Modern history

Governing in Revolutionary Times

Amid the constant upheavals of war, patriot leaders established governments to replace those abolished by declaring independence. At the national level, responsibilities ranged from coordinating and funding military operations to developing diplomatic relations with foreign countries and Indian nations. At the state level, constitutions had to be drafted and approved, laws enforced, and military needs assessed and met. Whether state or national, new governments had to assure their followers that they were not simply replacing old forms of oppression with new ones. Yet few states moved to eliminate the most oppressive institution in the nation, slavery.

Colonies Become States

For most of the war, the Continental Congress acted in lieu of a national government while the delegates worked to devise a more permanent structure. But the congress had little authority of its own and depended mainly on states for funds and manpower. Delegates did draft the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and submitted them to the states for approval. Eight of the thirteen states ratified the plan for a national government by mid-1778. But nearly three more years passed before the last state, Maryland, approved the Articles. The lack of a central government meant that state governments played a critical role throughout the war.

Even before the Continental Congress declared American independence, some colonies had forced royal officials to flee and established new state governments. Some states abided by the regulations in their colonial charters or by English common law. Others, including Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, created new governments based on a written constitution. Because the earliest constitutions were written in the midst of war, they were often completed in haste, sometimes by legislative bodies without any specific authorization and without popular approval of the final document.

These constitutions reflected the fear of centralized power that emerged from the struggle against British tyranny. In Pennsylvania, radical patriots influenced by Tom Paine developed one of the most democratic constitutions, enhancing the power of voters and legislators and limiting the power of the executive branch. The constitution established only one legislative house, elected by popular vote, and the governor was replaced by an executive council. Those elected to the legislature could not serve for more than four in any seven years to discourage the formation of a political aristocracy in the state. Although Pennsylvania’s constitution was among the most radical, all states limited centralized power in some way.

Finally, most states, building on the model offered by Virginia, included in their constitutions a bill of rights that ensured citizens freedom of the press, freedom of elections, speedy trials by one’s peers, humane punishments, and the right to form militias. Some state constitutions expanded these rights to include freedom of speech and assembly, the right to petition and to bear arms, and equal protection of the laws. The New Jersey constitution, written in 1776, enfranchised all free inhabitants who met the property qualifications, thereby allowing some single or widowed women and free blacks to vote in local and state elections. This surprising decision was apparently made with little debate or dissent.

Patriots Divide over Slavery

Although state constitutions were revolutionary in many respects, few of them addressed the issue of slavery. Only Vermont abolished slavery in its 1777 constitution. Legislators in Pennsylvania approved a gradual abolition law by which slaves born after 1780 could claim their freedom at age twenty-eight. In Massachusetts, two slaves sued for their freedom in county courts in 1780—1781. Quock Walker, who had been promised his freedom by a former master, sued his current master to gain manumission (release from slavery). About the same time, an enslaved woman, Mumbet, who was the widow of a Revolutionary soldier, initiated a similar case. Mumbet won her case and changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman. When Walker’s owner appealed the local court’s decision to free his slave, the Massachusetts Supreme Court cited the Mumbet case and ruled that slavery conflicted with the state constitution, which declared “all men . . . free and equal.” Walker, too, was freed.

In southern states, however, slaves had little recourse to the law. No state south of Pennsylvania abolished the institution of slavery. And southerners held about 400,000 of the nation’s 450,000 slaves. In states such as Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, life for enslaved women and men grew increasingly harsh during the war. Because British forces promised freedom to blacks who fought with them, slave owners and patriot armies in the South did everything possible to ensure that African Americans did not make it behind British lines. The thousands who did manage to flee to British-controlled areas were often left to defend themselves when the redcoats retreated. There were exceptions. Lord Dunmore took a few thousand blacks with him when he fled Virginia in 1776, and British forces under General Sir Henry Clinton carried some 20,000 African Americans aboard ships retreating from Charleston and Savannah in 1781.

