American Revolution For Dummies
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During the mid-1760s, America and Britain had managed to confine their differences to rhetorical battles and bloodless economic boycotts. But the conflict took a decided turn after the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

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An engraved illustration of George Washington crossing the River Delaware during the American Revolutionary War, from a Victorian book dated 1886.

In early September 1774, an extraordinary collection of American colonists gathered in Philadelphia. There were 56 of them, from all the colonies except Georgia (whose inhabitants were facing a war with Creek Indians, needed the support of British troops, and therefore didn’t want to irritate government officials in London).

All of the 56 were males. About half of them were lawyers. Some, like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, were among the wealthiest men in America. Others, like Sam Adams of Massachusetts, were so financially strapped friends had to chip in and buy him a decent set of clothes for the convention.

There were well-known figures, such as George Washington, John Adams, and Patrick Henry, and men largely unknown outside their colonies. One (Benjamin Harrison of Virginia) would be the father and great-grandfather of future U.S. presidents. Another (Stephen Crane of New Jersey) would be bayoneted to death by German mercenary soldiers during the Revolutionary War. A third (Edward Rutledge of North Carolina) would be, at the age of 26, the youngest man to sign the Declaration of Independence.

These men were delegates to what became known as the First Continental Congress. They had been sent by colonial assemblies to, in the words of the Massachusetts assembly, “a meeting of Committees from the several Colonies on this Continent … to consult upon the present state of the Colonies, and the miseries, to which they are, and must be reduced, by the operation of certain Acts of Parliament respecting America… .”

Getting down to business

The first order of business was to make it clear to British authorities that they were not immediately planning a revolution. Delegates wrote to General Gage in Boston to assure him they were trying to find “the most peaceable means for restoring American liberty.”

After narrowly rejecting a conciliation plan proposed by Joseph Galloway that called for creation of an American parliament that would work with the British version, delegates drew up a Declaration of Rights and Grievances addressed directly to King George III. This was basically a laundry list of all the complaints America had made since passage of the Stamp Act nine years before.

They asked the king to drop the Coercive Acts. Several delegates wrote essays suggesting the colonies deal only with the king and completely ignore Parliament. More ominously, they agreed to a mutual defense pact — if one colony should be subjected to violence by British troops, the others would come to its aid.

They also endorsed a series of resolutions from Massachusetts (delivered to the convention via a Paul Revere horseback ride), known as the Suffolk Resolves. These called for completely ignoring the provisions of the Coercive Acts, establishing armed militias in each town, and requiring citizens to “use their utmost diligence to acquaint themselves with the art of war as soon as possible.”

A serious boycott

Finally, the congress approved a total boycott of British goods, in a united resolution called The Association. This boycott went far beyond previous boycotts. Under it, nothing from British sources — up to and including slaves — would be imported as of Dec. 1, 1774. Furthermore, no American goods would be exported to Britain — although after protests from their delegates, rice from South Carolina and tobacco from Virginia were exempted.

The export ban was delayed until the following year so “as not to injure our fellow-subjects in Great Britain, Ireland and the West Indies.” Finally, British goods already in the colonies would not be bought, sold or consumed.

“We do for ourselves, and the inhabitants of the several colonies, whom we represent, firmly agree … to abide by the agreements,” the resolution concluded. On Oct. 26, they went home, with the understanding they would reconvene in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, if necessary. It was.

'Let it begin here'

It was Britain’s serve in the ping-pong political battle straddling the Atlantic. Hoping to preserve peace, William Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, proposed a sweeping rollback of almost every act that had angered the Americans. But mindful of a still-furious king, the House of Lords resoundingly rejected it.

British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North (who served from 1770 to 1782) then offered a half-a-loaf Conciliatory Resolution, which said that if a colony would contribute to its own defense and pay for civil and judicial administrations within its borders, it would be exempt from paying taxes — except those necessary for the regulation of commerce.

The proposal, approved by Parliament in February 1775, did not reach the colonies for several months, after the fighting had begun. It was summarily rejected when it got there anyway.

Prodded by King George, North also pushed Parliament into declaring Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion and authorized more troops to be sent to the colonies. The so-called Restraining Acts limited trade between all of the British Empire and the colonies and prohibited New England fishermen from working in the cod-rich seas off Newfoundland.

