A New Nation in Crisis: Shays Rebellion and the U.S. Under the Articles

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What were the Articles of Confederation?
  2. What was one weakness of the Articles of Confederation?
  3. What did the Northwest Ordinance say about slavery?
  4. Why was Daniel Shays upset?
  5. Why wasn’t the government easily able to stop Shays’ Rebellion?

The Articles of Confederation

The struggle with England had done much to change colonial attitudes. Local assemblies had rejected the Albany Plan of Union in 1754, refusing to surrender even the smallest part of their autonomy to any other body, even one they themselves had elected. But in the course of the Revolution, mutual aid had proved effective, and the fear of relinquishing individual authority had lessened to a large degree.

John Dickinson produced the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” in 1776. The Continental Congress adopted them in November 1777, and they went into effect in 1781, having been ratified by all the states. Reflecting the fragility of a nascent sense of nationhood, the Articles provided only for a very loose union. The national government lacked the authority to set up tariffs, to regulate commerce, and to levy taxes. It possessed scant control of international relations: A number of states had begun their own negotiations with foreign countries. Nine states had their own armies, several their own navies, and there was no U.S. army. In the absence of a sound common currency, the new nation conducted its commerce with a curious hodgepodge of coins and a bewildering variety of state and national paper bills, all fast depreciating in value.

weakness of the articles
The Articles of Confederation were meant to create a weak national government. However, as time went on, these weaknesses came to threaten the very existence of the United States.

Westward Expansion

With the end of the Revolution, the United States again had to face the old unsolved Western question, the problem of expansion, with its complications of land, fur trade, Indians, settlement, and local government. Lured by the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers poured over the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. By 1775 the far-flung outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of kilometers from the centers of political authority in the East, the inhabitants established their own governments. Settlers from all the Tidewater states pressed on into the fertile river valleys, hardwood forests, and rolling prairies of the interior. By 1790 the population of the trans-Appalachian region numbered well over 120,000.

Before the war, several colonies had laid extensive and often overlapping claims to land beyond the Appalachians. To those without such claims this rich territorial prize seemed unfairly apportioned. Maryland, speaking for the latter group, introduced a resolution that the western lands be considered common property to be parceled by the Congress into free and independent governments. This idea was not received enthusiastically. Nonetheless, in 1780 New York led the way by ceding its claims. In 1784 Virginia, which held the grandest claims, relinquished all land north of the Ohio River. Other states ceded their claims, and it became apparent that Congress would come into possession of all the lands north of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny Mountains. This common possession of millions of hectares was the most tangible evidence yet of nationality and unity, and gave a certain substance to the idea of national sovereignty. At the same time, these vast territories were a problem that required solution.

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Northwest Territory created by the Northwest Ordinance (1787).

The Confederation Congress established a system of limited self-government for this new national Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided for its organization, initially as a single district, ruled by a governor and judges appointed by the Congress. When this territory had 5,000 free male inhabitants of voting age, it was to be entitled to a legislature of two chambers, itself electing the lower house. In addition, it could at that time send a nonvoting delegate to Congress. Three to five states would be formed as the territory was settled. Whenever any one of them had 60,000 free inhabitants, it was to be admitted to the Union “on an equal footing with the original states in all respects.” The ordinance guaranteed civil rights and liberties, encouraged education, and prohibited slavery or other forms of involuntary servitude.

The new policy repudiated the time-honored concept that colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country, were politically subordinate, and peopled by social inferiors. Instead, it established the principle that colonies (“territories”) were an extension of the nation and entitled, not as a privilege but as a right, to all the benefits of equality.

State Constitutions

The success of the Revolution gave Americans the opportunity to give legal form to their ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. As early as May 10, 1776, Congress had passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments “such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” Some of them had already done so, and within a year after the Declaration of Independence, all but three had drawn up constitutions.

The new constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas. None made any drastic break with the past, since all were built on the solid foundation of colonial experience and English practice. But each was also animated by the spirit of republicanism, an ideal that had long been praised by Enlightenment philosophers.

Naturally, the first objective of the framers of the state constitutions was to secure those “unalienable rights” whose violation had caused the former colonies to repudiate their connection with Britain. Thus, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights. Virginia’s, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles: popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of fundamental liberties: moderate bail and humane punishment, speedy trial by jury, freedom of the press and of conscience, and the right of the majority to reform or alter the government.

Other states enlarged the list of liberties to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of petition. Their constitutions frequently included such provisions as the right to bear arms, to a writ of habeas corpus, to inviolability of domicile, and to equal protection under the law. Moreover, all prescribed a three-branch structure of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary—each checked and balanced by the others. Pennsylvania’s constitution was the most radical. In that state, Philadelphia artisans, Scots-Irish frontiersmen, and German-speaking farmers had taken control. The provincial congress adopted a constitution that permitted every male taxpayer and his sons to vote, required rotation in office (no one could serve as a representative more than four years out of every seven), and set up a single-chamber legislature.

The state constitutions had some glaring limitations, particularly by more recent standards. Constitutions established to guarantee people their natural rights did not secure for everyone the most fundamental natural right—equality. The colonies south of Pennsylvania excluded their slave populations from their inalienable rights as human beings. Women had no political rights. No state went so far as to permit universal male suffrage, and even in those states that permitted all taxpayers to vote (Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia, in addition to Pennsylvania), office-holders were required to own a certain amount of property.

Shays’ Rebellion

Economic difficulties after the war prompted calls for change to this precarious system. The end of the war had a severe effect on merchants who supplied the armies of both sides and who had lost the advantages deriving from participation in the British mercantile system. The states gave preference to American goods in their tariff policies, but these were inconsistent, leading to the demand for a stronger central government to implement a uniform policy.

Farmers probably suffered the most from economic difficulties following the revolution. The supply of farm produce exceeded demand; taxes, even on small landowners, were actually higher under many new state governments than they were under the British. Small farmers wanted economic reforms to avoid foreclosure on their property and imprisonment for debt, as was the law at the time. Courts were clogged with suits for payment filed by their creditors. All through the summer of 1786, popular conventions and peaceful gatherings in several states demanded tax and monetary reform.

Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.
Protesters watching a debtor in a scuffle with a tax collector by the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts.

That autumn, groups of farmers in Massachusetts under the leadership of a former army captain, Daniel Shays, began to forcibly prevent the county courts from sitting and passing further judgments for debt – which would have resulted in the loss of property, livelihood, and the right to vote for Shays and many of his followers. In January 1787, a ragtag army of 1,200 farmers moved toward the federal arsenal at Springfield. The rebels, armed chiefly with staves and pitchforks, were repulsed by a small state militia force; General Benjamin Lincoln then arrived with reinforcements – privately funded by wealthy creditors in Boston – and routed the remaining Shaysites, whose leader escaped to Vermont. The government captured 14 rebels and sentenced them to death.  After the defeat of the rebellion, a newly elected legislature, whose majority sympathized with the rebels, met some of their demands for debt relief. The new governor even pardoned many of the resistance leaders, though not Daniel Shays – who lived out the rest of his life as a poor farmer outside of Massachusetts.

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Contemporary engraving depicting Daniel Shays (left) and Job Shattuck, another rebel leader; the artist intentionally rendered them in an unflattering way.

From the perspective of the wealthy, landowning founders of the new nation, anarchy threatened – the poor had effectively risen up and achieved many of their goals after resorting to armed violence. The U.S. government, under the Articles, was unable to raise an army. It was unable to reinforce the Massachusetts state militia, which had only just barely contained the violence.  And now the state government was in the hands of many of who were sympathetic to the lower classes.

Thomas Jefferson was serving as ambassador to France at the time and refused to be alarmed by Shays’ Rebellion. He argued in a letter to James Madison on January 30, 1787 that occasional rebellion serves to preserve freedoms. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” In contrast, George Washington had been calling for constitutional reform for many years, and he wrote in a letter to Henry Lee, “Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties, and properties will be secured, or let us know the worst at once.”

Shortly after Shays’ Rebellion broke out, delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11-14, 1786, and they concluded that vigorous steps were needed to reform the federal government, but they disbanded because of a lack of full representation and authority, calling for a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
  2. Shays’ Rebellion

The Revolutionary War: With a Little Help from our Friends

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What happened at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania?
  2. Describe one role patriot women played during the Revolutionary War.
  3. Why was French help necessary for an American victory in the war?
  4. What happened at Yorktown?
  5. What were the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1783?

