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Map of the thirteen colonies in 1775
Between 1776 and 1789, the United States became an independent country, creating and ratifying its new constitution, and establishing the federal government. In an attempt to gain autonomous status within the British Empire, American Revolutionaries implemented nonviolent means of protest which quickly grew into a political revolution followed by a war for independence to defend it. The Americans eventually won the war, declaring the United States a sovereign nation in the interim. After thirteen years of relatively loose Confederation, the U.S. government, fearing foreign invasion and domestic insurrection, replaced the governing Articles of Confederation to strengthen the federal government's powers of defense and taxation with the Constitution of the United States in 1789, still in effect today.

American Revolution

During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the British colonies had developed traditions of popular self-government while enjoying the benign neglect of Britainmarker, which was preoccupied by civil war and other problems. After the conclusion of the world war in 1763 (known in Europe and Canada as the Seven Years' War and in the United States as the French and Indian War), Britain had emerged as the world's dominant power, but found itself mired in debt and struggling to finance the Navy and Army necessary to maintain a world empire. The British Parliamentmarker's attempt to raise taxes on the North American colonists raised fears among the Americans that their rights as "Englishmen," particularly their rights of self-government, were in danger. The colonials had developed a decidedly republican political viewpoint, which denounced royalty and aristocracy.

A series of disputes with the Parliament of Great Britain over taxation led first to informal committees of correspondence among the colonies, then to coordinated protest and resistance, and finally to the calling of a general convention—referred to as the First Continental Congress—to inaugurate a trade boycott against Britain. The Continental Congress included thirteen of the colonies. The British colonies of East Florida, West Florida, Newfoundlandmarker, Nova Scotiamarker and French-speaking Quebecmarker never joined, nor did the West Indies colonies, such as Jamaicamarker.

Military hostilities begin

On April 19, 1775, a detachment of the British Army marched inland from Boston, Massachusettsmarker, in search of a cache of arms and with orders to arrest certain prominent local leaders. At Lexington, Massachusettsmarker, they confronted and fired upon a small group of local militia, who had gathered on the town common, or "green." Further along their line of march, the British soldiers confronted a much larger group of militia at a bridge in Concordmarker, and were turned back. Retreating toward Boston, they were subjected to continual sniper attacks and barely made it back. This was the Battle of Lexington and Concordmarker—coming after a dozen years of escalating political conflict between the colonies and the British Parliamentmarker—and marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. As news spread, local shadow governments (called "committees of correspondence" and then Provincial Congresses) seized control of every colony, drove out royal officials, and then sent militiamen to Boston to besiege the British army there.

The Second Continental Congress first met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvaniamarker, in the aftermath of armed clashes in April. The Second Continental Congress, with thirteen colonies represented, immediately began to organize itself as a central government and instructed the colonies to write constitutions for themselves as states. In June 1775, George Washington, a charismatic Virginia political leader with experience in the French and Indian War, was unanimously appointed commander of a newly organized Continental Army, incorporating the militia besieging the British Armymarker occupying Boston. In every state, a minority professed loyalty to the King, but nowhere did they have power. These Loyalists were kept under close watch by standing Committees of Safety created by the Provincial Congresses. The unwritten rule was such people could remain silent, but vocal or financial support for the King would not be tolerated. Very few Loyalists were executed, but thousands chose or were forced to flee to British-controlled territory, mostly to present-day Canada.
United States 1783-1803

Invasion of Canada

During the winter of 1775-76, an attempt by the Patriots to capture Quebec failed, and the buildup of British forces at Halifaxmarker, Nova Scotiamarker, precluded what became Canada from joining the 13 "American" states. The Americans were able to capture a British fortmarker at Ticonderoga, New Yorkmarker, and to drag cannon over the snow to the outskirts of Boston. The appearance of troops and cannon on Dorchester Heightsmarker, above the city, led the British Army to evacuate Boston on March 17, 1776.

Declaration of Independence

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, still meeting in Philadelphia, declared the independence of the United States. Two days later, on July 4, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The drafting of the Declaration was the responsibility of a Committee of Five, which included, among others, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, but the style of the document is attributed primarily to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's work was reviewed by Franklin at length and then submitted to the Congress where numerous changes were made, including the exclusion of his charges against George III regarding slavery.

These are the famous words from The Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. And they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these, are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

British return: 1776–1777

The British returned in force in August 1776, landing in New York and engaging the fledgling Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island in one of the largest engagements of the war. They eventually seized New York City and nearly captured General Washington. The British made the city their main political and military base of operations in North America, holding it until 1783, when they relinquished it under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Patriot evacuation and British military occupation made the city the destination for Loyalist refugees, and a focal point of Washington's intelligence network. The British also took New Jersey, but in a surprise attack, Washington crossed the Delaware into New Jersey and defeated British armies at Trenton and Princetonmarker, thereby regaining New Jersey. While the number of troops engaged in the victories were relatively minor, they gave an important boost to pro-independence supporters at a time when morale was flagging, and have become iconic images of the war.

