Causes of the American Revolution

George Washington in the American Revolution by Junius B. Stearns, 1854.

George Washington in the American Revolution by Junius B. Stearns, 1854.

by Charles Morris, 1899

England was never guilty of greater folly than in the treatment of her American colonies after the close of the French and Indian War. She was oppressed by burdensome taxation and began seeking an excuse for shifting a large portion of it upon the shoulders of her prosperous subjects across the sea, who had always been ready to vote money and give their sons to help in the wars which were almost solely for the benefit of the mother country. It has been shown that the intercolonial conflicts were of no advantage to the colonies, which were dragged into them and suffered greatly. Since the surrounding territory would soon be necessary for the expansion of the Americans, they had much to gain from the defeat of the French and their expulsion from America. Still, they had done their full share, and demanding further sacrifices was unjust.

The Stamp Act

Burning of the stamp act

Burning of the Stamp Act.

Peace was hardly declared when, in 1764, the British government asserted that it had the right to tax her colonies. The latter paid little attention to the declaration but were rudely awakened in 1765 by the passage of the Stamp Act, which was to go into effect in November of that year. It decreed that no newspapers or pamphlets could be printed, no marriage certificate given, and no documents used in lawsuits unless stamps were attached. These could be bought only from British agents.

It was further ordered that the oppressive Navigation Acts, which had been evaded for a hundred years, be rigidly enforced. Soldiers were sent to America to see that the orders were carried out. Since these troops were to be paid from the money received for the stamps, it will be seen that the Americans would be obliged to bear the expense of the soldiers quartered upon them.

The issues were not so much the taxes but “taxation without representation,” as the colonies never had a representative in the British Parliament. The news of the British government’s action threw the colonies into an angry mood, and they vehemently declared their intention to resist the Stamp Act. They did not content themselves with words but mobbed the stamp agents, compelled others to resign, and, when the date arrived for the act to go into effect, they refused to buy a single obnoxious stamp.

The Stamp Act Congress, as it was called, met in New York City on October 7, 1765. There were representatives from all the colonies except four, but they supported the others. Lacking the authority to make laws, it issued a bold declaration of rights and sent petitions to the king and Parliament, setting forth the American grievances. The sturdy resistance of the colonies alarmed England. They had many friends in Parliament, including the illustrious William Pitt, and the act was repealed at the beginning of 1766. The Americans were so delighted that they almost forgot that in repealing the act, England still asserted her right to tax them.

Several years now followed in which the colonies quietly resisted England’s efforts to tax them. This was done by a general agreement not to buy any of the articles upon which taxes were laid. The men who did this and opposed the mother country were known as Whigs, while those who stood by England were called Tories.

Defiant Acts by the Americans

Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre

But violence was sure to follow where the indignation was so intense and widespread. There were continual broils between the British soldiers and citizens, the most serious of which occurred in Boston on March 5, 1770, when the soldiers fired upon the citizens who had attacked them, killed three, and wounded several more. This incident, known in history as the “Boston Massacre,” added to the mutual anger. In North Carolina, William Tryon, the Tory Governor, had a battle with the patriots at Alamance in 1771, killed a large number, and treated others so brutally that many fled across the mountains and helped to settle Tennessee. In 1772, several Rhode Island people captured and burned a British vessel, the Gaspe, which was active in collecting duties from Providence. England offered a reward for capturing the “rebels,” but though they were well known, no one would have dared to arrest them if so disposed of.

The Boston Tea Party

The British Parliament was impatient with the colonies and threatened all retaliatory measures. In 1770, Parliament took the tax off all articles except tea, which was made so light that the luxury was cheaper in America with the tax than in England without it. The Americans were contending for a principle and contemptuously rejected the offer. When the tea ships reached Charleston, the cargoes were stored in damp cellars, which soon molded and spoiled. They would not allow the ships to land their cargo at New York, Philadelphia, and other points and sailed back to England. A similar reception having been given the vessels in Boston, the British officers refused to leave the harbor. Late at night on December 16, 1773, a party of citizens, painted and disguised as Indians, boarded the ships and emptied 342 chests — all on board — into the harbor.

