Moving locations does not change identity. Simply moving to a new state will not dramatically change who you are – your beliefs, values, and sense of self. This was true of the British colonists who left their homeland to cross the Atlantic and live in America. They did not suddenly become American. They were British, or perhaps they thought of themselves as English, Scottish, Irish or German. But regardless of the precise place they left behind, they certainly did not suddenly start thinking like Americans immediately.
So, when did they stop being British and start being American? And why did this shift happen? What made tens of thousands of people give up old ways of thinking about their identity and adopt a new sense of self? What life changing events could possibly have happened to turn British colonists, loyal to their King and Country, into patriotic rebels willing to fight and die to create a new nation? How did Americans start being American?
The Age of Reason, as it was called, was spreading rapidly across Europe. In the late 17th century, scientists like Isaac Newton and writers like John Locke were challenging the old order. Newton’s laws of gravity and motion described the world in terms of natural laws beyond any spiritual force. In the wake of political turmoil in England, Locke asserted the right of a people to change a government that did not protect natural rights of life, liberty and property. People were beginning to doubt the existence of a God who could predestine human beings to eternal damnation and empower a tyrant for a king.
In America, intellectuals were also reading the works of the Enlightenment thinkers. On their side of the Atlantic, new ideas about liberty and progress had a chance to flourish without the shackles of Old Europe. Religious leaders began to change their old dogmatic positions. They began to emphasize the similarities between the Anglican Church and the Puritan Congregationalists rather than the differences. Even Cotton Mather, the Massachusetts minister who wrote and spoke so convincingly about the existence of witches advocated science to immunize citizens against smallpox.
Harvard ministers became so liberal that Yale College was founded in New Haven in 1707 in an attempt to retain old Calvinist ideas. This attempt failed and the entire faculty except one converted to the Church of England in 1722. By the end of the century, many New England ministers would become Unitarians, doubting even the divinity of Christ.
New ideas shaped political attitudes as well. John Locke defended the displacement of a monarch who would not protect the lives, liberties, and property of the English people. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated that society should be ruled by the “general will” of the people and another Frenchman, Baron de Montesquieu declared that power should not be concentrated in the hands of any one individual. He recommended separating power among executive, legislative, judicial branches of government.
American intellectuals absorbed these ideas and the writings of Benjamin Franklin made them accessible to the general public. The delegates who declared independence from Britain used many of these arguments and the entire opening of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is an application of John Locke’s ideas. The opening line of the United States Constitution – “We the People” – reflects Enlightenment principles as well
The old way of life was represented by superstition, an angry God, and absolute submission to authority. The thinkers of the Age of Reason ushered in a new way of thinking. This new way championed the accomplishments of humankind. Individuals did not have to accept despair. Science and reason could bring happiness and progress. Kings did not rule by divine right. They had an obligation to their subjects. Europeans pondered the implications for nearly a century, but it was Americans who first put them into practice.
Secondary Source: Statue
A statue of Jean-Jacquees Rousseau with the philosopher seated holding his pen contrasts with the usual statues of generals upon horseback with swords.
THE TRIAL OF JOHN PETER ZENGER
No democracy has existed in the modern world without the existence of a free press. Newspapers and pamphlets allow for the exchange of ideas and for the voicing of dissent. When a corrupt government holds power, the press becomes a critical weapon. It organizes opposition and can help revolutionary ideas spread. The trial of John Peter Zenger, a New York printer, was an important step toward codifying this most precious freedom for American colonists.
John Peter Zenger was a German immigrant who printed a publication called The New York Weekly Journal. This publication harshly pointed out the actions of the corrupt royal governor, William S. Cosby. It accused the government of rigging elections and allowing the French enemy to explore New York harbor. It accused the governor of an assortment of crimes and basically labeled him an idiot. Although Zenger merely printed the articles, he was hauled into jail. The authors were anonymous, and Zenger would not name them.
In 1733, Zenger was accused of libel, a legal term whose meaning is quite different for us today than it was for him. In his day it was libel when you published information that was opposed to the government. Truth or falsity were irrelevant. He never denied printing the pieces. The judge therefore felt that the verdict was never in question. Something very surprising happened, however.
The first jury was packed with individuals on Cosby’s payroll. Throughout this process, Zenger’s wife Anna kept the presses rolling. Her reports resulted in replacing Cosby’s jury with a true jury of Zenger’s peers.
When the trial began and Zenger’s new attorney began his defense, a stir fluttered through the courtroom. The most famous lawyer in the colonies, Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia, stepped up to defend Zenger. Hamilton admitted that Zenger printed the charges and demanded the prosecution to prove them false. In a stirring appeal to the jury, Hamilton pleaded for his new client’s release. “It is not the cause of one poor printer,” he claimed, “but the cause of liberty.” The judge ordered the jury to convict Zenger if they believed he printed the stories. But the jury returned in less than ten minutes with a verdict of not guilty.
