Revolutionary War History

When the French and Indian War finally ended in 1763, no British subject on either side of the Atlantic could have foreseen the coming conflicts between the parent country and its North American colonies. Even so, the seeds of these conflicts were planted during, and as a result of, this war. Keep in mind that the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years' War) was a global conflict. Even though Great Britain defeated France and its allies, the victory came at great cost. In January 1763, Great Britain's national debt was more than 122 million pounds [the British monetary unit], an enormous sum for the time. Interest on the debt was more than 4.4 million pounds a year. Figuring out how to pay the interest alone absorbed the attention of the King and his ministers.

Nor was the problem of the imperial debt the only one facing British leaders in the wake of the Seven Years' War. Maintaining order in America was a significant challenge. Even with Britain's acquisition of Canada from France, the prospects of peaceful relations with the Indian tribes were not good. As a result, the British decided to keep a standing army in America. This decision would lead to a variety of problems with the colonists. In addition, an Indian uprising on the Ohio frontier--Pontiac's Rebellion--led to the Proclamation of 1763, which forbade colonial settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. This, too, would lead to conflicts with land-hungry settlers and land speculators like George Washington.

British leaders also felt the need to tighten control over their empire. To be sure, laws regulating imperial trade and navigation had been on the books for generations, but American colonists were notorious for evading these regulations. They were even known to have traded with the French during the recently ended war. From the British point of view, it was only right that American colonists should pay their fair share of the costs for their own defense. If additional revenue could also be realized through stricter control of navigation and trade, so much the better. Thus the British began their attempts to reform the imperial system.

In 1764, Parliament enacted the Sugar Act, an attempt to raise revenue in the colonies through a tax on molasses. Although this tax had been on the books since the 1730s, smuggling and laxity of enforcement had blunted its sting. Now, however, the tax was to be enforced. An outcry arose from those affected, and colonists implemented several effective protest measures that centered around boycotting British goods. Then in 1765, Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, which placed taxes on paper, playing cards, and every legal document created in the colonies. Since this tax affected virtually everyone and extended British taxes to domestically produced and consumed goods, the reaction in the colonies was pervasive. The Stamp Act crisis was the first of many that would occur over the next decade and a half.

Even after the repeal of the Stamp Act, many colonists still had grievances with British colonial policies. For example, the Mutiny (or Quartering) Act of 1765 required colonial assemblies to house and supply British soldiers. Many colonists objected to the presence of a "standing army" in the colonies. Many also objected to being required to provide housing and supplies, which looked like another attempt to tax them without their consent, even though disguised. Several colonial assemblies refused to vote the mandated supplies. The British then disbanded the New York assembly in 1767 to make an example of it. Many non-New Yorkers resented this action, seeing rightly that their own assembly could also be shut down.

The Stamp Act had led Americans to ask fundamental questions about the relationship between their local, colonial, legislatures, which were elected bodies, and the British Parliament, in which Americans had no elected representation. Many colonists began to assert that only an elected legislative body held legitimate powers of taxation. The British countered that, even in England, many people could not vote for delegates to Parliament but all English subjects enjoyed "virtual representation" in a Parliament that considered the interests of everyone when formulating policy. Americans found "virtual representation" distasteful, in part because they had elected their domestic legislators for more than a century.

In 1767, Parliament also enacted the Townshend Duties, taxes on paper, paints, glass, and tea, goods imported into the colonies from Britain. Since these taxes were levied on imports, the British thought of them as "external" taxes rather than internal taxes such as the Stamp tax. The colonists failed to understand the difference between external and internal taxes. In principle, most Americans admitted a British right to impose duties intended to regulate colonial trade; after 1765, however,they denied Parliament's power to tax for the purpose of raising funds or raising a revenue. Again, they saw the purpose of the Townshend Duties as raising revenue in America without the taxpayers' consent.

