*** war and social upheaval: the American Revolution Revolution

The American Revolution (1776-83)

American Revolution
Figure 1.-- The Revolutionary War was an astounding occurrence in a world sill dominated by kings. It established the first important republic since Rome in the middle of what at the time was a wilderness far from Europe. It was the only one of the great revolutions which resulted in a democratic state, the rule of law, and civil liberties. This modern painting captures the spirit of the colonists. The painting is entitled 'The Nation Makers' and was painted by Howard Pyle in 1906. It depicts American miltia at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777.

BY the rude bridge that arched the flood,
      Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,
      And fired the shot heard round the world.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836

The Revolutionary War was an astounding occurrence in a world still dominated by kings and except for Britain, kings with very few restraints on their power. The American Revolution established the first important republic since Rome in the middle of what at the time was a wilderness far from Europe. It was a war that the British could have easily avoided had King George and his advisors been willing to show some flexibility. Many in Britain objected to the War and a minority of Americans wanted independence even at the time the war began. It was also a war that the American colonists won by the slimmest of margins against the most powerful country in the world. The Americans succeeded in their struggle only because they were aided by a French king who was opposed to offering the same liberties to his people that the Americans were demanding from their king. The American Revolution is a struggle that has been somewhat lost because of the much greater scholarly interest in America on the Civil War. As a result, most American's view the war through simplistic primary school readings which obscure the tremendously complicated course of events that led to the War and creation of the American Republic. The American Revolution was the first of a series of modern revolutions. It is often dismissed by modern more radical revolutionaries. It is, however, beyond a doubt the most successful of all the revolutions. English scholars, perhaps because Britain lost the War, have given it almost no scholarly attention. Among the consequences was a radical change in British colonial policy. In our modern age, the American Revolution is often dismissed as not a really revolutionary struggle and authors often focus on the seemingly more radical revolutions like the French Revolution or the various Marxist revolutions. Our contention is that the American Revolution was the really revolutionary event--primarily because of the astonishing advance in human freedom, an element lacking in the seemingly more radical other revolutions.

Central Historical Question

Americans all began studying the Revolution in primary school. The British for their part rather wonder what the fuss was all about. The Revolution is rather ignored in British schools. And at any rate the British were soon building a new and much larger empire. What I do not recall in school, however, was any discussion of perhaps the greatest mystery in American history. How is it that the British, the great empire builders of all time--or perhaps better said the English, failed to hold on to their North American colonies. After all, America was the closest and MOST ENGLISH of all their colonies. They held Canada with its large French population, but not the 13 British colonies. They some how managed to turn men like Franklin, Adams, Washington, and others into revolutionaries--a virtually impossible feat. These were not men imbued with a revolutionary or republican spirit. These were men of a conservative mind who wanted nothing more than to be Englishmen and to be afforded the rights conferred to Englishmen by law. They had no problem with constitutional monarchy. Washington in fact dearly wanted a commission in the British Army. It took considerable doing by the British, mostly by Parliament, to transform these men from loyal Colonist and out of the Empire and into republican revolutionaries. This is all particularly puzzling because in the negotiations ending the French and Indian War, the British made a fundamental decision--North America was vital to British interests. The British in the Treaty of Paris (1783) would make concessions in the negotiations concerning the West Indies to secure control of North America. The French in contrast conceded New France (Canada) for gains in the West Indies. Now while that seems an obvious decision today, at the time the most valuable possessions in the world were the Caribbean sugar islands--small but generating enormous income. Given their belief in the strategic importance of North America, it is puzzling how the British could have managed to drive people who so fervently wanted to be English out of the Empire. The Scots, Welsh, and Irish may not have wanted to be British--the Americans did. Ironically while the Scots and Irish in Britain failed to prevent English domination, the Scots-Irish in America played a major role in doing just that.

Divine Right Monarchy

The Revolutionary War was an astounding occurrence in a world sill dominated by divine right, often absolutist monarchs. The divine right of kings to rule was still the dominant political philosophy of the day. The religious and philosophical underpinnings of divine right monarchy had been brought into question by the Enlightenment, but monarchs still ruled throughout Europe. The Revolution established the first important republic since Rome in the middle of what at the time was a wilderness far from Europe. There were other Republics such as Venice and the Swiss Confederation, but for some reason neither had a significant impact on European political thought. The American Revolution was to prove to be the beginning of the unraveling of the system of monarchy that had dominated Europe over a millennia. The American Revolution was thus one of staggering political consequences and a rare example of a successful revolution. Other revolutions succeeded in overthrowing despotism, but few succeeded in establishing a new society that enshrined both democracy and the free market capitalism necessary to generate the economic success needed to enable the 'pursuit of happiness' offered in the Declaration of Independence. Despite the New York Times effort to rewrite American history with the 1619 Project, this was the central step in human history.

Britain and Empire

Britain today is seen as the imperial country par excellence. It is important to recall that that this was not the case at the time of the Revolution. The British did not establish colonies until over 100 years after the Spanish began building their New World Empire. Throughout the 17th century, the English colonies were of only minor importance compared to the great wealth coming out of the Spanish colonies. In addition it was not until the second half of the 18th century that Britain emerged victorious in its colonial wars with France. The British in their colonies were primarily concerned with establishing the colonies. Once established the colonies were allowed to govern themselves with often very limited intervention by a royal governor. In fact during the 17th century Civil War and Commonwealth, the colonies were largely on their own. Britain for about 150 years had no coherent colonial policy. A major institution was the Board of Trade, but there was not overall policy pursued over extended periods. This begin to change in the mid 18th century as the British began to increasingly attempt to gain economic advantage from the colonies. The colonists left alone for so many years, began to resent the increasing British effort to control the colonies and as many saw it, limit their economic prospects. Here Lord Halifax George Dunkin pursued policies through the Board of Trade became particularly resented in the Colonies--especially as they had no representation in Parliament. .

The Colonies

The American colonies by the mid-18th century were no longer new societies. Some colonists could trace their families back to more than two centuries of life in America. Many had lost contact with their English relatives. There were no political contacts between the colonies. All were entirely separate colonies within the British Empire. Even so. one of the most important common bonds connecting the colonies was the English language and the strength with which they considered themselves Englishmen and loyal subjects of the Crown. The other bond was an often fervent Protestantism. Otherwise the colonies were exceedingly diverse politically, culturally, and economically. Their colonial charters were quite different and there was a range of religions and ethnic backgrounds. The largest ethnic group was English, but there were also Native Americans and African blacks, most reduced to slavery. The most important non-English group were the Scots-Irish, the one group that was often hostile to the Crown. They were concentrated on the western frontier fringe and often looked down on by the more established colonists of English ancestry. There were smaller populations from various European countries, including the descendants of Dutch and Swedish settlers. There were religious communities who isolated themselves. There were many Protestant sects, some of which like the Baptists were suppressed to varying degrees by the established Anglicans. Quakers were found in many colonies, especially Pennsylvania. There were even Catholics, especially in Maryland. There was very little trade or family ties between the colonies. Europeans visiting the colonies could never have imagined that these diverse entities could make common cause against the mother country. There was one pre-Revolutionary link besides common English traditions--Ben Franklin's postal system. The British Crown Post Franklin appointed Franklin postmaster of Philadelphia (1737) and Franklin gradually expanded his role, in part because under Franklin's management, the post began turning a profit for the Crown. And under Franklin letters traveled very quickly within and between the colonies. Even more important, it was the postmaster who decided which and if newspapers could be distributed by the post.

French and Indian War (1754-63)

The English colonists felt hemmed in along the Eastern seaboard. France was the great fear of the colonists. Here we have the historical conflict with France (the Colonists saw themselves as English), the Catholicism of France, and the absolute rule of the French monarchy. By the mid-17th century, that had begun to moved west across the Appalachians into Kentucky. Here the English came in conflict with the French moving south from Canada. The question became who would control the Ohio Valley. French and British fighting in the Seven Years War began in North America. In fact George Washington was involved in the first engagement. The American portion of the Seven Years War (1756-63) is known as the French and Indian War. The War has a major impact on events leading to the Revolution. One might think that the British role in removing the French and Native American threat to the Colonies would have permanently sealed bonds between Britain and the grateful colonies. This did not prove to be the case. The removal of the French from North America meant that the British and Colonists no longer had a common enemy. The War was also very costly. The Colonists had made a major contribution to the war effort. The War was also costly to the British who began to look to the Colonies to pay a greater share of the costs of empire, especially the costs of maintaining military force.

