The Winning of Independence
"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."
The Declaration of Independence
July 4, 1776
John Adams, second President of the United States, lived to that ripe old age which delights in philosophic reflection upon the activities that absorb the prime of life. In a reminiscent letter written in his declining years, he declared that the history of the American Revolution began as far back as 1620. "The Revolution," he asserted, "was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people." The principles and feelings which led the Americans to rebel ought, he added, "to be traced back for two hundred years and sought in the history of the country from the first plantation in America."
As a practical matter, however, the overt parting of the ways between England and America began in 1763. By that time, more than a century and a half had passed since the first settlement had been founded at Jamestown, Virginia, and the several colonies had grown vastly in economic strength and cultural attainments. Virtually all had long years of self-government behind them. Their combined population now exceeded 1,500,000 - an increase from 250,00 since 1700.
The implications of the physical growth of the colonies were far greater than mere numerical increase would indicate. The eighteenth century had seen a new impetus to colonial expansion from the influx of immigrants from Europe, and since the best land near the seacoast had already been occupied, latecomers had had to push inland beyond the fall line of the rivers. Traders explored the back country and brought back tales of rich valleys, inducing courageous farmers in search of better or cheaper land to take their families into the wilderness and establish isolated homes in the clearings. Their hardships were enormous, but rewards of success were great and settlers kept coming until the inland valleys were peopled with self-reliant pioneers. By the third decade of the century, frontiersmen and their families had already begun to pour over the Pennsylvania border, down the Shenandoah Valley, and to follow other watercourses into a yet more distant territory - the "west."
Down to 1763, Great Britain had formulated no consistent policy of empire for her colonial possessions. The guiding principle was the confirmed mercantilist view that colonies should supply the mother country with raw materials and not compete in manufacturing. But this was poorly enforced and the colonies had never thought of themselves' as integral parts of a unified whole. Rather they considered themselves chiefly as commonwealths or states, much like England herself, having only a loose association with authorities in London. At infrequent intervals, however, sentiment in England was aroused and an effort was made by Parliament or the Crown to subordinate more effectively the economic activities and governments of the colonies to England's will and interests. But the majority of the colonists were opposed to such subordination. And the 'thought of a three thousand mile sea between the new world and the mother country served merely as a tranquilizing influence upon any fears of vengeance for disobedience that the colonies may have had.
Added to this remoteness was the condition of life in the American wilderness. From countries of restricted space, of populous towns and open fields, the settlers bad come to a land of unlimited vastness, of deep woods and great rivers. To this continent had come city- or village-bred men and women, fated by natural conditions to change from a mode of life which emphasized the importance of the community to one that stressed the importance of the individual.
Everything in the new environment tended to make the settlers forget the power, or even the need, of the British government. The fundamentals of political organization remained much as they had been in England, but a thousand laws, needed to keep order in the highly complex English society, became irrelevant and useless in the sparsely settled forest, and new ones of the colonists' own making took the place of those discarded. Having little cause to fear and often able to dispense with government, the frontiersmen fended for themselves and, developing a hatred of restraint, were "inclined to do when and how they please or not at all."
From the first, they profited by the inherited traditions of the Englishman's long struggle for political liberty. The concepts that resulted were fixed a formal fashion in Virginia's first charter, which provided that English colonists were to exercise all liberties, franchises, and immunities "as if they had been abiding and born within this our Realm of England." They were, in effect, to enjoy the benefits of the Magna Charta and the common law. In the early days, the colonists were able to hold fast to their heritage of rights because of the King's arbitrary assumption that the colonies were not subject to parliamentary control. For years to come the kings of England were too preoccupied with a great struggle in England itself - a struggle which culminated in the Puritan Revolution - to enforce their will. Before Parliament could bring its attention to the task of molding them to an imperial policy, the colonies had waxed strong and flourished in their own way.
From the first year after they set foot upon the new continent, the colonists functioned according to the English law and constitution - with legislative assemblies, a representative system of government, and a recognition of the common-law guarantees of personal liberty. But, increasingly, legislation became American in point of view and ever less attention was paid to English practices and precedents. Colonial freedom from effective English control was not, however, achieved without conflict, and colonial history abounds in struggles between the assemblies elected by the people and the governors, in most cases the appointed agents of the King, who represented to the colonies the dangerous spirit of prerogative, an ever present menace to their liberties. Still, the colonists were often able to render these royal governors powerless for, as a rule, governors had "no subsistence but from the Assembly." Governors were sometimes instructed to give profitable offices and land grants to influential colonists to secure their support for royal projects but, often as not, the colonial officials, once they bad secured these emoluments, espoused the provincial cause as strongly as ever.
The recurring clash between the provincial governor, symbol of the monarchical principle and external control in government, and the assembly, symbol of local autonomy and the democratic principle, worked increasingly to awaken the colonial sense to the divergence between American and English interests. As time went on, the assemblies took over the functions of the governors and of their councils which were made up of colonists selected for their docile support of royal power. Gradually the whole center of gravity of colonial administration shifted from London to the capitals of the American provinces. Early in the 1770's, an attempt was made to bring about a drastic change in this relationship between the colonies and the mother country. A principle factor in this turn of events was the final expulsion of the French from the North American continent.
