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Early Antagonism Between Parliament and the Colonies

With the French gone from North America, the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies changed dramatically. Fear of France had once kept America closely tied to Britain, but now the only other potential European enemy Spain, now much weaker and further away beyond the Mississippi River. America no longer needed Britain’s as much as she before, nor did the mother country need America’s help to keep France in check in North America. The only real threat to the colonies came from the Native Americans, and a controversial proclamation soon reduced that threat.

The Seven Years War had begun over Virginia’s claim to the Ohio Country. Now that peace had been declared, residents of Virginia and other colonies wanted to settle these western lands and establish trade with Native American tribes that had heretofore only traded with the French. Britain, on the other hand, wanted to avoid any more expensive military conflicts between the colonists and those Native American tribes that had not accepted the Treaty of Paris. An Ottawa chieftain, Pontiac, continued fighting even after peace was declared, attacking the outpost at Detroit, and urging other tribes soon raided sites along the rest of the Ohio Country frontier. Although British troops were able to put down Pontiac’s Rebellion, the British moved to prevent further outbreaks of violence by issuing the Proclamation of 1763. The Proclamation forbade American settlers from moving or residing west of the Appalachian Mountains, and it required all trans-Appalachian traders to obtain a permit from the British government in an effort to prevent further friction with the Native Americans. In reality, the Proclamation proved virtually impossible to enforce, but its very existence filled many American colonists with suspicion and contempt. Some went so far as to claim that the Proclamation of 1763 was be part of a British plot to keep the Ohio country and the Native American trade for itself.

Parliament’s decision to keep troops stationed in America to enforce the peace with the Native Americans further raised the suspicions of American colonists. Never before had British had left a large standing army in America, and many colonists began to fear that the army was there not to enforce the peace but to awe and intimidate the Americans. Adding insult to injury, Parliament made the colonies pay for the cost of the army they did not want in the first place. The Quartering Act of 1765 required the colonists to provide food and quarters for the British troops, which amounted to a direct tax on New York, where the soldiers were stationed. When New York refused to provide the required services, the British government suspended the right of the New York assembly to meet until the full supplies were approved.

The Quartering Act angered many colonists, but it was just one in a wave of acts passed by Parliament that increased the animosity between the colonists and the mother country. In 1761, Parliament had authorized the use of writs of assistance, or search warrants, to help customs agents catch smugglers. Colonists viewed the writs as an invasion of their fundamental right of privacy. Three years later, Parliament bowed to pressure from British merchants who felt cheated by Americans paying off their debts in paper money, which was rarely worth its face value in gold or silver. The Currency Act of 1764 was passed, effectively outlawing colonial paper money. If strictly enforced, the act would have dealt a crushing blow to the colonial economy, which was mostly carried on in paper money as a result of the mercantile system. Luckily for the colonists, this law was rarely enforced.

Many colonists believed these acts to be unreasonable and malicious, but they represented a changing political and economic environment in post-war Britain. By design, colonies were supposed to enrich to the mother country, but George Grenville, Parliament’s new treasury secretary, discovered that Britain collected £2,000 a year in revenue from America, but spent £8,000 in salaries to colonial officials. Furthermore, thanks to the free spending of William Pitt, Britain had amassed a monumental debt of £140 million during the course of the war, and the only feasible way to begin paying off that debt was by raising taxes. Parliament raised taxes in Britain, resulting in protests among the wealthy merchants and riots among the working poor. Grenville sought an easier and more politically expedient way of making money; he convinced Parliament that the American colonies, which paid almost no taxes at all, should bear some of the cost of the war that had been fought to protect them from the French.

Of Sugar and Stamps

Grenville’s sought to raise money from the colonies in two ways, by taxing imported goods and by strictly enforcing smuggling laws. Accordingly, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed a modest tariff on sugar, molasses, wine, coffee, and other products imported into America, and it set new rules for trying smugglers in court. The act infuriated Americans, especially in New England, where shippers had turned smuggling into an art and where molasses was essential to the economy. As part of what would be called triangular trade, New Englanders purchased molasses from the West Indies, converted it into rum, and then sold the rum to Africa in exchange for slaves. To the colonists, the tax represented not only an unwelcome interference in its commercial dealings, but also as a direct tax on Americans that had not been enacted without the consent of the colonial legislatures. Such an action violated what Americans saw as one of their “basic rights of Englishmen,” rights that were further undermined by the part of the act dealing with smuggling. According to the new rules, those caught smuggling would not get jury trials—another basic English right—but would be tried in Admiralty Courts by judges appointed by the King and without juries, with the burden of proof resting now with the accused, not on the prosecution.

