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Time Line -- America during the Age of Revolution, 1776-1789

This time line is drawn largely from the work of Richard B. Morris, in particular his Encyclopedia of American History.


"Common Sense." Thomas Paine moved many to the cause of independence with his pamphlet titled "Common Sense." In a direct, simple style, he cried out against King George III and the monarchical form of government.
The British Evacuate Boston. American General Henry Knox arrived in Boston with cannons he had moved with great difficulty from Fort Ticonderoga, New York. Americans began to entrench themselves around Boston, planning to attack the British. British General William Howe planned an attack, but eventually retreated from Boston.
Congress Authorizes the Colonies to Write Constitutions. In May, the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution authorizing the colonies to adopt new constitutions; the former colonial governments had dissolved with the outbreak of war.
Congress Declares Independence. When North Carolina and Virginia empowered their delegates to vote for American independence, Virginian Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution stating that the colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." A committee was appointed to draft a declaration of independence, and Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write it. On July 2, Congress voted in favor of independence, and on July 4, the Declaration of Independence was approved. Copies were sent throughout the colonies to be read publicly.
Battle of Long Island. After leaving Boston, British General Howe planned to use New York as a base. The British captured Staten Island and began a military build-up on Long Island in preparation for an advance on Brooklyn. Washington succeeded in saving his army by secretly retreating onto Manhattan Island. Washington eventually retreated from Manhattan, fearing the prospect of being trapped on the island, and the British occupied New York City.
Congress Names Commissioners to Treat with Foreign Nations. Congress sent a delegation of three men to Europe -- Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur Lee -- to prepare treaties of commerce and friendship, and to attempt to secure loans from foreign nations.
The Battle of White Plains. British and American forces met at White Plains, New York, where the British captured an important fortification. Washington once again retreated, still attempting to save his army from the full force of the British army.
Retreat through New Jersey. Washington and his army retreated across New Jersey, crossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Congress, fearing a British attack on Philadelphia, fled to Baltimore.
Battle of Trenton. On December 26, Washington launched a surprise attack against a British fortification at Trenton, New Jersey, that was staffed by Hessian soldiers. After one hour of confused fighting, the Hessians surrendered. Only five American soldiers were killed.
Battle of Princeton. British General Howe reacted to the Battle of Trenton by sending a large force of men to New Jersey. At Princeton, Washington once again launched a surprise attack, and succeeded in defeating the British. His efforts cleared most of New Jersey of enemy forces, and greatly boosted American morale.
America Has a Flag. On June 14, Congress declared that the flag of the United States would consist of thirteen alternating red and white stripes, and a blue field with thirteen white stars.
The British Attack Philadelphia. British and Americans met at Brandywine Creek, Pennsylvania. The Americans retreated, and the British soon occupied Philadelphia, forcing Congress once again to flee the city. After retreating further during the Battle of Germantown, Washington settled his army for the winter in Valley Forge -- a winter of extreme cold and great hunger.
Saratoga. On October 7, British and American troops engaged in New York. Fatigued from battle and short of supplies, British General John Burgoyne's troops were repulsed by American forces under General Horatio Gates. On October 8, Burgoyne retreated to Saratoga; by October 13th, he asked for terms of surrender. The "Convention of Saratoga" called for Burgoyne's army to be sent back to England, and for each soldier to pledge not to serve again in the war against the colonies.
The "Conway Cabal." Many in Congress were unhappy with Washington's leadership; some murmured the name of General Horatio Gates as a possible replacement. Thomas Conway, the army's inspector general, wrote a critical letter to Gates about Washington, leading many to believe there was an organized effort to replace Washington. Conway resigned from the army, and eventually apologized to Washington.
Articles of Confederation. When Richard Henry Lee made a motion for independence (1776), he also proposed a formal plan of union among the states. After a discussion lasting more than a year, the Articles of Confederation were adopted by Congress, although the states did not ratify the Articles until 1781.
France and America Become Allies. France and America formed an alliance, negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, stating that each would consider the other a "most favored nation" for trade and friendship; France would be obligated to fight for American independence; and America would be obligated to stand by France if war should occur between France and Great Britain. Within four months, France and Great Britain were at war.
The British Attempt to Make Peace. Threatened by the alliance between France and America, Parliament proposed the repeal of the Tea Act (1773) and Coercive Acts (1774), pledged not to tax the colonies, and sent peace commissioners to America. However, most Americans were interested only in British recognition of American independence. When a British commissioner tried to bribe congressmen Joseph Reed, Robert Morris, and Francis Dana, Americans became even less interested in reconciliation. Competing for support from the American people, both Congress and the desperate commissioners appealed directly to them with broadsides, but the British commissioners soon returned to Great Britain, their mission a failure.
