How did America win independence from Britain?


The American Revolution was a time of great upheaval in the history of the United States. While there were a number of factors that led to this event, many historians place its beginning with the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and its conclusion with the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.


During this eight-year conflict, the 13 American colonies fought for their political independence from Great Britain. In this article, we will take a look at a timeline of events that led to the revolution and explore how the colonies achieved their aims.

European colonisation of North America

Ever since Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, various European powers sought to expand their empires into the New World. To do this, countries like Spain, France, and England sent out colonists, to both seize land from the indigenous peoples and to establish new colonies that would generate wealth for their home countries. Competition between European powers over who could take the most profitable land fueled early expansion in North America.


The Spanish were the first to create a colony in 1565 at St. Augustine in Florida. However, the Spanish crown remained more focused on the conquest of Central America, which was producing unprecedented quantities of gold. As a result, their expansion further north was limited. Their European rival, England, would attempt to capitalise on this.


In 1587 by the British Plymouth Company who founded the settlement of Roanoke in North Carolina, but this mysteriously disappeared in 1606. The British London Company then built Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Eventually, the English had settlements from Maine to Georgia, which eventually also took over the Dutch colonies, including New Amsterdam in 1664, which was renamed New York the following year after the King of England's brother, the Duke of York.


The French founded Quebec in Canada in 1608. However, France was preoccupied with wars in Europe and the expansion of their colonies in North America moved much slower than England's. Despite this, the French colonies to the north remained a key threat to the British colonies.


It is important to note that all of these colonies were created at the expense of the various Native American peoples who already lived in the area. In many cases, the Europeans simply took the land without understanding the cultures they were supplanting. The local inhabitants often resisted European expansion into their land, but their efforts were undermined by the superiority of European weaponry and the sudden high death toll caused by new diseases introduced by the colonists.


By 1650, England had established the strongest presence along the eastern coast of North America. The various new colonies quickly invested in growing profitable agricultural crops to sell back to Britain, such as tobacco. Within 100 years, an estimated 2 million people lived in Great Britain's 13 North American colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Longterm cause: Colonial wars

Many of the causes of the eventually war between the American colonies and Britain were due to the fact that the North American colonies were considered part of Europe despite being thousands of miles away. In practice, this meant that people in the Americas were involved in wars and economic problems that they knew very little about.


A good example of this was the outbreak of the Nine Years War in Europe, which occurred between 1689–97. This war was fought to limit the growing power of France. A range of other European nations including the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, England, and Spain allied together to fight against French interests.


As a result, the British and French colonies in North America were expected to also be fighting each other. However, since neither colony had much of an army, both sides recruited Native American peoples to fight with them. Despite various battles between the two sides, few gains were achieved in North America.


A similar thing occurred during the Seven Years' War, which took place between 1756 and 1763. This was another European conflict between Great Britain and France which involved the colonies. Once more, Native Americans were recruited on both sides and, as a result, it is usually referred to as the French and Indian War in North America. This time, Great Britain was the clear victory in the conflict, and they took possession of France’s North American colonies east of the Mississippi River in 1763.


Despite being the victor in the war and having gained new territories, Britain was in serious financial trouble. The war had been an incredibly expensive exercise and the British parliament was in debt. The politicians in London debated ways to raise more money to reduce their debt and the solution chose was to raise taxes.

Longterm cause: New taxes

Taxes were a fee that everyday people had to pay whenever they purchased particular products. A government could specify which products had taxes on them and how much this fee would be. Usually, taxes were placed on luxury goods. This was because luxuries were already expensive items, which meant that people who were wealthy enough to pay for them would also be able to afford the extra fee. However, governments usually faced resistance to taxes on common items: things that most people paid for, but poorer people could not afford to pay an additional fee.


To raise the money it needed, the British parliament introduced two new taxes on the North American colonies: the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. These acts placed a fee on the purchase of specific products: sugar and a particular kind of stamped paper made in London that colonists were required to use for newspapers and legal documents. Both of these acts were very unpopular, and, for the first time, the colonists protested, which led the parliament to cancel the Stamp Act. What is important about this event is that it showed that there was potential for unrest in the American colonies towards political decisions they didn't like.


While the Sugar Act remained in place, it wasn't raising enough revenue to help pay the debts. Therefore, a new range of taxes, called the Townshend Acts were introduced on the colonies in 1767. This time taxes were placed on a wider range of products, including tea, lead, paint, paper, and glass. The sudden increase of taxes on goods that most people were using caused an outcry among the colonists. More protests occurred, some of which turned violent, and most people simply refusal to pay. 


