Many Ulster Scots had been in America for generations at the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776. Here, Eric K. Barnes (see more here) describes the background to the Ulster Scots’ role in the American Revolutionary War and what they did during key battles.

The death of British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780. The Ulster Scots played a key role in this battle. Engraving by Charles Henry Jeens and painting originally by Alonzo Chappel.

The death of British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780. The Ulster Scots played a key role in this battle. Engraving by Charles Henry Jeens and painting originally by Alonzo Chappel.

They came in droves, as if the floodgates had opened on some Scots Irish dam across the sea. With their recent inclusion into the United Kingdom, they sought freedom and land in the British colonies as new British subjects. They disembarked at New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington and Charleston. They pooled money and families together and set out on the Great Wagon Road in their Conestoga wagons. Different from the planters of the Pee Dee and Coastal regions, they preferred the Piedmont and Mountains of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Men of force and iron were needed in this wild unsettled region that was a buffer between the Native Americans upstate and the gentry of the sandy regions. The wilderness filled up with families of hardy stock, willing to forge a living in the outer territory of the new land.  

When the French and Indian War broke out in 1756, the British treated these stout immigrants with the same disdain that their grandparents and parents had been treated in Scotland and Ireland… Not as equals, but as second-class citizens. All the while they were expected to die for the mother country in preservation of the empire. And they beat back the French and the Indians and forced their capitulation in the name of the Crown, but they did not win their full measure of citizenship.


The Situation by 1776

By 1776 generations of Ulster Scots had lived free and without encumbrances from the Empire’s seat, with it being so far away. Petitions to government for redress against grievances were met with either unrighteous force or general apathy, and never timely. The Empire had stretched beyond the limits of the infrastructure of its government. New Bern, Charleston and Williamsburg were a long way from the Holston river valley or the Yadkin, Broad and Catawba rivers in Virginia and the Carolinas. This distance only added to the bad experiences of the governed concerning the government. 

And grievance upon grievance mounted year after year until an enlightened leadership made a stand against the tyranny. Across the colonies the conversations turned to common rights and common ideas of government…self-government. And though it was based on a natural law known in the breasts of every free man, they were radical in terms of sitting governments in world history. The Ulster Scots had learned to live and flourish on their own in terms of self-government with the moral compass of these natural laws. They, as a people, understood the building blocks of a civil society and recognized when a form of government was not working and had become tyrannical.  These, after-all, were the literate, pious and independent children of the great Scottish Enlightenment.

And all the remonstrations still could have been for naught, and these men and women of the empire would have stayed willingly as faithful subjects, had the King and his generals acted rightfully. Instead, the British came with threats to hang the leaders of the Ulster Scots and lay waste to their towns with fire and sword unless they came and took an oath to this King who was so far away. This same King that bribed the Cherokee to wage war on the settlements from Spartanburg to Nolichucky. The King’s men burned houses, arrested clergy, and confiscated livestock without due payment. British Officers enlisted the local thieves as soldiers and gave them authority to legally ply their formerly illegal trade. Chaos was fomented by the very government that wanted their allegiance.


The Ulster Scots in the American Revolution

So, they came in droves.  Not by the tens or the dozens, but by the hundreds each time they were called in from the fields for service. They chose to live life on their own terms and fight back. 

At Fort Thicketty, in upstate South Carolina, they rode with Colonel Isaac Shelby and their mere presence forced a capitulation without a shot being fired. At Musgrove Mill in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, they combined forces and routed the British with ease. At Kings Mountain, near the North and South Carolina State line, they combined forces again with independent commands, and went on to surround and obliterate one third of the standing British Army in the Carolinas. And at Cowpens they helped the Continental army win the day and decimate still more of Cornwallis’ standing army, thereby starting the chain of events that ended the war and established a new nation.

We can still walk where the intrepid heroes once raised rifle and saber in defense of Liberty. On the trails and roads of old we can stroll under the canopies of the white oak and tulip poplar while our ankles brush by the green ferns along the way. Squirrel and fox, deer and owl, all co-exist on these sacred grounds. The whispers of the wind are all that is left of those awful conflicts, save the man-made markers and graves that dot the anointed landscape. Thankfully we are fortunate to be able to reflect upon these noble deeds of men and women who may have been poor in terms of wealth but were rich in their determination to live free.  

Freedom Reigns!

Protected now from the conquest of civilization’s steady roll, 

where man made monuments stand with the beauty of nature’s soul.  

envision yourself amid the battle cries and smoke while charging into the fray…


you do so under the umbrella of liberty won on that hallowed day. 


Let us know what you think of the article below.

Contributing author, Eric K. Barnes, is a retired Detective Sergeant who enjoys walking in the footsteps of heroes and proclaiming “Freedom” along the way. Find out more here:


The Winning of the West, Theodore Roosevelt

Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution in the Carolinas and Georgia, Benson J. Lossing

King’s Mountain and It’s Heroes: History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It,Lyman C. Draper and Anthony Allaire

History of the Upper Country of S.C., John H. Logan

Before They Were Heroes at King’s Mountain, Randell Jones

Parker’s Guide to the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, John C. Parker Jr.