Shifting Perceptions

It is almost inconceivable how a people who in the 1760s fervently saw themselves as English, judged England to be the most justly governed country in the world, and honored the monarchy would in the 1770s launch a republican revolution. Ironically it was the aftermath of the French and Indian War that played a major role. The refrain 'taxation without representation' became the refrain most associated with the Revolution, it probably was not as important as other factors. Taxes were actually relatively light, but British colonial regulations restricted the colonists in many ways. And among the many restrictions placed on the colonists, Parliament added a new one--the Quebec Act (1774). It essentially pinned the Colonists along the Eastern seaboard of North America while the vast riches of an entire continent beyond the Appalachians. The Quebec Act alone made war with Britain inevitable. And while the Colonists would come demonized King George III, it was actually Parliament that precipitated the crisis. Revolting against an elected parliament, did not have the same revolutionary cachet among Enlightenment-influenced thinkers as standing up to monarchy. Once the War begun, however, it was the King who aggressively pursued it, recognizing the vital strategic importance of North America..


One of the most notable observations when studying the great figures of the Revolution is the number of almost unbelievably talented and educated people in America that decided to separate from Britain and today are known as the founding fathers. It is almost unfathomable that such a small population as the American colonies could have produced the number of talented, deeply thoughtful individuals to lead their Revolution. Many were amazingly well educated, but one noted scholar emphasizes that they were not sophisticates in the sense of the British political and military leaders they faced. HBC has developed biographies on some of the individuals involved in the Revolution. The early American presidents were involved (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison). Another president (Jackson) fought in the War as a boy. Two important monarchs (George III and Louis XV). Also surprisingly a leading Roman orator (Cicero) was amazingly influential, especially in devising the Constitution which followed the War.

The Founding Fathers

Americans have a continuing interest with the Founding Fathers. Books about them continue to appear on the best seller list. A range of issues emerge. One is who was the most important. During the 2008 presidential election, Gov. Palin was ridiculed for suggesting Washington, the thought we suppose being that she couldn't think of any others. In fact, however, Washington was the one indispensable figure. He was not the deepest thinker or most eloquent writer, but without Washington's military leadership, the Revolution would not have succeeded. Another question that many Americans ask today is how we could have so many brilliant men when we were a small country and why today when we are a much larger and better educated people find ourselves with leaders who do not seem to measure up to the Founding Fathers. Some argue that the current political system does not permit men like the Founding Fathers to succeed in the political process. Motivation is an unansweered question. The Founding Fathers are often idealized and placed on a lofty pedestal. These men, however, were not saints. They acted in what they saw as their own self interest. Yet they took enormous risks in launching the Revolution. There was no surety of success, in fact failure was more likely and nearly occurred in 1776. Many would have probably been hanged. Yet they risked all out of a fascinating mixture of self interest and personal conviction. One common thread among the founding fathers is the degree to which they had been influenced by the European Enlightenment, including both English and French thinkers. For much of our history, considerable deference, even reverence has been accorded the founding fathers. In our modern age there has been tendency to find faults with the Founding Fathers. Washington and Jefferson in particular has been condemned for holding slaves. Franklin for philandering. Adams for being plodding and humorless. Hamilton for his attachment to the propertied class. Hancock has been depicted as an unprincipled fop. It is interesting how the Founding Fathers looked back 2,000 years to the Roman Republic for insights. Yet modern critics believe there is nothing to be gained from the Founding Fathers even though we are only separated by less than 250 years. One author describes them as 'a querulous and divided group that did not and cannot offer the guidance that we might wish' today. 【Sehat】 Part of the reason for this is the socialist-oriented academics that see capitalism and the division of powers enshrined in the Constitution as a serious impediment ti their acquisition of power economic leveling goals.


The American revolution was the first of the great revolutions. In many ways it was the most unusual. It was not a matter of a powerless people demanding their rights. They already had their rights and colonial legislatures. It was the British Government attempting to restrict the powers of those legislatures--in effect orchestrating a political revolution. The colonies developed in a time in which the British Government exerted little control, in part because of the disruption of the Civil War and disputes between Parliament and the monarchy. It was the French and Indian War that changed British policy. The British Government was becoming more efficient and needed more income to finance the growing empire. And the North American colonies were a major part of that empire and very prosperous. They were, however, not willing to accept any dilution of the authority of their legislatures or to help finance Britain's new empire. The Colonists were not to sure just who threatened their freedoms, some blamed Parliament others blamed the King. In many ways the American Revolution was a civil war. Historians often mention the population of the Colonies was only about 3 million. Less commonly mentioned is the fact that Britain's population was only about 8 million at the time. With the rapidly growing population in America, the time was approaching in which the Colonies would be larger than Britain itself. Rupture between the two was inevitable. The curious thing about the Revolution was that despite the Revolution and continuing political strains between Britain and America, America remained culturally dependent on Europe--especially Britain.

Coming of War (1763-74)

The Revolution was a war that the British could have easily avoided had King George and his advisors been willing to show the some flexibility. In many ways it seems difficult to understand the depth of colonial dissatisfaction with the British. The two central issues in the war were: !) the authority of the colonial legislatures and ultimately the power to tax and 2) British restrictions on western movement and colonial land claims beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Had Britain not attempted to dilute the prerogatives of the legislatures it seems likely that the colonists would have never been pushed toward common action and instead been more focused on the individual and in many ways conflicting interests. Furthermore, many in Britain objected to the War and a minority of Americans wanted independence at the time the war began. At the onset probably less than a third of American wanted independence. Surely at least a third, probably more saw themselves as Englishmen living in America and loyal subjects of the King. The World was a dangerous place. Most Colonists were of English stock and many looked on England as home. Many also welcomed the protection of the British Empire and had no desire to leave, as long as they could have local self government. This loyalty to the British Empire was especially strong among the privileged class who were eventually to become the major Patriot leaders, men like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hancock, Franklin, and many others. The same was true in the South among the planter class. The question of how men who considered themselves British came in a relatively short period of time to take up arms against Britain is a fascinating question. A good example here is wealthy planter, Landon Carter, of Virginia. We mention him because he kept a diary and one can trace his thought process as he moved slowly from ardent monarchist to reluctant rebel. 【Issac】 For him and many others, the turning point was the Stamp Act. These were men who not only feared existing in a world without the protection of the Empire, but also facing future challenges to their privileged lives from the poor and uneducated that constituted the bulk of the population. It is no accident that the American Republic resulting from the War was a very undemocratic count. (The result is still with us today in that George Bush became President when more Americans voted for Al Gore.) Only incredibly arrogant policies pursued by the King and his compliant Parliament gradually turned American opinion toward Independence. 【Ketchum】 In this regard, Lord North's intemperate remarks played an especially important role. 【Green, p. 8.】

The Scots Irish

A question arises as to how the English colonists, most fervently attached to Britain, came to see themselves as Americans. There were many reasons for this, but one important reason was that there was in America an important group which had grown up looking as the British as oppressors in political, economic, and religious terms. And this was the case long before most other Americans had reached this conclusion. They were of course the Scots-Irish. Most ardently embraced the Patriot cause in greater proportion than any other group in America. Their importance on the Western frontier made the western frontier areas a strong supporter of independence. A good example here is Andrew Jackson . It has been estimated that as much as a third of Washington's Continental Army was composed of the Scots-Irish. There were reportedly 1,400 officers. The father of the American Navy, Commodore John Beary, was Irish. There were eight Irish signers of the Declaration of Independence--three born in Ulster and five in America. The Declaration was printed by a Scots Irish printer. It should be stressed that the Irish in the Revolution were the Protestant Scots Irish from Ulster. The contribution of Catholic Irish would come later. While the English had thoroughly suppressed the Irish and Scots by the late 18th century, in no small measure, the resentment that caused along with migration to America was a key factor in their loss of the American Colonies. There were differences between the Scots-Irish and Scots. The Scott-Irish proved to be a mainstay of the Continental cause. Ironically the Scots who had been so brutally treated by the Crown in Scotland were divided many feared that without the monarchy, they would be exposed to the domination of the English majority. The Scots Irish not only played an important role in the major campaigns, but they were also prominent in the West, seizing control of Kentucky. Many of the settlers Daniel Boone led into Kentucky were Scots Irish. This helped America in the peace negotiations to lay claim to the frontier beyond the Appalachians.

