Signatures on the Declaration of Rights and Grievances
The First Continental Congress
The first Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. Fifty-three men showed up representing twelve of the colonies. They decided to gather to talk about their common interests and determine policies that would work for them all. The Congress did not try to govern or rebel. The conservative ambassadors wanted to create a type of colonial parliament that would share authority with the British parliament, but the plan was defeated by more zealous rebels.
During the meeting, a courier from Boston came riding in with the Suffolk Resolves, a set of resolutions that declared the Intolerable Acts null, urged Massachusetts to prepare to defend itself, and demanded boycotts against British commerce.
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Were the colonials ready for independence? A strong emotional link still existed for most colonials with the mother country. More than two-thirds of the population had been born in England. Only one-third of all colonials were “native” born. Wealthy colonials stood to lose a lot. If the rebellion failed, they could lose all their money, businesses, and property. And what kind of government would replace the monarchy? A democracy? That was a scary thought for colonials because at the time, no other nations practiced democracy. It would take the Continental Congress more than a year before it was finally prepared to issue a document declaring its independence.
Declaration of American Rights
In the wake of the resolves, the Congress adopted a Declaration of American Rights, which proclaimed the rights of Americans as English citizens and told Parliament that it had no authority over internal colonial affairs. The Continental Association of 1774 asked every town to form a committee to enforce a boycott on all British goods. These committees eventually became the organizational and communications networks for the revolutionary movement.
The King fumed over the colonials’ bold stand against him. He wrote his prime minister, saying that the “New England colonies are in a state of rebellion” and “blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.” Parliament did not want to compromise; instead it declared Massachusetts in open rebellion.
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Paul Revere became famous for a “midnight ride” made to warn the colonial militia that British troops were on the move but Revere did not make this famous ride. His job was to ride to Lexington and warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, which he did. The real hero of that famous midnight ride was Israel Bissel, a mail service rider, who warned colonial militias along the eastern seaboard of British actions. Bissel traveled more than 400 miles in 118 hours, leaving the message in every village and city along the way.
In addition to Bissel’s heroic ride, teenager Sibyl Ludington made a similar ride in April 1777, calling out the local farmers to fight. Ludington raced her horse to each farmhouse, banging on the door with a stick and shouting, “The British are coming! Fall out and fight!" Ludington rode 40 miles in 6 hours, calling enough colonials out to repel the British. There is a statue commemorating Sibyl Ludington’s ride in Lake Gleneida in Carmel, New York and historical markers trace her route through Putnam County, New York.
Lexington and ConcordThrough late 1774 and early 1775 rebels continued to rouse citizens. Loyalists to the crown were either uncertain or unorganized and did not counter. The Continental Congress urged each colony to mobilize its militia, and these men, soon known as the Minute Men, would need to be ready for action at a moment’s notice. That moment came quickly. The British military outside Boston received orders to capture and arrest leaders of the Provincial Congress and to seize the militia’s supply depot at Concord, about twenty miles away. About 700 soldiers set out by way of Lexington, and when the patriots got wind of the plan, they sent messengers riding through the night to warn all Patriots.
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19th century engraving of the Battle of Lexington
Lexington and Concord marked the beginning of open conflict between the colonies and England.
At dawn on April 19, 1775, British soldiers found a small contingent of Minute Men waiting on the Lexington green. The Americans had begun backing away quietly, planning only a silent protest, when one of the British officers rode into them and yelled, “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!” Then a soldier shot into the Americans and hell broke loose. British soldiers charged with their bayonets at the ready. Eight Americans were killed and ten wounded, and the British hastily tried to get their men under control and back on the road to Concord.
By the time they reached the village, the Americans had already hauled off most of the munitions, but the British destroyed what they could. Turning to march back to Boston, the British discovered that the Minute Men had lined the road, sniping at them from behind every house, fence, rock, and tree. More than 250 British soldiers were killed as they fled to safety. Explore the following map to learn more about Lexington and Concord.
