HIST 116: The American Revolution
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The American Revolution
HIST 116 - Lecture 12 - Civil War
Chapter 1. The Editing Process of the Declaration of Independence [00:00:00]
Professor Joanne Freeman: So today we are going to take the plunge [laughs] into the actual outbreak of warfare. However, now that I’ve teased you that way, I do actually want us to get to declare independence. [laughs] If you think about it, we didn’t quite get there yesterday so I do want us to declare independence for just a few minutes. We’re going to close that off and then we will move on to the opening of hostilities and the logic behind them and really what they show.
So thinking back to Tuesday, Tuesday we ended with a discussion of the editing of the completed draft of the Declaration, and I mentioned that Jefferson’s passage on slavery was cut out of the final document for any number of reasons, one of them obviously being that for Southerners, that would have been a deal breaker, and also because there were all sorts of inherent inconsistencies in what Jefferson had written.
Now the editing process went on for a few days only. It wasn’t longer than that. Actually, events are unfolding pretty quickly here as far as drafting, editing, passing, and moving on with the Declaration of Independence. And Jefferson did not enjoy the editing process. Jefferson hated the editing process because he really thought they were completely mangling his beautiful, wonderful prose. So supposedly he sat in the corner of the room in the main chamber of the Congress looking really miserable — okay — just sort of cringing and wincing every time they cut another one of his beautiful words or substituted some other word in there. So apparently, and we get this partly from Jefferson himself, he looked so miserable that Benjamin Franklin ended up going over to him to try to cheer him up.
And I’m offering this partly because I’m always trying obviously to get us past the sort of ‘oh, American Revolution, the Declaration.’ Right? I’m trying to sort of make this human — right? — human documents, human moments, human struggling, so we’re now really going to humanize the Declaration of Independence. So Jefferson says — he’s sitting there. Where are his words here? Okay. He said Franklin, quote, “perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations.” Okay. [laughs] So Franklin saw that — according to Jefferson how much I hated them mutilating my document, and Franklin ends up telling Jefferson a story, and then Jefferson, kindly for us looking on, preserved the story, so I can offer you the story that Franklin told Jefferson basically to distract him while they were editing the Declaration of Independence.
So Franklin told this story of a hatter named John Thompson, and this hatter named John Thompson wanted to open a shop and he wanted to create a sign to hang over the door, and he planned on having the sign say “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,” and then there’d be a picture of a hat. So that’s his plan, but he decides he’ll run the sign by a few of his friends to see what they think; is that the right sign for him to put up in front of his new shop?
So he goes to one friend and the first friend says, ‘Well, you don’t really need the word ‘hatter,’ do you? Because obviously if you make and sell hats, you’re a hatter. So you could just cut the word ‘hatter.’ And the next one says, ‘Makes? Do you really have to say ‘makes hats’? Obviously, they’re hats. You don’t need the word ‘makes.’ You can cut the word ‘makes.’ It’s unneeded on the sign.’ Another says, ‘Why say ‘for ready money’? What? You’re going to give away the hats? [laughter] You can cut ‘for ready money.’ And so obviously this goes on and on. Franklin continues to tell this anecdote until in the end the sign just says John Thompson and has a picture of a hat. [laughter] Okay. So Franklin tells this story and then he says, ‘The moral of the story — ’ He even had a moral. The moral of the story is that Franklin made it — tried, quote, “whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.” Okay. Never write anything that a public body will edit because you will be very sad and all of your words will be sliced away. So that’s this little, tiny human moment happening in the corner of the chamber where the Continental Congress is meeting.
Chapter 2. Short Cheers for Independence, Looming Plans for War [00:04:26]
Meanwhile, they’re editing the document. On July 2, 1776, Congress votes for independence. Two days later on July 4, after all of the editing and Jeffersonian cringing, Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence — so we have declared independence, we’ve adopted the Declaration of Independence, but obviously now something has to happen to the document, and it wasn’t intended to be something that was sort of filed away.
It was intended obviously to have an impact — and there were two audiences in mind. On the one hand, people in the Congress did think that if they declared their intentions and what they were doing in some sort of a document, that the outer world, people beyond the colonies, first of all would understand what was going on and then hopefully might even want to offer aid. Right? Any — Basically, if they’re declaring independence against Britain, maybe people who don’t like Britain will want to help us. So first they’re thinking: possibly a European audience.
