I. The End of Salutary Neglect
As we have seen, for most of the 18th century, the British Government was busy with European affairs and had more-or-less left the American colonies alone. This period of time is sometimes referred to as “salutary neglect,” meaning that the colonial governments could more-or-less operate as they pleased, with very little interference from London. This had changed rather suddenly with the French and Indian War, as the British Government took all necessary steps to defend its claims to land and power in North America. By 1764, the war was over, the Indian rebellion had been put down, but Indians were more hated than ever. The British and their colonies were victorious, but the colonists and the British were divided and resentful, rather than joyful and united. The British were also broke. The British had already dictated the Proclamation Line of 1763. What would they do next? What would the ungrateful colonists do next? The victories ushered in a chain of events for twelve years, and eventually led to war between Britain and the colonies.
With Britain in debt, and having to pay the costs of having troops in the colonies, Britain needed money. Americans individually paid low taxes to their colonial governments, and paid little in import taxes for goods that they imported. Plus, British officials realized that Americans had been avoiding the Molasses Act of 1733 for thirty years.
The Molasses Act of 1733 had placed a six pence tax on every gallon of Molasses that the Americans imported from the French or Dutch islands in the Caribbean, thus making it cheaper to import molasses from the British islands. However, the colonists had various complaints about it, because they had to pay a 2 pence tax on British molasses, too. Instead, they just secretly brought in molasses from the French islands and did not pay any taxes on it at all. (They used molasses for making rum, which was then sold from New England. The Act taxed the import of sugar and rum, too.)
In 1764, Parliament came up with what it thought was a solution: The Sugar Act of 1764. The Sugar Act lowered the tax on foreign molasses, yet it also cracked down on smugglers. It was an attempt to raise more revenue. In addition, any one caught trying to break the law would be tried by British-judges, not a colonial jury. So the deck was stacked against any colonists who were trying to smuggle.
The British also passed the Currency Act of 1764, prohibiting colonies from printing their own paper money (to make things more uniform). This meant that the colonies had to use hard currency (i.e. gold and silver), or banknotes from Great Britain, for any and all business transactions. This was a big deal because the colonies were so remote from Great Britain that hard currency was usually scarce, so it would be hard for merchants to do business.
In May, at a town meeting in Boston, James Otis raised the issue of taxation without representation and urged a united response to the recent acts imposed by England. In July, Otis published "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved." In August, Boston merchants began a boycott of British luxury goods.
The British passed the Quartering Act of 1765; this required colonists to provide accommodations (i.e. rooms in houses) for British troops stationed in America; this would save the crown money. (Contrary to popular belief, colonists were not themselves forced out of their houses. Rather they were required to allow soldiers to use vacant rooms and houses; this did deprive landlords of the opportunity to rent out real estate.)
Finally, in March, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765 (it was to go in effect November 1). All legal documents, customs papers, newspapers, almanacs, diplomas, playing cards, and dice were to have a special stamp on them, proving that Americans paid a tax on them. The colonists quickly united in opposition. They believed that no people should be taxed without their consent, as they had been with the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. Also, to be deprived of the right to trial by a jury of their peers angered them. Influenced also by the Country Ideology (a history of government opponents in England who warned that the government was corrupt and out to get you), colonists suspected that Parliament was out to get them, to take away their liberties, to treat them as inferiors, to have their way with them.
It is worth pausing a moment to explain the British government’s side of the story. Parliament at this time was filled with individual representatives (called MPs – Members of Parliament) who in theory represented a particular borough but also represented the entire British Empire. That is, British citizens eligible to vote (only men; and only men who possessed a minimum amount of property that qualified them to vote) elected their MPs from individual boroughs but the boroughs themselves were not designed to contain equal numbers of citizens in them. So more populous boroughs did not necessarily have more MPs. Furthermore, Parliament operated on a theory called “virtual representation,” which meant that MPs always voted to make the best decisions that were in the best interest of the entire British Empire. So, even though the American colonies did not get to vote for MPs who were then sent to represent them in London, Parliament believed that virtual representation meant that the American colonies’ best interests would be served by the MPs in London, no matter what.
The colonists did not buy this explanation and, throughout 1765, they protested the Stamp Act. This tax affected everyone. During the spring and summer, colonial legislatures passed resolutions (usually called “resolves”), claiming that Parliament had no right to tax them. They pointed out (rightly) that, even though every single acre of England was represented in Parliament, not one single acre of American ground was represented in Parliament. They also pointed out (again, correctly) that Americans had no way to advise members of Parliament, they could not replace members by voting them out of office, and instead had to appear as humble petitioners begging for favors. Therefore, argued the colonies, Americans were not represented in the same manner as Englishmen. That is, the colonies rejected the theory of virtual representation.
