Three weeks after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress met in the State House in Philadelphia,
The members agreed to support the war, but they disagreed, at times profoundly, about its purpose.
The attitude of much of the public mirrored that of Congress.
At first, most Americans believed they were fighting not for independence but for a redress of grievances within the British Empire.
During the first year of fighting, however, many of them began to change their minds, for several reasons
But the growing support for independence remained to a large degree unspoken until January 1776, when an impassioned pamphlet appeared that galvanized many Americans. It was called, simply, Common Sense
Common Sense sold more than 100,000 copies in its first few months
Although sentiment for independence remained far from unanimous, support for the idea grew rapidly in the first months of 1776.
At the same time, the Continental Congress was moving slowly and tentatively toward a final break with England.
Congress also appointed a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence.
On July 2, 1776, it adopted a resolution: “That these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, free and independent states;
Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which provided the formal justifications for the actions the delegates had in fact taken two days earlier.
Thomas Jefferson, a thirty-three-year-old delegate from Virginia, wrote most of the Declaration, with help from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
As Adams later observed, Jefferson said little in the document that was new
The document was in two parts.
In the first, the Declaration restated the familiar contract theory of John Locke: that governments were formed to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property;
Jefferson gave the theory a more idealistic tone by replacing “property” with “the pursuit of happiness.”
In the second part, the Declaration listed the alleged crimes of the king, who, with the backing of Parliament, had violated his “contract” with the colonists and thus had forfeited all claim to their loyalty.
At the news of the Declaration of Independence, crowds in Philadelphia, Boston, and other places gathered to cheer, fire guns and cannons, and ring church bells.
But there were many in America who did not rejoice.
Some had disapproved of the war from the beginning.
Others had been willing to support it only so long as its aims did not conflict with their basic loyalty to the king.
Such people were a minority, but a substantial one. They called themselves Loyalists; supporters of independence called themselves Tories.
In the aftermath of the Declaration of Independence, the colonies began to call themselves “states”—a reflection of their belief that each province was now in some respects a separate and sovereign entity.
Even before the Declaration, colonies were beginning to operate independently of royal authority.
For a time, Americans were uncertain whether they even wanted a real national government;
In November 1777, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation (which were not finally ratified until 1781).
They did little more than confirm the weak, decentralized system already in operation.
The Continental Congress would survive as the chief coordinating agency of the war effort.
Its powers over the individual states would be very limited.
Indeed, the Articles did not make it entirely clear that Congress was to be a real government.
Without access to the British markets on which the colonies had come to depend, finding necessary supplies was exceptionally difficult.
America had many gunsmiths, but they could not come close to meeting the wartime demand for guns and ammunition, let alone the demand for heavy arms
Financing the war proved in many ways the most nettlesome problem.
Congress had no authority to levy taxes directly on the people
Congress tried to raise money by selling long-term bonds, but few Americans could afford them, and those who could generally prefer to invest in more profitable ventures, such as privateering.
In the end, the government had no choice but to issue paper money
The result, predictably, was inflation.
Prices rose to fantastic heights, and the value of paper money plummeted
After the first great surge of patriotism faded in 1775, few Americans volunteered for military service.
Congress quickly recognized the disadvantages of this decentralized system and tried, with some success, to correct it.
In the spring of 1775, it created a Continental army with a single commander in chief. George Washington
The failure of the British to crush the Continental army in the mid-Atlantic states, combined with the stunning American victory at Saratoga, was a turning point in the war.
Since transatlantic communication was slow and uncertain (it took from one to three months for a message to cross the Atlantic), they had to interpret the instructions of Congress very freely and make crucial decisions entirely on their own.
Finally, Benjamin Franklin himself went to France to represent the United States
France’s intervention made the war an international conflict.
In the course of the next two years, France, Spain, and the Netherlands all drifted into another general war with Great Britain in Europe, and all contributed both directly and indirectly to the ultimate American victory.