But even more important than that, they’re thinking about a domestic audience. They’re thinking about having the American people not only understand what’s happening but really hear this document that they’ve tinkered every word over, the Congress’s feelings about what they think is happening, what they believe is going on in the colonies, what they are declaring to the world.
And so what happens basically is once the document is passed, it’s issued. The Congress sent it out to any number of places. They sent it out to the Continental Army, many copies, so that it could be read to people in the army. And the Continental Army comes Tuesday, so don’t think I forgot the Continental Army, and George Washington comes Tuesday. They sent it out to state assemblies. They sent it out to committees of safety.
Basically, they found any number of avenues to send out this document so that it could be read aloud, and that was the plan. It wasn’t for people to sort of read this interestingly in their newspaper, but they actually had public readings of it on courthouse steps, in public squares, at public meetings, town meetings. It was sort of a performed document. It was being read so people could hear what independence — how independence was being declared.
And in response, there were all kinds of public celebrations and demonstrations — so there were fireworks, there were parades, and there was a lot of symbolic destruction of some of the trappings of the Crown. So basically, images of the King — like, on a tavern sign — were ripped down, were broken into pieces, were burned in bonfires. In New York City — this — a famous image of this, which you may have seen — they pulled down a large statue of the King mounted on his horse. They actually literally pulled it down and then later had it melted into bullets for the war effort. So clearly — Boy, isn’t that a slap? Yeah, I heard a noise over there. That’s true. This is “gugsch,” King George. Not only did we tear you down but we’re going to use you to shoot at you with your own statue.
So obviously independence is a moment, is an event. It’s not just a document. So — And I should note here too that now that independence is declared, what had been colonies are not colonies any longer, right? — if they have declared independence and they’re saying they are no longer colonies of Great Britain — I’m going to try to remember from here on out to begin to use the word “state.” They’re frantically — and I’ll talk more about this on Tuesday. They’re frantically now also worrying about state constitutions to replace where the royal government had been in the past, but now obviously we’re not colonies anymore. We’re moving on to another sort of state of being and in their mind actually even another word.
But of course there’s an obvious looming question at hand. Right? Warfare, conflict, hostility: Something is looming. And there’s no clear path as to how whatever’s going to happen next is going to unfold or how it should be played out or even just how these newly-declared states are going to execute warfare. How should they organize the effort? How should this war be fought? How might it possibly be won? Right? The idea of winning a war against the power, the might of the British army — to say the least, that would have been really daunting to these people. The odds would have felt seemingly impossible, and then on top of that, what about organizing? Whatever effort you were going to take, what about organizing? How were you supposed to do that? — particularly given that the Continental Congress, as we’ll discuss next week, didn’t have any absolute power to really enforce much of what it did, making it, as we’ll see, even more difficult for them to sort of organize and carry out a war effort?
So basically, today and Tuesday I’m going to be talking about the process of opening a war and organizing a war, basically in the process showing something about the mindset on both sides. And today particularly you’re going to get a sense, just by looking on ground level at what’s happening between British soldiers and — I’m going to still say “colonists” because it’s in my head. We’ll move on to Americans, but I’m going to — “colonists” is right here. I can’t banish it yet. I’m feeling very colonial. It’s my habit. It’s my British tradition. At any rate, today you’re going to get a sense of the real mindset of the different sides because you’re going to see people interacting, and I have a number of different sort of eyewitness accounts of different events, so you can get a sense of the logic behind what people are thinking is going on as some of these hostilities unfold.
Chapter 3. British Thoughts on Colonial Radicalism and Plans for Display of Force [00:10:17]
So today we’re going to be looking at conflict. In the last two lectures, we clearly in one way or another have been leading up to this moment, so we talked about Common Sense, talked about the Declaration of Independence, and in discussing both of those documents I’ve made several references to the surrounding mood. And I think I’ve used several times that the colonies were “on fire” — and it was Paine’s, a version of what Paine said, that the colonies seemed to be on fire in 1775 and that’s what inspires him to want to write. So what we’re going to do is basically look and see what that means; what is Paine referring to; what is happening in 1775 that pushed him to feel so compelled to write?
