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Arts During the Revolutionary War
By Awet Amedechiel
By the mid-to late-eighteenth century, many colonial settlers had overcome survival difficulties, especially in the established urban settlements, and were able to partake in artistic endeavors. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1763, "after the first cares for the necessaries of life are over, we shall come to think of the embellishments." Nevertheless, art for the sake of art was not a popular sentiment in the British colonies. More often than not, homegrown artistic activities were strongly attached to practical affairs. Music was performed as part of religious services. Artisans applied their artistry to items for the home, as well as civic buildings and monuments. The idea was to endow common items and activities with beauty, thus enriching everyday life, what might be termed "externally justifiable" art. Thus, there were more architects and furniture-makers than painters and sculptors; more almanacs than novels; and more hymns than operas.
The creative activity that took place among the European-Americans was generally on the amateur level, since there was a dearth of skilled artists and artisans, and few institutions in which to acquire professional training. Architecture was a field in which the self-taught amateur dominated, so that amateur architects, carpenters, and builders played a major role because of the lack of professional architects. Peter Harrison was one such architect, known for designing the Touro synagogue and the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island. James Gibbs' Book of Architecture (1728) was a popular tome among these gentleman architects, with its depictions of famous and elegant European buildings, including the works of Sir Christopher Wren. Architects would study the pictures and design adapted versions for their own needs. The Christ Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the First Baptist Meetinghouse in Providence, Rhode Island, were both designed by amateur architects based on a depiction in Gibb's book of Wren's St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. In many Native American societies, however, the arts, often intimately connected with religious and social rites, were well developed, and skilled craftsmen and artists were regularly produced. Indigenous music and dance, including those required for religious rituals, as well as poetry, pottery, sculpting and carving, beadwork, and other art forms were respected and integral parts of many Native American societies. Despite the ignorant fear and cultural prejudice with which many Europeans reacted to Native American art, the tribes which survived the arrival of the Europeans continued to support the arts as natural and necessary parts of life.
In New England and parts of the Middle Colonies, the influence of religious groups, such as the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania, created artistic strains characterized by simplicity in fields such as architecture, furniture-making, silversmithing, and music. In frontier areas, the effort of survival was too taxing to allow enough social energy to foster complex, non-utilitarian art forms, so simplicity was adopted out of necessity. Those whose tastes and pocketbooks demanded more generally turned to imported culture from Europe. Southern plantation owners, able to exploit the cheap or free labor of indentured servants and slaves, were eager to emulate the lifestyle of the English elite and European nobility. They imported culture in huge doses, sending their children to Europe for a refined education, having their portraits painted by European artists, buying the latest fashions from London and Paris, and building homes based on European models. This supported the sentiment that there was something inherently superior about European culture, and that the emerging American culture, with its Native American, African, and European influences, was incapable of producing the kind of socially-acceptable refinement which many of the social-climbing plantation owner class so desperately sought. Up to that point, most settlers thought of themselves as Europeans in America, and so their desire was to bring their home cultures to their new homes. Once they arrived and faced the competing cultures of Native Americans, African-Americans, and other European immigrants, their pre-conceived notions of "culture" were disturbed. Many British colonialists made strong attempts to reassert cultural dominance, especially in the Southern colonies. Nevertheless, American artists of stature managed to emerge from among the amateur copycats. Two notable examples were James Singleton Copley and Benjamin West. Both artists were born in 1738, achieved early success, and subsequently moved to England. West maintained his ties with his American home, supporting the patriot cause and encouraging young American artists studying abroad. Copley, however, was married to a Tory and had his life threatened by mob violence. The two painters' styles were very different, with West's works being characterized by softness and romanticism, while Copley's works had a more severe, penetrating quality. Ironically, the patriot West was known for his paintings of the nobility, while it was the Tory Copley who portrayed figures from a wide range of social stations, including the revolutionary silversmith Paul Revere.
