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Mike Duncan (00:00):
Okay, so last week saw the official outbreak of war after a decade of political and economic tension, and we ended with the cobbled together American army under General Washington successfully pushing the British, led now by General Howe, out of Boston. There’s a lot to get to today, so let’s get right into it. Except of course, before we can go forward, we have to go backwards. Because while the British and Americans were stuck manning the siege lines of Boston during the fall and winter of 1775, the ill-fated attempt to capture Canada was launched, and then crashed, and then burned.
Now I have gotten more questions about the Canadians than almost any other subject. Specifically, why didn’t they join the rebellion? The answer is pretty straightforward. Setting aside the smallish fishing and trading settlements in say Newfoundland that were basically just British commercial outposts at this point, what we’re really talking about here is Quebec. The reason Quebec stayed out of it is twofold.
First, the vast majority of the population was French Catholic, and if there are two great tastes that do not go great together, it’s French Catholics and New England Puritans. Both distrusted the other for all kinds of obvious reasons, and on top of that they had been periodically fighting wars against each other for the last hundred years or so, culminating with the recent French and Indian War. So right off the bat, it’s a hard sell. The other reason is that after the British took over from the French in 1763, the ministry actually showed some common sense and did not try to outlaw Catholicism in North America. Then in 1774, as I mentioned a few episodes back, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which extended the boundaries of the territory and was very likely an overt attempt by the ministry to get the Canadians to at least stay neutral in the coming conflict.
So the answer to why didn’t the Canadians join the rebellion is basically long-standing enmity between French Catholics and New England Puritans, plus the British offering a far better deal – Catholic toleration, etc. – than the Continental Congress would ever be able to promise. All that said though, when the Second Continental Congress first got together in May 1775, one of the first things they did was send feelers up to Quebec asking them to join in the fun – and promising not to invade. But no doubt confirming every suspicion the French Canadians had, the Congress then promptly okayed a plan to invade Canada.
Overall command of this northern theater was given to one of the delegates, Philip Shiler, who was a pretty big deal in New York and will eventually marry his daughter to a brilliant young officer named Alexander Hamilton, but poor health is going to keep him out of it for the most part, so let’s not worry about him. That leaves us with the men who actually ran the two-pronged invasion – Irish-born General Richard Montgomery and now Colonel Benedict Arnold, who, after being passed over for the command by Congress, went behind their backs and convinced Washington to let him launch an independent expedition of his own.
Montgomery proceeded north from Fort Ticonderoga in September 1775. On a methodical march that would take him up to Montreal and then down the St. Lawrence River to the capital, Quebec City. Arnold meanwhile set out from Massachusetts on a ship bound for Maine with about a thousand men. The idea was to land and then quickly march the 180 miles north from the coast to Quebec City, except that Arnold was working from a terrible map, and that 180 miles turned out to be 350 miles of grueling wilderness. It was not until the middle of November, so we’re talking about two months here, that Arnold and what was left of his company, because about a third had been forced back, were finally able to cross the last river for the final approach on the Canadian capital. They were in, as you can imagine, no shape to attack, so they fell back 20 miles and joined up with Montgomery and about 300 of his men.
Now though Montgomery had successfully taken all the various forts that had crossed his path, including Montreal, none of it had been easy, and the small army of now about a thousand men camped southwest of Quebec City had no equipment or fortitude to sustain a prolonged siege. That meant they had to attack or go home. On top of that, Montgomery and Arnold faced the same problem Washington was facing down in Boston. Everyone’s enlistments were going to expire December 31st. So Montgomery and Arnold decided to go for it, launch a hopefully secret attack, and take the city before the garrison of just under 2,000 British knew what hit them.
After an aborted false start on December 27th, the attack got going finally on December 31st, so literally the last possible day, into a wicked blizzard, which stunk, yes, but it did help mask their approach. Now just to give you a little layout here, Quebec City is built on both sides of a sharp cliff, dividing the city between Uppertown and Lowertown. The Uppertown was all but impossible to take, so the plan called for Arnold to lead 600 men against the north end of Lowertown, while Montgomery led 300 against the southern end. You seize Lowertown, you cut off the supply line to Uppertown, and force a surrender.
But the British officers in charge of the city’s defenses knew their stuff, so when the Americans came at them at dawn on New Year’s Eve, they had fortified the exact spots Arnold and Montgomery planned to hit. Arnold managed to break through the first line of defense, but his men were stopped at the second line, where Arnold himself was badly wounded in the leg.
