Study Guide

The American Revolution People

  • Benjamin Franklin

    Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of the most celebrated of America's Founding Fathers, a man who enjoyed success as an inventor, scientist, printer, politician, and diplomat. He helped to draft both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

    It was Franklin who first devised the unsuccessful Albany Plan for intercolonial government in 1754, to coordinate colonial efforts during the French and Indian War. By the time of the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, Franklin was living in London. He misunderstood the colonial mindset when he reassured the English of American loyalty to the King, and that the colonists would have no objection to "external" taxes (customs duties). 

    Still, like most Americans, once he became persuaded by the argument for independence, he became one of the monarchy's fiercest opponents. Franklin was the most famous American in the world at the time, and when he returned to the colonies on May 5th, 1775—just a few weeks after the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord—he immediately found himself elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. 

    There, Franklin proved that he'd already moved past most Patriots by considering colonial petitions to the King as useless. He believed that independence was inevitable, and he correctly predicted that achieving it would require a long war.

  • Charles Cornwallis

    Lord Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) was an English general who fought in the Seven Years' War and served as a member of Parliament, where he opposed the imposition of duties that proved highly controversial in the colonies. 

    Nonetheless, Cornwallis served England in the Revolutionary War and was sent back to the colonies in 1776 to serve as a lieutenant-general of British forces.

    Cornwallis served under Gen. William Howe at the battle of Long Island (when the British took New York in 1776), in the New Jersey campaigns, and at British victory in the battle of Brandywine. He then became second in command to Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in America, in 1778. 

    While directing the southern theater after 1778, Cornwallis became mired in battling the colonists in the Carolinas and fell victim to a 1781 siege at Yorktown, where he surrendered his force of about 7,200 to the united French and American forces opposing him. Cornwallis wasn't held personally responsible for the defeat—which was the last major conflict of the Revolution—and in 1786, he became Governor-General of India.

  • Esther DeBerdt Reed

    Esther DeBerdt Reed (1725–1792) was a civic leader for soldiers' relief, who formed and led an organization of 39 women to provide aid for George Washington's troops during the Revolutionary War. 

    Born in London, Esther had married Joseph Reed and the couple migrated to America in October 1770. Joseph became a prosperous lawyer and a local political leader, and the couple entertained members of the Continental Congress, including George Washington and John Adams.

    During the summer and fall of 1780, Reed and her organization of women canvassed door-to-door and raised more than $300,000 in donations from 1,645 separate contributors. Reed wanted to give each Continental soldier two dollars in hard money, but Washington thought this would only underscore the worthlessness of the Continental dollars in which the soldiers were usually paid, and that they'd only spend it on drink and gambling. 

    He tried to persuade Esther to direct the money toward a fund for purchasing military supplies, but she decided on her own course of action. 

    She used the funds to purchase linen, with which her society sewed over 2,200 shirts for the soldiers. Esther also published essays representing female support for the war effort. She contributed to "The Sentiments of an American Woman," a broadside published in Philadelphia on January 10th, 1780, which appealed for women's war support and declared that women were the equals of men in patriotism.

  • Thomas Gage

    General Thomas Gage (1721–1787) was the last Royal Governor of Massachusetts and the commander in chief of British forces in America. 

    Succeeding Gov. Thomas Hutchinson during an extremely tense period with the colonists in 1774, Gage exacerbated the situation by trying to enforce parliamentary policies, including the Coercive Acts, which only intensified colonial hostility toward British authorities. He ordered the advance on Concord, Massachusetts, to seize arms and ammunition. In hindsight, Gage's actions were the most immediate causes of the Revolutionary War.

    Though he thought himself a defender of the rights of mankind, and though he married a headstrong American woman, Gage simply couldn't understand the Americans' grievances or their cause. He went from being the most powerful man in North America (in 1774) to an impotent general incapable of securing victory against colonial rabble-rousers, despite the fact that he had the world's most powerful military at his disposal.

  • George Mason

    George Mason (1725–1792), a Virginian, was one of the most important delegates to the Constitutional Convention, one of the richest men in his state, and one of the most prominent Founding Fathers.

    In 1759, Mason was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and became one of the earliest opponents of British colonial policy. In 1776, he drafted the Declaration of Rights for the Virginia Constitutional Convention, and it became the model for Thomas Jefferson's opening portion of the Declaration of Independence

    He became one of the most respected Anti-Federalists, and with Patrick Henry, he led the fight in Virginia against ratification of the Constitution. He pushed for a bill of rights as a necessary precaution, and this provided the basis for some of the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) to the Constitution.

  • George Washington

    George Washington (1732–1799) was Commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the first President of the United States of America. A Virginia planter, surveyor, and land speculator, he sought a commission in the British Army before the Revolution, but in the 1770s, he became an early advocate for separation from Great Britain. During the war, he became synonymous with the cause of independence.