Misunderstanding and Differences

We notice a range of misunderstandings about the Revolution and what had become two people. This includes both the people at the time and the the popular conception today. It is understandable that misconceptions existed at the time. It seems strange, however, that these misconceptions exist today despite over two centuries of scholarship, but that is in fact the case. The underlying misconception involved here was that the British and the American colonies were fundamentally the same and that the Colonists were just transplanted Englishmen living in similar societies. This was jut not the case. First is the idea that it was a conflict between two free people. Second, that the Colonists were unreasonable and just did not want to pay even rather light taxes. Third, that the conflict was with the British monarchy, actually an English monarchy. Fourth, that British rule of the Colonies was benign. Fifth, what the purpose of the colonies were. Sixth, that the Colonists were flagrantly violating British law engaging in smuggling. Seventh, that the British were a more developed, prosperous people. Seventh, that the two peoples had a comparable ruling class. Eighth, that the Colonists were an identical people to the British. These misunderstandings and differences were all factors leading to war rather than a political, constitutional resolution of differences.

First Continental Congress (1774)

The English North American colonies were all separate entities. Their ties were with Britain, not with neighboring colonies. The major common ties were the English language, a tradition of English law, and Benjamin Franklin's postal service. There were major differences in economies, ethnicity, and religion. The idea of an trans-colonial meeting was first suggested by Benjamin Franklin even before the Boston Tea Party (December 1773). There was initially no real support for the idea among colonial leaders. This changed with British officials closed the Port of Boston as part of the response to the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Committee of Correspondence circulated a letter through Franklin's postal service urging the colonies boycott British goods (May 1774). There was some, but not unanimous support. New York's Committee of 51, which included merchants with a great deal to lose, objected to a boycott. Rather they suggested instead a continental congress which would become the First Continental Congress. This time there was extensive support. Delegations from 12 of the 13 colonies met at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia (September 5 - October 26, 1774). British policies had succeeded in achieving an important development necessary for the success of the Revolution--uniting the Colonists. The first session was dominated with the discussion of how to get the British Parliament to moderate its policies against the colonies, not a break with Britain. The British view of developments as treason, however, made efforts by moderates futile. And this was dominated by Parliament when they enacted the Restraining Acts (1775). One might have thought that two representative bodies could have resolved the isues. The Colonists would frame the issues as resitance to a dictatorial king, but in reality it was conflict between two parlimentary authorities. King George would be left to resolve the conflict, but it was the Westminster Parliament in London that was largely resonsible.

Second Continental Congress (May-July 1776)

The efforts of the First Continental Congress to negotiate with Britain were met with by the Restraining Acts (1775). As a result when Congress reconvened (May 1776), most delegated knew that Britain was not going to negotiate or moderate its policies. Still many delegates hesitated either out of a devotion to Britain or fear of the consequences of rebellion and the punishment for treason. Intense debate followed. The Second Continental Congress finally decided on a break with Britain, A Committee was chosen to draft a formal document. Massachusetts delegate John Adams suggested that Virginian Thomas Jefferson draft it. The fighting at the time was confined to Massachusetts and Adams saw it was important to involve Virginia. And Adams knew that Jefferson was an elegant writer. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence (June 11-18, 1776). The resulting document which was only minimally edited is a key American symbol of liberty and Jefferson's most important contribution to the cause. Some of the phrases are a critical part of the American lexicon. Jefferson beautifully and concisely expressed the convictions that had slowly taken root in America. The political philosophy of the Declaration were based on the ideals of individual liberty conceived by John Locke and the French philosophes. Jefferson described the philosophy as "self-evident truths". He then listed grievances against the King to justify the rupture of ties with Britain that the Congress had decided to take. It became one of the great documents of democracy and liberty beginning with the Magna Carta. The Second Continental Congress would become the first American Government and the body that directed the Revolution. Little more than a month later, the British landed a massive army (some 20,000 men) on Long Island. 【Lengel, p. 139.】 Until World War I it was one of the largest oversea campaign in Britain's history--only exceeded by Wellington's army.

Military Forces

Colonial protests that Britain proved incapable of handling morphed into a major war forcing Britain to deploy the largest expeditionary force in history until the two World Wars of the 20th century. Several different countries and their military forces would be drawn into the War. The major combatants were the American colonies and Britain. Native Americans also became involved, most but not all choosing to support the British. Critical to the American cause would be European allies, especially the French, but Spain also participated in the War. The Americans began the War with poorly trained and supplied colonial militias. Vital to the success of the revolution was Washington's efforts from the moment he arrived in Boston (July 1775) to build a well-trained Continental Army that could toe-to-toe with the British regulars. In addition to the militia and Continental Army the Americans had had a small navy consisting of privateers. Not commonly reported is the very substantial merchant fleet the colonies had. Some of these ships were turned into privateers. Few could fight it out with Royal Navy ships, but they successfully disrupted British commerce. The core of the British force was the British Regular Army, but other forces would support the British effort. When fighting broke out in Massachusetts (April 1775), some 5,000-10,000 British soldiers were in the the 13 colonies, Canada, and the West Indies. Over the course of the War, the British would increase their commitment more than five fold and eventually lose two field armies. In addition to professional career soldiers, new recruits would be added. Adding to the British forces were American loyalists, German mercenaries, run-away slaves, and Native Americans. The major British asset in addition to the Red Coat regulars was the Royal Navy. Ironically it would be the Royal Navy's failure in the Battle of the Capes (September 1781) that would lead to the American victory. The French played a major role in the American victory at first financing the American effort and providing supplies. Eventually France would commit army and naval forces. Spain also committed its army and navy seizing Florida from the British, helping to secure supply lines to the Americans. Native Americans were also involved. Most tribes sided with the British because of British efforts to hold the Americans to the Eastern Seaboard, but some tribes sided with the Americans.

Military Campaigns (1775-81)

The American colonists won the Revolutionary War by the slimmest of margins against the most powerful country in the world. The War began with the British effort from Boston to seize military supplies at Lexington and Concord (1775). It was there that the shot heard round the world was fired. Cannon seized by backwoods Patriots from Fort Ticonderoga bottled the British up in Boston. King George III orders a massive new army dispatched to quickly subdue the Colonists. The untrained American militias were unable to resist the British regulars who quickly smash Washington's Army on Long Island and occupy New York and Philadelphia (1776). Few armies were as close to defeat and survived as George Washington's Continentals in the Winter of 1776. Throughout the War, it was the British who largely controlled the conduct of the fighting, taking advantage of the mobility afforded by the Royal Navy and command of the sea. The British launched most of the offensives and the Colonists were left to defend as best they could. The most significant American victory was at Saratoga (1778) in the American hinterland where the Royal Navy could not offer support and the population most supportive of the Patriot cause. The British defeat was instrumental in finally bringing the French into the War--a critical development. The overwhelming naval and military superiority of the British allowed the British to control the conduct of the War and made it virtually impossible for the Patriots to force the British to surrender--as long as they could fall back on a port for reinforcement and resupply. The one successful American offensive was the siege of Yorktown (1781) in Virginia, a siege made possible by the French defeat of a British naval squadron in the Battle of the Cape--a rare French naval victory.