Parliamentary members sympathetic to the Americans warned that Britain might be biting off more than it could chew. “You cannot furnish armies, or treasure, competent to the mighty purpose of subduing America,” said Edmund Burke. “But whether France and Spain will be tame, inactive spectators of your efforts and distractions is well worthy of the consideration of your lordships.”

Burke’s warning was echoed by General Gage, the Massachusetts governor who was also in command of His Majesty’s army in America. “If you think ten thousand men are enough,” he wrote Lord North, “send twenty; if a million (pounds) is thought to be enough, give two. You will save blood and treasure in the end.”

Squirreling away supplies

Meanwhile, in the colonies, efforts were being made to enforce the economic boycott — and prepare for war. To accomplish the first of these tasks, committees were appointed in every county to oversee adherence to the boycott, as well as discourage colonists from taking government jobs, particularly in Massachusetts.

Names of those who were suspected of violations were publicized, and the offenders faced social ostracism, and sometimes worse. While the occasional tarring and feathering did take place, the threat of physical violence was usually implied more than employed. Shunning by one’s neighbors was usually enough.

One Massachusetts man who had been appointed a councilor to the governor walked into a church service one Sunday, only to see all his fellow congregants walk out. He thereupon declined the appointment.

While enforcing the boycott, the Sons of Liberty group and militia, known as Minute Men because they were to respond quickly to any call to arms, staged surprise raids on British supply depots and made off with arms and ammunition. They took care not to shoot, daring the British troops to fire first. The tactic followed the advice of Sam Adams: “Put your enemy in the wrong and keep him so. It is a wise maxim in politics as well as in war.”

Riding with Revere

The colonists also kept a constant eye on the movements of British troops. One of their most effective spies was the son of a French immigrant who had established himself as a master silversmith in Boston. Paul Revere also made false teeth and surgical instruments — and was good on a horse.

In mid-April 1775, General Gage received orders from London to arrest the colonial dissident leaders Sam Adams and John Hancock and seize any arms collected by the colonists. Gage was also directed to use force, if necessary. So, on the evening of April 18, Gage ordered a force of 700 men to march from Boston to the village of Concord, about 20 miles away, arrest Adams and Hancock if they found them, and destroy a cache of arms suspected to be there.

Revere, however, got wind of the plan, and set out to warn the countryside that the British were coming. It was a harrowing trek. After crossing the Charles River at night in a small boat, he outrode British pursuers and made it to the small town of Lexington, about seven miles from Concord. There he warned Adams and Hancock.

With two other men, Thomas Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott, he then set out for Concord. The trio ran into a mounted British patrol. Prescott escaped by leaping his horse over a stone wall and made it to Concord, where the militia was able to hide most of the guns and ammunition.

Revere and Dawes were briefly detained, but were somewhat inexplicably released after the troops took Revere’s horse. (Of the three riders, Revere is the one everyone remembers mainly because of a wildly popular 1861 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)

The 'shot heard round the world'

At the village of Lexington, the British force was confronted by a group of about 75 militia under the command of John Parker. A farmer and veteran of the French and Indian War, Parker initially ignored the British officer’s command that the Americans put down their arms. Instead, according to the later account of a man under his command, Parker replied, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Outnumbered 10 to 1, Parker was in the process of changing his mind when a shot was fired — by which side is unknown — and a volley of gunfire followed. Eight of the colonists were killed and ten wounded.

The British troops then moved on to Concord, where they destroyed several cannons that had been too big to hide. By that time, however, hundreds of militia had arrived, and as the British troops began moving back toward Boston, they fired on the Americans, who returned fire.

What had been an orderly withdrawal by the British now became a somewhat disorderly retreat. “We retired for 15 miles under incessant fire,” a British officer recounted, “which like a moving circle surrounded us wherever we went.”

Shooting from behind rocks and inside houses, the American militia killed or wounded more than 250 of the king’s soldiers, while suffering about 90 casualties themselves.

The battle was immortalized in an 1836 poem written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, called “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.”

Stirring poetics aside, the long war of words between Mother Britain and her American children was over. The war of blood and death had begun.

About This Article

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Steve Wiegand is an award-winning political journalist and history writer. Over a 35-year career, he worked as a reporter and columnist at the San Diego Evening Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. He is the author or coauthor of seven books dealing with various aspects of U.S. and world history.

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