While the British had been filling the Atlantic coastal area with snug farms, broad plantations, and busy towns, the French had been planting a different kind of dominion in the St. Lawrence Valley in eastern Canada. They had sent over fewer settlers, but more explorers, missionaries, and fur traders. They had taken possession also of the Mississippi River and steadily, by a line of forts and trading posts, marked out a great crescent-shaped empire, stretching from Quebec on the northeast to New Orleans in the south. Thus they tended to pin the British to the narrow belt cast of the Appalachian Mountains.
The British bad long resisted what they considered "the encroachment of the French." As early as 1613, local clashes between French and English colonists occurred. There was even organized warfare which was the American counterpart of the larger conflict between England and France. Thus between 1689 and 1697, "King William's War" was fought as the American phase of the European "War of the Palatinate"; from 1701 to 1713, "Queen Anne's War" corresponded to the "War of the Spanish Succession"; and from 1744 to 1748, "King George's War" paralleled the "War of the Austrian Succession." Though England secured certain advantages through these wars, the struggles were generally indecisive and France remained in a very strong position on the American continent.
In the 1750's, the conflict was brought to a final phase. The French, after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, tightened their hold on the Mississippi Valley. At the same time, the movement of English colonists across the Alleghenies increased in tempo. Thus began a race for physical possession of the same territory. An armed clash resulted in 1754, involving Virginia militia under the command of twenty-two-year old George Washington and a band of French regulars. The ensuing "French and Indian War" -with the English and their Indian allies fighting the French and their Indian allies - was destined to determine once and for all whether the French or the English would be supreme in North America.
Never had there been greater need of action and unity in the British colonies. France's position threatened not just the British Empire, but the American colonists themselves. For France, in holding the Mississippi Valley, could check the westward expansion of the American settlers. To block this expansion would be to choke off the fountainhead of colonial strength and prosperity. The French government of Canada and Louisiana had not only increased in strength but had risen in prestige with the Indians. Even the Iroquois, the traditional allies of the British, were being won away from their old friends. With a new war, every British settler wise in Indian matters knew that drastic measures would be needed to ward off disaster.
At this juncture, the British Board of Trade, which had been hearing reports of deteriorating relations with the Indians, ordered the governor of New York and commissioners from the other colonies to call a meeting of the Iroquois chiefs to frame a joint treaty. To this end, in June 1754, representatives of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the New England colonies met the Iroquois at Albany. The Indians aired their grievances, and the delegates framed a report acknowledging them and recommending appropriate action.
But the Congress transcended its original purpose of solving Indian problems. For it declared a union of the several American colonies "absolutely necessary for their preservation," and the colonial representatives present adopted the Albany Plan of Union which Benjamin Franklin had drafted. It provided that a president appointed by the King act with a grand council of delegates chosen by the assemblies, each colony to be represented in proportion to its financial contributions to the general treasury. The government was to have charge of all British interests in the west -Indian treaties, trade, defense, and settlement. But none of the colonies accepted Franklin's plan, for none wished to surrender to an outside body either the power of taxation or control over the development of the west.
On the part of the colonies, there was little systematic or energetic support for the war as a whole, all schemes failing to bring them "to a sense of their duty to the King." And even such help as individual colonies offered was marred because of the lack of a larger motive. The colonists could see the war only as a struggle for empire on the part of England and France. They felt no compunction when the British government was obliged to send large numbers of regular troops to wage colonial battles. Nor did they regret that the "redcoats," rather than provincial troops, won the war. Neither did they see any reason for not carrying on trade which, in effect, constituted "trade with the enemy." In spite of this lack of wholehearted colonial support and several early military defeats, England's superior strategic position and her competent leadership ultimately brought complete victory. After eight years of conflict, Canada and the upper Mississippi Valley were finally conquered, and the dream of a French empire in North America faded.
Having triumphed over France, not only in America but in India and throughout the colonial world generally, Britain was compelled to face a problem which she had hitherto neglected-the problem of empire. It was essential that she now organize her vast Possessions to facilitate defense, reconcile the divergent interests of different areas and peoples, and distribute more evenly the cost of imperial administration. British overseas territories had been more than doubled in North America alone. To the narrow strip along the Atlantic Coast had been added the vast expanses of Canada and the territory between the Mississippi River and the Alleghenies, an empire in itself. Where before the population had been predominantly Protestant English, or Anglicized continentals, it now included Catholic French and large numbers of partially Christianized Indians. Defense and administration of the new territories, not to mention the old, would require huge sums of money and increased personnel. The "old colonial system," which was really lack of a system, was obviously inadequate for the requirements of the situation. Even during the exigencies of war -which imperiled the very existence of the colonists themselves - the old system had proved incapable of securing colonial cooperation or support. What then could-be expected in time of peace when no external danger loomed?
Clear as was the need, from the British standpoint, for a new imperial pattern, the situation in America was anything but favorable to a change. Long accustomed to a large degree of independence, the colonies were at a stage in their development where they demanded more, not less, freedom, particularly since the French menace had been eliminated. To put a new system into effect to tighten control, the statesmen of England had to contend with colonists trained to self-government and impatient of interference, with self-reliant and enterprising merchants, politically conscious mechanics, planters proudly refractory to imperial discipline, yeomen of the uplands who knew little and cared less for laws and regulations of the empire, and with colonial assemblies sensitive to infringements on what they regarded as their constituents' rights. Indeed, many Americans cared not a whit for the British Empire as such. All but a small minority were aggressively determined to go their own ways and live their own lives in the America they had converted from a wilderness to a home.
