A few weeks after the British left Boston, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to write a declaration, or formal statement, of independence. The task of drafting the declaration went to the committee’s youngest member, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. A shy man, Jefferson said little in Congress. But he spoke brilliantly with his pen.
Jefferson’s job was to explain to the world why the colonies were choosing to separate from Britain. “When in the course of human events,” he began, if one people finds it necessary to break its ties with another, “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” requires that they explain their actions.
Natural Rights Jefferson’s explanation was simple, but revolutionary. Loyalists had argued that colonists had a duty to obey the king, whose authority came from God. Jefferson reasoned quite differently. All people are born equal in God’s sight, he began, and all are entitled to the same basic rights. In Jefferson’s eloquent words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Governments are formed, Jefferson said, “to secure these rights.” Their power to rule comes from “the consent of the governed.” If a government fails to protect people’s rights, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” The people can then create a new government that will protect “their safety and happiness.”
The King’s Crimes King George, Jefferson continued, had shown no concern for the rights of colonists. Instead, the king’s policies had been aimed at establishing “an absolute tyranny over these states [the colonies].”
As proof, Jefferson included a long list of the king’s abuses. In all these actions, Jefferson claimed, George III had shown that he was “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
The time had come, Jefferson concluded, for the colonies’ ties to Britain to be broken. “These United Colonies are,” he declared, “and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”
After Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams suggested changes.
6.6 The Final Break
On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia’s State House to debate independence. By noon, the temperature outside had soared into the nineties, and a thunderstorm was gathering. Inside the State House, emotions were equally hot and stormy. By the end of the day, the issue was still undecided.
The next day was cooler and calmer. On July 2, all but one of the 13 colonies voted for independence. New York cast no vote.
No delegate was more excited about the colonies’ decision than John Adams. He wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second of July…will be celebrated by succeeding generations…with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Debate over Slavery Adams was wrong about the date that would be celebrated as America’s birthday, but only because Congress decided to revise Jefferson’s declaration. Most of the delegates liked what they read, except for a passage on slavery. Jefferson had charged King George with violating the “sacred rights of life and liberty…of a distant people [by] carrying them into slavery.”
Almost no one liked this passage. Southerners feared that it might lead to demands to free the slaves. Northerners worried that New England merchants, who profited from the slave trade, might be offended. Even delegates who opposed slavery felt that it was unfair to blame the king for enslaving Africans. The passage was struck out.
Independence Day On July 4, the delegates approved a final version of the Declaration of Independence. One by one, they stepped forward to sign it. In doing so, they pledged to support independence with “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
This was a serious pledge. Every signer knew that he was committing an act of treason against Great Britain. If the new “United States of America” failed to win its freedom, each of them could end up swinging from a hangman’s rope. Knowing this, Benjamin Franklin told the delegates, “We must all hang together. Or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Slavery was not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence because the slave trade was important to the economy of many of the colonies. In the triangular trade shown on this map, rum and iron were shipped from New England to West Africa. In West Africa, these products were exchanged for slaves. Then the slaves were taken to the West Indies (Caribbean), where they were traded for molasses and sugar. Finally, the molasses and sugar were brought back to New England.
In this chapter, you read how the American colonies took the dramatic step of declaring their independence. You used a visual metaphor to describe the key historic events that led up to the Declaration of Independence. Soon after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the struggle with Great Britain turned into all-out war. The Second Continental Congress elected George Washington as the head of the Continental Army. After the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill, American troops threatened the city of Boston with heavy guns. The British decided to abandon the city.
The failure of the Olive Branch Petition, and Thomas Paine’s eloquent pamphlet, Common Sense, moved the colonies closer to a declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, was selected to write a draft of the declaration.
On July 4, 1776, the delegates took their lives in their hands by signing the Declaration of Independence. For the first time in history, a government was being established on the basis of the natural rights of people and the duty of government to honor those rights.
But independence could not be won with words alone. As you will read in the next chapter, the colonies now faced the challenge of winning a war against the most powerful nation in the world.
This poster shows the delegates leaving Independence Hall to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The American Revolution
What differences can you see between the soldiers in these two armies?
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, 15-year-old Joseph Martin was too young to join the Continental Army. But when recruiters returned to his Connecticut village a year later, he was ready to go.
The recruiters were looking for volunteers to go to New York, where the British were rumored to have landed 15,000 troops. “I did not care if there were fifteen times fifteen thousand,” Martin said later. “I never gave a thought about numbers. The Americans were invincible [unbeatable] in my opinion.”
