The winning of Independence: introduction

"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 250,000 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 wildness 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 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 interest. 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 had 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.