Declaration of Independence

When the Second Continental Congress opened in May 1775, few delegates required to break ties with the mother country. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania led the group that urged a peaceful settlement with Great Britain. Dickinson wrote the Olive Branch Petition, which the Congress approved in July 1775.

The document declared that the colonists were loyal to the King and urged him to remedy their complaints. However, George II ignored the petition. On August 23rd, he declared all the colonies to be in rebellion. A few moths later, Parliament closed all American ports to overseas trade. Those actions convinced many delegates that a peaceful settlement of differences with the British was impossible. The support for American independence continued to build early in 1776. In January, the political writer Thomas Paine issued a sensational pamphlet titled Common Sense. Paine attacked George III as unjust, and he argued brilliantly for the complete independence of the American Colonies.

In June 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced the resolution in the Congress “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States”. The Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence in case Lee’s resolution was adopted. On July 2, the Congress approved Lee’s resolution. It adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and the United States of America was born.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

was an American Founding Father who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and later served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809. Previously, he was elected the second Vice President of the United States, serving under John Adams from 1797 to 1801. A proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights motivating American colonists to break from Great Britain and form a new nation, he produced formative documents and decisions at both the state and national level. He was a land owner and farmer.

Jefferson was primarily of English ancestry, born and educated in colonial Virginia. He graduated from the College of William & Mary and briefly practiced law, at times defending slaves seeking their freedom. During the American Revolution, he represented Virginia in the Continental Congress that adopted the Declaration, drafted the law for religious freedom as a Virginia legislator, and he served as a wartime governor (1779–1781). He became the United States Minister to France in May 1785, and subsequently the nation’s first Secretary of State in 1790–1793 under President George Washington. Jefferson and James Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose the Federalist Party during the formation of the First Party System. With Madison, he anonymously wrote the controversial Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in 1798–1799, which sought to embolden states’ rights in opposition to the national government by nullifying the Alien and Sedition Acts.

As President, Jefferson pursued the nation’s shipping and trade interests against Barbary pirates and aggressive British trade policies. He also organized the Louisiana Purchase, almost doubling the country’s territory. As a result of peace negotiations with France, his administration reduced military forces. He was reelected in 1804. Jefferson’s second term was beset with difficulties at home, including the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr. American foreign trade was diminished when Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act of 1807, responding to British threats to U.S. shipping. In 1803, Jefferson began a controversial process of Indian tribe removal to the newly organized Louisiana Territory, and he signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807.

Jefferson mastered many disciplines, which ranged from surveying and mathematics to horticulture and mechanics. He was a proven architect in the classical tradition. Jefferson’s keen interest in religion and philosophy earned him the presidency of the American Philosophical Society. He shunned organized religion but was influenced by both Christianity and deism. He was well versed in linguistics and spoke several languages. He founded the University of Virginia after retiring from public office. He was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with many prominent and important people throughout his adult life. His only full-length book is Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), considered the most important American book published before 1800.

After the Americans declared their independence, they had to win it by force. The task proved difficult, partly because the people never fully united behind the war effort. A large number of colonists remained unconcerned about the outcome of the war and supported neither side. As many as a third of the people sympathized with Great Britain. They called themselves Loyalists. The patriots called them Tories, after the Britain’s Tory Party, which strongly supported the king. Victory in the Revolutionary War depended on the patriots, who made up less than a third of the population.

Although the patriots formed a minority of the colonial population, they had many advantages over the British in the Revolutionary War. They had plenty of manpower, if they could only persuade citizens to come out and fight. While the British, they didn’t have to supply their army across an ocean. In addition, the patriots fought on familiar terrain and could retreat out of reach of the British. In time, Britain’s chief rivals, France and Spain, joined the war. Their aid enabled the patriots to win independence.

American patriots also benefited from British blunders. The British expected an early victory. They thought that the patriots would turn and run at the sight of masses of redcoats. Yet British military leaders were cautious in their battle plans. American military leaders were less experienced and less assured than British officers. But they were more willing to take chances. In the long run, during leadership provided the Americans with a valuable advantage.

Fighting Forces

The American Colonies entered the Revolutionary War without an army or a navy. Their fighting forces consisted of militia units in the various colonies. The militias were made up of white men from 16 to 60 years old. Those citizen-soldiers were ready to defend their homes and families when danger threatened. The colonies could call up militiamen for periods of service ranging from a few days to a few months. Great Britain had an army of well-trained and highly disciplined soldiers. Britain also hired professional German soldiers. Such soldiers were often called Hessians because most of them came from the German State of Hesse-Kassel. American Loyalists and Indians also joined British fighting forces during the war. At its peak, the British military force in North American numbered about 50,000.

George Washington and other patriot leaders doubted that part-time militias could defeat the British in a long war. Washington worked to build an army made up of disciplined soldiers who had enlisted for several years. However, recruitment for the Continental Army remained a constant problem. Most citizens preferred to serve in local militias and support the Continental Army when a major battle threatened nearby. Washington commanded as many as 15,000 soldiers at a time, and he frequently commanded for fever. Soldiers often went without pay, food, and proper clothing because the Continental Congress was so poor and transportation in the colonies was so bad. Yet many poor soldiers stayed in the army because they had been promised free land after the war. They fought as much for economic gain as for political liberty. In time, most states permitted blacks to serve in the Continental Army. In all, about 5,000 blacks fought on the patriot side in the war. Many were slaves who had been promised freedom in exchange for military service. Britain’s powerful navy loosely blockaded America’s Atlantic coast and at times raided port towns. The Americans had a small navy, which was too weak to challenge large British warships. However, the Continental Navy sank or captured many smaller British vessels, especially cargo ships. Privately owned American vessels known as privateers also captured enemy cargo ships. The stolen cargoes were then sold, with the profits going to investors, the ship captains, and the crews.