Without the means to organize a formal protest against the Sugar Act, most colonists simply grumbled and paid the taxes, but a new series of taxes passed the following year would inspire even more anger and force the colonists to act. The Stamp Act of 1765 sought to raise yet more revenue from the colonies, this time by requiring a tax stamp to be affixed to all paper products sold or used in the colonies. In one sweeping act, Grenville managed to incense nearly every important opinion-maker in the colonies: the act applied to legal documents (upsetting lawyers), newspapers (upsetting writers and editors), pamphlets (upsetting political activists), playing cards, almanacs, diplomas, and even tavern licenses (upsetting owners and visitors to taverns, a major social gathering place for American men). Moreover, the taxes could not be avoided like earlier laws and taxes had been. After all, molasses could not be identified as legal or smuggled once it was off the ship, and paper money could be back-dated to before the Currency Act was passed, but the Stamp Act dictated that every single deed, will, newspaper and pamphlet had to have the stamp affixed to it. Clearly, the time for action had arrived.

The response of the colonies to the Stamp Act took two forms: peaceful political protest and violent acts of intimidation and coercion. Members of the various colonial assemblies felt that they could not simply sit by and allow Parliament to bleed the colonies dry with taxes and regulations. Furthermore, they maintained that no government had the right to tax citizens without their consent. Because the colonies had no voice in Parliament, the Stamp Act, like the Sugar Act before it, constituted “taxation without representation” and was insupportable. To plan their protest, nine colonies answered an invitation to attend a Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765; this was the first time the American colonies had ever joined and acted as one. The Congress pledged its loyalty to England and to Parliament, but asserted the American view that the colonies could not be taxed without Parliament’s either receiving the consent of the colonial assemblies or granting the colonies representation in Parliament itself.

While many American merchants protested the Stamp Act by boycotting British products, other groups took more extreme measures to undermine the act and prevent it from taking effect. An organization calling itself the Sons of Liberty used intimidation and violence to “persuade” the British revenue agents in charge of selling the stamps to resign their posts. Many were tarred and feathered while their houses were looted. The Sons of Liberty and similar organizations terrorized the British agents and, not surprisingly, many of the agents resigned or fled the colonies. The situation threatened to collapse into utter lawlessness when colonial judges, who either agreed with the protestors or were coerced into allowing newspapers to be published without the stamps, refused to enforce the act.

In England, members of Parliament were stunned by the turn of events in the colonies. Some discontent was to be expected when people were taxed, but violence against British officials and coordinated political protests were considerably more significant and troubling. Some in Parliament believed that a new round of stiff taxes should be levied, if only to assert control over the colonies; others, especially those with ties to merchants who were suffering under the American boycott, demanded that the Stamp Act be repealed. In the end, Parliament split the difference, repealing the Stamp Act but then passing the Declaratory Act on the very same day in 1766. The Declaratory Act, rejected the colonial claims about “taxation without representation” and asserted Parliament’s control over the colonies and its right to pass laws and levy taxes on the colonies without restriction.

The conflict over the Stamp Act demonstrated that colonists could work together to oppose a hated law. It also underscored the colonists’ hostility to any violation of their rights of Englishmen, especially the freedom from being taxed without consent. However, the fact that the Sons of Liberty had resorted to violence set a dangerous precedent and raised the stakes in dealings between the colonies and the mother country. At the time though, most colonists were so overjoyed by the repeal of the Stamp Act that they took little notice of the larger trends or consequences of their actions. But when Parliament acted on the Declaratory Act and moved to assert its authority once again, Americans would be forced to pay attention.

