United States History The Formation Of The Constitution
THE PROMISE AND THE DIFFICULTIES OF AMERICA
The rise of ...
The Development Of The Great West
At the close of the Civil War, Kansas and Texas were sentin...
Domestic Issues Before The Country 1865-1897
For thirty years after the Civil War the leading political ...
The Political And Economic Evolution Of The South
The outcome of the Civil War in the South was nothing short...
The Jeffersonian Republicans In Power
REPUBLICAN PRINCIPLES AND POLICIES
Opposition to Strong ...
The Farmers Beyond The Appalachians
The nationalism of Hamilton was undemocratic. The democracy...
America A World Power 1865-1900
It has now become a fashion, sanctioned by wide usage and b...
The Rise Of The Industrial System
If Jefferson could have lived to see the Stars and Stripes ...
The Middle Border And The Great West
"We shall not send an emigrant beyond the Mississippi in a ...
The Evolution Of Republican Policies 1901-13
The Personality and Early Career of Roosevelt
The New Political Democracy
Women in Public Affairs
The social legislation enacted i...
Social And Political Progress
Colonial life, crowded as it was with hard and unremitting ...
The Planting System And National Politics
James Madison, the father of the federal Constitution, afte...
President Wilson And The World War
"The welfare, the happiness, the energy, and the spirit of ...
Business Enterprise And The Republican Party
If a single phrase be chosen to characterize American life ...
The American Revolution
RESISTANCE AND RETALIATION
The Continental Congress
The New England Federalists, at the Hartford convention, pr...
The Clash Of Political Parties
THE MEN AND MEASURES OF THE NEW GOVERNMENT
Friends of th...
The New Economic Age
The spirit of criticism and the mea...
The New Course In British Imperial Policy
On October 25, 1760, King George II died and the British cr...
The New Course In British Imperial Policy
On October 25, 1760, King George II died and the British crown passed to
his young grandson. The first George, the son of the Elector of Hanover
and Sophia the granddaughter of James I, was a thorough German who never
even learned to speak the language of the land over which he reigned.
The second George never saw England until he was a man. He spoke English
with an accent and until his death preferred his German home. During
their reign, the principle had become well established that the king did
not govern but acted only through ministers representing the majority in
GEORGE III AND HIS SYSTEM
The Character of the New King
The third George rudely broke the
German tradition of his family. He resented the imputation that he was a
foreigner and on all occasions made a display of his British sympathies.
To the draft of his first speech to Parliament, he added the popular
phrase: "Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of
Briton." Macaulay, the English historian, certainly of no liking for
high royal prerogative, said of George: "The young king was a born
Englishman. All his tastes and habits, good and bad, were English. No
portion of his subjects had anything to reproach him with.... His age,
his appearance, and all that was known of his character conciliated
public favor. He was in the bloom of youth; his person and address were
pleasing; scandal imputed to him no vice; and flattery might without
glaring absurdity ascribe to him many princely virtues."
Nevertheless George III had been spoiled by his mother, his tutors, and
his courtiers. Under their influence he developed high and mighty
notions about the sacredness of royal authority and his duty to check
the pretensions of Parliament and the ministers dependent upon it. His
mother had dinned into his ears the slogan: "George, be king!" Lord
Bute, his teacher and adviser, had told him that his honor required him
to take an active part in the shaping of public policy and the making of
laws. Thus educated, he surrounded himself with courtiers who encouraged
him in the determination to rule as well as reign, to subdue all
parties, and to place himself at the head of the nation and empire.
Political Parties and George III
The state of the political parties
favored the plans of the king to restore some of the ancient luster of
the crown. The Whigs, who were composed mainly of the smaller
freeholders, merchants, inhabitants of towns, and Protestant
non-conformists, had grown haughty and overbearing through long
continuance in power and had as a consequence raised up many enemies in
their own ranks. Their opponents, the Tories, had by this time given up
all hope of restoring to the throne the direct Stuart line; but they
still cherished their old notions about divine right. With the
accession of George III the coveted opportunity came to them to rally
around the throne again. George received his Tory friends with open
arms, gave them offices, and bought them seats in the House of Commons.
