American Revolution

"This Ain't Working"

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Before George Washington was famous, back when he was a scrappy and serious young man, the governor of Virginia sent him into the wilderness to tell a group of French settlers that they were trespassing on Virginian land. The French greeted the young traveler, invited him in, and that night got so drunk on brandy that they let slip they had no intention whatsoever of leaving. The sober young Virginian headed back to his home and wrote a report of his adventure. He was then put in charge of a militia and sent back to the wilderness to force the French out.

This was the beginning of the French and Indian War, which despite its name did not pit the French against the Indians, but instead the French and the Indians against Britain and the British colonies. In fact, this war was just another theater in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) that the French and British were fighting in Europe. In essence, the French and Indian War was fought over North American real estate. Who controlled the Ohio River valley and the area around the Great Lakes? When the British won the war and negotiated the Treaty of Paris (1763), the answer was clear: Britain gained control of all the land east of the Mississippi, including Canada. But all wars are costly, and in the aftermath of the war, the British found themselves strangled in war debt. Nor were the members of the British Parliament thrilled about paying for a war that seemed to benefit only their colonies. So the British enacted a series of acts to tax the colonies. The colonies clearly weren't happy with this arrangement and began protesting. But the British continued to tax the colonies and ignore colonial interests. The hotbed of dissent was New England. In 1770 after British soldiers killed five men for throwing rocks and snowballs in the Boston Massacre, colonists began organizing for violent resistance. At first, these rebels were merely fighting for their rights as British citizens. Eventually they were fighting to start their own country.

The Boston Massacre left five dead and foreshadowed the start of the American Revolution.

Three years after the Boston Massacre, Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, which gave the British a monopoly on selling tea to America by making the price so low that even smugglers couldn't compete.

Samuel Adams was one of the leaders of the revolution.

Sam Adams and the radical Sons of Liberty were desperately looking for another Boston Massacre-type event to catalyze American resistance. The Tea Act provided just such an opportunity.

When three tea-laden cargo ships landed in Boston Harbor, Sam Adams led a group of 150 colonists dressed as Mohawk Indians to the docks. As a large crowd gathered to watch, the men boarded the ships and began to smash the crates and dump tea into the water. By the end of the night, the Boston Tea Party had destroyed $70,000 worth of British tea. It was a powerful message: like sticking a big middle finger across the Atlantic. King George of England took it to be just that. "The die is now cast," he told his prime minister. "The colonies must either submit or triumph."

This political cartoon illustrates Britain's oppression of its colonies in America.

The British responded quickly and fiercely. They passed the Coercive Acts and the Quebec Act, which together became known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts. These acts severely restricted democracy in Massachusetts, closed Boston Harbor, and even established Roman Catholicism as the official religion in Quebec. The British also sent 4,000 more soldiers into Boston to suppress uprisings.

Paul Revere was a silversmith as well as a revolutionary.

General Gage, the commander of the British troops in Boston, heard rumors that the colonists were amassing ammunition and guns in a storehouse in Concord, a small town outside of Boston. He also heard that two of the rebel ringleaders- Sam Adams and John Hancock- were hiding in nearby Lexington. Sam Adams had led the Boston Tea Par ty, and Hancock, the richest man in New England before the war, helped organize and fund the rebellion. Hancock later claimed his place in history by signing his name the largest on the Declaration of Independence. Gage planned to march out to Lexington and Concord, arrest Adams and Hancock, and then seize the ammunition.

But Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty expected this move. Revere, a silversmith and maker of false teeth by day, set up a system of signals that would alert him if the British started to move.

In order to reach Lexington and Concord, the British had to cross the Charles River. Revere told a church deacon in Boston to watch troop movement and hang one lantern in the belfry if the British were coming by land, two lanterns if they were coming by sea. Revere and his horse were waiting on the other side of the Charles for the signal.

Late at night on April 18, 1775, the deacon in Boston hung two lanterns from his church. Revere and another rider, William Dawes, saw the sign and sped off on horseback to warn the townspeople. They were later joined by a third rider, Samuel Prescott.

The colonies didn't have a standing army. Instead they relied on local militias and Minutemen, farmers who could grab a musket and assemble in a minute's time. Hearing Revere's call, a group of Minutemen assembled in Lexington to confront the British. The British (also known as redcoats or lobster-backs because of the bright red uniforms they wore) were clearly superior in training and numbers.

Captain Parker's actual words were, "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here . "No one knows who fired the first shot, but it became known as the "shot heard 'round the world" because of its far-reaching consequences.

Somehow the rag-tag bunch of Lexington Minutemen weren't able to kill even a single British soldier, despite the fact that the British lined up in a straight line to fire and were wearing bright red coats. The British moved on to Concord, expecting another easy battle. In Concord, however, hundreds of Minutemen took position behind stone walls, houses, barns, and trees (in a kind of primitive guerrilla-fighting style).

The British were sitting ducks. Retreating to Boston, the Redcoats took more fire from Minutemen snipers hidden in trees and behind houses. By the end of the first day of the Revolutionary War, the British counted 73 dead, and 174 wounded.

An American Inventor

Ben Franklin opened the first public library in America.

He also invented:
  • bifocals
  • the lightning rod
  • the odometer
  • a furnace called the Franklin stove
  • the armonica (a glass harmonica)
  • the catheter
...and instituted:
  • the fire department
  • daylight savings time
  • the political cartoon

The Revolutionary War picked up quickly after the battles of Lexington and Concord with a series of battles that helped the rebel cause, including the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which the British took a heavy beating before winning the hill. The Second Continental Congress met in May 1775 in Philadelphia. Congress named George Washington from Virginia as commander in chief of the newly formed American Continental Army, which was really just a bunch of drunken farmers. Washington described the army as "excessively dirty."

In the next year, support for independence grew. This was due in part to Thomas Paine's influential pamphlet called Common Sense, which argued persuasively for American independence.

"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!"

-Patrick Henry to the House of Burgesses upon returning from the First Continental Congress

"These are the times that try men's souls . . .
Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered."

-Thomas Paine in The Crisis, writing while Washington's men were freezing to death at Valley Forge

1. What adjectives would you use to describe the way England was treating her "child?"

2. What were some things England had done to America?

3. Can you predict how this is going to turn out?

4. According to the Declaration of Independence, who gives governments their power?

5. What must be done if a government abuses its power?

6. What were the worst things the British king did to the American colonies?

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