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US Independence, 1775-1783

Historians debate whether the Independence movement which resulted in the creation of the United States was a revolution, that is, a movement which changed the fundamental political, economic, and social arrangements of the society, or primarily a political rearrangement. Although a small left wing minority had been pushing for independence since the 1760s, they did not had much support in 1775. The incidents at Lexington and Concord, especially the shedding of blood and deaths, got more colonials off the fence, for it tended to force people to choose sides. Most people in Massachusetts (and elsewhere) did not want to risk life, limb, or property by fighting the British army so they waited. Others were radicalized by the bloodshed; some argued that it showed how perfidious the British were (ignoring, of course, that no government is going to allow a rival army be formed in its territory, especially when that army wants to overthrow the government). War had begun in New England and slowly spread elsewhere. William Howe beat the colonials at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, but with heavy losses. On October 10, 1775, he replaced Lt. General Thomas Gage as Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in America. The Second Continental Congress asked George Washington of Virginia to head the Continental Army in an effort the secure support of the other large colony, Virginia, and the South for the war effort. In military terms, other, including Benedict Arnold, would have been the better choice but Congress made the wise political decision.

The Continental Congress had to gain support on the home front if it was to defeat the British. John Adams estimated that only one-third of the population was in favor of the Revolution at any one time, one-third was opposed, and one-third was neutral. Some of this depended upon whose army was closest. Adams had no way of knowing and he probably was only counting white males in his estimates. Only 5% of the approximately three million people lived in cities (which were quite small; the largest was Philadelphia with 30,000); it was unlikely that he knew what people in the back country thought. The cities were the political centers of the colonies except for Virginia where the rural planters controlled but, even there, they had to congregate in the little city of Williamsburg to make decisions. Many urbanites and some rural people could read and the pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January, 1776 and reaching 150,000 copies by July, exhorted the colonials to break with Great Britain and declare themselves a republic. This radical doctrine was aided by the British decision to bar all trade with the colonies until they recanted, for it severely hurt all those who depended upon trade and adversely affected persons who were normally loyal. Congress declared all colonial ports open to trade with anyone. Congress realized that it had no hope of winning a war against the mighty British Empire, even if the Empire were at a logistical disadvantage, and would have to have the help of France, the British chief rival. But France or any other European country might help but only if it were an independent state. So, a declaration of independence was imperative. It recommended, in May, 1776, that colonial/state legislatures write new constitutions. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed that the colonies represented in the Congress declare independence. Congress temporized by appointing a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson to write a rationale. On July, 2, 1776, independence was declared.1If the Continental Congress won, they and their army would be heroes; if they lost, they would meet the fate of all traitors. They believed it necessary to justify their actions and passed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms on July 6, 1775. The Virginia colony also justified the actions of its people in the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Declaring independence forced the issue of legitimacy and of writing rules to live by since they had now declared rule by Great Britain and its constitution illegitimate. In a unprecedented move, the states wrote their constitutions! The politicians thought they could avoid some of the controversy and misunderstanding they had had with the British government if the rules were written and everyone could see them. They were rejecting the unwritten constitution. 2 These constitutions were necessary to define why the new government should be obeyed. They showed a marked distrust of governmental power and tended to give the common people more authority. They and the national constitution were the product of 18th century liberalism, owing much to the Enlightenment.

In order to have regular constitutional authority, the Continental Congress wrote the Articles of Confederation and approved the document in 1777. Although it was not ratified until 1781, the Revolutionary War was fought and the country was governed until 1789 using it. It created a confederacy or league of sovereign states; the delegates were revolting against the centralized authority of Britain. The Confederation Congress could conduct foreign affairs and Indian affairs, set coinage, weights and measures, settle disputes among states, and operate a postal system. It depended upon each state to contribute money for it could not tax, a fatal flaw. It had no means of making individual citizens or the states do anything. Each state had one vote and it took nine states to pass laws. To amend this constitution required unanimity.

The war was dicey at first. The Continental Army under Washington took Dorchester Heights which overlooked Boston Harbor. Faced with Washington's, Howe moved his troops to Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776 to regroup. A few months later, in August, he went by sea and captured New York City, an excellent port from which the British army could be supplied. New York City and the Hudson River valley tended to be conservative and, thus, welcomed the British. Howe took Fort Lee, New Jersey in November and then entered winter quarters.

The rebels did not do well elsewhere in the north of the British Empire. The Canadians wanted no part of the independence movement which was started by some of the colonials to the south of them. Richard Montgomery captured Montreal in November, 1775 but Benedict Arnold lost against Quebec in December, 1776 and the rebels withdrew from Canada.

In June 1777, Howe sailed to Chesapeake Bay and beat Washington's army at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11th and occupied Philadelphia on September 26th. Washington was again beaten at the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777. He wintered in comfort in Philadelphia, a conservative city, no doubt helped by the fact that he had gold to spend. Washington, on the other hand, camped at nearby Valley Forge in miserable conditions because the Continental Congress was not supplying him with the funds, materiel, and men necessary to win the war.

William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe did not want to fight the colonials and had been ordered to seek peace with them but, if the rebels refused to quit, to use whatever force was necessary to stamp out the treason. The brothers met with some members of Congress but their demand that the Congress repudiate the Declaration of Independence was unacceptable. So the Howe brothers fought but William Howe never had his heart in it. Lt. General Henry Clinton would replace Howe in May 1778.