One of the first problems tackled by the British was that of organizing the interior. The conquest of Canada and of the Ohio Valley imposed upon Britain the task of devising a governmental structure and a land and religious policy which would not alienate the French or Indian inhabitants. But here she came into conflict with the interests of the seaboard colonies which, fast increasing in population, were bent upon exploiting the newly won territories themselves. Needing new land, various colonies, on the basis of their charters, claimed the right to an extension as far west as the Mississippi River. Feeling that the recently conquered region belonged to them, people poured across the mountain passes in an ever increasing stream. But the British government feared that if pioneer farmers crowded into the new land they would provoke a series of Indian wars. They felt that the restive Indians should be given time to settle down and that lands could be opened to colonists on a more gradual basis. In 1763, consequently, a royal proclamation reserved all the western territory between the Alleghenies, the Floridas, the Mississippi, and Quebec for the use of the Indians. Thus at one stroke the Crown attempted to sweep away every western land claim of the thirteen colonies and to stop westward expansion in the same way that it had been threatened by the earlier French occupation. Though never effectively enforced, to indignant colonists this measure constituted a highhanded disregard of their most elementary right, the right to occupy and utilize western lands as needed.
More serious in its repercussions was the new financial policy of the British. To support the increased empire required money, and unless the taxpayer in England was to supply it all, the colonies would have to contribute. But revenue could be extracted from the colonies only through a stronger central administration, and this could be achieved only at the expense of colonial self-government. The first step in inaugurating the new system was the passage of the Sugar Act of 1764. This act, as amended two years later, had the raising of revenue as its sole purpose. It was not concerned with regulating trade as such. As a matter of fact it replaced a trade-regulations measure. The Molasses Act of 1733 had placed a prohibitive duty on the import of molasses from non-English areas. The amended Sugar Act simply put a modest duty on molasses from all sources. The act also levied duties on wines, silks, coffee, and a number of other luxury items. To enforce it, customs officials were ordered to show more energy and strictness. British warships in American waters were instructed to seize smugglers, and "writs of assistance" (i.e. blanket warrants) were authorized to enable the King's officers to search suspected premises.
It was not so much the new duties that caused consternation among New England merchants. It was rather the fact that steps were being taken to enforce them effectively, an entirely new development, For over a generation, New Englanders bad been accustomed to importing the larger part of their molasses from the French and Dutch West Indies without paying a duty. They contended that payment of even the small duty imposed would be ruinous. As it happened, the Sugar Act's preamble gave the colonists an opportunity to rationalize their discontent on constitutional grounds. The power of Parliament to tax colonial commodities for the regulation of imperial trade bad been long accepted in theory though not always in practice, but the power to tax "for improving the revenue of this Kingdom" as stated in the Revenue Act of 1764 was new and hence debatable.
The constitutional issue became an entering wedge in the great dispute which was finally to split the empire asunder. "One single act of Parliament," wrote James Otis, an early patriot, "has set more people a-thinking in six months, more than they had done in their whole lives before." Merchants, legislatures, and town meetings protested against the expediency of the law, and colonial lawyers like Samuel Adams found in the preamble the first intimation of "taxation without representation," the catchword which was to draw so many to the cause of the patriots against the mother country.
Later in the same year, Parliament enacted a Currency Act "to prevent paper bills of credit hereafter issued in any of His Majesty's colonies from being made legal tender," Since the colonies were a deficit trade area and were constantly short of "hard money," this added a serious burden to the colonial economy. Equally objectionable from the colonial viewpoint was the Billeting Act, passed early in 1765, which required colonies where royal troops were stationed to provide quarters and certain supplies for their support.
Strong as was the opposition to these acts, it was the last of the measures inaugurating the new colonial system which set off organized resistance. This was the famous Stamp Act. It provided that revenue stamps be affixed to all newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, licenses, leases, or other legal documents, the revenue so secured to be expended for the sole purpose of "defending, protecting, and securing" the colonies. Only Americans were to be appointed as agents to collect the tax, and the burden seemed so evenly and lightly distributed that the measure passed Parliament with little debate or attention.
So violent was its reception in the thirteen colonies, however, that it astonished moderate men everywhere. It was the act's peculiar misfortune that it aroused the hostility of the most powerful and the most articulate groups in the colonies: journalists, lawyers, clergymen, merchants, and businessmen, and that it bore equally on all sections of the country -north, south, and west. Soon leading merchants whose every bill of lading would be taxed organized for resistance and formed non importation associations. Business came to a temporary standstill, and trade with the mother country fell off enormously in the summer of 176S. Prominent men organized as "Sons of Liberty," and political opposition was soon expressed in violence. Inflamed crowds paraded the crooked streets of Boston. From Massachusetts to South Carolina, the act was nullified, and mobs forced luckless agents to resign their offices and destroyed the hated stamps.
The great significance of the Stamp Act lay not alone in its precipitation of revolutionary resistance but also in the fact that it forced Americans to formulate a theory of imperial relations that would accommodate itself to American conditions. The Virginia Assembly, for example, passed, on the instigation of Patrick Henry, a set of resolutions denouncing taxation without representation as a dangerous and unprecedented innovation and a threat to colonial liberties. A few days later, the Massachusetts House invited all the colonies to appoint delegates to a Congress in New York to consider the Stamp Act menace. This Congress -in October 1765 -was the first inter colonial meeting summoned on American initiative. Twenty-seven bold and able men from nine colonies seized this opportunity to mobilize colonial opinion against parliamentary interference in American affairs. And after considerable debate, the Congress adopted a set of resolutions asserting that "no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures" and that the Stamp Act had a "manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists."
