Sunday, 25 September 2016

The American Revolution (1) The coming of war

The Boston Tea Party

The dispute over taxation

The ending of the war presented the British government with new problems. How should the new territory be governed and defended?  What should they do about the lands inhabited by Indians but coveted by whites? There were 80,000 French settlers in Canada, and a potentially hostile Native American presence around the Great Lakes and the Ohio basin. In October 1763 a Royal Proclamation reserved the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi to the Crown – a restriction that was offensive to the land-hungry colonists and was largely ignored.  The insecurity of British rule in North America meant that troops were constantly needed. Britain believed that it was only reasonable for the colonists to pay for their protection, but the colonists objected on the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’.

When George Grenville became Prime Minister in 1763 he found that the National Debt had doubled during the war to almost £143 million and that the estimated cost of defending America and Canada amounted to at least £300,000 pa. 

The Sugar Act: In April 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act, halving the duties on the molasses that the colonists imported from the French West Indies, but increasing duties on the imports of foreign textiles, wine, coffee, indigo, and sugar. The British government believed that this would reduce the temptation to smuggle, but the income from the new taxes was to go towards the defence of the colonies. For the first time Parliament had adopted duties designed to raise revenues and not merely to regulate trade. 

The Stamp Act: In an even more controversial attempt to raise
revenue, in March 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act.  The Act required that revenue stamps be purchased and fixed to legal documents, newspapers, playing cards, and dice. Though it was to acquire great historical significance, it was a minor piece of taxation (part of a general raft of colonial measures) and would bring in no more than £60,000 pa at a time when there was no immediate threat either from the French or the Indians.  However, it was the first internal tax that Britain had imposed and was the clearest possible assertion of the mother country’s right to tax. Unlike the Sugar Act, which affected mainly New England, the Stamp Act burdened all colonists who did any kind of business and it affected the most articulate elements in the community – lawyers, journalists and businessmen.  


In August 1765 a crowd gathered in Boston under a large elm tree, which became known as the Liberty Tree and hung an effigy of the town’s stamp agent. In the evening a crowd destroyed the stamp office.  
An early nineteenth-century
depiction of the Liberty Tree

The widespread protests encouraged colonial unity. In May 1765 the Virginia House of Burgesses met, and, inspired by the lawyer Patrick Henrypassed a series of resolutions, known as the Virginia Resolves, condemning the Stamp Act on constitutional grounds. Henry’s speech has passed into legend, though it is not clear if he actually said the words attributed to him:  
‘Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third.... may he profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!’
In October the Stamp Act Congress met in New York, and in the first ‘Declaration of Rights and Grievances’ it declared ‘taxation without representation’ unconstitutional. 

 ‘The only representatives of the people of these colonies are persons chosen therein, by themselves. No taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them but by their respective legislatures.’
The Congress instituted a boycott of British goods and talked about the American people arming themselves to defend their liberties. 

The Declaratory Act: In January 1766 the new Prime Minister, the Earl of Rockingham, proposed a twin solution. The ministry presented the Commons with a formula: repeal of the Stamp Act but this to be accompanied by a face-saving Declaratory Act, which uncompromisingly asserted Parliament’s right to legislate for the American colonies ‘in all cases whatsoever’.  The Act was passed in March, but the colonists for the most part chose to ignore it, and the issue of colonial taxation remained unresolved. 

The Townshend Duties: In June 1767 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, imposed duties on a number of commodities imported into the colonies from Britain: lead, glass, paint, paper, and tea. A new revenue-collecting body, the American Board of Customs Commissioners, was set up.  But the Americans themselves had now moved on and many were now questioning Britain’s right to legislate for them under any circumstances whatsoever. 

These duties inspired a range of protests. The Philadelphia lawyer,
John Dickinson, published his twelve Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania from 1767. The Boston lawyer, John Adams, distributed the Massachusetts Circular Letter to all the colonies denouncing Parliament’s action. His distant cousin, Samuel Adamswas whipping up a secret organisation, the Sons of Liberty, into defiance and urging a boycott of British imports.  In February 1768 the Massachusetts Bay Assembly protested in the strongest terms and circulated other colonies with a request for joint action. 

In June 1768 a Boston mob attacked customs officials, who had seized a ship owned by the merchant, John Hancock.  In September 1768 there were new disturbances in Boston. This time the ministry was ready to use coercion and in Boston was occupied by a force of regular soldiers and a small naval squadron. The Americans were taken by surprise and their resistance was temporarily cowed.  

In January 1770 Frederick, Lord North became Prime Minister. 


The Boston massacre 

By 1770 Boston had become the heart of colonial resistance. Five weeks into North’s administration, troops occupying the city fired on rioters outside the Custom House, killing five of them, in the ‘massacre’ of 5 March 1770.  One significant fact was virtually ignored – one of the five was Crispus Attucks, an African-American seaman.

 The real significance of the ‘massacre’ lay not in the small number of casualties but in the propaganda gift to the rebellious leaders, notably Samuel Adams.  The engraver, Paul Revere was soon selling his colour prints of ‘The Bloody Massacre’ from his print shop in Boston – two other artist-engravers also issued prints that year.  
Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre

However, all except two of the British soldiers were acquitted, after a defence by John Adams 

In April 1770 Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties, except for the tea duty, which was kept in order to assert the principle that the British government had the right to tax the colonists.  Tea thus acquired an emblematic significance, though it had little financial importance as it was smuggled in from Holland anyway.   

By 1771 the American situation seemed calm enough for North to declare ‘the American disputes are settled, and there is nothing much to interrupt the peace and prosperity of the nation’.  But in the following year, prompted by Samuel Adams, towns in Massachusetts set up Committees of Correspondence to coordinate resistance, and other colonies soon followed suit.


The Gaspee Affair

On 9 June 1772, HMS Gaspee, a British customs schooner that had been engaged in anti-smuggling operations, ran aground in shallow water near what is now known as Gaspee Point in the city of Warwick, Rhode Island, while chasing the packet boat Hannah. A group of men led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown attacked, boarded, looted, and torched the ship. After a period of quiet, this incident inflamed tensions again.


The Boston tea party  

In 1773 the government reduced the duties on tea in an attempt to aid the struggling East India Company – to dispose of its surplus tea, and to undercut the cost of smuggled goods. But it also gave the Company monopolistic power to sell the tea through special agents, undercutting the profits of the colonial merchants. The Sons of Liberty saw this as an affront and on 16 December, some fifty of them boarded three tea ships in Boston harbour, and dumped 342 chests into the harbour, cheered on by the crowd.


The Coercive Acts 

Technically, this act was a breach of the East India Company’s private property. From the British point of view it was the last straw and in 1774 North introduced the Coercive Acts (known to the Patriots as the Intolerable Acts), which were carried overwhelmingly in both Houses. Boston harbour was to be closed until reparation was paid and the Massachusetts Charter was remodelled, with the elected council being replaced by a nominated one. This simply convinced the Americans that there was a conspiracy to destroy their liberties. British goods were boycotted throughout the colonies. Both sides were now locked into a cycle of action and over-reaction. 

‘It was against this background that the thirteen British colonies of North America finally made the shift from a collection of discrete jurisdictions barely communicating with each other in 1763 to an almost coherent body of individuals who, by 1776, were able to equate their quibbles with the British Crown with “the cause of all mankind”.' Susan-Mary Grant, A Concise History of the United States of America (Cambridge, 2012, p. 103)

The Continental Congress

On 5 September 1774 delegates from all thirteen colonies except Georgia gathered in Philadelphia in the First Continental Congress
They denounced the Coercive Acts, approved a boycott of British imports and authorised military preparations.


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