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8. 1775: The Outbreak of War






As arms were to decide the controversy, it was fortunate for the Americans that the first blood was drawn in New England. The inhabitants of that country are so connected with each other by descent, manners, religion, politics, and a general equality, that the killing of a single individual interested the whole and made them consider it as a common cause. The blood of those who were killed at Lexington and Concord proved the firm cement of an extensive union.

David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 1789

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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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 and Concord PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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).

Discussion Questions

Compilation: Colonists Respond to the Outbreak of War____
  1. From the compilation of documents, what impressions do you get of the temperament and goals of Americans by summer 1775?
  2. What conflicts and ambiguities remain among Americans at the time?
  3. What expressions of determination, finality, and foreboding appear in the documents?
  4. Create a dialogue among two to four persons represented in the compilation. Guide your dialogue to a conclusion among the speakers (whether shared or unshared).
  5. Compare the documents with those in earlier compilations in this Theme, CRISIS, by speaker, genre, tone, and message. What patterns do you find? what trajectory from 1763 to 1775?
  6. How did the Patriots justify their "resistance through force"? How did they build on the "firm cement of an extensive union" after the Battle of Lexington & Concord?
  7. How did Loyalists construct their final appeals for reconciliation? How did their tone and message change from the late 1760s?
  8. Was the American Revolution inevitable after April 19, 1775?
  1. How do the sermons prepare people for revolution?
  2. How do the clergymen reconcile a call to arms with Christian virtue?
  3. How do they present the war as a justifiable war? Why do several label colonists' unvirtuous conduct as one cause of the "public calamities"?
  4. Using the content of the sermons on justifiable war, discuss literary historian Robert Ferguson's statement that "the sermon is the bellwether of rebellion; it records the Revolution in the piety of response to daily trouble. . . . The belief required for independence literally is born in these sermons."1
Announcement of the Battle of Lexington & Concord
  1. How does the announcement of the Battle of Lexington & Concord reflect the "firm cement of an extensive union" among the colonies by late April 1775?
  2. How does it represent the Internet and social networking of the 21st century?
Diary of Matthew Patten
  1. How would you describe Matthew Patten's diary? How does it differ from 21st-century ideas of what a diary is for?
  2. Can we trust Patten's diary? Why or why not?
  3. How does Patten's matter-of-fact presentation affect our perception of Bedford's mobilization?
  4. What impact did the news from Lexington and Concord have upon Bedford?
  5. What does it suggest that men from surrounding towns joined Bedford men on the march to Concord?
  6. What does the speed with which the region's men organized themselves suggest?
  7. Would it not have been wiser for Matthew's son and his friends to have waited a few days before rushing off to join the American army?
  8. What does Patten's use of the term "our Countrymen" suggest?
  9. From this passage what can you infer about the role women played in the mobilization?
Olive Branch Petition & Declaration of the Second Continental Congress
  1. What was the purpose of the Olive Branch Petition? What is its tone? Through what specific language does it achieve this tone?
  2. Compare the Olive Branch Petition with the petition sent to King George a year earlier by the First Continental Congress. What do the delegates add to the 1775 petition? How does this signal the urgency and finality of the petition?
  3. What arguments do Jefferson and Dickinson repeat in the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms? How does their use of them differ in each document?
  4. What are Jefferson and Dickinson trying to achieve with the Declaration? Who is the intended audience? What is their rhetorical strategy? How successful is it?
  5. How do Jefferson and Dickinson characterize the British in the Declaration? the Americans?
  6. How sincere are their professions of hope for a restored union with Britain?
  7. Consider the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration together. How do they reflect the state of the colonial mind in 1775? Which document displays the greater conviction?
  8. Why were the delegates' final appeals rejected by King George III? Do you think they anticipated the king's response?
  9. Conduct a debate on this proposition: The American Revolution began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Prior to debate, the class can determine its criteria for identifying the beginning of a revolution.

Framing Questions

  • Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
  • Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
  • How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
  • Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?


COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the outbreak of war
Sermons on the outbreak of war
Announcement of Lexington & Concord
Diary of Matthew Patten
Olive Branch Petition
Declaration of the Causes . . . Taking Up Arms
19 pp.
 6 pp.
 2 pp.
 7 pp.
 3 pp.
 4 pp.
41 pp.

Supplemental Sites

The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776 (Massachusetts Historical Society) The American Revolution, overviews and primary sources (American Memory, Library of Congress) The American Revolution: A Documentary History (Avalon Project, Yale Law Library), including: Paul Revere, Deposition on his ride to Lexington on April 18, 1775 (Massachusetts Historical Society)

Proclamation of Rebellion, King George III, 23 August 1775 (Britannia Historical Documents)

Communications in the Revolutionary Era (E Pluribus Unum Project, Assumption College) Early military confrontations of the American Revolution The Road to Revolution (American Revolution, Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History et al.)

The Revolutionary War, primary documents (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment: 1750-1820 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994; paperback ed., 1997), pp. 62-63, 66.

Images reproduced by permission of the American Antiquarian Society; accessed through Early American Imprints, Series I, American Antiquarian Society with Readex/Newsbank.
– Illustration in a A Poem Upon the Bloody Engagement that was fought on BUNKER's-HILL in Charlestown, NEW-ENGLAND, on the 17th of JUNE, 1775 . . . , broadside (detail), Chelmsford, Massachusetts, 1775, EAI 49296.
– Illustration and poem title in Americans to Arms, broadside (details), 1775, EAI 42766.
– Illustration in A Bloody Butchery by the British Troops . . . , broadside (detail), 1775, EAI 13839.

Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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