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© Copyright 2005 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved.
BRITISH "INTOLERABLE ACTS"
In the French and Indian War (1752 -1763) British troops had fought beside American militiamen, achieving victory as brothers in arms. The postwar euphoria was the last vestige of political singularity between the British crown and its colonial subjects across the Atlantic. The conflict was a costly endeavor, and the mother country placed the greater burden of debt on its colonies. With the rise of a tyrannical king, a series of oppressive measures were compounded, one after another, on a people spiritually attuned to a life of freedom.
Nurtured in a society that valued inherited nobility titles and elitist class structures, British-born government officials and military personnel viewed American subjects as less sophisticated and socially inferior. Policies of mercantilism guaranteed that trade balances favored British-based businesses. Through the oppressive Navigation Acts, Americans were only allowed to trade with Great Britain, and the British government dictated all prices. Since British-manufactured products were priced higher than colonial agricultural goods, British merchants accumulated wealth while Americans struggled economically.
Hope for economic recovery in the colonies was spurred by the acquisition of new lands. The 1763 Peace of Paris Treaty, ending the French and Indian War, contained France’s agreement to turn most of their North American land holdings over to the British. As a result, highly coveted trade routes were acquired by the Americans. However, the new terms were not accepted by those Indian tribes who had sided with the French during the war. At the urging of disgruntled French traders, Ottawa Indian Chief Pontiac assembled a confederation of tribes to wage war against those Americans occupying former French settlements. Thousands of miles of western territories, from New York to Virginia, were devastated, with hundreds of colonial traders massacred. After a three year struggle, British troops suppressed Pontiac’s Rebellion.
Despite the frontier uprisings, most white settlers in the colonies remained committed to living in peace and harmony with neighboring American Indians. Devout Christian denominations, such as the Moravians and Quakers, actively shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with regional tribes. However, near the end of 1763, the Paxton Boys, an unruly gang of Scots-Irish thugs, slaughtered hundreds of peaceful Indians in western Pennsylvania, including a number of Christian converts. Marching onward to Philadelphia, they threatened to kill Quakers and other colonists deemed “Indian lovers.” The Paxton Boys’ reign of terror was abruptly ended by a Philadelphia militia group assembled by Benjamin Franklin.
Desperate to avoid the expense of another war, Great Britain’s King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, establishing an Indian reserve west of the Appalachian mountains. Six thousand British troops were posted along the frontier to maintain the peace. Whites who had already settled on the Indian side of the boundary were forced out of their homes. Most colonists lost access to the waterways of the Ohio valley, as only licensed traders were allowed to cross into Indian lands.
The king mocked the authority of colonial legislatures in 1763, overriding Virginia laws regulating the salaries of Church of England clergymen. In the court case known as the Parson’s Cause, Virginia lawyer Patrick Henry argued that the King had no right to arbitrarily override the laws of a representative assembly. Upon losing the case, Henry declared that a sacred contract between the ruler and his subjects had been broken.
George III’s disregard for the colonists was shared by the leadership in Parliament. In 1764, British Prime Minister George Grenville imposed a series of tax policies designed to extract more money from the colonists. The first was the Sugar Act, imposing new tax fees atop the import duties already paid by Americans for sugar, coffee, and other general goods. Foreign products passed through British ports before delivery to the American colonies at a double tax rate. An additional clause of the Sugar Act required those accused of violating trade laws to be tried before British naval officers, instead of a jury of peers.
Prime Minister Grenville also initiated the Currency Act of 1764, forbidding the printing of any paper money not redeemable in gold or silver. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, mandating that colonial printers pay a tax to obtain licensing stamps, which were, in turn, required on virtually every printed item, including newspapers, almanacs, diplomas, advertisements, legal documents, and playing cards. Unlike the imported goods taxed under the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act was an internal tax on Americans for American-made goods. Risking the charge of treason, Virginia’s Patrick Henry boldly denounced the Stamp Act, declaring King George III a tyrant. James Otis, who had previously protested British Writs of Assistance, led the Stamp Act opposition in Massachusetts, while Boston businessman Samuel Adams organized a resistance group called the Sons of Liberty.
Responding to the call of James Otis, delegates from nine colonies assembled as the Stamp Act Congress in New York City on October 7, 1765. They decreed that that no taxes should be imposed on the people without their consent, and that local statues should only be issued by elected representatives residing in the affected colonies. Their slogan, “no taxation without representation,” was widely echoed throughout the colonies. The Stamp Act Congress provided an opportunity for political leaders from different colonies to share common experiences with one another.
Prime Minister Grenville argued that the colonies were adequately represented in Parliament, since the best interests of the entire British empire included America. Grenville expected the colonists to accept his concept of “virtual representation” in Parliament, but the Americans demanded “actual representation.” Following the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Quartering Act of 1765, requiring colonists to provide living quarters, free of charge, to British soldiers stationed there. Americans argued that threats from French and Spanish settlements had been neutralized, and British military presence was no longer required.
Grenville’s policies were openly defied. Printers refused to pay the stamp tax, exhibiting comical mock-ups of the stamp on their published goods. Stamp agents were pressured to resign their posts, and colonists boycotted British-made products. The latter action prompted the king and Parliament to reconsider their positions. Prime Minister George Grenville was replaced by Lord Charles Rockingham, who repealed the Stamp Act in March of 1766. To ensure the reversal would not encourage further colonial defiance, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act on the same day. The new law proclaimed that the British government had the broad authority to enact any law or levy any tax on the colonies.
Parliamentarians assumed that since the Americans resisted the Stamp tax, but not the Sugar tax, they would only oppose levies on colonial-made products. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend administrated the British treasury, and in 1767, he directed the government to levy new colonial taxes on such British products as glass, lead, paint dyes, paper, and tea. As part of the Townshend Acts, Parliament included a measure to enforce the tax through writs of assistance, which empowered British agents to search any home, plantation, or place of business for prohibited goods. Additionally, the American Board of Customs Act was passed, replacing the New York legislature with a commission of British appointees. The measure was largely a retaliation against New York for hosting the Stamp Act Congress.
John Dickinson, the Philadelphia lawyer who had drafted the resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, published his “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies,” which called for peaceful resistance of the Townshend Acts through petitions and renewed boycotts of British products. Dickinson’s writings emphasized the lack of American representation in Parliament, along with the assertion that taxation unjustly pilfered property from its colonial owners. In 1768, the Massachusetts legislature produced their own condemnation of the Townshend Acts through a Circular Letter, drafted by Samuel Adams and endorsed by seven other colonies. In response, the British government ordered the governor of Massachusetts to disband the colony’s legislature.
Peaceful colonial resistance to the Townshend Acts was met with further intimidation by customs agents and soldiers. In June of 1768, vast numbers of British troops were dispatched to the Massachusetts port of Boston. Colonial boycotts intensified, reducing British imports by half. Major American ports were closed to British vessels. Panicked merchants in Britain forced Parliament to change its position. In 1770, a new prime minister, Lord Frederick North, repealed the Townshend Acts, leaving only the tea tax in place. Colonists evaded that tax by smuggling foreign tea from Holland. Nevertheless, British troops remained a menacing presence in Boston, and it was only a matter of time before colonial resistance turned violent.
