The Revolution was not a single struggle, but a series of four separate Wars of Independence, waged in very different ways by the major cultures of British America. The first American Revolution (1775-76) was a massive popular insurrection in New England. An army of British regulars was defeated by a Yankee militia which was much like the Puritan train bands from which they were descended. These citizen soldiers were urged into battle by New England’s “black regiment” of Calvinist clergy. The purpose of New England’s War for Independence, as stated both by ministers and by laymen such as John and Samuel Adams, was not to secure the rights of man in any universal sense. Most New Englanders showed little interest in John Locke or Cato’s letters. They sought mainly to defend their accustomed ways against what the town of Malden called “the contagion of venality and dissipation” which was spreading from London to America.
Many years later, historian George Bancroft asked a New England townsman why he and his friends took up arms in the Revolution. Had he been inspired by the ideas of John Locke? The old soldier confessed that he had never heard of Locke. Had he been moved by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense? The honest Yankee admitted that he had never read Tom Paine. Had the Declaration of Independence made a difference? The veteran thought not. When asked to explain why he fought in his own words, he answered simply that New Englanders had always managed their own affairs, and Britain tried to stop them, and so the war began.
In 1775, these Yankee soldiers were angry and determined men, in no mood for halfway measures. Their revolution was not merely a mind game. Most able-bodied males served in the war, and the fighting was cruel and bitter. So powerful was the resistance of this people-in-arms that after 1776 a British army was never again able to remain in force on the New England mainland.
The second American War for Independence (1776-81) was a more protracted conflict in the middle states and the coastal south. This was a gentlemen’s war. On one side was a professional army of regulars and mercenaries commanded by English gentry. On the other side was an increasingly professional American army led by a member of the Virginia gentry. The principles of this second American Revolution were given their Aristotelian statement in the Declaration of Independence by another Virginia gentleman, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that he was fighting for the ancient liberties of his “Saxon ancestors.”
The third American Revolution reached its climax in the years from 1779 to 1781. This was a rising of British borderers in the southern backcountry against American loyalists and British regulars who invaded the region. The result was a savage struggle which resembled many earlier conflicts in North Britain, with much family feuding and terrible atrocities committed on both sides. Prisoners were slaughtered, homes were burned, women were raped and even small children were put to the sword.
The fourth American Revolution continued in the years from 1781 to 1783. This was a non-violent economic and diplomatic struggle, in which the elites of the Delaware Valley played a leading part. The economic war was organized by Robert Morris of Philadelphia. The genius of American diplomacy was Benjamin Franklin. The Delaware culture contributed comparatively little to the fighting, but much to other forms of struggle.
The loyalists who opposed the revolution tended to be groups who were not part of the four leading cultures. They included the new imperial elites who had begun to multiply rapidly in many colonial capitals, and also various ethnic groups who lived on the margins of the major cultures: notably the polyglot population of lower New York, the Highland Scots of Carolina and African slaves who inclined against their Whiggish masters.