2. The American Revolution 1775-1783 These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
--THOMAS PAINE, DECEMBER 1776
America Secedes from the Empire
The United States fights for Independence
Road to Victory
Declaration of Independence
Excerpt from Common Sense
1. America Secedes from the Empire
Questions: As you read, note the items in bold.
What led Congress to choose George Washington to lead American forces?
How were “Bunker Hill,” the hiring of Hessians, and the publication of “Common Sense” significant milestones in the conflict?
Did all American define “republicanism” the same way?
Evaluate Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: its structure, its purpose, its impact.
Bloodshed at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 was a clarion call to arms. About twenty thousand musket-bearing “Minute Men’’ swarmed around Boston, there to coop up the outnumbered British.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia the next month, on May 10, 1775, and this time the full slate of thirteen colonies was represented. The conservative element in Congress was still strong, despite the shooting in Massachusetts. There was still no well-defined sentiment for independence— merely a desire to continue fighting in
the hope that the king and Parliament would consent to a redress of grievances. Congress hopefully drafted new appeals to the British people and king—appeals that were spurned. Anticipating a possible rebuff, the delegates also adopted measures to raise money and to create an army and a navy. The British and the Americans now teetered on the brink of all-out warfare.
Congress Drafts George Washington
Perhaps the most important single action of the Congress was to select George Washington, one of its members already in officer’s uniform, to head the hastily improvised army besieging Boston. This choice was made with considerable misgivings. The tall, powerfully built, dignified Virginia planter, then forty-three, had never risen above the rank of a colonel in the militia. His largest command had numbered only twelve hundred men, and that had been some twenty years earlier. Falling short of true
military genius, Washington would actually lose more pitched battles than he won.
“Washington Reviewing the French Troops after the Victory at Yorktown” by John Trumbull. Washington towers over his horse in this favorite portrait of the general.
But the distinguished Virginian was gifted with outstanding powers of leadership and immense strength of character. He radiated patience, courage, self-discipline, and a sense of justice. He was a great moral force rather than a great military mind—a symbol and a rallying point. People instinctively trusted him; they sensed that when he put himself at the head of a cause, he was prepared, if necessary, to go down with the ship. He insisted
on serving without pay, though he kept a careful expense account amounting to more than $100,000. Later he sternly reprimanded his steward at Mount Vernon for providing the enemy, under duress, with supplies. He would have preferred instead to see the
enemy put the torch to his mansion.
The Continental Congress, though dimly perceiving Washington’s qualities of leadership, chose more wisely than it knew. His selection, in truth, was largely political. Americans in other sections, already jealous, were beginning to distrust the large New England army being collected around Boston. Prudence suggested a commander from Virginia, the
largest and most populous of the colonies. As a man of wealth, both by inheritance and by marriage, Washington could not be accused of being a fortune seeker. As an aristocrat, he could be counted on by his peers to check “the excesses of the masses.”
The clash of arms continued on a strangely contradictory basis. On the one hand, the Americans were emphatically affirming their loyalty to the king and earnestly voicing their desire to patch up difficulties. On the other hand, they were raising armies
and shooting down His Majesty’s soldiers. This curious war of inconsistency was fought for fourteen long months—from April 1775 to July 1776—before the fateful plunge into independence was taken.
Gradually the tempo of warfare increased In June 1775 the colonists seized a hill, now known as Bunker Hill (actually Breed’s Hill), from which they menaced the enemy in
Boston. The British, instead of cutting off the retreat of their foes by flanking them, blundered bloodily when they launched a frontal attack with three thousand men. Sharp-shooting Americans, numbering fifteen hundred and strongly entrenched, mowed
down the advancing redcoats with frightful slaughter. But the colonists’ scanty store of gunpowder finally gave out, and they were forced to abandon the hill in disorder. With two more such victories, remarked the French foreign minister, the British would have no army left in America.
Even at this late date, in July 1775, the Continental Congress adopted the “Olive Branch Petition,’’ professing American loyalty to the crown and begging the king to prevent further hostilities. But following Bunker Hill, King George III slammed the door on all hope of reconciliation. In August 1775 he formally proclaimed the colonies in rebellion; the skirmishes were now out and out treason, a hanging crime. The next month he widened the chasm when he sealed arrangements for hiring thousands of German
troops to help crush his rebellious subjects. George III needed the men. Because most of
these soldiers-for-hire came from the German principality of Hesse, the Americans called all the European mercenaries Hessians.