The British Parliamentary System
The peculiarities of the British
Parliament at the time made smooth the way for the king and his allies
with their designs for controlling the entire government. In the first
place, the House of Lords was composed mainly of hereditary nobles whose
number the king could increase by the appointment of his favorites, as
of old. Though the members of the House of Commons were elected by
popular vote, they did not speak for the mass of English people. Great
towns like Leeds, Manchester, and Birmingham, for example, had no
representatives at all. While there were about eight million inhabitants
in Great Britain, there were in 1768 only about 160,000 voters; that is
to say, only about one in every ten adult males had a voice in the
government. Many boroughs returned one or more members to the Commons
although they had merely a handful of voters or in some instances no
voters at all. Furthermore, these tiny boroughs were often controlled by
lords who openly sold the right of representation to the highest bidder.
The "rotten-boroughs," as they were called by reformers, were a public
scandal, but George III readily made use of them to get his friends into
the House of Commons.
GEORGE III'S MINISTERS AND THEIR COLONIAL POLICIES
Grenville and the War Debt
Within a year after the accession of
George III, William Pitt was turned out of office, the king treating him
with "gross incivility" and the crowds shouting "Pitt forever!" The
direction of affairs was entrusted to men enjoying the king's
confidence. Leadership in the House of Commons fell to George Grenville,
a grave and laborious man who for years had groaned over the increasing
cost of government.
The first task after the conclusion of peace in 1763 was the adjustment
of the disordered finances of the kingdom. The debt stood at the highest
point in the history of the country. More revenue was absolutely
necessary and Grenville began to search for it, turning his attention
finally to the American colonies. In this quest he had the aid of a
zealous colleague, Charles Townshend, who had long been in public
service and was familiar with the difficulties encountered by royal
governors in America. These two men, with the support of the entire
ministry, inaugurated in February, 1763, "a new system of colonial
government. It was announced by authority that there were to be no more
requisitions from the king to the colonial assemblies for supplies, but
that the colonies were to be taxed instead by act of Parliament.
Colonial governors and judges were to be paid by the Crown; they were to
be supported by a standing army of twenty regiments; and all the
expenses of this force were to be met by parliamentary taxation."
Restriction of Paper Money (1763)
Among the many complaints filed
before the board of trade were vigorous protests against the issuance of
paper money by the colonial legislatures. The new ministry provided a
remedy in the act of 1763, which declared void all colonial laws
authorizing paper money or extending the life of outstanding bills. This
law was aimed at the "cheap money" which the Americans were fond of
making when specie was scarce--money which they tried to force on their
English creditors in return for goods and in payment of the interest and
principal of debts. Thus the first chapter was written in the long
battle over sound money on this continent.
Limitation on Western Land Sales
Later in the same year (1763)
George III issued a royal proclamation providing, among other things,
for the government of the territory recently acquired by the treaty of
Paris from the French. One of the provisions in this royal decree
touched frontiersmen to the quick. The contests between the king's
officers and the colonists over the disposition of western lands had
been long and sharp. The Americans chafed at restrictions on
settlement. The more adventurous were continually moving west and
"squatting" on land purchased from the Indians or simply seized without
authority. To put an end to this, the king forbade all further purchases
from the Indians, reserving to the crown the right to acquire such lands
and dispose of them for settlement. A second provision in the same
proclamation vested the power of licensing trade with the Indians,
including the lucrative fur business, in the hands of royal officers in
the colonies. These two limitations on American freedom and enterprise
were declared to be in the interest of the crown and for the
preservation of the rights of the Indians against fraud and abuses.
The Sugar Act of 1764
King George's ministers next turned their
attention to measures of taxation and trade. Since the heavy debt under
which England was laboring had been largely incurred in the defense of
America, nothing seemed more reasonable to them than the proposition
that the colonies should help to bear the burden which fell so heavily
upon the English taxpayer. The Sugar Act of 1764 was the result of this
reasoning. There was no doubt about the purpose of this law, for it was
set forth clearly in the title: "An act for granting certain duties in
the British colonies and plantations in America ... for applying the
produce of such duties ... towards defraying the expenses of defending,
protecting and securing the said colonies and plantations ... and for
more effectually preventing the clandestine conveyance of goods to and
from the said colonies and plantations and improving and securing the
trade between the same and Great Britain." The old Molasses Act had been
prohibitive; the Sugar Act of 1764 was clearly intended as a revenue
measure. Specified duties were laid upon sugar, indigo, calico, silks,
and many other commodities imported into the colonies. The enforcement
of the Molasses Act had been utterly neglected; but this Sugar Act had
"teeth in it." Special precautions as to bonds, security, and
registration of ship masters, accompanied by heavy penalties, promised
a vigorous execution of the new revenue law.
