A People's History
of the American Revolution

Page Smith

[Excerpts from Volume One, A New Age Now Begins, published by McGraw-Hill in 1976]


The British Blunder Again / 1

The new kind of consciousness produced by the Protestant Reformation and planted in the fertile soil of America had resulted in an individual who drew his strength from his membership in a faithful community, and whose values were so internalized that he moved, however modest his condition of life and his antecedents, with confidence and a sense of assurance into quite novel situations. Such individuals were able to form, in an astonishingly brief time, fresh combinations, communities, or organizations. [p. 270]

That England should have repeatedly emphasized the ingratitude of the colonies is significant. The call for gratitude is the unmistakable signal that all moral authority has been dissipated; nothing is left but a generally fruitless appeal to gratitude. [p. 271]

[John] Dickinson [of Philadelphia] began his third "letter" [from a farmer in Pennsylvania] with an admonition to his readers to avoid any violent or unlawful action; "The cause of liberty," he wrote, "is a cause of too much dignity to be sullied by turbulence and tumult. It ought to be maintained in a manner suitable to her nature. Those who engage in it should breathe a sedate, yet fervent spirit, animating them to actions of prudence, justice, modesty, bravery, humanity, and magnaminity." P.278 Finally, in the twelfth and last letter, Dickinson summed up his position: "let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds - that we cannot be happy without being free - that we cannot be free without being secure in our property - that we cannot be secure in our property if without our consent others may as by right take it away - that taxes imposed on us by Parliament do thus take it away - that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money are taxes - that attempts to lay such duties should be instantly and firmly opposed - that this opposition can never be effectual unless it is the united effort of these Provinces - that therefore benevolence of temper towards each other and unanimity of councils are essential to the welfare of the whole - and lastly, that for this reason, every man amongst us who in any manner would encourage either dissension, diffidence, or indifference between these colonies is an enemy to himself and to his country." [p. 279]

The Case of the Liberty / 2

Hancock, only thirty-one years old in 1768, was already one of the most prosperous merchants in Boston. It was often Hancock who paid the bill when the Sons of Liberty bought banners, or needed handbills printed... He was a marked man, a dangerous one in British eyes, and the customs officers kept a close watch to see if they could catch him violating any of the regulations governing imports and exports. [pp. 281-282]

The episode of the Liberty seems, quite clearly, to have forced the hands of the patriot leaders. …Both sides, as we would say today, overreacted, and events spiraled closer and closer toward a showdown. [p. 286]

The ultimate effect, then, of the Liberty incident - in itself neither very important nor unusual - was the dispatch of armed forced in the form of two regiments of redcoats that would (the British cabinet hoped) cow the people of Boston into submission. … [pp. 291-292]

The Repeal of the Townshend Duties / 3

The Townshend Duties were turning out to be difficult to enforce and were not producing anything like a substantial revenue. Meanwhile the nonimportation agreements were so successful that English exports to America, which had come to 2,378,000 pounds in 1768, dropped to 1,634,000 pounds n 1769. [p.295]

The repeal of the Townshend Acts meant, in practical fact, that Parliament could not tax the colonies without the armed occupation of the colonies, and doubtfully even then. [p. 295]

To admit a mistake is, unfortunately, a most difficult step for most human beings. And it seems even more difficult when they are in power as a government. Their own private vanities and ambitions compound an already difficult task. They seem to prefer any other course, including complete defeat and, on occasion, the destruction of the nation whose best interests they sincerely intend to serve. At the bottom of all this lies that strange human emotion that we call pride. [p. 296]

David Ramsay in his History of the American Revolution, published a few years after the end of the war, gave a succinct analysis of the problem. "Great and flourishing colonies … already grown to the magnitude of a nation, planted at an immense distance, and governed by constitutions resembling that of the country from which they sprung, were novelties in the history of the world. To combine Colonies so circumstanced, in one uniform system of government with the Parent State, required a great knowledge of mankind, and an extensive comprehension of things. It was an arduous business, far beyond the grasp of ordinary … [men], whose minds were narrowed by the formalities of laws, or the trammels of office. An original genius, unfettered with precedents, and exalted with just ideas of the rights of human nature, and the obligations of universal benevolence, might have struck out a middle line, which would have secured as much liberty to the Colonies, and as great a degree of supremacy to the Parent State, as their common good required: But the helm of Great Britain was not in such hands." P.297