Despite the uncertain prospects for African Americans, the American Revolution dealt a blow to the institution of slavery. For many blacks, Revolutionary ideals required the end of slavery. Northern free black communities grew rapidly during and after the war, especially in seaport cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston where labor was in high demand. In the South, too, thousands of slaves gained freedom during the war, either by joining the British or by fleeing in the midst of battlefield chaos. As many as one-quarter of South Carolina’s slaves had emancipated themselves by the end of the Revolution. Yet as the Continental Congress worked toward developing a framework for a national government, few delegates considered slavery or its abolition a significant issue.

Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman

This portrait of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman was painted on ivory by Susan Anne Ridley Sedgwick in 1811 when Freeman was sixty-nine. The first slave to be freed in Massachusetts as a result of a court case, she later worked as a domestic servant for her attorney, Theodore Sedgwick, Susan Ridley Sedgwick's father-in-law.

© Massachusetts Historical society, Boston/The Bridgeman Art Library


France Allies with the Patriots

The Continental Congress considered an alliance with France far more critical to patriot success than the issue of slavery. French financial and military support could aid the patriots immensely, and France’s traditional rivalry with Great Britain made an alliance plausible.

For France, defeat of the British would mean increased trade with North America and redressing the balance of power in Europe, where Great Britain had gained the upper hand since France’s defeat in the French and Indian War. Indeed, in 1775 the French government had secretly provided funds to smuggle military supplies to the colonies. In December 1776, the Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin to Paris to serve as an unofficial liaison for the newly independent United States. Franklin was enormously successful, securing supplies and becoming a favorite among the French aristocracy and ordinary citizens alike.

But the French were initially unwilling to forge a formal compact with the upstart patriots. Only when the Continental Army defeated General Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777 did King Louis XVI agree to an official alliance. By February 1778, Franklin had secured an agreement that approved trading rights between the United States and all French possessions. France then recognized the United States as an independent nation, relinquished French territorial claims on mainland North America, and sent troops to reinforce the Continental Army. In return, the United States promised to defend French holdings in the Caribbean. A year later, Spain allied itself with France to protect its own North American holdings.

British leaders, infuriated by the alliance, declared war on France. Yet doing so ensured that military conflicts would spread well beyond North America as French forces attacked British outposts in Gibraltar, the Bay of Bengal, Senegal in West Africa, and Grenada in the West Indies. British military expenditures skyrocketed from £4 million in 1775 to £20 million in 1782. Meanwhile, in addition to their attacks on British outposts, the French supplied the United States with military officers, weapons, funds, and critical naval resources. Spain contributed by capturing British forts in West Florida and using New Orleans as a base for privateering expeditions against British ships.

Faced with this new alliance, Britain’s prime minister, Lord North (1771—1782), decided to concentrate British forces in New York City. This tactic forced the British army to abandon Philadelphia and return the city to patriot control in the summer of 1778. For the remainder of the war, New York City provided the sole British stronghold in the North, serving as a supply center and prisoner-of-war camp. At the same time, the American cause gained the support of the French navy, a critical addition given the limited state of American naval forces.

Raising Armies and Funds

The French alliance did create one unintended problem for the Continental Army. When Americans heard that France was sending troops, fewer men volunteered for military service, even when bounties were offered. Others took the bounty and then failed to report for duty. Local officials had the authority to draft men into the army or to accept substitutes for draftees. By the late 1770s, some draftees forced enslaved men to take their place; others hired landless laborers, the handicapped, or the mentally unfit as substitutes.

As the war spread south and west in 1778—1779, Continental forces were stretched thin, and enlistments faltered further. Soldiers faced injuries, disease, and shortages of food and ammunition. Soldiers also risked capture by the British, one of the worst fates to befall a Continental. Most patriot prisoners were held in jails in New York City or on ships in the harbor under abusive, unsanitary conditions. Colonel Ethan Allen, a captive for two and a half years, described the filthy accommodations, inadequate water, and horrid stench of the British prisons and noted the “hellish delight and triumph of the tories . . . exulting over the dead bodies of their murdered countrymen.” A few brave women like Elizabeth Burgin carried food and other supplies to patriot prisoners of war. Altogether, between 8,000 and 11,500 patriots died in British prisons in New York— more than died in battle.