So we’re going to look at the physical aspect of events unfolding mostly in 1775, a little bit in 1776, the physical reality of the onset of actual hostilities, what the colonial hostility to the British soldiers stationed in the colonies felt like, how that was unfolding, what the British soldiers were doing, how they thought they were going to stem the tide of whatever was happening,
But, as I’ve already said any number of times in this course, even now when we’re on the cusp of some kind of physical clash, we’re not looking at two competing groups of people who see themselves as being entirely distinct and separate peoples. And we’ve certainly seen on both sides a sort of gradual realization that maybe the logic of governance is different on both sides, the logic or the understanding of the empire is different on both sides of the Atlantic, but we don’t have two peoples here who see themselves as enemy societies.
As Lord Rockingham put it in Parliament, speaking at the time, he feared that they were looking at, quote, “the dreadful calamity of shedding British blood by British hands” [correction: “arms”]. So what we’re talking about here is civil war. That’s why I titled this lecture Civil War, because that’s what it was. It was a people divided. There are actually people in — at the time, certainly I can think of some in the 1790s, who call the Revolution the Civil War. That’s what it was. That’s what it felt like. That really sort of drives that home.
Now the first battles of this war are fought in 1775, but they don’t represent a sort of sudden plunging into the inevitability of war, and it’s actually quite the opposite. You’ll see that as these events unfold today. Both sides to some degree really see themselves as behaving defensively, and ultimately they point the finger at the other side, but in one way or another, both sides feel that they’re trying to sort of prevent bad things from happening.
Now on the colonial side, people assumed that they were collecting arms, that they were creating local militia units, that they were beginning to stockpile weapons — that this was all a defensive measure. And at the end of the First Continental Congress, they actually had declared that maybe the colonies should think about organizing themselves for defensive measures. So there had been again not a sort of “attack, attack” measure from the First Continental Congress, but, ‘maybe it’s time that we actually should really begin organizing’ — but again this is seen as a defensive measure.
That same kind of spirit of defensive protection still infuses the Second Continental Congress, and I mentioned in the last lecture the two things that are happening at the same time. So the Congress is trying to figure out what to do about a possible war and sending out the Olive Branch Petition at the same time. Both of those things are happening at the same time, so they’re not jumping into a war. They are preparing defensive measures.
On the British side, the general assumption was that a few strategic moves, a couple of really grand military maneuvers, maybe one big display of power and the whole thing would collapse — that there’s no way the colonists could not be dumbstruck and awed by the force of the British army so, whatever was going to happen, there’d be one little clash and it would be over. And if they could just seize the weapons and the ammunition and the things that were being stockpiled, they could sort of cut things off before it even got any worse. They could just collect the weapons and take them away and that — the power, the ease with which they would have marched at this point in to New England and seized arms and weapons — would show the colonists that this wasn’t worth fighting; it’s not a fight worth fighting; it’s not a fight that they could fight. So by trying to collect weapons, trying to collect ammunition, they’re trying to stem — Again it’s defensive. They’re trying to stop things from getting worse.
Now there were a few reasons why the British would have assumed one little gesture and it’s over. Now obviously, the most obvious one is just: the British Army. Okay. We’re talking about the British Army and a bunch of colonists who just went out and decided maybe we’d better drill now. Okay. So certainly to the British what they’re thinking is well, ‘please, that against us? Okay, we don’t even have to worry about that.’ But more than that, the British also thought, generally speaking, that the colonists were a lot of bluster and little more, that they just — they had a lot of hot air there in the colonies but that there actually wasn’t a lot more to them, certainly not a lot of bravery. And the word “cowards” is tossed around a lot in letters and in writings and even in speeches in Parliament from this time period.
So as an example, in the House of Lords someone apparently stands up and says, ‘There are a lot of men in the colonies who could fight against us if they chose to fight. The colonies abound in men who could serve as soldiers.’ So the Earl of Sandwich stands up and this is his response. “Suppose the colonies do abound in men, what does that signify? They are raw, undisciplined, cowardly men. I wish instead of 50 [correction: 40] or 50,000 of these brave fellows, they would produce in the field at least 200,000, the more the better.” Okay. That’s a really good arrogant British comment [laughs] in the world of arrogant British comments. “Believe me, my lords, the very sound of a cannon would carry them off … as fast as their feet could carry them. This is too trifling a part of the argument, to detain your lordships any longer.” Okay. ‘Please. We’re not talking about a real threat.’
