Author:Frank, Mary Kate
Position:TIME PAST 1775

Think you know everything you need to about the birth of our nation?

Here's what the history books sometimes leave out.

The Revolutionary War (1775-83) is likely one of the first historical events you learned about in school. By now, you may have studied it enough--or listened to the Hamilton soundtrack enough--to think you know all there is to know. But the story of our nation's founding isn't as straightforward as it's sometimes portrayed. Here are some little-known truths about the fight for America's independence.

1 The beef wasn't just about taxes.

Starting in 1764 with the Sugar Act, the British Parliament imposed a series of taxes on the 13 American Colonies to raise money to pay off war debt (see Key Events, p. 20). The taxes angered the colonists. Though officially ruled by British monarch King George III and Parliament, each colony had its own local government and elected representatives. The colonists believed that their own governments, not Parliament, should tax them. That's why their rallying cry became "No taxation without representation!"

In other words, the real conflict was about who had the power to pass laws affecting the Colonies, says Matthew Skic of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. "The colonists were upset the decision [on taxes] was coming from Great Britain and not the American assemblies," he says.

2 George Washington almost lost his job.

Who would dare second-guess George Washington, commander of the Continental Army and future first U.S. president? Plenty of people, actually. By the fall of 1777, the Patriots had suffered a few devastating defeats, and morale among soldiers was low. Some soldiers even reported going days without shoes and food. As a result, some congressmen questioned whether Washington was the right leader. They debated replacing him with General Horatio Gates, who had won a major battle over the British in Saratoga, New York.

But people loyal to Washington, including the Marquis de Lafayette (see number 3), defended him. When Washington got wind of what was going on, he confronted his chief rivals--Gates and General Thomas Conway-and they backed down.

In the end, Washington succeeded in part because his devotion to his troops inspired the same in them. For instance, in March 1783, some officers grew frustrated and discussed mutiny. Washington spoke with them directly--which persuaded them to quash their plans.

3 A French teen became America's biggest fan.

In 1777, a 19-year-old French aristocrat known as the Marquis de Lafayette arrived in America, itching to join the colonists' fight. Lafayette had no combat experience, but he did have a grudge against England: His father had been killed battling British troops in the Seven Years' War (1756-63). During that war, Britain had won Louisiana and Canada from France, as well as Florida from Spain.

Lafayette offered to join the Continental Army as a volunteer at his own expense. With nothing to lose--and hoping to take advantage of Lafayette's connections in France--Congress named the teen a general.

"He was basically an unpaid intern," writes Sarah Vowell in her book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. The French rookie's enthusiasm endeared him to George Washington, and the two became close friends.

Between battles, Lafayette wrote letters to French officials, relentlessly pushing them to support the Patriots' cause. Thanks in part to his efforts, and because France was still bitter about its loss to England in the Seven Years' War, France formally backed the Americans in 1778. Its military and financial help proved crucial.

Lafayette came in handy during the fighting as well. His troops helped contain the British during the pivotal battle in Yorktown, Virginia (see number 6). Indeed, writes Vowell, the Frenchman "turned out to be the best friend America ever had."

4 Blacks in America battled for the nation's freedom--and their own.

Historians estimate that 500,000 enslaved blacks were in the Colonies at the time of the war. Black people faced a difficult decision: Should they choose a side and take up arms, hoping to gain personal liberty?

In 1775, the British promised freedom to any enslaved people who escaped their Patriot owners and joined Loyalist forces. Thousands of them risked their lives to try.

The colonists were more reluctant to recruit and arm blacks. However, more than 5,000 black people (both free and enslaved) eventually served in the Continental Army. Black soldiers "played a role in almost every significant battle," says Kenneth Davis, author of the Don't Know Much About History series.

After the war, the British agreed to a peace treaty that required them to return any property that belonged to the Americans, including slaves. But the British, refusing to send black soldiers who had fought with them back into bondage, managed to evacuate about 3,000 formerly enslaved people to freedom in Canada. However, many other black...

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