This article originally appeared on Eric’s site here.

The American Revolutionary War saw thirteen mere colonies declare themselves independent from one of world history’s most powerful empires, the British Empire. Even more revolutionary were the remarkable men that fostered the Revolutionary War - from aristocratic men and lawyers to silversmiths such as Paul Revere and self-made statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Yet, even these exceptional men could not have officially declared the colonies “free and independent states” without the rally of ordinary men, women, and yes, children. Casey Titus explains.

A statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel, New York.

A statue of Sybil Ludington in Carmel, New York.

Nicknamed the “Female Paul Revere,” Sybil Ludington was only sixteen years of age when she embarked on horse through the night in order to warn Patriot militia of the approaching British Army. Sybil was born in 1761 in Fredericksburg, (now called Ludingtonville) New York. She was the eldest of twelve children and the daughter of Colonel Henry Ludington who had fought in the French and Indian War. Loyal to the British crown until 1773, Colonel Ludington volunteered to lead their local militia in Duchess County, New York, during the Revolutionary War. His area of command was along a vulnerable route between Connecticut and the coast of Long Island Sound that British troops could easily take.

On the night of April 26, 1777, two years after the famous Midnight Ride, barely 16-year old Sybil Ludington was putting her younger siblings to bed when a horseman reached the Ludington residence with news that a nearby town, Danbury, Connecticut, was attacked by British forces. Danbury at the time contained a supply depot for the Continental Army. Colonel Ludington’s regiment was disbanded and returned to their homes, the horseman was exhausted, and there was no neighbor to contact. Sybil then volunteered to ride through the countryside and alert the disbanded militia.


Night Ride

Her night-long ride began at 9 PM. Sybil rode through the stormy night on roads roamed by outlaws, British soldiers, and loyalists. She rode through the towns of Kent, Mahopac, and Stormville bringing her through both Putnam and Dutchess Counties in New York, her only defense being her horse Star and a stick she carried throughout her ride. Some historians believe that along Ludington’s ride, a man offered to travel with her but instead, she turned him away to warn a town called Brewster of the impending British forces. One account retells that Ludington defended herself against an outlaw that attempted to accost her. Sybil Ludington rode a total of 40 miles (twenty miles more than Paul Revere’s ride) and warned the approximately 400 militiamen who gathered at the Ludington residence to fight the British under her father’s command. Her exact words were, “The British are burning Danbury. Muster at Ludington’s at daybreak!”

Meanwhile, the militia captain of the British forces that attacked Danbury, William Tryon, decided to burn Danbury, capture its supplies, and withdraw towards Long Island Sound. Although the militia arrived too late to defend Danbury, they were able to force the British to retreat in what became known as the Battle of Ridgefield, making them pay dearly for their destruction of Danbury. Sybil returned to her home at dawn the next day, soaked with rain and exhausted.

For her heroic acts, Sybil received personal thanks from General George Washington of the Continental Army and General Rochambeau, the French commander fighting alongside the patriots. Future Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, wrote to Colonel Ludington: “I congratulate you on the Danbury expedition. The stores destroyed have been purchased at a pretty high price to the enemy.” Her father, Colonel Ludington’s memoir claims:

One who even now rides from Carmel to Cold Spring will find rugged and dangerous roads, with lonely stretches. Imagination only can picture what it was a century and a quarter ago, on a dark night, with reckless bands of “Cowboys” and “Skinners” abroad in the land. But the child performed her task, clinging to a man’s saddle, and guiding her steed with only a hempen halter, as she rode through the night, bearing the news of the sack of Danbury. There is no extravagance in comparing her ride to that of Paul Revere and its midnight message. Nor was her errand less efficient than his. By daybreak, thanks to her daring, nearly the whole regiment was mustered before her father’s house at Fredericksburg.


Following the end of the Revolutionary War, Sybil Ludington married a farmer and innkeeper, Edmond Ogden at the age of the twenty-three and had one son named Henry, presumably after her father. She died on February 26, 1839 in Catskill, New York. She was buried near her father in the Patterson Presbyterian Cemetery in Patterson, New York.

Following her death and the revelation of her little known heroic ride in 1907, several commemorations were made in her honor. In 1912, a poem by Fred C. Warner, On an April Night 1777, narrated her journey using the form and style of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1863). In the 1930s the New York State Education Department posted historical-marker signs along her probable route and her home site. In 1940, a statue of her and her horse, Star, was erected by Anna Hyatt Huntington and placed on Gleneida Avenue in Carmel, New York. In 1975, Ludington became the thirty-fifth woman to be honored on a United States postal stamp.

A plaque underneath her statue in New York reads:

Sybil Ludington – Revolutionary War Heroine, April 26, 1777. Called out the volunteer militia by riding through the night, alone, on horseback, at the age of 16, alerting the countryside to the burning of Danbury, Conn, by the British.


Did you enjoy the article? Let us know below if so…

Today we have an excerpt from George Washington’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America’s First Spymaster by American Revolution historian, John A. Nagy (available here US) | (here UK).