Naval Activity

One might have thought that the Americans would be totally swept away by the powerful Royal Navy. The Americans actually made a good show for themselves. Today only developed countries can build ships of any consequence. They are built of steel and require modern design and engineering. This was not the case in the 18th century, especially the late-18th century. Ships were built from wood and here the Americans had a real advantage--vast swaths of virgin Forrest. The British on the other had were running out of forrest and the wood needed to build ships and this was before the showdown with France leading to Trafalgar (1805). The Americans were building a substantial merchant marine of small, rough hewn, but sturdy ships that were competing with British merchantmen. The American merchant men were an unwelcome and serious competitor to the British merchant fleet. The British throughout the War held the initiative and largely controlled the conduct of the fighting, taking advantage of the mobility afforded by the powerful Royal Navy and command of the sea. The British launched most of the offensives and the Colonists were left to defend as best they could. The one time the British lost control was only for a short period, but it was disastrous. A French naval force after the Battle of the Capes (1881) allowed the Colonists and the French to destroy Cornwallis' army at Yorktown. The hard-pressed Colonists could not afford to properly equip the Continental Army, let alone a navy. So the only possibility was a navy on the cheap--privateering. Essentially this was legalized piracy. This was a natural progression from the pervasive smuggling that developed in the Colonies to avoid British trade restrictions, especially the Navigation Acts. Privateers usually had to share their plunder with the Government issuing the letters of marque. Congress decided to allow the privateers to keep all of their prize. The genius of the free market essentially created piracy on a grand scale. Actual pirates tended to live short, unhappy lives. Few managed to keep any of their ill-gotten gains. Many American privateers came out of the enterprise with substantial gains. And there were plenty of targets. The privateers proved costly to British trade, even if they were not touched by the privateers. the cost of insuring maritime trade sky rocketed. This hugely raised the cost of the War for the British. About half of the British merchant fleet at the time of the Revolution was involved in the Atlantic trade between Britain and the Colonies. The most famous American naval officer was John Paul Jones. Less well known is his rival, John Manley. The Americans were not capable of fleet actions, but they could take on individual Royal Navy ships. And Jones even engaged the British in the Channel. Besides the prizes taken, American naval operations not only disrupted the trade between Britain and the colonies, but drove up insurance rates. The Continental Navy waged a campaign that was a mixture of asymmetrical warfare and thinly disguised piracy. Wealthy Colonists financed privateers, both as a patriotic action and to profit financially. 【Patton]

Civil War

Categorizing the Revolutionary War with all its ambiguities and complexities is a difficult challenge. A good case can be made for calling it the first American Civil War. Not only did Americans (many of who looked on themselves essentially as English) fight fellow Britons, but Patriots fought Loyalists. 【Ketchum】 All of this was voluntary. There were no drafts on either side. A less well chronicled aspect was the extent to which the War was a class conflict. While led by the propertied class, it was fought by yeoman farmers (who fired the shot heard round the world), back woodsmen (including many Scots-Irish), and the poor of early American towns, and villages. While excluded from political power, by the time Andrew Jackson, a boy soldier in the War, became president, they had demanded and obtained a role in the Government that would not come in Britain and Europe for generations.

British Dilemma

The British had the best chance of regaining the colonies when Gen. Howe landed his huge army at New York and attacked Washington 's substantial, but poorly trained and inexperienced army (July 1776). Howe achieved victory after victory, but Washington somehow managed to keep his Army in the field. His victory at Trenton saved the Continental Army and the Revolution (December 1776). Washington would never again face such a large British army with such a poorly trained force. The basic dilemma the British faced was that gaining territory actually weakened the ability to fight the Continentals who did not need to garrison their territory. Once they seized an area, it had to be garrisoned. Thus could only be done by drawing down the field force that could be mustered for actual engagements. And small British garrisons inevitably became targets for patriot attacks. The British did not have a large army in European terms to begin with. An about about a third of it had to be posted close to home in restive Ireland. Just look at the map, garrisoning Ireland was one thing, garrisoning a continent was a very different matter. Once the French entered the War, more demands for military manpower occurred, especially in the Caribbean with its valuable sugar islands. Howe had to send some of his best troops to the Caribbean where the French focused much of their effort.

Role of the Individual Colonies

The different colonies played very different roles in the Revolution. Some were hotbeds of the Revolution and played critical roles. Others played less important roles. Here the size and population of the colonies were a major factor. The Revolution began in Massachusetts. Boston was a particular hotbed of the Revolution. Many of the luminaries of the Revolution (John Adams, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were from Massachusetts). It was no accident that the incidents that sparked the Revolution (the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the fateful confrontation at Lexington and Concord) occurred in Massachusetts. And the first major battle (Bunker Hill) was fought there. The importance of international trad and limitations placed on the Colonists by the British were an important factor in radicalizing the Massachusetts. The next most important colony was Virginia. The Revolution was impossible without Virginia. It was a large and important colony. And like Massachusetts had also become radicalized by British policy, turning even loyal supporters, like George Washington into rebels. Many other luminaries of the Revolution were Virginians (Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Mason). John Madison played a limited role in the Revolution, but a central role in creating a successful new American Republic through his role in drafting the Constitution. It is no accident that four of he first five presidents were Virginians. Other important colonies were the Mid-Atlantic colonies (New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania). These were large prosperous colonies where most of the Revolutionary War battles we fought. The Pennsylvania militia played an important role in the Revolution. Each of the colonies had supporters for the crown of varying importance. One colony in particular wavered--Vermont. It was not one of the original 13 colonies and the only colony without a seaport. Ethen Allen was the primary figure in the colony and was as concerned with independence from New Hampshire and New York as from Britain. In fact, he conducted secret negotiations with the British. The British f concluded that there was more support for the Crown in the southern colonies. Some of the most important battles of the War were fought in South Carolina eventually leading to the final conclusive battle at Yorktown in Virginia.


Intelligence and espionage played an important role in the American Revolutionary War. America was an especially fertile ground for intelligence gathering because the population included large numbers of people who were either loyalists or patriots as well as many who were uncommitted to either side. And there was no way of identifying spies from ethnic or national background. Both Patriots and Loyalist looked alike and spoke unaccented English. From the beginning in Boston, intelligence and espionage was important. Women played key intelligence roles. Patriots in Boston warned the militias across the Bay in Massachusetts that the British were coming. Spies were in fact everywhere. One especially high-placed spy was of all people General Howe's wife in Boston. He shipped her home to avoid an arrest and trial. Pennsylvania became a hotbed of spying because the Continental Government (the Congress) was located there. Washington did not at first appreciation the importance of espionage, perhaps because of his concept of military honor. The disaster of 1776 after the arrival of the British fleet and army changed that. He quickly realized that he would need every advantage he could muster to save his Army, let alone defeat the British. He thus became deeply invested in the spy business. 【Kilmeade and Yaeger】 One historian writes. "George Washington, having realized his mistake when he evacuated New York City in 1776 in not establishing a stay-behind spy network, did not make the same mistake twice .... [During] the spring of 1777, he instructed General Thomas Mifflin to set up a spy system in Philadelphia. Washington's instruction specifically included the recruiting of Quakers as spies because they would draw the least suspicion as they refused on religious grounds to serve in a military conflict." 【Nagy】 When the British occupied Philadelphia, Washington was thus able to use Patriot spies to keep appraised of British intentions. And after the British withdraw to the New York area, Loyalists kept the British appraised of Congress and the Continental Army. The most famous Patriot spy was Nathan Hale who the British hung. In retaliation, Washington ordered Major Andre who was working with Benedict Arnold hung. Washington kept informed of British developments in New York through the Culper Ring, a spy network organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (summer 1778). The Culper Ring was critical because from the arrival of the British (1776), to the final withdrawal, New York and its port was the center of British military power in America. The identity of the Culper ring was so closely held that Washington himself did not know one name. Another name only emerged in the 20th century and another has never been identified. 【Kilmeade and Yaeger】 The British also had intelligence operations. Their most notable agent was spy master Major Andre who was conspiring with Patriot hero Benedict Arnold to seize control of West Point, a key Patriot strong point on the Hudson. Arnold was played a key role at the Patriot Saratoga victory. He was extremely close to Gen. Washington. Arnold's wife Peggy Shippen was deeply involved, but she escape discovery by posing as a 'mere' woman. Arnold appears to have turned to treason when he came to think he was not being rewarded sufficiently for his role in the Revolution. His wife seems to have fueled those feelings. The fact that the British hanged Hale meant that Andr� had to be hanged also.

