Chapter 1 - Establishing These United States


Terms for Week 1

  • Creed of Political Equality
  • Patriarchy
  • Bacon's Rebellion
  • Deference
  • John Locke
  • "Tyranny of the Majority"
  • "Blue Laws"
  • Bill of Rights
  • Boston Massacre 
  • Loyalists
  • Colonel Tye
  • Abigail Adams
  • Captain Pipe
  • Stamp Act Crisis
  • Gnadenhutten Massacre
  • The Philadelphia Convention
  • Common Sense
  • Lord Dunmore's Proclamation


The Mayflower Compact was the first instrument of government drawn up in the English Colonies and as such reflected the tentative origins of the campaign for selfgovernment that culminated in the American Revolution 156 years later.

In the name of God, Amen.

We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be though most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience." 

Source: Richard Current, American History: A Survey, (New York: Knopf, 1961), p. 17.


The following account describes the rapid development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century.

Founded in 1630 by Puritans from England, Massachusetts Bay grew rapidly, aided in its first decade by 15,000 to 20,000 immigrants from England, and after that by natural increase.  By 1700, Massachusetts Bay's population had risen to almost 56,000 and by 1750, to approximately 188,000, making it one of Great Britain's most populous North American possessions.

This rapid population growth forced the government of Massachusetts Bay (called the General Court, which included the governor, the deputy governor, the executive council of assistants, and the representatives, all elected annually by the freemen to organize new towns.  Within the first year of settlement, the six original towns of Massachusetts Bay were laid outDorchester, Roxbury, Watertown, Newtown (now Cambridge), Charlestown, and Boston, all on the Charles River.  By the time Middlesex County (west of Boston) was organized in 1643, there were eight towns in that county alone, and by 1700, there were twentytwo.

The organization of towns was an important way for Puritan leaders to keep control of the rapidly growing population.  Unlike settlers in the middle and southern colonies, colonists in Massachusetts Bay could not simply travel to an uninhabited area, select a parcel of land, and receive individual title to the land from the colonial governor. Instead, a group of men who wanted to establish a town had to apply to the General Court for a land grant for the entire town.  Leaders of the prospective new town were then selected, and the single church was organized.  Having received the grant from the General Court, the new town's leaders apportioned the available land among the male heads of households who were church members, holding in common some land for grazing and other uses (hence the "town common").  In this way, the Puritan leadership retained control of the fastgrowing population, ensured Puritan economic and religious domination, and guaranteed that large numbers of dissentersmen and women who might divert the colony from its "holy mission" in the wildernesswould not be attracted to Massachusetts Bay.

Source: William Bruce Wheeler and  Susan D. Becker, eds.  Discovering the American Past: A Look as the Evidence, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), p. 51-52.


In the following account originally published in 1616, King James I, of England describes how royal power is divinely conveyed.

The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called gods.

Kings are justly called gods, for that they exercise a manner or resemblance of Divine power upon earth: for if you will consider the attributes to God, you shall see how they agree in the person of a king.  God hath power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at His pleasure, to give life, or send death, to judge all, and to be judged nor accountable to none: to raise low things, and to make high things low at His pleasure, and to God are both soul and body due. And the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects: they have power of raising, and casting down: of life, and of death: judges over all their subjects, and in all causes, and yet accountable to none but God only. They have power to exalt low things, and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the chess; a pawn to take a bishop or a knight, and to cry up, or down any of their subjects, as they do their money. And to the king is due both the affection of the soul and the service of the body of his subjects...

I conclude then this point touching the power of kings, with this axiom of divinity, that as to dispute what God may do, is is it sedition in subjects, to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power; but just kings will ever be willing to declare what they will do, if they will not incur the curse of God.  I will not be content that my power be disputed upon: but I shall ever be willing to make the reason appear of all my doings, and rule my actions according to my laws. 

Source: James I, Works (London, 1616), 529—531, reprinted in Richard W. Leopold, Arthur S. Link and Stanley Corbin, eds., Problems in American History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1966)


Ironically most of the ideas which Americans eventually used to challenge the power of the British King over them, derived from English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704).  In 1689 Locke wrote "The Second Treatise on Civil Government" which describes the then radical concept of the right of individuals to govern themselves. 

Man being born...with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty, and estate—against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge and punish the breaches of that law in others... Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another...

Wherever, therefore, any number of men so unite into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there, and there only, is a political, or civil society.  And this is done wherever any number of men, in the state of nature, enter into society to make one people, one body politic under one supreme government, or else when any one joins himself to, and incorporates with, any government already made.  For hereby he authorizes the society, or which is all one, the legislative thereof, to make laws for him, as the public good of the society shall require, to the execution whereof his own due.

Men nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community, for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties and a greater security against any that are not of it...

Whosoever therefore out of a state of nature unite into a community must be understood to give up all the power necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community...  And this is done by...agreeing to unite into one political society...between the individuals that enter into or make up a commonwealth.  And thus that which...actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of a majority to unite and incorporate into such a society.  And this...[gives] beginning to any lawful government in the world.

Source: John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government reprinted in David E Shi and Holly A Mayer, eds., For the Record: A Documentary History of America (Mew York, 1999), pp. 106-107.


