The American Revolution Era: 1763 – 1783
Editor’s Note (1): This entry was composed of content republished from the Library of Congress>Teachers>Classroom Materials>Presentations and Activities>Time Line.
Editor’s Note (2): The Seven Years War (1756-1763) noted in the beginning of this entry was a conflict among the major European powers with France, Austria, and Russia on one side and Great Britain and Prussia on the other. The war coincided with the French/British colonial struggle in North America and India. As a result of the conflict Great Britain became the leader in overseas colonization and Prussia emerged as a powerful force in Europe. Great Britain gained the bulk of French Colonies in North America as well as the Spanish interests in Florida.
Background: Until the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, few colonists in British North America objected to their place in the British Empire. Colonists in British America reaped many benefits from the British imperial system and bore few costs for those benefits. Indeed, until the early 1760s, the British mostly left their American colonies alone. The Seven Years’ War (known in America as the French and Indian War) changed everything. Although Britain eventually achieved victory over France and its allies, victory had come at great cost. A staggering war debt influenced many British policies over the next decade. Attempts to raise money by reforming colonial administration, enforcing tax laws, and placing troops in America led directly to conflict with colonists. By the mid-1770s, relations between Americans and the British administration had become strained and acrimonious.
British leaders also felt the need to tighten control over their empire. To be sure, laws regulating imperial trade and navigation had been on the books for generations, but American colonists were notorious for evading these regulations. They were even known to have traded with the French during the recently ended war. From the British point of view, it was only right that American colonists should pay their fair share of the costs for their own defense. If additional revenue could also be realized through stricter control of navigation and trade, so much the better. Thus the British began their attempts to reform the imperial system.
In 1764, Parliament enacted the Sugar Act, an attempt to raise revenue in the colonies through a tax on molasses. Although this tax had been on the books since the 1730s, smuggling and laxity of enforcement had blunted its sting. Now, however, the tax was to be enforced. An outcry arose from those affected, and colonists implemented several effective protest measures that centered around boycotting British goods. Then in 1765, Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, which placed taxes on paper, playing cards, and every legal document created in the colonies. Since this tax affected virtually everyone and extended British taxes to domestically produced and consumed goods, the reaction in the colonies was pervasive. The Stamp Act crisis was the first of many that would occur over the next decade and a half
Even after the repeal of the Stamp Act, many colonists still had grievances with British colonial policies. For example, the Mutiny (or Quartering) Act of 1765 required colonial assemblies to house and supply British soldiers. Many colonists objected to the presence of a “standing army” in the colonies. Many also objected to being required to provide housing and supplies, which looked like another attempt to tax them without their consent, even though disguised. Several colonial assemblies refused to vote the mandated supplies. The British then disbanded the New York assembly in 1767 to make an example of it. Many non-New Yorkers resented this action, seeing rightly that their own assembly could also be shut down.
The Stamp Act had led Americans to ask fundamental questions about the relationship between their local, colonial, legislatures, which were elected bodies, and the British Parliament, in which Americans had no elected representation. Many colonists began to assert that only an elected legislative body held legitimate powers of taxation. The British countered that, even in England, many people could not vote for delegates to Parliament but all English subjects enjoyed “virtual representation” in a Parliament that considered the interests of everyone when formulating policy. Americans found “virtual representation” distasteful, in part because they had elected their domestic legislators for more than a century.
In 1767, Parliament also enacted the Townshend Duties, taxes on paper, paints, glass, and tea, goods imported into the colonies from Britain. Since these taxes were levied on imports, the British thought of them as “external” taxes rather than internal taxes such as the Stamp tax. The colonists failed to understand the difference between external and internal taxes. In principle, most Americans admitted a British right to impose duties intended to regulate colonial trade; after 1765, however,they denied Parliament’s power to tax for the purpose of raising funds or raising a revenue. Again, they saw the purpose of the Townshend Duties as raising revenue in America without the taxpayers’ consent.
