By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was the largest city in the American colonies and an important center of trade. Its most prominent building was the State House, known today as Independence Hall. The famous Liberty Bell, originally cast in 1752, rang from Independence Hall for more than two decades before it sounded during the public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776.
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In 1767, the British Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which included a new tax on tea in the American colonies. Colonists, asserting that the British had no right to tax the colonies since they had no representation in Parliament, organized a boycott of English goods, including tea. British troops were stationed in Boston to enforce the Townshend Acts and keep order, leading to heightened tensions between the colonists and theimperial authorities. These tensions boiled over three years later in the Boston Massacre, when several of the troops fired on a crowd of civilians.
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In 1773, the British Parliament passed the Tea Act in response to the colonials’ boycott of tea, effectively reducing the price but keeping the tax in place. When ships carrying a cargo of English tea arrived in Boston Harbor later the same year, colonists protested, demanding the ships not be allowed to unload. An activist group called the Sons of Liberty took matters into its own hands, boarding the ships on December 16, 1773, and dumping the cargo into the bay.
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Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party with the so-called “Intolerable Acts,” meant to punish the protest by restricting the Massachusetts colonial government. Among other measures, the Intolerable Acts closed Boston’s port, brought the colony under the direct rule of a royal governor, and allowed the Governor to quarter British troops in privately owned buildings. The acts provoked enormous backlash, not only in Massachusetts, but in the other colonies as well. In a speech to the second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry responded to the Intolerable Acts and other British abuses by calling on the colonists to raise arms, saying, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
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In April of 1775 the Patriots got word that the British forces in Boston might attempt to confiscate the local militia’s supply of weapons stored in nearby Concord, Massachusetts. Late on the night of April 18, 1775, the Patriots learned British troops were preparing to march out of the city. According to a pre-arranged signal, the colonists hung two lanterns in the steeple of the North Church, indicating the British would cross the Charles River by boat rather than march around Boston Neck by land. Paul Revere, a member of the Sons of Liberty, set out from the city on horseback, alerting every home on the way to Lexington that “the British were coming!”
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The British troops marched from Boston toward Concord, where they suspected Patriot militias had stashed weapons. When they reached the town of Lexington, a skirmish broke out between the British troops and assembled local militia members, killing eight of the Patriots. The British continued to Concord, where they encountered more than 400 Minutemen near the North Bridge. At some point during the standoff that ensued, a British regular fired a shot -- “the shot heard ‘round the world” -- and sparked a battle that began the American Revolution.
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Abigail Adams was one of the most influential women involved with the American founding. She and her husband, John Adams (a leading Patriot from Massachusetts), exchanged hundreds of letters during the American Revolution. When John was a delegate to the Continental Congresses, Abigail wrote frequently to advise him. As the delegates drafted the Declaration of Independence, she counseled him to make sure the new government would be “more generous and favorable to the Ladies” than the last.
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On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, formally separating the colonies from Great Britain. The Declaration listed the colonies’ reasons for breaking with the King, and more importantly, expressed the principles on which the United States of America would be founded: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
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Legend has it that in 1777, General George Washington visited Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross in her upholstery stop. There, he asked her to sew the first American flag, showing her his sketch of thirteen stars arranged in a circle alongside thirteen red and white stripes. Although no one knows for sure if the story is true, records show that Betsy was paid for making flags just a few weeks before the Congress made this now famous design the official banner of the United States of America.
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In December 1777, General Washington took his army to Valley Forge for the winter encampment. The soldiers were hungry and exhausted when they arrived. Most did not have shoes. They had few supplies to build shelters. Disease was rampant. For the Continental Army, it was one of the bleakest moments of the war. Despite these enormous challenges, however, the soldiers spent hours during the winter at Valley Forge practicing drills under the command of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian military officer sent by Benjamin Franklin to aid Washington in training the Army.
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The lore of the American Revolution includes the story of “Molly Pitcher,” whose function with the Army included carrying water to the troops. When Molly’s husband was wounded in battle, she is said to have taken his place, helping to fire the artillery. The real “Molly Pitcher” is thought to have been Mary Hays of Pennsylvania, whose husband, William Hays, was injured in the Battle of Monmouth. Molly Hays had joined her husband during the winter at Valley Forge and later followed him into combat, assisting the troops.
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In the autumn of 1781, the war at last reached its decisive moment in Yorktown, Virginia. There, General Washington and Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces, converged on the British Army. Around the same time, the French naval fleet arrived to prevent the British from retreating by sea. After one final battle, General Cornwallis conceded defeat. He surrendered on October 17, 1781.
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On September 3, 1783, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the American Revolution. In Paris, France, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay represented the United States at the negotiations with representatives of the King. By signing the Treaty, Britain formally recognized the United States as a free and independent country and ceded enormous territory in the west to the new nation.
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After the war, many wanted to appoint George Washington King, but instead, he appeared before the Congress and resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief. He then returned home to his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. Upon hearing this news, Washington’s former adversary King George III remarked that if true it would make Washington “the greatest character of the age.” In fact, the General longed to return home. During the eight year war, he had made only one brief visit to Mount Vernon. He remained there as a private citizen until 1789, when he was elected unanimously as the first President of the United States.
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Like their General, the soldiers laid down their arms following the war and disbanded. Tens of thousands of these soldiers had fought to win independence, many for years at a time. They faced many new challenges as they returned to life as private citizens. In the years ahead, they would work together to form a new Republic—an experiment in liberty unlike anything the world had ever seen.