“Give me liberty or give me death,” is a quotation from a famous speech by Patrick Henry March 23, 1775, at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. In attendance were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. It was reported that the crowd, upon hearing the speech, jumped up and shouted, “To Arms! To Arms!”
The Declaration of Independence would not be ratified for another fifteen months or so, but Patrick Henry’s address is credited as having convinced the Virginia House of Burgesses to pass a resolution delivering the Virginia militia to the Continental Army. The rest, as they say, is history. As it turned out, Patrick Henry did not die getting his individual freedom, but a lot of others did.
The American Revolution, also known as the Revolutionary War, was undoubtedly the most significant event in American history. Without it the United States of America probably would not have come into existence. The first shots were fired in April 1775, but some historians feel that the American Revolution really started in 1760 when George III ascended the throne of England. He succeeded his grandfather, George II (His father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, had died in 1751 having never ruled). George was determined to recover the prerogative lost to the ministerial council by the first two Georges.
The Treaty of Paris (1763) ended the so-called Seven Years’ War with France (known in America as the French and Indian War), and left Britain the most powerful country in the world. France ceded to Britain almost all of her territory in what is now Canada, as well as all French territory east of the Mississippi. William Pitt, the English Prime Minister, had emphasized a strong naval superiority during the war with France, and when hostilities ended Great Britain’s navy ruled the world’s seas. She also emerged from the conflict as the world’s strongest colonial power, having established claims on an empire that circled the globe (“The sun never sets on the British Empire.”). At the time Britain had thirty-three different colonies, but only thirteen of these were located along the Atlantic seaboard.
In truth, however, Britain’s greedy empire-building had left her with a tiger by the tail, one that would turn and bite her, time and time again. She would eventually lose all of her major colonies, some by armed revolt, but many others, like Canada, New Zealand and Australia, by Britain herself grudgingly granting independent sovereignty when the realization finally came that the tail (s) was wagging the dog. Though she retains some isolated outposts even today, the end of World War II was also, effectively, the end of Colonial Britain.
The wars with France had been extremely costly for Britain, but so had the American phase of the Seven Years’ War; her national debt had doubled and the expense of protecting her colonies—which now included lands won from France—had quadrupled. While the British Empire’s government in London found governing its colonies in North America in the 1700s difficult, it also found the expense alarming. England desperately needed additional money to maintain its soldiers in the areas that it had captured and/or had gained by treaty. Thus, in 1764, the British government decided to tax the colonists on many of their consumables in order to pay a share of the cost of their occupation troops.
In 1765, in the midst of growing colonial agitation, the English Parliament also passed the Stamp Act. It required all newspapers and legal documents to carry a stamp purchased from the British government. This, coming shortly after the taxes levied on consumables, angered the colonists. Their reaction was vehement and violent. In Boston a radical group called the Sons of Liberty destroyed the stamps wherever they found them, and tarred and feathered the stamp agents.
John Adams called the new tax “...that enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all rights and liberties of America.”
James Otis said, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”
Patrick Henry, in a speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses, said, “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I had his Cromwell, and George III (‘Treason!’ cried the speaker, but Patrick Henry continued) ...may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”
The British government finally got the message and backed down. George III observed, “It is undoubtedly the most serious matter that ever came before Parliament.” In March 1766 the Stamp Act was repealed. The taxes on sugar were also reduced, but the seeds of descent had been already been sown, and this flip-flop, directed by King George III, did little more than fan the flames of agitation and revolution.
In 1767 the British passed new taxes on glass, paper, tea, paints and other goods shipped to the colonies from Britain. These new levies were known as the Townsend Acts, and were instigated by Prime Minister Charles Townsend. He announced, just as the London government did in 1764, that the new levies were necessary to raise money to cover the cost of defending and governing the colonies. The colonists reacted by refusing to buy British goods. They argued that they shouldn’t be taxed since they had no representation in the British government. The colonists rallied behind the phrase, “No Taxation without Representation.” Again Britain was forced to remove the taxes, all except for the tax on tea.
