Parliament prohibits New England from issuing paper currency as legal tender. This imposes a hardship on the colonists of the region, many of whom are engaged in the trading economy and who find hard currency increasingly scarce (because they keep sending it to England in order to pay debts).
Benjamin Franklin drafts the Albany Plan of Union at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War (a.k.a. the French and Indian War). The Plan seeks to create a Grand Council of delegates from each colony to levy taxes and provide for the common defense. The colonial assemblies reject Franklin's idea, since the Grand Council would clearly curtail their own powers.
England signs a peace treaty—the Peace of Paris—with France, ending the Seven Years' War (known in North America as the French and Indian War). France cedes Canada to England. In exchange, England gives France the sugar-producing Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Spain cedes Florida to Britain, in return for Cuba. Spain also acquires the Louisiana territory from France. All of North America, except Mexico, Louisiana, and two small islands off the coast of Newfoundland, now belongs to Britain.
Ottawa war leader Pontiac and Delaware religious prophet Neolin foment Pontiac's Rebellion, an alliance of tribes (the Ottawa, Huron, and others) in rebellion against European culture, influence, and technology. In the Ohio country, these united tribes attack Detroit (a British military outpost), then seize nine more forts. In the process, hundreds of white settlers are killed. A powerful British counterattack ultimately forces each tribe to make a separate peace over the next several years. Pontiac's Rebellion prompts the Proclamation of 1763, a British policy to limit conflict with Indians by restricting westward migration of colonists into Indian territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
During Pontiac's Rebellion, some fifty white men (mostly Scotch-Irish farmers) from the area around Paxton, Pennsylvania, destroy the Indian village of Conestoga and massacre its population. They kill approximately twenty men, women, and children. The white raiders, who become known as "the Paxton Boys," blame the Pennsylvania government for being too lenient towards Indians. Control of Pennsylvania's government is in the process of passing from the traditional Quaker elite to leadership that is more aggressive towards all Indians.
George Grenville takes office in London as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Upon George Grenville's recommendation, Parliament passes the Sugar Act. It quickly becomes notorious among colonists for its three-penny tax on molasses (a sugar byproduct and a commonly smuggled item in the colonial marketplace). The purpose of this Act is to defray English expenses incurred fighting the French and Indian War and to ensure that colonial commerce benefits England. The act is a revision of the Sugar and Molasses Act of 1733, which actually levied a duty twice as high on molasses—but that previous act has gone largely unenforced.
Almost immediately after passing the Sugar Act, Parliament extends its prohibition on paper currency to all American colonies with the Currency Act. Up until now, the heavily commercial New England has been the only colony banned from issuing paper currency (Parliament issued New England's ban in 1751). Since gold and silver are in short supply in America, the ban on paper money will create another hardship for the colonists. Parliament extends the ban because British creditors do not want to be paid in depreciated paper currency.
The colonies get word of the new three-penny tax on molasses, as proposed by George Grenville. Colonial Americans have been expecting some duty, but are taken aback by the amount; they thought it would be one or two pence. At three pence per gallon, the tax is prohibitive; New England merchants have to disobey it in order to stay in business.5 The new duties are to take effect in September 1764.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives draws up and approves a petition to King George III, protesting the Sugar Act duties "as a tax, and which we humbly apprehend ought not to be laid without the Representatives of the People affected by them."6
The Assembly of New York echoes Rhode Island and Massachusetts's objections to the Sugar Act and submits petitions to the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, arguing that the Act violates colonial rights. New York, the Assembly argues, should be exempt from taxes not levied by its own representatives.
North Carolina joins the chorus of colonial objectors to the Sugar Act, sending a message to its Governor defending "what we esteem our Inherent right, and Exclusive privilege of Imposing our own Taxes."7
Parliament passes the Stamp Act, a 25-page document that levies new taxes on court and customs documents, financial papers, playing cards, dice, pamphlets, newspapers, newspaper advertisements, almanacs, and more. It is the first internal tax that Parliament has levied on the colonies; that is, it does not involve trade but activities within the colonies.
Parliament passes the first Quartering Act, which empowers local officials in the colonies to house British troops "in inns, livery stables, ale-houses, victualling-houses," and other locations where alcohol are sold, in the event that the barracks for soldiers and officers do not provide sufficient space. The provinces are to pay innkeepers and tavern owners for the use of their property.8 "Uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings" are also specified for housing soldiers and officers, but the reference to "other buildings" is associated with the "uninhabited" adjective.9 The Act is set to expire on 24 March 1767, and is annually renewed and amended afterward.
The Virginia House of Burgesses passes five Stamp Act Resolutions. Orchestrated by representatives Patrick Henry and George Johnston, these "resolves" (as formal resolutions are called during this period) represent a radical challenge to Parliamentary authority. They assert the colonists' rights as Englishmen, including their right to consent to taxation. The fifth resolve is rescinded the next day by the more conservative members of the House, because it declares any attempt to assume the power of taxation—other than by the General Assembly of Virginia—"has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom."10 Two additional resolves are not passed, as they remain too radical for the time: they call for outright resistance to unlawful taxation and declare anyone who denies the colonial assembly's sole right to tax as "an enemy to this his majesty's colony."11 All of the resolves are reprinted in papers across the country.
