Lights” and the “Old Lights.” Many, like the Presbyterians, went through official schisms. Other churches were born from the remnants of one camp or another. Unitarianism probably had its roots in the opposition to revivalism, whereas many northern Baptist churches grew from separatists.
The Awakening started to decline around 1743, by which time many people thought that the revivals had gotten out of hand. Even George Whitefield, on his next tour of America in 1745, regretted some of the excesses of his imitators. He later apologized for his part in creating antagonism within the churches, as did Tennent and Davenport.
Historians do not agree on the impact the Awakening had on the Revolution thirty years later. Certainly it weakened Americans’ respect for traditional authority. It also fostered a strong belief, especially among the evangelists, in the separation between church and state.
The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers were a series of eighty-five essays published in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788, urging the voters to ratify the United States Constitution. Written by Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757–1804), James Madison (1751–1836), and John Jay, the papers tried to push the states toward a stronger federal government.
The Articles of Confederation
At the time of the Treaty of Paris, which brought the American Revolution to a formal close, the thirteen states were loosely bound together under the Articles of Confederation. These Articles gave almost total sovereignty to the individual states. Congress itself controlled military and foreign affairs, but could not collect taxes. As a consequence, the country could not repay its debts from the war. This contributed to a general economic downturn and growing discontent.
The Constitutional Convention
Many political leaders felt the need for a more powerful central government. In May 1787, a special conference was called in Philadelphia. The conference’s stated purpose was merely to revise the Articles of Confederation. James Madison of Virginia, among others, was convinced that stronger measures were called for. He and his delegation proposed an entirely new form of government, with two legislative houses, an executive branch, and a judiciary. Other factions proposed alternate plans, with varying degrees of federal authority and with different ideas for state representation.
After four months of heated debates, the first draft of the U.S. Constitution was passed on to the states for ratification. Nine of the states needed to approve the Constitution before it could become law.
Despite all of its compromises, the Constitution faced a vigorous opposition movement called the Anti-Federalists. These included Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Clinton (1739–1812), governor of New York. Anti-Federalists were concerned over the broad authority given to the national government, especially to the executive branch. They claimed that a concentration of power would naturally lead to tyranny, especially in a large and diverse nation. Others rejected the Constitution because it did not contain a bill of rights.
Because the state of New York was strongly divided on the issue, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay decided to publish articles defending the Constitution in local newspapers. They were published anonymously under the pen name Publius. Hamilton wrote the majority of the papers.
The Federalist Papers attempted to convince New Yorkers that a strong central government was necessary for the well-being of the United States. Some articles pointed out the political and economic weaknesses of the Confederacy. Others championed the proposed system of checks and balances between the branches of government. In Federalist No. 10, Madison argued that a federal republic was the most effective safeguard against abuse, precisely because it represented so many different interests.
Hamilton also wrote that a bill of rights was unnecessary. Because the Constitution clearly defined what the government could do, there was no need to reiterate what it could not. Nevertheless, the Federalists promised to amend the Constitution to include the Bill of Rights.
By the time New York voted on ratification, ten states had already endorsed the Constitution. New York’s acceptance may have been a simple matter of resignation. Therefore it is difficult to judge the Federalist’s success as propaganda. Regardless, the essays are recognized as important works of political science. They were published in book form in 1788 and have been in print ever since. They provide essential insight into the framing of the Constitution.
The Federalist Party
The next year, George Washington was sworn in is as the first president of the United States. He appointed Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, and Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton and Jefferson disagreed sharply over the scope of the new federal government. Their respective ideologies split American politics into a fiercely partisan battlefield.
Hamilton was born poor and illegitimate in the West Indies. A self-made man of great energy, he dedicated himself to establishing America as a world economic and military power. To this end, he sponsored legislation favoring banks, industry, and trade. He quickly consolidated and settled foreign debt, creating a strong national currency. Hamilton believed that states should be completely secondary to national rule. He also felt that government policy should not be decided directly by the masses, who tend to be self-interested and ignorant. Rather, the people should choose their leaders from the educated elite. He and his colleagues came to be known as the Federalist Party.
