The mighty British Empire had really made most of their own troubles, especially the growing American Revolution.
In a tense social situation where colonialists were staring at government problems from across an ocean, one could only predict when the final match would burn down the thirteen colonies’ relationship with the motherland. Mercantilism was beginning to actually backfire, to the dismay of the British crown, but it is sad to realize that the people in power refused to actually change their ideals and laws towards the people that were obviously receiving the short end of the stick.
So, the first actual military engagements of the American Revolution were at Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”, if you will. It was actually Ralph Waldo Emerson, an essayist and poet, who first described the battles as such, within his “Concord Hymn”:
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.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
The “shot heard round the world” became a symbol for the early stages of conflict between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. But, since this series is relatively broad in terms of detail, we have to get through the basis of the American Revolution this post.
To sum up Lexington and Concord rather briefly, the British Army’s infantry had been occupying Boston since 1768, augmented by naval forces to enforce the Intolerable Acts. These acts were passed by the deluded British Parliament in an attempt to punish the Province of Massachusetts Bay for the acts of defiance and treason witnessed within the Boston Tea Party. The people of Massachusetts Bay were growing angry at the lock-down the redcoats were enforcing.
Roughly 3,000 British military forces had been left garrisoned in Boston by General Thomas Cage, mostly in an attempt to end tension through non-violence. It seems awkward, looking back. How could a rather successful general think deploying 3,000 trained and armed soldiers in a large city lead to non-violence? Well, Gage had a simple plan: avoid conflict all together by carefully (and quietly) removing supplies that could be used by pro-patriot Whig militias.
Eventually, tension broke through (to Gage’s dismay). The colonists in Massachusetts Bay had been forming militias since the early 17th century, mostly for local defenses in case of Indian attacks. These militias and strategies were easily repurposed and gradually merged to create a threatening opposition to rival the British military deployment. Of course, Paul Revere had his famous (and very overrated) midnight ride, and the ticking time bomb of tension began to count down to the detonation that would soon come.
The British government could have easily taken an initiative to prevent the turmoil at hand. The British government should have just let the Americans figure out their divisiveness on their own, honestly. They really didn’t know that the patriots were locked in a divisive argument on “what to do next”, let alone how to do it. By enforcing the Intolerable Acts, implementing terrible tax act after tax act, and putting regiments in one of the colonies’ largest cities, the British government sped up the process of Revolution by swaying neutral colonists to join the patriot movements.
But now, after Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, it was too late. The shot heard round the world had rang far into the distance; and little did the European monarchies know that this American Revolution would influence so much in the upcoming decades.
Rewind. In September-October 1774, a Continental Congress of the “cream of merchant elite” met in Philadelphia. These men wore British fashion, read British books, and enjoyed British lifestyles. These men didn’t first come to Philadelphia in search for a revolution; no, they actually came to prevent Britain from starting one.
These men thought colonial interests were more important that larger political purposes. They despised the theory of mercantilism, and believed that the Parliament of Great Britain could easily prevent conflict by letting the colonists have representation in government. No Taxation Without Representation rang throughout the meetings.
Artisans didn’t want their lives controlled by a government separated by an entire ocean. Merchants did not want to suffer from the blockade punishing the great city of Boston. Only one group, the radicals, thought differently. They desired separation over settlement – they desired a so-called “Anarchist’s Safe Haven”.
But when the Continental Congress returned to meet in May of 1775, the events of Lexington and Concord had left deep scars in the once-peaceful mindsets of these American elites. It is an under-exaggeration to simply state that Lexington and Concord had effected the Second Continental Congress; it did much more than that – it ran the entire event. Loyalists began speaking radically, calling for much more than settlement with the country they had once called the motherland.
With this new message on their minds, the Congress only found themselves getting increasingly irritated. Charlestown. Bunker Hill. Breeds Hill. More skirmishes and miniature battles plagued the colonies. Though Bunker Hill was technically a British victory, it led to over 200 soldiers killed and 800 soldiers wounded – making it a devastated blow to the already confused and mismanaged North American regiments.