The Continental Congress could do little to aid prisoners or their families, given the financial problems it faced. With no authority to impose taxes on American citizens, the congress had to find other ways to meet its financial responsibilities. It borrowed money from wealthy patriots, accepted loans from France and the Netherlands, and printed money of its own—some $200 million by 1780. However, money printed by the states was still used far more widely than were Continental dollars. “Continentals” depreciated so quickly that by late 1780 it took one hundred continentals to buy one silver dollar’s worth of goods.

The situation in Philadelphia, the seat of national government, demonstrated the difficulties caused by inflation. In January 1779, housewives, sailors, and artisans gathered on the cold streets to protest high prices and low wages. Although officials tried to regulate prices, riots erupted and flour merchants were especially targeted by mobs of women and young people. By October, Philadelphia militiamen joined the protests, marching on the house of James Wilson, a Philadelphia lawyer who sided with merchants accused of hoarding goods. Hours of rioting followed, and eventually fifteen militiamen were arrested and fined. But in the following days, city officials distributed much-needed food to the poor. The Fort Wilson riot echoed events in towns and cities across the young nation.

The congress finally improved its financial standing slightly by using a $6 million loan from France to back certificates issued to wealthy patriots. Meanwhile states raised money through taxes to provide funds for government operations, backing for its paper money, and other expenses. Most residents found such taxes incredibly burdensome given wartime inflation, and even the most patriotic began to protest further efforts to squeeze money out of them. Thus the financial status of the new nation remained precarious.

Indian Affairs and Land Claims

The congress also sought to settle land claims in the western regions of the nation and build alliances with additional Indian nations. The two issues were intertwined, and both were difficult to resolve. Most Indian nations had long-standing complaints against colonists who intruded on their lands, and many patriot leaders made it clear that independence would mean further expansion into western lands.

In the late 1770s, British forces and their Indian allies fought bitter battles against patriot militias and Continental forces all along the frontier. Each side destroyed property, ruined crops, and killed civilians. In the summer and fall of 1778, Indian and American civilians suffered through a series of brutal attacks in Wyoming, Pennsylvania; Onoquaga, New York (Brant’s home community); and Cherry Valley, New York. Patriots and Indians also battled along the Virginia frontier after pioneer and militia leader Daniel Boone established a fort there in 1775.

In the South, 6,000 patriot troops laid waste to Cherokee villages in the Appalachian Mountains in retaliation for the killing of white intruders along the Watauga River by a renegade Cherokee warrior, Dragging Canoe. Yet a cousin of Dragging Canoe, Nancy Ward (Nanye-hi), who had married a white trader, remained sympathetic to the patriot cause. During the Revolution, she warned patriots of pending attacks by pro-British Cherokee warriors in 1776 and 1780, allowing the patriots to launch their own attacks. Ward apparently believed that white settlement was inevitable and that winning the friendship of patriots was the best way to ensure the survival of the Cherokee nation. Hers, however, was a minority voice among frontier Indians.

Much western land had already been claimed by individual states like Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Georgia. States with western claims hoped to use the lands to reward soldiers and expand their settlements. Maryland spoke for states without such claims, arguing that if such lands were “wrested from the common enemy by the blood and treasure of the thirteen States,” they should be considered “common property, subject to be parcelled out by Congress into free and independent governments.” In 1780 New York State finally ceded its western claims to the Continental Congress, and Connecticut and Massachusetts followed suit.

With land disputes settled, Maryland ratified the Articles of Confederation in March 1781, and a new national government was finally formed. But the congress’s guarantee that western lands would be “disposed of for the common benefit of the United States” ensured continued conflicts with Indians.


• What values and concerns shaped state governments during the Revolutionary War?

• What issues and challenges did the Continental Congress face even after the French joined the patriot side?

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