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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
17th - 18th century
Path to independence
     Mounting antagonism
     Boston Tea Party
     First Continental Congress
     Lexington and Concord
     Second Continental Congress
     Bunker Hill, Dorchester Heights
     Pressures for independence
     Declaration of Independence
     New York, Philadelphia, Saratoga
     The international phase
     Independence achieved

Emergence of Canada

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Mounting antagonism: 1763-1773

If the results of the wars against France leave the British colonists in America with a new sense of confidence, they also make parliament in London increasingly aware both of the value of the American colonies and of the likely cost of defending them.

British America now consists of the thirteen colonies founded or developed by Britain between 1607 (Virginia) and 1732 (Georgia), together with four provinces won through warfare - Nova Scotia in 1713, and then Quebec and West and East Florida in 1763.


The British government feels that this important bloc of overseas territory now requires more coherent control and better defence - both to be supplied from London. But many in the original thirteen colonies are beginning to regard any such interference as an intrusion.

This difference in attitude leads inevitably to friction. London, sending over British troops (known from their uniform as redcoats), expects the colonists to contribute to the expense and to allow the soldiers to be quartered in American homes. The colonists see this as an unacceptable imposition, in both financial and personal terms.


Similar resentment results from British measures to control the judges and courts in America, to lessen the power of the elected assemblies in each colony, and to collect more effectively the customs due on trade between the American mainland and the West Indies.

But it is British taxes which provoke the most deeply felt grievances and the most effective American response. Between 1764 and 1767 London passes a series of taxes on goods imported into America: the Sugar Act of 1764 (covering wine and textiles as well as sugar), the Stamp Act of 1765 (a stamp duty on legal documents and newspapers), and the Townshend Acts of 1767 (taxes on glass, lead, paper, paint and tea). In retaliation the colonists organize very effective boycotts of British goods.


The boycotts affect British commercial interests in London, where several politicians (in particular William Pitt and Edmund Burke) are anyway inclined to find an accomodation with the colonists. The Stamp Act is repealed in 1766. Similarly the new import duties are lifted in 1770, with one exception - the duty on tea.

This exception is seen as London's emphasis on the right of parliament to tax the American colonies. Yet the colonists have no elected voice in the Westminster assembly. 'No taxation without representation' is a central theme in the colonial argument, and tea now becomes a symbolic substance at the heart of the conflict. A new Tea Act, in 1773, heightens the tension.


Boston Tea Party: 1773

Early in December 1773 three East India Company ships are in Boston harbour, waiting for their cargo of tea to be unloaded. No one will take it off the ship, because it will pay British duty as soon as it is transferred to American soil. However, if it is still in the harbour on December 17, the cargo can be legally seized by the British customs and sold.

At a mass meeting in Boston on the evening of December 16 the question is pointedly raised: 'Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?' Soon some Bostonians appear, roughly disguised as Indians. With the 'Indians' in the lead, the crowd marches to the harbour, boards the ships, and throws some 350 chests of tea into the water.


The night ends with a triumphal march through Boston to the accompaniment of fife and drum. The exciting news spreads rapidly through the colonies, but it takes more than a month for details to reach London of this direct act of defiance. The response of the prime minister, Lord North, is that the time for conciliation has passed. As an example to the other colonies, Boston must be brought to heel.

A succession of acts are passed in London during the summer of 1774. Known officially as the Coercive Acts (but in America as the Intolerable Acts), their purpose is to punish Boston - at the very least until compensation for the tea is paid to the East India Company.


The first of these parliamentary acts closes Boston's port. Subsequent ones place the city under the military command of General Thomas Gage and provide new arrangements for the quartering of troops. It is a policy which can only inflame the situation.

In colony after colony during 1774 provincial assemblies voice their support for Boston, bringing them into direct conflict with their own British governors - who in some cases use their powers to dissolve the assemblies. As a result a new idea gains rapid and excited support. Each colony is invited to send delegates to a congress in Philadelphia in September. Only Georgia hangs back from this next act of defiance.


First Continental Congress: 1774

Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies convene in Philadelphia. They are leaders of their own communities (George Washington is here for Virginia). Their voices will carry weight, and the message that they send to Britain is uncompromising.

