The North American theater of the primarily European Seven Years’ War was known as the French and Indian War. It was fought between Britain and France from 1754 to 1763 for colonial dominance in North America. British officials tried to rally public opinion for the war at the Albany Congress in 1754 but mustered only halfhearted support throughout the colonies. Nevertheless, American colonists dutifully fought alongside British soldiers, while the French allied themselves with several Native American tribes (hence the name “French and Indian War”). This war ended after the British captured most of France’s major cities and forts in Canada and the Ohio Valley.
The powerful Ottawa chief Pontiac, who had no intention of allowing land-hungry whites to steal more tribal lands, united many of the tribes in the volatile Ohio Valley and led a series of raids on British forts and American settlements. British forces eventually squashed Pontiac’s Rebellion. As a conciliatory gesture toward the Native Americans, Parliament issued the Proclamation of 1763 , forbidding American colonists to settle on Native American territory unless native rights to the land had first been obtained by purchase or treaty.
The French and Indian War also motivated Parliament to end the age of salutary neglect. Prime Minister George Grenville began enforcing the ancient Navigation Acts in 1764, passed the Sugar Act to tax sugar, and passed the Currency Act to remove paper currencies (many from the French and Indian War period) from circulation. A year later, he passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on printed materials, and the Quartering Act, which required Americans to house and feed British troops.
The Sugar Act was the first fully enforced tax levied in America solely for the purpose of raising revenue. Americans throughout the thirteen colonies cried out against “taxation without representation” and made informal nonimportation agreements of certain British goods in protest. Several colonial leaders convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York to petition Parliament and King George III to repeal the tax. In 1766, Parliament bowed to public pressure and repealed the Stamp Act. But it also quietly passed the Declaratory Act, which stipulated that Parliament reserved the right to tax the colonies anytime it chose.
In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which levied another series of taxes on lead, paints, and tea known as the Townshend Duties. In the same series of acts, Britain passed the Suspension Act, which suspended the New York assembly for not enforcing the Quartering Act. To prevent violent protests, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson requested assistance from the British army, and in 1768, four thousand redcoats landed in the city to help maintain order. Nevertheless, on March 5, 1770, an angry mob clashed with several British troops. Five colonists died, and news of the Boston Massacre quickly spread throughout the colonies.
In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, granting the financially troubled British East India Company a trade monopoly on the tea exported to the American colonies. In many American cities, tea agents resigned or canceled orders, and merchants refused consignments in response to the unpopular act. Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts, determined to uphold the law, ordered that three ships arriving in Boston harbor should be allowed to deposit their cargoes and that appropriate payments should be made for the goods. On the night of December 16, 1773, while the ships lingered in the harbor, sixty men boarded the ships, disguised as Native Americans, and dumped the entire shipment of tea into the harbor. That event is now famously known as the Boston Tea Party.
In January 1774, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, which shut down Boston Harbor until the British East India Company had been fully reimbursed for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. Americans throughout the colonies sent food and supplies to Boston via land to prevent death from hunger and cold in the bitter New England winter. Parliament also passed the Quebec Act at the same time, which granted more rights to French Canadian Catholics and extended French Canadian territory south to the western borders of New York and Pennsylvania.
To protest the Intolerable Acts, prominent colonials gathered in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress in autumn of 1774. They once again petitioned Parliament, King George III, and the British people to repeal the acts and restore friendly relations. For additional motivation, they also decided to institute a boycott, or ban, of all British goods in the colonies.
On April 19, 1775, part of the British occupation force in Boston marched to the nearby town of Concord, Massachusetts, to seize a colonial militia arsenal. Militiamen of Lexington and Concord intercepted them and attacked. The first shot—the so-called “shot heard round the world” made famous by poet Ralph Waldo Emerson—was one of many that hounded the British and forced them to retreat to Boston. Thousands of militiamen from nearby colonies flocked to Boston to assist.
In the meantime, leaders convened the Second Continental Congress to discuss options. In one final attempt for peaceful reconciliation, the Olive Branch Petition, they professed their love and loyalty to King George III and begged him to address their grievances. The king rejected the petition and formally declared that the colonies were in a state of rebellion.
The Second Continental Congress chose George Washington, a southerner, to command the militiamen besieging Boston in the north. They also appropriated money for a small navy and for transforming the undisciplined militias into the professional Continental Army. Encouraged by a strong colonial campaign in which the British scored only narrow victories (such as at Bunker Hill), many colonists began to advocate total independence as opposed to having full rights within the British Empire. The next year, the congressmen voted on July 2, 1776, to declare their independence. Thomas Jefferson, a young lawyer from Virginia, drafted the Declaration of Independence. The United States was born.