The constitutional issue thus drawn centered on the question of representation. From the colonial point of view, it was impossible for the colonies to consider themselves represented in Parliament unless they actually elected members to the House of Commons. But this conflicted with the orthodox English principle of "virtual representation" - that is, representation by classes and interests rather than by locality. Most British officials held that Parliament was an imperial body which represented and exercised the same authority over the colonies as the homeland. It could pass laws for Massachusetts as it could for Berkshire in England. But the American leaders argued that no "Imperial" Parliament existed and that their only legal relations were with the Crown. It was the King who had agreed to establish colonies beyond the sea and the King who provided them with governments. That the King was equally a King of England and a King of Massachusetts they agreed, but that the English Parliament had no more right to pass laws for Massachusetts than the Massachusetts legislature had to pass laws for England they also firmly insisted. If the King wanted money from a colony, he could ask for a grant, but a British subject, whether in England or America, was to be taxed only by and through his own representatives. British parliamentaries were naturally unwilling to accept the colonial contentions. But British merchants exerted effective pressure. Feeling the effects of the American boycott, they threw their weight behind a repeal movement and in 1766 Parliament yielded, repealing the Stamp Act and greatly modifying the Sugar Act. Throughout the colonies the news evoked spirited rejoicing. The merchants gave up the nonimportation agreements; the Sons of Liberty subsided-, trade resumed its course, and peace seemed at hand.
But it was only a respite -for in 1767 came another series of measures which stirred anew all the elements of discord. At that time, Charles Townshend, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, was called upon to draft a new fiscal program for the government. Intent upon reducing British taxes by making more efficient the collection of duties levied on American trade, he tightened up customs administration, at the same time sponsoring duties on paper, glass, lead, and tea exported from Britain to the colonies. This was designed to raise revenue to be used in part to support colonial governors, judges, customs officers, and the British army in America. Another act suggested by Townshend authorized the superior courts of the colonies to issue writs of assistance, thus giving specific legal authority to the general search warrants so hateful to the colonists.
The agitation following enactment of the Townshend duties was less violent than that stirred by the Stamp Act, but it was nevertheless strong. Merchants once again resorted to non importation agreements. Men dressed in homespun, women found substitutes for tea, students used colonial-made paper, and houses went unpainted. In Boston, where. the mercantile interests were most sensitive to any interference, enforcement of the new regulations provoked violence. When customs officials sought to collect duties, they were set upon by the populace and roughly handled. For this, two regiments were dispatched to protect the customs, commissioners.
The presence of British troops in the old Puritan town was a standing invitation for disorder, and the antagonism between citizens and soldiery flared up on March 5, 1770, after eighteen months of resentment. What began as a harmless snowballing of the Redcoats degenerated into a mob attack. Then someone gave the order to fir, and three Bostonians lay dead in the snow. The affair gave colonial agitators a valuable issue in their campaign to arouse hostility against England. Dubbed the "Boston Massacre", the incident was dramatically pictured as proof of British heartlessness and tyranny.
Faced with such opposition, Parliament in 1770 decided to beat a strategic retreat and repealed all of the Townshend duties except that on tea. The "tea tax" was retained because, as George III said, there must always be one tax to keep up the right. To a majority of the colonists, the action of Parliament constituted, in effect, a "redress of grievances," and the campaign against England was largely dropped. There continued an embargo on "English tea," but agitation was on a modest scale, and the embargo was apparently not too scrupulously observed. Generally, the situation seemed auspicious for imperial relations. Prosperity was increasing and most colonial leaders were willing to let the future take care of itself. Inertia and neglect seemed to succeed where bolder policies had failed. The moderate element, everywhere predominant in the colonies, welcomed this peaceful interlude.
During a three-year interval of calm, however, one element strove energetically. to keep the controversy alive. A relatively small number of "patriots" or "radicals" took the position that the colonists' victory was illusory. As long as the tea tax remained, the principle of Parliament's right over the colonies remained. And at any time in the future the principle might be applied in full with devastating effect on colonial liberties.
Typical of the patriots was their most influential and effective member, Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, who toiled tirelessly for a single end: independence. From the time he graduated from Harvard College, he was a public servant in some capacity - inspector of chimneys, tax-collector, moderator of town meetings. A consistent failure in business he was shrewd and able in politics. The New England town meeting was the theater of his action. H is tools were men, and he was intimate with all of them, winning the confidence and support of shipyard roustabouts and ministers of the gospel. His major achievement was freeing these plain people from their awe of their social and political superiors and making them aware of the I r own importance. His second task was to arouse them to action. In newspapers he published articles; in town meeting and provincial assembly be instigated resolutions and speeches appealing to their democratic impulses. In, 1772, Adams induced the Boston town meeting to select a "committee of correspondence" to state the rights and grievances of the colonists, to communicate with other towns on these matters, and to request them to draft replies. Quickly, the idea spread. Committees were founded in virtually all the colonies, and out of them soon grew the base of effective revolutionary organizations.
