The American Revolution: Background Events, 1761-1774

flagThe American Revolution is one of those events that virtually all Americans celebrate with enthusiasm. As much as anything, Americans value freedom, the liberty to live their lives as they see fit with as little interference as possible from higher authority. That was the impetus that drove many emigrants from England and other countries to America during the colonial era.  It was that same impulse that triggered feelings of rebellion once the British ceased treating the colonies with more or less benign neglect.  And that same impulse for freedom still drives the thinking of many Americans in the 21st century.  As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, the American people insist on “the right to be left alone.”

We Americans tend to take our Revolution for granted.  We assume that it was inevitable, in more ways than one:  We assume that it had to happen, and that the outcome was more or less foreordained.  Both those assumptions have been challenged and are still worthy of discussion.  We also assume that the event was truly revolutionary, a radical break with the old order and old ideas.  That assumption also bears close scrutiny, for the American Revolution was in some ways conservative in that it did preserve much that was old, much that the colonists feared losing.

Yet historians such as Gordon Wood have argued that the American Revolution was as radical as any in history, an event that has had repercussions well into modern times and into corners of the world that few would connect with the events of 1776.  Our great revolution is in some ways still going on, in some ways still unfinished, but in many ways it continues to be an event that has the power to capture our collective imagination.

The issues surrounding the American Revolution include:

  • How, when, and why did the Revolution really begin?
  • Was the American Revolutionary War inevitable?
  • Were the colonists justified in taking up arms against the Crown?
  • How “glorious” was the cause, the war for independence itself?
  • How revolutionary was the American Revolution? What things changed and what remained the same?

We have said that the American Revolution is generally dated from 1763, but it can be argued that the Revolution actually began long before that.  We said in the section on colonial America that those who left their homelands to migrate to the new world separated themselves in fundamental ways from those who would not or could not make that journey.  If we assume that the people who chose to come were different, then we can say that the roots of the American Revolution actually go back to the old countries, and that the people who left were in a sense already in a state of rebellion.

Second, it has been argued in other contexts that the frontier experience of America had a leveling effect on people; that is, in a wilderness environment that always existed, at least on the fringes of colonial America, the skills needed for survival were unrelated to a person’s social or cultural background.  America needed and bred working people who were strong enough to withstand the rigors of colonial life, and they were not the sort of people who were likely to take kindly to a superior authority attempting to control their lives.

For the first hundred years of the colonization of North America by the English, from 1607 until early in the 18th century, the colonies were for the most part ignored by the Crown, and very little if any British presence was felt on this side of the Atlantic.  But starting about 1700, world events more and more connected to colonies with the mother country.

Setting the Stage: The Second Hundred Years’ War

Starting in 1689 a series of wars sometimes known as the Second Hundred Years’ War began on the continent of Europe, and through 1763 each of those wars had a component that was fought out in North America, with much of the fighting being done by British troops.  The causes of the wars in Europe had to do with the dynastic ambitions of France’s Louis XIV and others, and they were extended into the colonial world because colonies were part of the empires struggling for power.

The colonists had their own names for the American component of those European wars, usually the name of the British monarch of the time:

Years

European Name

Colonial Name

1689–1697

War of the League of Augsburg

KING WILLIAM’S WAR

1702–1713

War of Spanish Succession

QUEEN ANNE’S WAR

1715

n/a

YEMASSEE WAR

1739

War Of Jenkins’ Ear

n/a

1740–1748

War of Austrian Succession

KING GEORGE’S WAR

1756–1763

Seven Years’ War

FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR

Those colonial wars were part of a European struggle for empire.  Beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of much of Central and South America, the other European nations came to believe that in order to compete with Spain and Portugal for power and prestige, they would have to develop colonies as well.  At the same time, the face of Europe was subject to change as the major powers, including Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Russia, Spain, and Sweden competed for domination of the smaller states and sought to extend their boundaries wherever practicable.  Those wars were fought over dynastic, economic, and religious impulses, and as the battlegrounds shifted, so did the alliance structure of the major powers.

