American Revolution For Dummies book cover

American Revolution For Dummies

By: Steve Wiegand Published: 09-24-2019

Become an expert on the Revolutionary War

American Revolution For Dummies capitalizes on the recent resurgence of interest in the Revolutionary War period—one of the most important in the history of the United States. From the founding fathers to the Declaration of Independence, and everything that encapsulates this extraordinary period in American history, American Revolution For Dummies is your one-stop guide to the birth of the United States of America.

Understanding the critical issues of this era is essential to the study of subsequent periods in American history … and this book makes it more accessible than ever before.

  • Covers events leading up to the war, including the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and the Boston Tea Party
  • Provides information on The Declaration of Independence
  • Offers insight on major battles, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, and Yorktown
  • Reviews key figures, including George Washington, Charles Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Alexander Hamilton

If you want or need to become more knowledgeable about the American War of Independence and the people and period surrounding it, this book gives you the information necessary to become an expert on the essential details of the revolutionary period.

Articles From American Revolution For Dummies

10 results
10 results
Women in the American Revolution

Article / Updated 03-07-2022

It is an inescapable fact that there were no “Founding Mothers,” at least not in the sense the term "Founding Fathers” is used to describe the male leaders of the American Revolution. No women served in Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, or helped draft the Articles of Confederation or US Constitution. While specifics varied from state to state and sometimes from community to community, women during this period generally had little legal standing. So tiny was their role in politics that even to suggest having a larger one was a subject of great humor — at least to men. When Abagail Adams wrote her husband John in 1776 to “remember the ladies” while drafting the fledgling country’s new government, he replied, “I cannot help but laugh. . . . Depend upon it. We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.” To a colleague, however, John took a more serious, if just as chauvinistic, tone. Extending the right to vote too widely under the new government would open a Pandora’s box of universal demands: “There will be no End to It. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote.” American revolutionary women labored on the home front Women could and did enter the political arena by writing letters, circulars, and tracts and helping to operate lines of communication and information. And as in all great wars, it fell to women to do everything but fight to keep things going. When Americans quit buying machine-made cloth from England, for example, American women had to make it by hand. “I rise with the sun and all through the long day I have no time for aught but my work,” wrote a Connecticut farmer’s wife whose husband was off to the war. Even during family prayer time, she admitted, her mind was on “whether Polly remembered to set the sponge for the bread, or put water in the leach tub or to turn the cloth in the dyeing vat. . .” Less specific but more important, women were expected, at least in Patriot families, to infuse the children with the spirit of representative democracy and the value of individual liberty. It was a task that historian Linda Kerber labeled “republican motherhood,” and political leaders urged Revolutionary-era men to remind their spouses of its importance. “Let their husbands point out the necessity of such conduct,” wrote Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, “that it is the only thing that can save them and their children from distresses, slavery and disgrace…”. In addition to bearing the brunt of wartime shortages and other hardships, it also fell to women to bear the losses of men who would not come home from the fighting, as well as steeling themselves to send off their husbands and sons to war — or going themselves. Women near the battle front in the American Revolution A widowed Irish immigrant in South Carolina, Elizabeth Jackson lost two of her three sons to the war. She nonetheless volunteered to act as a nurse for wounded Americans held on British prison ships in Charleston Harbor. After contracting cholera, she summoned her remaining 15-year-old son, who had been fighting the British since he was 12 and bore the slash marks of a British officer’s sword to prove it. “Avoid quarrels if you can,” Andrew Jackson recalled his mother telling him before she died, “ . . . (but) if you ever have to vindicate your honor, do it calmly.” Women often served as nurses, cooks, seamstresses, and laundresses to the various militias and Continental Army. General Washington wasn’t keen on the practice, since the women had to be fed precious rations. And, try as he might with repeated orders to the contrary, they often hitched rides in supply wagons, thus slowing things down. But since his own wife Martha often traveled with him, Washington did not order his commanders to ban women entirely from the army camps. If they didn’t tag along with their husbands, sons, and brothers, women might make uniforms, gather food, or perform other tasks for the troops. One group of three dozen Philadelphia residents were so persistent in raising funds for the army, a Loyalist complained “people were obliged to give them something to get rid of them.” They ultimately raised the staggering modern-day equivalent of $300,000. “Necessity,” a Revolutionary War woman recalled in 1810, “taught us to make exertions which our girls of the present day know nothing of.”