The British also established a board of customs commissioners, whose purpose was to stop colonial smuggling and the rampant corruption of local officials who were often complicit in such illegal trade. The board was quite effective, particularly in Boston, its seat. Little wonder then that Boston merchants were angry about the new controls and helped organize a boycott of goods subject to the Townshend Duties. In 1768, Philadelphia and New York joined the boycott. As the boycott spread, harrassment of customs commissioners grew apace, especially in Boston.
As a result, the British posted four regiments of troops in Boston. The presence of British regular troops was a constant reminder of the colonists’ subservience to the crown. Since they were poorly paid, the troops took jobs in their off-duty hours, thus competing with the city’s working class for jobs. The two groups often clashed in the streets. In March 1770, just when Parliament decided to repeal the Townshend Duties (on everything except tea) but before word of the repeal reached the colonies, the troops and Boston workers again clashed. This time, however, five Bostonians were killed and another dozen or so were wounded. Almost certainly the “Boston Massacre,” as colonists called the episode, was the result of confusion and panic by all involved. Even so, local leaders quickly publicized the incident as a symbol of British oppression and brutality.
Overall, American revolutionaries viewed English actions from 1767-1772 with suspicion. They read in British policy a systematic conspiracy against their liberties. As the colonists saw it, tax revenues fed corrupt British officials who used monies they coerced from the colonies to line their pockets, hire additional tax collectors, and pay mercenaries to come to America and complete the process of “enslaving” colonists.
After the Boston Massacre and the repeal of most of the Townshend Duties (the duty on tea remained in force), a period of relative quiet descended on the British North American colonies. Even so, the crises of the past decade had created incompatible mindsets on opposite sides of the Atlantic. King George III and Parliament still faced money problems and were determined to assert their powers to tax the colonies and regulate trade for the benefit of the entire British empire. On the other hand, the colonists’ ideas about taxation without representation, about actual versus virtual representation, about tyranny and corruption in the British government, and indeed about the nature of government, sovereignty, and constitutions had crystalized during this period. In addition, the colonists now had potentially powerful tools–local newspapers and committees of correspondence (established in 1772)–for airing colonial grievances. Because they were writing about colonial grievances with the British government (or reacting to others’ grievances), many writers used pseudonyms in an attempt to mask their real identities.
Underneath the apparent calm of the early 1770s, many Americans continued to resent Britain’s heavy-handed enforcement of the Navigation Acts and the continued presence of a standing army. Colonists continued to talk among themselves, through newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, in colonial assemblies, and in such public places as coffee houses and taverns. In 1773, a new act of Parliament, the Tea Act, ended any semblance of calm.
The War of Independence: For some months, people in the colonies had been gathering arms and powder and had been training to fight the British, if necessary, at a moment’s notice. The Continental Congress had approved of preparations for defensive fighting, in case the British made an aggressive move. But General Thomas Gage, commander of British troops in Boston, had been cautious. He thought his army too small to act without reinforcements. On the other hand, his officers disdained the colonists as fighters, thinking they would flee with any show of British force.
Gage received orders to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, rumored to be near Lexington. When Gage heard that the colonists had stockpiled guns and powder in Concord, he decided to act. On the night of April 18, 1775, he dispatched nearly 1,000 troops from Boston. He hoped to catch the colonists by surprise and thus to avoid bloodshed. But all British activities were carefully watched by the patriots, and William Dawes and Paul Revere rode out to warn people in the countryside that the British were coming.
When British regulars (known as redcoats because of their uniform jackets) arrived at Lexington the next morning, they found several dozen minutemen waiting for them on the town’s common. Someone fired–no one knows who fired first–and eight minutemen were killed and another dozen or so were wounded. Then the British marched on Concord and destroyed what was left of the store of guns and powder, most of which had been hastily removed by the patriots. During the redcoats’ entire march back to Boston, minutemen harrassed them, firing from behind fences, houses, trees, and rocks. By the end of theday, the redcoats suffered three times more casualties than had the colonists.