We will not attempt to portray here the details of the European portion of those conflicts except where they directly affected colonial America.  Nor can we say that the only armed conflicts that occurred during this era where those listed above; localized quarrels could break out at almost any time.  Yet to some extent the face of Europe remained stabilized, even through this extended period of conflict, by a phenomenon referred to as the “balance of power.”  That term can be misleading in that it suggests a rigid structure somehow held in place by political forces.  But the theory of the balance of power can more accurately be described as a condition in which the European powers understood that if any one of them, or if a coalition of two or three major powers, became so strong as to threaten the interests of the other powers, those would organize to offset the potential aggressors.

Thus the War of the League of Augsburg was fought by a coalition designed to offset the wealth, power, and expansive actions of King Louis XIV of France.  When the Spanish monarch King Charles II expired in 1700 and left his throne to Philip of Anjou, grandson of Louis XIV, the natural alliance thus created triggered another war called the War of Spanish Succession, designed to thwart the combined power of two very strong Catholic monarchs.  Similarly, when Frederick II, the “Great,” took advantage of the accession to the throne of Maria Teresa of Austria to invade the province of Silesia, the opponents of Prussia rallied round to defend themselves against Frederick’s military adventurism.

Because colonies were seen as sources of strength, the European conflicts were naturally extended into the colonial world, because the assumption was that gains on the colonial front could weaken the enemy and thus lead to a more favorable conclusion in the larger conflict.  From the perspective of the colonials, however, they were concerned chiefly with the safety and security of their colonial homes; thus they were willing to contribute to the imperial wars for their own sake, as well as for the fact that it was considered to be their duty as subjects of the Crown.

In the American colonies the wars were fought mostly on the northern and southern fringes, where the French in Canada and the Spanish in Florida employed Indian allies against the British colonists.  The precarious nature of life on the frontier meant that outlying towns and villages had to be prepared to defend themselves against a sudden attack.  During Queen Anne’s War an event known as the Deerfield Massacre occurred, when joint French and Indian forces struck the Massachusetts settlement at dawn in February of 1704.  Fifty-six colonists were killed, and the village was razed.  Approximately one hundred survivors were taken as prisoners back to Canada.  When the war was ended by treaty in 1713, the colonists remained frustrated, because the British had failed to defend them adequately against the French and Spanish and their Indian allies.

The Yemassee War of 1715 involved settlers in South Carolina fighting against a coalition of Yemassee, Creek, and other Indian tribes supported by the Spanish and French.  The conflict was part of the reason for the creation of the Georgia colony as a buffer against further Spanish encroachment.  Animosity toward the Spanish and French continued in the southern border colonies.

In the northern colonies, it was the French and their Indian allies who kept the British American colonists on their guard.  Their animosity was heightened by the fact that French Canada was Catholic.  In particular merchants of New England felt threatened by a base for privateers located at Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, the former French territory of Acadia awarded to the British at the end of Queen Anne’s War.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear, named for an incident at sea when a Spanish officer cut off the ear of British Captain William Jenkins, which was later displayed in Parliament to the outrage of members, evolved into the War of Austrian Succession, which again involves all the major powers during the 1740s.  The American colonists were once again involved in their own component of yet another imperial war.
In 1745 a Maine merchant, William Pepperrell, organized an expedition of several thousand men from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to assault the fortress at Louisbourg, which they successfully captured.  French attempts to recapture the fortress were thwarted, but with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, Louisburg was returned to the French, which nullified the most significant victory ever won by the American colonists.  In order to assuage colonial anger, parliament reimbursed the colonial governments for expenditures during the war.  It was neither the first nor the last that the colonists would feel betrayed by the mother country.

