Captain John Parker, commander of the Lexington militia, had received Paul Revere’s warning. Great Britain’s Boston-based troops were due to pass through his Massachusetts town on their march to seize gunpowder, ammunition, and artillery pieces in nearby Concord. What Parker could not have known was how those Redcoats would react when, at dawn on April 19, 1775, his men stood in their way. “Don’t fire unless fired upon,” one of his compatriots heard him command, “but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!”
No one knows who first pulled a trigger, but no one disputes that eight of the nearly eighty Lexington militiamen—vastly outnumbered by several hundred British regulars—lost their lives that morning. Conflict at Concord a few hours later yielded a different outcome. The king’s soldiers found few of the military supplies that had been their objective. Forced into retreat at the Old North Bridge, they began a perilous seventeen-mile journey back to Boston. As thousands of Massachusetts militiamen descended on their route, British casualties mounted. At Menotomy, Massachusetts, 80-year-old Samuel Whittemore stood ready to avenge British aggression with a musket, a pair of pistols, and a sword. As Redcoats marched along the road near his home, he took aim. He downed one British soldier and then another. Dropping his musket, he drew his pistols. He had shot a third Redcoat by the time a detachment of the regulars descended upon him, stabbing him thirteen times with their bayonets and shooting him in the face. As he flailed about with his sword they left him for dead. But Whittemore didn’t die. He lived—for another 18 years. In 1793, he took his last breath as a 98-year-old citizen of the free and independent United States.
Parker’s famous words—“if they mean to have a war, let it begin here”—helped mark the start of what eventually came to be known as the War for Independence. But people have long taken pains to distinguish this war, which concluded with the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, from the less well-defined and potentially farther-reaching American Revolution. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, “What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this,” Adams insisted, took place “from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington.” Although Adams believed that the real revolution had taken place before the war, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, a fellow member of the Continental Congress, insisted that it would continue for years after the fighting had ended. “There is nothing more common,” Rush wrote in 1787, “than to confound the terms of American Revolution with those of the late American war.” But the war and the Revolution were not the same thing. “It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government,” Rush observed, “and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for those forms of government after they are established and brought to perfection.” This, the real revolution, had only just begun.
This volume features a selection of primary sources spanning 1760 to 1783. Some of these documents give voice to the sometimes competing philosophies of the Revolutionary generation. Others exemplify them. All originate from either the years of the war or the crucial period preceding the conflict, when “the minds of the people,” as Adams wrote, took a decisive turn. Whittemore, a veteran of King George’s War (1744–48) and the French and Indian War (1754–63), before taking aim at Redcoats had risked his life fighting alongside them. Similarly, the vast majority of Americans prior to 1760 felt proud of their British heritage. In the minds of American colonists, what made Britain the richest and most powerful of the world’s nations was the fact that it was also the freest. This, for them, endured as the source of their British patriotism. As philosopher John Locke had explained when justifying the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89, only a government that protected the people’s rights to life, liberty, and property could consider itself legitimate. Soon after the French and Indian War, however, Parliament approved a series of measures that jeopardized colonists’ rights. Americans who resisted Britain’s “long train of abuses and usurpations,” as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence described it, had struggled to hold their government true to its own avowed principles. Only gradually and reluctantly did the belief that Britain had no intention of keeping its promises push Americans to secure these commitments independent of the British government’s interference. In this sense the American revolutionaries were better Englishmen than their cousins across the Atlantic.
The conflict that commenced when Parker and his men stood their ground at Lexington tested the principles valued most by these once-loyal Britons. How to deal with those who remained loyal to the king? How best to bear the monetary costs? How to recruit and retain for the army men willing not only to defend, at a minute’s notice, their homes and hometowns but also, for multiple years, distant parts of the new United States? Given their love of liberty and the revulsion they felt toward acts of coercion, the War for Independence posed a significant problem. Wars, which necessitate the concentration of force, require the centralization of power. How to defeat (or at least outlast) the world’s most formidable military without creating an army posing a threat to the freedom it aimed to defend?