Montgomery meanwhile, was relying on an element of surprise that just did not materialize, and his men were mowed down, he himself was killed almost instantly. The whole plan fell apart, 50 or 60 Americans lay dead, and soon another 400 were captured. The badly injured Arnold managed to cobble together what men he had left and regroup, hoping that spring and fresh recruits would bring better tidings. It wouldn’t, of course, and for all intents and purposes, the opportunity to take Canada was now passed.
Before we go on, though, I should mention that the death of Montgomery presents one of the great what-ifs of the war, because everyone recognized him as one of the most talented officers on either side, and it is tantalizing to think what he might have been able to accomplish had he not died in a blizzard trying to take Quebec in 1775. With war breaking out all over the continent, the great political question of the day now consumed the rebellious American colonies, is all of this fighting simply about forcing the king and parliament to make concessions, or are we now fighting for independence?
For the moment, this was still an open question, although certainly men like John and Sam Adams believed from the beginning that this was about independence, as too did King George III, who saw in America nothing but an enormous conspiracy to steal his colonies. But the vast middle ground of public opinion was still undecided.
The process of moving that public opinion decisively towards independence started with some recent British provocations, including the intentional destruction of Falmouth, Massachusetts – now Portland, Maine – by gunships in October 1775, and then the destruction of Norfolk, Virginia by gunships on New Year’s Day 1776, an attack which also saw the governor of Virginia issue a proclamation that any slaves who abandoned their masters and came over to the British side would be set free, which frankly, scared the hell out of planters in Virginia because the governor was more or less inviting their worst nightmare – a slave uprising.
So this hardened hearts all over Virginia to the possibility of reconciliation. And so yes, ironically, this attempt to free slaves led directly to the formation of a nation founded on freedom that then turned around and kept all the slaves in bondage – because like I say, slavery is just the vicious hypocrisy in the middle of all of this. It’s unavoidable and plain as day. But the big turn came later in January 1776. The publication of one of the most famous pamphlets, well, ever.
Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Now since Tom Paine is going to hang around for a while, I think we’d better sketch him out. Because by a while, I mean that when we move on to the French Revolution, he’s going to come along with us, wind up sitting as a delegate in the national convention, and then, because Tom Paine can never stop being Tom Paine, sitting in a French prison.
Thomas Paine was born in England in 1737, so he was just shy of 40 when he wrote Common Sense. He was also only a very recent immigrant to America. After a life of failure in business and government, he came to the attention of Benjamin Franklin because whatever else his failings were, it was clear that Paine was curious, intelligent, and above all, passionate. With his life in shambles, he sold all his property to keep out of a debtor’s prison and then separated from his wife, Paine elected to start over in America and was given a letter of introduction from Franklin to help him land a job when he got there.
The job he landed was as editor of a small Pennsylvania magazine, and he quickly lent his support and his pen to radical politics, drafting Common Sense over the autumn of 1775 and then seeing it published in January 1776.
Now, Common Sense was not the first, nor even the best argument for independence, but it did two things better than any other attempt to galvanize public opinion. First, it pushed the debate well past the specific economic or constitutional issues at stake, and cast the struggle in much broader terms. Paine’s object of scorn was not this or that tax, but the entire structure of the British monarchy, which was as absurd as it was corrupt.
Second, it did so in blunt language that was easily accessible to the general public. This was no erudite treatise on political philosophy, this was a cannon blast fired at point blank range. It electrified those who read it, and in just three months something like 100,000 copies had been printed and sold. This is an impossibly huge number.
So with the arrival of Spring 1776, the British now evacuated from Boston, and Common Sense circulating, independent-minded delegates at the Second Continental Congress started pushing their agenda harder. John Adams recommended that the colonies should begin forming new governments, which meant independence in all but name. The remaining moderates, though, still led by Dickinson, attempted to get a bill passed that would officially claim that independence was not the goal, but the report was tabled and never taken back up. Then instructions started filtering into the delegates from back home, freeing them to vote for independence, you know, should it come to that. And it was, definitely, coming to that.
The ball really started rolling downhill in May, because on May the 4th, little Rhode Island stepped forward and unilaterally declared independence, which I just love because as we will see when we get to the Constitution, Rhode Island will be the last to ratify. So first out, last in. That’s Rhode Island. Then on May the 10th, Congress formally instructed the colonies to start setting up new state governments. And on May the 15th, the Virginia House of Burgesses instructed their delegates to not just vote for independence, but to move for it.