The first act establishing freedom of religion was passed by the overwhelmingly Catholic Maryland Colonial Legislature at the request of Lord Baltimore.  By today’s standards the measure was limited.  It simply said that anyone believing in Christianity would not be molested by the colonial government or individuals in the practice of his or her faith.  It did not extend that protection to non-Christians. However taken against the backdrop of state sanctioned or favored religion in most nations and in the rest of the colonies, the very declaration that anyone was free to worship in the Christian faith, regardless of denomination, was considered a major statement of religious tolerance and the first step toward the religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  Part of the statute appears below:

And whereas the inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those commonwealths where it hath been practiced, And for the more quiet and peaceable government of this Province, and the better to preserve mutuall Love and amity amongst the inhabitants thereof, Be it Therefore…Ordeyned and enacted…that noe person or persons whatsoever in this Province…professing to belieive in Jesus Christ, shall from henceforth bee any waies troubled in the free exercise thereof…or in any way compelled to the beliefe or exercise of any other religion against his or her consent…

Source: Website, “From Revolution to Reconstruction, Documents: The Maryland Toleration Act, 1649.”


British and American political thinkers harbored vastly differing views on representative government.  Those differences are outlined in the two passages below.  The first is from Thomas Whately, The Regulations Lately Made published in 1765 and the second is from the Providence Gazette, May 11, 1765)

The British View: The Fact is, that the Inhabitants of the Colonies are represented in Parliament: they do not indeed choose the Members of that Assembly; neither are Nine Tenths of the People of Britain Electors; for the Right of Election is annexed to certain Species of Property, to peculiar Franchises, and to Inhabitancy in some particular Places; but these Descriptions comprehend only a very small Part of the Land, the Property, and the People of this Island...

     The Colonies are in exactly the same Situation:  All British Subjects are really in the same; none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament; for every Member of Parliament sits in the House, not as Representative of his own Constituents, but as one of that august Assembly by which all the Commons of Great Britain are represented.  Their Rights and their Interests, however his own Borough may be affected by general Dispositions, ought to be the great Objects of his Attention, and the only Rules for his Conduct; and to sacrifice these to a partial Advantage in favour of the Place where he was chosen, would be a Departure from his Duty; if it were otherwise, Old Sarum would enjoy Privileges essential to Liberty, which are denied to Birmingham and to Manchester; but as it is, they and the Colonies and all British Subjects whatever, have an equal Share in the general Representation of the Commons of Great Britain, and are bound by the Consent of the Majority of that House, whether their own particular Representatives consented to or opposed the Measures there taken, or whether they had or had not particular Representatives there.  

The American View:  To infer, my lord, that the British members [of Parliament] actually represent the colonies, who are not permitted to do the least act towards their appointment, because Britain is unequally represented, although every man in the kingdom, who hath certain legal qualifications can vote for some one to represent him, is such a piece of sophistry that I had half a mind to pass by the cobweb without blowing it to pieces.  Is there no difference between a country's having a privilege to choose 558 members to represent them in parliament, though in unequal proportions to the several districts, which cannot be avoided, and not having liberty to choose any?  To turn the tables,if the Americans only had leave to send members to parliament, could such sophistry ever persuade the people of Britain that they were represented and had a share in the national councils?... Suppose none of the 558 members were chosen by the people, but enjoyed the right of sitting in parliament by hereditary descent; could the common people be said to share in the national councils?  If we are not their constituents, they are not our representatives... It is really a piece of mockery to tell us that a country, detached from Britain, by an ocean of immense breadth, and which is so extensive and populous, should be represented by the British members, or that we can have any interest in the house of commons.  

Source: John M. Blum, The National Experience: A History of the United States (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), pp. 9091.


The following vignettes describe the voting laws of Connecticut and South Carolina.

Connecticut: That all such inhabitants in this Colony as have accomplished the age of twenty-one years, and have the possession of freehold estate to the value of forty shillings per annum, or forty pounds personal estate in the general list of estates in that year wherein they desire to be admitted freemen; and also are persons of a quiet and peaceable behavior, and civil conversation, may if they desire it, on their procuring the selectmen of the town wherein such persons inhabit, or the major part of them, to certify that the said persons are qualified as above said, be admitted and made free of this corporation, in case they take the oath provided by law for freemen: which oath any one assistant or justice of the peace is hereby empowered to administer in said freemen’s meeting.

And all such persons admitted and sworn, as aforesaid, shall be freemen of this corporation; and their names shall be enrolled in the roll of freemen in the Town-Clerk’s office of that town wherein they are admitted, as aforesaid...

And that if any freeman of this corporation shall walk scandalously, or commit any scandalous offence, it shall be in the power of the Superior Court in this Colony, on complaint thereof to them made, to disfranchise such freeman; who shall stand disfranchised till by his good behavior the said Superior Court shall see cause to restore him to his franchisement or freedom again: which the said Court is empowered [sic] to do.

South Carolina: Be it enacted by his Excellency John Lord Carteret, Palatine, and the rest of the true and absolute Lords and Proprietors of this Province, by and with the advice and consent of the rest of the members of the General Assembly, now met at Charlestown for the south and west part of this Province, and by the authority of the same, that every white man (and no other) professing the Christian religion, who has attained to the age of one and twenty years, and hath been a resident and an inhabitant of the parish for which he votes for a representative for the space of six months before the date of the writs for the election that he offers to give in his vote at, and hath a freehold of at least fifty acres of land, or shall be Able to pay taxes to the support of this government, for the sum of fifty pounds currant money, shall be deemed a person qualified to vote for, and may be capable of electing a representative or representatives to serve as a member or members of the Commons House of Assembly for the parish or precinct wherein he actually is a resident.

Source: Acts and Laws of His Majesty's English Colony of Connecticut in New England (New Haven, 1769), 80-81; Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina. (Columbia, 1838), III, 2-3., reprinted in Richard W. Leopold, Arthur S. Link, and Stanley Corbin, eds. Problems in American History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1966), p. 33-34.


