The Colonies versus Britain

When Charles II ascended the throne in England, in 1651, the British crown under Charles II enacted the navigation act. It was formulated to convert the scattered American settlements into a world Empire. Through this act, England wanted to make its overseas colonies, a huge trading area well protected by her powerful navy. Thus, the colonies would produce goods which could not grow or be produced in England - like lumber, fur, tobacco, indigo, sugar etc. These products could be sold or sent only to Britain, where they would enjoy complete monopoly. And as far as possible, the colonies would buy their finished products from the English. In other words, even if the products were originally manufactured in Europe, they had to go through England, to reach the colonies. Besides, merchants had to pay custom duties on all the traded goods coming from England. The goods could be carried only in British or colonial ships.

The Navigation Act was followed by the Staple Act of 1663. This Act made it necessary for all goods imported by the colonies from any part of Europe to be shipped from British ports. These acts helped the crown to increase their revenue to fill her war-drained coffers. Many colonies in America, especially Massachusetts resented and resisted these Acts. The reasons were religious well as economic.

Since the population of Massachusetts comprised mainly of Puritans, they resented the restoration of the Tudor dynasty in England. The colony secretly gave refuge to a Puritan man, an escaped convict who was condemned to death by the king for the execution of Charles I. Further, the merchants perceived the Navigation Act as restrictive to trade. Most merchants from Massachusetts ignored the Act. Moreover, it insisted on following its own set of laws, particularly those concerning religion - which were opposed to the church in England. All attempts by the king to make the colony conform to the laws and Acts of the mother country, were of no avail. In many instances the laws were fiercely resisted.

The Navigation Acts were particularly resented when the price of tobacco fell in the British market. This was in 1667, when they fell to about half a penny per pound. Almost half the tobacco shipped from the colony, to Britain, was then exported to the other parts of Europe. Due to the fall in the prices, the merchants in Massachusetts did not find it profitable to send tobacco to Britain. Instead they began turning a blind eye to the laws under the Navigation Act by sending tobacco directly to Europe via Holland.

Moreover, even Virginia whose inhabitants were loyal supporters of the British king, got disgruntled due to the Navigation and Staple Acts.


3.0 Chronology of Major Events in this Period

1760 - 1820 - The reign of George III

1765 - Stamp Act; Stamp Act Congress Meets in New York; Quartering


1766 - Stamp Act Repealed by Parliament; Quartering Act.

1767 - Townshend Duties Passed; Dickinsons Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania published.

1768 - British Troops sent to Boston.

1770 - Townshend Duties Repealed; Except for Duty on Tea; Boston Massacre.

1772 - The Gaspee Affair.

1773 - Tea Act Imposed; Boston Tea Party.

1774 - Coercive or Intolerable Acts; Continental Congress Meets in Philadelphia.

1775 - Battles of Lexington and Concord; second continental Congress

meets at Philadelphia;

George Washington appointed Commander-in-Chief of the

Continental Army;

Battle of Bunker Hill.

1776 - Thomas Paines Common Sense; Declaration of Independence;

1777 - Articles of Confederation adopted by the Congress, but not ratified by all States until 1781.

1778 - U.S. concludes Military Alliance and Commercial Treaty with France.

1781 - Cornwallis surrenders to Washington at York Town, Virginia.

1783 - Treaty of Paris signed with Britain.


British attempts to establish a strong imperialist rule in the new colonies backfired. In the long run it served to unite the 13 colonies against the Empire in London.

By the mid 1700s, through a series of military victories, England removed the French and Spanish threats in America. The wars with Spain and France had doubled the war debts. So the king decided that the colonies should also contribute by paying more taxes so as to relieve England of the burden of debt. This was done by a strict enforcement of the Navigation Acts.

