The American Revolution (1754-1781)

Committees of Observation and Safety

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Committees of Observation and Safety

The Congress therefore created the Committees of Observation and Safety and gave them the task of making sure no citizens purchased British merchandise under the authority of the Continental Association. The Congress also attempted to define the exact relationship Britain had with America and the degree to which Parliament could legislate. Although the Congress did not request home rule, it did claim that colonial legislatures should be entrusted with more responsibilities.

The Committees of Observation and Safety had a profound effect on American colonial life. As British officials shut down or threatened to shut down town legislatures and councils throughout the colonies, the committees often became de facto governments. Many established their own court systems, raised militias, legislated against Loyalist demonstrations, and eventually coordinated efforts with other observation committees in nearby communities. Also, most of these committees were democratically elected by community members and were thus recognized by patriotic colonists as legitimate supervisory bodies. Their creation and coordination helped spread revolutionary ideas and fervor to the countryside and later smoothed the transition to democracy after independence.

The Battle of Lexington and Concord

By 1775, colonial resentment toward Britain had become a desire for rebellion. Many cities and towns organized volunteer militias of “minutemen”—named for their alleged ability to prepare for combat at the drop of a hat—who began to drill openly in public common areas.

On April 19, 1775, a British commander dispatched troops to seize an arsenal of colonial militia weapons stored in Concord, Massachusetts. Militiamen from nearby Lexington intercepted them and opened fire. Eight Americans died as the British sliced through them and moved on to Concord.

The British arrived in Concord only to be ambushed by the Concord militia. The “shot heard round the world”—or the first shot of many that defeated the British troops at Concord—sent a ripple throughout the colonies, Europe, and the rest of the world. The British retreated to Boston after more than 270 in their unit were killed, compared to fewer than 100 Americans. The conflict became known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

The minutemen’s victory encouraged patriots to redouble their efforts and at the same time convinced King George III to commit military forces to crushing the rebellion. Almost immediately, thousands of colonial militiamen set up camp around Boston, laying siege to the British position. The battle initiated a chain of events, starting with the militia siege of Boston and the Second Continental Congress, that kicked the Revolutionary War into high gear.

The Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress was convened a few weeks after the Battle of Lexington and Concord to decide just how to handle the situation. Delegates from all thirteen colonies gathered once again in Philadelphia and discussed options. The desire to avoid a war was still strong, and in July 1775, delegate John Dickinson from Pennsylvania penned the Olive Branch Petition to send to Britain. All the delegates signed the petition, which professed loyalty to King George III and beseeched him to call off the troops in Boston so that peace between the colonies and Britain could be restored. George III eventually rejected the petition.

Washington and the Continental Army

Despite their issuance of the Olive Branch Petition, the delegates nevertheless believed that the colonies should be put in a state of defense against any future possible British actions. Therefore, they set aside funds to organize an army and a small navy. After much debate, they also selected George Washington to command the militia surrounding Boston, renaming it the Continental Army. Washington was a highly respected Virginian plantation owner, and his leadership would further unite the northern and southern colonies in the Revolution.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

The delegates’ hopes for acknowledgment and reconciliation failed in June 1775, when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought outside Boston. Although the British ultimately emerged victorious, they suffered over 1,000 casualties, prompting British officials to take the colonial unrest far more seriously than they had previously. The engagement led King George III to declare officially that the colonies were in a state of rebellion. Any hope of reconciliation and a return to the pre-1763 status quo had vanished.

American Society in Revolt: 1776–1777


1776 Thomas Paine writes Common Sense

1777 Vermont adopts a state constitution prohibiting slavery Iroquois begin to raid colonial settlements in western New York and Pennsylvania

Key People

George Washington -  Commander of the Continental Army

Nathanael Greene -  Aide to Washington; one of the highest-ranking and most respected American generals in the war

Baron von Steuben -  German commander who helped George Washington and Nathanael Greene train the Continental army

Thomas Paine -  Radical philosopher who strongly supported republicanism; wrote 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, which was a best-seller in the American colonies

Joseph Brant -  Mohawk chief who advocated alliance with Britain against American forces in the Revolutionary War

Training the Continental Army

As the colonies prepared themselves for war, new militias were formed throughout America, primarily to defend local communities from British aggression. Other units, however, rushed to join their comrades in Boston as soon as every man had a musket. Under the strict command of George Washington, Nathanael Greene, and the German Baron von Steuben, this ragtag collection of undisciplined militiamen eventually became the well-trained Continental Army.