But France was America’s truly indispensable ally.
Not only did it furnish the new nation with most of its money and munitions; it also provided a navy and an expeditionary force that proved invaluable in the decisive phase of the Revolutionary conflict.
The last phase of the military struggle in America was very different from either of the first two.
The British government had never been fully united behind the war; after the defeat at Saratoga and the intervention of the French, it imposed new limits on its commitment to the conflict
Instead of a full-scale military struggle against the American army, therefore, the British decided to try to enlist the support of those elements of the American population—a majority, they continued to believe—who were still loyal to the Crown; in other words, they would work to undermine the Revolution from within.
Since the British believed Loyalist sentiment was strongest in the southern colonies (despite their earlier failure to enlist Loyalist support in North Carolina), the main focus of their effort shifted there; and so it was in the South, for the most part, that the final stages of the war occurred.
The new British strategy was a dismal failure
British forces spent three years (from 1778 to 1781) moving through the South, fighting small battles and large, and attempting to neutralize the territory through which they traveled
The British badly overestimated the extent of Loyalist sentiment
And even in the lower South, Loyalists often refused to aid the British because they feared reprisals from the Patriots around them.
The British also harmed their own cause by encouraging southern slaves to desert their owners in return for promises of emancipation.
Many slaves (perhaps 5 percent of the total) took advantage of this offer, despite the great difficulty of doing so.
It was this phase of the conflict that made the war truly “revolutionary”
George Washington along with Count Jean Baptiste de Rochambeau and Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse set out to trap Cornwallis at Yorktown
Two days later, as a military band played the old tune “The World Turn’d Upside Down,” Cornwallis, claiming to be ill, sent a deputy who formally surrendered the British army of more than 7,000 men
Except for a few skirmishes, the fighting was now over; but the United States had not yet won the war.
British forces continued to hold the seaports of Savannah, Charles Town, Wilmington, and New York City
For the largest of America’s minorities—the African American population—the war had limited, but nevertheless profound, significance.
For some, it meant freedom, because many slaves took advantage of the British presence in the South in the final years of the war to escape.
The British enabled many of them to leave the country—not so much as any principled commitment to emancipation, but more as a way of disrupting the American war effort.
In South Carolina, for example, nearly a third of all slaves defected during the war. Africans had constituted over 60 percent of the population in 1770; by 1790, that figure had declined to about 44 percent
Slave Owners opposed British efforts to emancipate their slaves, but they also feared that the Revolution itself would foment slave rebellions
They feared the impact of free black people living alongside whites.
They also feared that without slaves, it would be necessary to recruit a servile white workforce in the South
Most Indians viewed the American Revolution with considerable uncertainty
The American Patriots tried to persuade them to remain neutral in the conflict, which they described as a “family quarrel” between the colonists and Britain that had nothing to do with the tribes.
But in fact, a great deal was at stake for Native Americans in the American Revolution
Once the Revolutionary War began, the role of the Indians became of critical significance to both sides of the conflict. For the American Patriots, among the goals of the battle for independence was their right to expand into the western lands, at the expense of the Indians
In the end, however, the Revolution generally weakened the position of Native Americans in several ways
Thomas Jefferson, for example, came to view the Native Americans as “noble savages” uncivilized in their present state but redeemable if they were willing to adapt to the norms of white society.
Bands of Native Americans continued to launch raids against white settlers on the frontier.
The triumph of the American patriots in the Revolution contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Indian tribes.
To white Americans, independence meant, among other things, their right to move aggressively into the western lands, despite the opposition of the Indians.
To the Indians, American independence was “the greatest blow that could have been dealt us,” one tribal leader warned.
The long Revolutionary War, which touched the lives of people in almost every region, naturally had a significant effect on American women.
The departure of so many men to fight in the Patriot armies left wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters in charge of farms and businesses.
Other women whose husbands or fathers went off to war did not have even a farm or shop to fall back on.