The strict terms of the Sugar Act were strengthened by administrative
measures. Under a law of the previous year the commanders of armed
vessels stationed along the American coast were authorized to stop,
search, and, on suspicion, seize merchant ships approaching colonial
ports. By supplementary orders, the entire British official force in
America was instructed to be diligent in the execution of all trade and
navigation laws. Revenue collectors, officers of the army and navy, and
royal governors were curtly ordered to the front to do their full duty
in the matter of law enforcement. The ordinary motives for the discharge
of official obligations were sharpened by an appeal to avarice, for
naval officers who seized offenders against the law were rewarded by
large prizes out of the forfeitures and penalties.
The Stamp Act (1765)
The Grenville-Townshend combination moved
steadily towards its goal. While the Sugar Act was under consideration
in Parliament, Grenville announced a plan for a stamp bill. The next
year it went through both Houses with a speed that must have astounded
its authors. The vote in the Commons stood 205 in favor to 49 against;
while in the Lords it was not even necessary to go through the formality
of a count. As George III was temporarily insane, the measure received
royal assent by a commission acting as a board of regency. Protests of
colonial agents in London were futile. "We might as well have hindered
the sun's progress!" exclaimed Franklin. Protests of a few opponents in
the Commons were equally vain. The ministry was firm in its course and
from all appearances the Stamp Act hardly roused as much as a languid
interest in the city of London. In fact, it is recorded that the fateful
measure attracted less notice than a bill providing for a commission to
act for the king when he was incapacitated.
The Stamp Act, like the Sugar Act, declared the purpose of the British
government to raise revenue in America "towards defraying the expenses
of defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and
plantations in America." It was a long measure of more than fifty
sections, carefully planned and skillfully drawn. By its provisions
duties were imposed on practically all papers used in legal
transactions,--deeds, mortgages, inventories, writs, bail bonds,--on
licenses to practice law and sell liquor, on college diplomas, playing
cards, dice, pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and
advertisements. The drag net was closely knit, for scarcely anything
The Quartering Act (1765)
The ministers were aware that the Stamp
Act would rouse opposition in America--how great they could not
conjecture. While the measure was being debated, a friend of General
Wolfe, Colonel Barre, who knew America well, gave them an ominous
warning in the Commons. "Believe me--remember I this day told you so--"
he exclaimed, "the same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at
first will accompany them still ... a people jealous of their liberties
and who will vindicate them, if ever they should be violated." The
answer of the ministry to a prophecy of force was a threat of force.
Preparations were accordingly made to dispatch a larger number of
soldiers than usual to the colonies, and the ink was hardly dry on the
Stamp Act when Parliament passed the Quartering Act ordering the
colonists to provide accommodations for the soldiers who were to enforce
the new laws. "We have the power to tax them," said one of the ministry,
"and we will tax them."
COLONIAL RESISTANCE FORCES REPEAL
The Stamp Act was greeted in America by an
outburst of denunciation. The merchants of the seaboard cities took the
lead in making a dignified but unmistakable protest, agreeing not to
import British goods while the hated law stood upon the books. Lawyers,
some of them incensed at the heavy taxes on their operations and others
intimidated by patriots who refused to permit them to use stamped
papers, joined with the merchants. Aristocratic colonial Whigs, who had
long grumbled at the administration of royal governors, protested
against taxation without their consent, as the Whigs had done in old
England. There were Tories, however, in the colonies as in England--many
of them of the official class--who denounced the merchants, lawyers, and
Whig aristocrats as "seditious, factious and republican." Yet the
opposition to the Stamp Act and its accompanying measure, the Quartering
Act, grew steadily all through the summer of 1765.
In a little while it was taken up in the streets and along the
countryside. All through the North and in some of the Southern colonies,
there sprang up, as if by magic, committees and societies pledged to
resist the Stamp Act to the bitter end. These popular societies were
known as Sons of Liberty and Daughters of Liberty: the former including
artisans, mechanics, and laborers; and the latter, patriotic women. Both
groups were alike in that they had as yet taken little part in public
affairs. Many artisans, as well as all the women, were excluded from the
right to vote for colonial assemblymen.