New Yorkers pull down a statue of George III
News of the Hessian deal shocked the colonists. The quarrel, they felt, was within the family. Why bring in outside mercenaries, especially foreigners who had an exaggerated reputation for butchery? Hessian hirelings proved to be good soldiers in a mechanical sense, but many of them were more interested in booty than in duty. For good reason they were dubbed “Hessian flies.’’ Seduced by American promises of land, hundreds of them finally deserted and remained in America to become respected citizens.
Thomas Paine Preaches Common Sense
Bitter fighting continued in the colonies, although the Americans still sought reconciliation rather than revolution. Why did Americans continue to deny any intention of independence? Loyalty to the empire was deeply ingrained; many Americans continued to consider themselves part of a transatlantic community in which the mother country of Britain played a leading role; colonial unity was poor; and open rebellion
was dangerous, especially against a formidable Britain. Irish rebels of that day were customarily hanged, drawn, and quartered. American rebels might have fared no better. As late as January 1776— five months before independence was declared—
the king’s health was being toasted by the officers of Washington’s mess near Boston. “God save the king’’ had not yet been replaced by “God save the Congress.’’
Gradually the Americans were shocked into an awareness of their inconsistency. Their eyes were jolted open by harsh British acts like the burning of Falmouth and Norfolk, and especially by the hiring of the Hessians.
Then in 1776 came the publication of Common Sense, one of the most influential pamphlets ever written. Its author was the radical Thomas Paine, once an impoverished corset-maker’s apprentice, who had come over from Britain a year earlier. His tract became a whirlwind best-seller and within a few months reached the astonishing total of 120,000 copies.
Paine flatly branded the shilly-shallying of the colonists as contrary to “common sense.’’ Nowhere in the physical universe did the smaller heavenly body control the larger one. Then why should the tiny island of Britain control the vast continent of America?
As for the king, whom the Americans professed to revere, he was nothing but “the Royal Brute of Great Britain.’’
Excerpt from Common Sense Paine and the Idea of “Republicanism”
Paine’s passionate protest was as compelling as it was eloquent and radical—even doubly radical. It called not simply for independence, but for the creation of a new kind of political society, a republic, where power flowed from the people themselves, not from a corrupt and despotic monarch. In language laced with biblical imagery familiar to common folk, he argued that all government officials— governors, senators, and judges—not just representatives in a house of commons, should derive their authority from popular consent.
Paine was hardly the first person to champion a republican form of government. Political philosophers had advanced the idea since the days of classical Greece and Rome. Revived in the Renaissance and in seventeenth-century England, republican
ideals had uneasily survived within the British “mixed government,” with its delicate balance of king, nobility, and commons. Republicanism particularly appealed to British politicians critical of excessive power in the hands of the king and his advisers. Their writings found a responsive audience among the American colonists
The colonists’ experience with governance had prepared them well for Paine’s summons to create a republic. Many settlers, particularly New Englanders, had practiced a kind of republicanism in their democratic town meetings and annual elections, while the popularly elected committees of correspondence during 1774 and 1775 had demonstrated the feasibility of republican government. The absence of a hereditary aristocracy and the relative equality of condition enjoyed by landowning farmers meshed well with the republican repudiation of a fixed hierarchy of power.
Most Americans considered citizen “virtue” fundamental to any successful republican government. Because political power no longer rested with the central, all-powerful authority of the king, individuals in a republic needed to sacrifice their personal self-interest to the public good. The collective good of “the people” mattered more than the private rights and interests of individuals. Paine inspired his contemporaries to view America as fertile ground for the cultivation of such civic virtue.
Yet not all Patriots agreed with Paine’s ultra-democratic approach to republicanism. Some favored a republic ruled by a “natural aristocracy” of talent. Republicanism for them meant an end to hereditary aristocracy, but not an end to all social hierarchy. These more conservative republicans feared that the fervor for liberty would overwhelm
the stability of the social order. They watched with trepidation as the “lower orders” of society—poorer farmers, tenants, and laboring classes in towns and cities—seemed to embrace a kind of runaway republicanism that amounted to radical “leveling.” The contest to define the nature of American republicanism would noisily continue for the next hundred years.
