Start of the American Revolution

Some hoped the colonies could put enough economic pressure on Great Britain to prevent the crisis from escalating. Imports dropped by more than ninety percent from 1774 to 1775, and English merchants were appealing to Parliament to compromise with the colonies as early as January 1775. William Pitt in the House of Lords and Edmund Burke in the House of Commons also urged reconciliation, and Lord North was developing his own plan. But events in Massachusetts were moving quickly toward armed conflict.

Lexington and Concord. General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, began fortifying Boston in the fall of 1774; colonists meanwhile prepared militias, organizing small, armed groups ready for quick action as Minute Men. In the spring, Gage was ordered to arrest radical leaders and put down what was considered to be an open rebellion in the colony, despite the discussions underway in Parliament. To warn of the impending movement of British troops, William Dawes and Paul Revere rode out to alert the local townspeople and farmers. On April 19, colonials and British soldiers faced each other on the town green at Lexington. Shots were fired, leaving eight colonists dead. The British continued on to Concord, where militia supplies were stored, and confronted another group of Americans, exchanging fire. Colonists continued to harass the British as they marched backed to Boston, killing or wounding 273 by the end of the engagement.

The rebellion quickly spread. The British garrison in Boston was besieged, and the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont, led by Ethan Allen, captured Fort Ticonderoga with the intention of using its cannon in Boston. The Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775), the first major confrontation of the American Revolution, was a British victory but at the cost of more than a thousand men. The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia as the fighting raged.

The Second Continental Congress. The outbreak of hostilities still did not mean the colonies were prepared to declare their independence. Indeed, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, professing loyalty to the Crown and appealing to George III to end the bloodshed so outstanding issues between the colonies and Great Britain could be worked out. Even the statement justifying the taking up of arms rejected independence as a solution, though it underscored the colonists' commitment to fight for their rights. Nevertheless, circumstances dictated that the Congress assume governmental responsibilities: a letter was sent to Canada asking for its support, or at least neutrality, in the fighting; the troops around Boston were declared a Continental Army, and George Washington was named commander; approval was given for the appointment of commissioners to negotiate treaties with the Indians and for the establishment of a postal service.

By the time the Second Continental Congress reopened in September, George III had rejected the Olive Branch Petition, and New England was proclaimed in a state of rebellion. In December, Parliament closed the colonies to all trade. For its part, the Congress created a navy and sounded out the European powers on their position toward the colonies. France, not surprisingly, eventually became a critical ally for the Americans.

The balance of forces. At first glance, Great Britain appeared to have enormous advantages over the colonies. The British had a professional army, eventually putting more than one hundred thousand men in the field along with thirty thousand German (Hessian) mercenaries. These troops were well armed, supplied, and trained. Britain could draw on vast economic resources and had the largest navy in the world, but it did face serious problems. Supplying their forces in the colonies and communicating effectively with commanders across an ocean were difficult. The cost of war meant still higher taxes for a country saddled with debts from previous conflicts. It was an open question just how long the British would continue paying to keep the colonies in the empire.

The Americans were fighting on their soil for their own liberties and, in short order, their independence, all advantages to their side. George Washington, in spite of his limited military experience, proved to be an adept leader. Compromising his ability to lead the more than two hundred thousand men who fought in the war were the poorly trained and undisciplined militias. In addition, food, medicine, and ammunition were often in short supply because the Continental Congress had no power to compel the colonies to provide what was needed. Nor did the colonies fulfill their quotas for troops for the Continental Army. Perhaps the most serious handicap was the significant number of Americans who not only opposed the war but sided with the British.

Loyalists versus Patriots. British sympathizers were called Loyalists or Tories; backers of the fight against England were known as Whigs or Patriots. An estimated twenty percent of Americans, unevenly distributed throughout the colonies, supported Great Britain. The Loyalists included government officials whose positions and livelihoods were tied to the empire, merchants who were dependent on British trade (New York City was a Loyalist stronghold), and those who believed that a break with Britain would lead to instability or chaos. Among the last group were people who had actively opposed the Stamp Act and signed nonimportation agreements but felt that revolution was going too far. About twenty‐one thousand Loyalists fought with the British, and five times that number decided to leave the country at the end of hostilities. In a very real sense, the American Revolution was a civil war.

Native Americans, including most of the powerful Iroquois nation, supported the British, for obvious reasons. During the longstanding dispute over western lands, it was Great Britain that had issued the protective Proclamation of 1763, while the Americans increasingly moved onto Indian lands. Slaves also joined the British because they were promised their freedom; escaped slaves served in the British army as soldiers and laborers.