In the evening, a violent mob of Bostonians protesting the Stamp Act attacks the home of Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson. The Hutchinsons are eating dinner when the crowd descends upon them, and they barely manage to escape before the front door is broken down and the mob loots most of their possessions.
Prominent delegates from nine colonies convene in New York as the Stamp Act Congress. The Congress endorses the Virginia resolves, and in so doing, becomes the first united coalition of the North American colonies. The Congress also reaffirms its "warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty's Person and Government," but asserts that as subjects of the King, the colonists are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of Englishmen, and that they must not be taxed without their consent or the consent of their representatives.12
By now, every colony objects to all Parliamentary taxes issued without their consent, external duties (like the Sugar Act) as well as internal taxes (like the Stamp Act).
Under pressure from English merchants and manufacturers concerned about their American markets and business ties, and shocked by the aggressive and widespread colonial resistance, Parliament repeals the Stamp Act. But to avoid the appearance of succumbing to the colonials, it also passes the Declaratory Act, which rejects colonial assertions that only colonial representatives can levy taxes. Parliament instead asserts its right to rule by virtual representation; that is, English government determines what is good for the empire as a whole, and it represents the subjects in all British territories.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend successfully ushers a new series of colonial taxes through Parliament; they will soon be known (notoriously) as the Townshend Duties. Parliament is under the impression that these new duties—on British imports to the colonies, with safeguards to empower customs commissioners and suppress smuggling—will be much more acceptable to the colonists, since they regulate trade in order to raise revenue. Colonial leaders such as Ben Franklin—who is living in London at the time—have told the English press that Americans will not object to "external" taxes on imported merchandise. But Franklin is an ocean apart from his comrades, and he is wrong.13
The merchants and traders of Boston issue a Non-Importation Agreement that pledges not to import any merchandise from Great Britain, in a united show of protest against Parliamentary taxes (specifically the latest Townshend Duties) and the scarcity of hard currency. The southern colonies soon join up with the boycott.
Bostonians riot after royal troops seize John Hancock's ship Liberty for violating trade laws. From this point, British troops will be continuously stationed in the city, aggravating city residents by competing for jobs on the waterfront.
A group of Bostonians—armed with snowballs—harass some British troops in the city. The altercation escalates until the troops shoot five of the men dead, including Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave of mixed African, Indian, and white ancestry who had been working as a sailor. The attack generates outrage among the colonists, who come to call it the Boston Massacre.
Within a month of the shooting known as the Boston Massacre, silversmith Paul Revere engraves and prints one of the first and most effective (and most inaccurate) propaganda pieces of what will become the American Revolution. Revere's engraving depicts a solid line of royal troops firing point-blank into a crowd of colonists, though the actual incident was more like a chaotic brawl. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and Revere's image stirs up considerable anti-British sentiment across North America.
The commanding officer and eight royal soldiers are put on trial in Massachusetts for their involvement in the so-called Boston Massacre. John Adams, the future Founding Father and president, defends the men in court. Adams disapproves of the lower-class crowd mentality that started the incident in the first place, since he thinks it is a foolhardy and perilous means of opposing England or English policies. He argues that the British soldiers are just victims of circumstance, provoked by what was "most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues [immigrants] and outlandish Jack tars [sailors]."14 Seven of the soldiers go free, while two are convicted of manslaughter and branded on their thumbs.
The British vessel Gaspee runs aground near Providence, Rhode Island. The Gaspee is patrolling for smugglers, making it very unpopular among colonists. A crowd of locals boards the ship, removes the crew, and sets it on fire. No witnesses are willing to testify against the perpetrators.
Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson announces that his salary will hereafter come from customs revenues, not the colonial assembly. Not much later, it is announced that Superior Court judges will be paid the same way. Colonial officials are no longer reliant on the assembly, whose power is reduced because of these changes; and this will place all the more pressure on colonial smugglers, since it is in the self-interest of colonial officials to raise revenues and stamp out the black market. Other colonies are threatened by this prospect, together with the independent commission of inquiry established to investigate the Gaspee incident. This combination of developments prompts the formation of colonial Committees of Correspondence, initially spearheaded by Sam Adams in Boston.
Dr. Benjamin Rush authors one of the strongest attacks on slavery ever written in the colonies to date. In 1776, Rush himself will purchase a slave named William Grubber and keep him for over a decade, even as he continues to rail against the institution and joins the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.16
"Felix of Boston" becomes the first slave in America to petition a legislature for the abolition of slavery, writing that "Let slave behaviour [sic] be what it will, neither they [slaves], nor their Children to all Generations, shall ever be able to do, or possess and enjoy any Thing, no, not even Life itself, but in a Manner as the Beasts that perish."17
Parliament passes the Tea Act, which will later spark a rebellion in Boston. This Act does not actually impose any new taxes, but seeks to save the East India Company by shipping its tea surplus to the colonies, where it will be sold at discounted prices. But the colonists think that it is a strategy to bolster support for the detested Townshend Duties, and they recognize that direct sale of tea by British agents will only hurt local merchants' business.