Influencing voters through various "enticements" is a practice older than the nation as we see in this vignette which describes George Washington's liberal distribution of rum to influence the voters of Frederick County, Virginia Colony in 1758.  Although in this instance Washington encouraged the rum to be distributed to those inclined to vote against him as well.

Candidates frequently arranged for treats to be given in their names by someone else.  Lieutenant Charles Smith managed this business for George Washington during a campaign in Frederick County in 1758.  Two days after the election, which Washington had not been able to attend, Smith sent him receipts for itemized accounts that he had paid to five persons who had supplied refreshments for the voters...

On election day the flow of liquor reached high tide. Douglas S. Freeman calculated that during a July election day in Frederick County in the year 1758, George Washington’s agent supplied 160 gallons to 391 voters and unnumbered hangers-on. This amounted to more than a quart and a half a voter.  An itemized list of the refreshments included 28 gallons of rum, gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, and 2 gallons of cider royal...

To avoid the reality as well as the appearance of corruption, the candidates usually made a point of having it understood that the refreshments were equally free to men of every political opinion.  If a candidate’s campaign was under investigation, it was much in his favor if he could show that among his guests were some who had clearly said that they did not intend to vote for him.  Washington reflected an acceptable attitude when he wrote while arranging for the payment of large bills for liquor consumed during a Frederick County election: I hope no Exception were taken to any that voted against me but that all were alike treated and all had enough; it is what I much desired.

Source: Richard W. Leopold, Arthur S. Link and Stanley Corbin, eds.,  Problems in American History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1966), p. 48. 


By any 21st Century measure, colonial laws, enacted even in a limited democratic setting, were strict and severe so as to prevent any resistance to authority.  Here are some laws from the Connecticut colony enacted in 1672 to insure proper respect for God, family and the Christian commonwealth.

1. If any man or woman, after legal conviction, shall have or worship any other God but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.

2. If any person within this colony shall blaspheme the name of God, the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous, or highhanded blasphemy, or shall curse in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

3. If any man or woman be a witch, that is, has or consults with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death.

4. If any person shall commit any willful murder, committed upon malice, hatred, or cruelty, not in a man's just and necessary defense, nor by casualty [accident] against his will, he shall be put to death.

10. If any man steals a man or mankind and sell him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall be put to death.

11. If any person rise up by false witness wittingly and of purpose to take away any man's life, he or she shall be put to death.

14. If any child or children above sixteen years old and of sufficient understanding, shall curse or smite their natural father or mother, he or they shall be put to death, unless it can be sufficiently testified that the parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the education of such children, or so provoked them by extreme and cruel correction that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming.

15. If any man have a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient understanding and years, viz. sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother and that when they have chastened him, he will not harken unto them; then may his father or mother, being his natural parents, lay hold on him and bring him to the magistrates assembled in court, and testify unto them that their son is stubborn and rebellious, and will not obey their voice and chastisement...such a son shall be put to death.

Source: George Brinley, ed., The Laws of Connecticut (Hartford, 1865), pp. 9-10, reprinted in David E. Shi and Holly A Mayer, eds., For the Record: A Documentary History of America (New York, 1999), pp. 106-107.


Alexander Hamilton, an Annapolis physician, described two meals he had on a 1744 journey from Maryland to New York.  The first is a dinner with a ferryboat and his family on the Susquehanna River.  The second is of a "Dutch" family in New York. The descriptions provide a glimpse into the home life of many colonial families. 

They ate a homely dish of fish without any kind of sauce.  They desired me to eat, but I told them I had no stomach.  They had no cloth upon the table, and their mess was in a dirty, deep, wooden dish which they evacuated with their hands, cramming down skins, scales, land all.  They used neither knife, fork, spoon, plate, or napkin because, I suppose, they had none to use.  I looked upon this as a picture of that primitive simplicity practiced by our forefathers...before the mechanic arts had supplied them with instruments for the luxury and elegance of life, I drank some of their cider, which was very good.

One day att two o'clock, [I] dined att one Corson's, an inn across the Narrows from New York's Long Island.  The landlady spoke both Dutch and English.  I dined upon what I never had eat in my life beforea dish of fryed clams, of which shell fish there is abundance in these parts.  The family said grace; then we began to...stuff down the fryed clams with ryebread and butter.  They took such a deal of chawing that we were long at dinner, and the dish began to cool before we had eat enough.  The landlady called for the bed pan.  I could not guess what she intended to do with it unless it was to warm her bed to go to sleep after dinner, but I found that it was used by way of a chaffing dish to warm our dish of clams.  I stared att the novelty for some time, and reaching over for a mug of beer that stood on the opposite side of the table, my bag sleeve catched hold of the handle of the bed pan and unfortunately overset the clams, at which the landlady...muttered a scrape of Dutch of which I understood not a word except "mynheer," but I suppose she swore, for she uttered her speech with an emphasis.

Source Gentleman's Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton, 1744 reprinted in Pauline Maier, Inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 1 (New York, 2003), p. 136.


Perhaps the most famous speech to emerge from the Revolutionary War Era is Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" oration before 122 delegates of the Virginia House of Burgesses who met illegally in St. John's Church in Richmond [The House of Burgesses had earlier been Virginia's Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore] on March 23, 1775.  Henry called for armed resistance to the British.  Note the numerous references to the potential political enslavement of the colonists by the British Empire.

Mr. President:

No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House.  But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope that it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen, if, entertaining as I do opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely and without reserve.  This is no time for ceremony.  The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country.  For my own part I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate... 

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.  And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House? 

Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on.  We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament.  Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne.  In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope.

If we wish to be free...we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!  An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak—unable to cope with so formidable an adversary.  But when shall we be stronger?  Will it be the next week, or the next year?  Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house...?  

Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.  Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.  Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone.  There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up to fight our battles for us.  The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave...  There is no retreat but in submission and slavery!  Our chains are forged!  Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!  The war is inevitable—and let it come!  I repeat it, sir, let it come!

Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!”—but there is no peace.  The war is actually begun!  The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms!  Our brethren are already in the field!  Why stand we here idle...? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Source: William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York, 1997), p. 89-91.


On May 23, 1776, the people of Boston called on their representatives to make preparations for independence.  In this statement they describe why a political reconciliation with Great Britain was now impossible.  Such statements at the local level paved the way for the Declaration of Independence.

...We have seen the humble petitions of these Colonies to the King of Great Britain repeatedly rejected with disdain.  For the prayer of peace, he has tendered the sword; for liberty, chains; and for safety, death.  He has licensed the instruments of his hostile oppressions to rob us of our property, to burn our houses, and to spill our blood.  He has invited every barbarous nation whom he could hope to influence, to assist him in prosecuting these inhuman purposes.  The Prince, therefore, in support of whose Crown and dignity, not many years since, we would most cheerfully have extended life and fortune, we are now constrained to consider as the worst of tyrants.  Loyalty to him is now treason to our country.  We have seen his venal Parliament so basely prostituted to his designs, that they have never hesitated to enforce his arbitrary requisitions with the most sanguinary laws.

We have seen the people of Great Britain so lost to every sense of virtue and honour, as to pass over the most pathetic and earnest appeals to their justice with an unfeeling indifference.  The hopes we placed on their exertions have long since failed.  In short, we are convinced that it is the fixed and settled determination of the King, Ministry, and Parliament of that Island, to conquer and subjugate the Colonies, and that the people there have no disposition to oppose them.

A reconciliation with them appears to us to be as dangerous as it is absurd.  A spirit of resentment once raised, it is not easy to appease.  The recollection of past injuries will perpetually keep alive the flame of jealousy, which will stimulate to new impositions on the one side, and consequent resistance on the other; and the whole bodypolitick will be constantly subject to civil commotions.  We therefore think it absolutely impracticable for these Colonies to be ever again subject to or dependent upon Great Britain, without endangering the very existence of the state. ...

Source: Stanley I. Kutler, Looking for America: The People's History Vol.I, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979), p. 110.


The account below describes the first confrontation of American militia and British soldiers at Concord, Massachusetts Colony from the perspective of Charles Hudson, a patriot supporter.  

April 19, 1776

Between the hours of twelve and one, on the morning of the nineteenth of April, we received intelligence by express, from the Honorable Joseph Warren, Esq., at Boston, "that a large body of the king's troops (supposed to be a brigade of about 12 or 1500) were embarked in boats from Boston, and gone over to ]and on Lechmere's Point (so called) in Cambridge; and that it was shrewdly suspected that they were ordered to seize and destroy the stores belonging to the colony, then deposited at Concord..." 

Upon this intelligence, as also upon information of the conduct of the officers as abovementioned, the militia of this town were alarmed and ordered to meet on the usual place of parade; not with any design of commencing hostilities upon the king's troops, but to consult what might be done for our own and the people's safety; and also to be ready for whatever service providence might call us out to, upon this alarming occasion, in case overt acts of violence or open hostilities should be committed by this mercenary band of armed and bloodthirsty oppressors...

Accordingly, about half an hour after four o'clock, alarm guns were fired, and the drums beat to arms, and the militia were collecting together. Some, to the number of about 50 or 60, or possibly more, were on the parade, others were coming towards it. In the mean time, the troops having thus stolen a march upon us and, to prevent any intelligence of their approach, having seized and held prisoners several persons whom they met unarmed upon die road, seemed to come determined for murder and bloodshedand that whether provoked to it or not! When within about half a quarter of a mile of the meetinghouse, they halted, and the command was given to prime and load, which being done, they marched on till they came up to the east end of said meetinghouse, in sight of our militia (collecting as aforesaid) who were about 12 or 13 rods distant.

Immediately upon their appearing so suddenly and so nigh, Capt. Parker, who commanded the militia company, ordered the men to disperse and take care of themselves, and not to fire, Upon this, our men dispersedbut many of them not so speedily as they might have done, not having the most distant idea of such brutal barbarity and more than savage cruelty from the troops of a British king, as they immediately experienced! For, no sooner did they come in sight of our company, but one of them, supposed to be an officer of rank, was heard to say to the troops, "Damn them! We will have them!" Upon which the troops shouted aloud, huzza'd, and rushed furiously towards our men.

About the same time, three officers (supposed to be Col. Smith, Major Pitcairn and another officer) advanced on horse back to the front of the body, and coming within 5 or 6 rods of the militia, one of them cried out, "Ye villains, ye Rebels, disperse! Damn you, disperse!"or words to this effect. One of them (whether the same or not is not easily determined) said, "Lay down your arms!  Damn you, why don't you lay down your arms?" The second of these officers, about this time, fired a pistol towards the militia as they were dispersing. The foremost, who was within a few yards of our men, brandishing his sword and then pointing towards them, with a loud voice said to the troops, "Fire! By God, fire!"which was instantly followed by a discharge of arms from the said troops, succeeded by a very heavy and close fire upon our party, dispersing, so long as any of them were within reach. Eight were left dead upon the ground! Ten were wounded. The rest of the company, through divine goodness, were (to a miracle) preserved unhurt in this murderous action! 

Source: Charles Hudson, History of The Town of Lexington.... (Boston, 1913), 1: 526530, reprinted Stanley I. Kutler, ed. Looking for America: The People’s History, vol. 1 (New York, 1979), p. 97-99.