While the merchants and Whig gentlemen confined their efforts chiefly to
drafting well-phrased protests against British measures, the Sons of
Liberty operated in the streets and chose rougher measures. They stirred
up riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston when attempts
were made to sell the stamps. They sacked and burned the residences of
high royal officers. They organized committees of inquisition who by
threats and intimidation curtailed the sale of British goods and the use
of stamped papers. In fact, the Sons of Liberty carried their operations
to such excesses that many mild opponents of the stamp tax were
frightened and drew back in astonishment at the forces they had
unloosed. The Daughters of Liberty in a quieter way were making a very
effective resistance to the sale of the hated goods by spurring on
domestic industries, their own particular province being the manufacture
of clothing, and devising substitutes for taxed foods. They helped to
feed and clothe their families without buying British goods.
Legislative Action against the Stamp Act
Leaders in the colonial
assemblies, accustomed to battle against British policies, supported the
popular protest. The Stamp Act was signed on March 22, 1765. On May 30,
the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a set of resolutions declaring
that the General Assembly of the colony alone had the right to lay taxes
upon the inhabitants and that attempts to impose them otherwise were
"illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust." It was in support of these
resolutions that Patrick Henry uttered the immortal challenge: "Caesar
had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III...." Cries of
"Treason" were calmly met by the orator who finished: "George III may
profit by their example. If that be treason, make the most of it."
The Stamp Act Congress
The Massachusetts Assembly answered the call
of Virginia by inviting the colonies to elect delegates to a Congress to
be held in New York to discuss the situation. Nine colonies responded
and sent representatives. The delegates, while professing the warmest
affection for the king's person and government, firmly spread on record
a series of resolutions that admitted of no double meaning. They
declared that taxes could not be imposed without their consent, given
through their respective colonial assemblies; that the Stamp Act showed
a tendency to subvert their rights and liberties; that the recent trade
acts were burdensome and grievous; and that the right to petition the
king and Parliament was their heritage. They thereupon made "humble
supplication" for the repeal of the Stamp Act.
The Stamp Act Congress was more than an assembly of protest. It marked
the rise of a new agency of government to express the will of America.
It was the germ of a government which in time was to supersede the
government of George III in the colonies. It foreshadowed the Congress
of the United States under the Constitution. It was a successful attempt
at union. "There ought to be no New England men," declared Christopher
Gadsden, in the Stamp Act Congress, "no New Yorkers known on the
Continent, but all of us Americans."
The Repeal of the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act
The effect of American
resistance on opinion in England was telling. Commerce with the colonies
had been effectively boycotted by the Americans; ships lay idly swinging
at the wharves; bankruptcy threatened hundreds of merchants in London,
Bristol, and Liverpool. Workingmen in the manufacturing towns of England
were thrown out of employment. The government had sown folly and was
reaping, in place of the coveted revenue, rebellion.
Perplexed by the storm they had raised, the ministers summoned to the
bar of the House of Commons, Benjamin Franklin, the agent for
Pennsylvania, who was in London. "Do you think it right," asked
Grenville, "that America should be protected by this country and pay no
part of the expenses?" The answer was brief: "That is not the case; the
colonies raised, clothed, and paid during the last war twenty-five
thousand men and spent many millions." Then came an inquiry whether the
colonists would accept a modified stamp act. "No, never," replied
Franklin, "never! They will never submit to it!" It was next suggested
that military force might compel obedience to law. Franklin had a ready
answer. "They cannot force a man to take stamps.... They may not find a
rebellion; they may, indeed, make one."
The repeal of the Stamp Act was moved in the House of Commons a few days
later. The sponsor for the repeal spoke of commerce interrupted, debts
due British merchants placed in jeopardy, Manchester industries closed,
workingmen unemployed, oppression instituted, and the loss of the
colonies threatened. Pitt and Edmund Burke, the former near the close
of his career, the latter just beginning his, argued cogently in favor
of retracing the steps taken the year before. Grenville refused.
