The Colonial Crisis Leading to Revolution, 1750-1775



Engraving of the Boston Tea Party by E. Newberry, 1789 / New York Public Library


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 02.27.2018
Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


1 – The Seven Years’ War, 12754-1763

1.1 – The French and Indian War

The French and Indian War was fought between the colonies of Great Britain and New France, supported by American Indian allies on both sides.

1.1.1 – The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War was a global military war between 1756 and 1763, involving most of the great powers of the time and affecting Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. In some countries, the war is alternatively named after combats in the respective theatres: the French and Indian War (North America, 1754–63), Pomeranian War (Sweden and Prussia, 1757–62), Third Carnatic War (Indian subcontinent, 1757–63), and Third Silesian War (Prussia and Austria, 1756–63).

The French and Indian War (1754–1763) is the name for the North American theatre of the Seven Years’ War. The war was fought primarily between the colonies of Great Britain and New France, with both sides supported by forces from Europe as well as American Indian allies. In 1756, the war erupted into a worldwide conflict between Britain and France. The primary targets of the British colonists were the royal French forces and the various American Indian forces allied with them.

1.2 – Background to the War

1.2.1 – The Ohio Country

The war was fought primarily along the frontiers separating New France from the British colonies from Virginia to Nova Scotia. The Ohio Country (sometimes called the Ohio Territory or Ohio Valley by the French) was the name used in the 18th century for the regions of North America west of the Appalachian Mountains and in the region of the upper Ohio River south of Lake Erie. The territory encompassed roughly the present-day states of Ohio, eastern Indiana, western Pennsylvania, and northwestern West Virginia. The issue of settlement in the region is considered to have been a primary cause of the French and Indian War and a later contributing factor to the American Revolutionary War.

In the 17th century, the area north of the Ohio River had been occupied by the Algonquian-speaking Shawnee. Around 1660, during a conflict known as the Beaver Wars, the Iroquois seized control of the Ohio Country, driving out the Shawnee and conquering and absorbing the Erie tribe. The Ohio Country remained largely uninhabited for decades and was used primarily for hunting by the Iroquois.

In the 1720s, a number of American Indian groups began to migrate to the Ohio Country. By 1724, Delaware Indians had established the village of Kittanning on the Allegheny River in present-day western Pennsylvania. The Delawares were migrating because of the expansion of European colonial settlement in eastern Pennsylvania. With them came those Shawnee who had settled in the east. Other bands of the scattered Shawnee tribe also began to return to the Ohio Country in the decades that followed. A number of Senecas and other Iroquois also migrated to the Ohio Country, moving away from the French and British imperial rivalries south of Lake Ontario.

1.2.2 – Territorial Dispute

With the invasion of the Europeans, the region was claimed by Great Britain and France, both of which sent merchants into the area to trade with the Ohio Country Indians. The area was considered central to both countries’ ambitions of further expansion and development in North America. At the same time, the Iroquois claimed the region by right of conquest. The rivalry between the two European nations, the Iroquois, and the Ohio natives for control of the region played an important part of the outbreak of the French and Indian War in the 1750s.

1.2.3 – The Outbreak of War

Conference between the French and American Indian leaders around a ceremonial fire by Vernier: This is a scene from the French and Indian War (1754–1763), depicting the alliance of French and American Indian forces.

The war began in May 1754 because of these competing claims between Britain and France. Twenty-two-year-old George Washington, a Virginian surveyor whose family helped to found the Ohio Company, gave the command to fire on French soldiers near present-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania. This incident on the Pennsylvania frontier proved to be a decisive event that led to imperial war. For the next decade, fighting took place along the frontier of New France and British America from Virginia to Maine. The war also spread to Europe as France and Britain looked to gain supremacy in the Atlantic World.

After initially remaining neutral, the Ohio Country Indians and most of the northern tribes largely sided with the French, who were their primary trading partner and supplier of arms. The British fared poorly in the first years of the war. In 1754, the French and their American Indian native allies forced Washington to surrender at Fort Necessity, a hastily built fort constructed after Washington’s attack on the French. In 1755, Britain dispatched General Edward Braddock to the colonies to take Fort Duquesne. The French, aided by the Potawotomis, Ottawas, Shawnees, and Delawares, ambushed the 1,500 British soldiers and Virginia militia who marched to the fort. The attack sent panic through the British force, and hundreds of British soldiers and militiamen died, including General Braddock. The campaign of 1755 proved to be a disaster for the British. In fact, the only British victory that year was the capture of Nova Scotia. In 1756 and 1757, Britain suffered further defeats with the fall of Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry.

The war began to turn in favor of the British in 1758, due in large part to the efforts of William Pitt, a very popular member of Parliament. Pitt pledged huge sums of money and resources to defeating the hated Catholic French, and Great Britain spent part of the money on bounties paid to new young recruits in the colonies, helping invigorate the British forces. In 1758, the Iroquois, Delaware, and Shawnee signed the Treaty of Easton, aligning themselves with the British in return for some contested land around Pennsylvania and Virginia. Between 1758 and 1760, the British military successfully penetrated the heartland of New France, with Quebec falling in 1759 and Montreal finally falling in September 1760. The French empire in North America began to crumble.

1.2.4 – Treat of Paris

Most of the fighting between France and Britain in continental North America ended in 1760; however, the fighting in Europe continued. The war in North America officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763, and war in the European theatre of the Seven Years’ War was settled by the Treaty of Hubertusburg on February 15, 1763. France ceded French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River to its ally Spain, in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Britain (which Spain had given to Britain in exchange for the return of Havana, Cuba). France’s colonial presence north of the Caribbean was reduced to the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, confirming Britain’s position as the dominant colonial power in the eastern half of North America.

Britain gained control of French Canada and Acadia, colonies containing approximately 80,000 primarily French-speaking Roman Catholic residents. The British resettled many Acadians throughout its North American provinces, but many went to France, and some went to New Orleans, which they had expected to remain French.

Following the peace treaty, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 outlining the division and administration of the newly conquered territory. To some extent, this proclamation continues to govern relations between the government of modern Canada and the First Nations. In his proclamation, George III placed Ohio Country in the vast Indian Reserve stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and from Florida to Newfoundland. Existing European settlers (mostly French) were ordered to leave or get special permission to stay. Despite its acquisition by Great Britain, the area remained officially closed to white settlement—at least for the time being—by the Proclamation of 1763, which arose from the British desire to regain peaceful relations with the Shawnee and other tribes in the region.

1.2.5 – A New Dynamic

Map of the French and Indian War

For France, the military defeat and the financial burden of the war weakened the monarchy and contributed to the advent of the French Revolution in 1789. For many American Indian populations, the elimination of French power in North America meant the disappearance of a strong ally and counterweight to British expansion, which over the following decades would lead to their ultimate dispossession. Although the Spanish takeover of the Louisiana territory (which was not completed until 1769) had only modest repercussions, the British takeover of Spanish Florida resulted in the westward migration of tribes that did not want to do business with the British and a rise in tensions between the Choctaw and the Creek, historic enemies whose divisions the British at times exploited. The change of control in Florida also prompted most of its Spanish Catholic population to leave.

1.3 – The Albany Congress and the Intercolonial Defense

The Albany Congress brought together colonial representatives to discuss relations with American Indian tribes and common defense against the French.

1.3.1 – Overview

In 1754, the British government asked colonial representatives to meet in Albany, New York, to develop a treaty with American Indians and plan the defense of the colonies against France. Exceeding these limited objectives, the assembly adopted a plan developed by Benjamin Franklin for government of the colonies by a central executive and a council of delegates. Although rejected by England and the colonies, the Albany Plan became a useful guide in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.

1.3.2 – The Albany Congress

“Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin: “Join, or Die” by Benjamin Franklin is a woodcut showing a snake cut into eighths, with each segment labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies or regions. The cartoon was used in the French and Indian War to symbolize that the colonies needed to join together with Great Britain to defeat the French and Indians. It later became a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War.

The Albany Congress was a meeting of representatives from seven of the 13 British North American colonies in 1754: Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Representatives met daily in Albany, New York, from June 19 to July 11 to discuss better relations with the American Indian tribes and common defensive measures against the French during the French and Indian War. Delegates did not view themselves as builders of an American nation; rather, they were colonists with the more limited mission of pursuing a treaty with the Mohawks. The episode has achieved iconic status as presaging the formation of the United States of America in 1776, and is often illustrated with Franklin’s famous snake cartoon, “Join, or Die.”

1.3.3 – Franklin’s Plan of Union

The Albany Congress: The mural depicts some of the delegates (from left to right): William Franklin and his father, Benjamin (Pennsylvania); Governor Thomas Hutchinson (Massachusetts); Governor William Delancey (New York); Sir William Johnson (Massachusetts); and Colonel Benjamin Tasker (Maryland).

Benjamin Franklin proposed a plan for uniting the seven colonies that greatly exceeded the scope of the congress. The Albany delegates spent most of their time debating Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union, which would have created a unified colonial entity. The original plan was heavily debated by all who attended the conference, and numerous modifications were proposed until the plan proceeded to be passed unanimously.

The delegates voted approval of a plan that called for a union of 12 colonies. The Union Plan included all of the British colonies in North America, except Delaware and Georgia. The plan called for a single executive, known as a president general, to be appointed and supported by the Crown; the president general would be responsible for American Indian relations, military preparedness, and execution of laws regulating various trade and financial activities. The Union Plan also called for a grand council to be selected by the colonial legislatures, where the number of delegates (anywhere from 2 to 7) would be based on the taxes paid by each colony.

The plan was submitted as a recommendation by the Albany Congress, but it was rejected by the legislatures of the individual seven colonies, as it would remove some of their existing powers. The plan was also rejected by the Colonial Office. Many in the British government, already wary of some of the strong-willed colonial assemblies, disliked the idea of consolidating additional power into the hands of the colonists. Instead, they preferred that the colonists’ focus remain on the forthcoming military campaign against the French and their American Indian allies.

Even though it was rejected, some features of this plan were later adopted in the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. Franklin himself later speculated that had the 1754 plan been adopted, the colonial separation from England might not have happened so soon.

1.4 – The War and Its Consequences

The Seven Years’ War changed relations between the European powers, their colonies and colonists, and the American Indians in North America.

1.4.1 – The Treaties of Paris and Hubertusburg

Treaty of Hubertusburg: An image of the 1763 peace settlement reached at the Treaty of Hubertusburg ending the Seven Years’ War in central Europe.

Most of the North American fighting of the French and Indian War (the North American theatre of the Seven Years’ War) ended on September 8, 1760, when the Marquis de Vaudreuil surrendered Montreal—and effectively all of Canada—to the British. However, the war did not officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Paris on February 10, 1763. The treaty resulted in France’s loss of all its North American possessions east of the Mississippi except for Saint Pierre and Miquelon, two small islands off of Newfoundland, marking the beginning of an era of British dominance in North America.

Britain also gained control of French Canada, a colony containing approximately 65,000 French-speaking, Roman Catholic residents. Early in the war in 1755, the British had expelled French settlers from Acadia, some of whom eventually fled to Louisiana. Now at peace and eager to secure control of its hard-won colony, Great Britain found itself obliged to make concessions to its newly conquered subjects. The European theatre of the war was settled by the Treaty of Hubertusburg on February 15, 1763.

1.4.2 – Consequences of the War

The war changed economic, political, governmental, and social relations between Britain, France, and Spain; their colonies and colonists; and the American Indians that inhabited the territories they claimed. France and Britain both suffered financially because of the war, with significant long-term consequences.

1.4.3 – The Royal Proclamation of 1763

Following the peace treaty, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763 on October 7. The proclamation outlined the division and administration of the newly conquered territory. Included in its provisions was the reservation of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains to its original American Indian population, a demarcation that was at best a temporary impediment to a rising tide of westward-bound British invaders. One of the biggest problems confronting the British Empire in 1763 was controlling land speculators whose activities often led to frontier conflicts in both Europe and the British colonies. Many American Indian peoples—primarily in the Great Lakes region—had a long and close relationship with France and were dismayed to find that they were now under British sovereignty.

The proclamation created a boundary line (often called the proclamation line) between the British colonies on the Atlantic coast and American Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The proclamation line was not intended to be a permanent boundary between white and indigenous lands but rather a temporary boundary which could be extended further west in an orderly, “lawful” (according to the British) manner. The proclamation outlawed private purchase of American Indian land, which had often created problems in the past; instead, all future land purchases were to be made by Crown officials “at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians.” Furthermore, British colonists were forbidden to move beyond the line and settle on indigenous lands, and colonial officials were forbidden to grant grounds or lands without royal approval. The proclamation was less about respecting or preserving the American Indians’ rights to their land; rather, it gave the British Crown a monopoly on all future land purchases from American Indians.

