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19 key figures of the American Revolution, from royals to revolutionaries

From the founding fathers to the British general whose surrender brought the fighting to a close, we meet the conflict’s major players

A portrait of silversmith Paul Revere, with his head resting on his hand.
Published: July 6, 2022 at 7:30 am
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1

Benjamin Franklin

1706–90

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A man with many strings to his bow, Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, inventor, author, publisher and diplomat – not to mention one of the nation’s most esteemed founding fathers. For decades he was enamoured with Britain, but, in time, his glowing opinion of the British soured. In 1775 he sailed back to America and firmly threw his lot in with the revolutionaries.

Benjamin Franklin By Duplessis
Benjamin Franklin after a portrait by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis (French, 1725-1802) (oil on canvas from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC), 1783. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

The next year, after signing the Declaration of Independence, Franklin was sent back across the Atlantic, where his negotiations in France led to the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, formalising French support for the colonists’ cause. Later, he helped to negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which marked the official end of the war, before going on to sign the US Constitution in 1787.

2

George Washington

1732–99

George Washington was a towering figure in the American Revolutionary War, as well as being a highly capable politician. Taking the helm of the Continental Army through the conflict, he steered the military through initial struggles to victory over the British in 1783. Six years later he became the first president of the United States.

3

Alexander Hamilton

1755/57–1804

Best known today as the protagonist in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton was one of the Revolution’s key figures. Born in the West Indies, in 1776 he joined the Continental Army where he became an aide to George Washington. He also saw action in the field, fighting at the 1781 battle of Yorktown.

America’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. (Image by Getty Images)
America’s first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. (Image by Getty Images)

However, Hamilton is best known for his contributions to politics and finance. Along with James Madison and John Jay, he wrote the pro-Constitution Federalist Papers, and was the United States’ first secretary of the Treasury during Washington’s administration, responsible for setting up the nation’s financial system.

Unfortunately, his star dimmed after an affair smeared his name, and he died after being shot by Vice President Aaron Burr during a duel.

4

The Marquis de Lafayette

1757–1834

Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, was a French military officer who took up arms with the patriots. Seeking the glory of the battlefield, he arrived in the New World in 1777 and became a major general in the Continental Army. He grew particularly close with George Washington, who saw Lafayette as his son.

Perhaps his most significant contribution was his role in helping convince King Louis XVI’s government to front additional supplies and soldiers for the colonists’ cause in 1779. In 1781, he also chased the British general Charles Cornwallis across Virginia, trapping him at Yorktown. Back in France, Lafayette played a crucial role in his home country’s revolution.

5

Thomas Jefferson

1743–1826

Thomas Jefferson pictured in 1791
Jefferson pictured in 1791, while serving as the first US secretary of state. (Image by Getty Images)

Few have contributed as much to American history as Thomas Jefferson. However, he helped not with his speeches, but with his writing. Staying quiet during the impassioned discussions of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, the following year – aged just 33 – he wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson held various political offices, most notably serving as America’s president from 1801 to 1809, after stints as vice president and secretary of state. During his two terms as president, he bought the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803. Having owned hundreds of slaves (one of whom he fathered four children with), Jefferson has left a complex legacy.

6

Samuel Adams

1722–1803

Another one of America’s founding fathers, Samuel Adams certainly had a knack for politics. By 1764, the year of the Sugar Act, Adams had already established himself as a significant anti-British presence in the New World, and in 1765, he helped fuel protests in Boston over the hated Stamp Act. Crucially, he was also among the first of the patriots’ leaders to announce that America’s independence was their ultimate goal. The leader of the Massachusetts ‘radicals’, Adams sat on the Continental Congress until 1781, and continued to play an important role after the war as the governor of Massachusetts from 1794 to 1797.

7

Salem Poor

c1747–1802

Beginning life as an enslaved person in Massachusetts, by 1769 Salem Poor had purchased his freedom for £27. When the Revolutionary War broke out he joined the Massachusetts militia, going on to take part in several offensives.

During the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, Poor is believed to have helped fend off waves of British troops. For his valiant efforts, 14 officers submitted a petition to Congress where they commended him as “a brave and gallant soldier” and recommended he be rewarded. However, the General Court never acted upon this recommendation.

8

Benedict Arnold

1741–1801

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold ended up defecting to the British after being passed over for promotion. (Image by Getty Images)

Although most figures here are celebrated for their contributions to the war, Benedict Arnold is remembered for his sabotage. Despite his initial exemplary service as a general in the Continental Army during campaigns and battles in Quebec, Saratoga and Valcour Island, he was upset after missing out on promotions.

As a result, he turned coat to deliver information to the British. In 1780 he helped hatch a plot for them to capture West Point, a fort he controlled. When his plans were discovered by the patriots, he fled and started fighting for the other side.