Loyalists deplored the American Revolution partly because they believed the political differences with Britain, though significant, did not warrant an independence movement, and partly because they feared the American political Revolution might evolve into a social revolution.  In the following letter, Samuel Curwen, a New York loyalist describes his bitterness at being forced to leave North America and take refuge in England.

To Dr. Charles Russell, Antigua

London, June 10, 1776

Dear Sir:

I congratulate you on your retreat from the land of oppression and tyranny...  I sincerely wish well to my native country, and am of opinion that the happiness of it depends on restraining the violences and outrages of profligate and unprincipled men, who run riot against all the laws of justice, truth and religion...

It is surprising what little seeming effect the loss of American orders has on the manufactories; they have been in full employ ever since the dispute arose; stocks are not one jot lessened, the people in general little moved by it; business and amusements so totally engross all ranks and orders here that Administration finds no difficulty on the score to pursue their plans.  The general disapprobation of that folly of independence which America now evidently aims at makes it a difficult part for her friends to act.

Six vessels laden with refugees are arrived from Halifax, amongst whom are R. Lechmere, I. Vassal, Col. Oliver, Treasurer Gray, etc.  Those who bring property here may do well enough, but for those who expect reimbursement for losses, or supply for present support, will find to their cost the hand of charity very cold; the latter may be kept from starving, and beyond that their hopes are vain.  "Blessed is he (saith Pope) that expecteth nothing, for he shall never be disappointed"; nor a more interesting truth was ever uttered.

I find my finances so visibly lessening that I wish I could remove from this expensive country (being heartily tired of it) and, old as I am, would gladly enter into a business connection anywhere consistently with decency and integrity, which I would fain preserve.  The use of the property I left behind me I fear I shall never be the better for; little did I expect from affluence to be reduced to such rigid economy as prudence now exacts.  To beg is a meanness I wish never to be reduced to, and to starve is stupid; one comfort, as I am fast declining into the vale of life: my miseries cannot probably be of long continuance.

With great esteem; etc.

S. Curwen

Source: Stanley I. Kutler, Looking For America: The People's History Vol.I, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979), pp. 115116.


This remarkable exchange of letters between one of the most famous Revolutionary Era couples, Abigail and to John Adams, illustrates that the calls for political freedom from Great Britain prompted some women to consider the constraints on their freedom imposed by their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons. 

Abigail to John Adams

Braintree, March 31 1776 

I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.  Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity.  Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex.  Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

John to Abigail Adams:

Ap. 14. 1776

As to Declarations of Independency, be patient. Read our Privateering Laws, and our Commercial Laws. What signifies a Word.

As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.  We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where.  That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colleges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.  But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented.  —This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out.

Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.  Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory.  We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude.  We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects.  We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.  I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy,—A fine Story indeed.  I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked.  After stirring up Tories, Landjobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegades, at last they have stimulated the to demand new Privileges and threaten to rebell.

Abigail to John:

Braintree, May 7 1776 

I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives.  But you must remember that Arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken—and notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free our selves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet— "Charm by accepting, by submitting sway  Yet have our Humour most when we obey."

Source: Abigail and John Adams, letters 1776, in L. H. Butterfield et al., eds., The Book of Abigail and John (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 120-22, 127 reprinted in Mary Beth Norton, Major Problems in American Women’s History (Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1989), p. 83-84.


This vignette includes part of a 1781 speech made by Captain Pipe, a leader of the Delaware Indians, when he responded to British calls to attack frontier settlers who supported the American Revolution.  Although the Delaware refused to be brought into the war, Revolutionary soldiers attacked and killed over 200 members of the tribe during the infamous Harrisburg Massacre in 1782.

"Father!" he began; and he paused, turned round to the audience with a most sarcastic look, and then proceeded in a lower tone, as addressing them,--"I have said father, though indeed I do not know why I should call him so...I have considered the English only as brothers.  But as this name is imposed upon us, I shall make use of it and say--

"Father"--fixing his eyes again on the Commandant--"Some time ago you put a war-hatchet into my hands, saying, 'take this weapon and try it on the heads of my enemies, the Long-Knives [Revolutionaries], and let me know afterwards if it was sharp and good.'

Father--At the time when you gave me this weapon, I had neither cause nor wish to go to war against a foe who had done me no injury. obedience to you I received the hatchet.  I knew that if I did not obey you, you would withhold from me the necessaries of life, which I could procure nowhere but here.

Father--You may perhaps think me a fool, for risking my life at your bidding--and that in a cause in which I have no prospect of gaining any thing.  For it is your cause, and not mine--you have raised a quarrel among yourselves--and you ought to fight it out--It is your concern to fight the Long-Knives--You should not compel your children, the Indians, to expose themselves to danger for your sake.

Father--Many lives have already been lost on your account--The tribes have suffered, and been weakened--Children have lost parents and brothers--Wives have lost husbands--It is not known how many more may perish before your war will be at an end.

Father...although you now pretend to keep up a perpetual enmity to the Long-Knives, you may, before long, conclude a peace with them.

Father--You say you love your children, the Indians--This you have often told them; and indeed it is your interest to say so to them, that you may have them at your service.  But, Father.  Who of us can believe that you can love a people of a different colour from your own, better than those who have a white skin, like yourselves.

Father--Pay attention to what I am going to say.  While you, Father, are setting me on your enemy, much in the same manner as a hunter sets his dog on the game; while I am in the act of rushing on that enemy of yours, with the bloody destructive weapon you gave me, I may, perchance, happen to look back to the place from whence you started me, and what shall I see?  Perhaps I may see my father shaking hands with the Long-Knives; yes with the very people he now calls his enemies.  I may then see him laugh at my folly for having obeyed his orders; and yet I am now risking my life at his command!  Father, keep what I have said in remembrance...