Jefferson, born into the wealthy landowning class, envisioned an ideal egalitarian society based mostly on farming. He believed in direct populist democracy and in greater state sovereignty. Hamilton’s strategies, particularly his creation of a national bank, horrified the Anti-Federalists.
The Burr-Hamilton Duel
Despite the intense rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson, Hamilton backed Jefferson’s bid for the presidency in 1801. He did so because the alternative was Aaron Burr (1756–1836), a fellow lawyer from New York, and a longtime personal enemy.
In 1804, Burr ran for governor of New York. Once again, he met Hamilton’s fierce opposition and was defeated. Infuriated, Burr accused Hamilton of slandering him in public. He demanded the satisfaction of a duel.
Hamilton opposed dueling on principle. He wrote that he planned to delope, to miss his shot on purpose. When the day came, Hamilton did indeed miss, but Burr did not. Hamilton was severely wounded and died the next day.
The incident effectively finished Burr’s political career. Instead, he sought military adventure in the West. He was later turned in by one of his own men, who claimed Burr meant to attack New Orleans and create his own nation in Louisiana. Tried for treason, Burr was acquitted, but he was widely believed to be guilty. In later life he spoke sadly of “my friend Hamilton, whom I shot.”
Antagonism between the two groups deepened as a result of the emerging revolution in France. The Anti-Federalists (at first) embraced the French insurgents as fellow freedom fighters. The Federalists regarded Paris as the worst example of mob democracy and advocated a closer alliance with Britain.
The split between Federalists and Anti-Federalists (who began to call themselves the Republicans) endured until Jefferson was elected as president. But the struggle between the advocates of federal authority and the advocates of state rights continued to simmer, until it exploded again in the American Civil War.
The Age of Enlightenment
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, new trends of thought emerged in Europe, radically changing the understanding of politics, economics, and religion in the western world. Together, these ideas came to be known as the Enlightenment, which was articulated and spread through the writings of many different thinkers: Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Benjamin Franklin, John Locke (1632–1704), and Adam Smith (1723–1790), to name only a few. Their philosophies deeply influenced the political realities of their time and continue to do so today.
The Enlightenment had its roots in the Scientific Revolution, which had begun in the sixteenth century with Nicolaus Copernicus’s (1473–1543) vision of a heliocentric solar system. He and his successors, such as Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Isaac Newton (1643–1727), successfully challenged old conceptions of the nature of the physical world. They paved the way for an explosion of scientific inquiry, in which human knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology increased dramatically. Coupled with the expansion of the known world through navigation, these discoveries opened the public imagination to an endless horizon, to limitless possibilities.
In those days, there was often no clear distinction between science (called “natural philosophy”) and ideology. Some early scientists, such as Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), and Francis Bacon (1561–1626), viewed themselves primarily as philosophers or theologians. René Descartes (1596–1650), the father of modern geometry, put forward the theory that all philosophy could be reduced to a mathematical progression, beginning with “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, all human understanding begins with individual reason.
As time went on, intellectuals increasingly introduced scientific principles—skepticism, imagination, observation, measurement, and experimentation—into other arenas of thought. Just as Copernicus had challenged Aristotle’s solar system, the lights of the Enlightenment challenged long-accepted structures of society, government, economics, and religion.
The spirit of the Enlightenment, insofar as it can be distilled, may be described as a questioning of traditional authorities, especially that of the established churches. In particular, the French philosophes reflected the strong anticlericalism of France in their writings. Through biting essays and plays, Voltaire (born François-Marie Arouet) condemned Judaism and Christianity as superstitious and ignorant. He particularly questioned how an omnipotent and benevolent God could permit evil in the world. David Hume (1711–1776), a Scottish philosopher, insisted that human reason should be the basis of all opinion and action, and he denied any rational proof of organized faiths. In England, John Locke strongly advocated religious tolerance and the separation of church and state.
