Authors: Kevin Phillips
Britain and the North American colonies had two of the world’s best-educated and most literate populations. Besides, many historians view the American insurgency as one of the first—if not
first—modern popular revolutions. While the role of public opinion was modernizing, communications between the two sides of the Atlantic, even in the 1770s, were almost premodern, trapped in drawn-out sea crossings not much faster than the seventeenth-century Spanish voyages undertaken just after navigators first understood the circular wind pattern over the Atlantic. In 1775 knowledge and technological improvements were accelerating—the discovery of longitudes in the 1760s, the mapping of the Gulf Stream in the 1770s. (Benjamin Franklin, an early oceanographer, took measurements even while returning from England to America in 1775.) Other breakthroughs were imminent, like the turn-of-the-century fitting of steam engines into vessels and the 1840s invention of the telegraph. None, though, were at hand to permit the American Revolution to unfold at the more rapid decision-making pace of the Civil War. We can only speculate on what might have been different.
1775: Pinpointing the Pivotal Year
Speed-conscious contemporary Americans love nothing more than digital symbols as glib shorthand. Ones commonly employed include discovery-evoking 1492, flag-waving 1776, or Depression-unleashing 1929. Nor is the twelve-month calendar rigid. In 1950, say, the American college “school year” ran from September 1950 to June 1951. Nowadays August through May prevails. The U.S. government starts its fiscal year in October and goes through the following September. And so on.
Historians, too, employ license in helping routine chronology become more evocative. The idea of a “long” nineteenth century stretching from revolutionary 1789 to a shattering 1914 is widely entertained; likewise a “long” eighteenth century, spanning the ferment between 1688 and 1815. Wars and revolutions are usually what justify this century-bending. Years, too, can be stretched. Historian Joseph Ellis, in his book
plausibly contends that “the fifteen months between the shots fired at Lexington and Concord [April 1775] and the adoption of the Declaration
of Independence in July of 1776 can justifiably claim to be both the most consequential and the strangest year in American history.”
Like the “long” eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, each enlarged to accommodate related wars and revolutions, this book posits a “long” 1775. Our sequence begins in mid-1774—the summer leading up to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which twelve colonies (all save Georgia) had convened in angry response to the Coercive Acts that strong-armed Massachusetts. These British punishments had a reverse watershed effect—turning colonial outrage into a flood in 1775 that crested in the spring of 1776. The early-twentieth-century historian Allen French, in his magnificent volume
The First Year of the American Revolution,
began his own chronology in the April tumult of Lexington and Concord. He ended his saga in the middle of May 1776. This was when Congress intrepidly recommended that laggard colonies set up new forms of republican government because “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed.” Remodeled governance, it was argued, would permit better “defense of their [peoples’] lives, liberties and properties.”
What Congress actually did was to ax the last bastions of opposition. Indeed, French’s reference is to just one of several “little declarations of independence” scholars have identified as anticipating the one in July.
To French, May 15 was conclusive: “[John] Adams himself said that the Gordian knot was cut. For here in fact the sovereignty of Britain was repudiated, and this enactment was used in France to show that America was ready to declare its independence.”
Still, why use a May cutoff? Even unsigned until August, the July Declaration had a powerful yet rarely elaborated arousal effect. Half of its pages, the ones rarely read or remembered, spelled out two dozen reasons why King George III had betrayed the colonies, the supposed British constitution, and the duties of a worthy king. Some of these indictments were thin, but others resonated; this was a supposed eighteenth-century legal prerequisite for justifiable revolution. The naïveté of blaming ministries while expressing fealty to the monarch was over. In summer’s celebrations, as we will see, Americans began to emphasize a personal rejection of King George—tearing down his statue for lead to make bullets, burning his royal coat of arms, banning prayers on the king’s behalf, and more. Thus did America solidify commitment to a new and king-free republic.