"America must learn," he wailed, "that prayers are not to be brought to
Caesar through riot and sedition." His protests were idle. The Commons
agreed to the repeal on February 22, 1766, amid the cheers of the
victorious majority. It was carried through the Lords in the face of
strong opposition and, on March 18, reluctantly signed by the king, now
restored to his right mind.
In rescinding the Stamp Act, Parliament did not admit the contention of
the Americans that it was without power to tax them. On the contrary, it
accompanied the repeal with a Declaratory Act. It announced that the
colonies were subordinate to the crown and Parliament of Great Britain;
that the king and Parliament therefore had undoubted authority to make
laws binding the colonies in all cases whatsoever; and that the
resolutions and proceedings of the colonists denying such authority were
null and void.
The repeal was greeted by the colonists with great popular
demonstrations. Bells were rung; toasts to the king were drunk; and
trade resumed its normal course. The Declaratory Act, as a mere paper
resolution, did not disturb the good humor of those who again cheered
the name of King George. Their confidence was soon strengthened by the
news that even the Sugar Act had been repealed, thus practically
restoring the condition of affairs before Grenville and Townshend
inaugurated their policy of "thoroughness."
RESUMPTION OF BRITISH REVENUE AND COMMERCIAL POLICIES
The Townshend Acts (1767)
The triumph of the colonists was brief.
Though Pitt, the friend of America, was once more prime minister, and
seated in the House of Lords as the Earl of Chatham, his severe illness
gave to Townshend and the Tory party practical control over Parliament.
Unconvinced by the experience with the Stamp Act, Townshend brought
forward and pushed through both Houses of Parliament three measures,
which to this day are associated with his name. First among his
restrictive laws was that of June 29, 1767, which placed the enforcement
of the collection of duties and customs on colonial imports and exports
in the hands of British commissioners appointed by the king, resident in
the colonies, paid from the British treasury, and independent of all
control by the colonists. The second measure of the same date imposed a
tax on lead, glass, paint, tea, and a few other articles imported into
the colonies, the revenue derived from the duties to be applied toward
the payment of the salaries and other expenses of royal colonial
officials. A third measure was the Tea Act of July 2, 1767, aimed at the
tea trade which the Americans carried on illegally with foreigners. This
law abolished the duty which the East India Company had to pay in
England on tea exported to America, for it was thought that English tea
merchants might thus find it possible to undersell American tea
Writs of Assistance Legalized by Parliament
Had Parliament been
content with laying duties, just as a manifestation of power and right,
and neglected their collection, perhaps little would have been heard of
the Townshend Acts. It provided, however, for the strict, even the
harsh, enforcement of the law. It ordered customs officers to remain at
their posts and put an end to smuggling. In the revenue act of June 29,
1767, it expressly authorized the superior courts of the colonies to
issue "writs of assistance," empowering customs officers to enter "any
house, warehouse, shop, cellar, or other place in the British colonies
or plantations in America to search for and seize" prohibited or
The writ of assistance, which was a general search warrant issued to
revenue officers, was an ancient device hateful to a people who
cherished the spirit of personal independence and who had made actual
gains in the practice of civil liberty. To allow a "minion of the law"
to enter a man's house and search his papers and premises, was too much
for the emotions of people who had fled to America in a quest for
self-government and free homes, who had braved such hardships to
establish them, and who wanted to trade without official interference.
The writ of assistance had been used in Massachusetts in 1755 to prevent
illicit trade with Canada and had aroused a violent hostility at that
time. In 1761 it was again the subject of a bitter controversy which
arose in connection with the application of a customs officer to a
Massachusetts court for writs of assistance "as usual." This application
was vainly opposed by James Otis in a speech of five hours' duration--a
speech of such fire and eloquence that it sent every man who heard it
away "ready to take up arms against writs of assistance." Otis denounced
the practice as an exercise of arbitrary power which had cost one king
his head and another his throne, a tyrant's device which placed the
liberty of every man in jeopardy, enabling any petty officer to work
possible malice on any innocent citizen on the merest suspicion, and to
spread terror and desolation through the land. "What a scene," he
exclaimed, "does this open! Every man, prompted by revenge, ill-humor,
or wantonness to inspect the inside of his neighbor's house, may get a
writ of assistance. Others will ask it from self-defense; one arbitrary
exertion will provoke another until society is involved in tumult and
blood." He did more than attack the writ itself. He said that Parliament
could not establish it because it was against the British constitution.