Almost immediately, many British colonists and land speculators objected to the proclamation boundary, since there were already many settlements beyond the line and many existing land claims yet to be settled. Indeed, the Royal Proclamation itself called for lands to be granted to British soldiers who had served in the Seven Years’ War. Prominent American colonists joined with land speculators in Britain to lobby the government to move the line further west. As a result, the boundary line was adjusted in a series of treaties with American Indians. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the Treaty of Hard Labor, both signed 1768, and the Treaty of Lochaber of 1770, opened much of what is now West Virginia and Kentucky to British settlement.

1.4.4 – Economic Consequences

In addition to vastly increasing Britain’s land in North America, the Seven Years’ War changed economic, political, and social relations between Britain and its colonies. It plunged Britain into debt, nearly doubling the national debt. The Crown, seeking sources of revenue to pay off the debt, chose to impose new taxes on its colonies. These taxes were met with increasingly stiff resistance, until troops were called in to ensure that representatives of the Crown could safely perform their duties of collecting taxes. Over the years, dissatisfaction over the high taxes would steadily rise among the colonists until eventually culminating in the American Revolutionary War.

France returned to the North American stage in 1778 to support American colonists against Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. For France, the military defeat and the financial burden of the Seven Years’ War weakened the monarchy and eventually contributed to the advent of the French Revolution in 1789.

1.5 – Pontiac’s Uprising and Rebellion

British expansion into American Indian land after the French and Indian War led to resistance in the form of Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763.

1.5.1 – Changing Dynamics

After the Seven Years’ War, British troops proceeded to occupy the various forts in the Ohio Country and Great Lakes region that had been previously garrisoned by the French. Even before the war officially ended, the British Crown began to implement changes in order to administer its vastly expanded North American territory. While the French had long cultivated alliances among certain of the American Indian tribes, the British post-war approach was to subordinate the tribes, and tensions quickly rose between the American Indians and the British. The most organized resistance, Pontiac’s Rebellion, highlighted tensions the settler-invaders increasingly interpreted in racial terms.

1.5.2 – Tribes Involved

American Indians involved in Pontiac’s Rebellion lived in a vaguely defined region of New France known as the pays d’en haut, “the upper country,” which was claimed by France until the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The tribes of the pays d’en haut consisted of three basic groups. The first group included the tribes of the Great Lakes region: the Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, and Hurons. The second group was made up of the tribes of the eastern Illinois Country, which included the Miamis, Weas, Kickapoos, Mascoutens, and Piankashaws. Both groups had a long-standing peace agreement with the French. The members of the third group were the tribes of the Ohio Country: the Delawares (Lenape), Shawnees, Wyandots, and Mingos. These people had migrated to the Ohio valley earlier in the century in order to escape British, French, and Iroquois domination elsewhere and did not have strong relations with the British or French.

1.5.3 – Amherst’s Policies toward American Indians

General Amherst, the British commander-in-chief in North America, was in charge of administering policy toward American Indians, which involved both military matters and regulation of the fur trade. He believed American Indians were militarily weak and thereby subordinate to the British government. One of his policies was to prohibit gift exchange between the American Indians and the British. Once a tradition with the French, gift giving was a symbol of peaceful relations, and the prohibition of such exchanges was interpreted by many American Indians as an insult. Amherst also restricted the American Indians’ gun supply, which generated resentment; American Indian men used gunpowder and ammunition to gain food for their families and fur for trade, and by closing off the supply, Amherst imposed hardships on tribal families.

1.5.4 – Additional Conflicts

Land was also a motivating factor in the coming of the uprising. While the French population had been low, there seemed to be no end of incoming settler-invaders from England. Shawnees and Delawares in the Ohio Country, especially, had been displaced by British colonists in the east, motivating their resistance along with food shortages and epidemic disease.

1.5.5 – The Outbreak of War

Despite previous rumors of war, Pontiac’s Rebellion began in 1763. Senecas of the Ohio Country (Mingos) circulated messages calling for the tribes to form a confederacy and drive away the British. The Mingos, led by Guyasuta and Tahaiadoris, were concerned about being surrounded by British-occupied forts. While the rebellion was decentralized at first, this fear of being surrounded helped the rebellion to grow.

The war began at Fort Detroit under the leadership of Ottawa war chief Pontiac and quickly spread throughout the region. Eight British forts were taken. Scholars believe that rather than being planned in advance, the uprising spread as word of Pontiac’s actions at Fort Detroit traveled throughout the pays d’en haut, inspiring already discontented American Indians to join the revolt.

The total loss of life resulting from Pontiac’s Rebellion is unknown. About 400 British soldiers were killed in action and perhaps 50 were captured and killed; about 2,000 settler-invaders were killed or captured as well. The war compelled approximately 4,000 Pennsylvanian and Virginian settler-invaders to flee their homes. American Indian losses went mostly unrecorded, though it has been estimated that at least 200 warriors were killed in battle.

1.5.6 – Foreshadowing of Future Hostilities

Pontiac’s Rebellion: In a famous council on April 27, 1763, depicted in this 19th century engraving by Alfred Bobbet, Pontiac urged listeners rise up against the British.

Relations between British colonists and American Indians deteriorated further during Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the British government concluded that colonists and American Indians must be kept apart. On October 7, 1763, the Crown issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, an effort to reorganize British North America after the Treaty of Paris. Officials drew a boundary line between the British colonies along the seaboard and American Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, creating a vast (and temporary) “Indian Reserve” that stretched from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and from Florida to Quebec. This boundary was never intended to be permanent, but was rather created as a way to continued British expansion westward in a more organized fashion.

For American Indians, Pontiac’s War demonstrated the possibilities of pan-tribal cooperation in resisting Anglo-American colonial expansion. Although the conflict divided tribes and villages, the war also saw the first extensive multi-tribal resistance to European colonization in North America and was the first war between Europeans and American Indians that did not end in complete defeat for the American Indians.

1.6 – The Western Lands

Following the French and Indian War, the colonial desire to expand westward was met with resistance from American Indians.

1.6.1 – European Patterns of Westward Expansion

Prior to 1776, the land to the west of the British colonies was of high priority for settlers and politicians. In the earliest days of European settlement of the Atlantic coast, from about 1600 to 1680, the “frontier” was essentially any part of the forested interior of the continent beyond the fringe of existing settlements along the coast.

English, French, Spanish, and Dutch patterns of expansion and settlement differed widely. Only a few thousand French migrated to Canada; these habitants settled in villages along the St. Lawrence river, building communities that remained stable for long stretches; they did not leapfrog west the way the British did. Although French fur traders ranged widely through the Great Lakes region, they seldom settled down and instead maintained a nomadic lifestyle. The Dutch set up fur trading posts in the Hudson River valley, followed by large grants of land to rich landowning patroons who brought in tenant farmers to create compact, permanent villages. They did not push westward.

In contrast, the English colonies generally pursued a more systematic policy of widespread settlement of the New World for cultivation and exploitation of the land, a practice that required the application of “legal” property rights to the new conditions. (These policies were legal according to British law but largely disregarded or exploited the rights of American Indians.) The typical English settlements were quite compact and small, typically under a square mile. Conflict with American Indians quickly arose as the British expanded further into their territory.

The French and Indian Wars of the 1760s resulted in a complete victory for the British, who took possession of the lands west to the Mississippi River, which had formerly been claimed by the French but were largely inhabited by American Indian tribes. By the early 1770s, British settler-invaders were moving across the Appalachians into western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.

1.6.2 – American Indian Land

The British American colonies in 1763: This map shows the status of the American colonies in 1763, after the end of the French and Indian War. Although Great Britain won control of the territory east of the Mississippi, the Proclamation Line of 1763 prohibited British colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. (credit: modification of work by the National Atlas of the United States)

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited the North American colonists from establishing or maintaining settlements west of a line running down the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. There were two motivations for this policy: first, the British wished to avoid warfare with the American Indians. This aim had little to do with respect for tribal rights and was more motivated by the high expense of conflicts with American Indians and the lack of British soldiers on the continent. Some American Indians welcomed this policy, believing that the separation would allow them to resume their traditional ways of life; others realized that the proclamation, at best, would only provide some breathing room before the next onslaught of invaders.

The other intention of the proclamation was to concentrate colonial settlements on the seaboard, where they could be active participants in the British mercantile system. The first priority of British trade officials was to populate the recently secured areas of Canada and Florida, where colonists could reasonably be expected to trade with the mother country; settlers living west of the Appalachians would be highly self-sufficient and have little opportunity to trade with English merchants.

The reaction of colonial land speculators and frontiersmen to this proclamation was highly negative. From their perspective, they had risked their lives in the recent war only to be denied the lands they coveted. Most concluded that the proclamation was only a temporary measure; a number ignored it entirely and moved into the prohibited area anyway. Almost from its inception, the proclamation was modified to suit the needs of influential British people with interests in the American west, including many high British officials as well as colonial leaders. Prominent American colonists joined with land speculators in Britain to lobby the government to move the line further west. As a result, the boundary line was adjusted in a series of treaties.

1.6.3 – Conestoga Massacre

In December of 1763, following the end of the French and Indian War and the signing of the proclamation, a vigilante group made up of Scots-Irish frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys attacked the local Conestoga, a Susquehannock tribe who lived on land negotiated by William Penn and their ancestors in the 1690s. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the frontier of Pennsylvania remained unsettled. A new wave of Scots-Irish immigrants encroached on American Indian land in the back country. These settlers claimed that American Indians often raided their homes, killing men, women, and children.

Many Conestoga were Christian, and they had lived peacefully with their European neighbors for decades. Although there had been no American Indian attacks in the area, the Paxton Boys claimed that the Conestoga secretly provided aid and intelligence to the hostiles. On December 14, 1763, more than 50 Paxton Boys marched on the Conestoga homes near Conestoga Town, Millersville, and murdered six people and burned their cabins. The colonial government held an inquest and determined that the killings were murder. The new governor, John Penn, offered a reward for their capture. The ruthlessness of these conflicts reflected a growing divide between the British colonists and American Indians.

2 – An Empire of Freedom

2.1 – Blue Water Imperialism

The dominant 17th- and 18th-century British ideology of blue water imperialism was founded on the values of commerce and freedom—for some.

2.1.1 – An Empire of Liberty

The dominant 17th- and 18th-century British imperialist ideology was founded on a liberal conception of freedom and commerce—however, this freedom was only conceptualized in terms of white Anglo-Saxon men. Theoretically, British imperialists envisioned a ” blue water empire,” in that the British empire stretching across the Atlantic was “Protestant, commercial, maritime, and free.” In practice, this meant that British “liberties” and cultural practices were extended to the colonies through overseas trade, weaving the colonies together while forcefully displacing American Indians from their land and building the economy on the exploitation of slave labor.

2.1.2 – Protestant Values

Broadly, blue water imperialists aimed to use the power of the metropole to enforce the proper conditions that would allow for commercial and maritime expansion. Therefore, blue water imperial ideology was not necessarily expansionist in terms of acquiring a territorial empire; rather, it aimed for an institutional framework of commercial, international trade in the Atlantic, which the imperialists believed would function as a mechanism for extending British imperial influence to the colonies.

British liberals considered this framework of blue water empire to be anti-despotic—the government sought trade markets abroad in order to extend imperial influence commercially, without arbitrary territorial expansion. Such an empire therefore could not be Catholic because (in the 18th-century Protestant political worldview) Catholics owed allegiance to one ruler, the Pope. The Vatican claimed unlimited spiritual authority over all Catholics, regardless of national identity, which Protestants feared could translate into unlimited political authority as well. Furthermore, Catholicism was the traditional state religion of Spain and France—nations that, according to British liberals, were traditionally ruled by authoritarian, despotic, monarchical power.

British Protestants thus claimed that Catholicism tended to lead to political despotism. They perceived their own religion of Protestantism, on the other hand, to be the religion of liberty. For instance, British liberals viewed their government as the model of Protestant spirit because of its representative legislative body—a parliament that functioned as a check on the authoritarian tendencies of the Crown. British liberals viewed representative government as a hallmark of Protestantism because it counteracted the despotic, authoritarian, and “Catholic” tendencies of monarchy and arbitrary power.

2.1.3 – Commercial Values

Blue water empire ideology also hinged on the expansion of international commerce and national wealth. For most 18th-century liberals, commerce was considered to be of utmost importance, rather than territorial expansion. The building of blue water British empire required only human labor and human interaction—large armies were not needed as they were for maintaining territorial acquisitions. Instead, they believed commerce could be conducted peacefully—since it would create a fair market for mutually beneficial trade that required little government interaction.

Furthermore, through overseas commercial markets, British influence would extend rapidly, linking colonies and other nations to British interests without directly occupying foreign territories. Hence, commerce should be an unfettered enterprise: the colonies and the metropole would weave together a common culture and identity through mutual and harmonious trading interests as opposed to conquering foreign territories with expensive armies and engaging in conflict with colonized peoples.

