In which we see battles for hearts and minds—among other kinds
So here we are kids: Lexington Green, colony of Massachusetts, April 19, 1775.
—Is this when the Revolution begins?
—Militarily, Kylie, yes. But as I’ve been at some pains to make clear, revolutions aren’t only a matter of gunfire. This was as much a culmination as it was a beginning.
—Who fired first?
We don’t know, Adam. Here’s one of those cases, English teachers be damned, we’re it’s right to use the passive voice: shots were fired.
—How many people were there?
About 250 Brits and 70 Minutemen.
—Doesn’t sound like a big battle.
It wasn’t. Even by the later standards of the Revolution.
— How many people died?
Seven Americans were killed. I don’t think any Brits were killed, but there were lots of wounded.
—What happened then?
The Americans, who were less numerous and less well trained, retreated west to the nearby town of Concord, and the British followed them. By this point the word was out, and Minutemen were streaming from nearby towns into Concord. The Lexington militia moved through town and joined the others on a nearby bridge over the Concord River, hoping the hold the British there. As there had been in Lexington hours earlier, there was again a standoff. British general William Gage had told the British soldiers not to damage the town or hurt civilians. But when the Minutemen saw smoke rising in the town—it was from cooking but they thought the town was being burned down—they attacked the British, who were overwhelmed and forced to withdraw. They headed back to Boston with the Minutemen nipping at their heels the whole way, and by the time they got back they were trapped and exhausted. The rebels had triumphed.
—That was it?
Well, admittedly, it doesn’t sound like much. I might have given you more of a blow by blow account to heighten the drama.
—Why don’t you?
Well, in part, because I don’t know enough to do that.
—That can’t be, Mr. K. You know everything there is to know about American history.
I certainly hope not, Sadie.
Because then there wouldn’t be anything left to learn. But in terms of teaching you, I have to consider what I really think you need to know, and how much I think you can absorb. The emphasis has to be on the big picture, though I hope to through in enough detail and color to maybe make some of this material memorable. For example, consider this: In the weeks that followed that followed the Battle of Concord, New England soldiers went up to Lake Champlain, which divides Vermont from New York, and grabbed cannon from a For Ticonderoga up there—they surprised the British commander, who surrendered his pajamas—
—That’s a nice detail—
—and they used the guns to threaten the British still further. Surrounded on all sides by guns and a hostile population, General Gage felt he had no choice but to try and break out before the noose that was Boston neck choked him entirely. The result of this was the Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place in June of 1775. The British won that battle—barely. Victory gave them time and room to escape. And so it was that in the fall of 1775 Gage withdrew British forces from New England entirely. A group of unruly revolutionaries had defeated and expelled the armed forces of a mighty empire.
—They kicked ass.
Indeed they did, Adam. Kind of unbelievable, really.
—So what happened next?
The British, realizing they were totally outclassed and morally wrong, decided to give up. And that’s how the Americans got their independence.
—You’re joking, right?
—Of course he’s joking. We haven’t even gotten to the Declaration of Independence yet.
Right, Emily: That was in 1776. All of this is in 1775.
—So what happened in between?
Well, remember that the Second Continental Congress convened in May of 1775.
—Do we need to know dates for the test?
Not that date. But Ethan, don’t dates help in terms of understanding how things happened?
—Yeah, but I don’t want to memorize them.
Suit yourself (for now, anyway). Remember that I also told you there were members of Congress who were still hoping for reconciliation with Britain. The members who didn’t hope or want reconciliation—people like John Adams, and his new friend, young Thomas Jefferson of Virginia—knew they wouldn’t be able to bring the Nervous Nellies aboard unless they agreed to one more try. So they went along with a document known as the Olive Branch Petition, in which they asked King George III to intervene on their behalf. Most of their problems had been with Parliament, the proponents of this approach argued. Maybe the King would understand.
Nope. He wouldn’t even look at the Olive Branch Petition. George III was firmly on the side of Parliament. In fact, he was rapidly taking a harder line than many members of Parliament. He enthusiastically endorsed the proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia.
—What did that say?
It offered freedom to any slaves who fought on the side of the British in putting down the rebellion.
Wow indeed. The colonists regarded that as a really low blow.
—I’ve been wondering about the slaves.
Good for you, Yin. What have you been wondering?
—Well, what they made of all of this.
That’s hard, even impossible, to know for sure. After all, it’s not like they could publish pamphlets or hold meetings or anything. Many of them were primarily concerned with their survival, which undoubtedly meant keeping their head down and not appearing too curious. But we do know that thousands of them took Lord Dunmore up on his offer.
—Did the British keep their promise?
Yes, they did. Not that it was any great bargain. Many slaves got hurt or killed in the years that followed. The lucky ones still had to leave their homes. Some went back to England; others to Canada. It wasn’t an easy life. Maybe it wasn’t much better than slavery for some. Though it sure was for many others. There were also African Americans who fought for the Revolution—unlike later wars, they were allowed to join the army. Some surely did so in the hope for better treatment. The same could be said for some Indian peoples. Most members of the Iroquois Confederacy based in around upstate New York fought with the British, though two tribes, the Oneida and the Tuscarora, sided with the Americans. Probably a mistake, as it turned out. But while wars involve strong feelings, they’re also a matter of guesswork: which side do you think is going to win? It was a tough call for a lot of white people as well—estimates for the number of Loyalists who stuck with the British ranged from fifteen to thirty percent. And the results of the wrong choice could be fatal. That includes Patriots who found themselves literally or figuratively surrounded at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Yup. The lines have been drawn, and as much as some people are still hoping for a reconciliation, it seems less and less plausible. In January of 1776, a Scottish immigrant named Thomas Paine publishes a pamphlet called Common Sense—the title is a pun (“common” meant ugly, smelly, or otherwise unattractive, as well as something collectively shared). Common Sense was bold and exciting because it said: it’s time. Forget about trying to convince the British of the logic of the colonial cause. Make the break. It became a huge bestseller. A nation took shape in the mind of millions. Changed minds matter more than fired guns.
Meanwhile, the British aren’t sitting still. A gigantic invasion force is taking shape in Canada. The Brits may have pulled out of Boston, but they’re not about to give up. And they’ve got the biggest, baddest, navy in the world. The question now is: Where are they going to land it?
I know the suspense is killing you.
Next: Guessing game, 1776