In a dramatic demonstration that the colonists will not submit to Parliament or British monopolies for the sake of cheap tea, a group of Patriots dressed as Mohawk Indians stage the Boston Tea Party after dark. To protest the Tea Act, which enables the East India monopoly to bypass colonial merchants entirely, the Patriots raid a British ship in Boston Harbor and throw 342 chests of tea overboard (to the encouraging cheers of delighted crowds). The Boston Tea Party is the most dramatic act of colonial resistance to the Tea Act, but it is not the only one. In Charleston, the tea is unloaded but consigned to warehouses for three years; colonists later sell it to finance the Revolution. In New York and Philadelphia, the tea ships are turned back at the port and forced to return to England. Nonetheless, many colonists—including Ben Franklin—condemn the Tea Party as a frivolous destruction of property and call for Bostonians to refund the £15,000 value of the tea.
In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament adopts the Boston Port Act, which closes Boston Harbor (this is the first of the four measures known as the Coercive Acts, and which the colonists call the "Intolerable" Acts). The Coercive Acts provide the impetus for leaders in Maryland and Virginia to initiate a boycott on exports and imports from Britain. The patriotic gesture is also one of self-interest for Chesapeake tobacco farmers, since tobacco prices have been in serious decline since late 1772. By withholding their crops, farmers can wait for prices to rise, which will then revive their sagging economy.
In the wake of the first shots fired in Massachusetts, Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, threatens to free the slaves of his colony if white Virginians harm one senior British official. He will go through with the threat a little more than a year later, in November 1775.
Parliament passes an Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice, which empowers the governor to transfer all trials of officials to England if their alleged offense has occurred in the line of duty. It is another of the so-called Intolerable Acts.
Parliament passes the Massachusetts Government Act, one of the so-called Intolerable Acts. It radically alters the structure of colonial government there by requiring towns to gain the governor's approval before they can hold meetings, makes the law-enforcement officers and the colony council appointed rather than elected positions, and empowers sheriffs to select jurors. The colonists call these, together with the Quebec Act, the "Intolerable Acts." Rather than being intimidated by Parliament's attempt to single out Boston for punishment, other colonies become determined to resist these measures because they seem to confirm fears of a growing tyranny and many recognize how easily these measures could be extended to the other colonies.
Over the summer of 1774, residents of Massachusetts towns around Boston begin to remove their gunpowder stores from the Provincial Powder House, atop a hill in northwest Boston. They leave only the Massachusetts provincial reserve (an emergency supply for the whole colony), which most colonists believe is rightly theirs.
The Quartering Act—the fourth and final of the so-called Intolerable Acts—enables colonial governors to commandeer housing for British officers and soldiers if there is insufficient room in the barracks. The Quartering Act never actually stipulates private homes but instead specifies "uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings."18 This 1774 Quartering Act is actually a clarification of previous legislation that Parliament passed in 1765 and has renewed and amended annually. Colonists regard it as a violation of their rights, but they make no mention of troops intruding in private homes.
Early in the morning, General Thomas Gage orders a secret mission to seize the remaining gunpowder stored at the Provincial Powder House, atop a hill in northwest Boston, before it is taken into the countryside by colonials. At 250 half-barrels, the Powder House holds the largest stash of gunpowder in New England. As Governor of Massachusetts, Gage is authorized to remove the gunpowder. His men have the stash safely transferred to Castle William by noon.
After General Thomas Gage's successful operation to relocate the remaining gunpowder stores at the Provincial Powder House, word spreads across Boston and the surrounding countryside that the Province has been "robbed of its powder." The rumor runs rampant among a surprised and already agitated populace, who exaggerate the story until people think that the Regulars are marching, six people are already dead, and the war has begun. None of that is true, but this period of panic comes to be known as the New England Powder Alarm. Word carries as far as Connecticut, thanks in part to the fire beacon warning system—once used to spread the news of the French and Indian war —which is utilized to convey the (false) announcement of war rapidly from town to town across the countryside, after dusk.19
Some 4,000 men assemble on Cambridge Common, most of them farmers from the Massachusetts countryside. This is just one day after they first heard about General Thomas Gage's removal of the provincial gunpowder supply (and many, more exaggerated, rumors of conflict). The New England Powder Alarm remains in full effect: the mob is armed only with wooden cudgels but it uses them to great effect as it surrounds several prominent Tory houses and forces two prominent Loyalists to flee and one to resign.
Fifty-five members representing every colony but Georgia assemble in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Peyton Randolph, a Virginian, is elected president. The Congress agrees to vote by colony, although Patrick Henry objects because he argues that members should vote not as New Yorkers or Virginians but as Americans. The Congress is not formed in order to revolt or to govern, but to act as a convention of ambassadors who will adopt resolutions and protests.