Defeats and victories

Although the Americans suffered severe setbacks for months after independence was declared, their tenacity and perseverance eventually paid off. During August 1776, in the Battle of Long Island in New York, Washington’s position became untenable, and he executed a masterly retreat in small boats from Brooklyn to the Manhattan shore. British General William Howe twice hesitated and allowed the Americans to escape. By November, however, Howe had captured Fort Washington on Manhattan Island. New York City would remain under British control until the end of the war.

That December, Washington’s forces were near collapse, as supplies and promised aid failed to materialize. Howe again missed his chance to crush the Americans by deciding to wait until spring to resume fighting. On the night of December 25–26, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River, north of Trenton, New Jersey. In the early-morning hours of December 26, his troops surprised the British garrison there, taking more than 900 prisoners.

1024px-Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-NYC,_1851
Washington Crossing the Delaware commemorates General George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.

In September 1777, however, Howe defeated the American army at Brandywine in Pennsylvania and occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee. Washington had to endure the bitterly cold winter of 1777‑1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, lacking adequate food, clothing, and supplies. Local farmers and merchants exchanged their goods for British gold and silver rather than for dubious paper money issued by the Continental Congress and the states.

A reproduction hut at Valley Forge
A reproduction of a soldier’s hut at Valley Forge.

With disease and hunger rampant, Valley Forge was the lowest ebb for Washington’s Continental Army.  While the winter itself was not particularly harsh, many soldiers remained unfit for duty, owing to the lack of proper clothing and uniforms.  Years later, General Marquis de Lafayette, an early French ally to the American cause, who was present at Valley Forge, recalled that “the unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, hats, shirts, nor shoes; their feet and legs froze till they had become almost black, and it was often necessary to amputate them.”

While formal politics and warfare did not include women, ordinary domestic behaviors became charged with political significance as women confronted the Revolution. Women in the era of the Revolution were responsible for managing the household.  Halting previously everyday activities, such as drinking British tea or ordering clothes from Britain, demonstrated Colonial opposition during the years leading up to and during the war.

Patriot women continued a long tradition of weaving, and spun their own cloth to make clothing for their families. In addition to the boycotts of British textiles, the Homespun Movement served the Continental Army by producing needed clothing and blankets.

Some women were economically unable to maintain their households in their husband’s absence or wished to be by their side. Known as camp followers, these women followed the Continental Army, serving the soldiers and officers as washerwomen, cooks, nurses, seamstresses, supply scavengers, and occasionally as soldiers and spies. The women that followed the army were at times referred to as “necessary nuisances” and “baggage” by commanding officers, but at other times were widely praised. These women helped the army camps run smoothly. Prostitutes were also present, but they were a worrisome presence to military leaders particularly because of the possible spread of venereal diseases.

Wives of some of the superior officers (Martha Washington, for example) visited the camps frequently. Unlike poorer women present in the army camps, the value of these well-to-do women to the army was symbolic or spiritual, rather than practical. Their presence was a declaration that everyone made sacrifices for the war cause.

Franco-American Alliance

In France, enthusiasm for the American cause was high: The French intellectual world was itself stirring against feudalism and privilege. However, the Crown lent its support to the colonies for geopolitical rather than ideological reasons: The French government had been eager for reprisal against Britain ever since France’s defeat in 1763. To further the American cause, Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris in 1776. His wit, guile, and intellect soon made their presence felt in the French capital, and played a major role in winning French assistance.

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Benjamin Franklin’s reception at the Court of France in 1778.

France began providing aid to the colonies in May 1776, when it sent 14 ships with war supplies to America. In fact, most of the gunpowder used by the American armies came from France. After Britain’s defeat at Saratoga, France saw an opportunity to seriously weaken its ancient enemy and restore the balance of power that had been upset by the French and Indian War. On February 6, 1778, the colonies and France signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, in which France recognized the United States and offered trade concessions. They also signed a Treaty of Alliance, which stipulated that if France entered the war, neither country would lay down its arms until the colonies won their independence, that neither would conclude peace with Britain without the consent of the other, and that each guaranteed the other’s possessions in America. This was the only bilateral defense treaty signed by the United States or its predecessors until 1949.

The Franco-American alliance soon broadened the conflict. In June 1778 British ships fired on French vessels, and the two countries went to war. In 1779 Spain, hoping to reacquire territories taken by Britain in the Seven Years’ War, entered the conflict on the side of France, but not as an ally of the Americans. In 1780 Britain declared war on the Dutch, who had continued to trade with the Americans. The combination of these European powers, with France in the lead, was a far greater threat to Britain than the American colonies standing alone.

Surrender at Yorktown

In July 1780 France’s King Louis XVI had sent to America an expeditionary force of 6,000 men under the Comte Jean de Rochambeau. In addition, the French fleet harassed British shipping and blocked reinforcement and resupply of British forces in Virginia. French and American armies and navies, totaling 18,000 men, parried with British General Cornwallis all through the summer and into the fall.

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Continental soldiers at Yorktown; on the left, an African-American soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.  Most blacks fought on the patriot side; recent research concludes there were about 9000 black Patriot soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy, and state militia units, as well as privateers, wagoneers in the Army, servants to officers, and spies.

A series of battles left Cornwallis’s armies in retreat toward Yorktown, Virginia, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet showed up, but so did a larger French fleet, so the British fleet retreated out to sea after a brief battle, leaving Cornwallis trapped between the American and French armies on land and the French fleet at sea. Finally, on October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000 British soldiers.

The British had asked for the traditional honors of war, which would allow the army to march out with flags flying, bayonets fixed, and the band playing an American or French tune as a tribute to the victors. However, Washington firmly refused to grant the British the honors that they had denied the defeated American army the year before at the Siege of Charleston. Consequently, the British and Hessian troops marched with flags furled and muskets shouldered.

Cornwallis refused to attend the surrender ceremony, citing illness. Instead, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara led the British army onto the field. O’Hara first attempted to surrender to Rochambeau, who shook his head and pointed to Washington. O’Hara then offered his sword to Washington, who also refused and motioned to Benjamin Lincoln, his own second-in-command. The surrender finally took place when Washington’s second-in-command accepted the sword of Cornwallis’ deputy.

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Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, depicts the British surrendering to Benjamin Lincoln, flanked by French (left) and American troops. Oil on canvas, 1820.

For the next year, scattered fighting continued, but back in Britain, the British were crushed by this defeat. Before long, Parliament voted to cease all offensive operations in “the colonies.”

Although Cornwallis’s defeat did not immediately end the war, a new British government decided to pursue peace negotiations in Paris in early 1782, with the American side represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. Signed on September 3, 1783 the Treaty of Paris acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the 13 former colonies, now states. The new United States stretched west to the Mississippi River, north to Canada, and south to Florida, which was returned to Spain.

At the conclusion of the war in 1783 large numbers of loyalists and their families relocated to the home country of England and or to the still-British colony of Canada.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The American Revolution
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence
  4. History of the United States
  5. Women in the American Revolution

The Shot Heard Round the World, Common Sense, and Independence

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. What happened at Lexington and Concord that was so different from what came before?
  2. How was the Continental Army different from the minutemen?
  3. How was the Olive Branch Petition received?
  4. What was the main argument and significance of Common Sense?
  5. What was the main argument and significance of the Declaration of Independence?

The Battle of Lexington and Concord

General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman with an American-born wife, commanded the garrison at Boston, where political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. Gage’s main duty in the colonies had been to enforce the Coercive Acts. When news reached him that the Massachusetts colonists were collecting powder and military stores at the town of Concord, 32 kilometers away, Gage sent a strong detail to confiscate these munitions.

After a night of marching, the British troops reached the village of Lexington on April 19, 1775, and saw a grim band of 77 minutemen— self-trained militiamen charged with defending their hometowns, so named because they were said to be ready to fight in a minute—through the early morning mist. The Minutemen intended only a silent protest, but Marine Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the British troops, yelled, “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!” The leader of the Minutemen, Captain John Parker, told his troops not to fire unless fired at first. The Americans were withdrawing when someone fired a shot, which led the British troops to fire at the Minutemen. The British then charged with bayonets, leaving eight dead and 10 wounded. In the often-quoted phrase of 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, this was “the shot heard round the world” – the moment at which colonial protest crossed the line into outright armed rebellion.