2.1.4 – Maritime Policies

Since trade was to be international and mutually beneficial to all Atlantic nations and colonies, blue water empire was thus a maritime project. If the British empire was not going to be based on territorial acquisitions, then it was necessary to control the seas through naval superiority to protect commerce. By definition, blue water empire was an empire of the seas, and the expansion of Britain into the Atlantic was of paramount importance to expanding British trade influences. Hence, for liberals, maritime meant using the navy to establish British superiority over the seas so that commerce and colonization could occur, as they perceived, peacefully. British citizenship and freedoms therefore extended to the Atlantic colonies through British maritime superiority, where merchants could securely exchange goods because of royal naval protection.

Freedom in blue water empire ideology was the defining characteristic that reconciled the inherent tensions between the notion of empire and liberty for 18th-century British liberals. Blue water empire was lauded by its proponents as a non-coercive enterprise because it used the seas as an environment for mutually beneficial commerce, did not seek mass territorial gains and did not require a large standing army to maintain. Liberals believed that through Protestant, commercial, and maritime policies, Britain extended liberties to the Atlantic colonies rather than creating a coercive, territorial empire of (political) “slaves.” By using commerce as a vehicle for maritime colonial expansion, Britain extended its values culture to the Atlantic world on a massive scale while simultaneously forging an empire that proclaimed itself as one of liberty.

2.1.5 – The Language of Liberty in the Colonies

The American language of liberty is a concept deeply rooted in the Anglo-American colonial experience as well as the American Revolution. It is invoked to describe the fundamental rights of citizens as would be defined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Broadly, the “language of liberty” includes widespread political participation, the duty of the citizen to safeguard against arbitrary despotism, and the right of citizens to life and liberty. Significantly, the language of liberty did not apply to American Indians (who were not considered citizens), women (who were largely considered property of their husbands), and slaves (who were deemed as chattel property).

2.1.6 – Colonial Period: Voting, Civic Duty, and Representation

American colonial governments were a local enterprise, with deep roots in a given community and with elected assemblies directly influencing the development of a wide range of public and private businesses. Therefore, Anglo-American colonies were extensive communal cultures, centered on the civic and political sphere. Participation in civic life—through festivals, commemorations, the militia, and court trials—was prevalent, and most free white males in the colonies were expected to partake in some facet of public civic life. Public colonial elections were events in which all free white males were expected to participate in order to demonstrate proper civic pride. Elections became the main forum in which men could publicly profess political allegiances, demonstrating local civic pride to a community that placed high importance on it.

Such widespread participation in local community governments was characteristic solely of the Anglo-American colonies. Compared to Europe, where aristocratic families and the established church were in control, the American political culture was somewhat more open to economic, social, religious, ethnic, and geographical interests.

2.1.7 – Slavery and the Language of Liberty

Sugarcane lithograph by Theodore Bray: This 19th century lithograph depicts colonial sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean.

Despite the values inherent in the language of liberty, this language did not apply to slaves, and colonial culture safeguarded American slavery as a fundamental right of white men to their property. As slavery flourished throughout the 18th century, many contemporaries remarked on the institution as a “necessary evil” or a “positive good” to American society and economy. Necessary evil referred to the fear of many whites that if black slaves were emancipated, the social and economic consequences would be more harmful to American liberty than the continuation of slavery. This fear was most prevalent in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, when ex-slaves in Haiti massacred their white masters and established a subsistence economy based on peasant proprietorship.

Other pro-slavery advocates claimed that slavery was a “positive good” as it was a beneficial scheme of labor control. This view was embodied in a famous and highly problematic speech by John C. Calhoun. It claimed that in every civilized society one portion of the community must live on the labor of another; learning, science, and the arts are built upon leisure; the African slave, kindly treated by his master and mistress and looked after in his old age, is better off than the free laborers of Europe; and under the slave system, conflicts between capital and labor are avoided.

2.2 – British Patriotism, British Identity

After the Glorious Revolution, British and Anglo-American intellectuals contended that (white) men had inalienable rights to liberty and property.

2.2.1 – The Glorious Revolution

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution, many British intellectuals reevaluated the identity of Britain as a nation and empire. When James II attempted to impose taxes without parliamentary approval and converted to Catholicism, Parliament offered the crown to Mary and William of Orange, which affirmed the supremacy of Parliament and Protestantism over Monarchy and Catholicism, and was perceived as authoritarian. For many British subjects, the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution ushered in a period of pride and reevaluation of national identity.

2.2.2 – Enlightenment Thinkers

John Locke: John Locke is often credited for the creation of liberalism as a philosophical tradition.

The events of the Glorious Revolution reaffirmed that Parliament was the highest authority in the nation, and more significantly, that the monarch could not rule without parliamentary consent and approval. Furthermore, as emphasized by 17th-century Enlightenment thinkers, Parliament was considered the least corrupt form of government because governments derived existence from the consent of the governed, and the elected representative body was answerable to its constituents.

The highly intellectual Enlightenment was dominated by philosophers who opposed the absolute rule of the monarchs of their day and instead emphasized the equality of all individuals and the idea that governments derived their existence from the consent of the governed. For instance, in 1690, John Locke (one of the fathers of the English Enlightenment) wrote that all people have fundamental natural rights to “life, liberty, and property ” and that governments were created in order to protect these rights. If they did not, according to Locke, the people had a right to alter or abolish their government.

2.2.3 – The Rights of Englishmen

The ensuing language of the ” rights of Englishmen ” that dominated 17th- and 18th-century discourse in Britain and the North American colonies thus gave rise to a sense of national identity that revolved around the belief that (white) men held certain “inalienable” rights of liberty and property that could not be violated by any political power. For instance, even though most British males did not meet the property ownership requirements for suffrage, the representative traits of Parliament were praised by many intellectual contemporaries who believed that such a political system best embodied the “social contract” that men used to create civilization and political authority.

2.2.4 – Anglo-American Colonial Identity and Civic Duty

While British intellectuals and leaders formulated a concept of “British identity” in the 17th and 18th centuries, Anglo-American colonists in North America also developed an identity that drew heavily on both British liberalism and the colonial American experience. Unlike the colonial mother state of Britain, Anglo-American colonial representative government was an intensely localized process where elections and participation in assemblies and court trials were a fundamental aspect of proper civic life. For instance, public colonial elections were events in which all free white males were expected to participate in order to demonstrate proper civic pride. Public office attracted many talented young men of ambition to civil service, and colonial North American suffrage was one of the most widespread in the world at that time, with every man who owned a certain amount of property allowed to vote. The widespread availability of property in the 13 colonies provided most white males with the opportunity to own some amount of property; therefore, while fewer than 1% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible to vote and run for office.

Participation in public and political life was remarkably widespread, at least for white men and especially when compared with the more rigid, elitist systems in Europe. American colonial politics revolved around the notion of public civic life and responsibility, an ideology that included:

  1. Civic duty: Citizens have the responsibility to understand and support the government, participate in elections, pay taxes, and perform military service.
  2. United opposition to political corruption.
  3. Democracy: The government is answerable to citizens, who may change the representatives through elections.
  4. Equality before the law: The laws should attach no special privilege to any citizen, and government officials and wealthier citizens are also subject to the law. This markedly only applied to equality for white men and excluded slaves, American Indians, and women.
  5. Freedom of religion: The government can neither support nor suppress religion.
  6. Freedom of speech: The government cannot restrict the citizen’s right to criticize authority or voice opposition to the government.

Most of these principles evolved out of centuries-long colonial tradition (beginning with the Pilgrims fleeing religious restriction in England) rather than any collective, intended ambition to create a democratic society. By the mid-18th century, these civic ideals had been enshrined in the American colonial political system as a fundamental foundation of political rights and liberties. While inspired by inspired by British values, the political system was also distinct from them. With the building conflict with Britain in the 1760s and 1770s, these principles (particularly that the government is answerable to citizens and political representation is a requisite for implementing new taxes) were often invoked by colonists as justification for boycotting British goods and other forms of resistance that led to the American Revolution.

2.3 – Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is a political philosophy committed to limited government, the rule of law, individual liberties, and free markets.

2.3.1 – Classical Liberalism and the Notion of Freedom

Adam Smith : Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher, pioneer of political economy, and a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Classical liberalism is a philosophy committed to the ideals of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals. These liberties include freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets. Classical liberalism developed over the course of the 1800s in the United States and Britain and drew upon Enlightenment sources (particularly the works of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith ). It was an intellectual response to the Industrial Revolution and the problems associated with urbanization.

2.4 – Core Principles

2.4.1 – Human Nature

Classical liberalism places a particular emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual and considers property rights an essential component of individual liberty. Later in 19th-century political theory, this would encourage “laissez-faire” public policy that would not heavily interfere in commerce or industry. Most classical liberals argued that humans are calculating, egoistic creatures, motivated solely by pain and pleasure; humans make decisions intended to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, while in the absence of pain or pleasure, they become inert. Hence, classical liberals believed that individuals should be free to pursue their self-interest without societal control or restraint.

Classical liberalism determined that individuals should be free to obtain work from the highest-paying employers. In a free market, labor and capital would therefore receive the greatest possible reward, while production would be organized efficiently to meet consumer demand. Classical liberals also saw poor urban conditions as inevitable, and therefore opposed any income or wealth redistribution.

2.4.2 – The Role of Government

Classical liberals agreed with Adam Smith that government had only three essential functions: protection against foreign invaders, protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens, and the building and maintaining of public institutions and public works that the private sector could not profitably provide. Classical liberals extended protection of the country to protection of overseas markets through armed intervention. Protection of individuals against wrongs normally meant protection of private property. Public works included a stable currency; standard weights and measures; support of roads, canals, harbors, and railways; and postal and other communications services that facilitated urban and industrial development.

2.4.3 – World Peace

Additionally, classical liberals believed that unfettered commerce with other nations would eventually eliminate war and imperial conflicts. Through peaceful, harmonious trade relationships established by private merchants and companies without government interference, mutual national interest and prosperity would derive from commercial exchange rather than imperial territorial acquisition (which liberals saw as the root of all wars). World peace, for classical liberals, was a real possibility if national governments would allow interdependent global commercial relationships to form.

3 – The Political Climate of the Colonies

3.1 – Voting in the Colonies

Free white males in the British colonies in North America were expected to vote and participate in political matters.

3.1.1 – Public Voting in the North American Colonies

Public colonial elections were events in which all free white males were expected to participate in order to demonstrate proper civic pride. Public office attracted many talented young men of ambition to civil service, and colonial North American suffrage was the most widespread in the world at that time; every free white man who owned a certain amount of property was allowed to vote. The widespread availability of property in the 13 colonies afforded most white males the chance to own some amount of property. Therefore, while fewer than 1% of British men could vote, a majority of white American men were eligible to vote and run for office. Thus, elections became the main forum in which men could profess political allegiances, publicly demonstrating their community civic pride.

Attendance on election days also served as a means of civic education and communal reinforcement of the appropriate, expected behavior of young males. Voting was public, with those running for office thanking their supporters (often treating them to rum in local taverns) after casting their votes. The public vote allowed for local community observation of the electoral process, as well as the political allegiances of males in the community.

Furthermore, elections often included speeches, rallies, celebrations, parades, and other celebratory demonstrations that reinforced the notions of civic duty, pride, and active contribution to the community. In this respect, the North American colonists differed from their European counterparts, the majority of whom were barred from civic participation. From early on in North American colonial development, Americans were exposed to a high degree of political participation and autonomy in their local affairs.

3.2 – Colonial Government

In the colonies, governance was primarily conducted at the local level, with local white male populations participating extensively in politics.

3.2.1 – Political Culture: Participation in Colonial Government

American colonial governments were a local enterprise rooted deeply in communities. For instance, elected bodies, specifically the assemblies and county governments, directly determined the development of a wide range of public and private business. These assemblies handled land grants, commercial subsidies, and taxation. They were also involved in the oversight of roads, taverns, schools, and relief of the poor, making them fundamental to the development of public and private enterprises in a particular region.

Participation in local courts was very high in the colonies. When the county court was in session, Anglo-American men traveled for miles to serve as witnesses and jurors. Americans sued each other at a very high rate, with binding decisions made by local judges and juries instead of a great lord (as in Britain). This promoted the rapid expansion of the legal profession, so that the intense involvement of lawyers in politics became characteristic of the American political system by the 1770s.

3.2.2 – Role of Local Community Government

Widespread participation in local community governments was also distinctive of the American colonies. Unlike Europe, where aristocratic families and established churches dominated the political sphere, American political culture was relatively open to economic, social, religious, ethnic, and geographical interests (although still excluding the participation of American Indians, women, and African Americans). Merchants, landlords, petty farmers, artisans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Quakers, Germans, Scotch Irish, Yankees, Yorkers, and many other groups participated in local community government life.

3.2.3 – Competing Factions

None of the colonies had stable political parties of the sort that formed in the 1790s, although each had shifting factions that vied for power. This was especially true in the perennial battles between appointed governors and the elected assembly. For instance, there were often “country” and “court” factions representing those opposed to and in favor of, respectively, the governor’s actions and agenda. British-appointed governors also faced various degrees of opposition and resistance over new colonial policies which resulted in much negotiation between assemblies, voting populations, and colonial authorities.

