Research suggests that colonial America was one of the most literate societies of its time. Adult literacy in rural areas was around 70 per cent; in American cities it usually exceeded 95 per cent. This is in stark comparison to literacy levels in Europe, which ranged between 40 and 70 per cent.
Contrary to popular opinion, only a small minority of American colonists owned slaves. African-American slaves were not cheap, with prices ranging from around $100 to a child to several hundred dollars for a strong field hand. Feeding, clothing and housing slaves entailed additional costs. These amounts were out of reach for most in the colonies, so slave-owning was almost entirely a preserve of the wealthy.
The cinema stereotype of Native Americans wearing skins and firing bows and arrows was the exception rather than the rule. The men in many tribes wore at least some Western clothing and used guns as weapons; they acquired these items trading with colonists.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 still has some impact as a legal document. Some of Canada’s native people have initiated claims in the country’s court system, arguing that the proclamation constitutes a formal recognition of their land rights.
It is often said that Sam Adams was a brewer and various American beers have carried his name because of this; Samuel Adams Lager, produced in Boston, sports his image on its labels. However Adams neither brewed beer nor drank it.
Thomas Hutchinson had been writing the second volume of a history of Massachusetts when a mob ransacked and destroyed his Boston home in August 1765. After the mob dispersed, Hutchinson was reportedly seen kneeling on the muddy road, gathering the pages of his manuscript.
Despite the unrest of 1765, stamp taxes having become an accepted means by which governments to collect revenue. Almost all Western countries operate stamp taxes or duties, mostly on land and housing transactions, and on some legal documents.
No American colonists were ever forced to share accommodation with British soldiers. Both Quartering Acts stipulated that private homes should only be requisitioned if they were vacant. The owners of buildings used for quartering soldiers were to receive compensation from the colonial assembly.
Most chapters of the Sons of Liberty prohibited the involvement of women; they were composed entirely of men who clung to the prevailing belief that women had no place in political movements. This prompted revolutionary women to form their own groups, called the Daughters of Liberty. In 1767 one Daughters of Liberty chapter seized a Loyalist heckler and (not having any tar and feathers to hand) doused him with molasses and flowers.
Charles Townshend, the MP who proposed the hated customs duties, died in September 1767 – just days after giving a heated speech on the matter in parliament.
Paul Revere was not only a propagandist – he was also a plagiarist. Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre was copied almost verbatim from a drawing by Henry Pelham, completed just days earlier. Revere, however, was faster with the printing and distribution of his image. Pelham later wrote Revere an angry and insulting letter, accusing him of theft “as if you had plundered me on the highway”.
For a considerable period during his political life, Patrick Henry was a drug addict. Henry was a regular user of laudanum, a potent mix of opium and alcohol that was widely available in the 18th century. Henry was not the only notable revolutionary figure to rely on this drug. Benjamin Franklin, for example, used laudanum to relieve his gout pain during the 1787 constitutional convention in Philadelphia.
One of the men who led the raid on the Gaspee on Rhode Island was John Brown, who later became a noted slave trader. In 1796 Brown became the first American prosecuted for illegal slave-trading.
Georgia did not send delegates to the first Continental Congress. Distance to Philadelphia was an issue, however Georgian political leaders were also busy with a hostile border war against the Creeks [Native Americans].
Samuel Adams was as concerned with religion as he was with revolution, perhaps more so. In 1774 he argued that the Quebec Act and French Catholicism were much graver threats to the American colonies than British taxation.
Samuel Adams was also the name of a notable Loyalist from Vermont. In 1774 he was put on trial by Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, before being tarred and feathered. Like many Loyalists, the ‘other’ Samuel Adams later relocated to Canada.
The American Revolution took place during the worst smallpox epidemic in North American history, with between 80,000 and 100,000 people perishing during from the disease. Many tried avoiding the worst form of smallpox by submitting to variolation, intentionally infecting themselves with the less deadly strain. Some colonial women even held ‘pox parties’ where guests were invited to ‘take the pox’ (receive a variola).
Captain John Parker, the American militia officer who led colonial forces at Lexington, was seriously ill from tuberculosis when the fighting erupted. Parker did not participate in any other battles and died a few months later.
The first print run of Common Sense actually made a Thomas Paine a healthy profit. Paine saw none of it, however, as the original publisher, Robert Bell, kept the proceeds. Paine gave the profits from later editions to the Continental Army, purportedly to buy mittens for the winter.