In the middle of this, Congress then learned that the British Ministry had gone shopping in Europe for mercenaries, turning first to the Russians, and then, when the Russians turned them down, to the Germans. John Adams believed that this news was probably the final nail in the coffin. What reconciliation could there be with a king who was prepared to use foreign mercenaries against his own people?
So on June the 7th, a Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee, formally moved, quote, that these United States are and of right ought to be free and independent States. They are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.
John Adams immediately seconded. Now one of the big practical questions was how this would affect relations with Europe. As though the Americans had held their own in the first year of the war, everyone knew that foreign aid of some kind from someone was critical to winning the war. Money? Soldiers? I don’t know, a navy?
So many of the delegates wanted to wait until such an alliance was in place before declaring independence. But John Adams argued that it had to be the other way around. First declare independence to prove that we mean business, and then work out an alliance with France or Spain or whoever, not as rebellious colonies, but as a full-fledged nation.
The debate on independence ebbed and flowed through June, as the Congress was forced always to deal with its daily minutiae. But in the meantime, a committee of five men was appointed to draft a proposed Declaration of Independence. Named to this committee were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Guy No. 3, Guy No. 4, and of course the man who actually wound up drafting the thing, Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson was born in Virginia in 1743, so he’s just 33 years old when he sits down to write the Declaration of Independence. His father had died when he was 14, so when Jefferson turned 21, he inherited 5,000 acres and about 40 slaves. When he was 16, he went off to the College of William and Mary, where he blazed through the entire curriculum and proved himself to be one of the brightest and most broadly curious minds in North America. He was voraciously interested in everything, although by trade he wound up a lawyer, entering the Virginia Bar in 1767.
He married Martha Wale Skelton in 1772, and when her father died the next year, Jefferson inherited another 11,000 acres plus 135 slaves, but also a crushing great load of debt, which got Jefferson started on his lifelong hobby of being monumentally absurdly in debt. On the eve of the war, he joined the Virginia House of Burgesses and then served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he gained a reputation as something of a wallflower.
This was mostly because Jefferson was not the fiery orator that John Adams and Patrick Henry were, but he was also possibly sulking at being stuck in Philadelphia and not back in Virginia helping draft the new state constitution, little knowing that he was about to wind up smack dab at the crucible of American, and dare I say world, history.
Since creating the new Virginia Constitution was actually what Jefferson wanted to be doing, he had with him all kinds of notes and letters pertaining to the debate, including copies of the famous Virginia Declaration of Rights, which were adopted in mid-June. So when he was called on to draft the Declaration of Independence, that’s what Jefferson had to work from.
Now, for those of you who are really interested in exploring all the details of this, I recommend Pauline Mair’s American Scripture, which examines in pretty exquisite detail not just the role the Virginia Declaration of Rights played in Jefferson’s draft, obviously a big one, but also the 90 or so other declarations of independence that were floating around out there, as the various county committees or town councils adopted resolutions defending their rights. Jefferson, working from notes and memory, had about two weeks to knock out a draft that would lay out the various accumulated grievances that justified independence.
Jefferson’s great accomplishment was writing this up quickly and eloquently. The point was never originality, and no one, certainly not Thomas Jefferson, thought what he was writing would basically become the centerpiece of American civic religion. With the draft completed, a debate on independence resumed on July the 1st. Now almost everybody was for it at this point, though New York was paralyzed by a lack of instructions from home, and the Delaware delegation was evenly split and waiting for an absent delegate to show up and break the tie, which he did the next day. That left South Carolina and the John Dickinson-led Pennsylvania delegations as the two states still holding out.
But with the Congress now absolutely ready to vote for independence, unanimity became important, and South Carolina finally got on board, and then in a magnanimous display, Dickinson and his allies abstained, allowing the remaining Pennsylvania delegates to let Pennsylvania stand with the rest. On July the 2nd, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously in favor of independence.
Still left, though, was approving the Declaration. Over the next two days, while Jefferson sat in silent agony, the Congress went through his draft line by line, cutting a phrase here, rewording a phrase there. I mean really, if you’re a writer, you can understand just how painful this had to be. Especially since Jefferson was famously thin-skinned and hypersensitive about criticism. But as it turns out, and again I’m getting this from Pauline Maier, the editing done by the Congress was excellent. Really given that this is being done by committee, which oh my god is a terrible way to edit a garage sale announcement, let alone the Declaration of Independence.
Now either through haste or passion, Jefferson had written stuff that either went too far, or was just flat out not true. Like his original draft famously blamed the king for foisting the institution of slavery on unwilling colonists, which, um, let’s just say that’s a tough case to make. If you read American scripture, you will also find an edited copy of the original draft, so you can see exactly what changes were made and why. The final draft is better, and on July the 4th, 1776, it was unanimously approved.