Massachusetts also had a strong populist faction that typically represented the province’s lower classes. This was a possible effect of the state’s 1691 charter, which had particularly low requirements for voting eligibility and strong rural representation in its assembly. Additionally, non-English ethnic groups had clusters of settlements, such as the Scotch Irish and the Germans. Although each group assimilated into the dominant English Protestant commercial and political culture, they tended to vote in blocs and politicians often negotiated with group leaders for support.

3.2.4 – Conclusion

Savannah, Georgia: Widespread participation in both colonial and local community governments was widespread among free white males in the 18th century.

Hence, the colonial American political system was remarkably different from Europe, where widespread public participation in the political sphere by free white males was expected and enjoyed. Local leaders found themselves directly negotiating and engaging with a wider body politic that included elites as well as petty farmers and ethnic immigrants who had a voice in the political process. Local politics was entwined with local commercial development and with land grants, subsidies, and entrepreneurial incentives stemming from government grants and incentives. While politics in colonial America were public and relatively accessible to most social groups of white males, it was primarily localized in scope—the 13 colonies were not united by a confederate system across regional boundaries until the outset of the American Revolution.

3.3 – Freedom of Expression and Its Limits

Despite the restrictive nature of early colonial laws, the ideas of freedom of speech and expression emerged steadily over time.

3.3.1 – Limits to Freedom of Expression in the Colonies

Although there remains much work to be done examining freedom of expression in the American colonies, historians generally agree that there were fewer prosecutions for seditious libel in the colonies than there were in England. However, colonial governments still exercised various forms of control over dissident speech.

The most stringent bans on speech in the colonial period outlawed or censored speech that was considered religiously blasphemous. A 1646 Massachusetts law, for example, punished persons who denied the immortality of the soul. In 1612, the governor of Virginia sentenced to death a person that denied the Trinity under Virginia’s Laws Divine, Moral and Martial, which also outlawed blasphemy, speaking badly of ministers and royalty, and “disgraceful words.” However, more recent scholarship focusing on seditious speech in the 17th-century colonies has indicated that from 1607 to 1700, freedom of speech expanded dramatically, laying a foundation for the political dissent of the Revolutionary War.

3.3.2 – The Zenger Trial and Freedom of the Press

One such instance in which the concept of freedom of expression dramatically expanded was the Zenger Trial. John Peter Zenger, a New York newspaper editor, began to voice opposition to several policies implemented by the newly appointed colonial governor, William Cosby. Zenger published editorials detailing Cosby’s rancorous quarrel with the colonial council over his salary, as well as Cosby’s removal of Chief Justice Lewis Morris from the New York Supreme Court in order to replace him with a more pliable official.

Sir William Cosby, Governor of New York: Cosby was attacked by Zenger’s paper for his actions while governor of New York.

Supported by members of the popular party, Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal continued to publish critical attacks on the royal governor. In 1734, Cosby issued a proclamation condemning the newspaper’s “scandalous, virulent, false and seditious reflections,” and in November, Zenger was arrested and charged with seditious libel. After more than eight months in prison, Zenger was defended in court by Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton.

The Zenger Trial: Depiction of Alexander Hamilton defending Zenger

In the trial, Hamilton appealed directly to the jury, claiming that the truth could not be defamatory, and therefore, Zenger could not be found guilty of libel. Although the judge dismissed this claim entirely, Hamilton persuaded the jury to disregard the laws on libel in favor of this concept—an argument that convinced the jury to return a verdict of “not guilty. ” Therefore, not only did the Zenger Trial result in a remarkable instance of jury nullification, but it also established a precedent for protecting the freedom of the press in the American courts.

3.4 – The American Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment was an era of prolific discourse in which Anglo-American intellectuals studied human nature, society, and religion.

3.4.1 – The Age of Enlightenment

The American Enlightenment is used to describe a period of prolific intellectual writing and discussion during the mid- to late-18th century, 1715–1789, mirroring similar circumstances in Europe. Influenced by the scientific revolution of the 17th century, key Enlightenment thinkers applied scientific reasoning to studies of human nature, society, and religion. The intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment employed scientific experimentation and reasoning to discover general principles that governed the movement of planets, gravity, and natural law; acquire knowledge about philosophical principles; and challenge unquestioned authorities or principles. Fundamentally, the Enlightenment was a highly intellectual endeavor—drawing together the intellectual elites of Europe and the Americas to form a transatlantic academic coterie with one common language and shared worldview.

3.4.2 – Political Influence

Thomas Jefferson: Founding father and third president of the United States.

Politically, the age is distinguished by an emphasis on liberty, democracy, republicanism, and religious tolerance—culminating in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and the drafting of the United States Declaration of Independence. Attempts to reconcile science and religion led to the growing appeal of Deism, often resulting from a rejection of prophecy, miracle, and revealed religion. Historians have considered how the ideas of John Locke and republican ideas merged together to form republicanism in the United States.

3.4.3 – Religion

Enlightenment thinkers reacted against the authoritarianism, irrationality, and perceived obscurantism of the established churches. Philosophers such as Voltaire depicted organized Christianity as a tool of tyrants and oppressors and as being used to defend monarchism. It was seen as hostile to the development of reason and the progress of science, and it was incapable of verification.

For these philosophers, an acceptable alternative was Deism, the philosophical belief in a deity based on reason rather than on religious revelation or dogma. It was a popular perception among the philosophers, who adopted deistic attitudes to varying degrees. Deism greatly influenced intellectuals and several noteworthy 18th-century Americans such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. The most articulate exponent was Thomas Paine, whose The Age of Reason was written in France in the early 1790s and reached America soon thereafter. Drawing on the principles of Deism and the Enlightenment’s aversion to established faiths, James Madison later enshrined religious tolerance as a fundamental American right in the United States Bill of Rights.

3.4.4 – Liberalism and Republicanism: Key Thinkers

In the decades before the American Revolution in 1776, the intellectual and political leaders of the colonies studied history intently, looking for guides or models for good—and bad—government. They especially followed the development of republican ideas in England. For example, the English political theorist John Locke was a significant source of influence and inspiration to the American intellectual elite. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1691) challenged the principle that hierarchical, monarchical systems of government originated from God’s divine law. Locke argued that governments were created through a social contract with the people, and a ruler who broke this contract could be legitimately deposed through violent or peaceful means. Essentially, Locke claimed that since men created governments, they could also alter or abolish them.

John Locke: John Locke is often credited with the creation of liberalism as a philosophical tradition.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published at the outset of the American Revolution, drew heavily on the theories of Locke and is largely considered one of the most virulent attacks on political despotism. Employing common language rather than the more academic prose employed by other Enlightenment writers, Paine argued that the North American colonies had a sacred duty to violently overthrow corrupt, monarchical British rule. Common Sense called for independence and challenged the largely accepted notion that a good government employed a balance of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Instead, Paine called for a republican system of government, with no king or aristocracy.

Thomas Paine: Portrait of Thomas Paine by Auguste Millière.

The culmination of these enlightenment ideas occurred with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, in which he declared:

…to secure these rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness] governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government.

Drawing on Locke, Smith, and Paine, the Declaration of Independence thus asserted to Britain and other contemporary observers that both George III and Parliament were violating colonial rights and freedoms and the American colonies intended to sever ties with Britain. Essentially, the Declaration of Independence, heavily inspired by Enlightenment political theory, proclaimed that the American people were fighting to maintain their essential freedoms and liberties by overthrowing despotic, irrational tyranny.

4 – The Acts of Parliament

4.1 – Introduction

The Quartering Acts ordered the local governments of the American colonies to provide housing and provisions for British soldiers.

4.1.1 – Overview

Two 18th-century acts of the Parliament of Great Britain, known together as the Quartering Acts, ordered the local governments of the American colonies to provide housing and provisions for British soldiers. They were amendments to the Mutiny Act, which had to be renewed annually by Parliament. Originally intended as a response to problems that arose during Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War, they later became a source of tension between inhabitants of the 13 colonies and the government in London.

4.1.2 – The Quartering Act of 1765

Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of forces in British North America, and other British officers who fought in the French and Indian War, were finding it hard to persuade colonial assemblies to pay for the quartering and provisioning of troops on the march. As a result, Gage asked Parliament to find a solution. Most colonies had supplied provisions during the war, but the issue was disputed in peacetime. Following the expiration of an act that provided British regulars with quartering in New York, Parliament passed the Quartering Act of 1765, which went far beyond what Gage had requested.

This first Quartering Act was given royal assent in March of 1765 and provided that Great Britain would house its soldiers in American barracks and public houses, as by the Mutiny Act of 1765. However, if soldiers outnumbered the housing available, they would be quartered “in inns, livery stables, ale houses, victualing houses, and the houses of sellers of wine and houses of persons selling of rum, brandy, strong water, cider, or metheglin.” In addition, the costs of the troops’ food and lodging fell to the colonists.

4.1.3 – Resistance to the Act

Since the time of James II, who ruled from 1685 to 1688, many British subjects had mistrusted the presence of a standing army during peacetime, and having to pay for the soldiers’ lodging and food was especially burdensome. Widespread evasion and disregard for the law occurred in almost all the colonies. The colonies disputed the legality of this act since it seemed to violate the Bill of Rights of 1689, which forbade taxation without representation and the raising and/or keeping of a standing army without the consent of Parliament. No standing army had been kept in the colonies before the French and Indian War, and the colonies questioned why a standing army was needed after the French had been defeated.

When 1,500 British troops arrived at New York City in 1766, the New York Provincial Assembly refused to comply with the Quartering Act and did not supply quartering for the troops. As a result, the troops had to remain on their ships. With its great impact on the city, a skirmish occurred in which one colonist was wounded. For failure to comply with the Quartering Act, Parliament suspended New York’s governor and legislature in 1767 and 1769; however, this was never carried out because the Assembly soon agreed to contribute money toward the quartering of troops. The Quartering Act was circumvented in all colonies other than Pennsylvania and expired on 1767.

4.1.4 – The Quartering Act of 1774

An amendment to the original Quartering Act was passed on June 2, 1774. This act was passed and enforced along with many others, known by the colonists as the “Intolerable Acts.”  The new Quartering Act similarly allowed a governor to house soldiers in other buildings, such as barns, inns, among other unoccupied structures, if suitable quarters were not provided. Unlike the previous act, it did not require that soldiers be supplied with provisions. The new act also required that the housing of troops be a mutual agreement between the parties involved. If a colonial government had laws that provided troops with accommodations that were approved by the crown, the act was not applied. This act expired on March 24, 1776.

4.1.5 – Application Today: The Third Amendment

Thomas Gage: “Thomas Gage,” oil on canvas, by the American artist John Singleton Copley.

The Third Amendment to the United States Constitution places restrictions on the quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner’s consent, forbidding the practice in peacetime. The amendment, introduced in the United States Congress a decade after independence in 1789, was a direct a response to the Quartering Acts, which the colonists had greatly opposed. The Third Amendment was introduced by James Madison as a part of the United States Bill of Rights, in response to anti-Federalist objections to the new Constitution. The amendment is one of the least controversial of the Constitution.

4.2 – The Sugar and Stamp Acts

The Sugar and Stamp Acts of 1764 and 1765, intended to raise revenue in Great Britain, led to increased resistance from the colonies.

4.2.1 – The Sugar Act of 1764

The Sugar Act, also known as the American Revenue Act, was a revenue-raising act passed by the British Parliament of Great Britain in April of 1764. The earlier Molasses Act of 1733, which had imposed a tax of six pence per gallon of molasses, had never been effectively collected due to colonial resistance and evasion. By reducing the rate by half and expanding measures to effectively enforce the tax, the British hoped that the new tax on sugar would actually be collected. The passage and enforcement of the Sugar Act increased the colonists’ concerns about their rights as British citizens and the intent of the British Parliament to more directly rule the colonies. These concerns also fed the growing resistance movement that became the American Revolution.

4.2.2 – Background

George Grenville: Portrait of George Grenville

The earlier Molasses Act of 1733 was passed by Parliament largely at the insistence of large plantation owners in the British West Indies. Molasses was used in New England for making rum, and the molasses trade had been growing between New England; the Middle colonies; and the French, Dutch, and Spanish West Indian possessions. Sugar from the British West Indies was priced much higher than its competitors, and an increasing number of colonial merchants turned to Britain’s imperial rivals for the molasses they needed.

In the first part of the 18th century, the British West Indies were Great Britain’s most important trading partner, so Parliament was attentive to their requests. However, rather than agreeing to demands to prohibit the colonies from trading with the non-British islands, Parliament instead passed the excessively high tax on the colonies and molasses imported from those islands. If actually collected, the tax would have effectively closed that source to New England and destroyed much of the rum industry. Soon, smuggling, bribery, and intimidation of customs officials effectively nullified the law.

