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General Thomas Gage (1718–87) was the highest authority in North America during the early stages of the American Revolution (1775–83). Criticised by the British and the Americans alike, to this day he is seen as a poor military leader. But how deserving is he of this reputation? And was he really responsible for igniting the American Revolution, which forever changed the course of world history?
|1720||Thomas Gage was born in Sussex.|
|1741||Gage entered the British military.|
|1756||The Seven Years' War between Britain and France began.|
|1758||Gage married the New Jersey heiress, Margaret Kemble.|
|1760||King George III was crowned.|
|1763||The Seven Years’ War ended with Britain’s victory.Gage was promoted to Commander-In-Chief of the British Forces in North America.|
|1765||Parliament passed the Stamp Act.|
|1766||The Stamp Act was repealed due to opposition.|
|1773||Parliament passed the Tea Act, provoking the Boston Tea Party.|
|1774||Parliament passed the Coercive Acts.Gage was appointed as Governor of Massachusetts.|
|1775||Battle of Lexington and Concord. Gage was defeated.Battle of Bunker Hill. Gage was defeated again. Parliament quickly replaced Gage as Commander-in-Chief.|
|1787||Gage died in London.|
To understand who Gage was, his years as a soldier, and his role in American independence, we need to first learn about his biography.
Thomas Gage was born to a father of the same name, the first Viscount Gage, and his wife Benedicta Maria Teresa Hall. He was born in Sussex around 1720 as the second son of this aristocratic family.
In 1758, Gage married the wealthy New Jersey heiress Margaret Kemble. They had five children together.
Gage entered the army in 1741 by purchasing a lieutenancy, an acceptable practice of aristocrats back then. This began his extensive (though not often successful) career in the British military.
During the Seven Years' War (1756–63) between Britain and France, Gage was posted in North America. He served under General Braddock, hoping to seize Ohio Country from the French. When Braddock was injured in battle, Gage was given temporary charge of the regiment. However, his fellow soldiers branded him as a poor leader and Gage's regiment was defeated and forced to retreat.
Did you know?
George Washington, a leader of the American Revolutionary Wars and first President of the United States, also served in General Braddock's regiment. Washington and Gage had maintained a friendly relationship. But by 1770, George Washington publicly criticised Gage for his policies in Massachusetts.
Gage served under Jeffery Amherst, who was Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in North America. Together they were successful in capturing Quebec from the French. In 1763, Amherst stepped down as Commander-in-Chief after a scandal over his violent treatment of Native Americans.
Gage took the position of Commander-in-Chief, becoming the highest authority in North America with over 50 garrisons spread across the colonies. His approach to Native Americans was much milder than Amherst's, negotiating peace treaties and cease-fires.
Victory against France in the Seven Years' War (1756–63) made Britain the dominant power in North America. In fact, in 1763 no one could have guessed that by 1783 Britain would have lost its Thirteen Colonies.
Did you know?
Benjamin Franklin, who would later become a Founding Father of the United States, wrote during the Seven Years” War: ‘I am a Briton’.
What happened in those 12 years between the successful Seven Years' War and the fatal American Revolution to sour American and British relations?
After the Seven Years’ War, Britain was facing huge debts. The cost of maintaining and defending the colonies had risen to £350,000. Parliament tried to raise taxes in the colonies to counter this.
In 1765 they passed the Stamp Act, which generated outrage in America. It was criticised as an abuse of Parliament's authority and raised the question of whether the colonised should be taxed by a body where they were not represented.
The Act taxed the American colonies for every formally printed or written document. This was confirmed with a stamp. The Act affected newspapers, legal documents, marriage licenses, and even some playing cards.
Boycotts and mob violence against the Stamp Act began in Boston, Massachusetts and soon spread to the rest of the colonies. The growing discontent alarmed Gage. Most of Britain's soldiers in America were stationed on the western front. Gage began to withdraw troops from the front to urban centres like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The increased presence of troops in the cities was viewed unfavourably as a military threat to individual liberty.
Although the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, further taxes introduced by Parliament would provoke even more outrage in the colonies.
In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act. This gave the British East India Company a monopoly on all tea exported to the colonies, undercutting colonial merchants. Parliament passed this Act hoping to save the financially troubled company, rather than to assert their sovereignty. However, it was perceived as an attack on the American colonial assemblies and was vigorously protested.
Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty allied with the normally conservative colonial merchants to oppose the Tea Act.
In December 1773 the Sons of Liberty crudely disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians. They boarded three of the East India Company's tea ships and tossed 342 chests of tea (worth £10,000) into the Boston Harbour. This became known as the Boston Tea Party.
Samuel Adams was a radical agitator and politician in Boston. He opposed what he believed was British political corruption and interference. He was a founder and leader of the Sons of Liberty, a semi-secret society founded to oppose Parliament's taxes. The group was primarily responsible for the Boston Tea Party.
For his work in the early stages of the Revolution, Samuel Adams would be known as a Founding Father. His second cousin, John Adams, would become the Second President of the United States.
While the Boston Tea Party was happening, Gage was on a visit to Britain. During his stay, he advised King George III to use force against the colonists. His advice helped shape the Coercive Acts introduced in 1774. These Acts cut off Boston from all trade until the price of the destroyed tea was repaid.
However, the British government's efforts to punish Massachusetts only served to unite the colonies. Massachusetts became the centre of the American Revolution.