Popular Support for the War

When the Revolutionary War began, Britain made a costly and ultimately fatal error in assuming that opposition to British policies came only from a core group of rabble-rousing ringleaders such as Washington, Jefferson, and the Adams cousins. The British believed, incorrectly, that if they arrested these men, the revolt would collapse and the minutemen would return to their homes. They failed to understand that a significant majority of Americans disliked British rule and desired something better. Historians estimate that the majority of eligible American men served at some point in the Continental Army, the militias, or both.

Patriotic Women

Many American women supported the war effort as well. Some particularly daring women chose to serve as nurses, attendants, cooks, and even spies on the battlefields. Others, such as the famous “Molly Pitcher” (a woman named Mary Hays McCauly, who fought in her husband’s place) and Deborah Sampson (who disguised herself as a man) saw action in battle. Most women, however, fought the war at home. As more and more husbands and fathers left home to fight, more and more wives and mothers took to managing the farms and businesses. A majority of women helped by making yarn and homespun necessities such as socks and underwear, both to send to militiamen and to support the boycott of British goods.

Common Sense

The radical English author and philosopher Thomas Paine helped turn American public opinion against Britain and solidify the emerging colonial unity with his January 1776 pamphlet Common Sense , which denounced King George III as a tyrannical “brute.” Paine, reasoning that it was unnatural for the smaller England to dominate the larger collection of American states, called on Americans to unite and overthrow British rule so that they could usher in an era of freedom for humanity. Inspiring and easy to read, Common Sense stirred the hearts of thousands of Americans and persuaded many would-be Loyalists and fence-sitters to fight for independence. The pamphlet caused a huge sensation throughout the colonies and sold over 100,000 copies within a few months of its first printing.

The Loyalists

Although most Americans supported the decision to break away from Britain and declare independence, about one-third of the colonists did not. These Loyalists were heavily concentrated in the lower southern colonies but could also be found in concentrated pockets throughout other regions, including the North.

The Loyalists had several reasons for choosing to support Britain. Some, including many wealthy merchants, Anglican clergymen, and officials, disagreed with Parliament’s policies but felt that it was not right to challenge British rule. Others were political conservatives who preferred the status quo. Many ethnic minorities, including blacks and Native Americans, also backed Britain, fearful that victorious white Americans would trample their rights.

One hundred thousand Loyalists fled to Canada, England, and the West Indies before and during the war. Those who stayed faced persecution, especially in the northern colonies. In the lower southern colonies, however, many pro-British colonial men formed Loyalist militias. Tens of thousands of Loyalists also joined the British army to fight for king and country.

Native Americans

Native Americans were particularly fearful of future American expansion into their lands, and the majority of tribes chose to support Britain. In particular, the influential Mohawk chief Joseph Brant worked tirelessly to convince the Iroquois tribes to support the British. As a result of his efforts and those of others like him, thousands of Iroquois, Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and other warriors joined forces with the British and coordinated independent raids on American arsenals and settlements along the western frontier.

The Native American decision to ally themselves with the British and raid American outposts and towns proved in the end to be a fatal one. Most believed that the British were a sure bet and that the rebellious colonies stood almost no chance of winning. The ultimate British surrender was a huge loss for Native Americans: white settlers were already pushing westward, and after the war, they felt justified in their taking of native lands.

African Americans

Blacks, too, generally supported the British because an American victory would only keep them in bondage. Although roughly 5,000 blacks did serve in militias for the United States, most who had the opportunity chose to flee to British and Loyalist areas that promised freedom from slavery. Consequently, colonies both north and south lost tens of thousands of slaves.

