Birth of a Nation (1633 – 1800)

an American Revolution

We had our American Revolution over two centuries ago and the years have done something to it. The legends remain, and the statues and the grassy earthworks and the great body of tradition, but a good deal of the reality has been filtered out – revised! When we look back to see Washington crossing the Delaware on a cold winter night, or kneeling in prayer in the snow of Valley Forge; we see the Minutemen, or a lanky Virginian rifleman picturesque in fringed buckskin; but somehow it all seems out of a pageant, and neither Washington nor the men who followed him quite come alive for us.

This is a pity, because the central reality in this great act that brought a nation to its birth was the living, aspiring, struggling people who were immediately involved in it. A romantic haze has settled down over the whole affair, and when we look through it the facts tend to be a little blurred. And what is most worth remembering – the one thing that so often escapes us – the fact that like all of history’s wars, the war of the American Revolution was a hard, wearing, bloody and tragic business – a struggle to the death that we came very close to losing.

It was a struggle, furthermore, that was fought out by people very much like ourselves; which is to say that they were often confused, usually divided in sentiment, and now and then rather badly discouraged about the possible outcome of the tremendous task they had undertaken. It comes as a shock to realize how many Americans in 1775 were actually opposed to independence and a break with King George III. A good many historians believe that no more than a third of the provincials were active patriots; and they estimate that another third were Loyalists, with the remaining third uncommitted. To continue, it is clear that good many of the people who believed in independence were not always willing to fight for it. When the war began, the colonies contained about 2½ million men, women and children – a population, which should have yielded some seven hundred thousand men capable of bearing arms. Yet in 1780, only one year before the crucial battle at Yorktown, the Continental Army and the state militia together contained no more than one sixteenth of the country’s available manpower.

But all of this says nothing more than the people of the Revolutionary period were extremely human. Enough of them in the end, were willing to fight and die for what they believed in to make the dream of independence and freedom come true, and we who look back at them owe a debt of whose size is almost beyond our comprehension. They did not have an easy time of it, and if they got confused and discouraged now and then it is not to be wondered at.

For behind the great struggle with the professional armies of Great Britain, there was the unending struggle between patriot and Loyalist, a civil war just as real and as bitter as the one which broke out nearly a century later. And although the principal battles were decided along the eastern seaboard, the fighting on the frontiers, along the rim of American civilization, was, if anything, even more violent, and continued in many areas long after the peace treaty with England was signed.

Sometimes, it is hard to see how Americans could have won if the revolution had not turned into a world war – that is, if France had not intervened in the wake of the surrender of Burgoyne’s army – and yet there was an unconquerable toughness at the core of the American effort. The farmers and shopkeepers of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and North Carolina and the other colonies were hard men to beat, and they went quite a way on their own, without any help from anyone but themselves. They knew little about the European methods of warfare – and despite all the tales of frontier riflemen fighting Indian style from behind trees, most of the great Revolutionary battles were fought according to the European style. We were poorly equipped, usually ill fed, and almost certainly badly clothed; but fighting against the world’s greatest power, they managed not only to hold off disaster – but usually gave a little better than they got.

Somewhere, in the course of more than six bitter years of warfare, those Americans worked something out. They began to see, amidst the monotony, discomfort, acute danger, suffering and constant campaigning, that they were somehow more than just soldiers of the separate colonies. Somewhere, through their efforts – because of their efforts – a nation was born. As South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsen had urged before the fighting had started, they began to see that, “There ought be no more New England men, no New Yorkers . . . but all of us Americans!”

That came – and finally independence came after – as it had to come once the vision had truly taken hold.

Bruce Catton

Battle of Lexington

~ Birth of a Nation (1633 – 1776) ~

David Sellack, Colonist (Boston – 1633)
        I share with you directly from my family records, which are not unlike hundreds of thousands of similar ancestral stories, which can be told of this grand experiment we call, ‘America.’

Gov. John Winthrop (1645)
        “Liberty is the proper end and object of authority.”