During the French and Indian War, the British government substantially increased its national debt in order to pay for the war. As the war ended in February of 1763, the ministry headed by John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, decided to maintain a standing army of 10,000 British regular troops in the colonies to protect them, which would also increase post-war expenses.

George Grenville—who became prime minister in April 1763—had to find a way to restore the nation’s finances, address the large debt, and pay for this large peacetime army. Raising taxes in Britain was not an option due to virulent protests in England, and the Grenville ministry decided Parliament would raise this revenue instead by taxing the American colonists. This was something new, as Parliament had previously passed measures to regulate trade in the colonies but had never before directly taxed the colonies to raise revenue. Grenville did not expect the colonies to contribute to the interest or the retirement of the debt; however, he did expect the colonists to pay a portion of the expenses for colonial defense, and so he devised the Sugar Act of 1764 to raise those funds.

4.2.3 – Passage

The Molasses Act was set to expire in 1763. The commissioners of customs anticipated greater demand for both molasses and rum as a result of the end of the war and the acquisition of Canada. They believed that the increased demand would make a reduced tax rate both affordable and collectible. When passed by Parliament, the new Sugar Act of 1764 halved the previous tax on molasses. In addition to promising stricter enforcement, the language of the bill made it clear that the purpose of the legislation was not to simply regulate trade but to actually raise revenue.

The new act listed specific goods, the most important being lumber, which could only be exported to Britain. Ship captains were required to maintain detailed manifests of their cargo, and the papers were subject to verification before anything could be unloaded from the ships. Customs officials were empowered to have all violations tried in vice admiralty courts rather than by jury trials in local colonial courts, where colonial juries generally looked favorably on smuggling as a profession.

4.2.4 – The Stamp Act of 1765

Parliament announced with the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764 that they would also consider a stamp tax in the colonies. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, was a direct tax imposed by the British Parliament on the colonies of British America. The act required that many printed materials in the colonies be on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. Similar to the Sugar Act, the purpose of the tax was to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory in the Seven Years’ War.

The novelty of the Stamp Act was that it was the first internal tax—that is, a tax based entirely on activities within the colonies and levied directly on the colonies by Parliament. Because of its potential widespread application to the colonial economy, the Stamp Act was judged by the colonists to be a more dangerous assault on their rights than the Sugar Act. Although opposition to this tax was soon forthcoming, there was little expectation in Britain. Members of Parliament and American agents in Great Britain did not expect the intensity of the protest that the tax would generate.

4.2.5 – Colonial Resistance to the Acts

The Sugar Act was passed during a time of economic depression in the colonies. While it was an indirect tax, the colonists were well informed of its presence. A significant portion of the colonial economy during the Seven Years’ War was involved with providing food and supplies to the British Army. Colonists, especially those affected directly as merchants and shippers, assumed that the highly visible, new tax program was the major culprit for their economic struggles. Calls for the Act’s repeal began almost immediately, and protests against the Sugar Act at first focused more on the economic impact rather than the constitutional issue of taxation without representation.

The Stamp Act was met with even greater resistance in the colonies. Opposition to the Stamp Act was not limited to the colonies—British merchants and manufacturers, whose exports to the colonies were threatened by colonial economic problems exacerbated by the tax, also pressured Parliament.

4.2.6 – “No Taxation without Representation”

The First Congress of the American Colonies, also known as the Stamp Act Congress, was held in 1765 to devise a unified protest against British taxation. The colonies sent no representatives to British Parliament, and therefore had no influence over what taxes were raised, how they were levied, or how they would be spent. Many colonists considered it a violation of their rights as Englishmen to be taxed without their consent—consent that only the colonial legislatures could grant. Colonial assemblies sent petitions and protests, reflecting the first significant joint colonial response to any British measure by petitioning Parliament and the King.

The theoretical issue that would soon hold center stage was the matter of taxation without representation. The counter to this argument, held by members of Parliament, was the theory of virtual representation. Thomas Whately explained this theory in a pamphlet that readily acknowledged there could be no taxation without consent; however, he argued that at least 75% of British adult males were not represented in Parliament because of property qualifications or other factors. Since members of Parliament were bound to represent the interests of all British citizens and subjects, colonists—like those disenfranchised subjects in Great Britain—were the recipients of virtual representation in Parliament. This theory, however, ignored a crucial difference between the unrepresented in Britain and the colonists. The colonists enjoyed actual representation in their own legislative assemblies, and the issue was whether these legislatures, rather than Parliament, were in fact the sole recipients of the colonists’ consent with regard to taxation.

Local protest groups led by colonial merchants and landowners established connections through correspondence, creating a loose coalition that extended from New England to Georgia. Protests and demonstrations initiated by the Sons of Liberty often turned violent and destructive as the masses became involved. Soon, many stamp tax distributors were intimidated into resigning their commissions, and the tax was never effectively collected.

The Stamp Act was repealed on March 18, 1766, as a matter of expedience, but Parliament affirmed its power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever” by also passing the Declaratory Act. There followed a series of new taxes and regulations, likewise opposed by the colonists.

4.3 – Swelling Protest

The passage of the Stamp Act in the colonies was followed by a marked rise of organized protest movements and groups, including the Sons of Liberty.

4.3.1 – Colonial Resistance Strategies

Following the Molasses, Sugar, and Quartering Acts, Parliament passed one of the most infamous pieces of legislation: the Stamp Act. Previously, Parliament imposed only external taxes on imports. However, the Stamp Act provided the first internal tax on the colonists and faced vehement opposition throughout the colonies. Merchants threatened to boycott British products, and thousands of New Yorkers rioted near the location where the stamps were stored.

After 1765, the major American cities saw the formation of secret groups set up to defend their rights. Groups such as these were absorbed into the greater Sons of Liberty organization, a political group made up of American patriots formed to protect the rights of the colonists from the usurpations of the British government after 1766. Political groups such as the Sons of Liberty evolved into groups such as the Committees of Correspondence: shadow governments organized by the patriot leaders of the 13 colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. They coordinated responses to Britain and shared their plans; by 1773 they had emerged as shadow governments, superseding the colonial legislature and royal officials.

4.3.2 – Declaration of Rights and Grievances

The Stamp Act stirred activity among colonial representatives to denounce what they saw as the disregard of colonial rights by the Crown. To protect the rights of colonists, delegates of the Stamp Act Congress drafted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, declaring that taxes imposed on British colonists without their formal consent were unconstitutional. This was especially directed at the Stamp Act, which required that documents, newspapers, and playing cards to be printed on special stamped and taxed paper. The Declaration of Rights raised 14 points of colonial protest. In addition to the specific protests of the Stamp Act taxes, it asserted that:

  • only the colonial assemblies had a right to tax the colonies (leading to the common phrase, “no taxation without representation”);
  • trial by jury was a right;
  • the use of Admiralty Courts was abusive;
  • colonists possessed all the rights of Englishmen; and
  • without voting rights, Parliament could not represent the colonists.

4.3.3 – Rise of the Sons of Liberty

Flag of the Songs of Liberty: The Sons of Liberty flag had five vertical red stripes interspersed by four white stripes.

Public outrage over the Stamp Act was demonstrated most notably in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. It was during this time of street demonstrations that locally organized groups started to merge into an inter-colonial organization of a type not previously seen in the colonies. In Boston, the street demonstrations originated from the leadership of respectable public leaders such as James Otis, who commanded the Boston Gazette, and Samuel Adams of the “Loyal Nine” of the Boston Caucus, an organization of Boston merchants. Otis and Adams made efforts to control the people below them on the economic and social scale, but they were often unsuccessful in maintaining a delicate balance between mass demonstrations and riots. These men needed the support of the working class, but they also had to establish the legitimacy of their actions to have their protests of England taken seriously.

At the time of these protests, the Loyal Nine was more of a social club with political interests, but by December of 1765, it began issuing statements as the Sons of Liberty. Although the term “sons of liberty” had been used in a generic fashion well before 1765, it was only around February 1766, that its influence as an organized group using the formal name “Sons of Liberty,” extended throughout the colonies. Its emergence led to the development of a pattern for future resistance to the British that would carry the colonies toward revolution in 1776.

Portrait of Samuel Adams: Samuel Adams was a leader in the colonial opposition of Stamp Act.

The organization spread month by month after independent starts in several different colonies. By November of 1765, a committee was set up in New York to correspond with other colonies, and in December, an alliance was formed between groups in New York and Connecticut. In January, a correspondence link was established between Boston and Manhattan, and by March, Providence had initiated connections with New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Sons of Liberty organizations had also been established in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and a local group established in North Carolina was attracting interest in South Carolina and Georgia.

4.3.4 – Politics of Resistance

The officers and leaders of the Sons of Liberty largely consisted of middle and upper-class white men—artisans, traders, lawyers, and local politicians. Samuel Adams and his cousin, John, did not become members of the Sons of Liberty so as not to be directly connected with any violence that the organization may have been involved in. However, Samuel Adams most likely participated in the organization through writing, shared opinion, and association with prominent members that had influential power with the people.

Though they were speaking out against the actions of the British government, they still claimed to be loyal to the Crown. Their initial goal was to ensure their rights as Englishmen. Throughout the Stamp Act crisis, the Sons of Liberty professed continued loyalty to the King because they maintained a “fundamental confidence” in the expectation that Parliament would do the right thing and repeal the tax.

The Sons of Liberty knew they also needed to appeal to the masses that made up the lower classes. To do this, they relied on large public demonstrations to expand their base. While the organization professed its loyalty to both local and British established government, possible military action as a defensive measure was always part of their considerations. Several Sons of Liberty members were printers and publishers who distributed articles about the meetings and demonstrations the Sons of Liberty held, as well as its fundamental political beliefs and what it wanted to accomplish. In print, they related the major events of the struggle against the new acts to promote their cause and vilify the local officers of the British government. Office holders identified by the Sons of Liberty as being part of the Stamp Act injustice quickly fell out of favor and lost their positions once local elections were held again.

The Sons of Liberty would hold meetings to decide which candidates to support—those that would bring about the desired political change. In return, the British authorities attempted to denigrate the Sons of Liberty by referring to them as the “Sons of Violence” or the “Sons of Iniquity.” The inter-communication afforded the colonies by the widespread nature of the Sons of Liberty allowed for decisive action against the later Townshend Act in 1768. One by one, the groups penned agreements limiting trade with Britain and imposing a highly effective boycott against the import and sale of British goods.

4.3.5 – Effects of Protest

The overall effect of these protests was to both anger and unite the American people like never before. Opposition to the Stamp Act inspired both political and constitutional forms of literature throughout the colonies, strengthened the colonial political perception and involvement, and created new forms of organized resistance. These organized groups quickly learned that they could force royal officials to resign by employing violent measures and threats.

4.4 – The Townshend Acts

Enforcement of colonial taxation in the form of the Townshend Acts only increased colonial tension and resistance, especially in Boston.

4.4.1 – Introduction

The Townshend Acts were a series of laws passed beginning in 1767, by the Parliament of Great Britain relating to the British colonies in North America. The acts are named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who proposed the program. Five laws are frequently mentioned that are included in the Townshend Acts:

  • the Revenue Act of 1767
  • the Indemnity Act
  • the Commissioners of Customs Act
  • the Vice Admiralty Court Act
  • the New York Restraining Act

The purpose of the Townshend Acts was to raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so that they would be independent of colonial rule. The acts were also meant to create a more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations, to punish the province of New York for failing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act, and to establish the precedent that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.

4.4.2 – Raising Revenue

Charles Townshend: Charles Townshend spearheaded the Townshend Acts but died before their detrimental effects became apparent.

The first of the Townshend Acts, sometimes simply known as the Townshend Act, was the Revenue Act of 1767. This act represented a new approach for generating tax revenue in the American colonies after the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. The British government thought that because the colonists had objected to the Stamp Act on the grounds that it was a direct (or internal) tax, colonists would therefore accept indirect (or external) taxes, such as taxes on imports. With this in mind, Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, devised a plan that placed new duties on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea that were imported into the colonies. These were items that were not produced in North America that the colonists were only allowed to buy from Britain. The British government’s belief that the colonists would accept external taxes, however, came from a misunderstanding of the colonial objection to the Stamp Act; the colonial position was that any tax laid by Parliament for the purpose of raising revenue was unconstitutional.

The original stated purpose of the Revenue Act and the following Townshend Acts was to raise revenue to pay the cost of maintaining an army in North America. Townshend changed the purpose of the tax plan, however, and instead decided to use the revenue to pay the salaries of some colonial governors and judges. Previously, the colonial assemblies had paid these salaries, but Parliament hoped to take the “power of the purse” away from the colonies.

4.4.3 – Reaction from the Colonies

Along with boycotts, two colonial movements, the Daughters of Liberty and the nonconsumption agreements, were created in response to British taxation. The goal of these movements was to make the colonies less dependent on British imports and other goods.