Just two days after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Martin traded his plow for a musket (an early type of rifle). A week later he arrived in New York City, where he hoped to “sniff a little gunpowder.” As he recalled, “I was now what I had long wished to be, a soldier. I had obtained my heart’s desire; it was now my business to prove myself equal to my new profession.”
If Martin had known what lay ahead, he might not have been so pleased about his new profession. The army in New York was ill trained, ill equipped, and just plain ill. “Almost the whole regiment are sick,” reported a Massachusetts officer of his unit.
The British army, in contrast, was well trained, well equipped, and well supported by the Royal Navy. Rather than the 15,000 troops Martin had heard about, the British had assembled a force of 25,000 men in New York. More than 400 British ships bobbed in New York Harbor. This was the biggest army and the largest fleet the British had ever sent overseas.
In the face of such overwhelming force, the Americans should have been easily defeated. But they were not. In this chapter, you will read how soldiers like Joseph Martin stood up to mighty Britain to win a revolution and a new nation.
Graphic Organizer: Metaphor
You will use this metaphor of a game of Capture the Flag to understand the factors that helped decide the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
The Patriots began their revolution in a weak position. They had a hastily organized, untrained army and a tiny navy. Their weaknesses were far more obvious than their strengths.
American Weaknesses The Continental Army was always short of men. General Washington never had more than 20,000 troops at one time and place. Many soldiers enlisted for six months or a year. Just when they were learning how to fight, they would pick up their muskets and go home to tend to their farms and families.
Few Americans were trained for battle. Some could shoot well enough from behind a tree. But when facing a mass of well-disciplined redcoats, they were likely to turn and run.
The army was plagued by shortages. Guns and gunpowder were so scarce that Benjamin Franklin suggested arming the troops with bows and arrows. Food shortages forced soldiers to beg for handouts. Uniforms were scarce as well. In winter, one could track shoeless soldiers by their bloody footprints in the snow.
Such shortages outraged Washington. But when he complained to the Continental Congress, nothing changed. Congress, the new nation’s only government, lacked the power to raise money for supplies by taxing the states (the former colonies).
In desperation, Congress printed paper money to pay for the war. But the value of this money dropped so low that merchants demanded to be paid in gold instead. And like everything else, gold was scarce.
American Strengths Still, the Americans had strengths. One was the patriotism of people like Joseph Martin, who willingly gave their lives to defend their liberty and their homes. Without them, the war would have been quickly lost.
The Americans also received help from overseas. Motivated by their old hatred of the English, the French secretly aided the rebels. During the first two years of the war, 90 percent of the Americans’ gunpowder came from Europe, mostly from France.
The Americans’ other great strength was their commander. George Washington was more than an experienced military leader. He was also a man who inspired courage and confidence. In the dark days to come, it was Washington who would keep the ragtag Continental army together.
At first, the Continental soldier was poorly trained and poorly equipped. He suffered a lack of gunpowder, rifles, food, and clothing. Some men had only spears or axes for weapons.
7.3 British Strengths and Weaknesses
Britain, in contrast to the American colonies, entered the war with many advantages. But looks can be deceiving, and the British encountered many problems as well.
British Strengths With a professional army of 50,000 troops, British forces greatly outnumbered the Continental Army. In addition, George III hired 30,000 mercenaries. These hired soldiers were known as Hessians because they came from a part of Germany called Hesse-Cassel. The British were also able to recruit many Loyalists, African Americans, and Native Americans into their forces.
British and Hessian troops were well trained in European military tactics. They excelled in large battles fought by a mass of troops on open ground. They also had far more experience than Americans at firing artillery.
The British forces were also well supplied. Compared to the pitifully equipped Continental Army, they seldom lacked for food, uniforms, weapons, or ammunition.
British Weaknesses Even so, the war presented Britain with huge problems. One was the distance between Britain and America. Sending troops and supplies across the Atlantic was slow and costly. News of battles arrived in England long after they had occurred, making planning difficult.
A second problem was that King George and his ministers were never able to convince the British people that defeating the rebels was vital to Britain’s future. There were no Joseph Martins in England volunteering to fight the Americans. The longer the war dragged on, the less happy British taxpayers were about paying its heavy costs.
A third problem was poor leadership. Lord George Germain, the man chosen to run the war, had no real sense of how to defeat the rebels. How could he? He had never set foot in America. Nor did it occur to him to go see for himself what his army was up against. If he had, Germain might have realized that this was not a war that could be won by conquering a city or two. To end the revolution, his forces would have to crush the Patriots’ will to fight, state by state. Instead, Germain kept changing plans and generals, hoping that some combination of the two would bring him an easy victory.