The city of Boston became a point of particular conflict about the new taxes. Many merchants in the city decided to boycott the new taxes. The customs officials who worked for the British government threatened to call in British soldiers to force them to pay the new fees. These officials even took the step of seizing one merchant's ship who they thought was illegally selling goods without paying the taxes. The people of Boston were angry at the threat of violence and the seizure of personal property and, when they heard that a customs official had killed a local teenager, a violent riot erupted on the 5th of March 1770. Five people were killed in what became known as the Boston Massacre.


Shocked by the rapid escalation in violent protests, the British government once more changed their minds. Most of the Townshend Acts were repealed just over three years after their introduction.

Short term cause: the Boston Tea Party

Then, in 1773, the British parliament introduced a new Tea Tax. This time, it was created to help save the British East India Company from financial collapse. The British government needed the Company to help control its colony in India and proposed the new tax as a way of raising enough money to keep it going.


However, by this time, the tolerance for new taxes in the colonies was very low. Following the failure of the Townshend Acts, many colonists started to argue that it was not fair of the British government in London to make them pay taxes if people in the colonies were not allowed to be part of the government who created these taxes. At the time, this thought was expressed in the slogan, 'No taxation without representation'. Here, the word 'representation' meant the ability for people in the colonies to be elected as members of the British parliament.


When word of the new Tea Tax of 1773 arrived in Boston, once more violent protests broke out in an event that has become known as the 'Boston Tea Party'. On the 16th of December 1773, a group of protestors, called the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans, and broke into a ship owned by the East India Company that was docked in Boston's harbour. Once aboard, they threw all of the chests of tea they could find into the waters of the harbor.


When the British government learned of this, they moved to punish all of Massachusetts by introducing a new range of laws, known as the Intolerable Acts, or as the Coercive Acts, which placed restrictions on the colonists' civil liberties. They did this by closing Boston’s port to all trade and made it illegal for the people to hold town meetings or assemble to protest. The twelve other British colonies were shocked by these bans and feared that this might also happen to them if they continued to resist new taxes.


Concerned that they were running out of options, delegations from all 13 colonies decided to meet together in Philadelphia at an event called the First Continental Congress in 1774. At this meeting, they considered the best response to the crisis. The delegates sent demands to Britain to remove the Intolerable Acts. In response to this, the parliament simply sent more soldiers in a clear sign that enforcement of the new laws was more important.


It was clear by this point that armed conflict was inevitable and the colonists began preparing to resist the British troops that were being sent to North America.

Preparations for war

Following the implementation of the Intolerable Acts, the British parliament ruled that Massachusetts was now under military control of General Thomas Gage, the overall British commander of North America.


Gage was based in Boston and had around 4,000 soldiers under his command. Aware of the growing resistance in the colonies, he moved to secure the stores of British weapons, canons and ammunition that were kept in British forts throughout the colonies before they could be seized by the rebels.


In late summer of 1774, Gage moved throughout New England to secure the weapons and gunpowder. The colonists were slow to mobilise but in December 1174, several hundred of them stormed the British Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They overwhelmed the small garrison there and were able to take control of a number of cannons and weapons.


Similar resistance movements in other parts of the colonies prevented Gage from securing enough resources to effectively suppress further uprisings and he realised things could soon get out of control.


On the 14th of April 1775, Massachusetts declared that it was in a state of open revolt against the British government. Gage knew that he had to move quickly to secure the military stocks at the nearby towns of Concord and Lexington.

First Battles

A silversmith called Paul Revere heard about Gage's plan and decided to take the initiative to support the colonists. On the 16th of April, he rode to the settlement of Concord, about 32 km northwest of Boston, to warn the locals to secure their military stores. Two nights later, he also rode to Lexington to warn them as well.


During the night of the 18th of April, around 700 British troops marched to Lexington, arriving at 5am on the 19th. They quickly chased the 70 colonial militiamen away and then marched on Concord, arriving just a few hours later. However, thousands of colonial militiamen had gathered to defend their town and managed to successfully hold off the attack. Under constant harassment, the British were forced to retreat back to Boston. Around 273 British and 95 Americans were killed or wounded in these two skirmishes.


Back in London, the parliament appointed Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, John Burgoyne, and Charles Cornwallis the generals of the British troops and sailed them to North America. It would be a while before they arrived though.


Meanwhile, in the colonies, the Continental Congress ordered that new troops be recruited and assigned overall command of the Continental Army to George Washington. Washington was an experienced commander who had fought for the British during the French and Indian War.


An important battle occurred a few months later at Boston on the 17th of June, which has become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Americans attacked British troops there, but the British general Howe led a counterattack. The colonists were outnumbered and outgunned, but they held their ground for two hours before finally being forced to retreat. The British had secured the victory but suffered heavy casualties. The Americans, however, took encouragement that they had performed well against the strongest empire in the world.