The civil and religious authorities of the time were anything but separate, and they did not passively accept criticism. Even Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), a German philosopher sympathetic to Christianity, received a letter from Frederick William II (1744–1797) ordering him to discontinue any commentary on religion. The French police threw Denis Diderot (1713–1784) in solitary confinement for three months following his atheistic An Essay on Blindness in 1749.
It should be noted that the Enlightenment encompassed a diverse spectrum of thought. Some writers, like Locke, were devout Christians. Among the rest, very few were outright atheists. Even Voltaire believed in a Designer, though not in a personal God who took notice of human affairs. Others professed a Deity, an impersonal being who created the cosmos and defined morality. This view is loosely described as Deism and was shared in varying degrees by many of the American Founding Fathers.
The Social Contract
In 1733, Alexander Pope (1688–1744) wrote, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.” Enlightenment thinkers expressed differing theories on the nature of humankind. Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), an English philosopher, wrote that people were inherently selfish, motivated only by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that man was naturally good in a primitive state, a “noble savage.” Locke argued that the human mind was a tabula rasa, a blank slate. He proposed that a person’s character was entirely created by that person’s experience, not by any inherent qualities of the soul.
From an examination of the individual, philosophers naturally turned to an analysis of the group. Rousseau and Locke both asserted that all human beings were in a “state of nature,” free and equal. Therefore no individual had the inherent right to rule over another.
However, if human beings were free to pursue their own good, one’s interests would inevitably conflict with the interests of others. Hobbes suggested that, if men lived in perfect liberty, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” To protect the common good, people entered into a “social contract.” Individuals gave up some of their freedom to create a government. In exchange, the government provided justice and order.
The concept of the social contract conflicted directly with the medieval concept of the divine rights of kings. Nevertheless, some European monarchs partially adopted the notion. Frederick II of Prussia (1712–1786), Catherine II of Russia (1729–1796), and Joseph II of Austria (1741–1790) saw themselves as public servants, pursuing the good of the people by means of their absolute authority. As a result, they have been called “enlightened despots.”
It was further asserted that the social contract could be broken. If the government failed in its duties, the people have the right, even the responsibility, to overthrow that government. Thomas Jefferson echoed this concept, along with other Enlightenment themes, in the Declaration of Independence.
Hobbes extended the idea to include the institution of slavery. Since slaves did not consent to their situation or benefit from it, they could use any means, even violence, to escape from it. The Baron of Montesquieu (1689–1755), along with many others, wrote that the institution of slavery was degrading to the masters.
Another staunch opponent to slavery was Adam Smith, a Scot who has been called the father of modern economics. In 1776, Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, in which he argued that trade flourished best when relatively free from government restrictions. Furthermore, because of the nature of competing interests, free trade safeguarded personal freedom. Smith’s work was notable for its scientific approach to wealth and labor. Much modern economic theory is based on his concept of the market as a self-regulating system.
Enlightenment thinkers, like Newton, strove to discover the underlying laws of the universe. Their work attempted to formulate the rules that they observed: the laws of human nature, the natural law of morality, the rule of law in politics, and the economic laws of the market.
The Seven Years’ War
The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) was the first truly global war. The principal belligerents were Europeans, but the battlefields ranged from Canada to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and India. The North American theater of the war came to be known as the French and Indian War.
The American Spark
Hostilities began in North America two years before any formal declaration of war. Having obtained land grants in the Ohio River valley from King George II (1683–1760), Virginia traders started to move into the area. This incursion conflicted with the French Canadian land and trade claims. To protect their interests, Canada sent hundreds of men to the valley, building forts and negotiating alliances with local Indian tribes.
