With the start of a new year, this month we asked our contributors:
Which year of the American Revolution and the founding era (circa 1765-1805) is your favorite, and why?
The responses are presented chronologically.
1764 was the first year of the American Revolution. In the Sugar Act and the related resolution to impose stamp duties, Great Britain began to reveal its new colonial policy. As a consequence, 1764 marked the start of the first major controversy of the revolutionary era: the Stamp Act Crisis. Most significantly, it was the year in which Americans began to reevaluate the constitutional relationship between the colonies and the mother country, much being accomplished in essays by Otis, Thacher, Bland, Fitch, and Hopkins.
John L. Smith, Jr.
Definitely the year 1765 because of both its obscurity and its importance. It was like a microcosm of the coming War of Independence. The year opened with Parliament’s passing of the dumb Stamp Act, which definitely ignited rebel outrage. Then to the calls of “Treason!,” Patrick Henry in Virginia attacked Parliament’s unlawful “taxation without representation” actions. In the fall, nine colonies came together in New York City as the Stamp Act Congress to issue thirteen warning resolutions to Parliament, setting a strong precedent for future dealings with Parliament and His Majesty’s government.
1765—with every story there’s a beginning and for me, the story of the American Revolution begins in 1765.
Susan Brynne Long
1770, because two major events, one that most people are aware of, and one that is less studied, occurred. The Boston Massacre and the Battle of Golden Hill both mark violent clashes between British soldiers and Americans that resulted in increased support for the Patriot cause. But while the Boston Massacre is taught in most classrooms, the Battle of Golden Hill on January 19 in New York City receives comparably little attention. These events together are an important reminder that the Revolution pervaded the colonies; it was not confined to Boston and Philadelphia.
My favorite year of the Revolution would have to be 1774. I chose this particular year because that is when the tension really begins. The destruction of the tea in Boston happened at the end of 1773, so the reaction from Parliament defined 1774. The Coercive Acts were meant to punish Boston, but instead they brought the other colonies together in solidarity against what some considered to be imperial power run amok. Then the Quebec Act further antagonized the colonists, especially influential men like George Washington. 1774 to me is a study in the game of “Chicken”: who will be the first to blink?
1774, the year all of Massachusetts outside Boston, disenfranchised by the Massachusetts Government Act, cast off British rule. My favorite numbers: 4,622 militiamen, from 37 towns throughout Worcester County, closed the courts and forced 25 officials to recite their recantations 30 times each as they walked the gauntlet through two lines of militiamen. My favorite date: October 4, 1774, when the town of Worcester instructed its delegate to the Provincial Congress to push for independence—twenty-one months before Congress’s Declaration of Independence. For the significance of all this, see The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began.
Charles H. Lagerbom
1775 is the year I find most interesting, when everything seemed to crystalize and go into hyper-drive, even on the colonial Maine frontier. It was the year where actions replaced words, where people had had enough and irrevocable choices were made.
This may sound unimaginative, but I think for sheer drama and the frantic pace of events, 1775 tops the list. From a smoldering “winter of discontent” to the chaotic opening guns of April 19, followed by the shocking bloodletting of Breed’s Hill, the adoption of a Continental Army by the Congress presaged a conflict of vast scale. Summer saw the final breakdown of Crown authority and suppression of the Loyalists, while a major rebel offensive operation launched against Canada came to a bloody climax on the very eve of the new year. In all, a most tumultuous twelve months.
Derrick E. Lapp
1775—John Adams wrote in 1818 that the “Revolution was effected before the War commenced.” Place these two movements in a Venn Diagram and they intersect on April 19, 1775—Any time I read about the American Revolution, the events of 1775 feel like that point on the roller coaster when you reach the top, then pass over the crest, beginning the thrilling race downward at sixty-five miles per hour. A careful student of Charles Royster will recognize that what we now refer to as the “Spirit of ‘76” was actually the Rage Militaire of 1775.
Philip D. Weaver
I joined a new living history group in 1975, which had naturally migrated to interpreting 1775. Their research was pretty superficial, so when this old library rat started looking into it, I saw they were blending the militia and Continental line. Eventually, I left them and got into the New York Line, where most of the recreated units were interpreting 1775. Little did I know was that they had only scratched the surface. I am still finding new material, so I have never needed to heavily study any other year. Though, lately, I am warming up to 1776.