4.4.4 – Boycotts

Merchants in the colonies, some of them smugglers, organized economic boycotts in order to pressure their British counterparts to work toward repealing the Townshend Acts. Boston merchants organized the first non-importation agreement, which called for merchants to suspend importation of certain British goods effective January 1st, 1769. Merchants in other colonial ports eventually joined the boycott. However, the non-importation movement was not as effective as promoters had hoped. The boycott movement began to fail by 1770, and came to an end in 1771.

4.4.5 – The Daughters of Liberty

The Daughters of Liberty was a colonial American group, established around 1769, consisting of women who displayed their loyalty by participating in boycotts of British goods following the passing of the Townshend Acts. The Daughters of Liberty used their traditional skills to weave and spin yarn and wool into fabric, known as “homespun.” They were recognized as patriotic heroines for their success, making America less dependent on British textiles. Proving their commitment to “the cause of liberty and industry,” they openly opposed many of the British taxes and experimented to find substitutes for taxed goods, such as tea and sugar. Discoveries like boiled basil leaves to make a tea-like drink, referred to as Liberty Tea, helped lift spirits and also allowed colonists to keep traditions alive without the use of British taxed tea.

In the countryside, while patriots supported the non-importation movements of 1765 and 1769, the Daughters of Liberty continued to support American resistance. They helped end the Stamp Act in 1766. In 1774, the patriot women helped influence a decision made by the Continental Congress to boycott all British goods. The Daughters of Liberty would later have a large influence during the war. In order to support the men on the battlefield, the women made bullets and sewed uniforms, raised funds for the army, and made and circulated protest petitions.

4.4.6 – Nonconsumption Agreements

Nonconsumption agreements were protests organized by American colonists in 1774 in opposition to the Townshend Acts. Thousands of colonists joined the resistance by signing the nonconsumption agreements, in which they stated that they would not consume or use any objects that were imported from other countries and instead would use colonial-made products in an attempt to starve the foreign companies. This led the Continental Congress to impose a suspension of all trade with Britain.

4.4.7 – Unrest in Boston

A view of the town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops in 1768: Paul Revere’s engraving of British troops landing in Boston.

In Massachusetts in 1768, Samuel Adams wrote a letter that became known as the Massachusetts Circular. Sent by the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the other colonial legislatures, the letter laid out the unconstitutionality of taxation without representation and encouraged the other colonies to again protest the taxes by boycotting British goods. In Great Britain, the secretary of state for the colonies—Lord Hillsborough—demanded that Massachusetts retract the letter, promising that any colonial assemblies that endorsed it would be dissolved. This threat had the effect of further uniting the colonies against the taxes.

The Massachusetts Circular got Parliament’s attention, and in 1768, Lord Hillsborough sent 4,000 British troops to Boston to deal with the unrest and put down any potential rebellion there. The troops were a constant reminder of the assertion of British power over the colonies, an illustration of an unequal relationship between members of the same empire. As an added aggravation, British soldiers moonlighted as dockworkers, creating competition for employment. Boston’s labor system had traditionally been closed, privileging native-born laborers over outsiders, and jobs were scarce. Many Bostonians, led by the Sons of Liberty, mounted a campaign of harassment against British troops. The Sons of Liberty also helped protect the smuggling actions of the merchants; smuggling was crucial for the colonists’ ability to maintain their boycott of British goods.

John Hancock was one of Boston’s most successful merchants and prominent citizens. While he maintained too high a profile to work actively with the Sons of Liberty, he was known to support their aims, if not their means of achieving them. He was also one of the many prominent merchants who had made his fortune by smuggling which was rampant in the colonial seaports. In 1768, customs officials seized the Liberty, one of his ships, and violence erupted. Led by the Sons of Liberty, Bostonians rioted against customs officials, attacking the customs house and chasing out the officers, who ran to safety at Castle William, a British fort on a Boston harbor island. British soldiers crushed the riots, but over the next few years, clashes between British officials and Bostonians became common. These clashes would eventually culminate in the Boston Massacre of 1770.

4.4.8 – Partial Repeal of the Townshend Acts

On March 5, 1770—the same day as the Boston Massacre—Lord North, the new Prime Minister, presented a motion in the House of Commons that called for partial repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. Although some in Parliament advocated a complete repeal of the act, North disagreed, arguing that the tea duty should be retained to assert the right of taxing the Americans. After debate, the Repeal Act received the Royal Assent on April 12, 1770.

4.5 – The Boston Massacre and Military Occupation

The Boston Massacre was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which nine British Army soldiers killed five colonial civilian men.

4.5.1 – Overview: The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre, called “The Incident on King Street” by the British, was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers killed five colonial civilian men. British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768, to protect and support crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular parliamentary legislation and taxes. Amid ongoing tension between the colonial population and the soldiers, a mob formed around a British sentry, who was subjected to verbal abuse and harassment. He was eventually supported by eight additional soldiers, who were further subjected to verbal threats and thrown objects. The soldiers fired into the crowd without orders, killing three people and wounding others. Two more people died later of wounds sustained in the incident.

4.5.2 – The Incident

Thomas Hutchinson: Thomas Hutchinson, governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

On the evening of March 5, Private Hugh White, a British soldier, stood on guard duty outside the Custom House on King Street. Edward Garrick began calling out insults to White and another British officer, Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch. White left his post, challenged Garrick, and struck him on the side of the head with his musket. As Garrick cried in pain, one of his companions began to argue with White, attracting a larger crowd.

As the evening progressed, the crowd around Private White grew larger and more boisterous. Church bells were rung, which usually signified a fire, bringing more people out. Over 50 of the Bostonian townspeople gathered, throwing snowballs, rocks, and sticks at White and challenging him to fire his weapon. White, who had taken up a somewhat safer position on the steps of the Custom House, sought assistance. A non-commissioned officer and six privates of the 29th Regiment of Foot were sent with fixed bayonets to relieve White. When they reached Private White on the custom house stairs, the soldiers loaded their muskets and arrayed themselves in a semicircular formation. The soldiers were heckled by the mob as “lobster backs,” a reference equating them with bottom feeders.

After a tense standoff, the soldiers fired into the crowd. Rather than a disciplined volley (there were no orders given to fire), a ragged series of shots was fired, which hit 11 men. The crowd moved away from the immediate area of the Custom House but continued to grow in nearby streets. British soldiers adopted defensive positions in front of the State House. Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson was summoned to the scene and was forced by the movements of the crowd into the council chamber of the State House. From its balcony, he was able to minimally restore order, promising that there would be a fair inquiry into the shootings if the crowd dispersed.

Five people in total were killed. Crispus Attucks, the first man killed—and, though no one could have known it then, the first official casualty in the war for independence—was of Wampanoag and African descent. The bloodshed illustrated the level of hostility that had developed as a result of Boston’s occupation by British troops, the competition for scarce jobs between Bostonians and the British soldiers stationed in the city, and the larger question of Parliament’s efforts to tax the colonies. In the days and weeks following the incident, a propaganda battle was waged between Boston’s radicals and supporters of the government. Both sides published pamphlets that told strikingly different stories, which were principally published in London in a bid to influence opinion there.

4.5.3 – Aftermath

Depiction of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere: A sensationalized portrayal of the skirmish, later to become known as the “Boston Massacre,” between British soldiers and citizens of Boston on March 5, 1770.

The Boston Massacre is considered one of the most important events that turned colonial sentiment against King George III and British parliamentary authority. John Adams wrote that the “foundation of American independence was laid” on March 5, 1770, and Samuel Adams and other patriots used annual commemorations of the event to rally against British rule. Later events such as the Boston Tea Party further illustrated the crumbling relationship between Britain and its colonies. Although five years passed between the massacre and outright revolution, it is widely perceived as a significant event leading to the violent rebellion that followed.

5 – The Tea Party and the Coercive Acts, 1770-1774

5.1 – The Calm before the Storm

The Tea Act of 1773 arose from the financial problems of the British East India Company and the dispute of Parliament’s authority over the colonies.

5.1.1 – Overview

The Tea Act of 1773, and the subsequent Boston Tea Party, arose from two issues confronting the British Empire in 1775: first, the financial problems of the British East India Company, and second, an ongoing dispute about the extent of Parliament’s authority, if any, over the British American colonies without seating any elected representation. Parliament attempted to resolve these issues through the Tea Act, which in turn set the stage for the Boston Tea Party and eventually the American Revolution.

5.1.2 – Background: Tea Trade to 1767

As Europeans developed a taste for tea in the 17th century, rival companies were formed to import the product from China. In England, Parliament gave the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea in 1698. When tea became popular in the British colonies, Parliament sought to eliminate foreign competition by passing an act in 1721 that required colonists to import their tea only from Great Britain. The East India Company did not export tea to the colonies; by law, the company was required to sell its tea wholesale at auctions in England. British firms bought this tea and exported it to the colonies, where they resold it to merchants in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Until 1767, the East India Company paid a tax of about 25% on tea that it imported into Great Britain. Parliament laid additional taxes on tea sold for consumption in Britain.

In response to the colonial protests over the Townshend Acts, Parliament repealed the majority of the Townshend taxes in 1770. However, they did not repeal the duty on tea, which Prime Minister Lord North kept in order to assert Britain’s right of taxing the colonies. This partial repeal of the taxes was enough to bring an end to the non-importation movement, which colonists were using to boycott British goods, by October 1770. From 1771 to 1773, British tea was once again imported into the colonies in significant amounts, with merchants paying the Townshend duty of three pence per pound. Boston was the largest colonial importer of legal tea; smugglers still dominated the market in New York and Philadelphia.

5.1.3 – The Tea Act of 1773

Lord North: Lord North, seen here in Portrait of Frederick North, Lord North (1773–1774), painted by Nathaniel Dance, was prime minister at the time of the passage of the Tea Act.

The Indemnity Act of 1767, which gave the East India Company a refund of the duty on tea that was re-exported to the colonies, expired in 1772. Parliament passed a new act in 1772 that reduced this refund, effectively leaving a 10% duty on tea imported into Britain. The act also restored the tea taxes within Britain that had been repealed in 1767, and left in place the Townshend duty in the colonies. With this new tax burden driving up the price of British tea, sales plummeted. The company continued to import tea into Great Britain, however, amassing a huge surplus of product that no one would buy. For these and other reasons, by late 1772, the East India Company, one of Britain’s most important commercial institutions, was in a serious financial crisis.

Eliminating some of the taxes was one obvious solution to the crisis. The East India Company initially sought to have the Townshend duty repealed, but the North ministry was unwilling because such an action might be interpreted as a retreat from Parliament’s position that it had the right to tax the colonies. More importantly, the tax collected from the Townshend duty was used to pay the salaries of some British colonial governors and judges. Another possible solution for reducing the growing mound of tea in the East India Company warehouses was to sell it cheaply in Europe. This possibility was investigated, but it was determined that the tea would simply be smuggled back into Great Britain, where it would undersell the taxed product.

The North ministry’s solution was the Tea Act, which received the assent of King George in May of 1773. This act restored the East India Company’s full refund on the duty for importing tea into Britain and also permitted the company, for the first time, to export tea to the colonies on its own account. This would allow the company to reduce costs by eliminating the middlemen who bought the tea at wholesale auctions in London. Instead of selling to middlemen, the company now appointed colonial merchants to receive the tea on consignment; the consignees would in turn sell the tea for a commission. In July of 1773, tea consignees were selected in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston.

The Tea Act retained the three pence Townshend duty on tea imported to the colonies. Some members of Parliament wanted to eliminate this tax, arguing that there was no reason to provoke another colonial controversy. However, North did not want to give up the revenue from the Townshend tax, primarily because it was used to pay the salaries of colonial officials; maintaining the right of taxing the Americans was a secondary concern.

5.2 – The Boston Tea Party

In response to the British Tea Act of 1773, the Sons of Liberty took action in what would later be known as the Boston Tea Party.

5.2.1 – Overview

Upon hearing word of the details in the British Tea Act of 1773, the Sons of Liberty took action after officials in Boston refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain. The Boston Tea Party was the culmination of a resistance movement throughout British America against the Tea Act, which had been passed by the British Parliament in 1773. Colonists objected to the Tea Act for a variety of reasons, especially because they believed that it violated their right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives. Protesters had successfully prevented the unloading of taxed tea in three other colonies, but in Boston, embattled Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the tea to be returned to Britain.

5.2.2 – Background

In September and October of 1773, seven ships carrying British East India Company tea were sent to the colonies. Four were bound for Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In the ships were more than 2,000 chests containing nearly 600,000 pounds of tea. Americans learned the details of the Tea Act while the ships were en route, and opposition began to mount. Activists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty began a campaign to raise awareness and to convince or compel the consignees to resign, in the same way that stamp distributors had been forced to resign in the 1765 Stamp Act crisis.

“Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston”: 1789 engraving of the destruction of the tea in Boston Harbor.