Cheers filled the courtroom and spread throughout the countryside. Zenger and Hamilton were hailed as heroes. Although true freedom of the press was not known until the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, newspaper publishers felt freer to print their honest views. As the American Revolution approached, this freedom would be vital.
A TRADITION OF REBELLION
The American colonies had known violent rebellion long before the Revolutionary War.
Each of the original thirteen colonies had experienced violent uprisings. Americans had shown themselves more than willing to take up arms to defend a cause held dear. This tradition of rebellion characterized the American spirit throughout its early history.
One of the earliest large-scale insurrections was Bacon’s Rebellion. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a group of disgruntled citizens from the western part of Virginia eastward in search of justice. They felt their interests were not represented by Virginia’s colonial legislature and the royal governor. They felt Governor Berkeley had done nothing to protect them from Native American raids. These frontier Virginians felt excluded from the riches of the eastern seaboard. It was a conflict that was fueled by frustrations about class and economic power rather than ideas of liberty or independence.
Over a thousand of Bacon’s followers entered Jamestown and burned the capital city. Governor Berkeley fled until reinforcements could organize. The rebels pillaged and plundered the countryside until Berkeley’s forces crushed them. Over twenty rebels were hanged, but fear of further rebellion was struck into the hearts of the members of the wealthy Virginia planting class.
Similar uprisings took place all along the colonial backwoods. From 1765 to 1767 outlaws roamed the landscape holding local farmers at their mercy. A band of vigilantes known as Regulators took the law into their own hands and pushed the outlaws away. The Regulators then turned their wrath on local hunters who raised a force to fight back. Near civil war conditions prevailed until the government finally agreed to institute a circuit court judicial system. A similar movement broke out in North Carolina the following decade.
Secondary Source: Painting
Howard Pyles representation of Nathaniel Bacon and his followers burning Jamestown.
Land riots took place in many colonies, but in New York they were particularly violent. Tenants of the wealthy land aristocrats demanded relief from high rents. When the courts ruled in favor of the land barons in 1766, the angry farmers took up arms. The governor had to bring in the army to quell the disturbance.
In Pennsylvania, a group of Scots-Irish settlers called the Paxton Boys marched on Philadelphia in 1764 to protest the Quakers’ friendly Native American policy. The Paxtons lived in Pennsylvania’s hinterland and wanted both Native American land and protection from raids on their homes. It was, after all, the height of Pontiac’s Rebellion and the Proclamation of 1763 had been issued just a year before. A delegation, led by Benjamin Franklin met with the Paxton Boys to hear their grievances and order was restored, but just before the Paxtons attacked the city of Philadelphia itself.
American colonists had proven themselves experienced rebels. Whenever they felt their rights were jeopardized, they seemed willing to take up arms. Economic exploitation, lack of political representation and unfair taxation, were among the causes that led to these clashes.
It is a mistake to ignore the larger motivations that drove British policies in the 1760s and 1770s since it unfairly paints the men of Parliament as cruel, and uninterested in the needs of their American subjects. While this may be partly true, as there were certainly prejudices that colored their actions, most of the decisions from London are better understood when looking at the British Empire as a whole. After all, the British had an empire to run.
The prevailing economic philosophy of seventeenth and eighteenth century empires was mercantilism. In this system, colonies existed to enrich the mother country. Restrictions were placed on what the colonies could manufacture, whose ships they could use, and most importantly, with whom they could trade.
British merchants wanted American colonists to buy British goods, not French, Spanish, or Dutch products. In theory, Americans would pay duties on imported goods to discourage this practice. Smuggling is the way the colonists ignored these restrictions.
Distance and the size of the British Empire worked against British priorities. Before 1763, the British followed a policy known as salutary neglect. They passed laws regulating colonial trade, but they knew they could not easily enforce them. It cost four times as much to use the British navy to collect duties as the value of the duties themselves.
Colonists, particularly in New England, thought nothing of ignoring these laws. Ships from the colonies often loaded their holds with illegal goods from the French, Dutch, and Spanish West Indies. British customs officials earned a modest salary from the Crown but soon found their pockets stuffed with bribe money from colonial shippers. Usually, the bribes far exceeded whatever pay the officials received. In other words, it paid more to turn a blind eye, than to actually enforce the laws. When smugglers were caught, they were usually freed by sympathetic American juries. Smuggling became commonplace and the British estimated that over £700,000 per year were brought into the American colonies illegally.
As 1776 approached, the tradition of smuggling became vital to the Revolutionary cause. What had started as an economic strategy led to wholesale disregard for British law, particularly in the harbors of New England. American shippers became quite skilled at avoiding the British navy, a practice they used extensively in the Revolutionary War. The British government began to try offenders in admiralty courts, which had no juries, but attempts to crack down merely brought further rebellion.