Thomas Paine gave away much of the money he made from writing. Paine later died in relative poverty. His funeral was attended by fewer than ten people. Years later, Paine’s bones were exhumed and put on a ship, to be reburied in his native England – however they were lost en route and have never been located.
George Washington was plagued with ill health for most of his life. At different times Washington suffered from malaria, dysentery, smallpox and various types of fever. He was also plagued by bad teeth. By the 1780s Washington had only one of his own teeth remaining; contrary to folklore he did not have wooden teeth but relied instead on dentures made from ivory and bone.
Benjamin Franklin was a notorious womaniser who conducted dozens of affairs and fathered several illegitimate children. These sexual liaisons continued even into his 70s, when Franklin was living and working in Paris. His dalliances in France ranged from flings with teenage prostitutes to affairs with ageing noblewomen.
Ironically, the word “independence” does not appear anywhere in the text of the Declaration of Independence, including in the title.
John Locke, the philosopher largely responsible for the Enlightenment principle of natural rights, wrote extensively about the education of young children. Yet Locke was also a vocal advocate for child labour. In 1697 Locke argued that children older than three should be taught how to knit and spin, with a view to putting them to work.
George Washington’s preferred colour for Continental Army uniforms was red, the same as the regular British army. However as America only produced one significant dye – indigo – the American uniforms were blue.
George Washington declined to draw a salary for his work as commander in chief of the army. He instead requested that Congress only reimburse his expenses. In the eight years of the Revolutionary War, however, Washington claimed almost $450,000 – the equivalent of $4 million today. When Washington was elected president, he made the same offer of expenses rather than salary. This time it was declined and he was awarded a regular salary.
Several of Thomas Paine’s 16 installments of The American Crisis were addressed to the people of Britain. Paine informed the British that their continuation of the war in America would prove costly to English trade and commerce. He openly mocked Britain’s military and political leaders, questioning their motives and their competence.
Colonel Rall, a Hessian colonel in command at Trenton, had a very low opinion of the soldiers of the Continental Army, calling them “provincial clowns”. Evidence suggests that Rall was warned about the imminent American attack on Trenton in 1776, but disregarded it.
Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son William was a fervent Loyalist. Franklin Junior served as the governor of New Jersey until 1776, when he was arrested and then forced to flee, first to New York and then to England. Franklin and his famous father never reconciled after the revolution.
The US delegates sent to negotiate the Treaty of Paris (1783) commissioned an artist to paint the signing of the treaty. The British delegates, however, refused to sit for this painting, so it was left unfinished.
George Washington did not believe America’s 1781 victory at Yorktown would end the war. He expected the British to regroup and launch yet another campaign.
In Philadelphia, a group of former soldiers was so appalled by the worthlessness of their Continental banknotes that they captured a stray dog, coated it in tar and ‘feathered’ it with paper money.
Delegates to the Philadelphia convention in 1787 did not scrimp on their food or entertainment. At their final official gathering the group consumed more than 160 bottles of alcohol, including beer, wine, cider and port.
One Anti-Federalist wit suggested that a better title for Federalists might be ‘Rats’, since they wanted to ratify the Constitution.
The Second Amendment, which grants Americans the “right to bear arms”, was included to ensure the viability of a civilian militia, should Americans ever be invaded, threatened or need to engage in a second revolution.
Alexander Hamilton was involved in one of the first sex scandals in US history. In the early 1790s he engaged in an affair with Maria Reynolds, a married woman 12 years his junior. Maria’s husband allowed the affair to continue – after blackmailing Hamilton and extracting several cash payments in return for his silence. The matter was eventually discovered and made public in 1797.
Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel – by the serving vice president of the United States. Hamilton became embroiled in a political stoush with vice-president Aaron Burr, who in 1804 challenged the former Secretary of the Treasury to a duel with pistols. Hamilton and Burr met at dawn on a riverbank in New Jersey. Though there is debate about what transpired, it is believed that Hamilton fired first but intentionally aimed above Burr’s head (a common practice that allowed participants to preserve their honour). Burr, however, took aim at Hamilton’s body and hit him in the torso. The bullet damaged Hamilton’s liver and lodged in his spine. He was carried away for treatment but died the following afternoon. Burr was charged with murder but the matter was later dropped.
American naval hero John Paul Jones was also embroiled in a post-revolution sex scandal. In 1789 Jones was arrested in Russia, after being accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Jones was later released after it was revealed that the girl was a prostitute and had been sleeping with Jones consensually as part of a political set-up.