Though most Massachusetts towns were characterized by Christian morality, Boston’s waterfront taverns were often frequented by a rough element of society. In a city of sixteen thousand colonists, the British government had implanted four thousand troops. An oppressive atmosphere was fueled by an abundance of tavern alcohol, and on March 5th, 1770, a group of young Bostonians began throwing snowballs at a British sentry outside the port’s customs office. When the soldier called for the assistance of nearby British guards, other colonists joined the fray, rapidly transforming the group into a large mob. Some Bostonians placed rocks inside their snowballs, inflicting pain on their targets. Facing the prospect of death or serious injury by stoning, eight terrified British redcoat soldiers aimed their guns at the mob and fired. Five Bostonians were killed.
Though the colonial ruffians had instigated the melee, they were hailed by fellow colonists for resisting British oppression. Those killed were immortalized as the first martyrs of an American revolution. Among dead was an African-American dockworker, Crispus Attucks. Romanticized accounts of the riot solidified anti-British sentiment among the colonists. Samuel Adams commemorated the incident as the “Boston Massacre.” Concerned that the British sentries would not receive a fair trial, John Adams (second cousin of Samuel) and fellow lawyer Josiah Quincy volunteered to defend them. Though opposed to British tyranny, the two law partners were devout Christians who believed that truth and justice should prevail over emotional zealotry. In the end, six Redcoats were acquitted, while two received reduced charges with light sentences.
While most colonies maintained peaceful relations with Great Britain, Americans and British hostilities endured in the New England region. In June 1772, the hated British customs ship, Gaspé, notorious for harassing colonial trading vessels, ran aground in Narragansett Bay along the Rhode Island coast. Seizing an opportunity for revenge, a group of colonists in Indian disguises boarded the ship and set it ablaze. Witnesses to the event refused to reveal the identities of culprits to British investigators.
So successful were the Americans at smuggling low-cost Dutch tea that Britain’s tea exporter, the East India Company, experienced a financial crisis. Company representatives persuaded Parliament to pass the Tea Act of 1773, granting East India traders direct contact with colonies, eliminating the additional charges imposed by third-party British exporters. This rendered British tea less expensive than the smuggled product from Holland. However, the colonists viewed the Tea Act as a devious scheme to restore the British tea monopoly. Colonists suspected that once the smuggling ceased, tea prices would again be raised.
Dockworkers in New York and Philadelphia refused to unload the tea ships, dispatching them back to the British Isles. Bostonians attempted the same tactic, but Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who drew his salary from the British government, ordered the Royal Navy to trap the tea vessels in Boston Harbor. Hutchinson allotted a period of 21 days for the Bostonians to accept the shipment, after which time the tea would be seized for auction. On December 16th, 1773, the night of the 20th day, a group of Bostonians dressed as Indians and boarded the tea ships. Cheered by dockside onlookers, the men dumped the tea chests into Boston Harbor. Celebrated as the “Boston Tea Party,” the event was initially denounced by Christian colonists as the destruction of someone else’s property. However, the British government’s overreaching retaliatory measures quickly turned American sentiment to the side of the Bostonians.
Referring to the colonists, King George III declared, “We must master them totally or leave them to themselves.” Preferring the first choice, Parliament, in 1774, passed four measures known collectively as the Coercive Acts. First among them was the Boston Port Act, closing Boston Harbor until the locals paid for the tea thrown in the harbor. It was followed by the Massachusetts Government Act, granting the crown-appointed governor greater power than the locally elected legislature. Judges and members of the governor’s council were to be appointed by the king, and no town meeting could assemble without the governor’s consent. Thirdly, the Administration of Justice Act allowed British officials accused of crimes in Massachusetts to be tried in colonies less hostile to Great Britain. The final measure revised the Quartering Act so that the new governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, could assign his troops to any property of his choosing.
In addition to the Coercive Acts, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, expanding the former French province of Quebec to a region north of the Ohio River. British authoritarians replaced locally-elected officials, and Roman Catholicism was declared the official religion of the province.
Grouped together, the Coercive and Quebec Acts were renamed the Intolerable Acts by the Americans. Great Britain’s Prime Minister, Lord North, applied the Coercive Acts to Massachusetts alone, assuming the other colonies would not protest if they could profit from Massachusetts’ misery. British officials continued to view each of the thirteen American colonies as a separate entity, failing to recognize the bonds of national unity forged by the Great Awakening revival movement of the mid-1700s.
While the predominately Christian Americans heeded biblical principles pertaining to submission to authorities, they also recognized scriptural commands to oppose injustice. Seeking a moral response to British tyranny, Virginia legislator Patrick Henry called for a National Day of Prayer, Humiliation, and Fasting in July 1774.
At the request of the Massachusetts legislature, fifty-six delegates, representing every colony except Georgia, assembled as the First Continental Congress at Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. The meeting opened with a prayer seeking God’s divine wisdom in dealing with the situation at hand. Over the course of seven weeks, the delegates drafted a declaration of grievances and resolves for presentation to Parliament. Simultaneously, they enacted the Suffolk Resolves, nationalizing an earlier Suffolk County, Massachusetts denouncement of the Intolerable Acts. The updated Resolves instructed the people of Massachusetts to form their own government until Parliament agreed to repeal the Intolerable Acts. The Continental Congress further advised Massachusetts citizens to close their ports to British vessels and arm themselves in the event of a British military assault. To ensure that all colonies boycotted British products, a Continental Association was formed.
In London, both houses of Parliament were presented with the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress. In the House of Commons, Irishman Edmund Burke called for reconciliation with the colonies, asserting that Britain could only benefit from the relationship. His opinions were quickly dismissed. In Parliament’s House of Lords, William Pitt the Elder called for the removal of British troops from America. When he was outvoted, the distraught Pitt suffered a heart attack in the halls of government and subsequently died. Parliament’s response to the Continental Congress petition was to pass the New England Restraining Act, prohibiting all colonial traders and North Atlantic fisheries from conducting business with Massachusetts.
King George III's reaction to the colonial petition was more severe. He proclaimed the New England governments to be in a state of rebellion. General Thomas Gage, who had fought with Edward Braddock and George Washington in the French and Indian War, was ordered to fortify British troop positions in Massachusetts for the purpose of suppressing further civilian resistance. The king remarked, “Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”
THE ONSET OF WARFARE
With the king's assurance that Britain’s increasingly oppressive measures would be imposed through military force, Patrick Henry issued a call to arms at the Virginia Convention of Delegates in March of 1775. His rousing speech concluded with this appeal: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”
Meanwhile, four-thousand British redcoat soldiers amassed in Boston. City dwellers were told to either surrender their resistance leaders or face the full brunt of the military. Massachusetts prepared for the onslaught. Colonial militiamen were trained to respond at a moment’s notice, and these aptly named “minutemen” stationed themselves in various towns throughout Massachusetts.