They state that the recent measures passed into law at Westminster violate natural rights (a theme developed two years later in the Declaration of Independence) and that as such they are unconstitutional. They declare their united support for Massachusetts. In more practical terms they announce a joint boycott, from December, of all imported goods from Britain and the British West Indies. It is to be followed nine months later by a similar block on exports to those markets from America.


The delegates agree to reconvene in May 1775, but it is clear that the Congress has made war probable. This is welcome news to half the American colonists, who become known as the Patriots. Those who still hope to find an accomodation with Britain (perhaps 25% of the population) acquire the name of Loyalists.

The Patriots spend the winter in preparation, and events soon prove they are right to do so. An exasperated parliament in London decides that more forceful measures are needed. General Gage, commanding the redcoats in Boston, is sent an order to employ his troops more forcefully. He decides to make a surprise raid on the Patriots' stock of military supplies in Massachusetts.


Lexington and Concord: 1775

The target of General Gage's supposedly secret foray is a store of weapons held at Concord, twenty miles northwest of Boston. But the secret leaks out. When a force of 700 redcoats moves from the city, a horseman gallops from Boston to warn the local Patriots of their approach.

Popular tradition has long identified the horseman as the distinguished Huguenot silversmith Paul Revere. The tradition may well be correct. Revere, one of the 'Indians' taking part in the Tea Party of 1773, often rides with urgent messages from Boston's Committee of Public Safety.


On April 19 the redcoats reach Lexington, on the road to Concord. They find some seventy-five minutemen (the local name for volunteers ready to mobilize at a moment's notice) waiting to oppose their passage. It is not known who fires the first shot - later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson as 'the shot heard round the world'. But after a brief engagement eight minutemen are dead and ten wounded.

The British contingent marches on to Concord, only to find that all the weapons have been removed. Meanwhile the Massachusetts militia has assembled in force. The redcoats suffer heavily from snipers on the journey back to Boston. The American Revolution, also known as the War of American Independence, has begun.


Second Continental Congress: 1775

When the delegates of the continental congress reconvene as planned, in May 1775, hostilities have already broken out in the skirmish at Lexington. These are followed by a great mustering of militiamen of Massachusetts, soon joined by supporters from neighbouring colonies.

This American volunteer army is laying siege to British-held Boston when the delegates assemble in Philadelphia. These events transform their congress into a de facto government of the united colonies, with responsibility for conducting the military campaign. Their first duty is to select a commander-in-chief of the colonial army, to take charge of the campaign at Boston.


On June 15, after much preliminary negotiation, the choice falls on George Washington. He has his own past military successes to recommend him, but his selection also fulfils a political necessity in that he comes from the south. The present quarrel involves the most populous and prosperous northern colony, Massachusetts. Virginia has the same status among the southern colonies.

If north and south are to cooperate in a shared cause, it is appropriate that a southern general commands the northern militia (formally adopted by the congress on May 31 as the Continental Army). Within a few days of his appointment, Washington travels north to take up his post.


Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights: 1775-1776

Two weeks before Washington reaches Boston, an important engagement has taken place on Bunker Hill (or more accurately Breed's Hill) - a height overlooking the city from the north. Colonial troops occupy and fortify this vantage point, constituting a threat to the British in the city.

On June 17 the British storm the hill. They eventually succeed in taking it, but only after a battle so hard fought (some 1000 British casualties to only about 450 American) that it seems a victory for the amateur colonial militia rather than the British regulars. Certainly Washington is impressed by the spirit of the men he has come to command.


Washington spends the rest of 1775 training his troops, who number some 20,000. He also arranges for the transport, over difficult roads, of cannon captured by the colonists when they seize Fort Ticonderoga in a surprise attack in May 1775. On the first day of 1776 Washington flies for the first time a new colonial flag. With thirteen alternating red and white stripes, one for each of the colonies, the design evolves a year later into the Stars and Stripes.

To the south of Boston, overlooking the harbour, there is a promontory - Dorchester Heights - which has been inexplicably left undefended by the British. During the night of 4 March 1776 Washington moves his Ticonderoga cannon up the slopes of this hill.


From his commanding position Washington can now make the harbour unsafe for British naval vessels. The move proves decisive. On March 17 the British in Boston (by now under the command of William Howe) evacuate the city and sail to safety in Nova Scotia. They leave in the city two hundred cannon and large numbers of muskets with their ammunition - valuable additions to the American arsenal.

