Revolutionary War (1775–83)
Revolutionary War (1775–83): Causes The roots of the Revolutionary War ran deep in the structure of the British empire, an entity transformed, like the British state itself, by the Anglo‐French wars of the eighteenth century. After the fourth of these conflicts, the Seven Years' (or French and Indian) War, the British government tried to reform the now greatly expanded empire. The American colonists resisted, creating a series of crises that culminated in the armed rebellion of 1775.
The Imperial Background.With the Glorious Revolution (1688), England's foreign policy took the anti‐French path it followed until 1815—a path that led to four wars before 1775. These conflicts spawned a British nationalism with powerfully anti‐Catholic overtones. They also transformed the British state into the most powerful fiscal‐military agency in Europe.
Britain's greatest weapon was its funded national debt, which harnessed private savings to military ends. British financiers, managing the joint stock corporations—the Bank of England, the South Seas Company, the East India Company—loaned the government money in wartime; the government used postwar tax revenues to pay interest on what became a perpetual debt. The demand for revenues stimulated the growth of another fiscal engine, the Treasury. A “Real Whig” (or “Country”) political ideology emerged, which denounced this powerful state as the enemy of liberty, stressed the dangers of standing armies, and insisted that consent to taxation was the property holder's sole bulwark against “enslavement” by would‐be tyrants in the government. “Country” ideology dominated the language of political opposition, but barely slowed the growth of the state. Each war's demands—and the stability of a securities market underwritten by tax monies—overrode the objections of those who feared expansion of state power.
The third Anglo‐French War (1739–48) brought America back in to British strategic calculations for the first time. New England colonists attacked Canada, conquering Louisbourg, the naval base that controlled access to the St. Lawrence. This prevented French reinforcement and resupply, and would have led to the conquest of Canada, had not merchants in Albany traded overland with Québec and kept New York neutral in the fighting. This independent foreign policy outraged British administrators, especially Lord Halifax. Between 1748 and 1754, Halifax and his associates at the Board of Trade planned reforms to ensure that in future wars the empire would function as a unit.
The Seven Years' War (1754–63) Destabilizes Imperial Relations.The French and Indian War, which became the Seven Years' War in Europe, created unprecedented problems of finance and control for Britain. In the war's early years, before 1758, the colonists traded with the enemy and refused to pay for British military operations. The ministry of William Pitt (1757–61) solved the first problem by offering to reimburse the colonies for part of their war expenses; the second solved itself as Britain conquered French colonies in Canada and the Caribbean. Pitt's victories and policies, however, doubled the national debt and made his successor determined to contain costs and reform the empire.
Beginning with George Grenville in 1763, a series of British ministers tightened the bonds of empire while trying to spread some of the costs of imperial defense to the colonies. They revived Halifax's plans to increase metropolitan supervision over imperial trade and the internal polities of the colonies, but also responded to the urgent legacies of war. As early as 1762, Whitehall planned to station fifteen regular army battalions permanently in America, with the colonists paying the bill. When the Peace of Paris in 1763 added all France's holdings east of the Mississippi River to the empire, the army became the de facto administrator of the conquests.
Ministerial efforts to stamp out illegal trade (which resumed after the peace treaty returned to France its richest sugar islands) coincided with attempts to subordinate the colonies to the metropolis. Colonists who believed that Anglo‐American cooperation and shared sacrifice had achieved the victory were outraged, and the patriotic fervor of the war evaporated in the face of postwar reforms. Chaos ensued when Parliament tried to extract money directly from the colonies with the Stamp Act of 1765.
The Stamp Act protests expressed outrage at British control. Adapting “Real Whig” ideology to their own needs, Americans insisted that as long as they remained unrepresented in the House of Commons, Britain had no right to tax them; submission to taxation without consent would enslave the colonists to whatever faction controlled Parliament. In the face of virtual anarchy, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but rejected the American understanding of taxation. According to British constitutional conceptions, taxation was a function of sovereignty (the state's ultimate power to take property and life), which the Glorious Revolution had vested in the king in Parliament. Parliament made its claims explicit by asserting its sovereignty over the colonies in a Declaratory Act that preceded the Stamp Act repeal.
After 1766, Parliament searched for ways to assert its authority. A new set of trade regulations and taxes, the Townshend Duties—named for Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, one‐time protégé of Lord Halifax—aroused a second wave of colonial opposition beginning in 1767. Deliberation and nonviolence marked this phase of resistance as radical leaders in several provinces clarified American political principles and promoted intercolonial cooperation. The result, a reasonably effective boycott of British imports in 1769, demonstrated the colonies' ability to dispense with the empire.
Unable to retreat in any way that would grant the validity of colonial arguments, Parliament in the spring of 1770 opted (at the urging of a new prime minister, Lord North) to repeal all but one of the Townshend Duties. Retaining a single tax, on tea, kept up Parliament's claim to authority while conciliating the colonists. This concession came none too soon.
On 5 March 1770, the same day North proposed partial repeal in Parliament, a squad of British soldiers fired into a taunting Boston crowd, killing five men. Troops had garrisoned Boston since October 1768 to protect customs officials, and had encountered little opposition before this so‐called “Boston Massacre.” To people who accepted the “Real Whig” maxim that standing armies were tyrants' tools, the “massacre” proved Britain's determination to rule by force. In the face of uncontrollable riots, Gen. Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief, handed over the soldiers for trial and withdrew the troops from Boston.
Before trials could be held, news arrived of the partial repeal of the Townshend Duties. Merchants jumped at the chance to end the unprofitable boycott; by fall, when the juries returned verdicts of manslaughter against two soldiers and acquitted the rest, the nonimportation movement had dissolved. The colonists continued to boycott tea, but otherwise business as usual resumed within the empire.
Yet business as usual in 1771 was not what it had been in 1750. The conquests—Canada, East and West Florida, and the vast trans‐Appalachian realm that stretched to the Mississippi—beckoned land‐hungry Britons and colonists alike. The Proclamation of 1763, the crown's attempt to separate white settlement from Indian country by a line drawn at the crest of the Appalachians, had failed; western army units had been withdrawn to the seaboard colonies until by late 1771 only one significant detachment remained, in Illinois. Squatters swarmed into the Ohio Valley, and Indian‐white relations drifted ever closer to war.
The growing chaos in the west revealed an empire in disarray. Yet empires can exist for centuries in decayed forms without creating revolutions, and British authority in North America might merely have declined indefinitely had not seeds of imperial conflict, planted by the Seven Years' War, borne fruit.
The Tea Crisis and the Dissolution of Empire: 1773–75.British army and naval forces, together with the East India Company's private army, had seized France's East Indian trading stations during the war; thereafter, the company opportunistically gained control of northeastern India. The costs of government and defense, however, outran the company's revenues, and by 1773 it faced bankruptcy. This would wreck British financial markets, but the Treasury had no funds to bail the company out. The only solution was to turn the company's vast inventory of tea into money, so the ministry granted the company a monopoly on tea sales in America.
But colonists saw the Tea Act of 1773 as an effort to force them to consume a taxed commodity, and no colonial port would allow the tea to be landed. Bostonians actually destroyed three shiploads on 16 December 1773, an action that goaded North's ministry into regarrisoning Boston and proposing a set of Coercive Acts. As passed by Parliament in May and early June 1774, these measures closed the port of Boston until the town paid for the tea; rewrote the Massachusetts charter to give the governor great power over local affairs and protect royal officials—including soldiers—from prosecution in colony courts; and authorized the quartering of troops in private homes. General Gage was appointed governor of the province.
Meanwhile, Parliament also tried to sort out the problems in the west by attaching much of trans‐Appalachia to the province of Quebec. The Quebec Act protected Roman Catholicism within the province and sanctioned French legal procedures in its courts, which made it look as if thousands of western settlers would be governed by a cryptopapist regime. The Protestant colonists lumped the Quebec Act and the Coercive Acts together as “Intolerable Acts” and resolved to stand fast.
The result was the most effective intercolonial resistance movement yet. On 5 September 1774, representatives of the colonies convened in a Continental Congress to protest the Intolerable Acts and create a nonimportation measure called the Continental Association. The association empowered local committees of safety to enforce the agreement, creating a crude intercolonial union and vesting police powers in radical hands. Agreeing to meet again on 10 May 1775 if the British government had not yet repealed the Intolerable Acts, Congress adjourned on 26 October.
By then, Massachusetts patriots had created an extralegal government called the Provincial Congress, taken control of the province's arms, and organized self‐defense forces. The ministry ordered General Gage to take military action to forestall rebellion. Receiving these orders too late to capture the Provincial Congress, Gage tried to seize munitions stockpiled at Concord. This triggered the Battles of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, and grew into a general New England uprising. When Congress reconvened on 10 May, its only alternatives were to disavow rebellion and disband or to take control of the incipient war on behalf of all thirteen colonies. It chose the latter course, adopting the New England forces as a Continental army and appointing George Washington as commander in chief on 15 June 1775. Although it would be a year before the colonies declared independence from Britain, the Revolutionary War had begun.
Bernard Bailyn , The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1965.
John Shy , Toward Lexington, 1965.
Merrill Jensen , The Founding of a Nation, 1968.
Pauline Maier , From Resistance to Revolution, 1972.
P. D. G. Thomas , British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis, 1975.
P. D. G. Thomas , The Townshend Duties Crisis, 1987.
John Brewer , The Sinews of Power, 1989.
P. D. G. Thomas , Tea Party to Independence, 1991.
Linda Colley , Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, 1992.
Thomas Fleming , Liberty! The American Revolution, 1997.
Fred AndersonRevolutionary War (1775–83): Military and Diplomatic Course In proportion to contemporary population and wealth, the Revolutionary War destroyed more lives and property than any American conflict except the Civil War; in duration it exceeded all American wars until the one in Vietnam. It was also highly complex. It was a civil war, a war for political independence, and finally a European war conducted on a global scale. Only as a struggle for independence could it be said to have had merely two sides. As a civil war, its active parties were British and German (“Hessian”) regulars, American loyalist militias, and British‐allied Indians, who fought American patriot regulars (the Continental army), American patriot militias, and some American‐allied Indians. The uncommitted, however, comprised approximately two‐fifths of the population, and the outcome of the war ultimately depended on them. As a European conflict and a worldwide war for empire, Britain opposed the United States, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. American social conditions and British strategy shaped the course and determined the outcome of the civil war; but logistical and diplomatic factors governed the war's global phase, and these would strongly influence the nature of American independence.
By 1775, the population of British North America was doubling every twenty‐six years. High birth rates and heavy immigration bespoke easily available land, widely distributed among the farming population. The colonists' dispersion and ethnic diversity helped produce the fragmentation and political instability that became pronounced as populations spread westward after the French and Indian War (known in Britain as the Seven Years' War). The easy availability of land weakened American elites; lacking the ability to live off rents, gentlemen also lacked a secure economic and political base. The southern colonies had stable aristocracies, based on slave ownership; but even the greatest planters lived in fear of slave rebellions. Nor did colonial institutions create stability: governments were small, poor, unbureaucratized, and lacked permanent constabularies; neither a unified market economy nor a universally established church existed. Institutional weakness magnified American parochialism, and most colonists were suspicious of any authority not rooted in their own localities. Americans both distrusted and envied Europe, emulating British styles and institutions while resenting British sophistication. As provincials, colonists saw themselves as morally superior, yet culturally inferior, to the English.
British officers who had served in America during the Seven Years' War believed these conditions made Americans leaderless, lazy, and militarily ineffectual. Remembering the high rates of desertion and mutiny among provincial troops in 1755–60, in 1775 British commanders assumed a lack of toughness in the rebels, who—they thought—would collapse at the first application of force.
A Civil War and a War For Independence: 1775–78
Popular Insurrection and a Failed Police Action: 1775–76.From the tea crisis of 1774 through the evacuation of Boston in March 1776, the British faced massive popular resistance among New Englanders. Insofar as even patriot leaders lagged behind public opinion after the so‐called “Intolerable Acts,” it is not surprising that the British commander in chief, Gen. Thomas Gage, failed to understand that the thousands of men who turned out on 19 April 1775 were not armed mobs, but property holders and their sons, who represented communities convinced that the British intended to enslave them. So popular was the rebellion that within a week of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, 20,000 New England militiamen were besieging the British in Boston, without anyone ordering them to do it.
When news of the fighting in Massachusetts reached the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia, the delegates assumed responsibility for the New England militia—which on 15 June they designated a Continental army—and appointed a commander in chief from Virginia, George Washington. Provincials to the core, the delegates wanted a European‐style regular army to conduct a civilized war. The last thing they—or Washington—wanted was for guerrilla warfare to continue.
Meanwhile, Gage and his officers assumed that they were conducting a police action against agitator‐inspired mobs. Thus, when the Americans fortified a Charlestown hilltop on 17 June, the British decided to attack frontally. As Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne explained, they believed government authority “depends in a great measure upon the idea that trained troops are invincible against any numbers or any position of untrained rabble; and this idea was a little in suspense since the 19th of April.” The ensuing carnage and the realization that the rabble had not dispersed, but reorganized, compelled the British to reassess their assumptions. Between the Battle of Bunker Hill and the evacuation of Boston (17 March 1776), British commanders lost the illusion that they were involved in a police action, and the British ministry replaced Gage with Gen. William Howe, who understood the war as a confrontation between opposing armies. Howe's plans for 1776 ushered in the second stage of the war, which would last until Burgoyne's defeat at the Battles of Saratoga (September and October 1777).
Conventional War and Failed Negotiations: 1776–77.Howe moved his base of operations in New York to regain the initiative against Washington. If he thrashed the rebel army, he reasoned, most Americans would return to the imperial fold; as popular enthusiasm waned, Congress would become willing to make peace. Howe wanted negotiation more than outright victory because he was not only commander in chief but (together with his brother, Adm. Lord Richard Howe) peace commissioner in America. This schizoid role handicapped him both as military leader and as diplomat; yet events of summer and fall 1776 suggested that he would succeed.
After the British evacuated Boston, defeats and disaster filled the rest of 1776. The army Congress had sent to invade Canada in June 1775 collapsed in the summer of 1776. After capturing Montréal, the Continentals failed to take Québec, and were forced to raise their siege when British reinforcements arrived by ship in May. By July, the Americans had retreated to Lake Champlain and—desperately hoping to slow the advance of Gen. Guy Carleton's powerful army on New York—built a small fleet of gunboats. At the Battle of Valcour Island (10 October 1776), Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold succeeded in stalling Carleton's invasion, but had to withdraw to Fort Ticonderoga.
Meanwhile, the fervor of 1775 faded as General Washington tried to transform the Continentals into a regular army capable of holding New York against Howe. He had less than 20,000 troops on Long Island, Manhattan, and the lower Hudson on 25 June 1776 when Howe landed at Staten Island. Howe tried first to negotiate, but found that Congress's representatives, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, would settle for nothing less than independence. Howe then used his 32,000 troops, together with his brother's fleet and 10,000 sailors, to drive Washington off Long Island (27–30 August). Following him to Manhattan in mid‐September, Howe attacked again in October, compelling Washington to withdraw to White Plains. In November, Howe captured the critical posts of Fort Washington, New York, and Fort Lee, New Jersey. Washington retreated across New Jersey with a disintegrating army. He crossed the Delaware on 7 December with perhaps 5,000 troops fit for duty, and most of their enlistments would expire on 31 December.
Howe's strategy seemed to have worked brilliantly. The Continental army was collapsing; colonists in New York and New Jersey were eagerly swearing allegiance to the king, provisioning his forces, and enlisting in loyalist units. Howe saw popular support for the Revolution evaporating and assumed that Congress would soon negotiate. Yet two features of his campaign were about to produce the opposite effect. First, Howe's troops—particularly the Hessians and the loyalist irregulars—had handled civilian populations roughly. Every incident of rape and theft helped to crystallize popular opposition. Second, on 13 December, Howe sent his men into winter quarters, scattering them across central New Jersey in small cantonments—and thus exposing them to attack.
Venturing everything, Washington used what was left of his army to attack enemy units at Trenton, in late December 1776, and Princeton, in January 1777, and thus began to restore Continental morale. Howe, realizing the mistake of dispersing his units, reconcentrated them in the Lower Raritan Valley, allowing patriot militia to regain control of the province and nullify his recent successes. Howe did not yet see how counterproductive his approach had been, however, and planned to pursue Washington through Pennsylvania in 1777. The ministry, meanwhile, authorized Burgoyne to renew the invasion from Canada. Howe and Burgoyne assumed that loyalist support would emerge wherever the redcoats appeared. They were mistaken.
Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga on 5 July, then pursued the fleeing Continentals through the woods south of Lake Champlain rather than proceeding to the Upper Hudson Valley via Lake George. Reaching the Hudson, he found that his Indian and Hessian allies had turned New Yorkers against him. When the supplies and loyalist supporters he expected never materialized, he found himself trapped. The northern Continental army under Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, reinforced by militiamen from New England and New York, defeated Burgoyne at the two Battles of Saratoga (17 September and 5 October 1777). On 17 October, he signed a Convention that allowed him to return to England, but left his army prisoner. Saratoga cost the British over 6,000 casualties and captives. The prisoners of war, called the Convention army, were shifted from colony to colony for the rest of the war.
Meanwhile, Howe defeated Washington in Pennsylvania at the Battle of the Brandywine (11 September 1777), but again failed to destroy his army. He seized Philadelphia at the end of September. Washington counterattacked unsuccessfully at Germantown (4 October), then lost the Delaware River forts that commanded Philadelphia's water approaches (15–21 November). Unlike the previous year, defeat did not threaten to dissolve the army, which went into winter quarters at Valley Forge on 11 December. Thanks to Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who improved the army's training during the winter, and to Nathanael Greene, who as quartermaster general reformed the supply system, the Continentals emerged from Valley Forge tougher and better organized than ever.
Thus, Howe's conventional war strategy failed again. Congress refused to negotiate; redcoat, loyalist, and Hessian abuse of civilians reanimated popular resistance; and patriot militiamen controlled whatever territory the British could not occupy.
Howe failed because he misinterpreted civilian attitudes. What he took for incipient loyalism was no more than the reluctance of many Americans—in the Middle Colonies probably a majority—to take sides. He never understood how the very arrival of the British army (and especially its loyalist, Hessian, and Indian auxiliaries) drove neutrals into alliance with the patriots. By contrast, Washington used enormous restraint in dealing with civilians, refusing to confiscate food and clothing even when his men at Valley Forge were starving. Above all, he deferred to Congress's wishes in order to demonstrate the army's subordination to civil authority.
State governments employed their militia forces with similar restraint. On the whole, prosecutors and militia units tolerated neutral behavior as a manifestation of localism, not loyalism. Knowing that Americans distrusted centralized power, they required only minimal support: anyone who paid his taxes, kept his mouth shut, and turned up for militia duty would be left alone. The practice of allowing men drafted for military duty to hire substitutes, and the parsimonious, quasi‐legal use of force in making examples of notorious Tories helped win the acquiescence, if not the hearts and minds, of neutrals. Finally, governments retained the goodwill of property holders by hesitating to confiscate supplies for the army. This restraint had two effects: the Continental army remained chronically undermanned and undersupplied; and neutrals were not driven to loyalism.
The French Alliance and a World War: 1778–83
Turning Point: 1777–78.Howe's indecisive campaign and Burgoyne's spectacular defeat convinced the French, who heretofore had offered only covert aid, to enter into open alliance with the United States. Congress had first sent delegates to Paris in 1776; Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues had raised money and publicized America's cause, but France's foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, had remained cautious. The events of 1777, however, changed his mind. On 17 December 1777, France recognized the United States diplomatically, and soon thereafter it presented drafts of two treaties to the American commissioners. The first of these, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, offered the United States preferential trading privileges in France. The second, the Treaty of Alliance, was to take effect at the beginning of hostilities between France and Britain; it promised that France would not press any further claims to Canada, would refrain from negotiating peace with Britain on any grounds other than American independence, and guaranteed to the United States any territories French troops might conquer in North America during the war. Signed on 6 February 1778, both treaties were ratified in Congress on 4 May 1778.
