War and Upheaval

By 1776, only a complete surrender by colonials or the British government would decide the case of American rights—and neither side was inclined to take such a step. As George Washington wrote, none of his fellow colonials "will ever submit to the loss of those valuable rights and privileges which are essential to the happiness of every free state." The British government, however, saw American opposition as the opinion of only a vocal minority and reassertion of its authority as the only way to keep the empire from entirely dissolving. With each side convinced that abdication of its position would lead to catastrophe, armed conflict was inevitable and, by the end of the war in 1783, would transform the Atlantic world.

  • Revolutions in Government

    In 1778, John Adams wrote that the war was being “conducted in the midst of thirteen revolutions of civil government against a nation very powerful both by sea and land.” Each colony declared its independence as a state, wrote its own constitution, and loosely unified behind the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

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  • War for Independence, through Saratoga

    Before the end of 1777, the war raged primarily across New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and gave Americans very few opportunities to celebrate. To many on both sides of the Atlantic it seemed that George Washington’s most significant achievement was to keep the Continental Army in the field. The American victory at the Battle of Saratoga changed all that, securing an alliance with France that recast the nature and course of the entire conflict.

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  • War for Independence, after Saratoga

    After Saratoga, Britain focused its strategy to subjugate America on the former southern colonies, an effort capped off with the capture of Charleston in 1780. An attempt to secure North Carolina and Virginia, however, ended with the surrender of a major British force at Yorktown in October 1781. The defeat brought down the British ministry, led to the beginning of peace negotiations in the fall of 1782, and a final peace treaty a year later.

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  • War Beyond America

    The War for Independence was not fought only on American soil or even with guns and cannon. It was also contested on the high seas in fights between American and British warships; in the West Indies, where major British and French navies battled for control of the sugar colonies; and in the capitals of Europe, where American diplomats fought for money and other support.

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  • Revolutionary Experience

    Few Americans were untouched by the war. Soldiers and sailors experienced it most directly, but it was also felt deeply at home far away from the lines of battle. Shortages, economic depression, and pressure to support the patriot cause were felt by men and women up and down the social scale. What resulted was a body politic transformed by the creation of new ways of relating to one another and the purging of traditional ways of thinking about their fellow citizens.

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