American Revolution Summary

By Arthur Cecil Perry and Gertrude A. Price in 1914

Battle of Princeton

Battle of Princeton

“The people, I believe, are as truly loyal as any subjects the king has; but they are a people jealous of their liberties, who, if those liberties should ever be violated, will vindicate them to the last drop of their blood.” —  A member of the British House of Commons during a heated discussion concerning the British colonies in North America

For more than a century England had possessed thirteen colonies stretching along the coast between Canada and Florida. In 1763, by the treaty that followed the French and Indian War, her sway had been extended over the greater part of North America. Though England was immensely proud of the large territory her colonists had helped her to win from the French, she used strange means of showing her gratitude. Like the other leading nations of Europe, she believed that colonies were particularly useful for trading purposes. One reason why England maintained colonies was that she might sell goods to them at great profit.

The British Parliament made many laws that benefited the English merchants. For instance, if a prosperous Virginian wished to buy for his wife some shimmering silks from Paris, the law forbade him to send directly to France for them. He was allowed to purchase them only through English merchants, which added greatly to the cost. Again, although another country might be willing to pay him a better price for his tobacco and his rice, England was the only land to which he was allowed to send them. For these reasons and many others, the colonists felt that they were being unfairly treated. Naturally, they began to do what they could to secure better conditions.

Nathaniel Bacon and William Berkeley

Nathaniel Bacon and William Berkeley

In fact, even as early as 1676 a spirit of rebellion had appeared in Virginia. When a number of colonists had been killed by the Indians. Governor William Berkeley was asked to take action, but he refused. It has been said that he was trading with these Indians and wished to keep on friendly terms with them. When they attacked the plantation of a young lawyer, Nathaniel Bacon, and killed his overseer, he asked the governor’s permission to punish the red men. The governor again refused.

Then Bacon, with a party of young men as bold and vigorous as himself, marched against the Indians and punished them so severely that they troubled the colonists no more. But, because Bacon and his men had acted without permission, the governor declared them outlaws.

Bacon, however, had the support of many of the people of the colony and the governor was afraid of his power. For some months the two men waged a contest for the control of the government. First one and then the other would gain possession of Jamestown. Finally, Bacon completely destroyed the village by fire, to make sure that it would not again shelter the governor. When rebuilding time came, a better site was chosen. The new capitol was known as Williamsburg. Bacon’s Rebellion was only one instance of trouble between the colonists and their governors. There were many other cases of dispute, which; however, did not lead to open revolt.

By the year 1750 England had passed many laws to encourage trade with her colonies. Some of the laws forbade them to trade with other countries or even, in some cases, with one another. Had all these laws been rigidly carried out, the great Revolution might have come before it did.

Colonists Complain

Colonists Complain

But, they were not so enforced. The colonists were able to evade them in many ways. For example, they smuggled goods into the country and out, in violation of the laws. The royal governors made the best of it and pretended not to see what was going on. At the same time, they did many things that displeased the liberty-loving colonists. Sent over by the king, the governors felt and acted as though they had his power. But, the colonists came to regard their Assemblies as having more authority than the governors. This, of course, angered the governors and the king.

While France was a power in America, England had seen that she must keep on good terms with her colonists, lest France step in and win them over to her side.

After that danger was past, the English government thought it was quite time to enforce the laws. It determined to stop the secret trading between the colonists and other countries. Customs officers were encouraged to search for smuggled goods.

This, they could do by using warrants known as “writs of assistance.” Such a writ gave the officers the right to enter, in their search, any store or private residence. They could break down doors and open trunks, on the mere suspicion that goods had been smuggled. The colonists were indignant. James Otis, of Massachusetts, argued eloquently against these writs of assistance, but the courts decided that such writs were lawful.

The French and Indian War had given the colonists new confidence in themselves. Fighting side by side, they had learned to respect one another. They had discovered that their men were good fighters and that they had able leaders, such as George Washington, John Stark, and Israel Putnam. They had lost both men and money in the war, but they gloried in the loss, because they were Englishmen fighting for England. At this time, the colonists were not anxious to be rid of their mother country. Far from this, they were true patriots asking but for the rights of Englishmen.

