Until the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, few colonists in British North America objected to their place in the British Empire. Colonists in British America reaped many benefits from the British imperial system and bore few costs for those benefits. Indeed, until the early 1760s, the British mostly left their American colonies alone. The Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War) changed everything. Although Britain eventually achieved victory over France and its allies, victory had come at great cost. A staggering war debt influenced many British policies over the next decade. Attempts to raise money by reforming colonial administration, enforcing tax laws, and placing troops in America led directly to conflict with colonists. By the mid-1770s, relations between Americans and the British administration had become strained and acrimonious.
The first shots of what would become the war for American independence were fired in April 1775. For some months before that clash at Lexington and Concord, patriots had been gathering arms and powder and had been training to fight the British if that became necessary. General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces around Boston, had been cautious; he did not wish to provoke the Americans. In April, however, Gage received orders to arrest several patriot leaders, rumored to be around Lexington. Gage sent his troops out on the night of April 18, hoping to catch the colonists by surprise and thus to avoid bloodshed. When the British arrived in Lexington, however, colonial militia awaited them. A fire fight soon ensued. Even so, it was not obvious that this clash would lead to war. American opinion was split. Some wanted to declare independence immediately; others hoped for a quick reconciliation. The majority of Americans remained undecided but watching and waiting.
In June 1775, the Continental Congress created, on paper, a Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander. Washington's first task, when he arrived in Boston to take charge of the ragtag militia assembled there, was to create an army in fact. It was a daunting task with no end of problems: recruitment, retention, training and discipline, supply, and payment for soldiers' services were among those problems. Nevertheless, Washington realized that keeping an army in the field was his single most important objective.
During the first two years of the Revolutionary War, most of the fighting between the patriots and British took place in the north. At first, the British generally had their way because of their far superior sea power. Despite Washington's daring victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in late 1776 and early 1777, the British still retained the initiative. Indeed, had British efforts been better coordinated, they probably could have put down the rebellion in 1777. But such was not to be. Patriot forces, commanded by General Horatio Gates, achieved a significant victory at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777. Within months, this victory induced France to sign treaties of alliance and commerce with the United States. In retrospect, French involvement was the turning point of the war, although that was not obvious at the time.
Between 1778 and 1781, British military operations focused on the south because the British assumed a large percentage of Southerners were loyalists who could help them subdue the patriots. The British were successful in most conventional battles fought in that region, especially in areas close to their points of supply on the Atlantic coast. Even so, American generals Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan turned to guerrilla and hit-and-run warfare that eventually stymied the British. By 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was ordered to march into Virginia to await resupply near Chesapeake Bay. The Americans and their French allies pounced on Cornwallis and forced his surrender.
Yorktown was a signal victory for the patriots, but two years of sporadic warfare, continued military preparations, and diplomatic negotiations still lay ahead. The Americans and British signed a preliminary peace treaty on November 30, 1782; they signed the final treaty, known as the Peace of Paris, on September 10, 1783. The treaty was generally quite favorable to the United States in terms of national boundaries and other concessions. Even so, British violations of the agreement would become an almost constant source of irritation between the two nations far into the future.
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13c. The Loyalists
Thomas Hutchinson, a Supreme Court justice in Massachusetts, was the most hated man in America before Benedict Arnold, and was hung in effigy many times for being a loyalist.
The year is 1774. Whether you are a merchant in Massachusetts, a German-born farmer living in Pennsylvania, a tavern-owning woman of Maryland, or a slave-owner in the South, you share some things in common. For instance, you probably don't like paying taxes on such goods as tea that wind up going to support the royal coffers in London. At the same time you like the notion of being part of the British Empire, the most powerful in the world.
Chances are you speak English and have many British relatives or ancestors. Or, even if you're a German farmer with no ties to Britain, you are still grateful for the opportunity to farm peacefully in this British-ruled land. Yet, you hear murmurings — radical notions about separating from Britain are making the rounds. Those hotheads in Boston recently threw a load of tea in the harbor and the British retaliated with something called the Intolerable Acts. A confrontation is looming.
Who will you support? The radical Americans or the British? Fact is, it's not an easy decision. Not only will your way of life be drastically affected, but whomever you choose to side with will make you instant enemies.
Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia at the start of the Revolutionary War, offered freedom to enslaved Africans and Indians for joining the British Army.
Any full assessment of the American Revolution must try to understand the place of Loyalists, those Americans who remained faithful to the British Empire during the war.
Although Loyalists were steadfast in their commitment to remain within the British Empire, it was a very hard decision to make and to stick to during the Revolution. Even before the war started, a group of Philadelphia Quakers were arrested and imprisoned in Virginia because of their perceived support of the British. The Patriots were not a tolerant group, and Loyalists suffered regular harassment, had their property seized, or were subject to personal attacks.
The process of "tar and feathering," for example, was brutally violent. Stripped of clothes, covered with hot tar, and splattered with feathers, the victim was then forced to parade about in public. Unless the British Army was close at hand to protect Loyalists, they often suffered bad treatment from Patriots and often had to flee their own homes. About one-in-six Americans was an active Loyalist during the Revolution, and that number undoubtedly would have been higher if the Patriots hadn't been so successful in threatening and punishing people who made their Loyalist sympathies known in public.
One famous Loyalist is Thomas Hutchinson, a leading Boston merchant from an old American family, who served as governor of Massachusetts. Viewed as pro-British by some citizens of Boston, Hutchinson's house was burned in 1765 by an angry crowd protesting the Crown's policies. In 1774, Hutchinson left America for London where he died in 1780 and always felt exiled from his American homeland. One of his letters suggested his sad end, for he, "had rather die in a little country farm-house in New England than in the best nobleman's seat in old England." Like his ancestor, Anne Hutchinson who suffered religious persecution from Puritan authorities in the early 17th-century, the Hutchinson family suffered severe punishment for holding beliefs that other Americans rejected.
American patriots used tar and feathering to intimidate British tax collectors.
Perhaps the most interesting group of Loyalists were enslaved African-Americans who chose to join the British. The British promised to liberate slaves who fled from their Patriot masters. This powerful incentive, and the opportunities opened by the chaos of war, led some 50,000 slaves (about 10 percent of the total slave population in the 1770s) to flee their Patriot masters. When the war ended, the British evacuated 20,000 formerly enslaved African Americans and resettled them as free people.
Along with this group of black Loyalists, about 80,000 other Loyalists chose to leave the independent United States after the Patriot victory in order to remain members of the British Empire. Wealthy men like Thomas Hutchinson who had the resources went to London. But most ordinary Loyalists went to Canada where they would come to play a large role in the development of Canadian society and government. In this way, the American Revolution played a central role shaping the future of two North American countries.
Along with earning Thomas Paine the respect of his fellow Patriots, his pamphlet Common Sense brought scorn from those loyal to the English Crown. James Chalmers, a Maryland planter, decided to counter Paine with his own work which he dubbed Plain Truth. Chalmers angrily denounced the American cause and called Paine a "political quack." View an ad announcing its first publishing, listen to a reading from Plain Truth, or read a fine essay on Chalmers and his Loyalist document.
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Complete coverage of the Loyalist presence in the Revolution is the focus of this site. Divided into many different sections, all packed with information. Read up on Loyalist regiments, genealogy, re-enactment groups, black Loyalists, uniforms, music and more, more, more. Just take a minute to get the hang of the navigation, and you'll be knee-deep in Loyalist info.
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From being the "most popular man in the colony" to his eventual exile back to England, Thomas Hutchinson's turbulent life is profiled on Bartleby.com's Great Books Online page. This bio covers Hutchinson's troubles with rebellious colonists, as well as providing some commentary on his History of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. No images to see, just a quick overview of one of the more famous Loyalists.
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America at the time of the Revolution was a great place if your opinions matched those of the Patriots. Opponents to the popular uprising were often treated to the harshest forms of punishment. This in-depth essay on using tar and feathering to silence Loyalists and others comes to you from Brandeis University. Sorry, no images of what some colonists referred to as "new-fashioned discipline."
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When black Loyalists fled the colonies for Nova Scotia in 1783, they landed at Shelburne and were assigned land which became known as Birchtown. More than 2 centuries later an excavation took place at Birchtown; it continues to provide clues as to how life was for these 18th century refugees. Visit the dig and have a look at some of the artifacts at this Nova Scotia Museum site.
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