Informed that colonial weapons were stockpiled in Concord, General Thomas Gage dispatched seven hundred redcoat troops to the town during the night of April 18th, 1775. When colonial watchmen detected troop movements, horse riders such as Paul Revere and William Dawes were dispatched to alert the countryside.
On the morning of April 19th, seventy minutemen, led by Captain John Parker, assembled on the village green at Lexington to intercept the redcoats. Finding themselves outnumbered ten-to-one by the British, the minutemen began to withdraw. In the process, however, an errant blast of gunfire erupted from an undetermined source. Englishman Thomas Paine called it “the shot heard ‘round the world,” as it triggered a return volley that launched America’s War for Independence. The skirmish on Lexington Green ended with eight minutemen dead and several others wounded.
The redcoats marched onward to dismantle the weapons cache at Concord, only to discover that the colonists had removed most of the stockpile. As they began to destroy remaining supplies, the British found themselves surrounded by fresh clusters of minutemen. Showered by a hail of gunfire on Concord’s North Bridge, the redcoats quickly withdrew. During the sixteen mile retreat to their Boston base, the British were fired upon by minutemen hiding behind fences, trees, and boulders along the route. A fifteen-hundred-man British relief unit rescued their besieged fellow redcoats from almost certain annihilation. The Americans sustained fewer than one hundred casualties on that first day of war, while 273 British redcoats had fallen.
Inspired by Massachusetts’ victory at Concord, neighboring colonies dispatched militiamen to Cambridge. Meanwhile, the Connecticut militia, led by Benedict Arnold, coordinated an attack plan with Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys from eastern New York. On May 10, 1775, the two armies converged on Fort Ticonderoga at Lake Champlain, convincing the surprised British captain to surrender without a fight. Allen’s militia marched northward to capture Crown Point.
On the same day of the Fort Ticonderoga victory, the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia. Returning delegates from the First Congress included John Adams and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee and George Washington of Virginia, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, among others. They were joined in this session by Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin and John Dickinson, New York's Philip Livingstone, Massachusetts' John Hancock and Elbridge Gerry, New Jersey's John Witherspoon, and many others. In all, some fifty-eight representatives gathered to address the crisis at hand.
While New England delegates were committed to the establishment of independent American nation, those from the middle colonies asserted that the conflict was with Parliament alone. These middle colonists believed that complete separation from the Great Britain was unnecessary. As an act of unity, the delegates chose to issue a plea for peace while simultaneously preparing for escalated warfare. Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson drafted the Olive Branch Petition, asking King George III to intercede with Parliament and restore peace. Dickinson then worked with Virginia delegate Thomas Jefferson to author the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Congress established the Continental army, unanimously electing George Washington commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Washington refused the offered salary before excusing himself from Congress to assemble his troops.
Meanwhile, British General Thomas Gage targeted a garrison of American patriots at Breed’s Hill, a spur of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The hill overlooked British positions across the Charles River in Boston, and from this vantage point, the Americans were able to bombard the redcoats. The British scaled the hill on July 17th, with patriot forces waiting until they were within a few feet before firing. Suffering heavy casualties, the redcoats retreated. A second attack resulted in greater losses. By the time British reinforcements arrived for a third assault, the American patriots had run short on ammunition. The final charge resulted in a redcoat victory. The bloody event came to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which more than a thousand British and approximately four hundred Americans were killed.
Distressed over the extent of British casualties in Massachusetts, King George III removed Thomas Gage from command, replacing him with General William Howe. Ignoring the Olive Branch Petition sent by the Continental Congress, the king approved the Prohibitory Act, proclaiming the colonies in open rebellion and no longer under his protection.
Northern colonial forces attempted to dislodge British units from the Canadian province of Quebec at the close of 1775. One column of patriots, led by General Richard Montgomery, seized the city of Montreal, while a second column, under the command of Benedict Arnold, joined Montgomery’s men to invade Quebec City. During the Quebec battle, Montgomery was killed by a bullet to the head, and Arnold was shot in the leg. Command of colonial troops fell to Daniel Morgan, who was unable to prevail over the well-armed British.
Initially, the primary American objective in the conflict was to compel the British government to end its tyrannical policies and oppressive tactics. During the early stages of the war, even General Washington was unsure if a complete separation from Great Britain was necessary. However, with no sign that either king or Parliament would reason with the colonists, it became increasingly clear that the establishment of an independent American nation was the only acceptable course of action. The most persuasive argument for independence was presented in a pamphlet entitled, “Common Sense,” authored by Thomas Paine, a British newcomer to America. In language that could be easily understood by the average colonist at that time, Paine dispelled the notion that it was natural for a country to be ruled by a king. The January 1776 publication argued that one honest man was worth more than “all the crowned ruffians who ever lived.” One hundred thousand copies of "Common Sense" were distributed among America's two million inhabitants, and the work was instrumental in convincing most colonists that independence was the only reasonable solution. Nevertheless, more than a third of the population remained loyal to the British empire.
During March of 1776, George Washington’s army transported captured British cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights, overlooking British positions in Boston. Facing imminent bombardment, British General William Howe hastily evacuated his troops to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on naval vessels commanded by his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. In the South, British forces launched a combined land and sea invasion of Charleston, South Carolina, but were unable to penetrate the colonial fort. After losing two ships and suffering numerous casualties, they withdrew and sailed for New York.
King George III would not tolerate further military weakness. To supplement redcoat forces, the British government hired professional mercenaries from the German principality of Hesse-Kassel. These Hessian soldiers were notorious for their extreme brutality.
The prospect of widespread, unrelenting warfare drove delegates of the Continental Congress to issue a proclamation for a national day of repentance, fasting, and prayer on May 16, 1776. Throughout the colonies, Americans sought the will of God in how to respond to their predicament.
In the Continental Congress, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee presented a series of resolutions on June 7, 1776, calling for independence from Great Britain and the establishment of a national government in America. On July 1st, Congress approved the resolutions. Two committees were established; one for drafting a declaration of independence, and the other for designing the structure for an American government.
Seated on the declaration committee were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and John Adams. The manuscript was penned by Jefferson, a 33-year-old Virginian lawyer and planter with a talent for persuasive writing. Though Jefferson was largely credited for authoring the national declaration, many ideas and key phrases were drawn from a colonial document, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason.
The Declaration of Independence opened with a justification for a nation’s separation from a ruling power, establishing self-governance within a framework that recognized God as Creator and maker of the laws. The document asserted that people collectively held the right to overthrow any government operating without the consent of the governed. As a measure to defend the actions of Congress, a list of specific grievances against the king was included in the document. The closing paragraph announced that the colonies would be free and independent states, and that the United States would operate as a sovereign nation.
The Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776. John Adams suggested the date be commemorated every year as “the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty...” The signers of the Declaration were keenly aware that they might be signing their own death warrant.
The second duty of the Continental Congress was to design a framework for the new national government. On July 12th, John Dickinson presented the first draft of the Articles of Confederation to the congress. The document structured the United States as a “league of friendship,” with each state retaining the power of self-governance in all areas that were not specifically assigned to the United States government. However, the delegates delayed approving the Articles, since they could not agree on the extent of the national government’s power. Nevertheless, they celebrated the Declaration of Independence, boldly presenting the document to the public. The thirteen British colonies had become thirteen American states.
The notion of severing ties to Great Britain was not agreeable to some Americans. Those who favored independence called themselves Patriots, while those favoring continuation under British rule were called Loyalists. British General William Howe sought Loyalist Americans to aid in the fight against the Patriots. He believed many could be recruited in New York City.
As a major ocean port with inland access through the Hudson River, New York was strategically valuable to the army that controlled it. Continental Army General George Washington stationed his men on Long Island in preparation for the imminent British invasion of the region. British Admiral Richard Howe seized nearby Staten Island, delivering William Howe’s army of thirty thousand redcoats and Hessians from Nova Scotia. At only one-third the size of the invading force, hundreds of Patriots were killed and others deserted in fear. Remnant fighters in Washington’s Continental Army were driven to a small defensive perimeter in Brooklyn on August 27, 1776. General Howe chose to rest his troops before delivering the fatal blow to the Americans, but under the cloak of darkness, George Washington led his men on a daring nighttime escape across the East River into Manhattan. From there, they crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey.
British forces occupied New York City, desecrating and destroying Christian houses of worship not sanctioned by the Church of England. Underground Patriots remained in the city, burning strategic properties before they fell into British hands. On September 22, 1776, the redcoats hanged Patriot spy Nathan Hale, whose last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Meanwhile, General Howe’s troops pursued George Washington’s army across New Jersey. Veiled by a heavy fog at night, the Americans crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, confiscating all boats in the area to prevent the British from following. Out of the three-thousand-man Continental unit under George Washington, two thousand men departed at the end of November in 1776, having completed their enlistment periods. Demoralized by defeat, few had any desire to endure the impending winter months. With cold weather setting in, British General William Howe decided to wait until springtime to eradicate Washington’s remnant forces. Funded by Parliament, the highly-trained and better-equipped redcoat army enjoyed ample housing and abundant food during winter.
Though lacking adequate weapons, manpower, and supplies, the Continental Army’s redeeming strength was the military genius of General George Washington. Recognizing overconfidence as the enemy’s primary weakness, Washington wasted no time rebuilding troop strength for a daring attack. On Christmas night, 1776, the general led twenty-four hundred soldiers across the icy Delaware River to the shores of Trenton, New Jersey, where the much-feared Hessian troops were drunk and sleepy from holiday celebrations. The crossing was conducted during a harsh winter storm that cloaked the sights and sounds of Washington’s men. At dawn, the Americans attacked the vast Hessian regiment, taking a thousand captive in just forty-five minutes. The uplifting victory rejuvenated American morale.
Seizing enemy weapons and supplies, Washington’s men advanced to Princeton, New Jersey, attacking a large column of British redcoats on January 3, 1777. To bolster confidence in his newer recruits, the general led the charge. The surprised redcoats were soundly defeated, prompting the shaken British General, William Howe, to withdraw his troops from New Jersey to New York for the remainder of winter. Had he been aware of the Americans’ troop and armament limitations, Howe could have easily turned the tide and achieved a British victory. The triumph of the Continental Army, at this stage, was largely due to the bravado of its leader. The Continentals endured the remainder of winter encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, as George Washington appealed to Congress for more supplies.
During the spring of 1777, British leaders consolidate forces to eliminate American strongholds on a region-by-region basis, starting in New York State. According to their plan, General John Burgoyne’s redcoat forces in Montreal would advance southward along Lake Champlain to recapture Fort Ticonderoga, while General William Howe’s army in New York City was supposed to move northward up the Hudson River to join Burgoyne at Albany. However, General Howe, driven by an obsession to defeat George Washington, dispatched the bulk of his troops southward on transport ships to Chesapeake Bay. Marching through the northern reaches of Maryland and Delaware, Howe’s redcoats targeted Philadelphia, the American seat of government, as part of an elaborate plan to draw Washington’s army into the fight.
Indeed, George Washington’s forces intercepted the redcoats at Brandywine, in southeastern Pennsylvania, on September 10, 1777. This time, however, the Americans were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, and General Howe quickly routed them. On September 26th, British forces entered Philadelphia as the Continental Congress fled westward to York, Pennsylvania. George Washington reassembled his men for a new attack on the British, only to face defeat at Germantown on the northwestern outskirt of Philadelphia. A thick fog rolled in, allowing the Americans to escape certain annihilation. The surviving continental troops retreated northwest to Valley Forge.
Simultaneously in New York, General John Burgoyne’s army retook Fort Ticonderoga, in accordance to the British plan. However, William Howe's impulsive pursuit of George Washington left only a small unit under General Henry Clinton to support Burgoyne. Clinton’s forces were soon bogged down, leaving Burgoyne’s army isolated with dwindling supplies. The redcoats’ trek toward Albany was hampered by their own desire to transport useless luxury items with them. Additionally, many British officers were accompanied by wives and children. Patriot militiamen compounded the redcoat mobility problem by continually felling trees into their path.
A British reinforcement column, led by Colonel Barry St. Leger, sailed from Montreal down the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario. Upon landing at Fort Oswego, St. Leger’s men marched eastward to link with Burgoyne’s forces at Albany. Along the way, they recruited Iroquois Indians to aid their cause. However, the brutal Iroquois murder of a young, unarmed woman named Jane McCrea enraged settlers in the Mohawk Valley. A detachment of American patriots under Major General Benedict Arnold defeated British Colonel St. Leger along the Mohawk River, forcing him to withdraw to Canada.
Isolated and desperate to replenish supplies, British General John Burgoyne dispatched five hundred men to raid the town of Bennington, New Hampshire. They were quickly defeated by American militiamen under General John Stark. Simultaneously, Burgoyne’s remaining five thousand-man British force was intercepted by the Northern Continental Army under General Horatio Gates. Gates, however, was a hesitant, ineffectual leader who commanded at a safe distance from the battle front. Nevertheless, his northern army was bolstered by the arrival of patriot divisions under Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan. These combined divisions surrounded Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York. Though the redcoats were outnumbered two-to-one, Continental Army leader Gates assumed a defensive position behind fortifications. On September 19, 1777, Burgoyne’s troops advanced on the Americans at Freeman’s Farm. While General Gates held his men back, Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan boldly repulsed the redcoats. This first battle of Saratoga ended with no clear victor. Afterward, Benedict Arnold berated his superior, Horatio Gates, for withholding his men. The indignant General Gates, in turn, relieved Arnold from command, omitting his accomplishments from written dispatches to Congress. Arnold’s men were placed under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln.