The “Boston Tea Party” thrilled the colonies and exhausted the patience of England, who felt that the time for stern measures had come. Her dallying course had only encouraged the rebels, and as in the story, having tried in vain the throwing of grass, she now determined to see what virtue there was in using stones.

Boston Tea Party by D. Berger

Boston Tea Party by D. Berger

The measures that she passed and that were unbearable were: 1. The Breton Port Bill, which forbade all vessels to leave or enter Boston harbor. This was a death blow to Boston commerce and was meant as a punishment for those leaders in the revolt against the mother country. 2. The Massachusetts Bill was another destructive blow at the colony since it changed its chattel by taking away the right of self-government and placing it in the hands of the king’s agents. 3. The Transportation Bill, which ordered that all soldiers charged with the crime of murder should be taken to England for trial. 4. The Quebec Act made the country east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River a part of Canada. These acts were to be enforced by sending troops to America.

The First Continental Congress

The result of the passage of these harsh measures was to unite all the colonies in a determination to resist them to the last. The necessity for consultation among the leaders was so apparent that, in response to a general call, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 5, 1774. All the colonies were represented except Georgia, which favored the action. This Congress adopted a declaration of rights, asserting that they alone were empowered to tax themselves. It named several acts of Parliament that directly invaded such rights. An address was sent to the king and the people of Great Britain but none to Parliament, which had deeply offended the Americans. The agreement known as the Articles of Association pledged our ancestors not to buy goods or sell them to Great Britain until Parliament repealed the obnoxious acts. It declared further that if force were used against Massachusetts by England, all the other colonies would help her resist it. Before adjournment, a new Congress was called to meet in the following May.

The language of the First Continental Congress sounds bold, but the people themselves were bolder. Companies of armed men began drilling everywhere, and the Americans were eager for a conflict with the detested “red coats.” The excitement was more intense in Massachusetts than anywhere else, and it was plain that the opening gun of the impending Revolution would be fired upon her soil. The colony affairs were directed by a provincial congress, which collected several guns and ammunition and ordered the enrollment of 20,000 “minute men,” who were to hold themselves ready to answer any call at a minute’s notice.

General Thomas Gage was the British commander in Boston. He was so alarmed by the Americans’ aggressive acts that he began throwing up fortifications on the neck of land connecting the town with the mainland. His alert spies notified him that the Americans had collected several military supplies stored at Concord, some 20 miles from Boston, Massachusetts. Gage ordered 800 troops to march secretly to Concord and destroy them.

First Continental Congress, September 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

First Continental Congress, September 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Guarded as were the movements of the British, the Americans were equally watchful and discovered them. Paul Revere dashed out of the tow, 50 minutemen gathered on the village green. Major Pitcairn ordered them to disperse, and a volley was fired when they refused. Eight Americans were killed and many wounded, the others fleeing before the overwhelming force. Thus, the shot that was fired “was heard around the world.”

The British advanced to Concord, destroyed the stores there and then began their return to Boston. All the church bells were ringing, and the minutemen were swarming around the troops from every direction. They kept a continuous fire upon the soldiers from behind barns, houses, hedges, fences, bushes, and open fields. The soldiers broke into a run, but everyone would have been shot down had not Gage sent reinforcements, which protected the exhausted fugitives until they reached a point where they were under the guns of the men of war. In this first real war conflict, the Americans lost 88, and the British 273 killed, wounded, and missing. General Gage was now besieged in Boston by the ardent minutemen, who, in the flush of their patriotism, were eager for the regulars to come out and give them a chance for a battle. Men mounted on swift horses rode at headlong speed through the colonies, spreading the stirring news, and hundreds of patriots hurried to Boston that they might take part in the war for their rights. Elsewhere, the fullest preparations were made for the struggle for independence, which all felt had opened.