THE STAMP ACT
After the Seven Years War, the British government was faced with a financial crisis. To finance the war, they had borrowed heavily, and the loans were coming due. The Americans, who had clearly benefitted from the outcome of the Treaty of Paris, should help pay. After all, the Crown had paid to protect them from the French.
The British point of view is not difficult to grasp. The Seven Years’ War had been terribly costly. The taxes asked of the American colonists were lower than those asked of mainland English citizens. The revenue raised from taxing the colonies was used to pay for their own defense. Moreover, the funds received from American colonists barely covered one-third of the cost of maintaining British troops in the 13 colonies.
So, after over a century and a half of permitting relative self-rule under the policy of salutary neglect, in addition to restricting westward movement, Britain began exercising direct influence over colonial life in the form of taxation.
The Americans, however, saw things through a different lens. What was the purpose of maintaining British garrisons in the colonies now that the French threat was gone? Americans were unhappy about contributing to the maintenance of troops they felt were there only to watch them.
True, those in England paid more in taxes, but Americans paid much more in sweat. All the land that was cleared, the Native Americans who were fought, and the relatives who died building colonies that enhanced the British Empire made further taxation seem insulting.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
After the Stamp Act was passed, colonial newspapers published this cartoon depicting the new law as death for the colonies.
In addition to emotional appeals, the colonists began to make a political argument, as well. Democratic traditions in England dated back hundreds of years in British history. As far back as 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta, English citizens had made it clear that taxes were an acceptable way for their government to raise money, but only with the consent of the people through the form of elected representatives. The colonists had no representation in the British Parliament, and as such they argued, their rights as Englishmen were being denied.
Furthermore, Americans themselves had a long tradition of representative government. The Mayflower Compact, signed before the Pilgrims even debarked in Plymouth granted voting rights to each male church member. The Virginia planters and the ruling class of the southern colonies had long exercised self-rule in the form of the annual meetings of a House of Burgesses.
When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, things changed. It was the first direct tax on the American colonies. Every legal document had to be written on specially stamped paper, showing proof of payment. Deeds, wills, marriage licenses — contracts of any sort — were not recognized as legal in a court of law unless they were prepared on this paper. In addition, newspaper, dice, and playing cards also had to bear proof of tax payment. American activists sprang into action.
Taxation in this manner and the Quartering Act, which required the American colonies to provide food and shelter for British troops, were soundly thrashed in colonial assemblies. From Patrick Henry in Virginia to James Otis in Massachusetts, Americans voiced their protest. For the first time since the Albany Congress met in 1754, representatives from nine of the colonial governments meet to address a common grievance. Although the Stamp Act Congress and the formal protest the colonies signed afterward did little to affect change in London, the simple act of meeting and attempting to act jointly was an important step toward unity.
What made a difference, and brought about an end to the Stamp Act, was direct action. Colonists initiated widespread boycotts of British goods. Radical groups harassed tax collectors and published the names of those who did not comply with the boycotts. The pressure on Parliament by business-starved British merchants was too great to bear and the Stamp Act was repealed the following year. The crisis was over, but the uneasy peace did not last long.
THE SONS AND DAUGHTERS OF LIBERTY
They were the ones who were not afraid. They knew instinctively that talk and politics alone would not bring an end to British tyranny. They were willing to resort to extralegal means if necessary to end this series of injustices. They were American patriots — northern and southern, young and old, male and female. They were the Sons and Daughters of Liberty.
Like other secret clubs at the time, the Sons of Liberty. They had secret code words, medals, and symbols. Originally formed in response to the Stamp Act, their activities were far more than ceremonial. It was the Sons of Liberty who ransacked houses of British officials. Threats and intimidation were their weapons against tax collectors, causing many to flee town. Images of unpopular figures might be hanged and burned in effigy on the town’s liberty tree. Offenders might be covered in warm tar and blanketed in a coat of feathers.
Another important function of the Sons of Liberty was correspondence. These clubs were formed up and down the colonial seaboard and often tried to coordinate their activities. This private band of societies provided an intercolonial network that would help forge unity. It should come as no surprise that the members of the Sons of Liberty and the delegates to the various Congresses were at times one and the same.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, a British cartoon from 1774. It depicts the tarring and feathering of Boston Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm. This was the second time that Malcolm had been tarred and feathered.
The Daughters of Liberty performed equally important functions. Once boycotts of British goods became widespread, there was a natural textile shortage. Mass spinning bees were organized in various colonial cities to make homespun substitutes. Since women often purchased consumer goods for the home, the Daughters of Liberty became instrumental in upholding the boycott, particularly after passage of the tax on tea. The most zealous Daughters of Liberty refused to accept gentleman callers for themselves or their daughters who were not sympathetic to the patriot cause.
