Prof: So today we are
going to take the plunge [laughs]
into the actual outbreak of warfare.
However, now that I’ve teased
you that way, I do actually want us to get to
declare independence. [laughs]
If you think about it, we didn’t quite get there
yesterday so I do want us to declare independence for just a
few minutes. We’re going to close that off
and then we will move on to the opening of hostilities and the
logic behind them and really what they show.
So thinking back to Tuesday,
Tuesday we ended with a discussion of the editing of the
completed draft of the Declaration,
and I mentioned that Jefferson’s passage on slavery
was cut out of the final document for any number of
reasons, one of them obviously being
that for Southerners, that would have been a deal
breaker, and also because there were all
sorts of inherent inconsistencies in what
Jefferson had written. Now the editing process went on
for a few days only. It wasn’t longer than that.
Actually, events are unfolding
pretty quickly here as far as drafting, editing,
passing, and moving on with the Declaration of Independence.
And Jefferson did not enjoy the
editing process. Jefferson hated the editing
process because he really thought they were completely
mangling his beautiful, wonderful prose.
So supposedly he sat in the
corner of the room in the main chamber of the Congress looking
really miserable– okay–just sort of cringing and
wincing every time they cut another one of his beautiful
words or substituted some other word in there.
and we get this partly from Jefferson himself,
he looked so miserable that Benjamin Franklin ended up going
over to him to try to cheer him up.
And I’m offering this partly
because I’m always trying obviously to get us past the
sort of ‘oh, American Revolution, the Declaration.’
I’m trying to sort of make this
human– right?–human documents,
human moments, human struggling,
so we’re now really going to humanize the Declaration of
Independence. So Jefferson says–he’s sitting
there. Where are his words here?
He said Franklin,
quote, “perceived that I was not insensible to these
So Franklin saw that–according to Jefferson how much I hated
them mutilating my document, and Franklin ends up telling
Jefferson a story, and then Jefferson,
kindly for us looking on, preserved the story,
so I can offer you the story that Franklin told Jefferson
basically to distract him while they were editing the
Declaration of Independence. So Franklin told this story of
a hatter named John Thompson, and this hatter named John
Thompson wanted to open a shop and he wanted to create a sign
to hang over the door, and he planned on having the
sign say “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats
for ready money,” and then there’d be a picture
of a hat. So that’s his plan,
but he decides he’ll run the sign by a few of his friends to
see what they think; is that the right sign for him
to put up in front of his new shop?
So he goes to one friend and
the first friend says, ‘Well, you don’t really need
the word ‘hatter,’ do you? Because obviously if you make
and sell hats, you’re a hatter.
So you could just cut the word
‘hatter.’ And the next one says, ‘Makes?
Do you really have to say
‘makes hats’? Obviously, they’re hats.
You don’t need the word ‘makes.’
You can cut the word ‘makes.’
It’s unneeded on the sign.’
‘Why say ‘for ready money’? What?
You’re going to give away the
You can cut ‘for ready money.’ And so obviously this goes on
and on. Franklin continues to tell this
anecdote until in the end the sign just says John Thompson and
has a picture of a hat. [laughter] Okay.
So Franklin tells this story
and then he says, ‘The moral of the story–‘ He
even had a moral. The moral of the story is that
Franklin made it– tried, quote,
“whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the
draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body.”
Never write anything that a
public body will edit because you will be very sad and all of
your words will be sliced away. So that’s this little,
tiny human moment happening in the corner of the chamber where
the Continental Congress is meeting.
Meanwhile, they’re editing the
document. On July 2,1776,
Congress votes for independence.
Two days later on July 4,
after all of the editing and Jeffersonian cringing,
Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence–
so we have declared independence,
we’ve adopted the Declaration of Independence,
but obviously now something has to happen to the document,
and it wasn’t intended to be something that was sort of filed
away. It was intended obviously to
have an impact–and there were two audiences in mind.
On the one hand,
people in the Congress did think that if they declared
their intentions and what they were doing in some sort of a
document, that the outer world,
people beyond the colonies, first of all would understand
what was going on and then hopefully might even want to
offer aid. Right?
if they’re declaring independence against Britain,
maybe people who don’t like Britain will want to help us.
So first they’re thinking:
possibly a European audience. But even more important than
that, they’re thinking about a domestic audience.
