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WAR: 1775-1783

1. Anticipating War


The Colonists had indulged themselves in an expectation that the people of Great Britain, from a consideration of the dangers and difficulties of a war with the Colonies, would in their [parliamentary] election have preferred those who were friends to peace and a reconciliation; but when they were convinced of the fallacy of these hopes, they turned their attention to the means of self-defense.

David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 1789

The fallacy of these hopes. Even before the pivotal Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, many Americans—Patriots and Loyalists—felt separation and war were inevitable. The questions that remained were voiced on both sides of the ocean. How long would the war take? How unified would the colonists be in defending their "privileges as Englishmen"? How strong a military force would the Patriots be able to bring together? How firmly would Britain try to salvage its imperial hold on America? Would each side identify its top military commanders to direct the war? Was the final outcome apparent to the nonpartisan viewer? If the Patriots won, what then? In this Theme, WAR, we examine these questions as well as the realities of commanding and fighting the war, and sustaining civilian life in its midst.

We begin with the perspectives of one Briton and one American as they plead to the British to stop-and-think. Why are you jeopardizing Britain's imperial health and power by refusing to budge in the standoff with the American colonies? Do you know what self-sabotage means? Well, you're doing it, and you'd better take a deep breath and consider the consequences. Consider these selections with those in Theme I: CRISIS #7-8, and Theme II: REBELLION #7-8, that relate to the final attempts to avoid war and achieve reconciliation. Was war inevitable in 1775?

    Edmund Burke, speech to Parliament PDF file
  • Edmund Burke, speech to Parliament on reconciliation with America, 1775, selections. An Irish-born British statesman, Edmund Burke not only sympathized with American grievances but argued that Parliament could, without loss of dignity or authority, recognize and address them. In a dramatic speech to the House of Commons, he presented a plan to "conciliate and concede" to America without making Britain appear spineless and defeated. Unfortunately, he delivered the speech one month before the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775, after which little prospect of reconciliation survived. So why read the speech? First, because Burke forcefully describes the Americans' "fierce spirit of liberty" on the eve of revolution, and traces its origins point by point to their heritage as Englishmen (and the vast physical distance separating them from Britain). And second, because transitional moments in history reveal much of adversaries' ultimate motivations—what, in the end, they will or will not compromise to maintain peace. We pick up mid-point in the lengthy speech, as Burke concludes his prefatory arguments and proceeds to his plan. If acted upon earlier, might it have achieved peace? (4 pp.)

  • Benjamin Franklin, letters PDF file
  • Benjamin Franklin, letters on the prospects of reconciliation and the beginning of war, 1775-1776, selections. Benjamin Franklin's letters to American and British friends during the critical transition years of 1775 and 1776 trace the last hopes of avoiding war with Britain and the fateful realization that the "outbreak of hostilities" in April 1775 had been, indeed, the outbreak of fullscale war, made official and irreversible in July 1776 with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. This collection includes excerpts from Franklin's letters to fifteen friends—six American and nine British—spanning the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 to his departure to France to negotiate an alliance in late 1776. Franklin had lived in London for many years while serving as the colonial agent for several colonies and there developed friendships with members of Parliament, British military officers, and other British officials. Many of these letters express unchecked astonishment and condemnation of British actions. (7 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the tone in Burke's public speech and Franklin's private letters about the prospects of reconciliation in 1775? How hopeful or resigned are their underlying sentiments?
  2. What is Burke's stated goal in his speech to Parliament? What reasons does he emphasize for maintaining union with the colonies?
  3. How did he present the colonies' significance in Britain's global trade?
  4. What four reasons did he present against using military force to maintain union with the colonies?
  5. What did he emphasize about the "character of the Americans" that contributed to the "disobedient spirit in the colonies"?
  6. After building the rationale for his position, he offers six resolutions to advance reconciliation. Overall, what is his plan?
  7. If acted upon earlier, would Burke's plan have achieved reconciliation and peace?
  8. Compare Burke's speech to Parliament in 1775 with the parliamentary debate over the Stamp Act twelve years earlier. (See CRISIS #3.) How did Burke in 1775 and Isaac Barré in 1763 couch their arguments in support of America's position?
  9. How did Franklin's tone and outlook change in his letters from May 1775 to October 1776?
  10. Franklin's letters in this selection include six to Americans and eleven to Britons. How do they differ by the nationality of the recipients?
  11. Why did he feel Patriots were justified in abandoning hope for reconciliation and preparing for war? How did he present this opinion to British friends?
  12. At what point did Franklin write that "a separation will of course be inevitable"? Why?
  13. What did he emphasize in his letters to American military leaders?
  14. How did Franklin argue that Britain's policies were self-destructive and certain to destroy any chance of reconciliation?
  15. Why did his letters to Britons become more insistent and despairing? What were his final pleas?
  16. What did Franklin write to Edmund Burke?
  17. How did the Englishman William Strahan, a longtime friend of Franklin's, respond to Franklin's closing statement that "you are now my Enemy, and I am, Yours . . . "?
  18. Compare Franklin's letters to David Hartley (M.P. and a longtime friend) in 1775 with those in the early 1780s during peace negotiations (see WAR #9)? How do the letters exemplify the early and final days of the war?
  19. How did the seventy-year-old Franklin describe the effects of his aging and hard work as a diplomat? What did he predict for himself in the immediate future? What did Franklin accomplish for the United States after the Revolution?
  20. Burke's speech was delivered one month before the Battle of Lexington and Concord (19 April 1775), and Franklin's letters, in these selections, begin one month after the battle. How do their writings reflect the war momentum before and after Lexington and Concord?
  21. How did Burke and Franklin acknowledge that their pleas for reconciliation might be too late? Why did they urge reconciliation anyway?
  22. Create a dialogue between Burke and Franklin in two parts—in 1775 and in 1783, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. In what location will the dialogue occur? What will have brought the two men together?

Framing Questions

  • How did Patriot leadership—military, diplomatic, and governmental—promote and hinder the war effort?
  • How did the war affect Patriots, Loyalists, Indians, African Americans, and women? How were power relationships changed?
  • How were decisions by Britain and France critical to the outcome of the war?
  • Was victory the last achievement of the thirteen colonies or the first achievement of the new nation?


Burke's speech to Parliament
Franklin's letters to friends
 4 pp.
 7 pp.
11 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Edmund Burke, overview (Oxford University Press)

Benjamin Franklin, diplomatic role, overview (Franklin & Marshall College)

Related primary documents (1775) in the Avalon Project (Yale Law Library) John Dickinson, Letter to Arthur Lee, 29 April 1775: "The impious way of tyranny against innocence has commenced" (Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, Ashland University)

"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

Images courtesy of the New York Public Library:
– Engraving of Benjamin Franklin by Edward Fisher, 1770? (detail), after 1762 oil portrait by Mason Chamberlin; Digital ID EM3172.
– Engraving of Edmund Burke by William Holl, London, 183? (detail), after 1774 oil portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds; Digital ID 421463.

Banner image: John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, oil on canvas, 1820 (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. Capitol, Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

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