As with the "highbrow" arts, domestic arts for American consumers were based on European models. In Philadelphia, American furniture artisans became known for their Chippendale-style furniture. In Newport, Rhode Island, John Goddard and John and Edmund Townsend were also known for high-quality furniture that could compete with imported pieces. New England mud cottages with thatched roofs were modeled on English country huts, although traditional patterns had to be adjusted to accommodate the harsher New England climate. The Dutch-Americans in New Amsterdam maintained their Walloon-style brick homes, while the Swedish-Americans in Fort Christina built Swedish-style stone houses. Down south, however, rather than building homes like those appropriate to their social station in England, many English-Americans took their newly acquired tobacco fortunes and attempted to imitate the lifestyles and architecture of the English landed gentry. Thus, they developed the colonial Georgian style for Southern mansions and plantation houses.
The literature of the British colonies was dominated by essays, books, and pamphlets on various nonfiction topics. Much of the best-written non-fiction of the pre-Revolutionary period came from clergymen and other religious writers. The Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century produced clergymen-writers, the most famous of which was Rev. Jonathan Edwards. In addition to religious and moral topics, history was a popular subject for non-fiction books, so that colonies like Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York had their histories chronicled, and the five nations of the Iroquois were the subject of a historical tome. Journals and correspondence, both actual and fictionalized, were frequently written and occasionally published. Almanacs and didactic volumes were ubiquitous. As British-American relations worsened, much American nonfiction turned to political issues, with John Dickinson's Letter from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British Colonies (1768) and Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) being two of the most effective examples.
Although fiction was represented in the colonies, indigenous belles-lettres could not survive in the pre-Revolutionary colonies. A great deal of literature, especially fiction, was imported from England. Not until after the Revolutionary War would the first American novel, William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789), be published. American writings which were not strictly practical were only one cut above the everyday in tone, if not quality. Since low literacy levels, competition from European books, and a degree of pragmatism in the emerging American psyche produced a limited audience for more refined literature, many American writers had to keep in mind the interests of British audiences if they wanted to sell their writings widely. Some writers, following the example of painters West and Copley, traveled to Britain for greater opportunities. Poet Phillis Wheatley even obtained the patronage of English nobility.
Theatrical arts were embraced and rejected by various segments of colonial society. In Annapolis and Charles Town, British theatrical troupes played to welcoming audience drawn from the wealthy secularized leisure class. Plays by British writers such as William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and William Congreve were performed by professional actors such as the famous Thomas Kean, as well as students. In other cities, such as Boston and Philadelphia, which were heavily influenced by Puritans and Quakers respectively, huge protests resulted from attempts to bring theatrical performances to the colonies. Despite this, the first play by a native-born American, The Prince of Parthia, was written by a Philadelphia poet, Thomas Godfrey, and produced in 1767. Music developed along two paths - the sacred and the secular. Ministers, concerned about the future of church music, called for an improvement in musical education. The response to this call was the rise of the singing-school movement, in which independent American singing instructors would travel across the colonies to provide the musical education. From this movement emerged the New England School of Composers in the 1770's. These composers, including figures like William Billings, Daniel Read, Jacob French, Jacob Kimball, Samuel Holyoke, and Oliver Holden, used the distinctive "Yankee" feature of the "fuging tune." They would begin a choral hymn with the melody in tenor voice, then allow the other voices to enter in turn, creating a fugue-like sound without strict adherence to the compositional practices of such European composers as J. S. Bach. In 1770, Billings published a collection of his hymns, which became popular with churches both in and outside New England.
Beyond the sphere of the church, secular ballads became a popular form of entertainment, sometimes imported from England, sometimes created by Americans. The first recorded performance of an opera in the British colonies was the ballad opera Flora, or Hob in the Well., performed in 1735 in the courtroom at Charleston, South Carolina. Other British ballad operas, such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, became popular, although more "refined" Italian operas would not come to North America until the nineteenth century. What seems to be the first American opera, James Hewitt's Tammany, was not staged until 1794. Nevertheless, more and more urbanites became interested in hearing performances of European art music. Public concerts with foreign performers began in New York, Boston, and Charleston, and organizations such as the St. Cecilia Society of Charleston, begun in 1762, sponsored musical events and increasingly called upon home-grown talent.