Jefferson’s “Explanation’’ of Independence Members of the Philadelphia Congress, instructed by their respective colonies, gradually edged toward a clean break. On June 7, 1776, fiery Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent
states. . . .’’ After considerable debate, the motion was adopted nearly a month later, on July 2, 1776.
The passing of Lee’s resolution was the formal “declaration’’ of independence by the American colonies, and technically this was all that was needed to cut the British tie. John Adams wrote confidently that ever thereafter, July 2 would be celebrated annually with fireworks. But something more was required. An epochal rupture of this kind called
for some formal explanation. An inspirational appeal was also needed to enlist other British colonies in the Americas, to invite assistance from foreign nations, and to rally resistance at home.
Shortly after Lee made his memorable motion on June 7, Congress appointed a committee to prepare an appropriate statement. The task of drafting it fell to Thomas Jefferson, a tall, freckled, sandy-hairedVirginia lawyer of thirty-three. Despite his youth, he was already recognized as a brilliant writer, and he measured up splendidly to the awesome assignment. After some debate and amendment, the Declaration of Independence was formally approved by the Congress on July 4, 1776. It might better have been called “the Explanation of Independence’’ or, as one contemporary described it, “Mr. Jefferson’s advertisement of Mr. Lee’s resolution.’’
Jefferson’s pronouncement, couched in a lofty style, was magnificent. He gave his appeal universality by invoking the “natural rights’’ of humankind— not just British rights. He argued persuasively that because the king had flouted these rights, the colonists were justified in cutting their connection. He then set forth a long list of the presumably tyrannous misdeeds of George III. The overdrawn bill of indictment included imposing taxes without consent, dispensing with trial by jury, abolishing valued laws, establishing a military dictatorship, maintaining standing armies in peacetime, cutting off trade,
burning towns, hiring mercenaries, and inciting hostility among the Indians.
Jefferson’s withering blast was admittedly one-sided. But he was in effect the prosecuting attorney, and he took certain liberties with historical truth. He was not writing history; he was making it through what has been called “the world’s greatest editorial.’’ He owned many slaves, and his affirmation that “all men are created equal’’ was to haunt him and his fellow citizens for generations.
The formal Declaration of Independence cleared the air as a thundershower does on a muggy day. Foreign aid could be solicited with greater hope of success. Those Patriots who defied the king were now rebels, not loving subjects shooting their way into reconciliation. They must all hang together, Franklin was said to have grimly remarked, or they would all hang separately. Or, in the eloquent language of the great declaration, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’’
Jefferson’s defiant Declaration of Independence had a universal impact unmatched by any other American document. This “shout heard round the world’’ has been a source of inspiration to countless revolutionary movements against arbitrary authority. The French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette hung a copy on a wall in his home, leaving beside it room for a future French Declaration of the Rights of Man—a declaration that was officially born thirteen years later.
The Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull
Text of the Declaration of Independence
2. The United States fights for Independence
Questions: Note items in bold as you read.
What was the level of enthusiasm for revolution—to what extent was the revolution a “war within a war” and a “minority movement?”
To what extent was the war nearly lost in the Middle Atlantic region and what important battles fought in New Jersey were significant American victories?
Why was the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga considered a significant turning point of the American Revolution?
Patriots and Loyalists
The War of Independence, strictly speaking, was a war within a war. Colonials loyal to the king (Loyalists) fought the American rebels (Patriots), while the rebels also fought the British redcoats. Loyalists were derisively called “Tories,’’ after the dominant political factions in Britain, whereas Patriots were called “Whigs,’’ after the opposition factions in Britain.
Like many revolutions, the American Revolution was a minority movement. Many colonists were apathetic or neutral. The opposing forces contended not only against each other but also for the allegiance and support of the civilian population. In this struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the people, the British proved fatally inept, and the Patriot militias played a crucial role. The British military proved able to control only those areas where it could maintain a massive military presence. Elsewhere, as soon as the redcoats had marched on, the rebel militiamen appeared and took up the task of “political education’’—sometimes by coercive means. Often lacking bayonets but always loaded with political zeal, the ragtag militia units served as remarkably effective agents of Revolutionary ideas. They convinced many colonists, even those indifferent to independence, that the British army was an unreliable friend and that they had better throw in their lot with the Patriot cause. They also mercilessly harassed small British detachments and occupation forces. One British officer ruefully observed that “the Americans would be less dangerous if they had a regular army.’’