The British soldier was a trained professional. He was well equipped with ammunition, a good musket, adequate food, and uniforms.
mercenaries professional soldiers who fight for anyone who will pay them
7.4 Britain Almost Wins the War
After abandoning Boston in the spring of 1776, Germain came up with his first plan for winning the war. British forces, led by General William Howe, were ordered to capture New York City. From that base, British troops would then move north to destroy the rebellion at its heart—Massachusetts.
To block the British invasion, Washington hurried with his army from Boston to New York. It was there that he heard good news: Congress had finally declared the colonies to be “free and independent states.”
Washington had the Declaration of Independence read aloud to his troops. The time had come, he said, to “show our enemies, and the whole world, that free men, contending for their own land, are superior to any mercenaries on Earth.” Most of his men agreed that independence was a prize worth fighting for.
African Americans and the War For African Americans, however, the Declaration of Independence raised both hopes and questions. Did Jefferson’s words, “all men are created equal,” apply to them? Would independence bring an end to slavery? Should they join the Revolution?
Even before independence was declared, a number of African Americans had joined the Patriot cause. Black militiamen fought at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Early in the war, however, blacks were banned from the Continental Army. Washington did not want the army to become a haven for runaway slaves.
In contrast, the British promised freedom to all slaves who took up arms for the king. As a result, thousands of runaways became Loyalists and fought for Britain.
A shortage of volunteers soon forced Washington to change his mind. By 1779, about 15 percent of the soldiers in the Continental Army were African Americans. Large numbers of black sailors also served in the Continental Navy.
As black Americans joined the war effort, whites began to question their own beliefs. How could they accept slavery if they truly believed that all people are created equal, with the same rights to life, liberty, and happiness? By the time the war ended, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania had all taken steps to end slavery.
African Americans faced a difficult decision during the Revolution. Would the Americans or the British give them freedom at the end of the war? At the Battle of Cowpens in South Carolina, pictured above, the Continental Army, which included African Americans, soundly defeated the British.
Defeat in New York On August 27, 1776, the American and British armies met in Brooklyn, New York, for what promised to be a decisive battle. The Americans began their defense of the city “in high spirits.” But the inexperienced Americans were no match for the British, with their greater numbers and superior training. In two days of fighting, the British lost only 377 men, while the Americans lost 1,407.
Satisfied that the war was nearly won, Howe ordered a halt to the British attack. Washington, he assumed, would do what any self-respecting European general would do in a hopeless situation. He would surrender honorably. And so Howe waited.
Washington had no intention of giving up. But for his army to survive, he would have to retreat. Even though Washington knew this, he could not bring himself to utter the shameful word “retreat.”
An officer named Thomas Mifflin rescued him from his pride. “What is your strength?” Mifflin asked. “Nine thousand,” Washington replied. “Not enough,” said Mifflin bluntly, “We must retreat.”
Fading Hopes The battle for New York City was the first of many defeats for the Americans. In the weeks that followed, British forces chased the Americans out of New York, through New Jersey, and finally across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.
For Joseph Martin and his comrades, this was a trying time. There was little food to eat, and the soldiers grew weak from hunger. As the weather turned cold, muddy roads and icy streams added to their misery. With their terms of enlistment nearly up, many soldiers headed for home. Along the way they spread the word that anyone who volunteered to risk his life in the Continental Army had to be crazy.
By the time Washington reached Pennsylvania, he had only a few thousand men. Many of his remaining troops, he reported, were “entirely naked and most so thinly clad [clothed] as to be unfit for service.” More troops had to be found, and found quickly, he wrote his brother. Otherwise, “I think the game will be pretty well up.”
While chasing the retreating Continental Army, British soldiers looted the homes of Americans, both Patriots and Loyalists. Such actions turned many former supporters into enemies.
7.5 A Pep Talk and Surprise Victories
By the end of 1776, the British also thought the war was just about won. General Howe offered to pardon all rebels who signed a statement promising to “remain in peaceful obedience” to the king. Thousands took him up on his offer.
The Crisis Washington knew that he had to do something, and quickly. Gathering his last troops together, he read to them from Thomas Paine’s new pamphlet, The Crisis:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Next, Washington outlined a daring plan to attack Hessian troops who were camped for the winter in Trenton, New Jersey. Heartened by Paine’s words, his men did not “shrink from the service of their country.”
Victory in Trenton Late on December 25, 1776, Washington’s army crossed the ice-choked Delaware River in small boats. On the New Jersey shore, Washington gave his men the password for the long night march ahead: “Victory or Death.”
As the Americans made their way toward Trenton, a driving snow chilled them to the bone. Ice and rocks cut through their worn-out shoes. One officer reported to Washington that the troops’ guns were too wet to fire. “Use the bayonets,” the general replied. “The town must be taken.”