The second and final engagement of the Battle of Saratoga occurred on October 7, 1777, at Bemis Heights. General Burgoyne’s army, comprising Hessians, Canadians, and British regulars, assaulted Benjamin Lincoln’s division, only to be repulsed by the Americans. Burgoyne’s men rallied and attacked again, suffering heavy losses. Nevertheless, Horatio Gates ordered his troops to remain behind defensive barriers. Seizing the opportunity to finish Burgoyne’s forces before they regrouped, Benedict Arnold mounted his horse, launching the American counteroffensive on his own initiative. The patriots followed Arnold into the fight, decimating Burgoyne’s redcoats. In the throes of battle, Arnold was shot in the same leg that had been wounded nearly two years earlier at Quebec. His horse was also shot, falling on the badly wounded leg. Nevertheless, Benedict Arnold secured the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. British General John Burgoyne surrendered to Horatio Gates on October 17, 1777. The politically ambitious General Gates credited himself for the triumph, making no mention of Arnold’s pivotal contribution in his report to Congress. With his left leg hopelessly crippled, Benedict Arnold was placed on inactive duty.
In the aftermath of the Saratoga victory, some members of the Continental Congress suggested that Horatio Gates replace George Washington as the army’s commander-in-chief. Compounding General Washington’s military setbacks were the deplorable living conditions his men experienced at their Valley Forge camp in Pennsylvania. The winter of 1777 was extremely harsh, and the displaced American government failed to provide adequate food and clothing. Frostbite resulted in the amputations of many soldiers’ feet and legs. Names were added to the lists of sick and dead on a daily basis. More than two thousand deserted the army in December 1777 alone. With knowledge that any solution to the crisis was beyond his ability, George Washington, in his darkest hour, placed hope in the One he believed had delivered him from peril many times. Isaac Potts, owner of property where the army was encamped, witnessed the general’s sincere prayer for God’s intervention on behalf of America.
George Washington’s faith inspired those who remained at Valley Forge. Many who should have died from starvation or exposure endured the bitter winter. In January of 1778, a breakthrough occurred when France enacted their Treaty of Alliance with the United States, sending military supplies and volunteer soldiers to the Continental Army. The French remained bitter over losses to the British in Europe’s Seven Years War (fought in America as the French and Indian War), and the Continental Army’s victory at Saratoga convinced government officials in France that the patriots could win. American statesman Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in securing the alliance. French support renewed the hopes of many Americans, prompting the influx of new volunteers to the Continental Army. Conditions gradually improved at Valley Forge. France arranged for a Prussian war veteran, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, to aid the training of American troops. General Washington encouraged the military expert to advance the level of discipline, skill, and organization in his army.
British Prime Minister Fredrick North, shaken by both the defeat at Saratoga and the American alliance with France, called on Parliament to abolish the Coercive Acts and the tea tax, with a promise to the Americans that no such measures would be imposed again, if they agreed to lay down their arms. With little trust in British politicians, the Continental Congress rejected the offer. Their defiant stance was risky, as few funds were available to continue the war effort. Anti-tax sentiment in America hindered Congress’ ability to collect revenue from the states. Paper currency in America was considered “fiat money,” since the Continental Congress lacked the gold and silver reserves to redeem the notes printed. Though the fledgling American government enacted penalties for businesses refusing to honor the currency, merchants avoided paper money by removing their goods from the open market, trading exclusively on a barter basis.
The British government, disappointed by the military leadership of William Howe, named Sir Henry Clinton commander-in-chief of the redcoat forces in North America. Clinton’s first order was to transport British army headquarters from Philadelphia to New York City. During the course of the move, Clinton’s troops were intercepted by George Washington’s revitalized army on June 28, 1778. The outnumbered Americans held their ground at the Battle of Monmouth, forcing Clinton’s men to flee to British ships under the cover of nightfall. Tempered by extreme hardship and drilled to precision, General Washington’s formidable force would never again experience the sting of defeat.
Along the frontier, George Rogers Clark led an expedition of American militia through the Mississippi Valley during the summer of 1778. Traveling through regions of what are now Illinois and Indiana, Clark’s men captured a British fort and drove redcoats from other frontier strongholds, eventually gaining control over a wide area north of the Ohio River.
In New York, British General Clinton enacted a new war strategy, dispatching a redcoat attachment to the southern states, where he believed more loyalists could be found. The campaign began in Georgia, the least populated state. British naval forces landed at the port of Savannah in December 1778.
Though British sea power was unequaled, it did not go unchallenged. Scottish-born John Paul Jones relentlessly attacked British war vessels, using maneuverability to compensate for his inferior fleet size. Jones conducted many of his early exploits aboard the Ranger, boldly crossing the Atlantic to seize enemy ships for America. Sailing the Bonhomme Richard in September of 1779, Jones was confronted by the mighty British warship Serapis in the North Sea. Initially overwhelmed by relentless British firepower, Jones was offered a chance to surrender by the Serapis’ commander. He replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.” With the Bonhomme Richard rapidly taking water, John Paul Jones fired on vulnerable points of the British ship, forcing its stunned commander to surrender. The Americans seized and occupied the Serapis as their own ship sank.
American gains in the war were quickly offset by British victories in the south. At the close of 1779, the Georgia state legislature was replaced by a British colonial government. As the redcoats seized land and enacted new oppressive measures, southern loyalists became patriots, sabotaging British efforts. In early 1780, British General Henry Clinton departed his New York headquarters to lead an invasion of South Carolina. On April 13th, his forces bombarded the port city of Charleston. By May 12th, American General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his three-thousand-man army to the British. It was the largest patriot defeat of the war. General Clinton returned to New York, entrusting command of his eight thousand Charleston redcoats to Lord Charles Cornwallis.
American General Horatio Gates assumed command of continental forces in the south. On August 16, 1780, his troops engaged General Cornwallis’ army at Camden, South Carolina. In a strategic blunder, Gates assigned a crucial section of his offensive line to untrained militia. These men scattered in panic when the redcoats charged. General Gates lost his own nerve, fleeing the battlefield on horseback while his remaining troops were soundly vanquished.
By this time, Benedict Arnold, the unrecognized hero of Saratoga, had grown embittered by his experiences in the Continental Army. America’s new alliance with France further convinced him that his country had entered a pact with the devil. Married to the daughter of a persuasive loyalist, Arnold eventually concluded that America would fare better under British rule. Benedict Arnold secretly switched sides during his tenure as commander of West Point, an American fort along the Hudson River in New York State. Arnold conspired with British spy, John André, to turn West Point over to the redcoats. However, the plot was discovered by American sentries who had stopped André to examine his papers. Though André was executed, Benedict Arnold escaped to British protectors.