    In 1775, John Adams nominated Washington for General and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, and the Second Continental Congress unanimously agreed. Washington—one of the most experienced American officers after his service in the French and Indian War—accepted on the condition that he receive no salary. 

    To advance the colonial cause, Washington engaged in a bloody war on the frontier. In September 1778, he sent General John Sullivan and an expedition force of 4,000 soldiers out toward western New York, to see that the British-allied Iroquois country be "not merely overrun but destroyed." 

    Washington's greatest victory, however, came during the brutal winter of 1776 to '77 at Valley Forge. On Christmas night, George Washington quietly crossed the Delaware River with a force of 2,400 troops. They arrived at Trenton, New Jersey at dawn and surprised the garrison of 1,500 Hessians—German mercenaries hired by the British—who were still recovering from a night of holiday celebrations and plenty of rum. 

    Washington led the Continental Army in a complete rout of the enemy, leaving only about 500 of them alive and un-captured. Only six of Washington's men were wounded, among them Lieutenant James Monroe, the future U.S. president.

  • John Adams

    John Adams (1735–1826) was, along with Thomas Jefferson, one of only two signers of the Declaration of Independence later to become president. 

    He was an erudite lawyer from Massachusetts and an ardent supporter of the Revolution, serving on the drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence, where he offered a few subtle but important changes to Jefferson's draft. Adams was also one of the negotiators who drafted the Treaty of Paris in 1783 to end the Revolutionary War.

    Adams was a strong proponent of reasoned appeals for justice and formal protest, rather than mob action. Because he disapproved of the angry crowd that precipitated the so-called Boston Massacre in 1770—in which five colonists died—Adams defended Captain Thomas Preston and the eight British soldiers who were indicted for murder. In his defense, Adams argued that the British soldiers were just victims of circumstance, provoked by what was "most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, n****es and mulattoes, Irish teagues [immigrants] and outlandish Jack tars [sailors]."blank" rel="nofollow">Virginia pass its state constitution in the summer of 1776. Virginia's new government included a bicameral legislature with a house and senate. In his Thoughts on Government (1776), Adams wrote that the purpose of government was the "greatest quantity of human happiness." Adams derived that notion from Cicero, the ancient Roman philosopher who said, "The people's good is the highest law."

  • John Hancock

    John Hancock (1737–1793) was one of the preeminent Founding Fathers, a president of the Continental Congress and later, Governor of Massachusetts. 

    Hancock's substantial wealth afforded him a great deal of independence, allowing him to pursue an education and gain prominent status in Boston as a leader of colonial resistance to parliamentary policy. When British authorities targeted him for his activism, Bostonians and other New Englanders quickly rallied to his side and tensions heightened throughout the region. 

    Hancock's name has become a synonym for "signature" thanks to his famously large flourish as the first signer of the Declaration of Independence.

    Hancock's trade as a prominent Boston merchant predisposed him to oppose the Stamp Act of 1765. In 1768, British authorities seized his ship, the Liberty, for smuggling. Such a seizure was a rare occurrence at the time and was clearly an attempt to assert British authority over one of the colonies' most outspoken dissidents. A riot ensued, and several British Customs officials in Boston barely escaped with their lives. 

    By the time Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to warn the colonists of the British advance, Hancock was in hiding in Lexington along with fellow patriot Sam Adams (Royal Governor Thomas Gage had ordered both men's arrest). Hancock later risked his life by agreeing to become the only known signatory (besides Charles Thomson) of the Declaration of Independence, as all other signers kept their identities secret for months to avoid being charged with treason.

  • John Dickinson

    John Dickinson (1732–1808) was a highly successful lawyer and legislator in Philadelphia who became a leading political figure in the state and a conservative opponent of Benjamin Franklin. He was a delegate to the First Continental Congress and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he still hoped for reconciliation with the king. 

    Nonetheless, he led the committee that provided the rough draft for the Articles of Confederation and in 1786, he presided over the Annapolis Convention that sought to resolve interstate problems that arose under the Articles. Dickinson was a delegate from Delaware to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and supported the rights of the small states. He became a vocal proponent of the Constitution.

    Before the Revolution, Dickinson was a strong critic of British governmental policy and in 1765, he wrote a pamphlet protesting the Sugar and Stamp Acts. He served on the Stamp Act Congress and helped draft the petitions to the king, but opposed all violent resistance to the law. 

    After the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767, Dickinson published his famous Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Posing as an average farmer and addressing his fellow British colonists, he argued that these laws were inconsistent with established English constitutional principles. 

    Still, he continued to press for non-importation agreements instead of violent revolt. He thus became a relatively conservative leader who disagreed with the British, but also with the radical ideas and tactics of patriots like Sam Adams.