To some degree, blacks fared better after the war than before. Faced with the somewhat embarrassing predicament of supporting the premise that “all men are created equal,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence, while at the same time practicing human bondage, many states, such as Vermont, eventually abolished slavery. Other states legislated more gradual forms of emancipation. As a result, the number of free blacks in the United States skyrocketed into the tens of thousands by the end of the century. Slavery was by no means a dead institution (as the early 1800s proved), but these liberal decisions made during the war were significant steps forward on the road to equality.

Undecided Colonists

Finally, some men and women were neither patriots nor Loyalists and opted to take a wait-and-see approach. Civilian casualties remained low throughout the war, so such fence-sitting was an attractive alternative for some colonists. Some of the colonies, however, tried to curb the number of free riders by passing laws that essentially ordered citizens to choose sides. Able-bodied men who failed to join militias were prosecuted in some colonies for failing to show support for the patriotic cause.

The Declaration of Independence: 1776


June 7 Second Continental Congress begins to debate independence

July 2 Second Continental Congress votes to declare independence

July 4 Delegates sign Declaration of Independence

Key People

Thomas Jefferson -  Virginia statesman who drafted the Declaration of Independence

John Adams -  Massachusetts delegate at the Continental Congress; assisted Jefferson with revisions to the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Franklin -  Pennsylvania delegate at the Continental Congress; assisted Jefferson with revisions to the Declaration of Independence

George III -  King of Great Britain throughout the American Revolution

Virginia Proposes Independence

At a meeting of the Second Continental Congress in the summer of 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, proposed that the American colonies should declare their independence from Britain. Delegates debated this proposal heavily for a few weeks, and many returned to their home states to discuss the idea in state conventions.

By this point—after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and George III’s rejection of the Olive Branch Petition—the thought of independence appealed to a majority of colonists. By July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress, with the support of twelve states (New York did not vote), decided to declare independence.

Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Congress then selected a few of its most gifted delegates, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, to draft a written proclamation of independence. Jefferson was chosen to be the committee’s scribe and principal author, so the resulting Declaration of Independence was a product primarily of his efforts.

Jefferson kept the Declaration relatively short and to the point: he wanted its meaning to be direct, clear, and forceful. In the brief document, he managed to express clearly the ideals of the American cause, level weighty accusations against George III, offer arguments to give the colonies’ actions international legitimacy, and encapsulate the American spirit of freedom and unity. In his first draft, Jefferson also wrote against slavery, signifying that people were fundamentally equal regardless of race as well—but this portion was stricken from the final document. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s words gave hope to blacks as well as landless whites, laborers, and women, then and for generations to come.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

The Declaration’s second paragraph begins the body of the text with the famous line, “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.” With these protections, any American, regardless of class, religion, gender, and eventually race, could always strive—and even sometimes succeed—at improving himself via wealth, education, or labor. With those seven final words, Jefferson succinctly codified the American Dream.

The Social Contract

Jefferson argued that governments derived their power from the people—a line of reasoning that sprang from the writings of contemporary philosophers including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine. Both had argued that people enter into a social contract with the body that governs them and that when the government violates that contract, the people have the right to establish a new government. These notions of a contract and accountability were radical for their time, because most Europeans believed that their monarchs’ power was granted by God. The Declaration of Independence thus established a new precedent for holding monarchies accountable for their actions.

Abuses by George III

In the Declaration, Jefferson also detailed the tyrannical “abuses and usurpations” that George III committed against the American colonies. Jefferson claimed that the king had wrongly shut down representative colonial legislatures, refused to allow the colonies to legislate themselves, and convened legislatures at inconvenient locations. He also accused the king of illegally assuming judicial powers and manipulating judges and the court system. Finally, Jefferson claimed that George III had conspired with others (other nations and Native Americans) against the colonists, restricted trade, imposed unjust taxes, forced American sailors to work on British ships, and taken military actions against Americans. Jefferson noted that the colonists had repeatedly petitioned the king to try to restore friendly relations but that he had consistently ignored them. Americans had also appealed to the British people for help on several occasions, again to no avail.

Jefferson concluded that, in light of these facts, the colonists had no choice but to declare independence from Britain and establish a new government to protect their rights. He stated that in order to achieve this goal, the independent states would come together to become the United States of America.