Washington, anticipating that New York is the next likely target for a British assault, marches to its defence. After settling his army in Manhattan and on Brooklyn Heights, he continues south to spend two weeks at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The subject under discussion is a contentious one - independence.


Steps to independence: 1775-1776

During the eleven-month siege of Boston there have been significant political developments on the wider stage. Hopes that parliament in Britain might adopt a more conciliatory tone are dashed by the declaration in August 1775 that the American colonies are in a state of rebellion. This is followed by a Prohibitory Act in November instituting a naval blockade of the American coastline.

Meanwhile the congress in Philadelphia is still in session. It is carrying out the practical activities associated with government - organizing public finances, issuing money, running a postal service, placing orders for munitions, even commissioning the first colonial navy.


Increasingly, during these months, colonists are coming to the view that a complete break from Britain may be the only way forward. In May 1776 the revolutionary convention of Virginia votes for independence and instructs the Virginia delegation to present this motion to the Continental Congress. Early in June, in Philadelphia, a small committee is set up to draft a declaration of independence. Its five members include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The task of composing the document is left to Jefferson. It is passed on June 12 as the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

This powerful move towards independence comes to a head in early July. In the month between July 2 and August 2 the final break is proposed, proclaimed and eventually signed as the Declaration of Independence.


Declaration of Independence: 1776

The real date of American independence from Britain is 2 July 1776 - the day on which Virginia's resolution is put to the congress of thirteen colonies and is passed 'unanimously' (though New York in fact abstains). The resolution states uncompromisingly: '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.'

Jefferson's document is already to hand, expressing this stark political fact in more philosophical terms. It is presented to the congress two days later.


In his Declaration of Independence Jefferson affirms political theories which have been current since Locke argued (in support of the Revolution of 1688) that the legitimacy of government is based on the consent of the governed. In Jefferson's resounding words: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness' and that 'to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed'.

Congress accepts this document on July 4. Its inspirational quality rightly makes that the date of America's Independence Day.


On July 9 the text of the Declaration of Independence is declaimed in public before George Washington's army, now defending New York. Taking this as the necessary act of public proclamation, the congress orders on July 19 that an appropriate document shall now be prepared. The text begins to be written on a large piece of parchment.

By August 2 it is ready to be signed. The signing is fairly haphazard. Those who happen to be at the congress on that day sign it, though several of them were not present when it was voted through on July 4. Signatures of absent delegates continue to be added into 1777.


The first to sign the Declaration is John Hancock (causing his name later to become a slang term for a signature). While the delegates sign, Benjamin Franklin makes a famous observation - as alarmingly true as it is witty. He points out that they are putting their names to a document which, if they lose the war, will be deemed highly seditious. 'We must indeed all hang together,' says Franklin. 'Or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately'.

Within a few months of Franklin's remark the prospects look very bleak indeed. George Washington loses New York to the British and retreats towards Philadelphia with a severely depleted army.


New York, Philadelphia and Saratoga: 1776-1777

George Washington's defence of New York in 1776 and subsequently of Philadelphia in 1777 do not rank among his successes. In a series of engagements between August and November 1776 he is driven first from Long Island and then from Manhattan Island with heavy losses of men (mainly captured rather than killed).

On his retreat southwards in midwinter, with an army of only about 6000, he achieves two psychologically important victories by surprise attacks on isolated sections of the British army at Trenton and then at Princeton. These successes raise the colonial morale, and help Washington to recruit more forces. But they are followed by a further disaster in 1777.


Philadelphia, as the first city of America and the seat of the Continental Congress, has great symbolic importance. Intent on capturing it, Howe brings his army down from New York by sea in the summer of 1777, landing them at the head of Chesapeake Bay. Washington attempts to block their progress to Philadelphia but is severely defeated in a battle at Brandywine (in which the 20-year-old Lafayette fights bravely and is wounded, marking the first appearance of the hero of two revolutions). The congress delegates make a hurried escape from Philadelphia, which the British enter in triumph in September.

Yet the triumph proves hollow. In the same month another British army, under John Burgoyne, is in trouble north of Albany.