Special Operations

Special operations are usually covet operations and have attracted considerable interest by both journalists and historians, They are usually seen as an aspect of modern warfare. In fact there are many examples throughout history and this includes the Revolutionary War. Perhaps the most important were the guerilla operations conducted by Francis Marion in South Carolina during the British Southern Campaign. One of the most interesting is an exchange of generals. At a low point in the Continental struggle, the British captured General Charles Lee (December 13, 1776). Lee commanded a wing of the retreating Continental Army and was second in command to General Washington. He was hardly a loyal subordinate and actually disdained Washington. This was to eventually come to a major incident, but at the time the British had Lee. Washington decided that the British had to be taught a lesson, He thus dispatched a small force to capture Brigadier General Richard Prescott. Washington chose Lt. Col. William Barton to lead a carefully chosen company. They left Continental held Providence crossed Narragansett Bay to Newport, Rhode Island. Newport at th time was occupied by 3,000 British soldiers, but they managed to get at Prescott. A historian addressing the incident writes, "At Barton's signal, his eager men 'burst all the doors open in an instant.' Finding the main front door locked, one of Barton's party , an African-American--either Jack Sisson, Guy Watson, or Prince Goodwin--took a running start and used his head as a battering ram to break the barrier door .... On the first floor, his men barged into the Overings' bedroom [the Overings owned the house where Prescott was staying], but did not find him. In frustration Barton, at the head of the stairway, yelled 'for the soldier to set the house on fire, for we were determined to have the General dead or alive!" 【McBurney】 Barton and his men succeeded and managed to spirit Prescott back to Providence. He was eventually exchanged for Lee. A it turned out, Washington and the Continental Army would have been better off to let the British keep Lee.

Terror and Atrocities

The Revolutionary War was an often brutal war fought with terror and atrocities on both sides. The British and Tories like Banastre Tarletan were incredibly brutal in the southern campaign. As the War began to swing toward the Patriots (Revolutionaries), terror was unleashed upon the loyalists. Homes and farms were burned and there were many killings. Many families had to emigrate, many to Canada. These peoples were not traitors, but instead often loyal Englishmen who often acted from the same lofty civic ideals as the Patriots. 【Ketchum】 And while we revere the Founding Fathers, the ranks of the Patriots probably included as many scoundrels and demagogues, men like Sam Adams and Patrick Henry. We are unsure at this time how to compare the terror pursued by the loyalists and patriots.


The Americans did not fight the Revolutionary War alone. They had allies. Ironically the American Allies were mostly not countries which believed in republicanism and the ringing slogans of the Declaration of Independence, but rather European monarchies who were ruled as absolutist sovereigns--the very system the Americans were challenging. Britain was a rare emerging democracy. It was Britain that was the foundation for American democracy. And it was not King George that brought on the crises that led to the Revolution, although once begun it was the King that was most committed to prosecuting the War. The Colonists were challenging the European monarch with limited powers and Parliament and fighting as allies with absolutist monarchies. For the Europeans, it was opposition to the growing power of Britain that attracted them to the American cause. The French and Spanish monarchies saw the opportunity for both revenge as as well as gains. French opinion beyond the Court were sympathetic to the American cause. French popular thinking //had been powerfully changed by the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin as the American Commissioner masterfully played a role designed to take full advantage of Enlightenment thinking. The Dutch were different, They were a small republic, but they had also suffered at the hands of Britain's growing naval and mercantile power. Ironically, while America would gain a great deal from the Revolution, each of its three allies would suffer substantially despite the American victory. In sharp contrast, the British were fighting alone, except for German mercenaries they could pay. This was a sharp departure for Britain which usually fought its land wars with allies. Almost all of the famous wars which Britain and England before it fought on the continent were fought with allies. The Revolutionary War was a rare exception. And in contrast to many smaller wars the British fought, the Revolutionary war after Saratoga morphed into a world war that stretched Britain's considerable resources.

Domestic Allies

The massive British offensive failed to destroy Washington's fledgling Continental Army. Gen. Howe came very close, but failed with Washington's victory at Trenton (December 1776). The British recognized at this point that they would need allies. And this conviction only increased as the Americans acquired European allies while they were left fighting the war alone. This was a huge departure from British war policy which almost always involved acquiring allies when fighting land wars. The British deployed a large army to America, but not large enough to occupy a continent. They had their supporters, the Tories or Loyalists who remained loyal to the Crown. Historians debate just how important the Loyalists were. It is notable that all the colonial Legislatures supported independence. Even so the Loyalists were an important part of the population as were those who were uncommitted. In addition to the Loyalists the British turned to two other groups, blacks (mostly slaves) and Native Americans. All these groups were important because the provided a much less expensive way of recruiting than enlisting and training regulars and German mercenaries. Lord North and other formulating Britain's war policy do not seem to have calculated the impact on public opinion in the colonies and support for the Continental Congress.


The American Revolution has been called the 'First American Civil War'. Jefferson described Americans as 'one people' in the Declaration of Independence (July 1776), but in fact the colonists despite the votes in the Continental Congress and state legislatures. Historians argue as to the relative size of the three groups of colonials (patriots, loyalists, and uncommitted). Some historians describe tens of thousands of loyalists. The actual number may have been greater. Loyalists is how they referred to themselves. The Patriots labeled them Tories. The extent of the domestic divide is not fully reported in Revolutionary War histories. The Loyalists not only fought with the British, but there were encounters between the Patriots and Loyalists. This was some of the bloodiest and most savage fighting of the War. Even the British and Hessian were shocked. And there was extra-legal violence directed at both individuals and violence. The American Revolution began as debate and protests. It evolved into into heated, incendary disputes and violence, including tar-and-feathering, house-burning, and even lynching. The Loyalists like the Patriots armed themselves. The British provided arms while trying to keep arms out of Patriot hands. The Revolution was thus in part a civil war. And the Brutish adopted a southern strategy, believing that Loyalist feeling was strongest in the South. Brigadier General Nathanael Greene was one of the heroes of the Revolution. After the British and Loyalists shattered the Patriot forces in the South, Greene took command of the Continental Army of the South (1781). A letter to Colonel Alexander Hamilton, Washington's aide-de-camp, describes the situation he encountered, “The division among the people is much greater than I imagined and the Whigs and Tories persecute each other, with little less than savage fury. There is nothing but murders and devastation in every quarter.” There was plenty of collaboration with the British. Washington's Army suffered at Valley Forge because money was not provided to buy food. The British never had that problem. Collaboration does not, however, necessarily mean that they were Loyalists. Many colonials were simply uncommitted. Reports reached Washington. He commented to a staff officer, “I am amazed,” wrote George Washington to a staff officer, “at the report you make of the quantity of provisions that goes daily into Philadelphia ….” The whole idea that the Revolution was in part a civil war largely evaporated in the glow of victory. Many Loyalists were forced into exile or left of their own accord. And those that remained or had not joined the Patriot bandwagon did not want to bring attention to themselves.

German Mercenaries

Britain until World war I never had a large army, but rather a small, highly professional force. Even during th Napoleonic Wars, Britain did not introduce conscription. Britain rather than its army, relied largely in the Royal Navy for its defense. The task in the vast American continent, however, required a large army because they had to do more than hold ports to control the colonies. And not only did they have to seize control of the colonies, but they had many other parts of their global empire to defend, especially after the French and Spanish entered the War. After leaving Boston, the Brutish put together a massive invasion force to destroy Washington's fledgling Continental Army and reestablish control. The Army as it existed was simply not large enough. The British turned to the expedient of hiring foreign troops. This was mostly Germans, because of their military prowess and the fact that several German states maintained relatively large standing armies. This was an exception, but renting them out proved profitable. And of course the British royal family was of German origins (Hanover) and had extensive German contacts. The major source was Hesse-Kassel. Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel hired troops out to his nephew King George III. They were an important part of the British force and especially hated by the Patriots. They were well-trained and disciplined soldiers. The British -German relationship predated the Hanoverian British kings and extended into the 10th century. It was Prussian troops that saved Wellington and the British at Waterloo. The 20th century conflicts between the British and Germans was in large measure the modern work of Kaiser Wilhelm I--ho ironically was half British. Interestingly, many of these German mercenaries remained in America after the War and merged with at the time the still relatively small German community.


