In the early 1760’s, the majority of colonists in North America were happily British. Proud to be subjects of their king, they benefited from the imperial system with few costs. Until 1763 Britain, for the most part, left the colonies alone. The French and Indian War had come to an end, leaving the colonists eager to partake in all the opportunities of America. In the midst of this tranquility, the British imposed taxes on the colonies in an attempt to raise revenues. As Americans saw their liberties and power threatened, the relationship between Britain and America began to unravel. While several specific events marked the way to the Revolutionary War, the ideology of the colonists, deeply rooted in their convictions about rights and power, made the war inevitable.
The French and Indian War was perhaps the first event that cracked the door open to the American Revolution. For the first time, the very different colonies had been forced to work together to defeat a common opponent. In addition, the war was soon entirely under British command and orders were issued to the colonists. When recruitment in the colonies slowed the British commanders begin forcibly enlisting the colonists. Officers seized supplies from local civilians and took shelter in their homes, usually without compensation. The conflict created over these British requisition and impressments policies confirmed for many Americans the British had no place in local affairs.
Resentment of the British toward the colonists also began to mount due to the their military incompetence, the selling of food and goods to the French by some colonial merchants, and, most of all, their lack of contribution to the high costs of the war the British felt was largely for colonial benefit. Many English leaders began to think it necessary to tighten the reigns on the colonists and reorganize the empire after the war. The costs of the war were exorbitant; estimated to be around two and a half million pounds. Even after the war it was estimated that 10,000 troops would be needed to defend the colonies. The colonists were angered further by the troops presence, which they felt was unnecessary.
Finally at peace and greatly in need of redefinition, the English government was thrown into further turmoil. It was at this critical point in time that George III assumed the throne. Immature and insecure, he produced an unstable and rigid government aimed at asserting the power of the monarchy. In 1763, the king made George Grenville prime minister.
Like most English, Grenville felt bitter toward the colonists and felt they should begin paying their part of defending and administering the empire. He began a program of imposing taxes designed specifically to raise revenue from the colonies. In 1764 the Sugar and Currency Acts were enacted. The Sugar Act raised the duties on sugar, damaged the market for sugar grown within the colonies, and created harsher courts for trying smugglers who participated in the illegal sugar trade with the French in the West Indies.
The Currency Act prohibited colonists from using paper money, mostly affecting small farmers-the largest group in the colonies. Although most Americans found ways to cope with or avoid the new taxes, their grievances increased. Colonial assemblies had taken advantage of the weak imperial administration in previous years and had asserted their own authority to govern over their own colonies. Americans had become very attached to their capability to self govern. Through these new acts the British challenged the basis of colonial power, and brought the colonists together.
Britain increased its power in the colonies in other ways as well. The Proclamation of 1763 forbade settlers to advance beyond the Appalachian mountains. The British feared that conflict and war with the Indian tribes caused by settlement in their lands would be costly. Although the proclamation proved ineffective and colonists continued to settle deeper and deeper inland, the colonists were again angered by the assertion of British control. Regular British troops were already stationed in the colonies, and the colonists were required to help shelter and feed them. Manufacturing in the colonies was restricted so it wouldn’t compete with British industry, and naval ships patrolled American waters for smugglers.
It wasn’t until the Stamp Tax was enacted in 1765 that the Americans were put into action. The Stamp Act imposed taxes on all legal documents (such as marriage licenses, newspapers, and 47 other documents). The colonists responded with vocal protests. Although the taxes were fairly light, it created uproar in the colonies. Previous taxes imposed on them had been to regulate commerce, but this taxes purpose was clearly to raise revenue from the colonies. The fact that it taxes had been raised without the colonial assemblies enraged them further. In addition, to enforce the actions, the British announced that colonial offenders were to be tried in the hated Admiralty courts. The protests, which grew, began developing new slogans including: “No taxation without representation”.
One result of the protests was the meeting of the Stamp Act Congress in New York, to which many of the colonies sent representatives. Many colonies agreed not to import any British goods until the Stamp Tax was repealed. Their conclusion was that they could not rightfully be taxed unless their own assemblies imposed the taxes. During the summer of 1765, uprisings in several cities against the Stamp Act took place. Prominent colonial citizens began forming secret organizations throughout the colonies known as the Sons of Liberty. In Boston, they terrorized stamp agents and burned stamps. The agents, who were Americans, quickly resigned. England finally backed down and repealed the stamp act in 1766.