The Continental Army maintained a siege of Boston over the winter of 1775-6, but they were running low on ammunition. Washington sent two commanders, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, to capture the British fort of Ticonderoga, which they did successfully. They then sent the stores, including new cannons, with ammunition, back to Boston on forty-two sleds and sent them to Boston. On the 5th of March, Washington positioned the new cannons on Dorchester Heights, overlooking Boston, and began shelling the British positions.


Realising the weakened position they were in, Howe ordered the British troops to board their ships and left the city on the 17th of March 1776. Washington then captured the city.

The Declaration of Independence

In late June and early July of 1776, delegates from the thirteen American colonies met in Philadelphia to discuss their options. They soon came to the decision that independence from Great Britain was their best course of action and drafted a document known as the Declaration of Independence to make this official. 


The Declaration was signed by all thirteen delegates on the 2nd of August and published on the 4th for all to see. Some of the most famous American founding fathers were signatories, including John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

British successes

The Americans were in possession of New York and word of an approaching British force, encouraged George Washington to march from Boston to fortify New York in the middle of 1776. On the 5th of July, a massive force of 32,000 British and 8000 German soldiers (called Hessians) landed at Staten Island, just south of New York, under the command of General Howe and his brother, Richard, Admiral Lord Howe.


At the Battle of Long Island (also known as the Battle of Brooklyn Heights) on the 27th of August 1776, the British overwhelmed the Americans and captured Port of New York. Further successful attacks against the Americans throughout September, October and November gradually gave the British control over the rest of New York. Washington's force of 10,000 colonial recruits were no match for the size and experience of the redcoats.


Finally, at the end of November, Washington and his troops were forced to retreat across to New Jersey. In December 1776, Washington's forces escaped across the Delaware River and entered Pennsylvania. Then, Washington decided to take the initiative.


On Christmas Eve, he led his soldiers back across the Delaware and, despite difficult weather conditions involving hail, sleet, rain, and ice in the water, landed on the opposite shore without being detected. His arrival surprised the German Hessian troops stationed at Trenton, New Jersey, and the Americans were able to defeat them on the 26th of December, despite being exhausted. Washington then marched further and defeated the British at Princeton on the 3rd of January 1777. These victories boosted morale among the colonists and helped convince more people to join the fight for independence.


At the Battles of Saratoga, between September 19 and October 7, 1777, the Americans defeated the British. General John Burgoyne led a British army of over 7000 men which was surrounded by the Americans near Saratoga, New York. The British fought off the first attack but once the Americans received reinforcements, Burgoyne was defeated in a second battle. The British were forced to surrender.


This victory was crucial in convincing the French to enter the war on the side of the colonists. While the had been providing financial aid since 1776, they now openly sent both fleets and armies to the American forces.

Valley Forge

Despite the victory at Saratoga, the Continental Army was still outnumbered and outclassed by the superior British forces. The Continental Congress has evacuated from Philadelphia in September of 1777 when the British Army had captured it.


As the winter began at the end of 1777, the American forces, who were still under the command of George Washington, retreated to a location north-west of Philadelphia called Valley Forge, where they camped for the next six months.


The weather conditions were difficult and food supplies were unreliable. However, Washington decided to use this time to retrain and prepare his men for the next campaigning season. He was helped in this project by the Prussian military officer Freiherr von Steuben, who had arrived with the French advisors. Steuben shared his experiences of training soldiers to march in columns and using modern rifles to sustain fire. 


Another key figure that spent time in Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-8 was the French Marquis de Lafayette. He quickly became a close friend of George Washington and also helped train the colonial soldiers. 

Campaigns of 1778-81

When the Continental Army returned to fight in June of 1778, they were a much more organised and disciplined force. Over the next four years, the British and the Americans would both experience successes and failures. 


The British strategy focused further south in Georgia and North Carolina. They were able to capture a number of key towns and defeat a number of American armies. However, the cost of pacifying so many hostile regions began to mount and it became too difficult to maintain large forces there. By 1780, the British attention returned once more to the northern colonies. 

The Battle of Yorktown

In mid-September of 1781, a combined French and American army, led by Washington, besieged Yorktown, where a final British force of 7000 men was stationed. Over the next month, the British navy attempted to relieve their forces under siege, but due to the French navy presence, were unable to reach them. So, on the 19th of October 1781, British General Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender Yorktown.


With the fall of Yorktown, the American Revolutionary War was over. The British government concluded that the huge costs involved with sending enough men, ships, and resources so far across the Atlantic was not worth the effort. 


To formally end the conflict, the Treaty of Paris was signed on the 3rd of September 1783. This treaty recognised the United States of America as an independent nation. The last British forces sailed out of New York on the 25th of November 1783. This meant that Washington could then march back into the city in celebration.


After the war, the thirteen colonies became thirteen sovereign states. They then drafted and ratified the Constitution of the United States, which established a federal government for all thirteen states. In 1789, George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States. The American Revolution was a pivotal moment in history that led to the founding of a new nation. 

Further reading