This Collection Essay was produced through a generous annual fellowship for digital education on American Women’s History or Early American History funded by the Chicago Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution.
When we think of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, we think George Washington, John Adams, Paul Revere—the Patriots. The American Revolution as told in school textbooks follows this pattern of telling the war according to how Patriots viewed it. The evil British King George III and the British Government infringed on the rights of the colonists, the colonists justifiably rebelled against British rule and, after almost a decade of war (in which the colonists were horribly outnumbered, with little experience, training, and equipment), the brave but rag-tag Continental Army defeated the best army in the world. Of course, this first American Army overcame great obstacles due to the intelligence, bravery, and almost God-like qualities of their leader, General George Washington.
This is the story of the war that we learn growing up and few of us question it. However, the American Revolution was a much more complex conflict and, in order to develop a more accurate and well-rounded understanding of it, we must look at the different peoples who experienced the war and were affected by it. People living in the rebellious colonies included not only the Patriots, but also Loyalists, American Indians, slaves, and others who may have had good reason to oppose independence or who would not be counted as citizens of the newly formed republic. Even active participants and contributors to the war were a diverse lot: the British army hired Hessian soldiers to join the fighting against the Patriots and the French helped the Americans financially and militarily. Looking at these perspectives gives us a larger context from which we can study the war, and determine the outcomes for all Americans.
The following collection of documents serves to illustrate these various perspectives on the causes and effects of the American Revolution. The goal of this collection is to give a small sampling of the wealth of information that is available on the many different stories of the American Revolution, not just the Patriot story familiar to us. While the patriot view is represented, it is these other perspectives that serve to guide us to a better understanding of the various interests different groups of people had in the war, and the war’s affect not only on the newly independent United States of America, but on people around the world.
- How did the American Revolution affect different groups of people?
- What are the various arguments put forth as to the cause of and reasons for the American Revolution? How do the arguments reflect the group that made them?
- What are the different interests of each group? What stake do they have in the war?
- Think about a definition of the word Americans. What groups of people are considered Americans at this time? Who is considered American today?
Though the most well-known perspective of the American Revolution, at least for Americans, it is important to understand the Patriot view of the Revolution in order to provide context for the other perspectives of peoples living in America and those other groups involved with the war. The causes of the American Revolution (according to the Patriots), were long in coming, starting with the French and Indian War, and including the acts passed by Parliament on the colonies to raise money to help pay for that war (including the Stamp Act, and the ‘Intolerable Acts’). As subjects of the British crown and taxpayers, the colonists believed they had a right to representation in Parliament. Boston was hit the hardest by these taxes and therefore minor revolts broke out there, which led to further British involvement, including more military personnel and harsher laws, which led to further revolt and ultimately the discussion among the colonies to create a unifying force (the Continental Congress) to try to get Parliament to ease the pressure off of the colonies.
Selection: Charles Chauncy, “A Discourse on the Good News from a Far Country: A Day of Thanks-Giving to Almighty God on Occasion of the Repeal of the Stamp-Act,” title page, 14-15, 22-23 (1766).
We know what happens next. The colonists start to prepare for battle, calling out the militia and stockpiling weapons, the British attempt to seize these stores of weapons, and the battles of Lexington and Concord ensue. Both sides refused to yield and the war escalated from there. The war finally ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and America finally became an independent country.
Selection: “A Poem Containing Some Remarks on the Present War, Etc…” (1779).
The documents in this section span from before the war until almost the end of the war and they represent some of the ideals for which the Patriots stood. As you read these documents think about how the American Revolution might have served the interests of this group.
Selection: John Adams to Eldridge Gerry with transcription (July 2, 1782).
Questions to Consider
- How do the Patriots define themselves as Americans?
- What are some of the ideals and principles of the Patriots? What do they hope to achieve? Do their goals change over time?
- What was the importance of the Stamp Act and its repeal?
- According to John Adams, what should be the United States’ priorities once it gains independence? Why? How are these priorities connected to the ideals represented in the other documents?