Parliament passes the Quebec Act, which seems to confirm colonial fears of a growing tyrannical oppression by establishing a royally appointed governor and council there, rather than a representative assembly.
The Continental Congress declares a nearly universal ban on the import or consumption of British goods and on exports to Britain, in protest against the Coercive Acts. This unified colonial action comes to be known as "the Association." But the non-exportation plan does not include rice, because South Carolina delegates oppose any ban on their most profitable crop. Meanwhile, tobacco exporters farther north in Virginia have economic and political incentive to ban their own exports, since tobacco prices are slumping. The Congress still avows its "allegiance to his majesty" but also expresses its "deepest anxiety" with British policies since 1763.20 This non-importation agreement will lead to Parliament's total suspension of overseas trade.
On 8 April 1775, a Saturday, silversmith and American revolutionary Paul Revere mounts his horse in Boston and rides all day to reach Concord, Massachusetts in the evening. Revere delivers the message to town leaders in Concord that the British Regulars (regular troops, that is) are coming, and there will probably be a battle the next day. In fact, Revere has issued a false alarm, as General Gage is not yet ready to march. But the people of Concord believe attack is imminent; the Provincial Congress (which has been meeting in Concord) decides to adjourn for three weeks and get out of town, while Concord residents disperse the town's military supplies to surrounding communities.
Ten days after his first (premature) ride to warn Concord of a possible British move, Paul Revere is once again summoned to warn the countryside, and this time it goes down as historical legend. In the late afternoon, a stable boy runs through Boston to the North End neighborhood where Revere lives, informing him that the British Regulars are ready to march. The stable boys have overheard a few British officers whispering about how there will be "hell to pay tomorrow!"21 The stable boy is the third person to report this news to Revere, one of the last patriot leaders remaining in Boston (since most of the rest have fled to surrounding towns in the Massachusetts countryside).
Boston's Committee of Safety sends two of its members, William Dawes and Paul Revere, to deliver the news that "The Regulars are coming out!"—not "The British are coming!" as legend would have it.22 Dr. Samuel Prescott joins both men after running into them on the road to Concord at 1am. The men follow separate routes in case one is captured (British troops are patrolling the roads west of Boston). Both men carry written messages that read: "A large body of the King's troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12, or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston, and gone to land at Lechmere's point."23 The note is accurate, except that it exaggerates the size of the British force.
RANGEEND_RIDE In less than two hours, Paul Revere covers nearly thirteen miles to reach Lexington around midnight. On the way, he follows an arc northwest of Boston that enables him to stop in every town to Lexington and meet with Whig leaders to warn them. Revere's comrade William Dawes has to travel a longer distance on a slower horse; he covers almost seventeen miles in approximately three hours.
Immediately after Paul Revere's arrival in Lexington, Massachusetts, sometime after midnight, the town militia gathers. The militiamen's wives have packed a few days of provisions for them; everyone has been preparing for this moment, though few if any of the New Englanders are jubilant about the prospect of war. By 2am, most of the men have mustered on the Lexington Common.
The Second Continental Congress convenes at Philadelphia. The British now control Boston and the Massachusetts militia are laying siege to the town. The Congress has no choice but to assume the role of a revolutionary government, though it has no resources.
Fort Ticonderoga falls to the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, led by Ethan Allen, and the Massachusetts volunteers who are under the leadership of Benedict Arnold.
Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys of Vermont and the Massachusetts volunteers under Benedict Arnold (who is from Connecticut) take Crown Point, north of Fort Ticonderoga.
John Adams nominates George Washington for general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the Second Continental Congress unanimously agrees. Washington—one of the most experienced American officers after his service in the French and Indian War—accepts on the condition that he receive no salary.
On the same day that George Washington is commissioned, British and American forces engage in the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War at Bunker Hill, Massachusetts. (The battle is misnamed—the actual location is not Bunker Hill but neighboring Breed's Hill, which is lower and closer to the water.) The battle is declared a British victory, but it is a Pyrrhic one: General Howe's forces suffer over 1,000 casualties before gaining the high ground. The colonials lose about 400 men. People in both London and Boston note that a few more such victories would ruin the victors.
Rumors of slave uprisings run rampant up and down the coastal south.
The British commander of Fort Johnston, near Wilmington, North Carolina, encourages blacks to "elope from their masters." In response, the revolutionary government imposes martial law.24
The Society of Friends (the religious group better known as Quakers), outspoken advocates of emancipation but not leaders in the revolutionary movement, form the first anti-slavery society in the Western world, in Pennsylvania.
The Continental Congress sends King George III a last-ditch "Olive Branch Petition," written by John Dickinson. The petition reasserts American loyalty to the crown and appeals directly to King George III, "with all humility submitting to your Majesty's wise consideration," expressing hope for "a happy and permanent reconciliation." But it also asks "that, in the mean time...such statutes as more immediately distress any of your Majesty's Colonies may be repealed."25 Representatives of the Continental Congress present the "Olive Branch Petition" to the Earl of Dartmouth, but King George III refuses to receive it.