Loyalists, numbering perhaps 16 percent of the American people, remained true to their king. Families often split over the issue of independence: Benjamin Franklin supported the Patriot side, whereas his illegitimate son, William Franklin(the last royal governor of New Jersey), upheld the Loyalist cause.
The Loyalists were tragic figures. For generations the British in the New World had been taught fidelity to the crown. Loyalty is ordinarily regarded as a major virtue—loyalty to one’s family, one’s friends, one’s country. If the king had triumphed, as he seemed likely to do, the Loyalists would have been acclaimed patriots, and defeated rebels like
Washington would have been disgraced, severely punished, and probably forgotten.
War in the Middle Atlantic Region
With Boston evacuated in March 1776, the British concentrated on New York as a base of operations. Here was a splendid seaport, centrally located, where the king could count on cooperation from the numerous Loyalists. An awe-inspiring British fleet appeared off New York in July 1776. It consisted of some five hundred ships and thirty-five thousand men—the largest armed force to be seen in America until the Civil War. General Washington, dangerously outnumbered, could muster only eighteen thousand ill-trained troops with which to meet the crack army of the invader.
Disaster befell the Americans in the summer and fall of 1776. Outgeneraled and outmaneuvered, they were routed at the Battle of Long Island, where panic seized the raw recruits. By the narrowest of margins, and thanks to a favoring wind and fog, Washington escaped to Manhattan Island. Retreating northward, he crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey and finally reached the Delaware River with the British close at his heels.
The Patriot cause was at low ebb when the rebel remnants fled across the river after collecting all available boats to forestall pursuit. The wonder is that Washington’s adversary, General William Howe, did not speedily crush the demoralized American forces. But he was no military genius, and he well remembered the horrible
slaughter at Bunker Hill, where he had commanded.
Washington, who was now almost counted out, stealthily re-crossed the ice-clogged Delaware River. At the Battle ofTrenton, on December 26, 1776, he surprised and captured a thousand Hessians who were sleeping off the effects of their Christmas celebration. A week later, leaving his campfires burning as a ruse, he slipped away and inflicted a sharp defeat on a smaller British detachment at the Battle of Princeton. This brilliant New Jersey campaign, crowned by these two lifesaving victories, revealed “Old Fox’’ Washington at his military best.
Burgoyne’s Blundering Invasion
London officials adopted an intricate scheme for capturing the vital Hudson River valley in 1777. If successful, the British would sever New England from the rest of the states and paralyze the American cause. The main invading force, under General (“Gentleman Johnny’’) Burgoyne, would push down the Lake Champlain route from Canada. General Howe’s troops in New York, if needed, could advance up the Hudson River to meet Burgoyne near Albany. A third and much smaller British force, commanded by Colonel Barry St. Leger, would come in from the west by way of Lake Ontario and the Mohawk Valley.
General Burgoyne began his fateful invasion with seven thousand regular troops. Progress was painfully slow, for axmen had to chop a path through the forest, while
American militiamen began to gather like hornets on Burgoyne’s flanks. General Howe, meanwhile, was causing astonished eyebrows to rise. At a time when it seemed
obvious that he should be starting up the Hudson River from New York to join his slowly advancing colleague, he deliberately embarked with the main British army for an attack on Philadelphia, the rebel capital. Howe apparently assumed that he had ample time to assist Burgoyne directly, should he be needed.
General Washington, keeping a wary eye on the British in New York, hastily transferred his army to the vicinity of Philadelphia. There, late in 1777, he was defeated in two pitched battles, at Brandywine Creek and Germantown. Pleasure-loving General Howe then settled down comfortably in the lively capital, leaving Burgoyne to flounder through the wilds of upper New York. Benjamin Franklin, recently sent to Paris as an envoy, truthfully jested that Howe had not captured Philadelphia but that Philadelphia had captured Howe.