South of Boston, protesters successfully compelled the tea consignees to resign. In Charleston, the consignees had been forced to resign by early December, and the unclaimed tea was seized by customs officials. By early December, the Philadelphia consignees had resigned and the tea ship returned to England with its cargo following a confrontation with the ship’s captain. The tea ship bound for New York City was delayed by bad weather. By the time it had arrived, the consignees had resigned, and the ship returned to England with the tea.

5.2.3 – Standoff in Boston

In every colony except for Massachusetts, protesters were able to force the tea consignees to resign or to return the tea to England. In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson was determined to hold his ground. He convinced the tea consignees, two of whom were his sons, not to back down.

When the tea ship, Dartmouth, arrived in Boston Harbor in late November, Sons of Liberty leader Samuel Adams called for a mass meeting. British law required the Dartmouth to unload and pay the duties within 20 days, or customs officials could confiscate the cargo. The mass meeting passed a resolution, introduced by Adams and based on a similar set of resolutions promulgated earlier in Philadelphia, urging the captain of the Dartmouth to send the ship back without paying the import duty. Meanwhile, the meeting assigned men to watch the ship and prevent the tea from being unloaded.

Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. Meanwhile, two more tea ships, the Eleanor and the Beaver, arrived in Boston Harbor. While Adams tried to reassert control of the meeting, people poured out of the Old South Meeting House to prepare to take action. On the evening of December 16th, a small group of colonists, some dressed in Mohawk warrior disguises, boarded the three vessels and, over the course of three hours, dumped all 342 chests of tea into the water. Protected by a crowd of spectators, they systematically destroyed goods worth almost $1 million in today’s dollars—a very significant loss.

Whether or not Samuel Adams helped plan the Boston Tea Party is disputed, but he immediately worked to publicize and defend it. He argued that the Tea Party was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights. By “constitution,” he was referring to the idea that all governments have a constitution, written or not, and that the constitution of Great Britain could be interpreted as banning the levying of taxes without representation.

This act soon inspired further acts of resistance up and down the East Coast. However, not all colonists, and not even all patriots, supported the dumping of the tea. The wholesale destruction of property shocked people on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, this act united all parties against the colonies. The British government felt this action could not remain unpunished; they responded by closing the port of Boston and putting in place other laws known as the “Coercive Acts.” The tax on tea was repealed with the Taxation of Colonies Act of 1778, part of another Parliamentary attempt at conciliation that eventually failed.

5.3 – The Coercive Acts

The Coercive Acts were meant to reverse the trend of colonial resistance but actually provoked higher levels of resistance.

5.3.1 – Overview

The Coercive Acts are names used to describe a series of laws relating to Britain’s colonies in North America and passed by the British Parliament in 1774. Four of the acts were issued in direct response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. By making an example of Massachusetts, the British Parliament hoped these punitive measures would reverse the trend of colonial resistance to parliamentary authority that had begun with the 1765 Stamp Act. Many colonists, however, viewed the acts as an arbitrary violation of their rights. In 1774, they organized the First Continental Congress to coordinate a protest. As tensions escalated, the American Revolutionary War broke out the following year.

5.3.2 – Passage of the Coercive Acts

5.3.2.1 – The Boston Port Act

The first of the acts passed in response to the Boston Tea Party was the Boston Port Act. This law closed the port of Boston until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea and the king was satisfied that order had been restored. Colonists objected that the Port Act punished all of Boston rather than just the individuals who had destroyed the tea. They also contended that they were being punished without having been given an opportunity to testify in their own defense.

5.3.2.2 – The Massachusetts Government Act

The Massachusetts Government Act provoked even more outrage than the Port Act because it unilaterally altered the government of Massachusetts to bring it under control of the British government. Under the terms of the Government Act, almost all positions in the colonial government were to be appointed by the governor or the king. The act also severely limited the activities of town meetings in Massachusetts to one meeting a year, unless the governor called for one. Colonists outside of Massachusetts feared that their governments could now also be changed by the legislative fiat of Parliament.

5.3.2.3 – The Administration of Justice Act

The Administration of Justice Act allowed the governor to move trials of accused royal officials to another colony, or even to Great Britain, if he believed the official could not get a fair trial in Massachusetts. Although the act stipulated that witnesses would be paid for their travel expenses, in practice, few colonists could afford to leave their work and cross the ocean to testify in a trial. George Washington called this the “Murder Act,” as he believed that it allowed British officials to harass Americans and then escape justice.

5.3.2.4 – The Quartering Act

The Quartering Act applied to all of the colonies and sought to create a more effective method of housing British troops in America. In a previous act, the colonies had been required to provide housing for soldiers, but colonial legislatures had been uncooperative in doing so. The new Quartering Act allowed a governor to house soldiers in other buildings if suitable quarters were not provided. Although many colonists found the Quartering Act objectionable, it generated the least amount of protest of the Coercive Acts.

5.3.3 – Effects of the Coercive Acts

“The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught” (London Magazine, May 1, 1774): The artist of this image targets select members of Parliament as the perpetrators of a devilish scheme to overturn the constitution; this is why Mother Britannia weeps. Note that this cartoon came from a British publication; Great Britain was not united in support of Parliament’s policies toward the American colonies.

Many colonists saw the Coercive Acts as a violation of their constitutional rights, their natural rights, and their colonial charters. They viewed the acts as a threat to the liberties of all of British America, not just Massachusetts. The citizens of Boston viewed the Coercive Acts as unnecessary and cruel punishment that inflamed outrage against Britain even further.

Great Britain hoped that the Coercive Acts would isolate radicals in Massachusetts and cause American colonists to concede the authority of Parliament over their elected assemblies. However, the acts unintentionally promoted sympathy for Massachusetts and encouraged colonists from the otherwise diverse colonies to form the First Continental Congress.

5.4 – The First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress was a convention of 12 colonial delegates that met on September 5, 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

5.4.1 – Overview

The Congress: An opening prayer at the First Continental Congress, September 7, 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The First Continental Congress was a convention of delegates from 12 British North American colonies that met on September 5, 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was called in response to the passage of the Coercive Acts by the British Parliament. The Congress was attended by 56 members appointed by the legislatures of 12 of the 13 colonies. The sole exception was the Province of Georgia, which was hoping for British assistance with American Indian conflicts on its frontier.

The Congress met briefly to consider options, including an economic boycott of British trade, rights and grievances, and petitioning King George III for redress of those grievances. The Congress also called for another Continental Congress in the event that their petition was unsuccessful in halting the enforcement of the Coercive Acts. Their appeal to the Crown had no effect, and so the Second Continental Congress was convened the following year to organize the defense of the colonies at the onset of the American Revolutionary War. The delegates also urged each colony to set up and train its own militia.

5.4.2 – The Congress

The need for a Continental Congress grew out of the British blockade at the Port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The colonies were united in their effort to demonstrate their authority to Great Britain by virtue of their common causes and through their unity. The delegates organized an economic boycott of Great Britain in protest against the Coercive Acts passed by the British Parliament in 1774, and petitioned the King for a redress of grievances.

5.4.3 – Differing Objectives

Nevertheless, their ultimate objectives were not consistent. Pennsylvania and New York had sent delegates with firm instructions to pursue a resolution with Great Britain. While the other colonies all held the idea of colonial rights as paramount, they were split between those who sought legislative equality with Britain and those who instead favored independence and a break from the Crown and its excesses. On October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress adjourned. They agreed to reconvene in May of 1775, if Parliament still did not address their grievances.

5.4.4 – The Continental Association and Petition to the King

The result of the Congress was the Continental Association, which was a system for implementing a trade boycott with Great Britain. The Association aimed to alter Britain’s policies toward the colonies without severing allegiance and was fairly successful while it lasted. The articles imposed an immediate ban on British tea and a ban on importing or consuming any goods (including the slave trade) from Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies to take effect on December 1, 1774. It also threatened an export ban on any products from the American colonies to Britain, Ireland, or the West Indies, to be enacted only if the complained-of acts were not repealed by September 10, 1775. The articles stated that the export ban was being suspended until this date because of the “earnest desire we have not to injure our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain, Ireland, or the West-Indies.”

Only one colony failed to establish local enforcement committees; in the others, the restrictions were dutifully enforced (by violent measures, on some occasion). Trade with Great Britain fell sharply, and Parliament responded by passing the New England Restraining Act, which prohibited the northeastern colonies from trading with anyone but Britain and the British West Indies and barred colonial ships from the North Atlantic fisheries. These punitive measures were later extended to most of the other colonies as well.

The Petition to the King was also formed during the First Continental Congress and sent to George III of Great Britain. The petition expressed loyalty to the king and hoped for redress of grievances relating to the Coercive Acts and other issues that helped foment the American Revolution.

5.4.5 – Response from London

Carpenter’s Hall: The First Continental Congress met briefly in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from September 5–October 26, 1774.

In London, Parliament debated the merits of meeting the demands made by the colonies. However, it took no official notice of Congress’ petitions and addresses. On November 30, 1774, King George III opened Parliament with a speech condemning Massachusetts. At that point, it became clear that the Continental Congress would have to convene once again.

6 – Armed Conflict Begins

6.1 – Lexington and Concord

A British attempt to seize military stores in Lexington and Concord led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.

6.1.1 – Background

Tensions continued to rise throughout the colonies, and especially in New England, after the Boston Tea Party and the meeting of the First Continental Congress. In an effort to restore law and order in Boston, the British dispatched General Thomas Gage to the New England seaport. He arrived in Boston in May of 1774, accompanied by several regiments of British troops, as the new royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts. As in 1768, the British again occupied the town. Massachusetts delegates met in a provincial Congress and published the Suffolk Resolves, which officially rejected the Coercive Acts and called for the raising of colonial militias to take military action if needed. The Suffolk Resolves signaled the overthrow of the royal government in Massachusetts.

Both the British and the rebels in New England began to prepare for conflict by turning their attention to supplies of weapons and gunpowder. General Gage stationed 3,500 troops in Boston, and from there he ordered periodic raids on towns where guns and gunpowder were stockpiled, hoping to impose law and order by seizing them. As Boston became the headquarters of British military operations, many residents fled the city.

Gage’s actions led to the formation of local rebel militias that were able to mobilize in a minute’s time. These minutemen, many of whom were veterans of the French and Indian War, played an important role in the war for independence. In one instance, General Gage seized munitions in Cambridge and Charlestown, but when he arrived to do the same in Salem, his troops were met by a large crowd of minutemen and had to leave empty-handed. In New Hampshire, minutemen took over Fort William and Mary and confiscated weapons and cannons there. Throughout late 1774 and into 1775, tensions in New England continued to mount as the region readied for war.

6.1.2 – The Battles of Lexington and Concord

The Battles of Lexington and Concord are generally considered the start of the American Revolution. British General Thomas Gage, the military governor and commander-in-chief, received instructions on April 14, 1775, from Secretary of State William Legge, to disarm the rebels and imprison the rebellion’s leaders. General Gage knew that a powder magazine was stored in Concord, Massachusetts, and he ordered troops to seize these munitions. Instructions from London called for the arrest of rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

On the night of April 18, 1775, General Gage sent 700 men to seize munitions stored by the colonial militia at Concord. Hoping for secrecy, his troops left Boston under cover of darkness, but riders from Boston let the militias know of the British plans. (Paul Revere was one of these riders, but the British captured him and he never finished his ride. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized Revere in his 1860 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” incorrectly implying that he made it all the way to Concord.) When the British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found about 80 minutemen formed up on the village common. Shots were exchanged, eight minutemen were killed, the outnumbered colonial militia dispersed, and the British moved on to Concord.

Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride: A depiction of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

At Concord, the troops searched for military supplies but found relatively little as the colonists, having received warnings that such an expedition might happen, had taken steps to hide many of the supplies. During the search, there was a confrontation at the North Bridge. A small company of British troops fired on a much larger column of colonial militia, which returned fire and eventually routed those troops; the British troops returned to the village center and rejoined the other troops there. By the time the British soldiers began to retreat to Boston, several thousand militiamen had gathered along the road. A running fight ensued, and the British detachment suffered heavily before reaching Charlestown.

The Battle of Lexington: Engraving of the Battle of Lexington in 1775.

Over 4,000 militiamen took part in these skirmishes with British soldiers. Seventy-three British soldiers and 49 patriots died during the British retreat to Boston. The famous confrontation is the basis for Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” (1836), which begins with the description of the “shot heard round the world.” Although propagandists on both sides pointed fingers, it remains unclear who fired that shot.

6.1.3 – Aftermath

The following morning, Gage awoke to find Boston besieged by a huge colonial militia army numbering 20,000, which had marched from all around New England. The Revolutionary War had begun, and the militia army continued to grow as surrounding colonies sent men and supplies. The Continental Congress would adopt and sponsor these men into the beginnings of the Continental Army. Even now, after open warfare had started, Gage still refused to impose martial law in Boston. He persuaded the town’s selectmen to surrender all private weapons in return for promising that any inhabitant could leave town.