Nor were the British very impressed at the idea, this — the whole idea of colonial civilians dressed up suddenly in military garb and suddenly positioning themselves as soldiers. So one English visitor to the colonies wrote a letter to a friend in England and expressed the same feeling. He said, “It is a curious Masquerade Scene to see grave sober Citizens, Barbers and Tailors who never looked fierce before in their Lives, but at their Wives, Children, or Apprentices… .” There’s always the little back-handed “gugsch” [laughs] that sort of goes into these quotes.
So they’ve only looked fierce before at their wives, children or apprentices, “strutting about in their Sunday Wigs in stiff Buckles with their Muskets on their shoulders struggling to put on a Martial countenance. If ever you saw a Goose assume an Air of Consequence, you may catch some faint idea of the foolish, aukward, puffed-up Stare of our Tradesmen: the Wig, indeed, is the most frightful Thing about them, for its very Hairs seem to bristle up in Defiance of the Soldiers.”
Okay. That’s a wonderful little passage about exactly what some people thought it looked like they were doing in the colonies.
General Gage, commanding the British forces in America, felt similarly, that basically one big display of force and they could close things off. And you can hear this, as well as his impatience with this sort of ongoing colonial hostility to the troops that were positioned in the colonies, in some threats that he made to some Boston radicals that he met with in 1775. So according to an account, he, quote, “swore to it by the living God, that if there was a single man of the King’s troops killed in any of their towns” meaning any of your towns, your Massachusetts towns, “he would burn it to the ground. What fools you are … to pretend to resist the power of Great Britain.” Okay. That to me is like Darth Vader. [laughter] What fools you are — It’s like wow, [laughs] that’s a statement of power. How dare you hold yourselves against the empire? The empire, “She maintained [in the] last war 300,000 men, and will do the same now rather than suffer the ungrateful people of this country to continue in their rebellion.” Okay. It’s clear how Gage feels.
Chapter 4. The Symbolic Battle at Salem [00:19:19]
So the colonies are preparing to defend themselves. The British and Gage are assuming a little display of force will end the matter. Neither side is assuming there’s a pending war, and you can see both of these views in play at a little event — it’s not a big moment; it’s actually prior to Lexington and Concord — that plays out also in Massachusetts in February of 1775. On February 26, Gage decided that he would have some troops move to Salem, Massachusetts, to seize cannons and guns that the colonists had collected there. So this is part of that strategy. Well, let’s just take the weapons away and we’ll march and we’ll look impressive and they will be nervous and this will be good on all counts.
And I’m going to read from an account of someone who was there actually who describes what he saw and what happened: “On Sunday, 26th Feb’y, 1775, my father came home from church rather sooner than usual which attracted my notice, and said to my mother ‘The reg’lars are come and are marching as fast as they can towards the Northfields bridge;’ and looking towards her with a very solemn face remarked ‘I don’t know what will be the consequence but something very serious, and I wish you to keep the children home [correction: “in”].’” Okay. So you get a sense of, huh? There’s soldiers marching now towards us? What does this mean? “I looked out of the window just at this time and saw the troops passing the house,” and apparently they were playing Yankee Doodle just to be insulting.
“Col. David Mason had received tidings of the approach of the British troops and ran into the North Church … during service … and cried out, at the top of his voice, ‘the reg’lars are coming after the guns.’” At this point several men ran out to move the guns, and the account continues: “My father looked in between the platoons … to see if he could recognize any of the soldiers who had been stationed at Fort William on the Neck, many of whom were known to him.”
And that’s always an interesting little detail to me. These soldiers have been there long enough that there’s just been mingling of soldiers and people, and so here the troops are marching and this person’s father is sort of going in to the crowd to see: If there’s someone here I know, I could ask him what’s happening; where — why are they coming here; what are their plans. “But he could discover no familiar faces — was blackguarded by the soldiers for his inquisitiveness, who asked him, with oaths, what he was looking at [correction: “after”].” You can actually hear that. ‘What are you looking at?’ Like — ‘get out of the way.’