View Article
The Aftermath of the American Revolution

Article / Updated 11-21-2019

The American Revolution has had enormous effects on the development of world history since that time. We can learn a lot from exploring other events that happened following the American Revolution and from considering the reasons that this revolution, unlike many others was a successful endeavor. It was a revolution like no other, “a revolution,” in the words of the 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke, “made not by chopping and changing of power in any of the existing states (nations), but by the appearance of a new state, of a new species, in a new part of the globe.” How big was the American Revolution? Overstating the effects of the American Revolution on world history would be difficult. It’s been estimated, for example, that more than half of the countries belonging to the United Nations in 2019 could trace their beginnings back to documents proclaiming their legitimacy as sovereign states and modeled on or inspired by America’s Declaration of Independence. In fact, it could be argued that just a single Revolutionary War battle in the fall of 1777 in eastern New York led to a French king having his head cut off; the end of the Spanish Empire in the New World; doubling the size of the United States; firmly establishing Canada as a British colony; and hastening the settlement of Australia. That may seem a bit of stretch, but consider this: In September and October 1777, American forces defeated a British army near Saratoga. The stunning victory, and surrender of the entire British force, helped convince French King Louis XVI to throw France’s formidable military behind the American cause. That contributed greatly to America’s military victory over the British in the Revolutionary War. America’s subsequent creation of a democratic republic provided a vivid example to the French of how effective an uprising against a tyrannical government might be. French revolutionaries used the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a template for drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789. One of the casualties in the French Revolution that followed was Louis XVI — the same monarch who had helped America win its revolution. Inspired by the U.S. and French revolutions and led by Simón Bolívar — the Venezuelan who became known as the George Washington of Latin America — much of Spain’s colonial empire in Latin America revolted in the first three decades of the 19th century. By 1830, what are now the nations of Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Peru had declared independence. In addition, the former Portuguese colony of Brazil and French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) had likewise successfully rebelled. The loss of Saint-Domingue to a rebellion led by former slave Toussaint Louverture so irritated the French dictator Napoleon that he launched a major assault to retake the island. That ended in disastrous defeat for the French. The debacle helped persuade Napoleon to forget about a French Empire in the Americas. And that decision spurred France in 1803 to sell America 828,000 square miles of what became known as the Louisiana Purchase, for $15 million (about $335 million in 2019.) That doubled the size of the United States. After the U.S. victory in the Revolutionary War, as many as 80,000 Americans who had been loyal to the British fled to Canada. That had a radical demographic effect on the sparsely populated country, most of whose non-native inhabitants up to that time were of French descent. The influx of the loyalist Americans helped solidify Britain’s cultural and political hold on Canada. Prior to the Revolutionary War, America had served as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted, which included a vast number of those convicted of various crimes. Faced with the post-war problem of where to send its excess convicts, Britain settled on its almost-empty colony of Australia. Between 1788 and 1868, an estimated 165,000 prisoners were transported to the Down Under continent. Sure, lots of other elements are involved in each of these events that helped bring them about and influenced their outcomes. But there is no denying the American Revolution played a significant role in all of them. What kind of revolution was it? Through most of the 20th century and into the 21st, a continual hot topic of debate among historians has been whether the American Revolution was a conservative or radical affair. The conservative-event camp argues that the real aim of the Founding Fathers was a revolution in a literal sense: a 360-degree return to the rights, liberties and economic system that America had lived under during most of the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries. That was before the British government began looking for ways to raise revenues from its American colonies and started enforcing laws that benefited the mother country at the inconvenience of the colonists. America’s leaders, the conservative-revolution camp contends, had nothing new or particularly daring in mind in terms of a new form of government. They mostly just wanted the British to stop changing things. The proof of that, the argument goes, is that even after the Constitution was written and the new government framework it contained was established, the same people were still in charge. Slavery continued; women remained legally inferior; and voting was still largely limited to adult males who owned something of value. But, the radical camp counters, the conservative revolution argument ignores the fact that an entirely new form of government resulted. The Founding Fathers came up with a fundamentally different view of the relationship between government and people. Under monarchies or autocracies, government serves the purposes of the one or the few, and operates through the labor and sacrifices of the many. In the model created by the Constitution, the government functions through the will of the people it serves, as expressed by the actions of the representatives they elect. True, the radical camp concedes, the Founding Fathers ignored or sidestepped the inherent hypocrisy of a nation founded on lofty ideals of liberty, yet allowed slavery and treated half the populace as second-class citizens. But they point out that the soundness of the governmental system the founders created has allowed it to gradually work to redress those wrongs: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, for example, ended slavery in 1865; the 19th gave women the right to vote in 1920. These changes weren’t reliant on the desires of individual rulers or even the whims of popular opinion. They came about as the result of Americans operating under a system, which when it was created, was a radical departure from governments of the time. In the end, it may be futile to attempt to accurately categorize the American Revolution. A revolution is a massive upheaval, undertaken by a mass of human beings with different motives, aspirations — and levels of enthusiasm. For example, John Hancock was a wealthy merchant; George R.T. Hewes, a poor shoemaker. Hancock presided over the group that drafted the Declaration of Independence; Hewes helped dump tea in Boston Harbor. Neither had anything to gain directly from rebellion. But both rebelled and risked their lives in doing so. Was Hancock a conservative hoping to go back to the good old days, and Hewes a radical pining for a new way of doing things? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. Assigning generalized labels to their reasons may be an interesting academic exercise, but not a whole lot more. Why did the American Revolution succeed? As the citizens of scores of other countries around the world can attest, not every revolution works equally well. England underwent two revolutions in the 17th century. One resulted in the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell; the other substituted one monarch for another. The French Revolution gave France — and the rest of the world — Napoleon. The Russian Revolution transformed the government from a corrupt and despotic regime to a corrupt and totalitarian regime. But the American Revolution, however bumpy its path, succeeded. One reason was roots. Americans mostly derived their ideas about government from Britain, whose people had long wrestled with trying to balance the authority of the state with the liberty of the individual. By the time shots were fired at Lexington, many, if not most, Americans had also enjoyed decades of representative democracy, at least at the local level. Self-government was not a new experience. And unlike many other nations, America had escaped dominance by a single religious organization or secular interest group. Then there was luck. America abounded in natural and economic resources. Life at the time of the revolution was generally pretty good in the colonies. The desperation faced by starving or war-torn nations on the verge of rebellion was absent and thus so was the desperate need to grab onto the first Cromwell or Napoleon to come along and offer a quick fix. Finally, Americans settled on three key aspects to the system that helped ensure the revolution could mature. One was the system of checks and balances among the three branches of government — what the historian Richard Hofstadter termed “a harmonious system of mutual frustration.” While the system has certainly generated its fair share of friction, it has maintained a balance the Founding Fathers sometimes feared would be unobtainable. In 1974, for example, President Richard Nixon refused to release audiotapes recorded in his office to Congress, which was considering impeachment proceedings against Nixon. Nixon based his refusal on what he claimed was a “privilege” accorded to the executive branch. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Congress. About two weeks after the court’s decision, the president resigned. The second key aspect of the America system that differentiated it from those of other revolutions was the recognition that the rights of the minority were every bit as important as the rights of the majority. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first Inaugural Address, “Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail . . . the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate (this) would be oppression.” Finally, there is the elasticity of the Constitution. The document’s framers recognized they weren’t perfect and were thus unlikely to create a perfect blueprint for running the country. In the 230 years between 1789 and 2019, a total of 27 amendments were added to the Constitution. They guaranteed rights, made changes in the process of government — and in the case of Prohibition, made one societal activity illegal and then legal again. What you can learn from the American Revolution One of the most rewarding things about the study of history is its reassuring reinforcement of the fact that nobody is now, or ever has been, perfect. It naturally follows that nothing any human has ever done has been perfect. That, as John Adams pointed out in answering letters from admirers in the first quarter of the 19th century, applied to both the Founding Fathers and their efforts. “I ought not to object to your reverence for (us),” he wrote one fan, “but to tell you a very great secret, as far as I am capable of comparing the merits of different periods, I have no reason to believe we were better than you are.” To another correspondent, Adams explained that “every measure of Congress from 1774 to 1787 inclusively, was disposed (of) with acrimony and decided by as small majorities as any question is decided these days . . . it was patched and piebald (irregular) then, as it is now, and ever will be, world without end.” So, one lesson to be learned from the American Revolution is that it’s unreasonable to expect the political descendants of the Founding Fathers to be any more infallible than they — or the fruits of their labors — were. Which raises a second lesson: The American Revolution wasn’t finished with the end of the war, or the adoption of the Constitution, or the peaceful shift of power from one political party to another. It has been followed by a series of mini-revolutions, additions to the country’s ever-changing menu of unresolved issues and unaddressed problems. The menu’s items have included the end of slavery; the preservation of the Union; the extension of suffrage and other rights to women; the establishment of a safety net of programs from Social Security to Medicare; the push for a color-blind justice system, and ongoing efforts to ensure that the scales of majority rule and minority rights remain in balance. And that leads to a third lesson, and one I touch on in the Introduction to this book: The American Revolution isn’t over. “On the contrary,” wrote Dr. Benjamin Rush, physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Founding Father, “nothing but the first act of the drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens for these forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection.” Dr. Rush’s words were written in 1786. We’re still working on perfection.