Once revolutionary fervor began to sweep the colonies, the practical bent in the emerging American persona embraced the arts as propaganda. Patriotic writings were published and discussed among the literate: pamphlets and essays such as James Otis' Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved of 1764 and Thomas Paine's Common Sense of 1776 were widely read and exerted an important influence on the solidification of patriot support. For the illiterate masses, Republican lyrics were added to new and familiar ballads, spreading the themes of the revolution. Political cartoonists supported the struggle for independence by depicting England as an old ogre of the past, while showing the emerging nation to be unfairly oppressed, but nevertheless full of hope and potential. In addition to Paul Revere's deliberately inaccurate depiction of the Boston "Massacre," one of the most famous political images of the war was Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" drawing, published in his Philadelphia Gazette on the eve of the Albany Congress, showing a snake split into sections with the names of each colony labeling each segment. Such words, songs, and images, often depicting actual stories of the courageous acts of patriotic Americans or vital issues of the day, served to rally widespread support for the Continental troops and their cause. Art was even involved in espionage. Patience Lovell Wright, a sculptor who modeled her wax figures after famous contemporaries, smuggled secret information to American forces in Philadelphia, concealed in her works of art.
Despite the strong influence of the "Old Country" on the emerging colonial arts, a beginning attempt was made to forge a homegrown artistic culture. The republican ideals of the revolution, in many ways diverging from European social and political structures, led the way for a uniquely American style. This conflict and interaction between European and American, as well as the related issue of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture, was to influence the entire history of art and culture in the United States.
Music of the American Revolution
Every American school child learns the tune of Yankee Doodle before they leave elementary school, but few people know the origins of the song. Some of the words are:
Yankee Doodle went to town
Riding on a Pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni
A British Army surgeon named Richard Shuckburg first penned the verses during the French and Indian War to make fun of colonial soldiers. He used a traditional British tune which has been attached to many other lyrics - but in modern times, Yankee Doodle has become the most famous rendition.
"Yankee" was a derogatory term attached to New Englanders - and in those days, macaroni wasn't a noodle, but a foppish or effeminate hair style. In the tune, Shuckburg was basically calling the colonists unmanly and stupid. Yet, the colonists loved the song so much that they adopted it as one of their most patriotic songs, and would make captured British prisoners dance to it at the end of the Revolutionary War.
The Revolutionary War Hero Who Was Openly Gay
Gay men have always been part of the American military. In an era before gay marriage or open pride, military men fell in love, formed passionate friendships and had same-sex encounters. Due to social and official discrimination, though, most of their stories have gone untold. But in the case of one of the military’s founding heroes, homosexuality was always part of the story.
Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian military man hired by George Washington to whip the Continental Army into shape during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, is known for his bravery and the discipline and grit he brought to the American troops. Historians also think he was homosexual𠅊nd served as an openly gay man in the military at a time when sex between men was punished as a crime.
“Though his name is little known among Americans today,” writes Erick Trickey for Smithsonian, 𠇎very U.S. soldier is indebted to von Steuben—he created America’s professional army.”
It wasn’t easy: Three years into the Revolutionary War, the army was low on discipline, morale and even food. With his strict drills, showy presence and shrewd eye for military strategy, he helped turn them into a military powerhouse.
Baron von Steuben drilling American recruits at Valley Forge in 1778. (Credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images)
Benjamin Franklin, who recommended von Steuben to Washington, played up his qualifications. He also downplayed rumors that the baron had been dismissed from the Prussian military for homosexuality. Von Steuben joined the military when he was 17 and had become Frederick the Great’s personal aide, but despite a seemingly promising career he was abruptly dismissed in 1763. Later in life, he wrote about an “implacable enemy” who had apparently led to his firing, but historians are unsure of the exact circumstances of the dismissal.