Washington finally retired to winter quarters at Valley Forge, a strong, hilly position some twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. There his frostbitten and hungry men were short of about everything except misery. This rabble was nevertheless whipped into a professional army by the recently arrived Prussian drillmaster, Baron von Steuben.
Burgoyne meanwhile had begun to bog down north of Albany, while a host of American militiamen, scenting the kill, swarmed about him. In a series of sharp engagements, the
British army was trapped. Unable to advance or retreat, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire command at Saratoga on October 17, 1777, to the American general Horatio Gates.
Saratoga ranks high among the decisive battles of both American and world history. The victory immensely revived the faltering colonial cause. Even more important, it made possible the urgently needed foreign aid from France, which in turn helped ensure American independence.
3. Road to Victory
Questions: As you read, note items in bold.
Explain the motivations for the French alliance with America and assess its impact on the course of the American Revolution.
How did the Revolutionary war draw to a conclusion?
What factors and interests shaped the final peace treaty signed in Paris in 1783? Evaluate the treaty from the perspective of the interest of the British, the French, and the United States.
Explain the motivations for the French alliance with America and assess its impact on the course of the American Revolution.
How did the Revolutionary war draw to a conclusion?
What factors and interests shaped the final peace treaty signed in Paris in 1783? Evaluate the treaty from the perspective of the interest of the British, the French, and the United States.
Alliance with France
France, thirsting for revenge against Britain, was eager to inflame the quarrel that had broken out in America. The New World colonies were by far Britain’s most valuable overseas possessions. If they could be wrestled from Britain, it presumably would cease to be a front-rank power. France might then regain its former position and prestige, the loss of which in the recent Seven Years’ War rankled deeply.
America’s cause rapidly became something of a fad in France. The liberals in France, who had developed some interest in the writings of French Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau, were rather intrigued by the ideal of American liberty. Hardheaded French officials, on the other hand, were not prompted by a love for America, but by a realistic concern for the interests of France. Any marriage with America would be strictly one of convenience.
After the shooting at Lexington in April 1775, French agents undertook to blow on the embers. They secretly provided the Americans with lifesaving supplies of firearms and gunpowder, chiefly through a sham company rigged up for that purpose. About 90 percent of all the gunpowder used by the Americans in the first two and a half years of the war came from French arsenals.
Secrecy enshrouded all these French schemes. Open aid to the American rebels might provoke Britain into a declaration of war, and France, still weakened by its recent defeat, was not ready to fight. It feared that the American rebellion might fade out, for the colonies were proclaiming their desire to patch up differences. But the Declaration
of Independence in 1776 showed that the Americans really meant business, and the smashing victory at Saratoga seemed to indicate that the revolutionaries had an excellent chance of winning their freedom.
After the humiliation at Saratoga in 1777, the British Parliament belatedly passed a measure that in effect offered the Americans home rule within the empire. This was essentially all that the colonials had ever asked for—except independence. If the
French were going to break up the British Empire, they would have to bestir themselves. Wily Benjamin Franklin, whose simple fur cap and witty sayings had captivated the French public, played skillfully on France’s fears of reconciliation.
The French king, Louis XVI, was reluctant to intervene. Although somewhat stupid, he was alert enough to see grave dangers in aiding the Americans openly and incurring war with Britain. But his ministers at length won him over. They argued that hostilities were inevitable, sooner or later, to undo the victor’s peace of 1763. If Britain should regain its
colonies, it might join with them to seize the sugar-rich French West Indies and thus secure compensation for the cost of the recent rebellion. The French had better fight while they could have an American ally, rather than wait and fight both Britain and its reunited colonies.
So France, in 1778, offered the Americans a treaty of alliance. Their treaty promised everything that Britain was offering—plus independence. Both allies bound themselves to wage war until the United States had won its freedom and until both agreed to terms with the common foe.
This was the first entangling military alliance in the experience of the Republic and one that later caused prolonged trouble. The American people, with ingrained isolationist tendencies, accepted the French entanglement with distaste. They were painfully aware that it bound them to a hereditary foe that was also a Roman Catholic power. But when
one’s house is on fire, one does not inquire too closely into the background of those who carry the water buckets.
