War for Independence

Although the Second Continental Congress increasingly assumed the powers of an independent government, the decision to formally declare independence was not made until more than a year after the fighting had begun. Indeed, colonial officers toasted the good health of the king at dinners. Throughout the crisis that led to the revolution, it was not the king but Parliament and the king's ministers who were blamed for causing the rift between the colonies and Great Britain. In time, though, a dramatic change in attitude toward George III transformed the American Revolution into a war for independence.

In January 1776, Thomas Paine, who had come to America from England hardly more than a year earlier, published a pamphlet titled Common Sense, which was a clear call for independence. Paine's theme was not corrupt politics but the struggle between liberty and monarchy in the person of George III. The pamphlet was a huge success—more than one hundred thousand copies were quickly in circulation—and provided the impetus needed for most Americans to favor independence. In the months that followed its publication, the colonial legislatures were replaced with new state governments that approved a final break with Great Britain.

The Declaration of Independence. In June 1776, a committee appointed by the Continental Congress took up the task of drafting a declaration of independence. Its members included Thomas Jefferson (the principal author), John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. The Congress first voted for independence on July 2 and then discussed the document Jefferson had prepared, making a significant change during the debates. Jefferson's attack on slavery and the slave trade was stricken from the draft at the insistence of South Carolina, Georgia, and some of the representatives from the northern states. The notion that “all men are created equal” clearly did not apply to blacks. The Declaration of Independence, as amended, was adopted on July 4, 1776, affirming the vote taken two days earlier.

The Declaration of Independence is an itemized list of grievances against the misrule and abuses of George III; Parliament is not mentioned. Jefferson drew heavily on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, particularly John Locke's contract theory of government. His main points were that people have natural rights—the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—and that governments are created to protect those rights; when a government, whose authority stems from the consent of the people, attempts to destroy those rights, the people can and should abolish it.

Fighting the war. The main theaters of fighting shifted during the course of the war from New England (1775–76) to the middle states (1776–78) to the southern states (1778–82). In the spring of 1776, the British left Boston and moved their military headquarters to New York City, where they had the advantages of an excellent harbor, ample food supplies, and Loyalist support. George Washington also moved his forces south but was defeated in major engagements on Long Island and Manhattan. He retreated from New York in the fall, convinced he needed to adopt more innovative tactics. During the eighteenth century, armies usually retired to winter quarters and resumed their campaigns in the spring. On Christmas in 1776, however, the Americans surprised the Hessian garrison at Trenton by crossing the Delaware River in a daring night raid. This victory was quickly followed by a successful attack on Princeton on January 3. Both battles were important in raising American morale.

Another major victory occurred in October 1777 at Saratoga in upper New York state. Taking advantage of a series of blunders, the Continental Army defeated the British forces under General Burgoyne, which included significant numbers of Loyalists and Indians, and took more than five thousand prisoners. Burgoyne and American General Horatio Gates agreed that the British troops would lay down their arms and return to England, pledging not to serve in the war again, but this compact was never implemented. The true significance of the Battle of Saratoga is that France was persuaded to become an ally of the Americans.

Diplomacy during the war. The Americans realized that the war for independence would be lost without the support of other nations. Indeed, they had looked to France as a potential ally in the struggle with Great Britain as early as 1774. In late 1776, with both France and Spain already secretly providing munitions and money for the war, a delegation led by Benjamin Franklin went to Paris hoping to negotiate a formal alliance.

Franklin was a popular figure at the French court, but it took news of Saratoga before France recognized the United States as a sovereign nation. A commercial agreement and a formal alliance, which actually became effective when France and England went to war in June, were concluded. French aid ultimately tipped the balance in favor of the Americans. In addition to providing direct assistance in the form of men and ships, the French alliance forced Britain to bolster its troops in other parts of the empire, spreading its forces even more thinly.

Spain declared war on Britain in 1779 but did not recognize the United States; the Dutch Republic did the same in 1780. The combined French, Spanish, and Dutch fleets outnumbered the British warships. Catherine the Great of Russia created the League of Armed Neutrality, a coalition of European states that followed a policy of passive hostility toward Great Britain. The British had to deal with Russia and Sweden in 1780 and Prussia and Portugal in 1782. These diversions were costly and helped make the American war increasingly impractical in both economic and political terms.

Winning the war. By enduring several major defeats and surviving the harsh winter encampments at Valley Forge (1777–78), the Continental Army matured into a disciplined fighting force. The British no longer won easy victories over poorly trained American troops. In 1778, when the war expanded to the west and south, George Rogers Clark moved into the Ohio Valley and fought several battles against the British and their Loyalist and Indian allies. Hoping to take advantage of Loyalist sentiment, the British turned their attention south in late 1778. The strategy was to take Georgia and South Carolina and then move north to Virginia, but after capturing Savannah and Charleston, major port cities, the British found controlling the interior much more difficult. Then, in 1781, the British made a fatal strategic mistake. General Lord Cornwallis set up a base at Yorktown in Virginia, intending to press the campaign into Virginia and Pennsylvania. Yorktown was located on a peninsula; when the French fleet blockaded by sea and a combined force of American and French troops laid siege to the city, Cornwallis was cut off. While skirmishes continued, the war was effectively over when Cornwallis and his eight thousand soldiers laid down their arms on October 19, 1781.

The Peace of Paris. In June 1782, an American delegation led by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay opened peace talks with British and French diplomats in Paris. Several issues complicated the peace conference. France wanted all the parties involved to sign the treaty, and, indeed, the Americans had been instructed by Congress not to sign a separate agreement. Jay ignored his instructions when it became clear that France wanted to limit the United States to the territory east of the Appalachians.

Through the Peace of Paris, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States with the Mississippi River as its western boundary. Americans were granted fishing rights off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and British troops and ships were to depart from American territory “with all convenient speed.” Left unresolved, however, were issues that damaged Anglo‐American relations for years. The United States agreed to compensate Loyalists for property confiscated during the war, but the new government lacked the power to compel the states to do so; the British refused to leave several military outposts until this matter was resolved. The fate of the tribes that had fought with the British was omitted from the treaty; Native Americans in the Ohio Valley refused to recognize the sovereignty of the United States, leaving open the potential for further conflict. The British also did nothing for the luckless slaves who had sided with them.