The American Revolution: your guide to the 18th-century war of independence
The American Revolutionary War (1775–83) began when representatives from 13 North American colonies of the kingdom of Great Britain sought more autonomy within the British Empire. But when did the French intervene? How close did the British come to winning the war? And how tyrannical was the rule of King George III? Read on for expert answers from historians Professor Benjamin Carp and Professor Stephen Conway
Professor Benjamin Carp answers key questions about the colonies’ 18th-century fight for independence
What was the American Revolutionary War?
The American Revolutionary War, in a nutshell, started out as a political protest against the impositions of the British empire, such as taxation, and eventually turned violent when the American colonists took up arms. The first military clash took place on 19 April 1775 and the conflict officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in September 1783.
- Read more | How did the American Revolution begin?
Could war have been avoided if Britain had given its American colonies representation in parliament?
Representation for the colonies was not very realistic and not really what the Americans wanted, either. Any group of American representatives in parliament could have been easily outvoted, or their representatives could have been corrupted. Plus, it took three to four months for messages to get back and forth. What the Americans really wanted was to use their own colonial assemblies and make voluntary grants back to the British parliament, which would have been another way for Britain to get revenue from its American colonies.
It’s something that the British could have addressed through negotiations over taxation and governance. The Stamp Act of 1765 was one of the catalysts for war – it required a certain kind of stamped paper to be used on a variety of documents in America, mostly relating to trade and legal documents, as well as newspapers and even dice. But the types of people that the Stamp Act hit were exactly the types of people you wouldn’t have wanted to annoy: lawyers, overseas merchants and tavern owners, for example – people who were particularly effective at publicly airing their grievances.
Outrage at the Stamp Tax poured out of American newspapers, creating a kind of tidal wave of protest. Parliament did repeal the act a year later, but it also confirmed its right to make legislation on the colonies over anything it wanted to. The interesting thing is all these protests took place in 1765–66 but the war didn’t actually start for another decade.
How did the revolutionaries come to be united?
How the colonies began talking to each other is interesting. They had been coordinating their actions to some degree with the British during the Seven Years’ War, which had been fought between Britain and France, along with several other nations, from 1756–63. So there was some history of interaction and cooperation, and the colonies obviously traded with one another. But there were also significant differences between the plantation colonies of the South and the more commercial fishing colonies of New England, for example.
What really began to unite the colonies, however, were things like the creation of organisations such as the Sons of Liberty in 1765. Men met in taverns and corresponded with one another about issues of mutual concern, and there were also attempts to coordinate boycotts.
More like this
Then, the Continental Congress – which first met in late 1774 – brought people from the various colonies together again. At first it coordinated acts of protest, but then it moved on to organising bigger things, like buying the gunpowder that would allow it to actually prosecute a war.
To what degree were ‘ordinary’ Americans supportive of independence?
You can point to widespread support for independence all the way down to the poorest whites and even some people of colour. It was definitely not just the elites, although the elites had a certain amount of power to arrange things in various ways.
But equally, there was also a lot of dissent: people who didn’t trust the leading patriots for political, economic or religious reasons, or who thought that violence would be ruinous. In fact, historians estimate that anywhere between 20 per cent to a third of the American colonists did not support the revolution, possibly even more.
So, what determined whether colonists supported the king or sought independence? Firstly, there might have been economic or geopolitical reasons: if people felt they benefited from being part of the British empire, then they might have wanted to stick around. There were also ideological reasons: people believed in the superiority of English liberty, constitutional monarchy and the Church of England, that would also have been a reason to remain loyal. Similarly, there were pacifists, such as Quakers or Moravians, who really didn’t think that starting a world war was a good idea.
And finally, there were social reasons as well. If someone was black or Native American, or even a middle or working-class white person, they might not have felt that the current arrangement was serving their interests.
Overall, it was extraordinarily complicated, and we cannot assume that every American was standing behind the elites, ready to join the revolution.
How did France get involved in the war?
At first, the French didn’t want to do anything, and were wary of starting another European war. And they also didn’t want to bet on a losing rebellion or set the precedent that it was acceptable to rise up and topple a government. But after the British were defeated at the battle of Saratoga in October 1777, the French started to see the rebellion as viable, and signed an official treaty of alliance with the American colonies.
France’s reasons for doing so were pretty obvious: yes, there was some intellectual interest among Enlightenment figures who saw the revolution as a cause for liberty, but the real reason was that anything that was bad for Britain might be good for France. It was an opportunity to seize more power in Europe.
What impact did the conflict have on indigenous American communities?
Prior to the Seven Years’ War, there were indigenous groups like the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee who could play the British and French against each another to maintain their autonomy and have the greatest negotiating advantage for the trade goods that they wanted.