Soon after New York and Philadelphia capitulated, other major port cities also gave in and resumed trade with Britain. Except in intransigent Boston, the embargo was effectively broken. [p. 299]

Redcoats in Boston / 4

The dispatch of redcoats to Boston at the very moment when feelings had been inflamed by the Townshend Duties was perhaps the most ill-advised of all the unwise moves made by the British government during the period from 1765 to 1770. …Sending troops was inviting catastrophe. [p. 300]

There was indeed, among the more militant, open discussion of revolution and independence. [p. 303]

Within two weeks of the occupation of Boston, seventy soldiers had deserted and taken refuge in the interior of the colony. …They had hardly arrived before the attractions of colonial life proved so compelling that they began to join the ranks of the colonists they had been sent to police. [p. 306]

The patriot leaders most feared and resented the soldiers' presence because, by inciting numerous incidents that threatened to flame into major riots, they undermined the control of these leaders over the more volatile elements in the population. [p. 309]

The Battle of Golden Hill / 5

In New York, as in Boston, the Sons of Liberty entertained bitter feelings toward the governor and his supporters and the more conservative merchants. But the hostility was most intense between the city's sailors and artisans on the one hand and the British soldiers on the other. One source of friction was the fact that the troops, to supplement their miserable wages, were hiring out as cut-rate laborers, thus taking jobs away from members of the city's labor force. [pp. 315-316]

… the Battle of Golden Hill, so called because the major fighting took place on a promontory near the center of the city … had been ferocious, a measure of the hatred that had been sown between the people and those symbols of British power, the redcoats. Most important, a man had been killed - the first colonial killed by British soldiers. [p. 317]

The New York patriot intelligentsia did not lead and control the populace. As a result, the New York mob was in fact, much more of a riotous and ill-disciplined rabble than the people who poured into Boston's streets to protest. Nor did the New Yorkers have any long-term object in view, such as the repeal of the Townshend Duties or the removal of all troops from the colony. …The Battle of Golden Hill, then, despite the two deaths, was not as politically important as, for example, the Stamp Act riot in Boston. [p. 318]

More Trouble In Boston / 6

Each side was devoted to its own particular conspiracy theory, seeing a plot in every chance happening, a design in the most coincidental combination of events. So it is in all times of revolution. That indeed is why they are revolutionary. Attitudes and beliefs become so polarized that words cease to bear the same meaning for those on different sides of a widening abyss. The revolutionaries must use old words in such a way as to illuminate new realities; the representatives of the existing order are equally insistent on using old words to obscure the existence of those same new realities. Hence, suspicion and distrust - and eventually violence - became inevitable. [p. 330]

The Boston Massacre / 7

Although two regiments of the troops that had garrisoned Boston had been removed in the fall of 1769-70, two regiments still remained. And baiting these remaining "lobsterbacks" continued to be a favored occupation of the town's rougher elements. Both sides hurled violent and obscene epithets; …It was an explosive situation, … [p. 331]

Though a writer must, almost of necessity, impose some order on the scene simply by describing it, the scene itself was, in essence, indescribable. The noise, the shouting and clatter, the ringing of bells, the throbbing movement of the crowd as those in back pressed forward and those in front tried to prevent themselves from being pressed against the points of the soldiers' bayonets, the efforts of bolder spirits to gain a place in the front ranks and of the more prudent to withdraw - all this presented a picture of hopeless confusion. It must also be remembered that this took place with no more illumination than the moon and such fitful light as might be provided by torches and lamps. None of those present were later able to given a very coherent picture of what had happened, and among the many different versions there were innumerable discrepancies or outright contradictions. [pp. 337-338]

That is was no worse is a tribute to British military discipline and the coolness of Captain Preston. It is also a tribute to the patriot leaders, who kept the mob from exploding into greater violence. Finally, it is a tribute to Thomas Hutchinson, who acted with great decision and courage. But last of all, it is a testament to the folly of the English government in adopting policies that could make the colonists so hate the mother country that such violence was inevitable. [p. 342]

The Aftermath of the Massacre and the Trial / 8

The funeral of the slain men took place on March 8. …An enormous crowed of some twelve thousand men and women marched in the cortege. Watching with contempt, the Reverend Mather Byles turned to an acquaintance and said, "They call me a brainless Tory. But tell me, my young friend, which is better - to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not one mile away." It was a witty comment, but it suggested a serious truth. Many of those colonists who aligned themselves with the Tories did so less out of love for their distant monarch than out of distaste for "popular government" or, as they would have put it, mob rule. [p. 345]