Gage was appointed military governor of Massachusetts in 1774 to deal with the ‘problem of Boston’. His previous popularity in America diminished as Britain's punishing taxes and trade measures were introduced. Recognising the deteriorating situation, Gage requested additional troops for Boston, but he declined to enforce martial law or censor the press, fearing it would radicalise the Bostonians.
It was not just Boston where Gage's reputation suffered. Gage had advised Parliament to repeal the earlier Coercive Acts but King George III and Lord North refused to do so. His hesitancy was criticised in Britain, which called for bloodshed. He was nicknamed the ‘lukewarm coward’ and even his own soldiers called him the ‘Old Woman’. In the streets of Boston, miniatures of Gage were set on fire.
In March 1775, the British minister Dartmouth ordered Gage to use the army to suppress the rebellion once and for all and arrest its leaders.
On 18 April 1775 Gage ordered his redcoats to march to the nearby town of Lexington, where, according to rumours, weapons had been hidden by the Boston rebels. But in Lexington, Gage's 700 troops were obstructed by 70 armed men who refused to let them into their town.
When the troops marched to a different town (Concord, where rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock were believed to be) they faced a rebel military force. Gage's troops were defeated and forced to retreat back to Boston. The British suffered 273 casualties while the Americans only lost 92 soldiers. It was a resounding defeat.
The British soldiers in the American Revolutionary War. They were given this name because of their bright red uniform.
John Hancock was the governor of Massachusetts and a leading figure in the American Revolution. In 1768 one of his merchant ships was seized by British troops at Boston Harbour for allegedly not paying taxes. Hancock, like many Bostonians, felt deeply aggrieved at Britain's policies. Hancock would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Though the Battle of Lexington and Concord was a small battle, it was pivotal to the American Revolution. It transformed the political disputes between Britain and the colonists into an outright military struggle. The Battle became a call to arms across the colonies in unexpected places.
New York, widely regarded as pro-British, raised its troops and even conservative Pennsylvania came out to support the Bostonians. It was the Battle of Lexington and Concord which triggered the American Revolution. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1837 poem ‘Concord Hymm’ that the Battles ‘fired the shot heard round the world’.
Gage was replaced two months later, after a further defeat at Bunker Hill in June 1775. He returned to Britain, where he would stay for the rest of his life.
Gage died in Britain due to his declining health. He passed away on 2 April 1787.
Accused of being incompetent, indecisive, too decisive, Gage has gone down in history with a poor reputation. On the one hand, he drew criticism from American colonists for his role in the Coercive Acts, which reduced the power of Boston's colonial assembly at a time of deep concern about liberty and democracy.
On the other, his hesitancy to suppress rebelling Bostonians and enforce martial law drew deep criticism from a Britain hungry for blood. And most fatally, his decision to march on Lexington and Concord triggered the American Revolution, which saw America forever break away from Britain's grasp.
Even contemporary historians debate Gage and his legacy. In 2006, historian John Kenneth Rowland argued that,
Gage made critical political and military mistakes, paid insufficient attention to early warning signs of military resistance or misunderstood their implications.
But constitutional historians have tended to take a milder view of Gage's role in the American Revolution. Historian Phillip Reid argued that the Revolution went beyond Gage's actions. He wrote that,
The dynamics of the eighteenth-century British constitution had produced a constitutional dilemma. American liberty – the right to be free of arbitrary power – could not be secured under parliamentary supremacy.
The legal historian Shattuck takes an even kinder view of Gage. In 2015 he argued that Gage was put in a difficult position. He was a middleman of sorts between a confrontational Parliament and an uncompromising colonial population.
Gage and the Parliament's efforts to punish Massachusetts only served to unite the colonies and precipitate the American Revolution.
In April 1775, Gage's 700 troops were defeated at the Battle of Lexington and Concord by much smaller American forces. This signalled the start of the American Revolution.
Gage was soon replaced by Parliament for his military blunders.
Thomas Gage’s wife was Margaret Kemble, a wealthy New Jersey heiress.
Gage was the Commander-in-Chief of Britain's forces in North America. It was under his watch that the American Revolution ignited. He was soon replaced by Parliament for his military blunders.
General Gage's two goals were:
When did General Thomas Gage become commander in chief of all British forces in North America?
What were the Intolerable Acts, and why were they passed?
As punishment from the Boston Tea Party, British Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts.
This act cut off Boston's trade until the price of the destroyed tea was repaid.
What was Boston known as?
The Cradle of Liberty
Why did General Thomas Gage march on Lexington and Concord?
Why is General Thomas Gage regarded as the main protagonist for the beginning of the American Revolutionary Wars?
General Thomas Gage's command to march upon Lexington and Concord began the American Revolution.
What was the result and impact of the Battle of Bunker Hill?
Although militarily the British army won this battle, they suffered grave losses, losing around 40% of its army officers. This defeat was catastrophic and played a huge role in the eventual defeat of the British in the American Revolution.
When was the Battle of Bunker Hill?
17 June 1775
Who were the Sons of Liberty?
Sons of Liberty were a semi-secret society founded to oppose Parliament's taxes.
When did Thomas Gage enter the army?
When was General Thomas Gage born?
General Thomas Gage was born in Sussex in c.1720 as the second son of this aristocratic family.
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