This is the story of how America was really won. Using George Washington’s diary as the primary source, historian John A. Nagy uncovers the never-before-known history of how Washington was not just the first president but also America’s first spymaster. Nagy reveals how Washington first dabbled with espionage in the French and Indian War. Ultimately, it is this expertise that leads to the defeat of the British - they weren’t just outplayed, they were out spied: from double-crosses to doubly shady characters. Nagy unearths the surprising true stories behind numerous spy rings on both sides of the war.

Below we share an excerpt from the book.

Chapter 4: Pools of Blood

Washington was always concerned about spies. They were a constant problem except when the armies were on the move. He knew he could not stop all of them, so feeding them false information was his next best defense. With that in mind on December 12, 1776, he told Colonel John Cadwalader of the Philadelphia Associators of the Pennsylvania militia, “Keep a good look out for spies; endeavor to magnify your numbers as much as possible.” It was a ploy he would use over and over again in creating false troop information, inflating the size and giving the wrong location of his forces for spies to discover and take back to enemy headquarters.

Washington in December of 1776 was desperate to know what the British were doing. Spare no pains or expense to get intelligence of the enemy’s intentions, Washington told Cadwalader. He had also told General James Ewing, “Spare no pains nor cost to gain information of the enemy’s movements and designs. Whatever sums you pay to obtain this end I will cheerfully refund. “He also advised Brigadier General Philemon Dickinson to spare no pains or expense to obtain intelligence, and all promises he made or monies advanced would be acknowledged and paid. Three days later Washington was still desperate for information and again was encouraging Cadwalader to get intelligence of the enemy’s intentions.

Dickinson, who was at Yardley’s farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, advised Washington on the 21st of the information he was able to collect from two people who had come out of New Jersey on what was going on in New Brunswick, and from a person from Crosswicks regarding boats at Lewis’s Mill. A slave from Trenton told of boats being built a mile from town. Dickinson told Washington he was going to increase the amount he was offering to $15 or $20 for someone to go as a spy to Trenton and return. “People here are fearful of the inhabitants betraying them.” On the 24th he was able to secure someone to take the risks and he got him across the river into New Jersey. He was due back the next morning, at which time he was going to be provided with a horse to get to Washington.

On the morning of December 31, 1776, while at Crosswicks, one of Cadwalader’s spies, who was identified only as “a very intelligent young gentleman,” had just returned from the British camp at Princeton some sixteen miles distant. He identified the number and locations of British and Hessian forces in the town. He said “there were about five thousand men, consisting of Hessians and British troops—about the same number of each. . . . He conversed with some of the officers, and lodged last night with them.” As part of a disinformation campaign, Washington had previously instructed that the numbers of American troops were to be magnified. The spy complied with these instructions by saying that Washington had 16,000 men. However, they would not believe that Washington had more than 5,000 or 6,000. The spy reported, “They parade every morning an hour before day [break]—and some nights lie on their arms—An attack has been expected for several nights past—the men are much fatigued, and until last night [were] in want of provisions—when a very considerable number of wagons arrived with provisions from [New] Brunswick.” He provided a crucial piece of information: the enemy was not expecting an attack from the east, as there were “no sentries on the back or east side of the town” facing the water, thus leaving the town unguarded. The spy also provided enough detailed information for a map, which was made by Cadwalader, showing the enemy’s positions at Princeton.

Washington and the army re-crossed the ice-choked Delaware and returned to New Jersey on December 29. The artillery was unable to cross till the 31st due to the ice. When assembled at Trenton, Washington’s forces numbered 6,000 men and forty cannons. However, enlistments were expiring and soldiers would be going home. The army was going to evaporate before his eyes. Washington appealed to his men to stay in service for some promised bonus money. On December 31, Robert Morris in Philadelphia sent Washington the sum of 410 Spanish milled dollars, 2 English crowns, 10½ English shillings, and one half a French crown, amounting to 155 pounds, 9 shillings, 6 pence in Pennsylvania currency, or 124 pounds, 7 shillings, 8 pence lawful money, which is the value in gold and silver. Buoyed by the combination of victory at Trenton and money from Morris, most men stayed.

After Washington’s victory at Trenton, British General Cornwallis returned to New Jersey from New York City. He assembled a force of 8,000 at Princeton, leaving 1,200 at Princeton under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood of the 17th Regiment of Foot. On January 2, he took his remaining forces, which included twenty-eight cannons, and marched toward Trenton and Washington’s army. When he reached Maidenhead (now Lawrenceville), he detached Colonel Alexander Leslie of the 64th Regiment of Foot with 1,500 men. He ordered them to stay there until the next morning. As soon as Washington heard that Cornwallis was on his way to attack him, he detached men to skirmish with the approaching British forces in a delaying action. Due to the American resistance it was not until late in the day when the British army finally reached Trenton. It was the second time in eight days that the Americans would engage the enemy.