If you want to hear it in all of its eventually tedious glory, I recorded the Declaration of Independence as a standalone supplemental. Try not to fall asleep. Meanwhile back on the military front, Washington had led the Continental Army south to what he believed would be the key strategic point of the war. New York City.
When the general got a copy of the Declaration of Independence, he assembled his army on July the 9th and had it read aloud, hoping it would give the men that extra burst of patriotism and purpose that would see them through the coming wave of British troops. That was the plan. Well, George Washington and his army are about to endure a rotten six months.
Now Washington was at least right in guessing British intentions, and the Howe brothers did indeed select New York City as their point of return, bringing with them just over thirty thousand soldiers, including eight thousand Hessians, a catch-all label for mercenaries of German origin who would wind up particularly hated and feared as the war goes on. Washington and his officers suppose that Howe’s plan was to take New York and then either launch himself back into New England or head up the Hudson to link up with an anticipated invasion force from Canada.
Howe and his forces landed on Staten Island, a little southwest of New York City proper. But the key strategic point would be the northwest corner of Long Island, aka Brooklyn Heights, which overlooked New York City and had been fortified by the Americans. To take the city, Howe would have to first drive Washington’s forces off the Heights. Never one to rush into things, Howe sat around on Staten Island for a good seven weeks before he finally made a move.
On August the 22nd, he dispatched fifteen thousand troops to Long Island under Henry Clinton and Lord Charles Cornwallis, who will prove to be one of the most formidable of the British generals, even though he is known to history as the guy who surrendered at Yorktown.
So the approach to Brooklyn Heights was screened by steep hills, through which there were four possible passes. The Americans were of course guarding these closely — well, three of them, anyway — because Jamaica Pass, the pass furthest from the British landing site on the far American left, was officially guarded by… five men. I’m sure you can guess which pass Clinton decided to waltz through. Now as the Britisher landing, Washington is doing nothing to reinforce his men on Long Island, because he’s afraid that this is all a feint to draw him out of the city.
Fortunately, for those of us who venerate Washington like a minor deity, his war record is definitely spotty, and this is one of those not-so-great moments. Because it was no feint, this was the attack, and he was letting it unfold unopposed. On the evening of August 26th, the British and their Hessian partners set out on a night march. Diversionary attacks and shelling on the three other passes covered Henry Clinton’s silent march through Jamaica Pass, and just like that, behind the American forward lines.
Between the shelling and Clinton’s men coming up from behind, the American left had collapsed by 9am. The right held out bravely, but it too soon broke apart. By noon, the Americans had scrambled back to an inner line at Brooklyn Heights. Belatedly, Washington sent over reinforcements, but by now it was too late for them to do any good. A nasty nor’easter sent, I suppose by God, kept the British at bay the whole next day, during the course of which Washington’s war council convinced him that defending the Heights was now folly.
So on the night of August 29th, two regiments of Massachusetts militiamen, who also happened to be expert seamen, ran a convoy of boats and managed, with the help of some timely fog, probably also sent by God, to withdraw 9,500 men without the British suspecting a thing. Because if there was one thing Washington turned out to be the master of, it was the flawless retreat. And I’m not being snarky about that, George Washington could extract an army from hell before the devil knew he was gone.
No doubt surprised by this flawless retreat, Howe declined to press the advantage. But inside New York City, Washington was dealing with an utterly demoralized army, now sick, under provisioned, and deserting at will. He started preparing a new defense when he got instructions from Congress telling him that New York City was not a hill he had to die for. So the war council immediately switched to planning an evacuation. Two weeks later, Howe finally got moving and put in a landing east of the city. So the American army fled north, up the west side of Manhattan Island to Harlem Heights, leaving behind crucial provisions and artillery.
But after the Americans took the Heights, an advanced British guard bungled into what became the Battle of Harlem Heights and were driven off, giving the Americans a much needed morale boost. After that, everyone sat tight for a month to plan their next moves.
Now interestingly, just before the Battle of Harlem Heights, a three-man delegation from the Second Continental Congress — Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and a third guy — traveled up to New York and met with Howe on Staten Island to see about getting the British to recognize their recently declared independence. The resulting sit-down was scrupulously polite, but a total failure. Howe said, correctly, that he had no authority over such matters. So the delegation left after a few hours, and the war continued.
In mid-October, Howe moved by boat up to a spot due east of Harlem that would allow him to hopefully trap the Americans on Manhattan Island. So Washington ran north again, this time off the island up to White Plains, where a Continental supply depot was located. The Americans quickly cobbled together entrenchments running east-west to hopefully block the British coming up from the south.
Contact was finally made on October the 28th, with General Clinton again leading a column up towards the American left, with the Hessians approaching the American right. A sharp battle ensued that saw the Americans manage to halt the advance. But with the line standing still, the Hessian artillery then scattered the militiamen manning the American right, but reinforcements swooped in just in time. But the next push was too much. The Hessians charged in and broke the right flank, forcing the Americans into a fighting retreat. And though the militias on the right had obviously failed, it is worth pointing out that the Delaware militia on the left actually held firm enough to cover the retreat of the rest of the army. So Delaware militia, good work.
The Battle of White Plains was another British victory, but it also cost them another couple hundred wounded and killed, and Washington once again proved his ability to hold together a beaten army and retreat in good order. Two days later, Howe was prepared to restart the fight, but heavy rains got in his way, and Washington was able to lead his men north and out of immediate reach. Howe decided that further pursuit was a waste of time, and he elected instead to turn around and head down to the mouth of the Hudson River, where two American forts allegedly guarded the entrance to this all-important waterway.
So the big questions for Washington through early November hinged on the main fort, which had been named after him, Fort Washington, and which sat on the east bank of the Hudson River. Those questions were, can we hold it, and is it worth it? The answers turned out to be no and no. The British quickly proved that the forts probably weren’t even worth it, when they sailed a few test ships up the Hudson to see if the artillery could stop them, of which they couldn’t.
As to whether the fort could be defended, Washington elected to defer to the man he had left in charge of the garrison, Nathaniel Green. One of Washington’s favorite officers, who will become really important when the war moves south, but for now is in the early let’s make a bunch of mistakes phase of his career. Green decided the fort could be defended. Washington himself rode down to inspect the defenses on November 14, and he did not like what he saw one bit, but he was carried away by Green’s enthusiasm, and despite his misgivings, headed back north to his own army.
Of course, letting Green stay was a huge mistake. The day after Washington left, the British moved into position, and the day after that they attacked and completely enveloped the fort. The surrender of Fort Washington was the biggest blow in a string of recent blows, 2,800 Americans captured along with all their guns and supplies. General Green got away, and though this is not the last mistake he’s going to make, he will redeem himself in the southern campaigns, and emerge as one of the great heroes of the war. Back up north, Washington struggled to prevent the total collapse of the war effort right then and there.
At this point, he had personally led about 2,000 men across the Hudson River, leaving another 5,500 on the east side. This force was under the command of a guy we’re going to talk about next week, the irascible veteran of various European wars and recent immigrant to America, General Charles Lee, who could not believe that he was taking orders from some incompetent colonial hack. After picking up another thousand troops or so, Washington struggled south into New Jersey, and after the fall of Fort Washington, was soon being pursued by Lord Cornwallis and 4,000 British and Hessians.
For the next few weeks, Cornwallis was almost literally one step behind the Americans, arriving for example in New York, just as the American rear guard was pulling out. In the first week of December, Washington and its men were almost captured at New Brunswick, and then a few days later almost captured at Princeton. I mean, this was damn near the end of the whole project. But General Washington was a sneaky fox, and he managed to cross the Delaware River into Pennsylvania and then round up every boat for 50 miles in either direction, leaving the pursuing British with no way to cross.
After a week of hunting for a way across the Delaware, Howe gave it up. Winter was descending, and winter is no time for a civilized Englishman to be fighting a war. He assigned the Hessians to man the Delaware River frontier, and told the rest of his troops to settle into winter quarters, mostly in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island. He wrote home to the ministry that all was well, and one more good season of campaigning should finish off this rebellion. And really, given how the last six months had gone, this was not an unrealistic assessment.
But next week, George Washington will salvage the dignity of the American cause and give it something to cheer about when he defeats a bunch of hungover Germans at Trenton the day after Christmas.
- Charles Lee (general)
- Thomas Paine
- Benjamin Franklin
- John Adams
- Richard Henry Lee
- Thomas Jefferson
- Patrick Henry
- Pauline Maier
- George Washington
- Charles Cornwallis
- Nathaniel Everett Green
- Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis
- Henry Clinton (British Army officer, born 1730)
- John Dickinson
- Alexander Hamilton
- Richard Montgomery
- Benedict Arnold
- Samuel Adams
- George III
- American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier: https://amzn.to/3HBPaNh
The American colonies declared independence in July 1776. Then their armies got chased around New York.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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