Burgoyne has made a difficult march south from Quebec as part of a strategy to join up with Howe, moving north from New York. The plan is to isolate the New England colonies. But Howe has instead gone south to Philadelphia. Burgoyne is unsupported, short of food and ammunition. After defeat in two battles near Saratoga, in September and October 1777, he surrenders to a larger American force under Horatio Gates.

Less than 6000 men are involved, but the propaganda benefit to the colonial cause is incalculable. Indeed Saratoga can be seen as the turning point in the war. The surrender of an entire British army to rebellious colonists attracts the serious attention of a nation with no love for Britain. France begins to negotiate an American alliance.


The international phase: 1778-1781

A French treaty with the colonists is agreed in February 1778 and two months later a large French fleet sails for America. In the following year, in the established tradition of Bourbon family compacts, France persuades a reluctant Spain to join the fray (as the major colonial power in America, Spain is understandably wary of taking up arms on behalf of rebels).

These developments transform the war between Britain and the colonists. Up to this point the British have been able to ship troops and supplies across the Atlantic with no obstacle other than the elements. Now there are hostile French and Spanish fleets to contend with.


There is even the unexpected affront of warships from the infant American navy sailing from French ports to carry out raids on the coastal regions of Britain. The first American naval hero, John Paul Jones, makes successful sorties in the spring of 1778 and the autumn of 1779, seizing British vessels and launching sudden raids inland. The second voyage ends with the dramatic encounter between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis off Flamborough Head.

But the new French alliance has its greatest effect on military strategy in America. The main strategic aim of both sides, from 1778 to the end of the war, is to ensure that armies are well placed to receive naval support.


The first dramatic example of this is the sudden British departure from Philadelphia in 1778. Advance news of the expected arrival of the French fleet in the Chesapeake is enough to terrify the British, facing the possible prospect of being cut off in hostile territory without any source of supplies. They leave the city and march northeast to greater safety in New York.

This setback, combined with stalemate in the northern colonies, prompts a new British strategy - that of moving troops south by sea to attack the weaker southern colonies. But, after some striking initial successes, this is the campaign which eventually loses the war for Britain.


In December 1778 a British expeditionary force of 3500 men from New York lands in Georgia and captures Savannah. During 1779 the British win control of the whole of Georgia. In 1780, after shipping more troops to the region, they move into South Carolina. Charleston is taken in May 1780, and some 5000 American troops are captured in the city, after a siege of more than a month by both land and sea.

From this point the British, under the command now of Charles Cornwallis, face increasingly strong opposition as they press on into North Carolina. There are numerous bitterly fought skirmishes, often in the nature of civil war, because the Loyalists in this region are very active in support of the British.


Yorktown: 1781

The final result of the campaigns of 1780 and 1781 is that Cornwallis presses too far north, deep into Virginia, and finds himself isolated. He moves his army to Yorktown, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, and sets about fortifying this position as one where he can survive until relieved by a fleet from New York.

Meanwhile George Washington has been waiting to mount a joint operation with the French navy. Seeing his chance in the plight of Cornwallis, he arranges a rendezvous in the Chesapeake with the admiral commanding a French fleet in the West Indies. He then marches an army south through New Jersey and embarks them on ships in Delaware Bay for transport to Williamsburg, a few miles west of Yorktown.


By the end of September 1781 Washington is besieging Yorktown with an army of about 14,000 men (including 5000 French troops) and the French fleet is completing the blockade by sea. With no practical hope of any relief from New York, Cornwallis surrenders on October 19.

This effectively brings to an end the war of the American Revolution. The European nations continue to scrap at sea (Spain takes Minorca back from the British in 1782), but Yorktown is the last engagement of the war in America. The British drag their heels in evacuating their two prizes of the campaign - they remain in Charleston until November 1782 and in New York until October 1783. By then a peace treaty has been signed in Paris.


Independence achieved: 1783

The treaty signed in Paris on 3 September 1783 brings the American Revolution to its successful conclusion. The American commissioners in the negotiations (Benjamin Franklin and John Adams among their number) win extremely good terms for the new nation. Its independence is acknowledged without reservation, and its agreed frontiers are unexpectedly generous.

To the coastal strip of the thirteen colonies is now added the entire region west as far as the Mississippi and north to the Great Lakes. This was the area bitterly fought over between Britain and France in 1754-60. It now falls to the colonists as an immensely rich area available for westward expansion.


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