The Americans were encamped on the east side of a bridge across the Assunpink Creek. The British advanced in solid columns onto the bridge. The Americans fired in unison and the British fell back. The British regrouped and charged the bridge again. This time the Americans fired a cannon into the redcoats and they fell back once more. After regrouping they moved onto the bridge. This time the American cannons fired antipersonnel canister shot, which is like a shotgun blast of small pellets. The bridge was littered with the dead. A soldier described the scene: “The bridge looked red as blood, with their killed and wounded and their red coats.” The firing and the killing continued till sunset when Cornwallis called off the attack. He planned to take the bridge the next morning and then crush Washington and the Continental Army. Both sides were exhausted and the soldiers on both sides were ordered to rest.

It was brought to Washington’s attention that the British could cross the creek farther down at Philip’s Ford and turn his flank. He would have been caught between the British forces and the Delaware River. It would have been a repeat of the Battle of Long Island. This time he could not escape by crossing the Delaware, as he had crossed the East River before, as his vessels were farther upstream. He did not have the time for them to be brought to his rescue. Later the British quietly, under the cover of darkness, began moving 2,000 men in the woods into position to cross Philip’s Ford in the morning.

Washington had received Cadwalader’s spy’s intelligence on the enemy situation at Princeton. The unknown spy provided great detail of the British fortifications. This would be the rare occasion that Washington acted on a single spy’s intelligence, as there was no time to get corroborating intelligence. Because of the desperate situation, he could not stand pat. He had to do something or be destroyed.

He hurriedly called a council of war. It was decided to slip away during the night and surprise the British at Princeton. The Continental Army’s military and personal baggage was sent south to Burlington. The artillery was wrapped in heavy cloth to quiet the noise. Five hundred soldiers were left at Trenton with two cannons. Some were assigned to tend the campfires to keep them burning. Others were to make noise digging with picks and shovels to convince the British that the American army was going to make a stand and was reinforcing its position preparing for the British attack at Philip’s Ford. The soldiers who were left as a distraction were to sneak away during the night and catch up to the Continental Army before dawn. The army, as silently as possible, slipped away beginning at 2 a.m. while the British watched the light from the American camp- fires. For some of the men it would be their third night march in a row in the cold and extreme darkness. They were slowed by the task of getting the artillery over stumps in the frozen, rutted road. After crossing the new bridge, Washington split the army into two units just as when he approached Trenton a week earlier.

Unfortunately, just like a week earlier, they were arriving later than intended and lost the cover of darkness.

Thirty-four-year-old Rhode Islander General Nathanael Greene took the smaller column of soldiers and went west to take control of the main road from Princeton to Trenton. They were to keep the enemy at Princeton from escaping and block any reinforcements coming to the aid of those at Princeton. General John Sullivan of New Hampshire commanded the main body of the army of 5,000 men. They went to the right along the Saw Mill Road.

Cornwallis had ordered forty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood to bring the 17th and 55th British Regiments of Foot along with some artillery to Trenton to join his army in the morning. Mawhood marched out from Princeton at about five in the morning. While on the march he sighted the main American army under General Sullivan. He immediately sent a rider to warn the 40th Regiment of Foot in Princeton of the advancing Americans.

Mawhood decided to attack with 450 men the main American army. Brigadier General Hugh Mercer’s 1,500 men of Greene’s division made the first contact with Mawhood’s men in William Clark’s orchard. Lieutenant William John Hale of the 45th Regiment of Foot wrote that the American volley was “a heavy discharge, which brought down seven of my platoon at once, the rest being recruits, gave way.” He continues, “I rallied them with much difficulty, and brought them forward with bayonets.” The two sides matched volley for volley. Pools of blood glistened on the ice-covered field. Mawhood saw an opportunity and ordered a bayonet charge against the American riflemen, who did not have bayonets. Brigadier General Mercer’s horse was hit and down Mercer went as he ordered a retreat. His men safely retreated but Mercer fell into British hands. He fought with his sword and was bayoneted many times and would die several days later. His men retreated right into Colonel John Cadwalader’s Pennsylvania Associators as they were trying to deploy. Washington came on the field and rallied the men, riding on a white horse within seventy-five feet of the British line. He made a very easy target but somehow came through the battle without a scratch. More American units came onto the field, some with bayonets drawn.

The British fired a volley that went over the heads of the Americans. Washington with the army under control then ordered a platoon to fire as it marched forward. Washington was turning their flank and was about to attack the British rear as well as the front and flank. The circle was closing. The British decided their only course of action was either to fight and be cut to pieces or retreat through the only way still available. Mawhood sent the artillery back to Princeton in an effort to save them. The 55th Regiment of Foot took up position south of the town at a place called Frog Hollow. They were outnumbered 10 to 1. They did some delaying actions, falling back to new defensive positions. This bought the British some time to remove as much of their supplies and artillery out of Princeton as possible and take them to safety in New Brunswick. When the American army was within fifty or sixty feet of the British defenses and ready to charge, a British officer with a white handkerchief on the point of his sword asked for a truce in order to surrender. General Sullivan accepted his surrender.

Some of the British forces that were in the town took shelter in Nassau Hall, which was the main building for the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Alexander Hamilton had some cannons brought to the front of Nassau Hall and fired at the building. When some Americans broke open the front door, the British waved a white flag through one of the windows and surrendered. The Americans had defeated the British regulars and were now in control of the town. As soon as Cornwallis realized the Americans had slipped away during the night, were now behind him, and he was in an unsupported position, he and his troops headed back to Princeton.

