American Revolution

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The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. ~ Thomas Paine

The American Revolution was a period during the last half of the 18th century in which the Thirteen Colonies gained independence from the British Empire and became the United States of America. In this period, the colonies united against the British Empire and entered into the armed conflict known as the American Revolutionary War (or the "American War of Independence"), between 1775 and 1783. This resulted in the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776, and victory on the battlefield in October 1781.

Preludes towards Independence[edit]

  • As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.
    • John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson (August 24, 1815); in Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams (1856), vol. 10, p. 172.
  • Join, or Die.
    • Benjamin Franklin, in a political cartoon first published in The Pennsylvania Gazette (9 May 1754), initially regarding the situations at the start of the French and Indian War, it was later re-used during the American rebellion against Great Britain.

Boston Massacre (1774)[edit]

I have the most animating confidence that the present noble struggle for liberty will terminate gloriously for America. ~ John Hancock
  • The country shall be independent, and we will be satisfied with nothing short of it.
    • Samuel Adams, remark in "small confidential companies"; in William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America, vol. 1 (1788, reprinted 1969), entry for March 9, 1774, p. 347.

The Outbreak of the Revolutionary War: Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775)[edit]

  • Vigorous measures at present would soon put an end to this rebellion. The deluded people are made to believe that they are invincible.... When this army is ordered to act against them, they will soon be convinced that they are very insignificant when opposed to regular troops.
    • Major Thomas Pitcairn, Royal Marines, in a letter from Boston to John Montagu, Lord Sandwich, the Secretary of State.
  • The Redcoats are coming! The Redcoats are coming!
    • Warning delivered by Paul Revere on the night of April 18, as British were marching from Boston, westward towards Lexington.
  • Disperse, ye Rebels! Lay down your arms and disperse.
    • British Major Thomas Pitcairn to American Minutemen at Lexington, ordering them to lay down their weapons and go home.
  • Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken.
    • British officer, on the Americans, following the Battle of Lexington and Concord....
  • Thus was the civil war begin and a victory the fruits of it on the side of the Americans, whom Lord Sandwich had the folly and rashness to proclaim coward.
    • British political leader Horace Walpole after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.
  • What God is he, writes laws of peace, & clothes him in a tempest
    What pitying Angel lusts for tears, and fans himself with sighs
    What crawling villain preaches abstinence & wraps himself
    In fat of lambs? no more I follow, no more obedience pay!
    • William Blake in "America: A Prophecy" (1793). Spoken by "Boston's Angel".
  • 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 round the world.
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concord Hymn" (1837), commemorating the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

The Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775)[edit]

  • Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes.
    • Instructions of Colonel William Prescott to American troops before the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • We... sustained the enemy's attacks with great bravery... and after bearing, for about 2 hours, as severe and heavy a fire as perhaps was ever known, and many having fired away all their ammunition... we were overpowered by numbers and obliged to leave.
    • Corporal Amos Farnsworth, Massachusetts Militia, describing the Battle of Bunker Hill.
  • A few more such victories would have shortly put an end to British dominion in America.
    • British General Henry Clinton, remarking on the battle in his diary; although the British won the battle, they suffered a substantial loss of British troops.

Other actions in 1775[edit]

  • Come out, you old rat. [Surrender] in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.
    • Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, demanding the surrender of the British commander of Fort Ticonderoga.
  • Connecticut wants no Massachusetts men in her corps.... Massachusetts thinks there is no necessity for a Rhode Islander to be introduced into her [units].
    • Gen. George Washington, commanding the Continental Army outside Boston, on the localism of the colonial units.
  • Proceed, great chief, with
    virtue on thy side.
    Thy ev’ry action let the
    goddess guide.
    A crown, a mansion, and
    a throne tat shine,
    With gold unfading,
    Washington! be thine.
  • Could I have foreseen what I have, and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.
    • Gen. George Washington, reflecting on his frustrations coming from both Congress and the states in commanding the Continental Army.

The Second Continental Congress[edit]

  • We have counted the cost of this contest and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honor, justice, and humanity forbid us to tamely surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.... Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great; and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.
    • Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, Continental Congress Declaration on the Necessity of Taking up Arms (1775).