Although several years stand out, 1775 is my favorite. Not only is it the year in which the Revolution really became a revolution via armed conflict, but it is also a year of many, “what ifs.” What if Benedict Arnold had captured Quebec after his epic march through the Maine wilderness? What if Lord Dunmore had routed the Virginians at Great Bridge and maintained possession of Norfolk? What if either side, or just some of the colonies, had accepted the other’s Olive Branch proposals. From Patrick Henry’s march on Williamsburg to Bunker Hill to the burning of Falmouth, there was just a lot of important events. And of course, the biggest what if is, What if Congress had selected someone other than George Washington to command the continental army? It’s just a fascinating year up and down the seaboard.
Daniel J. Tortora
I was recently reading 1775 by Kevin Phillips and I think 1775 is my favorite, because of the battles and confrontations in several colonies, the birth of the Continental Army and Marines, the dramatic political realignments, and the endless possibilities for the future. The Arnold Expedition to Quebec and the Boston 1775 blog have captured my interest for years, but in the future, I hope to learn more about South Carolina in 1775.
Without a shadow of a doubt, drama-packed 1776 is my favorite year of the American Revolution. The British evacuate Boston in March, and tension mounts as Washington and Congress anticipate their next move. The Crown’s counterpunch appears off New York just days before the Declaration of Independence is adopted. The Rebels are repeatedly smashed around New York, and the Revolution appears over to all rational-minded people. Washington’s desperate retreat through New Jersey and “Victory or Death” triumphs at Trenton and Princeton save the Revolution.
Todd W. Braisted
For me, 1776 is probably the most interesting. Not only does a rebellion officially turn into a war for independence, but there are major military events happening everywhere, from Quebec to Newport, Boston to Manhattan, Trenton to Charleston, Valcour Island to Moore’s Creek, North Carolina . . . It seemed to involve the most people, on both sides, with high hopes and dark days for each as well. If one looks at Congress, 1776 is probably the best remembered as the era of the most influential founders, the time of Jefferson, Adams, Hancock, etc. A time when George Washington consolidates his leadership during a harsh learning process and Sir William Howe has it within his power, perhaps, to win the war for the British. Much to study, much to learn.
I find 1776 to be the most important year as Washington’s late December attack on Trenton “saved” the Continental Army from dissolution and stimulated his use of intelligence as a “force multiplier” against the British. It was also the year John Jay headed an example of objective counterintelligence in the Hudson Valley region which, sadly, was not long lasting or well copied elsewhere. After Trenton, Washington used deception and agent reporting more effectively as he felt more comfortable with the tactical ground and environment.
Adam E. Zielinski
1776, specifically December. After a year that saw American optimism with the victory at Dorchester Heights and the shot of life the Declaration of Independence brought in July, the stunning losses at New York and the rapid disintegration of the Continental Army that followed brought the American cause to its lowest point in the war. Washington’s army was down to a few thousand soldiers, most of whom were intent on going home on January 1 when their enlistments expired. This was the darkest hour for the country. The year was winding down and some decisive action boiled from Washington’s refusal to give up. The United States owes that man and those soldiers eternal gratitude for digging in and pulling them—and the world—back, forever, from the brink.
1776—The writing of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The American Crisisin 1776 left a legacy of political thought for the entire world and posterity. They form what Pauline Maier called “American Scripture,” although she was referring only to the Declaration as sacred text.
Few, if any, years in American history were as dynamic as 1776. Politically, the war escalated from a fractious and limited armed rebellion against Parliamentary Acts and authorities by thirteen distinct colonies to a full-blown war by a single country united (more or less) in the cause of independence and liberty. Militarily, fighting ranged from Canada to the deep south and all across the back country. The year witnessed dramatic successes such as the evacuation of Boston and the defense of Charleston to the horrific lows of the New York Campaign, only to end on some of the most dramatic events of the war: Washington’s surprise attacks into New Jersey with an army on the verge of dissolution.
1777 was a year of great drama, with the success of the Revolution gripped in uncertainty. In the east, the Continental Army slugged its way through two of the war’s largest set-piece battles at Brandywine and Germantown, lost the capital of Philadelphia, and then struggled into Valley Forge. Out on the Virginia frontier, it was called “the year of the Bloody Sevens,” as warfare descended into a grisly series of raids.
I am especially fond of the month of September 1777 as Delaware saw major action then, not only at the September 3 Battle of Cooch’s Bridge. On September 6, 1777, George Washington held a Council of War at the Hale Byrnes House. Attendees included Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox and Lafayette, who turned twenty on that day. Following the Battle of the Brandywine on September 11, Wilmington, Delaware was occupied for than a month by enemy troops, who began leaving on and near October 19 to spend the winter in Philadelphia.