In 1773, Britain furnished Adams and his co-workers with a desired issue. The powerful East India Company, finding itself in critical financial straits, appealed to the British government and was granted a monopoly on all tea exported to the colonies. Due to the Townshend tea tax, the colonists had boycotted the company's tea and, after 1770, such a flourishing illegal trade existed that perhaps nine-tenths of the tea consumed in America was of foreign origin and imported duty-free. The Company decided to sell its tea at a price well under the customary one through its own agents, thus simultaneously making smuggling unprofitable and eliminating the independent colonial merchants. This ill considered step aroused colonial traders and threw them again into alliance with the patriots. It was not only the loss of the tea trade but the principle of monopoly that stung them to action. In virtually all the colonies, steps were taken to prevent the East India Company from executing its designs. In ports other than Boston, agents of the company were "persuaded" to resign, and new shipments of tea were either returned to England or warehoused. But in Boston, the agents refused to resign and with the support of the royal governor, preparations were made to land incoming cargoes regardless of opposition. The answer of the patriots, led by Samuel Adams, was violence. On the night of December 16, 1773, a band of men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the three tea ships and dumped the offending leaves into the water.
A fateful crisis now confronted Britain. The East India Company had carried out a Parliamentary statute. If the destruction of the tea went unheeded, Parliament would admit to the world that its authority over the colonies was nil. Official opinion in Britain almost unanimously condemned the Boston "Tea Party" as an act of vandalism and gave wholehearted support to the measures proposed to bring the insurgent colonists into line. These took the shape of a series of laws which were called by the colonists "Coercive Acts." The first one, the Boston Port Bill, closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for. This action threatened the very life of the city, for to exclude Boston from the sea meant disaster. Soon after, other bills gave-the King the right to appoint Massachusetts councilors, formerly elected; and jurors, hitherto chosen by town meetings, were thereafter to be summoned by sheriffs, agents of the governor. Town meetings would,, thenceforth, be held only with the governor's permission, and the appointment and removal of judges and sheriffs were also to be in his hands. A Quartering Act was passed requiring local authorities to find suitable quarters for British soldiers. Neglecting to fulfill their duty, it would be legal for the governor to direct the use of inns, alehouses, and other buildings for that purpose. The Quebec Act, passed at nearly the same time, was also viewed with hostility for it extended the boundaries of the province of Quebec, and guaranteed the right of the French inhabitants to enjoy religious freedom and their own legal customs. This act the colonists opposed because, disregarding old charter claims to western lands, it generally threatened to interfere with westward movement and seemed to hem them in to the north and northwest by a Roman Catholic-dominated absolutist province. Though the Quebec Act had not been passed as a punitive measure, it was classed by the Americans with the Coercive Acts and all became known as the "Five Intolerable Acts.".
These, instead of subduing Massachusetts, as they had been planned to do, brought her sister colonies rallying to her aid. At the suggestion of the Virginia Burgesses, colonial representatives were summoned to meet in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, "to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies." This meeting was the first Continental Congress, an extralegal body chosen by provincial congresses, or popular conventions, and instructed by them. This meant that the patriot party, which favored extralegal action, was in control of the situation, and that extreme conservatives who would have nothing to do with resistance to British laws were not represented. Otherwise the membership of the Congress was a fair cross-section of American opinion - both extreme and moderate. Every colony save Georgia sent at least one delegate, and the total number of fifty-five was large enough for diversity of opinion, but small enough for genuine debate and effective action.
In view of division of opinion in the colonies, the Congress faced a distressing dilemma: it must give an appearance of firm unanimity to persuade the British government into concessions and, at the same time, avoid any show of radicalism or "spirit of independence" that would alarm moderate Americans. A cautious keynote speech was followed by a "resolve" declaring that no obedience was due the Coercive Acts. Then, there was addressed to the people of Great Britain and the colonies a Declaration of Rights and Grievances and, in addition, a petition to the King, which summed up anew the traditional arguments of American protest while conceding parliamentary regulation of external commerce and strictly imperial affairs. The most important work of the Congress, however, was the formation of the "The Association," which provided for a revival of trade-boycott and for a system of inspection committees in every town or county to supervise nonimportation, nonexportation, and nonconsumption. Committees were charged to inspect customs entries, to publish the names of merchants who violated the agreements, to confiscate their importations, and even to encourage frugality, economy, and industry."
- Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress October 1774
The "Association" introduced an organized revolutionary element into the controversy. Building upon foundations laid by the "Committees of Correspondence," the new local organizations everywhere assumed leadership of affairs. They spearheaded drives to end what remained of royal authority. They intimidated the hesitant into joining the popular movement and ruthlessly punished the hostile. They began the collection of military supplies and the mobilization of troops. They fanned public opinion.
With the activities of the "Association Committees," a breach which had been slowly developing among the people widened to the irreconcilable stage. Many Americans had, for some time, favored greater caution in the resistance movement. For the most part these were opposed to British encroachment on American rights, but they favored discussion and compromise as the proper solution, rather than an open break. The composition of this group was heterogenous. It included most of those of official rank (i.e. Crown-appointed officers of various sorts); many great and small Quakers and members of other religious sects opposed in principle to the use of violence; many merchants, especially from the middle colonies; and some discontented small farmers and frontiersmen from the interior section of the most southern colonies. The patriots, on the other hand, drew their support not only from the less well-to-do, but from many of the professional class, especially lawyers; most of the great planters of the south; and a not inconsiderable number of merchants.