When the Americans reached Trenton, they found the Hessians happily sleeping off their Christmas feasts. Caught completely by surprise, the mercenaries surrendered. Washington took 868 prisoners without losing a single man. A week later, the Americans captured another 300 British troops at Princeton, New Jersey. These defeats told Howe that it would take more than capturing New York City and issuing pardons to win the war.
News of Washington’s victories electrified Patriots. “A few days ago they had given up their cause for lost,” wrote an unhappy Loyalist. “Their late successes have turned the scale and they are all liberty mad again.” The game was not yet up.
With morale low and his soldiers threatening to return home, George Washington planned a daring attack on the Hessians at Trenton. Crossing the ice-choked Delaware River, he surprised the enemy, overwhelming them completely.
7.6 The Tide Begins to Turn
When the Revolution began, both sides adopted the same military strategy, or overall plan for winning the war. That strategy was to defeat the enemy in one big battle.
After barely escaping from New York, Washington revised his strategy. In the future, he wrote Congress, he would avoid large battles that might put his army at risk. Instead, the war would be “defensive.” Rather than defeating the British, Washington hoped to tire them out.
A New British Strategy Germain revised the British strategy as well. His new plan was to divide the rebels by taking control of New York’s Hudson River Valley. Control of this waterway would allow the British to cut New England off from the rest of the states. Without men and supplies from New England, the Continental Army would surely collapse.
To carry out this plan, General John Burgoyne left Canada in June 1777, with about 8,000 British soldiers and Indian warriors. He planned to move this army south to Albany, New York. There he would meet up with General Howe, who was supposed to march his army north from New York City.
Problems with Burgoyne’s Plan There were two big problems with Burgoyne’s plan. The first was that what looked like an easy invasion route on a map was anything but easy. The route Burgoyne chose from Canada to Albany took his army through more than 20 miles of tangled wilderness. His army had to build bridges, chop down countless trees, and lay out miles of log roads through swamps as it crept toward Albany.
To make matters worse, Burgoyne didn’t travel light. His army was slowed by more than 600 wagons, 30 of them filled with his personal baggage. Even in the wilderness, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne sipped champagne with his supper.
The second problem with Burgoyne’s plan was that General Howe had his own ideas about how to win the war. Instead of marching to Albany, Howe headed for Philadelphia, the rebels’ capital. There he hoped to lure Washington into another major battle. Howe hoped it would be the last one.
The wife, children, and slave of General Philip Schulyer burned the family wheat fields, so as to leave nothing useful for British forces advancing toward Saratoga.
strategy An overall plan (for example, for winning a war). Specific ways of carrying out a strategy are called tactics.
Washington, however, refused to risk his army in another big battle. He would not fight for Philadelphia. Instead, he played hide-and-seek with Howe, attacking here and there and then disappearing into the countryside.
A Turning Point By the time the slow-moving Burgoyne finally reached Saratoga Springs on the Hudson River, the area was swarming with militia. Although the rebels outnumbered his army, Burgoyne ordered an attack. Again and again the rebels beat back Burgoyne’s troops. On October 17, 1777, Gentleman Johnny accepted defeat.
Burgoyne’s surrender marked a turning point in the war. Before the victory at Saratoga, the American cause had looked hopeless to most of the world. Now the Americans had shown they could stand up to a British army and win.
Not long after this victory, France came into the war as an ally of the United States. The French government sent money, weapons, troops, and warships to the Americans. Spain also entered the war against Britain. The American cause no longer looked quite so hopeless.
Winter at Valley Forge Saratoga was a stunning victory, but the war was far from over. While General Washington’s army roamed the countryside, Howe’s forces still occupied Philadelphia.
Late in 1777, Congress declared a day of thanksgiving. By this time, Washington and his army were on their way to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to make camp for the winter. Joseph Martin described the army’s “celebration”:
We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous…. But we must now have what Congress said, a sumptuous [lavish] Thanksgiving…. It gave each and every man a gill [a few ounces] of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar! The army was now not only starved but naked. The greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of [without] all other clothing, especially blankets.
Washington’s troops were hungry because many farmers preferred to sell food to the British. The British paid them in gold, while Congress paid them in paper money. As for uniforms and blankets, merchants had raised the prices for these items sky-high. This desire for profits at the army’s expense outraged Washington. “No punishment,” he fumed, “is too great for the man who can build his greatness upon his country’s ruin.”
George Washington is shown with the Marquis de Lafayette at Valley Forge. Lafayette, a Frenchman who aided the Americans, described the American soldiers there as "in want of everything; they had neither coats, nor hats, nor shirts nor shoes; their feet and their legs froze until they grew black."