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In 1818, Founding Father John Adams famously recalled the American Revolution as having started as a belief “in the hearts and minds of the people” that eventually “burst out in open violence, hostility, and fury.”
Since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the l6th century, England had been trying to establish a colony in the “New World” of North America. In 1607, the Virginia Company of London succeeded with the settling of Jamestown, Virginia. England's King James I had decreed at the time that the Jamestown colonists would forever enjoy the same rights and freedoms as if they had been “abiding and born within England.” Future kings, however, would not be so accommodating.
During the late 1760s, the once-strong bonds between the American colonies and Britain began to loosen. By 1775, ever-growing abuses of power exerted by British King George III would drive the American colonists to armed revolt against their native country.
Indeed, the long road of America from its first exploration and settlement to organized revolt seeking independence from England was blocked by seemingly insurmountable obstacles and stained with the blood of citizen-patriots. This feature series, “The Road to the American Revolution,” traces the events, causes, and people of that unprecedented journey.
A 'New World' Discovered
America's long, bumpy road to independence starts in August of 1492 when Queen Isabella I of Spain funded the first New World voyage of Christopher Columbus to discover a westward trading passage to the Indies. On October 12, 1492, Columbus stepped off the deck of his ship, the Pinta, onto the shores of the present-day Bahamas. On his second voyage in 1493, Columbus established the Spanish colony of La Navidad as the first European settlement in the Americas.
While La Navidad was located on the Island of Hispaniola, and Columbus never actually explored North America, the period of exploration after Columbus would lead to the start of the second leg of America's journey to independence.
The Early Settlement of America
To the mighty kingdoms of Europe, establishing colonies in the newly-discovered Americas seemed a natural way to grow their wealth and influence. With Spain having done so at La Navidad, its arch-rival England quickly followed suit.
By 1650, England had established a growing presence along what would become the American Atlantic coast. The first English colony was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Hoping to escape religious persecution, the Pilgrims signed their Mayflower Compact in 1620 and proceeded to establish the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
The Original 13 British Colonies
With the invaluable assistance of local Native Americans, English colonists not only survived but thrived in both Massachusetts and Virginia. Having been taught to grow them by the Indians, uniquely New World grains like corn fed the colonists, while tobacco provided the Virginias with a valuable cash crop.
By 1770, more than 2 million people, including a growing number of enslaved Africans, lived and worked in the three early American British colonial regions.
While each of the 13 colonies that were to become the original 13 U.S. States had individual governments, it was the New England colonies that would become the breeding ground for a growing dissatisfaction with the British government that would ultimately lead to revolution.
Dissent Turns to Revolution
While each of the 13 now thriving American colonies was allowed a limited degree of self-government, the individual colonists' ties to Great Britain remained strong. Colonial businesses depended on British trading companies. Prominent young colonists attended British colleges and some future signers of the American Declaration of Independence served the British government as appointed colonial officials.
However, by the middle 1700s, those ties to the Crown would be strained by tensions between the British government and its American colonists that would turn into the root causes of the American Revolution.
In 1754, with the French and Indian War looming, Britain ordered its 13 American colonies to organize under a single, centralized government. While the resulting Albany Plan of Union was never implemented, it planted the first seeds of independence in the minds of Americans.
Seeking to pay for the costs of the French and Indian War, the British government began imposing several taxes, like the Currency Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 on the American colonists. Having never been allowed to elect their own representatives to the British Parliament, many colonists raised the call, “No taxation without representation.” Many colonists refused to buy the heavily-taxed British goods, like tea.
On December 16, 1773, a band of colonists dressed like Native Americans dumped several crates of tea from a British ship docked in Boston Harbor into the sea as a symbol of their unhappiness with the taxes. Pulled off by members of the secretive Sons of Liberty, the Boston Tea Party stirred the anger of the colonists with British rule.
Hoping to teach the colonists a lesson, Britain enacted the Intolerable Acts of 1774 to punish the colonists for the Boston Tea Party. The laws closed Boston Harbor, allowed British soldiers to be more physically “forceful” when dealing with dissenting colonists and outlawed town meetings in Massachusetts. For many colonists, it was the last straw.
The American Revolution Begins
In February 1775, Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams wrote to a friend: “The die is cast… it seems to me the Sword is now our only, yet dreadful, alternative.”
Abigail's lament proved to be prophetic.
In 1774, a number of colonies, operating under provisional governments, formed armed militias made up of “minutemen.” As British troops under General Thomas Gage seized the militia's stores of munitions and gunpowder, Patriot spies, like Paul Revere, reported on British troop positions and movements. In December 1774, patriots seized British gunpowder and arms stored at Fort William and Mary at New Castle, New Hampshire.
In February 1775, the British Parliament declared the Massachusetts colony to be in a state of rebellion and authorized General Gage to use force to restore order. On April 14, 1775, General Gage was ordered to disarm and arrest colonial rebel leaders.
As British troops marched from Boston toward Concord on the night of April 18, 1775, a group of patriot spies including Paul Revere and William Dawes rode from Boston to Lexington alarming the Minutemen to assemble.
The next day, the Battles of Lexington and Concord between British regulars and the New England minutemen in Lexington sparked the Revolutionary War.
On April 19, 1775, thousands of American Minutemen continued to attack British troops who had retreated to Boston. Learning of this Siege of Boston, the second Continental Congress authorized the creation of the Continental Army, appointing General George Washington as its first commander.
With the long-feared revolution a reality, America's founding fathers, assembled at the American Continental Congress, drafted a formal statement of the colonists' expectation and demands to be sent to King George III.
On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted those now-cherished demands as the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”