Of course, the winners write the history books. Had the American Revolution failed, the Sons and Daughters of Liberty would no doubt be regarded as a band of thugs, or at the very least, outspoken troublemakers. History will be on their sides, however, since these individuals risked their lives and reputations to fight against tyranny.
COMMITTEES OF CORRESPONDENCE
American patriots of the 1770s did not have modern means of communication at their disposal. To spread the power of the written word from town to town and colony to colony, Committees of Correspondence were established.
The first such committee was organized by none other than Bostonian Samuel Adams. Adams enabled the entire Massachusetts citizenry to have access to patriot ideas. Adams knew that the residents of the seacoast towns were better informed than those of the interior because of frequent visits from travelling ships, so he and other patriots urged the establishment of correspondence committees in rural inland towns as well.
The Committees of Correspondence were bold enough to use the British postal service as the means of communication. For the most part, the pen was their weapon of choice, but revolutionary sentiment did at times take other forms. For example, the Committee of Correspondence in Boston gave its blessing on the raiding of the Dartmouth and the destruction of its cargo that is now known as the Boston Tea Party.
Any successful national organization must begin locally. Coordinated actions do not materialize out of thin air and without the work of thousands of local patriots, north and south, urban and rural, there can be no unified result. The Committees of Correspondence became the building blocks on which national unity was built.
As the revolution drew nearer, the committees became the spine of colonial interaction. The Virginia House of Burgesses followed Adams’ lead and established a Committee of Correspondence as a standing committee in 1773. Before the tea crisis had passed, each colony had a central committee designed to coordinate discussion with the other twelve colonies. In effect, these Committees of Correspondence were the seedlings of a new American government and the forebears to the First and Second Continental Congresses.
THE BOSTON PATRIOTS
The American Revolution was not simply a series of impersonal events. Men and women made fateful, often difficult decisions that led to independence. Although patriots could be found in all of the 13 colonies, nowhere were they more numerous than in the city of Boston.
Perhaps the prevalence of shipping in Boston made New Englanders especially resent the restrictions on trade. Maybe its legacy of religious quarrels with the Church of England made Bostonians more rebellious, or its long history of town meetings and self-rule may have led New Englanders to be more wary of royal authority.
Perhaps a combination of these and other factors led the city of Boston to be the leading voice against British authority. It was no coincidence that both the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party happened in the same city. Furthermore, fierce patriots such as Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were all Bostonians.
Samuel Adams was perhaps the fieriest supporter of American liberty in the 13 colonies. His mind drew a sharp distinction between the evils of the British Empire and simple American life. Rather unsuccessful in a series of pursuits prior to the Revolution, Adams found his calling in organizing and rabble-rousing. He served as an active member of the Sons of Liberty and the creator of the first significant committee of correspondence. His skills as a political organizer drove the colonies toward declaring independence. As the Revolution approached, the cries for Adams’ head grew louder and louder in the streets of London.
Primary Source: Painting
Samuel Adams, painted in 1772 by J. S. Copley
John Adams, Samuel’s second cousin, was no less a patriot. His early fame as a defense attorney for the British soldiers in the trial that followed the Boston Massacre cannot be taken in isolation. He provided the wording of the resistance message sent to George III that was adopted by the First Continental Congress. John and Samuel Adams represented the radical wing of the Second Continental Congress that demanded a taking up of arms against Britain. John Adams was also a member of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence.
John Hancock, the man with the famous signature was also a Bostonian. Hancock earned the early ire of British officials as a major smuggler. Hancock and Samuel Adams were the two agitators whose arrest was ordered by General Gage after the battles at Lexington and Concord. As a man of great wealth, he had much to lose by resisting Britain. Nevertheless, he did not bend.
Paul Revere did not come from the same social class as the Adams or Hancock Families. As a silversmith, he was a man of humbler means, but his attitudes toward Britain were anything but humble. His famous midnight ride that warned of the advancing British troops was only one of his revolutionary actions. He was also an illustrator, whose image of the Boston Massacre became iconic. His engravings were used by patriots throughout the colonies as anti-British propaganda.
These were but a handful of Bostonians who became the thorn in the British side. Their brave actions encouraged American patriotism throughout the 13 colonies. As the American Revolution was dawning, the Boston patriots led the way.
THE TOWNSHEND ACTS
Nervous tension best describes the relationship between the American colonies and England in the aftermath of the Stamp Act. Several issues remained unresolved. First, Parliament had absolutely no desire to see colonial leaders feeling empowered. To make clear the point that it was Parliament in London, not the colonists who wielded power, after repealing the Stamp Act, they issued the Declaratory Act.
This act proclaimed Parliament’s ability “to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever.” The message was clear: under no circumstances did Parliament abandon in principle its right to legislate for the 13 colonies.