William Penn (1670)
        “The great case of Liberty of Conscience, so often debated and defended is once more brought to public view, by a late Act against Dissenters, and Bill, or an additional one, that we all hoped the wisdom of our rulers had long since laid aside……”

Edward Rawson ~ The American tradition of Thanksgiving (1676)
        “..that the Lord may behold us as a people, offering praise and thereby glorifying Him…”

William Penn ~ London Board of Trade (1697)
        A brief and plain scheme how the English colonies in the North parts of America… may be made more useful to the crown and one an-others’ peace and safety with an universal concurrence.

Jonathan Edwards ~ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God! (July 8, 1741)
        “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God…”

James Otis ~ Why the Colonies’ Most Galvanizing Patriot Never Became a Founding Father (1761)
        James Otis, Jr. used his words to whip anti-British sentiment into a frenzy—so why isn’t he better remembered now?

The Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770)
       The Boston Massacre was a street fight that occurred between a “patriot” mob, throwing snowballs, stones, and sticks, and a squad of British soldiers. Several colonists were killed and this led to a campaign by speech-writers to rouse the ire of the citizenry.

Stephen Hopkins, October 28, 1772
        “Declaring the Independence of his slave.”

George Washington: The transfer of slaves from his mother’s farm
        Washington privately expressed his growing disdain for the institution – and his desire for its eventual abolition

John Hancock (March 5, 1774)
        “We fear not death!”

Patrick Henry (March 23, 1775)
        “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Paul Revere’s Ride (April 18, 1775)
        Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

Emerson ~ Concord Hymn (1837)
        “The shot heard ’round the world.”

John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson (July 6, 1775 )
       A declaration by the representatives of the united colonies of North America, now met in Congress at Philadelphia, setting forth the causes and necessity of their taking up arms

Offer of Support to Refugees of Boston & Charleston
       “In the House of Representatives, November 2d, 1775.”

Thomas Paine ~ Common Sense, February 14, 1776
        Common Sense challenged the authority of the British government and the royal monarchy.

Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
        The Declaration was intended to lay out the colonist’s long-standing grievances with English policies and serve as a formal break with Great Britain

Samuel Adams ~ August 1, 1776
        “We have no other alternative than independence.”

Articles of Confederation ~ November 15, 1777
        Created a loose confederation of sovereign states and a weak central government, leaving most of the power with the state governments.

General Washington’s Vision – December 1777
        “One day, I remember it well, when the chilly winds whistled through the leafless trees, though the sky was cloudless and the sun shown brightly, he remained in his quarters nearly all the afternoon alone. When he came out, I noticed that his face was a shade paler than usual. There seemed to be something on his mind of more than ordinary importance.”

Thomas Jefferson ~ A Bill Concerning Slaves (June 18, 1779)
        “No slave shall go from the tenements of his master, or other person with whom he lives, without a pass, or some letter or token whereby it may appear that he is proceeding by authority from his master, employer, or overseer.”

The Constitution of the united States ~ September 17, 1787
       “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”

Benjamin Franklin – Speech on the newly written Constitution (1787)
       “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults – if they are such – because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered…”

Alexander Hamilton ~ Poughkeepsie, New York, 1787
       “The states can never lose their powers until the whole people of the United States are robbed of their liberties.”

Alexander Hamilton ~ Federalist No. 1
       “I am convinced that this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness.”

Patrick Henry at the Virginia Convention, June 5, 1788
       “Shall Liberty or Empire be Sought?”

William Pinkney ~ For the Relief of Slaves (1788)
       “If I am honored with the same indulgent attention which the House has been pleased to afford me on past subjects of deliberation I do not despair of surmounting all these obstacles in the common cause of justice, humanity, and policy”

George Washington’s First Inaugural Address – April 30, 1789
       “All I dare hope is that if, in executing this task, I have been too much swayed by a grateful remembrance of former instances, or by an affectionate sensibility to this transcendent proof of the confidence of my fellow-citizens.”

the Bill of Rights ~ December 15, 1791
        The Bill of Rights plays a key role in American law and government, and remains a vital symbol of the freedoms and culture of the nation.

George Washington’s Letter to Gov. Henry Lee ~ August 26,1794
        “I consider this insurrection as the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies; brought forth I believe too prematurely for their own views, which may contribute to the annihilation of them.”

George Washington’s Farewell Address ~ September 17, 1796
        “… steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”