The generation of men who fashioned the revolution had a veneration for the law that in most ages has been reserved for the deity. [p. 351]

When the court reconvened, Josiah Quincy spoke first for the defense… [John] Adams spoke next. Here was an ideal opportunity for him to place the massacre and the tangled congeries of events and emotions that preceded and surrounded it in the larger framework of history, and in doing so, to instruct the people of Boston about the nature of revolutionary upheavals and the dangers they posed to the fabric of society, to humane and civil existence. "In the continual vicissitudes of human things," he declared amidst the shocks of fortune and the whirls of passion that take place at certain critical seasons, even in the mildest governments, the people are liable to run into riots and tumults. There are church quakes and state quakes in the moral and political world, as well as earthquakes, storms and tempests in the physical. …We have been entertained with a great variety of names to avoid calling the persons who gathered at the custom-house a mob. Some have called them shavers, some call them geniuses. The plain English is, gentlemen, a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tars. And why should we scruple to call such a set of people a mob? I cannot conceive unless the name is too respectable for them. The sun is not about to stand still or go out, nor the river to dry up, because there was a mob in Boston on the fifth of March that attacked a party of soldiers. Such things are not new in the world, nor in the British dominions, though they are, comparatively, rarities and novelties in this town." [p. 355]

And then Adams directed a special word at the citizens of Boston, represented by the twelve jurors who sat listening to the small, florid man who was addressing them. "The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady undeviating course; it will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations and wanton tempers of men. …It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low - 'tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible.' On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace." [p. 356]

One important by-product of the massacre was that the control of affairs passed more securely than every into the hands of the patriots. [pp. 362-363]

The Gaspee Affair / 9

The Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, with its headquarters in Boston and operating under the direction of Adams, became a model of revolutionary organization, circulating a stream of information to Sons of Liberty in every community, and binding leaders together with ties of unusual strength and durability. [p. 368]

Perhaps it is not too much to say that it was the British attitude toward their country cousins in America more than British policy that made the Revolution inevitable. There was soon to be evidence of the disastrous effects of such an attitude. [p. 372]

The Boston Tea Party / 10

What disturbed the patriot leaders was the strong sense that British policy remained substantially unchanged, and whatever relief the colonists enjoyed was due to indecision or inattention and was thus temporary. …They knew it was only a matter of time before Lord North and his cabinet proposed some new law that would once again stir up trouble. [p. 373]

What was novel about the activities of the East India Company was that it set about to conquer, govern, and exploit not a wilderness but a series of ancient and wealthy cultures extending over the entire subcontinent of India. [p. 374]

The nineteenth-century British historian, William Lecky, wrote a vivid description of the activities of the East India Company's agents: "They defied, displaced or intimidated all native functionaries who attempted to resist them. They refused to permit nay other traders to sell the goods in which they dealt. They even descended upon villages, and forced the inhabitants, by flogging and confinement, to purchase their goods at exorbitant prices, or to sell what they desired to purchase, at prices far below the market value. …Monopolizing the trade in some of the first necessaries of life, to the utter ruin of thousands of native traders, and selling those necessaries at famine prices to a half-starving population, they reduced those who came under their influence to a wretchedness they had never known before." [p. 374]

Doubtless more disasters have overtaken mankind as a consequence of not taking seriously the claims of the "other side" than from any other single cause. [p. 375]

The Boston Tea Party was what we today would call guerrilla theater, a striking and dramatic enactment of an ideological position, an episode, as John Adams at once discerned, that would capture the popular imagination as few acts in history have. …[T]he Tea Party showed more clearly than volumes of exposition how far the patriot cause had come from its tumultuous beginnings some eight years before. By now the patriot leaders had established firm control. There were no rioters among the carefully drilled Mohawks who dumped the tea in Boston Harbor; they were rather a corps of irregulars who might, on the next occasion, carry loaded muskets. [p. 384]

The Boston Port Bill / 11

Nobody is more apt to be mortally offended than someone who has done something venal and stupid and in consequence suffers rebuff and humiliation. [p. 385]

In virtually every historical crisis, there are men who see quite clearly, as Burke did, what needs to be done, and, what is more difficult, how to do it. The problem is that, with tragic frequency, the people and their rulers will not listen. It proved impossible even for Burke to penetrate the mass of prejudices, misconceptions, and bitter animosities held by the generality of the British people and their leaders. However wisely and eloquently Pitt and Burke spoke, they did not speak for any substantial portion of the English ruling class, and certainly not for the North ministry. [p. 386]