The Virginians sent a young officer named George Washington to the newly built Fort Le Boeuf. He delivered a message from the colony demanding that the Canadians leave. When they refused, he returned with a larger force and with royal authorization to use it. During the ensuing skirmishes, Washington’s men ambushed a Canadian force, killing ten and taking twenty-one prisoners. Washington’s band hastily erected a mud and log fort, dubbed Fort Necessity, to protect themselves from Canadian reprisals. It proved inadequate. For the first and only time in his career, Washington was forced to surrender.
News of this frontier battle reached the courts of Frederick II the Great of Prussia (part of what is now Germany), Empress Marie-Therese of Austria (1717–1780), George II of England, and Louis XV of France (1710–1774). Horace Walpole (1717–1797), an advisor to the English throne, said that Washington had set the world on fire.
War in Europe
Europe had been building up to war for years, but the colonial violence dramatically increased tensions between France and Great Britain. In 1756, to protect Hanover (King George’s German territory) from French invasion, England officially allied itself with Prussia. In response, Austria allied with France. This redistribution of power was later called “the diplomatic revolution.” The same year, Prussia invaded Saxony, then part of the Austrian Empire (part of Germany today). Frederick of Prussia hoped that he could in this way prevent Austria from teaming up with Russia. The strategy backfired, as Austria, France, Russia, and Sweden declared war against him in 1757.
Great Britain also declared war on France. The first few years proved disastrous for the English. In Europe, they met defeat after defeat. In India, the French-backed Prince Siraj-ud-Dawlah (1729–1757) overran British-held Calcutta. British General Edward Braddock (c. 1695–1755) had been sent to confront the French in America, only to be intercepted and killed. The Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal (1698–1778), governor of Canada, made effective use of French reinforcements and Indian partners to capture Fort Oswego and Fort William, north of the Hudson River.
British fortunes did not change until the ascendance of William Pitt, later known as Pitt the Elder. An ambitious and able man, he had once said, “I know that I can save this country and that no one else can.” He made effective use of the navy, keeping the French fleet occupied in European waters while the British seized control of the shipping routes.
War in the Colonies
Pitt thought globally. He decided to support Prussia mainly with money and take the fight to the frontier. Although France only sent a few divisions to support Canada, thousands of British regulars landed in North America. General Jeffrey Amherst (1717–1797) managed to capture the French fort at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, in 1758. James Wolfe (1727–1759) managed to capture Quebec in 1759, only to lose it to a French counterattack. The French had to abandon the city a few days later when the Royal Navy appeared on the Saint Lawrence River. They retreated to Montreal, where they were defeated in 1760.
In the meantime, the British secured the West Indies, capturing Guadeloupe, Martinique, Havana, and Manila. These victories, combined with the East India Company’s consolidation of British rule in India, established Great Britain as the foremost imperial power in the world.
Frederick II fought brilliantly and tenaciously, fending off much larger armies. But by 1763, Prussia’s manpower and resources were reaching their limit, despite Pitt’s enormous financial support. Nevertheless, the French and Austrians knew that Prussia would fight to the bitter end. The European conflict threatened to become a dreary, bloody stalemate.
The British, particularly the newly crowned George III had grown weary of the war. He ousted Pitt the Elder and set peace negotiations in motion. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 put an end to the war.
The Native American tribes had largely broken with the French after 1758. But despite their neutrality, the European powers regarded Indian lands as spoils of war. Anglo American settlers poured into the Ohio River valley. They were more invasive and less respectful than the French had been. Dissatisfaction with these new conditions sparked armed conflict. Ottawa Chief Pontiac (c. 1720–1769) launched a campaign against the British in 1763, capturing a great many forts. The British responded by sending in reinforcements, who successfully defended Fort Pitt and Fort Detroit until peace settlements were concluded with the various tribes. As part of these treaties, the Crown closed the trans-Appalachian region to white settlers.
The Seven Years’ War propelled Great Britain to the zenith of its empire. The victory was a costly one. Pitt had spent money recklessly and had incurred 137 million pounds in national debt. George III, strapped for funds, looked to America to help pay for the war. Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, which levied a small tax on almost all printed materials in the colonies. The colonists reacted by insisting that only their own assemblies had a right to tax them. Resistance was almost universal and often violent. The Stamp Act was repealed, in part because men like Pitt pleaded on the colonists’ behalf.