Robert N. Fanelli
1777—I was born in the village of Edge Hill, where in December 1777, the 2nd Connecticut Regiment and Pennsylvania Militia tried to stay Gen. Charles “No-Flint” Grey’s advance toward Washington’s main line. A mile north, where I live now, I look out the window and cast my mind back, envisioning hordes of Hessians streaming across my lawn, laying their cannon in Jenkintown Road and blasting the Maryland Militia on the ridge above me. Though in nearby Philadelphia, the transcendent events of 1774, 1776 and 1787 represent the inspiring, enduring culmination of the Enlightenment, the drama of 1777 catches my eye every day.
James Kirby Martin
There are innumerable worthy choices, but currently my thinking goes to 1777, the year of the hangman. Why? While Washington and his Continentals held the middle ground, despite many setbacks, John Burgoyne overplayed his military hand up north at Saratoga. The defeat and capture of his army set the stage for France’s formal involvement in what had been a civil war up to that point. With French military largesse now formally supporting the Americans, the British odds of containing the rebellion and winning the war became a longshot at best. Now the question was: Could the Americans endure long enough to win. It took a few more years, but with inestimable French assistance, American independence finally became a reality that, ultimately, changed the course of world history.
Jean C. O’Connor
The year 1777 is the most interesting of the American Revolution. Congress guided the states, maintained an army while powerless to tax, and provided civilian leadership. Foreigners sought employment with the army. None could be offended, yet American generals threatened to resign if any outranked them. In that uncertain winter, following military defeats, delegates and officers questioned Washington, favoring Gates, the hero of Saratoga. Those in Congress in essence ran a race with a bag over their heads. We know now it is fortunate Washington prevailed, but at the time questioning indicated good governance. Fortunately, the French Alliance came through.
Nancy K. Loane
The first six months of 1778 at Valley Forge revolutionized Washington’s army. The troops had trudged into camp on December 19, 1777; by mid-March, Baron de Steuben arrived to mold the men into soldiers. In late March, Gen. Nathanael Greene accepted the quartermaster position at Valley Forge and transformed that position. The army celebrated the ratification of the French Alliance in May, and Washington also introduced an innovative smallpox inoculation program at camp. All this shows that Snoopy was wrong when he said that the troops spent most their time at Valley Forge just “guarding snow.”
Michael J. F. Sheehan
Personally, I’ve invested a great deal of research into 1779, so that would be my choice for favorite year. New York State was a major focus of that year, with tons of activity in the Lower Hudson Valley and the Sullivan Campaign in the Finger Lakes Region. John Paul Jones’ victory off Flamborough Head against the Serapistook place in 1779, as well as a burst of activity around Savannah, Georgia. Great actions at Stony Point and Paulus Hook topped off a decent year for the Continental Army, and go towards dispelling the notion that 1779 was a quiet year because there were no large scale actions like Brandywine or Saratoga. The year 1779 was full of activity, even if the events were only small actions in the Finger Lakes or gunboat duels in the Hudson Highlands, or heroic events like Pulaski’s fatal charge; 1779 was an important year in the formation of the United States.
Robert S. Davis
1779—because I love Georgia history and that was the year that was important in the war for the state.
Without a doubt 1780 is my favorite year of the American Revolution. It seemed, in the eyes of one old patriot, “as if the sun would rise no more.” The lowest point came in May with the British occupation of South Carolina’s back country, but that season also brought out another side. The Continental Army disappeared from the landscape but the frontier people of Georgia and the Carolinas refused all British attempts at subjugation. At their own volition these hardy folk showed the true spirit of independence and endured some of the harshest treatment known during the entire period. Even so, without government and without an organized army, the partisans of the back country dealt Lord Cornwallis and his young cohort a series of whippings that set the table for Nathanael Greene.
George F. Reasor
1780—This was the year that brought great victories and defeats for both the British and American forces, resulting in a complete turnaround in the fortunes of both sides. Charleston, Camden, and Waxhaws saw the American forces badly beaten, but just as quickly things turned around with British defeats in the South Carolina Back Country, especially at Kings Mountain. The year also saw Arnold’s treason exposed, the French forces arriving in Newport, and Greene assuming command in the South. It was the year that set the stage for the ending of the war.