John Paul Jones Wins Victories. Although Esek Hopkins was never very successful with the American navy, Captain John Paul Jones won several victories against the British with his ship, the "Ranger."
The Battle of Monmouth. When the British headed for New York, Washington left Valley Forge to follow. At the Battle of Monmouth, American General Charles Lee gave several confused orders, and then ordered a sudden retreat. Washington's arrival on the scene saved the battle, although the British escaped to New York during the night. Lee was later court-martialed.
The British Attack in North and South. Fighting continued in both the northern and southern states. In the frontier settlements of Pennsylvania, Loyalists and Indians led by Mohawk Joseph Brant attacked American settlers. The Loyalists soon were defeated, and Americans went on to destroy many Native American villages whose residents were fighting on the side of the British.
Spain Joins the War. Spain asked Britain for Gibraltar as a reward for joining the war on the British side. When Britain refused, Spain joined with France in its war against Britain, although refusing to recognize American independence.
The British Take Charleston, South Carolina. After a brief fight, the British took Charleston, capturing 5,400 men and four American ships in the harbor. It was the worst American defeat of the war.
A Mutiny in the Continental Army. When the value of Continental currency sank to a new low, Congress had problems supplying the American army. Great shortages of food led to a short-lived mutiny among some Connecticut soldiers at Washington's camp in New Jersey.
The Treason of Benedict Arnold. American General Benedict Arnold, frustrated and ambitious, began dealing with British General Sir Henry Clinton. After he was promised the command at West Point by General Washington, Arnold told Clinton that he would give the strategic American fortification to the British. But when British Major John André, acting as messenger, was captured, Arnold fled to a British ship, revealing his involvement in the treasonous plan. André was executed as a spy, and Arnold was made a brigadier general in the British army.
Congress Creates a Department of Finance. American finances were in such dire straits that Congress saw the need for a separate department of finance. Robert Morris was appointed superintendent of finance.
The Articles of Confederation Are Ratified. With the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, under discussion since 1777, Congress assumed a new title, "The United States in Congress Assembled."
The Battle of Yorktown. French and American forces joined at Yorktown, on land and at sea, and attacked British fortifications. Key British points were soon held by the Americans and French, and British General Cornwallis soon surrendered, giving up almost 8,000 men. With this defeat, Britain lost hope of winning the war in America.
Peace Negotiations Begin in Paris. British, French, and American commissioners met in Paris to discuss peace. The United States sent Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. By November, the commissioners had drafted a peace treaty. Its terms called for Great Britain to recognize American independence and provide for the evacuation of all British troops. Great Britain also gave up its territory between the Mississippi River and the Allegheny Mountains, doubling the size of the new nation.
The Army Complains. When a delegation of army officers complained to Congress about their unpaid salaries and pensions, Congress had no quick solution. An anonymous letter urged officers to unite and attempt one last appeal to Congress. If its attempt was ignored, the army was prepared to revolt against Congress. Washington, addressing the army in person at its headquarters in Newburgh, New York, convinced them to be patient, and not to dishonor themselves after their glorious victory. Visibly moved, the officers adopted resolutions to present to Congress, and pledged not to threaten violence or rebellion.
Congress Ratifies the Preliminary Articles of Peace. After Spain, France, and Britain successfully came to terms, the treaty between France, Britain, and America was put into effect, and warfare formally ceased. Congress ratified the Articles of Peace on April 15.
The Loyalists and British Evacuate New York. New York City was the last Loyalist refuge in America. Starting in April, nearly 30,000 Loyalists, knowing that the British soon would leave New York, packed their belongings and sailed to Canada and England, followed shortly by the British army. In November, when the British sailed away, Washington entered the city and formally bade farewell to his officers. Soon after, he resigned his commission.
The American Army Disbands. In June, most of Washington's army disbanded and headed for home just before the British evacuated New York. A small force remained until all the British had departed.
Congress Is Threatened. A group of soldiers from Pennsylvania marched on Congress, demanding their pay. Armed and angry, they surrounded Independence Hall. The members of Congress eventually were allowed to leave the building; they fled to Princeton, New Jersey.
The Western Territories. Thomas Jefferson headed a committee that proposed a plan for dividing the western territories, providing a temporary government for the West, and devising a method for new western states to enter the Union on an equal basis with the original states. The plan was adopted, but not put into effect.
Congress Creates a Board of Finance. When Robert Morris resigned as superintendent of finance, he was replaced by a Board of Finance consisting of three commissioners.