The course of events after the passage of the Coercive Acts left the loyalists appalled and frightened. As a result, the King might well have effected an alliance with them and, by timely concession, so strengthened their position that the patriots would have found it very difficult to proceed with hostilities. But George III had no intention of making concessions. In September 1774, scorning a petition by Philadelphia Quakers, he wrote, "The die is now cast, the Colonies must either submit or triumph." This attitude cut the ground from under the loyalists or "Tories," as they were coming to be called. They now had nothing to offer their fellows but complete and abject surrender to the most extreme parliamentary claims. Moderates, therefore, had no choice but to support the patriots, now called the Whigs, since any other course would have meant the loss of all their liberties. Active persecution of the loyalists began. Millers refused to grind their corn; labor would not serve them; and they could neither buy nor sell. They were denounced as traitors, and committees published their names "sending them down to posterity with the infamy they deserve."
General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman with an American-born wife, was in command of the garrison at Boston, where political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. A leading patriot of the town, Dr. Joseph Warren, wrote to an English friend on February 20, 1775: "It is not yet too late to accommodate the dispute amicably, but I am of the opinion that if once General Gage should lead his troops into the country with the design to enforce the late acts of Parliament, Great Britain may take her leave, at least of the New England colonies, and if I mistake not, of all America. If there is any wisdom in the nation, God grant it may be speedily called forth! "
But General Gage's duty was to enforce the Coercive Acts. News reached him that the Massachusetts patriots were collecting powder and military stores at the interior town of Concord, twenty miles distant. On the night of April 18,1775, he sent a strong detail of his garrison to confiscate these munitions and to seize Samuel Adams and John Hancock who had been ordered sent to England to stand trial for their lives. But the whole countryside had been aroused and when, after a night of marching, the British troops reached the village of Lexington, they saw through the early morning mist a grim band of fifty minutemen - armed colonists - lined up across the common. There was a moment of hesitation, cries and orders from both sides and, in the midst of the noise - a shot. Firing broke out along both lines, and the Americans dispersed leaving eight of their dead upon the green. The first blood of the war for American independence had been shed.
The British pushed on to Concord where the "embattled farmers" at the bridge "fired the shot heard round the world." Their purpose partly accomplished, the British regiments began their return march, but all along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses, the militia arrived from village and farm and made targets of the bright red coats. Indeed so widespread was the response of the countryside in this first battle of the Revolution that when the weary column 'finally stumbled into Boston, the force of 2,500 men had suffered losses nearly three times those sustained by the colonists.
The news of Lexington and Concord struck the other colonies like an electric shock. It was plain that war - real war -was at hand. The signal flew from one local committee to another in the thirteen colonies, which had needed only a glowing fact like Lexington to fuse them into one defensive whole. Within twenty days, the news, in many garbled forms, was evoking a common spirit of patriotism from Maine to Georgia.
While the alarms of Lexington and Concord were still resounding, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. Its president was John Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant. Thomas Jefferson was there and the venerable Benjamin Franklin, who had returned from London where, as "agent" for several of the colonies, he had vainly sought conciliation. The Congress had barely organized before it was called upon to face the issue of open warfare. Although some opposition existed, the real temper of the Congress was revealed by a stirring declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, the joint product of John Dickinson and Jefferson:
"Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. . . . The arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will ... employ for the preservation of our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die free men rather than live slaves."
Even as the Declaration was being debated, Congress took the militia into Continental service and appointed Colonel George Washington commander-in-chief of the American forces. His stalwartness and his composed and dignified manner marked him a masterful man. Passion and patience were balanced in him and he was an example of perfect moral and physical courage. His directive faculties were notable, and the soundness of his judgment and solidity of his information made him great. His common sense "lifted him to the level of genius." Believing in a course, his adherence to it was single-minded, just, firm. "Defeat is only a reason for exertion," he wrote. "We shall do better next time." This spirit and his gift for military administration were the winning traits in the years to come.
Yet, despite the military involvement and the appointment of a commander-in-chief, the idea of complete separation from England was still repugnant to many members of Congress and to a large part of the American people. Public opinion was not yet ready for such drastic action. It was obvious, however, that the colonies could not forever remain half in, half out of the empire. Moderates persuaded themselves they were not fighting the King but the ministry and, as late as January 1776, the King's health was toasted nightly in an officer's mess presided over by General Washington.
As the months wore on, the difficulties of prosecuting a war while still part of the empire became more and more patent. No compromise came from England and, on August 23, 1775, King George issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. Five months later, Thomas Paine's fifty-page pamphlet, Common Sense, was published. In vigorous, flamboyant style, it drove home with fierce blows the necessity of independence. With a fine perception of the greatest obstacle, Paine attacked the sacred person of the King, ridiculing the idea of hereditary monarchy and proclaiming that one honest man was worth more to society "than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived." Persuasively he presented the alternatives -continued submission to a tyrannous king and an outworn government, or liberty and happiness as a self-sufficient independent republic. The pamphlet's influence cannot be exaggerated. Within a few months, thousands of copies had been sent throughout the colonies, crystallizing conviction and rallying the undecided and the wavering.
But though the people were now beginning to look with composure upon the idea of independence, there still remained the task of gaining the approval of each colony to a formal declaration of separation. Paine had pointed out that the colonies had a11 traveled to the summit of inconsistency." They were in full rebellion, had an army and navy of their own and governments that ignored Parliament and King. Not to take the final step was the height of incongruity.