In the ranks of ordinary Englishmen, there were strong indications of sympathy and support for the Americans. Much emphasis, of course, was placed on the value of the colonies to the mother country: "America is a Hen that lays her Golden Eggs for Britain; and … she must be cherished and supported as part of the great family of Britain." British merchants were owed some four million pounds by their American customers, and any action by the ministry that put this debt in hazard was a disservice to the nation. [pp. 388-389]

…the other colonies must be persuaded to give some substantial evidence of support for the beleaguered Bostonians. …The Boston Port Bill was thus for Massachusetts certainly, and doubtless for the patriot cause as a whole, the moment of truth. Was there a solid foundation of sentiment in every colony that would be evoked by such an appeal? The answer was a ringing affirmative. [pp. 390-391]

It is difficult for people living in a relatively stable society to imagine the anxieties that must be aroused when that order is imperiled. What is to happen to one's children? Will the sons march off to war to be maimed or killed? Will daughters be raped by licentious soldiers? How will one's family be fed and clothed? And all one's cherished personal possessions - how will they fare in civil disorder and war? Would patriot leaders be taken to England and tried and hanged as traitors, their families and their fortunes proscribed? [pp. 395-396]

Today revolutions are old hat. In many countries revolutions are an almost yearly occurrence; we use the word "revolution" as casually as we pick up a spoon. …But in the eighteenth century, the word as we most commonly use it today had hardly been discovered. …Today there are only a few "colonies" left. Nearly every colony has thrown off, by one means or another, at least the direct control of the nation that held it as a colony. In the eighteenth century no such thing had happened, nor was it imagined by most people that it could happen. [p. 398]

The notion of revolution against the mother country - had the colonists been forced to confront the true nature of their acts and the consequences that must inevitably follow - might well have been too formidable for the great majority of patriots; their devotion to their liberties would perhaps have melted away in the merciless light of the true situation. It was much better, certainly much easier, to go step by step, eyes fixed on the path ahead, placing one's faith in the ultimate benevolence of the King-Father. The strange nature of the English kingship in the middle years of the eighteenth century allowed them to continue to live a kind of double life - loyal revolutionaries of His Majesty, George III. [p. 400]

The Massachusetts Government Act and the Quebec Act / 12

The ... Quebec Act ... extended the province of Quebec from Canada down the eastern bank of the Connecticut River to 45 degrees of latitude, through Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario, thence to Lake Erie and the western boundaries of Pennsylvania to the Mississippi and then northward to Hudson Bay. The act had the effect of sealing off most of the western lands from colonial land speculators and emigrants. [p. 402]

The Americans, of course, wre not without their advocates. Stephen Fox, the huge and cumbersome brother of Charles James Fox, a leader of the Whigs, stoutly opposed the measure. "I rise sir," he said, "with an utter detestation and abhorrence of the present measures. We are either to treat the Americans as subjects or as rebels. If we treat them as subjects, the will godes too far; if as rebels, it does not go far enough. We have refused to hear the parties in their defence and we are going to destroy their charter without knowing the constitution of their Government." [p. 402]

Jonathan Shipley, the pro-American Bishop of Asaph, supported Fox: "My Lords, I look upon North America as the only great nursery of freemen now left upon the face of the earth." As for the colonies "whom we are now so eager to butcher," the bishop believed that all Englishmen should "cherish them as the immortal monuments of our public justice and wisdom; as the heir of our better days, of our old arts and manners, and of our expiring national virtues. What work of art, or power, or public utility, has ever equalled the glory of having peopled a continent without guilt or bloodshed, with a multitude of fee and happy commonwealths: to have given them the best arts of life and government, and to have suffered them under the shelter of our authority, to acquire in peace the skill to use them." But, the bishop continued, "by enslaving the Colonies you not only ruin the peace, the commerce and the fortunes of both countries, but you extinguish the fairest hopes, shut up the last asylum of mankind. I think, my Lords ... that a good man may hope that heaven wil take part against the execution of a plan that seems big not only with mischief but impeity." [pp. 402-403]

There was thus, by the late summer of 1774, a rising tide of sympathy for the beleaguered Americans. England's Bill of Rights Society sent five hundred pounds to the Boston patriots, and the Common Council of the City of London held a meeting in which much indignation was expressed at the Coercive Acts.[p.406]

