British Impositions and Colonial Resistance, 1763–1770
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 warranted resistance.
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 on legislation.
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 revenue.
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 Townshend Duties.
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.
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