There was common agreement that the Continental Congress should take no such definitive step as independence without first receiving explicit instructions from the colonies to do so. But daily the Congress heard of the establishment of other new extralegal colonial governments and of delegates being authorized to vote for independence. At the same time, the predominance of radicals in the Congress increased as they extended their correspondence, bolstered weak committees, and fired patriot minds with stirring resolutions. Then finally, on May 10, 1776, a resolution to "cut the Gordian knot" was adopted. Now only a formal declaration was needed. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, pursuant to directions from his state, introduced a resolution declaring in favor of independence, foreign alliances, and American federation. Immediately a committee was appointed to prepare a formal declaration "setting forth the causes which impelled us to this mighty resolution," and a committee of five, headed by Thomas Jefferson, was entrusted with drafting the document.
From the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson, then but thirty-three years old, had come up to Philadelphia with an already established reputation. Though born in the outer circle of Virginia aristocracy, his early life in the democratic back-country had made him the enemy of patrician rights. Riding and shooting and a fondness for the fiddle did not prevent him from satisfying with zeal an enormous thirst for knowledge. There is no question that no more suitable man could have been chosen to draft the great announcement. It would bring upon America a fierce war, Jefferson knew, but he believed that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants!" And though no strong system of government was yet provided to replace that to be destroyed, Jefferson was never a friend to a very energetic government, considering as he did that the only safe depositories of government were the people themselves. Domination by a chosen few he held to be "an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people." In respect to all the great principles formulated in the Declaration, Jefferson felt as did the people for whom he was to write it. He used their language and their ideas and, as a contemporary said, "Into the monumental act of Independence," he "poured the soul of the continent."
The Declaration of Independence adopted July 4, 1776 - not only announced the birth of a new nation. It set forth a philosophy of human freedom which was thenceforth to be a dynamic force in the entire western world. It rested, not upon particular grievances, but upon a broad basis of individual liberty which could command general support throughout America, and its political philosophy is clear:
"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 a 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."
"These truths" were not creatures of Jefferson's mind; they formed a political theory "self-evident" to his contemporaries and to most men since. The sources of his particular thinking and phraseology lay in the work of English political philosophers, specifically James Harrington's Oceana and, even more important, John Locke's Second Treatise On Government. But the source of the spirit of the document was the awakening consciousness of men that government should exist for the people, not the people for the government. To Jefferson, it was the function and purpose of government to help men -to protect them in their life, their liberty, and their pursuit of happiness -not to oppress them or misuse them.
The Declaration of Independence served a purpose far beyond that of a public notice of separation. Its ideas inspired mass fervor for the American cause, for it instilled among ordinary folk a sense of their own importance, inspiring them to struggle for personal freedom, self-government, and a dignified place in society. And, by centering its attention on an indictment of the English king, George III, the Declaration made the conflict a personal contest -not a protest against lifeless statutes and an abstract Parliament, but a struggle against an immediate enemy of flesh and blood. By giving to the common man a personal cause and a personal enemy, the ideas of the Declaration brought the Revolution within range of popular aspiration and strengthened it with t he force of popular emotion.
The Revolutionary War dragged on for over six years, with fighting in every colony and a dozen pitched battles of importance. Even before the Declaration of Independence, there were military operations which had an important influence on the outcome of the war-for instance the crushing of the North Carolina loyalists in February of 1776, and in March the forced evacuation of British forces from Boston. In the months following Independence, the Americans suffered a series of severe setbacks. The first of these was in New York. Washington rightly foretold that New York, which was important in keeping New England supplied with material and reinforcements, would be an early British military objective. The British commander, General Sir William Howe, did not at once press against it, however. Friendly to America, he brought an olive branch as well as a sword and offered the King's clemency to the rebels if they would stop fighting. He could not, however, give a guarantee of liberty within the empire. His offer naturally was rejected, and 30,000 British soldiers and the British navy opposed Washington's land force of 18,000 men.
Defense of New York appeared clearly hopeless, but Washington felt that he could not honorably abandon the city without a struggle. In the ensuing battle, Washington's plan was faulty, his generals did not execute their assignments, and the British numbers were overwhelming. His position became untenable, and he executed a masterly retreat in small boats from Brooklyn to the Manhattan shore. Providentially the wind held north, and the British warships could not come up the East River. Howe apparently never knew what was going on, and he lost his greatest chance to deal the American cause a crushing blow, perhaps even to end the war. For if Washington's army had been captured then, it would have been very difficult for the Congress to have raised another.
Washington, though constantly forced back, was able to keep his forces fairly intact until the year's end. Important victories at Trenton and Princeton revived colonial hopes. But once more calamity struck. In September 1777, Howe captured Philadelphia, drove Congress into flight, and left Washington to pass an almost despairing winter with his men at Valley Forge. The patriots, freezing at their campfires and leaving bloody footprints in the snow, seemed on the verge of defeat.
On the other hand, however, in the fall of 1777 also, the greatest American victory of the war had been' won-the turning point of the Revolution in a military sense. The British general, Burgoyne, moved down from Canada with a force designed to gain control of the Lake Champlain-Hudson River line and thus completely isolate New England from the other colonies. He reached the upper Hudson River and was compelled to wait for supplies until the middle of September before he could proceed southward. Ignorance of American geography led him to imagine that it would be an easy matter for a raiding force to march across Vermont, down along the Connecticut River and back, collecting along the way at least thirteen hundred cavalry horses, together with beef, draught cattle, and wagons for the use of his army - all in a matter of two weeks. For this exploit he chose 375 dismounted Hessian dragoons and about three hundred Tories. They did not even reach the Vermont line. The Vermont militia met them, and few of the Hessians ever returned. In the meantime, the Americans in the Mohawk Valley prevented a meeting with the British reinforcements from Lake Erie which were trying to join Burgoyne.