Signing of the Declaration

Jefferson’s bold document was revised in the drafting committee and then presented to the Congress on July 4, 1776. The Congress’s members felt that Jefferson’s case was strong enough that it would convince other nations that America was justified in its rebellion. The thirteen states unanimously approved of the Declaration of Independence, and the United States was born.

The Revolutionary War: 1775–1783


1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord Second Continental Congress convenes

1776 Jefferson writes Declaration of Independence

1777 Battle of Saratoga

1778 France and United States form Franco-American Alliance

1779 Spain enters war against Britain

1781 British forces under Cornwallis surrender to Washington at Yorktown

1783 Peace of Paris signed to end war

Key People

George Washington -  Commander of the Continental army

Lord Charles Cornwallis -  Commander of British forces that surrendered at Yorktown

British Strengths

When war erupted in 1775, it seemed clear that Britain would win. It had a large, well-organized land army, and the Royal Navy was unmatched on the sea. Many of the British troops in the Revolutionary War were veterans who had fought in the French and Indian War. On the other hand, the Americans had only a collection of undisciplined militiamen who had never fought before. The American navy was small and no match for the thousand ships in the royal fleet. The state of the army did improve after George Washington whipped the Continental Army into a professional fighting force, but the odds still seemed heavily stacked in Britain’s favor.

American Strengths

Nonetheless, the Americans believed that they did have a strong chance of success. They had a lot at stake: unlike the British, they were fighting on their home turf to protect their own homes and families. Perhaps most important, they were also fighting a popular war—a majority of the colonists were patriots who strongly supported the fight for independence. Finally, though most Americans had no previous military experience, their militia units were usually close-knit bands of men, often neighbors, who served together in defense of their own homes. They elected their own officers—usually men who did have some military training but who also knew the territory well. This native officer corps was a great source of strength, and as a result, American morale was generally higher than morale in the Royal Army.

Geography in the War

Geography also gave the Americans an advantage that proved to be a major factor in the war’s outcome. To the British forces, the North American terrain was unusually rugged: New England was rocky and cold in winter, the South was boggy and humid in the summer, and the western frontier was almost impenetrable because of muddy roads and thick forests. In addition, because American settlements were spread out across a vast range of territory, the British had difficulty mounting a concentrated fight and transporting men and supplies. American troops, on the other hand, were used to the terrain and had little trouble. Finally, the distance between England and the United States put a great strain on Britain, which spent a great deal of time, energy, and money ferrying soldiers and munitions back and forth across the Atlantic.

The Battle of Saratoga

After numerous battles, the turning point in the war came in 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga in upstate New York. When American forces won, their victory encouraged France to pledge its support for the United States in the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. A year later, Spain followed suit and also entered the war against Britain. Spain, hoping to see Britain driven out of North America, had tacitly supported the Americans by providing them with munitions and supplies since the beginning of the war. Their entry as combatants took pressure off the Americans, as Britain was forced to divert troops to fight the Spanish elsewhere. Finally, the Netherlands entered the war against Britain in 1780.

Continuing Popular Support

Though the war went on for several years, American popular support for it, especially after France and Spain entered the fray, remained high. The motivation for rebellion remained strong at all levels of society, not merely among American military and political leaders. Many historians believe that it was this lasting popular support that ultimately enabled the United States to fight as long as it did. Although the United States did not really “win” the war—there were no clearly decisive battles either way—it was able to survive long enough against the British to come to an impasse. French and Spanish assistance certainly helped the Americans, but without the grassroots support of average Americans, the rebellion would have quickly collapsed.

Whigs in England Against the War

Meanwhile, support in England for the war was low. In Parliament, many Whigs (a group of British politicians representing the interests of religious dissenters, industrialists, and others who sought reform) denounced the war as unjust. Eight years of their carping, combined with the Royal Army’s inability to win a decisive victory, fatigued the British cause and helped bring the Revolutionary War to an end.

The Surrender at Yorktown

Fortified by the Franco-American Alliance, the Americans maintained an impasse with the British until 1781, when the Americans laid siege to a large encampment of British forces under Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Scattered battles persisted until 1783, but the British, weary of the stalemate, decided to negotiate peace.

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