Many cities and towns developed significant populations of impoverished women, who on occasion led popular protests against price increases.
On a few occasions, hungry women rioted and looted for food.
Not all women, however, stayed behind when the men went off to war
After the war, of course, the soldiers and the female camp followers returned home
The emphasis on liberty and the “rights of man” led some women to begin to question their position in society as well.
“By the way,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, in 1776, “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
Adams was calling for a very modest expansion of women’s rights. She wanted new protections against abusive and tyrannical men.
Some political leaders—among them Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush—also voiced support for the education of women and for other feminist reforms
Wives were still far from equal partners in marriage, but their ideas, interests, and domestic roles received increased respect from many men.
If Americans agreed on nothing else when they began to build new governments for themselves, they agreed that those governments would be republican.
To them, that meant a political system in which all power came from the people, rather than from some supreme authority (such as a king).
If the population consisted of sturdy, independent property owners imbued with civic virtue, then the republic could survive.
If it consisted of a few powerful aristocrats and a great mass of dependent workers, then it would be in danger
Another crucial part of that ideology was the concept of equality.
The Declaration of Independence had given voice to that idea in its most ringing phrase: “All men are created equal.”
White laborers enjoyed some of the privileges of citizenship.
Black workers were allowed virtually none.
American women remained both politically and economically subordinate.
Native Americans were systematically exploited and displaced
By the late 1770s, many Americans were growing concerned about the apparent divisiveness and instability of their new state governments.
Most states were having trouble accomplishing anything.
Many believed the problem was one of too much democracy.
As a result, most of the states began to revise their constitutions to limit popular power
Those with weak or nonexistent upper houses strengthened or created them.
Most increased the powers of the governor.
Pennsylvania, which had no executive at first, now produced a strong one.
By the late 1780s, almost every state had either revised its constitution or drawn up a new one in an effort to produce stability in government.
The states moved far in the direction of complete religious freedom.
Most Americans continued to believe that religion should play some role in government, but they did not wish to give special powers to any particular denomination
More difficult to resolve was the question of slavery
In areas where slavery was weak, it was abolished relatively early
Nevertheless, slavery survived in all the southern and border states.
There were several reasons: racist assumptions among whites about the inferiority of blacks; the enormous economic investments many white southerners had in their slaves; and the inability of even such men as Washington and Jefferson, who had moral misgivings about slavery, to envision any alternative to it.
If slavery were abolished, what would happen to the black people in America?
Few whites believed blacks could be integrated into American society as equals
The Articles of Confederation, which the Continental Congress had adopted in 1777, provided for a national government much like the one already in place
During the process of ratifying the Articles of Confederation (which required approval by all thirteen states), broad disagreements over the plan became evident.
The small states had insisted on equal state representation, but the larger states wanted representation to be based on population.
More importantly, the states claiming western lands wished to keep them, but the rest of the states demanded that all such territory be turned over to the national government
The Confederation, which existed from 1781 until 1789, was not a complete failure, but it was far from a success.
It lacked adequate powers to deal with interstate issues or to enforce its will on the states, and it had little stature in the eyes of the world.
The postwar depression, which lasted from 1784 to 1787, increased the perennial American problem of an inadequate money supply, a problem that weighed particularly heavily on debtors.
The Confederation itself had an enormous outstanding debt that it had accumulated at home and abroad during the Revolutionary War.
The states had war debts, too, and they generally relied on increased taxation to pay them.
But poor farmers, already burdened by debt and now burdened again by new taxes, considered such policies unfair, even tyrannical.
They demanded that the state governments issue paper currency to increase the money supply and make it easier for them to meet their obligations
Shays issued a set of demands that included paper money, tax relief, a moratorium on debts, the relocation of the state capital from Boston to the interior, and the abolition of imprisonment for debt.
As a military enterprise, Shays’s Rebellion was a failure, although it produced some concessions to the aggrieved farmers.