As the tax was meant to pay for the defense of North America, the British regarded the Americans’ protests as gross ingratitude. This possibly contributed to the British Empire’s stubbornness in regard to the colonists’ later complaints. That stubbornness in turn led to Britain’s loss of its colonies in the American Revolution.
On the conclusion of the American Revolution, the newly formed United States faced grave financial and political problems. In remedy, the Founding Fathers scrapped the Articles of Confederation, which had served as the nation’s framework since 1781. In its place they created the U.S. Constitution, which has been the backbone of American government ever since.
The Articles of Confederation
The American people, fresh from their rebellion, distrusted any government with far-reaching authority. They had, after all, rejected the king’s right to maintain standing armies abroad, to tax a distant people, and to regulate matters that were none of his business. Accordingly, the Articles of Confederation reflected the spirit of local rule. Instead of forging a strong national leadership, the Articles provided a “firm league of friendship” between the states. Each individual state maintained its “sovereignty, freedom and independence,” almost in full.
Congress was to take charge of all foreign affairs, especially the declaration of war or peace. It was also to mediate state border disputes, deal with Native Americans, coin money, and maintain a post office. Despite these broad responsibilities, Congress was given almost no power. The central government had no right to collect taxes, raise an army, or regulate trade. Legislation was difficult to pass and almost impossible to enforce.
The weaknesses of these arrangements became clear rather quickly. Congress had borrowed heavily to support the war and now had no reliable source of revenue to repay its creditors. They had to defray payment of debts, causing a currency crisis. Serious land disputes existed between the states. In addition, British ships poured consumer goods into northern markets. American industries, unprotected by tariffs, could not compete.
In 1786, Massachusetts farmers participated in an armed uprising called Shays’s Rebellion, protesting against seizure of land for nonpayment of state taxes. The government had to borrow money from private banks to deal with the crisis.
The Constitutional Convention
Alarmed politicians made several attempts to reform the Articles, with little success. In September 1786, a conference was called in Annapolis to discuss the matter. Representatives from only five states attended. The representatives agreed to hold a convention in Philadelphia the following May.
When the convention opened, twelve of the states sent representatives. Rhode Island boycotted the event. George Washington was unanimously called upon to preside over the proceedings. Those gathered agreed to keep the deliberations secret.
The Virginia Plan
The advertised purpose of the convention had been to revise the Articles of Confederation. But almost immediately, Edmund Randolph (1753–1813) of Virginia put forward an outline for an entirely new form of government. The Convention agreed to use the proposal as the framework for debate.
The Virginia Plan, as it came to be known, was written almost entirely by James Madison. A small, retiring man, Madison had made a thorough study of historical governments. He was also reputed to know more about the American situation than any other delegate. His framework for the new federal government involved an independent executive and a strong judiciary. It also called for two legislative houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each state would elect members of the House. The larger the population of a state, the more representatives the state would send. The members of the Senate were then to be appointed out of the House of Representatives.
The New Jersey Plan
This attempt to base representation on population provoked heated objections from the smaller states. Under the Confederation, each state had one vote in Congress. The Virginia Plan would have drastically diminished the influence of the smaller states relative to the larger states. In response, the New Jersey Plan was advanced. This proposal simply amended the Articles of Confederation, extending the federal government’s powers. The states would still have equal representation regardless of size. The New Jersey Plan was quickly defeated, but the small states remained firm in their opposition to proportional representation.
Roger Sherman of New Haven suggested a middle way, which has since come to be known as “the Great Compromise.” The House of Representatives would reflect each state’s population size, and each state would have an equal voice in the Senate. This was the course finally accepted by the Convention.
