British Impositions and Colonial Resistance, 1763–1770
After the French and Indian War, Britain
was the premier colonial power in North America. The Treaty of Paris
(1763) more than doubled British territories in North America and eliminated
the French as a threat. While British power seemed more secure than
ever, there were signs of trouble brewing in the colonies. The main
problem concerned British finances. The British government had accumulated
a massive debt fighting the French and Indian War, and now looked
to the American colonies to help pay it. King George III and
his prime minister, George Grenville, noted that the colonists had
benefited most from the expensive war and yet had paid very little
in comparison to citizens living in England. To even this disparity,
Parliament passed a series of acts (listed below) designed to secure
revenue from the colonies. In addition, royal officials revoked
their policy of salutary neglect and began to enforce
the Navigation Acts, and newer taxation measures, with vigor. Angry colonists
chafed under such tight control after years of relative independence.
The Proclamation Line
In efforts to keep peace with the Native Americans, the
British government established the Proclamation Line in 1763, barring
colonial settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania.
The Proclamation declared that colonists already settled in this
region must remove themselves, negating colonists’ claims to the
West and thus inhibiting colonial expansion.
The Sugar Act
In 1764, Parliament passed the Sugar Act to
counter smuggling of foreign sugar and to establish a British monopoly
in the American sugar market. The act also allowed royal officials
to seize colonial cargo with little or no legal cause. Unlike previous
acts, which had regulated trade to boost the entire British imperial
economy, the Sugar Act was designed to benefit England at the expense
of the American colonists.
A major criticism of the Sugar Act was that it
aimed not to regulate the economy of the British Empire but to raise
revenue for the British government. This distinction became important
as the colonists determined which actions of the British government
The Stamp Act
As a further measure to force the colonies to help pay
off the war debt, Prime Minister Grenville pushed the Stamp
Act through Parliament in March 1765. This act required Americans
to buy special watermarked paper for newspapers, playing cards,
and legal documents such as wills and marriage licenses. Violators
faced juryless trials in Nova Scotian vice-admiralty courts, where
guilt was presumed until innocence was proven.
Like the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act was aimed at raising
revenue from the colonists. As such, it elicited fierce colonial
resistance. In the colonies, legal pamphlets circulated condemning
the act on the grounds that it was “taxation without representation.” Colonists believed
they should not have to pay Parliamentary taxes because they did
not elect any members of Parliament. They argued that they should
be able to determine their own taxes independent of Parliament.
Prime Minister Grenville and his followers retorted
that Americans were obliged to pay Parliamentary taxes because they
shared the same status as many British males who did not have enough
property to be granted the vote or who lived in certain large cities
that had no seats in Parliament. He claimed that all of these people
were “virtually represented” in Parliament. This theory of virtual
representation held that the members of Parliament not only
represented their specific geographical constituencies, but they
also considered the well-being of all British subjects when deliberating
Opposition to the Stamp Act
The Stamp Act generated the first wave of
significant colonial resistance to British rule. In late May 1765,
the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the Virginia Resolves,
which denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies under the Stamp
Act. By the end of the year, eight other colonial legislatures had
adopted similar positions.
As dissent spread through the colonies, it quickly became
more organized. Radical groups calling themselves the Sons
of Liberty formed throughout the colonies to channel the
widespread violence, often burning stamps and threatening British
officials. Merchants in New York began a boycott of British goods
and merchants in other cities soon joined in. Representatives of
nine colonial assemblies met in New York City at the Stamp
Act Congress, where they prepared a petition asking Parliament
to repeal the Stamp Act on the grounds that it violated the principle
of “no taxation without representation.” The congress argued that
Parliament could not tax anyone outside of Great Britain and could
not deny anyone a fair trial, both of which had been consequences
of the Stamp Act.
The Stamp Act Congress was a major step in uniting
the colonies against the British. Nine colonial delegations attended
and agreed that there could be no taxation without representation.
Under strong pressure from the colonies, and with their
economy slumping because of the American boycott of British goods,
Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766. But, at the same
time, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act to solidify
British rule in the colonies. The Declaratory Act stated that Parliament
had the power to tax and legislate for the colonies “in all cases
whatsoever,” denying the colonists’ desire to set up their own legislature.
The Townshend Duties
In 1767, Britain’s elite landowners exercised political
influence to cut their taxes by one-fourth, leaving the British
treasury short £500,000 from the previous year. By that time, Chancellor
Charles Townshend dominated government affairs. His superior, Prime
Minister William Pitt (who was the second prime minister after Grenville)
had become gravely ill, and Townshend had assumed leadership of
the government. Townshend proposed taxing imports into the American
colonies to recover Parliament’s lost revenue, and secured passage
of the Revenue Act of 1767. Popularly referred to as the Townshend
Duties, the Revenue Act taxed glass, lead, paint, paper,
and tea entering the colonies. The profits from these taxes were
to be used to pay the salaries of the royal governors in the colonies.
In practice, however, the Townshend Duties yielded little income
for the British; the taxes on tea brought in the only significant
Opposition to the Townshend Duties
While ineffective in raising revenue, the Townshend Duties
proved remarkably effective in stirring up political dissent, which
had lain dormant since the repeal of the Stamp Act. Protest against
the taxes first took the form of intellectual and legal dissents
and soon erupted in violence.
In December 1767, the colonist John Dickinson published Letters
From a Pennsylvania Farmer in the Pennsylvania Chronicle.
This series of twelve letters argued against the legality of the
Townshend Duties and soon appeared in nearly every colonial newspaper.
They were widely read and admired. Political opposition to the Townshend
Duties spread, as colonial assemblies passed resolves denouncing
the act and petitioning Parliament for its repeal.
Popular protest once again took the form of a boycott
of British goods. Although the colonial boycott was only moderately
successful at keeping British imports out of the colonies, it prompted
many British merchants and artisans to mount a significant movement in
Britain to repeal the Townshend Duties. Sailors joined the resistance
by rioting against corrupt customs officials. Many customs officials
exploited the ambiguous and confusing wording of the Towsnhend Act
to claim that small items stored in a sailor’s chest were undeclared
cargo. The custom’s officers then seized entire ships based on that
charge. Often, they pocketed the profits. Known as “customs racketeering,”
this behavior amounted to little more than legalized piracy.
In 1768, 1,700 British troops landed in Boston to stem
further violence, and the following year passed relatively peacefully.
But tension again flared with the Boston Massacre in March
1770, when an unruly mob bombarded British troops with rocks and
dared them to shoot. In the ensuing chaos, five colonists were killed.
The Boston Massacre marked the peak of colonial opposition to the
Parliament finally relented and repealed most of the Townshend
Duties in March 1770, partially because England was now led by a
new prime minister, Lord North. North eliminated most of the taxes
but insisted on maintaining the profitable tax on tea. In response, Americans
ended the policy of general non-importation, but maintained voluntary
agreements to boycott British tea. Non-consumption kept the tea
tax revenues far too low to pay the royal governors, effectively
nullifying what remained of the Townshend Duties.