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American History: America's Break with Britain Divides Families and Friends

"Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga" by artist Percy Moran, c1911

"Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga" by artist Percy Moran, c1911

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STEVE EMBER: From VOA Learning English, this is THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

This week in our series, we continue our story of the American Revolution.

On July fourth, seventeen seventy-six, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, approved the Declaration of Independence. The new country, the United States of America, was at war with its former colonial ruler, Britain. Yet not everyone in the former colonies agreed with the decision to declare independence.

No one knows for sure how many Americans remained loyal to Great Britain. John Adams, the Massachusetts political leader, thought that about a third of the colonists supported independence, a third supported Britain and a third supported neither side.

Today many historians think that only about twenty percent of the colonists supported Britain. Some colonists supported whichever side seemed to be winning.

As many as thirty thousand Americans fought for the British during the war. Others helped Britain by reporting the movements of American troops.

Who supported Britain? These groups included people who were appointed to their jobs by the king. They also included leaders of the Anglican Church and people with business connections to the British.

Professor Gordon Wood at Brown University in Rhode Island says many colonists from minority groups remained loyal to the king.

"One of the problems of the American revolution that emerged very quickly was the tyranny of the majority, which the founders, revolutionary leaders, had not anticipated. But I think we're seeing the problems that emerge when you overthrow an authoritarian leader, and you're going to have a relatively democratic society. Then the protecting the minority becomes a problem.”

Other people remained loyal because they did not want change or because they believed that independence would not improve their lives. Some thought the actions of the British government were not bad enough to bring about a rebellion. Others did not believe that the rebels could win a war against a nation as powerful as Britain.

American Indians disagreed among themselves about the revolution. Congress knew it had to make peace with the Indians as soon as the war started. If not, American troops might have to fight them and the British at the same time. To prevent trouble, American officials tried to stop settlers from moving onto Indian lands.

In some places, the Indians joined the Americans, but generally they supported the British. They expected the British to win. They saw the war as a chance to force the Americans to leave their lands. At times, the Indians fought on the side of the British, but left when the British seemed to be losing the battle.

The Americans did not forget that the Indians chose to fight for the British. When the war was over, the Americans felt they owed the Indians nothing.

African slaves in the colonies were also divided about which side to join during the American Revolution.

Thousands of slaves fought for the British. The British offered them freedom if they served in the army or navy.

Some American states also offered to free slaves who served, and hundreds of free blacks fought on the American side. Many slaves, however, felt their chances for freedom were better with the British.

At least five thousand blacks served with the colonial American forces. Most had no choice. They were slaves, and their owners took them to war or sent them instead of the owners' sons.

Other slaves felt that a nation built on freedom might share some of that freedom with them.

In the South, many slave owners kept their slaves at home rather than send them to fight. Later in the war, when every man was needed, many slaves drove wagons and carried supplies. Those who served in the colonial army and navy were not separated from whites. They fought side by side with whites during the American Revolution.

But historians say most slaves spent the war as they always had: working on their owners' farms.

The American rebels called themselves patriots. Those who supported the British were known as Tories. Patriots often seized the property of Tories to help pay for the war. They also kidnapped the slaves of Tories to use as laborers for the army. Many Tories were forced from towns in which they had lived all their lives. Some were tortured or hanged.

In New Jersey, Tories and patriots fought one another with guns, and sometimes burned each other's houses and farms.

Some historians say the American Revolution was really the nation's first civil war. The revolution divided many families.

Jayne Gordon at the Massachusetts Historical Society tells of a woman named Phoebe. Phoebe was married to a patriot. But her brother was a Tory.

"And we think of what it must've been like for Phoebe, in the middle between her husband and her brother. So that's a perfect example of a family that was split."

The patriots were also split among themselves in their thinking. The colonies did not really think of themselves as one nation. They saw themselves as independent states trying to work together toward a common goal. Historian Gordon Wood says at first, the United States was more like the European Union is today.

"When Jefferson said 'my country,' he meant Virginia. When John Adams said 'my country,' he meant Massachusetts."

This meant that Congress could not order the states to do anything they did not want to do. Congress could not demand that the states provide money for the war. It could only ask for their help.

George Washington, the top general, could not draft men into the army. He could only wait for the states to send them. Washington showed that he was a good politician by the way he kept Congress and the thirteen states supporting him throughout the war.

Just as Americans did not all agree about the war, the British people did not agree about it either. Many supported the government's decision to fight. They believed that the war was necessary to rescue loyalists from the patriots. Others did not think Britain should fight the Americans, because the Americans had not invaded or threatened their country. They believed that Britain should leave the colonies alone to do as they wished.

King George was not able to do this, however. He supported the war as a way to continue his power in the world, and to rescue British honor in the eyes of other national leaders.

Whichever side British citizens were on, there was no question that the war was causing severe problems in Britain. British businessmen could no longer trade with the American colonies. Prices increased. Taxes did, too. And young men were forced to serve in the Royal Navy.

At the start of the war, the British believed that the rebellion was led by a few extremists in New England. They thought the other colonies would surrender if that area could be surrounded and controlled. So they planned to separate New England from the other colonies by taking control of the Hudson River Valley.

The British changed their plans after they were defeated in the Battle of Saratoga in New York state. Historian Gordon Wood says the British loss changed the nature of the war.

"The French feel at this point that the Americans might make it, and therefore they throw in their support. Once the French come on board, then the British are really panicked. At that point they offer the Americans everything the Americans had wanted, save independence, but it was too late."

The British experienced many problems fighting the war. Their troops were far from home, across a wide ocean. It was difficult to bring in more troops and supplies. Gordon Wood says the distance across the Atlantic was one reason the British lost the war.

"Even though they were the most powerful nation in the world, had a superb army, and of course completely controlled the seas. And they were dealing with the ragtag army of George Washington and a bunch of militia, and they couldn't do it."

General Washington's army had its own problems, too. Congress never had enough money. States often did not do what they were supposed to do. And citizens were not always willing to fight. Soldiers were poorly trained and would promise to serve for only a year or so.

The political and economic developments of the American Revolution concerned not just the Americans and the British. European nations were watching the events in America very closely. Those events, and the reactions in Europe, will be our story next week.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

This was program #13

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