The Declaration of Independence was a product of the Second Continental Congress. Two earlier intercolonial conferences had occurred, each building important keystones of colonial unity. The Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress brought the delegates from differing colonies to agreement on a message to send to the king. Each successive Congress brought greater participation. Each time the representatives met, they were more accustomed to compromise. As times grew more desperate, the people at home became more and more willing to trust their national leaders.
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"No taxation without representation!" was the cry. The colonists were not merely griping about the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. They intended to place actions behind their words. One thing was clear no colony acting alone could effectively convey a message to the king and Parliament. The appeals to Parliament by the individual legislatures had been ignored. It was James Otis who suggested an intercolonial conference to agree on a united course of action. With that, the Stamp Act Congress convened in New York in October 1765.
They were the ones who were not afraid. They knew instinctively that talk and politics alone would not bring an end to British tyranny. They were willing to resort to extralegal means if necessary to end this series of injustices. They were American patriots northern and southern, young and old, male and female. They were the Sons and Daughters of Liberty.
Volumes and volumes of written work was emerging in the American colonies on the subject of British policies. Apart from major documents and publications, much writing had been produced as letters, pamphlets, and newspaper editorials. The arguments set forth in this way were at times very convincing. American patriots of the 1770s did not have modern means of communication at their disposal. To spread the power of the written word from town to town and colony to colony, Committees of Correspondence were established.
In the summer that followed Parliament's attempt to punish Boston, sentiment for the patriot cause increased dramatically. The printing presses at the Committees of Correspondence were churning out volumes.
Times had taken a sharp turn for the worse. Lexington and Concord had changed everything. When the Redcoats fired into the Boston crowd in 1775, the benefit of the doubt was granted. Now the professional imperial army was attempting to arrest patriot leaders, and minutemen had been killed in their defense. In May 1775, with Redcoats once again storming Boston, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia.
Americans could not break their ties with Britain easily. Despite all the recent hardships, the majority of colonists since birth were reared to believe that England was to be loved and its monarch revered. Yet there were the terrible injustices the colonists could not forget. Americans were divided against themselves. Arguments for independence were growing. Thomas Paine would provide the extra push.
The moment had finally come. Far too much bad blood existed between the colonial leaders and the crown to consider a return to the past. More and more colonists felt deprived by the British not only of their money and their civil liberties, but their lives as well. Bloodshed had begun over a year ago and there seemed little chance of a ceasefire. The radical wing of the Continental Congress was gaining strength with each passing day. It was time for a formal break with mother England. It was time to declare independence.
How could the Americans ever hope defeat the mighty British Empire in a military conflict? Americans faced seemingly impossible obstacles. When the guns fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, there was not yet even a Continental Army. Those battles were fought by local militias. Few Americans had any military experience, and there was no method of training, supplying, or paying an army.
The British seemed unbeatable. During the previous 100 years, the British had enjoyed triumph after triumph over nations as powerful as France and Spain. At first glance, the odds were clearly against the Americans. A closer look provides insight into how the underdogs emerged victorious.
It is impossible to know the exact number of American colonists who favored or opposed independence. This section discusses attitudes toward the American Revolution in the colonies
Ready to fight at a moment's notice, minutemen began fighting early in the American Revolution. Their efforts at Lexington and Concord inspired many patriots to take up arms against Britain.
On the night of June 16, 1775, a detail of American troops acting under orders from Artemas Ward moved out of their camp, carrying picks, shovels, and guns. They entrenched themselves on a rise located on Charleston Peninsula overlooking Boston. Their destination: Bunker Hill.
During the war years, those Americans not involved in warfare were doing their best just trying to survive. Farmers continued to grow food, artisans continued to practice their trades, and merchants attempted to maintain their businesses. Despite efforts to maintain business as usual, the entire social landscape was changed.
At Valley Forge, there were shortages of everything from food to clothing to medicine. Washington's men were sick from disease, hunger, and exposure. The Continental Army camped in crude log cabins and endured cold conditions while the Redcoats warmed themselves in colonial homes. The patriots went hungry while the British soldiers ate well.
The Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the Revolutionary War. The scope of the victory is made clear by a few key facts: On October 17, 1777, 5,895 British and Hessian troops surrendered their arms. General John Burgoyne had lost 86 percent of his expeditionary force that had triumphantly marched into New York from Canada in the early summer of 1777.
Nowhere was the victory at Saratoga more noted than in France, which had been tentative in its efforts to assist the Americans. France's interest in the American fight for independence stemmed from France's humiliating defeat during the Seven Years War at the hands of its ancient enemy, England.
Although the American military was still enduring losses in 1780, the French were making a difference. The French navy was disrupting the British blockade. French commanders such as Lafayette and Rochambeau earned the respect and admiration of the American troops.
Liberty, republicanism, and independence are powerful causes. The patriots tenaciously asserted American rights and brought the Revolution. The Revolution brought myriad consequences to the American social fabric. There was no Reign of Terror as in the French Revolution. There was no replacement of the ruling class by workers' groups as in revolutionary Russia. How then could the American Revolution be described as radical? Nearly every aspect of American life was somehow touched by the revolutionary spirit. From slavery to women's rights, from religious life to voting, American attitudes would be forever changed.
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply did not seem consistent with the practice of chattel slavery. How could a group of people feel so passionate about these unalienable rights, yet maintain the brutal practice of human bondage? Somehow slavery would manage to survive the revolutionary era, but great changes were brought to this peculiar institution nevertheless.
During the colonial era, Americans were bound by British law. Now, they were no longer governed by the Crown or by colonial charter. Independent, Americans could seek to eliminate or maintain laws as they saw fit. The possibilities were endless. Republican revolutionary sentiment brought significant change during the immediate postwar years.
Every society needs a set of rules by which to operate. After the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, they had to write their own constitutions. Impassioned with the republican spirit of the Revolution, political leaders pointed their ideals toward crafting "enlightened" documents. The result was thirteen republican laboratories, each experimenting with new ways of realizing the goals of the Revolution. In addition, representatives from all the colonies worked together to craft the Articles of Confederation, which itself provided the nascent nation with invaluable experience.
Women's role in society was altered by the American Revolution. Women who ran households in the absence of men became more assertive. Abigail Adams, wife of John, became an early advocate of women's rights when she prompted her husband to "Remember the Ladies" when drawing up a new government.
The war for American independence began with military conflict in 1775 and lasted at least until 1783 when the peace treaty with the British was signed. In fact, Native Americans in the west (who were allied with the British, but not included in the 1783 negotiations) continued to fight and didn't sign a treaty with the United States until 1795. The Revolution was a long, hard, and difficult struggle.
What was the Declaration? Why do Americans continue to celebrate its public announcement as the birthday of the United States, July 4, 1776? While that date might just mean a barbecue and fireworks to some today, what did the Declaration mean when it was written in the summer of 1776?
In the early days of 1776, most Americans were naďve when assessing just how difficult the war would be. Great initial enthusiasm led many men to join local militias where they often served under officers of their own choosing. Yet, these volunteer forces were not strong enough to defeat the British Army, which was the most highly trained and best equipped in the world. Furthermore, because most men preferred serving in the militia, the Continental Congress had trouble getting volunteers for General George Washington's Continental Army. This was in part because, the Continental Army demanded longer terms and harsher discipline.
Although Loyalists were steadfast in their commitment to remain within the British Empire, it was a very hard decision to make and to stick to during the Revolution. Even before the war started, a group of Philadelphia Quakers were arrested and imprisoned in Virginia because of their perceived support of the British. The Patriots were not a tolerant group, and Loyalists suffered regular harassment, had their property seized, or were subject to personal attacks.
In many ways, the Revolution reinforced American commitment to slavery. On the other hand, the Revolution also hinged on radical new ideas about "liberty" and "equality," which challenged slavery's long tradition of extreme human inequality. The changes to slavery in the Revolutionary Era revealed both the potential for radical change and its failure more clearly than any other issue.