View Article
Native Americans in the Revolutionary War

Article / Updated 11-19-2019

If one group was destined to lose no matter how the American Revolutionary War came out, it was Native Americans. If the British won the struggle, they were no more likely to be successful in keeping the colonists from encroaching on lands promised to the tribes than they had been before the war. If the Americans won, the push west would only be accelerated. As the following figure points out, all the Indian nations could do was watch the two sides fight over land that didn’t belong to them. “O, strange Englishmen kill each other,” a baffled Seneca chief observed. “I think the world is coming to an end.” Native Americans pressured from both sides during the American Revolution At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there were an estimated 200,000 Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River, in about 85 nations. The instinct for many of the nations was to stay out of the fighting between the whites. “We are unwilling to join on either side,” an Iroquois chief smoothly told the Patriot governor of Connecticut, “ . . . for we love you both — Old England and New.” Indian neutrality was fine for the Americans. In 1775, the First Continental Congress had sent representatives to meet with the powerful six-tribe Iroquois Confederacy, at Western Pennsylvania’s Fort Pitt. The congressional delegates told the tribes that while King George was a good guy, his counselors were “proud and wicked men” who “tell us they will slip their hand into our pockets without asking.” After a second meeting, the Iroquois nations agreed “not to take any part; but as it is a family affair, to sit still and see you fight it out.” But the British had a long history of dealing with the tribes. One British Indian agent, Sir William Johnson, had been so trusted by the Iroquois, he was named an honorary chief of the Six Nations. The British contended that while they wanted to protect Indian rights to their lands, the Americans were poised to invade them. “They mean to cheat you,” British agent John Butler told an Iroquois delegation, “and should you be so silly as to take their advice . . . their intent is to take all your lands from you and destroy your people.” Some tribal leaders were dubious. “I now tell you that you are a mad, foolish, crazy and deceitful person,” the Seneca war chief Cornplanter replied. “ . . . For suppose the Americans conquer you, what would they say to us?” But pressures mounted to forgo neutrality and side with the British. The U.S. cause wasn’t helped by language in the Declaration of Independence that described Indians as “merciless savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In late 1775, a Mohawk leader, Thayendanegea, who dressed in English clothes and was better known by the name Joseph Brant, went to England to meet with war minister Lord Germain and enlist British logistical support and supplies. Germain was happy to oblige: “The dread the people of New England and company have of a war with the savages proves the expediency of holding that scourge over them,” Germain wrote. What neither the British nor the Americans fully grasped was that the structure of the Iroquois Confederacy was such that individual tribes, and even individual members within tribes, were free to fight on either side, or not. Americans and Britons, used to government by consensus and not pure democracy, didn’t get it. As a result, some of the Six Nations fought for the British while others fought alongside the Americans, and at least one tribe, the Onondaga, tried unsuccessfully to stay out of it. In the South, the situation was much the same. British agents, such as the half-Creek Alexander McGillivray, convinced some tribes to fight on the British side, while other tribes tried to avoid the war or fought only when attacked by American forces who failed or refused to differentiate among the Indian nations. The aftermath of the American Revolution on Native Americans The American victory and subsequent peace treaty that the British agreed to basically hung the Native Americans out to dry. Lands that the British had once guaranteed to the tribes were given to the Americans, with no guarantees that the Americans would give any of them back. The new British prime minister, William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, tried to put a veneer of concern on the sell-out, saying the tribes “were not abandoned to their enemies,” but “they were remitted to the care of (their American) neighbors, whose interest it was as much as ours to cultivate friendship with them. . . . ” But the tribes didn’t buy Shelburne’s baloney. At a post-war meeting with British officials in Canada, a tribal leader said, “Pretending to give up (our) country to the Americans without our consent . . . was an Act of Cruelty and Injustice that only the Christians were capable of doing.” In the fall of 1783, tribal representatives met twice with an American delegation led by the young Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette had been chosen by Washington to lead the delegation because the French had historically enjoyed good relations with many of the tribes. Lafayette, however, reminded them they had been warned not to fight Americans, and that the “great General Washington” (whom the Iroquois had named Town Destroyer for the many villages burned under his orders) had won the war, and therefore didn’t have to bargain. The tribes agreed to cede sizeable tracts of land in return for promises of fair treatment in the future and profitable trade agreements. The reality turned out to be something far different — and far more tragic — for most tribes.