King George III issues a "Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition" which condemns the "open and avowed rebellion" in the North American colonies and declares that all officers, civil and military, "are obliged to exert their utmost endeavours [sic] to suppress such rebellion, and to bring the traitors to justice."26
The colonial boycott and Parliament's retaliatory blockade close all export markets in North America, and many tenant farmers are deprived of the necessary income to pay their rents. Many landlords—like Richard Henry Lee—begin demanding their rent in hard currency (gold and silver). But this is increasingly difficult if not impossible for smallholders, or small-scale farmers, to come by.
The House of Lords votes by a margin of more than two-to-one to support the King's war against America, defeating opposition to the war 69 to 29.27
The House of Commons votes by an even greater majority than the House of Lords to support the King's war against America, defeating opposition to the war 278 to 108.28
George Washington issues a General Order that neither "Negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men" are to be enlisted in the Continental Army. When the Army becomes desperate for recruits by year's end, Washington changes course and re-authorizes enlistment for blacks with "prior military experience." By January 1777, enlistment is extended to all free blacks.
John Murray, known as Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issues a proclamation guaranteeing freedom to any slaves or servants in the colony who will leave their masters and bear arms against the white colonists of the rebellion. Some 300 slaves respond, and half of them are women and children.
Virginia farmers begin a series of salt riots, brought on by the non-importation agreement that the colony initiated in 1774. Non-importation is designed to put pressure on Parliament by causing unemployment and riots in Britain, but when the salt runs out in Virginia, the situation turns dire: salt is a necessary component of preserving meat, preparing food, and feeding livestock.
On Christmas Day, the traditional date for rent payments, tenants in Loudoun County, Virginia and in neighboring counties go on strike and refuse to pay their rents. They tell their landlords that they cannot sell their produce and therefore have no hard money to give. Those that have enlisted with the army are only paid in rapidly depreciating paper money. This rent strike is exceptional because the tenants mount a united front and do not beg their landlords' pardon, but instead declare that rent collection has become unjust.29
Thirty-nine-year-old Thomas Paine publishes his radical pamphlet, Common Sense, advocating independence for America and an immediate end to all ties with Britain. The pamphlet sells thousands of copies in its first days of publication, emerging just as colonists learn of King George III's speech declaring the American Colonies to be in rebellion against the Crown.
The recently drafted New Jersey state constitution opens the franchise to "all free inhabitants" who can meet residence and property requirements; in the following years, several women take advantage of this language to gain the vote. The New Jersey assembly disenfranchises them again in 1807, reflecting the prevailing male belief that women are not suited to voting by nature or by habit.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) abolishes slavery among its members.
At midnight, American soldiers begin their bombardment of the British in Boston. Cannons roar on both sides throughout the night and shake the surrounding houses.
Overnight, the Continental Army builds fortifications along the Heights, in an advance toward Dorchester, overlooking Boston. The following morning, General William Howe and the rest of the British are simply shocked by the rapidity of the colonial advance; American General William Heath writes that "Perhaps there never was so much work done in so short a space of time."30
On the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, as the Americans drive towards Dorchester, the British cancel plans for an attack because of very stormy weather.
After more inclement weather, British troops and Loyalists leave Boston, rather than try to mount an attack after having to wait so many days in which the colonials could strengthen their defenses along the Heights. Some 9,000 Regulars and 1,100 Loyalists depart for Halifax, leaving spiked cannons behind them and other weapons dumped into the harbor. George Washington orders "St. Patrick" as the password of the day, and "Boston" as the countersign.
The Continental Congress recommends the formation of state governments.
Philadelphia upholsterer Betsy Ross helps George Washington and the members of a secret committee to create the new United States flag. Ross persuades the men to use the five-pointed star, instead of the six-pointed one that is commonly employed in English heraldry.
Thomas Jefferson, age 33, begins drafting the Declaration of Independence alone in a room on the second floor of a house on Philadelphia's Market Street.
A committee of Congress, led by John Dickinson, is appointed to draft the Articles of Confederation.
The Virginia General Assembly issues a Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason, one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia. It employs language that Thomas Jefferson will adapt into the Declaration of Independence: "That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." The Declaration also asserts that all power is vested in the people and that the purpose of government is, "or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community."31
A provincial convention in Virginia adopts a new constitution without popular referendum. It lists a number of grievances against King George III and dissolves the colonial government, declaring instead a new state government composed of executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
RANGEEND_DECLARATION_OF_INDEPENDENCE Thomas Jefferson finishes drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Virginia passes its state constitution. Influenced by native sons George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, as well as John Adams (among others), it establishes a bicameral legislature with a house and senate. This General Assembly will be responsible for selecting the Governor and the Council of State, which together form the executive branch; it will also select the judges of the state. This constitution, like several others of the period, takes effect through the approval of the convention but without receiving popular ratification.