Hoping to nullify the alliance, the British ministry dispatched the earl of Carlisle to negotiate with Congress. The Carlisle Commission could promise anything short of independence, but Congress would settle for no less. While Carlisle made overtures until November 1778 and military activity in North America came to a standstill, naval warfare broke out between France and Britain. War in Europe transformed a colonial fight for independence into a larger—ultimately worldwide—struggle that the British could not win.
From June 1778 onward, the British had to defend the home islands against invasion, protect Gibraltar, and shield the valuable, vulnerable West Indian sugar islands (especially Jamaica) from attack. This meant that Howe's successor, Gen. Henry Clinton, would have fewer men and bigger logistical problems than ever, and that he could no longer assume the Royal Navy's superiority in American waters. His response, a new strategy, reflected these new circumstances, as well as his estimate of American social conditions.South Carolina, low country rice planters lived in fear that their slaves (two‐thirds of the population) would rebel, and that long‐standing animosities divided lowland whites from the poorer, more numerous backcountry farmers. This convinced him that his best hope of victory lay in the Lower South; he also understood that to retain control of even this region, he would have to win the support, or at least the compliance, of the uncommitted population. Clinton therefore decided to move the war to the South, using loyalist units not as auxiliaries in conventional operations, but as pacification forces. Once the regulars cleared the countryside of rebels, loyalist units would organize local self‐defense forces to keep the patriot militia at bay. When law and order had been established, they would hand control over to civilians, who would reinstitute civil government under crown auspices.
Pacification began promisingly with the invasion of Georgia in the winter of 1778–79. Savannah fell to a 3,500‐man British force under Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell on 29 December 1778; hundreds of Georgians volunteered as loyalist irregulars, and quickly garrisoned what the regulars conquered. Redcoats took Augusta on 29 January 1779, then stood off two Continental attempts to retake the town. American forces withdrew to Charleston. By the end of July 1779, royal government had been reinstituted under a civilian governor. A Franco‐American force under Admiral d’Estaing and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln besieged Savannah in October 1779, but d’Estaing soon withdrew to the West Indies and Lincoln returned to Charleston. Georgia became Clinton's base for carrying the war to South Carolina.
The invasion began in the spring of 1780 with a spectacular success: Clinton came from New York with over 8,000 men to direct the campaign, trapping Lincoln in Charleston, which fell on 12 May. The surrender of Lincoln's 2,600‐man garrison obliterated the Continental presence in the Lower South. Clinton established outposts throughout the countryside and recruited loyalists to hold them, making every effort to avoid repeating past mistakes. After forbidding looting and appointing an inspector general to keep the loyalists in line, he left Charleston in early summer, taking a third of his troops back to New York.
Clinton did not know it, but his pacification program would engulf the Lower South in a sanguinary civil war. He had already alienated most of the planter gentry by encouraging slaves to run away to the British lines and offering them refuge; he even permitted a black unit, the Carolina Corps, to be formed of ex‐slaves, alarming Southern whites fully as much as Burgoyne had alarmed New Yorkers by employing Indians as auxiliaries. Thus even before he left for New York, Clinton had begun to alienate would‐be neutrals, and had given patriot planters a reason not to lay down their arms and sit out the remainder of the war. The bands of patriot partisans who retreated to the swamps and mountains could no more be rooted out than the loyalists could be restrained from settling old scores. Patriot irregulars like Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion made terrorist attacks on loyalists and regular detachments, and the Tory legions of Banastre Tarleton and Patrick Ferguson answered terror with terror. Patriot militiamen, for example, massacred many of Ferguson's loyalists after the Battle of King's Mountain (7 October 1780), retaliating for Tarleton's earlier massacre of patriots at the Battle of Waxhaws (29 May); these were, however, only the best known atrocities in a savage guerrilla war.
Loyalist attacks swelled patriot ranks with former neutrals throughout the backcountry during the summer and fall of 1780. Meanwhile in the low country, Clinton's policy of encouraging slaves to run away brought tens of thousands of them to British camps in search of freedom. Planters lost sympathy with the British as their labor forces vanished. By year's end, pacification was doomed in low country and backcountry alike. Clinton was perhaps the last to know. Back in New York he expected an attack by the French fleet and an expeditionary force under the comte de Rochambeau, France's new commander in chief in America.
Clinton had left behind about 8,000 men under the command of Lord Charles Cornwallis, whose inability to control a chaotic region intensified his dislike of Clinton and pacification. He preferred action, and with a field army of about 4,000 men responded decisively when a Continental force under Horatio Gates attempted to invade South Carolina. After routing Gates at the Battle of Camden (16 August 1780), Cornwallis concentrated on defeating the next Continental general to appear, Nathanael Greene.
Greene assumed command of a shattered Continental force at Charlotte, North Carolina, on 2 December 1780, and immediately took the offensive. He daringly divided his 2,000 Continentals and militiamen into two bodies, taking about 1,500 men under his own command and assigning the rest to Brig. Gen. Daniel Morgan. Morgan struck southwest into the backcountry and defeated Tarleton's loyalist legion at the Battle of Cowpens, 17 January 1781; then he retreated to North Carolina and rejoined Greene at the Catawba River. Cornwallis gave chase; Greene withdrew northeastward toward the Dan River, near the Virginia border. Cornwallis lacked the boats to cross the Dan and halted on 17 February 1781, turning toward Hillsborough to replenish his provisions. Greene crossed back into North Carolina and sent detachments to harass his enemy. On 25 February 1781, the cavalry legion of Lt. Col. Henry Lee (“Light‐Horse Harry”) annihilated a loyalist unit at the Haw River, leading Cornwallis's loyalists to abandon him. When Greene finally joined forces on 15 March at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, Cornwallis had just 1,600 redcoats to attack 4,450 Continentals and militia.
Cornwallis's superbly disciplined regulars carried the day at Guilford, but a third were killed or wounded while Greene sustained losses of perhaps 10 percent. Cornwallis headed for Wilmington, where he could be resupplied by sea. After a brief rest, he marched north to Virginia. There he hoped to trap the Continentals of the marquis de Lafayette, who had been fencing with a 3,000‐man British force under the turncoat American general, Benedict Arnold. (Arnold had accepted a British command and a large payment in return for his promise to hand over the fortress of West Point, New York, in 1780. The plot failed, but Arnold escaped to fight for the British.) Arnold had picked up substantial loyalist support, and Cornwallis convinced himself that taking Virginia would somehow secure the Carolinas and Georgia. Greene, he assumed, would move to support Lafayette.
But Greene returned to South Carolina and attacked the scattered British garrisons there. Thus, while Cornwallis pursued Lafayette, British commanders in South Carolina and Georgia found themselves forced to withdraw to the coastal enclaves of Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah. Behind them, patriot militia units reasserted control over the countryside.
Clinton sent troops from New York, giving Cornwallis over 7,000 men to bring Lafayette's 1,200 Continentals (and variable numbers of militiamen) to bay. When Lafayette refused to be trapped, Cornwallis used cavalry units and loyalist auxiliaries to attack rebel property. The more successful these raids were—and some, like Tarleton's Charlottesville raid in June and his 400‐mile swing through the Southside in July, were spectacular—the more Lafayette's support grew. Reinforced by Continentals from Pennsylvania, Lafayette shadowed Cornwallis down the York peninsula in August, as he moved to establish a base with access to the sea: Yorktown.
After three years of bungled or thwarted operations, the French Navy finally exerted a decisive effect on land operations. From the beginning of the alliance, French admirals had preferred to cruise the Caribbean whenever possible; they entered North American waters only when the hurricane season made West Indian operations hazardous. Rochambeau's expeditionary force, in America since July 1780, had so far sat in Newport, Rhode Island. Washington and Rochambeau had planned to attack New York, but the arrival of Admiral de Grasse's fleet and the news that Cornwallis had moved to Yorktown changed everything. When de Grasse announced that he would operate in the Chesapeake until 15 October, Washington decided to trap Cornwallis. He marched south with half his army and most of the French expeditionary force on 20 August. On 14 September, he joined forces with Lafayette on the York Peninsula.
De Grasse had already debarked troops and sailed back to the bay's entrance. There, on 5 September, he met the British fleet of Adm. Thomas Graves. In the ensuing battle off the Chesapeake Capes, de Grasse repelled Grave's fleet, inflicting damage that forced it back to New York. This decided the outcome of the campaign, and—in a sense—the war. Within days, Admiral de Barras's squadron arrived from Newport with supplies and siege artillery. Cornwallis was doomed.
The Franco‐American army marched to Yorktown on 28 September and prepared to lay siege. Formal operations opened on 6 October and lasted until Cornwallis had endured a week of bombardment. When he surrendered on 20 October, the allies took charge of a quarter of the British army in America—8,000 troops—and a mountain of equipment.
The Battle of Yorktown did not deal a death blow to British military strength, but it made the ministry's position in Parliament untenable. The prime minister, Lord North, had long hoped to resign; he left office early in 1782. Clinton was recalled and replaced by Gen. Guy Carleton. Pressed by demands in other theaters, Whitehall suspended military activity in America.
Endgame: 1782–83.Carleton reached New York in May 1782 and ended offensive operations until the political settlement could be negotiated in Europe. The British had already abandoned Wilmington (January 1782); they would soon evacuate Savannah (July) and Charleston (December). Washington observed Carleton from his Hudson River fortifications, but took no further action.
Meanwhile, the war went from bad to worse for Britain. Following Yorktown, de Grasse had sailed up the Caribbean, where he seized Nevis, St. Christopher, and Montserrat. In April 1782, he threatened the grandest prize of all, Jamaica; and although Adm. George Romney thwarted that attempt in a battle off the Isles des Saintes near Guadeloupe, it remained possible that a combined Franco‐Spanish force would mount a new invasion once the hurricane season had passed. Spain, indeed, had become a critical actor in the war. Following the declaration of war in June 1779, Spanish forces had attacked British posts in West Florida, taking Natchez (5 October 1779), Mobile (14 March 1780), and Pensacola (8 May 1781). Worse, from Britain's perspective, was Spain's conquest of Minorca (5 February 1782) and its repeated threats to Gibraltar. After blockading the fortress in 1779–80 and 1781–82, Spanish naval and land forces besieged it in 1782, trying to storm it in September. The attack failed, but Spain could still seal the straits and starve out the garrison. Finally, Dutch trade had been so valuable to America, Spain, and France that the British had declared war against Holland in December 1780. Dutch belligerency made it virtually impossible for the Royal Navy to operate in the North Sea and raised the possibility that Holland's East Indies fleet would aid the French against British forces in India, where by 1782 the situation looked grave.
Peace commissioners met in Paris as early as April 1782, but only in October did Britain's representatives agree to recognize American independence. Thereafter, the U.S. commissioners—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay—quickly agreed on articles with the British. The French, nearly bankrupt, were also willing to make peace, having revenged the humiliation of 1763 by depriving Britain of thirteen valuable colonies. Spain, however, refused to parley while it might still take Gibraltar, and it was not until 20 January 1783 that preliminary articles were signed. On 4 February, Britain announced the cessation of hostilities. Congress ratified the treaty on 15 April; the formal articles were concluded at the Peace of Paris on 3 September.
The peace treaty strongly favored the United States. Britain recognized American independence, agreed to boundaries between the Great Lakes and the 31st parallel as far west as the Mississippi River, recognized American fishing rights off Newfoundland, and promised to evacuate its posts on American territory “with all convenient speed.” The United States in turn agreed to pay all debts due to British creditors and compensate loyalists for their confiscated property. The states proved slow to compensate the loyalists, and the British retained posts in the Northwest until 1796; but in other respects the peace restored amity with remarkable speed, given the length and ferocity of the war.
It was not British benevolence but desperation that accounted for the character of the Peace of Paris. Reeling militarily and isolated diplomatically, Britain faced severe financial peril and a public sick of war. In the end, Britain made peace on generous terms because it needed to trade with its former colonies, just as the United States—bankrupt and facing economic collapse—needed to reestablish the commercial connections war had severed.
Wherever the British army went between 1775 and 1781, it invariably alienated the people whose support it needed most, the neutrals. When the fighting started in 1775, only New England had a patriot majority; elsewhere, local minorities of armed patriots intimidated smaller loyalist minorities, and most colonists avoided committing themselves. No British commander in chief ever found a way to turn the neutrals into active supporters—or keep his troops from providing endless object lessons in British “tyranny.”
Thus, over a long and bitter war, the neutrals dwindled in number everywhere. No matter how many battles the British army won, it could not maintain control—and protect its supporters—outside of ports like New York, Charleston, and Savannah. Whenever the army left an area, its collaborators had to choose between fleeing as refugees and remaining to face the patriot militias that reasserted control as soon as the last redcoat had departed. Clinton's recognition of this pattern led both to his southern pacification plan and to the opening of the war's most destructive phase, which nullified the promise of his strategy. Even before Yorktown, Americans were war‐weary; but even the most apathetic of them could see that the British government would never sustain its presence in America, and sooner or later the patriots would return. Thus the war educated Americans in the practical politics of self‐interest and survival. Ultimately, the neutrals, and many loyalists, chose patriot rule over exile.
This is not to minimize the role of republican ideology in influencing the shape of Revolutionary events, but only to contextualize it. Far from being an autonomous intellectual construct, revolutionary republicanism was a dynamic ideological response to changing conditions, and was itself shaped by the war—particularly insofar as the coercion of populations by armed force gave immediate meaning to the concept of tyranny and encouraged patriot leaders to take stringent steps toward subordinating military to civil authority in the postwar era.
Nor does the recognition of the war as decisively shaped by social factors diminish the importance of French intervention. Even in the indecisive first years of the alliance, the French Navy denied the Royal Navy supremacy on the Atlantic, making the American war difficult to sustain; French matériel and money enabled the Continental army to survive overwhelming difficulties. By denying Cornwallis his escape route, the French Fleet allowed a Franco‐American army to besiege Yorktown; French cannon, fired from emplacements laid out by French engineers, persuaded Cornwallis to surrender. The imminent threat of further losses to French, Spanish, and Dutch forces gave British opposition politicians sufficient leverage to end the war. French participation thus determined when and how the war ended; but it did not make the difference between winning and losing for the British. American society itself had rendered the Revolutionary War a fight that Britain could not win.
Christopher Ward , The War of the Revolution, 1952.
Piers Mackesy , The War for America, 1775–1783, 1964.
Mark Mayo Boatner III , Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, 1966.
Don Higginbotham , The War of American Independence, 1971.
John Shy, ed., A People Numerous and Armed, 1976.
Charles Royster , A Revolutionary People at War, 1979.
Ronald Hoffman, et al., eds., Diplomacy and Revolution, 1981.
James Kirby Martin and and Mark Lender , A Respectable Army, 1982.
Robert Middlekauff , The Glorious Cause, 1982.
Ronald Hoffman, et al., eds., Arms and Independence, 1984.
Jonathan R. Dull , A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, 1985.
Ronald Hoffman, et al., eds., An Uncivil War, 1985.
Ronald Hoffman, et al., eds., Peace and Peacemakers, 1986.
John Ferling, ed., The World Turned Upside Down, 1988.
Don Higginbotham, ed., War and Society in Revolutionary America, 1988.
Russell F. Weigley , The Age of Battles, 1991.
Fred AndersonRevolutionary War (1775–1783): Domestic Course The War of Independence, the Pennsylvania Centinel suggested in 1785, had removed that “great reluctance to innovation, so remarkable in old communities.” The Centinel did not exaggerate. Between 1776 and 1783, American patriots had to organize new governments, raise and supply a substantial army, create a system of public finance, and manufacture goods once imported from Europe. Beyond these sizable tasks, they had to deal with pressing problems: tens of thousands of loyalists ready to fight for their king; 500,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans, who might themselves revolt for liberty; and a farm economy increasingly dependent on the labor of women and youth. The task was formidable; the stakes high. The war might be fought by soldiers and generals, but it would be won or lost by civilians and civic leaders.
Political Innovation and Conflict.Patriot leaders acted swiftly to establish the legitimacy of their rule. On 10 May 1776, Congress urged patriots to suppress royal authority and establish institutions based on popular rule. By the end of 1776, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania had written new constitutions, and Connecticut and Rhode Island had transformed their colonial charters into republican documents by deleting all references to the king.
The Declaration of Independence stated the republican principle of popular sovereignty, and the Delaware Constitution interpreted that to mean the exercise of political power: “the Right of the People to participate in the Legislature.” But most patriots gave a narrow definition to the political nation, restricting voting and office holding to propertied white men. Conservative patriots were more adamant, denying that popular sovereignty meant rule by men who owned only a little property.
In the heat of revolution, radical patriots embraced a democratic outlook: every citizen who supported the rebellion—property owner or not—had “an equal claim to all privileges, liberties and immunities,” declared an article in the Maryland Gazette. This democratic republicanism received fullest expression in Pennsylvania, where Scots‐Irish farmers, Philadelphia artisans, and Enlightenment‐influenced intellectuals cooperated to create the most democratic institutions of government in America or Europe. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 abolished property owning as a qualification for political participation, giving all men who paid taxes the right to vote and hold office.
Pennsylvania's radical constitution alarmed leading patriots in other states, who feared that ordinary citizens would use their numerical advantage to levy heavy taxes on the rich. They insisted on constitutions that would keep the “better sort” in power. Thus, the New York Constitution of 1777, written chiefly by John Jay, used property qualifications to exclude one‐half of the white men from voting for the governor and the upper house of the legislature, while the South Carolina Constitution of 1778 restricted membership in the state legislature to the richest 10 percent of the white population.
Nonetheless, the Revolutionary War democratized American politics. The new states constitutions apportioned seats in the legislatures on the basis of population, giving yeomen farmers in western areas more equal representation. Moreover, republican ideology raised the political consciousness of ordinary Americans. During the war, many patriot militiamen claimed the right to elect their officers; subsequently, many veterans, whether or not they had property, demanded the franchise. And when they voted, they chose different sorts of leaders. Before the war, about 85 percent of the assembly were wealthy men; by 1784, however, middling farmers and artisans controlled the lower houses of most northern states and formed a sizable minority in the southern states.
Political innovation also took place on the national level as the Continental Congress devised the first national constitution. The Articles of Confederation, approved by Congress on 15 November 1777, provided for a loose confederation in which “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence” and all powers and rights not “expressly delegated” to the United States. The Confederation government had the authority to declare war and make peace, to conclude treaties with foreign nations, to borrow and print money, and to requisition funds from the states “for the common defense or general welfare.” The body charged with exercising these powers was the Congress, in which each state had one vote, regardless of its population. Because of disputes among the states over the title to western lands, the articles were not ratified until 1781. Threatened by the army of Gen. Charles Cornwallis, Virginia finally ceded its land claims to Congress in 1781, and Maryland, the final holdout, ratified the articles.
Wartime Finance.Congress's main problem was not land but money. Because opposition to taxes had fueled the independence movement, patriot officials hesitated to impose taxes. To finance the war, the states first borrowed money, in gold or silver or British currency, from wealthy individuals. These funds quickly ran out, so the states created a new paper currency—the dollar—and issued notes with a face value of $260 million, using it to pay soldiers and purchase supplies. Since the new notes were printed in huge quantities and not backed by gold or silver or by tax revenues or mortgages on land, they quickly depreciated. Indeed, North Carolina's paper money came to be worth so little that the state government itself refused to accept it.
The monetary system created by the Continental Congress collapsed as well, despite the efforts of Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant who became superintendent of finance in February 1781. To raise domestic loans, Congress borrowed $6 million from France and pledged it as security; wealthy Americans promptly purchased $27 million in Continental loan certificates. Congress also financed the war by printing money—some $191 million to 1779. By that time, so much currency had been printed that it took $42 in Continental bills to buy goods worth $1 in gold or silver. And things got worse, with the ratio increasing to 100 to 1 in 1780 and 146 to 1 in 1781. At that point, not even the most virtuous patriot farmers would sell food to the American army.
