The Heating Up of the American Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History Of The United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Gulezo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

From the Congress’s rebellious authorization of a continental army—headed by George Washington—to Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution of Independence, read on to know the events that ultimately led to what we now call the American Revolution.

A monument dedicated to the battle at Bunker Hill, Charlestown, Boston, Massachusetts.
A monument dedicated to the Battle of Bunker Hill, which started the chain of events that eventually led to the heating up of the American Revolution and freedom. (Image: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock)

When the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, the clash at Lexington and Concord was less than a month old, and New England militiamen had clamped down on the redcoats with an unofficial closure of all the exits from Boston. With the pall of Lexington and Concord still in the air, the loyalists were in a much poorer position than they would have been the previous September. When Congress drew up a formal statement of the reasons why Americans had resorted to violent resistance, the loyalists in Congress managed to have most of the radical language taken out.

Learn more about the rejection of the Empire.

The Battle at Bunker Hill

Nevertheless, after that everything for them went downhill. On the night of June 16, 1775, the New England militia, across the Charles River from Boston, quietly began entrenching on the hills of the Charlestown Peninsula, hills known as Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill. These hills overlooked the British garrison in Boston.

On the morning of June 17, General Thomas Gage gathered 2,200 men out of his small force of British regulars, put them under the command of Major General William Howe, and ferried them across the Charles River, to chase the Americans away.

They did just that, but only after having to make three separate assaults, losing, 226 killed and 868 wounded, almost half the entire attacking force. For anyone who imagined that Lexington and Concord was a fluke, like the Braddock defeat 20 years before, the fight at Bunker Hill was a rude awakening.

Many in the militia, which had held most of the day at Bunker Hill, were veterans of the French and Indian War. They understood quite well how to fight the regulars in the regulars’ fashion. They mowed the British Infantry down with the volleys of coordinated musket fire that would have made any European drillmaster, if not exactly happy, then at least smugly satisfied.

Technically, Bunker Hill was a British victory, but neither side felt it that way. One colonial militia officer smirked, “I wish we could sell them another hill at the same price.” Well, they soon enough would.

Congress’s Authorization of a Continental Army

In June, no longer willing to rely on the militia, Congress authorized the enlistment of a regular continental army. Mustered into the service of the Continental Congress, the army was led by the Congress commissioned officers. The first and chief of whom was the Virginian veteran of the French and Indian War—George Washington.

A portrait of George Washington, the chief of the new Continental Army.
George Washington, one of the leaders of the American Revolution, took command of the First Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Rembrandt Peale/Public domain)

Most of the 17,000 militia surrounding Boston were enrolled in the new Continental Army. On July 3, Washington officially took command of them beneath an oak tree on the town common of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Congress also authorized the seizure of the British fort at Ticonderoga, New York. It also commissioned Richard Montgomery—a former British officer, now a gentleman New York farmer—to raise a northern army of New Englanders, New Yorkers, and even French Canadians to march on Quebec and liberate it from British control.

The British government responded not with attempts at mediation, but with embarrassment and fury. In August, the king rejected Congress’s request for a review of colonial grievances and declared the Americans to be in open rebellion. On December 22, 1775, Parliament followed the king by adopting the American Prohibitory Bill, which declared all American shipping outlawed and authorized the Royal Navy to seize any American merchant vessels found on the high seas or found in port.

Realizing that it only had about 8,000 troops to spare for North America, the British began hiring German mercenaries to top up their under-strength regiments. Finally, they began hiring entire German regiments from the king’s German relatives, among the princes of the German states, including almost 19,000 Hessians from the principality of Hessen-Kassel. Each one of these steps drove more and more of the Congress’s delegates and the American people into the arms of the radicals.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Congress’s Authorization of Representative Governments

In May of 1775, the upstart Massachusetts Provincial Congress appealed to the Congress for recognition as the legitimate representative government of Massachusetts. Never mind that the Convention was technically illegal, never mind that Congress had no power to recognize or not recognize anybody as a government, never mind that Congress itself was soon to become illegal.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress was duly authorized to speak for Massachusetts and select Massachusetts’s delegates for the Continental Congress. Furthermore, Congress took another step and authorized any of the colonies represented in the Congress to go and do likewise.

On May 10, 1776, Congress gave a general sanction to the colonies it represented to establish new governments. By May 15, Congress had resolved that the exercise of every kind of authority under the crown should be totally suppressed and seized all the powers of government under the authority of the people of the colonies.

Learn more about the Great War for Empire.

Resolution of Independence

One by one, the colonies followed Congress’s direction. In October 1775, New Hampshire installed a new government and constitution, followed by South Carolina and Virginia. And then a rush of new governments swept out the old royal or charter establishments and set up new popular governments, some of which—like Rhode Island and Virginia—declared themselves independent states.

Portrait of Richard Henry Lee
Richard Henry Lee proposed the Resolution of Independence and played a major role in the American Revolution. (National Portrait Gallery/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

These new state governments, in turn, sent new delegates to Congress, with instructions for the Congress to declare the entire united colonies to be free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to the crown or Parliament of Great Britain.

On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee formally moved “that these colonies are, and of a right, ought to be free and independent states”.

Congress then formed committees to devise a plan for a Confederation of the states and to seek out foreign alliances. It also planned to prepare a formal declaration that would embody Lee’s resolution of independence fro making a diplomatic announcement to the world that a new sovereign nation had come into being.

Common Questions about the Heating Up of the American Revolution

Q: Why did America leave England?

America left England because of a series of events including direct taxation, imperial interference, and increased British hostilities. These events directly led to the American Revolution.

Q: How long did England rule America?

The British Empire’s rule lasted from 1607 to 1783 when America was finally liberated after the American Revolution.

Q: When did America get independence?

The Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, voted unanimously to declare their independence. Two days later, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by congress.

Q: What was the US called before 1776?

The United States of America before the liberation and the American Revolution was known as the United Colonies.

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