The Continental Congress votes unanimously for independence. Pennsylvania is initially reluctant to agree to the vote but Benjamin Franklin and a few others manage to bring it on board. The second of July is the day that John Adams believes will live on in history as "Independence Day."
The Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence (that is, it officially approves the statement). The Declaration is not actually signed by all Congress members until over a month later, after a new clean copy—without the editorial marks of the draft version—can be made on a more durable parchment paper. Within days, Continental Congress President John Hancock begins notifying colonial governors of the Declaration and advising them to make copies publicly available. Hancock and Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson are the only publicly known signers until January 1777, as the other signers' identities are initially kept secret in order to protect them from British reprisals.
Delegates begin signing the Declaration of Independence in what is now Independence Hall in Philadelphia. John Hancock, representing Massachusetts, signs first (and, famously, with the largest signature) as president of the Continental Congress.
The Continental Army suffers a major defeat at Brooklyn, New York, after British General Henry Clinton wages a successful flanking maneuver at night. George Washington nevertheless manages to escape overnight, evacuating some 9,000 troops along with their equipment and horses across the East River. The British don't know about the escape and the colonists do not lose a single life in the process.
A state convention, with Benjamin Franklin serving as president, adopts the Constitution of Pennsylvania. It is not sent to the public for ratification. The constitution is one of the most progressive of the age; it goes so far as to eliminate the governor and the upper house of the legislature. Until it holds a new convention in 1790, Pennsylvania will be run by a unicameral legislature and a Council of Censors who meet every five years to review the legislature's work and ensure that the constitution has been "preserved inviolate."
George Washington's army almost collapses during the harsh winter at Morristown, New Jersey. By the end, only about 1,000 Continentals and a few militiamen remain. More recruits are signed up in the spring, attracted by Congress's offer of $20 and 100 acres of land for anyone who enlists for three years or the duration of the war, if less.
During the British attack on Fort Washington, Margaret Corbin commands her dead husband's cannon until she herself is seriously wounded. Although Gen. Nathanael Greene's forces lose the fort to the British, Margaret Corbin becomes the first woman to be pensioned by the government, in 1779. In 1916 her remains are moved from Highland Falls, New York, to the cemetery on the grounds of the West Point Military Academy at West Point, New York, where a monument is erected in her honor.
Thomas Paine publishes the first issue of his series, The American Crisis. Paine famously writes: "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." George Washington has this piece read aloud to his cold and starving soldiers who have retreated to Pennsylvania from lower Manhattan.
On Christmas night, George Washington quietly crosses the Delaware River with a force of 2,400. This is the inspiration for the famous (and huge) painting—"George Washington Crossing the Delaware"—that Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze executes much later in 1851. The actual crossing is nothing like the painting; it is done in the middle of the night, in a driving snowstorm, Washington himself never would have stood up during the journey, and the flag behind Washington in the painting (the stars and stripes) will not exist until half a year after this event. Washington's forces arrive at Trenton, New Jersey at dawn and surprise the garrison of 1,500 Hessians—German mercenaries hired by the British—who are still recovering from a night of holiday celebrations, including plenty of rum. The Americans completely rout the enemy, leaving only about 500 of them alive and un-captured. Only six of Washington's men are wounded, among them Lieutenant James Monroe, the future president.
Tom Paine speaks out against the practice of tarring and feathering Loyalists and colonial officials. He says that "I never did and never would encourage what may properly be called a mob, when any legal mode of redress can be had."32
The Americans repel three regiments of British redcoats and settle down to winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey.
Congress requires that an "authentic copy" of the Declaration of Independence, with all the names of the signers, be printed for the first time. The names have previously been kept a secret to protect the signers from British reprisals, but the Congress now feels more confident in the wake of American military successes at Princeton and Trenton.
The Vermont Constitution prohibits slavery.
American militiamen inflict a serious reversal on the British at Oriskany, New York, when they repulse an ambush of Tories and their Native American allies. They stall the enemy long enough for General Benedict Arnold to arrive with 1,000 Continentals and relieve Fort Stanwix.
British troops occupy Philadelphia.
Americans are victorious at the battle of Saratoga in New York state; British General John Burgoyne surrenders to American General Horatio Gates. This is a serious reversal for the British forces. Their Native American allies had deserted them before the capitulation because they were under the false impression that the American forces were much more numerous than they actually were. Although Burgoyne himself is allowed to return home (where he receives a very cold reception), his 5,700 soldiers are imprisoned in Virginia. Word of this victory leads to the alliance with the French, which proves critical towards winning the Revolution.