George Washington lamented the loss of Arnold, as daring fighters of his caliber were in short supply. In replacing the cowardly Horatio Gates, Washington commissioned Nathanael Greene to lead the American campaign in the southern states. Despite the surrender of continental forces in South Carolina, militia volunteers in the state assumed the fight. Under the leadership of Thomas Sumter, a group of backwoodsmen launched guerrilla attacks against redcoat forces under General Cornwallis. The British were also plagued by civilian volunteers fighting with the notorious “Swamp Fox,” Francis Marion.
To gain greater control over the south, General Cornwallis marched a portion of his army toward North Carolina. Before reaching the border, the British detachment was vanquished by frontier resistance fighters at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7th, 1780.
As part of his campaign to retake South Carolina, General Nathanael Greene ordered a patriot detachment under General Daniel Morgan to engage enemy troops along the border between the Carolinas. On January 17th, 1781, Morgan’s men soundly defeated a redcoat division at the Battle of Cowpens.
British General Cornwallis ordered portions of his forces to hold the port cities of Savannah and Charleston, while mobilizing remaining units to pursue Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan into North Carolina. On March 15, 1781, the redcoats clashed with Nathanael Greene’s army at Guilford Courthouse in the north central region of North Carolina. Greene’s men inflicted heavy casualties on the British before withdrawing from area. Unable to pursue the Americans, Cornwallis marched his crippled army southeastward to the coastal city of Wilmington, where he hoped to replenish his dwindling forces.
The war had halted Christian Bible imports from Great Britain, prompting the Continental Congress to authorize the first American publication of the Bible in 1781.
Meanwhile, French forces crossed the Atlantic to assist the Americans in their fight against the British. Troops under Comte de Rochambeau landed in Rhode Island, joining George Washington’s army at Wethersfield, Connecticut on May 22, 1781. With vastly increased troop strength, Washington drafted a strategy to attack Sir Henry Clinton’s ten thousand redcoats occupying New York City. Simultaneously, French Admiral Francois de Grasse amassed a fleet of warships in the West Indies (a chain of Atlantic islands between North and South America).
British Commander-in-Chief Clinton ordered General Cornwallis to maintain control over the Carolinas. However, when Cornwallis failed to acquire adequate supplies at Wilmington, North Carolina, he defied Clinton’s orders, marching his men northward into Virginia. There, they regrouped with a British detachment under renounced patriot Benedict Arnold. After admonishing Cornwallis for abandoning the Carolinas, General Clinton instructed him to occupy a port along the Chesapeake Bay. As Cornwallis invaded the waterfront cities of Yorktown and Gloucester, French naval vessels in the West Indies began to mobilize.
On August 14, 1781, General George Washington learned that Admiral de Grasse’s fleet was sailing toward Chesapeake Bay. As a diversionary measure, Washington advanced toward New York, prompting British General Clinton to assume a defensive posture. To maintain the deception, 2,500 patriot soldiers marched onward, while Washington turned the other 6,500 men southward to attack Cornwallis. On August 30th, French battleships arrived at Chesapeake Bay. One week later, British vessels from New York confronted them, only to be repelled. De Grasse’s fleet successfully prevented Cornwallis from receiving troop reinforcements and supplies.
At Williamsburg, Virginia, General Washington’s army merged with the Marquis de Lafayette’s detachment and Comte de Rochambeau’s French unit. Soldiers aboard Admiral de Grasse’s fleet brought the total to seventeen thousand. For the first time, George Washington had more men and artillery than the enemy. His troops surrounded the eight thousand redcoats at Yorktown in late September of 1781. General Cornwallis could not escape by land or sea. The Americans and their French allies began the bombardment of British trenches on October 9th, storming redcoat positions five days later. On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis dispatched a letter of surrender to General Washington. Two days later, downtrodden British redcoats marched in formation between two files of American and French troops. The vanquished soldiers laid down their arms while piping the tune of a popular song called “The World Turned Upside Down.” Yorktown was the last major battle in America’s War for Independence.
On October 24th, a new group of British ships from New York arrived at Chesepeake Bay, only to find that Cornwallis had surrendered five days earlier. General Henry Clinton fortified his holdings in New York, while awaiting further instructions from the British government.
When news of the British defeat at Yorktown reached London, Parliament abandoned all further measures to subdue the colonies. On March 19, 1782, Lord Frederick North resigned his post as British prime minister, and was replaced by Lord Charles Rockingham.
Enthused by the weakened state of British forces in America, French Admiral Francois de Grasse unwisely attempted to seize the West Indies for France. His fleet was destroyed by British war vessels under Admiral Richard Howe at the Battle of the Saints on April 12, 1782.
For much of the war, British forces had controlled the southern state of Georgia. Through the first half of 1782, Patriot General Anthony Wayne led his troops in a series of small battles, gradually forcing the redcoats to abandon the region. The British made their final evacuation through the port of Savannah in July of 1782, joining their main army in New York.
THE NEW NATION
America’s Continental Congress dispatched John Jay, John Adams, Henry Laurens, and Benjamin Franklin to Paris, France, to settle peace terms with the British. As ally to the patriots, France insisted on a place at the negotiating table along with their ally, Spain. French delegates demanded all North American territory south of the Ohio River. However, John Jay learned that France intended to turn the land over to Spain in exchange for undisclosed favors.
Great Britain faced military threats on its own shores by hostile European neighbors, and could little afford to maintain vast numbers of redcoat troops in America. The talks in Paris stalled until British negotiator Richard Oswald joined American delegate Benjamin Franklin in private discussions without French or Spanish interference. Desperate to restore trade relations with the Americans, the British government readily agreed to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation. Great Britain transferred ownership of its frontier territory east of the Mississippi River to the Americans. Additionally, the United States was granted free access to North Atlantic fishing waters off the Newfoundland coast. In exchange, the British received a congressional commitment to persuade each state to restore properties confiscated from loyalists during the war. It was also agreed that private British lenders could collect debts from their American borrowers. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783.
War had ended, but the new American nation was monetarily broke. The Continental Congress named Robert Morris Superintendent of Finance. By its own laws, the national government, under the Articles of Confederation, was not allowed to levy taxes. Thus, the continental dollar was worth little more than the paper on which it was printed.
Soldiers of the Continental Army expected Congress to compensate them as promised, but no funds were available. Though justified in their grievances, a large group of disgruntled officers plotted to replace the Articles government with a military regime. Their cause was presented in a document known as the Newburgh Address. Upon learning of the scheme, George Washington addressed the officers in an assembly. Though sympathetic to their plight, he knew that any hopes of securing a representative government would be dashed if the plot went forward. With the intention of reading a letter that explained the struggles of the cash-poor Congress, the beloved general struggled to see the document's text, then humbly confessed that his eyesight had failed him. In humility, the respected leader simply spoke from the heart about duty. This display of vulnerability had greater emotional impact than the carefully-worded text he had planned to read. Tearfully, and with renewed patriotism, the officers abandoned the Newburgh Conspiracy.
