The story of the American Revolution is an epic that should be better known. Everyone knows a little about the founding of the United States. The Boston Tea Party, George Washington, Bunker Hill, and Valley Forge still resonate for Americans. But few people today realize how long and hard was the struggle to create this nation. The war for American independence lasted eight years. It followed a dozen years of growing tension with Great Britain. Six years intervened between the end of the war and the inauguration of our current constitutional system. Thus the revolutionary period as a whole lasted longer than a generation — a quarter century of densely packed events.
The war itself was an ordeal. One of the longest conflicts in American history, it was also one of the bloodiest. Only the Civil War took a higher toll of the population. The Revolutionary War was itself a civil war. Up to a fifth of Americans opposed independence; thousands fought for the King against the Continental army. Before the conflict was over, it had become a world war. The intervention of France and other European powers provided much-needed support to the American revolutionaries. It also led to fighting around the globe, from Europe to India. The independence of the United States became an international event that had far-reaching reverberations in the period of the subsequent French Revolution and beyond.
The American Revolution forged a nation out of thirteen colonies that had great difficulty learning how to cooperate with each other. The colonies shared a common cultural and legal heritage derived from England — most of the colonists could trace their roots back to the British Isles. Despite this, there were many barriers to unity. By European standards, British America was an enormous place, with great stretches of wilderness separating many settlements from each other. The sense of distance was aggravated by the lack of good roads. The fastest way to travel from one colony to another was by sea. But more than geography divided the colonies. The economies of the southern colonies were dominated by a plantation monoculture, heavily dependent on slave labor. The economies of the northern colonies were more diverse, supported by farming, fishing, and trade. Even religion separated the colonies. In the south, the Church of England predominated, while dissenting churches flourished in the north.
That these thirteen different colonies coalesced into a new nation was a triumph of creative statesmanship. It was not an easy process, and there was much trial and error as Americans moved from the Stamp Act Congress to the Continental Congresses, from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. The result of these labors has proved enduring. The United States is now well into its third century of existence, making it one of the oldest and most successful republics in the world.
The Founding Fathers of the United States were not supermen. They were a remarkably talented and courageous group of individuals. While they possessed all the prejudices and provincialisms endemic to the human condition, they found ways to compromise with each other and craft political institutions that both stood the test of time and guaranteed Americans unprecedented liberties and rights. Even when they failed, as with slavery, they laid down principles that would doom that institution in time. It took heroes to create the United States. Some of them, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, will figure prominently in the pages that follow.
This book is an introduction to the story of the American Revolution. It will give you the basic facts about what happened and why. Inevitably, much interesting detail has to be left out of an introduction. Many important people and issues can be treated only briefly. Hopefully this book will encourage you to read further about the remarkable story of the American founding.