Revolutionary America


This is the story of a nation, a new nation.
Since the sixteen hundreds America was a land of opportunity, a destination for European
exiles, adventurers, fortune hunters and freedom seekers.
Thirteen distinct colonies grew and prospered, sharing only boundaries and loyalty to the
British crown. But, starting in 1763, common worries over
colonial rights escalated into a united protest against the British King and Parliament. Over
the next 25 years, Americans became the most successful revolutionaries in world history. This exhibit presents this period through
a series of questions: Who were we? What was the problem? When did it happen? Where did
we go from there? Why did it take so long? and How did we do? Our story is an extraordinary saga carried
out by a unique blend of people called Americans who forever changed the world. By the mid 18th century over two and a half
million colonials lived along the Atlantic coast. Most benefitted from a flourishing
economy. But the thirteen colonies had not worked together to accomplish this prosperity.
They remained separated by regional differences, boundary disagreements, economic rivalries,
and diverse nationalities. England was the most powerful nation in the
world in the 1760s. After winning the French and Indian War in 1763, King George, III decided
that the colonists should pay for royal troops to protect the vast American territory won
from France. Across the Atlantic from King George, III
were thirteen unique colonies. New England: made up of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode
Island, and Connecticut. Trademark resources of the northern colonies included the fishing
industry and timber forests for ship building. Bustling seaports were crowded with square
riggers and schooners that distributed trade good throughout the world. The center of business was Boston, a city
that would become the birthplace of the revolution. New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware
hosted a rolling landscape of grain fields and iron mines. These resources created a
thriving middle class. The cities of New York and Philadelphia were crammed with a diverse
population that created a unique level of tolerance of majority and minority groups
as they struggled to work together. Farmers and tradesmen worked in Maryland,
Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. But it was a small percentage of grand plantation
owners who held 75 percent of the wealth. Their vast estates were dependent upon African
slaves to work the fields of tobacco and rice. Southerners were fiercely protective of their
rights and their belief in the equality of all men – all white men. Since the early 1600’s slave traders sold
kidnapped Africans to American colonists; primarily in the South but also in the North.
By the 1760s black slaves numbered 540,000. Shackles and collars, like these, reflected
a life where the words “liberty” and “freedom” were only an idea.
The colonies held a very diverse population. Only 60 percent of the colonists were of English
descent. The other 40 percent were Scots, Germans, Dutch, Irish, Swedish, and French
who sought liberties unavailable to them in their homelands. Over two hundred thousand Native Americans
lived between the east coast and the Mississippi River. Separated into eighty-five different
nations and into two different language groups: Algonquin and Iroquoian. Constant inter-tribal
warfare was a result of these widely varied dialects, traditions, and ancient hatreds. Native Americans were not alone in the West.
Daniel Boone, a frontiersman, whose life represented a vital character in American culture, moved
his family to the Kentucky territory in 1773. Retracing their route in 1775, he and other
woodsmen laid out the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap. Boone spent the revolution on the Western
frontier. Establishing pioneer settlements and, with this rife, fought Indians who allied
with the British. In the colonies, property ownership had a
leveling effect on society. But the wealthiest and most educated still created a ruling class.
There was also great distance between the sexes. Men generally believed that women had
smaller brains and considered education for their daughters to be a waste of time. More
than half of colonial women could not read. But again, neither could approximately one
fourth of the men. Whether educated or ignorant, rich or poor,
all colonists faced the realities of 18th century life: poor nutrition, poor sanitation,
and widespread disease. Knowledge of germs and bacteria was non-existent in the 1700s.
The imbalance of bodily fluids was believed to be the cause of all disease and illness.
