What if the American Revolution failed and England retained control of the colonies? This essay tells the story of the Second American Revolution
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August, 1776. The leaders of the rebellion had signed their so-called Declaration of Independence less than a month earlier. Insurrection raged across the British colonies in America. Attempting to crush the upstart colonial rebellion, British forces under General William Howe occupied Staten Island in New York. In a daring gamble, the rebel General, George Washington, moved his Continental Army into New York City to defend against the British onslaught. The folly of George Washington ensured a stillborn revolution.
Defying military convention, Washington divided his forces. Roughly half occupied Manhattan Island; Washington shuttled the remainder to Long Island to counter the British threat. Washington rallied his troops: “The day of the trial, which will in some measure decide the fate of America, is near at hand.”
Across the battle lines, General Howe moved his troops into place. On August 24, a combined force of Hessians and British regulars advanced across Long Island. Their 20,000 man army pushed towards Washington’s meager 12,000. Their forces clashed on the 27th and Washington retreated to Brooklyn Heights, the fortified western tip of the island.
On the 28th wind and rain lashed both armies. British frigates attempted to slip up the East River, intending to pommel Brooklyn Heights with their cannon. But the wind was against them, it was impossible to push upriver.
Morning, August 29th. The weather was beautiful, the sky clear, and the East River calm. The British noose tightened. British frigates sailed upriver, trapping the rebel forces between Howe’s forces on the land and the Royal Navy on the water. At 9:00 the fleet unleashed a massive bombardment on the Brooklyn Heights. Colonial morale plunged. Waves after wave of British regulars assaulted the Brooklyn ramparts.
The magnitude of the bloodletting was unprecedented on the North America continent. Rebels and British troops fought hand to hand, bayonets inflicted more fatalities than firearms.
By mid-afternoon, Washington faced a monumental choice: either immediate surrender or sacrifice the entire Staten Island forces so that the Manhattan troops could retreat and fight another day. Either way, he knew, the cause was lost.
Washington raised the white flag and surrendered to Howe. Washington lamented to his aid-de-camp, “Today we witness the death of liberty.”
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The Boston Treason Trials ensued in the summer of 1777. Prominent Tory lawyers and judges converged on Boston, the epicenter of the insurrection.
Throughout the previous winter and spring, furious debate had raged in Parliament concerning the fate of the thousands of colonial traitors. Official pardons were extended to soldiers and lower officers in the Continental Army. Though several prominent statesmen, lead by Edmund Burke, argued for the granting of universal pardon to the insurrection’s upper echelons, Parliament refused and ordered the rebel leaders brought to trial.
On May 5th, the Boston Treason Trials commenced. The signatories of the Declaration of Independence were found guilty of high treason. Death by hanging was proscribed. Due to his advanced age and international popularity, Benjamin Franklin was spared. Also, in memory of his stunning defense of innocent British troops after the so-called “Boston Massacre,” John Adam’s punishment was mitigated. Adams and Franklin were sentenced to lifelong imprisonment.
Rebel officers ranking colonel or above shared Adams and Franklin’s fate. The location of their incarceration was fiercely contested. Many judges feared an outcry in the colonies if they were detained in England. Imprisonment in the colonies was dangerous – the guilty would be constant reminders of failed rebellion. Compromise won the day. A new prison fortress would be erected in Port Royal, Jamaica to house the condemned. Port Royal lay in ruins from a massive hurricane in 1774, but the British began immediate construction a mighty prison facility.
July 4th, 1777. Workmen erected massive gallows in Boston square. An immense crowd gathered. A Tory band played “God Save the Queen” as the original copy of the Declaration of Independence was publicly burned. Next, to the sound of cacophonous Tory jeers, George Washington was hung. Then, the mass hangings commenced. Some, like Charles Carroll, met their fate in stony silence. Others like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams put on a great spectacle and delivered final, fiery orations. By day’s end, the bodies were buried in a mass grave and the crowd dispersed. The leaders of the insurrection were reduced to memory . . . But a powerful memory they would become.
Parliament reintroduced the Acts of Trade –which had incited the rebellion in the first place– on January 1st, 1778. Later that year, the Retributive Acts passed in Parliament, levying heaver taxes on the colonies; Parliament unsaddled the entire war debt on the colonies. It was a mistake. The Acts stirred up Tory and rebel animosity alike. The unrest threatened the fragile peace.
