Independence Day is celebrated on July 4 each year to commemorate America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. The war began as a fight for independence from the monarchy of Great Britain but quickly evolved into a world war involving European nations that sought to colonize new lands, explore for natural resources, and establish prosperous trade routes.
What was life like in the American colonies in the 1750’s, when the political movement known as the American Revolution became the Revolutionary War…
It was a much different America than we’re used to. There was no electricity or running water, and antibiotics were more than a century in the future. Homes were built of logs, stone, or more frequently, wood planks. Trees were an abundant natural resource in colonial America making ship building a profitable industry. Travel by horse and wagon required each town to have a blacksmith. Merchants sold items imported from England such as paint, window glass, roof shingles, iron cooking utensils, tea, sugar, and cloth, and the local settlers traded crops for these manufactured goods. Towns, stables, and the occasional tavern were connected by well-traveled dirt roads.
Arriving in North America
During the 17th century, Great Britain was a global power competing with Spain, France, and the Netherlands to colonize foreign lands. The first British settlement on the American continent was in Jamestown, Virginia, led by Captain John Smith in 1607.
Thirteen years later, the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the new generation of colonists established a settlement in the wilderness of New England. The majority of the early settlers were farmers, hunters and tradesmen, English men and women fleeing the religious persecution of King Charles I and the Church of England.
The east coast of North America was soon divided into thirteen colonies with populations in the New England region, the Middle Colonies, the Chesapeake Bay Colonies, and the South.
A Growing Nation
The settlers lived in peace with the natives they encountered when they first arrived on the continent, finding ways to share information about the land, the weather, and how to grow and harvest corn. However, as more and more colonists arrived, hostilities developed and the Indians were pushed westward.
The colonists faced opposition at the northern border as well. While they were focused on building towns and roads and establishing a rudimentary government among the thirteen colonies, France had arrived on the eastern shores of what is now Canada. This northern boundary between the two nations was now in dispute.
Both the colonists and French troops conspired with native tribes to fight the bloody French and Indian War from 1754-1763. After years of brutal fighting, the Treaty of Paris of 1763 was signed, giving Britain control of the region east of the Mississippi River from Florida to north of the great lakes into parts of Canada.
Back in Great Britain, King George III was faced with mounting debt from the cost of waging war; transporting, arming and supplying a militia of hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both the European front and overseas in the colonies. He immediately devised a plan to generate revenue from the colonists through taxation, a decision that angered the colonists and fueled their determination to establish an independent nation.
The British colonists were rebelling against being governed by the monarchy of Great Britain, a society structured around an upper-class royal family that controlled the militia and determined all the costs of goods and services. Being thousands of miles away from the King, and a parliamentary process that they believed was becoming hopelessly corrupt and dominant, the colonists began to talk about freedom.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) published a work entitled “Common Sense” which talked about men’s natural rights; that men are born free and equal and have an inherent right to live peaceful, prosperous lives that aren’t predetermined by birthright. These thoughts sparked the idea of a system of government empowered by its citizens to establish laws that would allow them to enrich their own individual lives rather than create wealth for a central monarch.
Resentments deepened as King George began levying taxes. When the colonists tried to circumvent the new tax laws by trading with the French, Spanish, or Dutch, the King took control of their ships, forcing them to transport goods to and from only English destinations. As the colonists predictably took to smuggling, the King authorized British soldiers to board any vessel and intercept merchandise being traded without authorization. He continued to levy taxes on paper, sugar, paint, glass, and tea.
The Colonists had no legal authority of their own and were resentful that they were limited by many of the same social and economic problems they thought they’d left behind them in England. They’d had enough. The colonists wanted to be free of British rule.
British soldiers, under the order of King George III, were in control of the American colonies and were tasked with protecting the officials whose job it was to collect taxes from the angry colonists. What became known as the Boston Massacre was an incident that occurred in the city of Boston in the spring of 1770
On the evening of March 5, a group of unarmed civilians began harassing a British soldier. Other soldiers were alerted to the disruption and a crowd began to form. Men were shouting, fire bells were ringing, and in the chaos the soldiers unexpectedly began firing into the crowd, killing five colonists.
After an investigation and trial, two of the British soldiers were found guilty. Though war didn’t break out for another five years, the massacre in Boston is considered the start of the rebellion.
In 1773, British Parliament had passed the Tea Act, requiring the colonists to pay a tax for tea shipped from the British East India Tea company.
A group of men from the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams, had been informed of three shiploads of tea docking in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. They disguised themselves as Indians, boarded the ships, and threw 342 chests of tea into the harbor.
The destroyed tea was worth about 33,000 British pounds, or approximately $850,000 U.S. dollars in modern-day valuation. In response to the historic Boston Tea Party, King George III closed the port of Boston and demanded that the Colonists pay for the tea that was destroyed.