The skirmish at Lexington.
The skirmish at Lexington – note the Minutemen scattering in the foreground.

The British pushed on to Concord. The Americans had taken away most of the munitions, but they destroyed whatever was left. In the meantime, American forces in the countryside had mobilized to harass the British on their long return to Boston. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses, militiamen from “every Middlesex village and farm” made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time Gage’s weary detachment stumbled into Boston, it had suffered more than 250 killed and wounded. The Americans lost 93 men.

statue-at-lexington-green
The statue that now stands on Lexington green commemorating the service and sacrifice of colonial Minutemen. Some argue that this likeness is based on Captain John Parker, though that claim has never been proven.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

On the morning following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the British woke up to find Boston surrounded by 20,000 armed colonists, occupying the neck of land extending to the peninsula on which the city stood.

The colonist’s action had changed from a battle to a siege, where one army bottles up another in a town or a city. (Though in traditional terms, the British were not besieged, since the Royal Navy controlled the harbor and supplies came in by ship.) The 6,000 to 8,000 rebels faced some 4,000 British regulars under General Thomas Gage. Boston and little else was controlled by British troops.

Lexington_Concord_Siege_of_Boston_crop
1775 map of the Boston area, relating key events from this early period of the war.

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 10. The Congress voted to go to war, inducting the colonial militias into continental service. It appointed Colonel George Washington of Virginia as their commander-in-chief on June 15, promoting to him to rank of General in the Continental Army, the United States’s first national military force.

General Gage countered the siege of Boston on June 17 by attacking the colonists on Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. Although the British suffered tremendous casualties compared to the colonial losses, the British were eventually able to dislodge the American forces from their entrenched positions. The colonists were forced to retreat when many colonial soldiers ran out of ammunition. Soon after, the area surrounding Boston fell to the British.

Despite this early defeat for the colonists, the battle proved that they had the potential to counter British forces, which were at that time considered the best in the world.

battle of bunker hill
A stylized rendering of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Last Chance For Peace

Despite the outbreak of armed conflict, the idea of complete separation from England was still repugnant to many members of the Continental Congress. In July, it adopted the Olive Branch Petition, in which it the Congress affirmed its allegiance to the Crown and asked the king for peace talks. It was received in London at the same time as news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The King refused to read the petition or to meet with its ambassadors.  King George rejected it; instead, on August 23, 1775, he issued a proclamation declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

Britain had expected the Southern colonies to remain loyal, in part because of their reliance on slavery. Many in the Southern colonies feared that a rebellion against the mother country would also trigger a slave uprising. In November 1775, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, tried to capitalize on that fear by offering freedom to all slaves who would fight for the British. Instead, his proclamation drove to the rebel side many Virginians who would otherwise have remained Loyalist.

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King George III in 1771.

The Battle for Boston

The British continued to occupy Boston, and despite British control of the harbor, the town and the army were on short rations. Salt pork was the order of the day, and prices escalated rapidly. While the American forces had some information about what was happening in the city, General Gage had no effective intelligence of rebel activities.

On July 3, 1775, George Washington arrived to take charge of the new Continental Army. Forces and supplies came in from as far away as Maryland. Trenches were built at Dorchester Neck, extending toward Boston. Washington reoccupied Bunker Hill and Breeds Hill without opposition. However, these activities had little effect on the British occupation.

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George Washington taking command of the Continental Army, 1775.

In the winter of 1775– 1776, Henry Knox and his engineers, under order from George Washington, used sledges to retrieve sixty tons of heavy artillery that had been captured in surprise attack on the British Fort Ticonderoga, hundreds of miles away in upstate New York. Knox, who had come up with the idea to use sledges, believed that he would have the artillery there in eighteen days. It took six weeks to bring them across the frozen Connecticut River, and they arrived back at Cambridge on January 24, 1776. Weeks later, in an amazing feat of deception and mobility, Washington moved artillery and several thousand men overnight to take Dorchester Heights overlooking Boston.  The British fleet had become a liability, anchored in a shallow harbor with limited maneuverability, and under the American guns on Dorchester Heights.

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An ox team hauling Ticonderoga’s guns to the siege at Boston.

When British General Howe saw the cannons, he knew he could not hold the city. He asked that George Washington let them evacuate the city in peace. In return, they would not burn the city to the ground. Washington agreed: he had no choice. He had artillery guns, but did not have the gunpowder. The whole plan had been a masterful bluff. The siege ended when the British set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776. The militia went home, and in April Washington took most of the Continental Army forces to fortify New York City.

As men continued to fight and die, though, the question became all the more pressing – just what were the colonies trying to achieve?  Just what were men fighting and dying for?

Common Sense and Independence

In January 1776, Thomas Paine, a radical political theorist and writer who had come to America from England in 1774, published a 50-page pamphlet, Common Sense. Within three months, it sold 100,000 copies. Paine attacked the idea of a hereditary monarchy, declaring that one honest man was worth more to society than “all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He presented the alternatives—continued submission to a tyrannical king and an outworn government, or liberty and happiness as a self-sufficient, independent republic. Circulated throughout the colonies, Common Sense helped to crystallize a decision for separation.

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Thomas Paine and the cover to his most famous work, Common Sense.

There still remained the task, however, of gaining each colony’s approval of a formal declaration. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress, declaring, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. …” Immediately, a committee of five, headed by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was appointed to draft a document for a vote.

Franklin-Jefferson-and-Adams-1024x768
From left to right, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia represented the three major regions of the colonies and were the three most prominent members of the committee appointed to write the Declaration of Independence. The final product, while containing contributions from the group as a whole, was largely the work of Jefferson.

Largely Jefferson’s work, the Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776, not only announced the birth of a new nation, but also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become a dynamic force throughout the entire world. The Declaration drew upon French and English Enlightenment political philosophy, but one influence in particular stands out: John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Locke took conceptions of the traditional rights of Englishmen and universalized them into the natural rights of all humankind. The Declaration’s familiar opening passage echoes Locke’s social-contract theory of government:

We hold these truths to be self‑evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Jefferson linked Locke’s principles directly to the situation in the colonies. To fight for American independence was to fight for a government based on popular consent in place of a government by a king who had “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws. …” Only a government based on popular consent could secure natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, to fight for American independence was to fight on behalf of one’s own natural rights.

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The Assembly Room in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

At the signing, Benjamin Franklin is quoted as having replied to a comment by President of the Continental Congress John Hancock that they must all hang together: “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” a play on words indicating that failure to stay united and succeed would lead to being tried and executed, individually, for treason.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The American Revolution
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence
  4. History of the United States

Agitation, Taxation, and Representation by Other Means

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. Describe the Sugar Act, the Quartering Act, and the Stamp Act.  Why did these acts of Parliament so upset American colonists?
  2. How did American colonists resist these acts?
  3. What was the Boston Massacre? How did Paul Revere and other Sons of Liberty talk about this event?
  4. What was the Boston Tea Party?  How did Parliament respond to it?
  5. What did it mean to call someone a patriot?  A loyalist?

The Stamp Act and Other Laws

The French and Indian War (1754–63) was a watershed event in the political development of the colonies.  Following Britain’s acquisition of French territory in North America, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 limiting westward expansion of colonial settlements, all with the goal of organizing his newly enlarged North American empire and avoiding conflict with Native Americans beyond the Appalachian Mountains.  This alienated colonists who had fought the war with the promise of a new source of free or cheap land in mind.

Furthermore, the French and Indian War nearly doubled Great Britain’s national debt, and Parliament was keen to find new sources of revenue to settle this debt.

In 1764, Parliament began allowing customs officers to search random houses in the colonies for smuggled goods on which no import tax had been paid. British authorities thought that if profits from smuggled goods could be directed towards Britain, the money could help pay off debts. Colonists were horrified that they could be searched without warrant at any given moment.

Also in 1764, Parliament began to impose new taxes on the colonists. The Sugar Act of 1764 reduced taxes on sugar and molasses imposed by the earlier Molasses Act, but at the same time strengthened the enforcement of tax collection, making smuggling harder. It also provided that British judges, and not colonial juries – who, as consumers of the smuggled sugar in question, might be more sympathetic to the accused – would try cases involving violations of that Act.