A grand plan, later known as the Saratoga Campaign, was drafted in London to make coordinated movements down from Canada and down the Hudson River, to meet at Albany, New Yorkmarker, dividing the colonies in two, separating New Englandmarker from the rest. Failed communications and planning resulted in the army descending from Canada, commanded by General John Burgoyne, bogging down in dense forest north of Albany. Burgoyne's army advanced only a few miles during the whole summer of 1777 and finally was overwhelmed at Saratogamarker by a gathering of local militia, spearheaded by a small core of professionally trained American regulars, far outnumbering the British forces. Meanwhile, the British Army that was supposed to advance up the Hudson River to meet Burgoyne, went, instead, to Philadelphia, in a vain attempt to end the war by capturing the American capital city. The British army had agreed to surrender only on condition of being a Convention Army with repatriation to Britain. Realizing that their cause would be adversely affected if the captured troops could be switched with other British troops who would be brought out to America, Congress repudiated these terms, and imprisoned them instead. This was poorly received in Britain, as a violation of the rules of war, and contributed further to the drift apart.

The colonist's victory at Saratoga led the French into an open alliance with the United States. With the full entry of the French, the American Revolution became part of a world war, in which the French were joined by Spain and the Netherlands, all European naval powers with an interest in stemming British power.

Which was the first state to recognize the United States and when is debated. The City of Dubrovnikmarker, then known as the Republic of Ragusa, claims to be the first; Barbara W. Tuchmann claims it was the Netherlandsmarker; Jerome Weiner claims it was Moroccomarker.

The British move South, 1778–1783

The British strategy in America now concentrated on a campaign in the southern colonies. With fewer regular troops at their disposal, the British commanders saw the Southern Strategy as a more viable plan, as the south was perceived as being more strongly Loyalist, with a large population of poorer recent immigrants as well as large numbers of African Americans, both groups who tended to favour them.

In late December 1778, the British had captured Savannahmarker. In 1780 they launched a fresh invasion and took Charlestonmarker as well. A significant victory at the Battle of Camdenmarker meant that government forces soon controlled most of Georgia and South Carolina. The British set up a network of forts inland, hoping the Loyalists would rally to the flag. Despite the disaster at Saratoga, they once again appeared to have gained the upper hand. There was even a consideration of ten state independence (with the three southernmost colonies remaining British).

Not enough Loyalists turned out, however, and the British had to fight their way north into North Carolinamarker and Virginiamarker, with a severely weakened army. Behind them much of the territory they had already captured dissolved into a chaotic guerrilla war, fought predominantly between bands of Loyalist and rebel Americans, which negated many of the gains the British had previously made.

Yorktown 1781

The siege of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a British army, paving the way for the end of the American Revolutionary War.
The southern British army marched to Yorktown, Virginiamarker where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet which would take them back to New York. When that fleet was defeated by a French fleet, however, they became trapped in Yorktown. In October 1781 under a combined siege by the French and Continental armies, the British under the command of General Cornwallis, surrendered.

News of the defeat effectively ended major offensive operations in America. Support for the conflict had never been strong in Britain, where many sympathised with the rebels, but now it reached a new low.

Although King George III personally wanted to fight on, his supporters lost control of Parliament, and no further major land offensives were launched in the American Theatre.]

A final naval battle was fought by Captain John Barry and his crew of the Alliance as three British warships led by the HMS Sybil tried to take the payroll of the Continental Army on March 10, 1783 off the coast of Cape Canaveralmarker.


In treaty negotiations to end the war, the United States was represented by a team led by Benjamin Franklin and which included John Adams and John Jay. They were able to negotiate boundaries for the United States over the Allegheny Mountains stretching to the Mississippi River and the southern Great Lakes region, encompassing a vast unsettled region nearly as large as Western Europe. The settlement with Great Britain was termed the Treaty of Paris .

Development of federal institutions

Articles of Confederation

The Treaty of Paris left the United States independent and at peace but with an unsettled governmental structure. The Second Continental Congress had drawn up Articles of Confederation in November 15, 1777, to regularize its own status. These described a permanent confederation, but granted to the Congress—the only federal institution—little power to finance itself or to ensure that its resolutions were enforced. The Articles of Confederation were weak and did not give a strong political or economic base for the newly formed nation. However, the articles did serve as the lead up to the much stronger and more agreed upon Constitution.

Although historians generally agree that the articles were a spectacular failure in terms of workable governance, they do give much credit to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance that set up protocol for the admission of new states, the division of land into homesteads and states, as well as setting aside land in each township for public use. This system represented a sharp break from imperial colonization, as in Europe, and provided the basis for the rest of American continental expansion through the 19th Century.