After being fired, von Steuben bounced from job to job. He was unimpressed by Franklin’s suggestion that he volunteer to help the American army, and tried instead to get another military job in the court at Baden. But his application was tanked when an anonymous letter accused him of having “taken familiarities” with young boys.
As historian William E. Benemann notes, there’s no historical evidence that von Steuben was a pedophile. But he was gay, and homosexuality was viewed as a criminal aberration by many of his peers. “Rather than stay and provide a defense, rather than call upon his friends…to vouch for his reputation, von Steuben chose to flee his homeland,” writes Benemann.
Baron von Steuben. (Credit: The Palmer/Getty Images)
Franklin likely knew of the rumors and the reason that von Steuben suddenly accepted an offer he𠆝 turned down so recently. But he didn’t see von Steuben’s private life as relevant to his military qualifications. Neither did George Washington, who knew of the accusations but welcomed von Steuben to his camp and assigned Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens𠅋oth of whom were involved in what some historians haveubbed a “romantic friendship”𠅊s his aides.
Washington approved of von Steuben. “He appears to be much of a gentleman,” he wrote when the baron arrived at camp, 𠇊nd as far as I have had an opportunity of judging, a man of military knowledge, and acquainted with the world.”
When von Steuben arrived in camp, he was appalled by the conditions the soldiers had been fighting under, and immediately set to work drilling soldiers with strict Prussian techniques. He was a strict drillmaster, but he also socialized with the troops. One of his aides, Pierre-Étienne Du Ponceau, recalls a particularly wild party given at Valley Forge. “His aides invited a number of young officers to dine at our quarters,” he wrote, “on condition that none should be admitted, that had on a whole pair of breeches.” The men dined in torn clothing and, he implied, no clothing at all.
Von Steuben didn’t just throw sexually charged parties: He also formed intense relationships with other men. He became close to William North and Benjamin Walker, aides-de-camp who seem to have been involved in their own romantic relationship, and lived with them for two years in camp. It’s likely that von Steuben became romantically and sexually involved with North, though it’s not clear how close he was to Walker.
General Washington standing with Johann De Kalb, Baron von Steuben, Kazimierz Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Lafayette, John Muhlenberg, and other officers during the Revolutionary War. (Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
Meanwhile, von Steuben proved himself a heroic addition to the army. As Inspector General, he taught the army more efficient fighting techniques and helped instill the discipline they so sorely needed. It worked, and the drill manual he wrote for the army is still partially in use today. The drillmaster quickly became one of Washington’s most trusted advisors, eventually serving as his chief of staff. He is now considered instrumental in helping the Americans win the Revolutionary War.
When the war ended, Baron von Steuben was granted U.S. citizenship and moved to New York with North and Walker. “We love him,” North wrote, 𠇊nd he deserves it for he loves us tenderly.”
After the war, von Steuben legally adopted both men𠅊 common practice among gay men in an age before same-sex marriage was legal. They lived together, managed his precarious finances and inherited his estate when he died in 1794. John Mulligan, who was also gay, served as von Steuben’s secretary and is thought to have had a relationship with the baron. When von Steuben died, he inherited his library and some money.
During von Steuben’s lifetime, the concept of gay marriage, gay pride or coming out was unthinkable and there was no language or open culture of homosexuality. But historical homosexual relationships were actually common.
That doesn’t mean being gay was condoned: Sodomy was a crime in colonial America. But romantic relationships between men were widely tolerated until the 19th century, and only in the early 20th century did the U.S. military begin officially discriminating against people suspected to be gay.
Von Steuben may have been one of early America’s most open LGBT figures, but he was hardly the only man whose love of other men was well known. And though he was to have helped save the American army, his contribution is largely forgotten today.