The Townshend Duties and the Consequences

After the Stamp Act debacle, Charles Townshend replaced George Grenville as Chancellor of the Exchequer, or treasury secretary. With the post, Townshend inherited the huge war debt and, failing to comprehend just how united the colonies were against taxation without representation, he set about levying a new series of taxes on the colonies in 1767. Townshend maintained that the basis of the objection was opposition to ”internal taxes” raised within the colonies. He decided that, because the colonies had accepted, albeit begrudgingly, earlier “external taxes” on imports of sugar and molasses, so long as Parliament only levied external taxes, the colonies would not protest. He further suggested that only taxing luxury goods would keep the majority of colonists from objecting to the taxes. Accordingly, he convinced Parliament to pass the Townshend Duties of 1767, which placed taxes on the importation of luxury goods such as paint, paper, glass, and lead, but also on tea.

The new round of taxes was bad enough, but Townshend added to the tension by declaring that Parliament and not the colonial legislatures would pay the salaries of British officials in the colonies. This violated another one of what Americans saw as their rights of Englishmen—control of the purse strings. In England, the government, military and even the King were dependent upon Parliament for funds. In the colonies, the colonial legislatures had likewise asserted their right to approve all expenditures as well, including the salaries of all government officials. This had the effect of making governors and British agents beholden to the legislatures and much more likely to do what the legislatures wanted. Under the Townshend Duties, however, the officials had no need to please the colonial legislatures, and as a result, they were more likely to enforce British laws strictly.

The Townshend Duties incensed the colonists, but not to the point that they felt the need to call for another congress. Instead, they expressed their dissatisfaction through newspapers, pamphlets, and the mail. Perhaps the most significant of these was the Circular Letter, which was written by Samuel Adams in 1768 and distributed to the other colonies. The Letter articulated the colonists’ objections to fact that the Townshend Duties levied taxes without the consent of the governed, appeared to be intended solely to raise money, and removed the control of the purse strings from colonial control. The Circular Letter caused uproar in the other colonies, and soon another boycott of British goods was organized, enforced by the Sons of Liberty. To compensate for the loss of imported goods, Americans began to promote home manufacture of the taxed English goods, undermining the very basis of the mercantile system.

Because the newest crop of customs agents received their salaries from Parliament, they saw no need to take bribes from American smugglers. However, they did find other means of making money, such as seizing colonial ships and cargoes for customs violations. Under British law, any ship caught smuggling was condemned and sold in an Admiralty Court, with the British government, the governor, and the customs officer splitting the proceeds evenly. In addition, the customs agents were given the power to search ships and warehouses at any time without approval or advance warning. Needless to say, customs agents were soon as unpopular as the stamp agents had been three years earlier. To protect the agents from the attentions of the Sons of Liberty, Britain sent two regiments of British troops to Boston.

Residents of Massachusetts viewed the colonists as an occupying force, and they took every opportunity to taunt and harass the soldiers. Conditions in Boston were tense and grew more so as each day passed. Then, on March 5, 1770, the situation exploded in a spectacularly violent episode known as the Boston Massacre. After a long night of heavy drinking and political debating, a mob of several hundred Bostonians, including members of the Sons of Liberty, jeered and taunted ten British soldiers guarding the customs house. Some in the crown through snowballs, ice, sticks, and other objects. In the resulting panic and confusion, shots were fired by several of the British troops. When the smoke cleared, several Americans were wounded and five died, including Crispus Attucks, a black sailor and member of the Sons of Liberty.

The news of British soldiers firing on Americans was shocking, and it spread quickly throughout the colonies. The stories were soon accompanied by incendiary pamphlets written by discontented Americans who began calling themselves “patriots.” One such patriot was Paul Revere, who created an engraving of the Boston Massacre, depicting a line of soldiers mercilessly firing down on a defenseless crowd of citizens. The engraving was less description than propaganda, and it had its intended effect as other colonies rallied to offer sympathy and pledges of support. However, the court case against the soldiers charged with the attack was destined to be a much less partisan undertaking. Noted patriot John Adams agreed to defend the soldiers charged with the attack, hoping to prove that the American courts could hold a fair trial. The court found that that the firing on civilians was the result of confusion, fear, and misunderstandings, and not a coordinated attack. As a result, only two of the seven soldiers charged were convicted.

