Roland Watson
March 2007

This article is an analysis of the American Revolution. It is based in large part on the history presented in “One Day in History, The Days that Changed the World, July 4, 1776,” by the Smithsonian. It is intended to provide guidance to the people of such nations as Burma, China, Guinea, North Korea, the Sudan and Zimbabwe, as they struggle to be free of their own tyrannical governments.

Two overall lessons are clear:

The struggle for freedom requires complete commitment and a willingness to die for your cause. Dictators uniformly refuse to relinquish power. They must be opposed through popular revolution, and in the process people will die, as the dictators use force in an attempt to preserve their rule.

Secondly, any foreign governments that support the aspiration of freedom must provide material assistance. Otherwise, their support is insincere. In such cases, statements of solidarity would be better left unsaid, as they raise false hopes and in general delay the revolution.

Background to the American Revolution

The thirteen American colonies were British possessions. As such, the revolution was a war of secession. This generally distinguishes it from the countries listed above, where the people are being subjugated by local governments. (Note: this is a simplification. Tibet, the uprising of the Naga in Burma and India, and similar situations in some of the other countries can be viewed as secessionist struggles.)

Prior to 1764, the American colonists were generally free of interference from Britain, which followed a policy of “salutary neglect.” This changed when Parliament began to impose new taxes, and also restrictions on trade. There were many Tax Acts passed, but the most egregious was the Stamp Tax, which imposed a charge on all printed material.

The colonists rejected these changes in a number of ways, initially through protest. Agitators such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts wrote articles, which were published in pamphlets and also broadsheets, large one-page newspapers nailed to walls, that the Crown did not have such rights. The colonists, while British citizens, could not vote for Parliament. They argued that the Crown was imposing taxation without representation. More deeply, though, they believed their autonomy was such that they had sole authority over their domestic affairs, including the right to tax if they so chose.

This initial economic complaint was subsequently redefined, most notably in the Declaration of Independence, as a struggle for basic human rights. Through this the colonists stated that they had a fundamental and inalienable right to be free and independent, with no allegiance to the King. This right now serves as the basis for the struggle of all repressed populations worldwide, to be free not only from colonial rule but local tyrants as well.

Evolution of the resistance

As the protests escalated the colonists established “Committees of Correspondence,” as a means to organize popular resistance to the new taxes and also to distribute news. In Massachusetts alone, over 100 committees were formed in towns and villages. Subsequently, the colonists established a committee to deal with foreign governments, to disseminate the American view on the conflict and to request assistance.

The colonists also implemented a variety of other tactics, specifically in response to the Stamp Tax. New York and other colonies started the First Non-Importation Movement, which was a boycott barring merchants from receiving imported British goods. This was followed in later years by the Second and Third Non-Importation Movements, which in 1776 were extended to the closure of American ports to British ships.

The Stamp Tax also led the colonists to form underground groups called the “Sons of Liberty,” first in Massachusetts and New York but later in the other colonies as well. These groups were only disbanded at the end of the Revolutionary War.

The Sons of Liberty were shopkeepers and tradesmen, and they harassed agents of the Crown and burned them in effigy. In December 1773, in protest of another tax, placed by the Townshend Acts on tea, they stormed three ships in Boston harbor and dumped 342 chests of Darjeeling tea worth 9,700 pounds sterling into the sea. Similarly, tea was destroyed in Maryland in May 1774 and in South Carolina in November 1774.

The Sons of Liberty also burned documents, attacked Royalists and their local sympathizers, and burned their homes and businesses. After July 4, 1776, symbols of the English monarchy were publicly destroyed. In New York City, a statue of King George III was pulled down and decapitated.

Initiation of war, and peace overtures

Five colonists were killed by British soldiers in 1770, in what became known as the Boston Massacre. The first real military engagements, though, were the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

Prior to this, the colonists, realizing that war was becoming inevitable, began to form armed militias.

In an effort to avert war, they attempted a series of peace initiatives. These failed. In 1774, a Pennsylvania colonist proposed an American parliament, with law-making and taxation power, but subject to the veto of a Crown-appointed Governor. This was rejected by the Continental Congress, the national government that had been established. Then, in July 1775, with full-scale war imminent, the colonists extended the Olive Branch Petition, asking King George to respond to their grievances. He ignored the petition.

The Revolutionary War

The American colonies had a vibrant economy, and the country itself had extensive natural resources. (This explained why Britain did not want to lose control.) The colonists had the basic materials for their revolution. However, they were short of weapons and ammunition. For the latter, Britain had limited the number of gunpowder mills. Following independence, mills in Virginia produced as much gunpowder as possible, but supplies were perpetually short. Similarly, Connecticut, the “Arsenal of the Nation,” provided large quantities of arms and other supplies (and Continental soldiers), although these supplies were regularly targeted by British troops.

The colonists also conducted lotteries, to raise funds. Many wealthy individuals donated their entire fortunes.

The first major battle was at Breeds Hill, in June 1775 in Boston. (This is also known as the battle of Bunker Hill.) The Continental Army was founded the following month, with George Washington as Commander. He was forty-three years old at the time. Subsequently, the Continental Navy and the Marines were established. Congress also authorized privateers, private ships, to disrupt enemy sea traffic. A Committee of Secret Correspondence, America’s first intelligence service, was set up, to shield secrets from the enemy.