The next year, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to provide room and board for British soldiers stationed in North America; the soldiers would serve various purposes, chiefly to enforce the previously passed acts of Parliament.

Following the Quartering Act, Parliament passed one of the most infamous pieces of legislation: the Stamp Act. Previously, Parliament imposed only external taxes on imports, paid by the merchants who actually brought goods into the colonies. The Stamp Act provided the first internal tax paid directly by the colonists when they purchased books, newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, playing cards, and dice. These items – important for communication and entertainment – now required an official tax stamp as proof of payment.

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Proof sheet of one-penny stamps submitted for approval to Commissioners of Stamps by engraver, May 10, 1765.

The colonial legislature of Massachusetts requested a conference on the Stamp Act; the Stamp Act Congress met in October that year, petitioning the King and Parliament to repeal the act before it went into effect at the end of the month, crying “taxation without representation.”  Specifically, these colonists argued that as English subjects, they were entitled to a voice in Parliament.  As it stood, the colonists had no right to vote – so Parliament could impose all of the unpopular laws and taxes that it liked on colonists, and they faced no consequences at the ballot box…  Without a member of Parliament working on their behalf, this was hardly the outcome of a democracy – it may as well be the act of an absolute tyrant.

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American newspapers reacted to the Stamp Act with anger and predictions of the demise of journalism.

The Stamp Act faced vehement opposition throughout the colonies. Merchants and consumers alike threatened to boycott British products. Thousands of New Yorkers rioted near the location where the stamps were stored. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty, a violent group led by radical statesman Samuel Adams, destroyed the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson.  Adams wanted to free people from their awe of social and political superiors, make them aware of their own power and importance, and thus arouse them to action. Toward these objectives, he published articles in newspapers and made speeches in town meetings, instigating resolutions that appealed to the colonists’ democratic impulses.

The Sons of Liberty also popularized the use of tar and feathering to punish and humiliate offending government officials starting in 1767. This method was also used against those who threatened to break the boycott and later against British Loyalists during the American Revolution.

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The Bostonian Paying the Excise-Man, 1774 British propaganda print, referring to the tarring and feathering, of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The men also poured hot tea down Malcolm’s throat; note the noose hanging on the Liberty Tree and the Stamp Act posted upside-down.

Parliament did indeed repeal the Stamp Act, but additionally passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Great Britain retained the power to tax the colonists, even without representation.

Believing that the colonists only objected to internal taxes, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend proposed bills that would later become the Townshend Acts. The Acts, passed in 1767, taxed imports of tea, glass, paint, lead, and even paper. The colonial merchants again threatened to boycott the taxed products, reducing the profits of British merchants, who in turn petitioned Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts. Parliament eventually agreed to repeal much of the Townshend legislation. But Parliament refused to remove the tax on tea, implying that the British retained the authority to tax the colonies despite a lack of representation.

In Boston, enforcement of the new regulations provoked violence. When customs officials sought to collect duties, they were set upon by the populace and roughly handled. For this infraction, two British regiments were dispatched to protect the customs commissioners, but the presence of British troops in Boston was a standing invitation to disorder.

On March 5, 1770, a large crowd gathered around a group of British soldiers. The crowd grew threatening, throwing snowballs, rocks, and debris at them. One soldier was clubbed and fell. There was no order to fire, but the soldiers fired into the crowd anyway. They hit 11 people; three civilians died at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident. Crispus Attucks was an American stevedore of African and Native American descent, widely regarded as the first person killed in the Boston that day and thus the first American killed in the American Revolution.  Dubbed the “Boston Massacre,” the incident was framed as dramatic proof of British heartlessness and tyranny. Widespread – and biased – patriot propaganda such as Paul Revere’s famous print soon began to turn colonial sentiment against the British. This, in turn, began a downward spiral in the relationship between Britain and the Province of Massachusetts.

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Silversmith and engraver Paul Revere created this image, which exaggerated or outright falsified certain details of the event in order to further public outrage against the British. Despite the fact that British fire was spontaneous and in response to snowballs and jeering from the American crowd, Captain Preston is shown ordering his men to fire, and a musket is seen shooting out of the window of the customs office, which is sarcastically labeled “Butcher’s Hall.” Some copies of the print show a man with two chest wounds and a somewhat darker face, matching descriptions of Attucks; others show no victim as a person of color. The image was published in the Boston Gazette, circulating widely, and became an effective piece of anti-British propaganda. The image of bright red “lobster backs” and wounded men with red blood was hung in farmhouses across New England.

Beginning in 1772, Samuel Adams in Boston set about creating new Committees of Correspondence, which linked Patriots in all 13 colonies and eventually provided the framework for a rebel government. Virginia, the largest colony, set up its Committee of Correspondence in early 1773, on which Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson served.

Samuel Adams
Samuel Adams, one of the colonies’ most vocal patriots.

A total of about 7000 to 8000 Patriots served on “Committees of Correspondence” at the colonial and local levels, comprising most of the leadership in their communities. Loyalists were excluded. The committees became the leaders of the American resistance to British actions, and largely determined the war effort at the state and local level. Later, when the First Continental Congress decided to boycott British products, the colonial and local Committees took charge, examining merchant records and publishing the names of merchants who attempted to defy the boycott by importing British goods.

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which exempted the British East India Company from the Townshend taxes. Thus, the East India Company gained a great advantage over other companies when selling tea in the colonies – their tea was cheaper, and American smugglers faced the uncomfortable prospect of being undersold and put out of business entirely.  A town meeting in Boston determined that the cheap British tea would not be landed, and ignored a demand from the governor to disperse. On December 16, 1773, a group of men, led by Samuel Adams, some dressed to evoke the appearance of American Indians, boarded the ships of the British East India Company and dumped £10,000 worth of tea from their holds (around a million dollars in modern terms) into Boston Harbor. Decades later, this event became known as the Boston Tea Party and remains a significant part of American patriotic lore.

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1789 engraving of the destruction of the tea.

Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts which came to be known by colonists as the Intolerable Acts.  Intended as collective punishment to turn colonists against the Sons of Liberty and other radical patriots, they by and large had the opposite effect, further darkening colonial opinion towards the British. The Coercive Acts consisted of four laws. The first was the Massachusetts Government Act which altered the Massachusetts charter and restricted town meetings. The second act was the Administration of Justice Act which ordered that all British soldiers to be tried were to be arraigned in Britain, not in the colonies. The third Act was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the British had been compensated for the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party. The fourth Act was the Quartering Act of 1774, which allowed royal governors to house British troops in the homes of citizens without requiring permission of the owner.

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This Patriot cartoon depicting the Coercive Acts as the forcing of tea by prominent British politicians on a Native American woman (a symbol of the American colonies) was copied and distributed in the Thirteen Colonies.

In late 1774, the Patriots – as colonists who wished for independence came to be known – set up their own alternative government to better coordinate their resistance efforts against Great Britain; other colonists preferred to remain aligned to the Crown and were known as Loyalists. At the suggestion of the Virginia House of Burgesses, colonial representatives met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, “to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies.” Delegates to this meeting, known as the First Continental Congress, were chosen by provincial congresses or popular conventions. Only Georgia failed to send a delegate; the total number of 55 was large enough for diversity of opinion, but small enough for genuine debate and effective action. The division of opinion in the colonies posed a genuine dilemma for the delegates. They would have to give an appearance of firm unanimity to induce the British government to make concessions. But they also would have to avoid any show of radicalism or spirit of independence that would alarm more moderate Americans.

A cautious keynote speech, followed by a “resolve” that no obedience was due the Coercive Acts, ended with adoption of a set of resolutions affirming the right of the colonists to “life, liberty, and property,” and the right of provincial legislatures to set “all cases of taxation and internal polity.”

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The American Revolution
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence
  4. History of the United States

Join, or Die: The French and Indian War

For centuries, France and England have been like ambitious siblings, close in age, evenly matched in most things, competitive, living in a house that’s too small for there ever to be peace.  They have repeatedly come into conflict over religion, territory, colonies, and anything else two countries might conceivably argue over…  In 1754, that rivalry came to the American frontier and set into motion a chain of events that would ultimately culminate in an American revolution…
This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. How did the French and British differ in their approach to colonization of North America?
  2. What was the Albany Plan of Union? Did it work?
  3. What were the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763)?
  4. What was Pontiac’s Rebellion?
  5. Why did the Proclamation of 1763 anger British colonists?