They’re thinking about having
the American people not only understand what’s happening but
really hear this document that they’ve tinkered every word
over, the Congress’s feelings about
what they think is happening, what they believe is going on
in the colonies, what they are declaring to the
world. And so what happens basically
is once the document is passed, it’s issued.
The Congress sent it out to any
number of places. They sent it out to the
Continental Army, many copies,
so that it could be read to people in the army.
And the Continental Army comes
Tuesday, so don’t think I forgot the Continental Army,
and George Washington comes Tuesday.
They sent it out to state
assemblies. They sent it out to committees
of safety. Basically, they found any
number of avenues to send out this document so that it could
be read aloud, and that was the plan.
It wasn’t for people to sort of
read this interestingly in their newspaper,
but they actually had public readings of it on courthouse
steps, in public squares,
at public meetings, town meetings.
It was sort of a performed
document. It was being read so people
could hear what independence–how independence
was being declared. And in response,
there were all kinds of public celebrations and
demonstrations– so there were fireworks,
there were parades, and there was a lot of symbolic
destruction of some of the trappings of the Crown.
images of the King–like, on a tavern sign–were ripped
down, were broken into pieces, were burned in bonfires.
In New York City–this–a
famous image of this, which you may have seen–they
pulled down a large statue of the King mounted on his horse.
They actually literally pulled
it down and then later had it melted into bullets for the war
effort. So clearly–Boy,
isn’t that a slap? Yeah, I heard a noise over
there. That’s true.
This is “gugsch,”
King George. Not only did we tear you down
but we’re going to use you to shoot at you with your own
statue. So obviously independence is a
moment, is an event. It’s not just a document.
So–And I should note here too
that now that independence is declared,
what had been colonies are not colonies any longer,
right?–if they have declared independence and they’re saying
they are no longer colonies of Great Britain–
I’m going to try to remember from here on out to begin to use
the word “state.” They’re frantically–and I’ll
talk more about this on Tuesday. They’re frantically now also
worrying about state constitutions to replace where
the royal government had been in the past,
but now obviously we’re not colonies anymore.
We’re moving on to another sort
of state of being and in their mind actually even another word.
But of course there’s an
obvious looming question at hand.
hostility: Something is looming.
And there’s no clear path as to
how whatever’s going to happen next is going to unfold or how
it should be played out or even just how these newly-declared
states are going to execute warfare.
How should they organize the
effort? How should this war be fought?
How might it possibly be won?
The idea of winning a war
against the power, the might of the British
army–to say the least, that would have been really
daunting to these people. The odds would have felt
seemingly impossible, and then on top of that,
what about organizing? Whatever effort you were going
to take, what about organizing? How were you supposed to do
that?– particularly given that the
Continental Congress, as we’ll discuss next week,
didn’t have any absolute power to really enforce much of what
it did, making it, as we’ll see,
even more difficult for them to sort of organize and carry out a
war effort? So basically,
today and Tuesday I’m going to be talking about the process of
opening a war and organizing a war,
basically in the process showing something about the
mindset on both sides. And today particularly you’re
going to get a sense, just by looking on ground level
at what’s happening between British soldiers and —
I’m going to still say “colonists”
because it’s in my head. We’ll move on to Americans,
but I’m going to–“colonists”
is right here. I can’t banish it yet.
I’m feeling very colonial.
It’s my habit.
It’s my British tradition.
At any rate,
today you’re going to get a sense of the real mindset of the
different sides because you’re going to see people interacting,
and I have a number of different sort of eyewitness
accounts of different events, so you can get a sense of the
logic behind what people are thinking is going on as some of
these hostilities unfold. So today we’re going to be
looking at conflict. In the last two lectures,
we clearly in one way or another have been leading up to
this moment, so we talked about Common
Sense, talked about the Declaration of Independence,
and in discussing both of those documents I’ve made several
references to the surrounding mood.
And I think I’ve used several
times that the colonies were “on fire”–
and it was Paine’s, a version of what Paine said,
that the colonies seemed to be on fire in 1775 and that’s what
inspires him to want to write. So what we’re going to do is
basically look and see what that means;
what is Paine referring to; what is happening in 1775 that
pushed him to feel so compelled to write?
So we’re going to look at the
physical aspect of events unfolding mostly in 1775,
a little bit in 1776, the physical reality of the
onset of actual hostilities, what the colonial hostility to
the British soldiers stationed in the colonies felt like,
how that was unfolding, what the British soldiers were
doing, how they thought they were
going to stem the tide of whatever was happening,
But, as I’ve already said any number of times in this course,
even now when we’re on the cusp of some kind of physical clash,
we’re not looking at two competing groups of people who
see themselves as being entirely distinct and separate peoples.