England itself had actually thrived economically under peacetime conditions, but George III had huge colonial administration costs, and was stubbornly committed to taxing his North American colonies heavily to pay for their military protection. This was, in retrospect, a miscalculation and a blunder, at least as far as the Thirteen Colonies was concerned. The Canadian colonies were taxed similarly, but the overall population there was comparatively low, and consequently there was little danger of revolt there.
The first shots of the Revolution were probably fired in 1770. British troops had arrived in Boston in October 1768 to enforce custom laws. Things were tense from the time they landed, but in March 1770 four colonists were shot by British soldiers. Patriots labeled the killings “The Boston Massacre.” In truth, however, colonial activists took advantage of an already tense situation due to the heavy British military presence in the Boston area. A planned demonstration had boiled over, resulting in brawls between soldiers and civilians. The situation soon got out of hand, and eventually led to troops discharging their muskets after being attacked by the rioting crowd.
When passions had cooled somewhat, the British soldiers who had fired the shots were tried for murder. But it was a show-trial, and did little to cool colonial anger, even though they were defended by a patriot named John Adams. He would later become the second President of the United States.
In 1773, Britain’s East India Company was sitting on large stocks of tea that it could not sell in England, and as a result was on the verge of bankruptcy. In an effort to save it from insolvency, the British government passed the Tea Act of 1773, which gave the company the right to export its merchandise directly to the colonies without paying any of the regular taxes that were imposed on the colonial merchants, who had traditionally served as the middlemen in such transactions. With these privileges, the company could undersell American merchants and monopolize the colonial tea trade. The act proved inflammatory for several reasons. First, it angered influential colonial merchants, who feared being replaced and bankrupted by a powerful monopoly. Second, the East India Company’s decision to grant franchises to “selected” American merchants for the sale of their tea created additional resentments among those excluded from this lucrative trade. More important, however, the Tea Act revived American passions about the issue of taxation without representation.
On the evening of December 16, 1773, three groups of fifty men each, disguised as Mohawk Indians, passed through a large crowd of spectators, went aboard three East India ships in Boston Harbor, broke open the tea chests, and heaved them overboard. As the electrifying news of the “Boston Tea Party” spread, other seaports followed the example and staged similar acts of resistance.
The British parliament responded by passing four acts which came to be known as the “Intolerable Acts.” The first was the Massachusetts Government Act, which altered the Massachusetts charter and restricted town meetings. The second act, the Administration of Justice Act, ordered that all British soldiers to be tried were to be arraigned in Britain, not in the colonies. The third act was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the British had been compensated for the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party (which the British never received). The last was the Quartering Act, which compelled the residents of Boston to house British regulars sent in to control the area.
The First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia’s Carpenters Hall on September 5, 1774. The idea of such a meeting was advanced a year earlier by Benjamin Franklin, but failed to gain much support until after the Port of Boston was closed in response to the Boston Tea Party. Twelve of the Thirteen colonies sent delegates. Georgia was the lone holdout. She decided against rocking the political boat. At the time the colony was facing attacks from the Creek Indian tribe on her borders, and desperately needed the support of regular British soldiers.
One of the first things the Congress did was to endorse something called the Suffolk Reserves, which declared the Intolerable Acts to be unconstitutional, called for the people to form militias, and called for Massachusetts to form a Patriot government. The Congress, which continued in session until late October, did not advocate independence, but sought rather to right the wrongs that had been inflicted on the Thirteen Colonies, and hoped that a unified voice would gain them a hearing in London. They also agreed to meet again in the spring of 1775 if the Intolerable Acts had not been withdrawn.
When England first colonized North America it had no master plan on how the various colonies would be governed. Some actually governed themselves. Others were governed by the King’s officials. Each reigning King had insisted, however, on his right to create laws governing the colonies. The British parliament also created laws that governed the colonies. As might be expected though, the laws that were enacted were in the best interest of England, not the colonies. For example, they passed the Navigation Act which restricted colonists from competing with British businesses. They also prevented colonists from selling their goods to countries other than Britain, even if that country was willing to pay a higher price than the British.