Remedies included bleeding patients into a faint with leaches. Colonists faced epidemics of malaria, cholera,
and small pox. Premature aging and death resulted from poor nutrition, and heavy drinking. An
enticing array of medicines and herbal remedies such as chalk for heartburn, and willow bark
for aches and pains could be purchased at the apothecary. Colonists gathered in the taverns and inns
to hear recent news as well as to eat and drink. While hard cider, beer, and rum flowed
freely, outbursts of violence were rarely seen. The colonists justified their heavy
drinking habits with fears of polluted water, and belief in alcohol’s medicinal properties. After winning the French and Indian War in
1763, the British were deeply in debt and still had to protect their land in North America.
Without the colonies consent, King George, III enacted many new taxes and ordered colonists
to house royal troops at their own expense. When taxes escalated through the 1760s and
early 1770s, colonial outrage rose to the boiling point. The Stamp Act of 1765 taxed all paper products:
legal documents, business records; even playing cards. As a result of these and other new
taxes, the colonials joined together to write a declaration of rights and grievances claiming
that England did not have the right to tax the American colonists without representation
in Parliament. The united colonies boycotted British goods, and, within a year forced the
repeal of all taxes, except for a tax on tea. On March 5th 1770, a riot between four hundred
Boston citizens and six British soldiers left five colonists dead and several wounded. The
troops opened fire because they had been pelted with ice chunks and snowballs packed around
rocks by the angry mob. The soldiers were tried with murder, but convicted only of lesser
crimes thanks to defense attorney, John Adams, who convinced the court that the soldiers
were only acting in self defense. In 1773 England allowed only Loyalist merchants
to sell tea at bargain prices. In protest, patriots called “The Sons of Liberty,”
loosely disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and boarded the ships on December 16th and
shoveled all the tea, worth ninety thousand dollars, into the waters of Boston Harbor.
As punishment, King George, III sent the Royal Navy to close the harbor and stated, “The
die is now cast, the colonists must either submit or triumph.” The other colonies not only sent food and
assistance to Boston, they formed the first inter-colonial congress to organize united
resistance to Britain. So who were the patriots? They ranged from
a tax collector to an ambassador. Samuel Adams became such an effective political agitator
that the American Revolution might never have happened without him. A tax collector in his
early 40s, Adams allowed Bostonians to get away with overdue payments, organized a patriotic
underground called “The Sons of Liberty,” spread propaganda against British policies,
and wrote broadsides urging resistance. John Hancock inherited a fortune in his mid
20s and nearly single-handedly bankrolled the early protest in Boston. An elegant dandy
and a fashionable bachelor, he was accused by Boston authorities of smuggling in the
late 1760s. Although guilty, his attorney, John Adams, was able to get Hancock relieved
of all charges. Later, the elegant outlaw was voted President of the Second Continental
Congress. John Adams, Sam Adams’ cousin, was a brilliant
attorney and a passionate defender of American rights. Only forty years old in 1775, he shrewdly
realized that Massachusetts needed the support of prosperous Virginia to strengthen regional
ties. Since a radical New Englander would cause dissent, Adams’ nomination of George
Washington as Commander-in-Chief unified the North and South. Patrick Henry’s defiant oratory was considered
essential to the early patriotic cause. He was one of the first revolutionaries to push
for their separation from England. In 1775 Henry offered these famous words, “Is life
so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? I know
not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Paul Revere was a leader of Boston’s skilled
craftsmen who kept track of Redcoat activity. A talented silversmith, who crafted this urn,
Revere’s rebellious view of political events appeared in newspapers, almanacs, and broadsides
that spread the patriotic message throughout the colonies.