A European Rivalry

Throughout most of their mutual history, France and Britain have engaged in a succession of wars. During the 1700s, these European wars spilled over into the Caribbean and the Americas, drawing in settlers, African slaves, and native peoples.

Though Britain secured certain advantages—primarily in the sugar-rich islands of the Caribbean—the struggles were generally indecisive, and France remained in a powerful position in North America. By 1754, France still had a strong relationship with a number of Native American tribes in Canada and along the Great Lakes. It controlled the Mississippi River and, by establishing a line of forts and trading posts, had marked out a great crescent-shaped empire stretching from Quebec to New Orleans. The British remained confined to the narrow belt east of the Appalachian Mountains. Thus the French threatened not only the British Empire, but also the American colonists themselves, for in holding the Mississippi Valley, France could limit their westward expansion.

New France 1754
European claims in 1748, on the eve of the French and Indian War.

Large areas of North America had no colonial settlements. The French population numbered about 75,000 and was heavily concentrated along the St. Lawrence River valley. Fewer lived in New Orleans, Biloxi, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, and small settlements in the Illinois Country, hugging the east side of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. French fur traders and trappers traveled throughout the St. Lawrence and Mississippi watersheds, did business with local Indian tribes, and often married Indian women. Traders married daughters of chiefs, creating high-ranking unions.  In this way, French colonial interests in North America meant coexistence, exchange, and commerce with native peoples.

In contrast, British settlers outnumbered the French 20 to 1 with a population of about 1.5 million ranged along the eastern coast of the continent from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the north to Georgia in the south. Many of the older colonies had land claims that extended arbitrarily far to the west, as the extent of the continent was unknown at the time when their provincial charters were granted. Their population centers were along the coast, yet the settlements were growing into the interior. Nova Scotia had been captured from France in 1713, and it still had a significant French-speaking population. Britain also claimed Rupert’s Land where the Hudson’s Bay Company traded for furs with local Indian tribes.  However, in the more southern colonies – that would one day become the United States – British interests were frequently at odds with those of the natives, as the large colonial population pressed ever westward, clearing ancestral native land for new English-style farms and towns.

Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871 by Frances Anne Hopkins (1838–1919)
Voyageurs at Dawn, 1871 by Frances Anne Hopkins. To many natives, French activity in North America often looked more like this, than like a full-scale attempt to remake the land in image of Europe.

War on the Frontier

Portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1772
Portrait of British Lieutenant George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, 1772.

Disputes over who would control the Ohio River Valley lead to deployment of military units and the construction of forts in the area by both the British and the French, even though the area was in fact already occupied by the Iroquois Confederacy. An armed clash took place in 1754 at the French Fort Duquesne, the site where Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is now located, between a band of French regulars and Virginia militiamen.  The Virginians were under the command of 22-year-old George Washington, a Virginia planter and surveyor who had been sent on a mission to warn the French to leave the area.

Following an intense exchange of fire in which approximately one third of his men died, Washington surrendered and negotiated a withdrawal under arms.  This inauspicious battle is now regarded as the opening battle of a much larger war.

British colonial governments were used to operating independently of one another and of the government in London, a situation that complicated negotiations with Native American tribes, whose territories often encompassed land claimed by multiple colonies.

The British government attempted to deal with the conflict by calling a meeting of representatives from New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the New England colonies. From June 19 to July 10, 1754, the Albany Congress, as it came to be known, met with the Iroquois in Albany, New York, in order to improve relations with them and secure their loyalty to the British.

But the delegates also declared a union of the American colonies “absolutely necessary for their preservation” and adopted a proposal drafted by Benjamin Franklin. The Albany Plan of Union provided for a president appointed by the king and a grand council of delegates chosen by the assemblies, with each colony to be represented in proportion to its financial contributions to the general treasury. This body would have charge of defense, Native-American relations, and trade and settlement of the west. Most importantly, it would have independent authority to levy taxes.  Franklin was a man of many inventions – his was the first serious proposal to organize and unite the colonies that would become the United States.

But in the end, none of the colonial legislatures accepted the plan, since they were not prepared to surrender either the power of taxation or control over the development of the western lands to a central authority.

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Join, or Die: This 1756 political cartoon by Benjamin Franklin urged the colonies to join together during the French and Indian War.

Britain’s superior strategic position and her competent leadership ultimately brought victory in the conflict with France, known as the French and Indian War in America (named for Britain’s enemies, though some natives fought on the British side, too) and the Seven Years’ War in Europe. Really the first true world war, with conflicts stretching from Europe to Asia, only a modest portion of it was fought in the Western Hemisphere.

The Treaty of Paris (1763)

The war in North America officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The British offered France the choice of surrendering either its continental North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which had been occupied by the British. France chose to cede their North American possessions. They viewed the economic value of the Caribbean islands’ sugar cane to be greater and easier to defend than the furs from the continent. French philosopher Voltaire referred to Canada disparagingly as nothing more than a few acres of snow. The British, however, were happy to take New France, as defense of their North American colonies would no longer be an issue; also, they already had ample places from which to obtain sugar. Spain traded Florida to Britain in order to regain Cuba, but they also gained Louisiana from France, including New Orleans, in compensation for their losses. Great Britain and Spain also agreed that navigation on the Mississippi River was to be open to vessels of all nations.

Treaty of Paris
North America after the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, London saw a need for a new imperial design that would involve more centralized control, spread the costs of empire more equitably, and speak to the interests of both French Canadians and North American Indians, now subjects of the British Empire.

The colonies, on the other hand, long accustomed to a large measure of independence, expected more, not less, freedom. And, with the French menace eliminated, they felt far less need for a strong British presence. A scarcely comprehending Crown and Parliament on the other side of the Atlantic found itself contending with colonists trained in self‑government and impatient with interference.

Furthermore, the French and Indian War nearly doubled Great Britain’s national debt. The Crown would soon impose new taxes on its colonies in attempt to pay off this debt. These attempts were met with increasingly stiff resistance, until troops were called in to enforce the Crown’s authority. These acts ultimately led to the start of the American Revolutionary War.

The incorporation of Canada and the Ohio Valley into the empire necessitated policies that would not alienate the French and Indian inhabitants. Here London was in fundamental conflict with the interests of its American colonists. Fast increasing in population, and needing more land for settlement, they claimed the right to extend their boundaries as far west as the Mississippi River.  Hadn’t that been how this whole war started in the first place?

Proclamation of 1763

The British government, fearing a series of expensive and deadly Indian wars, believed that former French territory should be opened on a more gradual basis.  Reinforcing this belief was Pontiac’s Rebellion, a bitter conflict which came on the heels of the Treaty of Paris, launched in 1763 by a loose confederation of Native American tribes, primarily from the Great Lakes region.  Named for Pontiac, the most prominent of many native leaders in the conflict, the members of the alliance were dissatisfied with British policies after the British victory in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).

While the French had long cultivated alliances among certain of the Native Americans, the British post-war approach was essentially to treat the Native Americans as a conquered people, eliminating benefits and autonomy that the various tribes had enjoyed while the French claimed the region. While French colonists—most of whom were farmers who seasonally engaged in fur trade—had always been relatively few, there seemed to be no end of settlers in the British colonies, who wanted to clear the land of trees and occupy it. Shawnees and Delawares in the Ohio Country had been displaced by British colonists in the east, and this motivated their involvement in the war. On the other hand, Native Americans in the Great Lakes region and the Illinois Country had not been greatly affected by white settlement, although they were aware of the experiences of tribes in the east.

Before long, Native Americans who had been allies of the defeated French attacked a number of British forts and settlements.  Eight forts were destroyed, and hundreds of colonists were killed or captured, with many more fleeing the region.  Warfare on the North American frontier was brutal, and the killing of prisoners, the targeting of civilians, and other atrocities were widespread on both sides.  The ruthlessness and treachery of the conflict was a reflection of growing tensions between British colonists and Native Americans, who increasingly felt they were in a war for their very survival.