In December 1783, the last of the British troops evacuated New York, and with their departure, General Washington declared his work finished. He resigned his post as Army Commander-in-Chief, returning to civilian life at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
The largest concentrations of Americans loyal to Great Britain were found in New York and Georgia. Facing resentment from patriot neighbors, many loyalists migrated to Canada, the West Indies, and Great Britain. The majority of American Indian tribes had fought on the side of the redcoats. The postwar evacuation of British forces left them alone to deal with their wartime enemies.
Though the thirteen states had ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781, American patriots remained skeptical of powerful national governments, preferring to be governed by their state legislatures. The Articles allowed one member from each state to serve on the national government’s executive committee. The enactment of nationwide policies required the unanimous approval of the thirteen states. Under the Articles, the federal government could only issue war declarations, enact international and interstate treaties, assign foreign ambassadors to other nations, borrow money from other countries or states, settle disputes between the states, and add new states to the union. Despite these powers, the national government had no authority to establish courts or construct systems to enforce its own laws. Without tax revenues or the power to regulate currency, the congress was unable to alleviate the economic depression sweeping the country.
As part of the peace treaty between Great Britain and the United States, the Continental Congress had agreed to return property seized from loyalists during the war and pay debts owed to British merchants. However, the state governments refused to comply with the terms. The Virginia legislature went as far as passing laws to block debt payments to businesses in Great Britain. The federal government was powerless against the will of the states. In retaliation to the breach in treaty terms, the British government refused to evacuate redcoat troops posted in the Great Lakes region, thus impeding the westward migration of American settlers.
Land expansion was a predominant interest of the national government. Since the late 1760’s, explorer Daniel Boone had been developing the “Wilderness Road,” extending from Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian mountains to the regions later known as Kentucky and Tennessee. Boone’s pioneering exploits opened new lands north of the Ohio river for further exploration. Under the Articles of Confederation, this region, known as the Northwest Territory, fell under the jurisdiction of the national government. Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1784 to create a territorial government for this area. The measure was followed by the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established townships in lots of six square miles, subdivided into single square mile portions that were auctioned to the public.
Successful development of the trans-Appalachian region required access to the Mississippi River for cargo transport. However, Spain claimed sole possession of the waterway. In 1784, John Jay, the American Secretary of Foreign Affairs, appealed to Spanish authorities to open the Mississippi to neighboring settlers. Their stern refusal convinced Jay that nothing short of war would compel Spain to share the river. America’s economic depression hindered the execution of an effective military campaign, and the foreign secretary was forced to issue a humble proposal. In an effort to encourage Spanish settlers to trade with Americans, John Jay officially recognized Spain’s ownership of the Mississippi. Frustrated frontier settlers were convinced that their government had bowed in cowardice to Spain. Congress was left with little alternative, since the Articles of Confederation imposed strict limits on governing power at the national level.
During March of 1785, representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware met at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate to settle a dispute between Maryland and Virginia over navigation rights on the Potomac River. During the meeting, Virginia lawmaker James Madison proposed a convention be assembled to address similar issues on a nationwide basis. Later that year, delegates gathered for that purpose in Annapolis, Maryland, though only five of the thirteen states participated. In the Annapolis Convention, Alexander Hamilton, a prominent attorney and former officer in George Washington’s army, initiated plans for a broad, nationwide meeting for the purpose of replacing the Articles of Confederation with a sound, constitutional government.
Though state legislatures generally preferred a weaker national body, the absence of a strong central authority proved detrimental to the economy. Interstate currency exchange rates grew increasingly convoluted, as the states printed more paper money than their gold and silver reserves could support. In Virginia alone, it took a thousand paper dollars to redeem one dollar’s worth of silver.
With each state acting independent of one another, war expenses were not evenly distributed. Mounting debt drove the Massachusetts legislature to raise taxes to a point where farmers were forced to pay a third of their income to the state. Those unable to pay the taxes faced property foreclosures and, in extreme cases, imprisonment. In September 1786, a group of Massachusetts farmers and land owners launched an insurrection against their state government. Led by war veteran Daniel Shays, these 1,200 men stormed the Massachusetts Supreme Court, the body that upheld land foreclosures. By January of 1787, Shays’ rebels were two thousand strong, advancing on the Springfield arsenal to seize muskets and cannons. Though the state militia repelled the marauders, the Massachusetts legislature feared further uprisings. Shays' Rebellion convinced other states that a stronger national government was needed to consolidate resources, so that no single state would be alone in confronting economic crises and armed uprisings.
By this time, the states were agreeable to the Continental Congress’ passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, declaring that all future states would have equal status to the original thirteen. The ordinance also provided a bill of rights to settlers, prohibited slavery, and pledged to honor Indian land rights. This was the most authoritative act of legislation from Congress under the Articles of Confederation. From there, America’s structure of government underwent a sweeping transformation.
DRAFTING THE CONSTITUTION AND BILL OF RIGHTS
In May of 1787, delegates from all colonies except Rhode Island arrived in Philadelphia to create a national government unlike any the world had ever seen. Notable among the fifty-five delegates were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Gouvernor Morris, John Dickinson, Robert Morris, and Benjamin Franklin. The assembly unanimously chose George Washington to preside over the meetings.
Drawing upon biblical principles, the delegates acknowledged the selfish and corruptible nature of humans. To protect against inevitable abuses of authority, they determined that the government should be divided into branches, with a system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch from wielding excessive levels of power. The delegates also deemed it essential for ordinary citizens to actively participate in the governing process through the free election of lawmakers. Virginia’s James Madison, well-versed in the history and nature of government, worked diligently to construct a suitable system for the American people. He has since been referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.”
Convention delegates argued over the means by which the American people would be represented in the national government. Two plans were presented. First was the Virginia Plan, allocating one representative for every thirty thousand people in a state. Delegates from less populated states argued that votes for legislative measures would always favor the most populated states. They countered with the New Jersey Plan, appointing an equal number of representatives to each state. Delegates of heavily populated states argued that their citizens would not be adequately represented. The dilemma drove the constitutional convention to the brink of collapse, prompting eighty-two year-old Benjamin Franklin to issue an uncharacteristic plea. As a Deist, Franklin had spent most of his life assuming that God did not intercede in the affairs of mankind. However, his perspective changed after witnessing evidence of divine intervention on numerous occasions during America’s War for Independence. With the Constitutional Convention at a stalemate, Franklin called the assembly to daily Christian prayer, requesting God’s guidance in their deliberations.
With each session beginning in prayer, a spirit of unity and cooperation emerged, and in July of 1787, the delegates arrived at the “Great Compromise,” also known as the Connecticut Compromise. It was decided that the legislative branch would contain two distinctive houses. First was the House of Representatives, providing representation based on population. Second was the Senate, allocating two representatives from each state.