Benjamin Franklin served as the colonial ambassador to London from 1757 to 1775. Earlier in life
he published “Poor Richard’s Almanack” which distributed his shrewd wit and wisdom
throughout the world with observations such as “God helps those who help themselves,”
and “No gains without pains.” Franklin was the one man in London who might have been
able to mediate the growing conflict. But, after being accused of stealing, Franklin
returned home to Philadelphia bitterly disenchanted. At age 69, he joined the push for independence. In September 1774, the first Continental Congress
met for the first time to officially reject England’s recent oppression, but to also
honor King George III as sovereign. On July 4, 1776 independence from England was declared. The 56 brave men who signed the declaration
were committing treason. Now, the united colonies faced an all out war against the world’s
greatest military power. America had eight ships against Great Britain’s
fleet of two hundred seventy. And munitions gathered for the Continental Army would not
last one month. British troops were planning a march to Lexington
to arrest John Hancock and Sam Adams. At nightfall on April 18, 1775, Paul Revere hung a two
lantern signal in the steeple of the Old North Church alerting his comrades in the hills
that the Redcoats were crossing the harbor. It is possible that Revere carried this pistol
as he rode to Lexington warning “the Redcoats are coming out!” not “the British are
coming!” as told in the famous poem by Longfellow. Why? Because most colonial considered themselves
British. That same night, British general Howe ordered
seven hundred troops to Lexington and Concord to seize stockpiles of colonial gunpowder.
Reaching Lexington near dawn, April 19th they were surprised to face seventy-seven Minutemen
– farmers and laborers trained to be ready in a minute should armed resistance become
necessary. One musket went off. Historians still debate which side fired first the first
shot. But within seconds a full volley of musket balls left eight colonists dead on
Lexington Green. At nearby Concord, four hundred Minutemen
exchanged fire with one hundred twenty Redcoats at North Bridge. With the so called “Shot
heard round the world,” the war began and the colonists looked for a military leader. George Washington, at forty-two years of age
was a commanding presence at six foot three inches tall and 225 pounds. He spoke little
and rarely smiled. As the richest planter in the South, his primary skills in 1775 included
plantation management, decorating his elegant home Mount Vernon, and entertaining the gentry.
A veteran of the French and Indian War, who fought in only two minor battles, he was elected
Commander-in-Chief of the new Continental Army. Washington embarked on his new command
with a few generals, promises of volunteers, and thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. It was
not a promising beginning. In May 1775, the Green Mountain Boys, led
by Ethan Allen and Massachusetts volunteers led by Captain Benedict Arnold, captured Fort
Ticonderoga in New York. Congress hoped that the French majority in nearby British Canada
would join sides with America. In order to convince the French-Canadians, the fortress
of Quebec must be captured. General Richard Montgomery’s army was combined with Arnold’s
forces to invade Canada. During their attack in a raging snowstorm on December 31st, Arnold
was shot in the leg and turned his troops over to frontiersman, Daniel Morgan. Unaware
that Montgomery had been killed and his troops had fled, Morgan and his followers were quickly
surrounded. Americans held their ground in northern New York, but Canada remained under
British control. During the winter months of 1775 – 1776
political thought was impacted dramatically by the publication of a single pamphlet. Seen
here, “Common Sense” was one of the most brilliant and inspiring pamphlets ever written.
Englishman, Thomas Paine, a recent arrival to the colonies, published it in January 1776.
Paine was the first to question hereditary rule and also focused on the vast resources
of America saying, “there is something absurd supposing that a continent to be perpetually
governed by an island.” The colonies were no longer children of the
mother country, yet independence was still hotly debated in Congress. John Adams, Benjamin
Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson were selected by the
Continental Congress to prepare a document declaring independence. The writing fell to
Jefferson who struggled with numerous drafts. But then moved the argument to a higher level
when he declared, “all men are created equal.” A trial vote on July 1st found New York abstaining,
Delaware divided, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voting no. Many revisions were negotiated,
but the primary dispute was over slavery. Finally, it was decided that freedom for slaves
would be deleted from the document. A leaner version of Jefferson’s draft was approved
late in the day of July 2nd. Two days later, on July 4th 1776, the assembly signed the
Declaration of Independence. The world would never again be the same. The united colonies created the Articles of
Confederation and Perpetual Union as the nation’s first, but ineffective, constitution. Congress
had to somehow fund an army and to convince enemies of England to help America. Benjamin Franklin once again became an ambassador,
this time, seeking help from France and King Louis XVI. The outcome of war would depend
as much on his success as that of General Washington who struggled with inexperienced
soldiers and disgruntled generals. By the end of 1777 the British had captured
Philadelphia. But a stunning American victory at Saratoga, New York convinced foreign powers
that America could fight. To keep America fighting, Congress was authorized
to issue continental dollars to pay the bills. When the currency was retired the funds were
to be returned to the central government, keeping the money from inflating in value.
