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In This Chapter
Proclamation Line of 1763.
Taxation without representation.
The Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party.
First Continental Congress.
Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The misnamed “Battle of Bunker Hill”.
Common Sense and The Declaration of Independence.
Britain finally won the French and Indian War, but in the process, started losing its North American colonies. For most of the war, colonial leaders were the brunt of royal contempt, and provincial military men saw how ineffectual the British regulars were in fighting wilderness wars. The “Mother Country” began to seem unresponsive, uncaring, arrogant, and even incompetent. The colonies, traditionally competitive with one another, emerged from the crucible of war feeling stronger bonds among themselves than with an aloof and unfeeling government across the sea.
King George Draws a Line. The Treaty of Easton, concluded in 1758, had helped turn the tide toward the British in the French and Indian War. By formally agreeing to prohibit white settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, British authorities persuaded the war-weary Indian allies of the French that they no longer needed to fear invasion by the English. But another product of the French and Indian War, the road that General John Forbes had hacked through the Pennsylvania wilderness to deliver his unwieldy army to do battle at Fort Duquesne, ensured that the treaty would be violated almost immediately. The Forbes Road was the first great avenue into the North American interior. It led to the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers—the site of present-day Pittsburgh and the gateway to the trans-Allegheny West. Even before the war was over, settlers began to use the road, and the Easton agreement was breached.
With the French neutralized in North America, the British crown saw the next and continuing threat of war to be conflict with the Indians. But as long as a buffer zone existed between the Indians and the colonists, peace could be maintained. Accordingly, on October 7, 1763, King George III issued a new proclamation redrawing the limit of western settlement at the Appalachian Mountains.
At first, the Proclamation of 1763 worked like magic to calm the Indians and to bring to an end the bloody coda to the French and Indian War known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. What the British government hadn’t reckoned on was that, while pacifying the Indians, the Proclamation line enraged the settlers, who went ahead and pushed settlement across the forbidden mountains. When resentful Indians responded with raids, the illegal settlers appealed to royal authorities for aid. They were rebuffed. The gulf that had been created between the colonies and England during the French and Indian War widened. As the frontier regions became more populous and powerful, the allegiance of many authorities in the Tidewater (the more established coastal settlements) leaned westward rather than back toward Europe.
Taxation Without Representation. Fighting any war is expensive, and no war is more costly than one fought across an ocean. During the French and Indian War, the English treasury had amassed a huge debt. The English government, led by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Grenville, decided that it was fitting and proper for the colonies to pay their fair share. Grenville pushed through Parliament heavy duties on numerous commodities imported into the colonies, most notably molasses and sugar, and the laws became known collectively as the Sugar Act. Passed in 1764, this was the first act the English Parliament passed for the specific purpose of raising tax revenues in the colonies.
At the same time, Parliament passed the Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing paper money and required the use of gold in all business transactions. This act thereby guaranteed that the colonies would be economically dependent on England. Parliament also decided to enforce the Acts of Trade and Navigation, which had been passed during the 1650s but never really put into effect. England used these acts to raise additional duty revenue.
The colonists, reeling from a business recession caused by the French and Indian War, and the frontier regions, resentful of the Proclamation Line, were stunned and outraged at being taxed without the benefit of parliamentary representation. After a Boston town meeting denounced “taxation without representation,” the phrase evolved into a battle cry that spread from that city to the other colonies.
The action Boston proposed was nonviolent. The colonies made a Non-Importation Agreement, pledging to boycott a wide variety of English goods. Parliament, taking little heed of this protest, passed the Quartering Act in 1765, requiring colonial governments to furnish barracks and provisions for royal troops. The next year, the act was extended to require the billeting of soldiers in taverns and inns at the expense of the colonists. Not only were these measures a further financial hardship on the colonies, they rankled in a way that reached beyond economics. The Quartering Act was seen as an invasion of privacy and an affront to personal liberty. Even colonists who were not directly affected by the revenue acts were enraged by the Quartering Act.
Stamps of Tyranny. Parliament had an even more offensive measure in store. In 1765, it passed the Stamp Act, which required that every paper document-ranging from newspapers, to deeds, to playing cards—bear a revenue stamp purchased from royally appointed colonial stamp agents. Worse, violations of the act were to be tried summarily by vice-admiralty courts, in which there were no juries. Not only did the colonists see the stamps as evil, but denial of trial by jury attacked a right as old as the Magna Carta.
The Stamp Act united the colonies in opposition to the “tyranny” of the Mother Country. Subversive secret societies such as the Sons of Liberty were formed in many towns, the boycott of English goods was stepped up, and a Stamp Act Congress was called in New York in October 1765 (eight colonies sent delegates). The congress drafted a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” claiming that the colonists had the rights of British subjects and that taxation without parliamentary representation was a violation of those rights. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but simultaneously delivered a political slap in the face by passing the Declaratory Act, which affirmed Parliament’s authority to create laws for the colonies “in all cases whatever.”