While compromise solved some problems, it merely aggravated others. Such was the case in the issue of slavery. Many devout Christian delegates supported the call to outlaw the inhumane institution. Some delegates, like Virginia’s George Washington, had inherited slaves from departed relatives, but nevertheless joined the chorus to ban the practice. However, agricultural states in the south had grown dependent on inexpensive slave labor, and, amidst the economic depression, southern delegates were unwilling to abruptly end slavery at that time. Realizing that no southern state would ratify a constitution banning slavery, the constitutional convention left the issue to be determined by each state government. In passing the controversy down to state legislatures, Congress avoided another stalemate. And yet, Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry predicted an eventual civil war over the issue.
Emboldened by the conciliatory posture of their northern counterparts, southern delegates demanded the inclusion of slaves in population tallies, so that their states could acquire more representatives in the House. Northerners argued that slaves were not allowed to vote, nor were they counted for taxation purposes. None, however, wanted to be accused of divisiveness or intolerance of southern views. Ultimately, moral integrity conceded to bipartisanship, and the issue was settled by the Three-Fifths Compromise, counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for representation and taxation purposes.
Greater unity was achieved over the issue of the nation’s chief executive. Americans had freed themselves from the rule of a tyrannical king, and were naturally hesitant to grant one person any significant amount of power. However, fears were eased by the certainty that George Washington would be the first president. After his Yorktown victory, Washington had resisted the call of fellow Americans to be enthroned as king of the new nation. The humble general exemplified the Christian concept of servant leadership, devoting his talents for the sake of others, as opposed to his own empowerment. Delegates of the constitutional convention rested in the assurance that George Washington would set the standard for all presidents to follow.
In addition to directing American foreign policy, this chief executive was authorized to veto congressional legislation. In turn, Congress retained the power to impeach and remove any president acting outside the law. Presidential elections were to be decided by the Electoral College, with each state allocated a number of electors equal to their total number of Senators and Representatives.
The differing roles of federal and state governments were likewise defined by the constitutional convention. Powers to declare or wage war, establish armed forces, conduct foreign relations, regulate foreign and interstate commerce, mint money, and admit new states to the union were reserved at federal level. State governments retained the authority to conduct elections, ratify constitutional amendments, establish police forces for public safety, regulate commerce within their state, and provide public educational systems.
On September 17th, 1787, the final draft of the Constitution of the United States of America was approved and signed by a majority of convention delegates. It was agreed that the Constitution would go into effect upon ratification by at least nine of the thirteen states.
As the first national government of its kind, the United States was to be a Constitutional Federated Republic, establishing the Constitution as “supreme law of the land” under a system that defined and restricted the powers of national and state governments in a manner that best protected the natural rights of individuals. On September 28th, 1787, the Constitution was submitted to the states. Delaware was first to ratify, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. In Massachusetts, influential leaders such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock held reservations until assurances were given that a bill of rights would be attached to the Constitution. Massachusetts then ratified the document by a narrow margin. Though ratification by Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire officially completed the nine-state requirement, the new government could not succeed with the endorsements of Virginia and New York.
The Constitution's chief promoters were called Federalists. Using the pen name Publius, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay anonymously argued on behalf of the new republic in a series of eighty-five newspaper articles collectively known as the Federalist Papers. While such prominent Virginians as Patrick Henry and George Mason worried that the new government could not serve the large and diverse nation, George Washington's influence, along with the promise of a bill of rights, resulted in Virginia’s ratification in June of 1787. In New York, a group of anti-federalists, led by Governor George Clinton, argued against ratification, proclaiming it counterrevolutionary. Furthermore, they dismissed the nine-state ratification process, as it ran counter to the unanimous-vote rule under the old Articles of Confederation. Despite the opposition, Alexander Hamilton campaigned tirelessly on behalf of the Constitution, winning New York’s approval by a narrow three-vote margin on July 26th. With that, America’s new federal government went into effect.
In January and February of 1789, the eleven ratifying states selected their representatives for the new federal government and the Electoral College. During the month of April, these representatives gathered in New York City, the nation’s new capital, to elect America’s first president. George Washington was their unanimous choice, with John Adams elected to the vice-presidency. On April 30th, 1789, Washington recited the constitutional oath of office at New York’s Federal Hall, adding the words, “So help me God,” which thereafter served as the standard conclusion to the presidential oath.
The first task of the new United States Congress was to fulfill the promise of attaching a bill of rights to the Constitution. During the summer of 1789, twelve amendments to the Constitution were proposed, and then eventually honed to the ten that came to be known as the Bill of Rights. The utmost priority of the predominately Christian members of Congress was reflected in the first line of the First Amendment, as drafted by Fisher Ames of Massachusetts: “Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The American people belonged to a variety of Christian church denominations, and the nation’s founders were resolute in banning the federal government from endorsing or favoring one denomination over any other, as Great Britain had.
With religious freedom identified as the preeminent right of Americans, Congress listed other fundamental rights in the First Amendment. These included freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble peaceably, and freedom to petition the government with grievances. The Second Amendment followed, recognizing the people’s right to bear arms, without restriction, so that each state could defend itself from tyranny through the establishment of militias. The Third Amendment restricted soldiers from forcibly taking quarters in the homes of private citizens, as British troops had done during the colonial era.
Members of the First Congress of the United States were keenly aware that no nation could grow and prosper unless its people were secure in their belongings. The Fourth Amendment protected against the unreasonable searches and seizure of private property. Fifth Amendment protections extended beyond the general population to include those accused of crimes. Grand Jury indictments were required for the accused, and no American citizen could be tried twice for the same offense. Individuals were protected from self incrimination in criminal trials. Above all else, no American could be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. As an added measure to guarantee property rights, the Fifth Amendment also prohibited the seizure of private property without a fair payment.
The Sixth Amendment guaranteed a speedy trial to those accused of crimes, along with rights to confront opposing witnesses and call one’s own witnesses. The Seventh Amendment ensured the right to a trial by jury, while the Eighth protected against excessive bail and cruel or unusual punishment.
The Ninth Amendment served to prevent the government and the courts from extracting portions of the Constitution out of context and reinterpreting them in ways that denied or diminished the natural rights already held by the people. Finally, the Tenth Amendment stated that any other powers not specifically listed in the Constitution would be left either to state governments or the people themselves.
After Congress drafted the amendments that became the Bill of Rights, North Carolina became the 12th state to ratify the Constitution, in September of 1789. Rhode Island, however, refused to even hold a ratification vote, prompting the other twelve states to threaten economic sanctions against the tiny holdout. Under pressure, Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in May of 1790 by a narrow two-vote margin. The final draft of the Bill of Rights was then ratified in December of 1791.
In less than twenty years, America had been transformed from a group of subservient British colonies to a vibrant, strong, independent nation with a sound government like no other. In the years that followed, this government and its people would face the fiercest trials and tests, emerging triumphant as the greatest nation the world had seen.
©2005 Bryan Hardesty. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be used without permission from the author.
(Note: More about the birth of America's constitutional government can be seen on the DVD, United States Government: Origin, Structure, and Intent. To get it, click here.)