The war that gave birth to the United States marked a turning point in world
history: for the first time a colony wrested independence from its imperial
master. Preceded by more than 10 years of intense political turmoil, the American
Revolution lasted for nearly another 10 years and ranged across all of the 13
rebelling colonies and into parts of Canada. The eventual American victory over
formidable odds became a symbol of the fight for freedom the world over.
Great Britain's colonial policy toward its North American holdings changed
dramatically after the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763,
prompted in part by the enormous debt Britain had accumulated during
the war while fighting the Franco-Spanish alliance in both the Old World and
the New World (the Seven Years War). Prime Minister George Grenville
advocated raising additional funds from the colonies themselves, particularly
as the Crown routinely invested large sums in protecting its overseas territories.
The colonists, however, had become accustomed to low taxes and little interference
in their affairs from the British government. Since the first settlements had
been established in British North America in the early 17th century, the British
government had taken an inconsistent stand on regulating colonial businesses
and trade. The passage of the Navigation Acts beginning in 1660 marked
an attempt by the government to impose taxes on overseas commerce and
regulate trade within the empire. The colonists paid some of these taxes but
also established a complex smuggling network to avoid many of the taxes as well.
When the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act (1764), it heralded
a marked change in Britain's colonial policy. Ironically, it lowered the existing
tax on sugar and molasses, but it called for more stringent efforts to enforce
the tax and crack down on smuggling. The colonists grumbled about the new law
but mounted no resistance to it.
However, the following year, Parliament enacted a much more threatening piece
of legislation, the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act imposed taxes on a wide
variety of printed materials, from playing cards to newspapers to college diplomas.
It also had absolutely nothing to do with trade. Although Britons living in
Great Britain had long paid a similar and in fact higher tax, the American colonists
expressed outrage over the new levy. Led by such political radicals as James
Otis and Samuel Adams in Massachusetts and Patrick Henry in Virginia, colonists
all over North America, but particularly in large cities, mounted organized
protests against the hated tax, with these protests usually taking the
form of mob actions. The most violent incident occurred in Boston in August
1765, when a mob literally pulled down the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas
Hutchinson, who was widely and falsely believed to have supported the Stamp
Between March 1765, when the new Stamp Act was announced, and November 1765,
when it went into effect, the political landscape in the colonies underwent
a dramatic split, with radicals leading mobs of people against the more
traditional conservative leaders who urged compromise and moderation. By November
1, the radicals had organized a massive boycott of any of the items subject
to the tax, which brought most colonial business to a halt. Most of those who
objected to the radicals were too intimidated by mobs to violate the boycott.
All over British North America, political leaders began to examine the colonies'
relationship to Great Britain more closely, with several prominent lawyers and
politicians publishing pamphlets that attempted to delineate the nature
of this relationship. From these political treatises emerged the argument that
the American colonists were unrepresented in the British Parliament and therefore
denied their full rights as Englishmen. In 1766, Parliament admitted that the
Stamp Act had proved unenforceable and repealed it, but it did not abandon its
attempts to exert greater control over colonial affairs.
Over the next 10 years of political turmoil, events followed much the same
pattern as they had during the Stamp Act riots. As Parliament repeatedly
tried and failed to impose its authority on the colonies, the increasingly radical
colonists responded with protests, mob actions, boycotts, nonimportation, and
published pieces that asserted their natural rights to self-government. Throughout
the tension over the Townshend Acts (1767), the Boston Massacre
in 1770, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and the Coercive Acts of
1774 (aka the Intolerable Acts imposed on Bostonians after the Boston Tea Party),
the Americans became more and more divided from their British brethren.
Also over the course of this decade, the radicals gained greater acceptance
among colonial political circles, convincing many political figures to join
their cause and driving their opponents from office through public attacks in
the newspapers. Their efforts were assisted by the formation of grassroots political
organizations like the Sons of Liberty, which offered a chance for merchants,
craftsmen, and laborers to take part in the political turmoil of the times.