Act II. Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend (1725-67) next pushed through Parliament a bundle of acts intended to raise revenue, tighten customs enforcement, and assert imperial authority in America. Enacted on June 29, 1767, the so-called Townshend Acts levied import duties on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. Additional bills in the package authorized “writs of assistance” (blanket search warrants), created additional jury-less vice-admiralty courts, established a board of customs commissioners headquartered in Boston, and suspended the New York assembly for its defiance of the Quartering Act of 1765.
Samuel Adams, of the Massachusetts Sons of Liberty, sent a “circular letter” to the other 12 colonies calling for renewal of the non-importation agreements. Royal customs officials in Boston were attacked after they seized a ship belonging to the merchant John Hancock. The beleaguered officials requested a contingent of English troops to occupy Boston.
During 1768-69, all the colonies except New Hampshire boycotted English goods, and the Virginia House of Burgesses, led by Patrick Henry, created the Virginia Association to enforce the boycott. At this, the royal governor of Virginia dissolved the House of Burgesses, thereby further inflaming anti-British passions. However, in April 1770, Parliament again bowed to the pressure and repealed all the Townshend duties-except for a tax on tea.
Massacre in Boston. The British troops sent to Boston at the request of the beleaguered customs officials were, to put it mildly, not popular. On March 5, 1770, one of the soldiers got into a brawl with a civilian workman. This triggered an evening of protests by bands of colonists who roamed the streets. Finally, a squad of Redcoats, led by Captain Thomas Preston, fired into a small mob agitating in front of the hated Customs House. Three colonists died instantly, and two others were mortally wounded.
Prudently, British authorities immediately withdrew the troops from town. But the “Boston Massacre” became the focal point of anti-British propaganda and heightened American fears about standing armies established in the colonies. The committees of correspondence became increasingly active, and the colonies drew closer together in opposition to the crown.
From Tea Party to Continental Congress. By 1773, the only duty remaining from the Townshend Acts was the tax on tea. To modem ears, this sounds rather trivial. Don’t want to pay a tax on tea? Well, then stop drinking tea!
But going without tea was never a viable option for English men and women. Moreover, in the 18th century, tea was an extremely valuable trade commodity-almost a second currency. The East India Company, England’s chief tea producer, was vital to British government interests because it had extensive influence in India. Expenses, however, were high, and by the 1770s, the company was close to bankruptcy. To bail out the firm, Parliament suspended the tax paid on tea in England but retained the import tax on tea sold in the colonies. Worse, the government ruled that the East India Company could sell the tea directly to agents at a set price rather than through colonial merchants at public auction. Not only was the tax unfair, but colonial merchants, cut out of the profit loop, resented the crown’s intrusion into free enterprise.
The committees of correspondence worked overtime to spread the word of opposition to the tea duty and to impose an absolute boycott of English tea. On one occasion, the royal governor of Massachusetts refused demands to send recently arrived tea ships back to England. So on the night of December 16, 1773, a band of Bostonians—lamely disguised as Indians—boarded three ships in Boston harbor and dumped a cargo of tea chests overboard. The act triggered similar “tea parties” in ports up and down the coast.
Intolerable Acts. King George III of England (173 8-1820) has always gotten a bad rap in American schoolbooks, which traditionally have painted him as a tyrant seeking to squeeze out of the colonies not only their cash, but their liberty as well. In truth, George was a popular monarch, as earnest as he was mediocre and incapable of thinking on his own. During the period immediately preceding the American Revolution, he depended entirely on the advice of his prime minister, Lord North, an aggressive autocrat. Following the Tea Party, it was North who sponsored what the colonists called the Intolerable Acts.
The first of these acts, the Boston Port Act (March 31, 1774), closed the harbor to commerce until such time as Boston paid for the destroyed tea. Next, the Massachusetts Government Act (May 20) reserved for the crown the power to appoint members of the upper house of the legislature. The Government Act also increased the royal governor’s patronage powers, provided that juries be summoned by sheriffs rather than elected by colonists. Most onerous of all, the Government Act banned town meetings not explicitly authorized by law or by the governor. At the same time, the Impartial Administration of justice Act authorized a change of venue to another colony or even to England for crown officers charged with capital crimes while performing official, duties.
Intended to restore order to Massachusetts, the Intolerable Acts boomeranged, leading the colonies to recognize their common cause and to convene the First Continental Congress.