60-second Quiz #1: What were some of the ways Parliament acted to end the period of “salutary neglect,” following the French and Indian War? All of the following are examples of ending “salutary neglect” after the French and Indian war EXCEPT which one?
a. Parliament passed the Molasses Act of 1733
b. Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764
c. Parliament passed the Currency Act of 1764
d. Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765
II. Colonial Defiance
In July, the Sons of Liberty – a group of middle class artisans, brewers, craftsmen —organized in Boston in opposition to the Stamp Act. Inviting poorer whites to join them, including dock workers, apprentices, and servants, the Sons rioted, burnt effigies of Stamp distributors, intimidated British officials, and in Boston, looted and vandalized the home of lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts. They burnt his house to the ground and destroyed all his belongings. There were organized riots in several cities, including Newport, Baltimore, and Charleston.
The resolves passed by different colonial legislatures were printed in the newspapers, and the way they were printed gave the public the impression that the Virginia House of Burgesses had been much bolder than they had actually been in denouncing the Stamp Act, and their supposed example stirred up other assemblies to emulate and sometimes surpass the original. Rhode Island adopted the resolutions as they were printed in the Newport Mercury, making additions and modifications. That is, Rhode Island openly endorsed resistance to the Crown! Other colonies followed suit, passing resolutions defining their rights. Most of these denied the authority of Parliament to extend the jurisdiction of admiralty courts; all of them denied its authority to tax the colonies. These resolutions as they were printed in the Mercury and the Gazette eventually led to the Stamp Act Congress. In October, 1765, delegates from nine of the colonies met in New York City. This is called the Stamp Act Congress. They wrote a petition to King George and the Parliament requesting that the Stamp Act and all the previous acts be repealed.
On November 1, the day the Stamp Act went into effect, people simply refused to comply. Most cities boycotted British goods, and people tried to keep the stamp distributors from doing their jobs. The Sons of Liberty tried to keep the agents from selling stamps in Boston by enlisting the help of the lower classes, and by sending a mob to hang an effigy representing Andrew Oliver (the stamp distributor for Boston) on a tree. They them burned down Andrew Oliver’s wharf-front building, and beheaded the effigy, stomped on it, and burned it in a bonfire. They broke into Oliver’s home and burned it. Everyone agreed that it was the most violent riot the town had ever seen. They had obtained the resignation of the Stamp Distributor, and had made it clear what would happen to anyone who dared to take Oliver’s place. They also staged a public resignation for Oliver. In addition, the mob destroyed the homes of Mr. Story and Benjamin Hallowell, the Comptroller of Customs.
Intimidating political officials came easily for Bostonians -- the mob had already savagely destroyed lieutenant-governor Hutchinson’s home (see above). The mob also hung effigies of George Grenville (British Prime Minister at this time) and John Huske (another official) and placed a copper plaque around the trunk of the liberty tree. They cut down the images and held a procession, carried the images to a gallows, and hung them, and cut them to pieces. There was another similar demonstration later that week. The colonists also managed to secure the opening of the courts and ports, and used the newspapers to publish letters and inflammatory material.
In 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, yet the same day passed the confusing Declatory Act. It stated that Parliament had the power to make laws for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” This resembled a 1719 law that the British had used to subjugate the Irish, and colonists saw a definite resemblance.
The Stamp Act had lasting consequences, even though it was appealed. It convinced colonists that the British were out to deprive them of their rights. To the British, the unruly colonists had to be put in their place. It brought young, more radical leaders into power in the colonies, unwilling to compromise. It showed that the colonies could work together, and it got their guard up.
After a shuffling of prime ministers for various reasons, Charles Townshend came into office, absolutely determined to raise money from the colonies. In 1767, he urged Parliament, and they complied, to levy a new set of taxes on the colonists: The Townshend Duties, which placed taxes on lead, paint, paper, glass, and tea, that the Americans imported from Britain. The Act also created a new Board of Customs Commissioners, headquartered in Boston. Its first duties were to enlarge the number of subordinate officers, increase the number of boats patrolling the coast and expand its intelligence gathering operations to catch smugglers and corrupt officials. Finally, Townshend rearranged and strengthened the colonial vice admiralty courts. There were to be three new courts at Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. Only vice admiralty courts (with their lack of juries) could try violations, under the new Townshend plan.