The French and Indian War/Seven Years' War

The last of the great wars for empire actually began in America.  By 1754 the French had made great inroads in North America, extending their control from Canada through the Ohio Valley and down the Mississippi to New Orleans.  The British found themselves constrained to the territory between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian Mountains. British colonial governors were ever on guard against further encroachments by the hated French “papists” (Catholics), and in 1754 Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia sent young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington on a mission to warn the French.  When Washington reported that the French had no intentions of removing themselves, Dinwiddie ordered construction of a fort on the site of present-day Pittsburgh, but the French captured the site and built Fort Duquesne.  Washington’s attempt to retake Fort Duquesne with Virginia militia was unsuccessful.

In 1755 British General Edward Braddock once again led an expedition of British forces and colonials under Colonel Washington to Fort Duquesne.  Braddock was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, and Washington organized and led the retreat of the defeated army.  Disgusted with Braddock’s performance and frustrated with his subordinate position, Washington’s animosity toward the British began to take shape.  (Washington’s frustration was heightened by the fact that British regular officers of any rank, down to the lowliest lieutenants, outranked all colonial officers.)
In 1756 the war spread to Europe where it became the Seven Years’ War, sometimes called the “Great War for Empire.”  In 1757 the French Marquis de Montcalm moved from Canada down through Lake Champlain and Lake George and captured Fort William Henry, the battle in which survivors under British Colonel Munro were attacked by Indians frustrated that Montcalm had allowed the British a peaceful retreat, denying them their promised plunder. (The Battle of Fort William Henry is depicted in Michael Mann’s film Last of the Mohicans.)

The war seemed to be going badly for the British when William Pitt took over as prime minister and began directing the war by sending substantial reinforcements to America.  Under the leadership of Generals Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe, the British in 1759 turned the tables in what became known as the “year of miracles.”  In a brilliant amphibious operation, General Wolfe crossed the St. Lawrence River, moved his force stealthily up onto the Plains of Abraham, drew the French army into battle, and captured the city of Québec.  When Lord Jeffrey Amherst subsequently captured the city of Montréal, the French governor surrendered the entire province of Canada.

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 formally ended the last of these colonial-imperial wars, and Great Britain was clearly triumphant.  France ceded all of Canada to the British as well as all territory east of the Mississippi except the city of New Orleans.  East and West Florida were also awarded by Spain to the British, who now controlled virtually all of eastern

Historian Fred Anderson argues in Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 that the Seven Years' War was the critical event that made the American revolution virtually inevitable. By removing the threat of French Canada, with its incitement of Indians, all of North America east of the Mississippi was under British Control. The colonists were no longer dependent upon the might of the British Empire to secure their borders. Further, resentment against British arrogance often displayed during the colonial wars had reached its peak by the end of the war. George Washington was but one of many colonial officers who bristled under the dominance of regular British officers, even those of lesser rank. Had there been a different outcome to that “Great War for Empire,” the American Revolution would at the very least have been postponed; the world in 1763 would have been a very different place.

Death of General WolfeTwo events that occurred during the French and Indian War are worthy of note.  In 1754 a Congress was organized in Albany in order to solidify British alliances with some of the friendly Indian tribes.  During this Congress Benjamin Franklin introduced what became known as the Albany Plan of Union, which would have organized the colonies into a defensive alliance for their collective benefit.  Colonial leaders, however, were reluctant to cede any of their authority, and the plan was never realized.  The Americans were not yet ready to form any sort of union.

The second event was the British-forced evacuation of the old French province of Acadia, which had been renamed Nova Scotia.  The Acadians were French Catholics who had settled there, and when forced to leave, they scattered among the other American colonies and into the Caribbean.  Some even returned to France.  Later, many of them migrated into Spanish Louisiana in the New Orleans area, where they were welcomed.  The name Acadian was eventually transformed into “Cajun,” and the area in Louisiana where they settled and where their descendants still reside has been officially designated by the state as the region of Acadiana.  The Cajuns, who still speak a French dialect, form one of the rich subcultures of America; their motto is laissez les bons temps rouler!