New York the Temporary Capital. Congress decided to make New York City the temporary capital of the United States, until the location of a permanent federal city was decided upon.
Congress Lacks Power over Commerce. When American commissioners attempted to make trade arrangements with Britain, the British Ambassador refused, because any state could decline to abide by Congress's trade regulations. The inability of Congress to regulate commerce on a national scale led to the formation of a committee dedicated to appealing to the states to grant Congress enlarged powers over commerce. Despite these attempts, no effective action was taken.
Conference at Mount Vernon. Several commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, to discuss regulation of trade between the two states. At the meeting's conclusion, the commissioners suggested that all the states meet at a convention in Annapolis to discuss common commercial problems.
Basic Land Ordinance. Congress arranged for surveys to divide the western territories into townships, with one lot in each town set aside as a site for a public school.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The Virginia House of Burgesses passed a statute, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779 and sponsored by James Madison, declaring that no person should be discriminated against because of religious belief, or compelled to join or support any church. This statute helped shape the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Attempts to Revise the Articles of Confederation. In Congress, Charles Pinckney proposed a revision of the Articles of Confederation. A committee debated the question, and recommended several changes, including granting Congress power over foreign and domestic commerce, and enabling Congress to collect money owed by the states. Under the Articles, unanimous approval from all thirteen states would be necessary to pass the suggested changes. Doubting that all the states would ever agree, Congress never acted.
Annapolis Convention. Nine states agreed to send delegates to Annapolis to discuss commerce, but only five state delegations arrived on time. Because of the poor attendance, the delegates decided to invite the states to another convention. Alexander Hamilton drafted an address to the states, inviting them to a convention to be held in Philadelphia in 1787, to discuss not only commerce, but all matters necessary to improve the federal government. After debate, on February 21, 1787, Congress endorsed the plan to revise the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitutional Convention. Every state but Rhode Island sent delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The gathering included some of the most respected and talented men in America. George Washington was named president.
Edmund Randolph proposed the "Virginia Plan," drafted by James Madison -- a plan that recommended an entirely new form of government, including an executive, a judiciary, and a legislature composed of two houses and including a number of representatives from each state based on their population.
Opposition came from the small states, which feared domination by the more populous states in the legislature. William Paterson proposed the "New Jersey Plan," which essentially revised the Articles of Confederation, preserving equal representation of the states. After much debate, the Convention rejected the New Jersey Plan, deciding instead to work toward an entirely new form of government.
The issue of representation in the two houses of the new national legislature became a major sticking point for the Convention. Roger Sherman was helpful in framing the "Connecticut Compromise," a plan that suggested representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) based on population, and equal representation in the upper house (the Senate). With this compromise, the Convention succeeded in completing a rough draft of a constitution.
A Committee of Style was appointed to create a final draft; Gouverneur Morris was chosen to write it. After carefully reviewing the draft, the Convention approved the Constitution on September 17. After signing it and sending it to Congress, the Convention adjourned.
Northwest Ordinance. While the Constitutional Convention debated a new government, Congress decided upon a plan for governing all western territories north of the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance provided for a plan of government, the creation of states, the acceptance of each new state as an equal of the original states, freedom of religion, right to a trial by jury, public support of education, and the prohibition of slavery. Arthur St. Clair was named first governor of the territory.
Congress Receives the Constitution. Although some congressmen were displeased at the Convention for doing far more than revising the Articles of Confederation, on September 28 Congress agreed to pass the Constitution on to the states, so each could debate it in separate ratifying conventions. Nine states had to agree to the new Constitution for it to go into effect.
"The Federalist." Supporters of the Constitution -- Federalists -- and opponents of the Constitution -- Antifederalists -- fought fiercely in the press. Seventy-seven essays, written anonymously by "Publius," appeared in New York newspapers, explaining and defending the new Constitution. These essays, published in book form with eight additional essays, were titled The Federalist. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist was the most organized, coherent effort to defend the Constitution.
The Constitution Is Ratified by Nine States. On June 21, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, making its adoption official. Preceding New Hampshire were Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina. Virginia and New York ratified shortly after New Hampshire, followed by North Carolina in November 1789. Rhode Island was last to ratify, not joining the Union until May 1790.
Congress Steps Aside for a New Government. On July 2, Congress announced that the Constitution had been adopted. By September, a committee had prepared for the change in government, naming New York City as the temporary official capital, and setting dates for elections and for the meeting of the first Congress under the new Constitution. Congress completed its business on October 10. Its last action was the granting of ten square miles of land to Congress for a federal town.