This was an assertion resting on slender foundation, but it was quickly
echoed by the people. Then and there James Otis sounded the call to
America to resist the exercise of arbitrary power by royal officers.
"Then and there," wrote John Adams, "the child Independence was born."
Such was the hated writ that Townshend proposed to put into the hands of
customs officers in his grim determination to enforce the law.
The New York Assembly Suspended
In the very month that Townshend's
Acts were signed by the king, Parliament took a still more drastic step.
The assembly of New York, protesting against the "ruinous and
insupportable" expense involved, had failed to make provision for the
care of British troops in accordance with the terms of the Quartering
Act. Parliament therefore suspended the assembly until it promised to
obey the law. It was not until a third election was held that compliance
with the Quartering Act was wrung from the reluctant province. In the
meantime, all the colonies had learned on how frail a foundation their
representative bodies rested.
RENEWED RESISTANCE IN AMERICA
The Massachusetts Circular (1768)
Massachusetts, under the
leadership of Samuel Adams, resolved to resist the policy of renewed
intervention in America. At his suggestion the assembly adopted a
Circular Letter addressed to the assemblies of the other colonies
informing them of the state of affairs in Massachusetts and roundly
condemning the whole British program. The Circular Letter declared that
Parliament had no right to lay taxes on Americans without their consent
and that the colonists could not, from the nature of the case, be
represented in Parliament. It went on shrewdly to submit to
consideration the question as to whether any people could be called free
who were subjected to governors and judges appointed by the crown and
paid out of funds raised independently. It invited the other colonies,
in the most temperate tones, to take thought about the common
predicament in which they were all placed.
The Dissolution of Assemblies
The governor of Massachusetts, hearing
of the Circular Letter, ordered the assembly to rescind its appeal. On
meeting refusal, he promptly dissolved it. The Maryland, Georgia, and
South Carolina assemblies indorsed the Circular Letter and were also
dissolved at once. The Virginia House of Burgesses, thoroughly aroused,
passed resolutions on May 16, 1769, declaring that the sole right of
imposing taxes in Virginia was vested in its legislature, asserting anew
the right of petition to the crown, condemning the transportation of
persons accused of crimes or trial beyond the seas, and beseeching the
king for a redress of the general grievances. The immediate dissolution
of the Virginia assembly, in its turn, was the answer of the royal
The Boston Massacre
American opposition to the British authorities
kept steadily rising as assemblies were dissolved, the houses of
citizens searched, and troops distributed in increasing numbers among
the centers of discontent. Merchants again agreed not to import British
goods, the Sons of Liberty renewed their agitation, and women set about
the patronage of home products still more loyally.
On the night of March 5, 1770, a crowd on the streets of Boston began to
jostle and tease some British regulars stationed in the town. Things
went from bad to worse until some "boys and young fellows" began to
throw snowballs and stones. Then the exasperated soldiers fired into the
crowd, killing five and wounding half a dozen more. The day after the
"massacre," a mass meeting was held in the town and Samuel Adams was
sent to demand the withdrawal of the soldiers. The governor hesitated
and tried to compromise. Finding Adams relentless, the governor yielded
and ordered the regulars away.
The Boston Massacre stirred the country from New Hampshire to Georgia.
Popular passions ran high. The guilty soldiers were charged with murder.
Their defense was undertaken, in spite of the wrath of the populace, by
John Adams and Josiah Quincy, who as lawyers thought even the worst
offenders entitled to their full rights in law. In his speech to the
jury, however, Adams warned the British government against its course,
saying, that "from the nature of things soldiers quartered in a populous
town will always occasion two mobs where they will prevent one." Two of
the soldiers were convicted and lightly punished.
Resistance in the South
The year following the Boston Massacre some
citizens of North Carolina, goaded by the conduct of the royal governor,
openly resisted his authority. Many were killed as a result and seven
who were taken prisoners were hanged as traitors. A little later royal
troops and local militia met in a pitched battle near Alamance River,
called the "Lexington of the South."