George White Eyes, a Delaware Indian chief who has warned the Americans about previous British and Indian attacks on the frontier in the Great Lakes region, seeks protection from the Americans since his betrayal of the raids has endangered him with enemy tribes like the Detroit and Sandusky Indians. Instead, American militiamen at Fort Pitt murder him.33
General George Washington's army encamps at Valley Forge on the Schuylkill River in southeastern Pennsylvania, where it will endure a brutal winter. Many soldiers desert the encampment, which is afflicted with freezing cold temperatures and no food, not to mention an outbreak of disease. Washington warns Congress that if it doesn't send supplies soon, the army will either "starve, dissolve, or disperse."34 Congress is locked in stalemate and doesn't do much of anything; Washington sends two of his generals on foraging expeditions to confiscate horses, cattle, and livestock from farmers in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. In return the farmers receive receipts that are to be honored by the Continental Congress. The troops begin to regain strength by March.
Congress approves the Articles of Confederation; the states won't ratify them for another four years. The Articles create the first independent government to attempt jurisdiction over all thirteen states.
After the Americans' pivotal victory at Saratoga lends them some confidence in the Continental forces, the French sign the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the Americans. France has been sending military aid to the Americans since 1776 (remember the saying, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"?); now they recognize the United States as an independent country and grant valuable trade concessions and special shipping privileges. The two countries also sign a Treaty of Alliance, negotiated by American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, in which neither can seek a separate peace with Great Britain. American independence is made the precondition of any future peace agreement.
Tories and their Iroquois allies terrorize frontier settlements throughout the summer, killing hundreds of militiamen in Pennsylvania frontier country.
The legend of Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher is born amidst a battle near the village of Monmouth Courthouse (A.K.A. Freehold, New Jersey). Mary Ludwig Hays (or Heis), the wife of Continental soldier John Hays (or Heis), carries water for her husband and other soldiers, who give her the "Pitcher" nickname. Molly quickly becomes a heroine of the war. Pennsylvania will grant her a pension in 1822. The British forces, under Sir Henry Clinton, manage to escape from Monmouth Courthouse overnight and continue their retreat from Philadelphia to New York.
George Rogers Clark leads 175 frontiersmen down the Ohio River and through the woods to Kaskaskia, where they surprise the French inhabitants with news of the Franco-American alliance.
General John Sullivan and his expedition force of 4,000 soldiers set out towards western New York, on orders from General George Washington to see that the (British-allied) Iroquois country be "not merely overrun but destroyed." Sullivan and his men burn some forty Seneca and Cayuga villages, along with their orchards and food supplies, leaving the surviving Indians to starve. The Sullivan expedition permanently ruptures the Iroquois federation.35
The Revolutionary War shifts to the South; suddenly the British focus upon the region extending down from Virginia, to test King George's notion that there is an untapped reserve of Tory sympathizers there. As it turns out, there are not as many Loyalists as the English had hoped, and British forces actually tend to write their own death warrant by behaving so harshly that they turn many Tories or potential Tories against them.
Massachusetts holds its state constitutional convention. Its assembly has already tried to submit a constitution to the towns for approval, but it was rejected. So instead, the assembly creates the special convention as a body separate from and superior to the state legislature; this is supposed to exercise the people's sovereignty, but two-thirds of the town meetings still have to ratify the final draft. This concept of a constitutional convention is an entirely unprecedented innovation in the history of government. Several other states follow suit.
Thomas Jefferson succeeds Patrick Henry as Governor of Virginia but only serves one term. During this period, he urges a war of extermination against the Shawnees in Ohio. The militia repeatedly crosses the Ohio River to burn Shawnee villages.36
Continental Navy Captain John Paul Jones wins a fierce battle with an English frigate off the coast of Britain. Jones's ship is badly damaged, and the British commander calls over to ask whether Jones is surrendering. Jones famously answers, "I have not yet begun to fight."37 Then Jones and his crew capture the British ship and occupy it. (Jones's own ship does indeed sink shortly thereafter.) The small American navy is no match for the British fleet, but heroic encounters such as this one keep the British distracted until French naval reinforcements arrive.
The Pennsylvania assembly passes a law that all blacks and mulattoes born from this day onward will be made free when they turn 28. Pennsylvania's is one of several gradual emancipation laws passed in northern states during and after the Revolution, as the doctrine of liberty confronts the paradox of slavery. Northern states can generally afford to confront this problem, as they have always had far fewer slaves than the South. Slaveowners south of Pennsylvania tend to express genuine moral dilemmas over the institution of bondage, and many of them manumit (free) their slaves in their wills, but states south of Pennsylvania do not pass similar legislation.
Boston artisans and farmers attack the proposed Massachusetts state constitution—sent out to town meetings for public approval—as "aristocratic." Constructed in part by John Adams, who thought the Pennsylvania constitution went too far by vesting all power in a single democratically elected legislature, the Massachusetts constitution instead consists of a balance between two legislative houses and an independent executive.
British land forces pair with naval reinforcements under General Charles Cornwallis to inflict the biggest American loss of the war—the surrender of Charleston. American General Benjamin Lincoln acknowledges defeat and surrenders his force of 5,500 soldiers.
When the Massachusetts constitutional convention reconvenes, it approves the state constitution, despite widespread public disapproval. The document goes into effect in October 1780.