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Some historians argue that the Second American Revolution was merely a continuation of the First. This argument has some merit, as the events are intimately connected. However, the character and flavor of the rebellions are so different that they merit segregation in our historical vocabulary. Compared to the Second, the First American Revolution was civilized, a gentleman’s war.
In 1781, Parliament passed the Sedition Acts. Any colonist found guilty of speaking ill of the mother county was tried and incarcerated. Naturally, whispers of discontent multiplied.
Revenge served to motivate. Seth Warner began his illustrious career by seeking vengeance for his cousin, Ethan Allen, the former leader of the Green Mountain Boys. In 1775, Allen had been imprisoned on a British warship, kept in confinement, and was further abused until his eventual execution in 1777. Warner secretly resurrected the Green Mountain Boys and in the spring of 1784 launched a series of lightning guerilla raids on British armories in New York and New Hampshire. His rallying cry: “For Allen! For Washington! For liberty!”
General Howe, commander of the occupational force, sent troops to hunt down and exterminate the Green Mountain Boys. These regulars met with little success. After each raid the guerrillas successfully escaped into the wilderness or blended into the towns.
Two years passed. Warner continued his raids. His following increased exponentially and he established guerrilla cells throughout the colonies. Warner sent the best and brightest of his original Green Mountain Boys to train sympathizers and to serves as officers in other cells.
In 1787 an ambitious man named Alexander Hamilton dispatched secret communiques to various non-Tory agents in the colonial governments. A former captain who served the rebellion in the final New York campaign, Hamilton dreamed of reviving the Revolution and overthrowing British rule. On behalf of New York’s colonial government, his communique called for the convening of an underground Third Continental Congress to “deliberate on matters concerning the infernal British occupation.”
Further inland, away from the might of the Royal Navy, Philadelphia offered to host the convention. Each of the colonies sent clandestine delegates. Generous bribes kept the occupational office in the city from investigating. Interestingly, they suspected cultist activity, so closely guarded was the true nature of the meeting. The governor of Pennsylvania, secretly pro-rebel, even allowed the Congress to meet in the basement of Philadelphia State House. Examples of prominent attendees were Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and Daniel Morgan. Seth Warner was the guest of honor. The Congress concluded that active resistance should be cultivated throughout the colonies. They encouraged Warner to expand his resistance, providing him with contacts from their various colonies. Warner happily complied.
As the Congress prepared to disperse, a specter from the grave sauntered into their deliberations. Benedict Arnold. His body was emaciated and haggard but his eyes blazed as he recounted his daring escape from Port Royal. Against all odds –with the assistance of Spanish privateers in the Caribbean and Negro slaves in Florida– the former rebel general had made his way north undetected. Now he offered his life and his services to the Congress. Arnold enraptured the Congress –they offered Arnold supreme command of future colonial forces. Arnold accepted.
Warner was understandably flabbergasted; the only existing military forces were his guerilla cells. Warner flew into a rage, accuse Arnold of lies and treachery.
Arnold replied hotly, “Never before have these lands produced so loyal a son of liberty as I. Would that I would rot in hell before betraying these colonies!”
Arnold took command of the rebel cells and by the end of June, Arnold’s forces were roving throughout the colonies, raiding storehouses and armories, attacking British troops, and burning ships military and trade ships in the harbors.
To Howe’s chagrin, the threats materialized suddenly and vanished as quickly. Unless his troops were by chance in the right place at the right time, Howe was impotent to counter the rebel guerillas. He beseeched London for more men and material. England responded, sending reinforcements and replacing Howe with Lord Cornwallis. The victor Howe returned to London in disgrace.
The Battle of Baltimore was the first full-fledged military conflict of the Second American Revolution. On August 5th, fourteen guerrilla cells converged on Baltimore. In four bloody days of urban fighting, they slaughtered the British occupiers and seized the city.
Triumphant, Arnold ordered that the guerrilla cells coalesce into larger, concentrated armies. Now a general, Warner disagreed, arguing that the rebels were ill prepared to fight as a unified army. Arnold chastised him and commanded all mid-Atlantic cells to converge in Baltimore. He ordered New England cells to New York and southern cells to Savannah.
Outside of New York, Cornwallis’ army impaled the combined colonial force under General Paul Revere. Lord Cornwallis was so elated that he ordered a gigantic equestrian statue of himself erected on Manhattan Island. It stands to this day.
