16 December 2015
I recently finished an American History course at the local community college, just for fun. My final essay asked the rather open-ended question: “What historical events led to the American Revolution?” (© 2015 Professor Traci Hodgson). On the 242nd anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, I share with you my loquacious answer, for which I proudly received 13 of a possible 13 points. Instructor feedback was: “Overall a strong essay that mixes issues and attitudes with events very effectively.”
Although in hindsight the American Revolution seems to have been a foregone conclusion, it was far from a certainty virtually throughout the colonial period, and indeed during the War itself. Distance and temperament separated the colonists from the Mother Country, yet loyalties and devotions were decidedly divided. It took certain intolerable acts, including acts of the British Parliament named exactly so by the colonists, to generate sufficient resentment amongst enough of the people of the colonies to drive them to take up arms.
In February of 1763, the Treaty of Paris officially brought the French and Indian War to an end. France lost most of its North American holdings, giving control of Canada and the area between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains to Britain, and the area west of the Mississippi to Spain. As the British asserted control in the territory, clashes with Native American groups increased, leading to Pontiac’s Rebellion, an uprising of allied Native American tribes in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions.
By October of 1763, King George issued a Royal Proclamation forbidding colonial settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains (it also established governance in Quebec, Florida, and the South American island of Grenada). The colonists were angered by this restriction on their expansion as ever increasing numbers of farmers and pioneers sought to move west in the hopes of finding new land to cultivate, and to escape the increasing population density along the coastal areas.
By 1764, massive war debt and the cost of policing the colonies led the British government to pass the Sugar Act -a revenue raising measure- and the Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing paper money. These edicts burdened the colonies with an onerous tax and eliminated an easier way of paying it. Coming in the midst of a post-war recession, the colonists began to resent what they considered Parliamentary indifference to their situation, taxes being passed without the consultation and approval of those paying them. The public outcry against “taxation without representation” began to take shape. Although they resisted these impositions, most colonists still considered themselves British citizens, and resented not so much the taxes imposed as the fact that they were imposed without consent.
In 1765, Parliament imposed the Stamp Act upon the colonies, which provided that paper materials such as pamphlets and newspapers, even playing cards, and certain necessary legal documents such as deeds, contracts, and licenses must bear a stamp purchased from the government in the form of a tax. To the colonists, this was abuse of power and a violation of their basic rights as British citizens. Protests in a number of places turned violent, including Boston, Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island, where local representatives of the British government were hanged in effigy. An assembly known as the Stamp Act Congress met, with delegates from nine colonies, drafting and delivering a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to England. While it protested the policies of Parliament and (indirectly) the King, it reaffirmed the colonists’ loyalties and responsibilities as British subjects.
In 1766, the unpopular Stamp Act was repealed, however, Parliament simultaneously issued the Declaratory Act, asserting its absolute right and authority to make and enforce laws binding upon the colonies. The following year, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer (Britain’s senior Treasury official) Charles Townshend spurred Parliament to issue a series of new taxes on imported goods in what came to be known as the Townshend Acts. As the colonies were dependent upon imports for a great many commodities and other necessities otherwise unavailable, these duties hit the colonies especially hard.
War began to appear likely in 1768 as the British sent warships and troops into Boston to quell the violence and support its embattled officials. The Sons of Liberty, a secret society of influential colonial men, agitated colonists to resist the enforcement of taxation, and to boycott taxed goods. A number of prominent political and military leaders of the Revolution and the early American government were members of the Sons, including Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Patrick Henry.
On January 19, 1770 in New York City, a clash between British soldiers and angry townspeople resulted in the death of one citizen and numerous wounded on both sides. The situation grew truly ugly in March when a similar clash resulted in the shooting deaths of five Bostonian men in what was billed by colonial leaders as the Boston Massacre. In June of 1772, the anti-smuggling ship HMS Gaspee was pillaged and burned by a group of Rhode Island men after running aground off the coast.
In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, an action giving favorable trade status to the British East India Company (BEIC), but leaving import taxes on the colonies in place. On December 16, 1773, a group of Patriots, disguised as Native Americans, boarded a BEIC tea ship anchored in Boston Harbor, dumping its valuable cargo into the bay, an event known to history as the Boston Tea Party.
The year 1774 saw Britain pass the aforementioned Intolerable Acts, which included the Boston Port Act, a direct response to the Boston Tea Party, closing Boston Harbor to shipping until restitution to the BEIC was made for its lost cargo. The Administration of Justice Act took trial jurisdiction against British government officials out of the hands of colonial courts. The Massachusetts Government Act, passed the same day as the Administration act, effectively revoked the colonial charter of Massachusetts, stripped election of the colony’s Executive Council from its citizens, and declared that the council be appointed by the King. The Quartering Act, passed a few weeks later, governed the quartering of British troops in private homes and public buildings: By agreement, according to the act; by force, according to the colonists. The Quebec Act, establishing governmental organization to the colony of Quebec, effectively removed control of the Ohio Territory from its elected assemblies.
By April of the following year, colonial forces would face off against the British Army at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, turning a smoldering resistance into a war of revolution. More than another year would pass before the colonies would declare their independence from the British Crown.
The American Revolution was not precipitated by a single act of provocation by either party, but by the accumulated resentment of more than a decade of actions, and enforcement of such, by the British government, or by the treason of many colonists, depending upon whose propaganda one consults. Even then, only a minority of colonists supported active military resistance against the Crown, and one-fifth remained loyal, many of them fighting their neighbors alongside the British Army. Both the eventuality and the outcome of the war were in doubt virtually until the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the evacuation of the remaining British troops from New York that November.