1651–1748: Early seeds
As early as 1651, the English government had sought to regulate trade in the American colonies. On October 9, the Navigation Acts were passed pursuant to a mercantilist policy intended to ensure that trade enriched only Great Britain, and barring trade with foreign nations. Some argue that the economic impact was minimal on the colonists, but the political friction which the acts triggered was more serious, as the merchants most directly affected were most politically active. King Philip's War ended in 1678, and much of it was fought without significant assistance from England. This contributed to the development of a unique identity, separate from that of the British people.
In the 1680s, King Charles II determined to bring the New England colonies under a more centralized administration in order to regulate trade more effectively. His efforts were fiercely opposed by the colonists, resulting in the abrogation of their colonial charter by the Crown. Charles' successor James II finalized these efforts in 1686, establishing the Dominion of New England. Dominion rule triggered bitter resentment throughout New England; the enforcement of the unpopular Navigation Acts and the curtailing of local democracy angered the colonists. New Englanders were encouraged, however, by a change of government in England that saw James II effectively abdicate, and a populist uprising overthrew Dominion rule on April 18, 1689. Colonial governments reasserted their control in the wake of the revolt, and successive governments made no more attempts to restore the Dominion.
Subsequent English governments continued in their efforts to tax certain goods, passing acts regulating the trade of wool, hats, and molasses. The Molasses Act of 1733 in particular was egregious to the colonists, as a significant part of colonial trade relied on the product. The taxes severely damaged the New England economy, and the taxes were rarely paid, resulting in a surge of smuggling, bribery, and intimidation of customs officials. Colonial wars fought in America were often the source of considerable tension. The British captured the fortress of Louisbourg during the War of the Austrian Succession, but then ceded it back to France in 1748. New England colonists resented their losses of lives, as well as the effort and expenditure involved in subduing the fortress, only to have it returned to their erstwhile enemy.
Historians typically begin their histories of the American Revolution with the British coalition victory in the Seven Years' War in 1763. The North American theater of the Seven Years' War is commonly known as the French and Indian War in the United States; it removed France as a major player in North American affairs and led to the territory of New France being ceded to Great Britain. Lawrence Henry Gipson writes:
It may be said as truly that the American Revolution was an aftermath of the Anglo-French conflict in the New World carried on between 1754 and 1763.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 may also have played a role in the separation of the Thirteen Colonies from England, as colonists wanted to continue migrating west to lands awarded by the Crown for their wartime service. The Proclamation, however, cut them off. The lands west of Quebec and west of a line running along the crest of the Allegheny Mountains became Indian territory, barred to settlement for two years.
The colonists protested, and the boundary line was adjusted in a series of treaties with the Indians. In 1768, Indians agreed to the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the Treaty of Hard Labour, followed in 1770 by the Treaty of Lochaber. The treaties opened most of Kentucky and West Virginia to colonial settlement. The new map was drawn up at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 which moved the line much farther to the west, from the green line to the red line on the map at right.
1764–1766: Taxes imposed and withdrawn
Notice of Stamp Act of 1765 in newspaper
In 1764, Parliament passed the Currency Act to restrain the use of paper money, fearing that otherwise the colonists might evade debt payments. Parliament also passed the Sugar Act, imposing customs duties on a number of articles. That same year, Prime Minister George Grenville proposed direct taxes on the colonies to raise revenue, but he delayed action to see whether the colonies would propose some way to raise the revenue themselves. Parliament finally passed the Stamp Act in March 1765 which imposed direct taxes on the colonies for the first time. All official documents, newspapers, almanacs, and pamphlets were required to have the stamps—even decks of playing cards.