Hostilities came to an end after British Army expeditions in 1764 led to peace negotiations over the next two years. Native Americans were unable to drive away the British, but the uprising prompted the British government to modify the policies that had provoked the conflict.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 reserved all the western territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River for use by Native Americans – no British settlers allowed. Thus the Crown attempted to sweep away every western land claim of the thirteen colonies and to stop westward expansion. Although never effectively enforced, this measure, in the eyes of the colonists, constituted a betrayal – what had they been fighting for the last seven years if not a right to occupy and settle western lands?  Why was King choosing Native Americans over his own loyal subjects?

Thus, the Proclamation of 1763 would rouse the latent suspicions of colonials who would increasingly see Britain as no longer a protector of their rights, but rather a danger to them.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The French and Indian War
  2. The Road to Revolution
  3. The Road to Independence

The Brutality of the Philippine-American War

This lesson is continued from The Origins of the Philippine-American War.  It is a part of a larger unit on the Philippines: At the Crossroads of the World.  It is also written to be utilized independently.
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
war
The Philippine-American War pitted one time allies in the overthrow of Spain against each other.  Spain negotiated a separate peace with the United States in the Treaty of Paris, ceding colonial rule of the Philippine Islands to the Americans rather than granting the Filipinos independence.  The American government accepted this new imperial role, and set about subduing any Filipinos who resisted.  In this scene, the city of Iloilo is captured from Filipino forces by Americans led by Brigadier General Marcus Miller, with no loss of American lives. (Diorama in the Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)

Waging the American War

  1. How did the Americans justify their takeover of the Philippines?  Are you convinced by this argument?
  2. In your opinion, did American conduct during the war match these justifications?  Why or why not?
  3. How did the American military attempt to counter rumors of their brutality?

Annexation of the Philippines as a colony of the United States was often justified by those in the U.S. government and media on moral and racial grounds. The U.S. was simply doing its duty as an advanced, Western nation, spreading civilization, democracy, and capitalism to primitive Asians who enjoyed none of these things and were too simple to be trusted with self-government.  Historian Stuart Creighton Miller writes that in this view, “Americans altruistically went to war with Spain to liberate Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos from their tyrannical yoke. If they lingered on too long in the Philippines, it was to protect the Filipinos from European predators waiting in the wings for an American withdrawal and to tutor them in American-style democracy.”  Implicit in this attitude were notions of racial superiority and the inherent superiority of white America over primitive people of color.

The ugly reality of Americans colonial mission was laid bare by Dean Worcester, an American colonial official, who wrote in his memoirs that the Filipinos were “treacherous, arrogant, stupid and vindictive, impervious to gratitude, incapable of recognizing obligations. Centuries of barbarism have made them cunning and dishonest. We cannot safely treat them as equals, for the simple and sufficient reason that they could not understand it. They do not know the meaning of justice and good faith. They do not know the difference between liberty and license…. These Filipinos must be taught obedience and be forced to observe, even if they cannot comprehend, the practices of civilization.”

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One popular defense of the U.S. conquest of the Philippines was to say that the U.S. didn’t really want this role – they were stuck with the responsibility, as poet Rudyard Kipling put it, this “White Man’s Burden,” to help the poor, benighted Filipinos.  Never mind that the Filipinos didn’t seem to want the “help” that was being offered.

On February 11, 1899—only one week after the first shots of the war were fired—American naval forces destroyed the city of Iloilo with bombardment by the USS Petrel and the USS Baltimore. The city was then captured by ground forces led by Brigadier General Marcus Miller, with no loss of American lives.

Gregorio del Pilar, only 24 years old at the time of his death in 1899, belonged to a whole generation of high school and college graduates who, despite their youth, were pressed into leadership roles during the revolution.  Sent to negotiate an honorable peace with American General Otis, he was rebuffed and told peace could be achieved only though the “complete submission” of the Filipino people.  Angered, he set about defending a mountain pass, stalling American troops in hot pursuit of President Aguinaldo.  He succeeded, but died, hit in the neck by an American sharpshooter. (Diorama in the Ayala Museum, Makati, Philippines, 2018.)

Months later, after finally securing Manila from Filipino control, American forces moved northwards, engaging in combat at the brigade and battalion level in pursuit of the fleeing insurgent forces and their commanders. In response to the use of guerilla warfare tactics by Filipino forces beginning in September 1899, American military strategy shifted to a suppression footing. Tactics became focused on the control of key areas with internment and segregation of the civilian population in “zones of protection” from the guerrilla population (foreshadowing the Strategic Hamlet Program that would be utilized decades later, during the Vietnam War). Due to unsanitary conditions, many of the interned civilians died from dysentery.

General Otis gained notoriety for some of his actions in the Philippines. Although multiple orders were given to Otis from Washington to avoid military conflict, he did very little to prevent the breakout of war. Otis refused to accept anything but unconditional surrender from the Philippine Army. He often made major military decisions without first consulting leadership in Washington. He acted aggressively in dealing with the Filipinos under the assumption that their resistance would collapse quickly. 

A member of the American colonial government offered an alternative theory on what Bell was achieving, noting in his official report that far from breaking the spirit of the Filipino people, the blanket policy of violence and destruction was:

… sowing the seeds for a perpetual revolution. If these things need be done, they had best be done by native troops so that the people of the U.S.. will not be credited therewith.
American Soldiers Inspect Insurgent Casualties
American soldiers survey the bodies of fallen Filipino soldiers.

Otis also played a large role in suppressing information about American military tactics from the media. When letters describing American atrocities reached the American media, the War Department became involved and demanded that Otis investigate their authenticity. Each press clipping was forwarded to the original writer’s commanding officer, who would then convince or force the soldier to write a retraction of the original statements.

Meanwhile, Otis claimed that Filipino insurgents tortured American prisoners in “fiendish fashion.” During the closing months of 1899, Aguinaldo attempted to counter Otis’ account by suggesting that neutral parties—foreign journalists or representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross—inspect his military operations. Otis refused, but Aguinaldo managed to smuggle four reporters—two English, one Canadian, and one Japanese—into the Philippines. The correspondents returned to Manila to report that American captives were “treated more like guests than prisoners,” were “fed the best that the country affords, and everything is done to gain their favor.” The story went on to say that American prisoners were offered commissions in the Filipino army and that three had accepted. The four reporters were expelled from the Philippines as soon as their stories were printed.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant J.C. Gilmore, whose release was forced by American cavalry pursuing Aguinaldo into the mountains, insisted that he had received “considerable treatment” and that he was no more starved than were his captors. Otis responded to publication of two articles concerning this by ordering the “capture” of the two authors, and that they be “investigated,” therefore questioning their loyalty.

When F.A. Blake of the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived at Aguinaldo’s request, Otis kept him confined to Manila, where Otis’ staff explained all of the violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated by Filipino soldiers. Blake managed to slip away from an escort and venture into the field. Blake never made it past American lines, but even within American lines he saw burned out villages and “horribly mutilated bodies, with stomachs slit open and occasionally decapitated.” Blake waited to return to San Francisco, where he told one reporter that “American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight.”

H.L. Wells, a staunch imperialist writing in the New York Evening Post, excused the troubling American racial theories that contributed to the often callous violence that characterized the Philippine-American War “There is no question that our men do ‘shoot niggers’ somewhat in the sporting spirit, but that is because war and their environments have rubbed off the thin veneer of civilization…Undoubtedly, they do not regard the shooting of Filipinos just as they would the shooting of white troops. This is partly because they are “only niggers,” and partly because they despise them for their treacherous servility…The soldiers feel they are fighting with savages, not with soldiers.”

Manila In Ruins
A burned district of Manila following combat between American and Filipino troops, 1899.

Waging the Filipino War

  1. How was the class structure of Filipino society a challenge to carrying out the war against the Americans?
  2. What was strategy of the Filipino war effort before the U.S. election of 1900?  How and why did it change after the election?
Philippine-American War
Filipino insurgents pose with their weapons, including bolo knives, circa 1900.

Estimates of the Filipino forces vary between 80,000 and 100,000, with tens of thousands of auxiliaries. Most of the forces were armed only with bolo knives, bows and arrows, spears and other primitive weapons which were vastly inferior to those of the American forces.