The failure of wartime finance nearly doomed the patriot cause. In 1780, Gen. George Washington called urgently for a national system of taxation, warning that otherwise “our cause is lost.” However, unanimous consent was required to amend the articles, and in 1781 Rhode Island rejected Superintendent Morris's proposal for a national tariff, an import duty of 5 percent on foreign goods. Two years later, New York blocked another proposed national tariff.
Consequently the war was financed through inflated currency, a hidden system of taxation that bore particularly hard on the farmers, artisans, and soldiers who received paper money for supplies and military pay. As soon as these men or their families received the currency, it lost purchasing power—literally depreciating in their pockets. Individually, these losses were small, amounting to a tiny “tax” every time an ordinary citizen received a paper dollar, kept it for a week, and then spent it. But collectively these “currency taxes” paid for the struggle for independence.
The Limits of Republican Virtues.Patriots knew that winning the war depended on patriotism, and were at first optimistic that their republican ideology would inspire public virtue and self‐sacrifice. “The word republic,” wrote Thomas Paine, “means the public good, or the good of the whole.” And, continued Philadelphia patriot Benjamin Rush: “Every man in a republic is public property. His time and talents—his youth—his manhood—his old age—nay more, life, all belong to his country.”
But rhetoric could not create an army. Because yeoman farmers and militiamen preferred to serve in local units near their fields and families, few propertied Americans volunteered for service in the enlisted ranks of the Continental army. Consequently, except for the officers, most of its recruits were drawn from the lower ranks of society. For example, most troops commanded by Gen. William Smallwood of Maryland were either poor American‐born youths or older foreign‐born men—British ex‐convicts or former indentured servants. Historians continue to debate motivation for enlistment and continued service—the roles of economic gain (a bonus of $20 cash and the promise of 100 acres), belief in the cause of liberty and republicanism, and psychological commitments to their comrades. Confronted by a reluctant citizenry and a lack of funds, Congress fell far short of its goal of a regular army of 75,000 men; the total Continental force never reached half that number.
As economic hardship brought the war closer to home, civilians also lost their zeal for self‐sacrifice. The British naval blockade nearly eliminated the New England fishing industry and cut off the supply of European manufactured goods to American consumers. Domestic trade and production declined as well. The British occupation of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia put thousands of people out of work; the population of New York City declined from 21,000 in 1774 to less than half that at war's end. In the Chesapeake, the British blockade denied tobacco planters access to European markets, forcing them to turn to the cultivation of wheat, corn, and other foodstuffs. All across the land, ordinary commercial activity slackened as farmers and artisans adapted to a war economy.
The scarcity of imported goods brought a sharp rise in prices and widespread appeals for government regulation. Consumers decried merchants and traders as “enemies, extortioners, and monopolizers.” In 1777, a convention of New England states tried to limit the price of domestic commodities and imported goods to 175 percent of their prewar level. To enforce this directive, the Massachusetts legislature passed an “Act to Prevent Monopoly and Oppression,” but so many farmers and artisans refused to sell at the established prices that consumers had to pay the market price “or submit to starving.”
The upward movement of prices—for grain and meat as well as manufactures—stimulated the economy. Army contractors roamed the countryside, offering farmers high prices for food, horses, and wagon transport. State governments encouraged artisans and entrepreneurs to manufacture military clothing, guns and gunpowder, and other scarce items—and with good results. By the end of the war, artisans in the town of Lynn, Massachusetts, were producing over 50,000 pairs of shoes each year. As Alexander Hamilton noted, the northern countryside had become “a vast scene of household manufacturing.” With financial self‐interest supplementing republican virtue, Americans laid the basis for economic as well as political independence.
Women and the War Effort.Women workers played a large part in the expansion in production, particularly in the cloth industry. When the war cut off imports from Europe, government officials requisitioned clothing directly from the people. In Connecticut, officials called upon the citizens of Hartford to provide 1,000 coats and 1,600 shirts, and assessed smaller towns on a proportionate basis. Soldiers added their own pleas. Capt. Edward Rogers lost “all the shirts except the one on my back,” at the Battle of Long Island and wrote to his wife, “the making of cloath … must go on.”
Patriot women stepped into the breach, increasing production of homespun cloth. One Massachusetts town claimed an annual output of 30,000 yards of cloth, while women in Elizabeth, New Jersey, promised “upwards of 100,000 yards of linnen and woolen cloth.” With their husbands and sons away, many women also assumed the burden of farm production. Some went into the fields themselves, plowing fields or cutting and loading grain. Others supervised hired laborers or slaves, acquiring a taste for decision making in the process. “We have sow’d our oats as you desired,” Sarah Cobb Paine wrote to her absent husband; “had I been master I should have planted it to Corn.”
Some upper‐class women also entered into political debate, filling their letters and diaries (and undoubtedly their conversations) with opinions on public issues. “The men say we have no business [with politics],” Eliza Wilkinson of South Carolina complained in 1783; “they won’t even allow us liberty of thought, and that is all I want.” Other women, such as Abigail Adams, asked men to create a republican legal order to replace the common law rules of coverture that completely subordinated married women to their husbands. And a few women, inspired by revolutionary ideology, repudiated prevailing assumptions of women's inferiority. In 1779, Judith Sargent Murray, daughter of a wealthy New England merchant, wrote “On the Equality of the Sexes. In this essay, Murray systematically compared the intellectual faculties of men and women, arguing that women had a capacity for memory equal to that of men, and more imagination; any inferiority in judgment and reasoning, she argued, was due to lack of training.
A few men paid some attention to women's requests for greater social and legal equality. In Massachusetts, the state's attorney general persuaded a jury that girls had equal rights under the state's constitution and should not be deprived of schooling. Benjamin Rush, in his Thoughts on Female Education (1787), advocated the intellectual training of women, so they would “be an agreeable companion for a sensible man.” Rush likewise praised “republican mothers” who instructed “their sons in the principles of liberty and government.” But most patriots viewed women as inferior and subordinate. Politics remained a male preserve, with most state constitutions explicitly restricting suffrage to men. Because of deeply ingrained cultural assumptions of female inferiority, women entered the new republics as second‐class citizens.
Slavery Weakened.For enslaved African Americans, as for women, war and republicanism brought new opportunities. Taking advantage of the disruptions of war, many blacks fled from their patriot owners and sought freedom behind British lines. Two white neighbors of Richard Henry Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lost “every slave they had in the world,” as did nearly “all those who were nearly the enemy.” More than 5,000 blacks left Charleston, South Carolina, with the departing British army. Other enslaved African Americans used wartime loyalty to their patriot masters to bargain for their liberty. Under a Manumission Act of 1782, Virginia planters granted freedom to more than 10,000 slaves.
Equally important was the intellectual attack against slavery. In Virginia, a Methodist conference declared slavery “contrary to the Golden Law of God on which hang all the Law and Prophets, and the unalienable Rights of Mankind, as well as every Principle of Revolution.” Such arguments prompted black emancipation in the northern states, where there were relatively few slaves. By 1784, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island had abolished slavery. To protect white property rights, the Pennsylvania Emancipation Act awarded freedom only to slaves born after 1780—and then only after they had served their mothers' masters for twenty‐eight years. Such economic concerns among whites, as well as racial prejudice, prevented emancipation in the South, where slaves accounted for 30 to 60 percent of the population and represented a huge financial investment. But those blacks who had won their freedom during the Revolutionary War began to develop churches, social institutions, and a partly autonomous African American culture.
The Fate of the Loyalists.Even as most free African Americans chose to remain in the land of their birth, tens of thousands of loyalists emigrated to Canada and other British possessions. As early as 1765, many wealthy Americans—and thousands of ordinary colonists—had feared that resistance to Britain would end in mob rule, and the violent activities of the Sons of Liberty seemed to prove the point.
Once war came, it quickly turned into a civil conflict. Patriot committees of safety backed by armed militiamen collected taxes, sent food and clothing to the Continental army, and imposed fines or jail sentences on those who failed to support the patriot cause. “There is no such thing as remaining neutral,” declared the Committee of Safety of Farmington, Connecticut, and mobs of New England patriots beat suspected loyalists or destroyed their property. In the Middle Colonies, the contest between loyalists and patriots was more even. In New Jersey, most New Light members of the Dutch Reformed Church—enthusiastic Protestants—actively supported the American cause, but the more conservative Old Lights became loyalists. As the British and American armies marched back and forth across the state, those with reputations as patriots and loyalists fled from their homes to escape arrest—or worse. Soldiers and partisans looted farms, seeking plunder or revenge. Beginning in 1778, British strategies relied heavily on southern loyalists, mobilizing recent immigrants, such as the Scottish Highlanders in North Carolina, and using them to hold territory won by the British army. Their strategy turned the South into an arena of bitter partisan warfare, with atrocities on both sides.
As the war turned in favor of the patriots, loyalists feared for their lives—especially since more than 55,000 loyalists had fought for the British as regular soldiers or militia. More than 100,000 loyalists emigrated to Canada, the West Indies, or Britain. Those who moved to Canada—where they became known as the United Empire Loyalists—assumed the leadership of the English‐speaking colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario.
Some patriots wanted to confiscate the property of the departed “traitors,” and the passions of war lent urgency to their arguments. When the British army invaded the South, the North Carolina assembly confiscated loyalists' estates outright. Officials in New York also seized loyalists' lands and goods. However, many patriots opposed these seizures as contrary to republican property rights. Consequently, most states seized only a limited amount of property—that owned by notorious loyalists—so that, unlike France after 1789 or Russia after 1917, the revolutionary upheaval did not drastically alter the structure of American society.
Still, the loyalist exodus disrupted the established social order in many states as upwardly mobile patriot merchants climbed to the top of the economic ladder. In Massachusetts, the Lowell, Higginson, Jackson, and Cabot families filled the vacuum created by the departure of the Hutchinsons and Apthorps and their friends. Small‐scale traders in Philadelphia and its environs likewise stepped into vacancies created when loyalist Anglican and neutral/pacifist Quaker mercantile firms collapsed during the war. These changes replaced a conservative economic elite—one that invested primarily in foreign trade and urban real estate—with a group of more entrepreneurial‐minded republican merchants.
In economic life, as in politics, finance, and gender and racial relations, the Revolutionary War was just that: a dramatic disruption of established life that demanded innovation and changed forever the course of American history.
Willi Paul Adams , The First American Constitutions: Republican Ideology and the Making of the State Constitutions in the Revolutionary Era, 1980.
Richard Buel, Jr. , Dear Liberty: Connecticut's Mobilization for the Revolutionary War, 1980.
William G. Anderson , The Price of Liberty: The Public Debt of the American Revolution, 1983.
Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman, eds., Slavery and Freedom in the American Revolution, 1983.
Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert, eds., An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution, 1985.
Robert M. Calhoon et al. , The Loyalist Perception, 1989.
Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds., Women in the Age of the American Revolution, 1989.
Gary B. Nash , Race and Revolution, 1990.
Alfred F. Young, ed. Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, 1993.
Jean Butenhoff Lee , The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County, 1994.
James A. HenrettaRevolutionary War (1775–83): Postwar Impact The new nation still faced critical unresolved issues even after the peace was signed in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Some were social and political issues opened in the decade before the war broke out, such as who should vote or what defined the public good, occasionally raising questions for long‐term consideration such as the future of slavery or the place of women in society. Others were problems created by the war itself. Effective control over much of the landmass ceded by Britain had yet to be achieved; acceptance by the nations of the world required diplomacy and a clear articulation of American national interests; economic adjustments had to be made to compensate for lost privileges in the British market; and internal differences of opinion about how best to govern the nation had to be resolved. The American Revolution entered its final phase with both leaders and the people asking themselves what kind of country they wanted and how best to achieve it. The ringing phrases of the Declaration of Independence promised much, but what did they mean?
All of the nations involved in the Revolutionary War—both the allies and the adversaries of the United States—made the postwar adjustment difficult. The British were eager enough to end the war; indeed, British public opinion demanded it. But in surrendering the vast terrain south of the Great Lakes, and west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River, the British negotiators signed away the very land George III, in his famous Royal Proclamation of 1763, had promised to protect as Indian hunting grounds. Britain's Indian allies, a decided majority of the Indians who chose sides in the Revolutionary War, felt betrayed. When American settlers, unchecked by the United States, began streaming across the Appalachians into the Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee regions even before the war ended, bitter clashes with the Indians ensued. Claiming that they sought only to maintain order on a lawless frontier, the British reneged on their treaty promise and maintained British troops on American soil. They remained at Detroit and other western forts until the mid‐1790s, encouraging the Indians to believe that they would protect them against the American onslaught, and arguing that the trade in skins and furs (to which the British were entitled) required policing.
America's allies were almost as difficult. France and Spain both hoped that the United States would get less than it got: the French were dissatisfied with the privileged position given American fishermen in the North Atlantic cod fishery, while the Spanish resented the American western boundary at the Mississippi. Spain insisted that Americans had no right to navigate the Mississippi River, and tensions persisted between the two nations until 1795, when a compromise was reached. Meanwhile, Spain, behaving like the British in the Northwest, encouraged Indians on the southwest frontier to defy the Americans.
The United States dealt with these issues both militarily and diplomatically. Even though Congress had disbanded the Continental Army, reduced the military establishment to the 1st American Regiment, and sold off the ships of the navy, troops were assigned to the frontier, where they negotiated the first new treaties with the western Indians. For their part, the Indians sought compromise and retention of their land rights and created a confederacy to present a united front. But the contradiction between official American promises and unrestrained settler violence created divisions among the native leaders, and in the end the war hawks on both sides won out. The task of bringing peace to the Northwest forced Congress to increase the size of the army, and, in a series of frontier battles, to resolve the matter by force of arms.
Meanwhile, American diplomats, led by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, promoted American interests in Europe. Jefferson went to France (where he remained until the early months of the French Revolution), working to preserve the outward friendship of the wartime alliance, while retaining American freedom of action. With Jefferson's help, France became the chief trading partner of the United States. Adams arrived at the Court of St. James in 1785 as the first American official to confront George III on behalf of the new nation. Both Jefferson and Adams disliked European social distinctions and economic disparities, but each also formed strong attachments to which they later clung, and which helped define their subsequent political followings in the United States, especially in the 1790s when Americans responded to the progress of the French Revolution.
The relations of the United States with the rest of the world depended in large measure on American success in adjusting to new economic imperatives. In 1783, a good many Americans hoped to restore their economic links with Britain, and for a few months after the war, trade was reopened and vigorously pursued. But the British ministry soon decided to cut Americans out of the preferential marketplace of the British empire while merchants tightened credit when it became apparent that Americans lacked the cash to pay for British manufactures. Congress struggled with the problems of economic adjustment. From his position as superintendent of finance, Robert Morris tried to reorganize credit in the country by establishing a Bank of North America (BNA) as a private bank with a public mandate to serve the Congress and the nation as a central bank. The first American banks were chartered in several states during the 1780s, although the BNA itself ran into trouble politically and financially and lost its Pennsylvania charter before the decade was out. Alexander Hamilton of New York argued that Morris had taken the right track, and that the United States must solve its economic problems by consolidating the national debt and creating a national bank. Meanwhile, Congress sought most‐favored‐nation treaties with European nations, and individual merchant houses pressed to open new markets that included the Far East.
The problems of economic adjustment created antagonisms among Americans themselves, and contributed substantially to the political and social division eventually expressed in a debate over the constitution. Nationalists who were to become identified as Federalists argued that the central government needed strengthening, and eventually they insisted that only a new constitution could give the United States the energy it needed to attain economic stability and national respectability. Localists who preferred the decentralized structure provided by the Articles of Confederation rejected the notion of complete constitutional revision and became Anti‐Federalists, although most agreed that Congress might need additional powers to tackle the difficult problems of the time.
These were more than superficial disagreements over how best to govern a young republic experiencing short‐term economic problems. The divisions represented fundamental differences of opinion about what the American Revolution was about and what independence was meant to accomplish. The war had created some of the divisions and sharpened others. In many states, local antagonism toward Tories or loyalists persisted; 60,000–80,000 loyalists fled the United States as refugees, and legislatures were divided over whether to let Tories return. Most that had confiscated Tory estates refused compensation. States denied Tory and British creditors the right to collect old debts, despite the article in the peace treaty requiring it and Congress's urging the states to comply. The U.S. Army itself was divided at war's end between an officer class that had sought and won promises of a postwar pension, and men in the ranks who had been paid in depreciated government script and vague promises. When, after the war, the officers organized the Society of Cincinnati to promote their right to a commutation, or lump‐sum payment in lieu of pensions, many Americans, including rank‐and‐file veterans, complained about the emergence of aristocracy in American society. The war had created other tensions not easily dissipated: wartime shortages of provisions, inflation caused by the printing of paper money, and fears about the manipulation of prices by hoarders and forestallers pitted rural against urban dwellers and farmers against merchants. After the war, a short‐lived burst of consumer spending fueled by loose credit arrangements set the stage for bitter social resentments when merchants suddenly contracted credit and called for payment of debts. Many states saw violent demonstrations against debtor courts in 1785–86; Massachusetts faced armed rebellion.
What has been called Shays's Rebellion, an armed protest by farmer‐regulators in western Massachusetts in the fall and winter of 1786–87, was in reality only the most visible sign of a widespread discontent. Forced court closures were common throughout New England; in New Hampshire, protestors for a short time held the legislature hostage; and throughout Massachusetts, farmers complained to the legislature about tax laws, the shortage of money, and the greed of merchants. But only 2,000 or so actually took up arms in the Connecticut River Valley towns of western Massachusetts, and were forcibly suppressed by a hastily recruited government force of about 5,000 under Benjamin Lincoln. Capt. Daniel Shays, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and other leaders of the uprising, managed to escape into neighboring Vermont, and the rest of the rebels were dispersed. The Massachusetts government eventually provided reprieves or pardons for all, but the experience left Americans divided.
It is too simple to equate the divisions of Shays' Rebellion with Federalist–Anti‐Federalist divisions over the Constitution of 1787, but a good many Americans at the time did so; both sides used divisive rhetoric and identified antagonistic interests. Federalists claimed to be merchants, creditors, and commercial farmers, all sound money people who sought order and stability both in the economy and in the larger society, and portrayed their opponents as poor farmers, debtors, or localists who failed to understand the needs of a nation. Anti‐Federalists saw themselves as honest husbandmen who were up against rapacious merchants and monied holders of public securities. America's urban‐rural split curiously lumped a good many commercial farmers on the urban side of the divide, but also united urban artisans with merchants in the Federalist effort to strengthen the American economy through a revitalized national policy. Even if the divisions were not as precise as contemporaries suggested, the debate over the Constitution shows that there were divisions in American society created or perhaps sharpened by the American Revolution, and in particular by the war. Writing in the famous Federalist Papers, James Madison was to argue that the new Constitution made sense in such a society: it was designed to steer conflicting interests into reasoned debate and compromise.
In practice, not even the new federal Constitution could resolve all of the questions the Revolution had opened. It did, however, provide a democratic framework for resolving such issues in the future, and as Madison envisaged it, it provided a forum for the enormous diversity of condition and opinion that already existed in the United States and was to continue. George Washington's first administration and the statesmen of the First Congress strengthened popular acceptance of the new Constitution, convincing Americans that their diverse views were fairly represented in government and that their rights were adequately protected. The Revolution, however, had also left a legacy of healthy skepticism about government. Americans argued variously that evangelical religion held better answers, that families must protect values, that women had a special role in nurturing “virtuous” citizens, that both public and private education must be expanded, or that the complexities of modern life required an informed citizenry well served by a free press. There was paradox in the new American culture; there was also vibrancy and excitement and enormous optimism.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Newburgh “Conspiracy” (1783); Society and War.]