The population of the Thirteen Colonies had reached 2.5 million people by 1776. This was about one third the population of Britain. There were now many roads connecting the individual colonies, and newspapers kept them informed about each other. The colonies were beginning to think of themselves as Americans, not as separate colonies. Even so, however, many colonists were split over the issue of independence. There were both rich and poor colonists on both sides of the independence issue. Large landowners like George Washington, and wealthy businessmen like John Hancock, were in favor of independence. They resented British control over their lives, and British interference in their business.
On the other hand, some rich colonists were afraid they would lose their wealth if the revolution succeeded. Their wealth was heavily connected to British trade and the British government. Some poor colonists didn’t want to be controlled by the wealthy colonists. They either believed the King of England treated them well, or just didn’t want to cause trouble. But, over time, support for independence grew as issues like taxation without representation increasingly angered the local population.
While the British continued to enforce their control, they steadfastly refused to allow the colonies government representation in England. The British believed that their own appointed government officials adequately represented the colonies. In the meantime resentment over British control grew. The colonies began to create their own laws, and ignored the British laws they did not like. To say the least, this created considerable tension between Britain and her American colonies.
The armed rebellion that we all know as the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775, when shots were exchanged by colonials and British soldiers. Some colonists were killed as they fired from cover, but the British casualties amounted to 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. On May 10, 1775 Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, together with a force under Benedict Arnold, took Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain from the British, and two days later Seth Warner captured Crown Point.
In June Boston was under British siege, and although British troops prevailed on June 17, 1775, in a battle known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British again lost heavily. The colonists, out of ammunition, retreated with a loss of about 450 men, but the British lost over 1000. King George III was furious, and from that point on there was no turning back, by either side.
On June 15, 1775, however, the Second Continental Congress had chosen George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Armed Forces, and the war was on in earnest. Some delegates had come to the Congress already committed to declaring the colonies independent of Great Britain, but even so many stalwart upholders of the colonial cause were not ready to take such a drastic step. The time was one of indecision, but even so lines were being clearly drawn between the pro-British Loyalists and colonial revolutionists.
The Congress finally decided to declare the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. John Adams said it all, in a letter to his wife Abigail dated July 3, 1776:
“Yesterday the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps never was nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony ‘that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states’”
He further observed:
“The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illustrations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this day forward forevermore.”
As it turned out however, it is July 4 that is recognized as our Independence Day, for it was on July 4, 1776 that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was finally ratified by the full Congress, which consisted of representatives from the original thirteen colonies. They were: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Differences wider than geography separated the thirteen colonies that came together to form a more perfect union. In Virginia and Maryland the topography made large farms possible, while from the Maine-New Hampshire border south to Pennsylvania the basic unit was the one-family farm. This led to a great division on lifestyles, as well as different thinking with regard to a central government. There were also strong differences between those who lived in the sophisticated seacoast cities and those in the rural interiors.
Backgrounds varied a great deal as well, from the Dutch of New York, to the Germans of Pennsylvania; from the Swedes of Delaware to the Scots and Scotch-Irish of the Carolinas. Then there were Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Puritans, and Catholics, all of whom had little tolerance for the religious beliefs of others. Add to this decades of commitment to thirteen separate commonwealth colonies, some of which had originally fought one another.
Ultimately though, men from Maine and the Carolinas united with men from Georgia and Massachusetts, under a general from Virginia to form one army, for one cause, for one nation. The exuberance of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 soon evaporated as the reality of a war with the world’s greatest army sank in. Although the rag-tag army of the American colonists suffered many defeats and routs, they also had some surprising victories.
On July 2, 1776, the same day the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence, Sir William Howe sailed into New York Harbor and landed British and Hessian troops on Staten Island. A few days later Howe’s brother, Admiral Richard Howe, arrived with powerful naval reinforcements. By the end of August, British forces in the New York area was over 30,000, of which about 8,000 were Hessian mercenaries. After vain attempts to negotiate a peace, the British forces struck. Washington lost Brooklyn Heights, retreated northward, was defeated at Harlem Heights in Manhattan and at White Plains.