The Convention also faced a fierce contest over the issue of slavery. Southern states wanted to prevent any measure that would threaten the ownership of slaves. On the other hand, they wanted their slaves to count as population, to increase their representation in the legislature. This led them to argue that slaves were both property and people.
Anti-slavery activists like Benjamin Franklin and Governeur Morris (1752–1816) objected strenuously. After bitter debate, the convention agreed to another compromise. Slaves were to count as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes.
The assembly was equally divided over the presidency. Most agreed in the need for an executive to enforce the law. However, some suggested that the task should fall to a council of several people. A single president, one delegate argued, would prove the “fetus of monarchy.” Madison argued that a decisive singular executive was needed to check the power of Congress.
They also needed to settle on how the president should be chosen. James Wilson (1742–1798) of Pennsylvania recommended direct popular election. This idea was far too democratic for many delegates. Alexander Hamilton recommended that the president should be elected by the legislature. In the end, the Constitution adopted the compromise electoral college system. Each state was to vote for electors—as many as the number of that state’s representatives and senators—and the electors would elect a president. If no candidate received a majority, then the election would be decided by the House of Representatives, with each state receiving one vote.
In the end, the executive branch was given enormous prerogative. Many states rights supporters, notably Thomas Jefferson, worried about such power in the hands of an individual. One delegate wrote that the Convention would probably never have upheld the office of president if they had not believed that George Washington would be the first to fill it. People believed that his virtues would serve as a good example for future generations, as indeed it did.
The Convention closed in September 1787. Not all of the delegates would sign, but Benjamin Franklin summed up the feelings of many present when he said, “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such.… I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution.”
The American Revolution had a profound effect on politics in Europe. In the 1780s, the French also threw off their oppressive government. The French revolutionaries were partially inspired by the Founding Fathers’ writings and example. However, the French and American Revolutions pursued very different paths, to very different ends.
Comparison may be unjust, because the two countries had very little in common. America rebelled against a constitutional monarchy; France was ruled by an absolutist monarchy. Socially, the French people were divided into three estates. The first consisted of the clergy, the second of the aristos(nobility), and the third included everyone else, from the wealthiest merchant to the poorest farmer. Most clergy were ordained from the nobility, often with little regard to their personal sanctity. The first two estates made up a tiny part of the population, controlled most of the wealth, and paid no taxes. The philosophes of the French Enlightenment wrote passionately against the injustice of this medieval system. By the eighteenth century, a great deal of resentment existed in the third estate against the church and the nobles.
The National Assembly
When the American Revolution started, Louis XVI’s (1754–1793) government offered secret aid to the colonists in the form of money, arms, and uniforms. The French did not share the colonists’ belief in democracy. Rather, they wanted revenge for their humiliating loss in the Seven Years War. In 1777, with the war starting to turn against the British, France entered into an open alliance with America.
The French monarchy’s assistance to an antimonarchal revolution was expensive, to say nothing of ironic. They spent over two billion livres on the American Revolution, and still had debts from the previous war. By 1789, the state was virtually bankrupt. The harvests had been poor and much of the country was starving.
The king’s ministers desperately tried to remedy matters. However, the aristocrats were unwilling to surrender any of their privileges, and resisted all attempts at financial reform. With no other option, Louis called for an Estates-General, an assembly in which representatives of the three estates could air their grievances.
It was the first time an Estates-General had been called in more than 170 years. As a result, the structure of the legislative body was not clearly defined. The first and second estates stubbornly strove to establish the rules to their own advantage. They insisted that each estate should have only one vote. Under those conditions, they would win any measure two to one.
Frustrated, the third estate broke away, and declared itself the National Assembly. At this defiance, the king ordered that the assembly hall be locked. Undaunted, the new Assembly met in the tennis courts across the street, where they swore to create a national constitution.
In the meantime, an episode called the “Great Fear” gripped France. Riots swept across the country, fueled by hungry, angry peasants. Rumors spread that the aristos planned to squelch the third estate by force. On July 14, 1789, armed Parisians attacked the Bastille prison, killing the warden and guards. The prison was virtually empty, but in previous times the Bastille had held political prisoners, often indefinitely and usually without trial. Its fall had great symbolic importance for the revolutionaries.