9

Thomas Paine

1737–1809

Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense
Despite being an Englishman, Thomas Paine’s radical writings urged the colonists to demand independence from British rule. (Image by Getty Images)

Exerting significant influence over both the American and French Revolutions, Thomas Paine made a career as a revolutionary activist. In his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense he persuasively outlined the reasons why America should break with Britain – a document that helped unite the colonists to pursue independence.

10

John Adams

1735–1826

If Jefferson was the writer of the Revolution, John Adams was its speaker. After studying law, he soon joined the patriot cause. While the Revolutionary War raged, Adams travelled around Europe as a diplomat, spending time in the Netherlands and Britain. Present at the first and second Continental Congresses, he delivered radical speeches outlining the reasons to push for American independence. Later, once the fighting had ended, he would go on to play a part in creating the Treaty of Paris.

Adams served as George Washington’s vice president for two terms, griping: “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” He was elected America’s second president in 1797, and later retired to his birthplace, Quincy. He and Jefferson both died on 4 July 1826.

11

George III

1738–1820

King George III’
King George III’s troubled reign also coincided with the French Revolutionary Wars and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Image by Getty Images)

Britain’s monarch from 1760 until his death in 1820, George III was the “tyrant” that the colonists wanted to break free from. While he didn’t personally take charge of any military campaigns during the conflict, it was his signature – as Britain’s head of state – that had been on laws such as the hated Stamp Act, which had drawn the ire of the revolutionaries. During the final decade of his life, George was too mentally unwell to serve, and his son – the future George IV – ruled in his place as prince regent.

12

James Madison

1751–1836

James Madison
James Madison is known for his role in the creation of two of America’s most important founding documents. (Image by Getty Images)

Immortalised as the ‘Father of the Constitution’, James Madison created its underlying framework and helped draft the document. After having initially thought the constitutional amendments were unnecessary, he agreed to propose the Bill of Rights in 1789, and it was ratified that year. Madison was later elected America’s fourth president in 1809. During his tenure he declared –and survived – the War of 1812 with Britain.

13

Crispus Attucks

c1723–70

Crispus Attucks
Crispus Attucks, who was of both African and Wampanoag heritage, is remembered as one of the first people to lose their lives in the Revolution. (Image by Alamy)

Crispus Attucks, who was of both African and Wampanoag heritage, is remembered as one of the first people to lose their lives in the Revolution. On 5 March 1770, he had been part of a throng of colonists in Boston who were shot after entering into an altercation with British troops. Five people were killed, including Attucks, and the incident became known as the Boston Massacre.

14

Paul Revere

1735–1818

A portrait of silversmith Paul Revere, with his head resting on his hand.
Silversmith Paul Revere. (Image by Alamy)

Silversmith Paul Revere is famous for jumping on horseback on the evening of 18 April 1775 to tell the militia that British troops were coming. This intel helped the patriots triumph at the battles of Lexington and Concord.

15

John Laurens

1754–82

A miniature portrait of John Laurens
John Laurens was George Washington's aide-de-camp from 1777. (Image by Getty Images)

John Laurens was another figure in George Washington’s ‘military family’, acting as his aide-de-camp from 1777. Although his father had been a major slave trader, Laurens himself thought slavery was unjust and tried – but failed – to get South Carolina to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. He was noted for his battlefield bravery, which sometimes spilled over into foolhardiness. He died before the war formally ended, ambushed by the British in South Carolina in 1782.

16

Joseph Brant

1742/3–1807

Joseph Brant, a Mohawk war chief
Joseph Brant, a Mohawk war chief. (Image by Getty Images)

A Mohawk war chief who led colonial loyalists against the rebels during the Revolution, Joseph Brant (or Thayendanegea) was an important spokesperson, translator and diplomat.

17

Margaret Corbin

1751–1800

Patriot camp follower Margaret Corbin manned a cannon at the battle of Fort Washington in 1776, taking over from her husband when he was mortally wounded. After suffering serious injuries herself, she was later awarded a military pension.

18

Nathanael Greene

1742–86

Nathanael Greene
Nathanael Greene was second in command of the Continental Army. (Image by Getty Images)

Second in command of the Continental Army, Greene was a highly talented army strategist. In 1780, he was given command of the Continental Army in the South, where his mobile tactics were hugely successful.

19

General Charles Cornwallis

1738–1805

One of the British generals who took command in the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis lost the last major battle of the conflict in North America. In 1781 the Continental Army and their French reinforcements encircled him at Yorktown, laying siege to the British force. With food supplies running out, Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October – and with this defeat, the British ceased their military operations. After the Revolution he continued to serve Britain’s empire, becoming governor-general of India and viceroy of Ireland.

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This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Rhiannon DaviesSection editor, BBC History Magazine

Rhiannon Davies is section editor for BBC History Magazine and our Tudor ambassador, writing a fortnightly newsletter in which she shares the latest Tudor news, anniversaries and content with her audience. She also regularly appears on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.

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