By late October Washington’s position was becoming desperate. He had suffered heavy losses of men and supplies. He decided to retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania in order to regroup and build up his supplies of ammunition and other supplies. Washington demonstrated his increasing military skill, and helped to restore colonial spirits, in the winter of 1776-77 by crossing the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas night and winning small victories over forces made up mostly of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton (Dec. 26) and Princeton (Jan. 3).
Washington’s victories at Trenton and Princeton ruined British plans for ending the war during the winter of 1976-77. In contrast, American spirits began to revive. The Americans now believed that they could win battles against British regulars. During the next few months volunteers began to swell the ranks of the Continental Army.
Stunned by their defeats at Trenton and Princeton, the British were now determined to smash the colonial upstarts. Their plan was ambitious; they had decided finish off Washington and his army at Albany. General Howe took a force north from New York; Lt. Colonel Barry St. Leger led an expedition south, with some Indian allies, from Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario, and General Burgoyne brought a third force from Canada down the Richelieu River.
But everything seemed to go wrong for the British. When facing Benedict Arnold’s larger force near Oriskany, New York, St. Leger’s Indians deserted, and he wisely retreated back to Canada. General Burgoyne could lead and maneuver a mighty army on a classic battleground, but knew little about fighting a war in the American wilderness. First, he ran out of supplies, and then colonial militias from New England and New York cornered him near Saratoga. Outnumbered two-to-one, he surrendered his entire force of nearly 6000 at Saratoga on October 17, 1777. The British plan might have actually worked, but for some unknown reason General Howe did not follow through. Instead of moving north from New York, he moved his troops to Philadelphia, skirmishing with small groups of Patriots along the way.
On February 6, 1778, France and the United States signed a treaty of alliance. France, a long and bitter enemy of Britain, agreed to recognize the United States of America as a free and sovereign nation, and to wage war on Great Britain until America was free. The treaty came at a crucial time, for despite Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, and a few other small victories, the Americans were in bad shape. Now, however, France sent aid to America in the form of gold, powder, shot, equipment, a considerable number or troops, and even some naval ships. And recruits again began to fill the ranks of Washington’s armies.
French intervention forced the British to rethink their plans to conquer their rebellious American cousins. After several inconclusive battles, the British gradually withdrew their forces, first from Philadelphia, then Boston, and finally from most of the New York area, retaining only a small but well protected garrison there. From then on there were no major military activities in the North.
King George III had not given up yet though. He and his military advisors felt that they could still win, but in the South, where the Tories (pro-British) were numerous. As in the North, the British had no trouble occupying seaports. In December 1778 they landed at Savannah. In May 1780 they occupied Charleston, and in the process took 5000 American prisoners. This was almost the entire American army south of the Potomac River. From these bases General Cornwallis could move his troops where and when he pleased. British forces raided the countryside. They selectively plundered, burned and killed, trying to force the Patriots to capitulate.
But for every Tory that raised his hand in support of the Crown an American joined the fight for freedom. In South Carolina such southerners as Francis Marion (known as the “Swamp Fox”), Andrew Pickens, and Thomas Sumter led guerrilla bands against British forces. South Carolina’s Cherokee War twenty years previously had provided each of these leaders a brutal education on irregular warfare. The guerrillas weren’t part of the regular army. They were hunters and farmers, and many of them, like their leaders, had extensive experience fighting Indians. They emerged from the forests and swamps and used the frontier Indian hit-and-run method of fighting to attack and harass British supply trains and forage parties. The British suffered serious material damage as a result of their activity, but British morale suffered even more.
The guerrilla bands also attacked and plundered Tory farms. These attacks were often brutal and merciless, probably because of a previous British massacre of Americans. Some 350 Virginians led by Col. Abraham Buford had been surrounded by a British cavalry force led by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. When the Americans tried to surrender, however, Col. Tarleton ordered a no-quarter charge. Despite the white flag the British cavalrymen charged, hacking and bayoneting three-quarters of them to death.
