Modern history




On November 30, 1774, Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia aboard a ship from London. At age thirty-seven, Paine had failed at several occupations and two marriages. But he was an impassioned writer. A pamphlet he wrote caught the eye of Benjamin Franklin, who helped him secure a job on The Pennsylvania Magazine just as tensions between the colonies and Great Britain neared open conflict.

Born in 1737, Paine was raised in an English market town by parents who owned a small grocery store and made whalebone corsets. The Paines managed to send him to school for a few years before his father introduced him to the trade of corset-making. Over the next dozen years, Paine also worked as a seaman, a preacher, a teacher, and an excise (or tax) collector.

He drank heavily and beat both his wives. Yet despite his personal vices, Paine tried to improve himself and the lot of other British workers. He taught working-class children how to read and write and attended lectures on science and politics in London. As an excise collector in 1762, he wrote a pamphlet that argued for better pay and working conditions for tax collectors. He was fired from his job, but Franklin convinced Paine to try his luck in Philadelphia.

Paine quickly gained in-depth political knowledge of the conflicts between the colonies and Great Britain and gained patrons among Philadelphia's economic and political elite. When armed conflict with British troops erupted in April 1775, colonial debates over whether to declare independence intensified. Pamphlets were a popular means of influencing these debates, and Paine hoped to write one that would tip the balance in favor of independence. In January 1776, his pamphlet Common Sense did just that.

An instant success, Common Sense provided a rationale for independence and an emotional plea for creating a new democratic republic. Paine urged colonists not only to separate from England but also to establish a political structure that would ensure liberty and equality for all Americans: "A government of our own is our natural right," he concluded. " 'Tis time to part."

When Common Sense was published in 1776, sixteen-year-old Deborah Sampson was working as a servant to Jeremiah and Susanna Thomas in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Indentured at the age of ten, she looked after the Thomases' five sons and worked hard in both the house and the fields. Jeremiah Thomas thought education was above the lot of servant girls, but Sampson insisted on reading whatever books she could find. However, her commitment to American independence likely developed less from reading and more from the fighting that raged in Massachusetts and drew male servants and the Thomas sons into the Continental Army in the 1770s.

When Deborah Sampson's term of service ended in 1778, she sought work as a weaver and then a teacher. In March 1782, she disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army, which was then desperate for recruits. Her height and muscular frame allowed her to fool local recruiters, and she accepted the bounty paid to those who enlisted. But Deborah never reported for duty, and when her charade was discovered, she was forced to return the money.

In May 1782, Sampson enlisted a second time under the name Robert Shurtliff. To explain the absence of facial hair, she told the recruiter that she was only seventeen years old. For the next year, Sampson, disguised as Shurtliff, marched, fought, and lived with her Massachusetts regiment. Her ability to carry off the deception was helped by lax standards of hygiene: Soldiers rarely undressed fully to bathe, and most slept in their uniforms.

Even after the formal end of the war in March 1783, Sampson/Shurtliff continued to serve in the Continental Army. In the fall of 1783, she was sent to Philadelphia to help quash a mutiny by Continental soldiers angered over the army's failure to provide back pay. While there, Sampson/Shurtliff fell ill with a raging fever, and a doctor at a local army hospital discovered that "he" was a woman. He reported the news to General John Paterson, and Sampson was honorably discharged, having served the army faithfully for more than a year.


of Thomas Paine and Deborah Sampson demonstrate, the American Revolution transformed individual lives as well as the political life of the nation. Paine had failed financially and personally in England but gained fame in the colonies through his skills as a patriot pamphleteer. Sampson, who was forced into an early independence by her troubled family, excelled as a soldier. Still, while the American Revolution offered opportunities for some colonists, it promised hardship for others. Most Americans had to choose sides long before it was clear whether the colonists could defeat Great Britain, and the long years of conflict (1775—1783) took a toll on families and communities across the thirteen colonies. Over the course of a long and difficult war, could the patriots attract enough Tom Paines and Deborah Sampsons to secure independence and establish a new nation?

Slaves destroy a statue of King George III in New York City on July 9, 1776. Library of Congress

The Question of Independence

The Continental Congress that met to protest the Coercive Acts (see chapter 5) adjourned in October 1774, but delegates reconvened in May1775. During the intervening months, patriot leaders honed their arguments for resisting British tyranny, and committees of correspondence circulated the latest news and debates. While leading patriots began to advocate resistance in the strongest possible terms, the eruption of armed clashes between British soldiers and local farmers fueled the argument for independence. It also led the Continental Congress to establish a Continental Army in June 1775. A year later, in July 1776, as the fighting continued, the congress finally declared independence.