The battle on the Vermont line had rallied most of the fighting population of northern New England, and Burgoyne's delay enabled Washington to dispatch regular troops from the lower Hudson. By the time Burgoyne finally got his unwieldy force in motion, he marched into the Yankee militia, flushed with the successes of their fellows, stiffened by regulars, and well commanded by a general of the regular army. With the early frost, fighting began. Two attacks by Burgoyne were repulsed and the British fell back to Saratoga. Autumn rains fell, many Hessians deserted, and Americans were in the front, rear, and flank in overwhelming numbers. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army, still over five thousand strong, to the American General Gates. This was the decisive blow of the war, for it was not only of great strategic importance, but brought France, England's hereditary enemy, to the American side.
France had been watching and waiting for revenge since her defeat in 1763, and her enthusiasm for the American cause was high. The French intellectual world, though far as yet from republicanism, was in revolt against feudalism and privilege and, after the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin had been warmly received at the French court. From the first, the French government had not been neutral, giving the United States aid in the shape of munitions and supplies. But it was reluctant to risk the expense of direct intervention and open war with England. After the news of Burgoyne's surrender, however, Franklin was able to secure treaties of commerce and of alliance, each nation promising to make common cause with the other until American independence was recognized. Even before this, many French volunteers had sailed for America. The most prominent among these was the Marquis de Lafayette, a young army officer who longed to further American liberty, exalt France, abase England, and demonstrate his own military talents. He joined Washington's army as a general, serving without pay and giving such good account of himself that he won the respect of the great American whom he regarded with a measure of hero-worship.
In the winter of 1779-80, Lafayette visited Versailles and persuaded his government to make a real effort to bring the war to an end. Soon after, Louis XVI sent over a fine expeditionary force of 6,000 men under General Rochambeau. In addition, French fleets greatly aggravated the difficulties of the British in supplying and reinforcing their armies, and British commerce suffered heavily from French and American blockade runners, known as privateers, and from the operations of the dashing sea captain, John Paul Jones. Britain also suffered from the entry of Spain and the Netherlands into the war.
Yet, the British forces did not give up the contest without a stubborn struggle. In 1778, they were forced to evacuate Philadelphia because of threatened action by the French fleet and, during the same year, they suffered a series of setbacks in the Ohio Valley which assured American domination of the northwest. But they continued to press the war in the south. Early in 1780 they captured Charleston, the principal southern seaport, and temporarily overran the Carolina country. In the following year they made an effort to conquer Virginia. But that summer the French fleet temporarily gained control of the Chesapeake River and of American coastal waters. Washington's and Rochambeau's troops were ferried in naval boats down the bay, and their combined allied armies, totaling 15,000 men, penned in Lord Cornwallis' army of 8,000 at Yorktown on the Virginia coast. With Cornwallis' surrender on October 19, 1781, the military effort to halt the Revolution was over.
When the news of the American victory at Yorktown reached Europe, the House of Commons voted to end the war. Soon after, the Prime Minister, Lord North, resigned, and the King organized a new government to conclude peace on the basis of American independence. Peace negotiations began in earnest in April 1782 and continued through November, when preliminary treaties were signed with the British. These were not to take effect until France concluded peace with Great Britain. In 1783, they were signed as final and definitive. The peace settlement acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the thirteen states, to whom it granted the much coveted territory west to the Mississippi, with the northern boundary nearly as it runs now. The Congress was to recommend to the states that they restore the confiscated property of the loyalists, and the people of the United States received the privilege of fishing off Newfoundland and of drying their fish in unsettled parts of Nova Scotia and Labrador.
Independence left the Americans not only free of domination from abroad but also free to develop a society shaped by the political concepts born of their new environment. Despite the fact that the colonies in their revolt placed most emphasis on the recognition of their rights under the English constitution, they had in actuality been struggling to realize a new political idea of their own - self-government by the people themselves, the basic principle of American democracy. Another political doctrine they held also -the democratic doctrine of local self-government - not to be ruled by laws made thousands of miles away. The American spirit fostered the abolition of legal distinctions between man and man. The suffrage, limited though it was at the close of the Revolution, progressed every decade thereafter to universal suffrage. The "rights of man" concept was published worldwide, and within forty years all the colonies of Spain in continental America had followed the example of England's colonies. Where revolution failed in Europe, emigration secured for individuals the longed-for political freedom in the new world. For to America, from all sections of the old world, came lovers of liberty as soon as the Revolution was ended. Franklin, in France during the war, foretold the migration to America: "Tyranny is so generally established in the rest of the world, that the prospect of an asylum in America for those who love liberty gives general joy."
In later years Henrich Steffens, a Norwegian, wrote his boyhood impressions of the day the colonial victory was announced in Denmark:
"I still remember vividly the day when the conclusion of peace, the victory of struggling liberty, was celebrated. It was a fair day. In the harbor all the vessels were dressed, their mastheads adorned with long pennants; the most splendid were hoisted on the main flagstaffs, and there were others on the jackstaffs and strung between the masts. There was just wind enough to make flags and pennants fly free.... Father had invited home a few guests and, contrary to the prevailing custom, we boys were bidden to table; father explained the significance of this festival, our glasses too were filled with punch and, as toasts were drunk to the success of the new republic, a Danish and a North American flag were hoisted in our garden.... Anticipation of the great events to be derived from this victory was in the minds of those rejoicing. It was the friendly morning light of a bloody day in history."