Esther DeBerdt Reed of Philadelphia, age 33, publishes a broadside, entitled "The Sentiments of an American Woman." Reed is about to become president of the Ladies Association, the first large-scale women's organization in American history. A passionate patriot, Reed uses the broadside to make the case for women to renounce "vain ornaments," extravagant clothing, and elaborate hairstyles, and instead donate the money they would have spent on those things to the patriot troops, as "the offering of the Ladies."38
Esther DeBerdt Reed and her Ladies Association of Philadelphia have collected over $300,000 in continental dollars from over 1,600 people for the support of the patriot troops. Because of inflation, this amount actually equals about $7,500, but it is nonetheless substantial. This fundraising scheme is soon copied elsewhere, first by the women of Trenton, New Jersey, then in Maryland, and finally in Virginia.39
Just when it seems that Lord Cornwallis has solidified British control over South Carolina, his own subordinates undercut their cause by savagely hanging all conquered forces from the mountains. The "over-mountain men" ally with other backcountry locals and together they defeat British forces at King's Mountain.
Benedict Arnold defects to the British side, making his name a byword for betrayal ever since. Arnold switches sides in return for money and the rank of major general, which has eluded him in the Continental Army. Arnold has already committed treason by plotting to turn over the garrison at West Point to the British, and he also suggests in his correspondence how Sir Henry Clinton might go about catching George Washington himself. The plot is discovered when the Americans capture Major John André, the British go-between, and while André is hanged as a spy, Arnold manages to escape to join the British in New York.
In the wake of General Gates's discouraging defeat, Congress appoints the patient and exceptionally smart Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island to command the southern theater at the end of 1780. Greene wages a successful war of attrition, inflicting heavy losses on the British in skirmishes throughout the first half of 1781. By fall of 1781, Greene has reduced British control to Charleston and Savannah, while savage fighting continues between Whigs and Tories in the backcountry.
As a British general, Benedict Arnold engages in a war of maneuver against American forces under the Prussian Baron von Steuben and the French Marquis de Lafayette.
Thomas Jefferson estimates that 30,000 slaves have run away during the British invasion of Virginia. This figure, if accurate, would represent approximately half of those slaves who may have been able to escape; the rest are too young, infirm, or with families.40
General Charles Cornwallis, commander of the southern theater for the British, marches north to Virginia to make sure that Nathanael Greene cannot use that region as a source of reinforcement for the Carolina insurgency.
Maryland becomes the last of the thirteen states to ratify the Articles of Confederation, allowing them to go into force. Up until this point, the Continental Congress has been exercising authority without any constitutional sanction. Maryland has held up the process since late 1777 because of its insistence that all states relinquish their claims to western lands and cede authority to the Congress. Maryland assents to the Confederation when Virginia finally withdraws its claims to the Ohio River valley.
General Charles Cornwallis fatefully decides to dig in at Yorktown, a port in Virginia tobacco country, with forces of about 7,200 men. Cornwallis believes that his troops are invulnerable to a siege, since he thinks the British navy controls the seas and George Washington's land forces seem to be preoccupied with attacking New York.
A French fleet of some 3,000 soldiers under Admiral de Grasse has sailed up from the West Indies and combined with army forces under the command of George Washington and the French Comte de Rochambeau. Total American and French forces of some 16,000 dwarf Lord Cornwallis's 7,000-man British army, cutting off any hope of relief for Cornwallis, who sues for peace on 17 October, exactly four years after the American victory at Saratoga.
RANGEEND_YORKTOWN_SIEGE General Charles Cornwallis surrenders to a combined French and American force at Yorktown, Virginia. British forces march out with their colors cased (i.e., no flags flying), their band playing understandably somber songs and one distinctly apropos English nursery rhyme, "The World Turned Upside Down."
Virginia repeals its 1723 prohibition on private manumissions (a private owner's voluntary emancipation of his or her slaves).
In the wake of the defining American victory at Yorktown, the House of Commons votes against continuing the war.
The House of Commons authorizes the crown to make peace with the American rebels.
British Prime Minister Lord North resigns. The Duke of Rockingham (who led the movement for the Stamp Act repeal) heads the new government, which includes many men sympathetic to the Americans.
Philadelphia widow Letitia Cunningham publishes "The Case of the Whigs Who Loaned their Money on the Public Faith Fairly Stated," a well-researched pamphlet that argues on behalf of investors—especially widows. Cunningham thinks they are entitled to full interest payments on the bonds they have purchased during the war.41
The Treaty of Paris is signed, ending the Revolutionary War. England recognizes the United States as a free and independent country. The two nations resolve the territorial boundaries in the Great Lakes region. The U.S. Congress agrees to recommend the restitution of property to rightful owners, even if they were Loyalists, although this provision of the treaty will not ever really be enforced. The United States also pledges to prevent any future property confiscation. Both countries are granted access to the Mississippi River.
The last British troops leave their stronghold at New York City.
The British evacuate Staten Island and Long Island. George Washington takes leave of his officers in New York.
George Washington appears before the Continental Congress to resign his commission. He makes it home to his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, in time for Christmas.