To imagine the frame of mind of most Bostonians, it is necessary to recall that Boston was almost an island in the eighteenth century, virtually surrounded by water and connected to the mainland only by a narrow spit of land known as Boston Neck. Thus wherever Bostonians looked, they could see British warships, a silent and perpetual menace. [p. 410]

The plans of the ministry, the fate of Boston and of the colonies, the fate of America, and possibly the fate of the world rested on one simple question: Were the ordinary people of America, 90 per cent of them farmers in modest circumstances, distributed over a vast extent of land - of forest and mountain and field and farm - were they free born "Americans"? Did they care about the principles of abstract justice? Was freedom a word that evoked for them a powerful reality, or was it a cant word of philosophers and political theorists? [p. 412]

Historians have … given comparatively little attention to the most important phenomenon of all: the formation of a national consciousness between 1765 and 1774. The new breed of man - the American - responded with determination and courage to all threats to what he understood to be his freedom. [p. 412]

Charles Lee -- formerly an English officer, now living in America -- hearing of Gage's prediction that the colonists could be readily subdued, wrote from Pennsylvania to a wig friend in England: "What devil of a nonsense can instigate any man of General Gage's understanding to concur in bringing about this delusion? I have lately, my Lord, run through almost the whole colonies from the North to the South. I should not be guilty of an exaggeration in asserting that there are 200,000 strong-bodied active yeomanry, ready to encounter all hazards. They are not like the yeomanry of other countries, unarmed and unused to arms. They want nothing but some arrangement, and this they are now bent on establishing. [p. 413]


The Continental Congress: Nursery of American Statesmen / 1

New York conservatives had proposed an intercolonial congress modeled on the one occasioned by the Stamp Act. …A plan for constitutional union should also be framed that would include an American Bill of Rights guaranteeing American liberties. The congress should then frame "a Message of Peace unmixt with Threats or threatening Behavior." [p. 417]

The congress of committees or delegates from the various colonies was to meet in Philadelphia on the fifth of September, 1774. [p. 419]

Pennsylvania, like every other colony, had its quota (and indeed more than its quota, if one counted the Quakers, as one surely must) of "trimmers" of those who professed "to be against the Parliament-army claims of Right to tax Americans, to be Friends of our Constitutions, our charter, etc." These men only bided their time to try to frustrate the plans of the patriots for resistance. [p. 426]

In order for a great conflagration to be ignited in human society, it is usually necessary that each party to the dispute make miscalculations concerning the intent and the courage of its adversary sufficiently profound to allow it to proceed on a course that will inevitably bring disaster. [p. 428]

Down to Business / 2

The first issue to perplex the delegates was whether they should vote as individuals or by colony. … John Adams listed some of the problems involved in his diary. "If We vote by Colonies, the Method will be liable to great inequality and injustice, for 5 small Colonies with 100,000 People each may out-vote 4 large ones, each of which has 500,000 inhabitants. If We vote by the Poll [that is simply as individuals], some Colonies have more than their Proportion of [Delegates], and others have less. If we vote by interests, it will be attended by insuperable difficulties, to ascertain the true importance of each Colony - is the Weight of a Colony to be ascertained by the number of inhabitants merely - or by the Amount of their Trade, the Quantity of their Exports and Imports, or by any compound Ratio of both. This will lead us into such a Field of Controversy as will greatly perplex us." It was not even possible to obtain a true count of the population of each individual colony. [p. 431]

Henry repeated his view that "the Government is at an End. All distinctions are thrown down. All America is thrown into one Mass." John Jay was uneasy at such talk. One might suppose that the delegates had been assembled for the purpose of framing an American constitution instead of endeavoring to correct the faults in an old one. The Measure of arbitrary Power is not full, and I think it must run over, before we can undertake to frame a new Constitution." [p. 432]

On the third day of the discussions, Joseph Galloway, the most formidable of the conservative faction, rose to speak. …He was skeptical of the argument based on natural rights or on the laws of nature; they were too abstract and theoretical to be of much use in the present crisis. The issue was, in essence, one of the distribution of power. Power resulted from the landed property of a society. A review of British history illustrated how the owners of landed property had fought for and won protections for their estates against rapacious monarchs. [p. 433]