The British also established a board of customs commissioners, whose purpose was to stop colonial smuggling and the rampant corruption of local officials who were often complicit in such illegal trade. The board was quite effective, particularly in Boston, its seat. Little wonder then that Boston merchants were angry about the new controls and helped organize a boycott of goods subject to the Townshend Duties. In 1768, Philadelphia and New York joined the boycott. As the boycott spread, harrassment of customs commissioners grew apace, especially in Boston.

As a result, the British posted four regiments of troops in Boston. The presence of British regular troops was a constant reminder of the colonists' subservience to the crown. Since they were poorly paid, the troops took jobs in their off-duty hours, thus competing with the city's working class for jobs. The two groups often clashed in the streets. In March 1770, just when Parliament decided to repeal the Townshend Duties (on everything except tea) but before word of the repeal reached the colonies, the troops and Boston workers again clashed. This time, however, five Bostonians were killed and another dozen or so were wounded. Almost certainly the "Boston Massacre," as colonists called the episode, was the result of confusion and panic by all involved. Even so, local leaders quickly publicized the incident as a symbol of British oppression and brutality.

Overall, American revolutionaries viewed English actions from 1767-1772 with suspicion. They read in British policy a systematic conspiracy against their liberties. As the colonists saw it, tax revenues fed corrupt British officials who used monies they coerced from the colonies to line their pockets, hire additional tax collectors, and pay mercenaries to come to America and complete the process of "enslaving" colonists.

After the Boston Massacre and the repeal of most of the Townshend Duties (the duty on tea remained in force), a period of relative quiet descended on the British North American colonies. Even so, the crises of the past decade had created incompatible mindsets on opposite sides of the Atlantic. King George III and Parliament still faced money problems and were determined to assert their powers to tax the colonies and regulate trade for the benefit of the entire British empire. On the other hand, the colonists' ideas about taxation without representation, about actual versus virtual representation, about tyranny and corruption in the British government, and indeed about the nature of government, sovereignty, and constitutions had crystalized during this period. In addition, the colonists now had potentially powerful tools--local newspapers and committees of correspondence (established in 1772)--for airing colonial grievances. Because they were writing about colonial grievances with the British government (or reacting to others' grievances), many writers used pseudonyms in an attempt to mask their real identities.

Underneath the apparent calm of the early 1770s, many Americans continued to resent Britain's heavy-handed enforcement of the Navigation Acts and the continued presence of a standing army. Colonists continued to talk among themselves, through newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, in colonial assemblies, and in such public places as coffee houses and taverns. In 1773, a new act of Parliament, the Tea Act, ended any semblance of calm.

Parliament enacted the Tea Act to shore up the financially troubled East India Company. The Act actually placed no new tax on tea (this was still on the books from the Townshend Duties). Instead, it gave the East India Company a virtual monopoly on selling tea in the colonies. The British assumed that colonists would welcome the lower price of tea achieved by eliminating the merchant middleman. The Tea Act, however, angered influential merchants who feared the monopoly would affect them directly. For many more colonists, the Tea Act revived passions about taxation without representation. Soon the colonists again responded with a boycott of tea. Earlier protests had involved relatively few colonists, but the tea boycott mobilized a large segment of colonial society.

In late 1773, leaders in many colonies planned to prevent the East India Company from landing tea shipments. In Boston, however, the tea ships arrived in port but would not leave. On December 16, groups of 50 men each boarded three ships, broke open the tea chests, and threw them into the harbor. As news of the "tea party" spread, similar acts of resistance occurred in other ports.

Parliament soon responded to this outrage with four acts designed to punish Boston and to isolate it from the other colonies. It closed Boston port, reduced Massachusetts' powers of self-government, provided for quartering troops in the colonies, and permitted royal officers accused of crimes to be tried in England. The British called these acts the coercive acts; the colonists called them the Intolerable Acts. Far from isolating Boston, the new laws cast the city in the role of martyr and sparked new resistance throughout the colonies.


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