WHAT MADE THE AMERICAN WAR
FOR INDEPENDENCE SUCCESSFUL?
Great Britain was the most powerful nation on earth in 1776. Much of the world was part of the British Empire. Its navies ruled the sea, and its armies were unequalled on the field of battle. The regular British Army in North America plus its German mercenaries numbered about 80,000 troops. The Continental Army rarely had more than 20,000 men at any one time.
After 237 years, we take another look at what made the American victory possible? The reasons are not in the numbers. They are not centered on any individual person, although the influence and contributions of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and others was significant. There was no single campaign or battle that was overwhelmingly won by the patriots. So how did we achieve our independence?
There are nine generally recognized reasons. Four are “primary reasons” (1-4 below); and five are important supporting reasons (5-9 below). Here are the four “primary reasons” how victory was achieved.
1. Of all the many reasons that victory was attained, the most important was the popular support given by the common person. The average American colonial had been participating in politics since well before the war. There was support for the war among farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, immigrants, and even slaves; and it included people from diverse regions, religions, and social positions. The emerging resistance to Britain was seen in boycotts, petitions, grievances, and secret meetings.
2. The intervention of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and other European countries opposed to the English was critical to American independence. At the close of the French and Indian War in 1763, Britain had conquered vast tracts of land previously held by other European nations. Patriot spokesmen were sent to Europe to offer the return of lost French and Spanish lands if those European governments would support their efforts for independence.
The offers were taken seriously and key European governments agreed, but the French and Spanish were not in a military position themselves to become directly involved in the war for independence. Prior to any formal involvement, the French and Spanish governments secretly supplied American rebels with funds and critically needed war materials worth many millions of dollars. By 1778, the French politically recognized their rebel allies. The Spanish were instrumental in keeping the British warships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and away from reinforcing British troops in the colonies.
3. Americans used an “asymmetrical” military strategy. This is a term frequently used in the twentieth century to describe warfare between mismatched opponents, although it has been employed throughout history from ancient Greece to Viet Nam. Instead of meeting the British force on force (and certainly be defeated by this trained and disciplined enemy), they used guerilla tactics learned from fighting the Indians on the frontier. The colonists would strike quickly then disappear. Large scale battles were always avoided by the colonials, unless they were trapped. The British were never able to deliver a final blow.
4. England would not utilize American loyalist supporters. The British did not trust or respect the loyalists who numbered in the tens of thousands. The loyalists had organized themselves into 70 regiments of infantry, but English officers refused to use them in battle or on guard duty. Patriot soldiers frequently wore ordinary clothing, and the English had difficulty telling the loyalists and patriots apart. The English were also largely unable to protect the loyalists from reprisals upon them by patriots. This alienated many potential supporters.
These are the five “supporting reasons” contributing to victory.
5. Conquering the vast colonial geography was problematic. The British found it impossible to occupy the countryside except for short periods; there simply weren’t enough troops. They usually resided in the cities and only ventured out when there was a sufficient force. Long supply lines in hostile and unfamiliar territory were too risky otherwise. Consequently the colonists were freer to move about.
6. The crown lacked money to finance a long, protracted war far from its shores. Having just completed a war with France and its Indian allies (costing 70 million pounds in mid-1760’s money), the British national debt had doubled. The funds to operate the empire would have to be raised through taxes on the English population. The American colonists, in spite of their loud objections to taxes, only paid about 5% of the taxes paid by British citizens. Many in England felt that the new higher taxes being imposed on them were due to the war in America and they strongly insisted that the war be quickly concluded.
7. The British emancipated all slaves and indentured servants willing to serve in the English Army. By doing this, they caused the southern slave colonies to more closely align with the northern patriots. Slaves serving in British black regiments did not lead to their ultimate freedom however.
8. American leaders (and government) were mobile. There was no established national colonial capital that the British could capture to end the war. Instead the Continental Congress moved from one place to another to evade them.
9. The involvement of American women in the cause was significant. Women supported the pursuit of independence in ways unknown in America before the war. Many were familiar with the self-reliant lifestyle of the frontier. They produced clothing for the soldiers, boycotted English products, made musket balls, travelled as aides with the troops, and spied on the British.
All of these reasons combined to make the War for Independence a reality.