On the American side of the Atlantic, leaders were optimistic about the repeal of the Stamp Act but found the suggestions of the Declaratory Act threatening. Most American statesmen had drawn a clear line between legislation and taxation. In 1766, the notion of Parliamentary supremacy over the law was questioned only by a radical few, but the ability to tax without representation was another matter. The Declaratory Act made no such distinction. “All cases whatsoever” could surely mean the power to tax. Many assemblymen waited anxiously for the issue to resurface.
Sure enough, the truce did not last long. Back in London, Charles Townshend persuaded the House of Commons to once again tax the Americans, this time through an import tax on such items as glass, paper, lead, and tea.
Townshend had ulterior motives, however. The revenue from these duties would now be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors. This was not an insignificant change. Traditionally, the legislatures of the colonies held the authority to pay the governors. It was not uncommon for a governor’s salary to be withheld if the legislature became dissatisfied with any particular decision. The legislature could, in effect, blackmail the royal governor into submission. Once Townshend removed this important leverage, the governors would be freer to oppose the assemblies.
Townshend went further by appointing an American Board of Customs Commissioners. This body would be stationed in the colonies to enforce compliance with tax policy. Customs officials received bonuses for every convicted smuggler, so there were obvious incentives to capture Americans. Given that violators were tried in juryless admiralty courts, there was a high chance of conviction.
Townshend also pressed the Americans by suspending the New York legislature for failing to provide adequate supplies for the British troops stationed there. Another showdown appeared imminent.
Reactions in the colonies were similar to those during the Stamp Act Crisis. Once again nonimportation was implemented. Extralegal activities such as harassing tax collectors and merchants who violated the boycotts were common. The colonial assemblies sprung into action.
In a Circular Letter to the other colonies, the Massachusetts legislature recommended collective action against the British Parliament. Penned by Samuel Adams in 1768, it voiced opposition to taxation without representation. In response, Lord Hillsborough, Parliament’s minister on American affairs, warned colonial legislatures to treat the Circular Letter with contempt and threatened dissolution to any legislative body that adhered to Massachusetts’ plea.
His words fell on deaf ears as legislative assemblies throughout the colonies, including New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, rose to the occasion and accepted the petition set forth by Samuel Adams and Massachusetts. By a vote of 92 to 17, the Massachusetts lawmakers refused to back down and the legislature was duly dissolved.
THE BOSTON MASSACRE
The showdown between the British and the Americans was not simply a war of words. Blood was shed over this clash of ideals. Although large-scale fighting between Americans and British soldiers did not begin until 1775, the 1770 Boston Massacre gave each side a taste of what was to come.
No colony was thrilled with the Townshend duties, but nowhere was there greater resentment than in Boston. British officials there feared for their lives. When attempts were made to seize two of John Hancock’s trading vessels, Boston was ready to riot. Lord Hillsborough finally ordered four regiments of regular troops to be moved to Boston in order to demonstrate Parliament’s authority.
When the redcoats marched boldly through the town streets on October 1, the only resistance seen was on the facial expressions of the townspeople. The people of Boston had decided to show restraint. The other 12 colonies watched the Boston proceedings with great interest. Perhaps their fears about British tyranny were true. Moderates found it difficult to argue that the Crown was not interested in stripping away American civil liberties by having a standing army stationed in Boston. Throughout the occupation, sentiment shifted further and further away from the London government.
Throughout the winter, resentment mounted and on March 5, 1770, the violence erupted. A mob of approximately 60 angry townspeople descended upon the redcoats guarding the customs house. When reinforcements were called, the crowd became more unruly, hurling rocks and snowballs.
In the heat of the confusing melee, the British fired without Captain Thomas Preston’s command. Imperial bullets took the lives of five men, including Crispus Attucks, a former slave. Others were injured.
Primary Source: Engraving
Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre was probably not accurate, but was widely circulated and inflamed colonial sentiment.
In the trial that followed, Captain Preston and four of his men were cleared of all charges. Two others were convicted of manslaughter, but were sentenced to a mere branding of the thumb. The lawyer who represented the British soldiers was none other than patriot John Adams.
At the same time Preston’s men drew blood in Boston, the Parliament in London decided once again to concede on the issue of taxation. All the Townshend duties were repealed save one, the tax on tea. The Massachusetts legislature was reconvened. Despite calls by some to continue the tea boycott until all taxes were repealed, most American colonists ended their boycott.
Nonimportation may have ended, but the events in Boston between 1768 and 1770 were not forgotten. Legal squabbles were one thing, but bloodshed was another. Americans learned an important lesson from their experience: the British would use force when necessary to keep the Americans obedient. If it could happen in Boston, where would it happen next?