Parliament was already having second thoughts about the Townshend Duties when it received news of the massacre. Little revenue was being generated because Americans had boycotted British products and begun to manufacture their own glass, paint, and paper. In late 1770, Lord North, the new British Prime Minister, convinced Parliament to repeal the Townshend Duties and allow the Quartering Act to expire. However, as if to remind the colonists that Parliament retained the right to regulate the colonies, the tax on tea remained in place. Most Americans were pleased with the turn of events, and because most of the tea consumed in the colonies was smuggled in by the Dutch, they even were inclined to overlook the tea tax. For the moment at least, the crisis was over

From Resistance to Revolution

Relations between Parliament and the colonies appeared relatively peaceful for the next two years, but beneath the surface, old tensions still lingered. Quite simply, British and American ideas on their respective rights and theories of government remained far apart, and any Parliamentary action seemed to split the two sides even more. In 1772, Parliament began paying the salaries not only of British agents and officials but also judges and royal governors in the colonies, trying to make them more independent of the assemblies. This act was especially unpopular in Massachusetts the haughty governor Thomas Hutchinson was heartily disliked. The avarice and arrogance of British revenue agents continued to make them equally unpopular, and this contributed to the Gaspee Incident. The crew of the British revenue ship Gaspee patrolled the waters around Rhode Island, seizing small boats involved in local traffic, cutting down orchards for firewood, and rustling livestock. One day in 1772, the ship ran aground; the locals, instead of helping it float free, burned it. Parliament was outraged and wanted to make an example of the perpetrators, but they believed that local courts would not be able to bring the guilty to justice. Therefore, a “special commission” was set up to investigate. It was no more successful in finding the arsonists, but the very existence of the commission outraged Americans, who saw this as an attempt to bypass or replace the colonial courts.

Americans in other colonies learned of Gaspee quickly because of the work of the Committees of Correspondence. In many ways an outgrowth of the Circular Letter and the Sons of Liberty, the Committees were organized by Samuel Adams in 1772 as means of communicating between the leaders of various Massachusetts towns. They soon spread to the other colonies, allowing patriots north and south to exchange views on British policies and coordinate activities of their own. Although new and still relatively powerless, the Committees of Correspondence represented the embryonic stages of a new American government.

Blissfully unaware of political developments in America, Parliament now blundered over the brink with the Tea Act of 1773. In truth, the Tea Act was designed not so much to raise revenue for the British, but to prop up the British East India Company. The major exporter of British tea from India and Ceylon and a company owned by many influential British stockholders, the Tea Company had recently fallen on hard times, partly because Americans preferred to buy smuggled Dutch tea. The Tea Act of 1773 granted the company a monopoly on all tea sales to the colonies, and allowed it to export its tea directly to America. These actions eliminated the need for middlemen and thus lowered the price on the tea to levels even below that the Dutch tea. In addition, the tea tax itself was assessed at the point of export (India) and not the point of import (the colonies), so that the tax had the appearance of being reduced in the colonies, even if the price remained the same.

Lord North believed the Tea Act to be a win-win-win situation: Americans would be thrilled to have cheaper tea, the East India Company would be profitable, and Britain would finally get some revenue from America. He was mistaken. American middlemen and smugglers were outraged at the assault on their profits, and the Sons of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence viewed the Act as yet another attempt to impose a tax without representation. In most of the American colonies, Americans refused to allow the tea to be landed, and most royal governors, sensing American outrage, did not push the issue. In Massachusetts, however, Governor Hutchinson decided that the colonists needed to be put in their place, and so, in December of 1773, he ordered the tea landed. Before the ships could be unloaded, Samuel Adams called for the Sons of Liberty to act. Only slightly disguised as Native Americans, they threw the all342 chests of tea overboard into Boston Harbor.

The Boston Tea Party inspired Americans in other colonies to seize the ships sitting in their harbors and destroy the tea as well, and it demonstrated to Parliament that a crisis was at hand in the colonies. Lord North was convinced that Massachusetts had to be punished severely and the rest of the colonies taught a lesson. Accordingly, in 1774, he convinced Parliament to pass a series of acts, designed to codify the relationship between Parliament and the colonies once and for all. The Boston Port Act closed the harbor all shipping until the colonists repaid the cost of the tea. The Massachusetts Government Act altered the Massachusetts Charter, limiting town meetings to once a year making the upper house appointed by the king rather than elected locally. Furthermore, two other acts were passed as well, one allowing British officials to be tried for serious crimes in England, away from local juries, the other instituting a new Quartering Act. To give emphasis to the punishment, troops were immediately quartered in Boston itself, and their commander, General Thomas Gage, was appointed governor. Taken together, these measures were labeled the Coercive Acts by the British, but the Americans called them the “Intolerable Acts.” Adding insult to injury, Parliament later that year passed the Quebec Act, which it put all the Ohio Country permanently under the government of Quebec, and not Virginia, New York, or any of the other colonies that had claimed it. A new Canadian civil government was established, one with no elected lower house, no jury trials, and, no presumption of innocence.