In 1763, after Britain had won the Seven Years’ War and the French were out of the picture, there was a hope that the British – to avoid Native American warfare – might restrain the white American colonists from further encroachment on Native American lands. But once the British, too, had left at the end of the American Revolutionary War, Native Americans had less ability to do that, and the white American settlers began taking more Native American land.
What’s more, the Americans decided that any Native American group – such as the Cherokee or the Creek or the Iroquois or the Shawnee – who had sided with Britain in the war would be treated as conquered nations. Even some of the groups who had allied with the Americans, like the Oneida or the Stockbridge, didn’t necessarily fare very well, and were often forced to cede certain land claims anyway. There were a variety of different indigenous experiences, though, so it’s very difficult to generalise.
What is interesting is that even though white Americans used Native Americans as their symbol – in the Boston Tea Party and in cartoons, for example – actual Native Americans ended up having to fight a rear-guard action against this newly unrestrained white population.
It was another ugly chapter in the long story of indigenous people being dispossessed of their land.
What’s known about the enslaved people who fought in the conflict on either side?
There were black people who were part of the army surrounding Boston from the very beginning of the conflict, and some indigenous people, too. But again, it was a complicated story. By the middle of the war, many New England states were offering enslaved black people their freedom in exchange for military service, and all the New England colonies eventually abolished slavery – either during the war or soon after the war.
The other part of the story – largely, but not exclusively – took place in the South. Again, from 1775, British military and civil officers were offering freedom to people who were enslaved to rebel masters, providing they fought on the side of the Crown, which obviously disrupted the plantation system quite a bit. This didn’t necessarily make the British liberators – enslaved ‘property’ was generally respected and there were loyalists who ended up leaving the colonies at the end of the war, taking their enslaved people with them. So, the British weren’t necessarily looking to dismantle slavery at this point, but they did have an interest, as a war measure, in disrupting the rebels’ slave holdings.
Many black people took advantage of this. They participated in work stoppage and rose up in one way or another, and thousands of enslaved people fled from rebel masters. Some of them made it to British-occupied New York City, and their ability to claim their freedom was respected by the governor-general of British North America, Guy Carleton. This annoyed George Washington, as some of his own enslaved people escaped.
So the war was definitely a moment in which slavery was disrupted, but we have to remember that four million people were still enslaved on the eve of the American Civil War in 1860, many decades later. The revolution did not end slavery right away, and that’s something that we must consider as well.
Benjamin Carp is associate professor and Daniel M Lyons chair of history at Brooklyn College, and an expert on the American Revolutionary War. The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, will be published in 2022 by Yale University Press
The American Revolution: key facts and figures
The estimated number of American soldiers killed in battle
The estimated number of African-Americans who served in the Continental Army
The number of ships in the Continental Army at its peak in 1777
The estimated number of British soldiers killed in battle
The estimated number of African-Americans who served with the British
The number of ships the Royal Navy had at its disposal by the end of the conflict
*These estimated figures do not include soldiers from other nations who died in battle. Thousands more on both sides also died from other factors, such as disease, or as prisoners of war.
10 surprising facts about the American War of Independence
Writing for HistoryExtra, Professor Stephen Conway from University College London reveals 10 lesser-known facts about the 18th-century conflict…
Independence was not the Americans’ original aim
When the war began in April 1775, the colonies sought more autonomy within the British empire, not complete separation. The Continental Congress, which led American resistance, petitioned King George III that summer, denying that independence was the Americans’ objective, and appealing to him to protect the colonies.
At this critical juncture, British ministers, and the king, rebuffed the Americans, and started to treat them as open and avowed enemies, making many of the colonists think that independence was the only option.
George III was not trying to impose a tyrannical regime in the colonies
Despite the accusations made in the Declaration of Independence, George III was not determined to create an authoritarian system in the colonies. Indeed, in the constitutional disputes before the fighting began he urged moderation on his ministers, rather than encouraging them to take a hard line.
In 1775, George III disappointed the Americans by siding unambiguously with his government; but he saw the war as the struggle for the rights of parliament, not as an attempt to increase his own power.
For enslaved people, the British, not the Americans, represented freedom
The rhetoric of the revolution presented the Americans as staunch defenders of liberty and the British as a threat to that liberty. But for enslaved people in the colonies, it was the British who represented liberty, not the white Americans.
In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, offered freedom to enslaved people who helped him put down the rebellion. Thereafter, thousands of slaves flocked to the British lines throughout the war. Many were to be disappointed, but at least some secured their freedom.
Dunmore’s actions may well have helped the revolutionary cause in the south, where many conservative plantation-owners reacted badly to his undermining the slave system.
