The American Revolution and the New Nation (1775–1787) for AP US History (page 3)
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Summary: The Second Continental Congress, meeting in May 1775, began to prepare the American colonies for war. The impact of Common Sense by Thomas Paine and other documents continued to fan anti-British sentiment in the colonies, although there were still a number of loyalists who supported British policies. As commander of the colonial army, George Washington practiced a defensive strategy, which, along with invaluable assistance from the French, helped to defeat the British army. The first government of the new nation was established by the Articles of Confederation, which created a weak national government.
Second Continental Congress (May 1775): meeting that authorized the creation of a Continental army; many delegates still hoped that conflict could be avoided with the British.
Common Sense (1776): pamphlet written by Thomas Paine attacking the system of government by monarchy; this document was very influential throughout the colonies.
Battle of Yorktown (1781): defeat of the British in Virginia, ending their hopes of winning the Revolutionary War.
Treaty of Paris (1783): treaty ending the Revolutionary War; by this treaty Great Britain recognized American independence and gave Americans the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
Articles of Confederation (ratified 1781): document establishing the first government of the United States; the federal government was given limited powers and the states much power.
Northwest Ordinances (1784, 1785, 1787): bills authorizing the sale of lands in the Northwest Territory to raise money for the federal government; bills also laid out procedures for these territories to eventually attain statehood.
The American Revolution
Prelude to Revolution: Lexington and Concord: April 1775
Events in the colonies had little effect on attitudes in Britain. Both George III and Lord North still insisted that the colonies comply with edicts from England. What they failed to realize was that royal authority in the colonies was routinely being ignored. British General Thomas Gage was the acting governor of Massachusetts, and in early 1775 he ordered the Massachusetts Assembly not to meet. They met anyway.
Gage also wanted to stop the growth of local militias. On April 19 he sent a group of regular British troops to Concord to seize colonial arms stored there and to arrest any "rebel" leaders who could be found. As you learned in second grade, Paul Revere and other messengers rode out from Boston to warn the countryside of the advance of the British soldiers. At dawn on April 19, several hundred British soldiers ran into 75 colonial militiamen on the town green in Lexington. The British ordered the colonists to disperse; in the confusion, shots rang out, with eight colonists killed and ten wounded.
The British marched on to Concord, where a larger contingent of militiamen awaited them. The British destroyed military stores and food supplies and were ready to return to Boston when the colonists opened fire, with three British soldiers killed and nine wounded. The British were attacked as they retreated to Lexington; they lost 275 men, compared to the 93 colonial militiamen killed. At Lexington, the British were saved by the arrival of reinforcements.
Several weeks later, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys captured Fort Ticonderoga from the British. Cannons from the fort were dragged to Boston, where they would be a decisive factor in forcing the British to leave Boston harbor in March 1776.
The Second Continental Congress
The purpose of the Second Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in May of 1775, was clear: to get the American colonies ready for war. It authorized the printing of paper money to buy supplies for the war, established a committee to supervise foreign relations with other countries, and created a Continental Army. George Washington was appointed commander in chief of this new army. Washington was chosen because of his temperament, because of his experiences in the Seven Years War, and because he was not from Massachusetts, considered by George III to be the place where the "rabble" were.
The Congress made one final gesture for peace when moderates drafted, and the Congress approved, the sending of the "Olive Branch Petition" to George III. This document,approved on July 5, 1775, asked the king to formulate a "happy and permanent reconciliation."The fact that the king refused to even receive the document strengthened the hand of political radicals throughout the colonies.
The Impact of Common Sense
The impact of Thomas Paine's Common Sense on colonial thought was immense. Paine was a printer and had only been in the colonies for two years when his pamphlet was published in January of 1776. Virtually every educated person in the colonies read this document: 120,000 copies were sold within three months. Paine proclaimed that "monarchy and hereditary succession have laid the world in blood and ashes" and called George III a "royal brute." Paine attacked the entire system of monarchy and empire, expressing confidence that the colonies would flourish once they were removed from British control. Many saw in Paine's document very sensible reasons why the Americas should break from Britain. When discussing the document, one New York loyalist bitterly complained that "the unthinking multitude are mad for it. …"
The Declaration of Independence
On June 7, 1776, Henry Lee of Virginia made a motion at the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His motion proposed that American colonies be considered independent states, that diplomatic relations begin with other countries, and that a confederate form of government be prepared for future discussion by the colonies. It was decided that the motion would be voted on July 1 (giving delegates time to win the resistant middle colonies over). In the meantime, one committee worked on a potential constitution, while another was appointed to write the declaration of independence. This committee gave the job of writing the first draft to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a perfect choice. He was a student of the thinkers of the Enlightenment and other thinkers of the era.
Jefferson's argument maintained that men had certainly "unalienable rights," which included "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Jefferson stated that when a government"becomes destructive of these ends" those who live under it can revolt against it and create a government that gets its "just powers from the consent of the governed." Jefferson also listed many things the British had done that were oppressive to the colonies. Unlike others who had criticized certain ministers or Parliament, Jefferson personally blamed George III for many of these misdeeds. This document was formally approved on July 2, 1776; this approval was formally announced on July 4.
The Outbreak of the Revolution: Divisions in the Colonies
The celebrations surrounding the announcement of the Declaration of Independence took place in every colony, but not every citizen living in the Americas took part. Many loyalists were members of the colonial economic elite and feared the repercussions on their pocketbooks of a break with Great Britain. Other loyalists saw the legitimacy of Britain's control over the colonies; some loyalists were also very practical men, who predicted the easy defeat of the colonies by the seemingly immense British army.
Blacks in America greeted the Declaration of Independence with enthusiasm. Many free blacks saw the possible revolution as a chance to improve their position; slaves saw the possibilities of freedom from slavery. (During the war, some slaves managed to escape their masters, and a few even fought on the side of the British.) During the fighting, British troops freed slaves in Georgia and South Carolina. In the North, some slaves fought in colonial militias, winning their freedom through military service. The British courted Native American tribes, but their determination to definitively help the British in battle was never strong.
Strategies of the American Revolution
It is easy to see how the British thought that they would be able to defeat the colonists quickly and decisively. Britain had a strong navy, one of the finest armies of Europe, and considerable support from approximately 150,000 loyalists in the colonies. In addition, in the first years of the war, the Continental Army suffered from poor discipline, frequent desertions, lack of supplies and money, and a virtually nonexistent navy. However, an obviously long supply line (four to six weeks by ship) divided British policies in London, and an army used to fighting the more "formal" European type of war would end up hindering British efforts. The leadership of George Washington, the willingness to use defensive tactics and only attack when needed, and the fact that they were fighting on home territory, all helped aid the colonial military efforts. Washington felt that a lengthy war would assist the colonists, since they were fighting on home ground.
In June 1775, a bloody battle had taken place at Bunker Hill in Boston. The colonists were defeated, but at the expense of nearly 1000 British dead or wounded.
Washington as Commander
The British approach under General William Howe was to slowly move his army through the colonies, using the superior numbers of the British army to wear the colonists down. However, from the beginning things did not go as planned for the British. In March 1776, the British were forced to evacuate Boston. The British then went to New York, which they wanted to turn into one of their major military headquarters. (A large number of loyalists lived there.) Washington and his troops attempted to dislodge the British from New York in late August of 1776; Washington's army was routed and chased back into Pennsylvania.
During November and December of 1776, Washington's army faced daily desertions and poor morale. On Christmas night, Washington boldly led the Battle of Trentonagainst the Hessian allies of the British, defeating them. On January 3, Washington defeated a small British regiment at Princeton. These victories bolstered the morale of the colonial army greatly.
Another tremendous advantage for the colonists was the arms shipments from the French that they began receiving in late 1776. French aid for the colonies did not come from any great trust that developed between the two sides; for over a century, France and Britain had been bitter rivals, and the French saw the American Revolution as another situation that they could exploit for their gain against the British. Massive British naval superiority in the Americas was at least partially counterbalanced by the entry of the French navy into the war.
The "British Blunder" of 1777
The British decided on a strategy to strike a decisive blow against the colonists in 1777. Three separate British armies were to converge on Albany, New York, and cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. The British effort is called a blunder because of the poor execution of military plans that might have been effective. An army led by General Howe headed toward Philadelphia when, for obvious strategic reasons, it should have been heading toward Albany. Howe was intent on taking on Washington's army in Philadelphia and decisively defeating it. The army under "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne carried too much heavy equipment, which could be carried in preparation for European battles but not through the forests of North America. On October 17, 1777, Burgoyne was forced to surrender at Saratoga. Some military historians claim this defeat was the beginning of the end for the British. The colonial victory convinced the French to send troops to aid the war effort.
Women became increasingly important to the war effort of the colonies. Women were prominent in the boycott of British goods, provided support services for the Continental Army, spied on British troops, and ran numerous households when the "man of the house" was off fighting the British. In a March 1776 letter to her husband John, Abigail Adams reminded him to "Remember the Ladies … Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the Husbands."
The War Moves to the South
After their defeat at Saratoga, the British abandoned their strategy of fighting in New York and New England and decided to concentrate their efforts in the Southern colonies, where they imagined more loyalists to live. Despite their victory at Saratoga, the winter of 1777–1778 was the low point for the Continental Army. The British camped for the winter in Philadelphia, while Washington's army stayed at Valley Forge. Cold weather, malnutrition, and desertion severely hurt the army. Morale improved when daily drilling began under the leadership of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian who had volunteered to help the colonists. As a result, the Continental Army that emerged in the spring was a much tougher and more disciplined unit.
