Things happen fast now. For ten years the back-and-forth between Britain and the colonies—taxation and boycott, rules and resistance, accusation and rebuttal, punishment and pushback—had led to polarized and intransigent opponents, far from the joint victors in war in 1763. In 1774 Patriots in New England begin organized military training; they secure their colonies' provisions of arms and powder; they spread and dispel rumors of British attacks; and they send alerts of British military moves through postal expresses and nightriders like Paul Revere.
Before the pivotal events at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, there had already been American deaths at the hands of British troops (the Boston Massacre the most renowned), and there had been an armed confrontation between Americans and British troops—in late 1774 when, with no casualties, colonists captured Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire to secure its arms and ammunition. But with Lexington and Concord, there were American dead whose blood in defense of their country, wrote David Ramsay, "proved the firm cement of an extensive union." That union was certified by the second meeting of the Continental Congress one month after the battle; its declarations acknowledged the colonies' fateful transition to organized armed resistance. "We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent states," writes Thomas Jefferson in the 1775 declaration of the Congress. "We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors." It would be another year before "independence" was affirmed as the colonies' goal.
In these selections we view the multi-faceted response of Americans at the outbreak of war in 1775. What expressions of determination, finality, and foreboding were more pronounced in 1775 than in the previous years of resistance? How did Patriots justify their "resistance through force"? How did they build on the "firm cement of an extensive union" after the Battle of Lexington & Concord? How did Loyalists construct their final appeals for reconciliation?
Colonists respond to the outbreak of war, 1774-1775. This compilation, the last in this Theme CRISIS, includes selections from the last extended newspaper debate between a Patriot and Loyalist before the outbreak of war, news reports of the first military confrontations, final appeals from Loyalists to avoid separation from Britain, the personal views of four Founding Fathers in letters to family and friends, the declarations of the Second Continental Congress, poems and sermons, and, as always, a retrospective view from the Patriot historian David Ramsay. As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and the Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (19 pp.)
Sermons on the outbreak of war and the justifiability of revolution, 1775, selections. While sermons for and against resistance to Britain are included in several of the CRISIS compilations, the influence of American clergymen in 1775 deserves its own compilation and study. They delivered impassioned sermons on justifiable war, virtuous conduct during wartime, and unvirtuous conduct as one cause of the "public calamities." Selections from six sermons delivered to militia companies, the Continental Congress, and similar audiences between May and July 1775 are presented here. "As the primary literary vehicle of the times," writes literary historian Robert Ferguson, "the sermon forms a dialectic with the people's voice and prepares more Americans for rebellion than do books and pamphlets. . . . The belief required for independence literally is born in these sermons."1 (For sermons opposing rebellion, see the compilation in Section #7: 1774: Colonies United.) (6 pp.)
Announcement of the Battle of Lexington & Concord, Virginia, 1775. The committees of correspondence were the Internet of the 1770s, spreading the word of critical events and urgent needs as fast as horse-drawn coaches could deliver copies of newspapers and broadsides. In this pamphlet published overnight by the Virginia Committee of Correspondence ten days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, note how each step in the dispersal of news is recorded—from Watertown to Philadelphia to Williamsburg, and a second express from New York—and that the Virginia committee will send further "expresses to the southward" with the news. (2 pp.)
Diary of Matthew Patten, New Hampshire, selections, 1775-1776. When news of Lexington and Concord reached the small farming village of Bedford, New Hampshire, only one day after the battles took place, the townspeople had to respond to an unprecedented situation in neighboring Massachusetts. Matthew Patten, the head of a struggling Bedford family, recorded his response in his diary. Along with serving as a probate judge, Patten farmed, fished, made shoes, tended cattle, and surveyed property. For Patten the diary was not a place to work out his thinking on the issues of the day or record his emotional ups and downs. It was simply a bare-bones documentation of his daily activities. Thus the drama of the moment is muted. We can get at the passion of those April days in Bedford only through our imaginations. What was said at the town meeting? What emotions would lead a band of farmers to confront a professional army? What must it have been like to see your son and those of your neighbors march off to confront the British? The people of Bedford could have treated the Lexington militiamen as hotheads who deserved what happened to them, or they could have waited for more information. Patten and his neighbors did neither. They instinctively sensed that they had to go to the aid of those who were fighting for a cause that now included Bedford as well as Lexington, Concord, and Boston. (7 pp.)
Olive Branch Petition. As the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, one question dominated debate—should America seek to defend its liberties inside or outside the empire? In its first actions the Congress reflected the conflicted mind of the delegates and the American people: it raised an army while pleading with the king for reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson tried to encompass the polarities of the Congress in the documents known as the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. The petition, issued on July 5, was a final plea to King George that affirmed the colonies' loyalty to Britain and urged him to undo the damage done to their allegiance by the "delusive pretenses, fruitless terrors, and unavailing severities" of the king's cabinet since 1763. The king refused to receive the petition and declared the colonies—"misled by dangerous and ill designing men"—to be in a state of armed rebellion. (The compilation "With Triumph crown America" contains excerpts from the petition.) (3 pp.)
Declaration . . . Setting Forth the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking Up Arms. Perhaps because the petition seeks only a single goal—to persuade the king to negotiate—it makes for rather straightforward reading. The Declaration, on the other hand, has more complex goals, and its language is thus more subtle and layered. Jefferson and Dickinson begin the Declaration with a rather sarcastic slap at Great Britain. If God had meant for the British to hold "unbounded power" over the Americans, at least Parliament could have told them so. They review the colonies' devoted service to the mother country, ending with an enumeration of the ways in which Great Britain has betrayed colonial loyalty. Yet, Jefferson and Dickinson claim, even in the face of "despotism," the colonies remained polite and respectful; in response, the British sent troops. Indignant—but still "virtuous, loyal, and affectionate"—the Americans retaliated by cutting off trade with Great Britain, a step they felt would surely bring the British to their senses. This proved a vain hope as the British intensified their rhetorical attacks on the colonies and enacted more punitive measures. Besieged and betrayed, the colonists are left with little choice: "We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice." There follows a ringing declaration to take up arms, but still Jefferson and Dickinson feel the need to pledge allegiance to union with Britain: "we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored." Yet even while harboring the fond hope of restoration, the authors resolve to fight until "hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed." (The compilation in this sections contains excerpts from the declaration.) (4 pp.)
You might combine these texts with those in Theme III: War #1, which includes Edmund Burke's parliamentary speech on reconciliation with the colonies (March 1775) and letters of Benjamin Franklin on the prospects of reconciliation and the beginning of war (May 1775–October 1776).