Even with many guerrilla successes, the South seemed lost to the Patriot cause. Then in October 1780, a frontier militia led by Isaac Shelby, John Sevier, and others, defeated a Tory militia at Kings Mountain near the boundary between of the Carolinas. Some believe that this may have been the turning point in the war, for after that the guerrilla raids escalated and General Nathaniel Green of Rhode Island, the newly elevated commander of American forces in the South, aggressively took the war to the British.
Although Greene won no major battles, he and General Morgan of Virginia, supported by the growing guerrilla bands, made the British occupation of inland regions extremely costly. In January 1781 Morgan defeated a British force at the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina. Two months later the Americans struck a serious blow against Cornwallis’ forces at Guilford Court House, North Carolina. Although the British were considered the winner, their losses were so great that Cornwallis abandoned the entire campaign, withdrawing to the coast where the Royal Navy could support him. Thus, by 1781, the British were back to where they were in 1778, holding only New York City itself, and a few southern ports.
By the summer of 1781 Cornwallis had had enough and moved his army north into Virginia. He holed up in Yorktown, on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. From there he could be supplied by the British fleet operating out of New York Harbor. A small Continental army under Generals Lafayette of France, Von Steuben of Poland, and Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania, watched the British closely, but they were not strong enough to attack. Washington’s army, with a contingent of French soldiers, were garrisoned at White Plains, New York. From there they could keep an eye on General Clinton and his British troops in New York City.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, a message arrived at Washington’s headquarters from Admiral de Grasse, commander of the French fleet in the West Indies. De Grasse reported that the fleet, comprised of twenty-nine warships and 3200 troops, could be spared for a few months, and asked where Washington could use it most effectively. Washington knew exactly where he could use them. He immediately suggested that de Grasse place his fleet across the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, effectively cutting Cornwallis off from supplies and reinforcements. Washington then moved his army toward New York, leading General Clinton to expect an attack on the city. Instead, however, Washington and his army joined the French and American forces at Yorktown.
Cornwallis was trapped. Behind his 9000 men was the French Fleet, and in front of him were 8000 Continental troops, some of which were commanded by Marquis de Lafayette. There were also 7800 French regulars, as well as 3100 American militiamen. The allies mounted a siege, and waited. Although the Royal Navy tried, they were not able to break the French blockade. Cornwallis held out for three weeks, but by mid-October, with sickness increasing and his men on half-rations, he could see no way out of his predicament. Cornwallis was ready to admit defeat. On October 19, 1781, over 9000 British officers and men emerged from the village of Yorktown, marching between a line of French on their left and Americans on their right, to lay down their arms.
Although a formal treaty was not signed until 1783, all serious fighting on the American continent ceased with the American victory at Yorktown. The Treaty of Paris formally recognized the new nation in 1783, although many questions were left unsettled. The British had been defeated by a rag-tag frontier army. They defeated not just any army mind you, but the army of the British Empire, the then superpower of the entire world. It was hard for them to swallow… yes, they probably couldn’t have done it without French help, but still… It would take the War of 1812, and Andrew Jackson, to finally make the British Empire accept the fact that America was a free country.
“The American war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution.” The speaker was Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1783, a prominent Philadelphia doctor and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Rush knew—as did Thomas Jefferson and many other Americans—that it was easier to outline a theory of government than it was to build a government that really worked.
Sound familiar? Our current situation in Iraq is different, yet somehow the same.
Researched and compiled by Donald Erwin
Have you ever wondered what happened to the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence?
Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.
Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured.
Nine of the fifty-six fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War. They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. What kind of men were they?
Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners: men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.
Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in rags. Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward. Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton. At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.
Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife's bedside as she was dying. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.
Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution. These were not wildeyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more. Standing tall and straight, and unwavering, they pledged: "For the support of the declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
All of them gave you and me a free an independent America. The history books told you a lot of what happened in the Revolutionary War. We didn't fight just the British. We were British subjects at that time and we fought our own government! If we had lost the fight for freedom most, if not all, of those who survived the conflict would have been hanged as traitors. We owe them a lot.