Although most of the punishments contained in the acts were directed at Massachusetts, the Committees of Correspondence realized that if Britain could abuse the natural rights of those in Massachusetts, it could do so to any colony. Therefore, the colonies needed to act together to protest the Intolerable Acts. In 1774, the Committees invited the various colonies to attend the First Continental Congress, scheduled for later that year in Philadelphia. Twelve colonies sent representatives; only Georgia, the newest colony, did not send a delegate. The Congress went a step further than the Stamp Act Congress had gone nine years earlier, claiming not only that Parliament had no right to tax Americans but also that it had no regulatory control over the colonies at all. According to the delegates at the Congress, the colonies were united to Britain through the king, but his authority was as limited in America by the colonial assemblies just as it was in Britain by Parliament. Furthermore, the Congress called for a complete embargo on trade with Britain and the British West Indies, and it adopted the Suffolk Resolves, which called for armed resistance to any attempt by Britain to enforce the Intolerable Acts.

Understandably, the King and Parliament were unwilling to let a few troublemakers dictate the terms of their relationship with the colonies, but they underestimated what would be necessary to reassert their authority. Parliament ordered General Gage to enforce the Coercive Acts and restore order in Massachusetts. Gage, recognizing the seriousness of the situation, asked for 20,000 more troops, but Parliament gave him only 3,500.

America on the Eve of Revolution

In 1607, America had been little more than a remote English outpost. However, as settlements grew and thrived, each colony developed its own distinct identity, with a separate economy, set of social customs, and political beliefs from those in England. As the years passed, colonists grew more frustrated by increasingly intrusive regulations set down by a Parliament that neither understood the situations of the colonists nor respected their rights as Englishmen. With each oppressive act passed by Parliament following the Seven Years War, that frustration grew into suspicion. By 1775, many Americans had come to believe that Parliament was plotting to “enslave” Americans and take away their rights as Englishmen. With no written constitution to protect them, the colonists feared that they would lose forever any power or right claimed by Parliament or the King. For its part, the British government believed that, over time, the colonies had strayed from the course of obedience and subservience; every act of defiance or protest only underscored Parliament’s belief that the colonies must be dealt with harshly to bring them back into line. By 1775, both sides had become firmly entrenched and unwilling to bow or bend to the demands of the other. Soon, neither side had any other recourse to resolve the crisis except armed conflict.

Chapter V Vocabulary Terms

Proclamation of 1763

Writs of Assistance

George Grenville

Sugar Act

Stamp Act

Stamp Act Congress

Sons of Liberty

Declaratory Act

Charles Townshend

Townshend Duties

Circular Letter

Committees of Correspondence

Boston Massacre

Gaspee Incident

Lord North

Tea Act

Boston Tea Party

Coercive Acts

General Gage

First Continental Congress

Chapter V Review Questions
1. Why did the British issue the Proclamation of 1763? Why did this upset the colonists so much?

2. Explain the philosophical and practical reasoning behind the colonists’ objections to taxation?

3. Explain the different ways in which colonists responded to the Stamp Act.

4. What is the difference between internal taxes and external taxes? Why did Charles Townshend believe that the colonists would be more willing to tolerate the Townshend Duties? Were they?

5. Explain the circumstances surrounding the Boston Massacre and the subsequent trial.

6. What does the Gaspee Incident reveal about colonial attitudes toward smuggling and British attempts to collect import duties?

7. What were the circumstances surrounding the passage of the Tea Act? Why did the colonists object to it, even though it meant cheaper tea? How did they respond?

8. In what ways did colonists believe that the Coercive Acts violated their natural rights of Englishmen? Why were they so concerned about the Quebec Act?

9. Explain the ways that colonists’ attitudes toward national unity evolved between 1754 and 1774, especially with regard to: (1) the Seven Years War, (2) the Stamp Act, and (3) the Coercive Acts.

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