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From Revolution to Republic: 1776-1815

When George Washington heard the news about the fighting at Lexington and Concord (see Chapter 8), he wrote from Mount Vernon to a friend, "[T]he once-happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?" Washington didn't hesitate. The Second Continental Congress (1775) met in Philadelphia a month after the battle and appointed Washington to command the 30,000 militia troops then bottling up 8,000 British soldiers in Boston.

The patient 43-year-old Washington was a good choice. He may not have been history's most brilliant general, but he was competent and sometimes even daring. Most important, he had the strength of character to hold the army together through hard times, and he had the aristocratic bearing to assure people with money that the rebels were more than just an angry mob. Those tough times, and their aftermath, are covered in this chapter.


Exciting as they are, battles and military campaigns seldom appear in the big AP exam. The test writers are more interested in the meaning of conflicts and what social conditions contributed to and came out of the fights. Still, some knowledge of how the Revolution happened can provide handy ammunition for answering political, economic, and social questions.


The Continental Congress could have just mailed King George III a polite letter telling him to get the heck out of America, but educated people know giving reasons is always better when you need support to make some major changes. The job of explaining why the colonists wanted to break away from England went to 32-year-old Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Before the Declaration, though, people were talking about the writings of Thomas Paine.

Showing the power of an idea whose time had come, patriot Paine published a pamphlet called Common Sense (1776), in which he argued that it just made common sense for the colonies to be separated from Britain. Britain was a small island compared with the vast expanse of the colonies. Where in the universe does a small star control a large planet? Paine had a dream of a new kind of government — a republic in which power came from the people, not from some self-serving king.

America was ready to hear Paine's words. People in Britain had slowly been increasing their freedom for years; many colonists knew the words of progressive British thinkers such as John Locke (1690) who supported the theory of a republic. Freedom was no theory in America; New England town meetings and elections throughout the colonies prepared patriots to launch one of the world's first true republics.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He called these natural rights, not theoretical, British, or pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die rights. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1776) has served as a model for progressive people around the world ever since. In the Declaration, Jefferson calmly lists the ways the British king and government had trampled on the natural rights of their subjects in America. The Declaration was officially approved on July 4, 1776.

Notice that both Paine and Jefferson referred to natural rights and common sense. They viewed the world as being rational, made for humans, and capable of being improved by people. They were children of the Enlightenment (1760), a giant wake-up call that started in Europe in the early 1700s and spread around the world. Despite the continued presence of fear and intolerance, people today are still working on carrying out the ideas of the Enlightenment.

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