According to Washington’s aide Alexander Hamilton, the military strategy the General would pursue throughout the Revolutionary War was as follows: “our hopes are not placed in any particular city, or spot of ground, but in preserving a good army . . . to take advantage of favorable opportunities, and waste and defeat the enemy by piecemeal.”
The first shots of what would become the war for American independence were fired in April 1775. For some months before that clash at Lexington and Concord, patriots had been gathering arms and powder and had been training to fight the British if that became necessary. General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces around Boston, had been cautious; he did not wish to provoke the Americans. In April, however, Gage received orders to arrest several patriot leaders, rumored to be around Lexington. Gage sent his troops out on the night of April 18, hoping to catch the colonists by surprise and thus to avoid bloodshed. When the British arrived in Lexington, however, colonial militia awaited them. A fire fight soon ensued. Even so, it was not obvious that this clash would lead to war. American opinion was split. Some wanted to declare independence immediately; others hoped for a quick reconciliation. The majority of Americans remained undecided but watching and waiting.
In June 1775, the Continental Congress created, on paper, a Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander. Washington’s first task, when he arrived in Boston to take charge of the ragtag militia assembled there, was to create an army in fact. It was a daunting task with no end of problems: recruitment, retention, training and discipline, supply, and payment for soldiers’ services were among those problems. Nevertheless, Washington realized that keeping an army in the field was his single most important objective.
In order to “preserve a good army,” one had to be created in the first place. It was a long and difficult road from the Continental Congress’s edict designating the militia around Boston as a Continental Army and creating such an army in fact. Although many colonials had had some military experience in the French and Indian War, most had served in militia units, a far cry from service in a regular European-style army. The latter, Washington believed, was what the Continental Army needed to become if the colonies were to stand up to the British army.
As Washington put the matter shortly after he arrived in Boston to take command of the “army”: “The course of human affairs forbids an expectation that troops formed under such circumstances [militia] should at once possess the order, regularity, and discipline of veterans.” Washington rather optimistically added, “Whatever deficiencies there may be, will, I doubt not, soon be made up by the activity and zeal of the officers, and the docility and obedience of the men. These qualities, united with their native bravery and spirit, will afford a happy presage of success. . . .” How this opinion would soon change!
When Washington assumed his duties in Boston, he saw no end to problems. “The abuses [problems] in this army, I fear, are considerable, and the new modelling of it [reorganization], in the face of an enemy, from whom we every hour expect an attack, is exceedingly difficult and dangerous.” Although often dismayed by his charge, Washington set out to create an army that could stand up in the field to the best army in the world at that time.
During the first two years of the Revolutionary War, most of the fighting between the patriots and British took place in the north. At first, the British generally had their way because of their far superior sea power. Despite Washington’s daring victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in late 1776 and early 1777, the British still retained the initiative. Indeed, had British efforts been better coordinated, they probably could have put down the rebellion in 1777. But such was not to be. Patriot forces, commanded by General Horatio Gates, achieved a significant victory at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777. Within months, this victory induced France to sign treaties of alliance and commerce with the United States. In retrospect, French involvement was the turning point of the war, although that was not obvious at the time.
Between 1778 and 1781, British military operations focused on the south because the British assumed a large percentage of Southerners were loyalists who could help them subdue the patriots. The British were successful in most conventional battles fought in that region, especially in areas close to their points of supply on the Atlantic coast. Even so, American generals Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan turned to guerrilla and hit-and-run warfare that eventually stymied the British. By 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was ordered to march into Virginia to await resupply near Chesapeake Bay. The Americans and their French allies pounced on Cornwallis and forced his surrender.
Yorktown was a signal victory for the patriots, but two years of sporadic warfare, continued military preparations, and diplomatic negotiations still lay ahead. The Americans and British signed a preliminary peace treaty on November 30, 1782; they signed the final treaty, known as the Peace of Paris, on September 10, 1783. The treaty was generally quite favorable to the United States in terms of national boundaries and other concessions. Even so, British violations of the agreement would become an almost constant source of irritation between the two nations far into the future.