The Gaspee Affair and the Virginia Resolutions of 1773
On sea as
well as on land, friction between the royal officers and the colonists
broke out into overt acts. While patrolling Narragansett Bay looking for
smugglers one day in 1772, the armed ship, Gaspee, ran ashore and was
caught fast. During the night several men from Providence boarded the
vessel and, after seizing the crew, set it on fire. A royal commission,
sent to Rhode Island to discover the offenders and bring them to
account, failed because it could not find a single informer. The very
appointment of such a commission aroused the patriots of Virginia to
action; and in March, 1773, the House of Burgesses passed a resolution
creating a standing committee of correspondence to develop cooeperation
among the colonies in resistance to British measures.
The Boston Tea Party
Although the British government, finding the
Townshend revenue act a failure, repealed in 1770 all the duties except
that on tea, it in no way relaxed its resolve to enforce the other
commercial regulations it had imposed on the colonies. Moreover,
Parliament decided to relieve the British East India Company of the
financial difficulties into which it had fallen partly by reason of the
Tea Act and the colonial boycott that followed. In 1773 it agreed to
return to the Company the regular import duties, levied in England, on
all tea transshipped to America. A small impost of three pence, to be
collected in America, was left as a reminder of the principle laid down
in the Declaratory Act that Parliament had the right to tax the
This arrangement with the East India Company was obnoxious to the
colonists for several reasons. It was an act of favoritism for one
thing, in the interest of a great monopoly. For another thing, it
promised to dump on the American market, suddenly, an immense amount of
cheap tea and so cause heavy losses to American merchants who had large
stocks on hand. It threatened with ruin the business of all those who
were engaged in clandestine trade with the Dutch. It carried with it an
irritating tax of three pence on imports. In Charleston, Annapolis, New
York, and Boston, captains of ships who brought tea under this act were
roughly handled. One night in December, 1773, a band of Boston citizens,
disguised as Indians, boarded the hated tea ships and dumped the cargo
into the harbor. This was serious business, for it was open, flagrant,
determined violation of the law. As such the British government viewed
RETALIATION BY THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT
Reception of the News of the Tea Riot
The news of the tea riot in
Boston confirmed King George in his conviction that there should be no
soft policy in dealing with his American subjects. "The die is cast," he
stated with evident satisfaction. "The colonies must either triumph or
submit.... If we take the resolute part, they will undoubtedly be very
meek." Lord George Germain characterized the tea party as "the
proceedings of a tumultuous and riotous rabble who ought, if they had
the least prudence, to follow their mercantile employments and not
trouble themselves with politics and government, which they do not
understand." This expressed, in concise form, exactly the sentiments of
Lord North, who had then for three years been the king's chief minister.
Even Pitt, Lord Chatham, was prepared to support the government in
upholding its authority.
The Five Intolerable Acts
Parliament, beginning on March 31, 1774,
passed five stringent measures, known in American history as the five
"intolerable acts." They were aimed at curing the unrest in America. The
first of them was a bill absolutely shutting the port of Boston to
commerce with the outside world. The second, following closely,
revoked the Massachusetts charter of 1691 and provided furthermore that
the councilors should be appointed by the king, that all judges should
be named by the royal governor, and that town meetings (except to elect
certain officers) could not be held without the governor's consent. A
third measure, after denouncing the "utter subversion of all lawful
government" in the provinces, authorized royal agents to transfer to
Great Britain or to other colonies the trials of officers or other
persons accused of murder in connection with the enforcement of the law.
The fourth act legalized the quartering of troops in Massachusetts
towns. The fifth of the measures was the Quebec Act, which granted
religious toleration to the Catholics in Canada, extended the boundaries
of Quebec southward to the Ohio River, and established, in this western
region, government by a viceroy.
The intolerable acts went through Parliament with extraordinary
celerity. There was an opposition, alert and informed; but it was
ineffective. Burke spoke eloquently against the Boston port bill,
condemning it roundly for punishing the innocent with the guilty, and
showing how likely it was to bring grave consequences in its train. He
was heard with respect and his pleas were rejected. The bill passed both
houses without a division, the entry "unanimous" being made upon their
journals although it did not accurately represent the state of opinion.
The law destroying the charter of Massachusetts passed the Commons by a
vote of three to one; and the third intolerable act by a vote of four to
one. The triumph of the ministry was complete. "What passed in Boston,"
exclaimed the great jurist, Lord Mansfield, "is the overt act of High
Treason proceeding from our over lenity and want of foresight." The
crown and Parliament were united in resorting to punitive measures.