In response, the king legitimized the National Assembly, ordering the other estates to participate in it. On August 11, the Assembly produced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which declared all male Frenchmen equal in the eyes of the law. The Assembly then turned its attention to creating a constitution.
Over the next two years, many French aristocrats immigrated to England or to Austria. In France they were called émigrés and traitors. Abroad, they stirred up anger against the new French government. In June 1791, Louis XVI also tried to escape the country with his family, but they were recognized before they could reach the border. The Assembly forced them to return to Paris and put them under virtual house arrest.
By 1792, Austria and Prussia had massed an army led by émigréswho were bent on attacking France and restoring the old regime. To prevent the revolution, France preemptively declared war on Austria. The opening battles went disastrously for the French—Austria overwhelmed them at Verdun. The desperate Legislative Assembly passed a measure to conscript a larger army. Hoping to be rescued by the Austrians, Louis vetoed the bill.
The invasion stirred Parisians to a fever pitch. They blamed French losses on the constitutional monarchy and on the king in particular. On August 9, revolutionaries stormed the palace, killing all the defenders. The next day, the king’s power was suspended.
Answering the call of patriotism, thousands of men joined the French army. In September, the Austrian army was pushed back at Valmy. In Paris, the victorious revolutionary government abolished the monarchy entirely and declared the First French Republic. Louis XVI was charged with treason. The convention unanimously convicted him and then sentenced him to the guillotine.
The Reign of Terror
The king’s death helped push Great Britain and Holland into the war. Monarchal Europe could not tolerate regicide, and they feared that the revolution would spread. In addition, angered by the military conscriptions and food shortages, the western province of the Vendée rose up against the new government. Threatened on all sides, the convention created the Committee of Public Safety. In September 1793, the Committee was given almost unlimited power to prosecute suspected counterrevolutionaries.
The Committee’s rule, known as the Reign of Terror, horrified the world. Led by Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), the Committee summarily tried and executed over 17,000 men and women. The victims included the former queen, Marie Antoinette, and members of the old noblesse. But the guillotine claimed commoners as well—political opponents, the indiscreet, the unlucky, even some heroes of the Revolution. The Terror did not end until Robespierre himself was executed in July 1794.
After the Terror, a five-member directory governed the country. The war raged on, as France attempted to “liberate” its neighbors from their rulers. After four years, however, morale was low, the economy was bad, and the Constitution was unstable. In 1799, the directory fell in a military coup. General Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) established himself as the new absolute head of state, and by 1804, he crowned himself emperor. After fifteen years, the French Revolution had shaken off monarchy only to fall into dictatorship.
The Louisiana Purchase
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold millions of acres west of the Mississippi to the United States. This almost doubled the territory of the young country and set the stage for its expansion to the west.
Spain and France
Spain entered the Seven Years War in 1761 on the side of the French and Austrians. The Spanish were not successful; Great Britain quickly captured their islands of Havana and Manila. At the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Great Britain returned control of the islands, but took possession of Spanish Florida. To compensate their ally for this loss, France ceded the Louisiana territory to Spain, including New Orleans.
Since Napoleon had come to power in 1799, he immediately started planning to restore the French Empire. He entered into a secret treaty with Spain, in which Louisiana was returned to the French.
Word of this treaty reached the United States in 1801, where it was rumored that Florida, too, had been given to the French. Thomas Jefferson, then president, viewed this report with alarm. “There is one single spot,” he said, “the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy.… Every eye in the U.S. is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana.” No one doubted Napoleon’s ambition, or France’s rising military strength. America far preferred Spain as a neighbor.
Secretary of State James Madison asked Robert Livingston (1746–1813) to make inquiries. As U.S. minister to Paris, Livingston was given permission to try to buy Florida, if necessary. He discovered that Louisiana had been transferred, but not Florida.