Nevertheless, initially the British southern strategy was successful. By the summer of 1780, the British captured Georgia and South Carolina. Desertions continued, and General Benedict Arnold went over to the British side.
Things soon turned against the British. A Virginia army under George Rogers Clark defeated a British force and their Native American allies at Vincennes, Indiana, securing the Ohio River region for the colonies. By the summer of 1781, French army forces joined the Continental Army as two regiments marched from New York to Virginia. The British southern campaign, now headed by General Cornwallis, was constantly hampered by attacks by bands of "unofficial" colonial soldiers, led by Francis Marion and other rebel leaders.
Cornwallis decided to abandon the southern strategy and went into Virginia, where he was ordered to take up a defensive position at Yorktown. Once the British troops began to dig in, they were cut off by a combination of French and continental forces. Cornwallis hoped to escape by sea, but ships of the French navy occupied Chesapeake Bay. For three weeks, Cornwallis tried to break the siege; on October 17, 1781, he finally surrendered. Fighting continued in some areas, but on March 4, 1782, Parliament voted to end the British military efforts in the former colonies.
The Treaty of Paris
British, French, Spanish (also allies with the colonists in the war), and American diplomats gathered in Paris in 1783 to make the treaty ending the war. The British and French diplomats were initially not impressed with the diplomatic efforts of the Americans, but soon the American team of John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams demonstrated shrewd diplomatic skills. The Americans negotiated separately with the British, and, on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed. (Please note that this is a different Treaty of Paris from the one ending the French and Indian War.) By this treaty, Great Britain formally recognized American independence. Britain held on to Canada, but all of the territory they had received from France after the French and Indian War (territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River) was given over to the Americans. The American diplomats also negotiated for fishing rights off the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The British insisted on, and received, promises that British merchants would be free to recover prewar debts and that loyalists would be treated as equal citizens and would be able to recover property seized from them during the war. (As might be expected,many loyalists were leaving the Americas during this period.)
The Establishment of Governmental Structures in the New Nation
The Drafting of State Constitutions
By the end of 1777, ten new state constitutions had been written. Written into these constitutions were safeguards to prevent the evils that Americans had seen in the colonial governments established by the British. The governor was the most oppressive figure in many colonies; as a result, many new constitutions gave limited power to the governor, who was usually elected by the state assembly. All states except Pennsylvania and Vermont adopted bicameral legislatures, with more power usually given to the upper house. Most states also lowered the property qualifications for voting, thus allowing people who had not voted before the Revolutionary War to vote. Many historians comment that writers of these constitutions were making a conscious attempt to broaden the base of American government. Most state constitutions also included some form of a bill of rights.
The Articles of Confederation
In the fall of 1777, the Continental Congress sent a proposed constitution out to the individual states for ratification. This document, called the Articles of Confederation, intentionally created a very weak national government.
The main organ of government was a unicameral legislature, in which each state would have one vote. Executive authority was given to a Committee of Thirteen, with one representative from each state. For both amendment and ratification, the unanimous consent of all 13 state legislatures was required.
The national government was given the power to conduct foreign relations, mediate disputes between states, and borrow money. The weakness of the national government was shown by the fact that it could not levy taxes, regulate commerce, or raise an army.
Because of disputes over land claims in the West, all 13 states didn't ratify the Articles of Confederation until 1781.
Financial problems plagued the new nation in the years immediately after the war. Many merchants had overextended themselves by importing foreign goods after the war. Large numbers of Revolutionary War veterans had never been paid for their service. The national government had large war debts. By the terms of the Articles of Confederation, the national government could not tax, so the national government began to print a large amount of paper money. These bills, called "Continentals," were soon made worthless by inflation. Proposals for the national government to impose import tariffs came three times, and all three times they were defeated. Loans from foreign countries, especially France, propped up the national government during this period.
The Northwest Ordinances
The sale of lands in the West was one way that the national government could make money, and westward settlement was encouraged. By 1790, nearly 110,000 settlers were living in Kentucky and Tennessee, despite the threat of Native American attack. The Northwest Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787 regulated the sale of lands in the Northwest Territory and established a plan to give these settled territories statehood. The 1784 Ordinance provided governmental structures for the territories and a system by which a territory could become a state. The Ordinance of 1785 spelled out the terms for the orderly sale of land in the Northwest Territory. The Ordinance of 1787 stated that any territory with 60,000 white males could apply for statehood, provided a bill of rights for settlers, and prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River. Controversy over whether slavery should be allowed in these territories was a foreshadowing of the bitter conflicts that would follow on the issue of slavery in newly acquired American territories.
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