The colonists did not object that the taxes were high; they were actually low. They objected to the fact that they had no representation in the Parliament, and thus no voice concerning legislation that affected them. Benjamin Franklin testified in Parliament in 1766 that Americans already contributed heavily to the defense of the Empire. He said that local governments had raised, outfitted, and paid 25,000 soldiers to fight France—as many as Britain itself sent—and spent many millions from American treasuries doing so in the French and Indian War alone. London had to deal with 1,500 politically well-connected British Army soldiers. The decision was to keep them on active duty with full pay, but they had to be stationed somewhere. Stationing a standing army in Great Britain during peacetime was politically unacceptable, so the decision was made to station them in America and have the Americans pay them. The soldiers had no military mission; they were not there to defend the colonies because there was no threat to the colonies.
The Sons of Liberty were formed in 1765. They used public demonstrations, boycott, violence, and threats of violence to ensure that the British tax laws were unenforceable. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty burned the records of the vice admiralty court and looted the home of chief justice Thomas Hutchinson. Several legislatures called for united action, and nine colonies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1765. Moderates led by John Dickinson drew up a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" stating that taxes passed without representation violated their rights as Englishmen. Colonists emphasized their determination by boycotting imports of British merchandise.
The Parliament at Westminster saw itself as the supreme lawmaking authority throughout all British possessions and thus entitled to levy any tax without colonial approval. They argued that the colonies were legally British corporations that were completely subordinate to the British parliament and pointed to numerous instances where Parliament had made laws binding on the colonies in the past. They did not see anything in the unwritten British constitution that made taxes special and noted that they had taxed American trade for decades. Parliament insisted that the colonies effectively enjoyed a "virtual representation" as most British people did, as only a small minority of the British population elected representatives to Parliament. Americans such as James Otis maintained that the Americans were not in fact virtually represented.
In London, the Rockingham government came to power (July 1765) and Parliament debated whether to repeal the stamp tax or to send an army to enforce it. Benjamin Franklin made the case for repeal, explaining that the colonies had spent heavily in manpower, money, and blood in defense of the empire in a series of wars against the French and Indians, and that further taxes to pay for those wars were unjust and might bring about a rebellion. Parliament agreed and repealed the tax (February 21, 1766), but insisted in the Declaratory Act of March 1766 that they retained full power to make laws for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever". The repeal nonetheless caused widespread celebrations in the colonies.
1767–1773: Townshend Acts and the Tea Act
In 1767, the Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which placed duties on a number of essential goods, including paper, glass, and tea, and established a Board of Customs in Boston to more rigorously execute trade regulations. The new taxes were enacted on the belief that Americans only objected to internal taxes and not to external taxes such as custom duties. The Americans, however, argued against the constitutionality of the act because its purpose was to raise revenue and not regulate trade. Colonists responded by organizing new boycotts of British goods. These boycotts were less effective, however, as the Townshend goods were widely used.
In February 1768, the Assembly of Massachusetts Bay issued a circular letter to the other colonies urging them to coordinate resistance. The governor dissolved the assembly when it refused to rescind the letter. Meanwhile, a riot broke out in Boston in June 1768 over the seizure of the sloop Liberty, owned by John Hancock, for alleged smuggling. Customs officials were forced to flee, prompting the British to deploy troops to Boston. A Boston town meeting declared that no obedience was due to parliamentary laws and called for the convening of a convention. A convention assembled but only issued a mild protest before dissolving itself. In January 1769, Parliament responded to the unrest by reactivating the Treason Act 1543 which called for subjects outside the realm to face trials for treason in England. The governor of Massachusetts was instructed to collect evidence of said treason, and the threat caused widespread outrage, though it was not carried out.
On March 5, 1770, a large crowd gathered around a group of British soldiers. The crowd grew threatening, throwing snowballs, rocks, and debris at them. One soldier was clubbed and fell. There was no order to fire, but the soldiers fired into the crowd anyway. They hit 11 people; three civilians died at the scene of the shooting, and two died after the incident. The event quickly came to be called the Boston Massacre. The soldiers were tried and acquitted (defended by John Adams), but the widespread descriptions soon began to turn colonial sentiment against the British. This, in turn, began a downward spiral in the relationship between Britain and the Province of Massachusetts.
A new ministry under Lord North came to power in 1770, and Parliament withdrew all taxes except the tax on tea, giving up its efforts to raise revenue while maintaining the right to tax. This temporarily resolved the crisis, and the boycott of British goods largely ceased, with only the more radical patriots such as Samuel Adams continuing to agitate.
In June 1772, American patriots, including John Brown, burned a British warship that had been vigorously enforcing unpopular trade regulations in what became known as the Gaspee Affair. The affair was investigated for possible treason, but no action was taken.
In 1772, it became known that the Crown intended to pay fixed salaries to the governors and judges in Massachusetts. Samuel Adams in Boston set about creating new Committees of Correspondence, which linked Patriots in all 13 colonies and eventually provided the framework for a rebel government. Virginia, the largest colony, set up its Committee of Correspondence in early 1773, on which Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson served.
A total of about 7000 to 8000 Patriots served on "Committees of Correspondence" at the colonial and local levels, comprising most of the leadership in their communities. Loyalists were excluded. The committees became the leaders of the American resistance to British actions, and largely determined the war effort at the state and local level. When the First Continental Congress decided to boycott British products, the colonial and local Committees took charge, examining merchant records and publishing the names of merchants who attempted to defy the boycott by importing British goods.
In 1773, private letters were published in which Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson claimed that the colonists could not enjoy all English liberties, and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver called for the direct payment of colonial officials. The letters' contents were used as evidence of a systematic plot against American rights, and discredited Hutchinson in the eyes of the people; the Assembly petitioned for his recall. Benjamin Franklin, postmaster general for the colonies, acknowledged that he leaked the letters, which led to him being berated by British officials and fired from his job.
Meanwhile, Parliament passed the Tea Act to lower the price of taxed tea exported to the colonies in order to help the East India Company undersell smuggled Dutch tea. Special consignees were appointed to sell the tea in order to bypass colonial merchants. The act was opposed by those who resisted the taxes and also by smugglers who stood to lose business. In most instances, the consignees were forced to resign and the tea was turned back, but Massachusetts governor Hutchinson refused to allow Boston merchants to give in to pressure. A town meeting in Boston determined that the tea would not be landed, and ignored a demand from the governor to disperse. On December 16, 1773, a group of men, led by Samuel Adams and dressed to evoke the appearance of American Indians, boarded the ships of the British East India Company and dumped £10,000 worth of tea from their holds (approximately £636,000 in 2008) into Boston Harbor. Decades later, this event became known as the Boston Tea Party and remains a significant part of American patriotic lore.
1774–1775: Intolerable Acts and the Quebec Act
The British government responded by passing several Acts which came to be known as the Intolerable Acts, which further darkened colonial opinion towards the British. They consisted of four laws enacted by the British parliament. The first was the Massachusetts Government Act which altered the Massachusetts charter and restricted town meetings. The second act was the Administration of Justice Act which ordered that all British soldiers to be tried were to be arraigned in Britain, not in the colonies. The third Act was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until the British had been compensated for the tea lost in the Boston Tea Party. The fourth Act was the Quartering Act of 1774, which allowed royal governors to house British troops in the homes of citizens without requiring permission of the owner.
In response, Massachusetts patriots issued the Suffolk Resolves and formed an alternative shadow government known as the "Provincial Congress" which began training militia outside British-occupied Boston. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened, consisting of representatives from each of the colonies, to serve as a vehicle for deliberation and collective action. During secret debates, conservative Joseph Galloway proposed the creation of a colonial Parliament that would be able to approve or disapprove of acts of the British Parliament, but his idea was not accepted. The Congress instead endorsed the proposal of John Adams that Americans would obey Parliament voluntarily but would resist all taxes in disguise. Congress called for a boycott beginning on 1 December 1774 of all British goods; it was enforced by new committees authorized by the Congress.