Crisis Over the Mississippi
In 1802, the Spanish Intendant of Louisiana at New Orleans, Juan Morales, closed the port of New Orleans to American trading vessels. American merchants on the Mississippi could no longer transfer their goods to oceangoing ships at the mouth of the river. The impact of this decision would have been devastating to Western traders; the river was their economic life. Their representatives protested vocally in Congress and even advocated taking New Orleans by force.
James Monroe was dispatched to Paris to negotiate with Napoleon’s consulate, even though France had not yet taken control of New Orleans. His instructions were to purchase New Orleans and Florida if possible, for no more than nine million dollars, and to secure rights on the Mississippi River.
Louisiana for Sale
Napoleon had indeed hoped to restore France’s former empire in North America. He attempted to restore white rule to Santo Domingo in the Caribbean, where slavery had been abolished in 1794. However, the Santo Domingo black population rallied under the leadership of former slave Toussaint-Louverture (c. 1743–1803) in 1802. By 1803, the French were forced to abandon the island, which the victorious blacks renamed Haiti.
Santo Domingo, with its lush plantations, had been the richest island in the Caribbean before the uprising. Without it, Napoleon had no hope of conquering North America. He saw no further use for Louisiana, and he did not want to spare troops to defend the territory.
Furthermore, the sale could gain the goodwill of the United States. Napoleon was already planning war with Great Britain, and he hoped America would remain neutral. Finally, the French Empire needed money for its armies.
In April 1803, the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois (1745–1837), French minister of finance, was given permission to sell Louisiana to the United States. He entered into negotiations with Monroe and Livingston, then in Paris. They had no instructions to buy all of Louisiana, but nevertheless they bargained hotly for almost a month. In the end, they agreed to pay about fifteen million dollars. They also promised to grant the inhabitants of Louisiana all the privileges of American citizenship.
Toussaint was born in slavery around 1743, on the island which is now Haiti. His father was descended from a royal African family, and taught his son his native language, Aja-Fon. Toussaint was freed sometime probably in the 1770s, after which he became a landowner and businessman.
In 1791, conflict broke out between radical and counterrevolutionary colonists in the islands. Toussaint, with many other slave rebels, joined forces with the Spanish in 1793, trying to seize the island from the French. He quickly earned a reputation for bravery and leadership, and was eventually recognized as one of their top military commanders. Around this time he adopted the name Louverture, which means “opening,” or “beginning.” When the French republic outlawed slavery in 1794, Louverture changed sides, becoming the first black general in the French army in 1801.
Having secured the island, Louverture turned his energies to reconstruction. Though he never declared independence from France, he rebuilt the plantation economy, encouraged trade, and wrote a constitution. When Napoleon tried to reinstate slavery in the colonies, Louverture led his army in the Haitian War of Independence in January 1802. Louverture was captured in battle, and deported to France, where he died in prison. The fight continued without him. The French were driven out, and the state of Haiti was born in December 1803.
When Jefferson received news of the agreement, he hesitated. As leader of the Anti-Federalist Party, he had fought hard against the expansion of federal power. Under the Constitution, neither he nor Congress had the right to purchase land. Nevertheless, the president approved the purchase, and Congress agreed. By March 1804, Louisiana was formally a territory of the United States.
The exact boundaries of the new territory were not precisely known at the time of purchase. America was to acquire whatever France had acquired from Spain. When pressed for details, French Prime Minister Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838) shrugged it off: “I can give you no direction. You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it.”
The vagueness of the contract resulted in a long-standing dispute with Spain that concluded only in 1819. In the end, the land purchased would become the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and parts of Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming. The price came to roughly three cents an acre.
Jefferson called for a survey of the area, which resulted in the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 1804 to 1806. It opened the United States to major westward growth. However, political strife continually broke out over whether slavery would be legal in the new territories. In this way each new state was forced to choose a side in the upcoming Civil War.
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