Weapons and Tactics

The most important weapons of the Revolutionary War were the flintlock musket, the rifle, and the cannon.

The musket discharged a large lead ball and could fire three or four rounds a minute. A bayonet could be fastened over the muzzle of a musket. Rifles had much greater accuracy than muskets.

But rifles took longer to reload, which made then less efficient in the battle. American frontiersmen improved the rifles value by their skill at rapid loading. Cannons hurled shells long distances and blasted soldiers at closer range.

On the battlefield, soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder, two or three rows deep. Their muskets had little accuracy beyond about 60 yards. For that reason, the attackers advanced as far as possible before shooting. After firing several rounds, the two sides closed in for hard-to-hard combat with bayonets. The battle ended when one side broke through enemy lines or forced the other side to retreat. In the early years of the war, the Americans had few bayonets, which gave the redcoats an enormous advantage.

Patriot Governments

The Continental Congress provided leadership for the 13 former British colonies during most of the Revolutionary War. After the Declaration of Independence was adopted, each former colony called itself a state. The Congress drew up a plan called the Articles of Confederation to unify the States under a central government.

The Articles left nearly all powers to the States because many delegates distrusted a strong central government. By March 1781, all 13 states had approved the Articles.

Each state formed a government to replace its former British administration. In most states, an elected legislative drafted a new constitution that defined the powers of the government. In 1780, Massachusetts became the last state to introduce a new constitution. Patriot committees in each state stirred support for the war effort. Such committees tormented citizens suspected of sympathizing with Great Britain. Many Loyalists left the colonies rather than submit to the demands of patriot committees. By the end of the war, as many as 100,000 Loyalists had fled to Canada, England, the Bahamas, and other British territories.

Financing the War

The Continental Congress had to pay for the Revolutionary War. But it had no power to tax the people. Late in 1775, the Congress began to raise paper currency known as Continental dollars. However, it issued so many Continentals that they became nearly worthless. The Congress received some money from the states, but never enough. Loans and gifts of cash from other nations especially from France, the Netherlands, and Spain saved the patriots. The Congress also obtained bans from patriot merchants and other Americans who had cash or goods to spare. Those citizens received certificates that promised fall repayment of their loans with interest.

Diplomatic Triumphs

Vital support for the American cause in the Revolutionary War came from France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Benjamin Franklin represented the Americans in France and played a key role in obtaining French support for the patriots.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is known for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions. He founded many civic organizations, including Philadelphia’s fire department and the University of Pennsylvania.

Franklin earned the title of “The First American” for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity, initially as an author and spokesman in London for several colonies. As the first United States Ambassador to France, he exemplified the emerging American nation. Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment. In the words of historian Henry Steele Commager, “In a Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.” To Walter Isaacson, this makes Franklin “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.”

Franklin became a successful newspaper editor and printer in Philadelphia, the leading city in the colonies, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette at the age of 23. He became wealthy publishing this and Poor Richard’s Almanack, which he authored under the pseudonym “Richard Saunders”. After 1767, he was associated with the Pennsylvania Chronicle, a newspaper that was known for its revolutionary sentiments and criticisms of British policies.

He pioneered and was first president of Academy and College of Philadelphia which opened in 1751 and later became the University of Pennsylvania. He organized and was the first secretary of the American Philosophical Society and was elected president in 1769. Franklin became a national hero in America as an agent for several colonies when he spearheaded an effort in London to have the Parliament of Great Britain repeal the unpopular Stamp Act. An accomplished diplomat, he was widely admired among the French as American minister to Paris and was a major figure in the development of positive Franco-American relations. His efforts proved vital for the American Revolution in securing shipments of crucial munitions from France.

He was promoted to deputy postmaster-general for the British colonies in 1753, having been Philadelphia postmaster for many years, and this enabled him to set up the first national communications network. During the Revolution, he became the first United States Postmaster General. He was active in community affairs and colonial and state politics, as well as national and international affairs. From 1785 to 1788, he served as governor of Pennsylvania. He initially owned and dealt in slaves but, by the 1750s, he argued against slavery from an economic perspective and became one of the most prominent abolitionists.

Before the Revolutionary War began, French leaders had watched with interest the widening split between Great Britain and the American Colonies. France still smarted from its defeat by Britain in the French and Indian War. France’s foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes, believed that a patriot victory would benefit France by weakening the mighty British Empire. France agreed to aid the patriots secretly. But France refused to ally itself openly with the Americans before they had proved themselves in battle.

From 1776 to 1778, France and America “good and faithful” allies. Thereafter, France also provided the patriots with troops and warships. Spain entered the war as an ally of France in 1779. The Netherlands joined the war in 1780. With so much support, the patriots were at last able to win their independence.