  • King George III

    King George III (1738–1820), or George William Frederick, was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 to 1820. He ascended to the throne just as the French and Indian War was coming to a close, a fateful moment for world history. 

    The Peace of Paris that followed in 1763 led to a number of changes in English policy, which sparked multiple conflicts with the American colonists and contributed to an increasingly hostile dynamic. This dynamic would eventually spark the American Revolution 12 years later.

    A flawed ruler himself, George appointed a series of rather incompetent men to serve as his ministers. The result was inconsistency in governmental policy: under George Grenville (1763–'65), the wildly unpopular Stamp Act was imposed on the colonies; it was repealed under the Marquess of Rockingham (1765–'66), only to have new duties levied with the Townshend Acts of Lord Chatham (1766–'68). 

    Meanwhile, George gave in to the reality of patronage politics and lavishly doled out favors in return for a coterie of "king's friends" in Parliament. This later became fodder for American charges of corruption, foppery, and irresponsible degradation in the English government. In response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, George famously told Lord North that "The colonists must either submit or triumph."

    And so, they did.

  • Lord North

    Lord North (1732–1792), originally Frederick North, held many elite British offices before becoming Prime Minister in 1770. North maintained that post throughout the buildup to the Revolution and the battles that followed, until the decisive British defeat at Yorktown in 1781, after which he resigned his post.

    North extended Parliament's version of an "olive branch" in early 1775, when the English government offered to desist from taxing any colony that made adequate provisions to support its civil and military government. 

    But then, Parliament proceeded to pass laws restraining trade and fisheries in New England, and later in all the colonies. North's "olive branch" offer didn't succeed and the first shots of the war were fired a few months later.

  • Marquis de Lafayette

    Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) was a French general and political leader who enthusiastically supported the American Revolution. The Continental Congress appointed him as major general in 1777, before France had officially entered into an alliance with the United States. 

    Lafayette was wounded at Brandywine in September 1777, and endured the miserable winter at Valley Forge with Washington and his troops.

    Today, Lafayette's name is prominently memorialized in the U.S. capital, most notably in Lafayette Park, directly behind the White House—a clear indication of the indebtedness Americans felt to him after his valiant service to their cause. Lafayette played a critical role in the ultimate victory of the Revolutionary War, co-leading American forces in the successful siege of Lord Cornwallis' British armies at Yorktown.

  • Mercy Otis Warren

    Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814) was an American poet, historian, and dramatist whose brother James Otis was an important activist in the American Revolution. Though Mercy received no formal schooling, she benefited from her proximity to political leaders and managed to glean some knowledge from her brothers' tutors. 

    She married James Warren, who was speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Her 1773 play, Adulateur, satirized Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and foretold the War of Revolution. Her second work, The Group (1775), targeted the Tories. She also published essays representing female support for the war effort.

    Mercy corresponded with her friend Abigail Adams, to whom she conveyed her belief that women suffered not so much from inferior intellect as from insufficient opportunities to develop their capacities. She urged, unsuccessfully, that equal rights for women be included in the U.S. Constitution. Her Observations on the New Constitution...by a Columbian Patriot (1788) outlined her objections to the Constitution, most of which were satisfied with passage of the Bill of Rights.

  • Nathanael Greene

    Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) was a general in the American Revolution who also served in the Rhode Island assembly. He fought with George Washington at the battles of Trenton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Valley Forge. 

    In 1780, after General Horatio Gates was defeated at Camden, Greene took command of the Carolina campaign and helped to turn the tide of the war by winning a series of battles in the South. Greene, a master military strategist, was known as "the fighting Quaker" for his paradoxical combination of military skill and pacifist faith.

    Greene reorganized the southern contingent of the Continental Army, and with the help of guerilla bands in the mountains, he waged a successful war of attrition against the British. The Americans inflicted heavy losses on the British in skirmishes throughout the first half of 1781. 

    By fall of 1781, Greene reduced British control in the South to only the cities of Charleston and Savannah, while savage fighting continued between Whigs and Tories in the backcountry. In 1782, the British evacuated Charleston.

  • Paul Revere

    Paul Revere (1735–1818) was a silversmith and colonial activist in Boston who played a key role in mobilizing the colonial activism that led to the Revolution. Revere was a veteran of the French and Indian War and led anti-British agitation after the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. He was an early member of the Sons of Liberty and took part in the Boston Tea Party. 

    Then, in April 1775, Revere won his role in history and legend by making his midnight ride to Lexington and Concord to warn the Patriots there of the British advance from Boston.

    In 1770, Revere engraved a propagandized and widely circulated account of the Boston Massacre, an exaggerated version of the story that nonetheless proved influential on the colonists' impressions of the British and the incident. During his famous midnight ride on the night of April 18th, 1775, Revere was captured by the British in Lexington before he could reach Concord. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow later immortalized Revere by focusing on him—instead of fellow riders William Dawes and Samuel Prescott—in his popular poem depicting the event

    Revere went on to design the first seal for the united colonies and the first Continental bonds. His military career during the Revolution wasn't nearly as distinguished—he was arrested and later acquitted for disobeying orders—and he went back to a profitable career in silversmithing at the end of the war.