There are no designated cemeteries for Revolutionary War soldiers, either British or American, but there are a number of cemeteries in the U.S. that contain the graves of British Revolutionary War soldiers, according to an article titled Ask MHQ: British Revolutionary War Burials on HistoryNet:
“At Mount Independence State Historic Site in Orwell, Vermont, researchers have found several burial sites that probably contain the remains of Americans, British, Germans, Canadians, and Native Americans killed in battle. According to local legend, Old Salem Burying Ground in the village of Salem, New York, may be the final resting place of about 100 American soldiers killed in the Battle of Saratoga. Another local tradition has hundreds of American soldiers buried in unmarked graves around Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, site of a Continental Army hospital. In 1892 the bodies of 10 soldiers who fell in the Revolution were removed to Arlington National Cemetery and buried in honored glory.”
During the Revolutionary War, British Army regulations called for battlefield burial of their dead. Most British soldiers were buried where they died and many still remain in these makeshift graves while others were reburied in cemeteries when their graves were rediscovered after the war ended.
In fact, two of the three British soldiers from the 4th Regiment Light Infantry Company that were killed at the Battle of Concord in 1775 are still buried at the foot of the Old North Bridge, and the third soldier was buried nearby at the center of town, although a house was reportedly built over his grave in the 19th century.
Near the Paul Revere Capture site in Lexington, Mass is a grave marker for an unknown number of British soldiers killed during the retreat back from the Battle of Concord to Boston. The marker reads: “Near Here Are Buried British Soldiers. April 19, 1775.”
Also, an entire neighborhood of residential backyards in Charlestown, Mass is believed to be the location a 15-foot-deep mass grave of British soldiers who died in the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. The area was once a section of the Bunker Hill battlefield and the soldiers were buried in a ditch dug by the American soldiers before they retreated at the end of the battle.
In addition, the Central Burying Ground in Boston, Mass contains the graves of British soldiers who died of combat and disease during the Siege of Boston. Some reports indicate that it contains an unmarked mass grave for British soldiers who died in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The soldiers are reportedly buried in trenches at the edge of the cemetery.
In 1986, construction workers in Philadelphia found a shallow unmarked grave of a British soldier in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia and reburied him in a nearby cemetery with a military service. The unidentified soldier is believed to have died on the spot he was buried during the Battle of Germantown in 1777.
Thomas Jefferson Quotes -Revolutionary War Quotes
Some great Revolutionary War Quotes come from Thomas Jefferson, one of the most well known of America's Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson was a proud Virginia planter and lawyer who stood six feet tall and had red hair. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as America's ambassador to France for many years, became the first Secretary of State under President George Washington and eventually became the third President of the United States himself. Here are just a few of our Revolutionary War Quotes by Thomas Jefferson. If you would like to read more, click on the link at the bottom of this page and you will be taken to our complete list of Thomas Jefferson Quotes listed in chronological order:
"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories." - Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14, 1781
"And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever." - Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18, 1781
"Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death." - Letter to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785
"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy." - Letter to Thomas Cooper, November 29, 1802
"It is a wise rule and should be fundamental in a government disposed to cherish its credit, and at the same time to restrain the use of it within the limits of its faculties, "never to borrow a dollar without laying a tax in the same instant for paying the interest annually, and the principal within a given term and to consider that tax as pledged to the creditors on the public faith." - Letter to John Wayles Eppes, June 24, 1813
Go to our complete listing of Thomas Jefferson Quotes here.
You might also like to read our Thomas Jefferson Facts page or learn about how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence .
American Spies of the Revolution
Learn more about some of the spies that aided the Patriot cause during the American Revolution.
During the Battle of Long Island, Nathan Hale--a captain in the Continental Army--volunteered to go behind enemy lines in disguise to report back on British troop movements. Hale was captured by the British army and executed as a spy on September 22, 1776. Hale remains part of popular lore connected with the American Revolution for his purported last words, &ldquoI only regret that I have but one life to give for my country."
In November 1778, George Washington charged Major Benjamin Tallmadge with creating a spy ring in New York City, the site of British headquarters. Tallmadge led the creation of the Culper Spy Ring, recruiting friends to work as his informants. Tallmadge served as the main handler for the Culper Spy Ring until the end of the war.