The British were determined to crush this rebellion as quickly as possible. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic believed in obedience to authority. The 32,000 troops they landed in the summer of 1776 was the largest number of soldiers they had ever sent abroad. To augment British troops (Great Britain was a relatively small kingdom), they used Hessian mercenaries as well as Loyalists. They quickly had Washington on the run, pushing him to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and captured territory from Pennsylvania northward. Washington mastered the tactic of retreat because, as long as the Continental Army was in the field, the Revolution survived. He had learned not to confront the British head on. Instead, he won small, morale-boosting victories such as his nasty surprise attack on British troops at Princeton and Trenton on Christmas night, 1776, a time when they would not have expected fellow Christians to try to kill them and when they were disoriented from the Christmas celebration.

The British made a major offensive in 1777 with General "Gentleman" Johnny Burgoyne trekking southward from Canada through the New York wilderness with soldiers, native scouts, Loyalists, his mistress and other women, wagons containing clothes, full tea services, and other accoutrements of civilized society, as well as artillery, supplies, dismounted dragoons, etc. Howe was supposed to come north up the Hudson River. Between the two of them, they would cut New England, the hotbed of revolution, off from the rest of the colonies and pacify it. But Burgoyne had difficulty moving through the wilderness and Howe went south to drive Washington out of Philadelphia, thus giving the Americans, General Horatio Gates and General Benedict Arnold, the opportunity to concentrate on Burgoyne. Arnold was an effective leader of men, able to get militia to stand and fight instead of their usual pattern of running when the shooting started. On October 17, 1777, they beat Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York and he surrendered his 5,700 soldiers.

The French entered the war and saved the American Revolution from disaster. As long as the British seemed to be pushing the rebels around at will, intervention was unwise but victory at the Battle of Saratoga showed that the United States had a chance and that French money, troops, navy, and supplied might make the difference. With the French entry after the Franco-American Treaty of February, 1778, the Spanish and the Netherlands also entered the fray against the British. The War for American Independence quickly became a world war as anti-British forces took the opportunity to attack. Without the French, however, the revolting colonies would have been forced back into the empire.

With the war stalemated in the northern part, the British mounted offensives in the South. The Floridas were loyal and much of Georgia. The British conquered Savannah easily in December, 1778. Charleston and Camden, South Carolina fell in May and August, 1780, respectfully, and the British proceeded upcountry. Foolishly, they were venturing far from their supply bases and their ability to use their control of the seas for tactical maneuvering. Although they had destroyed the southern Continental Army, they were exposed to attacks by small units, commanded by Nathaniel Greene, and irregular troops. At the Battle of Kings Mountain, South Carolina, on the border with North Carolina, six militia colonels led such troops to victory on October 7, 1780. On January 17, 1781, back country militia again beat the British at the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina. General Charles Cornwallis won the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March, 1781 but at such a high cost that he retreated to Wilmington, North Carolina on the coast to lick his wounds. In the Spring, he moved his army to the Yorktown, Virginia peninsula where he expected the Royal Navy to retrieve him and his men. Washington, leading a multinational army with French troops very prominent, was closing in on the peninsula. When the fleet appeared, it was French. They had driven the Royal Navy away. Cornwallis was trapped. He surrendered his 7,000 troops on October 19, 1781. The North ministry fell and Parliament cut off money for the war. The war dragged on in dibs and dabs until the Treaty of Paris was signed in September, 1783.

The Treaty of Paris was an United States victory. When the British began negotiating in September, 1781, they wanted to lose as little as possible. France wanted to gain from the war for it had spent blood and booty. Other allies—Spain, Holland, Russia, Portugal, Denmark, and Sweden— had a stake in the outcome as well. By the terms of the Franco-American Treaty, each nation had promised not to make a separate treaty. The Confederation Congress had instructed its peace commissioners—Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams—to follow the lead of Charles Grannier de Vergennes, the French foreign minister. It soon became apparent that their goals were very different. France was suggesting that the western boundary stop at the crest of the Appalachian mountains, that the territory from there to the Mississippi River remain in British hands, and that the British keep the areas they controlled at the end of the war, New York City being one. The United States would become a dependency of France. The British, wanting to block the French from re-establishing a presence on the continent, began secret talks with the Americans. In those talks, they agreed to vacate the new United States, recognize the Mississippi River as its western boundary (New Orleans was excluded), and extend fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland to Americans. For its part, Congress would agree to recommend to the states the restoration of civil rights and of property to the Loyalists. Both countries recognized the validity of pre-war debts. It was a good deal and the Americans violated their treaty with France and signed a separate peace with Great Britain with the above provisions. Once again, the European balance of power allowed the weak United States to thrive.

The independence of the United States was not inevitable. People risked their lives, health, and property in bucking the conservatism of the day in order to effect it. It was a minority movement; such movements always are. 3 The rebels could have lost the war or the peace. The thirteen colonies which rebelled wanted to act as if they were thirteen independent nations. The first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, got them through the war and the peace and even managed to pass significant legislation such as the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 but the national government teetered on failure. In rejecting the British governmental system, it had gone too far left. Continued independence in a violent world was not assured.


1Congress accepted Jefferson's committee report, with modifications, on July 4, 1776. Some delegates signed the document, the Declaration of Independence, immediately, including the smuggler John Hancock, but others had to go home and consult their constituents. The Declaration was, after all, a radical step.

2Both the national constitutions, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787, were written, of course, but the framers of the latter realized that writing the rules did not forestall controversy over what they meant. Referees were necessary.

3We cannot know what most people—children, slaves, illiterates, American Indians, most women, and people in the back country thought—because they left no records.

Don Mabry