Armed Conflict Erupts

As debates over independence intensified, the Sons of Liberty and other patriot groups not only spread propaganda against the British but also gathered and stored weapons and organized and trained local militia companies. Female patriots continued the boycott of British goods but began to manufacture bandages and bullets as well. Some northern colonists freed enslaved African Americans who agreed to enlist in the militia. Others kept close watch on the movements of British troops.

On April 18, 1775, Boston patriots observed British soldiers boarding boats in the harbor. The British were headed to Lexington, intending to confiscate guns and ammunition hidden there and in neighboring Concord and perhaps arrest patriot leaders. Hoping to warn his fellow patriots of the approaching soldiers, Paul Revere beat them to Lexington but was stopped on the road to Concord by the British. By that time, however, a network of riders was spreading the alarm. One of them alerted Concord residents of the impending danger.

Early in the morning of April 19, the first shots rang out on the village green of Lexington. After a brief exchange between British soldiers and local militiamen—known as minutemen for the speed with which they assembled—eight colonists lay dead. The British troops then moved on to Concord, where they uncovered and burned colonial supplies. However, patriots in nearby towns had now been alerted. Borrowing guerrilla tactics from American Indians, colonists hid behind trees, walls, and barns and battered the British soldiers as they marched back to Boston, killing 73 and wounding 200.

Word of the conflict traveled quickly. Outraged Bostonians attacked British troops and forced them to retreat to ships in the harbor. The victory was short-lived, however, and the British soon regained control of Boston. But colonial forces entrenched themselves on hills just north of the city. Then in May, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys from Vermont joined militias from Connecticut and Massachusetts to capture the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga, New York. The battle for North America had begun.

When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, the most critical question for delegates like Pennsylvania patriot John Dickinson was how to ensure time for discussion and negotiation. Armed conflict had erupted, but did that mean that independence should, or must, follow? Other delegates insisted that independence was the only appropriate response to armed attacks on colonial residents. Patrick Henry of Virginia declared, “Gentlemen may cry ‘peace, peace’ but there is no peace. The war is actually begun!”

Less than a month later, on June 16, British forces under General Sir William Howe attacked patriot fortifications on Breeds Hill and Bunker Hill, north of the city. The British won the day when patriots ran out of ammunition. But the redcoats—so called because of their bright red uniforms—suffered more than 1,000 casualties, while only half that number of patriots were killed or wounded. This costly victory allowed the British to maintain control of Boston for nine more months, but the heavy losses emboldened patriot militiamen.

Building a Continental Army

The Battle of Bunker Hill convinced the congress to establish an army for the defense of the colonies and appoint forty-three-year-old Brigadier General George Washington as commander in chief. More comfortable leading troops than debating politics, Washington gave up his seat at the Continental Congress and on June 23 headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take command of ten companies of frontier marksmen along with militia companies already engaged in battle.

Since the Continental Congress had not yet proclaimed itself a national government, Washington depended largely on the willingness of local militia companies to accept his command and of individual colonies to supply soldiers, arms, and ammunition. Throughout the summer of 1775, Washington wrote dozens of letters to patriot political leaders, including delegates at the Continental Congress, detailing the army’s urgent need for men, supplies, and discipline. He sought to remove incompetent officers and improve order among the troops, who spent too much time drinking, gambling, visiting prostitutes, and fighting with militiamen from other locales.

As he sought to forge a disciplined army, Washington and his officers developed a twofold military strategy. Concerned about British forces and their Indian allies in Canada and New York, they sought to drive the British out of Boston and to secure the colonies from attack by enemy forces farther north. In November 1775, American troops under General Richard Montgomery captured Montreal. However, the difficult trek in cold weather decimated the patriot reinforcements led by General Benedict Arnold, and American troops failed to dislodge the British from Quebec. Smallpox ravaged many of the survivors.

Despite the disastrous outcome of the invasion of Canada, the Continental Army secured important victories in the winter of 1775—1776. To improve Washington’s position in eastern Massachusetts, General Henry Knox retrieved weapons captured at Fort Ticonderoga. In March, Washington positioned the forty-three cannons on Dorchester Heights and surprised the British with a bombardment that drove them from Boston. General Howe was forced to retreat with his troops to Nova Scotia.

