Road to Revolution, 1770–1775
Road to Revolution, 1770–1775
From 1770 to 1772, the British ignored the colonies and tension cooled substantially. However, in the fall of 1772, Lord North began preparations to pay royal governors out of customs revenue rather than let the colonial assemblies control payment. This would deny the assemblies the “power of the purse,” breaking assemblies’ ability to effectively check royal power by withholding, or threatening to withhold, payment. In response to this threat, Samuel Adams urged every Massachusetts community to appoint a committee to coordinate colony-wide measures protecting colonial rights. Within the year, approximately 250 Committees of Correspondence formed throughout the colonies. These committees linked political leaders of almost every colony in resistance to the British.
The Committees of Correspondence began on the community level in Massachusetts and eventually became the means by which the colonies coordinated their efforts to preserve their rights.
The Boston Tea Party
The British East India Company suffered from the American boycott of British tea. In an effort to save the company, Parliament passed the Tea Act in 1773, which eliminated import tariffs on tea entering England and allowed the company to sell directly to consumers rather than through merchants. These changes lowered the price of British tea to below that of smuggled tea, which the British hoped would end the boycott. Parliament planned to use the profits from tea sales to pay the salaries of the colonial royal governors, a move which, like the Townshend Duties, particularly angered colonists.
While protests of the Tea Act in the form of tea boycotts and the burning of tea cargos occurred throughout the colonies, the response in Boston was most aggressive. In December 1773, a group of colonists dressed as Native Americans dumped about $70,000 worth of the tea into Boston Harbor. This event, known as the Boston Tea Party, took on an epic status.
The Intolerable Acts
Parliament responded swiftly and angrily to the Tea Party with a string of legislation that came to be known as the Intolerable Acts. The Intolerable Acts included the four Coercive Acts of 1773 and the Quebec Act. The four Coercive Acts:
  • Closed Boston Harbor to trade until the city paid for the lost tea.
  • Removed certain democratic elements of the Massachusetts government, most notably by making formerly elected positions appointed by the crown.
  • Restricted town meetings, requiring that their agenda be approved by the royal governor
  • Declared that any royal agent charged with murder in the colonies would be tried in Britain.
  • Instated the Quartering Act, forcing civilians to house and support British soldiers
The Quebec Act, unrelated to the Coercive Acts but just as offensive to the colonists, established Roman Catholicism as Quebec’s official religion, gave Quebec’s royal governors wide powers, and extended Quebec’s borders south to the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi, thereby inhibiting westward expansion of the colonies.
The colonists saw the Intolerable Acts as a British plan to starve the New England colonists while reducing their ability to organize and protest. The acts not only imposed a heavy military presence in the colonies, but also, in the colonists’ minds, effectively authorized the military to murder colonists with impunity. Colonists feared that once the colonies had been subdued, Britain would impose the autocratic model of government outlined in the Quebec Act.
The First Continental Congress
In September 1774 the Committees of Correspondence of every colony except Georgia sent delegates to the First Continental Congress. The Congress endorsed Massachusetts’ Suffolk Resolves, which declared that the colonies need not obey the Coercive Acts since they infringed upon basic liberties. The delegates voted for an organized boycott of British imports and sent a petition to King George III, which conceded that Parliament had the power to regulate commerce but objected to its arbitrary taxation and denial of fair trials to colonists. Preparing for possible British retaliation, the delegates also called upon all colonies to raise and train local militias. By the spring of 1775, colonists had established provincial congresses to enforce the decrees of the Continental Congress. The power of these congresses rivaled that of the colonial governors.
British Acts and Colonial Responses
British Act Colonial Response(s)
Writs of Assistance, 1760 Challenged laws in Massachusetts Supreme Court, lost case (discussed in previous chapter)
Sugar Act, 1764 Weak protest by colonial legislatures
Stamp Act, 1765 Virginia Resolves, mobs, Sons of Liberty, Stamp Act Congress
Townshend Duties, 1767 Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, boycott, Boston Massacre
Tea Act, 1773 Boston Tea Party
Intolerable Acts, 1773 First Continental Congress
The First Battles
In April 1775, colonial minutemen met and exchanged fire with British soldiers attempting to seize a supply stockpile in Concord, a town near Boston. The first confrontation came in Lexington, just east of Concord. Once in Concord, the British troops faced a much larger colonial force. In the skirmish, the British lost 273 men and were driven back into Boston. The Battle of Lexington and Concord convinced many colonists to take up arms. The next night, 20,000 New England troops began a month-long siege of the British garrison in Boston. In June of 1775, the English attacked the colonial stronghold outside Boston in the Battle of Bunker Hill. The English Redcoats successfully dislodged the colonials from the hillside stronghold, but lost 1,154 men in contrast to the 311 colonial casualties.
Attempted Reconciliation
In May 1775, as violence broke out all over New England, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. Congress was split. New England delegates urged independence from Britain. Other delegates, mostly those from the Middle Colonies, favored a more moderate course of action. This faction, led by John Dickinson, fervently opposed complete separation from England. In an effort to reconcile with the King, Dickinson penned the Olive Branch Petition, offering peace under the following conditions:
  • A cease-fire in Boston
  • The Coercive Acts be repealed
  • Negotiations between the colonists and Britain commence immediately
The Olive Branch Petition reached Britain the same day as news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. King George III rejected reconciliation and declared New England to be in a state of rebellion in August 1775.
The Declaration of Independence
In June 1775, the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington commander in chief of the newly established American Continental Army. Meanwhile, the British forces abandoned Boston and moved to New York City, which they planned to use as a staging point for conquering New England.
In January 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, was published and widely distributed. Paine called for economic and political independence, and proposed that America become a new kind of nation founded on the principles of liberty. By May 1776, Rhode Island had declared its independence and New England was deep in rebellion.
In June, the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution of independence, officially creating the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was officially approved on July 4. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed a complete and irrevocable break from England, arguing that the British government had broken its contract with the colonies. It extolled the virtues of democratic self-government, and tapped into the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke and others who promoted equality, liberty, justice, and self-fulfillment.
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