1781 is the most interesting year in the American Revolution. Gen. Nathanael Greene has just taken command in Charlotte and split his forces with Gen. Daniel Morgan. The Battle of Cowpens in January, when Morgan confronts Tarleton, and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March, when Greene combats Cornwallis’ pursuit, are two of the most excellent displays of tactical command by any Revolutionary General. After those battles, Yorktown is besieged, and Cornwallis surrenders. It is a riveting year for the Revolution, and the southern theater of war is on full display throughout 1781.
My favorite year of the Revolution is 1781. This of course reflects my bias as an editor of Gen. George Washington’s Revolutionary War correspondence. In that year, not only did the Continental Army defeat the British army at Yorktown which soon forced the British to peace negotiations, George Washington showed his superb generalship in the months leading up to the beginning of the Yorktown campaign and in leading the allied (French and American) armies to victory at Yorktown.
Having written a book about the Revolution’s final two years, I lived for months in 1782, when there were actions around the world. They included the seminal Battle of the Saintes in the Caribbean, and raids, skirmishes, and deadly battles in South America, Minorca and Gibraltar, India and Ceylon, in the South and on the frontier, Nova Scotia, and my favorite, the French raid on British outposts on Hudson’s Bay. I’ve seen the site of one of those raids, now Canada’s Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site in Churchill, Manitoba.
My favorite year is 1783. It’s the war’s final year and although there’s not much fighting, it’s crucial in ensuring that the war ended peacefully with independence achieved. Some of the year’s critical events included: the Newburgh Conspiracy and Washington’s famous speech to his officers; the demobilization of the army; the final agreement on the Treaty of Paris; Washington’s farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern; and, most importantly, Washington returning his commission as commander in chief to Congress. It might have been Washington’s favorite year, too, as he finally got to spend Christmas at home at Mount Vernon.
Brian Patrick O’Malley
The year 1783 was monumental. In messages circulated in US newspapers, George Washington described the new nation as “an asylum” for the oppressed of “all nations and religions.” Washington used the phrase in his General Orders of April 18 and in his response to salutations from Irish immigrants on December 2. Advocates of Chinese exclusion ridiculed variations of the phrase in the 1880s, as did advocates of restrictive immigration quotas in the 1920s. Whether these bad players knew it or not, Washington created the ideal they scorned.
1787—After the war was won, the sense of unity began to fade as the lack of a common enemy allowed parochial concerns to take hold. It wasn’t long before the states were squabbling, preventing the actions that would be needed to forge a nation. In 1787, a group of brilliant statesmen would gather in Philadelphia and set those differences aside JUST enough to create a government strong enough to endure to this day. Had they failed, the US would not have been able to play the critical role it did in preserving freedom in the twentieth century.
I have to say 1787. The Revolution was over but the tenuousness of the postbellum state of affairs was evident. Some already grasped this; in March 1785 had been the Mount Vernon Conference and eighteen months after that the Annapolis Convention. Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-87 put the nation’s structural weaknesses into starker relief. Though many—to put it mildly—were still reluctant, the stage was set for the Constitutional Convention. In 1787 came another milestone, one so successful that it is often overlooked: passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which in the following decades would expedite the smooth transition of Western territories into statehood.
Joseph E. Wroblewski
My favorite year during the Revolution—Founding Era is 1789, the year of the election of the first President of the United States under its new Constitution. On February 16, the Electoral College met and unanimously (69 votes) elected George Washington President and John Adams who received the second highest number of votes (34) as Vice-President. Then on April 6, 1789 Congress certified the election. Washington traveled to New York City where on April 30, 1789 he took the oath of office, which to me, signaled the real beginning of the United States of America.
Nancy Bradeen Spannaus
My favorite year in the Founding Era is 1791. That was the year in Alexander Hamilton succeeded in establishing the First Bank of the United States, a very important precedent for the role of Federal credit. It was also the year he wrote the Report on Manufactures, a document which laid out the principles of the American System of Economics, and had a profound influence here and abroad. I deal with these in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.
1797—It was the year that Washington left the presidency, established the principle that the office is not a lifetime grant of monarchical power, and essentially proved that the United States could not only rid themselves of an imperial yoke, but establish and, more importantly, maintain republican government.
1800 by far. The peaceful, but petulant transfer of presidential power kept America on the path to forming a functioning democracy.
Richard J. Werther
Favorite might be the wrong word, but right now I see 1800 as interesting due to its parallels to today. As is the case today, we were in a highly partisan period, had an extremely close presidential election where one candidate was opposed by many people in his own party, and there was real concern about the peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Without getting into today’s politics, I just wonder where the parallels will go from here. Is there someone who can say the modern equivalent of “We are all Republicans, We are all Federalists” and bring us back together?