In October, Bostonians decided to reinstate a boycott of English luxury items. Led by a well-connected and well-liked brewery owner from Massachusetts, who was also a colonial congressman (Samuel Adams), Massachusetts sent letters to other colonial assemblies calling for them to boycott British goods. By July, 1769, Charleston had joined the non‑importation ranks; at the end of the year all the colonies except New Hampshire were in compliance.
After repeated threats from Boston, scattered incidents of violence, and the citizens’ absolute refusal to comply, British customs officials seized a ship belonging to John Hancock, the Liberty, and a smuggling ship. Customs officials, scared for their lives, requested troops to help bring Boston to order. Colonial authorities could see that in order to have an effective customs service, a civilian peacekeeping force was necessary.
Later in September, English warships sailed into Boston Harbor, with 4,000 troops sent to keep order and to stay until further notice. Boston’s 15,000 unruly residents assaulted, intimidated, harassed, and heckled the troops. They hated the British troops. The situation in Boston gradually deteriorated.
On March 5, 1770, a mob gathered and cornered a group of 15 British soldiers on guard duty near the customs house. In the confusion of the scene, British soldiers apparently accidentally fired their muskets into the crowd, killing five and injuring six. After the incident, the captain of the British soldiers, Thomas Preston, was arrested along with eight of his men and charged with murder. The colonists dubbed this the Boston Massacre, and silversmith and printer Paul Revere created a propaganda image reinforcing the belief that the colonists were innocent bystanders, innocent victims of British aggression. The Pelham-Revere depiction shows Preston raising his sword in a gesture of defiance and command. Preston did not command a halt but neither did he order a volley. In truth, he hadn’t wanted them to fire. The soldiers had reloaded. Preston was actually enraged. The soldiers may have fired mistakenly.
The British repealed the Townshend Acts and all of the previous taxes and laws they had made in the 1760s, EXCEPT for the tax on tea.
In the trial for the British arrested in the Boston Massacre, John Adams (future member of the Continental Congress, and future President of the United States) served as the defense attorney. This was not because Adams sympathized with the soldiers, but because he believed that the accused should be proven guilty in a court of law, not jailed or executed without trial and evidence. Amazingly, Adams was able to successfully defend his clients, despite the angry juror pool (and despite the danger to his own reputation). Only two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded and set free; all others were acquitted. Troops left Boston, and everything seemed calm.
However, in 1772, tensions flared again. In June, a British customs schooner, an anti-smuggling enforcement vessel, the Gaspee, shipwrecked off the coast of Providence, Rhode Island. Colonists then rowed out to the schooner, pulled the British crew members off of it, and burned the ship. The English Crown responded by sending a committee to investigate and by offering a giant award for the capture of those involved. England’s response angered the colonists.
Samuel Adams, outraged at this latest incident, created a Committee of Correspondence to communicate with other towns and colonies, and within the next year, other colonies followed. Now the colonies were talking to each other, sharing information, and organizing.
In the middle of 1773, the British decided to try once more to set a tax on the colonists, but to the colonists, the British were just trying to pull a fast one on them, with the Tea Act of 1773. It allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to the colonies, bypassing the merchants. It would make tea cheaper for the colonists, yet it was seen as a deliberate trick to make them pay a tax. Despite their protests, the ships set sail for the major cities in the colonies, and arrived at the harbors. In Charleston, the ship went to the British Fort Johnson, on an island in the harbor and was protected, but never unloaded. It ended up turning around and going back. In New York, the ship carrying the tea returned back to England. Philadelphians prevented the ship from docking, and eventually it returned to England.
In Boston, royal governor Thomas Hutchinson demanded that the colonists pay the taxes on the tea, or else. (This would require the unloading and sale of the tea.) On December 16, 1773, almost a month later, Boston residents spilled out of the Old South Meeting House, in a rally held by Samuel Adams. Later, 50 (white) men disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, boarded the ships, and dumped all 342 chests of tea, about 90,000 pounds’ worth, into Boston Harbor. The event was subsequently referred to as the Boston Tea Party.
By the beginning of the New Year, there was hardly an American who did not know of the Bostonians’ destruction of the tea. With the news from Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia, it showed that colonists were uniting, and that the cause was continental. Colonists were overjoyed. At last the Americans had struck back with a bold blow at tyranny.