Merrill Jensen , The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1950.
Wallace Brown , The Good Americans: The Loyalists in the American Revolution, 1969.
Richard H. Kohn , Eagle and Sword, 1975.
Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789, 25 vols., 1976–98.
Jack N. Rakove , The Beginnings of National Politics, 1979.
David P. Szatmary , Shays' Rebellion, 1980.
Jonathan R. Dull , A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, 1985.
Robert A. Gross, ed., In Debt to Shays, 1993.
Colin G. Calloway , The American Revolution in Indian Country, 1995.
Stephen E. PattersonRevolutionary War (1775–83): Changing Interpretations It has been argued that the American Revolution is the central event of American history, and it has occasioned more scholarship than any other episode save the Civil War. Yet, when former President John Adams asked Thomas McKean in 1815 who would write the Revolution's history, he posed a challenge that historians still confront. The secret sessions and debates, now lost along with other critical information that vanished when the participants died, leave many vital gaps in our understanding. What was the real story?
Historians, of course, have not hesitated to offer accounts of the Revolution. Several key questions have defined their interpretations. How and when did the Americans come to consider themselves a nation different from Great Britain? Was the Revolutionary War inevitable? To what degree was the Revolutionary War a civil war? Was there a struggle for power among the factions in the United States during the war? Why independence? Could the British government have prevented the separation? Why did the British pursue the measures they did?
Military historians have often focused on George Washington's overall strategy and have debated whether the American victory could have been achieved without the Continental army, which was its centerpiece. Was the French Alliance critical, or not? To what extent did British strategy and tactics work against an imperial victory by politicizing the American population? Why did the British devastate so much of Scotland in warfare thirty years earlier but do so little, comparatively, to the rebellious colonies in North America?
Finally, how should we interpret the U.S. Constitution? Was it a counterrevolutionary document created to serve the class interests of its framers, or did it realize and embody the ideological promise of revolutionary republicanism? Perhaps most intriguing of all, why did the Revolution not turn upon itself and devour its own as in so many other revolutions? There was no terror—once the war ended, its violence was soon forgotten, and its effects dissipated; unlike most other revolutionary peoples in the Americas, those of the United States escaped militarization or dictatorship by their War of Independence.
The Revolution's first historians witnessed the events they described. Their highly colored, contingent, localized, and biased narratives made impassioned arguments for the justice of their cause, whether loyalist or Whig. Two valuable loyalist accounts are Peter Oliver's violently partisan Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion (1781; published 1961), and the third and fourth volumes of Thomas Hutchinson's History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay (1767, 1828), which provide a more balanced and insightful view. Their Whig counterparts are Mercy Otis Warren's three‐volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), which gives a contemporary woman's view of politics and a relatively balanced account; and Dr. David Ramsay's History of the American Revolution (1789), the only contemporary narrative to focus on the Revolution outside New England. The most significant work published in the immediate post‐Revolutionary period, Mason Locke Weem's Life of Washington (1809), treated Washington's as an exemplary life, and fictionalized shamelessly to make its points. It influenced more Americans than any of the other early accounts.
The first significant school of interpretation on the Revolution, the Nationalist school, emerged in the mid‐nineteenth century. These historians collected thousands of documents and built the first archives of Revolutionary writings; their narratives stressed the inevitability of the American victory and endowed the story with providential significance. Jared Sparks, the librarian of Harvard College, was the first great figure of this school, publishing some 100 volumes on the Revolutionary period, including a 12‐volume Life and Writings of George Washington (1833–39) and a 10‐volume Works of Benjamin Franklin (1836–40). The dominating writer of Nationalist history, George Bancroft, published a ten‐volume History of the United States (1834–74), the last six volumes of which detail the events of the Revolution. For the Nationalists, the Revolution was above all a moral tale, acted out by great men whose virtue ensured America's progress toward its destiny of freedom.
The first academic interpreters of the Revolution, the Imperial school, appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Writing principally from British documents and employing the critical methods pioneered by the German historian Leopold von Ranke, the Imperial historians scorned the providentialism of the Nationalists. Their version of the Revolution emphasized institutional factors and tended to empathize with the British; the most ardent among them regarded the Revolution as the result of a series of unfortunate misunderstandings—a colossal mistake. The most important figures and works in this school include Charles McLean Andrews, The Colonial Background of the American Revolution (1931); Lawrence Henry Gipson, The British Empire Before the American Revolution, fourteen vols. (1936–69); and Leonard Woods Larabee, Royal Government in America (1930).
Twentieth‐century historians can be grouped into three major schools: the Progressives, the Neo‐Whigs, and the Modernists. The Progressives emphasized social science methods, embraced the frontier theory of Frederick Jackson Turner, and tended to explain the Revolution in terms of class conflict—a struggle not only for home rule but over who (as Carl Becker put it) “should rule at home.” They rejected the institutional focus and anglophilia of the Imperial historians and created a Revolution that was preeminently a struggle between common men with democratic aspirations, and their aristocratic, would‐be masters. Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence (1922), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., The Colonial Merchant and the American Revolution (1918), John Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (1926), and John C. Miller, Samuel Adams (1936) are some of the more significant works by members of this school.
The post–World War II generation of scholars, called Neo‐Whigs, reacted against the Progressives' class conflict–based interpretation and described a revolutionary movement that emerged from a broadly shared republican (or “Real Whig”) political ideology. Concerned with decision making and explaining human behavior in conflict situations, these historians generally view the Revolution as a conservative movement to protect American rights from the acts of Parliament after 1760. The most influential figure in this school, Bernard Bailyn, has produced several books and essays, most notably The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (1974). Other significant representatives include Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958); and Edmund and Helen Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis (1953), Bernhard Knollenberg, Origins of the American Revolution (1960), Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution (1972), Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts (1970), and Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics (1979).
Modernists carry on the interpretative debates of earlier historians. Gordon S. Wood, in two of the most important works on the era, The Creation of the American Republic (1969) and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), synthesizes the Progressive argument for a counterrevolutionary Constitution with the ideological analysis of the Neo‐Whigs, and argues that the Revolution represented a real change in colonial society, not a conservative reaction. In A Struggle for Power (1996), Theodore Draper provides a detailed synthesis covering the ten years before the war began, and explicitly downplays the ideological quality of the Revolution in favor of the political pragmatism of the revolutionaries. Draper's lack of interest in ideology as opposed to power mirrors the earlier work of James Kirby Martin, Men in Rebellion (1973).
The war itself has received increasing notice as an agent of revolutionary change. John Shy's suggestive essays in A People Numerous and Armed (1976), first pointed the way toward interpreting the Revolution as dynamically related to the War of Independence; two other distinguished collections of articles edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter Albert, Arms and Independence (1984) and An Uncivil War (1985), offer valuable case studies of the war in local contexts. E. Wayne Carp explains the roles of localism and political culture as they influenced the supply and support of the Continental army in his To Starve the Army at Pleasure (1984). Charles Royster describes the interactions between the war, republicanism, and the Continental army in A Revolutionary People at War (1979). R. Arthur Bowler explores an important cause of the British failure to crush the rebellion in Logistics and the Failure of the British Army in America (1975), while Sylvia R. Frey describes the British army's social character in The British Soldier in America (1981). In The Military Experience in the Age of Reason (1988), Christopher Duffy develops a clear perspective on how war and society intertwined in the eighteenth century. Other significant works on the British forces and the war include Piers Mackesy , The Way for America (1964)
; John Shy , Toward Lexington (1965)
; William Seymour , The Price of Folly (1995)
; John Tilley , The British Navy and the American Revolution (1987)
; and Nathan Miller , Sea of Glory (1974)
. The secret and intelligence aspects of the war are covered in John Bakeless 's Turncoats, Traitors and Heroes (1959)
and Carl Van Doren 's Secret History of the American Revolution (1941)
One notable trend in modern scholarship is to include the story of common people and minority groups. Sylvia R. Frey 's Water from the Rock (1991)
and Slavery in North Carolina (1995) by Marvin L. Michael Kay and and Lorin Cary
explore the African American role in war and society. The Price of Nationhood (1994), by Jean B. Lee , studies Charles County, Maryland, as transformed by the war
; while Robert Gross , The Minutemen and Their World (1976)
, examines Concord, Massachusetts. David Hackett Fisher recounts the coming of the war in Boston in Paul Revere's Ride (1994)
. John Selby , The Revolution in Virginia (1988)
, and Richard Buel , Dear Liberty: Connecticut's Mobilization in the Revolutionary War (1981)
, are strong colonywide studies of the war's impact.
Two classics in the history of Revolutionary‐era women are Mary Beth Norton , Liberty's Daughters (1980
) and Linda Kerber , Women of the Republic (1980)
; Ronald Hoffman and Peter Albert, eds., Women in the Age of the American Revolution (1989)
, collects several excellent essays.
Native Americans have lately received notable treatments in Richard White , The Middle Ground (1991)
; Gregory Evans Down , A Spirited Resistance (1992)
; Tom Hatley , The Dividing Paths (1993)
; and Colin Calloway , The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995)
, all of which depict Native Americans not as mere victims, but historical actors.
In general, there are two areas where further scholarship is needed. Apart from works on diplomacy and Lee Kennett 's French Forces in America (1977)
, the French role remains largely unexplored. Finally, the hidden war that John Adams hinted at remains to be researched. Though its sources are few, it is now, as then, the greatest gap in our knowledge of an era that marks a turning point not only in American history but in the history of the world.
James Kirby Martin , A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763–1789, 1982.
Colin D. Calloway , The American Revolution in Indian Country, 1995.
Martin V. Kwasny , Washington's Partisan War, 1775–1783, 1996.
Holly A. Mayer , Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution, 1996.
Charles P. Neimeyer , America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, 1996.
Richard Buel, Jr. , In Irons: Britain's Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy, 1998.
Paul J. Sanborn
- This entry includes 5 subentries:
- Political History
- Military History
- Diplomatic Aspects
- Financial Aspects
The American Revolution transformed thirteen British colonies into fourteen states (including Vermont) and bound them into one republic. It changed the identity of millions of people, and transformed their dominant political idea from unequal subjection to equal citizenship. It began with a parochial dispute about being British. Its debates escalated to fundamental questions of human existence. By creating the United States, the Revolution gained world-historical significance.
The Revolution also created a continent-spanning empire. To the victors every denizen was a subject, though not necessarily a citizen, of the United States. To Indians, nothing of the sort was true. They remained their own peoples. The Revolution helped begin the worldwide assault on slavery. It also let slavery spread across the Cotton Kingdom and gain enough strength that a southern republic nearly emerged out of the American republic's contradictions. Full of such contradictions, the Revolution was among the major modern transforming events.
British Power in the Colonies
At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, Great Britain stood triumphant among western European powers. But the war had been expensive, and the colonies had seemed insubordinate and uncooperative, even though colonials gloried in being Britons. Parliament's position, given formal statement in 1765 by Sir William Blackstone, was that it possessed power over all Britons. Vaunted British liberty merely meant that the Crown could not act without Parliament's consent.
After 1763 successive British administrations tried to tax the colonies directly to pay for imperial defense and administration and to assert Parliament's power. The Revenue or "Sugar" Act (1764) taxed all sugar and molasses brought to the mainland colonies. Despite sporadic protests and a great deal of smuggling, it took force. The Stamp Act (1765) tried to tap colonial business by requiring official stamps on most transactions. Colonial resistance nullified it every where except Georgia, and it was repealed in 1766. The Declaratory Act (1766) announced that Parliament could legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." In 1767 the Townshend Acts taxed imported glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. Resistance led to the repeal of all except the tea duty in 1770. All of the British taxes were to be paid in scarce coin rather than colonial paper money, which was denied the status of legal tender. Violators would be tried in vice-admiralty courts, where a royal judge would decide all matters.
After 1767 an American Board of Customs Commissioners was based in Boston. Troops were stationed there in 1768 to protect customs officials. In 1773 Parliament combined the tea tax with rescuing the bankrupt East India Company by letting it market tea directly to America. Most towns simply turned the tea ships around before they entered the port limits and had to declare their cargoes. But Boston could not. When intense negotiations about sending it back finally failed on 16 December 1773, "Mohawks" dumped the tea into the Harbor.
The "destruction of the tea" (not called the Boston Tea Party until decades later) changed the British position. The issue no longer was taxes; it was punishing Boston and Massachusetts. Early in 1774 Parliament passed four "Coercive" or "Intolerable" Acts, which closed the port of Boston, altered the Massachusetts government, allowed troops to be billeted on civilians, and permitted trials of British officials to be heard in Nova Scotia or Britain, because they supposedly could not get a fair trial in the original colony. This was despite the acquittal by a Massachusetts court of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. General Thomas Gage, commander in chief in America, became governor of Massachusetts, and British headquarters moved from New York to Boston. Meanwhile the Quebec Act recognized Catholicism and French customs there and gave jurisdiction over the Ohio and Great Lakes country to the government in Montreal.
The Rise of Resistance
Resistance received a strong lead from notable provincials. They had become used to making laws, raising taxes, setting public officials' salaries, and debating high policy. They regarded their assemblies as local equivalents of Parliament. Now Parliament itself threatened their power and pride. Provincial assemblies passed resolutions, established Committees of Correspondence, and called for days of fasting. The sort of white men who sat in them started to work out the position that we know as "taxation without representation is tyranny." The phrase was coined by the fiery Boston lawyer James Otis, but it was not widely used. The elite's lead was important, but resolutions and pamphlets would not alone have altered even one British policy, let alone start to change the fundamental terms of American life. From the Stamp Act in 1765 to the dumping of the tea, the resistance movement's "punch" came from the port cities, thanks to both ordinary people's grievances and well-organized popular leadership.
"Ordinary people" is a broad term. In the port towns it covered seafarers, laborers, apprentices, journeymen artisans, master craftsmen, tavern keepers, and even small merchants. In the right circumstances it could cover slaves, though describing a crowd as comprising "sailors, Negroes, and boys" was a standard way to disown it. Crowd action was a normal part of eighteenth-century urban life. Some crowds amounted to a whole community defending itself when the militia, the sheriff's posse, or the volunteer fire company could not. Even gentlemen might be involved, perhaps disguised in costume or a workingman's long trousers.
Crowd action also could have a class content. Seafarers, rather than all "town-born," frustrated an attempt in 1747 to impress them off the Boston streets into the Royal Navy. Crowds could be rough, but they also could be sophisticated. Boston workingmen paraded with effigies each autumn on "Pope's Day" (5 November), which celebrated the unmasking of the seventeenth-century Gun-powder Plot to bomb Parliament. They were keeping alive their sense that to be British meant more than doing whatever Parliament said. It was to be Protestant and free, and on that day the crowd of Protestant freemen ruled Boston's streets.
For the most part these uprisings were traditional, aimed at restoring how things ought to be, but during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765–1766 a transformation began. An intercolonial network of Sons of Liberty emerged, combining militancy with political direction. For the most part they were men in the middle, not real plebeians but not gentry either. In Boston Samuel Adams was Harvard educated but very much a popular politician. Adams could (and often did) argue with the governor, but he also could talk to people like shoemaker Ebenezer Macintosh, who led one of the Pope's Day crowds. Macintosh brought out the crowds on 14 August 1765, in order to "convince" stamp distributor Andrew Oliver that he should resign before the Stamp Act even took force. Boston's depressed economy helps explain the crowd's intense anger.
Newport, New York City, and other places followed Boston's lead. Virginia's House of Burgesses passed powerful (if ambiguous) resolutions. These inspired more resolutions from other assemblies and from a congress of nine colonies that assembled in New York. Mary land pamphleteer Daniel Dulany demolished the British argument that the colonies were "virtually" represented in Parliament. Henceforth the British assertion would be simply that Parliament could do what it chose. Separate but coordinated nonimportation campaigns in the ports frustrated the Townshend Acts between 1768 and 1770, not completely but enough to bring repeal of all but the tax on tea.
Parallel to the tax problem, the issue of British soldiers became an irritant. Only New York had a longstanding garrison, and it was small until the Seven Years' War. When peace returned, the garrison remained so large that two separate barrack areas were needed to house the troops. Their off-duty competition for scarce jobs made them immensely unpopular, which also applied to the four-regiment garrison posted to Boston in 1768. Street brawls between soldiers seeking work and civilians broke out in New York in January 1770, and five Bostonians died when soldiers on guard duty at the customs house opened fire on a snowball-throwing crowd in Boston in March. Work was an issue there also, but Boston's bloodshed began when a customs informer fired into a hostile crowd, killing eleven-year-old Christopher Seider. Calm returned after the "Boston Massacre," but in 1772 Rhode Islanders captured and burned the revenue cutter Gaspée when it ran aground.
Resistance Becomes Revolution
The same year Boston named a committee to rouse awareness in backcountry towns. Initially the committee met with suspicion, but after the passage of the Coercive Acts country people reorganized their militias, closed the royal courts, and shut down the new government outside occupied Boston. This was the moment when ordinary country people first became directly involved. By shutting down the government rather than just resisting one law or policy, it also was the moment when resistance began turning into revolution. Committees of correspondence began to form outside Massachusetts, partly to exchange information and partly to rally support. The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia at summer's end. It worked out the position that all colonials would support Massachusetts by direct aid and by boycotting British commerce, and it called for committees of association to guarantee compliance. During the autumn tense New Englanders gathered supplies, conducted militia drills, and set up lines of quick communication.
They showed their temper by rallying quickly after a rumor of fighting at Boston spread through eastern New England in October. They showed their organization and their full readiness on 19 April 1775, when real fighting broke out at the towns of Lexington and Concord after a British expedition tried to seize supplies and capture leaders. Massachusetts men drove the troops back with heavy losses, gathered into an impromptu army, and besieged Boston, which the British army controlled. In June they inflicted massive injuries on another British force at Breed's (Bunker) Hill. Massachusetts had been in revolution since the closure of the courts the previous summer. Now it was at war.
When war broke out General and Governor Gage was under orders from London to act, even though he knew his troops were too few for the task. Each side knew the other's plans, and townsmen were ready for the alarm that Paul Revere spread as the troops prepared to move. Whoever fired first, the colonial militia gave the redcoats a terrible drubbing, besieged Boston, and gave British regulars another drubbing before they yielded Breed's (Bunker) Hill in June. Shortly after that, George Washington, who had appeared at the Second Continental Congress in uniform, arrived to take command. A stalemate followed until artillery captured from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain could be placed on Dorchester Heights. That made Boston untenable, and the British withdrew in March 1776.
Outside New England the news of fighting changed the mood from disquiet and support to angry solidarity. Committees of Safety took form and began to drain power away from regular governments. The elite New Yorker Gouverneur Morris described one meeting to elect a committee as "the mob" beginning "to think and to reason." He likened the plebeians to "poor reptiles" and predicted that "'ere noon they will bite." When the news arrived from Lexington, a real mob broke open the city arsenal and seized the weapons stored there. Small farmers outside New England began to ponder their own interests. Slaves in Virginia quietly approached the royal governor and offered their services. They knew at least vaguely about Somerset's Case (1772), which seemed to outlaw slavery within Britain. As early as 1768 Ohio country Indians had been exploring the idea of unity. Now they and most others began considering which side to choose.
The Debate over Independence
Throughout the quarter-century from 1764, when the first protests against the Sugar Act appeared, until the end of the great debate about ratifying the federal Constitution in 1789, American writers argued. Until 1774 their debate was about the problem of being British while not dwelling in Britain. London set the terms of the argument even though writers like Daniel Dulany (Maryland) and John Dickinson (Delaware and Pennsylvania) wrote with great power and usually won their points.
Thomas Jefferson's A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) broke free of that agenda. He, Thomas Paine, John Adams (Thoughts on Government, 1776) and others were declaring intellectual independence and beginning to address the problems that Americans would face as a separate people. The first result would be justifying independence in 1776. The second would be state-level arguments about how to be republican. The third would be the creation of the republic over a dozen intensely conflict-ridden but very creative years.