During the latter years of the war, most people were living in comparative comfort. Farmers found a ready market for their produce within the lines of the British and French armies. Blockade runners and the prizes from privateers added rich cargoes and merchandise to northern shops. Speculators went in debt in preparation for the economic boom which was sure to follow the war.

These dreams vanished in the economic depression that followed the war. Orders in council closed the ports of the British West Indies to all staple products which were not carried in British ships. France and Spain established similar policies. Simultaneously, new manufacturers were stifled by British products which were suddenly filling American ports. Political unrest in several states and efforts by debtors to use popular government to erase their debts increased the anxiety of the political and economic elites which had led the Revolution. The apparent inability of the Congress to redeem the public obligations (debts) incurred during the war, or to become a forum for productive cooperation among the states to encourage commerce and economic development, only aggravated a gloomy situation.

The Continental Congress had issued bills of credit, but by the end of the war its paper money had so far depreciated that it ceased to pass as currency, spawning the expression "not worth a continental". Congress could not levy taxes and could only make requisitions upon the States. Less than a million and a half dollars came into the treasury between 1781 and 1784, although the governors had been asked for two million in 1783 alone.

When John Adams went to London in 1785 as the first representative of the United States, he found it impossible to secure a treaty for unrestricted commerce. Demands were made for favors and there was no assurance that individual states would agree to a treaty. Adams stated it was necessary for the States to confer the power of passing navigation laws to Congress, or that the States themselves pass retaliatory acts against Great Britain. Congress had already requested and failed to get power over navigation laws. Meanwhile, each State acted individually against Great Britain to little effect. When other New England states closed their ports to British shipping, Connecticut hastened to profit by opening its ports.

Debtor's problems came to a head in Shays' Rebellion in Massachusetts. Congress was unable to protect manufacturing and shipping. State legislatures were unable or unwilling to resists attacks upon private contracts and public credit. Land speculators expected no rise in values when the government could not defend its borders nor protect its frontier population. The idea of a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation grew in favor. Alexander Hamilton, a Revolutionary War veteran who determined while serving as Washington's aide-de-camp a strong central government was necessary to avoid the frustrations endured by the Army due to an ineffectual Congress, called for what would be referred to as the Annapolis Convention to determine the feasabiltiy for at least a revision of the Articles - or their replacement.

Constitutional Convention

A series of attempts to organize a movement to outline and press reforms culminated in the Congress calling the convention, which met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Known to history as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the meeting was called with the modest goal of suggesting reforms to the Articles of Confederation, but they quickly (and secretly) began work on a wholly new constitution soon after first meeting. The Constitution, proposed by the Convention, called for a federal government—limited in scope but independent of and superior to the states—within its assigned role able to tax and equipped with both Executive and Judicial branches as well as a two house legislature. The national legislature—or Congress—envisioned by the Convention embodied the key compromise of the Convention between the small states which wanted to retain the power they had under the one state/one vote Congress of the Articles of Confederation and the large states which wanted the weight of their larger populations and wealth to have a proportionate share of power. The upper House—the Senate—would represent the states equally, while the House of Representatives would be elected from districts of approximately equal population.

The Constitution itself called for ratification by state conventions specially elected for the purpose, and the Confederation Congress recommended the Constitution to the states, asking that ratification conventions be called.

Several of the smaller states, led by Delawaremarker, embraced the Constitution with little reservation. But in New York and Virginia, the matter became one of controversy. Virginia had been the first successful British colony in North America, had a large population, and its political leadership had played prominent roles in the Revolution. New York was a large, populous state; with the best situated and sited port on the coast, the state was essential for the success of the United States. Local New York politics was tightly controlled by a parochial elite, and local political leaders did not want to share their power with the national politicians who would control the federal government. The New York ratification convention became the focus for a struggle over the wisdom of adopting the Constitution.

Struggle for ratification

US states in 1790
Those who advocated the Constitution took the name Federalists and quickly gained supporters throughout the nation. The most well-known Federalists include Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These were the writers of the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays published in New York newspapers, under the pen name "Publius", which served in many ways as seminal documents for the new United States that was to come. These were written, however, after the Constitutional Convention and were a part of the ratification debates in the state of New York, where the battle for ratification was particularly fierce.

Opponents of the plan for stronger government took the name Anti-Federalists. They feared that a government with the power to tax would soon become as despotic and corrupt as Great Britain had been only decades earlier. The most notable Anti-federalists were Patrick Henry and George Mason. They were also quite concerned with the absence of a bill of rights in the Constitution. Collectively, their writings are referred to as the Anti-Federalist Papers.

Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as Ambassador to France at the time, was neither a Federalist nor an Anti-federalist but decided to remain neutral and accept either outcome. However, in letters from France, he did express his reservations about the finished document to his friend and eventual ally James Madison. The Federalists gained a great deal of prestige and advantage from the approval of George Washington, who had chaired the Constitutional Convention.

Promises of a Bill of Rights from Madison secured ratification in Virginia while in New York, the Clintons, who controlled New York politics, relented sufficiently to allow Alexander Hamilton to secure ratification from the New York convention. Under the terms of the Constitution, the federal government could be put into operation governing those states which had ratified when nine had ratified. Technically, the Constitution of the United States went into effect with the ratification of New Hampshiremarker on June 21, 1788. With the addition of Virginia on June 25 and with New York's ratification on July 26, eleven states had then ratified.

North Carolinamarker's ratification convention adjourned without ratifying. Dominated by Anti-Federalists and led by an admirer of Jefferson, the convention was convinced to withhold its ratification pending concrete moves by the 1st Congress to adopt a Bill of Rights, amending the new Constitution to guarantee certain fundamental rights.

Rhode Islandmarker had made no moves to call a ratification convention before the federal government was put into operation in March and April 1789.

The Confederation Congress made the necessary arrangements for the first national election, in which George Washington was chosen as first President and John Adams as first Vice President. New York was designated as the first temporary national capital, where Washington was inaugurated in April 1789 at Federal Hallmarker in lower Manhattan.

Under the leadership of James Madison, the first Congress made good on the Federalist pledge of a Bill of Rights, proposing to the states twelve amendments, ten of which were speedily adopted. Of the twelve, one failed at ratification and one was finally ratified as the 27th amendment. North Carolina's ratification convention reassembled soon after Congress proposed the Bill of Rights and ratified the Constitution. Rhode Island ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790, and the Bill of Rights was ratified the following week in June.

Emerging First Party System

The Constitution makes no mention of political parties, and the founding fathers regularly derided political "factionalism," which characterized government in many of the states. However, the First Party System emerged from national issues of economics and foreign policy.

The Federalists, who had advocated the Constitution, enjoyed the opportunity to put the new government into operation, while after the adoption of the Constitution, the Anti-federalists, never as well-organized, effectively ceased to exist. Alexander Hamilton in 1790-92 created a national network of friends of the government that became the Federalist party, which controlled the national government until 1801.

However, the ideals of states' rights and a weaker federal government were in many ways absorbed by the growth of a new party, the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party, which eventually assumed the role of loyal opposition to the Federalists. It strongly opposed a national bank, and the pro-British foreign policy promoted by Hamilton. Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans were pro-French seeing France during the French Revolution as a democratic ally. The Republicans under Thomas Jefferson took control of the Federal government in 1801 with the election of Jefferson as President.


  • Chambers, William Nisbet. Political Parties in a New Nation: The American Experience, 1776-1809 (1963)
  • Cogliano, Francis D. Revolutionary America, 1763-1815; A Political History (2000), British textbook
  • Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004. ISBN 1-4000-4031-0.
  • Greene, Jack P. and J.R. Pole, eds. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1991; reprint 1999. ISBN 1-55786-547-7. Collection of essays focused on political and social history.
  • Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Massachusetts:Northeastern University Press, 1983. ISBN 10930350448. Online in ACLS History E-book Project.  Comprehensive coverage of military and other aspects of the war.
  • Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (1979)
  • Bernhard Knollenberg, Growth of the American Revolution: 1766-1775 (2003) online edition
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984; revised 2005. ISBN 0-19-516247-1. 696pp
  • Miller, John C. Triumph of Freedom, 1775-1783 (1948)
  • Miller, John C. The Federalist Era 1789-1801 (1998)
  • Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789 (The New American Nation series) (ISBN 006015733X) (1987)
  • Nevins, Allan; The American States during and after the Revolution, 1775-1789 1927.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History (2003), short survey

Primary sources

  • Commager, Henry Steele and Morris, Richard B., eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants (1975) (ISBN 0060108347)
  • Humphrey; Carol Sue, ed. The Revolutionary Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1776 to 1800 Greenwood Press, 2003
  • Morison, S. E. ed. Sources and Documents Illustrating the American Revolution, 1764-1788, and the Formation of the Federal Constitution (1923)


  1. Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. Walker & Company. New York. October 2002. ISBN 0-8027-1374-2
  2. McCullough, David. 1776. Simon & Schuster. New York. May 24, 2005. ISBN 978-0743226714
  3. Harvey p.347-350
  4. Harvey p.353
  5. [1]
  6. Harvey p.493-95
  7. Harvey p.502-06
  8. Harvey p.515
  9. Harvey p.528
  10. Mackesy, 1992; Higginbotham (1983)

See also

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