A tavern owner, Austin Roe was closely tied to other members of the Culper Ring, even growing up near the home of fellow spy Caleb Brewster. Roe served as the group&rsquos courier, transporting materials from Robert Townsend&rsquos New York City coffee shop all the way back to Setauket, Long Island, a trip of more than fifty miles. Roe&rsquos position as courier was fraught with danger, traveling a long distance with the possibility of being caught with incriminating evidence of his activities.
A farmer and the son of a local Patriot judge, Abraham Woodhull joined the Culper ring in November of 1778. Woodhull was essentially the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, deciding what information was transmitted throughout the group, which would eventually make its way to George Washington. In order to evade British detection, Woodhull operated under the pseudonym, &ldquoSamuel Culper Sr."
Well-connected within the New York, colonial, upper class, Anna Strong utilized her farmstead on Long Island to help transfer intelligence information to the other members of the Culper ring. Strong&rsquos husband, Selah Strong III, was a prominent Patriot judge who served as a captain during the war. Anna Strong arranged clothes on her clothesline as a means to signal fellow Culper spy Caleb Brewster regarding the location of hidden documents to be transported.
A tavern owner in New York City, Robert Townsend participated in a complex cover up to mask his true loyalties. Townsend was a Patriot who publicly presented himself as a Loyalist supporter of Britain, even writing for a Loyalist newspaper to build credibility. The guise worked as Townsend was trusted with sensitive information, even from British military officers. Townsend then relayed the information to Austin Roe.
James Armistead Lafayette
An enslaved African-American who volunteered to join the army under Lafayette in 1781, Armistead served as a double agent working for the Patriots. Armistead posed as a runaway slave who agreed to work with the British, though in actuality he was collecting intelligence from the British and reporting back to Patriot forces. Armistead spied on Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (who had already defected to lead British forces), and eventually visited the camp of Lord Cornwallis to gather information about the British plans for troop deployment and armaments. The intelligence reports from Armistead&rsquos efforts were instrumental in helping to defeat the British during the Battle of Yorktown.
A Philadelphia school teacher and the wife of a British soldier, Ann Bates claimed to be a Patriot in order to collect and identify important information to send to British forces. After walking into George Washington&rsquos White Plains headquarters, Bates explained that she &ldquohad the opportunity of going through their whole army remarking at the same time the strength and situation of each brigade, and the number of cannon, with their situation and weight of ball each cannon was charged with.&rdquo Bates&rsquo information influenced General Henry Clinton's decision to send more forces to defend Rhode Island, leading to American and French armies to withdraw from Newport.
Benedict Arnold: From Hero to Traitor
Learn more about George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Once brothers in arms they became bitter enemies.
Spies and Spycraft
Check out our extensive collection of books and products related to America's espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War.
'Iron Tears,' a British View of American Revolution
Stanley Weintraub discusses Iron Tears , his recently published history of the American Revolution from the British perspective. King George III and Britons in the 1770s felt the colonists were complaining too much about too little. especially the taxation question.
Cover detail shows King George III, George Washington. hide caption
This weekend, to mark the Fourth of July, Independence Day, festivities are scheduled in small towns and large to celebrate the American Colonies severing ties with the British crown. Seen through American eyes, the new nation's Founding Fathers were all noble, guided by lofty ideals. But through British eyes, events and people were, not surprisingly, seen quite differently. Historian Stanley Weintraub provides that perspective in his new book, "Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire, 1775-1783." When he spoke to us last week, he explained that the British felt the Colonies were indebted to them and should be more appreciative.
Professor STANLEY WEINTRAUB (Author, "Iron Tears"): They felt that the American colonists owed them a great deal for protection, for purveying their culture, for providing them with manufacturers. But what they didn't say is that they prevented manufacturers from being made in American Colonies themselves they wanted to keep the economy dependent on England. So when the American Revolution actually began, there was no way to make gunpowder in America. There were no armories to make rifles or cannon they had to import them or take them from the British. We were totally unprepared for war because the British made sure we weren't by making them dependent. And so the resentment in America was dependency.