The important role played by Blacks in the Civil War has been well publicized until recent recent years. Their role in the Revolutionary war has still not well publicized. Blacks fought on both sides, but predominately fought with the Colonists. Blacks joined the Continental forces in the early stages of the Revolution. Washington was horrified to find Blacks bearing arms when he arrived to assume command. He attempted, but failed to have them dismissed. At a time when the Revolution was very much in doubt, he refused to endorse a South Carolina plan to raise Black soldiers. Washington did eventually agree to recruiting northern Blacks. Washington as the Revolution progressed came to look at his Black soldiers as some of the best in the Continental Army. At one of the most important engagements at Yorktown, he selected the 1st Rhode Island Regiment--75 percent of whom were Black. 【Wiencek】 The British tried to appeal for black support. This was a factor in the gradual shift of support in Colonial opinion, especially in the southern colonies where most blacks lived. The British shifted the campaign to the south expecting to find more support. Their overtures to black slaves was one reason that they did not encounter the level of support they had anticipated. >

Native Americans

Thec Spanisgh at first carved out their empire uncontested by other Eurooean powers (16th century). in the 17th century, as European nations scrambled to claim the already occupied land in the “New World,” some leaders formed alliances with Native American nations to fight foreign powers. Some famous alliances were formed during the French and Indian War of 1754–1763. The English allied with the Iroquois Confederacy, while the Algonquian-speaking tribes joined forces with the French and the Spanish. The English won the war, and claimed all of the land east of the Mississippi River. The English-allied Native Americans were given part of that land, which they hoped would end European expansion—but unfortunately only delayed it. Europeans continued to enter the country following the French and Indian War, and they continued their aggression against Native Americans. Another consequence of allying with Europeans was that Native Americans were often fighting neighboring tribes. This caused rifts that kept some Native American tribes from working together to stop European takeover. Native Americans had played a major role in the French and Indian War (1756-63) and because many had supported the French suffered as a result. Now as tensions began to build between the Colonists and British, a new war was about to erupted in which they would again have to either take sides or remain neutral (1760s). They became involved in the brewing conflict when the British tried to construct an Indian territory west of the Appalachians and restrict colonial migration west. The Quebec Act (1774) was part of this process and inflamed colonial opinion. Native American tribes had to navigate a difficult diplomatic route in the brewing conflict. The choice was an powerful imperial power which seemed to be trying to protect their lands and a rising neighboring republic intent on moving west. It was an entirely new world in which they were ill prepared to navigate. Many were unwilling to take on the British again. American intentions were less well known, but for some chiefs seemed the greatest danger. Trade and supplies were also a major concern. In the end, some chose the British and other fought with the colonists. The larger number chose the Brutish. Joseph Brant or Thayendanegea, a Mohawk chief, sided with the British and helped ally four of the Six Nations with Britain. For the Brutish this was important. They were the weakest in the back country, heavily populated with the fervently ant-British Scots Irish. Thus the Native Americans were an important ally where they were weak and it was difficult and expensive to move in regulars.


Smallpox was the most feared disease, often called 'distemper' in colonial America. Benjamin Franklin was a fervent advocated for 'inoculation' -- a precursor to modern vaccination (1730s). He used his publications in the cause. It was till very controversial, considered by many to be the work of the devil. And there was a relatively high death rate from the procedure. The Franklin family was irreparably damaged when they lost their beloved son Franky after Deborah opposed inoculation. The Adams family was saved because Abigail decided to risk the procedure. More importantly, Washington's who had contracted smallpox in Barbados, knew what the disease meant. This was presumably why he made the risky decision to inoculate the Continental Army almost certainly saving the American Revolution. Smallpox was endemic in England and the British had a high degree of what we now call herd immunity. The Americans did not. This is why when Congress appointed Washington command of the newly created Continental Army he was confronted with an immediate medical problem. The Army was besieging British-held Boston. That summer, however, smallpox was running rampant through Boston and surrounding areas. 【Fenn】 It is likely that the presence of so many English troops in Boston was a factor in the epidemic. Herd immunity protected the British, but it did not prevent them from passing on the disease to the Americans. One of Washington’s first actions outside Boston was to safeguard his men from a potentially debilitating outbreak. He ordered strict quarantine procedures. The Continental Army force that attempted to seize Canada was severely weakened by smallpox (1775). After the British invasion (1776) Washington would turn to inoculated/variolization. It was still a very controversial procedure. And he would continue the inoculation throughout the Revolutionary War. As a result there would be no serious outbreaks of smallpox in the Continental Army around Boston or elsewhere under Washington's command.


Slavery was a well established institution in America at the time of the Revolution. It was reinforced by British law. There were slaves in Britain, but not many. More important was slavery in Britain's Caribbean colonies where sugar was of huge financial importance. One factor that should be born in mind is that in the south, tobacco farming (cotton was not yet of great importance) was based on slave labor. Before the mass European migration of the 19th century, some argue that there was no alternative to slave labor in the South. At the onset of the Revolution, some included Jefferson tried to argue that the British were responsible for slavery, but this argument was soon dropped. As the War progressed the British in the South began offering freedom to Blacks who joined them. Torry politicians in Britain began pointing out that many of the Americans crying loudest for liberty were some of the largest slave holders.

The Caribbean

One badly neglected topic in Revolutionary War histories is the role of the Caribbean. At the time of the Revolution, the European powers (British, Dutch, French, and Spanish) all had very valuable colonies in the Caribbean. The most valuable of all was Saint Domingue / French Santo Domingo (Haiti). The French were the most successful with their agriculture, perhaps because the French plantations were newer and the land less depleted. The value of the Caribbean colonies can not be overstated. Most readers assume that the primary focus of the Europeans was the North American colonies, but the value of the Caribbean islands meant that British and French fleet and troop movements were significantly affected by Caribbean considerations. Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet. It came to be called English Dockyard and was a sheltered and well-protected deep water port. It was the Royal Navy's main base and facilities for Caribbean operations and operations off North America. The Americans were more focused on Canada, despite the fact that they had much more valuable trade connections with the Caribbean. The British and French concern with the Caribbean often seems inexplicable to historians focused solely on the fighting in North America. The Caribbean theater was the scene of numerous naval and amphibious engagements, often ignored in Revolutionary War histories. The Revolutionary War was a disaster for the colonial planters. They did a brisk trade with the colonies. As sugar was so valuable, the planters grew sugar and imported food from North America. And as the crisis developed, food shipments from North America declined leading to severe food shortages. This caused problems for Gen, Howe as the British Caribbean colonies were unable to provide provisions for his men. And even before the actual declaration of independence, American privateers were active in the Caribbean, forcing the Royal Navy to use part of its force to convoy Caribbean shipping. The French entry into the War only increased the importance of the Caribbean. Gen. Howe seized Philadelphia at considerable cost (1777). Following the French entry, Gen. Clinton was forced to withdraw, in part because he was ordered to send 5,000 of his finest troops to the Caribbean. Clinton was told that they would be returned. They never were, in part because of diseases affecting European troops quartered there. Of particular importance was St. Eustatius,a Dutch island. Nearly half of all American Revolutionary military supplies were obtained through St. Eustatius. Military supplies could be shipped there under the safety of the Dutch flag until 1780. Much of the Continental Congress' communications to Europe passed through the island. The trade between St. Eustatius and the United States was the main reason for the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-84) The Admiralty wanted St. Eustebeus from which they could shadow the French fleet. French Admiral De Grasse is often criticized for not adequately supporting the Americans. This is part true because he was so active seizing British islands in the Caribbean. The British defeat in the Battle of the Capes leading to Cornwallis' surrender was in part because much of the Royal Navy was so dispersed, in part defending its valuable Caribbean colonies. The European planters never fully recovered from the Revolutionary War. After the war the Americans tried to reestablish commercial trade in the islands. The British did their best to prevent this. The impact was to raise the planter's costs. Needed items like food, barrel slaves, and many other items could be obtained elsewhere, but only at greater cost. 【O'Shanghnessy. British

