Teachers
Detail of Engraving - 'Valley Forge--Washington & Lafayette'

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This article was written by David Traill, a teacher at South Fork High School in Stuart, FL.

Lesson Resources

Teaching With Documents:
Images of the American Revolution

Background

Many factors contributed to the eventual success of the American colonies as they revolted against British rule. American leadership, the timely support of international allies, and international respect and recognition played major roles in the struggle for independence. Several documents and engravings held by the National Archives help to illustrate these important factors that led to the founding of the United States.

Beginnings of the Conflict (1775-1777)

Before hostilities began, Americans tried to express their frustrations at being treated differently from other British citizens of the king's empire. They strongly objected to being taxed yet represented only through the concept of "virtual representation" in Parliament. Such pleas were ignored by the king and his Privy Council.

In April 1775, British forces under General Thomas Gage attempted to march from Boston to the nearby villages of Lexington and Concord, in order to seize supplies that the colonials had stored there for their local militiamen, known as Minutemen. Americans also attacked the British at their fort at Ticonderoga, in New York. This attack, led by Vermonter Ethan Allen, took the British by complete surprise. Ticonderoga was a major control point overlooking a strategic lake that could be used to transport goods; the fort also had many cannon, which were captured and later put to use against the British forces in other battles. The Battle of Bunker Hill encouraged American patriotism when, in June, American rebels seized a point of high ground in Boston and forced the British to attempt to dislodge them. The British took enormous casualties, but eventually took the hill when the Americans ran out of ammunition and powder. This was another example of America's abilities to fight, and it was noted by people in America, Britain, and elsewhere.

Violent action having begun, the Second Continental Congress debated what steps to take against Britain. In the end, the delegates at Philadelphia drafted the Declaration of Independence in mid-1776, stating their objections to British rule and reasons why they should now become independent. The king's reaction was not one of support, and instead he sent thousands of British regulars and Hessian soldiers hired from Germany across the Atlantic.

The American militiamen were not well organized. They did have a new commander-in-chief, General George Washington. They did not have a standing army. There was no navy. Volunteers for the fighting were overconfident, and many lacked any military training. Despite these factors, some American fighters did have experience fighting in previous conflicts.

Washington battled both the British army and shortages facing his men. Supplies for the Continental army were often insufficient. While the colonies were in revolt, their government was based on the proposed Articles of Confederation, although the government established by the Articles was limited in power. For example, the Congress lacked a power to raise money through taxes. The new government had to attract respect, aid, and recognition from other nations. One of the first to do so was Spain, who had colonies to the south of the English colonies. One of the best successes came from the diplomatic efforts of Benjamin Franklin, who was sent to Paris to negotiate with Britain's traditional enemy.

At first, France could not openly aid the American cause. Franklin was well known in France, and did his best to appear as American as the people in France had expected. It helped that the Articles of Confederation established by the Second Continental Congress showed that the Americans had plans for their future.

International support played a major role in the success of the colonies' revolution. The efforts of Franklin and others in negotiating with the French for supplies and aid were vital. In fact, some European soldiers came to America, inspired by the revolution that was occurring. Notable among these arrivals were Baron Von Steuben from Prussia and the young French Marquis de Lafayette. Both played significant parts in improving the American military's abilities.

Another problem that confronted Americans during the American Revolution was that of Loyalists, those who chose to remain loyal to the mother country, and those who occasionally were British supporters. In 1780, the Americans suffered a major blow to their hopes when one of their heroes, General Benedict Arnold, joined the British army.

Because of American victories in the West and in the Northeast, the efforts of the British to retake their colonies did not go as planned. Prior to Arnold's defection, he led an invasion of Canada. A subsequent British invasion of the colonies was turned back, but Americans were disappointed. They had hoped that the former French citizens would rally to the American cause, but the Canadians did not do so.

In 1777, the British government planned a strong invasion of the American colonies from Canada. General Howe instead went southward from New York, seized Philadelphia, and settled in for the winter. Meanwhile, under General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, the British insertion into Northern New York was hampered by many problems, natural and manmade. American General Gates's troops finally stopped Burgoyne at Saratoga, in New York, after Howe had stopped his participation in the invasion plan. The surrender of Burgoyne's command on October 17, 1777, proved to be a major turning point in the Revolutionary War. Following the battle at Saratoga, France believed that America could defeat the British. France began to send ships loaded with guns, ammunition, cloth, gunpowder, and other needed goods.

