Thus began the War of Independence. George Washington, a wealthy Virginia slave farmer, was chosen to lead the rebel army. The problem was that Washington was short of gunpowder and money (the colonists were reluctant to pay taxes even for their own army) and its troops were a mixed bag of poorly armed farmers, hunters and merchants; some deserted and returned to work for lack of pay. By contrast, the British Redcoats were part of the most powerful army in the world. The inexperienced General Washington was forced to improvise, sometimes prudently retreating, sometimes launching sneak attacks and dubious ethics. Yet, during the winter of 1777-1778, the American army took refuge, in despair and hunger, in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the Second Continental Congress tried to specify the reasons for which it was fighting. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published his popular essay Common Sense, in which he passionately defended independence from England. Soon, the idea began to seem not only logical, but noble and necessary. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence, written largely by Thomas Jefferson, was signed. The document was a universal declaration of individual rights and republican government.
On paper, everything was very nice, but to succeed, General Washington needed help. In 1778 Benjamin Franklin convinced France (always ready to confront England) to ally with the rebels. France provided the troops, weapons, and ships that contributed to the victory. The British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. Two years later the Treaty of Paris was signed, formally recognizing the existence of the United States of America. At first, the country was a confederation of wayward and contentious states that had little to do with unity. The founders met again in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted a new Constitution, an improved version in which the government of the country was assigned to a stronger federal center, with checks and balances between its three main arms. To prevent the abuse of centralized power, in 1791 a Bill of Rights was passed.
As radical as it was, the Constitution also preserved the economic and social status quo. The wealthy landowners kept their property, which included their slaves. The Indians, of course, were completely excluded from the nation and women from politics.