Burning of the stamp act

Burning of the stamp act

However, this would begin to change when England decided to keep a standing army in the colonies for their protection and to force the colonists to bear a part of its cost. To help raise the needed money the Stamp Act was passed. This law compelled the people to buy stamps that had to be placed upon business contracts, legal papers, and newspapers. Some of the stamps cost but a penny or two; others, from twenty to fifty dollars.

The colonists were incensed, not so much because of the tax, but, because of the way in which it was levied, and because of its purpose. One of the rights an Englishman holds most precious is that of being represented in the lawmaking body that decides upon the taxes. It is true that the Americans had their own Assemblies, but they were not represented in Parliament, the English taxing body. And, it was Parliament that had levied the Stamp Tax and had made other unsatisfactory laws for the colonists. Moreover, the colonists did not believe that a standing army was needed in America in a time of peace.

People in Boston greeted the Stamp Act as they would have greeted some great sorrow. The church bells were tolled, the flags were put at half-staff, and a storm of protest broke forth.

In New York, copies were made of the law, but, in place of the king’s coat of arms, usually printed on all legal papers, a grinning skull appeared. The people then destroyed boxes of the hated stamps and stamped paper, and threatened the men who were appointed to collect the stamp tax. James Otis suggested that a Congress be called to take action. Nine of the colonies sent delegates to this Congress, which was held in New York and signed a petition that was sent to the king and to Parliament.

After much debate, the Parliament saw that they had made a mistake and repealed the Stamp Act. However, King George saw it differently. Not willing to listen to his advisers, he believed in showing the colonists “their place.” With his influence, Parliament then passed several laws taxing the colonists in other ways, including duties on various imports such as glass, lead, paper, and tea. The levying of these taxes, together with the presence of British troops sent to the colonies, caused further anger among the colonists.

Birth of Freedom DVD

Birth of Freedom DVD

On January 17, 1770, British soldiers sawed down a “Liberty Pole,” which had been placed in what is now City Hall Park, in New York City by the “Sons of Liberty,” a group of American Patriots. The pole, complete with banners, had been set up in celebration of the Stamp Act having been repealed in 1765. Two days later, when the soldiers also began posting British handbills that were titled “God and a Soldier,” which attacked the Sons of Liberty as “the real enemies of society.”  man named Isaac Sears and several others tried to stop them. The group then captured some of the soldiers and marched his captives toward the mayor’s office. More colonists gathered and when more soldiers arrived to disburse them, it resulted in a skirmish known as the Battle of Golden Hill. In the melee, several of the soldiers were badly bruised and one had a serious wound. Some of the townsfolk were also wounded and one had been fatally stabbed.

Two months later, On March 5th, a similar clash occurred in Boston. That evening, when a party of boys taunted a British sentry in front of the custom-house door, a guard came out and a crowd gathered. As the crowd grew larger, more people began to harass the soldiers, and in the end, shots were fired. Five civilians were killed and several wounded.

The resentment of the colonists grew. Throughout the country rang the bold words of Patrick Henry, of Virginia: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” The colonists refused to buy goods from English merchants until the taxes were repealed. This, in turn, called forth a protest from the merchants, who were rapidly losing money. But, the king’s party argued that if every one of the taxes placed upon the colonists were taken away, the colonists would feel that they had won.

So another plan was adopted. Most of the taxes were removed, but a small tax upon tea was retained. The tax was so small that it was cheaper for the colonists to buy their tea from England than to smuggle it from Holland and the English merchants were sure they would get back their trade.

But, the Americans, still refused to buy their tea and when three shiploads came into the Boston harbor in the fall of 1773, the colonists decided to act. They warned the ship’s master that “it was at his peril, if he suffered any of the tea brought by him to be landed.” They urged him to take his tea back to England. But the governor would not permit him to sail out of the harbor, and kept warships on the watch to prevent his doing so.