60-Second Quiz #2: What were some of the ways American colonists expressed their defiance in the face of new, more punitive laws enacted by the British Government? All of the following are examples of colonists expressing their defiance EXCEPT which one?
a. Colonists formed the Sons of Liberty to intimidate British officials to pressure Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act
b. Colonists formed the Stamp Act Congress to lobby the King to repeal the Stamp Act
c. Colonists fired on British soldiers in the Boston Massacre to pressure Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act
d. Colonists dumped tea into Boston Harbor in the Boston Tea Party to pressure Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act
III. The Empire Strikes Back
Parliament responded to this act of defiance with the Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by colonists. Great Britain accepted the act out of exasperation, convinced that Americans would agree that Boston had crossed the line, and because Britons unilaterally called for reprisals. Commerce and customhouse officers were no longer safe. Lord North (Prime Minister at this time) wanted Boston to serve as an example, because the Bostonians had set a bad example. Many could not condone the Bostonians' action or the destruction of property. The Tea Party was seen as a challenge to Great Britain's authority. North convinced Britons that there was no other alternative and the Act passed. In part, these acts directly punished Boston:
1. The Boston Port Bill closed Boston Harbor until King George III saw fit or until the colonists payed for the tea and the tax.
2. The Massachusetts Government Act shut down the colonial government, and put all government matters into the hands of the Crown. It made jury selection at the hands of crown officials, it allowed the royal governor to appoint his own judges; it limited towns to one meeting a year.
But in addition, other parts of the Coercive Acts seemed a sinister plot against the liberties of all colonists everywhere:
3. The Impartial Administration of Justice Act permitted the governor to send home to England for trial all government officers accused of crimes committed in the execution of their official duties. This was supposed to free them from the fear of being tried by American juries if they performed their duties overzealously...but it seemed like it would lead to quite a few acquittals. What American would go to England to testify against the official?
4. The Quartering Act required cities and towns to provide accommodations for British soldiers; if they did not, British officers could seize barns and unoccupied buildings.
5. The Quebec Act organized the government of Canada, but claimed a huge chunk of territory for Canada (that the colonists did not agree with), it made Canada a royal government, with no colonial assembly, and it allowed Catholicism. This just made no sense to the colonists. It seemed that Britain was trying to spite them.
There was some Parliamentary opposition to these measures, which was outspoken, but not enough to prevent the passage of this legislation, known collectively as The Coercive Acts. Colonists began calling for an intercolonial response to overcome the Coercive Acts and to unite against the British.
In September and October 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia with 56 delegates from all colonies except Georgia. The conservatives made only one major effort to prevent the adoption of the radical measures. It came in the form of Joseph Galloways' Plan of Union. Galloway rejected the patriots' contention that Parliament had no authority over the internal affairs of the colonies. He did admit that it was unjust for Americans to be taxed by a body in which they had no representatives and that it was impractical for colonists to sit in Parliament. So, Galloway suggested a Grand Council in America, in which all the colonies would be represented. This Council, together with a president‑general appointed by the King, would govern the American colonies. It would enjoy a similar veto power over bills of that body that affected the American colonies. Galloway's plan had the potential to restore harmony within the Empire and establish a permanent federation between the colonies and the mother country. But his Grand Council idea was inferior to Parliament and dependent on Parliament, and stood no chance of being adopted by the Congress. Contributions from the conservatives were thereafter brushed aside.
The delegates signed the Continental Association, which committed the colonies to the policy of commercial retaliation against Britain, and establishing procedures for its enforcement throughout America.
The delegates had accepted a series of resolutions called the Declaration of Colonial Rights and Grievances. With it, the patriots stated the rights to which they thought the colonists were entitled. Among them was a clause that asserted the colonists' right to self‑government in matters of taxation and internal law. The resolution did grant that by consent not by right, Parliament might regulate the commerce of the Empire to the advantage of the mother country, provided no attempt at raising a revenue were made. The Declaration also ruled that all existing acts of Parliament, including of course the Townshend tax on tea, that taxed the colonists, were infringements on American rights. Finally, the delegates called for the repeal of the Coercive Act, the Quebec Act, and several other laws deemed unconstitutional. The patriots had made their demands; all that remained was to rally the public behind them.