And we’ve certainly seen on
both sides a sort of gradual realization that maybe the logic
of governance is different on both sides,
the logic or the understanding of the empire is different on
both sides of the Atlantic, but we don’t have two peoples
here who see themselves as enemy societies.
As Lord Rockingham put it in
Parliament, speaking at the time,
he feared that they were looking at,
quote, “the dreadful calamity of shedding British
blood by British hands.” So what we’re talking about
here is civil war. That’s why I titled this
lecture Civil War, because that’s what it was.
It was a people divided.
There are actually people
in–at the time, certainly I can think of some
in the 1790s, who call the Revolution the
Civil War. That’s what it was.
That’s what it felt like.
That really sort of drives that
home. Now the first battles of this
war are fought in 1775, but they don’t represent a sort
of sudden plunging into the inevitability of war,
and it’s actually quite the opposite.
You’ll see that as these events
unfold today. Both sides to some degree
really see themselves as behaving defensively,
and ultimately they point the finger at the other side,
but in one way or another, both sides feel that they’re
trying to sort of prevent bad things from happening.
Now on the colonial side,
people assumed that they were collecting arms,
that they were creating local militia units,
that they were beginning to stockpile weapons–
that this was all a defensive measure.
And at the end of the First
Continental Congress, they actually had declared that
maybe the colonies should think about organizing themselves for
defensive measures. So there had been again not a
sort of “attack, attack”
measure from the First Continental Congress,
but, ‘maybe it’s time that we actually should really begin
organizing’– but again this is seen as a
defensive measure. That same kind of spirit of
defensive protection still infuses the Second Continental
Congress, and I mentioned in the last
lecture the two things that are happening at the same time.
So the Congress is trying to
figure out what to do about a possible war and sending out the
Olive Branch Petition at the same time.
Both of those things are
happening at the same time, so they’re not jumping into a
war. They are preparing defensive
measures. On the British side,
the general assumption was that a few strategic moves,
a couple of really grand military maneuvers,
maybe one big display of power and the whole thing would
collapse– that there’s no way the
colonists could not be dumbstruck and awed by the force
of the British army so, whatever was going to happen,
there’d be one little clash and it would be over.
And if they could just seize
the weapons and the ammunition and the things that were being
stockpiled, they could sort of cut things
off before it even got any worse.
They could just collect the
weapons and take them away and that–
the power, the ease with which they would have marched at this
point in to New England and seized arms and weapons–
would show the colonists that this wasn’t worth fighting;
it’s not a fight worth fighting; it’s not a fight that they
could fight. So by trying to collect
weapons, trying to collect ammunition, they’re trying to
stem–Again it’s defensive. They’re trying to stop things
from getting worse. Now there were a few reasons
why the British would have assumed one little gesture and
it’s over. Now obviously,
the most obvious one is just: the British Army.
We’re talking about the British
Army and a bunch of colonists who just went out and decided
maybe we’d better drill now. Okay.
So certainly to the British
what they’re thinking is well, ‘please, that against us?
Okay, we don’t even have to
worry about that.’ But more than that,
the British also thought, generally speaking,
that the colonists were a lot of bluster and little more,
that they just–they had a lot of hot air there in the colonies
but that there actually wasn’t a lot more to them,
certainly not a lot of bravery. And the word
“cowards” is tossed around a lot in
letters and in writings and even in speeches in Parliament from
this time period. So as an example,
in the House of Lords someone apparently stands up and says,
‘There are a lot of men in the colonies who could fight against
us if they chose to fight. The colonies abound in men who
could serve as soldiers.’ So the Earl of Sandwich stands
up and this is his response. “Suppose the colonies do
abound in men, what does that signify?
They are raw,
undisciplined, cowardly men.
I wish instead of 50 or 50,000
of these brave fellows, they would produce in the field
at least 200,000, the more the better.”
That’s a really good arrogant
British comment [laughs] in the world of arrogant
British comments. “Believe me,
my lords, the very sound of a cannon would carry them off …
as fast as their feet could
carry them. This is too trifling a part of
the argument, to detain your lordships any
longer.” Okay. ‘Please.