Summary of Conditions in 1763

In 1763 the British empire stretched around the world, from North America to India and points in between.  The casual, haphazard system of colonial governance would no longer be sufficient.  The mighty empire required administration and leadership far beyond that to which the colonies had become accustomed.  Furthermore, the long series of wars had left the British deeply in debt, and Britain’s far-flung possessions would be costly to manage.  All the same, Great Britain was a wealthy nation, though a great portion of the wealth lay in private hands.

British officers who had served in America returned home to report a prosperous colonial enterprise, whose cities of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, although perhaps not quite up to the standards of London or Paris, nevertheless contained a population many of whom were quite well off.  With a population of approximately 1.5 million, America was now too large to be ignored and wealthy enough to be exploited.

The influence of the Enlightenment had touched America, and radically new ideas of government including that of republicanism had reached across the Atlantic.  Because of such things as the Puritan emphasis on reading and the general prosperity of the average citizen, Americans were quite familiar with the new ideas being propounded by the likes of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and other philosophes of the French salons and were well versed in political philosophy from reading John Locke.  American ideology also emphasized the idea of “virtue” as a necessary component of political structure—an idea from the Enlightenment.

Of all the shortcomings of British management of their American cousins, their failure to perceive the political sophistication of the colonists was a crucial flaw.  (Failures caused by not understanding one’s potential adversaries have, of course, by no means been limited to the British in 1760.)  A second major misunderstanding lay in the British perception that although they had neglected to enforce various import and export restrictions for decades, the colonists would understand their responsibilities as parts of the empire and readily conform to new and stricter controls.

By 1760 smuggling had become a major American enterprise.  Given that it was expensive to maintain revenue cutters and other patrol vessels along a thinly populated American coast filled with many bays, inlets, and rivers in which vessels could hide themselves, the British had found it far from cost-effective to try to enforce navigation laws.  In 1761 the British began to reinforce writs of assistance, laws that granted customs officials the authority to conduct random searches of property to seek out goods on which required duties had not been paid, not only in public establishments but in private homes.  Representing New England’s merchants, attorney James Otis protested against these general warrants, claiming that “a man’s house is his castle,” and that violating its sanctity was a “wanton exercise” of power.

In 1763 the British took another fateful step.  Understandably wishing to reduce the cost of maintaining its empire, the British felt that if the North Americans would not interfere with the Indians, guarding of the frontiers would be much less demanding and less costly.  Thus in 1763 a royal proclamation was issued that reserved all of the western territory between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi for use by the Indians.  The colonists, now that the French were no longer present to rile and equip the Indians, saw the vast open reaches beyond the mountains as greener pastures to which they were entitled.  The proclamation was thus seen as high-handed and uncalled for.

1764.  The North American Revenue (Sugar) Act and the Currency Act.

The next step was the “Sugar” Act of 1764, and it quickly became apparent that the purpose of the act was to extract revenue from America.  The Molasses Act of 1733 had placed a tax of six pence per gallon on sugar and molasses imported into the colonies.  In 1764 the British lowered the tax to three pence, but now decided to enforce it.  In addition, taxes were to be placed on other items such as wines, coffee, and textile products, and other restrictions were applied.  The Act authorized Vice Admiralty Courts, which took the place of jury trials; judges terms were changed to “at the pleasure of the Crown”; and so on.

The Currency Act of 1764 prohibited “legal tender” paper in Virginia, which reduced the circulation of paper money in America, further burdening the colonies, which were always short of hard currency.  The British enforcement of the “Sugar” or “Molasses” Act quickly cut into the economic welfare of the colonies by causing a slump in the production of rum.  Americans were becoming increasingly leery of what they perceived as British attempts to milk more profits from the colonies.  Meetings were called to protest the law, and the idea of “taxation without representation” began to take shape.

The Stamp Act Crisis, 1765

John Adams“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.” —John Adams, Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1756

Although the American colonists were unhappy with the restrictions on trade and various import and export duties, they were not necessarily philosophically opposed to the right of the British to control trade, especially as they found it easy to avoid the attendant duties.  The Stamp Act of 1765, however, opened a new door.  John Adams and others believed that the Stamp Act was the point at which the real American Revolution began, in “the hearts and minds” of the people, as Adams put it.  The Stamp Act caused a furious storm in the streets of New York, Boston, Richmond, and elsewhere.