Boston Tea Party by D. Berger

Boston Tea Party by D. Berger

On the morning of December 16, 1773, thousands of people gathered at a town meeting. “How will tea mingle with salt water?” someone hinted. Action was taken that very evening. At about nine o’clock there rang through the quiet streets the war-whoop of Mohawk Indians. Fifty white Party men in Indian guise, hatchet in hand, rushed down to the wharf and boarded the ships. The tea chest were then opened and their contents thrown overboard into the sea.

The news of this daring spread to the other cities to which tea had been sent — New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. They were inspired by the action of brave little Boston and they, too, refused to buy the tea. Boston’s punishment came quickly. Her port was ordered closed until she should pay for the destroyed tea. This meant that nearly all her business was stopped, and that she could get no supplies by sea. The English government thought that, by making an example of Massachusetts in this way, it would frighten the other colonies into submission. But, it was mistaken. The colonies felt that Boston was suffering for them all, so they loyally rallied around her and sent her supplies, accompanied by messages of courage. The women, in societies known as the “Daughters of Liberty,” pledged themselves to wear homespun clothes and not to drink tea.

On September 5, 1774, representatives from all the colonies, except Georgia, met in Philadelphia at a meeting that was known as the First Continental Congress. Georgia did not send delegates as, at the time, they were seeking help from London in pacifying its smoldering Indian frontier. The 56 members met to consider their options, including an economic boycott of British trade; publish a list of rights and grievances; and petition King George for redress of those grievances. The delegates also called for a second meeting in the event that their petition was unsuccessful in halting enforcement of the Intolerable Acts.

When their appeal to the Crown had no effect, the  Second Continental Congress was convened the following year on May 10, 1775, to organize the defense of the colonies at the onset of the American Revolutionary War. The delegates also urged each colony to set up and train its own militia.

It had been but a month or two before, that Patrick Henry had stood up in old St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, and cried, ” We must fight. I repeat it, sir, we must fight. I know not what course others may take, but, as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

And, he had but voiced the feelings of the greater part of the colonists. For a long time, they had been working together to avoid war. Now, they had to work together to prepare for it.

Meanwhile, in all the towns, civilians were secretly meeting at night, practicing and drilling, so that they might be ready for war at a minute’s notice. For this reason, they were called Minute Men. Further preparations were made by storing away supplies such as powder, shot and food.

Though all this was done secretly, Governor Gage of Massachusetts found out that supplies were being stored at Concord. At about the same time, he received orders to arrest and send to England for treason, two of the leaders — Samuel Adams and John Hancock. But, neither Adams nor Hancock was to be found in Boston and it was reported that they were in Lexington.

Paul Revere's ride

Paul Revere’s ride

Governor Gage thought that if he could make a quick, unexpected dash for Lexington and Concord he might succeed in capturing the men and the hidden stores. Accordingly, in the dead of night, April 18, 1775, he sent a force of British soldiers from Boston to make their way secretly to Lexington. But, the Americans had been warned by Paul Revere.

When the British arrived at Lexington the next morning (April 19th), Adams and Hancock had gone and the Minute Men were drawn up on the village green. The astonished English commander ordered the patriots to disperse, but they stood their ground. The commander then drew his own pistol and gave the order to fire*. With the first volley, eight of the Minute Men fell dead and ten more were wounded. The Revolutionary War had begun.  (* Editors note: No one really knows who fired the first shot of the American Revolution, known as ‘The shot heard round the world’, as there have been many contradictory accounts passed down from the event)

The British then continued their advance for Concord to get possession of the supplies. However, when the soldiers arrived, the supplies had mysteriously disappeared. Still more surprising than the disappearance of the stores was the great number of Minute Men who guarded the city and drove back some 200 Redcoats from the Concord Bridge. As the British began their retreat to Boston, they were fired upon all the way by patriots hiding in the bushes along the roadside.