We’re not talking about a real
threat.’ Nor were the British very
impressed at the idea, this–the whole idea of
colonial civilians dressed up suddenly in military garb and
suddenly positioning themselves as soldiers.
So one English visitor to the
colonies wrote a letter to a friend in England and expressed
the same feeling. He said, “It is a curious
Masquerade Scene to see grave sober Citizens,
Barbers and Tailors who never looked fierce before in their
Lives, but at their Wives,
Children, or Apprentices….”
There’s always the little
back-handed “gugsch” [laughs]
that sort of goes into these quotes.
So they’ve only looked fierce
before at their wives, children or apprentices,
“strutting about in their Sunday Wigs in stiff Buckles
with their Muskets on their shoulders struggling to put on a
Martial countenance. If ever you saw a Goose assume
an Air of Consequence, you may catch some faint idea
of the foolish, aukward, puffed-up Stare of our
Tradesmen: the Wig, indeed, is the most frightful
Thing about them, for its very Hairs seem to
bristle up in Defiance of the Soldiers.”
That’s a wonderful little
passage about exactly what some people thought it looked like
they were doing in the colonies. General Gage,
commanding the British forces in America, felt similarly,
that basically one big display of force and they could close
things off. And you can hear this,
as well as his impatience with this sort of ongoing colonial
hostility to the troops that were positioned in the colonies,
in some threats that he made to some Boston radicals that he met
with in 1775. So according to an account,
he, quote, “swore to it by the living
God, that if there was a single man
of the King’s troops killed in any of their towns”
meaning any of your towns, your Massachusetts towns,
“he would burn it to the ground.
What fools you are …
to pretend to resist the power
of Great Britain.” Okay.
That to me is like Darth Vader.
What fools you are–It’s like wow, [laughs]
that’s a statement of power. How dare you hold yourselves
against the empire? The empire, “She
maintained in the last war 300,000 men,
and will do the same now rather than suffer the ungrateful
people of this country to continue in their
rebellion.” Okay. It’s clear how Gage feels.
So the colonies are preparing
to defend themselves. The British and Gage are
assuming a little display of force will end the matter.
Neither side is assuming
there’s a pending war, and you can see both of these
views in play at a little event–it’s not a big moment;
it’s actually prior to Lexington and Concord–that
plays out also in Massachusetts in February of 1775.
On February 26,
Gage decided that he would have some troops move to Salem,
Massachusetts, to seize cannons and guns that
the colonists had collected there.
So this is part of that
strategy. Well, let’s just take the
weapons away and we’ll march and we’ll look impressive and they
will be nervous and this will be good on all counts.
And I’m going to read from an
account of someone who was there actually who describes what he
saw and what happened: “On Sunday,
26th Feb’y, 1775, my father came home from church
rather sooner than usual which attracted my notice,
and said to my mother ‘The reg’lars are come and are
marching as fast as they can towards the Northfields bridge;’
and looking towards her with a very solemn face remarked ‘I
don’t know what will be the consequence but something very
serious, and I wish you to keep the
children home.'” Okay.
So you get a sense of, huh?
There’s soldiers marching now
towards us? What does this mean?
“I looked out of the
window just at this time and saw the troops passing the
house,” and apparently they were playing Yankee Doodle just
to be insulting. “Col.
David Mason had received
tidings of the approach of the British troops and ran into the
North Church … during service …
and cried out,
at the top of his voice, ‘the reg’lars are coming after
the guns.'” At this point several men ran
out to move the guns, and the account continues:
“My father looked in between the platoons …
to see if he could recognize
any of the soldiers who had been stationed at Fort William on the
Neck, many of whom were known to him.”
And that’s always an
interesting little detail to me. These soldiers have been there
long enough that there’s just been mingling of soldiers and
people, and so here the troops are
marching and this person’s father is sort of going in to
the crowd to see: If there’s someone here I know,
I could ask him what’s happening;
where–why are they coming here; what are their plans.
“But he could discover no
familiar faces– was blackguarded by the
soldiers for his inquisitiveness,
who asked him, with oaths, what he was looking
at.” You can actually hear that.
‘What are you looking at?’
Like–‘get out of the way.’
So at this point,
there’s a group of colonists who see the advancing troops.
They go to this bridge that
clearly the British want to get to and march across to get to
the guns, and the colonists pull up a
drawbridge so that the soldiers can’t go any further.
And now we get this sort of
great and somewhat bizarre standoff.