The partial repeal of the Townshend Acts did not bring the same reaction in the American colonies as the repeal of the Stamp Act. Too much had already happened. Not only had the Crown attempted to tax the colonies on several occasions, but two taxes were still being collected, one on sugar and one on tea.
Military occupation and bloodshed, whether intentional or not, is not easily forgotten. Although importation had largely been resumed, problems of customs officers continued. One ill-fated customs ship, the Gaspee, was burnt to ashes by angry Rhode Islanders when the unfortunate vessel ran aground.
Tensions were mounting on both sides. It would take time for wounds to heal, but by this time, events were happening too fast for a chance to cool off.
The circumstances that led to the protest we call the Boston Tea Party originated far from America. The British East India Company was on the brink of financial collapse. Lord North hatched a scheme to deal simultaneously with the important, but ailing corporation and the problem of taxing the colonies.
He decided to grant the British East India Company a trading monopoly with the American colonies. A tax on tea would be maintained, but the company would actually be able to sell its tea for a lower price. A monopoly doesn’t allow for competition. As such the British East India Company could lower its prices.
The colonists, Lord North hoped, would be happy to receive cheaper tea and willing to pay the tax. This would have the dual result of saving the tea company and securing compliance from Americans on the tax issue. It was a brilliant plan. There was, of course, one major flaw in his thinking. The colonists saw through this thinly veiled plan to encourage tax payment. Furthermore, they wondered how long the monopoly would keep prices low.
Activists were busy again, advocating boycott. Many went further. British ships carrying the controversial cargo were met with threats of violence in virtually all colonial ports. This was usually sufficient to convince the ships to turn around. In Annapolis, citizens burned a ship and the tea it carried. Boston, of course, reacted in a similarly extreme fashion.
In Massachusetts, Governor Thomas Hutchinson allowed three ships carrying tea to enter Boston Harbor. Before the tax could be collected, Bostonians took action. On a cold December night, radical townspeople stormed the ships and tossed 342 chests of tea into the water. Disguised as Native Americans, the offenders could not be identified, but no one doubted that Sam Adams and John Hancock were behind the protest.
The damage in modern American dollars exceeded three quarters of a million dollars. Not a single British East India Company chest of tea bound for the 13 colonies reached its destination. Not a single American colonist had a cup of that tea. Only the fish in Boston Harbor had that pleasure.
THE INTOLERABLE ACTS
Someone was going to pay. Parliament was utterly fed up with colonial antics. The British could tolerate strongly worded letters or trade boycotts. They could put up with defiant legislatures and harassed customs officials to an extent. But they saw the destruction of 342 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company as wanton destruction of property by Boston thugs who did not have the courage to admit responsibility.
The British called their responsive measures to the Boston Tea Party the Coercive Acts. Boston Harbor was closed to trade until the owners of the tea were compensated. Only food and firewood were permitted into the port. Town meetings were banned, and the authority of the royal governor was increased.
To add insult to injury, General Gage, the British commander of North American forces, was appointed governor of Massachusetts. British troops and officials would now be tried outside Massachusetts for crimes of murder. Greater freedom was granted to British officers who wished to house their soldiers in private dwellings.
Parliament seemed to have a penchant for bad timing in these years. Right after passing the Coercive Acts, it passed the Quebec Act, a law that recognized the Roman Catholic Church as the established church in Quebec. An appointed council, rather than an elected body, would make the major decisions for the colony. The boundary of Quebec was extended into the Ohio Valley, land that the American colonists thought should belong to them.
In the wake of the passage of the Quebec Act, rage spread through the 13 colonies. With this one act, the British Crown granted land to the French-speaking Québécois. The extension of tolerance to Catholics was viewed as a hostile act by predominantly Protestant America.
Democracy took another blow with the establishment of direct rule in Quebec. Although the British made no connection between the Coercive Acts and the Quebec Act, they were seen on the American mainland as malicious and collectively called the Intolerable Acts.
Throughout the colonies, the message was clear: what could happen in Massachusetts could happen anywhere. The British had gone too far. Supplies were sent to beleaguered Massachusetts from the other twelve colonies. For the first time since the Stamp Act crisis, an intercolonial conference was called.
It was under these tense circumstances that the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774.
LEXINGTON AND CONCORD
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 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 marked the point in which the elected representatives of the people of Massachusetts began legally disregarding the government in London and actively planning for 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 militias made up of local farmers and townsmen. Many of these minutemen, so called since they were said to be ready to fight on a minute’s notice, were veterans of the Seven Years War. 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. Throughout late 1774 and into 1775, tensions in New England continued to mount as the region readied for war.
Open war between the British government and their American colonists commenced on April 19, 1775. 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.
Secondary Source: Painting
Grant Wood’s depiction of Paul Revere’s ride. Painted in 1931, Wood captures the drama of the event as seen from the perspective of many years later.