The colonial upper classes considered the securing, preparing, and eating of food a central aspect of their lives. More than that, they treasured the company and the conversation occasioned by such repasts, the flow of good humor, the witty sallies, the skillfully presented arguments, the learned allusions, the precise steps in a logical analysis, the net turns of phrase that might support a delicately balanced proposition. In short, they relished that noble and proper accompaniment of good food, good talk. And that good food and wine and talk wove a subtle but powerful web among their affections, binding them into a unity of spirit and a bond of concord, in which agreeable harmony lay the seeds of a nation. [p. 437]

Democratic politics rest, in considerable part, on trust, and trust quite clearly rests on the mutual confidence that comes most commonly out of knowing the people that one trusts. [p. 437]

Men faced with taking difficult and costly actions are prone to grasp at straws. Most men prefer to avoid or delay hard decisions. [p. 440]

It was odd also that no one picked up Galloway's warning, i.e., that if war was to come, nonimportation and nonexportation, far from being the means by which the British government was to be brought to terms, might be the means of fatally weakening the colonies and leaving them an easy prey to the armed might of the mother country. [p. 441]

The clearest division among the delegates was over the issue of whether or not Parliament had the right to regulate trade. …It might be assumed that these patriots were, as a logical consequence of their position, in favor of immediate independence for the American colonies. But to presume that would be to assume that men are ruled by logic, and history gives no support to that assumption. The fact was that many of those who rejected the authority of Parliament over the colonies in all cases whatsoever rejected the idea of independence, wished to remain within the British Empire, and somehow believed that they could. [p. 441]

Perhaps the only substantial achievement of the Congress was to have come together, to have established a basis, at least among the bolder delegates, of mutual understanding and trust. The British would be much more impressed (though still insufficiently) by the demonstration of colonial unity offered by the fact that the Congress had convened, and that it had drawn together many of the ablest men in the various colonies, than by anything that happened. [p. 445]

As with all deliberative bodies, the discussions of the delegates to the First Continental Congress were extensive and at times tedious. The delegates were, as time would prove, a remarkably able group of men; it has been common to call them the ablest in history who have gathered together to contemplate some form of political action. They were, on the whole, remarkably learned. They had read most of the great classical authors - Vergil and Cicero especially, but the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus and Livy as well. They knew modern writers on law and government - Locke, of course, and Harrington, and the authorities on jurisprudence that Galloway had referred to in introducing his plan of union. [p. 446]

…Adams replied to a pamphlet by Daniel Leonard, a Tory spokesman. Leonard had attacked the committees of correspondence as "the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent that ever issued from the eggs of sedition." Adams defended them warmly. "Almost all mankind," he wrote, "have lost their liberties through ignorance, inattention, and disunion. These committees are admirably calculated to diffuse knowledge, to communicate intelligence, and promote unanimity. …The patriots of this Province desire nothing new: they wish only to keep their old privileges. For one hundred and fifty years they had been allowed to tax themselves and govern their internal concerns as they thought best. Parliament governed their trade as they thought fit. This plan they wish may continue forever." [p. 448]

Then Adams came to the heart of the matter. The "noblemen and ignoblemen [of England]," he declared, "ought to have considered that Americans understand the laws and politics as well as themselves, and that there are six hundred thousand men in it, between sixteen and sixty years of age; and therefore it will be very difficult to chicane them out of their liberties by 'fiction of law' … no matter upon what foundation." [p. 449]

England / 3

When Parliament convened in January 1775, the first subject for debate was American affairs. Pitt appeared dramatically in defense of the colonies. …Edmund Burke joined his own voice in the plea for conciliation. "The use of Force alone," he reminded the members, "is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered. …" [pp. 452-453]

Truth and justice were with Chatham and Burke, but the votes were with North. Parliament gave solid support to that minister's determination to bring the rebellious colonies to heel. [p. 454]

The Lull Before the Storm / 4

To the British and the Tories, the fact that patriots were quite evidently busy preparing for war - while at the same time still declaring their undying allegiance to George III - was prima facie evidence of a quality that had been attributed to the New Englanders since the Puritans first landed in the Bay: hypocrisy. [p.460]

Those colonials who had fought beside British soldiers in the French and Indian War came forward with reassuring tales of ineptness, cowardice, and stupidity, all adding up to the fact that the English "knew not how to fight." [p. 461]

Of course, the British were, if anything, even more contemptuous of the colonials than the colonials were of them. Their experience in the French and Indian War was that the colonials were poorly trained and unreliable. [p. 461]