The American Revolution becomes the War of Independence[edit]

Can any government be free which is not administered by general stated laws? Who shall frame these laws? Who will give them force and energy? ~ Abigail Adams
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. ~ Thomas Jefferson
  • If we separate from Britain, what code of laws will be established? How shall we be governed so as to retain our liberties? Can any government be free which is not administered by general stated laws? Who shall frame these laws? Who will give them force and energy?
  • The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested. The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR.
  • I challenge the warmest advocate of reconciliation, to show a single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will.
    But the injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connection, are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance: Because, any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European contentions.
    Europe is too thickly planted with kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, because of her connection with Britain....
    It is repugnant to reason and the universal order of things... to suppose that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power.... Freedom has been haunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England has given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind....
    The period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, must decide the contest...
    Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME TO PART.
  • 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....
    We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress, assembled, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.
  • We must all hang together now, or assuredly we shall hang separately.
    • Benjamin Franklin (1776), on the need for the Americans to fight together for independence.
  • [N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support and religious worship, place, or ministry... nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion on matters of religion.
    • Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Bill on Religious Freedom (1776).
  • [T]he free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, within this State.
    • New York State Constitution of 1777 (1777).

Military Operations in the Middle States: 1776-1777[edit]

  • When once these rebels have felt a smart blow, they will submit.
    • Comment of German mercenary soldier from Hesse, before going into battle against American rebels (1776).
  • I am worried to death. I think the game is pretty near up.
    • Gen. George Washington, in a letter to his brother, after his Continental Army was driven by the British from New York, across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania (1776).
  • It was as severe a night as ever I saw, and after two battalions had landed, the storm increased so much, and the river was so full of ice, that it was impossible to get the artillery over.
    • Thomas Rodney, a Continental soldier, describing the surprise attack across the Delaware River near Trenton, New Jersey (Christmas Night, 1776).
  • [He] had lost all his clothes. He was in an old, dirty blanket jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of sores he could not clean it.
    • Artist Charles Wilson Peale, seeing his brother participating in Washington's army crossing the Delaware River in its counterattack on the British (December 1776).

The Fighting in 1777-1781[edit]

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. ~ Thomas Paine
  • These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.
  • Good God, gentlemen! Our cause is ruined if you engage men for only a year. You must not think of it. If we ever hope for success, we must have men enlisted for the whole term of the war.
    • General Washington, urging Congress to establish a long-term Continental Army (1777)
  • The unfortunate soldiers were in want of everything; they had neither coats, nor hats, nor shirts, nor shoes; their feet and their legs froze till they grew black and it was often necessary to amputate them.... The army frequently passed whole days without food.
  • Poor food — hard lodging — cold weather — fatigue — nasty clothes — nasty cookery.... There comes a bowl of beef soup, full of burnt leaves and dirt!
    • Continental Army surgeon Albigence Waldo, writing in his diary on conditions of the army at Valley Forge (1777)
  • France is... what they call the dominant power of Europe, being incomparably the most powerful at land, that united in a close alliance with our states, and enjoying the benefit of our trade, there is not the smallest reason to doubt but both will be a sufficient curb upon the naval power of Great Britain.
    • John Adams to Sam Adams, explaining the alliance between the United States and France (1778)

The War at Sea[edit]

  • I have not yet begun to fight!
    • The famous response of John Paul Jones, in the early phase of the Battle of Flamborough Head, (23 September 1779) to an inquiry by his opponent (Captain Richard Pearson of the Royal Navy ship HMS Serapis) as to whether he was surrendering his ship, the USS Bonhomme Richard in reply to the British ship Serapis, as recounted in the reminiscences of Jones's First Lieutenant, Richard Dale, as published in The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, a Captain in the United States Navy (1825) by John Henry Sherburne:
...the Bon Homme Richard, having head way, ran her bows into the stern of the Serapis. We had remained in this situation but a few minutes when we were again hailed by the Serapis, "Has your ship struck?" To which Captain Jones answered, "I have not yet begun to fight!" In Naval teminology to "strike the colours" means to haul down the ship's flag to signify surrender, but here the use of the ship as subject of the sentence may imply a pun on the non-naval use of "struck".
The exact wording of his reply is uncertain, and several accounts exist. The standard version above is from an account of the engagement by one of Jones's officers, First Lieutenant Richard Dale. John Henry Sherburne, The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, 2d ed. (1851), p. 121. Sherburne includes Jones's letter of October 3, 1779, to Benjamin Franklin, where he says, p. 116, "The English commodore asked me if I demanded quarters, and I having answered him in the most determined negative, they renewed the battle with double fury". Benjamin Rush writes, "I heard a minute account of his engagement with the Seraphis in a small circle of gentlemen at a dinner. It was delivered with great apparent modesty and commanded the most respectful attention. Towards the close of the battle, while his deck was swimming in blood, the captain of the Seraphis called him to strike. 'No, Sir,' said he, 'I will not, we have had but a small fight as yet.'" George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (1948), p. 157.