Okay. So at this point, there’s a group of colonists who see the advancing troops. They go to this bridge that clearly the British want to get to and march across to get to the guns, and the colonists pull up a drawbridge so that the soldiers can’t go any further. And now we get this sort of great and somewhat bizarre standoff. The British commander is standing on one side and there are colonists on the other side and the drawbridge is up. And the British commander said that his troops would fire if the colonists don’t lower the bridge. The local militia captain says, ‘Well, if you fire, then you’re all going to be dead men,’ and supposedly the plan of the militia captain was if anyone fired he was going to run at the head of the British troops and kill him and then throw himself in the river and drown himself so he wouldn’t get punished for killing a British soldier, but he was — he had his plan; he was ready to act. [laughter] It’s like: good plan.
Okay. So at this point soldiers, civilians — Our eyewitness says it was — that it was a cold day and he noticed that these soldiers aren’t wearing coats and that actually they’re beginning to look really miserable and they’re starting to shiver because they’re just standing there in front of the bridge unable to go anywhere. And meanwhile some colonists climbed out on the other side of the bridge and they’re taunting the soldiers. And apparently one particularly loud person yelled out, “Soldiers, red jackets, lobster coats, cowards, d — na — n to your government!,” and everybody else shut them up because they really didn’t want to be fired upon. Right? It’s one thing to just sit there and mumble. It’s another to say, “Damnation to your government” and taunt the British into shooting.
At this point the British commander said that he would get over the bridge if he had to stay there until autumn. Right? He says, “By God! I will not be defeated,” to which the colonial captain basically replies and said, ‘Yeah, well, I think you already have been defeated because you’re here, and the weapons are there, and I don’t see you moving.’ The British commander insisted that this was the King’s highway. “Old Mr. James Barr, an Englishman and a man of much nerve, then replied to him; ‘it is not the King’s highway, it is a road built by the owners of the lots on the other side, and no king, country or town has anything to do with it.’” Okay. King’s highway, my foot.
So now the British commander is stuck. Right? He doesn’t want to lose face. He’s not going to surrender to these colonials. He wants to do something. So this to me is the most amazing part of the story. He actually proposes to the militia captain that if he and his men are allowed to cross the bridge, he promises that they will march fifty feet, turn around and march back. Right? [laughter] It’s like: ‘I won — [laughs] I got across the bridge.’ They’re not going to go after the weapons. It’s just a symbolic victory, like: they got what they wanted, the colonials backed down, we’ll just march fifty feet, we’ll turn around and then march away.
And that’s exactly what happened. They let them cross, they march, they turn around and they march away, apparently with the troops marching to the song “The World Turned Upside Down.” We see — We’re going to see that again in the — when there’s an actual war. But okay, a little symbolic — ‘okay, well, maybe I didn’t entirely lose face’ kind of moment by the British.
So there you can see pretty literally the British assuming that a little marching, a few threats, everything will fold, they’ll seize weapons, end of matter. That didn’t happen here. You can see the colonists sort of standing there defensively, not wanting to cause trouble but also not turning around and running; they’re defending.
Chapter 5. The Conciliatory Resolution and Gunshots at Lexington and Concord [00:25:08]
Now at roughly this same point back in England, even as some Members of Parliament were sneering at the idea of these sort of fighting colonials and as soldiers were trying to stave off trouble by seizing weapons and ammunitions, others in Parliament were actually thinking of trying to extend some conciliatory gestures and maybe that would actually end this before it became a lot worse. And in particular, in the House of Lords, William Pitt made a number of proposals trying to smooth things over; all of them were rejected. So he proposes that perhaps they actually could recognize colonial self-government. Okay. That didn’t go very far. Surprise! He said, ‘Okay. Well, what about withdrawing British troops from Boston?’ Rejected.
Instead, in February 1775, New England is declared to be in rebellion, but now we have one last stab at reconciliation on the part of the British: Lord North. And I’m mentioning this here because I’ve already talked about the Olive Branch Petition. In a way this is the equivalent on the other side of the ocean. What we — we’re going to see here is one attempt to extend one more offer that maybe — maybe — at this last second will stave things off. People are trying to find a way out of the problem and really struggling to find some kind of mutual ground.
So, Lord North passes a resolution. It’s ultimately called the Conciliatory Resolution. And it proposed that any colony that contributed to the common defense and supported the civil government and the administration of justice would be relieved of paying taxes or duties except as needed to regulate commerce — and I’ll repeat that. The Conciliatory Resolution in February 1775. It proposes that any colony that contributes to the common defense and supports the civil government and the administration of justice would be relieved of paying taxes or duties, except as needed to regulate commerce.