Lexington / 5

The atmosphere had so far changed that Galloway dared to speak out boldly in the Pennsylvania assembly, censuring "the measures of the Congress in every thing" and declaring that the actions of the delegates "all tended to incite America to sedition, and terminate in Independence." [pp. 470-471]

The committees of correspondence and those numerous committees appointed to enforce nonimportation did not always find easy sailing. Their authority, after all, rested on very precarious grounds. Government, to be accepted, must be legitimated, otherwise it is simply a mater of your neighbor trying to tell you what to do - in which case all kinds of awkward personal matters enter the picture. [p. 471]

…it might be said as a rule of political life that the less legitimate the authority, the more brutal the exercise of it is apt to be. If you are without the support of courts and magistrates, sheriffs and jailers, you are very apt to resort to direct force and intimidation to achieve your ends. [p. 471]

Gage and his staff, preserving the strictest secrecy, proceeded to make careful plans for a raid on Concord. …The patriots, of course, were well aware as the British of the egresses from the city, either across Boston Neck or by boat. Patriot spies kept close watch on both avenues - the narrow corridor over the Neck and the much broader area of the harbor and river. [pp. 472-473]

At Lexington, the militiamen had been mustered on the common in the early morning hours to the number of perhaps a hundred or so, … A beating of drums would summon them when they were needed. [p.478]

…As the advance guard of British soldiers approached within one hundred yards of the common, the Minutemen began to file off to the cover of a stone wall that ran along the right margin of the green. …Five or six shots were fired by the Minutemen, wounding a soldier and Major Pitcairn's horse in two places. At this point the light infantry fired a deadly volley that killed ten of the militiamen, four of them members of two families, and wounded nine others, among them Prince, a black man. [p. 479]

The British soldiers had opened a heavy fire without orders. As for the Minutemen, it is clear that there was no order for them to fire and no general firing on their part. …By their undisciplined actions, the [British] soldiers provoked that nightmare of death and suffering that they and their companions were to live through that day. [p. 480]

Concord / 6

…By the time the British had taken up the march to Concord, the militia of that town had been augmented by contingents from a half-dozen communities, to the number of two battalions, which stationed themselves on a small hill just east of the town. [p. 482]

…The British, as one officer reported, received "heavy fire form all sides, from Walls, Fences, Houses, Trees, Barns, etc." The retreat, orderly at first, soon approached a rout. [p. 485]

Probably the most effective work was done by those militia who depended on stone walls and tree trunks for cover. They fought like the Indians, firing and then withdrawing to load their cumbersome pieces with nervous, fumbling fingers, find a new position, and fire again. What was disheartening of all to the British was the accuracy with which these farmers fired their muskets. As the effective British force dwindled away through casualties and exhaustion, the number of colonists, fresh and eager to have a shot at last at the hated redcoats, swelled by the hundreds. [p. 487]

…the very style of fighting adopted by the Americans doubtless made it impossible for them to take advantage of the demoralization of the British troops. They did not constitute an army, but rather a horde or a swarm of individuals who stung and flew on to sting again. At Bunker Hill they would fight much in the same fashion. Indeed it would be Washington's principal task to make these individuals cohere into an army capable of carrying on sustained campaigns, pursuing an advantage, or extricating itself from a defeat. [p. 488]

It is instructive to place the American reaction beside that of the British general. …What to the British was simply an unfortunate skirmish involving the death of a few soldiers, was to the colonists the most piercing and agonizing assault upon their homes, families, and friends. …To the [British] it meant a setback, an inconvenience, more trouble and expense, explanations, and the usual embarrassing problem of fixing blame. To the colonist it seemed as though the whole order of the universe had been disturbed; he felt imperiled in the most sacred recesses of his personal life - the safety of his wife and children, of a son or a brother. [pp. 490-491]

Boston Besieged / 7

Nathanael Greene was purely a texbook soldier. …Greene had educated himself in military history, in mathematics, and in political theory. …When he went to Boston in 1773 to buy himself a gun, he also purchased a work on the life of the great French general Henri Turenne, and he brought back with him a British deserter to instruct his company in drill. …Apparently his beng chosen as general of the Rhode Island militia was the consequence of his intelligence, his quiet authority, and his confidence in himself and in his ability to lead others. It was a confidence by no means misplaced. Greene was to become Washington's most brilliant general. [pp. 497-498]