View Article
Slavery and the American Revolution

Article / Updated 11-19-2019

The American Revolution was drenched with deep and bitter ironies, and none was deeper or more bitter than conducting a fight for personal liberties while continuing to embrace the institution of slavery. It was a contradiction of which the Founding Fathers were well aware. “The Plant of Liberty is of so tender a nature that it cannot thrive long in the neighborhood of slavery,” warned Dr. Benjamin Rush. “Remember, the eyes of Europe are fixed upon you, to preserve an asylum for freedom in this country after the last pillars of it have fallen in every other quarter of the globe.” The Methodist minister John Allen of Maryland was blunter: “Blush ye pretended warriors for freedom! Ye trifling Patriots . . . for while you are pleading for a restoration of your charter rights, you at the same time are continuing the lawless, cruel, inhuman and abominable practice of enslaving your fellow creatures!” But untying the knotty problem proved beyond their abilities — or desire — to do so at the risk of dissolving the shaky bonds between the states. A stark and telling example of the contradiction — or hypocrisy — that the issue engendered was contained in the person of Thomas Jefferson. A slaveowner, Jefferson had blasted King George in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence for waging “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery,” and for not allowing the colonies to end the slave trade. The section was deleted, however, at the insistence of Southern states’ representatives. And two years later, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson signed a bill offering land, money, and “a healthy sound Negro” for anyone enlisting in the Virginia militia for the duration of the war. And even anti-slavery figures, such as John Adams, privately counseled that the abolition issue should be sidestepped for fear of driving Southern states out of the colonies’ shaky coalition. Fighting for freedom on the American side The half-million African-American slaves were well aware of what the fight raging around them was all about: Of 289 slaves and former slaves who enlisted in the Connecticut militia, 23 gave surnames of Liberty, Freeman or Freedom. In applying for a military pension years after the war, Private John Grant wrote “when I saw Liberty Poles and the people all engaged for the support of freedom, I could not but like and be pleased with such things. . . .” (He did not get his pension, Congress deeming that since he was a fugitive slave at the time, he did not merit one.) That Grant and others like him fought at all for the American cause was a bone of contention among political and military leaders throughout the war. In July 1775, as soon as he took command, George Washington ordered an end to the enlistment of any more African Americans in the Continental Army. In November, he decided to discharge those already serving, after polling his command staff. None of them favored the idea of African Americans serving, whether slave or free. “The policy of our arming Slaves is in my opinion a moot point,” he wrote. Washington, a slaveowner himself, was troubled by news that slaves in Jamaica had staged a bloody and ultimately failed uprising, apparently inspired by news of the American fight for independence. Even anti-slavery advocates like John Adams were leery about the idea, although for more pragmatic political reasons than the slave-owning Washington. When a trusted aide to Washington formally proposed arming 3,000 slaves in the South with the promise of freedom for fighting the British, Adams told him “Your Negro battalion will never do. South Carolina would run out of their Wits at the least Hint of such a Measure.” Adams’ prediction was accurate. “We are much disgusted here at Congress recommending to us to arm our Slaves,” South Carolina militia commander Christopher Gadsden wrote to Sam Adams. “It was received with great resentment as a dangerous and impolitic step.” But reality tempered the opposition to African Americans serving with the American forces. The simple fact was that the Americans needed every man they could get. By the end of 1775, Washington had rescinded his ban on African Americans from the army and left it up to local recruiters to use their best judgement in enlisting free — but not slave — African Americans. By the end of 1777, slaves were also allowed to enlist. In fact, some slaveowners facing their state’s draft sent slaves in their place. Washington’s change of heart was spurred by another reality: The British were openly inviting slaves to join up and fight for the king — and their own freedom. Luring slaves to the Loyalist side The royal governor of Virginia, John Murray, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation in November 1775, offering freedom to every slave who agreed to enlist in what Dunmore called his “Ethiopian Brigade.” As many as 800 slaves took Dunmore up on his offer, including a 35-year-old native of the African nation of Gambia. His name was Harry Washington, and he had fled from a plantation, where he worked in the stables. The plantation was called Mount Vernon. “There is not a man among them (the slaves) here but would not leave us, if they believ’d they could make their Escape,” Mount Vernon’s manager, Lund Washington, wrote to his cousin, the plantation’s owner George Washington. Dunmore’s proclamation sent shudders throughout the South. In “tampering with the Slaves,” James Madison wrote a friend, Dunmore had hit on the Southern states’ greatest weakness, “and if we shall be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles, by the hand of one that knows the secret.” Actually, the British had no intention of freeing slaves to any great degree. Dunmore’s proclamation applied only to the slaves of those who supported the Rebel cause. Slaves who ran away from Loyalist masters were returned to their owners. While as many as 20,000 slaves took the opportunity to flee to British “protection” during the war, relatively few found freedom. “Tis only changing one master for another,” wrote John Cruden, a North Carolina Loyalist official who oversaw the confiscated estates of plantation owners on the American side. “Let it be clearly understood that they (slaves) are to serve the King for ever, and that those slaves who are not taken for his Majesty’s service are to remain on the plantations, and perform, as usual, the labors of the field.” Those who were taken for “his Majesty’s service” worked as valets for British officers, dug latrines, took care of livestock, and generally performed many of the same tasks they had as slaves. Many were abandoned when the British army moved on, and many of those died of recurring smallpox epidemics or starved to death. In the end, perhaps as many as 5,000 African Americans served in the American forces, while perhaps 20,000 served on the British side. Fleeing to freedom As the war ground to an end, thousands of slaves who had fled their bondage wound up in British-held New York City, including George Washington’s slave Harry. As slave owners descended on the city to claim their “property” in the summer of 1783, British clerks entered the names of 2,775 African Americans in what was called The Book of Negroes. The slaves whose names were in the book were among, but not all of, those who had, with the aid of the British government, escaped to Canada, England, or elsewhere. Washington later ordered the book seized so that owners of slaves listed in it could petition Congress for compensation. Harry Washington went first to Nova Scotia and then to an area in what is now the African country of Sierra Leone, established by the British as the “Province of Freedom.” About 1,200 former African American slaves settled there. As if to bring the saga full-circle, Harry Washington led a rebellion against the British over unfair taxation and was eventually banished to another section of Sierra Leone. Despite the exodus of thousands of former slaves, America actually had more people in chains at the end of the war than at the beginning, mostly because of a high birth rate among slaves. By 1807, when Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, there were more than four million already in the United States. The contradiction of slavery and fighting for freedom did stir some states to make halting steps toward abolition. But even laws that dealt with freeing slaves were loaded with fine print and loopholes. In Connecticut, a law abolished slavery “as soon as may be, consistent with the rights of individuals (in other words, slaveowners) and the Public Safety and Welfare.” Another state law said the children of slaves born after March 1, 1784, would be free — when they reached the age of 25. The impact of that was as the slaves neared the age of 25, they were sold to other states. By the first federal census in the 1790, only Massachusetts reported no slaves within its borders. “It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me,” mused John Adams’ wife Abigail, “to fight for ourselves for what we are robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” “Iniquitous” as it was, however, America would raise and then drop or sidestep the issue for decades, until another bloodier and deeper civil war was waged.