You, Father, have the means of preserving that which would perish with us from want.  The warrior is poor, and his cabin is always empty; but your house, Father, is always full.

Source: Wayne Moquin, ed., Great Documents in American Indian History (New York, 1973) pp. 127-128. 


In November, 1775, after it became apparent that a reconciliation between the British and the rebellious colonists was impossible, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued the following proclamation promising freedom to all slaves and servants who supported the Crown.


As I have ever entertained hopes that an accommodation might have taken place between Great Britain and this Colony, without being compelled by my duty to this most disagreeable, but now absolutely necessary step, rendered so by a body of armed men, unlawfully assembled, firing on His Majesty's Tenders; and the formation of an Army, and that Army now  on the march to attack His Majesty's Troops, and destroy the welldisposed subjects of this Colony: To defeat such treasonable purposes, and that all such traitors and their abettors may be brought to justice, and that the peace and good order of this Colony may be again restored, which the ordinary course of the civil law is unable to effect, I have thought fit to issue this my Proclamation, hereby declaring, that until the aforesaid good purposes can be obtained, I do, in virtue of the power and authority to me given by His Majesty, determine to execute martial law, and clause the same to be executed throughout this Colony.  And to the end that peace and good order may the sooner be restored, I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to His Majesty's standard, or be looked upon as traitors to His Majesty's crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the penalty the law inflicts upon such offensessuch as forfeiture of life, confiscation of lands, &c., &c; and I do hereby further declare all indented [sic] servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops, as son as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper sense of their duty to His Majesty's crown and dignity.  I do further order and require all His Majesty's liege subjects to retain their quitrents, or any other taxes due, or that may become due, in their own custody, will such time as peace may be again restored to this, at present, most unhappy Country, or demanded of them for their former salutary purposes, by officers properly authorized to receive the same.

Given under my hand, on board the Ship William, off Norfolk, the 7th day of November, in the sixteenth year of His Majesty's reign.


GOD Save the King

Source: Peter Force, ed., American Archives, A Documentary History of the American Colonies, 94th ser., 6 vols.; Washington, 1837-1853), ser. 4, III, p. 1385. 


Both the Loyalists and Patriot forces in New Jersey created guerrilla bands which included African Americans.  The most famous of these bands was led by a Monmouth County slave known as Titus but who became "Colonel Tye" during the revolutionary struggle.  The vignette below relates his activities. 

The British concentrated their military efforts on small but effective raids into New Jersey from Staten the beginning of 1778.  British strongholds protected raiders and offered safe refuse to escaping blacks...  Fought near Freehold on June 28, 1778, the Battle of Monmouth proved indecisive militarily but pivotal for New Jersey's black Loyalists in that it marked the first known appearance of an African American who would become one of the war's most feared Loyalists, white or black--Colonel Tye, formerly known in Monmouth County as John Corlies's slave Titus.  Colonel Tye comported himself gallantly in his first know military venture, capturing Elisha Shepard, a captain in the Monmouth militia, and removing him to imprisonment at the Sugar House in New York City.  Tye's title is noteworthy.  Although the British army did not formally commission black officers, it often granted such titles out of respect, particularly in Jamaica and other West Indian islands.  The transformation of the servant Titus into the warrior Tye was evidently overseen by soldiers who had served in the Caribbean.

On July 15, 1779, accompanied by...Tory John Moody, Colonel Tye and "about fifty negroes and refugees landed at Shrewsbury and plundered the inhabitants of nearly 80 heard of cattle, about 20 horses and a quantity of wearing apparel and household furniture.  They also took off William Brindley and Elisha Cook, two of the inhabitants.

This action established a pattern that was to be repeated over the next year.  Combining banditry, reprisal, and commissioned assistance to the British Army, these raids served the aims of local black rebellion quite intentionally, often being aimed directly at former masters and their friends.  In Monmouth County, where slavery was a family affair and owners were not distant patricians, enmities between slaves and masters could understandably become prolonged and intense...  The effects of Tye's incursions upon the general population of Monmouth County were exacerbated by reports...that black were planning massacres of whites in Elizabethtown and in Somerset County.

In a typical raid Tye and his men, at times aided by white refugees known as "cow-boys," would surprise Patriots in their homes, kidnap soldiers and officers, and carry off sliver, clothing and badly needed cattle for British troops in Staten Island and New York City.  For these accomplishments Tye and his men were paid handsomely, sometimes receiving five gold guineas.  Tye's familiarity with Monmouth's swamps, rivers and inlets allowed him to move undetected until it was too late.  After a raid, Tye and his interracial band, known to Patriots as a "motley crew," would disappear again into nearby swamps.

In a raid on March 30, 1780, Tye and his men captured a Captain Warner, who purchased his freed for "two half joes."  Less lucky were Captain James Green and Ensign John Morris, whom Tye took to... New York City.  In the same raid Tye and his men looted and burned the home of John Russell, a fierce Patriot associated with raids on Staten Island, before killing him and wounding his young son.