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 the munitions at Concord. Hoping for secrecy, his troops left Boston under cover of darkness, but riders from Boston sped out ahead of the army to let the militias know of the approaching redcoats.
Paul Revere was one of these riders, but a British patrol 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. Despite his capture, his fellow riders successfully spread the alarm.
When the British troops entered Lexington on the morning of April 19, they found about 80 minutemen formed up on the village common. Many years later, one of the minutemen recalled that their captain at the Green that morning, John Parker ordered his men: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Shots were exchanged, eight minutemen were killed, the outnumbered colonial militia dispersed, and the British marched on to Concord.
At Concord, the troops searched for military supplies but found 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 this time the outcome was different. The outnumbered British retreated and turned back toward Boston. Several thousand militiamen had gathered along the road and a running fight ensued. The British detachment suffered heavily before reaching Charlestown.
Secondary Source: Reconstruction
The rebuilt Old North Bridge which the British troops needed to cross to enter Concord. There they were turned back by the minutemen.
Over 4,000 militiamen took part in the 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 Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 poem “Concord Hymn,” 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.
The following morning, Gage awoke to find Boston besieged by a huge colonial militia army numbering 20,000, which had gathered from all around New England. The Revolutionary War had begun, and the militia army grew as surrounding colonies sent men and supplies. The Continental Congress adopted and sponsored these men forming the beginnings of the Continental Army.
Certainly, the American colonists had plenty to be upset about when it came to their relationship with their mother country. Aside from a dislike of taxes, which is common in all nations, Enlightenment ideas about the relationship between the government and the governed drove a wedge between the colonists and the Crown. A lack of representation in Parliament, as well as British distaste for the colonial penchant for self-rule made both sides feel as if the other lacked appropriate respect.
In addition, basic economics caused problems. American smuggling, long a tradition, and British desire to enforce what they felt were reasonable laws clashed in both hearts and minds as well as on wharfs and streets.
The challenges that no one, on either side of the Atlantic, found mutually acceptable solutions for during the 1760s and 1770s led in the end to open war between British regulars and colonial militias.
What was it that made the Americans American? Was it a shift in ideas? Perceived disrespect? The presence of an occupying army? Taxes? Destruction of property? Punishing laws? Actual shooting in Lexington and Concord?
What do you think? How did the colonists become American?
BIG IDEA: The English settlers in America chose to declare and fight for independence after a long series of conflicts with their government. Most of these centered around economic issues and their right to participate in government. Americans were influenced by Enlightenment ideas.
In the years before American independence, an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment swept Europe and America. Philosophers proposed new ideas about government, including questioning the right of kings to rule and suggesting that all humans were born with basic rights. Many of these ideas were later used to justify the Declaration of Independence and formed the basis for the American system of government.
The Trial of Peter Zenger set an important precedent in America regarding the freedom of the press.
Americans had a long tradition of rebelling against governments they felt were unjust. Rebellions had taken place in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina during the colonial period. Americans also had a long history of ignoring laws they did not like. Smuggling to avoid paying tariffs or to avoid mercantilist laws was commonplace. For many years, British officials had not enforced trade laws in America since enforcement cost more than the potential tariff revenue the government might receive.
After the Seven Years War, the British government needed money and decided to start taxing the American colonists. This was not well received in America. A series of laws passed by the British Parliament were protested in the colonies. Most importantly, Americans believed that it was not fair to tax them without allowing them representation in Parliament.
American patriots organized groups such as the Sons and Daughters of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence to organize protests, boycotts and to share revolutionary ideas. They served as an important first step toward national government by setting and enforcing policy.
The Revolution started in Boston, Massachusetts. This is where the most dramatic protests happened, such as the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. The British closed the port of Boston and Boston area patriots formed militias to prepare for war. The fighting itself started when British troops tried to capture a stockpile of weapons in the town of Concord a few miles from Boston.
The first battles of the American Revolution in April 1775 are called the Shot Heard ‘Round the World because they inspired other revolutionary movements, such as those in Haiti and France.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
John Locke: Enlightenment philosopher. His belief that humans are born with certain rights (he wrote “Life, Liberty and Property”) inspired Thomas Jefferson and other American revolutionaries.
Cotton Mather: Massachusetts minister who advocated for scientific advancement, including immunization.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: French Enlightenment philosopher who argued that the common people should rule though elections.
Montesquieu: French Enlightenment philosopher who believed power should be separated between different branches of government instead of concentrated (as was the case of the kings of Europe.
John Peter Zenger: New York printer who was put on trial for libel. He successfully argued that telling the truth was not libel. His case was an important step toward freedom of the press in America.
Nathaniel Bacon: Leader of Bacon’s Rebellion.
Governor Berkeley: Royal governor who was eventually suppressed Bacon’s Rebellion.