The Act required that revenue stamps be placed on all newspapers, pamphlets, licenses, leases, and other legal documents, and even on such innocuous items as playing cards.  The revenue from the act, which was to be collected by colonial American customs agents, was intended for “defending, protecting and securing” the colonies.  The use of the revenue did not bother anyone; the fact that it was being collected solely for revenue purposes without the consent of the colonies bothered all kinds of people, especially those who conducted business of any kind.  Those who objected to the act included journalists, lawyers, merchants, and other businessmen, men likely to be community leaders, and well-known public figures such as James Otis, John Adams, and wealthy businessman John Hancock.

The protests soon moved beyond the mere voices of opposition.  Men selected to be collectors of the new taxes were openly threatened with violence, and many resigned their posts before they had collected anything.  Associations were formed to encourage nonimportation (boycotts) of British goods.  Colonial legislatures nullified the act, and shipments of stamps were destroyed.  Sons of Liberty organizations and committees of correspondence were formed to create a feeling of solidarity among the afflicted.

In Virginia, resolutions were adopted denouncing taxation without representation.  The colonists were not denying their status as British citizens subject to the Crown, but rather were expressing their rights as British citizens not to be taxed without their consent through duly appointed or elected representatives.  The Massachusetts Assembly called a Stamp Act Congress for October 1765 in New York City.  Among the resolutions passed by the Congress were the following:

  • That His Majesty’s subjects in these colonies, owe the same allegiance to the Crown of Great-Britain, that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body the Parliament of Great Britain.
  • That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies, are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great-Britain.
  • That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.
  • That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain.
  • That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.

Although the British realized that they had blundered into a minefield, they still sought to assert the right of the British government to govern the colonies as it saw fit.  The British   followed a principle of “virtual representation,” which meant that Parliament governed for the entire empire and noted that there were areas of England itself that were not represented in Parliament (to which the colonists replied that they should be).  The theory was that “what’s good for the British empire is good for all its parts.”

In truth the colonists benefited greatly from being part of the British Empire.  They could trade freely within the entire British colonial system, which meant worldwide ports were open to them.  Furthermore, when they traveled outside the trade routes of the empire itself, they were always protected by the mighty Royal Navy.  Flying the British flag, the colonists knew that they had a staunch protector when they ventured into foreign waters.  Unfortunately, the British focused their attention on the duties of the colonists rather than on the benefits they enjoyed from their position within the British Empire.
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, in part because their constituents in England quickly perceived that if Parliament could extract revenue from the colonists with a free hand, they could also do so at home.  But as a warning to the colonies, they passed the Declaratory Act of 1766 on the same day.  The Act stated that Parliament had the right to rule the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Although the Americans had won something of a victory in the repeal of the Stamp Act, they were soon to find that the British attempts to raise revenue would not cease. 

In 1767 Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend decided that because the colonists had raised objections to the Stamp Act, he would reassert Great Britain’s right to impose new taxes on imported goods.  The Townshend duties placed taxes on glass, lead, tea, and paper.  He also imposed rules intended to tighten collection of customs duties in America.

In response, John Dickinson wrote the following in his Letters from an American Farmer.  Referring to claims of a material difference between the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties and that the new taxes were therefore justified, Dickinson said:  “That we may be legally bound to pay any general duties on these commodities relative to the regulation of trade, is granted; but we being obliged by the laws to take from Great-Britain, any special duties imposed on their exportation to us only, with intention to raise a revenue from us only, are as much taxes, upon us, as those imposed by the Stamp Act.”
Dickinson’s point was followed by a new round of actions by the colonials to thwart British intentions.  For some time among the more prosperous folk of American cities, it had been fashionable for women to support the latest fashion from London.  Now politics intruded upon the fashion world, as the wearing of homespun became de rigueur.  To show one’s patriotism, in other words, women were to take the lead in providing clothing that was American made, not British made, a small but significant step in introducing American women into the political system. In Boston, agents attempting to collect the new duties were met with physical opposition, which led to the dispatching of two British regiments to Boston to maintain law and order.