The War in the South[edit]

I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to... surrender the troops under my command. ~ Gen. Cornwallis
  • Colonel [Henry]Laurens... is on the way to South Carolina... to raise two three or four battalions of negroes... by contributions form owners in proportion to the number they possess...
    I have not the least doubt, that the negroes will make excellent soldiers, with proper management....
    I foresee that his project will have to combat much opposition from prejudice and self-interest. The contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks, makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor experience....
    An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation.
  • We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.
    • Gen. Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island, Continental Army commander in the South, describing guerrilla warfare against the British (1781).
  • Their number did not exceed 20 men and boys, some white, some black, and all mounted, but most of them miserably equipped.
    • American cavalry raiders in South Carolina commanded by Francis Marion ("the Swamp Fox") as described by an officer on the staff of Gen. Horatio Gates, commanding American forces in the South (1780).
  • I have the mortification to inform your Excellency that I have been forced to... surrender the troops under my command.
    • Gen. Cornwallis, commanding British forces in the South, informing the commander of all British forces in North America, Gen. Clinton, that he surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia (October 19, 1781).
  • This is a most glorious day.
    • An American doctor, upon learning that Gen. Cornwallis, surrendered his army at Yorktown (1781).

The End of the War[edit]

  • There was as much sorrow as joy.... We had lived together as a family of brothers for several years, setting aside some little family squabbles, like most other families, had shared with each other the hardships, dangers, and sufferings incident to a soldier’s life, had sympathized with each other in trouble and in sickness; had assisted in bearing each other’s burdens.... And now we were to be... parted forever.
    • Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier in the Continental Army, on the disbanding of the army, in his memoir, Private Yankee Doodle (published 1830).
  • Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed.... We were then about to part form the man who had conducted through a long and bloody war, and under whose conduct the glory and independence of our country has been achieved.
    • Benjamin Tallmadge, remembering the scene at Fraunces Tavern, New York City, as General Washington said farewell to his officers and left the Continental Army at the end of the War of Independence (1783).


  • You say that at the time of the Congress, in 1765, "The great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America". "The great mass of the people" is an expression that deserves analysis. New York and Pennsylvania were so nearly divided, if their propensity was not against us, that if New England on one side and Virginia on the other had not kept them in awe, they would have joined the British. Marshall, in his life of Washington, tells us, that the southern States were nearly equally divided. Look into the Journals of Congress, and you will see how seditious, how near rebellion were several counties of New York, and how much trouble we had to compose them. The last contest, in the town of Boston, in 1775, between whig and tory, was decided by five against two. Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample? Are not two thirds of the nation now with the administration? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.
    • John Adams, letter to Thomas McKean (August 31, 1813); in Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams (1856), vol. 10, p. 63. He referred to a Congress "held at New York, A.D. 1765, on the subject of the American stamp act" (p. 62).
  • During the war of the Revolution, and in 1788, the date of the adoption of our national Constitution, there was but one State among the thirteen whose constitution refused the right of suffrage to the negro. That State was South Carolina. Some, it is true, established a property qualification; all made freedom a prerequisite; but none save South Carolina made color a condition of suffrage. The Federal Constitution makes no such distinction, nor did the Articles of Confederation. In the Congress of the Confederation, on the 25th of June, 1778, the fourth article was under discussion. It provided that 'the free inhabitants of each of these States — paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice excepted — shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several States.' The delegates from South Carolina moved to insert between the words 'free inhabitants' the word 'white', thus denying the privileges and immunities of citizenship to the colored man. According to the rules of the convention, each State had but one vote. Eleven States voted on the question. One was divided; two voted aye; and eight voted no. It was thus early, and almost unanimously, decided that freedom, not color, should be the test of citizenship. No federal legislation prior to 1812 placed any restriction on the right of suffrage in consequence of the color of the citizen. From 1789 to 1812 Congress passed ten separate laws establishing new Territories. In all these, freedom, and not color, was the basis of suffrage.
  • A British vessel, stopping on the way back from India at the Comoro Islands in the Mozambique Channel, finds the native inhabitants in revolt against their Arab masters; and when they ask why they have taken arms, are told: "America is free, could not we be?"
    • Gijsbert Karel, Count van Hogendorp, in 1784, quoted in "The age of the democratic revolution: a political history of Europe and America, 1760-1860" by Robert Roswell Palmer (1969).

Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989)[edit]

  • Americans developed the resourcefulness and wisdom to solve the problem of organizing a nation in the midst of war and crisis, one of the greatest achievements of modern political history. The Americans of the Revolutionary generation proved themselves the most creative statesmen in modern history, perhaps in all history. They established institutions that have had a more lasting influence than any established anywhere else.
    • Henry Steele Commager, interview with John A. Garraty. Garraty, Interpreting American History, Conversations with Historians, part 1, p. I–100 (1970).
  • Yet where does this anarchy exist? Where did it ever exist, except in the single instance of Massachusets? And can history produce an instance of a rebellion so honourably conducted?… God forbid we should ever be 20. years without such a rebellion. The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.
    • Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Stephens Smith (November 13, 1787); in Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1955), vol. 12, p. 356.
  • An honorable Peace is and always was my first wish! I can take no delight in the effusion of human Blood; but, if this War should continue, I wish to have the most active part in it.
    • John Paul Jones, letter to Gouverneur Morris, September 2, 1782. Robert Morris Letter Book, Rosenbach Collection No. 33, Manuscript Collection, U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. This sentence is reprinted in Lincoln Lorenz, John Paul Jones, Fighter for Freedom and Glory, p. xiv (1943).
  • Every proceeding respecting myself has been so thoroughly mortifying, that nothing but the integrity of my heart, and the fervency of my Zeal Supports me under it…. Change then your opinion of one foreigner, who from his intrance into your Service, has never the cause to be pleased; who, in Europe, is by Rank superior to all that are in your Service; who certainly is not inferior in Zeal and Capacity and who perhaps, may have been considered as one who came to beg your favour. Be more just, Gentlemen, and Know that as I could not Submit to Stoop before the Sovereigns of Europe, So I came to hazard all the freedom of America, and desirous of passing the rest of my life in a Country truly free and before settling as a Citizen, to fight for Liberty.
    • Casimir Pulaski, farewell address to Congress, Charleston, South Carolina, August 19, 1779. R. D. Jamro, Pulaski: A Portrait of Freedom (1981), appendix Y, p. 199, 200.
  • The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses, and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army—Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; that is all we can expect—We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die.
    • George Washington, general orders (July 2, 1776). John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington vol. 5 (1932), p. 211.
  • To morrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutely to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us. The General directs that the army remain in it's present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and brigades. And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensibly necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.
    • George Washington, general orders, December 17, 1777. The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, vol. 10, p. 168 (1933).
  • You will therefore send me none but Natives, and Men of some property, if you have them.
    • George Washington, letter to his regimental commanders, April 30, 1777. The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, vol. 7, p. 495 (1932). Washington wanted a contingent of guards he could trust. This order is often quoted as "Put none but Americans on guard tonight".
  • HERE were held the
    town-meetings that
    ushered in the Revolution
    HERE Samuel Adams, James Otis
    and Joseph Warren exhorted
    HERE the men of Boston proved
    themselves independent
    courageous freemen
    worthy to raise issues
    which were to concern the
    liberty and happiness
    of millions yet unborn
    • Author unknown. Sign at the main entrance of the Old South Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts.

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