In contrast to French’s volume, then, my “long 1775” continues through
July 1776. It does, however, halt before late summer’s British military campaign in and around New York. That was the defining
event of 1776. By contrast, the “long 1775” that came before represents the loyalties, constituencies, and foundations built over many months—almost-forgotten battles in places from Pennsylvania to North Carolina and Georgia, far-flung American raids and invasions, new provincial navies and neglected ship actions. It likewise includes intensive—and surprisingly successful—colonial negotiations with Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and other Native American tribes along the frontier. This early Revolution also includes a pervasive global munitions-gathering contest spurred by a royal prohibition in 1774. Deny munitions to the thirteen colonies, British officials argued, and there would be no rebellion. Perhaps, but British efforts failed.
This emphasis on arms, mass demonstrations, explosive trade goods, and even mob psychologies puts my pages somewhat at odds with John Adams’s famous contention of a more cerebral transformation—the war, he said, was first won in hearts and minds before muskets were lifted. The rotund Massachusetts lawyer, never even a militia officer, conducted his skirmishes and ambushes—and for the most part quite successfully—only in courtrooms, meetinghouses, and legislatures. He misjudged the continuum, the seamlessness, between war and politics that Clausewitz and many others have perceived and explained.
To be sure, a vital transformation in American thinking—the colonists’ ballooning New World pride and incipient nationalism, their gradual shift of loyalty away from a once-cherished British monarchy to a new American Congress—did take shape before the serious fighting. Awareness was growing of bonds between different colonies and sections, as well as the immensity of a shared North American opportunity. The scarcely veiled royal disdain apparent by mid-1775 helped to erode old fidelities. Nevertheless, Lexington-Concord, Bunker Hill, and a dozen less-known battles and confrontations were essential catalysts. No chronicler should ignore, but many do, the war mentality that took hold in early 1775. Some of its consequences were perverse, notably the hubris that kept Patriots from learning needed military lessons, and led to massive disillusionment, especially in the middle colonies, when defeats came rapidly in the second half of 1776. However, without that early optimism, the Revolution might not have taken place—at least in the form it did.
For New Englanders, April 1775 was not the beginning; nor was it even close to the beginning. Their Revolution was taking shape in 1774, as we
have seen. An argument can be made that war became all but inevitable in the autumn of 1774 after the First Continental Congress.
“I once had considerable Expectations from Congress,” said New York Anglican minister Charles Inglis, “but since they adopted the fiery Resolves of Suffolk in Massachusetts almost all hope of good from them vanished.”
Pennsylvania historian Sydney Fisher, in his 1908 four-volume history
The Struggle for American Independence,
distilled middle-colony frustration: “It is quite obvious that the [Suffolk] resolutions were in effect a declaration of independence by the patriots of Massachusetts, although the word independence was not used. If Congress approved of them, approved of a government set up by the patriots in hostility to the British government, it was certainly committing the rest of the colonies to an open rebellion and war unless England was willing to back down completely,” as with the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts.
Rebellion, then, was much in motion before Lexington and Concord. In South Carolina, Patriots took gunpowder and weapons from arsenals and magazines in Charleston and nearby Hobcaw one night in April 1775, weeks
any news had come from Massachusetts. The Commons House of Assembly had fired the night watchmen at both magazines in February.
General William Moultrie later recalled that as spring came, “the militia were forming themselves into volunteer uniform companies; drums beating, fifes playing; squads of men exercising on the outskirts of the town; a military spirit pervaded the whole country; and Charleston had the appearance of a garrison town; everything had the face of war; though not one of us had the least idea of its approach.”
As we will see, South Carolina, like Massachusetts, had been pulling the British Lion’s tail for a decade and a half.
Virginia, too, was proactive. Between September 1774 and May or June 1775, 27 different county volunteer independent military companies were organized. On March 14, five weeks before Lexington and Concord, Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, the American secretary, saying that the colony was preparing for war and that the extralegal Provincial Convention had voted to raise troops.