England and France thus came to blows in 1778, and the shot fired at Lexington rapidly widened into a global conflagration. Spain entered the fray against Britain in 1779, as did Holland. Combined Spanish and French fleets outnumbered those of Britain, and on two occasions the British Isles seemed to be at the mercy of hostile warships. In 1780 the imperious Catherine the Great of Russia took the lead in organizing the Armed Neutrality. It lined up almost all the remaining European neutrals in an attitude of passive hostility toward Britain. The war was now being fought not only in Europe and North America, but also in South America, the Caribbean, and Asia.
To say that America, with some French aid, defeated Britain is like saying, “Daddy and I killed the bear.’’ To Britain, struggling for its very life, the scuffle in the New World became secondary. The Americans deserve credit for having kept the war going until 1778, with secret French aid. But they did not achieve their independence until the conflict erupted into a multi-power world war that was too big for Britain to handle. From 1778 to 1783, France provided the rebels with guns, money, immense amounts of equipment, about one-half of America’s regular armed forces, and practically all of
the new nation’s naval strength.
Blow and Counterblow
Improving American morale was staggered later in 1780, when General Benedict Arnold turned traitor. A leader of undoubted dash and brilliance, he was ambitious, greedy, unscrupulous, and suffering from a well-grounded but petulant feeling that his valuable services were not fully appreciated. He plotted with the British to sell out the key stronghold of West Point, which commanded the Hudson River, for £6,300 and an officer’s commission. By the sheerest accident, the plot was detected in the nick of time, and Arnold fled to the British. “Whom can we trust now?’’ cried General Washington
The British meanwhile had devised a plan to roll up the colonies, beginning with the South, where the Loyalists were numerous. The colony of Georgia was ruthlessly overrun in 1778–1779; Charleston, South Carolina, fell in 1780. Warfare now intensified in the Carolinas, where Patriots bitterly fought their Loyalist neighbors. It was not uncommon for prisoners on both sides to be butchered in cold blood after they had thrown down their arms.
Yorktown and the Final Curtain
One of the darkest periods of the war was 1780–1781, before the last decisive victory. Inflation of the currency continued at full gallop. The government, virtually bankrupt, declared that it would repay many of its debts at the rate of only 2.5 cents on the dollar. Despair prevailed, the sense of unity withered, and mutinous sentiments infected the
Meanwhile, the British general Lord Cornwallis was blundering into a trap. After futile operations in Virginia, he had fallen back to Chesapeake Bay at Yorktown to await seaborne supplies and reinforcements. He assumed Britain would continue to control
the sea. But these few fateful weeks happened to be one of the brief periods during the war when British naval superiority slipped away.
Surrender at Yorktown
The French sent a powerful fleet from the West Indies to join with the Americans in an assault on Cornwallis at Yorktown. Quick to seize this opportunity, General Washington made a swift march of more than three hundred miles to the Chesapeake from the New York area. Accompanied by the French army, Washington beset the British by land, while the French fleet blockaded them by sea after beating off the British fleet. Completely cornered, Cornwallis surrendered his entire force of seven thousand men on October 19, 1781, as his band appropriately played “The World Turn’d Upside Down.’’ The triumph was no less French than American: the French provided essentially all the sea power and about half of the regular troops in the besieging army of some sixteen thousand men.
Stunned by news of the disaster, Prime Minister Lord North cried, “Oh God! It’s all over! It’s all over!’’ But it was not. Fighting actually continued for more than a year after Yorktown, with Patriot-Loyalist warfare in the South especially savage. “No quarter for Tories’’ was the common battle cry. One of Washington’s most valuable contributions was to keep the languishing cause alive, the army in the field, and the states together during these critical months. Otherwise a satisfactory peace treaty might never have been signed.
Peace at Paris
After Yorktown, many Britons were weary of war and increasingly ready to come to terms. They had suffered heavy reverses in India and in the West Indies. The island of Minorca in the Mediterranean had fallen; the Rock of Gibraltar was tottering.
In March 1782, a Whig ministry, rather favorable to the Americans, replaced the Tory regime of Lord North.