The Loyalists are another group of Americans whose perspective must be considered for a better understanding of the American Revolution. While most revolutionaries came from the middle class, most Loyalists were the very rich (who had prospered under British rule) and the very poor, who had no interest in the ideals of liberty when they were just struggling to survive. The British Army believed that between two-thirds and three-fourths of the American population was loyal to the crown. Their military strategy was intended to empower this presumed majority and to take control of American affairs away from the Revolutionaries.
Louisiana Susannah Wells, The Journal of a Voyage from Charlestown, S.C. to London: Undertaken During the American Revolution by a Daughter of an Eminent American Loyalist in the Year 1778, and Written from Memory Only in 1779, title page, 4-9 (1906).
Many Loyalists however, had a very difficult time throughout the Revolution. The Patriots confiscated Loyalist property and even threatened many Loyalists themselves. This caused many Loyalists to flee the colonies and return to the safety of Britain (as is the case with Ms. Wells in the document below). Other Loyalists remained and attempted to help the British by acting as spies and guides for the British army. Others gave their own property for the use of the British army and still others welcomed British soldiers into their homes. Naturally, many Loyalists looked to the British army for protection and often fled their homes and traveled to British-held cities where they would be safe. However, the British army often mistreated Loyalists as well, taking their property without paying, and the British-held cities became so cramped because of the large number of Loyalist refugees that the army could not house and feed them all and dangers of disease and fire spread.
Selection: Thomas Macknight, Testimonies of Mr. Macknight’s Case, Contained in Letters from the Governor of North Carolina, the Earl of Dunmore, Sir Grey Cooper, the Earl of Dartmouth, Lord Sackville, Lord North, 21-22 (1780).
Questions to Consider
- How were Ms. Wells and her group treated by the British? What happened to them?
- How was Mr. Macknight treated by the British? What happened to all his property in America?
- Did the American Revolution serve the interests of Loyalists living in America? Why or why not?
- What do these documents tell us about the experiences of Loyalists during the American Revolution?
The American Indians
Summarizing the American Indian perspective is difficult, more so than the other groups represented in this collection, because it is not just one group, but rather many various tribes, each with its own languages, customs, and loyalties. American Indians fought on both sides of the Revolution, as they had in the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Initially, most tribes wanted to remain neutral and treaties were drawn up between the Revolutionaries and various tribes to that effect. Based on the evidence, American Indians wanted to be left alone.
Selection: Chief Skenadoah and Chief Petrus, [Speech to the Oneidas] (July 21, 1783).
As the Revolution continued, however, Indians could not maintain neutrality and eventually joined in the fight. The Oneida Peoples, a collection of six different tribes in New England (including the Mohawk) initially maintained neutrality but eventually joined the British. On the other hand, the Micmac, in eastern Canada, fought for the Revolutionaries. Ultimately, Indian tribes fought for the side they believed would be the best for their own interests and would allow them to continue in peace on their own lands. As a response to American Indians allying with the British, part of the Declaration of Independence accuses the British crown of “…excit[ing] domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” At the conclusion of the war, the tribes that had fought for the British had to find a way to negotiate peace with the Americans.
Selection: Samuel Kirkland Abraham, A Speech of the Mohawks to the Majestrates and Committee of the Town of Schenectady and Major Corporation and Committee of the City of Albany &c (May 20, 1775).
Questions to Consider
- Are American Indians considered to be part of the Americans [specify by whom]? Why or why not?
- Based on the speeches by the Oneida people (the first and third documents in this section), what did they want before the war and what did they want after the war? What changed, if anything?
- Why would the British make American Indians sign an oath of loyalty?
- What can these documents tell us about the experiences, goals, and interests of American Indians during the American Revolution?
Selection: [Micmac Oath] (September 21, 1778).
The Slaves and Free Blacks
Slaves and free blacks in the colonies fought on both sides of the Revolution. For slaves, fighting meant the potential of freedom. Many slaves took the place of their masters in the Continental army with the agreement that they would be freed upon their return. Other slaves ran away and joined the British army, which offered emancipation to any slave that fought on their side. Other slaves accompanied their masters in the army and performed the function of servant, cooking and cleaning at camp. Even General George Washington had a slave with him during the war, William Lee, who acted as servant, military aid, and companion. The following sources come from a book of stories about individuals that served in the Continental army and then later attempted to draw a pension for their service from Congress.