The British commander is
standing on one side and there are colonists on the other side
and the drawbridge is up. And the British commander said
that his troops would fire if the colonists don’t lower the
bridge. The local militia captain says,
‘Well, if you fire,
then you’re all going to be dead men,’ and supposedly the
plan of the militia captain was if anyone fired he was going to
run at the head of the British troops and kill him and then
throw himself in the river and drown himself so he wouldn’t get
punished for killing a British soldier,
but he was–he had his plan; he was ready to act.
[laughter] It’s like: good plan.
So at this point soldiers,
civilians– Our eyewitness says it
was–that it was a cold day and he noticed that these soldiers
aren’t wearing coats and that actually they’re beginning to
look really miserable and they’re starting to shiver
because they’re just standing there in front of the bridge
unable to go anywhere. And meanwhile some colonists
climbed out on the other side of the bridge and they’re taunting
the soldiers. And apparently one particularly
loud person yelled out, “Soldiers, red jackets,
lobster coats, cowards, d–na–n to your
government!,” and everybody else shut them up
because they really didn’t want to be fired upon.
It’s one thing to just sit
there and mumble. It’s another to say,
“Damnation to your government”
and taunt the British into shooting.
At this point the British
commander said that he would get over the bridge if he had to
stay there until autumn. Right?
He says, “By God!
I will not be defeated,”
to which the colonial captain basically replies and said,
‘Yeah, well, I think you already have been
defeated because you’re here, and the weapons are there,
and I don’t see you moving.’ The British commander insisted
that this was the King’s highway.
“Old Mr. James Barr,
an Englishman and a man of much nerve, then replied to him;
‘it is not the King’s highway, it is a road built by the
owners of the lots on the other side,
and no king, country or town has anything to
do with it.'” Okay.
King’s highway, my foot.
So now the British commander is
He doesn’t want to lose face.
He’s not going to surrender to
these colonials. He wants to do something.
So this to me is the most
amazing part of the story. He actually proposes to the
militia captain that if he and his men are allowed to cross the
bridge, he promises that they will
march fifty feet, turn around and march back.
It’s like: ‘I won–[laughs] I got across the bridge.’
They’re not going to go after
the weapons. It’s just a symbolic victory,
like: they got what they wanted,
the colonials backed down, we’ll just march fifty feet,
we’ll turn around and then march away.
And that’s exactly what
happened. They let them cross,
they march, they turn around and they march away,
apparently with the troops marching to the song “The
World Turned Upside Down.” We see–We’re going to see that
again in the–when there’s an actual war.
But okay, a little
symbolic–‘okay, well, maybe I didn’t entirely
lose face’ kind of moment by the British.
So there you can see pretty
literally the British assuming that a little marching,
a few threats, everything will fold,
they’ll seize weapons, end of matter.
That didn’t happen here.
You can see the colonists sort
of standing there defensively, not wanting to cause trouble
but also not turning around and running;
they’re defending. Now at roughly this same point
back in England, even as some Members of
Parliament were sneering at the idea of these sort of fighting
colonials and as soldiers were trying to stave off trouble by
seizing weapons and ammunitions, others in Parliament were
actually thinking of trying to extend some conciliatory
gestures and maybe that would actually end this before it
became a lot worse. And in particular,
in the House of Lords, William Pitt made a number of
proposals trying to smooth things over;
all of them were rejected. So he proposes that perhaps
they actually could recognize colonial self-government.
Okay. That didn’t go very far.
Surprise! He said, ‘Okay.
Well, what about withdrawing
British troops from Boston?’ Rejected.
Instead, in February 1775,
New England is declared to be in rebellion,
but now we have one last stab at reconciliation on the part of
the British: Lord North. And I’m mentioning this here
because I’ve already talked about the Olive Branch Petition.
In a way this is the equivalent
on the other side of the ocean. What we–we’re going to see
here is one attempt to extend one more offer that
maybe–maybe–at this last second will stave things off.
People are trying to find a way
out of the problem and really struggling to find some kind of
mutual ground. So, Lord North passes a
resolution. It’s ultimately called the
Conciliatory Resolution. And it proposed that any colony
that contributed to the common defense and supported the civil
government and the administration of justice would
be relieved of paying taxes or duties except as needed to
regulate commerce– and I’ll repeat that.
The Conciliatory Resolution in
February 1775. It proposes that any colony
that contributes to the common defense and supports the civil
government and the administration of justice would
be relieved of paying taxes or duties,
except as needed to regulate commerce.