The British payroll chest of £70,000 lay just sixteen miles up the road in New Brunswick guarded by a skeleton force. It was a great prize but Washington’s men were exhausted. Some had not had any rest for two nights and a day. From the best intelligence Washington was able to get, the British were so alarmed at the possibility of an attack at New Brunswick that they immediately marched there without halting at Princeton. This al- lowed Washington to take his men unmolested another thirty miles past New Brunswick to the safety of an encampment in the Watchung Mountains in and around Morristown.

The increase in the morale of the public and the troops was meteoric. The mood went from the despair of expecting Philadelphia to fall to the British juggernaut, which had ridden rough- shod over New York and New Jersey, to euphoria over the two American victories. William Hooper, a Continental congress- man from North Carolina, best described the change in the public morale and the heady confidence in Washington and the Continental Army after the victories at the Battle of Trenton over the Hessians and the Battle of Princeton over the British.


Excerpted with permission from George Washington’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America’s First Spymaster by John A. Nagy. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2016. Book available here US | here UK.

John Quincy Adams was not a Founding Father, but he was a ‘Founding Son’. Here, William Bodkin continues his series on the presidents of the USA. He looks at a fascinating tale of how John Quincy Adams fought to preserve the Union against “States’ rights” over 50 years after the end of the American Revolutionary War.

William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), James Madison (link here), and James Monroe (link here).

John Quincy Adams, 1858. Painting by G.P.A. Healy.

John Quincy Adams, 1858. Painting by G.P.A. Healy.

Even though he was not a member of America’s Founding generation, John Quincy Adams had much in common with the Founders.  We can even call him their first son. For example, like his father, John Adams, John Quincy Adams’ time as president was likely his least important contribution to the Republic.  John Quincy Adams’ life was a litany of service to the nation; Ambassador, Senator, Secretary of State, President, and then, finally, Congressman representing his home district in Massachusetts.[1]  It was during his time in Congress that the younger Adams secured the esteem that often eluded his family.  His debating skills earned him the nickname “The Old Man Eloquent” and he stood, during a time when the American Union was being gradually torn apart by slavery, as a reminder of the importance of unity in the United States.

1839 was a pivotal year in this regard.  Adams was nearing the height of his post-presidential influence, which culminated in his 1841 argument of the Amistad case before the Supreme Court, where he helped secure freedom for Africans who had been kidnapped in violation of international law and treaties to be sold as slaves.[2]  1839 helped lay the foundation for the successes to come.

In December 1839, a fight for control of the House of Representatives was resolved only when Adams himself agreed to preside over the chamber.  Following the 1838 election, two delegations from New Jersey presented themselves in the House, one Democrat (pro-slavery), one Whig (anti-slavery).  Control of the House, which was evenly split between the two parties, hinged on which New Jersey faction was seated.  In the absence of a Speaker, usually elected by the majority party, the Clerk of the House controlled debate and called for votes.  But the Clerk was a Democrat seeking to preserve his party’s rule.  He refused to do anything, and would not call votes, even to adjourn.  After five days of chaos, Adams, then a Whig, rose and made an impassioned plea directly to his fellow Congressman to override the Clerk, whom he thundered was in defiance of the will of the people and who was holding the whole Congress, ironically enough his employers, in contempt.  When someone asked who would “put the question” to a vote since the Clerk refused, Adams, in complete disregard for parliamentary procedure, declared that he would.



Stirred by Adams’ speech, a Democratic member who was usually a bitter opponent of Adams, Robert Barnwell Rhett of South Carolina, proposed that the oldest member of Congress serve as temporary Speaker.  When he declined, Rhett then rallied Democrats and Whigs alike behind Adams.  As the chamber erupted in cheers, Adams was escorted to the dais to preside in the wholly manufactured role of “Chairman of the House of Representatives”, replacing the Clerk.  Adams filled the role for nearly two weeks until a compromise candidate for Speaker was settled on.[3] 

But while in December 1839 Adams was a rallying point for Democrat and Whig alike, in April of that year he used his status as Founding Son and former president to attack one of the Democrats’ favorite arguments supporting slavery, that of “states’ rights” over the federal government.  The occasion was an oration Adams delivered at the New York Historical Society celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the United Stated Constitution.[4]

Adams viewed “states’ rights” as an insult to the principles his father fought for in the Revolution.  Adams seized on the opportunity of the “Jubilee of the Constitution” to follow once more in his father’s footsteps. He strove to establish a unified theory of the American Founding, one based on the idea that sovereignty in the United States, i.e., supreme power and authority, rested not in “states’ rights” over the federal government, but in the power of the people over both the states and the federal government, each of which should be looked at warily as potential usurpers of the people’s power.