Many in Parliament were somewhat stunned by this gesture, even though obviously Parliament is not giving up any of its rights. It’s just making a nice offer, but it’s not saying, ‘we don’t have the power to tax, we’re just saying we won’t tax.’ But many in Parliament were stunned. As one observer said, “Uncertainty, surprise, distraction, were seated on every countenance” when this plan came forth. To some this seemed to be backing down. To others it seemed beside the point, that basically what the colonies needed was firmness and these kinds of concessions weren’t really going to do anything. But the resolution goes forward; North sends it on to the colonies. He very deliberately did not send it to the Continental Congress, which he didn’t recognize, but instead he sent it to individual colonial assemblies, thinking that if some of them, even just a handful of individual colonial assemblies, agreed to this, then the colonies would be divided.
And this is an example of something we’re going to see again and again and again in a variety of ways in the process of fighting the war. It’s a really common assumption on the part of the British that all they need to do is just divide the colonies — and that there are any number of ways in which it will be really easy to just sort of ruin their loyalties, turn them against each other, and then this whole thing can be brought to a close. And what we’ll see is what they’re underestimating. On the one hand, as I’ve already talked about in lectures, we’ve seen how hard it is for the colonies to do anything jointly, but we’ve also seen, if there’s an outside threat, they actually come together relatively effectively for a short period of time. So what the British are underestimating here is that actually there is some unity; there is a sense of united cause because of an outside threat.
So North passes the resolution. Obviously, it did not go far enough at this point for the colonial leaders. It still maintained the right of Parliament to basically do what it wanted to do with taxes. But also, in addition to not being enough of a gesture towards reconciliation, the timing was really poor because it didn’t reach the colonies until after the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord.
Now given what I described at Salem, you can see the continued logic of what the British troops were attempting to do at Lexington and Concord. Basically, they want to seize powder; they want to seize arms; they want to get the weapons; they’re going to march; they’re going to have an impressive display, grab the stuff and leave, and make a big impact.
Americans were very closely watching the troops by this time. They knew, as soon as the troops set out, that they were marching even though the troops apparently were trying to be somewhat secretive about what they were doing — and here we have the famous Paul Revere moment — and the poor William Dawes, the poor, neglected William Dawes, like: ‘me too; he was there too.’ He was riding along. Both of them, Paul Revere and William Dawes, are riding, basically telling people that the British regulars are on the move; they’re on the march.
Meanwhile, the British are marching towards Lexington on their way to Concord, which is where the arms are, and they’re beginning to become nervous, because before they get to towns they can hear the church bells ringing. So basically — ‘something’s going on in that town and we haven’t gotten there yet, so somehow or other they know we’re coming.’ One soldier later described how a, quote, “very genteel man” in a carriage stopped and told them that there were 600 armed men waiting for them on Lexington Common. Okay. As we’ll see, there were not 600 armed men. There were maybe roughly seventy men who heard the church bell, knew that was a bad thing, grabbed their weapons, and went to Lexington Common and are sort of standing there. Okay, not 600.
The British entered Lexington at about four o’clock in the morning. They saw this group of about seventy people on Lexington Common, supposedly yelled, “Rebels, disperse.” Americans later claimed that what they said was, “You damn rebels, lay down your arms” — so Americans always hear the — if there is a slur the Americans hear it — at which point a gun was fired, and it’s unclear who fired the gun. But when that gun was fired, the British opened fire. There were a few American shots in return. The American commander told his men, quote, to “take care of themselves,” which means run if you want, and so they did, leaving behind eight dead — roughly eight dead and ten wounded.
And now the British continue on, pushing on to Concord, which is why they came there in the first place, to get the powder that’s being stored there. And they actually met more militiamen on the way, and when they marched on them these people actually fled, which is in a sense what they were really expecting. The British began to destroy these colonial stores, the ammunition and the weapons. Meanwhile, the colonists collected near the North Bridge to stop the British and a few British shots were fired; Americans fired a few shots back before they withdrew.