The “Boston Massacre”

The presence of Redcoats in Boston, rather than calming the troubled waters, only roiled them further.  The typical British soldier of the time was a rough-hewn sort accustomed to taking advantage of his position to further his personal fortunes.  British soldiers sought employment during their off-duty hours and being unmarried males, they were accustomed to free-spirited entertainments.  The citizens of Boston often exchanged taunts and insults with the hated soldiers, and on the evening of March 5, 1770, violence erupted.

It began with a more or less rowdy mob taunting a group of soldiers guarding the Customs House.  Then the men began throwing snowballs, some containing  rocks, at the unfortunate soldiers, and threatening the Redcoats with clubs.  An officer, Captain Preston, appeared and read the Riot Act (an actual document) to those causing the disturbance, ordering them to disperse.  Tensions escalated, however, and someone shouted “Fire!”  Weapons were discharged, and five Bostonians were killed, including Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave.

Captain Preston and the eight soldiers were tried for murder, and their defender was none other than future American president John Adams.  Adams made a lengthy summary speech addressing the testimony of eyewitnesses, after which he concluded:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: . . . if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defence.”

Captain Preston and most of the soldiers were acquitted.

The Gaspee Affair. In 1772 in Rhode Island another event occurred that riled British authorities. Smuggling by American colonists had been a thorn in the side of British authorities for decades. Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island was suspected by the British of being a hotbed of smuggling activity and a haven for what they regarded as pirates. An arrogant British naval officer, one Lieutenant William Dudingston, sailed into Narragansett Bay aboard the customs schooner Gaspee to assist in the collection of revenue. His haughty attitude toward Rhode Islanders immediately made him an enemy of the people. In June of that year he chased a packet boat into the harbor but ran aground on a sand bar.

The local citizens were delighted at the opportunity to gain some revenge against the overbearing officer. An armed group of the local Sons of Liberty rowed out to the Gaspee, boarded the vessel and captured the lieutenant and his crew.  They rowed him ashore and set fire to the revenue ship. Outraged British authorities formed a commission and vowed to punish the offenders by taking them back to Britain for trial. When British authorities made inquiries among nearby residents, however, they were met with stony silence. The event added fuel to the fire that had been smoldering in England against what was seen as the stubborn and unruly behavior of the American colonists.

The Gaspee Affair, as it became known, was followed by the revelation by Benjamin Franklin, at the time the colonial agent in England, of a letter from Thomas Hutchinson complaining about the unruly behavior of the citizens of Massachusetts. Governor Hutchinson's letterhead included the unfortunate claim that "there must be an abridgment of water called English liberties." Franklin was assailed in speech before Parliament for leaking what was deemed a private letter, and London newspapers painted him as a villain. When reports of the "purloined letters" reached the colonies, it was chalked up as one more piece of evidence that the British had no respect for colonial rights.

The Boston Tea Party

Sam AdamsThe next event in the drama, not surprisingly, once again took place in Boston under the leadership of Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams who was even more revolutionary than his less famous relative. The British East India Company found itself in dire financial straits and asked the British government to issue the company monopoly rights on all tea exported to the colonies. The company was also allowed to sell tea directly, bypassing merchants. The tea tax retained when the Townshend duties were repealed was still in force. The tea was consigned to merchants selected by the East India Company to be sold for profit. Although the price of tea would actually be lower under the act, the colonists nevertheless believed that the British actions were directed against them, even though the purpose of the act was to save the company. (It is safe to say that by that time, any action by the British that had a negative impact on the colonists was seen as a deliberate provocation.)

