1763 marked the beginning of the long road to revolution for the American colonies. By 1775, military actions had finally erupted. How were the colonists and their leaders going to respond?
The Road to Revolution
By the summer of 1775, a loosely organized coalition of local militias had gone head to head with the most powerful imperial army in the world, and it looked like they were winning. How had protests over taxation taken things to this point?
Trouble between the colonies and Great Britain had been brewing for more than a decade, since the end of the French and Indian War. After prohibiting settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Parliament raised taxes on the colonies to pay off the war debt. Colonists balked at the Stamp Act as an example of taxation without representation. The Townshend duties were right on its heels, and the colonists responded with a boycott and harassment of customs officials.
When soldiers fired into an aggressive mob in the Boston Massacre, both sides backed off for a few years, but then came the Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party. Britain punished Massachusetts with the Coercive Acts, and threatened other colonies with similar actions if they followed Boston's example. This led the other colonies to carefully consider their own response. But then, in an unrelated action, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, allowing Canadians to settle in the land west of the Proclamation Line.
It was too much. Americans united in calling the British laws the 'Intolerable Acts' and called the First Continental Congress to discuss the problems. Individual colonies organized secret governments and began arming their militias.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!
Patrick Henry speaking to the Virginia assembly
When Virginia's assembly met to discuss the issue, many representatives were hesitant. The colony was already under scrutiny and royal control. That's when Patrick Henry, famously, intervened:
'Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace - but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!'
His speech was a success, and Virginia's militia began preparing for battle, along with the other colonies.
Finally, war broke out at Lexington and Concord. The Patriots routed the British and commenced a siege of the army's headquarters in Boston. Despite a victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British could not break out and were forced to evacuate the city after George Washington brought in heavy cannons seized in a raid on Ft. Ticonderoga.
The Second Continental Congress
The delegates at the First Continental Congress had agreed to reconvene if the situation had not improved. The battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill proved that things were only getting worse. So, in May of 1775, they assembled in Pennsylvania for the Second Continental Congress. But this time, they weren't just complaining about a king who trampled their rights; they were looking down the guns of the world's best-trained military force. The delegates agreed to unite the colonial militias into the Continental Army and unanimously selected George Washington to command it. He was the perfect choice. Not only was Washington an experienced officer trained by the British army during the French and Indian War, but as a wealthy plantation owner and member of the Virginia legislature, he had the social stature to be an effective leader.
A sample of continental currency
Though Washington volunteered to lead the Continental Army without pay, the army would still need to be supplied with food and ammunition. So, Congress agreed to print Continental Currency - a violation of the 1774 Currency Act - and borrowed money from wealthy colonists and foreign banks. They authorized the Committee of Secret Correspondence to initiate diplomatic relations with foreign governments, like France (who aided the rebels secretly for a while), and to conduct covert intelligence operations in the colonies and abroad. The most famous spy in this grandfather of the CIA may be Nathan Hale, whose legendary last words were: 'I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.' Hale was hung by the British in 1776.
Despite these obvious war preparations, the Second Continental Congress went to great lengths to pledge their loyalty to Great Britain as long as they were granted full rights. They sent the Olive Branch Petition on July 8, 1775. This letter insisted that the colonies wanted to negotiate trade and tax regulations with Great Britain, not gain independence.
Rather than make concessions, King George III declared the colonies to be in rebellion; their leaders wanted for treason. He brought in Hessian mercenaries to squash the escalating revolt. This was a slap in the face to the colonists. Why would the King send freelance German soldiers to control British citizens? This action helped strengthen the position of the radicals who were calling for independence. Finally, in May of 1776, Congress passed a resolution that really was treasonous; they overthrew royal governments where they existed in the colonies and set up new Patriot governments.
Common Sense by Paine made the case for independence from British rule
The American colonists were not in unanimous agreement about these decisions, but a publication earlier that year had gone a long way in swaying public opinion in favor of rebellion. In January 1776, Thomas Paine released a pamphlet titled Common Sense. Using the emotional, Biblical arguments and progressive style of logic employed by preachers of the Great Awakening, Paine made the case that America needed to rebel against British rule. Considering how many people lived in the colonies at the time, Common Sense was more widely distributed than any book in American history and turned the people in favor of the Patriot cause for independence.
For more than a decade, the American colonies had struggled to redefine their relationship with Great Britain to no avail. A series of laws and violent conflicts perpetuated a downward spiral. Following the First Continental Congress in 1774, many colonies prepared for inevitable war, inspired by the persuasive speech of Patrick Henry. By the spring of 1775, deadly battles had been fought in Massachusetts, and the Second Continental Congress met again; this time to discuss plans for the future. They organized the Continental Army under the leadership of George Washington, secured funding and initiated diplomatic relations with foreign governments. At the same time, they sent the Olive Branch Petition assuring the king they would only fight in defense of their rights, not for independence. The King's response - hiring German mercenaries - helped change their minds. This, together with Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense, started to turn public opinion towards independence.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Understand what led to the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress, as well as the results of each
- Identify Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, and explain their significance
- Define the Olive Branch Petition and describe Britain's reaction to it