Again, it’s only a temporary retreat. So the Americans keep doing something and then fleeing and then coming back and then fleeing. It’s a temporary retreat on the parts of the colonists because, as a British officer later reported, as they left Concord after they’d destroyed these ammunitions, quote,
“We were fired on from Houses and behind Trees, and before we had gone a half mile we were fired on from all sides, but mostly from the Rear, where People had hid themselves in houses till we had passed, and then fired; the Country was an amazing strong one, full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls… which the Rebels did not fail to take advantage of… . In this way we marched between 9 and 10 miles, their numbers increasing from all parts, while ours was reduced by deaths, wounds, and fatigue.”
And another officer later recalled that he heard colonists and actually even saw some of them standing in the road yelling out, “King Hancock forever.” Okay. Where that came from I can’t tell you, but they’re out there sort of declaring their political cause.
This is hardly what the British expected, and for that matter in a sense the colonists didn’t expect that sort of event to unfold, but this level of colonial resistance to the British was a surprise. As another British soldier put it, “The enthusiastic zeal with which these people have behaved must convince every reasonable man what a difficult and unpleasant task General Gage has before him. Even weamin [women] had firelocks.” So the British response on the one hand is: ‘oh, okay, they didn’t just melt away; this will be unpleasant for General Gage.’
All told, roughly 250 British soldiers were killed, roughly ninety-five Americans. For the British obviously this suggests, that little display of military might not be enough. For the colonists it revealed the existence of an honest to goodness physical threat. As John Adams put it, Lexington was proof that, quote, “if we did not defend ourselves, they would kill us.” Okay. John Adams always just states it, okay.
Almost immediately people from both sides began to use the clash as propaganda, basically playing it up so that they seem defensive and the other side seems as though it’s the aggressor — so colonists sent riders out to tell people in other towns and other colonies about how the British had killed every person they came across, women and children; they had driven pregnant women into the street; [laughter] they shot dead old men. It’s like: ‘anything we can think of, they did.’
So obviously they’re exaggerating a bit what happened in Lexington and Concord, but British accounts were no less creative. The British accused Americans of scalping dead and dying British soldiers, claiming, quote, they were “full as bad as the Indians for Scalping and Cutting the dead men’s Ears and Noses off, and those they get alive, that are wounded and can’t get off the Ground.” Okay. They’re scalping live men, those colonists, is what the British are charging. They claimed that the Americans had fired first; that Americans didn’t fight fair because they were hiding; that they were cowardly because they were lying on their bellies hiding instead of standing upright, which is how a traditional army was supposed to fight — but both sides clearly are positioning themselves as being defensive at this point.
Chapter 6. Changing British and Americans Opinions at Breed’s Hill [00:35:24]
In June of 1775, the English got more evidence that the Americans weren’t just going to run. When colonists attempted to station themselves on Breed’s Hill in Massachusetts overlooking Boston — not Bunker Hill actually but Breed’s Hill. And the Americans are thinking: ‘well, this’ll be very strategic if we go to the top of this hill, it overlooks Boston, it’s a good place for us to have power or control over.’ The British see that as well, and they attack to prevent the colonists from taking control of that hill. The conflict is later called the Battle of Bunker Hill — it should be the Battle of Breed’s Hill — but although the British ultimately did claim the hill and could claim a victory, it was a pretty expensive victory. They lost roughly one thousand out of two thousand men. They had enormous casualties. The Americans lost roughly four hundred men.
The British really suffered a lot of losses, and at this point Gage learned a lesson. As he observed after seeing all of these clashes, the colonists were, quote, “not the despicable rabble too many have supposed them to be.” ‘Wow. They’re less of a despicable rabble than I thought they were.’ “These people show a spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the French” — which I also think is interesting. What he’s saying is well, we thought we knew these people from that French and Indian War and they weren’t too impressive then, but they’re actually behaving differently now. “Everybody has judged of them from their former appearance and behavior when joined with the King’s forces in the last war, which has led many into great mistakes. They are now spirited up by a rage and enthusiasm as great as [ever] people were possessed of.”
Colonists also learned a lesson, and you can see this most dramatically in New York State. New York at the time: There were a number of Conservatives and Loyalists who were in power in New York. It wasn’t a radical colony. They had actually sent more conservative delegates to the First Continental Congress. There had even been talk in New York about not sending delegates to the Second Continental Congress because ‘good men’ got corrupted when they went to hang out with those scary radical guys in the Continental Congress. And basically the Crown saw New York as a good thing, because they were sort of more loyal than many of the other colonies. That’s New York before the events I’ve talked about today.