Continental Congress. The Congress met in Philadelphia during September 1774, and only Georgia failed to send delegates. The 56 delegates who convened represented the full spectrum of colonial thought, from radicals who wanted to sever all ties with England, to conservatives who wanted to find a way to heal the breach. The Massachusetts delegation produced the Suffolk Resolves, which the radicals supported, calling for the people to arm, to disobey the Intolerable Acts, and to collect their own colonial taxes. The conservatives countered with a plan of union between England and the colonies. With modifications, the Suffolk Resolves were adopted by a margin of six to five. The Intolerable Acts were declared unconstitutional, and the non-importation boycott was given teeth by the creation of a colonial association to enforce it.
Following the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson (in his pamphlet, Summary View of the Rights of British America) and John Adams (in a series of published letters he signed “Novanglus”) proposed dominion status for the colonies, whereby the colonies would govern themselves but acknowledge the crown as the head of state. At the time, Parliament rejected this idea as too radical, but liberals in the English government did formulate a plan of conciliation in 1775, which would have granted a considerable degree of self-government to the colonies. The hyper-conservative House of Lords rejected the plan, however, and Parliament as a whole declared Massachusetts to be in rebellion. In a sense, then, it was the British Parliament that declared the American Revolution.
The Shot Heard ’Round the World. Massachusetts responded to the Parliamentary declaration by organizing special militia units that could be ready for battle on a minute’s notice. They were called the Minutemen.
General Thomas Gage, commander of British regulars, ordered to use force against the defiant colonials, dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith with a column from Boston to seize the gunpowder stored at the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in the town of Concord. On the morning of April 19, 1775, Smith’s troops dispersed a company of Minutemen at Lexington, unintentionally killing several in an unauthorized burst of musket fire. Smith reached Concord but found only a small portion of the gunpowder. He had not reckoned with the resourcefulness of a small band of swift riders.
Paul Revere (1735-1818) was a prosperous and highly skilled Charlestown, Massachusetts, silversmith, who was a leader of the Sons of Liberty and had been a participant in the Boston Tea Party. A courier for the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, Revere rode, on the night of April 18, from Charlestown to Lexington, alerting the populace to the approach of British troops. In Lexington, he also warned John Hancock and Samuel Adams, the chief leaders of the Massachusetts rebels, to escape. Accompanied by two other riders, Charles Dawes and Samuel Prescott, Revere rode on to Concord but was intercepted by a British patrol. Although Prescott was the one who actually managed to reach Concord, it was Revere whom Henry Wadsworth Longfellow celebrated in his famous, if fanciful, poem of 1863, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
While the battles of Lexington and Concord were not colonial victories, they were certainly not British triumphs, either. As Smith’s column returned to Boston, it was harassed by continual Patriot gunfire, resulting in the deaths of 73 British soldiers and the wounding of an additional 200. The pattern would prove typical of the war. British forces, trained to fight European-style open-field battles, would often win such engagements, only to be cut up piecemeal by colonial guerrilla groups firing from concealed ambush.
Washington Backs a Long Shot. Soon after the battles at Lexington and Concord, colonial militia forces from all over New England converged on Boston and laid siege to the city. In May 1775, a Vermont landowner named Ethan Allen led a militia outfit he had organized—the Green Mountain Boys—against Fort Ticonderoga between Lake Champlain and Lake George in New York and seized it from British regulars. Next, Crown Point, on the western shore of Lake Champlain, fell to rebel forces. Despite these early triumphs, anyone who assessed the situation with a cold eye would have put money on the British and not the Colonial Americans. Britain was an established imperial power, with deep pockets, a tested army, and the most powerful navy in the world. Moreover, while the colonies had acted in unity, the colonists were hardly unanimous in the desire to rebel. Each colony contained a large “Loyalist” population.
Then there was the matter of leadership. The English had a king and a prime minister, while the colonies had no king or other chief executive. And that wasn’t the half of it. The colonies had no government at all, no treasury, and no regular army. True, a Continental Congress had convened, but 13 separate colonial assemblies vied with it for power and authority.
Forty-three-year-old George Washington, now a prosperous Virginia planter, was accustomed to long odds. He had played them during his militia service in the French and Indian War. Sometimes he had won. Mostly, he had lost. On June 15, 1775, at the suggestion of John Adams of Massachusetts, the Second Continental Congress asked Washington to lead the as-yet nonexistent Continental Army. Washington accepted.
