In April of 1775, the Battle of Lexington and Concord signals the beginning of the American Revolution. In May of 1775, the 2nd Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, creates an official Continental Army and places it under command of General George Washington. In our study of the American Revolution, we will divide it into two parts: 1775 to 1778 in which the Americans fight the British alone and then, 1778 to 1781 in which the French have come to the aid of the American rebels.
A common misconception regarding the American Revolution is that the vast majority of American colonists supported the fight against Britain. Only about 40% of the population were in favor of the Revolution. One-fifth were strongly opposed to war with Britain and almost half of all Americans were undecided or neutral. As is the way with most people, once your mind is made up, it’s difficult to persuade you to change it. Thus, it was unlikely that Patriots would become Loyalists or that Loyalists would switch sides to the Patriots. So for the Revolution to succeed, the neutrals or undecided had to be convinced to join the fight.
Boston was where the Revolution was born and a majority of all the American strongly supporting the war came from the New England region. These are the men that joined the Sons of Liberty in the early 1770’s or took part in the Committees of Correspondence. They were men descended from Puritans who had fled England in the 1600’s. They were used to the idea of disliking or even hating Britain. And they came from a region that had a strong middle class and a tradition of egalitarianism. They were merchants and tradesmen and artisans. A large number were educated as well – doctors and lawyers for example. They had no great love or string ties to England and stood to gain financially if independence was achieved. John Adams, the Boston lawyer who defended the soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trial (and who would later become our 2nd President) is a good example of the typical Patriot.
Thomas Hutchinson (pictured here) was a wealthy Boston merchant and politician who was a strong Loyalist during the Revolution. Hutchinson and his family made their money through trading with England and he had many close friends in the British Parliament. Loyalists tended to be those with either strong ties to Britain and/or those who had strong financial connections to Britain. Members of the clergy (the Church of England) were also usually Loyalists. Many of the wealthy plantation owners in the Southern colonies were Loyalists because they were descended from English nobility. The Natives were Loyalists as they were grateful to the King for the Proclamation Line of 1763 which had protected their territory from the American colonists. Loyalists were loyal to the King because they stood to lose their lands or money if the Patriots won and to keep their land or money if the King won. Finally, as for the neutrals – they were generally the poor or those living on the frontier. Their living conditions wouldn’t change much no mater which side won. As the expression goes, they didn’t have a dog in this fight.
The Committees of Correspondence and the First Continental Congress formed a sort of provisional, unofficial or “de facto” government for the American rebels. But very soon, the 2nd Continental Congress adopted a set of rules called the Articles of Confederation that set up an official, legally binding de jure government for the colonies. Three critical needs faced the American rebels – first, they needed money to fight the war. Money would hire soldiers, buy supplies and guns. Next, the Americans knew they couldn’t beat Great Britain alone. They would need France to come in on their side against England. To this end, the famous and respected Ben Franklin was sent to France to convince the French to join our struggle. And finally, it was agreed that a document be written which would explain to the English (and the rest of the world) exactly why the colonists were rebelling against the King and against Parliament. This document would become known as the Declaration of Independence.
The simplest way to think about the Declaration is that it represents a “break-up letter” between the American colonists and King George III. Rebelling against the King is an act of treason, it is a bold undertaking – and it requires explanation. The Declaration was also written to help persuade all the undecided or neutral colonists to come over to the Patriot side. And on the international level, it was written to help persuade France to join the American cause. In the late 17th Century, France was the home of many great Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Montesquieu who believed in the importance of natural rights and government by consent.
The Declaration itself is heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke – ideas which predate the Declaration by almost 100 years. The primary ideas are that we all are born with certain natural (unalienable) rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our governments exist to protect those rights and they get their powers from the consent of the governed. The Declaration makes a strong case that King George III has not protected those rights in his American subjects, leaving the Americans with no choice but t withdraw their consent and, through a revolution, create a new government that will protect those rights.
The Declaration contains a lot of flowery, beautiful and ornate language. It can be hard to understand for the modern reader. But stripped down to its basics, it says: We are all born with natural rights. Government exists to protect those rights through the consent of those being governed. The English King has failed to protect the natural rights of the Americans. Thus, we withdraw our consent and seek to form a new government that will protect those rights
When we look at major wars, we can analyze them by looking at four main areas. First, what are the relative advantages or disadvantages of each side in the conflict? Then, what does each side need to do to win? These are also known as “victory conditions” and they may not be the same for both sides in a war. Thirdly, strategies are the plans each side puts in place to achieve its goals and win its victory conditions. Finally, most wars or conflicts have a pivotal moment, a turning point after which you know who will win and who will lose.