Many in Parliament were
somewhat stunned by this gesture, even though obviously
Parliament is not giving up any of its rights.
It’s just making a nice offer,
but it’s not saying, ‘we don’t have the power to
tax, we’re just saying we won’t tax.’
But many in Parliament were
stunned. As one observer said,
“Uncertainty, surprise, distraction,
were seated on every countenance”
when this plan came forth. To some this seemed to be
backing down. To others it seemed beside the
point, that basically what the
colonies needed was firmness and these kinds of concessions
weren’t really going to do anything.
But the resolution goes forward;
North sends it on to the colonies.
He very deliberately did not
send it to the Continental Congress,
which he didn’t recognize, but instead he sent it to
individual colonial assemblies, thinking that if some of them,
even just a handful of individual colonial assemblies,
agreed to this, then the colonies would be
divided. And this is an example of
something we’re going to see again and again and again in a
variety of ways in the process of fighting the war.
It’s a really common assumption
on the part of the British that all they need to do is just
divide the colonies– and that there are any number
of ways in which it will be really easy to just sort of ruin
their loyalties, turn them against each other,
and then this whole thing can be brought to a close.
And what we’ll see is what
they’re underestimating. On the one hand,
as I’ve already talked about in lectures,
we’ve seen how hard it is for the colonies to do anything
jointly, but we’ve also seen,
if there’s an outside threat, they actually come together
relatively effectively for a short period of time.
So what the British are
underestimating here is that actually there is some unity;
there is a sense of united cause because of an outside
threat. So North passes the resolution.
Obviously, it did not go far
enough at this point for the colonial leaders.
It still maintained the right
of Parliament to basically do what it wanted to do with taxes.
But also, in addition to not
being enough of a gesture towards reconciliation,
the timing was really poor because it didn’t reach the
colonies until after the outbreak of fighting at
Lexington and Concord. Now given what I described at
Salem, you can see the continued logic of what the British troops
were attempting to do at Lexington and Concord.
Basically, they want to seize
powder; they want to seize arms;
they want to get the weapons; they’re going to march;
they’re going to have an impressive display,
grab the stuff and leave, and make a big impact.
Americans were very closely
watching the troops by this time.
They knew, as soon as the
troops set out, that they were marching even
though the troops apparently were trying to be somewhat
secretive about what they were doing–
and here we have the famous Paul Revere moment–
and the poor William Dawes, the poor,
neglected William Dawes, like: ‘me too;
he was there too.’ He was riding along.
Both of them,
Paul Revere and William Dawes, are riding, basically telling
people that the British regulars are on the move;
they’re on the march. Meanwhile, the British are
marching towards Lexington on their way to Concord,
which is where the arms are, and they’re beginning to become
nervous, because before they get to
towns they can hear the church bells ringing.
going on in that town and we haven’t gotten there yet,
so somehow or other they know we’re coming.’
One soldier later described how
a, quote, “very genteel man”
in a carriage stopped and told them that there were 600 armed
men waiting for them on Lexington Common.
As we’ll see,
there were not 600 armed men. There were maybe roughly
seventy men who heard the church bell,
knew that was a bad thing, grabbed their weapons,
and went to Lexington Common and are sort of standing there.
Okay, not 600.
The British entered Lexington
at about four o’clock in the morning.
They saw this group of about
seventy people on Lexington Common, supposedly yelled,
Americans later claimed that
what they said was, “You damn rebels,
lay down your arms”– so Americans always hear
the–if there is a slur the Americans hear it–
at which point a gun was fired, and it’s unclear who fired the
gun. But when that gun was fired,
the British opened fire. There were a few American shots
in return. The American commander told his
men, quote, to “take care of
themselves,” which means run if you want,
and so they did, leaving behind eight dead–
roughly eight dead and ten wounded.
And now the British continue
on, pushing on to Concord, which is why they came there in
the first place, to get the powder that’s being
stored there. And they actually met more
militiamen on the way, and when they marched on them
these people actually fled, which is in a sense what they
were really expecting. The British began to destroy
these colonial stores, the ammunition and the weapons.
