American Revolution

Indecision and Declaration

The war was on in earnest. Some delegates had come to the Congress already committed to declaring the colonies independent of Great Britain, but even many stalwart upholders of the colonial cause were not ready to take such a step. The lines were being more clearly drawn between the pro-British Loyalists and colonial revolutionists. The time was one of indecision, and the division of the people was symbolized by the split between Benjamin Franklin and his Loyalist son, William Franklin.

Loyalists were numerous and included small farmers as well as large landowners, royal officeholders, and members of the professions; they were to be found in varying strength in every colony. A large part of the population was more or less neutral, swaying to this side or that or else remaining inert in the struggle, which was to some extent a civil war. So it was to remain to the end.

Civil government and administration had fallen apart and had to be patched together locally. In some places the result was bloody strife, as in the partisan raids in the Carolinas and Georgia and the Mohawk valley massacre in New York. Elsewhere hostility did not produce open struggles.

In Jan., 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet, Common Sense, which urged the colonial cause. Its influence was tremendous, and it was read everywhere with enthusiastic acclaim. Militarily, however, the cause did not prosper greatly. Delegations to the Canadians had been unsuccessful, and the Quebec campaign (1775–76) ended in disaster. The British gave up Boston in Mar., 1776, but the prospects were still not good for the ill-trained, poorly armed volunteer soldiers of the Continental army when the Congress decided finally to declare the independence of the Thirteen Colonies.

The Declaration of Independence is conventionally dated July 4, 1776. Drawn up by Thomas Jefferson (with slight emendations), it was to be one of the great historical documents of all time. It did not, however, have any immediate positive effect.

The British under Gen. William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, came to New York harbor. After vain attempts to negotiate a peace, the British forces struck. Washington lost Brooklyn Heights (see Long Island, battle of), retreated northward, was defeated at Harlem Heights in Manhattan and at White Plains, and took part of his dwindling army into New Jersey. Thomas Paine in a new pamphlet, The Crisis, exhorted the revolutionists to courage in desperate days, and Washington showed his increasing military skill and helped to restore colonial spirits in the winter of 1776–77 by crossing the ice-ridden Delaware and winning small victories over forces made up mostly of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton (Dec. 26) and Princeton (Jan. 3).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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