During the second week of June 1780, Colonel Tye...and his men murdered Private Joseph Murray of the Monmouth militia at his home in Colt's Neck.  Murray, a foe detested by local Tories, had been personally responsible for several of their summary executions.  Three days later Tye led a large band of self-emancipated blacks and refugee whites in a daring attack on the home of Barnes Smock, a leader of the Monmouth militia, while the main body of British troops was attacking Washington's forces.  Using a six-pound cannon to warn residents of the raid, Smock summoned a number of men around his house to fight Tye.  After a stiff battle Tye and his men captured Smock and twelve other Patriots...  Tye himself spiked Smock's cannon--a symbolically disheartening action for the Patriots--before spiriting the prisoners back to [New York]

Tye's June incursions inspired great fear among New Jerseyans.  In the space of one week he and his men carried off much of the officer corps of the Monmouth militia, destroyed their cannon, and flaunted their ability to strike at will against a weakened Patriot population.  If before Tye had been seen in Monmouth County as a bandit in the service of the British, he now had to be reckoned an important military force.  Local Patriots wrote anguished letters to Governor William Livingston, begging for help against the ravages of Colonel Tye and his raiders.  In response the governor invoked martial law in the county.  But a law is only as effective as its enforcement, and there were few able-bodied men to police...  While the New Jersey Patriots were distracted by Tye and his men, other blacks were quick to take advantage.  The New Jersey Journal noted that "twenty-nine Negroes of both sexes deserted from Bergen County in early June 1780."

There were more raids to come.  On June 22, 1780, "Tye with thirty blacks, thirty-six Queen's Rangers and thirty refugees landed at Conascung, New Jersey"  The invaders...captured James Mott, second major in the Monmouth militia's second regiment [and] Captain James Johnson of the Hunterdon militia as well as several privates...  It was a stunning blow to the Patriots.  In a singe day Tye had captured eight militiamen, plundered their homes and taken his captives to New York, moving in and out of Monmouth County with impunity despite martial law and the presence of several militias--all without any reported casualties....

On September 1, 1780, Tye attempted to capture Captain Josiah Huddy, famed for his leadership in raids on British positions in Staten Island...and despised by Loyalists for his quick executions of captured Tories...  During the battle Colonel Tye received a bullet in the wrist...  Within days lockjaw set in, and lacking proper medical attention, Tye died.

Source: Graham Russell Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865 (Madison, Wi.: Madison House Publishers, 1997), 96-104.


Colonial era Americans were much more troubled by slavery than would be most of their 19th Century descendants.  James Otis, a Boston attorney and later patriot leader in 1761 wrote an anti-British pamphlet which condemned slavery and warned his fellow colonists against denying liberty to anyone.  Fifteen years later Thomas Jefferson, himself a slaveowner torn over the issue of slavery in a political revolution dedicated to liberty, wrote a paragraph into one of the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence denouncing King George III for promoting slavery.  The paragraph is reprinted below:

Otis:  The Colonist are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.  No better reasons can be given, for enslaving those of any colour, than such as baron Montesquieu has humorously given, as the foundation of that cruel slavery exercised over the poor Ethiopians; which threatens one day to reduce both Europe and America to the ignorance and barbarity of the darkest ages.  

Does it follow that it is right to enslave a man because he is black?  Will short curled hair, like wool, instead of Christian hair, as it is called by those whose hearts are as hard as the millstone, help the argument?  Can any logical inference in favor of slavery, be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?  Nothing better can be said in favour of a trade, that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an Africa company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast.  It is a clear truth, that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty, will soon care little for their own.

Jefferson:  He [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transport thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market were MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce; and that this assemblage of horror might want no face of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which HE deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom He also obtruded them; plus paying off former crimes committed against the liberty of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Sources:  James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (London, 1776), pp. 43-44; Lerone Bennett, Ebony Pictorial History of Black America, Vol. I, (Nashville, 1971), p. 71.


As historian Stuart Banner shows below, the right of ordinary Americans to own property outright was one of the greatest consequences of the break with England in 1776 

It had been “a complete revolution,” one lawyer recalled in 1829, a transformation producing “a substantial improvement” in the  lives of Americans. “What abundant reason have we to be satisfied with our condition,” another exclaimed the following year, now that Americans had been “disencumbered from most of the burthensome and intricate legal regulations” that had fettered them in the past.  This was the language of July 4 speeches in the early republic, but these lawyers were not celebrating the Declaration of Independence or the successful outcome of the war. They were talking about the law of property.

American lawyers marveled at how quickly so many of the old rules had been cast aside. In Virginia, reported St. George Tucker, there had been “almost total change in the system of laws relative to property.”  William Blackstone's four-volume Commentaries, first published in the 1760s, had become the standard legal reference on both sides of the Atlantic, but forty years later the portions of the Commentaries about property were already out of date in the United States…. Entire categories of property familiar to English lawyers had ceased to exist in the United States. American judges and legislators were constantly replacing ancient doctrines with new ones. Few areas of the law, if any, were changing more rapidly than property.

The most basic change concerned the nature of land ownership itself…. In principle, no one in England except the king owned land outright.  Land could be held by a variety of tenures, but all of them implied some form of obligation to someone else higher up the ladder.  In the United States, by contrast, “the title of our lands is free, clear and absolute,” the Connecticut judge Jesse Root declared.  “Every proprietor of land is a prince in his own domains.”  American landowners still obtained their land from the sovereign-the federal or state government-but without any ongoing duties to render service or pay money…. 

On paper the change had come shortly after independence, but in practice it had come long before.  English land tenure was formally transplanted to North America in the colonial charters. It remained a feature of colonial law thereafter, but the enforcement of tenure obligations, uneven right from the start, generally declined over time….  In colonial Connecticut… land was nominally held in a form of tenure called socage, but few ever had any occasion to notice.  In practice, landowners were free of any of the obligations associated with socage.  In the 1790s Connecticut passed a statute vesting absolute title in property owners—in effect abolishing socage—but the statute only brought the law into conformance with actual practice.  The same was true in most of the other states, which enacted similar statutes shortly after independence, statutes killing on paper what for most landowners had long been dead in everyday life. By the mid-nineteenth century, the old system survived only on the great manors of New York's Hudson River valley, where the resentment of the thousands of people still subject to archaic tenure obligations fueled decades of conflict and sporadic violence.