The besieging colonials around Boston and the besieged British waited uneasily day after day for the other side to take the initiative. Having underestimated the determination of the colonists and the degree of their solidarity, Gage now overestimated their numbers and their ability to mount an attack. For their part, the colonists daily anticipated a massive assault by the British, supported by the guns of the naval vessels in the harbor. [p. 506]

Bunker Hill / 8

Perhaps the most gifted of the senior officers assigned to occupy and fortify the high ground above Charlestown was Colonel Richard Gridley, a brilliant engineer who, in the French and Indian War, had performed the heroic task of getting two cannon up the sheer cliffs that rose to the plains of Abraham… It was his job to direct the fortifications on the top of Bunker Hill once that promontory had been occupied by the Americans. [p. 511]

As the war progressed, it came to be a truism that the colonial farmer-soldier was not only a fast digger, but also that he would fight stoutly if his legs were protected. A farmer with one leg or a mangled foot was of little use, and the great majority of the American soldiers were farmers first and soldiers second. [pp. 512-513]

When the British staff … gathered early on the morning of June 17 for a council of war, there was unanimous agreement that the Americans must be driven off the high ground in Charlestown; otherwise their guns would command most of the city. …It was simply inconceivable to the British generals that the untrained rebels would stand in the face of a vastly superior force of British soldiers supported by artillery and by the guns of the entire fleet. Howe may have welcomed the opportunity to teach the colonials the crushing lesson that he had planned for a few days later. … [p. 515]

Gage and his generals were proud of their troops. They liked to play "soldiers," almost as though the brightly colored figures … were toy counters in a splendid game. …One of the basic principles of military action is speed. But the British generals thought otherwise. Things had to be done with "decency and order" - virtues that ranked high in the eighteenth century, certainly higher than speed. [p. 516]

[Colonel William] Prescott [of Massachusetts] was the crucial figure in the unfolding drama. It had frequently been observed during the French and Indian War that Americans would fight well if they were well led. They would be well led on this day. [p. 518]

Howe … watched the scene with horror. He saw the careful order, on which the success of any such operation rested, broken as the first and second lines of the light infantry "fell into disorder" and became hopelessly entangled and confused. …That moment must rank in military history with the battle of Agincourt in 1415, where heavily armored French knights were cut down by English bowmen. The misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill was the symbolic military enactment of a profound change in Western history. [p. 524]

…as at the retreat from Lexington, the militia were able during the course of an engagement to take an initiative without formal orders from above when they saw an opportunity to play an effective part in the unfolding of the action. This is the most desirable quality in a soldier - the ability to see where some pressure, however slight, if skillfully applied can change the whole course of battle. Such action, because it must be improvised on the spot, is seldom the result of a command decision. [p. 525]

With the British at last in possession of the crude and simple fort and the Americans in retreat, it was time for an accounting. Howe had lost all his aides and most of his officers. [p. 531]

[Boston] was filled with the agony of war. It became a vast hospital and mortuary for the injured and the dead. …A Tory lady wrote bitterly that there were many in the British army who fell that day who were "of noble family, many very respectable, virtuous and amiable characters, and it grieves me that gentlemen, brave British soldiers, should fall by the hands of such despicable wretches as compose the banditti of the country, amongst whom there is not one that has the least pretension to be called a gentlemen. They are the most rude, depraved, degenerate race, and it is a mortification to us that they speak English and can trace themselves from that stock." [p. 532]

A British officer put the mater most acutely: "From an absurd and destructive confidence, carelessness, or ignorance, we have lost a thousand of our best men and officers and have given the rebels great matter of triumph by showing them what mischief they can do us." [pp. 532-533]

It fell to Gage … to write the official dispatches to Lord Barrington, Secretary of State for War. "These people," the chastened general wrote, "shew a spirit and conduct against us they never shewed against the French, and every body has judged of them from their former appearance and behaviour when joined with the Kings forces in the last war, which has led many into great mistakes. They were now spirited up by a rage and enthusiasm as great as ever people were possessed of, and you must proceed in earnest or give the business up. …The loss we have sustained is greater than we can bear. …I have before wrote your Lordship my opinion that a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people, and mentioned the hiring of foreign troops. I fear it must come to that. …" [p. 533]

On the American side, the principal achievements of the defenders of Bunker Hill … flowed from the inability of the colonists to fight as the rules of eighteenth-century warfare indicated they should, holding their formations at all costs, loading and firing "by the numbers" and on command. [p. 534]

Part 1 * Part 3 * Part 4