King George III appointed William Pitt Prime Minister in the summer of 1766. Although Pitt was well liked by colonists, he fell ill and Charles Townshed took over the effective reigns of government. Townshend was not concerned with the subtleties of the rights of American colonists. He wanted to strengthen the power of the British parliament which would simultaneously strengthen the power of royal officials. In 1767, Townshed disbanded the New York assembly until it agreed to quarter British soldiers. He also convinced the Parliament to pass a series of laws imposing new taxes on the colonists. These laws included special taxes on lead, paint, paper, glass and tea imported by colonists. The Acts also insured that colonial officials, including governors and judges, would receive their salaries directly from the Crown.
Townshed believed that because the items taxed were imported into the colonies and not internal goods they would be accepted. But the colonists all felt threatened by the suspension of the New York assembly and rejected Townshed’s distinction between internal and external goods. The colonists concluded that they were once again being taxed without fair representation revived the agreement not to import British goods, especially luxury products. The Non-importation agreement slowly grew to include merchants in all of the colonies, with the exception of New Hampshire. Homespun and domestic products became favorable in the colonies and English luxuries became unfashionable. Within a year importation from Britain dropped almost in half.
The harassment of new customs commissioners in Boston prompted Britain to place four regiments of regular troops in the city. Not only were the troops a constant reminder of infringement on their independence, but the soldiers also took valuable jobs from the colonists in an already tough job market. Brawls were constant between the British and the colonists, who were constantly insulting the troops. An armed clash between the British and the colonists was almost inevitable from the moment British troops were introduced in Boston, and on the night of March 5, 1770 just that happened. A crowd of sixty or so townspeople surrounded British sentries guarding the customs house.
They began pelting snowballs and rocks at the guards. In the midst of a scuffle a British soldier was knocked down. Suddenly, a shot rang out, followed by several others as they fired into the crowd. Ultimately, 11 colonists were hit. Five were dead, including Crispus Attucks, a former slave. News of this attack, almost certainly caused by panic and confusion, was elaborated and false recounts were spread throughout the colonies. The incident became known as the “Boston Massacre”.
After the Boston massacre things remained relatively calm in the colonies for three years. However, the events of the previous decade had not only began to form an ideological challenge against the crown in the colonies, that enabled the colonies to form powerful instruments for uprising in America. These anti-British ideas were pulled from several places, but most importantly from those in Great Britain who opposed their own government. From John Locke and other philosophical minds of previous generations, they developed a powerful argument against their government. This argument was based on new ideas of what a government should be. Because they believed in the selfish and corrupt nature of human, they considered government to be a natural protection to society. Although they previously believed the government in England was balanced with three branches, the monarchy had become far too powerful. The constitution of England, which was not a fixed set of unchangeable rules, was in danger. Due to their experience with colonial charters that were written documents, they did not accept the idea of a flexible constitution based on changeable principals.
One principal the Americans saw as vital, was proper representation. Because in England parliament did not represent a specific group of people or geographical area, the British were confused by the colonists demands for actual representation. To them they were represented by parliament, who represented the best interests of the nation as a whole, including the colonies. Colonists believed every separate community was entitled to have their own representative, elected by the people and therefore held accountable to them. These differences in opinion among the Americans and the British as to where the power should lie were a central cause to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
In 1773 when Britain passed the Tea Act, it revived Americans passions about taxation without representation. Colonies joined together in a mass boycott of the tea. On the evening of December 16th, thousands of Bostonians and farmers from the surrounding countryside packed into the Old South Meeting house to hear Samuel Adams. Adams denounced the Governor for denying clearance for vessels wishing to leave with tea still on board. After his speech the crowd headed for the waterfront. From the crowd, 50 individuals emerged dressed as Indians. They boarded three vessels docked in the harbor and threw 90,000 pounds of tea overboard.
In 1774 delegates from all but one of the colonies formed the First Continental congress which convened in September in Philadelphia. There the representatives rejected a plan for a colonial union under Britain, they endorsed a statement of their grievances, they approved resolutions recommending they prepare for war, they agreed to a boycott they hoped would end all trade with Britain, and they made plans to meet the following year. Although in 1775 Lord North won approval of the Conciliatory Propositions by parliament that would allow the colonists to tax themselves at Britain’s demand, it was too little too late. The colonists had already begun to view themselves as a separate union, and were ready to fight for their independence
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