The American Revolution - Reading 2

The Revolution Begins
As late as 1774, most colonists did not favor declaring independence from the British Crown. Far from rejecting monarchy, most Americans saw the king as their protector from oppressive acts of Parliament. The delegates to the First Continental Congress, which had assembled in Philadelphia in September 1774, hoped for reconciliation with Britain. They asked Massachusetts Bay colonists, who were the most radical in their opposition to British policies, to avoid involving "all America in the horrors of a civil war."

In February 1775, Parliament declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. This declaration permitted soldiers to shoot suspected rebels on sight. In April, British General Thomas Gage received secret orders to arrest the ringleaders of colonial unrest. To avoid arrest, colonial leaders fled Boston.

Gage decided to seize and destroy arms that the patriots had stored at Concord, 20 miles northwest of Boston. When Joseph Warren, a Boston patriot, discovered that British troops were on the march, he sent Paul Revere and William Dawes to warn the people about the approaching forces.

At dawn on April 19, the troops reached the town of Lexington, five miles east of Concord. About 70 volunteer soldiers lined the Lexington Green to warn the red-coated British troops not to trespass on the property of freeborn English subjects. A shot rang out. The British troops fired. Eight minutemen were killed, and another ten were wounded.

The British continued to Concord, where they searched for hidden arms. At North Bridge, a group of redcoats and minutemen clashed, leaving 3 redcoats and 2 minutemen dead. The British then retreated to Boston, while citizen-soldiers fired at the redcoats from behind trees and stone fences.

Even after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the members of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress described themselves as "loyal and dutiful subjects" of the king, who were ready to defend the crown with their "Lives and Fortunes." They asked King George III and the British people to protect them against the King's ministers.

But George III dismissed the colonists' protestations of loyalty and told Parliament in October 1775 that such claims were "meant only to amuse." He noted that the Continental Congress was already assuming the powers of government. It had established an army, appointed officers, named a commander-in-chief. It had also raised money to support an army by loans and printing money. In addition, it had taken charge of Indian affairs and the post office.

Now Consider Edmund Morgan's Account: "Lexington Green"


Were all of the colonists fighting for the same thing?
A defining characteristic of the American Revolution is its complexity. The American war for independence was partly a product of the colonists' sense of a distinctive identity as inhabitants of a republican society. But the revolution also helped to nurture a sense of a uniquely American identity. The Revolution was a colonial war for independence, but it was also a struggle over "who would rule at home."

The struggle for American independence was led by prominent lawyers, merchants, and planters. But the Revolution's success ultimately depended on the willingness of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans to risk their lives and economic well-being in the patriot cause. The Revolution represented a conservative effort to preserve liberties that British policies seemed to threaten. But the Revolution was accompanied by social and intellectual transformations that fundamentally altered the nature of American politics and involved ordinary people in politics to an unprecedented degree.

The Revolution was truly multifaceted. There was a rebellion of the colonial gentry against British aristocrats who refused to accept them as equals and who viewed them with condescension. There was also a rebellion by merchants and shippers who chafed at British trade restrictions and royal monopolies. There was a conservative revolution, which sought to defend traditional liberties against British encroachments. There was a radical revolution, inspired by the call for liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence, which sought to create a society that could serve as a model of freedom for the rest of the world.

Now Consider Howard Zinn's Account of the Regulators from "Tyranny is Tyranny"

Did everyone want to be independent?
John Adams estimated that roughly a third of the American population supported the Revolution, a third remained loyal to the Crown, and a third was uncommitted. Recent research suggests that perhaps 20 percent of the population consisted of Loyalists. Loyalists were especially strong in New Jersey and South Carolina.

One of the Revolution's consequences was to create not only the United States, but also the modern nation of Canada. After the war, about 80,000 Loyalists--including substantial numbers of former slaves--emigrated from the United States, mainly to Canada.