In Charleston, Philadelphia and New York, ships bearing East India Company tea were turned back, but in Boston Governor Hutchinson saw to it that the tea arrived in the harbor. On the night of December 16, 1773, Samuel Adams called a town meeting, where a resolution was passed urging the ships' captains to return to England. Governor Hutchinson refused to allow the Dartmouth, one of the tea ships, to leave the port. Later that evening a band of colonials disguised in Indian dress boarded the British ships and dumped thousands of pounds of tea into Boston harbor. It was clear that the act involved destruction of property, and the British ministry under Prime Minister Lord North could not afford to allow the act to go unpunished.

As mentioned above, the modern phenomenon known as the Tea Party Movement is patterned after the events of 1773. While the most obvious connection is the notion of protest against government action, the circumstances are only superficially similar. A modest tax on tea had been passed as part of the Townshend duties of 1867. The tax was retained when the Townshend duties were repealed, but the boycott on British goods was suspended. The purpose of the Tea Act of 1773 was to aid the East India Company, but the colonists perceived it as being directed against them, even though the Act resulted in a lower price of tea than previously. The Tea Party was retaliation against perceived wrong but it did raise once again the issue of Parliament's right to tax the colonies without their consent.

The Coercive Acts

Parliament's response was five new laws—the "Coercive Acts"—that soon became known as the "Intolerable Acts," which included the following:

• The Boston Port Bill closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for, a questionable tactic as commerce in the city would become paralyzed.
• The Administration of Justice Act abolished local administration of justice and provided that the governor of Massachusetts could cause all trials to be conducted in that colony to be removed to Great Britain and heard under a British judge so that the result would favor the British.
• The Massachusetts Government Act virtually suspended the right of self-government in the Massachusetts colony by ensuring that the governor and all public officials would serve "at the pleasure of his Majesty."
• The Quartering Act of 1765 was extended to require that troops be housed not only in public buildings, but in occupied private dwellings such as homes as well.
• The Quebec Act extended the boundaries of Quebec and guaranteed religious freedom to Canadians. Though not intended to be punitive, the measure fed into anti-Catholic sentiments.

The Boston Port Bill caused an immediate reaction, as it would cripple the economic life of the city. Many hundreds of workers would be affected, not just those responsible for destruction of the tea. The British hoped the act would isolate Boston's radicals and built respect for Parliament, but the opposite occurred. Sympathy for the beleaguered city spread quickly throughout New England and beyond. Committees of safety and correspondence were formed throughout the colonies to spread the news of what was perceived as tyrannical behavior by the British in punishing the city of Boston. Copies of the act were sent to the other colonies, where it was rejected, burned in effigy, and held up as proof of Parliament's attempt to subjugate the American colonies.

Requests of assistance from Boston were met by donations of food, livestock, clothing, and other necessities as well as money, though the last was often offered in meager sums, given that cash was a scarce commodity in all the colonies. Resistance to British authority was widespread. Reports from colonial governors and their assistants back to Lord Dartmouth, colonial secretary, indicated that colonists were refusing to report for jury duty, ignoring or harassing local colonial officials, and raising funds for support of their "suffering brethren in Boston." Newspapers spread the word of the oppressive behavior, and instead of raising fears and other cities and towns that they would be subject to a similar fate, colonists rose and indignation against the policies of the mother country.

Rather than being led from the top, this phase of the American Revolution began among the people. They expressed their displeasure with the Crown government by refusing to cooper-ate with officials who were beholden to British authority. Local committees and cities towns and villages throughout the colonies adopted policies and support of persons who resisted British authorities and criticizing those who did not. Men or women openly opposed to re-si stance against the British were called before committees and asked to recant any public statements they had made in support of British policy. Those who refused were ostracized; if merchants, there goods were boycotted, and they became social pariahs. Although no violence was threatened in most cases against the recalcitrance, the social pressures were sufficient to bring many to publicly renounce their former statements & confessions of their erroneous behavior.