In the colonies the laws were received with consternation. To the
American Protestants, the Quebec Act was the most offensive. That
project they viewed not as an act of grace or of mercy but as a direct
attempt to enlist French Canadians on the side of Great Britain. The
British government did not grant religious toleration to Catholics
either at home or in Ireland and the Americans could see no good motive
in granting it in North America. The act was also offensive because
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia had, under their charters,
large claims in the territory thus annexed to Quebec.
To enforce these intolerable acts the military arm of the British
government was brought into play. The commander-in-chief of the armed
forces in America, General Gage, was appointed governor of
Massachusetts. Reinforcements were brought to the colonies, for now King
George was to give "the rebels," as he called them, a taste of strong
medicine. The majesty of his law was to be vindicated by force.
FROM REFORM TO REVOLUTION IN AMERICA
The Doctrine of Natural Rights
The dissolution of assemblies, the
destruction of charters, and the use of troops produced in the colonies
a new phase in the struggle. In the early days of the contest with the
British ministry, the Americans spoke of their "rights as Englishmen"
and condemned the acts of Parliament as unlawful, as violating the
principles of the English constitution under which they all lived. When
they saw that such arguments had no effect on Parliament, they turned
for support to their "natural rights." The latter doctrine, in the form
in which it was employed by the colonists, was as English as the
constitutional argument. John Locke had used it with good effect in
defense of the English revolution in the seventeenth century. American
leaders, familiar with the writings of Locke, also took up his thesis in
the hour of their distress. They openly declared that their rights did
not rest after all upon the English constitution or a charter from the
crown. "Old Magna Carta was not the beginning of all things," retorted
Otis when the constitutional argument failed. "A time may come when
Parliament shall declare every American charter void, but the natural,
inherent, and inseparable rights of the colonists as men and as citizens
would remain and whatever became of charters can never be abolished
until the general conflagration." Of the same opinion was the young and
impetuous Alexander Hamilton. "The sacred rights of mankind," he
exclaimed, "are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty
records. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human
destiny by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or
obscured by mortal power."
Firm as the American leaders were in the statement and defense of their
rights, there is every reason for believing that in the beginning they
hoped to confine the conflict to the realm of opinion. They constantly
avowed that they were loyal to the king when protesting in the strongest
language against his policies. Even Otis, regarded by the loyalists as a
firebrand, was in fact attempting to avert revolution by winning
concessions from England. "I argue this cause with the greater
pleasure," he solemnly urged in his speech against the writs of
assistance, "as it is in favor of British liberty ... and as it is in
opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which in former periods
cost one king of England his head and another his throne."
Burke Offers the Doctrine of Conciliation
The flooding tide of
American sentiment was correctly measured by one Englishman at least,
Edmund Burke, who quickly saw that attempts to restrain the rise of
American democracy were efforts to reverse the processes of nature. He
saw how fixed and rooted in the nature of things was the American
spirit--how inevitable, how irresistible. He warned his countrymen that
there were three ways of handling the delicate situation--and only
three. One was to remove the cause of friction by changing the spirit of
the colonists--an utter impossibility because that spirit was grounded
in the essential circumstances of American life. The second was to
prosecute American leaders as criminals; of this he begged his
countrymen to beware lest the colonists declare that "a government
against which a claim of liberty is tantamount to high treason is a
government to which submission is equivalent to slavery." The third and
right way to meet the problem, Burke concluded, was to accept the
American spirit, repeal the obnoxious measures, and receive the colonies
into equal partnership.
Events Produce the Great Decision
The right way, indicated by Burke,
was equally impossible to George III and the majority in Parliament. To
their narrow minds, American opinion was contemptible and American
resistance unlawful, riotous, and treasonable. The correct way, in their
view, was to dispatch more troops to crush the "rebels"; and that very
act took the contest from the realm of opinion. As John Adams said:
"Facts are stubborn things." Opinions were unseen, but marching soldiers
were visible to the veriest street urchin. "Now," said Gouverneur
Morris, "the sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore."
It was too late to talk about the excellence of the British
constitution. If any one is bewildered by the controversies of modern
historians as to why the crisis came at last, he can clarify his
understanding by reading again Edmund Burke's stately oration, On
Conciliation with America.
Next: The American Revolution
Previous: The Development Of Colonial Nationalism