The American Revolution (1754–1781)
The Sugar and Stamp Acts: 1763–1766
Growing Discontentment with Britain
During the period from 1763 to 1775, in the twelve years after the French and Indian War and before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, colonial distrust of Britain grew markedly, and the emerging united national identity in America became more prominent. In just over a decade, proud British subjects in the American colonies became ardent anti-British patriots struggling for independence.
Likewise, London’s view of the colonies changed radically after the French and Indian War. Prior to the war, Parliament barely acknowledged the American colonists, treating them with a policy of salutary neglect. As long as the colonies exported cheap raw materials to Britain and imported finished goods from Britain (see Mercantilism, below), Britain was quite happy to leave them alone. After the war, though, the situation was radically different. By the end of the Seven Years’ War, the British national debt had climbed over 100 million pounds, hundreds of thousands of which had been used to protect the British colonies in America.
Britain’s economy during the 1700s was based on mercantilist theories that taught that money was power: the more money a nation had in its reserves, the more powerful it was. Britain and other European powers, including France and Spain, actively sought new colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia to stimulate their economies and increase their wealth. Colonies provided cheap natural resources such as gold, cotton, timber, tobacco, sugarcane, and furs. These materials could be shipped back home to the mother country and converted into manufactured goods, which were resold to the colonists at high prices.
The Navigation Acts
Immediately following the cessation of the French and Indian War, British Prime Minister George Grenville ordered the Royal Navy to begin enforcing the old Navigation Acts. Parliament had passed a major Navigation Act in 1651 to prevent other European powers (especially the Dutch) from encroaching on British colonial territories; the act required colonists to export certain key goods, such as tobacco, only to Britain. In addition, any European goods bound for the colonies had to be taxed in Britain. Although the law had existed for over one hundred years, it had never before been strictly enforced.
Grenville and the Sugar Act
Because the French and Indian War had left Britain with an empty pocketbook, Parliament also desperately needed to restock the Treasury. Led by Grenville, Parliament levied heavier taxes on British subjects, especially the colonists. First, in 1764, Grenville’s government passed the Sugar Act, which placed a tax on sugar imported from the West Indies. The Sugar Act represented a significant change in policy: whereas previous colonial taxes had been levied to support local British officials, the tax on sugar was enacted solely to refill Parliament’s empty Treasury.
The Currency and Quartering Acts
The same year, Parliament also passed the Currency Act, which removed devalued paper currencies, many from the French and Indian War period, from circulation. In 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, which required residents of some colonies to feed and house British soldiers serving in America. These acts outraged colonists, who believed the taxes and regulations were unfair. Many also questioned why the British army needed to remain in North America when the French and Pontiac had already been defeated.
The Stamp Act
Though the colonists disliked all of these acts, they particularly took offense to the 1765 Stamp Act. This tax required certain goods to bear an official stamp showing that the owner had paid his or her tax. Many of these items were paper goods, such as legal documents and licenses, newspapers, leaflets, and even playing cards. Furthermore, the act declared that those who failed to pay the tax would be punished by the vice-admiralty courts without a trial by jury.
Colonists were particularly incensed because the Stamp Act was passed in order to pay for the increased British troop presence in the colonies. Not only did the colonists feel that the troop presence was no longer necessary, they also feared that the troops were there to control them. This military presence, combined with the vice-admiralty courts and Quartering Act, made the Americans very suspicious of Grenville’s intentions.
Taxation Without Representation
In protest, the American public began to cry out against “taxation without representation.” In reality, most colonists weren’t seriously calling for representation in Parliament; a few minor representatives in Parliament likely would have been too politically weak to accomplish anything substantive for the colonies. Rather, the slogan was symbolic and voiced the colonists’ distaste for paying taxes they hadn’t themselves legislated.
In defense, Grenville claimed that the colonists were subject to “virtual representation.” He and his supporters argued that all members of Parliament—no matter where they were originally elected—virtually represented all British citizens in England, North America, or anywhere else. To the colonists, the idea of virtual representation was a joke.
The Stamp Act Congress
Unwilling to accept the notion of virtual representation, colonists protested the new taxes—the Stamp Act in particular—using more direct methods. In 1765, delegates from nine colonies met in New York at the Stamp Act Congress, where they drafted a plea to King George III and Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act.
The Sons and Daughters of Liberty
Other colonists took their protests to the streets. In Boston, a patriot group called the Sons of Liberty erected “liberty poles” to hang images of tax collectors and even tarred and feathered one minor royal official. People throughout the colonies also refused to import British goods. Homespun clothing became popular as colonial wives, or Daughters of Liberty, refused to purchase British cloth.
The Declaratory Act
Parliament eventually conceded and repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, which overjoyed the colonists. Quietly, however, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act to reserve Britain’s right to govern and “bind” the colonies whenever and however it deemed necessary.
The Declaratory Act proved far more damaging than the Stamp Act had ever been, because it emboldened Britain to feel that it could pass strict legislation freely, with few repercussions. It was during the aftermath of the Declaratory Act, from 1766 to 1773, that colonial resistance to the Crown intensified and became quite violent.