With characteristic largeness of feeling he set aside all half-measures or proposals of compromise. "It is not cancelling a piece of parchment," he insisted, " that can win back America: you must respect her fears and for resentments." The bill which he introduced in concert with Franklin provided for the repeal of the late acts and for the security of the colonial charters, abandoned the claim to taxation, and ordered the recall of the troops. A colonial assembly was directed to meet and provide means by which America might contribute towards the payment of the public debt.
Chatham's measure was contemptuously rejected by the Lords, as was a similar measure of Burke's by the Commons, and a petition of the City of London in favour of the Colonies by the King himself. With the rejection of these efforts at reconciliation began the great struggle which ended eight years later in the severance of the American Colonies from the British Crown. The Congress of delegates from the Colonial Legislatures at once voted measures for general defence, ordered the levy of an army, and set George Washington at its head. No nobler figure ever stood in the forefront of a nation's life. Washington was grave and courteous in address; his manners were simple and unpretending; his silence and the serene calmness of his temper spoke of a perfect self-mastery; but there was little in his outer bearing to reveal the grandeur of soul which lifts his figure, with all the simple majesty of an ancient statue, out of the smaller passions, the meaner impulses of the world around him. What recommended him for command was simply his weight among his fellow landowners of Virginia, and the experience of war which he had gained by service in border contests with the French and the Indians, as well as in Braddock's luckless expedition against Fort Duquesne. It was only as the weary fight went on that the colonists learned little by little the greatness of their leader, his clear judgment, his heroic endurance, his silence under difficulties, his calmness in the hour of danger or defeat, the patience with which he waited, the quickness and hardness with which he struck, the lofty and serene sense of duty that never swerved from its task through resentment or jealousy, that never through war or peace felt the touch of a meaner ambition, that knew no aim save that of guarding the freedom of his fellow countrymen, and no personal longing save that of returning to his own fireside when their freedom was secured.
It was almost unconsciously that men learned to cling to Washington with a trust and faith such as few other men have won, and to regard him with a reverence which still hushes us in presence of his memory. Even America hardly recognized his real greatness till death set its seal on "the man first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow countrymen." Washington more than any of his fellow colonists represented the clinging of the Virginian landowners to the mother country, and his acceptance of the command proved that even the most moderate among them had no hope now save in arms. The struggle opened with a skirmish between a party of English troops and a detachment of militia at Lexington, and in a few days twenty thousand colonists appeared before Boston. The Congress re-assembled, declared the States they represented "The United Colonies of America," and undertook the work of government. Meanwhile ten thousand fresh troops landed at Boston; but the provincial militia seized the neck of ground which joins it to the mainland, and though they were driven from the heights of Bunker's Hill which commanded the town, it was only after a desperate struggle in which their bravery put an end for ever to the taunts of cowardice which had been levelled against the colonists. "Are the Yankees cowards? " shouted the men of Massachusetts, as the first English attack rolled back baffled down the hill-side. But a far truer courage was shown in the stubborn endurance with which Washington's raw militiamen, who gradually dwindled from sixteen thousand to red, ill armed, and with but forty-five rounds of ammunition to each man, cooped up through the winter a force of ten thousand veterans in the lines of Boston. The spring of 1776 saw them force these troops to withdraw from the city to New York, where the whole British army, largely reinforced by mercenaries from Germany, was concentrated under General Howe. Meanwhile a raid of the American General, Arnold, nearly drove the British troops from Canada; and though his attempt broke down before Quebec, it showed that all hope of reconciliation was over.
The Colonies of the south, the last to join in the struggle, had in fact expelled their Governors at the close of 1775; at the opening of the next year Massachusetts instructed its delegates to support a complete repudiation of the King's government by the Colonies; while the American ports were thrown open to the world in defiance of the Navigation Acts. These decisive steps were followed by the great act with which American history begins, the adoption on the 4th of July, 1776, by the delegates in Congress of a Declaration of Independence. "We," ran its solemn words, "the representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States".
The earlier successes of the Colonists were soon followed by suffering and defeat. Howe, an active general with a fine army at his back, cleared Long Island in August by a victory at Brooklyn; and Washington, whose army was weakened by withdrawals and defeat, and disheartened by the loyal tone of the State in which it was encamped, was forced to evacuate New York and New Jersey, and to fall back first on the Hudson and then on the Delaware. The Congress prepared to fly from Philadelphia, and a general despair showed itself in cries of peace. But a well-managed surprise and a daring march on the rear of Howe's army restored the spirits of Washington's men, and forced the English general in his turn to fall back on New York. The campaign of 1777 opened with a combined effort for the suppression of the revolt. An army assembled in Canada under General Burgoyne marched by way of the Lakes to seize the line of the Hudson, and with help from the army at New York to cut off New England from her sister provinces.