The news of the war quickly spread through the colonies. On all sides came the call, “Minute Men to arms!” How this call was answered is well illustrated by the zeal of Israel Putnam, an old fighter of the French and Indian War. When a horseman galloped by his field giving the cry to arms, Putnam rode quickly to Boston, where Minute Men had gathered from all parts of the colony.

In colonial days Boston occupied only one of the several peninsulas which the city now covers, and on one, the British army was quartered. Across the channel was the village of Charlestown, and beyond it, Bunker Hill. The Americans saw that if they could fortify and hold this hill, they would command Boston.

So, on the night of June 16, 1775, their men crept up the slope and set to work throwing up rude fortifications. When morning dawned they stood in firm possession of the hill. The British realized that if they were to keep Boston they must dislodge the Americans from their position. They debated as to the best method of attack. Had they gone by sea to the rear of the hill they might have been easily successful, but they decided to make a charge at the front.

The Americans had little powder, so their two commanders, General Putnam and Colonel Prescott warned the men to wait until the enemy was close upon them. Up the hill marched the well-trained soldiers of England. Closer and yet closer they came, and still no sign from the Americans.

Then, quick and sharp came the order from behind the breastworks, “Fire!” A great volley broke forth, scattering the British and forcing them down the hill. Again they formed, and again they climbed the hill.

Again that death-dealing volley forced them back and down. A third time they tried. The American powder was nearly exhausted; yet the valiant defenders fought on, with guns, with stones, with knives, even with their fists. But the British were too strong. The Americans were forced back, and the British held the hill. Putnam was disappointed. It seemed to him that after such gallant fighting the patriots should have held out longer, but others said that the defense put up that day was wonderful, even though it ended in defeat. Throughout the country, there was great rejoicing.

General George Washington

General George Washington

But, there were great difficulties ahead. An army was needed, but, it was hard to get each colony to promise its share of men. To make matters more difficult, the new Congress was constantly bickering, which weakened its power and discouraged the people. They did make one very wise decision; however, that of appointing George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. His remarkable military skill, already shown in the French and Indian War, and his high character made him a fitting leader in the great cause.

When told of his appointment, Washington said, “I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in this room, that, I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.” Despite his modest doubts, he would bring honor and glory to himself and to his country.

Beneath a famous old elm tree, at Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 3, 1775, that Washington, tall and dignified, first stood before the eager young soldiers and drew forth his sword as commander of the American Army.
No one knew better than Washington the great task that was before him. The drilling of the soldiers until they were weary, the constant begging for supplies, which were so slow in coming, the petty quarrels among the soldiers themselves — all these difficulties, together with the great responsibility of the position, would have daunted most men.

A number of great battles and hundreds of skirmishes would take place over the next eight years in the fledgling nation’s struggle for independence.

Yankee Doodle, 1776

Yankee Doodle, 1776

In April 1782, the British Commons voted to end the war in America and preliminary peace articles were signed in Paris at the end of November 1782, though the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris and Treaties of Versailles were signed on September 3, 1783. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783, and the United States Congress of the Confederation ratified the Paris treaty on January 14, 1784.

The total loss of life resulting from the American Revolutionary War is unknown, but it is estimated that some 25,000 American Revolutionaries died during active military service. Only about 8,000 of these deaths were in battle; the other 17,000 soldiers died from disease. The number of patriots seriously wounded or disabled by the war has been estimated from 8,500 to 25,000.

By Perry, G. Price, 1914. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2020.

About the Article: This article on the American Revolution was, for the most part, written by Arthur Cecil Perry and Gertrude A. Price and included in a chapter of their book “American History,” published in 1914.  However, the original content has been heavily edited and additional information added.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, —
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
—  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride



Also See:

Paul Revere and His Midnight Ride

American Revolution Index

American Revolution Timeline

Causes of the American Revolution

Initial Battles for Independence

American History (main page)

Heroes and Patriots of America