Then in the early morning hours of April 21, before news arrived from Massachusetts, 20 marines from HMS
moored near Williamsburg, entered the town magazine on Dunmore’s orders and took fifteen and a half barrels of powder to their vessel, subsequently transferred to the frigate HMS
But when the detachment was discovered, aroused Williamsburg Patriots
needed quieting by local leaders. Confrontation, these men advised, would be premature. Irate volunteer companies soon marched on the capital, and on June 8, Dunmore fled.
Two more explanations flesh out vital timing. Military historian Charles Royster, in
A Revolutionary People at War,
was appropriately blunt: “Popular
vanished by the end of 1776 and never returned. Even in 1776 it was a weak echo of its loudest moments in 1775…throughout the war they called for a revival of the spirit of 1775.”
David Ammerman, an expert on the First Continental Congress, specified that “in attempting to explain the advent of armed conflict in British America, the months between May 1774, when news of the Coercive Acts first arrived in the colonies, and April 1775, when British troops clashed with the provincials at Lexington and Concord, are of crucial importance. Prior to passage of the first of the Coercive Acts a variety of courses lay open to both the British and the colonists; after the engagement at Concord there was almost no possibility of avoiding full-scale civil war.”
Both assertions ring true.
New England and plantation-colony episodes are rarely interwoven in the history books, which helps to downplay the Revolution’s deep roots in the winter of 1774–1775. Even in Quaker-imprinted Pennsylvania, 1774 resolutions condemning Britain’s Coercive Acts were numerous in Scotch-Irish and to a lesser extent in German towns and frontier settlements—Hanover (June 4, 1774), Middletown (June 10), Frederickstown (June 11), Lancaster (June 15), and so forth.
As we will see, zealous Presbyterian Scotch-Irish constituted the third early leg of Revolutionary sentiment along with Yankee New England and southern tobacco and rice planters.
These pivots and calendars involve more than snappy titles and minor hair splitting. Over the last two centuries, the Revolution has become the defining event—the political touchstone—of national patriotic sentiment and self-portraiture. Every year brings another ten or twenty interpretations, thanks to the efforts of U.S., Canadian, and British historians. Semantics sometimes promote confusion. The “War for American Independence” ended in 1783, but has the broader underlying “American Revolution” ever ended? Many contend it has not, enthusing that the process—and the American Mission—is ongoing.
That argument is one these pages will sidestep. This book’s more narrow purpose is to distill and chronicle the new psychologies, beliefs, and antagonisms of 1774 and 1775 that launched the Revolution and to a considerable
extent entrenched its existence at the grass roots. It is also about the forces that shaped the emerging republican plurality of the 1770s, so to speak. Whether or not “the American Revolution” continued to manifest itself in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or in the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein is an entirely separate debate for an altogether different book. But first, this introduction requires one more essential preview.
The Global Competition for Munitions, Weaponry, and Mercenaries, 1774–1776
Despite his mistakes as a ruler, George III hardly overreacted on October 19, 1774, when he characterized Massachusetts as being in a state of rebellion and approved a Privy Council order prohibiting the unauthorized export of war supplies from Britain to America. Nor was it premature that colonial governors were quickly instructed to “take the most effectual Measures for arresting, detaining and securing, any Gunpowder, or any sort of Arms or Ammunition, which may be attempted to be imported into the colonies.”
These strictures set off the late 1774 and early 1775 expeditions and seizures in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, as well as the actions in Virginia and South Carolina that occurred before news of Lexington and Concord. The provincial powder encounters were as much consequences of a widening chasm as causations, and even the trigger status of Lexington and Concord is not unqualified.
The American munitions crisis was already global. The Admiralty, for its part, sent implementing orders to the Royal Navy. The undersecretary of state dispatched candid alerts to British secret agents.
King George’s Correspondence,
edited by Sir John Fortescue, a military historian, confirms that agents’ reports on gunpowder and munitions smuggling were often forwarded to the king, who was a fascinated reader.
He should have been: the trafficking reached from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay, from Haiti to the West African Slave Coast, where inferior-grade muskets were a staple easily come by. If the global gunpowder confrontation was clearly a prelude to the Revolution, it could also be called a first stage or opening round.