The Loyalists were disproportionately from the ranks of the influential, the officeholders, and the well-to-do. Those who stayed in the colonies were removed from positions of prominence and those who returned from Canada at the end of the war were generally denied the right to hold public office.

Now Consider these Excerpts of Letters by Loyalists (Tories) and these Accounts of Abuse of Loyalists in the Colonies

How did the underdog actually win?
During the Revolution itself, some 400,000 Americans, including at least 5,000 African Americans, served in the fighting for at least some time. One percent of the American population died during the American Revolution. If the United States were to lose one percent of its population today, the toll would be two-and-a-half million dead.

At several points in the Revolution, it seemed likely that the American patriots would lose the war. In the fall and winter of 1776, Washington's army nearly collapsed. Soldiers' terms of enlistment were set to expire at the end of the year. But on Christmas Eve, Washington's troops crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, and defeated the British forces at Trenton and Princeton, and restored a sense of optimism.

In 1778, the royal army consisted of nearly 50,000 regular troops combined with over 30,000 German (Hessian) mercenaries. Many slaves, including some owned by Thomas Jefferson, fled behind British lines. George Washington, in contrast, never had more than 20,000 troops under his command at any one time. Most of these American soldiers were young (ranging in age from their early teens to their mid-20s), landless, unskilled, and poor. Others were indentured servants and slaves who were serving as substitutes for their masters and had been promised freedom at the war's end. Also in the Continental army were many women who cared for the sick and wounded, cooked, mended clothes, buried the dead, and sometimes served in combat. Many men joined groups like the Sons of Liberty to protest British encroachments on American liberties. Many women took the lead in boycotts of British goods; they also took up the spinning wheel to produce homespun clothes.

Nonetheless, conquering the colonies was an almost impossible task. The sheer geographical size of the colonies made it impossible for British forces to occupy the countryside. Because of their inability to control the countryside, the British found it difficult to protect Loyalists from the fury of patriots, who sometimes tarred and feathered and even murdered those who remained loyal to the Crown. The colonies also lacked a single national capital, which, if captured, might end the conflict.

A major British mistake was failing to take sufficient advantage of Loyalists. Before the Revolutionary War began, some 50,000 Loyalists formed nearly 70 regiments to help the British maintain control the colonies. But British commanders did not trust the loyalists or respect their fighting ability. As a result, the British alienated many potential supporters.

The guerrilla tactics that Americans had learned during Indian wars proved very effective in fighting the British army. Militia men struck quickly, often from behind trees or fences, then disappeared into the forests. Because many Americans wore ordinary clothing, it was difficult for the British to distinguish rebels and loyalists. Washington's strategy of avoiding large-scale confrontations with the royal army made it impossible for the British to deliver a knock-out blow. Only once during the Revolution (at Charleston, S.C. in 1780) did an American army surrender to British forces.

The intervention of France, Spain, and the Netherlands in the conflict made a crucial difference in the Revolution's outcome. It is highly improbable that the United States could have won its independence without the assistance of France, Spain, and Holland. Fearful of losing its sugar colonies in the West Indies, Britain was unable to concentrate its military forces in the American colonies.

All slave societies are highly vulnerable during wartime, and the British recognized that slaves might help them suppress the Revolution. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, Virginia's royal governor, issued an emancipation proclamation, freeing any slaves or indentured servants willing to serve in the royal army. At least 800 slaves joined Lord Dunmore's forces. But the threat of slave emancipation led many southern slaveholders to support the patriot cause.

Perhaps the single most important reason for the patriot victory was the breadth of popular support for the Revolution. The Revolution would have failed miserably without the participation of thousands of ordinary farmers, artisans, and laborers who put themselves into the line of fire. The Revolution's support cut across region, religion, and social rank. Common farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, petty merchants were major actors during the Revolution. Ex-servants, uneducated farmers, immigrants, and slaves emerged into prominence in the Continental Army.

Now Consider the Unfolding of Key Battles of the War in this Series of Animated Battle Maps