Furious, Warner branded Arnold incompetent and craven. Afraid Warner would undermine his authority, Arnold ordered Warner to select a team of Green Mountain Boys and to report to Captain John Paul Jones for a secret mission.
Because the rebels possessed no warships, the first step of the mission was critical. Together, Jones and the Green Mountain Boys captured a British warship, the Executor, and sailed to Port Royal. Warner led a daring commando raid into the prison fortress in which the heroes of the First Revolution languished. Warner and Jones extracted every rebel prisoner. The only fatality was Ben Franklin, shot through the heart while being ushered onto the deck of the Executor. The commandos escaped well ahead of the shocked pursuing British craft.
The raid on Port Royal was a stunning success a public relations coup –bolstering both Arnold and Warner’s reputations– but was of little military value. The insurrection was floundering on the mainland.
The southern army under General Aaron Burr was locked in a deadly contest of wills with the British general, Sir Banastre Tarleton. When Burr seized Charleston, the British general realized he possessed insufficient strength to take the city. Instead, he impounded several thousand colonial women and children in hastily constructed camps. Tarleton threatening to slowly starve the rebel’s families until Burr surrendered. Burr surrendered. Tarleton had him executed on the spot.
Arnold needed a victory. He was desperate. Whispers circulated that he was mentally disturbed. The Congress sent a communique ordering Arnold to surrender his command to Warner. Arnold simply burned the letter, ignoring it completely. To this day it is unclear why Warner never received a corresponding communication.
November, 1787. British General Henry Clinton’s forces arrived outside the city and began a massive artillery bombardment.
Arnold ordered the white flag raised. He, Clinton, and their aides met in a small tent erected just outside of Baltimore. Smugly, Clinton began laying down his terms of surrender. Arnold interrupted him, growling, “I refuse to negotiate with the pawn of a tyrant.”
Clinton’s face grew red, he began sputtering in anger.
Arnold pulled out a small pistol and shot his opponent directly between the eyes. As Clinton sagged to the floor, Arnold’s aides dispatched the other British present. Arnold and his aides fled back to the city before the British fully comprehend the depths of his treachery.
Upon realizing what had occurred, Cornwallis grew enraged, calling Arnold’s actions “a titanic breach in civilized conduct.” He assumed personal control of Clinton’s army.
Arnold’s act of assassination exacerbated the turmoil within the city. Discontent spread rapidly through the city. They were vastly outnumbered and Arnold seemed both mad and craven. And the people were starving. Winter was rapidly approaching. Hundreds of rebel troops began deserting, surrendering themselves to British mercy. Arnold ordered deserters shot. Gunshots rang out throughout the city.
Cornwallis smiled, content to starve the army to death.
Then Baltimore received news that the Third Continental Congress had been discovered in Philadelphia. After his victory in the south, Tarleton traveled north to root out the rebel government. When his agents discovered their meeting place, Tarleton barricaded the delegates inside and burned Philadelphia State House to the ground. The news shocked the colonists; the army was headless.
Finally, Warner stormed into Arnold’s tent; he explained that Arnold faced a strikingly similar choice to Washington’s: surrender or be annihilated. Unlike Washington, Arnold refused to capitulate, ordering a full assault on the British forces. He sent couriers with the battle plans out to his officers in the city.
Minutes later, shots were near Arnold’s command building. Warner strode in, flanked by several Green Mountain Boys. “I will not let so many valiant men perish to preserve the pride of a madman,” Warner declared, pressing his bayonet to Arnold’s throat. Warner took Arnold into custody, uttering, “You have ruined my war.”
The troops accepted the coup de tat and backed Warner.
Warner negotiated a treaty with Cornwallis, saving thousands of colonial lives. However, his own fate was sealed. A week later after the surrender Warner and Arnold were hung side by side, without a trial. Warner met his fate stoically. Arnold cursed and spit. With their hanging, the Second American Revolution ended.
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In 1789 the second period of salutary neglect began. Edmund Burke and his allies finally convinced Parliament that the Second Revolution proved the impossibility of iron-fisted control over the colonies. The colonies, Burke argued, must be treated as sister states.
The Burke Plan, as it came to be called, was wildly successful, enriching both the colonies and the mother land. Never again would revolution plague British America.
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But peace was short lived. Storm clouds were settling over the continent of North America. Hard at work solidifying their claim over American territories, the Spanish and French were growing threat to British hegemony. Soon, age old enemies would vie for dominance in the New World. A bloody history was just beginning. . . .