Reluctant Revolutionaries

Typically, students see the American Revolution as an organized rebellion of a united people against an oppressive tyrannical government. In their estimation, the colonies simply rose up and gained their independence.

In actuality, the truth was far from that. Although many colonists felt they deserved the equal rights and liberties of those in the mother country, they were not ready or willing to totally break away from the British Empire and start a new nation.

 

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was a formal statement announcing the severed ties between the thirteen colonies and Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson wrote essentially of a new theory of government, in which the government itself was expected and required to protect “natural rights” of citizens.

 

Continental Army & Washington

On Christmas night 1776, the eve of the famous crossing of the Delaware River, Washington and his troops were encamped nine miles from Trenton on the banks of the Delaware preparing for a surprise offensive that, Washington hoped, would save his position as general and invigorate his troops. His soldiers were beyond weary. They did not have tents or proper winter clothing, the weather had turned bitterly cold and they were losing battle after battle. Washington’s poor military record had sparked open talk in Congress about replacing him.
Hoping to inspire soldiers and save his own job, Washington ordered all his officers to read Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis" to their troops. Paine, the passionate pamphleteer, was embedded with Washington’s troops and had just written a now-famous essay on the back of a drumhead. The opening refrain had a stirring beat of its own: "These are the times that try men's souls." The next day, Washington’s soldiers went on to win the Battle of Trenton. It was a small victory, but it changed the entire psychological makeup of the war.
In the winter of 1777, George Washington's Continental Army found themselves, once again, overwhelmed. After suffering several major defeats at the hands of the British, in particular the Howe brothers, American morale was at a low, and Washington was concerned that the army might mutiny entirely. Washington decided to encamp that winter at Valley Forge close to the continental capital Philadelphia, which had fallen into British hands. While it was a strategic location, the Continental Army went through a winter of cold, hunger and extreme discomfort.

 

Defeating the World’s Superpower: The British

At the start of the fighting between England and the colonists in 1775, the British military was considered the strongest in the world. Britain had defeated France in the French and Indian War (Seven Years War) and had secured a place as the world's superpower. Conversely, the colonists were frequently forced to rely on state militia, farmers and merchants who volunteered for duty only when fighting was close to their homes.

Yet despite Britain's overwhelming military superiority, the British found themselves unable to subdue the colonists. In fact, it is often said that the American Revolution was not so much won by the Americans as it was lost by the British -- a statement with obvious parallels to the Vietnam War, in which another superpower fought a much weaker enemy and failed to achieve its military and political objectives.

Britain frequently won with smashing victories at the last minute. It did not begin to really try to win the war until 1778. By then it was too late because France and Spain had entered the war.

 

Creating a New Nation

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the new nation was faced with another extremely difficult task: creating a single, unified country out of a loose association of states, transforming the "United States" from a plural to a singular noun. America had thrown off one oppressive form of government, but now they had to develop a new form of government strong enough to enforce the law, yet based on the democratic and economic premises of the Revolution.

The result was a Constitution that has lasted longer than other document of its kind in world history. The tensions that existed between proponents of individual liberty and advocates of national strength and the evolution of their debate shaped the Constitution and the new government.