Paine's Common Sense (1776) made the argument for independence and republicanism, calling for the simplest of political institutions to replace the old order. Not everybody was ready, and some people were moving to the king's side. Others dreaded Paine's call for extreme political simplicity, particularly Adams, whose Thoughts on Government made the call for institutional complexity and balance. That debate would continue until 1788. Adams also suggested that any new constitution would need some sort of popular ratification. New York artisans and farmers in western Massachusetts were making the same point. More immediately, doubters and moderates had to be convinced, particularly in New York and in Pennsylvania, whose old government continued to meet in the same building as Congress until May 1776.
Congress moved toward independence gradually between April and July, opening the ports to non-British trade, calling for remaining royal government to end, and finally naming the five-man committee that drafted its Declaration to the world. It also named committees to begin the business of foreign affairs, particularly with France, which already was giving clandestine aid, and to draft Articles of Confederation binding the separate states. Until that document was finally approved in 1781, there was no real basis for the United States to exist. Yet during those years Congress organized an army, supported a war, presided over the beginnings of a national economy, and won an alliance with France and financial aid from the Netherlands.
The Declaration of Independence has three parts: an eloquent statement about human rights, a long bill of indictment against "the present king of Britain," and the formal statement of separation. Of these the most important at the time was the attack on King George. The Declaration did not attack monarchy in principle. That would have been foolish, given the need for French aid. What Jefferson wrote was not what Congress finally declared. To the Virginian's chagrin, his collective editor cut much of his impassioned rhetoric toward the document's end, including his attempt to blame slavery on King George, which Jefferson himself saw as the final and most powerful charge. Historically the charge was ridiculous; Virginians had wanted their slaves. But slavery was emerging as a moral and political problem that cut across all other lines of dispute, including that of loyal Briton and revolutionary American. When British writer Samuel Johnson asked in 1776 how it was "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes," his revulsion was just as strong as Jefferson's.
The War Is Fought
Congress voted independence on July 2 and accepted the final draft on July 4. It was not fully signed until early August. By then an enormous fleet was discharging British and hired German troops on Staten Island, preparing to capture New York City. Expecting the invasion, George Washington had moved his half-trained and ill-equipped Continental Army to Brooklyn. His attempt to defend the city in the "Battle of Long Island" failed, but a superb retreat to Manhattan got most of his troops out of the way of capture. The Americans continued to retreat, first upstate and then across the Hudson River into New Jersey. Washington's strategy until 1781 would be to keep the army intact, rather than to win set pieces, unless a stroke was needed for purposes of military and civilian morale. He achieved two such strokes, one at Trenton in December 1776 and the other at Princeton in January 1777. New York City would remain in British hands until 1783.
The only great set-piece battles after Long Island were Saratoga in 1777, when American victory helped bring France into the conflict openly, and Yorktown in 1781. The French fleet made that possible by blocking the Chesapeake until a combined army under Washington could cut Lord Cornwallis and his troops off, breaking the British political will to continue.
By then the war had touched virtually everybody inside the whole zone that Britain had won in 1763. Even the Southwest, where Choctaws and Chickasaws were nominally pro-British but primarily interested in their own independence, saw an influx of loyalist refugees, as well as military aid from the Spanish authorities in New Orleans to the Americans farther east. Spain entered the war not as an outright ally of the United States, but rather to honor its own alliance with France. The "old northwest," New York State, eastern Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake, the southern backcountry, and the Carolina and Georgia lowlands all witnessed massive material destruction. Among all American wars, the struggle for independence was the second longest, after Vietnam. The rate of military casualties in relation to the population was the second highest after the Civil War.
The Revolution's Aftermath
At the war's end perhaps sixty thousand white refugees fled, going to Canada and Britain. Thousands of black people who had sought the king's freedom secured it by fleeing too, on the ships that left Savannah, Charleston, and New York late in 1783. The Mohawk Indians, who had been actively pro-British, went to Canada; most others believed they had lost nothing, whichever side they had chosen. The treaty signed in Paris that year provided almost everything the Americans could have wanted. It yielded not just the areas where American troops were in control but also the three major occupied ports. It also ceded the entire zone east of the Mississippi, south of the Great Lakes, and north of Florida, whatever Indians thought about it. Washington rightly called his fellow Americans "lords of a great empire" in 1784.
Within America changes were unfolding rapidly. Vermont abolished slavery in 1777 when it declared its own independence from New York. Pennsylvania began gradual abolition in 1780, to be completed in 1799. The Massachusetts Supreme Court decreed slavery's immediate abolition there in 1783. Women were starting to raise their voices about public affairs and about their own concerns. During the war all the states persecuted loyalists, attainting them by name in statutes that confiscated their property and threatened them with death. The Penn family lost their feudal proprietorship over Pennsylvania. The material demands of the war generated a national economy, which simply had not existed prior to independence. The experiences of war as seen from the center of national politics and of diplomacy began turning the provincial gentlemen who had been mostly strangers when they first assembled in 1774 into a national elite with a common point of view and an increasingly common purpose.
Deciding on a New Political Order
The greatest immediate problem after independence was to work out the terms of a new political order. John Adams wanted to "glide insensibly" from the old order to the new, with minimal change in institutions or customs. That is what happened in Connecticut and Rhode Island, which already ran their own affairs entirely. But elsewhere the old institutions collapsed at independence, and new ones had to be built from the beginning. Thomas Paine thought that annual assemblies "with a president only" would do, and that is close to what came to be in Pennsylvania and Vermont. The idea horrified John Adams in Massachusetts, New York's John Jay, and Maryland leader Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Each state created complex institutions that their designers intended to balance society's elements against one another. Following British tradition and wanting to protect private property, they tried to define those elements in terms of "the few" and "the many," with property requirements for voting and holding public office.
The state constitutions of New York (1777) and Massachusetts (1780) foreshadowed the structure of executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch that the United States Constitution would establish. That document's authors intended to sort men who were qualified to rule from the rest. When they wrote it in 1787, they had come firmly to believe that ordinary people had shown themselves unfit to rule by their conduct in the separate states. But the Constitution says nothing about social distinctions among citizens, let alone about property requirements for voting and holding office. Its sorting out would be indirect, on the unproven premise that on a large stage only the truly qualified could emerge.
Perhaps the worst intellectual problem was figuring out how to be a republican people at all. It was not enough to depose the king, as the English had deposed James II in 1688. They had simply called new joint monarchs, James's daughter Mary and her husband, William, to the throne, but there would be no European prince for Americans. Nor was it enough to draw up a set of new institutions, call the document a constitution, and declare it in operation. Most states did try to do exactly that. The possible consequences became apparent when South Carolina's legislature repealed the state's two-year-old constitution in 1778. The governor vetoed the repeal and then resigned his office, leaving the state with neither a certain basis for its own institutions nor anybody in charge. Not until Massachusetts employed the devices of both a special convention to write a constitution and a special process to ratify it in 1780 did the notion of "the people" being its own sovereign begin to take on operational meaning. That device has underpinned American constitutional thinking ever since.
The movement for the federal Constitution sprang from the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, which rendered Congress nearly powerless, from foreign debts that could not be paid and treaty obligations that could not be met, from the Revolution's surge of "new men" into power at the state level, and from what those men did with the power they gained. That included continuing to persecute loyalists despite the peace treaty, cushioning the problems of debtors by staying suits and issuing cheap paper money, and looking to local needs ahead of national ones. The men we call "the Framers" already knew one another thanks to wartime experience, and they had developed a common perspective. To their minds the whole situation pointed toward disaster, particularly after Shays's Rebellion (1786) seemed to threaten the very government of Massachusetts.
Alexander Hamilton of New York began writing essays in favor of strong government as early as 1782. James Madison of Virginia retreated from the frustrations of serving in Congress to ponder political science. Serving as American minister in London, John Adams tried to defend "the constitutions of the United States." George Washington wrote worried letters to his friends. Informal meetings at Mount Vernon (1785) and Annapolis (1786) led to a call for a general convention to "propose amendments" to the Articles of Confederation, which would meet in Philadelphia in 1787.
That call had no legal basis, but Congress endorsed it, and only Rhode Island failed to send delegates. Even their absence could have been fatal, since amending the Articles required the legislatures of all thirteen founding states (excluding Vermont, which went unrecognized) to consent. The convention sidestepped that problem by providing that the Constitution would take effect when special conventions in nine states accepted it. The solution was strictly illegal, but by June 1788 nine states had ratified, though the majority of voters probably intended to reject it. Institutional stability finally returned when the United States Congress assembled and George Washington assumed the presidency early in 1789.
The Constitution solved the problems of political authority, political order, and political economy among the republic's citizens that the Revolution had raised. It created a huge common market within which a commercial economy could flourish. It gave the United States the strength to survive in a difficult, dangerous world and to create its own continent-spanning empire. The Northwest Ordinances adopted by the old Congress during the same period solved the problem of incorporating that American empire into the republic, both politically and economically. But the Constitution failed completely to address the issues of equality and freedom that people who were not white and not male had raised during the Revolution.
Those questions had had no place on the old agenda for discussion and action that had gone with being British in America. They would have very prominent places on the new agenda that sprang from the Revolution's proposition that to be American was to be equal and free. Part of what was revolutionary about American independence was that it happened at all, given Britain's strength and the amount of disruption required. Part was working out a way for republicanism to work over an enormous area. Part was opening up those questions of American equality, identity, and belonging, even though most would remain unanswered long after George Washington became president.
Calloway, Colin. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Countryman, Edward. The American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 1985. Revised edition in preparation.
Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Greene, Jack P., and J. R. Pole, eds. A Companion to the American Revolution. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.
Gross, Robert A. The Minutemen and Their World. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.
Holton, Woody. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Rev. ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
See alsoConstitution of the United States ; Continental Congress ; Intolerable Acts ; Revolution, American: Military History ; Sons of Liberty (American Revolution) ; Sugar Acts ; "Taxation without Representation" andvol. 9:Address of the Continental Congress to Inhabitants of Canada ; Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress ; Declaration of Independence ; Common Sense ; Letters of Abigail and John Adams ; Massachusetts Circular Letter ; Patrick Henry's Resolves ; The Pennsylvania Farmer's Remedy ; The Continental Association .
Without the War of Independence, there would have been no American Revolution and no American national state in the eighteenth century. Even if Britain had granted her disgruntled colonists separation from the empire in 1775 or 1776, the statement holds true. This generalization about the link between war and American state formation also applies to the creation of many nations since the Early Modern Era in Europe, which saw the emergence of the national state in something remotely approaching its modern form between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. America, in some measure, followed the pattern of weak kingdoms and other polities in Europe, since wars led to centralizing tendencies because of the heavy taxes, large armies, and bureaucratic agencies needed to energize and manage military undertakings. Some of those forms of centralization and bureaucratization remained permanently with the advent of peace in Spain, France, Sweden, and, in time, Britain.
It has seldom been noted that the earliest beginnings of war and state formation in America date back to almost a century before the War of Independence and other events that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Britain's four imperial wars with France between 1689 and 1763 resulted in the growth of permanent powers for the thirteen British American legislative assemblies. Dependent on the colonies for men and money to defend the frontiers and to send expeditions against Canada, the colonial lawmakers became military policymakers by indicating the way monies were spent, the number of men to be raised, and the length and location of their service. In using wars as a way to increase their authority, the colonial legislatures seized greater control over military affairs than the House of Commons ever acquired in Britain. These were the bodies that led the resistance against Britain's new imperial program after 1763 and that produced American leaders in the War of Independence. Without the institutional gains from those previous wars in the New World, these assembles would hardly have been able to challenge Britain.
Beginning in 1774, after a decade of opposing British efforts to tax the colonies and to tighten the imperial system in other ways as well, the assemblies, meeting independently as de facto provincial congresses, took control of colonial governments, including the militias, and elected delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The following year, just after fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, the Second Continental Congress met and began to function as a quasi-central government. It took command of the New England colonial forces besieging the British in Boston, appointed George Washington commander in chief, and declared independence the following year. No organic growth of an American nation lay behind these actions, nor can American nationalism provide the explanation. Colonial rivalries and jealousies were deep and of long standing. Benjamin Franklin once remarked that the colonies had a greater dislike for one another than they had for Britain, and those sentiments hardly disappeared completely after independence. They were muted only to a limited degree by the war and the separation from Britain. Yet, concerns for self-preservation can propel people of different interests and traditions a vast distance—people who were reluctant revolutionaries, who found the break with the mother country a painful experience.
As for Britain, she had refused to work for a political solution to the problem of the constitutional relationship between London and her North American dependencies. That is why General Thomas Gage, stationed in Boston, received orders that resulted in his dispatching a troop column on 18 April 1775 to destroy the Massachusetts militia's military stores at Concord. The voices of conciliation and compromise in Parliament, led by Lord Chatham, never received a hearing, even though they prophetically warned of a difficult war of overwhelming costs and of French and Spanish intervention on the side of the rebellion.
The Resources of America
Unlike most revolutionaries in modern history, the Americans began the war in control of the infrastructure of the country. They did so through the provincial congresses, which provided written constitutions for the newly independent states, and through their command of the militias. Though often ineffective in pitched battles against British regulars, poorly trained militia performed a valuable constabularly role on the local scene in the Revolutionary War. As a result the loyalists, or tories, were always on the defensive, except when backed by the presence of a Royal Army. A South Carolina loyalist official, James Simpson, correctly observed that the great contribution of the militia was in sustaining civil governments; "their civil institutions" gave the rebels "the whole of their strength." Moreover, Americans fought on their own soil, very different from the relatively flat battlefields of western Europe, over which armies had swept back and forth for centuries. The militia and the Continental army knew the densely wooded country, with its mountains, valleys, swamps, and rivers, and made effective use of them. Americans, particularly the militia, sometimes used night
attacks and resorted to winter fighting. Another plus for the Americans was an abundance of manpower. Certainly most white men between ages eighteen and forty-five saw some military service, whether in the militia or the Continental army. The militia understandably preferred to serve under their own local officers, and the states usually limited their active service to anywhere from a few months to as much as a year. They were most valuable to Washington in the winter months when regular Continental enlistments usually ended and a virtually new army had yet to be raised for service in the following spring and summer.
One does not have to be slavishly devoted to a great man theory of history to maintain that Washington was the most valuable asset for the Americans—in any event, the greatest human asset. From the beginning, he showed his total commitment to civil control of the military. He himself was a former colonial legislator and a member of the Congress that appointed him in June 1775. He kept the lawmakers informed of his activities and unfailingly obeyed their instructions, although he was honest and open in making it known when he disagreed with his masters. Congress moved at a slower pace in the process of nation building than had been the case during the early modern European wars. That fact frustrated Washington, but he knew the foremost problem was that the newly independent states were initially hesitant to create a strong central government. Congress, however, had wasted no time in 1776 in beginning the process, drafting the Articles of Confederation; however, disagreement about certain allocations of powers along with state jealousies kept the document from being formally ratified by all the thirteen states, as required, until 1781. Washington conceded that it was difficult to create an American constitutional union in the midst of war, at a time when Congress was deflected by its myriad military and diplomatic responsibilities. The loosely structured Confederation was a kind of federalism, more like the pre-1776 version of imperial federalism than the form of federalism to triumph after the war in 1787.
Washington himself was militarily conservative and so was Congress. A massive guerrilla war might well have spawned countless atrocities, the destruction of cities, and the weakening of American social and political institutions. As a French and Indian War colonel, commanding the Virginia forces, he had sought to make his regiment as professional as possible, calling for strict discipline, rigorous training, and officers well read in European military literature. The same attitude shaped his thinking about the Continental army. The army suffered its share of defeats, but even on those occasions it often fought reasonably well. And it had open space in which to retreat and regroup. Washington escaped across New Jersey after the loss of New York City. General Nathanael Greene, pursued by Lord Cornwallis in the South, fled across the Dan River into Virginia. The army learned from its mistakes and steadily improved, displaying incredible staying power in a contest that lasted eight and one-half years. Much of the credit for its progress goes to Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the so-called Prussian drillmaster, and to a cluster of French officers who constituted the corps of engineers.
If Washington's principal task was to hold his army together, he had two reasons for doing so. One was simply to outlast the British, to wear them down, to destroy their will to win a war that became an endlessly long contest of attrition. And it worked, just as North Vietnam's similar approach eventually spelled failure for the United States in Southeast Asia in the 1970s. For in both the earlier and later war, political pressures and public opinion generally led Britain and the United States, respectively, to withdraw from a quagmire, although both countries were still quite capable from a narrow military perspective of continuing the struggle. The second dimension of Washington's job was to foster a sense of unity in the army and, from his perspective, in the new nation as a whole. Washington urged the officers and men of the army to forsake religious, ethnic, and provincial jealousies. He contended with Protestants who did not like Catholics and Jews and conservative Protestant ministers who opposed the appointment of John Murray, the father of American Universalism, as an army chaplain. New England men did not want to serve under New York officers and frontier riflemen fought with Marblehead fishermen from Massachusetts. In his general orders, he constantly encouraged his soldiers to think of themselves first as Americans and not simply as Virginians or Pennsylvanians or Georgians. He enjoyed his greatest success in inculcating national identity and esprit in his officers, including Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, Anthony Wayne, Henry Lee, and John Marshall. As a person, he emerged as the most visible symbol of unity for Americans. And as an institution, his army stood out as the most visible symbol of unity for his countrymen.
The Resources of Britain
Britain had certain formidable advantages over the colonies at the outbreak of the war. One was a growing sense of national identity that increased the unity of England, Scotland, and Wales. It was based on a mighty empire, economic growth, success in war, and anti-Catholicism. When had Britain ever lost a war? She was the dominant superpower in Europe after humiliating France and Spain in the Seven Years' War (the French and Indian War in North America). Her post-1688 imperial wars had been fueled by a dynamic economy stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, the government pioneered in new methods of taxation and deficit financing. The result was the development of a "fiscal-military state." The actual war machinery was headed by the king, George III, who was far from a figurehead. Ministers still had to be acceptable to him and so did military commanders. His job in wartime was to back his ministers and to dispense patronage to members of Parliament and other public figures who supported his government. He served as a cheerleader rather than as a planner of campaigns or as one involving himself in day-to-day decisions.
Human power constituted another plus for Britain. Her population came to eleven million, whereas there were fewer than three million colonials, of whom one-sixth were held in slavery. In 1775 the army numbered 48,000 men, of whom many were veterans of warfare and proud of their regiments and their traditions. The regimental officers were competent, some of them outstanding. The commanding generals who served in America, all veterans of the Seven Years' War, were sound by the standards of their day, but none displayed the talents of a Wolfe or a Wellington. The navy, long England's first line of defense and its pride, was the largest in the kingdom's history, although post-1763 budget restraints had led to its deterioration. It no longer in 1775 maintained the two-power standard: the numerical equal of Britain and Spain. But commanders were almost all reputable figures, superior to most senior officers of the Bourbon navies. If the Royal Navy used impressment to meet its critical manpower needs, the army turned to the German states, as did other countries needing foreign mercenaries. The ministry purchased the services of 33,000 from six principalities, the great majority of this human flesh coming from Brunswick and Hesse-Cassel. Valuable additions, they not surprisingly were of uneven quality. Having no real stake in the conflict, several thousand deserted and remained in America, lured by land and German American kinsmen in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Additional human resources were found in America: loyalists and Native Americans. Perhaps two-thirds of the politically active Americans supported the Revolution. That left a sizable number who were neutralists or loyalists, and in fact colonials not uncommonly changed sides depending on who was winning and how they were treated. In the early years, Britain displayed a good deal of indifference to the king's friends, and in the later years, when French entry created a shortage of redcoats in North America, Britain turned too fully to the loyalists and exaggerated their strength, for by that time many Crown adherents had become angered by the army's indifference or mistreatment of them. Even so, perhaps some twenty thousand at one time or another took up arms against the revolutionaries. The Native Americans, as in the imperial wars, influenced the balance of power in the interior. Although both sides courted the tribesmen, the British were better versed in Indian affairs and benefited from the Native Americans' resentment against colonial encroachments on their lands. Consequently, the great majority of the participating Indians fought on the British side.