View Article
The Impact of the American Revolution on the Home Front

Article / Updated 11-19-2019

America’s independence was ultimately won not by the actions of a few extraordinary individuals, but by the efforts and sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of “ordinary” people. The impact of the struggle on various groups within the country, however, and their reactions to it, varied widely and often set neighbor against neighbor. In Delaware, a mob dragged a neighbor from his home to be “humiliated in publick” by being whipped by a “lowly” African American. In Connecticut, another mob stripped a local doctor of his clothing, covered him in hog dung, and then broke the windows of his house. Tories and Whigs “Times began to be troublesome, and people began to divide into parties,” James Collins, then a 16-year-old North Carolina boy, noted in his memoirs years later. “Those that had been good friends in times past became enemies; they began to watch each other with jealous eyes, and were designated by the names of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory.’” What Collins was witness to was the American civil war that raged within the larger global conflict. Whigs (after the British political party considered more sympathetic to the American cause) was a term used to describe those Americans who favored independence from Britain, although they often called themselves Patriots, and their foes most often called them Rebels. Tories (after the conservative British political party) referred to those who either remained loyal to the crown (also referred to as Loyalists) or who refused to embrace either side. It was an ugly war. The Delaware man who was whipped happened to be a Patriot constable who was targeted by his Loyalist neighbors. The Connecticut doctor was a supporter of the king and ran afoul of his Patriot neighbors. Whippings and beatings were by no means the worst confrontations between Americans on opposing sides. In Virginia, for example, a militia officer presided over “trials” of those not deemed patriotic enough. He resorted to hanging them so often from the large walnut tree in his backyard, his name became synonymous with such extra-legal executions. His name was Charles Lynch. Deciding who was a Tory For ardent Patriots such as the firebrand writer Thomas Paine, determining who was friend or foe was a straightforward process: “He that is not a supporter of the Independent States of America . . . is, in the American sense of the word, a TORY.” But in reality, it wasn’t that simple. Nor is it accurate to assume that Loyalists were all powdered-wig-wearing, snuff-sniffing, upper-crust aristocrats. In fact, some Americans didn’t embrace the cause of independence for dozens of reasons. True, some were indeed motivated by a wish to maintain their status quo of wealth and privilege. Others were directly affiliated with the British government in various capacities and had an obvious vested interest in the revolution failing. But many were motivated by their own form of patriotism, to the king and Britain. Others saw themselves as sensible, moderate, and respectful of law and order. Some thought a war of rebellion wasn’t necessary to work out differences between the colonies and the mother country. Many tenant farmers of rich Patriots felt more oppressed by their landlords than they did by George III. Non-Irish Catholics feared persecution by the largely Protestant Patriots. As the war dragged on, some of the working poor were resentful of Patriot military drafts that allowed the wealthy to buy their way out of service. And some Americans didn’t like being pushed around by anyone, or just wanted to be left alone. “Many people who disapprove Independence have no other wish than to remain at peace,” observed James Allen, a Philadelphia lawyer. “& (be) secure in their persons without influencing the minds of others.” Thousands — maybe as many as 80,000 at the start of the war — were religious pacifists who had come to America to avoid conflicts: Quakers, Shakers, Moravians, Mennonites, and Amish among them. Patriots versus Loyalists Just how many of the estimated 2.5 million non-Native American people living in the rebellious colonies were Loyalists is impossible to precisely determine. Historians’ estimates have ranged from 20 percent to 35 percent. That doesn’t include the colonies’ 500,000 African American slaves. Nor does it include thousands of Americans who strove to stay out of the war altogether. It is safe to say, however, that the neighbor-against-neighbor conflicts were geographically widespread. Generally, the areas that had been settled the longest and had the deepest roots in self-government — Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia — tended to be more for independence than newer colonies, such as the Carolinas and Georgia. The Middle States, such as Pennsylvania, which had large populations of pacifist religious groups, tended to be neutral. But exceptions and contradictions were everywhere. Wealthy people in the North might be ardent Loyalists, hoping to hold on to what they had. Their rich counterparts in the South, on the other hand, might favor independence if for no other reason than they feared British efforts to offer slaves freedom in turn for rebelling against their masters. Average Americans in urban areas, exposed to the daily bombardment of independence-minded media, might lean Patriot, while their rural brethren didn’t know or care about issues like taxes on paper or duties on tea. The persecution of Tories In the early stages of the Revolution, differences between Patriots and Loyalists generally ranged from social ostracism and bullying to beatings and vandalism. But by the time of the Declaration of Independence signing, Tory-hunting became a more serious pastime. Neighbors forced neighbors to sign loyalty oaths to the cause of independence. Houses were searched to see whether their occupants were abiding by the boycotts of British goods. Longtime grudges within communities were settled, with patriotism as the excuse. And paranoia about loyalty ran so deep that at the Second Continental Congress, some delegates, including James Madison, suspected Benjamin Franklin was a British spy. States passed various laws to formalize ill treatment of Loyalists. Wishing good things for the king became a crime in Virginia. In Connecticut, public allegiance to the crown could get you hanged. By the end of the war, New York had proclaimed that Loyalists weren’t entitled to collect legally owed debts from Patriots. The seeming contradiction of a fight for freedom that embraced repressive civil and government actions was not lost on British newspapers, as shown. Or as a Maryland congressman mused with no little irony, “It is a strange freedom that is confined always to one side of the question.”