The First Continental Congress

If the British thought that their course of action would isolate the rebellious colony of Massachusetts and temper feelings elsewhere, they were sadly mistaken. Throughout the colonies the feeling was widespread that whatever the British did in Boston could be done any-where. The Virginia House of Burgesses suggested a meeting of colonial representatives that finally took place in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, “to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies.” Every colony except Georgia was represented among the fifty-five men present, who conducted lengthy debates. Realizing that the rebellion had now reached a critical point, if not a point of no return, the delegates understood that unity would be necessary for the colonists to resist British actions. Representatives included Samuel and John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and George Washington and Patrick Henry of Virginia.

Feeling pressure from local groups formed to protest the Boston Port Act, Congress resolved that the colonies were not obliged to obey Parliament's Coercive Acts Congress. They adopted a set of resolutions and created a “Continental Association” that extended legitimacy to the extralegal, quasi-governmental local committees, in effect authorizing them to govern their local communities rather than obeying British rule. The Association would also organize anti-British trade policies across all the colonies.

The creation of the Association by Congress underscores a point recently made by T.H. Breen in his book American Insurgents American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Breen notes John Adams's claim that the patriots loyalists and neutral people were divided into roughly equal parts—one third each of the population. Breen challenges that claim by Adams. He notes that the Association directed local commit-tees to test the loyalty to the American cause of citizens in their communities. The committees challenge citizens who don't with officials or merchants known to be loyal to the British Parliament. They question the accused, called witnesses and harassed those opposed to the patriot cause into recanting their anti-American views. Those who refused were ostracized or even driven out of the communities.

Historians have traditionally focused their attention on leaders of the revolutionary era whom we know as the founding fathers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, George Washington and others. That attention, while merited, has left the impression that the American Revolution was somehow led from the top. As Breen and other historians have pointed out, however, it is clear that the American Revolution began among the ordinary people.

Congress's resolutions asserted that the colonists were “entitled to life, liberty and property” and would never give up anything without their own consent. They claimed their rights as British citizens, arguing that neither they nor their ancestors had forfeited any of those rights by being removed to the colonies. They asserted their right to participate in the legislative process and argued that for practical reasons, their participation in the British Parliament was not possible. They rejected the right of any form of taxation on colonial subjects without their own consent. They also declared that keeping standing armies in the colonies in time of peace was against the law.

Whether or not John Adams was correct in his numbers, colonists were divided among those prepared to fight for their rights; those who favored negotiation and compromise and were essentially loyal to the Crown; and the ever-present middle group who would wait to see how things progressed. If King George and the leaders of Parliament had been more circumspect, they might in fact have appealed to more moderate factions by attempting to lower the temperature and set things right. But King George rejected a petition sent by Philadelphia Quakers and wrote, "The die is now cast, the Colonies must either submit or triumph," thus dealing a blow to those of a loyalist or even moderate disposition.

The local action by committees that proliferated throughout the colonies under the aegis of the Continental Association demonstrates that the revolution was indeed not driven solely by the leaders we associate with the patriot cause: members of the Continental Congress, senior military officers, or other well-known patriots. The common people of America participated willingly and vigorously in the patriot cause, and in so doing demonstrated that ordinary people could effectively exercise political power with wisdom and a sense of purpose. Breen underscores the significance of that issue:

The story of the insurgent committees raises an even more significant point. These bodies played a central role in the development of a Republican form of government in the United States. Theorists have long debated how such a polity might actually work. Drawing upon abstract models and ancient histories, many concluded that a republic based on the will of the people was inherently unstable. In the American context, however, the theorists need not have worried.

It should be noted that in 1774 few Americans had the idea of independence in mind. In fact George Washington wrote to a friend in that year that independence was the last thing any thinking man in North America could wish for. But the colonists were determined to assert their rights, and the citizens around Boston began organizing militia groups known as "Min-ut em en" and assembling weapons and munitions in the event of possible action of a military nature. The pot was simmering and ready to boil.

The Next Step: The Shots Heard 'Round the World

American Revolution Home | Updated November 7, 2016