6.2 – The Battle of Bunker Hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill, though technically a loss for the Continental Army, signified the relative strength of the colonial forces.

6.2.1 – Overview

The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775, following the Battles of Lexington and Concord. By this time, Parliament had declared Massachusetts in a state of rebellion. The Battle of Bunker Hill took place mostly on and around Breed’s Hill during the Siege of Boston early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after the adjacent Bunker Hill, which was the original objective of both colonial and British troops.

6.2.2 – The Battle

On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging British-occupied Boston learned that the British generals were planning to send troops out from the city to the surrounding unoccupied hills. In response to this intelligence, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. They constructed an earthen redoubt on Breed’s Hill and built lightly fortified lines across most of the Charlestown Peninsula.

When the British were alerted to the presence of the new position the next day, they mounted an attack against them. After two assaults on the colonial lines, the colonial lines ran out of ammunition and the British finally captured the positions on the third assault. The colonial forces retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, suffering their most significant losses on Bunker Hill itself.

While the result was a victory for the British, they suffered heavy losses—over 200 were killed and 800 wounded. The battle is seen as an example of a Pyrrhic victory because the immediate gain (the capture of Bunker Hill) was modest and did not significantly change the state of the siege, while the cost (the loss of nearly a third of the deployed British forces) was high. Meanwhile, colonial forces were able to retreat and regroup in good order having suffered few casualties. Furthermore, the battle demonstrated that relatively inexperienced colonial forces were willing and able to stand up to regular army troops in a pitched battle.

6.2.3 – British Doubt and the Dismissal of Gage

The Battle of Bunker Hill by John Trumball: This painting illustrates the death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

When news of the battle spread through the colonies, it was reported as a colonial loss as the ground had been taken by the enemy and significant casualties were incurred. George Washington, who was on his way to Boston as the new commander of the Continental Army, received news of the battle while in New York City. The report, which included casualty figures that were somewhat inaccurate, gave Washington hope that his army might prevail in the conflict.

The Massachusetts Committee of Safety, seeking to repeat the sort of propaganda victory it won following the battles at Lexington and Concord, commissioned a report of the battle to send to England. Their report, however, did not reach England before British Lieutenant General Gage’s official account arrived on July 20. The casualty counts alarmed the military establishment in England and forced many to rethink their views of colonial military capability. King George’s attitude toward the colonies hardened, and the news may have contributed to his rejection of the Continental Congress’ Olive Branch Petition, the last substantive political attempt at reconciliation. This hardening of the British position in return led to a strengthening of previously weak colonial support for outright rebellion and independence, especially in the formerly uncertain southern colonies.

Gage’s report had a more direct effect on his own career. His dismissal from office was decided just three days after his report was received, although General Howe did not replace him until October of 1775. Gage wrote another report to the British Cabinet in which he repeated earlier warnings that “a large army must at length be employed to reduce these people” that would require “the hiring of foreign troops.”

6.3 – Fort Ticonderoga

The capture of Fort Ticonderoga allowed colonial forces to transport much-needed artillery to Boston and eventually break Britain’s year-long siege.

6.3.1 – Overview

Map of Boston, 1775: Detail of a 1775 map of Boston, with Dorchester Heights at the bottom right: “A plan of the town and harbour of Boston and the country adjacent with the road from Boston to Concord, shewing the place of the late engagement between the King’s troops & the provincials, together with the several encampments of both armies in & about Boston. Taken from an actual survey. Humbly inscribed to Richd. Whitworth by J. De Costa; C. Hall, sc.”

The capture of Fort Ticonderoga occurred in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War when a small force of Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen and Colonel Benedict Arnold, overcame a small British garrison at the fort and looted the personal belongings of the garrison. Cannons and other armaments from the fort were transported to Boston and used to fortify Dorchester Heights, breaking the standoff at the Siege of Boston. After seizing Ticonderoga, a small detachment captured the nearby Fort Crown Point on May 11. Seven days later, Arnold and 50 men boldly raided Fort Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River in southern Quebec, seizing military supplies, cannons, and the largest military vessel on Lake Champlain.

6.3.2 – The Capture of Fort Ticonderoga

6.3.2.1 – Background

In 1775, Fort Ticonderoga’s location did not appear to be as strategically important as it had been in the French and Indian War, when the French famously defended it against a much larger British force in the 1758 Battle of Carillon. After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, in which the French ceded their North American territories to the British, the fort was no longer on the frontier of two great empires, guarding the principal waterway between them. The French had destroyed the powder magazine when they abandoned the fort, and the fort had fallen further into disrepair since then. In 1775, it was garrisoned by only a small detachment of the 26th Regiment of Foot, consisting of two officers and 46 men, many of whom had limited duties because of disability or illness.

After the war began with the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British General Thomas Gage realized the fort would require fortification; simultaneously, several colonists had the idea of capturing the fort. Benedict Arnold had frequently traveled through the area around the fort and was familiar with its condition, manning, and armaments. En route to Boston following news of the events of April 19, Arnold mentioned the fort and its condition to members of Silas Deane’s militia. Ethan Allen and other patriots in the disputed New Hampshire Grants territory also recognized the fort’s value, as it played a role in the dispute over that area between New York and New Hampshire. On May 3, Arnold was given a colonel’s commission by the Massachusetts Committee and authorized to command a “secret mission” to capture the fort.

6.3.2.2 – Colonial Forces Assemble

Arnold departed immediately after receiving his instructions and reached the border between Massachusetts and the Grants, where he learned of the recruitment efforts of the Connecticut Committee and that Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys were already on their way north. Riding quickly northward, Arnold intercepted Allen in time to join a war council, where he made a case to lead the expedition based on his formal authorization to act from the Massachusetts Committee.

On May 9, the men assembled at Hand’s Cove and were ready to cross the lake to Ticonderoga. As dawn approached, Allen and Arnold became fearful of losing the element of surprise, so they decided to attack with the men at hand rather than wait for reinforcements. The only sentry on duty at the south gate fled his post after his musket misfired, and the Americans rushed into the fort. The patriots then roused the small number of sleeping troops at gunpoint and began confiscating their weapons. No one was killed in the assault. Eventually, as many as 400 men arrived at the fort, which they plundered for liquor and other provisions.

6.3.2.3 – Noble Train of Artillery and the Fortification of Dorchester

Ethan Allen at Fort Ticonderoga: An 1875 print by John Steeple Davis giving an idealized and inaccurate depiction of Ethan Allen demanding the fort’s surrender.

In July of 1775, the fort was used as the staging ground for the invasion of Quebec that was launched in late August. Around the same time, General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army since June 15, identified that one of the significant problems of the army was a lack of heavy weaponry, which made offensive operations virtually impossible. Washington eventually chose the young Henry Knox to transport heavy weaponry that had been captured at Fort Ticonderoga to the Continental Army camps outside of Boston. In an expedition that became known as the “noble train of artillery,” Knox went to Ticonderoga in November of 1775, and, over the course of three winter months, moved 60 tons of cannons and other armaments by boat, horse and ox-drawn sledges, and manpower. This “noble train” traveled along poor-quality roads, across two semi-frozen rivers, and through the forests and swamps of the lightly inhabited Berkshires to the Boston area.

General Washington used the Fort Ticonderoga cannons to fortify Dorchester and force the evacuation of the British from Boston. Washington positioned these cannons on the hills overlooking both the fortified positions of the British and Boston Harbor, where the British supply ships were anchored. The British could not return fire on the colonial positions because they could not elevate their cannons. They soon realized that they were in an untenable position and had to withdraw from Boston. On March 17, 1776, the British evacuated their troops to Halifax, Nova Scotia, ending the nearly year-long siege.

7 – Conclusion: The Consequences of the British Parliamentary Acts

7.1 – Introduction

A series of Parliamentary Acts from 1763–1774 contributed to rising colonial unrest, culminating in the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

7.1.2 – Overview

An increasing tide of unrest rose in the British American colonies from 1763–1774 as the British government imposed a series of imperial reform measures. The British hoped not only to gain greater control over colonial trade and frontier settlement, but also to reduce the administrative cost of the colonies and the enormous debt left by the French and Indian War. Each step the British took, however, generated a backlash. Over time, imperial reforms pushed many colonists toward separation from the British Empire.

7.1.3 – Confronting the National Debt: The Aftermath of the French and Indian War

The British Empire had gained supremacy in North America with its victory over the French in 1763. Almost all of the North American territory east of the Mississippi fell under Great Britain’s control, and British leaders took this opportunity to try to create a more coherent and unified empire after decades of lax oversight. Victory over the French had proved very costly, however, and the British believed the frontier had to be secured with a standing army in order to prevent another costly war with American Indian tribes. Greater enforcement of imperial trade laws was put into place, and Parliament sought to raise revenue to pay off the crippling debt from the war and the cost of a standing army in America by implementing new taxes on the colonies.

The initial steps the British took in 1763 and 1764 to better regulate their expanded empire in North America raised suspicions among some colonists about the intent of the home government. These suspicions would grow and swell over the coming years.

7.2 – Colonial Taxes and Protests

7.2.1 – The Stamp Act

The Stamp Act: Under the Stamp Act, anyone who used or purchased anything printed on paper had to buy a revenue stamp for it. Image (a) shows a partial proof sheet of one-penny stamps. Image (b) provides a close-up of a one-penny stamp. (Credit (a): modification of work by the United Kingdom Government; Credit (b): modification of work by the United Kingdom Government)

In 1765, the British Parliament moved beyond the efforts during the previous two years to better regulate westward expansion and trade with the Stamp Act. As a direct tax on the colonists, the Stamp Act imposed an internal tax on almost every type of printed paper colonists used, including newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards. While the architects of the Stamp Act saw the measure as a way to defray the costs of the British Empire, it nonetheless gave rise to the first major colonial protest against British imperial control as expressed in the famous slogan “no taxation without representation.”

The Stamp Act reinforced the sense among some colonists that Parliament was not treating them as equals of their peers across the Atlantic. Outrage over the act created a degree of unity among otherwise unconnected American colonists, giving them a chance to act together both politically and socially. The crisis of the Stamp Act allowed colonists to loudly proclaim their identity as defenders of British liberty. With the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, liberty-loving subjects of the king celebrated what they viewed as a victory.

7.2.2 – The Townshend Acts and the Boston Massacre

Colonists’ joy over the repeal of the Stamp Act did not last long. The Declaratory Act of 1766 had articulated Great Britain’s supreme authority over the colonies, and Parliament soon began exercising that authority. In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which implemented a tax on consumer goods in British North America. Like the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts led many colonists to work together against what they perceived to be an unconstitutional measure. Protests eventually led to the Boston Massacre of 1770, in which five colonists were killed. The experience of resisting the Townshend Acts provided another shared experience among colonists from diverse regions and backgrounds, while its later partial repeal convinced many that liberty had once again been defended. Nonetheless, Great Britain’s debt crisis still had not been solved.

7.2.3 – The Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party

The Tea Act of 1773 triggered a reaction with far more significant consequences than either the 1765 Stamp Act or the 1767 Townshend Acts. Colonists who had joined in protest against those earlier acts renewed their efforts in 1773. They understood that Parliament had again asserted its right to impose taxes without representation, and they feared the Tea Act was designed to seduce them into conceding this important principle by lowering the price of tea to the point that colonists might be satisfied. They also deeply resented the East India Company’s monopoly on the sale of tea in the American colonies; this resentment sprang from the knowledge that some members of Parliament had invested heavily in the company.

The colonial rejection of the Tea Act culminated in an act of resistance known as the Boston Tea Party, in which a group of colonists from the Sons of Liberty threw $1 million (in today’s dollars) worth of British tea into the Boston Harbor that was meant to be sold in the colonies. This act recast the decade-long argument between British colonists and the home government as an intolerable conspiracy against liberty and an excessive overreach of parliamentary power. The British responded by implementing the Coercive Acts, which were punitive in nature and meant to make an example of the colonies; and sending British troops to Boston to close Boston Harbor, causing tensions and resentments to escalate further.

7.2.4 – The First Continental Congress and the Outbreak of War

Following the Coercive Acts, colonists established the First Continental Congress, which comprised elected representatives from 12 of the 13 American colonies and represented a direct challenge to British authority. In its Declaration and Resolves, colonists demanded the repeal of all repressive acts passed since 1773. The delegates also recommended that the colonies raise militias, lest the British respond to the Congress’s proposed boycott of British goods with force. While the colonists still considered themselves British subjects, they were slowly retreating from British authority, creating their own de facto government via the First Continental Congress.

The British largely ignored the demands of the Continental Congress and tried to disarm colonial insurgents in Massachusetts by confiscating their weapons and ammunition and arresting the leaders of the patriotic movement. However, this effort faltered on April 19, 1775, when Massachusetts militias and British troops fired on each other as British troops marched to Lexington and Concord, an event immortalized by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as the “shot heard round the world.” The American Revolution had begun.


Originally published by Lumen Learning – Boundless U.S. History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

Comments

comments