Public Opinion

Public opinion in the colonies over the Revolution is a hotly debated issue. It is kn actuality an unknowable question. We just do not know and will not ever know with any surety. the precise number of American colonists who supported or opposed independence and how large the undecided component was. American historians for years accepted the idea that about a third were patriots supporting the Revolution, a third were Tories remaining loyal to the Crown, and a third were undecided or apathetic. This assessment was based on an estimate made by John Adams many years after the Revolution in 1815. Some historians now believe that Adams was referring to the French Revolution. Many historians now believe that both the patriots and loyalists made p less than a third of the population and that the vast majority of the colonists were undecided. It seems likely that the patriots outnumbered the loyalists. If this was not the case it seems unlikely that all the colonial legislatures would have supported the Revolution. Why the very significant division of opinion was not reflected in the colonial legislatures is a poorly addressed question. It is not clear why if the undecided was such a large number that all thirteen colonies voted for independence. It does mean that at the onset of the Revolution that the British could have prevailed and the patriot cause was far from certain. Here Benjamin Franklin's postal service was very important, putting the means of communication in patriot hands. The British constantly overestimated their support in the colonies, but understood after failing to defeat Washington's Continental Army that they would need to enlist the loyalists in the struggle and convert the undecided. They would never have a large enough army to occupy the colonies. Battles could be won, but occupation required a force the Crown just could not muster or afford. Fortunately for the Patriots, the British war policies instead of winning support, alienated many of the undecided. The large number of British troops itself alienated many colonists. It may not be fair to call the British regulars brutal, but they were not gentle. They looked down on the colonists and often violated basic rights guaranteed under English common law. These were rights that the colonists had long lived under and thought that were guaranteed as Englishmen. Disregard of these rights converted many of the undecided to the patriot cause. It is no accident that much of the Bill of Rights was inspired by abuses committed by British troops attempting to enforce unpopular laws enacted by Parliament. Perhaps even more important was that in search of allies, the British sought the support of Native Americans and black salves. Both more than anything else inflamed colonial opinion. It is no accident that the Patriot support was strongest in the backwoods frontier areas most exposed to Indian attacks. It was here that the first British field army was lost-- at Saratoga (1777). And the second British field army was lost in the south, alienated by British support fir black slaves--at Yorktown (1781). And hated even more than the British regulars were the German mercenaries hired to support the Crown. In the end, the British alienation of the population was decisive.. The British had the force to win battles, especially in the early phase, but they did not have a large enough army to occupy the colonies nor could they afford the cost. 【O'Shaushnessy, Men.】


The greatest atrocity of the War was the British treatment of American POWs. Large numbers of POWs were taken at Fort Washington (1776) and then in smaller numbers throughout the War. The British interred POWs aboard derelict ships no longer seaworthy. Most of these prison ships were moored near New York. Conditions were terrible and the POWs were not well fed. More Americans died aboard these ships in British custody than in combat. We are not yet sure about French POWs. Americans took large numbers of POWs at Saturation (1778) and Yorktown (1881). Americans held British and Hessian POWs in much better conditions. Mortality rates were much lower. Some of the Hessian POWs decided to remain in America. Many were held near Reading, Pennsylvania, a German area although the Hessians were not popular with the local Germans. Several thousand Hessian POWs decided to remain in America, but most returned home. 【Doyle】 After the War considerable bitterness toward the British affected American thinking. The treatment of POWs was a major aspect of this. The British did not believe the new American Republic, in effect an experiment, would last, but there was string feeling of bitterness as was the case in America. This bitterness would persist during the 19th century and was stoked when Irish emigrants fleeing the Potato Famine began arriving in America (1840s).


One rarely explored aspect of the American Revolution is science and the interest of the Founding Fathers in science. The scientific experiments of Benjamin Franklin are well known. He was perhaps the most respected scientist and inventor of his day. Franklin was, however, only the tip of the iceberg. The Founding Fathers were notorious tinkerers, inventors, star gazers and experimenters. There was no clear separation between the political and scientific worlds as we see today. In fact for the Founding Fathers, the United States itself was a grand experiment. None other than George Washington, hardly the most intellectual of the Founding Father, was involved in science. His decision to use an experimental vaccination process may have saved the Continental Army (1777).The very down-to-earth John Adams had public support for science written into the Massachusetts state Constitution. Thomas Jefferson was other than Franklin, the Founding Father most obsessed with science. He leaned heavily on Newtonian principles in drafting the Declaration of Independence. And after purchasing Louisiana, organized one of the great scientific expeditions of the day. 【Shachtman】 And these are just the first three presidents. Science alone is interesting, but much more s involved here. By expanding human liberty with both political democracy and free market capitalism, America essentially unleashed the mind of its people. At first this mean practical inventions, eventually it led to many of the great discoveries and achievements of mankind. The inability of the Soviet Union to compete with American science or the black hole of Muslim science all relate to the inability of those communities to tolerate freedom and unleash the human mind.

Interregnum (1781-83)

The major military campaigns of the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown. That did not mean that the War was over. Military action continued at a low level. The British still occupied many American cities, including New York. Cornwallis'' force was a small part of the British military force in America. The main British force was in New York and undefeated. It would have been a tough nut for Washington to crack even with French aid. The British Royal Navy still patrolled the coast, making it impossible for many Americans to do business either in coastal trade or exports. This was a major matter as Americans before the Revolutionary War operated one of the world's largest merchant marines. It was also impossible to import. This meant that the country was near collapse economically. Congress was virtually bankrupt and the state governments insolvent. France was unwilling to make any further loans. The poorly paid Continental Army was increasingly restive. What probably save the United States at this time was that the country was still rural. Most Americans lived in the country on relatively self-sufficient family farms. This is a period in American history that is largely forgotten. The British knew the nascent United States was still fragile. This was a factor in dragging out the negotiations, the hope that the new country would unravel of its own volition. But maintaining a large army in America was also expensive and to actually occupy the colonies would be ruinously expensive. It was the cost more than anything that encouraged Britain to make the necessary compromises to end the war. The Whigs in Parliament had been supportive of the Colonies from the beginning. The cost of the War finally convinced the Tories to end the war. Parliament which had precipitated the crisis thus wanted out. Lord North had to go and resigned (1782). It was King George who had little to do with causing the War who was intent on continuing the War. The King's commitment to the War was because he recognized the importance of the thirteen colonies to Britain. 【O'Shaushnessy. Men.】 This is something often missed in Revolutionary War histories. One historian writes of this period, General Washington "knew that the war was not over. The enemy still occupied New York City, Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington. They controlled a large swath of northern New England, and despite the French naval victory at the Capes no one doubted that the Royal Navy still commanded the seas. Added to the naval and military situation was a stubborn King George III, who had made it clear, repeatedly, that under no circumstances would he surrender his colonies. Washington was equally troubled by his own situation. De Grasse had already left, Rochambeau's army was likely to leave in the spring, and the Congress was broke." 【Fowler】 And there were individual stories.