Meanwhile, the colonists
collected near the North Bridge to stop the British and a few
British shots were fired; Americans fired a few shots
back before they withdrew. Again, it’s only a temporary
retreat. So the Americans keep doing
something and then fleeing and then coming back and then
fleeing. It’s a temporary retreat on the
parts of the colonists because, as a British officer later
reported, as they left Concord after
they’d destroyed these ammunitions,
quote, “We were fired on from Houses and behind Trees,
and before we had gone a half mile we were fired on from all
sides, but mostly from the Rear,
where People had hid themselves in houses till we had passed,
and then fired; the Country was an amazing
strong one, full of Hills, Woods, stone Walls…
which the Rebels did not fail
to take advantage of…. In this way we marched between
9 and 10 miles, their numbers increasing from
all parts, while ours was reduced by
deaths, wounds, and fatigue.”
And another officer later
recalled that he heard colonists and actually even saw some of
them standing in the road yelling out,
“King Hancock forever.”
Where that came from I can’t
tell you, but they’re out there sort of declaring their
political cause. This is hardly what the British
expected, and for that matter in a sense
the colonists didn’t expect that sort of event to unfold,
but this level of colonial resistance to the British was a
surprise. As another British soldier put
it, “The enthusiastic zeal
with which these people have behaved must convince every
reasonable man what a difficult and unpleasant task General Gage
has before him. Even weamin had firelocks.”
So the British response on the
one hand is: ‘oh, okay, they didn’t just melt
away; this will be unpleasant for
General Gage.’ All told, roughly 250 British
soldiers were killed, roughly ninety-five Americans.
For the British obviously this
suggests, that little display of military might not be enough.
For the colonists it revealed
the existence of an honest to goodness physical threat.
As John Adams put it,
Lexington was proof that, quote, “if we did not
defend ourselves, they would kill us.”
John Adams always just states
it, okay. Almost immediately people from
both sides began to use the clash as propaganda,
basically playing it up so that they seem defensive and the
other side seems as though it’s the aggressor–
so colonists sent riders out to tell people in other towns and
other colonies about how the British had killed every person
they came across, women and children;
they had driven pregnant women into the street;
[laughter] they shot dead old men.
It’s like: ‘anything we can
think of, they did.’ So obviously they’re
exaggerating a bit what happened in Lexington and Concord,
but British accounts were no less creative.
The British accused Americans
of scalping dead and dying British soldiers,
claiming, quote, they were “full as bad as
the Indians for Scalping and Cutting the dead men’s Ears and
Noses off, and those they get alive,
that are wounded and can’t get off the Ground.”
They’re scalping live men,
those colonists, is what the British are
charging. They claimed that the Americans
had fired first; that Americans didn’t fight
fair because they were hiding; that they were cowardly because
they were lying on their bellies hiding instead of standing
upright, which is how a traditional army
was supposed to fight– but both sides clearly are
positioning themselves as being defensive at this point.
In June of 1775,
the English got more evidence that the Americans weren’t just
going to run. When colonists attempted to
station themselves on Breed’s Hill in Massachusetts
overlooking Boston–not Bunker Hill actually but Breed’s Hill.
And the Americans are thinking:
‘well, this’ll be very strategic if we
go to the top of this hill, it overlooks Boston,
it’s a good place for us to have power or control over.’
The British see that as well,
and they attack to prevent the colonists from taking control of
that hill. The conflict is later called
the Battle of Bunker Hill– it should be the Battle of
Breed’s Hill– but although the British
ultimately did claim the hill and could claim a victory,
it was a pretty expensive victory.
They lost roughly one thousand
out of two thousand men. They had enormous casualties.
The Americans lost roughly four
hundred men. The British really suffered a
lot of losses, and at this point Gage learned
a lesson. As he observed after seeing all
of these clashes, the colonists were,
quote, “not the despicable rabble too many have supposed
them to be.” ‘Wow.
They’re less of a despicable
rabble than I thought they were.’
“These people show a
spirit and conduct against us they never showed against the
French”– which I also think is
interesting. What he’s saying is well,
we thought we knew these people from that French and Indian War
and they weren’t too impressive then,
but they’re actually behaving differently now.
“Everybody has judged of
them from their former appearance and behavior when
joined with the King’s forces in the last war,
which has led many into great mistakes.
They are now spirited up by a
rage and enthusiasm as great as ever people were possessed
of.” Colonists also learned a
lesson, and you can see this most dramatically in New York
State. New York at the time:
There were a number of Conservatives and Loyalists who
were in power in New York. It wasn’t a radical colony.
They had actually sent more
conservative delegates to the First Continental Congress.