At least in theory. In practice however, new money was printed
without retiring the old and rampant inflation was a result. Coins from Britain, France,
and Spain were hoarded. And trade was nearly non-existent. Congress did not dare tax its
citizens because the revolution was born out protests against taxation. So the colonists,
flooded with paper money, were forced to pay astronomical prices for goods and services.
Strategy early in the war centered on major engagements that positioned thousands of soldiers
on huge battlefields. Troops in the 1700s stood shoulder to shoulder marching in cadence
to fife and drum signals toward musket fire and bursting canon shot. It was the only effective
way to use these weapons because of their inaccuracy. Having volleyed at close quarters,
the armies ultimately charged with fixed bayonets. The superbly trained and equipped forces of
England expected quick victories. The inexperienced continental armies suffered from lack of clothing,
lack of food, ammunition, and weapons. The continentals suffered defeat throughout
New York and across New Jersey for the remainder of 1776. By then, one and a half years of
war had resulted in six hundred continental soldiers killed and thousands dead from disease
and wounds, over 4400 captured, and thousands of deserters. The army fled in to Pennsylvania where General
Washington devised a daring plan for December 25th 1776. On Christmas night in freezing
sleet, soldiers quietly re-crossed the river back to New Jersey while German soldiers slept
off their holiday celebration at Trenton. The surprise attack resulted in the first
unqualified American victory and made a young law student a hero. James Monroe was an 18 year old Virginia law
student who joined a company of riflemen. On December 25th Monroe was sent with an advance
guard across the Delaware River to scout the enemy camp at Trenton. He sent a report back
to George Washington about the drunken Christmas celebrations. At the battle of Trenton the
next morning, Monroe and his regiment were the first to charge. But a musket ball nearly
severed the main artery at the base of Monroe’s neck. Thanks to quick attention by a field
surgeon, he recovered fully. Although the future president would have that musket ball
in his neck for the rest of his life. After the bleak winter at Valley Forge in
1777 hopes were high that the war would end soon. In London, British ministers talked
of reconciliation. In Paris, Benjamin Franklin netted the alliance with France. In America,
continental troops were becoming a real army despite being threatened by desertion and
starvation because a nearly bankrupt congress could not provide food, supplies, or wages. Yet the common soldier miraculously persevered.
The continental navy had its share of success as well. The war dragged on for four more years as
the British army in the south was slowly driven back into Virginia. Finally, in 1781, as the
Redcoats waited at Yorktown for Sir Henry Clinton’s reinforcements, Washington’s
army converged with the French navy to surround the coastal city where the British surrendered. The American navy was small but quick forcing
the British fleet to scatter their forces and to even defend their own waters. One engagement
in 1779 transformed a Scottish criminal turned captain into the father of the American navy.
In this battle, one of the hardest fought in naval history, the Bonhomme Richard, captained
by John Paul Jones, defeated the HMS Serapis right off the coast of England. His musket,
used in that battle, was given to Benjamin Franklin. Born in Scotland, John Paul was a former seaman
who added the name of Jones after killing a mutinous sailor and escaping to America.
In the mid 1770s he joined the continental navy and sailed to the British Isles where
his seizures of British ships won him worldwide fame. In mid August 1789, as captain of the Bonhomme
Richard, Benjamin Franklin’s French nickname, Jones squared up against the British frigate
HMS Serapis. After Jones’ canons exploded, he lashed the two ships together and fought
for three more hours until the battle became a race between the swaying main mast of the
Serapis and the leaking hull of the Bonhomme Richard. Finally, the British captain surrendered.
Jones and his remaining crew abandoned their sinking ship and triumphantly sailed the battered
Serapis to neutral Holland. Meanwhile, in Paris, Benjamin Franklin played
French agents and English spies against each other to win a critical alliance with France.