Congress vowed not to obey the Coercive Acts and on October 20, the Congress adopted the Continental Association in which delegates agreed to boycott English imports, to not send anything to Britain, and to stop dealing with British slave traders. Over the next several months, the colonies communicated with each other. In Virginia, Patrick Henry delivered a speech against British rule, declaring, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
Parliament passed the New England Restraining Act on March 30, demanding that New England colonies trade exclusively with England and also banned fishing in the North Atlantic. In April 1775, Parliament ordered Massachusetts’ Royal Governor Thomas Gage is ordered to enforce the Coercive Acts and suppress "open rebellion" among the colonists by all necessary force. On April 18, he sent several hundred British troops, on foot, to march from Boston to the Massachusetts town of Concord, where the colonists had a weapons stockpile. The British troops were to seize the weapons in the stockpile, disarming the Americans and preventing a future attack, and to return.
Paul Revere, a Boston Silversmith, and two others learned of the British plan, the night before, and in the middle of the night, rode through the countryside, notifying the towns on the way to Concord. When the British soldiers reached Lexington, on their way to the weapons stockpile in Concord, Captain Jonas Parker and 75 armed Minutemen, members of the local militia, were there to meet them. The Minutemen were greatly outnumbered. Words were exchanged on either side. Suddenly a shot went off, and the British soldiers fired, killing 8 Minutemen and injuring ten others. The Americans fired back, killing several British; the British rushed through with their bayonets drawn and continued on their way to Concord.
While the British soldiers continued on their way to Concord, the men and women of Concord were busy moving the arms and ammunition to new hiding places in surrounding towns. When the soldiers arrived they were only able to destroy part of the supplies. As the British soldiers headed back to Boston, they were attacked by the Minutemen. All along the route, Minutemen, local farmers and townspeople continued the attack against the British. By the time the soldiers reached Boston, 73 British solders were dead and 174 more were wounded. In the days fighting, 49 patriots were killed, and 39 more were wounded. This was the first official battle in the war, often called the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Within a week, colonial volunteers from all over New England assembled and headed for Boston. They established camps around the city.
In May, 1775, the Continental Congress met for a second time in Philadelphia, and the Congress placed the colonies in a state of defense. It unanimously elected George Washington, of Virginia, to serve as the general and commander in chief of a new Continental Army.
The first major fight between British and American troops occurred about a month later, in June 1775 at Boston in the Battle of Bunker Hill. American troops dug in along the high ground of Breed's Hill (the actual location) and were attacked by a frontal assault of over 2000 British soldiers who stormed up the hill. The Americans were ordered not to fire until they can see "the whites of their eyes." As the British got within 15 paces, the Americans let loose a deadly volley of rifle fire and halted the British advance. The British then regrouped and attacked 30 minutes later with the same result. A third attack, however, succeeded as the Americans ran out of ammunition and were left only with bayonets and stones to defend themselves. The British succeeded in taking the hill, but had lost half their force, suffering over a thousand casualties, with the Americans losing about 400, including important colonial leader, General Joseph Warren.
Even at this point, some colonists, and some delegates to the Continental Congress, hoped for a peaceful solution. Led by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, the Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, a petition written directly to the King. It expressed the hope for a reconciliation and professed loyalty to the Crown. However, about the same time it arrived, King George III learned of the Battles at Bunker Hill and at Lexington and Concord, of the formation of the Continental Army and of George Washington being appointed general. Receiving obviously mixed messages, George III refused to acknowledge the petition, and declared the colonies in a state of open rebellion.
For the next six or eight months, the end of 1775 to beginning of 1776, colonists discussed and debated the idea of getting into a full-flung war with the British. Some still expressed doubt. Americans were not by any means united, but after the blood shed, could they look back? Wouldn’t there be great sacrifices during wartime? Did they want to break the bonds with the mother country?
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, a fifty page document criticizing the British, pointing out the problems with a system of monarchy, and making a personal attack on King George, proved the answer. "We have it in our power to begin the world anew...American shall make a stand, not for herself alone, but for the world," Paine stated. Common Sense swayed public opinion against the British and for the war, and was printed, circulated and read throughout the colonies.
60-second Quiz #3: What were some of the key developments that pushed colonies from mere defiance to open rebellion? All of the following events took place after the Boston Tea Party EXCEPT which one?
a. Boston Massacre
b. Shot Heard ‘Round the World
c. Battle of Bunker Hill
d. Publication of Common Sense
Key for 60-second quiz questions:
1. a. The Molasses Act of 1733 was BEFORE the end of the French and Indian War (1763)
2. c. It was British soldiers who fired on the colonists in the Boston Massacre
3. a. The Boston Massacre was in 1770; the Boston Tea Party was 1773