I cannot stress enough that the Americans have the easier victory condition. All they have to do is stay alive long enough until their opponents give up and go home. The Americans can literally play not to lose, instead of playing to win. For the British however – much tougher victory conditions. They must find and destroy the Continental Army under the command of George Washington, in addition to destroying the ability of the American rebels to raise and outfit any other armies.
The British would seem to have an overwhelming early advantage. They have the world’s biggest and best navy. They have the world’s biggest and best army. Their troops are experienced veterans who have fought in tough battles all over the world. In America itself, one-fifth of the colonists (the Loyalists) already support the British cause and the British can also count on the support of the Natives. Finally, the British government has been winning at the great game of mercantilism, especially after the Seven Years War gave them control over the wealth of India. Thus, the British government has the cash and gold needed to fight a successful war.
If the British can simultaneously conquer the state of New York by land and successfully blockade American ports by sea, they will have effectively spit the colonies in half, isolate north from south and prevented men, materials and supplies from easily reaching the Continental Army. The British begin executing their New York strategy by attacking New York City directly in 1776. To further confuse and distract the Continental Congress, the British also encourage their Native allies to attack the Americans along the lengthy colonial frontier.
While the American army wasn’t as numerous or as well-trained as the British, they had the advantage of fighting near their homes, in territory that was well-known and familiar to them. In a world with few reliable maps, this native knowledge was powerful. Also, the Americans didn’t have a “Plan B” if the Revolution failed. They would either “hang together or hang separately”. Knowing that failure would equal death surely motivated many an American Patriot to keep fighting on, even when things looked grim.
American strategy was based on keeping the fight going until France could be persuaded to join the cause. The Second Continental Congress sent the esteemed and respected Benjamin Franklin to France to try and persuade the French to join with the Patriots. And here in America, George Washington would do his best to keep moving (usually retreating) so as to evade the British and avoid capture. The American troops, as they demonstrated at Concord in 1776, are getting more adept at using “guerilla” tactics, including surprise attacks, night attacks and using snipers to target British officers. Guerilla tactics are used by weaker opponents to confuse and harass a stronger foe, hoping that the superior army will eventually give up and have to go home.
While George Washington loses every major battle he fights in from 1776 through 1777, his role in keeping his rag-tag army together despite all the challenges he faced cannot be overestimated. Washington was by most accounts an inspirational leader and his heroic image helped to both inspire his men and attract other men to join the army. Had Washington been captured or killed in the early years of the War, the British would surely have won.
In the fall of 1776, the British drive out Washington’s army and take over New York City. Soon thereafter, a catastrophic fire breaks out, destroying much of the city. Washington retreats to New Jersey and will eventually end up fleeing to Pennsylvania. The British troops are augmented by the hiring of German mercenaries – the Hessians. As 1776 draws to a close, the British control New York City and Philadelphia. Thomas Paine who was with the Continental Army writes “these are the times that try men’s souls.”
To complete their “New York” strategy, the British send down an army from Canada to conquer New York state and link up with the British forces in New York City on the cost. This would split the colonies in half and give the British an advantage. The British army moving south from Canada is led by “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and they move slowly southward, as their baggage train not only contains arms and ammunition but fine china, silverware, wooden beds and their wives and mistresses.
As Burgoyne’s men move slowly down from Canada, they are subject to withering sniper fire and ambushes from American soldiers successfully using guerilla tactics. By the time the main American army intercepts Burgoyne near Saratoga in upstate New York, Burgoyne’s forces have been significantly thinned. In the ensuing battle, the Battle of Saratoga, the Americans thoroughly defeat the British – the first time they have done so in the course of the Revolution. This dominant American victory convinces the French to sign a treaty of friendship and start sending aid to the rebels. Thus, the Battle of Saratoga is a significant turning point in the war as it brings in the French to help the Americans fight the British.
Beginning in 1778, French money and advisors begin to flow into the colonies. Pictured here is youthful French General the Marquis de Lafayette, who will become one of the most popular military heroes in both America and France. Also of importance will be the contribution of the French Navy, who will help challenge the British blockade of American ports.
The winter of late 1777 and 1778 finds Washington and the Continental Army taking up winter quarters at Valley Forge. The Americans are weary and morale is low from the series of defeats they have suffered. Disease and hunger are also issues. Into this sorry state comes disgraced Prussian General, Baron von Steuben. He works with Washington to train the troops on bayonet tactics and teaches them better hygiene and discipline. The remaining soldiers in Washington’s army are battle-tested veterans now – and they have been trained on the most modern and advanced European military tactics by von Steuben. As Thomas Paine writes, “the summer soldier and sunshine patriot will shrink from this current crisis.” He’s referring to men who only fight when it is easy or convenient fir them. By contrast, the survivors of Valley Forge are winter soldiers – they will fight and do whatever it takes to win.
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