HANSEN: Well, what about British Parliament? I mean, was everyone in agreement about how to deal with the American Colonies?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: No. The British Parliament was quite unrepresentative. The British Parliament largely was based on men who were elected from the small towns and farmlands and not from the burgeoning big cities that were growing up with the Industrial Revolution. So Manchester or Birmingham didn't have any seats in Parliament, and the British said, `Why are you complaining, you in America? The same thing's true over here. We're not representative, but we're happy.'
HANSEN: Hmm. How important, though, were the Colonies to Britain?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: They were very important as a source of raw materials, particularly agricultural materials and tobacco. But the Colonies were also important as a source of pride. We think in terms of `the jewel in the crown' applied to India, but that term was really first applied to the American Colonies. They were the jewel in the king's crown.
HANSEN: So you have this deep resentment growing on both sides, on the British side and on the American side, and the protests against the taxes were beginning to grow. Did the view begin to change? Did the resentment begin to build?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: The resentment built on the part of the patriots, patriots who were really extremists, largely in the Northeast, like Massachusetts. And when the Tea Party occurred and the bales of tea were thrown overboard, Benjamin Franklin actually said, `This was an act of piracy and the Americans should repay the British for the tea.' So it took a long time before people we consider the super patriots of the country to get around to the extreme view of separation.
HANSEN: Let's go to April 19th, 1775 British troops firing on American militia at Lexington and Concord. The idea of going to war--Did all the Britons think that going to war with America was a good idea?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: They were very surprised when we went to war. They were surprised especially when they lost.
HANSEN: But were--well, they were surprised when it actually started.
Prof. WEINTRAUB: When it started. They weren't prepared for it, and they hadn't realized that the American militias that were building up at the time, particularly in places like Virginia and in Massachusetts, were armed. They were armed largely because they had hunting rifles. They had very little sources of ammunition. And the British at Bunker Hill lost a lot of men, and it took so long before the news got to England--the patriots were very shrewd. They rushed the news and newspapers to England faster than the British could send their official communiques. And so the American spin, the patriots' spin on the war, affected England before the government could put its own spin on the war.
HANSEN: So how did the British public first react to the idea of war with.
Prof. WEINTRAUB: They reacted with shock, especially with the casualties that came across. And they reacted with shock when they realized that their taxes would have to go up. They couldn't get taxation out of America. And not only did their taxes go up, their taxes were on every little thing one could imagine. Not merely tea or stamps or newspapers, but even rabbit hair for women's hats was taxed. Ink, paper, all kinds of things were taxed. And these were nuisance taxes because the British didn't want to raise the property tax, but eventually they had to do that, too. And so the war was largely unpopular because it was an economic dent in the British.
HANSEN: So in talking about the execution of the war, was Britain's heart really in it?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: Not the heart of the merchants. The merchants were very hostile to the war. This was the radical center of the war because the businessmen were taking a big hit. They wanted the trade to continue, and there was no trade.
HANSEN: Hmm. So ultimately, why do you think Britain lost the war?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: Britain lost the war because General Washington had two other generals on his side. One was `General Demography,' population. The population was burgeoning. And the other general that Washington had on his side was `General Atlantic,' that is Atlantic Ocean. It took two and a half months to cross the Atlantic by sail against the wind. By the time the Donald Rumsfeld of that war, the secretary for America, Lord George Germaine, sent his orders across to America 3,000 miles away, it was too late the orders were moot. Things had changed. It took two and a half months. So General Atlantic, meaning `General Distance,' and `General Demography,' meaning population, were really generals who aided Washington tremendously.
HANSEN: Why was it important for you to present the Revolutionary War from the British point of view?
Prof. WEINTRAUB: The losers seldom ever write the history. We've always had flag-waving histories. And it's nice to have flag-waving histories, but I think we needed some balance to see what the war was like from the lens of the British. How did they see it? How did they take to it?
