Sir Isaac Newton publishes Principia (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the climax of Europe's scientific revolution, which sets forth his theory of gravitation and a universe that operates in accordance with natural laws that can be understood with human reason. Mathematics provides a logical explanation for these principles. Newton's concept of natural laws soon spills over from the planetary world into the world of human relations, spawning enlightened new investigations into economics, politics, and social dynamics.
John Locke publishes An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which argues that humans are not born with any innate essence but rather are shaped by their environment. The human mind is therefore a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which experience is written. Locke also publishes Two Treatises on Government, a major influence on political thought in the colonies. Locke disputes the concept of a monarch's divine right to rule the people and claims that people are endowed with certain natural rights (to "life, liberty, and property.")
Thirty-two-year-old King George III tries to assert monarchial power on the colonies. After the unprecedented display of colonial opposition to the Stamp Act five years prior, then the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, King George now seeks to reassert British authority in the colonies. The so-called "Coercive" or "Intolerable Acts" soon follow in 1774.
After the English monarchy announces that, from now on, it will pay the salaries of the royal governor and the superior court justices in Massachusetts, colonists at the Boston town meeting create a Committee of Correspondence to carry on extra-legal inter-colonial communication. They want to convince other Massachusetts towns that the crown should not be assuming this role, even though this new move will save Massachusetts money, because it looks like a power grab and a means of imposing despotic government. Officials paid by the crown would presumably take the crown's side on any number of issues.
Virginia creates a committee of correspondence as a standing committee in the House of Burgesses. Massachusetts already has committees in some 81 towns. They provide colonists with a valuable means of relaying messages to one another and in coordinating colonial opposition to measures such as the Sugar, Currency, and Stamp Acts. All but three other colonies quickly follow suit and an infrastructure for inter-colonial communication is established.
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. As much as twenty percent of the enslaved population does so.
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.
The Society of Friends (the religious group better known as Quakers), who are outspoken advocates of emancipation but not leaders in the revolutionary movement, form the first anti-slavery society in the Western world, in Pennsylvania.
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. Paine added the "e" to his last name before he came to America, where he has been living for just over a year. The pamphlet sells thousands of copies in its first days of publication, emerging just as colonists learn of King George III's speech declaring that the American Colonies are 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 (known as the Quakers) abolishes slavery among its members.
The Continental Congress recommends the formation of state governments.
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.
Virginia passes a Bill of Rights, written by affluent planter George Mason; the first state bill of rights adopted during the revolutionary era. It strongly influences Thomas Jefferson, who has almost simultaneously begun work on the Declaration of Independence. The Bill includes sixteen articles, including the assertion that "all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights," and that "all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people."
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 initially was reluctant to agree to the vote, but Benjamin Franklin and a few others managed to bring it on board. This is the day that John Adams believes would 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 until over a month later, after a new clean copy on a more durable parchment paper can be made; one without all of the editorial marks in the draft version. Within days, Continental Congress President John Hancock begins notifying colonial governors of the Declaration and advising them to make copies publicly available.
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.
A state convention adopts the Constitution of Pennsylvania. It is not sent to the public for ratification. Benjamin Franklin is the convention president. 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 is 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."
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."
The Vermont Constitution prohibits slavery.
British troops occupy Philadelphia.
Americans are victorious at the battle of Saratoga in New York state; 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.
Congress approves the Articles of Confederation; the states won't ratify this new system for another four years. The government established under the Articles of Confederation is the first independent government to attempt jurisdiction over all thirteen states. This system of government reflects the widespread anxiety of the age against a strong executive power; after all, the war is still raging when the Articles are passed. This government is going to be remembered for its many weaknesses that impede any effective function for the federal government, but it does conclude the Peace of Paris to end the war in 1783, and it also presides over passage of the Northwest Ordinances to regulate distribution and settlement of western lands.
General George Washington's army encamps at Valley Forge on the Schuylkill River in southeastern Pennsylvania. They had just endured another harsh winter last year at Morristown, but this one is far worse. 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 they don't send supplies soon, the army will either "starve, dissolve, or disperse." 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.