The British nearly won the war in 1776
In late summer 1776, the British army inflicted a major defeat on Washington’s forces at the battle of Long Island (also known as the battle of Brooklyn). The British then went on to occupy New York City and chased the disintegrating remnants of the American army across New Jersey to the Delaware River.
By mid-December, many British officers assumed that the rebellion was on the verge of collapse. But just after Christmas, Washington boldly counter-attacked, reviving American spirits and ensuring that the war continued. Contemporaries blamed General Howe, the British commander, for not seizing the opportunity to crush the rebellion when he had the chance.
Historians have been kinder, recognising that, even in the 1776 campaign, the British faced major logistical challenges supplying their army at such a distance from home, and that Howe had no wish to alienate Americans further by using brutal methods.
A significant number of white Americans remained loyal to the British crown
The conflict was more of a civil war than a conventional international contest. Estimates vary, but probably somewhere around a fifth of white colonists refused to accept a complete break with Britain.
Many of them had supported resistance to the claims of the British parliament to tax the colonies, but they could not stomach a rejection of the link with the British crown. Some of these loyalists took up arms on the British side, and many of them migrated to Canada at the end of the war, providing the basis for its Anglophone population.
The French government helped the American rebels almost from the beginning of the war
Some French politicians feared the example a successful colonial rebellion might offer to their own overseas possessions, but the dominant view in Paris was that France should take advantage of Britain’s difficulties. Less than a year after the fighting started, the French government decided to support the Americans.
The rebels first received French arms and ammunition; these vital supplies were followed by large injections of cash, which continued throughout the war.
When the French formally intervened in 1778, the war became a global struggle
The French became belligerents in 1778, turning a war that had begun as a struggle in and for America into something much bigger. The British and French clashed in every area of the globe where they were in competition – in the West Indies, which became a major theatre of operations; West Africa, where each side tried to seize the other’s slave trading bases, and in India, where the rival East India Companies struggled for dominance.
Most importantly for the British, French intervention threatened the home territories with invasion. As the British redeployed their forces to meet the challenges of this wider war, their chances of recovering the rebel colonies diminished greatly.
The Spanish and Dutch joined the war in 1779 and 1780
French intervention was bad enough for the British, but their task became still more difficult when the Spanish entered the war as French allies in 1779. The French and Spanish fleets combined outgunned the Royal Navy.
In the summer of 1779, a Franco-Spanish armada controlled the Channel. Only disease on board the allied ships, and disagreements between the French and Spanish admirals, prevented an invasion.
At the end of 1780, the Dutch joined the conflict, too. While they posed little threat to the British on their own, their involvement extended the geographical range of the war even further, and so made the struggle in America still more of a secondary consideration for British politicians.
The French navy was responsible for British defeat in America itself
French intervention made the British position in America much more vulnerable. Until 1778, the British army had been able to rely on the dominance of the Royal Navy. British troops could be conveyed anywhere along the Atlantic coast of the colonies, and British generals had no need to fear for their extended Atlantic supply line.
But once the French joined the war, their navy posed an immediate threat. If French ships could co-operate with American troops on land, isolated British outposts could be captured.
At first, the French and Americans failed to co-ordinate their operations, but at Yorktown, Virginia, they succeeded to dramatic effect in autumn 1781. General Cornwallis’s British army was trapped by American and French troops and cut off from relief by the French navy. Cornwallis’s surrender effectively ended the war in America.
The British emerged from the wider war much stronger than looked likely in 1781
The battle of Yorktown [a decisive Franco-American victory ending on 19 October 1781] may have finished the conflict in America, but it did not end the wider war.
In April 1782, the British fleet decisively defeated the French and Spanish in the West Indies, saving Jamaica from invasion. The Mediterranean garrison of Gibraltar, besieged from 1779, held out right to the end of the fighting, withstanding repeated attempts by the Spanish and French to take it. These triumphs strengthened the British hand in the peace negotiations, and meant that the outcome was not as disastrous as had looked probable immediately after Yorktown.
One might even argue that the American aspect of the war was not the unmitigated British defeat that most accounts suggest. By the 1790s, the essential features of the old colonial relationship had been restored, at least in economic terms. The British sent more manufactured goods to the US than before independence, and received back a new American agricultural export, raw cotton, which supplied the textile mills of Lancashire and the Clyde Valley.
The British, in other words, retained the benefits of empire – a major export market and access to valuable raw materials – without having to pay the defence and administrative costs.
Professor Stephen Conway is head of history at University College London, and the author of A Short History of the American Revolutionary War (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013). Conway teaches courses on British history, and Colonial and Revolutionary North America
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015 and updated in July 2022 with information from BBC History Revealed
Claim your summer book + FREE access to HistoryExtra.com when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed