thumbnail of America Past; Do7; Beginning of Revolution
Hide -
Why. A. [Series Theme music]
This is the Raleigh tavern in Williamsburg. Most people who came here came to eat, drink, socialize. But on May 27,1774, a group came for an entirely different reason. And to determine that reason, you have to return to events in Boston. In Boston remember in December of 1773, the Boston Tea Party had taken place. A group of Sons of Liberty, disguised as Indians, had got on board a British merchant ship and thrown all the tea into the harbor. Now how are the British going to react to that? Even many Americans objected to it. Thought it was an unjustifiable destruction of property. Well if some Americans were upset, the British, or most of them, were infuriated. They realize that either they had to decide we're going to govern these colonies or we're going to lose them.
Now which is it going to be? So the decision is made to punish the colonies for the Boston Tea Party. To punish Massachusetts in general and Boston in particular. And they do that in a series of laws known as the Intolerable Acts. Now intolerable mean something you can't stand. The British did not pass a series of laws and say, oh, let's call them the Intolerable Acts. The colonists use that term. The British referred to them usually as the Coercive Acts. Well what do they do? Well, let's take the Boston part first. How do most people in Boston make a living? What do they do? Well in one way or another they made their living from the sea. Some were actually sailors, others built ships, others sold things to sailors, others imported goods from Europe. But one way or another Boston made its living from the sea.
How do you punish a city like that? It's simple, sure, you close the port. And they passed a law designed to do that. The Boston Port Bill, It said the Boston port would be closed and it would remain closed until the tea was paid for. Then they went on to the state of Massachusetts of the colony of Massachusetts as a whole. And they started fooling around with its government. They abolished the town meetings. [Music] New Englanders dearly loved their town meetings. They had had them from their very first colony. These laws say no more town meetings without the express permission of the governor. And they changed the method by which the state legislature, a colonial legislature, would be elected. The old system had been that the people elected the Lower House and the Lower House elected the Upper House. Now they say, no more of that. The Upper House
will be appointed by the king. Then another one. If any British official should kill a colonist in the act of duty, that British official will be sent to England for TAR. He will not be tried here in America. Do you remember the Boston massacre? That had happened there. British soldiers had killed Americans in the line of duty and they were tried in Boston, acquitted, but they were tried. But the colonists don't want these British officials sent back to England for trial. They're convinced they'll get off scot-free over there. So they objected to that. Then they decided that Massachusetts needed a military governor. No longer a civilian, they sent General Gage over here as military governor of Massachusetts and sent troops with him that he was to use to control the colony.
Now that he's got troops, he's got to house them somewhere. So they come up with an idea there, one they had used some in the past, of having the colonist's housing them in their homes free. This is called the Quartering Act. The Quartering Act said that the colony must provide quarters for these troops in public buildings maybe, if not in private homes. Bostonians hated that. It's not surprising that when we got around to writing our Bill of Rights that the Third Amendment says that no troops shall be quartered in a private home in time of peace without the owner's permission. They were remembering the Quartering Act that was part of the Intolerable Act. Now the English hoped that by punishing Massachusetts they were teaching the other colonies a lesson. That the reaction say, down here in Virginia would be, we better get in line or this might happen to us. But they were wrong. It seemed
like the British were always wrong in judging how the colonists would react to something. The other colonists immediately knew about it. The Committees of Correspondence saw to that. That was their job, to write letters and tell other people what was happening. So immediately, other colonies knew that Massachusetts was being punished. And they decided to support 'em. Their reaction was, look what's happening there. We could be next. We better help Massachusetts before it happens to us. Some colonies sent food; Connecticut, New York, South Carolina sent food to the closed port of Boston. Here in Williamsburg, the House of Burgesses meeting down the street at the Colonial Capitol, voted to set aside a day for fasting, humiliation, and prayer in sympathy for Massachusetts. The governor did not approve of that, dissolved the legislature. And they came and met here, in the Raleigh tavern, whose owner was