Adams based his argument in the Revolution itself, contending that the act of declaring Independence from Britain was one of all the people of the United States renouncing allegiance to the “British crown”, and seizing anew for themselves the “natural rights of mankind”.  Adams described it as the “whole people” declaring, “in their united condition,” that they were “free and independent.”[5]

Adams, like his father, believed that following the Declaration of Independence, the former colonies had, in truth, no government.[6]  The former colonists decided that the most practical course was to constitute themselves as independent states along their old colonial boundaries, and for the people of each state to draft their own state constitutions.  While this decision was correct, Adams believed that it led to the near fatal error of the new states, the decision to relax the Union that had fought and forged Independence into a “league of friendship” between “sovereign and independent states”[7], placing the states over the Union.  Adams argued that as a result of the Articles of Confederation, the “nation fell into atrophy” and the “[t]he Union languished to the point of death.”[8]



Rebirth was needed, and it came, according to Adams, in the form of the new Constitution, with George Washington at its head.  Adams asserted that the Constitution was the perfect “complement” to the Declaration of Independence, as they were based on the same principles.   Adams believed that the Declaration and the Constitution were “parts of one consistent whole, founded upon one and the same theory of government.”  The theory was that the “people were the only legitimate source of power” and that “all just powers of government were derived from the consent of the governed” and not the consent of the states.  In Adams’ formulation, “We, the People” of the American Union had again come together, as surely as they had to throw off the despotic rule of George III, to throw off the Articles of Confederation.  Adams derided states’ rights as “grossly immoral,” and the “dishonest doctrine of despotic stare sovereignty.”  Those who advanced it were advocating a theory of government that stood in direct opposition to the principles of the Founding Era.[9]

John Quincy Adams took this fight personally.  It had been the life’s work of his family for two generations.  As history tells us, however, the lawyerly arguments of John Quincy Adams did not carry the day.  It took the near apocalyptic bloodshed of the Civil War to preserve the Union.  And even that did not end the debate over the idea that states’ rights were superior to the federal government.  The argument continues to this day,[10] with various “popular” movements making the case for states’ rights and secession from the Union.[11]  Governors from various states have asserted that their state can handle any American issue better than the federal government, from containing Ebola, to immigration, to health care.

But there seems to be one key difference between John Quincy Adams’ era and the present day, and that is in the apparent unwillingness of any major public figure to make the case for Union, and why the American Republic, for all its flaws, remains better, stronger, and more free together than it ever could broken into its constituent parts.  Indeed, there seems to be no one to argue on behalf of all the American people why the more perfect union they established must endure.


Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!


1. “The Election of John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts” on

2. See, Teaching With Documents, the Amistad Case. (


4. “The Jubilee of the Constitution.  A discourse delivered at the request of the New York Historical Society in the City of New York on Tuesday the 30th of April 1839, being the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States, on Thursday, the 30th of April, 1789” by John Quincy Adams, Published by Samuel Colman, Astor House, 1839. (“Jubilee”).

5. Jubilee, p.6

6. See, e.g., Ellis, Joseph, “American Summer,” Chapter 1, “Prudence Dictates” (Knopf 2013).

7. Jubilee at 10.

8. Jubilee at 11.

9. Jubilee, 40-42

10. See, “Angry with Washington, 1 in 4 Americans open to secession.”

11. See, “Americans for Independence…From America” (

The American Revolution from 1775-1783 changed the world. In this article, Aidan Curran takes a unique look at the causes of the Revolution – stamps, sugar and tea. This article is part of our introductions to history series.


Thinking of hosting an afternoon tea party any time soon? Think again, you might just spark a revolution!

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was not your ordinary tea party. There were no forced pleasantries, scrumptious pastries, or even tea being drunk. Instead, there were 60 men, dressed as Native Americans, flinging 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. This was in response to the British Government passing the Tea Act, which stated Americans had to buy tea from Britain only. Americans were less then pleased by this, as taxes were being placed on them, yet they had no representation in the British Parliament. This led to the cry for “No Taxation without Representation.” However, a tea party is not complete without sugar, and this was also a cause of the American Revolution. A third cause was a tax on stamps.

But before we get into tea, sugar, and stamps, it is important to understand what life was like for the colonists under British rule. Society was made up of ruling elites, from great landowners to British placemen, who were trying to make their fortune in the Thirteen Colonies. Nobody really cared about the colonists; everybody was in it to serve their own interests. Americans were restricted in their day-to-day living. The Navigation Acts stated that the most important goods had to be sent to British ports, and transported in British vessels. Turning crude iron into finished goods was also forbidden, along with selling beaver hats. Granted, not being able to buy a hat is hardly an excuse for a Revolution, but the fact remains: the colonists were serving needs other than their own, as economically they were restricted, and politically they had no influence. Upon the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, it was colonists who had to pay the price, literally. 

The tarring and feathering of the Loyalist Commissioner of Customs, John Malcolm, January 1774, underneath the Liberty Tree. He is also being forced to drink tea. In the background, the Boston Tea Party is taking place, an event that in reality occurred in December 1773. Painting attributed to Philip Dawe.

The tarring and feathering of the Loyalist Commissioner of Customs, John Malcolm, January 1774, underneath the Liberty Tree. He is also being forced to drink tea. In the background, the Boston Tea Party is taking place, an event that in reality occurred in December 1773. Painting attributed to Philip Dawe.