As agreed upon, the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. It included some of the ablest men in America, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Peyton Randolph of Virginia; Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania; John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, of Massachusetts; John Jay, of New York; and Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut. The former Congress had talked; the present acted. By general consent, it was accepted as the governing body of the colonies. The forces around Boston were declared a Continental Army, money was voted to support it, and Washington was appointed its commander.

Meanwhile, British reinforcements under William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne arrived in Boston, swelling Gage’s army to 10,000 men. They occupied the town on the peninsula that covers the middle of the harbor, while around them on the hills of the mainland was a larger force of Americans, without uniforms, poorly clothed, badly armed, and undisciplined, but overflowing with patriotism.

Battle of Bull's Run (Manassas), Virginia, July 21, 1861.

Battle of Bull’s Run (Manassas), Virginia, July 21, 1861.

A little to the north of Boston, a second peninsula extended into the harbor. It has several elevations, one of which, Bunker Hill, the patriots determined to seize and fortify. Colonel William Prescott set out one night with a thousand men to perform the task, but believing Breed’s Hill more desirable since it was nearer Boston, he set his men to work upon that. (The name “Bunker” is more euphonious than “Breed’s,” and the latter is now generally known by the former name. Upon it has been built the Bunker Hill Monument.

Although close to the British sentinels, the Americans toiled through the night without discovery. When the sun rose on June 17, 1775, the enemy in Boston was astonished to see a line of entrenchments extending across the hill above them, with the Americans still working like beavers. They continued without interruption until noon when the British were seen coming across the harbor in boats. They were the regulars, finely disciplined and numbered nearly 3,000, who, landing near Charlestown, formed in fine order and advanced with precision against the 1,500 patriots, eagerly waiting for them behind their entrenchments.

It was about the middle of the afternoon that the British columns marched to the attack, covered by a heavy fire of cannons and howitzers, Howe himself commanding the right wing. The steeples and roofs of Boston swarmed with people, breathlessly watching the thrilling sight. Charlestown had been fired, and 400 houses lay in ashes.

The Americans behind their breastworks were impatient to open fire, but Prescott restrained them until they could “see the whites of the eyes” of their enemies. Then, in a loud, clear voice, he shouted, “Fire!” There was an outflame of musketry along the front of the entrenchments, and scores of troops in the first rank fell. The others hesitated a moment and then turned and fled down the slope. There, their officers formed them into lines, and they advanced up the slope once more. The delay gave the Americans time to reload, and they received the troops with the same withering fire as before, sending them scurrying to the bottom of the hill, where, with great difficulty, the daring officers formed them into line for a third advance. The British cannon had been brought to bear, and the ships and batteries maintained a furious cannonade. The patriots were compelled to withdraw from the breastwork outside the fort, and three sides attacked the redoubt simultaneously. The spectators were confident of seeing the invaders hurled back again but saw, to their dismay, a slackening of the fire of the Americans while the troops, rushing over the entrenchments, fought with clubbed muskets.

At the very moment, victory was within the grasp of the patriots; their recklessly fired ammunition gave out, and they began sullenly retreating, fighting with clubbed weapons. As it was, their retreat would have been cut off had not a company of provincials checked the British until the main body of Americans had fallen back. The battle of Bunker Hill was over and ended with the defeat of the patriots, who had lost 150 killed, 270 wounded, and 30 taken prisoners. General Gage gave his loss as 224 killed and 830 wounded. Among the killed was Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the English troops who fired upon the minutemen at Lexington. The American Colonel Prescott had his clothing torn to shreds by bayonet thrusts but was not hurt. A British officer, recognizing the brilliant Warren, snatched a musket from the hands of a soldier and shot him dead.