Treaty of Paris (September 1783)

Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown ended the military phase of the Revolutionary War (October 1781). Britain had lost two entire field armies and was unwilling to continue the War. Just what the political settlement would be and the boundaries would be, however, was still unsettled. The western boundary in particular was at issue because they had never been clearly drawn even before the Revolution. The British at first wanted a settlement that would have provided a degree of autonomy, but left the colonies within the Empire. This could have prevented the colonists, but after the Revolutionary War was no longer acceptable. The British made a secret offer of autonomy to Benjamin Franklin in Paris (April 1782). Franklin rejected the British peace feelers insisting that Britain fully recognize American independence. Franklin also rejected the idea of a separate peace. America had not fought the British alone. The French and Spanish had joined America and the French in particular had played a major role in the War. The Continental Congress appointed John Adams and John Jay as peace commissioners to assist Franklin in the negotiations. In the end, a separatre peace was decided on because the British offered such generos terms tgo secure it. The Amerucan treaty with Britain was signed (September 3, 1783). Formal negotiations with all belligerent countries opened in Paris (September 27) anbd took longerr to conclude. The allies were presented by a fait accompli. Ansithout vthe mericans, their brgining power was weakened. The final treaty was very favorable to the Americans. They did not acquire Canada, but they got all the formerly British territory west to the Mississippi River. This proved to be a bone of contention after the War because the British were not anxious to turn over forts in the Northwest Territory.

Washington Resigns His Command (December 1783)

Gen. George Washington with the war won and the peace treaty with Britain signed, voluntarily resigned his military commission to Congress. A central aspect of constitutional republican government was military subservience to civilian government. This was endangered by the Newburgh cabal which Washington quashed with an emotive speech (March 15, 1783). His resigning his commission to Congress firmly set this precept in place for the infant republic. The great events of the Revolution are often seen at Concord Bridge, Bunker Hill, Crossing the Delaware, Cornwallis surrendering at Yorktown--all critical points. We would point to an event often seen as a mere footnote to the Revolution--Washington voluntarily resigning his command of the Continental Army (December 23). It occured at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland where congress was sitting at the time. He desired to return to private life at his Virginia plantation. In his remarks to Congress, he described how, "... the peculiar services and distinguished merits of the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war," especially, " those who have continued in the service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress." It was an almost unheard of act. There is no doubt that Washington was the one indispensable founding father. The Continental Army was held together despite humiliating disasters largely by Washington's indomitable will. And his prestige t this point was such that he could have been, king, emperor, or Cromwellian lord protector, but he chose to return to his plantation. There are many revolutions in history and most go badly after they succeed when a commander assumes dictatorial Power: Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin/Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Castro. Congress did not ask Washington to resign, he resigned voluntarily. Historians like James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn bring up the sane historical precedent that echo the classical republican ideals that motivated so many of the founding fathers: "The Virginian, like the victorious Roman soldier Cincinnatus, went home to plow." America would not be ruled by a dictator commanding an army. Washington probably would have been elected president without this magnanimous ct. With it, he became the only possible choice. The delegated in Philadelphia who crafted the constitution, basically created the presidency with Washington in mind.

Winners and Losers

The winners in the Revolution was the American-born middle class. There were limits on the horizons. for colonials from humble horizons. This allowed much great social mobility than would have been possible under class-bound British rule. There were also losers. About 80,000 Royalists left America and many others would have left if it had been possible. This was a not inconsequential part of the population at the time. The big losers were the Native Americans. British policy at the time was to restrict migration west beyond the Appalachians. The British with the Quebec Act (1774) were proceeding to effectively reserve the Ohio Valley to French Canadians and their Indian allies. The defeat of the British removed any real restriction on westward migration and as a result, Native Americans were relentlessly pushed west in the next century. Other losers were black slaves. Had Britain maintained its American colonies, abolition would have come sooner. Another consequence of the War was a change in British imperial policy. The flexibility that Britain failed to show in its relations with the American colonists, it did shown in its policies toward the Dominion states like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa--countries that played a key role in Britain's victory in World war II.


The American Revolution is a struggle that has been somewhat lost as a result of the much greater scholarly interest in America on the Civil War. As a result, most American's view the war through simplistic primary school readings and 4th of July speeches which obscure the tremendously complicated course of events that led to the War and creation of America. English scholars, perhaps because of Britain loss the War, have given it almost no scholarly attention.

The American Experiment

An important question is the meaning of the Revolution. The ideals of the Revolution had some impact on Europe. One issue that is not often discussed is would America been better served if it had remained within the British Empire. Economically almost certainly this would not have been the case because British policy of the time was to restrict the development of the colonies to benefit Britain. The colonies were not, for example, permitted to trade with foreign countries. In political terms the abolition of slavery would have come earlier, although that might have sparked another Revolution. The Revolution introduced ideas of equality, freedom, and individual liberty into the national ethos that were not current in Britain and there were still major differences between the two countries in the 20th century that although not as notable today still exist. America in many ways was a great experiment and continues so today. America became a multi-cultural society in which individuals from very different backgrounds could compete and succeed. Colonial America was not a multi-cultural society. The Revolution created a political system in which a multi-cultural society could develop. This was perhaps not the goal of the founders, it was, however, the result of their work. The common bonds have been the English language and English laws. The major shift over time has been the gradual expansion of the people and cultures included in the American experiment. As a result, there is no society quite like America.

American Schools

The United States virtually invented public education. At the time the American Republic was created, the only other free public schools were in German states. And from the beginning of the Republic, the American Republic was taught as symbolizing freedom, liberty, individual rights, and opportunity. America not only offered political freedom, but also economic freedom. America was the first major country in which the people who worked the land actually owned it. It was the beginning of the end for forced labor (including slavery) which from the dawn of civilization had dominate human civilization--beginner with Sumeria. This was of huge importance at a time when agriculture still dominated economies. It was not only how Americans saw the Revolution, but so did Europeans. The French Revolution soon followed and the French peasantry soon owned the land they worked. Europeans began emigrating and most chose America as their destination bcause of the freedom and opportunity offered--and this continues to this day, only it is emigrants from all over the world. What has changed is how the Revolution is being taught in American schools. Most teachers today are Democrats--some 85 percent. While emogrants are coming to America in their million, many of our teachers are highly critical of America and the Founding Fathers. Some see themselves as Socal Justice Warriors. Influenced by historically invalid concepts like Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, they see the Revolution as an oppressive event in workd history and the symbols of the Revolution as symbols of that oppression and suppression. A brave little 7th grader brought this to America's attention--Jaiden Rodriguez. Jaiden dared to come to school with one of those symbols--the iconic Gadsden Flag and was punished for it. The amazing thing is that Jaiden attended a charter school stressing classical values. You can imagine what is going on at regular public schools.


Doyle, Robert. E-mail message, January 12, 2012. Dr. Doyle has published books on POWs in America's various wars.

Fenn, Elizabeth. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.

Fowler, William M. Jr. American Crisis: George Wasington and the Dangerous Two Years after Yorktown, 1781-1783 (2011).

Green, James A. William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times (Garrett and Massie:Richmond, Virginia, 1941), 536p.

Issac, Rhys. Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation (Oxford University Press, 2004), 423p.

Ketchum, Richard M. Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York (Henry Holt, 2002), 447p.

Kilmeade, Brian ans Don Yaeger. George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring Tthat Saved the American Revolution (2014), 256p.

Lengel, Edward. General George Washington (New York: Random House Paperbacks, 2005).

McBuney, Christian M. Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richrd Prescott (2014), 320p.

Nagy, John A. Spies in the Continental Capital (2011, 256p.

Norquist, Grover G. "Tea, taxes, and the Revolution," FP internet site (July 3, 2012). Norquist is an expert on taxation. He is founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that opposes all tax increases and a co-founder of the Islamic Free Market Institute.

O'Shanghnessy, Andrew. British Caribbean Colonies & the American Revolution.

O'Shaushnessy, Andrew. The Men Who Lost America.

Patton, Robert H. Patriot Pirates.

Sehat, David. The Jefferson Rule: Why We Think the Founding Fathers Have All the Answers (2015), 320p. We are not sure that any serious person thinks that the founding fathers have all the answers. Times may change, but human nature does not. Thus not only the Founding Fathers but even earlier figures have important insights to offer. It is one reason that many of the Founding Fathers had studied ancuient Greece and Rome so diligantly. America would not have achieved the succes that it has unless the founding fathers got a great deal right.

Shachtman, Tom. Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in an Age of Enlightenment (2004), 288p.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003), 404p.


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Created: October 20, 2002
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Last updated: 7:56 PM 8/11/2023