Reasons for Caution and for Action

As the British retreated from Boston, the war had already spread into Virginia. In the spring of 1775, local militias had forced Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s royal governor, to take refuge on British ships in Norfolk harbor. Dunmore encouraged white servants and black slaves to join him there, and thousands did so. When Dunmore led his army back into Virginia in November 1775, hundreds of black men fought with British troops at the Battle of Great Bridge. Once he reclaimed the governor’s mansion in Williamsburg, Dunmore issued an official proclamation that declared “all indent[ur]ed Servants, Negroes or others (appertaining to Rebels)” to be free if they were “able and willing to bear Arms” for the British.

Dunmore's Proclamation, which offered freedom to slaves willing to fight for the crown, heightened concerns among patriot leaders about the consequences of declaring independence. Although they wanted liberty for themselves, most did not want to disrupt the plantation economy or the existing social hierarchy. Could the colonies throw off the shackles of British tyranny without loosening other bonds at the same time? Given these concerns, many delegates at the Continental Congress, which included large planters, successful merchants, and professional men, hesitated to act.

Moreover, some still hoped for a negotiated settlement. But the king and Parliament refused to compromise in any way with colonies that they considered to be in rebellion. Instead, in December 1775, the king prohibited any negotiation or trade with the colonies, adding further weight to the claims of radicals that independence was a necessity. The January 1776 publication of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, which sold more than 120,000 copies in three months, helped turn the tide toward independence as well.

Paine rooted his arguments both in biblical stories familiar to American readers and in newer scientific analogies, such as Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. It was Paine’s ability to wield both religious and scientific ideas—appealing to the spirit and the intellect—that made Common Sense attractive to diverse groups of colonists. Within weeks of its publication, George Washington wrote to a friend that “the sound Doctrine and unanswerable reasoning containd [in] Common Sense” would convince colonists of the “Propriety of a Separation.” Farmers and artisans also applauded Common Sense, debating its claims at taverns and coffeehouses, which had become increasingly popular venues for political discussion in the 1760s and 1770s.

By the spring of 1776, a growing number of patriots believed that independence was necessary. Colonies began to take control of their legislatures and instruct their delegates to the Continental Congress to support independence. The congress also sent an agent to France to request economic and military assistance for the patriot cause. And in May, the congress advised colonies that had not yet done so to establish independent governments.

Declaring independence

Taken together, the spread of armed conflict and the rationale offered in Common Sense convinced patriots that the time to declare independence was at hand. In early June 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a motion to the Continental Congress, resolving that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” A heated debate followed in which Lee and John Adams argued passionately for independence. Eventually, even more cautious delegates, like Robert Livingston of New York, were convinced. Livingston concluded that “they should yield to the torrent if they hoped to direct it.” He then joined Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Roger Sherman on a committee to draft a formal statement justifying independence.

The thirty-three-year-old Jefferson took the lead in preparing the declaration. Building on ideas expressed by Paine, Adams, Lee, and George Mason, he drew on language used in the dozens of local “declarations” written earlier by town meetings, county officials, and colonial assemblies. The Virginia Declaration of Rights drafted by Mason in May 1776, for example, claimed that “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights.” Central to many of these documents was the contract theory of government proposed by the seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke. He argued that sovereignty resided in the people, who submitted voluntarily to laws and authorities in exchange for protection of their life, liberty, and property. The people could therefore reconstitute or overthrow a government that abused its powers. Jefferson summarized this argument and then listed the abuses and crimes perpetrated by King George III against the colonies, which justified patriots’ decision to break their contract with British authorities.

Once prepared, the Declaration of Independence was then debated and revised. In the final version, all references to slavery were removed. But delegates agreed to list among the abuses suffered by the colonies the fact that the king “excited domestic insurrections amongst us,” referring to the threat posed by Dunmore to the institution of slavery. On July 2, 1776, delegates from twelve colonies approved the Declaration, with only New York abstaining. Independence was publicly proclaimed on July 4 when the Declaration was published as a broadside to be circulated throughout the colonies, although such an act was tantamount to treason.


• What challenges did Washington face when he was given command of the Continental Army?

• How and why did proponents of independence prevail in the debates that preceded the publication of the Declaration of Independence?

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