William Prescott and Israel Putnam conducted the retreat via Charlestown Neck to Prospect Hill, where new entrenchments commanding Boston were thrown up. The British fortified the crest of Breed’s Hill. General Gage, in reporting the affair to his government, used the following impressive language:

“The success, which was very necessary in our present condition, cost us dear. The number of killed and wounded is greater than our forces can afford to lose. We have lost some extremely good officers. The trials we have had show the rebels are not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be, and I find it owing to a military spirit encouraged among them for a few years past, joined with uncommon zeal and enthusiasm. They entrench and raise batteries; they have engineers. They have fortified all the heights and passes around the town, which it is not impossible for them to occupy. The conquest of this country is not easy; you have to cope with vast numbers. In all their wars against the French, they never showed so much conduct, attention, and perseverance as they do now. I think it my duty to let you know the situation of affairs.”

General George Washington

General George Washington

General George Washington, accompanied by his aide, Thomas Mifflin; Joseph Keed, his military secretary; and General Charles Lee, arrived at Cambridge on July 2, 1775. He was joyfully welcomed, and he and his companions remained as the guests of President Langdon of Harvard College for a few days. On July 3, Washington’s commission was read to a part of the army and the provincial Congress of Massachusetts, and he assumed command of the Continental forces.

A prodigious task confronted him. The undisciplined and wretchedly clad swarm came and went as they chose, none having enlisted for more than a brief term. About 2,000 out of 16,771 soldiers were sick or absent on leave. Several thousand more were needed to resist the attack that it was believed the enemy would soon make. But the British had received such severe treatment that it required weeks to recover, and the summer became oppressively hot. England recalled Gage, who sailed for home in October and was succeeded by Howe. Washington closely besieged the enemy in Boston. He steadily approached the city, growing up entrenchments, and day by day and week by week, the situation of Howe became more critical. When winter arrived, Washington formed the plan to cross the Charles River on the ice, but at a council of war, most officers declared the scheme too hazardous.

Washington then decided to fortify and occupy Dorchester Heights, which would command the city and, to a large degree, the harbor. General Henry Knox brought several cannons from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, and dragged them over the Green Mountains on sleds. Their arrival did much to cheer the spirits of the patriots, who numbered about 14,000. The commander called upon Massachusetts to furnish him with 6,000 militia, which was partly done.

With a view of concealing his real purpose, Washington bombarded the British lines throughout the nights of March 2-4, 1770. On the last night, General John Thomas moved with 1,200 men from Roxbury and took possession of the higher hill that commanded Nook’s Hill, nearer the city, undetected. General Howe was amazed when he saw what had been done the following day, for his position had become untenable. Preparations were made to embark men in boats and attack the Americans, but a violent storm prevented it. Then, it was agreed that one thing could be done, and that was to evacuate Boston.

The evacuation took place on March 17. The British destroyed a great deal of property but left many supplies behind, which fell into the hands of the Americans. Washington entered the city on March 19, and the main body of troops followed the next day. The street through which he rode still bears his name. The Massachusetts Legislature voted their thanks to the great man, and Congress ordered a commemorative medal in gold and bronze to be struck. This medal is now in possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

When Howe sailed away, he took over 1,000 Tories, who dared not remain behind and meet their indignant countrymen. Instead of going to New York, as he originally intended, the British commander went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he waited for reinforcements and gave his thoughts to forming campaigns for the conquest of the colonies.

Disastrous Invasion of Canada

Quebec, Canada from Point Levi

Quebec, Canada, from Point Levi.

While the siege of Boston was in progress, the Americans fixed upon a plan for the invasion of Canada. The mistake repeated more than once, was in believing that the Canadians if given the opportunity, would make a common cause against Great Britain. General Philip Schuyler was placed in command of the expedition but fell ill, and Richard Montgomery, the second in command, took charge. He was a brave Irishman who had done brilliant service in the British army and was full of ardor for the American cause.