The economic impact from the loss of American trade threatened revolts in the British Isles.
So England repealed all contentious legislation and taxes on America back to 1763. But it
was too little too late. The fighting continued. If an 18th century soldier fell in battle,
he prayed to get shot in the head because death was quicker that way. Often, the wounded
lay on the fields for more than twenty-four hours after battles were over. Wounds in arms
and legs, especially if bones were shattered, nearly always required amputation. Instruments,
such as these, often unsterilized, compounded mortality rates since nobody knew that bacteria
spread disease and infection. Many men, weakened from malnutrition, were
easily susceptible to diseases including small pox, typhus, measles, and pneumonia. There
was a forty percent death rate for small pox alone. But, an inoculation program ordered
by Washington probably saved the lives of thousands. Still dysentery was common due to contaminated
water, plus drinking and eating with dirty hands, cups, and utensils. Fortunately, a
strict army rule required that latrines be dug downstream. This helped to reduce flies
and according to one diary entry, “made the tea taste better.” The continental army fought three main enemies:
the British, the Hessians, and turncoats. British soldiers drilled with mechanical precision
and were trained to perform under heavy fire at point blank range. Early in the war, King
George III also paid German princes for the use of highly disciplined Hessian soldiers.
Almost thirty thousand Germans fought against Americans during the Revolution. Major General Benedict Arnold was a true American
hero of Quebec, Ticonderoga, and Saratoga. Arnold also loved high society. After pledging
his love to Betsy Deblois, with this ring, he married socialite Peggy Shippen in 1779.
His personal debt mounted. In the summer of 1780 General Washington appointed Arnold commander
of West Point, a fortress vital to the control of the Hudson River. Peggy persuaded her husband to meet with Major
John André of the British army who paid him twenty thousand pounds Sterling, for the complete
plans of West Point. Upon André’s return to New York City, three militiamen discovered
the confidential papers in his boot, arrested him, with this musket and bayonet. An alert
was sent to George Washington, as well as to Benedict Arnold. By the time Washington arrived at West Point,
Arnold was gone and André swung from the gallows, paying with his life for Arnold’s
treason. Arnold became a British general, but was never
fully trusted by the British. In 1781 he went to London and lived with his wife and son
for twenty years – despised by Americans and ignored by Englishmen. Brutal winters also proved to be a devastating
opponent. One week before Christmas 1777, thousands of shoeless continental soldiers
left bloody footprints in the snow as they staggered into winter headquarters at Valley
Forge, twenty miles from Philadelphia. They set to work building log huts in the
frigid temperatures. A few overcoats were issued to the men on guard duty, but the average
soldier went without winter clothing or blankets. Hunger and disease were major problems. Days
could pass without any food at all, or only a handful of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar. Two thousand men disserted. Even more died
of disease or exposure. The army’s numbers sank below four thousand men. The lives of
those who survived the winter were summed up in this diary entry, “I am sick, discontented,
and out of humor. Poor food, hard lodgings, cold weather, fatigue, I can’t endure it.” There was one bright spot in this dismal winter,
Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus, the Baron von Steuben from Prussia, volunteered his services
at Valley Forge. He drilled the soldiers with military professionalism and in three months
turned the continentals into a fighting army. The next winter, when confronted with bankruptcy,
Congress asked the states to provision the army without compensation. Hardy any food
reached the troops at Morristown, New Jersey who confronted howling winter storms and the
coldest temperatures in memory. The entire army nearly starved to death. By comparison,
memories of Valley Forge began to seem pleasant. Both British and French observers remarked
at the resilience of the American soldier. Tough and self-reliant while enduring constant
hardship with little complaint. A soldier’s knapsack held everything precious to him.