If the American disadvantages were obvious from the outset—their historic provincial jealousies, largely agricultural economy, and lack of a strong central government—British problems became apparent as the contest progressed. Lord North, the first minister, admitted he knew little of managing a war effort. The direction of military affairs then fell on the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord George Germain, able but prickly, hardly a dynamic war leader as William Pitt had been in the Seven Years' War. Problems of transportation, communication, and supply over the three-thousand-mile Atlantic increased in a war that lasted eight and one-half years. The generals and admirals, most of them members of Parliament, did not trust the ministry—the feeling was mutual—and were members of different factions in the House of Commons. The loyalists, as already indicated, contributed less than London officialdom had hoped. Even the Indians, although they wreaked havoc in the region later known as Kentucky, the Ohio country, and western New York, may have been more of a negative than a positive factor, for their depredations tended to unite and energize western settlers.
The War in New England
In general, the war moved from north to south in terms of where the brunt of the fighting took place between the regular armies of Britain and America. The first year of the conflict saw the colonists on the offensive. Even before Washington's arrival at the American camp at Cambridge in July 1775, the New Englanders, after forcing a British column back from Concord, laid siege to Boston and fought the bloody but inconclusive Battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June. In that clash, General Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief, sanctioned an attack against the well-entrenched Americans that brought the redcoats a Pyrrhic victory. Before finally driving the colonials back, the British suffered their heaviest losses of any battle during the war, their casualties amounting to 42 percent of the 2,500 troops engaged. While Washington continued the siege, he sent a small American force from his camp through the Maine woods to attack Quebec. Its commander, Benedict Arnold, had gained recent renown, along with Ethan Allen, in seizing small British garrisons at Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain in upper New York. Outside the Canadian city, he met a second American army under Richard Montgomery that had advanced up the Hudson–Lake Champlain waterway. On New Year's Eve, the two American columns were repulsed. Montgomery met death and Arnold took a bullet in the leg. The following year, the Americans were thrown out of Canada and thus ended Congress's serious effort to make the Canadians the fourteenth colony in rebellion.
During the siege of Boston, Washington forged an army out of what he described as a "mixed multitude of
people," bringing order and discipline. He dismissed incompetent officers and elevated younger men with potential such as Henry Knox of Massachusetts and Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, who became his most valuable subordinates and served throughout the war. He communicated regularly his needs and his objectives to the New England governments, and he deferred to their authority and their laws, winning their respect and esteem. He proved to New Englanders and to Congress that Americans need not fear an army composed of their own citizens. From his fortified positions surrounding Boston on the land side, he brought increasing pressure on British general William Howe, Gage's successor. After Washington planted artillery on Dorchester Heights, within range of the city, Howe evacuated his army by sea on 17 March. Retiring to Nova Scotia, he sought to re-group, await reinforcements, and attack New York City. Massachusetts appeared to be the center of the rebellion, and New York seemed to offer the prospect of greater success.
The War in the Middle States
Phase two of the struggle took place in the middle states, from 1776 to 1778. Except for the brief months of the Yorktown campaign in late 1781, Washington remained continuously in that theater. His balance sheet shows mixed results. In 1776 the London ministry elected to make a massive display of force, one that would quell the colonial uprising; it was the largest expeditionary undertaking in English history to that time. In the summer of that year General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe appeared before New York City with seventy-three warships, several hundred transports, and 32,000 troops. The British plan was to take the New York capital, and cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. The Howes believed that if they could over-whelm the Puritan colonies, allegedly the most rebellious region, they would have a good chance of ending the uprising, especially if in the process they inflicted a decisive defeat on Washington, who had moved down from Boston to oppose them. But in some measure the Howes had mixed motives. They came as peace commissioners as well as conquerors. Both had been moderates on imperial questions and they seemingly hoped to bring the Americans to a cessation of hostilities by negotiation if possible. If so, they had little to offer in a meeting with a congressional delegation, only to accept an American agreement to stop the fighting before any London officials would consider concessions on policy.
For Britain, the campaign of 1776 began on a positive note and ended on a negative one. Washington suffered a series of setbacks in the New York City area between August and November and ran the risk of losing his army. Defeated on Long Island, he escaped to Manhattan and retreated up the island, fighting a series of battles at Kips Bay, Harlem Heights, and White Plains as the British unsuccessfully tried to get behind him and seal off his escape. But General Howe did capture Fort Washington, which Washington had unwisely left garrisoned on Manhattan. Washington then fled through New Jersey and reached safety by crossing the Delaware River to the Pennsylvania side. Even so, the year terminated with sparkling American counterstrokes. General Guy Carleton, after throwing the American invasion force of Montgomery and Arnold out of Canada, headed down Lake Champlain in hopes of linking up with Howe somewhere on the Hudson. But a setback at the hands of a tiny American fleet under Arnold on that lake, along with the lateness of the season, led Carleton to withdraw to Canada. And Washington, always an aggressive commander, was down but not out. At the end of December he struck back at the British, already settled into winter quarters, overwhelming their garrisons at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey and then escaping in the first week of the new year into secure lodgings for the season in the hills around Morristown. The year 1777 displayed marked similarities to 1776, with two British armies in the field. The Canadian-based army, now under General John Burgoyne, pressed down the Lake Champlain–Hudson trough, but without a commitment
from General Howe to link up on the Hudson or elsewhere. Howe, leaving Sir Henry Clinton with a garrison in New York City, put to sea with most of his army for a strike at Philadelphia, leaving Burgoyne to his own devices. Lord Germain had sanctioned a campaign without a unifying concept, and Howe and Burgoyne did not trust each other. Overconfidence in the wilderness of upper New York led to Burgoyne's downfall. His army literally broke down in the heavily wooded terrain. Near Saratoga, New York, Burgoyne twice attacked General Horatio Gates's well-entrenched American northern army on Bemis Heights. Twice repulsed with heavy losses, Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga on 17 October. His loss of over six thousand men demonstrated that European armies, with their bright uniforms and traditional linear formations, did not fare well in the interior of North America.
William Howe, smarter than Burgoyne in some respects, avoided the interior and recognized the importance of staying close to coastal urban areas to keep his supply lines open. Moreover, he won two battles in the fall of 1777. Landing his force at the head of Chesapeake Bay, he advanced on Philadelphia until Washington blocked his route at Brandywine Creek in southern Pennsylvania. After heavy fighting and turning Washington's right flank on 11 September, Howe pushed his opponent aside and occupied Philadelphia. Washington counterpunched on 4 October, staging a night assault on Howe's advance base at Germantown, Pennsylvania. Again the fighting was spirited, but Washington's battle plan was too complicated and he pulled back and soon went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, some twenty miles from Philadelphia.
The campaigns of 1776 and 1777 revealed the weaknesses of Britain military planning—a lack of overall strategic thinking, an inadequate naval blockade, and a lack of coordination on land. The Howe brothers, increasingly pessimistic about military victory over America and resenting criticism in London circles, resigned and returned to the metropolis to defend their reputation and attribute their failures to Germain and others. Washington, in contrast, showed remarkable persistence and fortitude, keeping his army alive and using the winter and spring of 1777–1778 to survive the Valley Forge winter and to becoming more professional with each passing year through longer enlistments, larger bounties, and better training. It was at Valley Forge that Steuben, the drillmaster, made his mark on the army by standardizing drill and battlefield tactics.
The International War
Britain's failure to subdue New England and the middle states by the spring of 1778 combined with French entry on the side of America changed the scope and character of the conflict. Nursing old grievances against England, France moved from giving clandestine support to the revolutionaries—providing military stores funneled through a fictitious company and allowing the tiny Continental navy and rebel privateers use of her ports—to signing treaties of commerce and alliance with the United States in February 1778. Gallic dangers led Britain to spread her military and naval resources more thinly in America in order to protect the home kingdom and her valuable West Indian sugar islands. Sir Henry Clinton, General Howe's successor as commander in chief in America, evacuated Philadelphia in order to concentrate his forces at New York City and to send troops to the Caribbean. Breaking camp at Valley Forge, Washington pursued him across New Jersey, attacking his rear guard at Monmouth Courthouse on 28 June 1778. As the day wore on, a full-scale battle resulted. The Continental army, much enlarged and trained by Steuben, gave one of its best performances of the war. The outcome was indecisive, but the American regulars had more than held their own against veteran British troops, obtaining a moral victory that they sorely needed after their Brandywine and Germantown reversals. Washington's army followed behind Clinton and took up positions outside New York City at White Plains. The two armies were back in the same proximity of two years earlier, a sign that Howe's and Clinton's wanderings had little to show for. It was a matter of up and down and round and round, in the caustic words of the London Evening Post.
There were no more major battles in New England or the middle states after Monmouth, only skirmishes, raids, and Indian incursions on the fringes as Washington settled in to observing the British in New York City, although the British garrisoned Stony Point and other small posts on the Lower Hudson until they were dislodged or pressured to relinquish them. Unfortunately for Washington, although the French alliance resulted in a substantial increase in military supplies from France, his new allies failed to play an active role in the American part of the international war until quite late. In 1778 Admiral the Comte d'Estaing failed to intercept a British convoy bound from Philadelphia to New York City and a storm destroyed his chances of defeating Admiral Howe off the coast of Rhode Island. For over two years Washington remained in a holding pattern, not moving his base of operations until the Yorktown campaign of 1781. The most traumatic event of those years was the treason of his ablest combat general, Benedict Arnold, whose plot to turn over the strategic bastion of West Point to Clinton in return for money and a British generalship fell through,
with Arnold himself escaping but his contact man, Major John Andre, being captured and executed as a spy.
The War in the South
In the winter of 1778–1779 the war began taking on a southern complexion. Unsuccessful in the north and fearful of French attacks in Europe and the West Indies, Britain tried its luck in the South. For several years southern loyalists had argued that the king's friends were most numerous in their region and that the South's agricultural resources were the most valuable part of the king's North American empire. With manpower resources stretched tissue thin, the idea of relying heavily on loyalists was beguiling. Yet there were reasons to question it, especially because of events there in 1776. A British naval assault on Charles Town, South Carolina, had been turned away and uprisings of loyalists in North Carolina and Cherokee in the backcountry had been crushed. The new southern policy was adopted only in piecemeal fashion, perhaps because Clinton was less enthusiastic about it than Germain. A small British expeditionary force overran Georgia at roughly the end of 1778, but in 1779 alack of sufficient royal troops delayed a serious attempt to overwhelm South Carolina. Finally, Clinton himself brought several thousand additional men from New York and laid siege to Charles Town, which fell to Sir Henry on 12 May 1780, a devastating loss for the Americans since over five thousand continentals and militiamen were taken. A newly raised American southern army met a similar fate in upper South Carolina when it suffered a stinging defeat at Camden on 16 August and its remnant was scattered and demoralized. Clinton, by now back in New York City, had instructed Lord Cornwallis, commanding the southern operation, not to invade North Carolina and Virginia until he had secured the backcountry and had organized the loyalists into an effective constabulary for controlling the vast stretches behind the lines. But Cornwallis exaggerated the strength and effectiveness of the tories and underestimated the resistance movement led by partisan or guerrilla leaders such as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Andrew Pickens. On 7 October 1780, near the North Carolina border, Cornwallis's one-thousand-man loyalist left wing was destroyed by far-western frontiersmen at King's Mountain.
By December 1780 the southern conflict had become a duel between Cornwallis and Nathanael Greene, who regrouped and augmented the American southern forces. Dividing his small army, Greene sent General Daniel Morgan into the South Carolina backcountry, where he defeated Banastre Tarleton's Tory Legion on 17 January 1781. Greene then reunited his forces and escaped northward from Cornwallis into Virginia. Returning to North Carolina, he fought Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse (later Greensboro) on 15 March, inflicting heavy casualties on the British, although neither side could claim a victory. Greene had played a cat-and-mouse game with his opponent. After wearing Cornwallis down, the British general limped to the North Carolina coast and then on
to the Virginia Chesapeake. Greene continued his strategy of movement, isolating and picking off one by one British posts in South Carolina. His brilliant campaigning had left the enemy in control of only Charles Town and Savannah.
Washington too displayed boldness in 1781, racing south in an effort to trap Cornwallis on the Yorktown Peninsula in cooperation with French naval forces under Admiral the Comte de Grasse, and a French military force under General the Comte de Rochambeau. Cornwallis was doomed. His eight thousand men faced a Franco-American army of seventeen thousand, and Admiral de Grasse beat back British naval efforts to rescue the beleaguered Cornwallis. The month-long siege ended 17 October when Cornwallis surrendered. (Contrary to legend, British musicians did not play a tune called "The World Turned Upside Down" while redcoats stacked their arms.) The outcome of the war was determined in the south, since Yorktown destroyed Britain's will to pursue the conflict in America, although fighting continued elsewhere between England and France and the latter's Bourbon ally Spain in 1782. British mistakes were their loyalist policy and Cornwallis's errors in abandoning South Carolina too quickly and moving to Virginia, where he became vulnerable to Franco-American land and sea cooperation. The year 1781 saw both Greene and Washington at their best and, for the first time, active French participation in America.
The War and American Society
The conflict impacted the lives of Americans in countless ways. In the short term, it did little for African Americans, although some hundreds of blacks fought in Washington's army, and thousands of bondsmen fled to the British, where some received their freedom but many were mistreated, a large percentage of them enslaved by royal authorities and tories. Women of ten assumed the responsibilities of men in shops and on farms as their sons and husbands took up arms. A comparative few even served in Washington's army and countless others moved with the army, fulfilling various needs such as washing and cooking. An organization of females founded by Esther Reed of Philadelphia raised money with the idea of providing soldiers some of the amenities of life. Some Americans acquired land for the first time by purchasing confiscated tory property, although most of that real estate went to the highest bidder to acquire money for war needs. Native Americans were losers without qualification. Without Britain as a buffer, the tide of American settlement rolled inexorably westward during and after the war, particularly into what became Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio. Inflation, paper money, and lack of specie hurt all sectors, including the officers and men of the Continental army. Late in the war there were small mutinies by the rank and file and grumbling by officers, especially at the field-grade level, seemed ominous. The desertion rate, about 20 percent of enlisted men, seems high but not by European standards. In March 1783 Washington doused the fires of officer discontent in a dramatic appearance before the officers at Newburgh, New York, promising to see that Congress addressed their legitimate grievances. In the final analysis, the army showed its loyalty to Washington and to civilian control, one of the great legacies of the Revolution. The officers and men returned peacefully to the civilian society from which they had come.
The most important consequences of the war itself, in addition to the precedent of civil control, were two in number. First, the treaty of peace in 1783 not only recognized America's independence but acknowledged its claims to the Mississippi River as the country's western boundary. Diplomats John Jay, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were tough at the bargaining table, but they profited by the rivalry between England and France, both of which sought American goodwill in the postwar world. The last consequence saw the final phase of the process of state formation in America. The foremost political and military leaders, almost without exception, had become nationalists. They felt that the war showed that the Revolution could not reach its logical culmination without a central government with the authority to unite America and to protect it from domestic violence and foreign dangers. The result was the Constitution of 1787, which was both a political and a military document. The military provisions proved to be so comprehensive that amendments in that area have never been added to the original document.
Carp, E. Wayne. To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policy, and Practice, 1763–1789. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
———. George Washington and the American Military Tradition. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.
Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Mayer, Holly A. Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
Willcox, William B. Portrait of a General: Sir Henry Clinton in the War of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1964.
See alsoBrandywine Creek, Battle of ; Camden, Battle of ; Colonial Wars ; French in the American Revolution ; Guilford Courthouse, Battle of ; Indians in the Revolution ; Long Island, Battle of ; New York City, Capture of ; Newburgh Addresses ; Paris, Treaty of (1783) ; Princeton, Battle of ; Provincial Congresses ; Saratoga Campaign ; Savannah, Siege of (1779) ; Ticonderoga, Capture of ; Trenton, Battle of ; White Plains, Battle of ; andvol. 9:Battle of Lexington, American and British Accounts ; Correspondence Leading to British Surrender ; Letters of Eliza Wilkinson ; Life at Valley Forge, 1777–1778 ; A Soldier's Love Letter .
During the decade before the American Revolution, European diplomacy was focused on the convulsions in eastern Europe that culminated in the first partition of Poland. Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister in 1775, realized that the partition posed a danger to France. Unknown to the young King Louis XVI, Vergennes had been a charter member of a secret diplomatic organization devoted to restoring French influence in Poland and to blocking Russian expansion. Since he regarded Great Britain as Russia's chief backer, he believed that depriving Britain of her monopoly of American trade would weaken her and, hence, Russia.
In late 1775, a French agent, Julien-Alexandre Archard de Bonvouloir, met in Philadelphia with a committee of the Continental Congress. He assured them that France had no intention of retaking Canada and encouraged them to send ships to France; they in turn asked to purchase military supplies. Vergennes received the king's permission to sell supplies to Congress, and France subsequently loaned money to a trading company that planned to exchange military supplies for American tobacco. Simultaneously, France began to rebuild and resupply her navy, which would take until the end of 1777.
As Congress moved toward a declaration of independence, it became more ready to accept French assistance. It sent the congressional delegate Silas Deane to France to purchase supplies and then appointed Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur Lee as commissioners to negotiate a commercial treaty. At the beginning of 1777, the commissioners assembled in Paris. Initially, the French government was willing to loan them money but not to risk a premature war by signing a treaty. Naval rearmament permitted France to become directly involved in the war, but first Vergennes had to convince King Louis XVI. Luckily, news of the American victory at Saratoga arrived in early December. Vergennes argued that there was now a danger that the Americans would compromise with Britain and abandon independence. The commissioners played along by meeting with British agents. The king gave way and, in exchange for a treaty of amity and commerce, the commissioners would agree to a treaty of alliance, prohibiting the United States from abandoning independence or making a separate peace. Both treaties were signed on 6 February 1778.
By summer, France and Britain were at war. France hoped to win a quick victory by sending a fleet to attack British-held New York, but the attack failed. Knowing her navy would soon be badly outnumbered by the British, France sought the assistance of Spain, the only other great naval power. Spain distrusted the United States, but in mid-1779, the French promised to help retake Gibraltar from Britain and convinced her to join the war. A coalition was formed, and in 1781 a Dutch fleet in the North Sea and a Spanish-French fleet off the southern coast of England helped prevent Britain from sending the ships to rescue general Cornwallis at Yorktown.
The French government sent large sums to Congress to prevent its bankruptcy, which was handled by Benjamin Franklin, the sole American representative in Paris for most of the period from 1779 to mid-1782. American representatives John Jay in Spain and John Adams in the Netherlands procured smaller sums.
Cornwallis's capture led to the beginning of peace negotiations, which were largely the work of Franklin and the Earl of Shelburne, the British home secretary from March to July, 1782, and, thereafter, prime minister. Franklin refused to make a separate peace in exchange for British recognition of American independence, demanding in addition the Mississippi as a border and a share in the Newfoundland fishery. At the end of July, Shelburne accepted Franklin's conditions, hoping to use a separate peace to pressure France to make peace also. (If America made a separate peace, the British could send their large garrison at New York to attack the French West Indies.) Franklin, Jay, and Henry Laurens reached agreement with the British on 30 November 1782. Vergennes well realized that France now had to make peace or fight without American aid. Shelburne had offered him a carrot as well as a stick—future British help against Russia—but France could not make peace unless Spain also agreed. Luckily, Spain finally was convinced to accept the return of Florida and Minorca in lieu of Gibraltar. A general peace agreement was reached on 20 January 1783.
Hoffman, Ronald and Peter J. Albert, eds. Diplomacy and Revolution: The Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1981.
———. Peace and the Peacemakers: The Treaty of 1783. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1986.
Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.
Scott, H. M. British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Stinchcombe, William C. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969.
Because of colonial hatred of any form of taxation, one of the most difficult tasks that faced the Continental Congress was raising money to finance the revolutionary war. Following hostilities at Bunker Hill in June 1775, an issue of $2 million in bills of credit was voted, based on the credit of the states. Depreciation set in shortly, and by March 1780, in spite of legal-tender laws and an attempt to fix prices, the value of continental currency in silver had fallen to forty to one. Debtors pursued their creditors and prices rose to unheard-of heights. "Not worth a continental" became a phrase of derision and stark reality.
A system of direct requisitions on the states for corn, beef, pork, and other supplies was resorted to in 1780 but proved equally discouraging, for it lacked an efficient plan of assessment and record. Other means used to obtain funds included domestic and foreign loans; quartermaster, commissary, and purchasing agent certificates; lotteries; and prize money received from the sale of captured enemy vessels. Foreign loans secured from France, Spain, and Holland through the influence of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams proved invaluable. These, and an outright gift from France, did much to strengthen colonial morale and finance.
At war's close, Finance Superintendent Robert Morris was hampered by local jealousies, continued state refusal to levy taxes, and inadequate financial provisions of the Articles of Confederation. It remained for the new Constitution and the financial genius of Alexander Hamilton to place the United States on a firm national and international credit basis.
Carp, E. Wayne. To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Ferguson, James E. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
McDonald, Forrest. We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992.
The American Revolution left the colonies without hard currency and cut off from European trade. The Continental Congress repeatedly issued unbacked paper currency, creating rapid inflation. The increased risks and costs of importing goods, along with scarce supplies and overwhelming demand, added to inflationary pressures. Profiteers bought available commodities, held them until prices rose, and then sold for high profits. The Continental army suffered throughout the war from profiteers, but government efforts to halt them failed. Even the 1787 Constitutional Convention's resolution to protect public securities benefited profiteers, who bought up great amounts of the paper money that was almost worthless during the Revolution and gained fortunes by redeeming it at face value.
Miller, John C. Triumph of Freedom, 1775–1783. Boston: Little, Brown, 1948.
The American Revolution began in the early 1760s with changes in British colonial policy. Resistance opened a large problem: belonging to Britain while residing outside the British realm. The problem proved insurmountable as argument and riot led to open warfare. But virtually until independence in 1776, most rebels wanted only to stave off unwanted changes, and in this sense the Revolution was “conservative.”
Abandoning British loyalty and identity forced enormous changes. Monarchy yielded to republicanism, easy to accept as an ideal but hard to work out in practice. Hierarchy beneath a king gave way to proclaimed equality. Ordinary white men who had been marginal claimed full political citizenship. White women and enslaved people of color, whom the old order had virtually excluded from public life, demanded that American liberty should apply to them, as well. Both slaves and Native Americans waged their own struggles for independence, and slavery did begin to crumble. Wartime needs gave rise to a national economy.
By the Revolution’s end a separate, republican American people existed, with powerful political institutions to achieve its will. Energies had been released that would transform both the American people and the American continent. However, entirely new problems had emerged and only some of them were resolved. Others would prove as difficult as the questions on which the British Empire had foundered. In these senses, the Revolution was radical and transforming.
In 1763 Britain stood triumphant over its ancient rival France. British merchant capitalism was delivering unprecedented wealth. Britons and Europeans alike celebrated British liberty, based on the premise that the British monarch could rule only with the consent of Parliament, the legislative body of Great Britain. White colonials joined in the celebrations, singing “Rule Britannia!” and huzzahing for the youthful George III (1738-1820), their “best of kings.” Like their fellows in “the realm,” the people of the overseas dominions were fully and proudly British.
But being British had two possible meanings. From London’s viewpoint, all Britons owed obedience to the supreme authority, the king-in-parliament, which was Great Britain’s absolute sovereign power. The British House of Commons represented the interests and protected the liberties of all Britons everywhere. Colonials had given little thought to such matters, but if pressed they would have said otherwise. Parliament could address large imperial questions, but their assemblies protected their local liberties and privileges. As long as Parliament did not exercise its claims, the question was effectively moot.
Defeating the French, however, had been very expensive, and British officials believed that Americans had not done their part. They also thought that the local assemblies were fractious and needed to be reined in. Some feared the northern colonies would become rivals. The answer seemed simple. Tax the colonies directly and control their economies. The money would stay in America, to pay salaries and maintain troops. But Parliament, not the local assemblies, would raise it.
The result was the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townshend Acts (1767), as well as a host of administrative changes. None of the taxes matched what Britons paid at home, but they were to be paid in coin, which was scarce in America. Further, the new laws were to be enforced in vice-admiralty courts, whose judges could be fired and where no juries sat. The Stamp Act, in particular, threatened the well-being of the entire commercial economy. The act undercut the power of colonial elites to use finance as a weapon in their ongoing struggle with royal governors. It also threatened colonials with taxes on virtually all business transactions, to be payable in hard coin, which they simply did not have.
Colonials protested with words and deeds, and the British retreated twice. But at the end of 1773, when Bostonians destroyed three shiploads of valuable East India Company tea rather than pay the one import duty still in effect, Parliament decided that it had retreated enough. It would isolate Boston and Massachusetts and punish them severely. Shocked and in awe, the other colonies would retreat.
Instead, matters worsened. Troops occupied Boston, and people in rural areas refused to let Parliament’s attempt to reform the province take effect. By the late summer of 1774, British authority in Massachusetts extended only where royal troops could march. Their commander, General Thomas Gage (1721-1787), was also the governor of the province, and he knew that rural armies were being formed. Acting under orders from London, he tried to seize a cache of supplies at Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775, along with rebel leaders who were there. Instead, he launched a war.
By that time the effort to isolate Massachusetts had failed. One Continental Congress (the federal legislature of the thirteen American colonies and later of the entire United States following the American Revolution) had met, and another was preparing to assemble. Provincial congresses and local committees were draining power from the old institutions. People from New Hampshire to Georgia rallied to support Massachusetts. George Washington emerged as American commander and began the long task of turning a haphazard volunteer force into an army capable of facing Britain.
But for fourteen more months Americans held on to the idea that they could turn back the clock. In January 1776 Thomas Paine’s Common Sense argued that all monarchy needed to end and that for Americans it was “time to part.” Paine’s powerful language and vision of a transformed world reached people of all sorts, and they began to assert their own claims, challenging the ideas that the “better sort” deserved to rule the rest and that women should not have political voices, and that among America’s precious liberties was the privilege of holding slaves. Nonetheless, for many slaves and native people, the king seemed to offer a better prospect for freedom than any congress.
The Declaration of Independence was more temperate than Paine’s pamphlet. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who drafted it, and Congress, which edited and adopted it, knew that attacking all monarchy would not play well with the French king, who already was giving secret aid. At the center of the document, Jefferson penned a crescendo-like indictment of “the present king of Great Britain,” presenting “facts” to a “candid world.” As his last count, Jefferson tried to blame the king both for forcing black slavery on unwilling white Americans and for encouraging slaves to rise. It was bad history and worse logic, written in tortured language. Congress dropped it, but it did demonstrate one point. Slavery was on the new republic’s agenda, ultimately to the point that it nearly destroyed what the Revolution achieved.
Immediately, however, the revolutionaries had to confront two urgent problems. One was winning the war. Excited by early successes and convinced of their own virtue, they expected a short conflict. But what began with a firefight in Massachusetts turned into a global conflict, involving not just France, which became an American ally in 1778, but most of Europe. The main North American war ended at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. The very last hostilities involving Europeans were in India. French forces first intervened there in 1778, and between 1780 and 1782. The two sides fought on the Indian mainland, Ceylon, and in Indian waters. Word of the Treaty of Paris arrived just as the British were about to lay siege to the major French stronghold, at Cuddalore, south of Madras. For native people, threatened by the American victory and abandoned by the British at the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the conflict simply continued.
Secondly, the war brought major changes, requiring a national economy in order to meet the army’s needs and creating a national elite, the men who went on to create the United States in its present form. It shook slavery, and it stimulated women, left to manage affairs, to think and act for themselves. It drove out thousands of loyalists, white, black, and native, who left rather than accept the Revolution’s triumph.
Nobody gave any thought to calling a European prince, in the way that the English had called William and Mary to the throne when they overthrew James II in 1688. There was no question that the Americans would be republican. But creating a republican order proved very difficult. Most fundamentally, it raised the problem of how to give real meaning to the idea that “the people” now were the final authority. The earliest state constitutions were simply proclaimed into effect. Not until 1780 in Massachusetts was there a popular vote on whether to accept a state’s proposed constitution. In all the states, debate raged between the idea of a remote, complex government and the idea of simple, responsive institutions. The new institutions brought men to the center of affairs who had been mere onlookers under the old order. New York split, as Vermont seceded from it, and people in the other states thought of doing the same. In 1786 Massachusetts erupted into armed conflict as farmers rose to close the courts rather than let tough fiscal policies threaten their farms. Looking around at the time, George Washington saw the danger of similar insurrections everywhere.
In 1784 Washington had seen that Americans had acquired “a mighty empire,” stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and from Florida to the Great Lakes. At its center was the extremely weak Confederation Congress (the immediate successor to the Second Continental Congress), where each state had one vote and every state could veto major change. Under Congress, the United States had won the war and negotiated a very successful peace. It laid down its own colonial policy, by providing for new states in the western territories, if it could force native people out.
But in peacetime, Congress withered and men like Washington worried about the states. The result was the United States Constitution, written by a special convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and brought into effect when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it in June 1788. Writing the Constitution required great creativity. Ratifying it meant hard conflict among people with widely differing visions of the American future.
Farmers, city artisans, women, slaves, and natives: All of these as well as the familiar “Founding Fathers” took part in the Revolution’s course. All of them had voices in what the Revolution wrought. Together, though rarely in agreement, they forged an unprecedented republic that that was capitalistic and democratic, elitist and open, racist and egalitarian, imperial and inclusive, operating under a political settlement—the Constitution—that included all those qualities. They had abandoned the problems that went with being British. They solved many of the problems that rose from independence and republicanism. But they were only beginning to address the more profound social and ideological issues that their revolution raised.
SEE ALSO Bill of Rights, U.S.; Burr, Aaron; Confederations; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Coup d’Etat; Declaration of Independence, U.S.; Empire; Franklin, Benjamin; Hamilton, Alexander; Loyalists; Monarchy; Parliament, United Kingdom; Political System; Republicanism; Revolution; Slavery; Violence; Voting; Washington, George
Countryman, Edward. 2003. The American Revolution. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang.
Draper, Theodore. 1996. A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York: Times Books.
Fischer, David Hackett. 2004. Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Maier, Pauline. 1997. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf.
Nash, Gary B. 2005. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. New York: Viking.
Wood, Gordon S. 1992. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf.
All real revolutions, from England in the 1640s to Iran in the 1970s, destroy one set of human arrangements and create another. Such revolutionary leaders as Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) in England, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) in America, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) in France, Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) in South America, V. I. Lenin (1870–1924) in Russia, Mao Zedong (1893–1976) in China, Fidel Castro (b. 1926) in Cuba, and the Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989) in Iran would have understood one another, whatever their differences. All these men's revolutions transformed their societies. None created heaven on earth.
Yet the American Revolution seems problematic. Was it about equality, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? How, then, to explain the "drivers of Negroes" among its leaders and the spread of slavery across their American republic? Was it radically transforming, even though it started from an urge to conserve? Was the transformation it wrought within Americans' minds, or in how they lived with one another? Was the revolution a national liberation, "one people" separating "the political bonds that have connected them with another," as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence? Until independence, most white Americans regarded themselves as British and the driving issue had been no more than the terms on which they were to be treated as British subjects. Even war did not change that question at first.
Unquestionably the revolution was anticolonial. Alexander Hamilton (1755/57–1804) caught that dimension perfectly in the eleventh Federalist paper (1787). "Europe," he wrote, "by force and by fraud" had "extended her dominion over…. Africa, Asia, and America" and "consider[ed] the rest of mankind as created for her benefit." But even this dimension is problematic. Hamilton's prescription was not general liberation. It was that his own people should "aim at an ascendant in the system of American affairs."
George Washington (1732–1799) already had congratulated those people on having made themselves "lords" of their own "mighty empire." He and his successors declined to assist Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816), Simón Bolívar, and José de San Martín (1778–1850) in their efforts to liberate Spanish America from colonial rule. These early American leaders also shunned independent Haiti. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) asserted United States primacy in Western Hemisphere affairs, and the United States went on to seize one-third of Mexico.
What difference did the American Revolution make to the colonial world? That question is best approached around two dimensions. One dimension is space, the whole territory that one Treaty of Paris defined as British in 1763 and another Treaty of Paris redefined as American two decades later. That territory stretched from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River and from the Great Lakes-Saint Lawrence Basin to Florida. Native people, the progeny of white settlers, and slaves all dwelled within it. The second dimension is the terms on which those people "belonged," first to Britain and then to America.
Two themes, liberty and subjection, had underpinned the American sense of British belonging. British liberty had meant not equal rights but rather an uneven tissue of privileges and immunities that went with the kind of person one was, and with the community to which one belonged. Some Britons had the suffrage in parliamentary or colonial elections. Some communities, including counties, boroughs, manors, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the College of William and Mary, had their own representatives in Parliament or the local assembly. Britons in America also had the privilege, or liberty, of owning slaves. Britons at home did not. All were subject to the king-in-Parliament. George III (1738–1820) was not an absolute ruler. But together with the House of Lords and the House of Commons he could make laws to bind all Britons, including colonials, "in all cases whatsoever." So said Parliament in 1766. Moreover, the king's protection and laws covered all, from the Prince of Wales to the meanest person, at least in theory.
White colonials had accepted that London could run their external affairs. Parliament set the terms of their commerce with Britain, with one another, and with the non-British world. The king appointed colonial officials and could veto colonial laws, all for the sake of fostering British wealth and keeping that wealth within British boundaries. The colonies prospered. By 1770 one-third of the British merchant fleet had been built in colonial shipyards, and one-seventh of the world's iron came from American smelters. White colonials believed they were fully British, without much questioning or doubt.
Yet inequalities abounded. North American colonials could not, for example, refine their iron beyond its crudest stage, so that British metallurgy could flourish. The needs of West Indies sugar planters counted more than those of North American refiners and distillers, so there were severe taxes on non-British sugar and molasses. The king wanted revenue without worrying about Parliament; taxes on Chesapeake tobacco provided it. By the mid-eighteenth century, some colonials, such as Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), were praising North America's rising glory, seeing no contrast with British glory as a whole. But London officials were beginning to see a rival, particularly in the mostly free-labor, non-plantation colonies of the North.
Native Americans gave London more worry. White colonials wanted Indian land, but the Indians were strong enough to resist, both by playing the imperial game and, if necessary, by outright war. Indians were important in defeating France during the long struggle for North American mastery. But when the French withdrew in 1763, native people set out to drive Europeans back from the Great Lakes country. The brief war called Pontiac's Rebellion failed, and British posts remained at Niagara, Fort Pitt, and Detroit. But Britain did proclaim that colonial expansion had to stop, which infuriated colonial speculators. In 1774 Britain decreed that its appointed government in conquered Quebec would have jurisdiction over the Ohio Country. In effect, the Indians had forced their own terms of belonging on the British.
Underpinning all disputes were issues about the very nature of the British Empire. Metropolitan Britons were moving toward the idea of a unitary state, in which colonials were subordinate and their institutions were mere conveniences, like local councils "at home." But to colonials, their assemblies were local parliaments, existing by right and beyond the British Parliament's control. Pressed on the matter, they would have seen the monarchy not as unitary but rather as composite, with the monarch ruling each province on its own terms, much as James I (of England, r. 1603–1625) and VI (of Scotland, r. 1567–1603) and his successors had ruled over two separate kingdoms until the Act of Union in 1707. Indians would have agreed. They were allies, not subjects at all.
But London was determined to rule. Its attempts between 1764 and 1773 to tax the colonists for the sake of their own defense and administration provoked massive protest. Britain's attempts to regulate Indian affairs for the sake of frontier peace provoked resentment all around. The problem of slavery was emerging too, in no simple way. Certain that their slaves could reproduce themselves, Virginia planters tried to cut off the obnoxious trade to Africa, only to meet a royal veto. Jefferson made that a grievance in his draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Yet "Somerset's Case" (1771–1772) seemed to put the highest British authorities on the side of liberty, at least within Britain, as slaves in America learned. In his decision, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield described slavery as "so odius" that only a positive law could enact it. Britain had no such positive law of slavery. Mansfield's decision acquired an exaggerated reputation as having abolished slavery within England. It did not actually do so, but it did mean that slave owners could not forcibly export the slaves elsewhere, as James Somerset's owner had tried to do. When the Earl of Dunmore (John Murray, 1730–1809), governor of colonial Virginia, and British general Henry Clinton (1730–1795) offered the king's freedom to slaves "pertaining to rebels," they rallied. But others found their freedom on the American side. The issue of slavery was thus brought alive, but it did not fit with the principal concerns of those who led the rebellion against Britain, nor with their notions of liberty.
By July 1776, enough white colonials agreed on independence to make it politically necessary and militarily possible. Severing the tie to Britain raised the problem of organizing a new order. Americans would be republican; that was clear. Whether they would be a single nation or fourteen linked republics (counting Vermont, which broke free of New York) was less certain.
Not the least of their problems was the complex overlay of lines that rendered colonial-era maps exercises in confusion. Virginia went a long way toward resolving that problem in 1781, by ceding a claim that had included most of what now is the Midwest. Two years later, the peace treaty ceded all British claims south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River. As a result, the emerging United States was rich with land, if it actually could establish control over the land.
Decolonization meant a transfer of sovereignty, and one aspect of sovereignty was the exclusive right to deal with aboriginal people. Even before independence, the Continental Congress and the separate states were jockeying for the right to acquire Indian land. As a consequence, both Congress and the states established colonial relations of their own with Indians who supposedly belonged to them. Not until the implementation of the Constitution of the United States in March 1789 was the matter resolved in Congress's favor. In each case, the goal was to acquire as much Indian land as possible and transform its meaning and use.
Congress established a lasting pattern with its three "Northwest Ordinances." Two, in 1784 and 1787, worked out a new system of white colonies, to be called territories and having the right to advance to full statehood and membership in the Union. In that way Congress solved the problem of inequality between the thirteen colonies and their distant metropolis on which the British Empire had foundered. The Ordinance of 1785 established the land grid that is visible on any flight over the Midwest. What had been Indian country would be divided into perfect squares. Sales of the land would bring revenue. Grants would pay off former soldiers. Separate ownership would foster civic individualism. Easy sale would allow owners to cash in capital gains. Indians would be forced to retreat, and retreat again.
In large terms that is precisely what happened, and in large terms the political and economic transformation of western land underpinned the emergence of the United States as a capitalist society. In the long run, the change pointed toward the breakup of family patriarchy and stable communities. The final result was the Homestead Act of 1862, which made public land available for free, to women and men alike. But until the Civil War (1861–1865), land south of the Ohio River was available to slave owners.
The attempt of the Cherokees to establish a quasi-independent republic failed in the face of determination by the state of Georgia and President Andrew Jackson (1829–1837) that all Indians had to go and all Indian land had to be open for development. North of the Ohio River, Jefferson's vision of an "empire of [white] freedom" did approach reality. But below the river the "Cotton Kingdom" took shape. To the extent that the fusion of slavery, racist thought, and plantation economics was a legacy of the colonial era, the South remained colonial. Yet both developments were direct consequences of the Revolution. Resolving that contradiction would require a second revolution, far more bloody than the first. But the destruction of slavery was no greater a transformation than the changes that the earlier revolution had set in motion.