Second Continental Congress
The war for independence had finally begun. When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, Boston was under siege by the Massachusetts militia, who was trying to take the city back from the British. With no resources and no authority, the Congress determined to assume the role of a de facto government. Fighting had broken out everywhere, and Congress quickly named George Washington General and Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Washington’s service during the French and Indian War made him one of the most experienced soldiers in America.
Spies played an active part in the American Revolution. One method was to hide a message within a letter that would be read through a “mask” by the recipient. Try your hand at this form of secret code. Learn more about Revolutionary Spies.
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The Battle of Bunker Hill had two profound results:
- The high number of British casualties made English generals more cautious in future battles.
- The Continental Congress recommended that all able-bodied men sign up for the militia. That meant that everyone had to choose a side—would the colonials be patriots (favoring Independence) or loyalists (loyal to the King)?
- The battle proved to the Colonials that they could stand up to the British military.
- For many, the battle represented a point of no return and peace no longer seemed a viable option.
The Battle of Bunker Hill. Painting by Percy Moran, 1909
Battle of Breed’s and Bunker Hills
The very day Washington was commissioned, the British and colonials engaged in their first major battle at Breed’s and Bunker Hill outside of Boston. The rebels were ready to fight and used picks and shovels to fortify the high ground of the peninsula. With civilians watching from rooftops, the British commander General Thomas Gage ordered 2,200 of his soldiers to march through tall grass and advance up the hills. The Americans waited patiently behind their hastily assembled earth works, watching the Brits in their bright red wool coats slowly make their way. When they were about fifteen to twenty paces away, the Minute Men let loose a volley and cheered as the world’s best soldiers ran in panic. But the British were not ready to surrender. Within half an hour, they reformed and led another attack. Once again the Americans mowed them down but on the third attack, the colonials began to run out of gunpowder. The colonials resorted to throwing stones, and the British soldiers finally made it to the militia and routed them with bayonets. The British regained the high ground but at an enormous cost: more than a thousand soldiers died. Only about 400 colonials were killed.
In a final attempt to make peace, the Continental Congress issued the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms. The documents professed continued loyalty to King George III, begged him to restrain hostilities until reconciliation could be reached, and rejected independence but asserted the colonials rights to fight rather than submit to “slavery.”
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The king was so angry he did not even look at the document. He called the colonists “open and avowed enemies” and issued a proclamation of rebellion the next day. Parliament issued the Prohibitory Act, which stated that England would seize all colonial ships--a virtual declaration of war. Still the colonials did not declare their independence. Although every word indicated that the crown believed them to be at war, the Continental Congress held back.
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Thomas Paine by Auguste Milliere
Stirring up protest was one thing, but convincing the majority of the population to declare independence was another. To arouse that kind of universal sentiment, Thomas Paine began writing political pamphlets. His Common Sense helped break the bonds with Britain by calling the king a “royal brute,” claiming that it was ridiculous for an entire continent to be ruled by an island. Paine renounced British tyranny and demanded the creation of a democratic government. His most compelling argument was that a formal declaration of independence was needed so that the colonies could receive foreign aid, which would be absolutely necessary if the colonials hoped to succeed. The pamphlet proved a best-seller and more than 150,000 copies were printed in a few months. Everyone either read it or heard about it. Paine’s arguments consumed tavern conversations for most of early 1776.
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
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As a bit of trivia, the two most important members on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died on July 4, 1826—fifty years to the day after the article’s adoption.
Inspired by Paine’s radical rhetoric, the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence and it was adopted on July 4, 1776. The declaration declared the rights of citizens to revolt against tyranny and outlined the colonials’ specific grievances against King George III. The declaration restated John Locke’s contract theory of government. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the document claims that governments derived “their just Powers from the consent of the people,” who could alter or abolish those governments when they ceased to meet the people’s needs--those needs being their “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”