Slowly, a new ideology began to emerge from this struggle to defend
colonial rightsindependence. It was a truly revolutionary idea for the
colonies to throw off Britain's rule and establish a republic to rule themselves
instead. By 1776, the idea had become increasingly attractive to many colonists,
in part because of a powerful pamphlet titled Common Sense, written
by Thomas Paine, which advocated a complete overthrow of British authority in
By the time Paine's pamphlet was published in January 1776, the colonists had
already made great strides toward establishing some means by which to rule themselves.
In September 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, becoming the first colonial-wide governing body. Although insisting
that they wished to restore harmonious relations between the colonies and the
British government, the delegates also continued to defend adamantly the principles
of colonial rights. The Second Continental Congress, which convened in
May 1775, continued this work at reconciliation but also took significant steps
toward advancing the cause of independence.
The month before the second congress convened, the British Army had engaged
colonists from the towns of Concord and Lexington, just 20 miles outside
of Boston, in the first armed conflict of what would become the Revolutionary
War. The battle had been relatively small but held tremendous symbolic significance,
being widely publicized as an effort by colonial farmers to defend their homes
from aggressive British regulars. As British officials and Americans loyal to
British rule barricaded themselves in Boston, thousands of men flocked to the
Boston area from around New England to fight the British.
A second and more organized conflict occurred in June 1775, when the British
Army attempted to retake the hills surrounding Boston in the Battle of Bunker
Hill. Although the colonists eventually were forced to surrender their position,
the cost of British victory was extremely high, with far more British killed
in action than Americans. Recognizing the march of events, the congress created
the Continental Army and appointed Virginian George Washington its commander
in chief. Over the course of the following year, Washington organized his fledgling
command and managed to force the British to evacuate Boston in March 1776 following
the Battle of Dorchester Heights.
Throughout early 1776, colonists advocating independence seized control of
colonial legislatures and forced them to disband. Instead, they drafted state
constitutions and elected state legislatures in their place. Historians estimate
that in 1775, only one-third of the population actively supported the movement
for independence. Another one-third steadfastly supported British rule but were
forced to either flee the colonies or remain quiet in the face of vocal and
sometimes violent patriot fervor. The other third of the population maintained
a neutral stance without being committed to either independence or British rule,
but instead opted to wait and see how events played out. Nevertheless, by mid-1776,
a groundswell of public support began to emerge for independence. On July 4,
1776, the congress announced its adoption of the Declaration of Independence,
written by Virginian Thomas Jefferson, to proclaim to the world its grievances
against the British and its reasons for seizing independence. The public enthusiastically
supported the declaration.
The British Army approached the American Revolution with extreme confidence,
believing that the patriots would be defeated quickly. The British also harbored
a widespread belief that the American population did not wholeheartedly endorse
the independence movement and that once they quieted the radicals, the rest
of the American colonists would rush to assist the British efforts. To quell
the revolt, the British adopted a traditional strategy based on
the notion that the Americans could be defeated if the British captured the
major colonial cities.
This strategy proved flawed, however, first because unlike European nations, the American colonies had no single capital city whose loss would undermine the entire war effort. In addition, as the colonies were primarily rural, cities did not play as important a role in colonial life as cities played in European life. Finally, in order to halt the rebellion, the British needed to secure a total victory in the colonies, while the Americans needed only to force the British to a stalemate. Nevertheless, the American challenge against well-trained British troops serving under professional officers was a formidable one, and many doubted whether even a stalemate was within the Americans' grasp.
A series of military campaigns began in the North and then moved to the South,
where the British ultimately suffered defeat. In the summer of 1776, Sir William
Howe brought troops to New York, where they defeated Washington's army at the
Battle of Brooklyn Heights, and then on the island of Manhattan that ended with
the American loss of New York City. With the British holding New York, Washington
retreated to New Jersey.