A Thousand Fall Near Bunker Hill. The colonies’ new commander set off for New England to lead the Minutemen. Before Washington arrived, however, British General Thomas Gage (who had been reinforced on May 25 by fresh troops from Britain and additional generals, including John Burgoyne, William Howe, and Henry Clinton) offered to call the Revolution quits—no harm, no foul. General Gage would grant an amnesty to everyone except Sam Adams and John Hancock, the two chief troublemakers. In response, the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety ordered General Artemus Ward to fortify Bunker Hill on Charlestown Heights, overlooking Boston harbor. Ward instead sent Colonel William Prescott with 1,200 men to occupy nearby Breed’s Hill, which was lower and more vulnerable. Gage opened up on Breed’s Hill with a naval bombardment at dawn on June 17, 1775. Then he launched an amphibious attack with 2,500 men under General Howe. Twice, the superior British force attempted to take the hill, and twice they were repelled. A third assault, with fixed bayonets, succeeded only after the colonials had run out of ammunition. Misnamed for Bunker Hill (the superior position that should have been defended), the battle was a tactical defeat for the colonists, but it was a tremendous psychological victory for them. They had been defeated only because of a shortage of ammunition.
An Olive Branch Breaks and a Declaration Is Written. The Second Continental Congress made its own final attempt to stop the revolution by sending to King George III and Parliament the so-called Olive Branch Petition. Meanwhile, Washington formed the first parade of the Continental Army on Cambridge Common in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 3, 1775. In September, Britain contemptuously rejected the Olive Branch Petition. Georgia, final holdout from the Second Continental Congress, joined that assembly and the Revolution. Congress next moved to organize a post office department, a commission for negotiating with Indians, and a navy. By December 1775, Virginia and North Carolina militia defeated the forces of the royal governor of Virginia and destroyed his base at Norfolk.
Common Sense and Confederation. With the rebellion in full swing, it was time to create a feeling of historical purpose to catch up with the rush of events. In January 1776, Thomas Paine, a Philadelphia patriot and orator, anonymously published a modest pamphlet called Common Sense. In brilliant, even melodramatic prose, Paine outlined the reasons for breaking free from England, portraying the American Revolution as a world event, an epoch-making step in the history of humankind.
With the colonies united as never before, the next great document to emerge from the gathering storm was a formal declaration of independence. On July 1, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress, presented a draft proposal for a document asserting that “these United Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent States.” Congress passed the draft document but sent it to a committee for discussion, debate, and amendment. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who had a fine reputation as a writer, was selected to revise the committee’s draft. He ended up wholly rewriting it.
The Declaration of Independence, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, cast the American struggle for independence in a noble light as a profound gesture “in the course of human events,” Inspired by the great English political philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), Jefferson listed the “inalienable rights” of humankind. These included life and liberty, but where Locke had listed property as the third right, Jefferson specified “the pursuit of happiness.” The purpose of government, Jefferson declared, was “to secure these rights,” and the authority of government to do so derived “from the consent of the governed.” When a government ceased to serve its just purpose, it was the right and duty of “the governed” to withdraw their allegiance. And that is precisely what the colonies had done. Jefferson’s document was adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776.
The Least You Need to Know
Unfair taxation, limits on westward settlement, and the involuntary quartering of British soldiers united the colonies in rebellion.
Thomas Paine (Common Sense) and Thomas Jefferson (The Declaration of Independence helped elevate a colonial revolution to the status of a momentous world event.
American troops were citizen soldiers, fighting at home and committed to their cause. The British soldiers were a professional army doing a grim job in a distant land.
Real Life. Samuel Adams (1722-1803) inherited a one-third interest in his father’s prosperous brewery but lost most of his fortune through mismanagement. If he was not very adept at handling money, Adams was highly skilled at politics; after attending Harvard, he attracted a wide following among members of Boston’s many political clubs. Adams was instrumental in creating the most influential and radical of the clubs, the Sons of Liberty. In 1765, Adams organized the protest against the Stamp Act.
Elected to the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature, Adams served from 1765 to 1774 and composed the great protest documents of the era, including the Circular Letter (1768) against the Townshend Acts. He fanned the flames of resistance and rebellion in the popular press, and after 1770, was chief architect of intercolonial “committees of correspondence,” which coordinated the developing revolution. Adams was a prime mover behind the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
A principal member of the First Continental Congress, Samuel Adams participated in drafting the 1781 Articles of Confederation, preecursor of the Constitution.
Main Event. First to die in the cause of American liberty was the leader of the Boston mob, Crispus Attucks (born about 1723). He was almost certainly a black man, perhaps of partly Indian descent.
Stats. The protesters dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. The cargo was valued at Ј9,000—a tremendous amount of money in a day when a man earning E100 a year was considered moderately wealthy.
Voice from the Past
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Hymn Sung at the Completion of the Concord Monument, April 19, 1836”
Stats. Of the 2,500 British troops engaged at Bunker Hill, 1,000 perished, a devastating casualty rate of 42 percent—the heaviest loss the British would suffer during the long war.
Voice from the Past
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”