View Article
The Lack of Unity in Early American Colonies

Article / Updated 11-19-2019

One of the lessons colonists learned in fighting Native Americans was that it was a lot more effective to coordinate their efforts than to fight as individual colonies. But deciding unification was a good idea and actually unifying turned out to be two very different things. Confederating in New England Almost as soon as they were done all but wiping out the Pequots, several New England colonies began talking about banding together in some sort of common-purpose group. The idea sprang at least partially from their fear that the region’s Native American tribes would beat the colonists to it and, at some point, decide to unite. It took nearly six years of kicking it around, but in May 1643, the colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven formed the Confederation of the United Colonies of New England. The group’s charter declared its purpose was to be “a firm and perpetual league of friendship for offense & defense . . . both for preserving and propagating the truths of the Gospel and for mutual safety and welfare.” Each of the colonies’ legislatures — general courts — was to elect two representatives to the confederation’s commission, which was to meet at least once a year and also on “special occasions,” such as the start of a war. The representatives had to be members of the Puritan church. The commission’s president would be selected from among the representatives on an annual basis, but had no powers other than to moderate at meetings. The commissioners could declare war, make peace, and divvy up military expenses among the member colonies in proportion to their population. But approval of the taxes levied to pay for military operations had to be approved by all of the colonies’ general courts. The commission could also make recommendations to individual colonies, settle border disputes (of which there were many), and provide for the capture and return of fugitives, particularly runaway indentured servants. No colony was bound by anything unless its general court approved, and the Confederation guaranteed the independence of each colony to make its own rules within its own boundaries. Colonists argue over unification The unification plan looked good on paper, but quarreling among the colonies began almost immediately. Massachusetts, which as the largest and most prosperous colony was something of a regional bully, vetoed a request by some communities in what is now Maine to join, mainly because Massachusetts leaders had designs on annexing the area. No one wanted to let Rhode Island in. It was full of what most Puritans regarded as weirdos and troublemakers, and it wouldn’t agree to repatriate runaway servants. Connecticut and New Haven (the latter of which was absorbed by the former in 1664) didn’t support helping Massachusetts grab some land from the French, and Massachusetts declined to help Connecticut and New Haven get a chunk of real estate controlled by The Netherlands. Massachusetts and Connecticut argued about the land formerly owned by the Pequots. And Plymouth was so small, no paid much attention to anything it wanted. As a result, the Confederation accomplished almost nothing in its first three decades of existence. The alliance did come in handy, however, when King Philip’s war broke out. The member colonies each agreed to supply specific quotas of draftees for the war and finance the military effort. But once the fighting stopped, Massachusetts made clear it was sorely vexed by the fact that while the costs of mutual defense had been apportioned according to the populations of the colonies, it only got the same number of seats on the commission as everyone else. That meant its citizens paid more than the other colonies’ citizens, but didn’t get more of a say in Confederation decisions. That issue would pop up again for future Americans trying to form a representative democracy. The issues all became moot in 1684, when the Confederation was dissolved by English officials who had begun to reassert their dominance of the region by revoking colonial charters. But the inspiration provided by the New England Confederation would far outstrip its influence at the time. It was the first stepping stone toward forming a union of individual colonies. As can be seen in Chapter 5, it helped spur efforts in 1754 of seven colonies to form a union — and in 1776, when 13 colonies began exploring the same idea. Getting news and getting around in the early American colonies In addition to the political obstacles that colonies faced in getting together, there were the problems of trying to move around and communicate with each other. Roads were few, and often not worth finding: In Massachusetts, snow actually improved travel by filling in the chasm-like potholes. It wasn’t until 1766 that regular coach service opened between Philadelphia and New York — and that took three days to travel 94 miles. New York to Boston was five to six days, and that was in good weather. Travel by water along the coast, particularly for longer distances, was generally quicker, but unpredictable, dependent on tides, storms, dodging pirate attacks, and the vessel’s sea-worthiness. Even then, going from New York to England was often easier than going from New York to Charleston. Benjamin Franklin, for example, made eight trips back and forth across the Atlantic to Europe during his lifetime, which is almost certainly more times than he visited South Carolina. Getting mail was akin to winning the lottery: a pleasant surprise that seldom happened. Carried by post-riders, it traveled only when enough of it piled up at one location to be deemed worth the trouble to deliver to another. It’s estimated that fewer letters were mailed in all of the American colonies for the entire year of 1753 than within New York City in one day in 1904. Even getting local news was dicey. While the first printing press in America arrived in 1636 at Cambridge Massachusetts as an enterprise of a new college called Harvard, the first newspaper didn’t appear until 1690. Called Publick Occurrences, it promised to come out once a month “or if any glut of occurrences happen oftener.” (It only came out once and then stopped publication.) By 1740, there were only 16 newspapers throughout the 13 colonies, none of them daily. By 1776, there only 37, with a total circulation of 5,000 in a country of 2.5 million. Most colonists therefore stayed close to home, with little knowledge of what was going on in other colonies. Human nature being what it is, that, of course, led to a region’s inhabitants developing suspicions and stereotypes about other regions. Based on one bad experience with a Boston merchant, a Virginian might regard all New Englanders as self-righteous, inhospitable, and less than honorable in business. The Bostoner, in turn, might regard all Virginians as morally lax, overly familiar, and dumber than a bag of hammers. The English colonies had been settled at different times by different peoples and for different reasons. They had also generally been left alone by the English government. That was about to change.

View Article
American History: The Plymouth Colony

Article / Updated 11-19-2019

The Pilgrims who founded the Plymouth Colony actually landed somewhere unintended and lacked any legal right to establish a colony where they were. They named the bay (minus any rock) Plymouth and established the colony based on the Mayflower Compact. In 1608, about a year after the founding of Jamestown, an 18-year-old farmer’s son named William Bradford sneaked out of England with a small group of Separatists and settled in the small Dutch city of Leiden. As the years passed, Bradford became a silk and cotton weaver, married, and had a son. In his free time, he devoured books, teaching himself to read in six languages. Moreover, the Dutch authorities didn’t care what religious beliefs he held. Still, something didn’t feel right. A decade into their stay, the Separatists were troubled that their children were losing, or had already lost, any sense of their English heritage. It was time to move on, they decided, and the place to move was America. The move took three years of planning and negotiations with the English powers-that-be. Sir George Sandys, the Virginia Company cofounder who had done much to stabilize Jamestown, was not particularly sympathetic to their plight, but his company needed colonists. Sandys helped them secure a charter entitling them to 80,000 acres near what is now New York City. It took one false start and the abandonment of a leaking sister vessel, but on Sept. 16, 1620, a group of 102 men, women, and children who had briefly returned to England from Holland left the English port of Southampton. They were aboard “a staunch, chunky slow-sailing vessel” called the Mayflower. It was about 90 feet long and 25 feet wide amidships. And while it leaked and carried at least 30 more people than it should have, its passengers noted that it didn’t stink, at least not at first. For most of its life, the Mayflower had carried wine between France and England, rather than animals, cheese, or something equally odoriferous. Now it carried Bradford, his wife (they had left their son behind with relatives, deeming the passage too dangerous), and 35 other Separatists, to whom Bradford would refer to as Pilgrims years later when he wrote his memoirs. There were also 65 non-Separatist settlers, some of whom had been chosen because they had skills that would be useful in the colony, such as carpentry or blacksmithing. Along with its passengers, the ship’s cargo included musical instruments, enough furniture for 19 cottages, a book on the history of Turkey, and provisions from spices and turnips to oatmeal and dried ox tongues. A shoemaker named William Mullins brought 139 pairs of boots and shoes. Despite a rough crossing that took 65 days, only one passenger and one crew member died on the voyage, and one baby was born. Tragically, however, Bradford’s wife fell overboard and drowned shortly after the ship dropped anchor in a broad shallow bay they called Plymouth, near the site of abandoned Indian cornfield. “A Civil Body Politick” Two important things happened on the way over to America. One was that as a result of fierce storms, the Mayflower was blown at least a hundred miles north of its intended landing site. That meant they were essentially squatters and lacked any legal right to establish a colony where they were. The second was a brief document signed on Nov. 21, 1620, by 41 male passengers, in which they agreed to “covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation.” It also pledged them to draft “equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Officials . . . as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General Good of the Colony.” The Mayflower Compact, as it came to be known, was occasioned by the mutterings of some of the non-Pilgrims, (whom Pilgrims called Strangers) who claimed that since they weren’t settling on the land described in the charter, they weren’t bound by the charter’s rules. To prevent chaos, the Pilgrims drew up the compact. The document also gave them some political cover because it made clear they weren’t rebels and still considered themselves loyal subjects of King James.The compact lacked any details about the colony’s governmental structure or specific laws. Even so, it was a remarkable document, in that it was not a pact between a ruler and the ruled, but among peers all voluntarily promising to respect the rights and equal standing of each other. The Plymouth colonists leave their mark Despite their planning, the Plymouth colony had a very rough start, in part because they arrived at the beginning of a New England winter. Like the Jamestown colonists, half of the Plymouth settlers died in the first six months — including the shoemaker Mullins, his wife, and his son. But unlike most of Jamestown’s citizens, the Pilgrims were hard workers. They were also flexible. The original idea had been to function as something of a commune, with crops and other stores to be collectively gathered and distributed. But when the system produced less-than-desirable results the first year, colony leaders divided the land into individual parcels and let families fend for themselves. The colony did much better the second year. The Plymothians benefited from having an intelligent and able leader. William Bradford, the weaver-turned-immigrant, was elected governor after the original governor died in 1621. He served in the office for most of the rest of his life, which ended in 1657. They also had a reliable, though diminutive, military leader in Myles Standish (his nickname was Captain Shrimpe). Finally, they were extremely lucky because the local Native Americans, the Wampanoag, proved not only to be hospitable neighbors, but had one among them who spoke English. His name was Squanto. He had been kidnapped twice by Europeans and enslaved, escaped, and returned to America only to find his entire tribe had been wiped out by a disease probably introduced by Europeans. But Squanto was apparently not one to hold a grudge. Until his death about a year after the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto served as an invaluable interpreter and adviser. With Squanto as a go-between, the Wampanoag showed the newcomers some planting techniques. They traded the Pilgrims furs for some of the newcomers’ surplus corn, thus giving the colonists something to send back to their financial backers in England. By the summer of 1621, the Plymouth settlers had enough to be thankful for that they could afford to host a few days of feasting with the locals. (Just 242 years later, President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday.) The Plymouth colony never hit a Jamestown-like tobacco jackpot and by 1692 had been absorbed into the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony. But the impact of its approach to government far outstripped its size or longevity as a colony. Plymouth became a symbol of self-governance, and the Pilgrims, in the words of eminent historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, became “the spiritual ancestors of all Americans.”