Things like small knives, perhaps a bone comb, tobacco, and pipe, and possibly some small
game pieces. In their free time, soldiers played cards or marbles, or shot dice. Few continentals could read or write letters,
so they told stories, smoked clay pipes, and drank spirits when they were lucky enough
to have them. By May 1780, British troops had surrounded
Charleston, South Carolina and taken 5,500 Americans prisoner. The war in the south had
been raging for a year and a half before the command of the southern army was turned over
to Nathaniel Greene who built up his army by rallying both militia forces and guerilla
fighters. By the middle of 1781 Greene’s armies had cleared the British out of the
Carolinas. In late September 1781, the combined continental
and French armies surrounded Yorktown, Virginia digging trenches and dragging heavy canon
into place. British Lord Cornwallis withdrew to inner fortifications to wait for the reinforcements
promised from New York. But all they could see were solid earthworks on land and a forest
of French masts in the harbors. Finally, on October 19, 1781 General Washington
accepted the unconditional surrender of Lord Cornwallis, his 7,100 soldiers, and 800 sailors.
On the same day in New York City, Sir Henry Clinton and his British fleet set sail. It
was too late. The war was over. When the final peace treaty reached America
in November 1783 the British army evacuated New York. Most of the continental army had
been discharged but a few remaining officers triumphantly rode into New York City for a
final dinner. General Washington said goodbye to his officers
saying, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take my leave of you. I most devoutly
wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious
and honorable.” Soon after, Washington in uniform complete
with these epilates of woven guilt lamé, yellow and white silk traveled to Annapolis,
Maryland where Congress was now meeting after being chased out of Philadelphia by army veterans
demanding back pay. Only twenty members representing seven states
were present at the historic occasion where Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief
of the continental army. Historians consider this action as one of
the most revolutionary moments in Unites States history. The most powerful and revered man
in America simply gave up his power and walked away. From victorious celebration to economic disintegration
the world watched and waited as America struggled to become a nation. The call sounded throughout
the country in 1787 for a convention to address the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation. Little did the delegates know that they would
entirely scrap the old government to create a new republican body of laws. The stakes
were high. Their vision of America had never been tried before in the history of the world. The idea of nationality was slow to catch
on. But gradually the idea of being American entered the national consciousness. American
resourcefulness blossomed into factories, business ventures, industry, and new trade
opportunities throughout the world. Eager reformers improved agriculture, remodeled
penal codes, and worked to build schools and libraries. In order to solidify the new nation, a constitutional
convention began in May 1787 to debate the roll of the national government. A new plan
brought by James Madison proposed a central government with a two-branched legislature,
a strong executive branch, and a national judiciary more powerful than state courts. Heated debate ensued over several issues,
primarily the balance of power for small versus large states. Defining the office of chief
executive was also problematic. Delegates agreed to risk a novel idea: to elect a president
by a direct vote of the people. A final decision allowed all white males to
vote; no longer limiting votes to property owners. The constitution abolished the slave trade
to be official after 1808. But it did not outlaw slavery. This concession to the southern
slave owners, this sacrifice of equality, purchased a union. The constitution was signed on September 17,
1787 but took over two years to be ratified by the states. But the question remained: who would lead
this new government? Only one man was regarded so highly by all Americans that he might bring
unity to this grand experiment. Only one man could have possibly been our first president:
George Washington. Before his inauguration, Congress debated
how the head of the United States should be addressed. Proposals included: Your Highness,
Protector of Liberties, or Your High Mightiness. Washington let it be known that no title other
than “Mr. President” should be acceptable. After he took his oath of office, he spontaneously
added the plea, “So help me God.” The founding fathers’ genius and extraordinary
efforts to compromise created our United States constitution. A governing document that has
been amended only twenty-six times in 215 years. And the first ten amendments were added
in the first two years. This document has allowed the United States
to be resilient but flexible through brutal war, peaceful growth, violent social upheaval,
and horrifying tragedy. Recent events have brought great sorrow to America, along with
a renewed storm of patriotism, plus a new war. Throughout our history we have survived attack
from within and from without, and we’ll continue to thrive. Our strength lies within
a system that is not perfect but one that posses the means to correct itself.

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