Open warfare broke out the following year, after the Declaration of Independence. This continued until October 1781, when British Commander Lord Cornwallis surrendered. The Treaty of Paris formally ended the war in September 1783, at which point the last British troops left New York
America had some 200,000 troops during the war. Over 4,000 died in battle, and another 20,000 died from disease and other causes, including 8,000 while being held as prisoners of war. The British had 170,000 troops, up to 50% of whom had been press-ganged – forced into service. They suffered 1,200 deaths in battle and 18,000 by disease.

Foreign assistance

The Continental Army benefited greatly from foreign assistance. In February 1778, Congress signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and a Treaty of Alliance, with France, which itself declared war on Britain soon thereafter. France provided money, arms, troops and naval blockades.

The colonists also were helped by Spain, which sent supplies and funds and which declared war on Britain in 1779. The Netherlands declared war on Britain in 1780.


The decision to secede was not taken lightly. Many individuals, particularly businessmen in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, were heavily involved in trade with Britain. There was extensive debate over independence, and as of July 1, 1776, only nine of the thirteen colonies had formally agreed to sever ties. The following day, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Delaware voted for independence (for the last only after congressional delegate Caesar Rodney rode eighty miles throughout the night in a thunderstorm to reach Philadelphia), but by the fateful day of July 4th only twelve colonies had approved. The New York delegation abstained, saying they had not been authorized to vote for independence. New York subsequently agreed, and on August 2nd Congress authorized that an embossed copy of the Declaration be signed by all the delegates.

The issue with South Carolina was different. Thomas Jefferson had included a statement in the Declaration “accusing the King of violating the rights of life and liberty of innocent people by exporting them to other hemispheres, where they were enslaved.” This statement against slavery was removed at the insistence of South Carolina, together with North Carolina and Georgia.

Slavery was abolished by the northern states by 1799. It was not eliminated in the south until the Civil War.

It has been estimated that prior to 1776, 15%-20% of America’s colonists were loyal to the King. This dropped to 10% at the onset of war. Some 50,000 loyalists fought for Britain. Their property was confiscated, and even though it was restored in principle by the Treaty of Paris, little was actually returned. Following the war, many loyalists emigrated to other British territories.


The American Revolution had many heroes, not only famous leaders such as Washington and Jefferson. The war had innumerable officers and soldiers of note, who led the Continental Army and its associated militia to victory. For instance, George Rogers Clark was a frontiersman who organized militia to attack British outposts in the far west of the colonies. Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” led units in irregular guerrilla warfare in South Carolina when it was largely under British control.

James Armistead was a slave who spied on the British. He went undercover to the camp of American traitor Benedict Arnold and relayed messages about British troop movements via scouts back to the Continental Army. (Note: while many slaves ran away and joined the British, thousands fought for the Continental Army.)

Nancy Hart spied on the British for Georgia’s militia, including building a raft and fording the Savannah River and then entering a British Camp at twilight disguised as a half-wit man. In other incidents, she personally killed a British soldier and captured many others.

Molly Pitcher, who was a camp follower – these were groups that followed army units and prepared food and provided medical care – took control of her husband’s cannon after he was wounded, and loaded and fired it several times at a desperate point in the battle.

Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man – Robert Shurtliffe – and fought as a regular soldier for one and a half years. She was wounded twice, and only discovered to be a woman the second time after being shot in the shoulder. She is now the official heroine of Massachusetts.

Other heroes were famous for their words as well as their actions, including John Stark of New Hampshire, whose declaration “Live Free or Die” became the state’s motto.

Patrick Henry, who proclaimed: “Give me liberty or give me death!

And John Paul Jones, a naval commander who lost more than half his crew in the defeat of HMS Serapis. In the heat of the battle, in response to a demand from the captain of the Serapis to surrender, he announced: “I have not yet begun to fight.


The American Revolution was successful. The colonists, at great cost in lives, won their freedom. This illustrates several critical points.

Freedom against tyranny requires uncompromising commitment and struggle.

While there will always be dissenters, if the revolution does not approach unanimity it will fail.

Everyone who is for freedom has a role to play. There is no room for observers. Everyone must be involved in the fight.

Foreign assistance, including military materiel and associated funding, is invaluable.

Revolution creates an opportunity for individuals to go beyond the call of duty: to be heroes.

To properly prepare for democracy, it is essential to get it right, from the start, about human rights and related issues of federalism.

The people of Burma, China, Guinea, North Korea, the Sudan and Zimbabwe all have the power to be free, when they recognize, and act on, these lessons.

Closing Note: At the present time, freedom appears unlikely for all of these countries with the possible exception of Guinea. For example, large factions in the Burma Democracy Movement, in particular the Ethnic Nationalities Council, are committed to dialogue, and firmly believe that the military junta that rules the country – the SPDC – will be part of the solution. They therefore do not even want to see the SPDC fall. They fear this type of transition, even though it is the norm for freedom struggles worldwide. This dependency on dialogue is a dangerously naïve and self-serving position. People, ironically from the country’s ethnic nationalities, are dying because of it, as it has paralyzed the process of change.

Burma needs leaders with courage, not cowards. The SPDC are in no way part of the solution. They are the problem. They need to be expelled as quickly as possible. To repeat: people are dying! The proponents of dialogue, most of whom live safely outside Burma, have ignored this for far too long.

The ENC was a good initiative, years ago, when it seemed there was a chance of dialogue, to make sure that the ethnic groups would be represented. Now that it is clear that there is no chance, it is an organization without a mission. It should either shut down, or reinvent itself, under new leadership, as a funding organization for the ethnic resistance armies.