A fairly rigid caste system existed in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. The goal, or end-state, sought by the First Philippine Republic was a sovereign, independent, stable nation led by an oligarchy composed of members of the educated class (known as the ilustrado class). Local chieftains, landowners, businessmen and cabezas de barangay were the principales who controlled local politics. The war was at its peak when ilustradosprincipales, and peasants were unified in opposition to annexation by the United States. The peasants, who represented the majority of the fighting forces, had interests different from their ilustrado leaders and the principales of their villages – they were more likely to favor redistribution of land, tax reforms, and greater democracy, whereas the Filipino elites were more likely to favor a plan in which they replaced the Spanish elites, leaving the broader social order intact. Coupled with the ethnic and geographic fragmentation, aligning the interests of people from different social castes was a daunting task. The challenge for Aguinaldo and his generals was to sustain unified Filipino public opposition; this was the revolutionaries’ strategic center of gravity.

Filipino Officers And Leaders
Several Filipino leaders, including President Emilio Aguinaldo (bottom row, third from right), pose for a photo. Cavite. 1898.  The Filipino leadership was clearly wealthier and more educated than the average villager or soldier.
Image result for filipino concentration camps
American media tended to print photos that emphasized the primitive nature of Filipinos and the impoverished, backwards nature of the Philippines.  This better suited the narrative that the United States was “saving” the Philippines out of some sense of duty.

The Filipino operational center of gravity was the ability to sustain its force of 100,000 irregulars in the field. The Filipino general Francisco Macabulos described the Filipinos’ war aim as, “not to vanquish the U.S. Army but to inflict on them constant losses.” In the early stages of the war, the Philippine Revolutionary Army employed the conventional military tactics characteristic of an organized armed resistance. The hope was to inflict enough American casualties to result in McKinley’s defeat by William Jennings Bryan in the 1900 presidential election. Bryan, who held strong anti-imperialist views, would then hopefully withdraw the American forces from the Philippines.

McKinley’s election victory in 1900 was demoralizing for the insurgents, and convinced many Filipinos that the United States would not depart soon – after all, the war was McKinley’s and the American people had just reelected him, thereby approving his actions. This, coupled with a series of devastating losses on the battlefield against American forces equipped with superior technology and training, convinced Aguinaldo that he needed to change his approach. Beginning on September 14, 1899, Aguinaldo accepted the advice of General Gregorio del Pilar and authorized the use of guerilla warfare tactics in subsequent military operations in Bulacan.

For most of 1899, the revolutionary leadership had viewed guerrilla warfare strategically only as a tactical option of final recourse, not as a means of operation which better suited their disadvantaged situation. On November 13, 1899, Emilio Aguinaldo decreed that guerrilla war would henceforth be the strategy. This made American occupation of the Philippine archipelago all the more difficult over the next few years. In fact, during just the first four months of the guerrilla war, the Americans had nearly 500 casualties.  The Philippine Army began staging bloody ambushes and raids, such as the guerrilla victories at PayeCatubigMakahambusPulang LupaBalangiga and Mabitac. At first, it even seemed as if the Filipinos would fight the Americans to a stalemate and force them to withdraw.

American Atrocities

  1. Describe the actions of the Americans that might be labeled atrocities.
  2. Imagine that an invading force was doing this sort of thing in your town – would this make you more or less likely to cooperate with them?
  3. Imagine you are a soldier and your commanding officer has ordered you to burn down a village, then administer the water cure to anyone you capture in the process.  What do you do?
  4. If the goal of a war is to win, should there be rules in war?  What should those rules be?  How should captured enemy soldiers be captured?  Should it matter if they wear a uniform?  Should civilians be harmed?
  5. What should happen to commanders or soldiers who break any rules you established in the previous question?
Image result for filipino concentration camps
In an effort to curb guerrilla warfare, Filipino civilians were moved into concentrations camps.

Following Aguinaldo’s capture by the Americans on March 23, 1901, Miguel Malvar assumed command of the Philippine revolutionary forces. Batangas and Laguna provinces were the main focus of Malvar’s forces at this point in the war, and they continued to employ guerrilla warfare tactics.

In late 1901, Brigadier General J. Franklin Bell took command of American operations in Batangas and Laguna provinces.  Writing about his approach to the war, Bell said, “All consideration and regard for the inhabitants of this place cease from the day I become commander.  I have the force and authority to do whatever seems to me good and especially to humiliate all those in this Province who have any pride….”

In response to Malvar’s guerrilla warfare tactics, Bell employed counterinsurgency tactics (described by some as a scorched earth campaign) that took a heavy toll on guerrilla fighters and civilians alike. “Zones of protection” were established, and civilians were given identification papers and forced into concentration camps (called reconcentrados) which were surrounded by free-fire zones. At the Lodge Committee, in an attempt to counter the negative reception in America to General Bell’s camps, Colonel Arthur Wagner, the US Army’s chief public relations office, insisted that the camps were to “protect friendly natives from the insurgents, and assure them an adequate food supply” while teaching them “proper sanitary standards.” Wagner’s assertion was undermined by a letter from a commander of one of the camps, who described them as “suburbs of Hell.”

On December 13, Bell announced that the killing of American troops would be paid back in kind. Whenever such an event occurred, Bell proposed to select a prisoner “by lot from among the officers or prominent citizens” and have him executed. On December 15, Bell announced that “acts of hostility or sabotage” would result in the “starving of unarmed hostile belligerents.” The warning to Malvar was clear: he either had to give up the struggle or the “detainees” would face mass starvation. To show that he meant it, on December 20 Bell ordered all rice and other food lying outside the camps to be confiscated or destroyed. Wells were poisoned and all farm animals were slaughtered.

By December 25, 1901, nearly the entire populations of Batangas and Laguna provinces had gathered into the reconcentrados. Families had to bring everything they could carry because anything left behind—including houses, gardens, carts, poultry and animals—was subject to confiscation or destruction by the U.S. Army. The reconcentrados were overcrowded, which led to disease and death. Between January and April 1902, 8,350 prisoners of approximately 298,000 died, and some camps experienced mortality rates as high as 20 percent.

Civilians became subject to a curfew, after which all persons found outside of camps without identification could be shot on sight. Men were rounded up for questioning, tortured, and summarily executed.” Methods of torture such as the water cure were frequently employed during interrogation, and entire villages were burned or otherwise destroyed.

Throughout the war, American soldiers and other witnesses sent letters home which described some of the atrocities committed by American forces. For example, In November 1901, the Manila correspondent of the Philadelphia Ledger wrote:

“The present war is no bloodless, opera bouffe engagement; our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog… Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to make them talk, and have taken prisoners people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down, as examples to those who found their bullet-loaded corpses.”

Reports were received from soldiers returning from the Philippines that, upon entering a village, American soldiers would ransack every house and church and rob the inhabitants of everything of value, while those who approached the battle line waving a flag of truce were fired upon.

Some of the authors were critical of leaders such as General Otis and the overall conduct of the war. When some of these letters were published in newspapers, they would become national news, which would force the War Department to investigate. Two such letters included:

  • A soldier from New York: “The town of Titatia was surrendered to us a few days ago, and two companies occupy the same. Last night one of our boys was found shot and his stomach cut open. Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish. About 1,000 men, women and children were reported killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.”
  • Corporal Sam Gillis: “We make everyone get into his house by seven p.m., and we only tell a man once. If he refuses we shoot him. We killed over 300 natives the first night. They tried to set the town on fire. If they fire a shot from the house we burn the house down and every house near it, and shoot the natives, so they are pretty quiet in town now.”

General Otis’ investigation of the content of these letters often consisted of sending a copy of them to the author’s superior and having him force the author to write a retraction. When a soldier refused to do so, as Private Charles Brenner of the Kansas regiment did, he was court-martialed. In the case of Private Brenner, the charge was “for writing and conniving at the publication of an article which…contains willful falsehoods concerning himself and a false charge against Captain Bishop.” Not all such letters that discussed atrocities were intended to criticize General Otis or American actions. Many portrayed U.S. actions as the result of Filipino provocation and thus entirely justified.

Image result for filipino water cure
Soldiers from the 35th US Volunteer Infantry subject a Filipino to the ‘water cure’ – the victim has the mouth forced or wedged open, the nose closed with pincers and a funnel or strip of cloth forced down the throat into which tremendous amounts of water are poured. The stomach fills until near bursting and is sometimes beaten until the victim vomits and the torture begins again.