War Debt

Why did Britain have to impose taxes on tea, sugar, and stamps? From 1754-1763, they battled with France over North American territory, which is known as the Seven Years’ War. To fight this war, Britain borrowed huge amounts of money from banks and individual investors. The colonists assisted Britain in the war by providing soldiers and economic resources, and this made Britain realize just how important the colonies were in maintaining its status as a world power.

Were the British grateful for the colonists help though? Absolutely not!

The British saw the colonists as inferiors, whose main role was to enrich the mother country. One British official even described the colonists as “fools.” In fact, the British even believed that Americans should be grateful for the continued protection they received, and so did not hesitate in making Americans pay for the war debt.


Taxing the Colonies

And now, we get to the tea, sugar, and stamps! By placing taxes on these items, Britain hoped to regain the huge amount of money that it had spent fighting the Seven Years War. In 1764, the Sugar Act was introduced by Prime Minister George Grenville, which forced Americans to pay a three-cent tax on sugar. There was also a tax placed on wine and coffee.

While, the Sugar Act was really only a new reinforced aspect of the Navigation Acts, the Stamp Act was a new matter altogether. Introduced in 1765, it placed a tax on every single piece of paper that Americans used, from newspapers to playing cards.

Now, it would seem reasonable that a person should be able to buy tea from wherever they want, don’t you think? Well, the British didn’t think so. The Tea Act of 1773 meant that if Americans wanted tea, they had to buy it from the British owned East India Company. And the colonists certainly liked their tea – they drank at least 1.2 million pounds of it every year.

The colonists were annoyed, very annoyed indeed. Not so much with the acts themselves, but the fact that Britain was making decisions without their consent. Furthermore, the colonists believed that if they were paying taxes, they should be represented in the British Parliament, and devised the slogan “No Taxation without Representation.” This simply meant that if colonists were to pay taxes, they wanted somebody in the British Parliament, who would claim their rights and fight taxation. If Americans were British citizens, they wanted to be treated as such.


American reaction to taxation

Feeling that their rights were being violated, colonists reacted to taxation with mass meetings, protests, and boycotting British goods. Everything revolved around the word “liberty.” Opponents of the new taxes went as far as to hold mock funerals, in which liberty’s coffin would be carried to the grave. At the last minute, the occupant would jump out of the coffin, and everybody would go to a tavern and celebrate. In Boston, there is a large elm tree, where protesters once hanged an effigy of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver, and this became known as the Liberty Tree. Mass meetings were also held under this tree, and this space became known as Liberty Hall.

In New York, hundreds of residents passed through the streets every night shouting “liberty.” Around this time too, the Sons of Liberty were formed, and while they were unsupported by society’s elite, they had a large following from the city’s laborers, craftsmen, and sailors. A British officer by the name of Major Thomas James infuriated colonists by boasting that he would force the stamps down New Yorkers’ throats, and the colonists reacted by destroying his home.

Faced with such resistance, the British government repealed the stamp act in 1766. However, they did proceed to pass a Declaratory Act, which dismissed the colonists’ claims that they should be represented in Parliament.

The Townsend Acts also contributed to the American Revolution. They angered the colonists even further by placing taxes on glass and paper. The colonists again protested and boycotted British goods. British troops were sent to enforce the laws, but this led to many unpleasant clashes with colonists. Indeed, on March 5, 1770, the Boston Massacre took place. British troops who were guarding a customs house, opened fire and killed five Bostonians, while wounding many more. It is believed that the soldiers panicked, after somebody began to throw snowballs.

In response to the Tea Act imposed by the British government, colonists boarded three British ships in Boston Harbor and threw $4 million worth of tea into the sea. This is event of now known as the Boston Tea Party. As the British loved their tea (and money), they were furious, and quickly and decisively enforced the Intolerable Acts. As part of the Acts, Boston’s port was closed to all trade until the tea was paid for, town meetings were banned, and colonists had no choice but to feed and house the extra British soldiers that were sent to keep order. The British realized that they had to stand firm against the Americans – to back down over the Tea Party would portray them as weak to their other colonies. Again, colonists responded with resistance and defiance to the Intolerable Acts, claiming that their rights to liberty were being violated. They went so far as to accuse the British as being “instigated by the devil.” Revolution was edging ever closer…


The Continental Congress and outbreak of war

In response to the Intolerable Acts, the First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia from September 5 through October 26, and urged citizens to resist the new laws and prepare themselves for war. It was here that Patrick Henry made his famous proclamation: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

The Continental Congress was the final bolt that opened the door of Revolution. By May 1775, war had broken out between British soldiers and armed colonists.


 To sum it all up

Who knew a row over tea, sugar, and stamps could contribute to the establishment of one of the world’s great superpowers? However, as has been outlined, there were many factors that led to the American Revolution and, eventually, American Independence. Colonists were tired of being seen as inferior and wanted to have the rights of an English citizen, but more importantly, they wanted the rights of a human being. They also felt they should not be made to pay for Britain’s debt resulting from the Seven Years War. In addition, they thought that they should not have to pay taxes if they were not represented in Parliament – “No Taxation without Representation.”

With the Declaration of Independence, Americans were allowed to embark on their “pursuit of happiness” and realize their goals. They could shape their society in whichever way they saw fit. Oh, and they had the freedom to buy tea from whoever they chose…


You can find out more from Aidan Curran on his site here or his Twitter feed here.