known to be sympathetic to the American cause. And it was probably them meeting here, that they decided to join with Massachusetts in calling for a Congress of all of the colonies to meet and decide what to do about the worsening situation with England. That group met in Philadelphia. They met right here, in Carpenters' Hall. It was called the First Continental Congress. Why the term, Continental? Well, because the British called anybody who lived on the continent of North America a Continental. So you hear talk about Continental dollars, Continental soldiers and, in this case, the Continental Congress. What did they do? Three things. One, they sent off a list of complaints to the king. They had done that before. It never had much effect, it probably went in the ashcan. But at least they can say they tried a reasonable
approach. Secondly, they decided to stop buying British goods. That would be called a boycott. That had helped them get rid of the Stamp Act, it had helped them get rid of the Townshend Acts, maybe it'll help them with the Intolerable Acts. They even set up a group to enforce it called the Association. And any merchant who got caught with British goods in the shop was in trouble. It would be pretty effective. They cut the trade through New York from two million dollars a year down to 6,000. That would be considered a significant drop. The third thing they did, the British couldn't really ignore. They recommended that these colonies would get military training and to begin storing up weapons. Now, the British can't let that go-by. These men who are training, well, they become known as Minutemen. [music]
The image of the minuteman has been one of the most pervasive to come out of the American Revolution. Almost everyone recognizes it. Perhaps, the best known colonial American statue is the statue of the Minuteman at Concord. A British soldier drew his impression of a minuteman. It isn't quite as flattering. The ?owner wanted you to don? something looking like this and jumped up from behind a bush in Massachusetts. Anyway, what is General Gage going to do about the fact that these people are storing weapons and drilling? Now see, it wasn't ?just about? that they had militiamen, they had had them before. But these people are going to be used against the British What can Gage, as governor of Massachusetts, do? What would you do? Would you go out there and try to stop the thing before it really got started. And that's precisely the decision he made. Go to Lexington and Concord, seize the weapons, and maybe something else. It
just so happens that two of the biggest radicals, John Hancock and Samuel Adams, are in Lexington. So in Gage's mind, why not go up there, grab those two guys and the weapons, kill two birds with one stone, and get back to Boston. If we could do that without causing too much stir, it would be worth it. Now, the Americans knew the British were going somewhere. It was just a matter of where. I mean they lived in their homes. They start getting their stuff together their equipment it's obvious they're going someplace. If they should leave Boston by the southwest, by land, they might be going to certain towns that way. If they cross Boston Harbor by water, they probably were headed toward Lexington and Concord. And this is where you get the story of Paul Revere, Boston silversmith, his house still stands in downtown Boston, and he's waiting for the signal. One if by land, one lantern hung in the belfry of the Old North Church.
And two, if they're coming by sea, there were two lanterns they're headed toward Lexington and Concord. ? It's a danger to like to have done that secretly,? shouldn't Revere, William Dawes, Samuel Prescott rode ahead of the British army warning people that they were coming. We've always heard of Revere. He has a more musical name. Longfellow wrote his poem, listen my children and you shall hear the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. This fits nicely, listen my children you shall hear the midnight ride of Samuel Prescott? You'd have to do something else with it. So, Revere's become the best known. People in that area still recreate the events of April the 18th April the 19th, 1775. ?...Gage sent? 700 men up to Lexington. Maybe he should have taken more. Maybe
700 wasn't enough to really scare the colonists badly enough. Well, on the morning of April 19th 1775, they arrived at the village green in Lexington. And they found some colonists lined up there under the command of a Captain Parker. There's a monument there that says, stand your ground don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war let it begin here. Those lines are probably written by Captain Parker's grandson. Well, what happened there? There's some diary. A British officer kept a diary of the events of that day. How many people were there? Now listen to this. He says, we came upon the main body which appeared to me to exceed 400, that's what the British officer said.