At the point of independence the new states were half-formed, ill-defined societies hugging the seaboard. Fifty years later, the United States claimed sovereign rights as far as the Pacific Ocean and exercised real control well beyond the Mississippi. There had not been a single bank in America at independence; by 1826 a full if ramshackle financial system existed, able to control the disposition of both foreign and domestic capital. New York State's Erie Canal crossed what had been the land of the Six Iroquois Nations, linking the Great Lakes directly and easily to New York City. Other states were planning to emulate the Erie's success, not only with canals but with good highways and railroads. After a shaky start, a factory system was flourishing between Maine and Delaware, creating two new social classes, industrialists and workers. In a very real way, the United States had succeeded at forming a metropolitan society in its own right. Its white male political society was reaching the stage that the contemporary French observer Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) would describe and analyze as "Democracy in America."
Yet as with all revolutions, independence had produced as many problems as it had resolved. A blanket American liberty, supposedly evenly spread, had replaced the patchwork of British liberties. Equal citizenship had replaced uneven subjection as the dominant political metaphor, but the citizenship of slaves was nil and that of free black people and white women remained unequal. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755–1835) would shortly define tribal Indians as "domestic dependent nations," possessed of rights, but not of the right to seek redress in the federal courts, with consequences that still remain unresolved. The revolution had been real, as Washington Irving's (1783–1859) fictional Rip Van Winkle found when he awoke from his long sleep into a world that he did not recognize. But no more than any other had the American Revolution succeeding in creating a perfect society.
see also Empire in the Americas, British.
Countryman, Edward. The American Revolution, rev. ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 2003.
Davis, David Brion. Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.
Draper, Theodore. A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York: Times Books, 1996.
Egnal, Marc. A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
"Forum: Rethinking the American Revolution." The William and Mary Quarterly 53 (2) (1996): 341-386.
Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. The Economy of Early America: The Revolutionary Period, 1763–1790. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988.
Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Hoxie, Frederick E., Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Native Americans and the Early Republic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Morris, Richard B. The Emerging Nations and the American Revolution. New York: Harper, 1970.
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800, rev. ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1993.
Young, Alfred F., ed. Beyond the American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993.
The American Revolution (1775–1783) was a rebellion of 13 of Great Britain's North American colonies. The colonies won their independence from the British crown and went on to form the United States of America. Although the revolution began as a civil war, France, Spain, and the Netherlands eventually joined the American side, transforming the struggle into an international conflict.
The revolution had not only national but also global significance: it defined the character of the modern political system by establishing a pattern of rule based on democratic constitutional governance. At the time, the American Revolution was a lone and fragile challenge to the prevailing monarchical and autocratic systems of rule on the European continent and elsewhere. By the twentieth century, however, the American model of governance achieved global currency. Virtually all governments—democratic or otherwise—now attempted to legitimate their rule by invoking the "the will of the people." Even avowedly authoritarian governments usually argued that the suppression of democratic freedoms was only temporary.
The decision to go to war stemmed from fundamental differences between Britain and the American colonies over the legislative and fiscal authority of the British Parliament—specifically, the power of the parliament to tax the colonies without their representation in that institution. The conflict came to a head as Britain set out to levy new taxes on the colonies to meet the costs of the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Although Britain was victorious in the war, which concluded with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, its treasury was significantly depleted. The fiscal burden grew even larger when Britain decided to keep its forces at near full strength in the colonies in the event of renewed hostilities with France. Britain expected the colonies to help pay its war debts and to support its standing armies in North America.
Through a number of acts—including the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townshend Duties (1767)—the British Parliament sought to raise revenue in the colonies. Americans vehemently responded to these impositions, arguing that their colonial legislatures alone had the authority to levy such taxes since the colonists enjoyed no representation in Parliament. Britain remained adamant. Increased colonial resistance led to the imposition of the Coercive Acts in 1774. These were attempts by Parliament to restrict the power of local colonial government, particularly in Massachusetts, a hot-bed of revolutionary agitation. This effort at repression had the opposite effect, mobilizing the other colonies to join Massachusetts in protest. While at the beginning most colonists were willing to remain British subjects, as the conflict escalated they became convinced that full independence was necessary. The colonies began to prepare for armed resistance.
The success of colonial arms against the British owed much to the leadership of George Washington (1732–1799) and to the intervention of France. In June 1775 the delegates to the Second Continental Congress unanimously approved Washington's appointment as commander in chief of the newly created Continental Army. This decision was based in part on political considerations. Northern revolutionaries, who had dominated thus far in the struggle against the British, saw Washington's appointment as a means to bind the South to the perilous venture. The fact that Washington did not display aggressive political ambitions and did not seem likely to use his military powers for political purposes also weighed heavily in his favor. The delegates also understood that Washington's military training and experience, together with his personal authority, were unmatched assets to the insurgent colonies.
Washington now faced a Herculean task. The colonials stood alone against the enormous power and prestige of Britain's armed forces, fielding only a ragtag collection of national volunteers ("Continentals") and inexperienced state militias that served for only months at a time. There was no coherent system to produce and distribute munitions, supplies, and clothing, all of which remained in grievous shortage throughout the war. To make matters worse, there was no legitimate and effective national government that might improve these perilous conditions. Instead, Washington had to deal with a weak Continental Congress and 13 fractious state governments that jealously guarded their rights and prerogatives.
Against all odds Washington overcame these crippling disabilities. Skillfully maneuvering amid domestic political and economic obstacles and periodic opposition from within the Continental Congress, he forged an army that eventually stood toe-to-toe with British regulars, either winning the field or retreating in good order.
The road to this outcome was long and hard. The heady first encounters with the Redcoats at Bunker's and Breed's Hill, and then the British evacuation of Boston under American pressure in March 1776, were followed by a string of defeats. Yet Washington was at his best when disaster seemed unavoidable. He turned the seemingly endless and demoralizing retreat from New York and through New Jersey into victory in late 1776 when he forded the partly frozen Delaware River and defeated superior British and mercenary forces at Trenton (December 1776) and Princeton (January 1777). These bold and unexpected victories energized the American army and public, as did the victory of American forces under Horatio Gates at Saratoga in October 1777.
Despite these successes, the future still appeared bleak. Washington and the main American force settled into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, after suffering important (and humiliating) defeats at Brandywine (September 1777) and Germantown (October 1777). The privations endured by the troops that winter were extensive, and many died from starvation and exposure to the elements. The army was further decimated by desertions and a widespread failure to reenlist. Nevertheless, the Continental Army emerged rejuvenated in the spring of 1778. Under Washington's supervision, Baron Friedrich von Steuben transformed what remained of Washington's force into a disciplined and effective fighting weapon.
Equally important, the stalwart resistance and dogged survival of American arms (especially the American victory at Saratoga in New York state) convinced the French in May 1778 that the colonial forces had a good chance of winning the war. This led them to lend vital support to Americans in their struggle. Now France would have a chance to defeat its old rival, after being ousted from so many of its colonial possessions by Britain in the French and Indian War. Ironically, Washington, who had fought with the British against France, now became a willing instrument of the French attempt to knock Britain from the global chessboard. The coup de grace for the British came in October 1781 with a masterstroke by Washington. Commanding the combined American and French forces, Washington brilliantly maneuvered to envelop Yorktown, Virginia, by land and by sea, trapping British General Lord Cornwallis and forcing him to surrender. The independence of the colonies was now assured. As the opponents met at Yorktown to discuss Washington's terms of surrender, the shock and enormity of the American victory was poignantly underlined by the British band as it played "The World Turned Upside Down."
See also: Townsend Acts, George Washington
Bell, Rudolph. Party and Faction in American Politics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973.
Carman, Harry J., Harold C. Syrett, and Bernard W. Wishy. A History of the American People. Vol. 1. New York: Knopf, 1964.
Draper, Theodore. Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Emery, Noemie. Washington. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1976.
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969.
——. George Washington and the New Nation, Boston: Little, Brown, 1970.
Simmons, Richard C. The American Colonies: From Settlement to Independence. New York: W.W. Norton, 1981.
Ward, Harry. The American Revolution: Nationhood Achieved, 1763–1788. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Random House, 1993.
The thirteen British colonies in America fought the American Revolution (1775–83) to become independent from Great Britain. (See Thirteen Colonies .) As a result, a new nation was born, the United States of America.
Taxation without representation
By the 1760s, the British colonies in America had developed into thirteen individual territories with their own economic and political systems. For the most part, the British Parliament and monarchy had refrained from being involved in most aspects of colonial life since the early 1700s. The British maintained and managed their economic interests in the colonies, but they also allowed the colonies to govern themselves to a large extent.
The outbreak of the French and Indian War (1754–63) changed the status of the colonies in 1754. The British provided troops to support and protect the colonists in the conflict against the French and the Indians. The war lasted until 1763 and depleted the British treasury.
After the war, the British Parliament sought to replenish its treasury. Taxes had never been applied to the colonies, but Parliament decided it was necessary for the colonies to share the responsibility of paying war debts. Parliament enacted a series of tax measures over the next ten years that sparked outrage throughout the colonies. Although the vast majority of the colonial population was loyal to British rule, they had grown used to levying their own taxes through their own governments. As the colonists had no representation in Parliament, they felt they had no duty to pay taxes to Great Britain.
Parliament was firm about its decision to tax the colonies, however, and the series of acts placed on the colonies were strict. Parliament attempted to control colonial trade and passed restrictions on colonial money. It taxed imports in America through measures like the Tea Act (1763) and the Sugar Act (1764). Another set of laws included the Stamp Act (1765), the Declaratory Act (1766), and the Townshend Acts (1767). These laws placed duties (taxes on imports) on a wide variety of goods, such as legal documents, glass, and lead.
The colonies had developed independently over time. Their governments, economies, and populations were noticeably different. As a result, the colonies often disagreed on policy matters and rarely united in a cause.
The actions of the British Parliament began to unite the colonies in common resentment of British rule. The Stamp Act particularly angered the colonists, as it seemed to affect everyone. Printers were among those most affected, however, and they aroused public opposition through the publication of newspapers, editorials, and pamphlets.
The colonists resisted Britain's actions in a variety of ways. Public criticism appeared in print over Parliament's taxation without the consent of colonial representatives. Merchants and laborers created the Sons of Liberty, a military-like club. Ordinary colonists harassed tax collectors, attended public protest meetings, and participated in boycotts of British goods. In protest, colonists dumped loads of tea into the Boston Harbor in December 1773, an event called the Boston Tea Party .
Increased colonial resistance led to enactment of the Coercion Acts in 1774, by which Parliament restricted the power of local governments. When Britain dissolved the Massachusetts legislature, closed Boston Harbor, shut down colonial courts, and quartered, or housed, British troops in private homes, the colonists were inspired to work together as they never had before. Reaction spread far beyond Massachusetts, and some Americans began to consider military resistance.
The colonies organize and fight
In 1774, delegates from the colonies gathered at the First Continental Congress to evaluate the level of discontent among all the colonies. (See Continental Congress, First .) The Congress sent a petition to the British government seeking a resolution of their complaints. Though not all Americans agreed that greater resistance was necessary, some colonists began to prepare for war.
Historians generally agree that prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, only one-third of the colonists actively supported military action and independence. The remaining two-thirds were either Loyalists faithful to British rule, or uncommitted either way.
During the colonial period in America, England passed dozens of navigation acts to control trade in the colonies. The acts placed heavy duties on goods imported into the colonies, and prevented the colonies from trading with other nations. Their purpose was to ensure that colonial trade enriched England.
In 1677, rebels led by John Culpeper (1644–1693) revolted against the colonial government in the Albemarle section of the colony of Carolina. Dissatisfaction with the Navigation Acts was at the heart of the rebellion. The rebels seized Thomas Miller, who collected import duties for England under the Navigation Acts . They also replaced the colonial government with their own government for two years, naming Culpeper governor.
The proprietors of the colony eventually resumed control and sent Culpeper to London to stand trial for treason. Culpeper escaped punishment with the help of the Earl of Shaftesbury. The rebellion, though it did not last, was an early indication of the trouble between England and the colonies that would lead to the American Revolution.
Tensions between the colonists and the British turned hostile on April 19, 1775. British troops went to Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts to collect weapons and capture rebels. (See Battle of Lexington and Concord .) When the British met armed resistance from citizen militias, the conflict became violent, and the American Revolutionary War began.
The colonies united with a vote for independence at the Second Continental Congress in the summer of 1775. (See Continental Congress, Second .) Colonial delegates worked to establish an independent government under the Articles of Confederation . Although the document provided a unifying government, it proved to be weak: It was unable to supply the funds, supplies, and military staffing that could have made for a swifter war.
American victory was due in great part to the strength of command and leadership from General George Washington (1732–1799). Against the odds, Washington overcame problems posed by political squabbles, a weak federal government, inexperienced militias, and lack of supplies. Though it struggled at first, the Continental Army was transformed into a disciplined and effective force under Washington's supervision.
The other key to American victory was the vital support of France. In May 1779, France and America signed a treaty that provided an alliance and loans for the American cause. Spain and the Netherlands also joined the fight on behalf of the Americans. The combined efforts of these countries finally brought military victory in October 1781. At the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia, British General Lord Cornwallis (1738–1805) surrendered. The war formally ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Blacks, free and slave, served in the military of both sides during the American Revolution. Free blacks already had a tradition of working as sailors, and this continued throughout the conflict, whereas their service in combat capacities on land was not as consistent an option.
The first African American—indeed, the first American—to die during the Revolution was Crispus Attucks. On March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers in Boston had angered crowds in an altercation with a young boy. "Let us drive out these ribalds," some were reported to shout, "they have no business here!" Led by Attucks, a small group of irate Bostonians approached the soldiers and hurled snowballs, sticks, and other objects at them. It appears that Attucks was among the most vocal of the demonstrators. Accounts vary about what happened next, but the British opened fire on the crowd, killing five. Only Attucks' name was recorded; he was hailed by Patriots as a martyr.
When the war got under way, many blacks served in northern militias, participating in the early battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. In 1862 George Livermore, as part of a campaign to encourage the government to once more enlist black soldiers for combat, wrote about black soldiers at Bunker Hill:
At the Battle of Bunker Hill, on the memorable 17th of June, 1775, negro soldiers stood side by side, and fought bravely, with their white brethren. If, on the monument which commemorates that event were inscribed the names of those most worthy of honor for their heroic deeds on that day, high up on the shaft … we should find that of Peter Salem, once a slave. (Livermore 1862, p. 118)
Salem, of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, had already fought in the Battle of Concord. During the Battle of Bunker Hill he gained a measure of fame for killing Royal Marine Major John Pitcairn, who had appeared unexpectedly and demanded the Patriots' surrender. As Livermore reports, Peter Salem "blew him through" (1862, p. 119). Nor was he the only black soldier present in the Massachusetts militia that day. One white officer, who "commanded a company whose rank and file were all negroes, of whose courage, military discipline, and fidelity, he always spoke with respect" found himself cut off from his comrades and on the verge of death or capture (Livermore 1862, p. 119). His all-black company fought their way to his side and rescued him. Also present at Bunker Hill was Salem Poor; an ex-slave, he killed a lieutenant-colonel, James Abercrombie, and was afterward commended in a letter signed by fourteen officers:
The Reward due to so great and Distinguished a Character. The Subscribers beg leave to Report to your Honorable House (Which We do in justice to the Character of so Brave a man) that under Our Own observation, we declare that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Fryes Regiment, Capt. Ames. Company in the late Battle of Charleston, behaved like an Experienced Officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier, to Set forth Particulars of his Conduct would be Tedious, We Would Only beg leave to say in the Person of this Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress. (Livermore 1862, pp. 122-123)
LORD DUNMORE'S PROCLAMATION
The following excerpt is taken from the frontispiece of Francis Berkeley's Dunmore's Proclamation of Emancipation:
… I have thought fit to issue this my Proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good Purposes can be obtained, I do in Virtue of the Power and Authority to ME given, by His MAJESTY, determine to execute Martial Law, and cause the same to be executed throughout this Colony: and to the end that Peace and good Order may the sooner be [effected], I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to [resort] to His MAJESTY'S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offences; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, &c. &c. And I do hereby further declare all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) [sic] free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY'S Leige Subjects, to retain … any other Taxes due or that may become due, in their own Custody, till such Time as Peace may be again restored to this at present most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary Purposes, by Officers properly authorised to receive the fame.
GIVEN under my Hand on board the ship WILLIAM, off NORPOLE, the 7th Day of NOVEMBER, in the SIXTEENTH Year of His MAJESTY'S Reign.
(GOD save the KING.)
SOURCE: Berkeley, Francis L. Dunmore's Proclamation of Emancipation: with an Invitation to the McGregor Library & an Account by Francis Berkeley of the Publication of the Proclamation. Charlottesville: Tracy W. McGregor Library, University of Virginia, 1941.
The southern colonies, fearful of arming blacks, were opposed to their use. Virginian George Washington, upon taking command of the Continental Army the following month, forbade the enlistment of any more blacks. Four months later, in November 1775, blacks would get a different kind of military opportunity. John Murray, earl of Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia—and himself a slaveholder—issued a proclamation offering freedom to any slave who escaped his disloyal masters and fought for the Crown. The royal governor of New York later made a similar offer. Hundreds of slaves did in fact escape to Dunmore and accept his offer; throughout the war, as many as 100,000 took advantage of the confusion of war to escape their masters, some to the British and others to Canada or Florida. Washington reconsidered, because of his own losses and the British overtures to slaves, and reluctantly agreed to enlist blacks again, beginning with the "Black Battalion" of Rhode Island. In addition to free blacks, slaves were enlisted and their masters paid for their losses. Blacks could also serve as substitutes for their masters. As a Hessian officer wrote in his journal in 1777:
From here to Springfield there are few habitations which have not a Negro family dwelling in a small house nearby. The Negroes here are as fruitful as other cattle. The young ones are well-foddered, especially while they are still calves … The Negro can take the field instead of his master, and therefore, no regiment is to be seen, in which there are not Negroes in abundance; and among them are able-bodies, strong, and brave fellows. (Baird 1863, p. 5)
As many as 5,000 blacks served in the Continental Army; among the British the number was probably much higher. An ex-slave named Titus, who later was known as Colonel Tye, led a large band—at one point numbering as many as 800—of Loyalist guerrillas in New Jersey; he died of an infection from a wound in 1780. The Patriots, meanwhile, were also reinforced by all-black French units from Saint-Domingue, which would later become Haiti. When Britain withdrew its forces, many "Black Loyalists" left with them to go to England. Others went to Canada or the West Indies. Many, too, were captured and resold into slavery. Black veterans on the Patriot side did not fare all that well, although in many cases neither did white ones. Peter Salem died in the poorhouse.
Baird, Henry Carey. General Washington and General Jackson, on Negro Soldiers … Philadelphia: H. C. Baird, 1863.
Greene, Lorenzo J. "Some Observations on the Black Regiment of Rhode Island in the American Revolution." Journal of Negro History 37 no. 2 (1952): 142-172.
Livermore, George. An Historical Research Respecting the Opinions of the Founders of the Republic on Negroes as Slaves, as Citizens, and as Soldiers. Boston: J. Wilson and Son, 1862. (Repr., New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970.)
Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution: With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons. Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1855. (Repr., New York: Arno Press, 1968.)
Norton, Mary Beth. "The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution." Journal of Negro History 58, no. 4 (1973): 402-426.
Troy D. Smith
rev·o·lu·tion / ˌrevəˈloōshən/ • n. 1. a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system. ∎ (the Revolution) the American Revolution. ∎ (often the Revolution) (in Marxism) the class struggle that is expected to lead to political change and the triumph of communism. ∎ a dramatic and wide-reaching change in the way something works or is organized or in people's ideas about it: marketing underwent a revolution. 2. an instance of revolving: one revolution a second. ∎ motion in orbit or a circular course or around an axis or center. ∎ the single completion of an orbit or rotation. DERIVATIVES: rev·o·lu·tion·ism / -ˌnizəm/ n. rev·o·lu·tion·ist / -nist/ n.