George Washington probably never wrote that government, “like fire, is a dangerous servant, and a fearsome master,” but the fact that so many have never questioned this quotation’s frequent attribution to him helps to explain his selection as commander of the Continental Army. The members of the Continental Congress recognized in him a multitude of qualifications. He had gained experience as a colonel in the French and Indian War. He possessed relative youth as well as social and physical stature. As a Virginian, he seemed well positioned to transform an army of New Englanders into a truly continental force. Maybe most important, since 1758 he had served in the House of Burgesses. Like them, he was a civilian legislator who understood the importance of civilian control of military power, which, if not properly directed, possessed the greatest potential to consume the people’s liberty. He demonstrated respect for civilian leaders and urged his army’s restraint when dealing with common citizens. Throughout the war, Washington addressed Congress in the most deferential terms. Near the end, he extinguished his officers’ threatened insubordination against this legislative body and the states on whose authority it acted. After the conclusion of peace, Washington’s decision to relinquish power, resign as commander-in-chief, and return to Mount Vernon as a private citizen reportedly prompted even George III to describe him as “the most distinguished of any man living” and “the greatest character of the age.”
It was not just Washington’s willingness to give up power that made the American Revolution a successful struggle for liberty. In addition to exhausting the will of Great Britain to wage war against them, the American revolutionaries transitioned from monarchy and aristocracy to republican government and an emerging spirit of democracy. Embracing representative governments within and among the states, they coalesced around the principles that the people are sovereign and that popular consent is a precondition of political legitimacy. They had also internalized the rich lexicon of individual rights that had formed the basis of both their opposition to British imperial policy and their claim on independence. Yet if the “self-evident” “truths” that “all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights” bolstered their confidence, at the same time, they troubled their collective conscience. What about women, African Americans, members of religious minorities, and other individuals denied their natural rights to life, liberty, and property? What about people denied civil rights bestowing equality under the law?
It is no coincidence that during the years of the War for Independence, people began to question why rights that were said to belong to all mankind were not recognized as the inheritance of all Americans. But it is also no surprise that the Founders’ generation—the first to notice the conflict between their newly-expanded principles and their practices reflecting deeply-entrenched prejudices—was not the last to struggle to keep the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Even before the war’s conclusion, northern states began either to abolish slavery or to enact plans for gradual emancipation. Soon after, Congress halted the expansion of slavery to parts of the West, and Jefferson, as president in 1807, championed and signed a bill outlawing US participation in the international slave trade.
In the decades to follow, the issue of slavery became even more central. So did the rights of women, and the voting rights of men who did not own land. Even today, in the United States and around the world, oppressed groups and individuals invoke the philosophies of the American Revolution. As Benjamin Rush predicted in 1787, “the American war is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed.”
In some ways the Revolution would extend far beyond the conclusion of the War for Independence. A few days prior to the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of his Declaration, Thomas Jefferson observed that “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.” He expressed his faith that the decision of the Continental Congress to separate from Great Britain would continue to inspire people “to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” Awakening the world to the proposition that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them, legitimately, by the grace of God,” the ideas of the American Revolution could eventually bring liberty to everyone, everywhere, not only in the United States but also around the globe. The freedom for which Americans had stood their ground would come “to some parts sooner” and “to others later.” But eventually, Jefferson predicted, real liberty would one day be enjoyed by all.
Acknowledgements: A number of friends either suggested documents included in this collection or tracked down information helping me to contextualize them. I am grateful for the assistance of Jeremy Bailey, Veronica Burchard, Benjamin Carp, Mickey Craig, Joe Dooley, Todd Estes, Mary-Jo Kline, Stuart Leibiger, Melanie Miller, Rob Parkinson, Richard Samuelson, and Brian Steele. Sean Sculley performed both these tasks and also reviewed all of the documents’ introductions. Sarah Morgan Smith, who served as series editor, lent her considerable expertise to the selection of documents and execution of the finished product. Caleb Cage helped to deepen my appreciation for people who, in the midst of war, share their stories for the benefit of others, present and future. Jefferson McDonald and Grace McDonald helped select illustrations. Christine Coalwell McDonald, a historian in her own right, offered unfailing encouragement and assisted in every way possible.