There had even been talk in New
York about not sending delegates to the Second Continental
Congress because ‘good men’ got corrupted when they went to hang
out with those scary radical guys in the Continental
Congress. And basically the Crown saw New
York as a good thing, because they were sort of more
loyal than many of the other colonies.
That’s New York before the
events I’ve talked about today. After these events New York
made something of a turnaround. They hanged Lord North in
effigy; they seized arms belonging to
the city and distributed them to citizens;
and ultimately the British marched out of New York City and
retreated to a ship in the harbor with the colonists
grabbing at their baggage and their ammunition as they left.
So that obviously shows that
there is an impact. All over the colonies people
began to feel the need to prepare for war.
As one colonist wrote in July
of 1775, “Travel through whatever
part of this country you will, you see the inhabitants
training, making firelocks, casting mortars,
shells and shot, and making saltpetre.”
Philadelphia was decorated with
flags announcing liberty or death.
People are really now motivated
with a real–I guess rage and enthusiasm is a good way of
putting it at these recent events.
So now you truly do get a sense
of how the colonies were indeed set on fire in 1775.
You can see what it is that
Paine was responding to. You can see why in January of
1776 when Common Sense was published why it had the
impact it did, because people were ready to
hear its message. They were willing to at least
begin to consider independence because of what was unfolding in
1775. Things were at a difficult
point at this point, and if you step back and just
look at the larger logic of what’s going on,
you can really see how difficult it would have been to
find your way out of this situation.
The British administration
couldn’t really yield to demands of the Continental Congress
without sacrificing its sovereignty over the colonies,
and I suppose in their eyes, also humiliating itself before
the eyes of the world. Along similar lines,
the colonists couldn’t really back down about their demands
without seeming to surrender what they considered to be some
of their fundamental rights. They suspected British attempts
at conciliation anyway because they–
every time the British made any sort of gesture that seemed to
be moving in the right direction their thought was:
‘well, yeah, they’re trying to appease
us so we stop protesting, but they’re just going to be
tyrants underneath it all; they’re basically trying to
make us quiet so they can impose tyranny upon us.’
But I do want to point out–Now
I’ve just described all of these dramatic events,
men being killed, battles, people storing arms,
a lot of drama, but I’ve talked about 1775
throughout this entire class, right?–and independence isn’t
declared until roughly a year later.
Again, which is a really
dramatic way of seeing that war is not inevitable,
that people are struggling to avoid it even as they’re doing
all of this and taking all of these actions and acting in the
moment at what’s unfolding. Even after Lexington and
Concord in July of 1775, the Continental Congress still
sends out that Olive Branch Petition.
The Americans saw themselves as
Britons as well as Americans. They were defending their
rights as British subjects, and only over time did they
really gradually work their way towards independence.
They had first assumed that
there was a small group of corrupt government ministers who
maybe were leading things the wrong way,
then they decided well, maybe it was Parliament that
was the problem, and only when the last prop of
the British constitution, the monarch,
proved deaf to their cause, did colonists begin to feel
that independence might be possible and ultimately maybe
was going to be necessary. Okay.
So where does this leave us?
it leaves us with a really enormous looming challenge
facing the Continental Congress. Right?
the Continental Congress doesn’t really have any power,
all these delegates in there, and now “poof,”
they somehow have to help organize a united war effort
with no mechanism for doing anything in a united,
organized manner. And I’m going to end the
lecture by letting John Adams sum up this challenge at this
point, what it felt like to be in the
Continental Congress at this scary point–
and he wrote this letter in 1775 to his wife actually,
to Abigail. And he wrote,
“When 50 or 60 Men have a Constitution to form for a great
Empire”– I like the fact that it’s a
great empire already– “at the same Time they
have a Country of 1500 Miles extent to fortify,
Millions to arm and train, a Naval Power to begin,
an extensive Commerce to regulate, numerous Tribes of
Indians to negotiate with, a standing Army of Twenty seven
Thousand Men to raise pay, victual and officer,
I shall really pity those 50 or 60 men.”
So that’s Adams saying,
‘Boy, I’m not looking forward to this.
This is going to be an enormous
task.’ And what we’re going to be
looking at Tuesday is that very thing.
How do you hold a war?
How do you begin to organize
this kind of effort? What were the things that
Congress immediately did? George Washington is going to
appear. That’s one of the things the
Continental Congress does at an early point is find–
try to create a continental army and Washington walked on to
the national scene at this point.
So we will look at the
unfolding of the war from a different angle next week.
I will stop there.