Selection: Anthony Gilman, “Sold into Slavery While Wearing the Uniform of the United States,” in Black Soldiers of the American Revolutionary War, 30-31 (1978).
Questions to Consider
- Do slaves and free blacks count as Americans? Why or why not?
- Why did these men enlist in the Continental army? How is this different than the reasons white men enlisted?
- What did these men receive as compensation for their service in the Continental army?
- What do these documents tell us about the experiences of black soldiers and how they differed from those of white soldiers?
The British were in a tight spot regarding their American colonies. On the one hand, most British felt that, as the mother country, Britain had the right to impose any laws or rules it wanted on its colonies. On the other hand, a war in and with the colonies would potentially damage the economic and commercial prosperity that the British relied upon. The refusal of the Continental Congress to comply with Britain’s requests resulted in Britain taking ever more militant steps, leading to the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, and the colonies’ declaring independence in July 1776. The British also had to consider the French interests in this affair, as the French still felt humiliated after their defeat in the French and Indian War and were looking for revenge at the best moment.
The British army during the American Revolution was composed of British regulars and Hessian soldiers. The British had one of the greatest armies in the world at that time and its regulars were well trained and disciplined. The Hessian mercenaries were German soldiers hired by Britain and were a highly disciplined and well-trained group. In addition to a professional and well-trained army, the British also had the most-powerful navy in the world.
Selection: Political Memoirs; or, a View of Some of the First Operations of the War, After the French Notification, as They Were Regarded by Foreigners, Particularly by Frenchmen, title page, vi-vii (1783).
Looking at the Revolution from the British perspective can help students of the war gain a better understanding of the (mainly economic) reasons why the British fought to keep the colonies, the relationship between the colonists and its enemies, and also the often-overlooked relationship between Britain and France, and how that tense relationship affected the American Revolution.
Questions to Consider
- What demands did the British make to the Continental Congress (quoted in Political Memoirs)? What reasons did Britain give as to why the colonies should comply?
- Who are the two Hessians who wrote the journal entries quoted in Hubley’s The History of the American Revolution? What can you infer about their treatment based on their rank or position within the army?
- How did the Americans treat the Hessian prisoners similarly or differently than they treated the British prisoners? What reasons do the Hessian authors give for their treatment?
- What does the document Political Memoirs state about the relationship between Britain and France? How does the Revolution come into play?
- What do the documents in this section tell us about the relationship between France and America? What would this relationship imply for America?
While many believe that the French helped the American cause in the Revolution because of their shared love of liberty, the reasons why the French got involved in the war, and their interests in the war were much more complex. The French deliberated heavily before agreeing to first help finance the American effort and allow the use of their ports and then ultimately to help by providing ships, military supplies, and soldiers for the Americans.
Selection: Louis XVI, Lettre du roi à M. l’amiral, pour faire délivrer des commissions en course [Letter from the King to Monseigneur the Admiral, Delivering a Commission], 1-3 (1779).
The French had lost the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), and were still trying to recover from that defeat economically and politically. In addition, the idea of a rebellion in a country’s colony went against the monarchical idea of complete power over colonies, including the fear that such rebellious attitudes would spread to their own colonies in the Americas. In order to understand why the French willingly spent millions to help the Americans break away from the English, we must look back to the intense competition between the French and the English. Both countries took any opportunity to hurt the other. In fact, the French were close to getting Spain to join the war effort as well, though ultimately Spain remained neutral.
Based on the European perspective, students of the American Revolution start to get a sense of the worldwide implications of the Revolution, and the importance it had, not just whether the colonies would be independent or not, but how international diplomacy would be affected.
Questions to Consider
- In the first letter, what does King Louis XVI want his navy to do? Why? What does this have to do with the American Revolution?
- What is the French perspective on the American Revolution? What is the ultimate reason why the French participate in the war?
- What do these documents tell us about the French perspective and experience in the American Revolution?
- How can this French perspective be used to help answer the original question?
Here is a transcription of the Micmac oath with a discussion question:
David Hackett Fischer. Washington’s Crossing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Charlemagne Tower. La Fayette in the American Revolution with Some Account of the Attitude of France Toward the War of Independence. Vol. I. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1895.
The Declaration of Independence