No one lamented the loss of English land tenure, which was widely understood as a feudal relic unsuitable for the modern world…. James Sullivan, the attorney general and later the governor of Massachusetts, was relieved that his state's land had been “stripped of the clogs and incumbrances” characterizing land in England.  American law still retained some of the vocabulary of the English system of tenures, Timothy Walker pointed out.  There were still tenants, who might inhabit tenements, and Americans still spoke of landlords, even when there was nothing especially lordly about them.  But Walker, a law professor in Cincinnati, was adamant that such words had lost their original meanings.  One who studies the history of property, he instructed his students, “cannot fail to be thoroughly disgusted with the narrow, arbitrary, and mystifying spirit which dictated all the early doctrines; nor to be equally gratified with the bold, liberal and determined spirit which has since been manifested, to substitute new ones in their place.”  With the abandonment of English land tenure, Walker had “no doubt that the law of realty in Ohio, could be written in one-third of the space which would be required for the law of realty in England.” The old conceptual structure of land ownership had vanished.

Source: Stuart Banner, American Property: A History of How, Why, and What We Own (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).


In the following account Philadelphia resident James Hardie describes the yellow fever epidemic that struck the city in 1794.

  This disorder made its first appearance toward the latter end of July, in a lodging house in North Water Street, and for a few weeks seemed entirely confined to that vicinity. Hence it was generally supposed to have been imported and not generated in the city. This was the opinion of Doctors Currie, Cathrall and many others. It was however combated by Dr. Benjamin Rush, who asserts that the contagion was generated from the stench of a cargo of damaged coffee...

But from whatever fountain we trace this poisoned stream, it has destroyed the lives of many thousandsand many of those of the most distinguished worth... During the month of August the funerals amounted to upwards of three hundred. The disease had then reached the central streets of the city and began to spread on all sides with the greatest rapidity. In September its malignance increased amazingly. Fear pervaded the stoutest heart, flight became general, and terror was depicted on every countenance. In this month 1,400 more were added to the list of mortality. The contagion was still progressive and towards the end of the month 90 & 100 died daily. Until the middle of October the mighty destroyer went on with increasing havoc. From the 1st to the 17th upwards of 1,400 fell victims to the tremendous malady. From the 17th to the 30th the mortality gradually decreased. In the whole month, however, the dead amounted to upwards of 2,000a dreadful number, if we consider that at this time near one half of the inhabitants had fled. Before the disorder became so terrible, the appearance of Philadelphia must to a stranger have seemed very extraordinary. The garlic, which chewed as a preventative[,] could be smelled at several yards distance, whilst other[s] hoped to avoid infection by a recourse to smelling bottles, handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar, camphor bags, &c....

During this melancholy period the city lost ten of her most valuable physicians, and most of the others were sick at different times. The number of deaths in all amounted to 4041.

Source: James Hardie, The Philadelphia Directory and Register (Philadelphia, 1794.) reprinted in William Bruce Wheeler and Susan D. Becker, eds. Discovering the American Past: A Look as the Evidence, vol. 1 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), pp. 111-112.


The vignette below describes the death of former President George Washington in December, 1799.

"On, Thursday. Decr. 12th, [1799] the General [George Washington] rode out to his farms...  Soon after he went out, the weather became very bad... A heavy fall of snow took place on Friday, which prevented the General from riding out as usual.  He had taken cold (undoubtedly from being so much exposed the day before) and complained of having a sore throat.

About two or three o'clk Saturday Morning he awoke Mrs. Washington & told her he was very unwell, and had [fever].  She observed that he could scarcely speak...  As soon as the day appeared...he desired that Mr Rawlins, one of the overseers who was used to bleeding the people, might be sent for to bleed him before the doctors could arrive... I found him breathing with difficultyand hardly able to utter a word intelligibly.  A mixture of Molasses, Vinegar & butter was prepared, to try its effect in the throat; but he could not swallow a drop.  Mr. Rawlins came in soon after sunrise and prepared to bleed him.  The General, observing that Rawlins appeared to be agitated, said, as well as he could speak, 'don't be afraid,' and after the incision was made, he observed 'the orifice is not large enough.

Mrs. W being...uneasy lest too much blood should be taken, it was stop'd after about half a pint was taken from him.  Finding that no relief was obtain'd, I proposed bathing the throat externally with Salvalaltita...  A piece of flannel was then put round his neck.  His feet were also soaked in warm water.  This, however, gave no relief."

In the meantime, several doctors arrived.  They put a blister of cantharides on the throat &,took more blood...and had some Vinegar & hot water put into a Teapot, for the General to draw in steam from the nozel.  They also gave him sage tea and Vinegar to be mixed for a Gargle, but when the, general 'held back his head to let it run down [his throat], it put him into great distress and almost produced suffocation.  In the afternoon, he was bled again, and the blood ran slowly...and did not produce any symptoms of fainting. They also administered calomil & tarter but without any effect. 

Around 6 p.m., the general told his physicians, "I feel myself going... let me go off quietly; I cannot last long."  Two hours later, the doctors applied blisters to his legs, but went out without a ray of hope.  About 10, with great difficulty, Washington said, "I am just going.  Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than two days after I am dead."  I bowed assent.  A little while later, he expired without a struggle or a Sigh!

Source: Tobias Lear's journal entry on the death of George Washington at Mount Vernon, December 15, 1799 reprinted in Pauline Maier, Inventing America: A History of the United States, vol. 1 (New York, 2003), p. 278.



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