British troops controlled most of New Jersey, but Washington enjoyed the first
decisive American victory when he directed his troops to take Trenton, New
Jersey on December 26, 1776 when he and his army secretly crossed the Delaware
River and captured 900 Hessians (German mercenaries hired by the British). The
Americans suffered only three casualties in return. A few days later, Washington
successfully captured Princeton, New Jersey. These victories, unusual not only
because they ended in American victory but also because they occurred in winter
when fighting was normally suspended, marked the end of military campaigns for
the year as both armies went into winter quarters.
The British effort in 1777 was a two-pronged attack to capture the mid-Atlantic
colonies and upstate New York. By this effort, they hoped to divide the colonies
in two halves, isolating the especially cantankerous Boston and New England
region. Despite strong showings by Washington's forces at the Battles of Brandywine
Creek and Germantown, Howe took Philadelphia. At the same time, Sir John Burgoyne
recaptured Fort Ticonderoga, which the Americans had taken in the opening days
of the war. Throughout the fall of 1777, he moved South from Canada, winning
a series of impressive victories until his entire force suffered a humiliating
defeat at the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777, forcing him to surrender.
The Battle of Saratoga proved a turning point in the war, as
the American victory led to an open alliance with France. Benjamin Franklin
had been serving as a diplomat in Paris to forge such an alliance since late
1776. In 1778, France and America signed two treaties. In the first, the Treaty
of Amity and Commerce, France recognized American independence and established
a trade relationship with the struggling country. In the second, the Treaty
of Alliance, the two countries promised to consult the other when negotiating
peace agreements with Britain. The Franco-American alliance brought much-needed
supplies and troops into the fight against Britain, and France's recognition
and support for the fledgling country served as a powerful symbol of legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the war moved to the South. By this time, Sir Henry Clinton had
replaced Howe as the leader of the British forces. A string of British victories
along the southern coastline culminated in the British capture of Charleston,
South Carolina on May 12, 1780, where the American general Benjamin Lincoln
surrendered the entire Continental Army in the South.
The defeat, however, only served to encourage patriots to redouble their efforts. Washington appointed Nathanael Greene to command patriot forces in the South against Lord Charles Cornwallis. Greene urged leniency against neutral settlers and loyalists, realizing that his conciliatory approach would win the loyalty of the settlers who were tired of war in their region. Greene also managed to convince most Native American groups to end their alliances with the British. At the end of 1780 and into 1781, the tide in the South turned toward the Americans in a series of small but important fights, including the Battle of Cowpens in early 1781 and the Battle of Guildford Court House in March of that same year. Fighting in the South continued throughout the spring, but the Americans steadfastly reclaimed lost territory and forced the British to a massive retreat to the North Carolina coast.
By the fall of 1781, Cornwallis had moved his troops to Virginia, believing
that Virginia served as the major supply base for all the fighting in the South.
In total, he commanded a force of 7,200 men on the Yorktown peninsula,
not far from the spot of the first permanent English settlement in America,
Jamestown. As Cornwallis prepared to defeat the Virginians, Washington and his
army swept down toward Yorktown from New Jersey, while a French naval fleet
intercepted and defeated a substantial British fleet in Chesapeake Bay that
had been sent to relieve Cornwallis. The combination of American troops on land
and French ships on the water kept the British under siege in Yorktown for several
weeks before a major battle on October 19 ended in British defeat. Cornwallis'
subsequent surrender marked the end of fighting in North America.
Unbelievably, the Americans had forced the British to a stalemate in North
America, thus compelling Great Britain to recognize the colonies' independence.
American diplomats Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams negotiated a preliminary
peace treaty in November 1782 in Paris. The so-called Treaty of Paris
was formally signed by representatives from both nations on September 3, 1783.
Although the cost of the victory had been substantial for the Americans, with about 25,000 deaths from wounds and disease and serious economic disruption from the waste and carnage of several years of war, the Americans quickly set about erecting the institutions to govern their new nation. The revolution, with its Enlightenment principles of equality and natural rights, has since served as an inspiration to other peoples around the world attempting to secure their rights through the mechanism of self-government.