Regulators: Poor farmers in rural North Carolina who fought against the colonial government. Like Bacon’s Rebellion, they focused on perceived and real injustices at the hands of the wealthy.
Paxton Boys: A group of Scots-Irish settlers in Pennsylvania who threatened to attack Philadelphia. Like the followers of Bacon or the Regulators, they were unhappy that the elites of the colony were not providing protection from Native American attack.
Sons of Liberty: A group of American patriots (all men) who promoted independence.
Daughters of Liberty: Groups of colonial women who promoted independence, especially by participating in boycotts of British goods.
Committees of Correspondence: Groups of Patriots throughout the colonies who passed pro-independence messages.
Samuel Adams: Patriot from Boston who organized the Boston Tea Party. He was known for his skillful political organizing and ability to provoke a response through direct action.
John Adams: Patriot from Boston. He was the primary promoter of independence at the Continental Congress and became the second president.
John Hancock: Boston Patriot. He was the chairman of the Continental Congress and his signature is the first, and largest at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.
Paul Revere: Boston Patriot and silversmith. His engraving of the Boston Massacre helped promote the cause for independence. He also helped warn minutemen in surrounding towns of the approaching British troops on the morning of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
Crispus Attucks: Former slave who was killed at the Boston Massacre
Minutemen: American militiamen, mostly farmers and craftsmen, who would be ready to fight in a minute. They were the Americans who fought at the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill.
Libel: Knowingly telling a lie about someone to harm them.
Mercantilism: An economic system in which colonies were only allowed to trade with the mother country.
Duties: Taxes paid on imported products.
Salutary Neglect: A British policy of not enforcing laws in the American colonies before 1763.
Tar and Feathering: A form of torture in which a person covered in hot tar and feathers. It was painful and potentially deadly. It was used by some Patriots on British customs officers.
No Taxation Without Representation: Idea that the government should not levy taxes unless the people who must pay those taxes have the opportunity to elect members of that government.
Circular Letter: Open letter to the King and Parliament started by the Massachusetts legislature and approved by other colonial legislatures. In it the colonial leaders voiced opposition to taxation without representation.
Paul Revere’s Ride: Poem written in 1860 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorializing Paul Revere’s ride to warn colonists of the British attack on Concord.
North Bridge: The bridge into Concord where American minutemen stopped the advance of the British troops. It marked the turning point in the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.
Age of Reason: Nickname for the Enlightenment, characterized by an increased interest in science, new ideas about government and power, and a focus on order inspired by Classical Greece and Rome.
Enlightenment: Time period in Europe and America in the 1700s characterized by an increased interest in science, new ideas about government and power, and a focus on order inspired by Classical Greece and Rome
Bacon’s Rebellion: Revolt in 1676 of poor Virginians against the colonial leadership led by Nathaniel Bacon. They felt that the royal governor was not providing protection from Native American attack and generally mistrusted the elites of the colony.
Stamp Act Congress: Meeting of colonial leaders in 1754 to seek solutions to the problems caused by the Stamp Act.
Boston Massacre: Riot in 1770 between Boston citizens and British troops. It was exploited by Patriots to enflame anti-British sentiment.
Boston Tea Party: Protest by Boston Patriots led by Samuel Adams in which a cargo of tea was destroyed. It resulted in the closing of Boston Harbor.
Battle of Lexington: First battle of the Revolutionary War fought on April 19, 1775. British troops killed eight American minutemen.
Battle of Concord: Second battle of the Revolutionary War fought on April 19, 1775. The British army was stopped and chased back to Boston.
Shot Heard ‘Round the World: Nickname for the opening battles of the American Revolution, so called because they inspired other Revolutionaries around the world.
LAWS & RESOLUTIONS
Magna Carta: Agreement signed in 1215 between the King of England and the nobles limiting the power of the monarchy.
Stamp Act: 1765 law that established a tax on printed material.
Quartering Act: 1765 law that required colonist to allow British troops to live and eat in their private homes.
Declaratory Act: British law passed in 1776 after the repeal of the Stamp Act. It asserted Parliament’s right to make laws for the Colonies.
Coercive Acts: Laws passed in 1774 closing Boston Harbor as punishment for the Boston Tea Party.
Quebec Act: Law passed by Parliament in 1774 that recognized the Catholic Church in Quebec and extended the boundary of Quebec into the Ohio Territory. The English colonists felt that the land should belong to them and were mostly Protestant so they were angered by the official recognition of the Catholic Church.
Intolerable Act: American nickname for the Coercive and Quebec Acts.
Suffolk Resolves: Statements passed by the Massachusetts legislature in 1774 in opposition to the Intolerable Acts. They called for the raising of colonial militias and marked the beginning of official American government outside of the government recognized by the British.