Filipino atrocities

  1. Why is it important for the Americans to claim that Filipinos were at least as brutal as they were?
  2. There was surely violence on both sides of this conflict.  Is the American violence, carried out by a more powerful invading force, different from that carried out by Filipinos? 
  3. Examine the cover of Life Magazine from May 22, 1902.  It appears to be a realistic drawing at first, but it is actually a political cartoon.  What does it mean?
Enraged by a guerrilla massacre of U.S. troops on the Island of Samar, General Jacob H. Smith retaliated by carrying out an indiscriminate attack upon its inhabitants. His order “KILL EVERY ONE OVER TEN” became a caption in the New York Journal cartoon on May 5, 1902. The Old Glory draped an American shield on which a vulture replaced the bald eagle. The bottom caption exclaimed, “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines.” Published in the New York Journal-American, May 5, 1902. Smith was eventually court-martialed by the American military and forced to retire.

U.S. Army General Otis alleged that Filipino insurgents tortured American prisoners in “fiendish fashion.” According to Otis, many were buried alive or were placed up to their necks in ant hills. He claimed others had their genitals removed and stuffed into their mouths and were then executed by suffocation or bleeding to death. It was also reported that Spanish priests were horribly mutilated before their congregations, and natives who refused to support Emilio Aguinaldo were slaughtered by the thousands. American newspaper headlines announced the “Murder and Rapine” by the “Fiendish Filipinos.” General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler insisted that it was the Filipinos who had mutilated their own dead, murdered women and children, and burned down villages, solely to discredit American soldiers.

In January 1899, the New York World published a story by an anonymous writer about an American soldier, Private William Lapeer, who had allegedly been deliberately infected with leprosy. The story has no basis in fact however, and the name Lapeer itself is probably a punStories in other newspapers described deliberate attacks by Filipino sharpshooters upon American surgeons, chaplains, ambulances, hospitals, and wounded soldiers. An incident was described in the San Francisco Call that occurred in Escalante, Negros Occidental, where several crewmen of a landing party from the CS Recorder were fired upon and later cut into pieces by Filipino insurgents, while the insurgents were displaying a flag of truce.

Other events dubbed atrocities included those attributed by the Americans to General Vicente Lukban, the Filipino commander who allegedly masterminded the Balangiga massacre in Samar province, a surprise Filipino attack that killed almost fifty American soldiers. Media reports stated that many of the bodies were mutilated. The attack itself triggered American reprisals in Samar, ordered by General Jacob Hurd Smith, who reportedly ordered his men to kill everyone over ten years old. To his credit, Major Littleton Waller countermanded it to his own men. Smith was court-martialed for this order and found guilty in 1902, which ended his career in the U.S. Army. Waller was acquitted of killing eleven Filipino guides.

Sergeant Hallock testified in the Lodge Committee that natives were given the water cure, “… in order to secure information of the murder of Private O’Herne of Company I, who had been not only killed, but roasted and otherwise tortured before death ensued.”

1902 Life magazine cover, depicting water curing by U.S. Army troops in the Philippines

On the Filipino side, information regarding atrocities comes from the eyewitnesses and the participants themselves. In his History of the Filipino People Teodoro Agoncillo writes that the Filipino troops could match and even exceed American brutality on some prisoners of war. Kicking, slapping, and spitting at faces were common. In some cases, ears and noses were cut off and salt applied to the wounds. In other cases, captives were buried alive. These atrocities occurred regardless of Aguinaldo’s orders and circulars concerning the good treatment of prisoners.

Dean Worcester, an official in the American colonial government, recounts two specific Filipino atrocities as follows:

A detachment, marching through Leyte, found an American who had disappeared a short time before crucified, head down. His abdominal wall had been carefully opened so that his intestines might hang down in his face. Another American prisoner, found on the same trip, had been buried in the ground with only his head projecting. His mouth had been propped open with a stick, a trail of sugar laid to it through the forest, and a handful thrown into it. Millions of ants had done the rest.

Casualties

  1. Why is there so much debate over the number of Filipinos dead?
  2. Why is there reason to be skeptical over numbers provided by the U.S. government?
  3. Should famine and disease caused by the conduct of a war be considered a form of violence?  Is this kind of death different from one that occurs during a shooting or a bombing?

The total number of Filipino who died remains a matter of debate. Some modern sources cite a figure of 200,000 total Filipino civilians dead with most losses attributable to famine, and disease.  Some estimates reach 1,000,000 million dead. In 1908 Manuel Arellano Remondo, in General Geography of the Philippine Islands, wrote: “The population decreased due to the wars, in the five-year period from 1895 to 1900, since, at the start of the first insurrection, the population was estimated at 9,000,000, and at present (1908), the inhabitants of the Archipelago do not exceed 8,000,000 in number.” Another expert estimates that at least 16,000~20,000 Filipino soldiers and 34,000 civilians were killed directly, with up to an additional 200,000 civilian deaths, mostly from a cholera epidemic. Filipino historian E. San Juan, Jr. argues that 1.4 million Filipinos died during the war, and that constitutes an act of genocide on the part of the United States. The United States Department of State states that the war “resulted in the death of over 4,200 American and over 20,000 Filipino combatants,” and that “as many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease.”

That story is told in The Philippines in the American Empire

Activities

  1. There is a long tradition of resistance to colonial rule in the Philippines. 
    Juan Sumuory is celebrated in the Gallery of Heroes. (Manila, Philippines, 2018.)

    Couple of this with the country’s strong Catholicism – with its tradition of sainthood and martyrdom – and you have nation that is very aware of those who have sacrificed to advance the cause of the Filipino.  Manila’s Rizal Park features the Gallery of Heroes, a row of bust sculpture monuments of historical Philippine heroes.  These include:  Andres Bonifacio, Juan Sumuroy, Aman Dangat, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Gregorio Aglipay, Sultan Kudarat,  Juan Luna, Melchora Aquino, Rajah Sulayman, and Gabriela Silang.  Choose one of these personalities to commemorate in your own classroom.  Write a brief description of their accomplishments to accompany a piece of artwork that celebrates their life for those who aren’t aware.

  2. Jose Rizal never specifically advocated violence or even open revolt against
    Untitled-1
    Jose Rizal famously declined the Spanish offer of a carriage ride to his execution site. Instead, he walked, and today, bronze footprints mark his path from Fort Santiago to today’s Rizal Park, a memorial that literally allows one to walk in the footsteps of a national hero.

    the Spanish, pushing instead for political reforms within the colonial structure.  He wrote with such clarity and passion, however, that he become a symbol to revolutionaries – and this is why the colonial authorities decided he needed to die, in a plan that ultimately backfired, transforming him into a martyr.  Debate with your class – “Does a national hero need to be a warrior – a violent figure?  If not, why are so many warriors celebrated the world over as national heroes?”

  3. Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous poem about the U.S. and its conquest of the Philippines.  It is called “The White Man’s Burden.”  The poem became so famous that it became the subject of parody as well.  Read both the poem and one of its parodies and discuss it with your classmates using the included questions to help guide you.
  4. Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire – This exhibit juxtaposes the visual message presented by the stereoscopic images with excerpts from the letters written by U.S. soldiers that were first published in local newspapers and later collected in the Anti-Imperialist League’s pamphlet, allowing us to get a glimpse of the Philippine-American War as it was presented to Americans at home, reading the news or entertaining friends in their parlors.
  5. In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War – How did the American media cover the war in the Philippines?  An excerpt from “In The Trenches” by John F. Bass, originally published in Harper’s Weekly.

Read more on this subject -> The Origins of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Brutality of the Philippine-American War  ◦  The Philippines in the American Empire  ◦  “The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism  ◦  Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire  ◦  In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War Ninoy and Marcos – “A Pact with the Devil is No Pact at All.”

FURTHER READING

History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos by Luis Francia.

pasig
The Philippine-American War ended more than a century ago, but much of the nation is still gripped by the poverty and dramatic income inequality that characterizes many former colonies around the world. Why do you think the effects of colonization tend to linger long after the empire itself has crumbled? (Pasig River, Manila, Philippines, 2018.)

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