The Revolutionary rethinking of the rules for society also led to some reconsideration of the relationship between men and women. At this time, women were widely considered to be inferior to men, a status that was especially clear in the lack of legal rights for married women. The law did not recognize wives' independence in economic, political, or civic matters in Anglo-American society of the eighteenth century.
While the previous explorations of African American and white female experience suggest both the gains and limitations produced in the Revolutionary Era, from the perspective of almost all Native Americans the American Revolution was an unmitigated disaster. At the start of the war Patriots worked hard to try and ensure Indian neutrality, for Indians could provide strategic military assistance that might decide the struggle. Gradually, however, it became clear to most native groups, that an independent America posed a far greater threat to their interests and way of life than a continued British presence that restrained American westward expansion.
The Revolution succeeded for many reasons, but central to them was broad popular support for a social movement that opposed monarchy and the hereditary privilege. Diverse Americans rallied to the cause to create an independent American republic in which individuals would create a more equal government through talent and a strong commitment to the public good. Two groups of Americans most fully represented the independent ideal in this republican vision for the new nation: yeomen farmers and urban artisans.
The American Revolution needs to be understood in a broader framework than simply that of domestic events and national politics. The American Revolution started a trans-Atlantic Age of Revolution. Tom Paine, the author of Common Sense (1776), permits a biographical glimpse of the larger currents of revolutionary change in this period. Paine was English-born and had been in the American colonies less than two years when he wrote what would become the most popular publication of the American Revolution.
The American Revolution began the process of creating a new nation in a number of different ways; by protesting British rule through legal and extra-legal actions; by waging a war to end America's status as a colonized territory; and by designing new forms of government for what Patriots hoped would become independent states.
The states now faced serious and complicated questions about how to make their rules. What did it mean to replace royal authority with institutions based on popular rule? How was "popular sovereignty" (the idea that the people were the highest authority) to be institutionalized in the new state governments? For that matter, who were "the people"?
While the state constitutions were being created, the Continental Congress continued to meet as a general political body. Despite being the central government, it was a loose confederation and most significant power was held by the individual states. By 1777 members of Congress realized that they should have some clearly written rules for how they were organized. As a result the Articles of Confederation were drafted and passed by the Congress in November.
The central failure of the Congress was related to its limited fiscal power. Because it could not impose taxes on the states, the national government's authority and effectiveness was severely limited. Given this major encumbrance, the accomplishments of the Congress were quite impressive. First of all, it raised the Continental Army, kept it in the field, and managed to finance the war effort.
The economic problems faced by the Congress deeply touched the lives of most Americans in the 1780s. The war had disrupted much of the American economy. On the high seas the British navy had great superiority and destroyed most American ships, crippling the flow of trade. On land, where both armies regularly stole from local farms in order to find food, farmers suffered tremendously.
The 1780s has often been termed the "critical period" for the new nation. The dangers posed by economic crisis and the disillusionment that came with the collapse of Revolutionary expectations for dramatically improved conditions combined to make the decade a period of discontent, reconsideration, and, in the end, a dramatic new proposal for redirecting the nation. Just as the Revolution had been born of diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives, even among the Patriots, so too, ideas about the future of the United States in the 1780s were often cast in dramatic opposition to one another.
The crisis of the 1780s was most intense in the rural and relatively newly settled areas of central and western Massachusetts. Many farmers in this area suffered from high debt as they tried to start new farms. Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn't respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money). As a result local sheriffs seized many farms and some farmers who couldn't pay their debts were put in prison.
At the same time that Shays' Rebellion attempted to force the government to take a new course of action in response to hard times, another group of Americans gathered to consider a very different vision for the future of the republic. The group was especially concerned about economic policy and the way that competing state policies often worked at cross-purposes. Responding to such concerns, the Virginia legislature called for a convention to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786 to discuss commercial matters. Only twelve delegates came from five states, but they agreed to meet again the next year in Philadelphia.