View Article
10 Unsung Heroes of the American Revolution

Article / Updated 11-19-2019

Here are quick looks at ten ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things during the American Revolution: Joseph Plumb Martin, Molly Pitcher, James Forten, Daniel Morgan, Roger Sherman, Nancy Hart, Jeremiah O’Brien, Daniel Bissell, Salem Poor, and Deborah Sampson. Joseph Plumb Martin Joseph Plumb Martin began the Revolutionary War as a 15-year-old private from Massachusetts and ended it as a 22-year-old private. In between, Martin shivered at Valley Forge, roasted at the Battle of Monmouth, shot at people he hoped he didn’t hit, and wept over the body of a friend bayoneted to death on the orders of Benjamin Franklin’s Loyalist son. Americans know all this because at the age of 70, Martin wrote a marvelous memoir he called Private Yankee Doodle (republished more recently as Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, published by Signet Classics.) It’s a remarkable story of an ordinary soldier, but one blessed with a splendid sense of humor and the quiet courage and determination that exemplified what kept the Continental Army going. Martin did nothing particularly heroic, except persevere through incredibly trying conditions and live to tell people what it was really like to fight in the Revolutionary War: Going day after day after day without adequate food, clothing, and shelter — and getting up to do it again. Come to think of it, that’s pretty heroic. “Molly Pitcher” The name “Molly Pitcher” became the iconic composite of numerous women who followed their husbands to war, performing tasks such as fetching water, washing clothes, and nursing the sick and wounded. Several of them were also known to have fought alongside, or in place of, their husbands. Joseph Plumb Martin recorded one such incident at the Battle of Monmouth, when a woman whose husband was wounded took his place, helping to load a cannon. At one point, Martin wrote, “A cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and (then) continued her occupation." Martin didn’t name the woman, but she is most often identified as Mary Ludwig Hays. Impressed by her heroism, George Washington designated her a noncommissioned officer. Hays did not see action again, but was given a veteran’s pension by the state of Pennsylvania before she died in 1832. James Forten At the age of 14, Forten joined the crew of an American privateer that was soon captured by the British navy. Most U.S. prisoners were doomed to horrific confinement in stinking prison ships anchored in New York Harbor. But Forten faced a worse fate: He was black, and even though he had been born free in Philadelphia, the British made no distinctions: Most captured African Americans were sold as slaves to the West Indies. Forten, however, was lucky. He was befriended by the son of the British captain who had captured Forten’s ship and was offered the chance to go to England. But Forten refused to repudiate his American citizenship. So instead of slavery, he was sent to a prison ship. There, he spent seven months huddled with a thousand other prisoners in a belowdecks enclosure that was less than three feet high. He was lucky again, when he was released in a prisoner exchange, whereupon he walked 100 miles home to Philadelphia. After the war, Forten became a sailmaker. His business prospered, and he became a leading figure in the pre-Civil War abolitionist movement. In 2001, Forten was included by scholar Molefi Kete Asante as one of the 100 greatest African Americans. Daniel Morgan Okay, Daniel Morgan wasn’t a private; he was a general. But there are at least 499 good reasons for remembering Daniel Morgan. He wore them on his back: While a member of the British Army (with his cousin, Daniel Boone) during the French and Indian War, Morgan was flogged for striking an officer. The 499-lash penalty was usually fatal, but Morgan escaped with scars and a lasting and understandable dislike of the British. Born in New Jersey in 1736, Morgan got his nickname “Old Wagoner” from driving supply trains. When the Revolutionary War began, he formed a unit of sharp-shooting frontiersman from Virginia and then marched them 600 miles in 21 days to Massachusetts without losing a man. “Morgan’s Rifles” proved to be an invaluable fighting group. Often outnumbered, they used guerilla tactics, like shooting the British army’s Indian guides first and then the officers. The British deemed it dishonorable; Morgan considered it effective. Morgan rose to the rank of brigadier general and is recognized as one of the American army’s best tacticians. After the war, he led federal troops to put down a rebellion against the young U.S. government and served a term in Congress. He died in 1802. And okay, he isn’t completely unsung: There are statues of him in two different states and a county and national security school named after him. Roger Sherman You may not recognize this Founding Father’s name, but it’s the only one that appears on all four of what are considered America’s Great State Papers: The Continental Association (which enacted a pre-Revolution boycott of British goods); the Articles of Confederation; the Declaration of Independence (which Sherman helped draft); and the U.S. Constitution. Born in 1721, Sherman was a self-educated Connecticut lawyer and judge. He played key roles in working out the compromises that won approval for the Constitution and served in both houses of Congress before his death in 1793. PS: A great-great-great grandson, Archibald Cox, would serve as a special federal prosecutor who helped bring down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon in 1973–74 — which probably would have been okay with Cox’s ancestor: Sherman once said that the presidency was "nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect.” Nancy Hart Nancy Hart was the wrong woman from whom to steal a turkey —or at least that’s how the story goes. Born Nancy Ann Morgan around 1735 and a cousin of Gen. Daniel Morgan, this Georgia frontier dweller was described as a 6-foot-tall, red-haired, smallpox-scarred woman so feisty her Cherokee neighbors called her “Wahatche,” or “War Woman.” While her husband, Benjamin Hart, was off fighting for the American cause, Nancy Hart acted as a spy, hanging around British posts disguised as a feeble-minded man and keeping tabs on British troop movements and the activities of local Loyalists, or Tories. The best-known story about Hart concerns a half-dozen British soldiers who confiscated a turkey from her farm and demanded she cook it for them. She complied — while quietly removing their weapons with the help of her daughter. Then she held them at gunpoint, killing one soldier and wounding another when they tried to rush her. The rest were hanged by her neighbors. The story gained a shot of veracity in 1912, when railroad construction workers unearthed skeletal remains near what had been the Hart farm. Several of the skeletons had had their necks broken. That was good enough proof to help cement Hart’s place in American Revolution history — and convince the folks in Georgia they were justified in naming a county after her — the only one of the state’s 159 counties named after a woman. Jeremiah O’Brien Ever wonder why the United States Navy has had five different ships named after Jeremiah O’Brien? No? Well here’s why anyway. Born