The overwhelming superiority of the British army forced the American forces out of the major cities during the brutal winters of the war. During the winter of 1777-78, the Americans camped at Valley Forge, in Pennsylvania. While the British troops under General Howe were comfortably occupying Philadelphia and enjoying themselves, the American soldiers nearby suffered greatly. Revolutionary War soldiers were often farmers who had families at home. General Washington complained that his troops were underfed and underpaid, and that many would leave during the harvest season to bring in their crops or during the winter for safer, warmer quarters with their families. Many other problems can be seen in documents 2 and 3 .

The War Turns (1778-1781)

As the war progressed, Americans faced serious economic problems. In an effort to raise the money needed to finance the war, the Continental Congress authorized the sale of war bonds. Even that was not enough. The Continental Congress began to print larger and larger amounts of new Continental dollars, which quickly became almost worthless. Loans from foreign nations were used to buy needed supplies, but it was apparent from the noticeable inflation that the new nation was spending its way to an early problem if the situation was not quickly resolved.

A 1779 British invasion through Georgia towards the Carolinas eventually proved to be a major quagmire for the British commanders. British troops were unprepared for new tactics used by American rebels, who fought small, delaying skirmishes, retreated, and then would turn to fight again. British General Cornwallis fought his way along the eastern edge of America, but was unable to achieve a knock-out blow.

Regrouping in the Chesapeake region, Cornwallis planned to await fresh supplies and troops sent across the ocean from England. Without his knowledge, however, Washington had left the safety of New York and marched his forces south where a trap was laid for the British general. While in the French West Indies, French Admiral de Grasse had notified Washington of his fleet's availability, which Washington accepted, and so the French sailed for Yorktown, on the Chesapeake coast. With Washington advancing from the north, and a French army under the French Comte de Rochambeau to the south, the British faced 16,000 troops, while they could muster only 7,000. Cornwallis desperately hoped to be evacuated by sea, but before the Royal Navy could arrive, the French fleet sailed into position. Cornwallis was forced to surrender his entire command, the largest British army in America. The date was October 19, 1781.

The Treaty of Paris, 1783

Sporadic fighting continued after Cornwallis surrendered in 1781. In March 1782, the British prime minister was replaced. Colonial negotiators began to assemble in Paris. Congress had given Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams instructions not to negotiate without the aid of the French, but these three men did not follow their orders. The French were eager to see their European rivals defeated, but also had hopes of keeping the Americans weakened, which would aid the Spanish, another French ally, with its own interests in North America. America would also serve as a strong overseas market and continual ally. The American delegates secretly opened negotiations with the British, and a temporary treaty was reached in 1782, but the final treaty came a year later. The new treaty recognized the colonies as being independent from British rule and established a normalization of relations that would lead eventually to a strong relationship of trust and coexistence.

The Documents

  1. Ethan Allen and Captain de la Place. May 1775. The capture of Fort Ticonderoga, New York. Copy of engraving after Alonzo Chappel.
    National Archives Identifier 531003


  2. Valley Forge--Washington & Lafayette. Winter 1777-78. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after Alonzo Chappel.
    National Archives Identifier 532877


  3. General George Washington and a Committee of Congress at Valley Forge. Winter 1777-78. Copy of engraving after W. H. Powell, published 1866.
    National Archives Identifier 532876


  4. Benjamin Franklin at the Court of France.
    National Archives Identifier 518217


  5. The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. October 1777. Copy of painting by John Trumbull, 1820-21.
    National Archives Identifier 512777


  6. Benedict Arnold's Oath of Allegiance.
    National Archives Identifier 300357


  7. Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, October 19, 1781, by which over 7,000 British and Hessians became prisoners. Copy of lithograph by James Baillie, ca. 1845.
    National Archives Identifier 532883


  8. Treaty of Paris (page 1, signature page)
    National Archives Identifier 299805


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