  • Samuel Adams

    Samuel Adams (1722–1803) was a political leader in the American Revolution and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was unsuccessful as a businessman in Boston, but found his calling as a colonial activist, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, a protestor of the Stamp Act of 1765, and an organizer of the 1767 non-importation agreement. 

    Adams succeeded James Otis as the leader of the extremist Patriots, and he wrote a Circular Letter condemning the 1767 Townshend Acts as taxation without representation.

    Adams was a prolific propagandist against British policy throughout the pre-revolutionary period. Along with John Hancock, Adams formed the Sons of Liberty, a colonial activist coalition. He also took the lead in forming colonial Committees of Correspondence to foster inter-colonial communication and mobilization, and then served in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1781. 

    By the spring of 1775, Adams joined Hancock in hiding in Lexington, Massachusetts, where Paul Revere found both men on the night of April 18th to tell them and the townspeople that the British troops were marching the next day to seize colonial gunpowder stores. After the Revolutionary War, Adams lost much of his influence as more conservative leaders took power.

  • Henry Clinton

    Sir Henry Clinton (1738–1795) was a British general in the American Revolutionary War and a veteran of the French and Indian War. Clinton arrived in Boston in 1775, leading reinforcements for Governor Thomas Gage. He was second-in-command to General William Howe and quite well-connected. 

    Clinton was also a savvy military strategist; his plan for the British takeover of New York—which included a night flanking movement on Brooklyn—succeeded in a dramatic fashion, routing American forces commanded by George Washington.

    In 1778, General Clinton succeeded William Howe as supreme commander in America. On orders from London, Clinton evacuated Philadelphia and retreated to New York, nearly losing his army to Washington's forces along the way. Throughout his generalship, Clinton remained dissatisfied with denied requests for supplies from the English government, and tried to resign twice. 

    He nonetheless remained in service, captured Charleston in 1780, and placed Gen. Cornwallis in charge of the Carolinas before returning to New York. Thinking that Washington was about to attack him, he remained in New York too long and failed to reinforce Cornwallis at Yorktown, where the Americans won the decisive victory that ended the war.

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) is considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America for the central role he played in drafting the Declaration of Independence

    During the American Revolution, Jefferson was elected governor of Virginia and, after the war, he was appointed minister to France. He also served as the nation's first secretary of state, its second vice president, and its third president. Jefferson helped to found the Virginia Committee of Correspondence in 1773. He went on to make one of the most eloquent arguments against Parliament's authority over the colonies, asserting that the colonists were only united with England through their voluntary allegiance to the king. 

    Jefferson was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1776, when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Afterward, he returned home to Virginia and vigorously campaigned for democratic reforms and religious freedoms in the new state government. 

    Though a supporter of democracy and freedom for whites, Jefferson's policies were altogether different when it came to the African Americans he owned and the Native Americans his fellow colonists had been battling for land on the frontier. In 1779, Jefferson succeeded Patrick Henry as Governor of Virginia but only served one term. During that period, he urged a war of extermination against the Shawnees in Ohio. The Kentucky militia repeatedly crossed the Ohio River to burn Shawnee villages.

  • Thomas Paine

    Thomas Paine (1737–1809) was a radical writer who emigrated from England to America in 1774. Just two years later, early in 1776, Paine published Common Sense, a hugely influential pamphlet that convinced many American colonists that the time had finally come to break away from British rule. 

    No other figure played a greater role in moving the American people from a spirit of rebellion to one of revolution.

    In Common Sense, Paine made a persuasive and passionate argument to the colonists that the cause of independence was just and urgent. The first prominent pamphleteer to advocate a complete break with England, Paine successfully convinced a great many Americans who'd previously thought of themselves as loyal, if disgruntled, subjects of the king. 

    In his pamphlet, Paine associated the corrupt monarchy with the despised taxation policy, persuading many readers to become proponents of the world's first republican government. Importantly, Paine was a master of transforming the complicated philosophical and scientific principles of the Enlightenment—individuality, reason, and liberty—into plain words that the masses could comprehend and rally around. 

    Just as George Washington and his soldiers retreated across the Delaware River to the bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge, Paine wrote, "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." 

    Washington had this piece read aloud to his cold and starving soldiers. 

    Paine went on to publish 15 other Crisis pamphlets, participate in the French Revolution, and write his controversial work, The Age of Reason, in which he attacked organized religion. As a result of his atheism, Paine returned to America in 1802 to scorn and ridicule, and died in obscurity in 1809.