HANSEN: Stanley Weintraub is the Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. His newest book is "Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire, 1775-1783," published by the Free Press.
Thanks so much for coming in.
Prof. WEINTRAUB: You're welcome. Glad to be with you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR&rsquos programming is the audio record.
Notable Events of 1778
January 10, 1778 - USS Bonhomme Richard
John Paul Jones receives an old French Vessel. It is renamed The Bonhomme Richard.
February 6, 1778 - The Alliance With France
After the Battle of Saratoga, Congress decided to seek French support in the war. They sent Benjamin Franklin, who could speak French, to meet with King Louis XVI and the French foreign minister.
France wanted to get revenge on Britain for the defeat in the French and Indian War. They also wanted to ensure that Britain and America don't resolve their differences.
In February 1778, France and America signed a treaty which put France at war with Britain. This treaty was the first document to officially recognize America as an independent state.
December 9, 1778 - Illinois Annexed
The Colony of Virginia annexes all territory captured by George Rodgers Clark, naming it Illinois.
Revolutionary War Spies
Both the British and the Americans sent Revolutionary War spies over to the other’s camps to discover what secrets they could.
There were many spies that were never discovered and to this day we do not know who they were. Most of those we do know are known thanks to the meticulous record-keeping of Sir Henry Clinton, British commander of the forces in America.
Clinton exhibited an almost maniacal fascination with the duplication of any and all correspondence that he wrote and received. He went so far as to make duplicate copies of all the letters and documents he signed and saved almost every scrap of paper that crossed his path, including such mundane items as the accounts of his personal expenses and dinner receipts. (from Spy Letters of the American Revolution).
I cannot tell you the lives or stories of those unknown spies, because, like I said, they are unknown, but I can tell you about those we do know …
Famous Revolutionary War Spies
- Everyone knows who Benjamin Franklin is, but did you know he was a spy during the War for Independence?
- Nathan Hale—one of the most famous American spies and whose only regret was that he had “but one life to give for my country,”—had but one assignment as a spy.
- Benedict Arnold’s very name has been attached to being a double agent and traitor, but did you know it took time for him to grow disillusioned with the American cause?
Women as American Revolution Spies
Those are the men, but Revolutionary War women played a large role as spies as well. foolishly, American men assumed that women were too simple to understand complex military strategy, so they spoke freely as British spies mingled among them disguised as peddlers or pretending to search for a father or brother.
Our knowledge of these is limited, as many were not caught, but those we do know include …
- , who paid dearly for information she extracted from the French camp , a schoolteacher that infiltrated George Washington’s camp , a Quaker and pacifist who nonetheless seized an opportunity when it appeared in her living room
Nature of Espionage During the Revolutionary War
When you hear the word spy you may think of people in black masks and hoods like you see in the movies. This is not how these spies operated. They led normal lives and blended in with society, which is how they got the job done.
Many of these Revolutionary War spies are also heroes, whose bravery we can aspire to.
This was helpful very. Thanks so much for putting this in here. I am so thankful that this popped up on google. I am so happy.
Very useful information. But I think you have the wrong British flag/ensign, which was not adopted until 1801, when the cross of St. Patrick of Ireland (a diagonal red cross on a white field) was incorporated. The British flag flown throughout its empire at the time of the Revolution was known as the Queen Anne Union and is today the official flag of the United Empire Loyalists of Canada Association. See uelac.org/Loyalist-Monuments/Loyalist-Flag.php Your article was just circulated by the UELAC FB page today, which is probably why no one had pointed this out earlier.
this was very helpful because i am doing a school assignment and this did almost everything for me
Enjoyed this history lesson. My ancestors lived in Massachusetts and central area of what is now Maine. I am a member of SAR off Benjamin Chapman who fought the battle of Castine or Penobscot in northern Maine.
I am tutoring a 5th grader and would like for him to research the main patriots who fought in the Revolutionary War.