This article is the first in what will be occasional articles on introductions to history. Introductions to History will feature an overview of a major event in world history, often told in a somewhat humorous or different way!


Finally, you can find out more about the American Revolution in our podcast series here.



Selected References

  • The American Revolution, Colin Bonwick
  • The American Revolution, Edward Countryman
  • The Limits of Liberty, Maldwyn Jones
  • Give Me Liberty!, Eric Foner

In this article, as our part of our American Revolution season, we look at the life of a British soldier during the American Revolutionary War. 

British army redcoats through the ages.  Source: Regimental Nicknames and Traditions of the British Army, London: Gale & Polden, 1916.   

British army redcoats through the ages.

Source: Regimental Nicknames and Traditions of the British Army, London: Gale & Polden, 1916.


Army muster rolls in general provide an overview of each soldier's career, allowing each man to be traced from the time that he joined his regiment to the time he left it. Occasionally, however, a soldier enigmatically appears on the rolls without any indication of where he came from, and sometimes men disappear from the rolls with no explanation of where they went. Benjamin Reynard, a grenadier in the 37th Regiment of Foot, provides an example of both of these nuances.

Reynard served in America, but it is not clear when he joined the army or arrived on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. He first appears on the roll of the grenadier company covering the period 25 December 1777 through 24 June 1778. Most men who joined grenadier or light infantry companies had served for at least a year in other companies of the regiment (there were occasional exceptions, particularly for men who had prior military experience). There is no annotation on this roll that he joined the company during that muster period, and no trace of him on the rolls of other companies during preceding periods. Admittedly, more detailed analysis might resolve this mystery; sometimes there are significant changes in the ways that names are spelled from one roll to another, and sometimes even the man's first name changes (for example, there's a chance that Benjamin Reynard is the 'Thomas Raynor' who appears on the prior roll of the same company), but determining this requires careful tracing of all of the names on the rolls, a long and tedious process.

Reynard continues on the rolls of the grenadier company of the 37th Regiment through August of 1783. At that time, the regiment was reorganized due to force reductions at the end of the war; the strength was reduced from ten companies to eight, and many men were discharged. Reynard appears on a set of rolls covering the period 24 June through 24 August (an unusual muster period), but is absent from the subsequent roll covering 25 August through 24 December. Again, it is possible that his name is not obvious because of spelling permutations, but the spelling is very consistent on all of the interim rolls.
Although we lack career details on Reynard that we have for most soldiers, there survives a record of a personal vignette during Reynard's American service, something we lack for most soldiers. At the beginning of June 1779 the grenadier battalion that included his company was part of an expedition that fortified posts on the Hudson River north of New York city including Stony Point on the west shore and Verplanck's Point on the east shore. They camped in wigwams made of brush, a typical practice for the British army in America. On 4 June they fired a salute in honor of the King's birthday.

At about 10 AM on 5 June, Reynard asked his sergeant for leave to go outside of the camp to gather greens, which was granted. He took a haversack with him, and after about an hour returned to camp with the haversack full of dock greens and other wild greens. At noon he fell in for a formation.

Later that day or the next day, a local inhabitant named Mary Baker claimed that some soldiers had come to her house about two miles from the camp at around 11 in the morning of 5 June. She had an inventory of things that they had plundered which included "shirts, and a quantity of wearing Apparel." She identified Reynard as one of the perpetrators, and claimed that he had also killed a pig of hers and made off with it.

Reynard was put on trial for this crime on 7 June. Mary Baker was the only witness supporting the charge. Reynard claimed that he was away from the camp with leave but had not gone far and had only gathered greens. His sergeant and another grenadier both testified in his support, corroborating his story. Both testified that they were in the same mess as Reynard, that is, they prepared their food and dined together; this explained their explicit interest in having seen the greens that Reynard gathered, and both said that Reynard had nothing else with him when he returned to camp. As an aside, typically a mess consisted of 5 men; military authors of the era recommended that sergeants and soldiers mess separately, so the testimony in this trial indicates either that this company of the 37th did not heed these recommendations or that the size and composition of messes varied while the army was on campaign.

In a striking verdict, which is perhaps yet another mystery about Reynard, the military court found him guilty of the crime. Apparently they gave greater significance to the testimony of the injured party than to Reynard and his two comrades. There is no mention in the trial proceedings of how Mary Barker singled out Reynard, but there are other accounts of soldiers being paraded so that wronged inhabitants could recognize an offender in the ranks. It is possible that the officers who sat on the court were privy to information that was not explicitly presented at the trial. It also may be that the court wanted to set an example to stave off plundering by other soldiers.

Benjamin Reynard was sentenced to receive 1000 lashes. We have no information on the extent to which this punishment was inflicted. Sometimes soldiers who were severely punished, particularly on dubious evidence, deserted, but not this one. As described above, Reynard continued to serve through to the end of the war. 


By Don N Hagist

Don is the owner of, a place for information about British soldiers who served during the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Take a look!


And our American Revolution podcast page is available by clicking here.