The colonies rat­i­fied their in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain af­ter a slow start


The war against Bri­tain was not only fought by mili­tias and armies, but also by a col­lec­tion of states­men, politi­cians, lawyers, thinkers, ac­tivists and writ­ers. The Con­ti­nen­tal Congress was the colonies’ gov­ern­ing body, re­spon­si­ble for the war ef­fort. It strug­gled con­stantly, was slow to make de­ci­sions, had no in­fra­struc­ture and made mis­takes – its pa­per money be­came so worth­less it spawned the phrase “not worth a con­ti­nen­tal”. But the course of war changed with its great­est suc­cess: in­de­pen­dence. The First Con­ti­nen­tal Congress had con­vened in Septem­ber 1774, fol­low­ing the In­tol­er­a­ble Acts. In all, 56 del­e­gates from 12 colonies (Bri­tish-de­pen­dent Ge­or­gia was ab­sent) met in Philadel­phia to or­gan­ise re­sis­tance, make their griev­ances known and de­clare a trade boy­cott. Yet they af­firmed their loy­alty to the Crown, too.

By the time the Se­cond Con­ti­nen­tal Congress came to­gether at the pre-ar­ranged date in May 1775, fight­ing had bro­ken out. Its mem­bers voted to cre­ate the Con­ti­nen­tal Army and ap­pointed as its com­man­der-in-chief a Vir­ginia landowner who had been re­fused a com­mis­sion in the Bri­tish army, Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton.

Still, it was clear the Congress was not com­mit­ted to in­de­pen­dence. The call only grew louder in the first half of 1776. The sen­sa­tion­ally pop­u­lar pam­phle­teer Thomas Paine had made a stir­ring case in a trea­tise called Com­mon

Sense, and the vi­o­lence meted out by the Bri­tish turned more colonists against them. The Congress also knew in­de­pen­dence would open up op­por­tu­ni­ties of for­eign al­liances. So, on 2 July, Congress voted in favour of the res­o­lu­tion for in­de­pen­dence and two days later, on 4 July, it ap­proved the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence.

Around that time, a 34,000-strong Bri­tish in­va­sion force landed south of New York, led by broth­ers Gen­eral Wil­liam Howe and Richard, Ad­mi­ral Lord Howe. In 1777, they launched an op­er­a­tion to cut off the north­ern colonies of New Eng­land. The plan was for Gen­eral John Bur­goyne to march south from Canada to meet Howe’s force mov­ing north up the Hud­son River. But when Howe left New York, he went by sea and sailed south with the aim of cap­tur­ing Philadel­phia, home of the Congress. He had suc­ceeded by 25 Septem­ber, but the iso­lated Bur­goyne had to con­tend with de­bil­i­tat­ing at­tacks, in­clud­ing the de­ci­sive blow by bril­liant com­man­der Bene­dict Arnold.

In Oc­to­ber, Bur­goyne had no choice but to sur­ren­der at Saratoga. This was a mas­sively sig­nif­i­cant moment as it per­suaded France to join the war. Bri­tain had been fight­ing a civil war – now it was a global con­flict.

Wash­ing­ton, made com­man­der of the Amer­i­can forces in 1775, would lead the colonies to vic­tory at York­town six years later

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