The British government realized that Thomas Gage really wasn’t working out, especially after the sheer loss of men at Bunker Hill. Gage was replaced with a man named William Howe.
Howe had joined the British army in 1746. He served during the War of Austrian Succession and in the Seven Years’ War. He had proven himself as an efficient officer, and was sent to North America in March of 1775. He arrived in May, shortly after the War of Independence began. He was chosen as a quick successor to Thomas Gage, who simply seemed to give up after he had been ruthlessly battered in his costly battle at Bunker Hill.
On July 3rd of the same year, George Washington took control of the Continental Army, the colonial response to British troops. Washington watched as Richard Montgomery’s Northern Army invaded Canadian lands to liberate Quebec and oversaw Ticonderoga.
Britain’s response to a lack of troops on their own part (Europe was a mess and Bunker Hill left forces in North America rather weakened) was to hire German mercenaries and regiments. Over 19,000 of these Hessians made their way to America, which drove colonials mad. More and more people joined with the side that had once been deemed “radical”. If Britain had to bring in troops from another nation to crush a small rebellion, then how could they protect them from harm as a motherland?
One of the first things this new, loosely set up, and unofficial government of the colonies did was seek out foreign aid and alliances. The Americans desired to distract Britain even further, and thought that any allies in Europe could do so. Diplomatic announcements were sent far and wide, stating that a new foreign entity existed and was in dire need of assistance.
John Adams and John Dickinson made up a committee to write a declaration of some sorts – you may have heard of it – The Declaration of Independence. They passed the job off to Thomas Jefferson, a widely read philosophical amateur who was known for a passion for law and writing. A popular lawyer by trade and a highly intelligent individual, Thomas Jefferson’s “manifesto of Whig enlightenment” will go down in American history as one of the most important political documents.
Jefferson’s Declaration stated that independence occurs within the course of human events. When a government denies its citizens the basic rights of every human being, the citizens have the right to revolt against said government. Jefferson wrote like John Locke – that human history overrides divine figures and royal wonders. He described natural rights, the self-evident rights that are programmed into the very structures of humanity, that should be witnessed through universal enlightenment.
Jefferson, within this Declaration of Independence, desired a government created by the people that could be changed by the people. He declared that nationality is accidental, and that humanity is what is born into a proper society. Thus, he called for open arms for these human rights, as they completely overrode the intolerable and unfair laws presented by the current British government.
When government does wrong, it is humanity that intervenes.
Jefferson concluded by saying that it was time for the colonies to absolve themselves from the British Empire to become independent entities that could work on bringing power to the people. The Declaration was signed and ratified on July 4th, 1776 – Independence Day.
John Dickinson, still part of the committee, dominated the sphere of influence within the Continental Congress. It was Dickinson who created the Articles of Confederation, which presented how the states would work together as representatives of a united base of states; within these pages, Dickinson stated that every state would have an equal vote regardless of size and population.
The states weren’t so quick to agree. Connecticut, for example, was rather jealous of how small it was. The people of Connecticut desired to have their borders stretched all the way across the continent, past the designated thirteen colonies and ending at the Pacific Ocean, making borders resembling a rubber band. Not only would this have cut into already created states, it was considered impossible and taken as a joke during the ratifications.
Connecticut wasn’t joking, though. A Connecticut militia went to Pennsylvania during this period of time to “protect” land that they had claimed. Eventually, the states came to an agreement that all western claims were to be nulled and given to the federal government so that the states couldn’t argue over land…
…for now. Of course, states (even those not included within the thirteen colonies) would have border skirmishes in later American history. One example would be the Michigan-Ohio War for Toledo.
America’s call for diplomatic alliances came back with an ominous, yet hopeful answer. The nation of France was interested in any uprising that would hurt the British Empire. But, they did not know if America was going to be capable of winning their war, let alone be competent enough to stay alive as a nation of their own. France told the American diplomats, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, that they would help America – if they could prove themselves in subsequent battles against Great Britain.
But, with that, the American Revolution rages on. The next two posts in this series will be dedicated to the rival generals: William Howe and George Washington. If you’ve missed any previous post in this series, check out the archives!