Three American peace negotiators had meanwhile gathered at Paris: the aging but astute Benjamin Franklin; the flinty John Adams, vigilant for New England interests; and John Jay of New York, deeply suspicious of Old World intrigue. The three envoys had explicit instructions from Congress to make no separate peace and to consult with their French allies at all stages of the negotiations. But the American representatives chafed under this directive. They well knew that it had been written by a subservient Congress, with the French Foreign Office indirectly guiding the pen.
France, ever eager to smash Britain’s empire, desired an independent United States, but one independent in the abstract, not in action. It therefore schemed to keep the new republic cooped up east of the Allegheny Mountains. A weak America— like a horse sturdy enough to plow but not vigorous enough to kick—would be easier to manage in
promoting French interests and policy. France was paying a heavy price in men and treasure to win America’s independence, and it wanted to get its money’s worth.
But John Jay was unwilling to play France’s game He therefore secretly made separate overtures to London, contrary to his instructions from Congress. The hard-pressed British, eager to entice one of their enemies from the alliance, speedily came to terms with the Americans. A preliminary treaty of peace was signed in 1782; the final peace, the next year. By the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the British formally recognized the independence of the United States. In addition, they granted generous boundaries, stretching majestically to the Mississippi on the west, to the Great Lakes on the north, and to Spanish Florida on the south. (Spain had recently captured Florida from Britain.)
The Yankees, though now divorced from the empire, were to retain a share in the priceless fisheries of Newfoundland. The Canadians, of course, were profoundly displeased. The Americans, on their part, had to yield important concessions. Loyalists were not to be further persecuted, and Congress was to recommend to the state legislatures that confiscated Loyalist property be restored. As for the debts long owed to
British creditors, the states vowed to put no lawful obstacles in the way of their collection. Unhappily for future harmony, the assurances regarding both Loyalists and debts were not carried out in the manner hoped for by London.
“The Reconciliation between Britannia and Her Daughter (detail): Britannia says “Be a good girl and give me a [kiss].” America (the Indian) says “Dear Mama say no more about it.”
A New Nation Legitimized
Britain’s terms were liberal almost beyond belief. The enormous trans-Allegheny area was thrown in as a virtual gift, although the Americans had captured only a small segment of it during the conflict. Why the generosity? Had the United States beaten Britain to its knees?
The key to the riddle may be found in the Old World. At the time the peace terms were drafted, Britain was trying to seduce America from its French alliance, so it made the terms as alluring as possible. The shaky Whig ministry, hanging on by its fingernails for only a few months, was friendlier to the Americans than were the Tories. It was determined, by a policy of liberality, to salve recent wounds, reopen old trade channels, and prevent future wars over the coveted trans-Allegheny region. This far-visioned policy was regrettably not followed by the successors of the Whigs.
America alone gained from the world-girdling war. The British, though soon to stage a comeback, were battered and beaten. The French savored sweet revenge but plunged headlong down the slippery slope to bankruptcy and revolution. In truth, fortune smiled benignly on the Americans. Snatching their independence from the furnace of world conflict, they began their national career with a splendid territorial birthright and a priceless heritage of freedom. Seldom, if ever, have any people been so favored.
North America, 1783
The Declaration of Independence
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred. to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Excerpt from Common Sense
Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.
As a long and violent abuse of power is generally the means of calling the right of it in question (and in matters, too, which might never have been thought of, had not the sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry), and as the King of England has undertaken in his own right to support the Parliament in what he calls theirs, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both and equally. to reject the usurpation of either.
The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have and will arise which are not local but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected and in the event of which their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth is the concern of every man to whom nature has given the power of feeling, of which class, regardless of party censure…
I know it is difficult to get over local or long-standing prejudices; yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials:
First, the remains of monarchical tyranny in the person of the king Secondly, the remains of aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers
Thirdly, the new republican materials in the persons of the Commons, on whose virtue depends the freedom of England.
The two first, by being hereditary, are independent of the people; wherefore, in a constitutional sense, they contribute nothing toward the freedom of the state.
The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king. It is somewhat difficult to find a proper name for the government of England. Sir William Meredith calls it a republic; but in its present state it is unworthy of the name, because the corrupt influence of the crown, by having all the places in its disposal, has so effectually swallowed up the power and eaten out the virtue of the House of Commons (the republican part in the constitution) that the government of England is nearly as monarchical as that of France or Spain.