After these events New York made something of a turnaround. They hanged Lord North in effigy; they seized arms belonging to the city and distributed them to citizens; and ultimately the British marched out of New York City and retreated to a ship in the harbor with the colonists grabbing at their baggage and their ammunition as they left. So that obviously shows that there is an impact.
All over the colonies people began to feel the need to prepare for war. As one colonist wrote in July of 1775, “Travel through whatever part of this country you will, you see the inhabitants training, making firelocks, casting mortars, shells and shot, and making saltpetre.” Philadelphia was decorated with flags announcing liberty or death. People are really now motivated with a real — I guess rage and enthusiasm is a good way of putting it at these recent events.
So now you truly do get a sense of how the colonies were indeed set on fire in 1775. You can see what it is that Paine was responding to. You can see why in January of 1776 when Common Sense was published why it had the impact it did, because people were ready to hear its message. They were willing to at least begin to consider independence because of what was unfolding in 1775.
Things were at a difficult point at this point, and if you step back and just look at the larger logic of what’s going on, you can really see how difficult it would have been to find your way out of this situation. The British administration couldn’t really yield to demands of the Continental Congress without sacrificing its sovereignty over the colonies, and I suppose in their eyes, also humiliating itself before the eyes of the world.
Along similar lines, the colonists couldn’t really back down about their demands without seeming to surrender what they considered to be some of their fundamental rights. They suspected British attempts at conciliation anyway because they — every time the British made any sort of gesture that seemed to be moving in the right direction their thought was: ‘well, yeah, they’re trying to appease us so we stop protesting, but they’re just going to be tyrants underneath it all; they’re basically trying to make us quiet so they can impose tyranny upon us.’
But I do want to point out — Now I’ve just described all of these dramatic events, men being killed, battles, people storing arms, a lot of drama, but I’ve talked about 1775 throughout this entire class, right? — and independence isn’t declared until roughly a year later. Again, which is a really dramatic way of seeing that war is not inevitable, that people are struggling to avoid it even as they’re doing all of this and taking all of these actions and acting in the moment at what’s unfolding. Even after Lexington and Concord in July of 1775, the Continental Congress still sends out that Olive Branch Petition.
The Americans saw themselves as Britons as well as Americans. They were defending their rights as British subjects, and only over time did they really gradually work their way towards independence. They had first assumed that there was a small group of corrupt government ministers who maybe were leading things the wrong way, then they decided well, maybe it was Parliament that was the problem, and only when the last prop of the British constitution, the monarch, proved deaf to their cause, did colonists begin to feel that independence might be possible and ultimately maybe was going to be necessary.
Chapter 7. Congress’s Efforts to Organize War Efforts and Conclusion [00:41:43]
Okay. So where does this leave us? Well, obviously, it leaves us with a really enormous looming challenge facing the Continental Congress. Right? Think about: the Continental Congress doesn’t really have any power, all these delegates in there, and now “poof,” they somehow have to help organize a united war effort with no mechanism for doing anything in a united, organized manner.
And I’m going to end the lecture by letting John Adams sum up this challenge at this point, what it felt like to be in the Continental Congress at this scary point — and he wrote this letter in 1775 to his wife actually, to Abigail. And he wrote, “When 50 or 60 Men have a Constitution to form for a great Empire” — I like the fact that it’s a great empire already — “at the same Time they have a Country of 1500 Miles extent to fortify, Millions to arm and train, a Naval Power to begin, an extensive Commerce to regulate, numerous Tribes of Indians to negotiate with, a standing Army of Twenty seven Thousand Men to raise pay, victual and officer, I shall really pity those 50 or 60 men.” [laughs] Okay. So that’s Adams saying, ‘Boy, I’m not looking forward to this. This is going to be an enormous task.’
And what we’re going to be looking at Tuesday is that very thing. How do you hold a war? How do you begin to organize this kind of effort? What were the things that Congress immediately did? George Washington is going to appear. That’s one of the things the Continental Congress does at an early point is find — try to create a continental army and Washington walked on to the national scene at this point. So we will look at the unfolding of the war from a different angle next week. I will stop there.
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