In several unimportant skirmishes, his men were so insubordinate and cowardly that he was disgusted and expressed his regret that he had ever taken command of such many troops. Nevertheless, he pressed on from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, while Schuyler at Albany used every effort to forward him supplies. St. John was invested, and the reckless Ethan Allen, one of his officers, hastened to Fort Chambly, Quebec, to raise a force of Canadians. He recruited nearly a hundred and, joined by a few Americans, set out to capture Montreal. The promised reinforcements did not reach him, and, being attacked by a powerful force, he made the best defense he could but was finally compelled to surrender with all his men who had not escaped. Allen was sent to England, where he was held a prisoner for a long time.

The British fort at Chambly was besieged and surrendered on October 18. The Americans secured six tons of powder and 17 cannons with its capture. Fort St. Jean, Quebec, was captured on November 3. By that time, Guy Carleton, the British commander, was so alarmed that he abandoned Montreal, which surrendered on the 20th. Taking possession, Montgomery issued a proclamation urging the Canadians to unite with the colonies in the war for independence and to elect representatives to the Continental Congress.

Colonel Benedict Arnold

Colonel Benedict Arnold

Benedict Arnold, at the head of 1,100 men, had withdrawn from the camp before Boston on September 13 and was pressing forward to join Montgomery. His course was up the Kennebec River, through the gloomy wilderness to the Chaudiere River, down which he passed to Point Levi. The journey was of the most trying nature. The weather became bitterly cold, and the stream was too swift at times for them to make headway against it, except by wading the chilly current and slowly dragging the boats against it. At other places, even this was impossible, and the heavy boats had to be laboriously carried around the falls and rapids.

Finally, the time came to leave the river and plunge into the snowy forests, where all would have been lost had not a small party, sent in advance, “blazed” the trees. There was plenty of ice in the swamps, but none was strong enough to bear their weight, and they sank through to their knees in the half-frozen ooze. Toiling doggedly forward, a month passed before they reached Duck River, by which time they were in a starving condition. Their provisions were gone, and they ate dogs and candles. Some, in their extremity, chewed boiled moccasins for the infinitesimal nourishment to be extracted from them. Roots and the bark of saplings were devoured, and Arnold’s astounding courage was all that prevented the men from throwing themselves on the ground and giving up. So many fell ill and died that Colonel Rogers Enos, in command of the rear division, turned about with his men and returned to Cambridge.

Nothing, however, could shake Arnold’s dauntless courage. He pushed on and, obtaining a few cattle, was able to give his men temporary relief. Winter was closing in, the weather was growing colder every day, and many men were barefoot and without any protection against the icy rain except the branches of the leafless trees. The wonder is that the whole band did not perish. Finally, On November 4,  the famishing band caught sight of the first house they had seen in weeks. Traveling improved, and about a week later, they reached Point Levi, opposite Quebec. There, they had to wait several days to procure canoes, with which the 700 men, resembling so many shivering tramps, crossed the St. Lawrence River and huddled together under the Heights of Abraham.

What earthly hope could such a body of men, without cannon, with injured muskets and powder, and cartridges partly spoiled, have in attacking the walled town of Quebec? None, unless the Canadians made common cause with them. Following the steep path that Wolfe and his brave men had climbed 17 years before, the gaunt Americans struggled after their fearless leader. The next act in the grim comedy was to send forward a flag of truce with a demand for the surrender of Quebec. General Carleton must have smiled at the grotesqueness of the proceeding when he sent back a refusal. A few shots followed when Arnold, finding he had not half a dozen rounds of ammunition apiece for his men and was in danger of being attacked himself, retreated to a point 20 miles below Quebec, where Montgomery joined him on December 1 and assumed command.