War in the Colonies
Though British soldiers appeared to be in command, the rebel “Patriots” had devised ways to gather intelligence and to communicate with other Patriots about the location of British troops.
In April of 1775, rebel leaders in the city of Boston received news that the British knew about a secret store of weapons and ammunition in Concord, Massachusetts and that they were planning a raid. The British were ordered to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two of the leaders of the rebellion.
During the night of April 7, Paul Revere rode on horseback from Boston to Concord to warn the Patriots. They were able to move the weapons to a safe hiding place and to fortify their positions.
A week later the British arrived and the Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought. The Revolution had officially begun.
Meanwhile, the Patriots had taken control of the city of Boston, effectively trapping British military reinforcements within the city and blocking supply lines.
In an attempt to break the siege, the British attacked the Continental Army at a strategic location in the farm country surrounding the city. The Battle of Bunker Hill was a victory for the British, as the outnumbered Patriots were forced to flee, but winning the battle didn’t hinder the Patriot’s siege of the city of Boston as they’d thought.
Governing the Thirteen Colonies
The colonists knew they needed to strengthen and unite the thirteen colonies and establish a central government. They gathered for the First Continental Congress in September of 1774 in Philadelphia.
Representatives talked about boycotting British goods, ceasing exports to England, and they petitioned King George III to nullify the restrictive economic sanction on the port of Boston. Their petition went unanswered so the Patriots continued to fortify their militia.
The Second Continental Congress met in May of 1775. Talk of rebellion continued. Throughout the colonies, British courts were shut down and the colonists asserted that the King could no longer force them to allow British soldiers to live in their homes.
Congress officially militarized the Patriot rebels and appointed George Washington as the General of the Continental Army. They began drafting a Declaration of Independence to present to King George.
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence, written mostly by Thomas Jefferson, was approved by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, officially signed by 56 delegates, and authorized on July 4. The thirteen colonies were now the “United States of America,” independent from the British Empire.
In opposition to British rule, they were establishing their own form of government, their own economy, and empowering their own militia.
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 the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
But the Declaration didn’t have an immediate effect on the rebellion. The document was circulated through the colonies and printed in newspapers in England. The King’s only response was to criticize the hypocrisy of the colonists asserting their right to be free while many in the southern states, including Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners.
The war continued unabated.
The Cost of War
In August of 1776, a devastating loss to the Continental Army occurred as British soldiers invaded from Nova Scotia, defeating General Washington in the Battle of Brooklyn. The British demanded that the Americans nullify the Declaration of Independence and begin to negotiate a surrender. When the Patriots refused, the fighting continued and the British seized control of New York City.
The loss of New York so soon after signing the Declaration damaged the morale of the Continental troops. In the winter of 1776, General Washington, along with two other generals, devised a three-pronged attack on a British base camp in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington hoped that on Christmas Day, the 1,500 Hessian soldiers would be celebrating the holiday, eating and drinking, and could be caught off guard.
The weather that night was extremely cold, with freezing rain changing to snow, hindering the two other Generals from joining the battle set for the predawn hours. Undaunted, General Washington alone led his 2,400 Confederate soldiers across the Delaware river and surprised the Hessians, killing 22, capturing about 900, and confiscating weapons, ammunition, and much needed food reserves.
In the fall of the next year, General Washington led the troops to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to weather the winter months. Washington advised Congress that rations were low and the men didn’t have warm boots and clothing to protect them during the cold winter months. It was estimated that 2,500 soldiers died that winter from exposure.
In January 1778, Congressmen visited the camp and soon supplies were replenished and ammunition stores restocked. In the spring of that year, France became an ally of the United States, sending weapons, munitions, and rations to the Continental troops. In June of that year, the strengthened Patriots retook Philadelphia and chased the retreating British back to New York.
The Rebels Win Their Independence
By 1779, the American Revolutionary War had evolved into a world war, as Spain and the Dutch joined France in the Patriot cause against Great Britain.
The British marched southward, taking siege of Charleston and Savannah, hoping to rally enough troops to again march north. Their numbers waned, though, and as they tried to invade towns in North Carolina and Virginia, they were outnumbered by the Patriots.
In the fall of 1781, led by General Lord Cornwallis, what remained of the British army marched into Yorktown, Virginia expecting to board ships in retreat to England. The British ships arrived but were overpowered by French naval forces, resulting in the British being surrounded on sea and land.
The surrender at Yorktown was negotiated and the British army regiments laid down their arms to the French and American troops. The Revolutionary War had ended. The Treaty of Paris of 1783 was officially signed on September 3, and the United States of America was an independent nation.
In the years following the war, the Continental Congress outlined their plan for a central government formed by three co-equal branches. In 1789, the Constitution of the United States established an Executive branch, a Legislature, and a Judiciary.