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 have 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.
After the 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 give them valuable trade concessions and special shipping privileges. They also sign a Treaty of Alliance, negotiated by American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, in which neither country can seek a separate peace with Great Britain. American independence is made the precondition of any future peace agreement.
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.
The Pennsylvania assembly passes a law that all blacks and mulattoes born after passage of the law (on this date) will be free when they turn twenty-eight. It also maintains the same rewards for returning runaway slaves and indentured servants. This 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 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.
When the Massachusetts constitutional convention reconvenes, it approves the state constitution, despite widespread public disapproval. The document goes into effect in October 1780.
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; it assents to the Confederation when Virginia finally withdraws its claims to the Ohio River valley.
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 General Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. Total American and French forces of some 16,000 dwarf the English General Cornwallis's 7,000-man army. They cut off British relief for Cornwallis, whose fate is sealed in the siege. He sues for peace on 17 October, exactly four years after the American victory at Saratoga.
RANGEEND_YORKTOWN_SIEGE General Charles Cornwallis's surrenders to a combined French and American force at Yorktown, a port in Virginia tobacco country. 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."
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 are Loyalists, although this provision of the treaty is not really enforced. The United States also pledges to prevent any future property confiscation. Both countries are granted access to the Mississippi River.
In the case of Commonwealth v. Jennison, the Massachusetts Supreme Court abolishes slavery on the grounds that it violates the 1780 Declaration of Rights.
Continental Army officers, fed up with the Confederation Congress's failure to deliver on long overdue funds and resources (including their back-pay), send a list of grievances to Congress from their encampment at Newburgh, New York. Some historians argue that frustrated congressmen sought to capitalize on unrest in the military by fomenting an Army mutiny that would force the public and the government to revise the Articles of Confederation and enact a stronger government that could deliver on the promises made to the soldiers. The evidence is scant and inconclusive, so people still debate about whether this was a pre-planned overthrow or not; if true, it would be the only known instance of an attempted coup in American history. But General George Washington diffuses it with a moving speech to his fellow officers and the presentation of a letter designed to show Congress's good intentions.
Hundreds of militiamen and continental soldiers gather in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to protest and demand their overdue pay. Congress has to flee to Princeton, New Jersey and subsequently grants the soldiers three months' back pay plus furloughs until they can be formally discharged. The tension subsides by fall but the authority of the Confederation government takes a substantial hit. Congress will keep moving between various cities over the next few years, from Princeton to Annapolis, Maryland, then Trenton, New Jersey, and finally in New York City by 1785.
The United States signs the second Treaty of Fort Stanwix with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Federation (also known as the Haudenosaunee). It forces these tribes (the Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, and Tuscarora) to leave their land in western New York and Pennsylvania. This is part of a series of treaties after the Revolution in which the government forces tribes from the Great Lakes region to the Carolinas and Georgia to cede their lands.
Rhode Island and Connecticut pass gradual emancipation laws.
Congress adopts the Ordinance of Congress on Public Lands, better known as the Land Ordinance of 1785. This establishes the parameters of American land policy until the Homestead Act of 1862. Wherever Indian titles have been extinguished, the Northwest is to be divided up into townships of six square miles. Each township is then subdivided into 36 lots (or sections), each one mile square (or 640 acres). Those squares are to be sold at auction for at least $1 an acre (or $640 minimum). This is Thomas Jefferson's vision for western settlement: a land of small-scale, independent farmers cultivating neatly laid out plots of land, the geometric shapes of which are still visible if you fly over the Midwest in a plane. The problem is that this Ordinance favors land speculators because $640 isn't cheap for most farmers in 1785. Future laws will offer smaller plots for more affordable prices, but right now the Treasury is broke and needs cash, fast. This is how they get it.
James Madison engineers the Virginia legislature's adoption of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson drafts this pivotal document because he and Madison believe that the state should no longer impose taxes to support its recognized churches. They think that such a policy smacks of tyranny, and that religion should be a matter for a person's individual conscience, free from state interference. The Statute declares that "no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened [burdened, in eighteenth-century talk] in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."