An American, who was there at the same time and wrote a diary about it said, while we were standing in line I left my place and went from one end of the company to the other. The whole number was 38 and no more. Who do you believe? Both claimed to have been eyewitnesses. Who fired the first shot? Again, the British officer says several of our officers called out, throw down your arms and you shall come to no harm. Instantly, some of the villains who got over the hedge, fired at us. The American tells it the differently. He says, a British officer swung his sword and said, lay down your arms you damn rebels or you're all dead men. At any rate, whatever happened, the war started at Lexington. How much resistance did the Americans put up there? A drawing done at the time shows almost every soldier taking off, every minuteman running away. One done 50
years later, ?shows five? or six men standing and shooting back. One done one hundred years later, the Americans have gotten much braver, they're nearly all standing and firing back. After Lexington, the British went on to Concord and there did meet some organized resistance. There's a very famous bridge at Concord and across that bridge the Minutemen were formed up to resist the British. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson later referred to the shot fired at Concord as the shot heard round the world. And he wrote the Concord Hymn about it. By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled, here once the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard around the world. [cannons and guns firing] After Concord, the British started back to Boston. The colonists followed them along, hiding behind rocks and trees, ?fallen?
fences, shooting at them. By the time the British got back to Boston 73 of them were dead and over a hundred were wounded. One British officer wrote, never has the British army place faced an ungenerous enemy. enemy. With the British back in Boston, in many ways this was the high point of the revolution. Volunteers were swarming into the Boston area, morale was high, very few people had been killed, the severe winter at Valley Forge had not been experienced. It was 1775, [clicking of spinning wheel] very few of them realized that the war was not going to end until 1783. [ spinning wheel noise and woman singing] "their pickets ?drawn?, the alarm was spread that the rebels risen from the dead were marching into town. They scampered here, they scampered there, and some for action did prepare, but soon their arms laid down, my lads, soon their arms laid down."
While this fighting is taking place, but officially the colonies are still part of England. We hadn't made an absolute break. We were still sending petitions over to the King saying that we did not intend to separate from England, swearing our loyalty, and at the same time we're up at Lexington, Concord, and Boston fighting the King's troops. The Continental Congress is running things but was that an official act or they just sort of doing it because somebody had to fill the power vacuum that existed. Many people didn't want to make the break. [music] If you're a merchant, you wanna to go to war with England who's your best customer and your chief market? How about the British navy? If you're an English colony they protect you. If you're fighting England, they attack you. Well, some people are scared. Others had no doubt. Patrick Henry didn't have any doubt. He's saying, give me liberty or give me death. Well, the British had no doubt at all as to which they preferred to give him. As far as the British are concerned,
they have declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. They're not talking reconciliation. They're ready to crush this thing at this point. But the American colonists, many of them couldn't make up their mind. Well, something that helped them [music] is the publication and the pamphlet Common Sense. Common Sense is certainly a book that has been as widely read as any pamphlet ever written. Almost everybody who could read, read Common Sense. It was written by Thomas Paine, a true revolutionary at heart, and he argued that it's just common sense to make the break from England. It is not common sense for an island to control a huge continent. Sooner or later the break is going to come, let's do it now. Also, if we make the break, maybe we can go to France, or Spain, or one of England's old enemies and get help from them. Right now they're not helping us. Let's declare ourselves independent and go and seek aid from them.
So what happens? Well, on June the 7th, 1776, the Continental Congress was meeting just two blocks from here over in statehouse, what we now call Independence Hall. The delegates of Virginia, one of them Richard Henry Lee, got up and he made a resolution. And in that resolution he said, "That these United Colonies are and ought to be free and independent states." Now if we pass that, that's passed, that's the break. If the Congress agrees that these colonies should be free and independent states, the separations come, all we have to do is fight a war to prove it. But what did Congress do? They tabled it temporarily and set up a committee to write up a declaration stating that resolution. That committee consisted of five people: Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and three big names, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson, of course, will do most of the writing. He had rented rooms in a house in Philadelphia, which has now been reconstructed. And in this room, just two blocks from Independence Hall, he wrote the Declaration. He had brought with him his violin, he was a great lover of music, one of his many inventions, a lap board, a lap desk, and on this he sat, he turned out the rough drafts of the Declaration. Why didn't the other people write it? John Adams could of, but he didn't want to. He said, "He was so unpopular people would end up voting against it just because he had written it." And, Franklin being a printer, he was a good writer. They'd said the people were afraid that if he wrote it he might end up putting a joke in it and that didn't seem appropriate for this sort of document. So, Jefferson does it. But what does it say? Why is it so well known? ?What'd it? declare us independent. Why else would you call it a Declaration of Independence if it didn't declare us independence from England? That's the main purpose,