The Americans now numbered 3,000 and had six fieldpieces and five light mortars. They set out for Quebec, in front of which they encamped four days later. Of all the disastrous invasions of Canada, none was more dismal and pathetic than that of Montgomery and Arnold. The winter was unusually severe for a region noted for its intensely cold weather. The ground froze to the hardness of a rock, and, unable to make any impression in it with a shovel and pick, the besiegers threw up walls of ice, which the defenders’ cannon sent flying into thousands of fragments. The men grew mutinous, and, realizing the desperate situation, Montgomery ordered an assault to be made on the last day of the year. The plan was for the first division under Montgomery to move down the river and attack the lower town near the citadel, while the second division under Arnold was to pass around the city to the north, assault by way of the St. Charles River, and unite with Montgomery in his attack upon the Prescott gate. The other two divisions were to remain in the rear of the upper town and divert the garrison by feint attacks.

Death of General Montgomery

Death of General Montgomery

A blinding snowstorm was raging, and the men could hardly distinguish from one another. Success depended upon surprise, but the defenders had learned of the intended attack. Montgomery had hardly started when the battery delivered a fire that instantly killed him and both his aides. Their deaths threw his men into a panic, and they fled in such haste that they escaped the fate of their leaders.

Meanwhile, as agreed upon, Arnold had moved with his division along the St. Charles River, the men bending their heads to the icy blast and protecting their muskets under their coats. When the garrison caught sight of the dim figures, they opened fire, but the Americans pressed on and carried the first barricade. However, Arnold received a severe leg wound and, suffering great pain, was carried to the rear. Daniel Morgan, one of the bravest officers of the Revolution, succeeded to the command and, with his riflemen at his heels, was the first to climb the ladders placed against the barricade. Two musket balls grazed the leader’s face, which was scorched by the flash, and he was knocked down, but he instantly sprang to his feet and called upon his men to follow him. They did so with such a dash that the enemy took refuge in the houses on both sides of the street.

But for the disaster that had overtaken Montgomery, Quebec probably would have been captured. Still, Morgan’s command was in darkness; the driving snow interfered with tiring, and they knew nothing of the town. Only a few of the troops found the next barricade and were confronted by leveled muskets whose fire was very destructive when they climbed the ladders. Not only that, but the British, who had taken refuge in the houses in the streets, kept up their firing.

The Americans fought for a long time with the greatest heroism, but after the loss of some 60 men, the remainder, except for a few that had fled, were obliged to surrender. The fragments of the helpless army fell again under the command of the wounded Arnold, who still pressed the siege of Quebec despite the hopelessness of the attempt. He had sent an urgent message to Schuyler for reinforcements. They struggled through the wintry forests to his aid, some 3,000 arriving during the winter. Carleton, who was too wise to venture out on the plain as Montcalm had done, felt secure behind the walls and gave little heed to the ragged swarm huddled together in front of the town.

General David Wooster brought fresh troops in March and assumed command. He lacked military skill and, two months later, was succeeded by General John Thomas. The latter saw that he had no more than 1,000 effective troops under his control and decided to withdraw the ill-starred expedition. Carleton, who had received large reinforcements, attacked him on his retreat and captured 100 prisoners and nearly all the stores. The sufferings of the Americans were now aggravated by smallpox, which broke out among them and caused many deaths, General Thomas being one of the victims. General John Sullivan succeeded him in command. He lost several prisoners and retreated to Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point, thus bringing the disastrous expedition to a close in June 1776.

It is proper that tribute should be given to the humanity of Carleton, the British commander. He ordered a search to be made in the snow for the body of Montgomery, and when it was found, it was brought into the city and buried with the honors of war. Other parties scoured the woods for the suffering Americans, who were placed in the hospital and received tender care. Those who voluntarily came in were allowed to go as soon as they were strong enough to travel, and to the needy ones, Carleton furnished the money. A half-century later, the remains of Montgomery were brought to New York and deposited beneath the monument in St. Paul’s churchyard.

Compiled & edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023. Source:  Morris, Charles; A New history of the United States: The greater Republic; 1899

Also See:

The American Revolution

American Revolution Timeline

Initial Battles for Independence

American History (main page)

Heroes and Patriots of America

Prelude to the Revolutionary War