in Maine in 1744 to a family in the lumber business, O’Brien and five of his brothers decided in early May 1775 to seize an American ship that was being forced to carry lumber for the British. Having seized the ship, the O’Briens then led a group of their neighbors in an attack on a British navy schooner, forcing it to surrender in what is considered the first American naval victory of the Revolutionary War, even though there wasn’t even an American navy yet. O’Brien later became the first captain in the Massachusetts Naval Militia. After the war, he was appointed a federal customs collector in his home port of Machias Maine. Those U.S. Navy ships named after him? They include a torpedo boat and four destroyers. The liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien, built in 1943 to ferry goods and troops during World War II, still floats in San Francisco Bay. And to top it off, film footage of the ship’s engines was used to depict those of the doomed ocean liner Titanic in the 1997 film of the same name. “Titanic,” not “O’Brien.” Daniel Bissell Here’s what Benedict Arnold, a woman’s torn dress, and America’s first military medal have in common: Daniel Bissell. Born in 1754, Bissell entered the Revolutionary War as a 22-year-old corporal from Connecticut. He served ably until August 1781, when he deserted to British-held New York City, eventually joining the British army and serving under the traitor Benedict Arnold. Only Bissell wasn’t really a deserter; he was a spy. Recruited by George Washington himself, Bissell spent 13 months in New York, suffering most of the time from a “fever” that kept him from fighting against his former comrades. He spent the time memorizing enemy positions and making maps and then found his way back to the American side with the info. For his heroics, Bissell was awarded the Badge of Military Merit, one of only three such awards given during the war. The cloth badge was in the form of a purple heart. Although Washington was given credit for creating and awarding the badge, he apparently got the idea after Bissell accidentally tore a piece of his future wife’s dress off while dancing with her at a party at which Washington was present. Bissell also served in the “Quasi War” with France, this time as an officer, and died in 1824. In 1932, the Purple Heart became the award given to those wounded or killed while in U.S. military service. Nobody gave any awards to Arnold. Salem Poor About six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, 14 American officers took the time to petition the Massachusetts legislature to recognize the bravery during the battle of a soldier named Salem Poor. The petition, which was the only one of its kind after the battle, said Poor had “behaved like an Experienced Officer as Well as an Excellent Soldier.” It didn’t spell out exactly what he had done. But the fact he was there at all was remarkable in itself. Salem Poor was born a slave on a Massachusetts farm in 1747. Somehow, he managed to save enough (£27, or about $6,500 in current currency) to buy his freedom at the age of 22. He joined the American cause in 1775 and re-enlisted in 1776. Poor served through the Battles of Monmouth and Saratoga, and spent the miserable winter of 1777–78 with Washington’s army at Valley Forge. After the war, he had a tough go of it. Married four times, he lived for awhile in a Boston homeless shelter and was apparently run out of Providence Rhode Island for vagrancy. He died in 1802. But he did get a small measure of recognition in 1976, when the U.S. Post Office put his likeness on a 10-cent stamp to help commemorate America’s Bicentennial. Deborah Sampson Deborah Sampson was the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the American Army during the Revolutionary War — and she earned it as a man. Sampson was born in 1760 near Plymouth, Massachusetts. After serving a stretch as an indentured servant, Sampson became a teacher for two years. Then in early 1782, she bound her small breasts in a linen wrap, straightened herself to her full height of 5 foot, 9 inches (some three inches taller than the average adult male), and enlisted in the army as Robert Shurtleff. She was assigned to a light infantry unit, taking part in dangerous missions such as scouting, raiding parties, and foraging excursions. In a skirmish against a group of American Loyalists, Sherman was shot twice in the thigh. Fearful of her identity being discovered, she removed one of the musket balls herself, but the other was too deep. It remained in her leg the rest of her life. Sherman served 17 months before she fell ill and was discovered. She was honorably discharged, eventually married a farmer, and in 1802 embarked on a year-long tour of lectures about her experiences. She began receiving a military pension from the state of Massachusetts in 1792, after waiting almost a decade. But it wasn’t until 1816 that Congress finally granted her a federal pension, and that was in large part because of the intercession of a friend of hers with some pull — Paul Revere. Sampson died in 1827. Like Jeremiah O’Brien, profiled earlier in this chapter, Sampson had a liberty ship named after her during World War II. And she got a shout-out as a history-making woman from actress Meryl Streep during Streep’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

View Article
The Bill of Rights: Amendments 1–10 of the U.S. Constitution

Article / Updated 11-11-2019

The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added, and as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution; Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two-thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States; all or any of which articles, when ratified by three-fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes as part of the said Constitution, namely: Amendment I Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Amendment II A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. Amendment III No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. Amendment IV The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Amendment V No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. Amendment VI In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense. Amendment VII In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law. Amendment VIII Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. Amendment IX The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. Amendment X The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

View Article
American Revolution For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 09-11-2019

One of the remarkable aspects of the American Revolution is the staying power of the basic structure of government the Founding Fathers laid down. That doesn’t mean, however, that the structure was either simple or perfect. To help you understand a bit more about the complexities — and flaws — in the governmental building blocks they used, here are “backgrounders” on three of those blocks: the Electoral College, reapportionment (gerrymandering), and amending the U.S. Constitution. Just for fun, check out the mini-biographies on two interesting Americans from the period, Noah Webster and John Jacob Astor, and enjoy some non-government trivia you can use to amuse your admirers and annoy your enemies.

View Cheat Sheet