but it did more. Jefferson with an eye toward history, thought he ought to give the reasons for that. So, he stated them. Toward the bottom of the declaration, there's a whole series of sentences starting with the word "he". He has kept standing armies among us in peace time. He has dissolved our representative assemblies. He has done this, that, and the other. "He" refers to George the Third. Now, it still did more. Jefferson decided that he ought to say something about the philosophy of government that was to guide the new union. So, he puts in there his ideas on this. They weren't new, he didn't make them up. Intellectuals have been talking about these things for some time. The idea that the government exists for the good of the people not the other way around. We're not here to serve the government. They are there to serve us. That was a new idea. And if they don't serve us the way we want to be served or the way the majority wants to be served,
we have a right to change it. Besides, Jefferson would say we have an obligation. And that's exactly what the colonists thought they were getting ready to do. Then he went on to talk about the rights that people have. Other thinkers had talked about life, liberty, and property. Jefferson adds a human element when he talks about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And probably the best known line from the Declaration, the first sentence of the second paragraph he states this: We hold these truths to be self-evident, and it's obvious, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, given by God, with certain unalienable rights. Rights that cannot be taken away from you. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are not privileges that can be given and removed, they're rights, they're given to you by God.
The declaration you see sort of set an ideal for the New Republic. Now we haven't always lived up to that. But whenever we get pangs of conscience, we go back to it and we say hey this is what we ought to be shooting for, that we treat people as though all men were created equal. This is why the document became universally admired, not just a statement of independence, not just the reasons why, but the idea that the government is here to serve the people, and the people have certain rights that cannot be taken away. When Jefferson finished this, complaining about the heat of Philadelphia and the noise of the city, [traffic noise] his house was right at the edge of the downtown area. He sent it to the committee. They made some minor changes. The original has strikeouts all through it. Franklin corrected some spelling, suggested a word change here or there. Then they took the document over to the State House, over to Independence Hall two blocks away and submitted it to the entire Continental Congress.
The Second Continental Congress was meeting in the assembly room of Independence Hall. Certainly one of the most historic rooms in America. If you visit it today, it looks a great deal like it did in July of 1776. They then began to debate Jefferson's document. He had to sit there, over in that corner, and listen to them. Some might ah want to change a word here, reform a sentence there. Have you ever had to write something and then turn it over to a committee to review? If you have, you know what he was going through, it was probably agony. The delegates from South Carolina up in the front to the left, well they wanted the part taken out about slavery. Jefferson had put put a statement in there condemning slavery. Well, the South wasn't going to go along with that. Most Southern delegates objected. And they took it out. Now they've been criticized for that. But you see, it was necessary, or they thought it was at the time. They wanted to present a united front against Britain, all 13 colonies united.
The South would not go along if that part about slavery was left in there. So as a practical necessity, it was taken out. On July the 2nd, Lee's resolution declaring independence was passed. If that's the case, why don't we celebrate July 2nd instead of July 4th? Well, because on July 4th, they actually adopted Jefferson's written statement. The actual Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4th. Four days later, they read [crowd noise] it outside behind the statehouse [bell ringing], behind Independence Hall, it was read. The state house bell was rung [bell ringing], the liberty polls were set up around the colonies, the liberty pole was a symbol of defiance. In New York they pulled down a statue of George the Third and turned it into cannon balls; said that he would have melted majesty fired at him. Throughout August they signed the document. John Hancock probably has the most famous signature on there because it's so large, but he was the chairman of the convention.
America Past
Episode Number
Beginning of Revolution
Contributing Organization
Rocky Mountain PBS (Denver, Colorado)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/52-54xgxk4m).
Asset type
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Rocky Mountain PBS (KRMA)
Identifier: 001.75.2011.1618 (Stations Archived Memories (SAM))
Format: U-matic
Duration: 00:27:49
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “America Past; Do7; Beginning of Revolution,” Rocky Mountain PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 12, 2022,
MLA: “America Past; Do7; Beginning of Revolution.” Rocky Mountain PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 12, 2022. <>.
APA: America Past; Do7; Beginning of Revolution. Boston, MA: Rocky Mountain PBS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from