Meanwhile, with the removal of the French control in the west of America, there was a greater need for an alternative, but stricter administration. Moreover, the relations between the Red Indians and the White traders required to be managed. This was chiefly due to an Indian uprising (led by Chief Pontiac) against the British. This Indian tribe was sympathetic to the French. The uprising was crushed after two years of bloodshed. The result was that it drained the British treasury again. In 1763, a Royal Proclamation barred whites from all lands, west of the Appalachians - which was given exclusively for the Indians. Moreover, the trade of fur was further regulated by making it necessary for only licensed traders to buy and sell fur. This was greatly resented by traders and speculators in the New World.

And as if this were not enough, the British Parliament passed a series of laws, to raise custom revenue. This was done under the Revenue Act (1764). This was followed by the Stamp Act (1765) which was an internal tax. This law taxed newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, legal documents, insurance policies, etc. The taxes had to be paid in the form of a stamp, purchased from the collectors (to be appointed from among the colonies) and affixed on the particular item or document. Through this Act, the Grenville Ministry in England hoped to raise 60,000/- Pounds as revenue.

This greatly angered the colonies. Writing about the act, a jurist from New York, William Smith said: With a "single stroke," Britain had "lost...the affection of all her colonies." The House of Burgesses in Virginia, criticized King George III for the new legislation. The members later passed a resolution condemning the act and stated that the right to tax should remain in the hands of the people or their representatives. Soon similar resolutions were adopted by other colonies too.

The assembly at Massachusetts, called the Massachusetts General Court went a step further. The General court invited representatives from all the colonies to meet and decide on a joint program, opposing the Act. This invitation which was accepted by all the colonies, can be considered the first step towards the unification of the scattered settlements in America.

Meanwhile, in Boston, a group called the Sons of Liberty started burning effigies of the new tax commissioner to protest against the new tax. These protests often took a violent form damaging property etc. Several prominent leaders frowned upon the "Patriots" (name given to people who were opposed to the tax) like John Adams and Joshiah Quincy.

The meeting of the delegates from colonies called the Stamp Act Congress was held in October 1765. They prepared a joint declaration asserting that such taxes cannot be imposed on people without them consent. Further they demanded that these taxes, which affected American trade, must be repealed.

The feelings against the Act were so strong that some 200 merchants from New York decided to take new orders for British goods only if the Stamp Act was canceled. Other traders later joined these merchants in Boston, Salem, Philadelphia and other ports. Due to such a stiff opposition, the parliament in England was forced to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766. But the Americans could not rejoice for long.

In London, a new ministry came into office in 1767. It pledged to reduce land taxes in Britain. To make up for the lost revenue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, formulated the Townshend Act. Under this Act, Britain was to levy duties on tea, paper, paint, glass, lead etc. Quartering Act (1765) which required the colonies to provide the British troops in America with barracks and items like candles, utensils, beer/ cider or rum, etc. were already quite unpopular. The duties under the Townshend Act, caused widespread protests everywhere in the American colonies.

The Massachusetts legislature issued a circular, which declared that only their own assemblies should tax the colonies. The Virginia Burgesses supported the views expressed in the circular, by passing a resolution based on a similar idea. Prominent American leaders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson favored this resolution.

Several pamphlets were brought out to make the common American aware of these tyrannical tax legislations imposed on them. These leaflets demanded more freedom for colonies, but did not speak about breaking away from the mother Country. The most moving statement made on the subject was John Dickinsons - Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer. A lawyer from Philadelphia, Dickinson, in his Letters posed as a simple Pennsylvanian, warned the Americans against violence and expressed deep affection for "mother Britain." On the issue of taxation, he very firmly stated: "we cannot be free without being secure in our property that we cannot be secure in our property, if without our concert others may as by right take it away that taxes imposed on us by parliament do thus take it away."

Such pamphlets convinced the Americans that external taxation (on trade and commerce) to regulate overseas trade was valid. Taxes imposed to generate revenue without the consent of the people are an attack on their natural rights. Owing to this, emotions ran high against the Acts in the colonies, especially against the British army stationed there. These feelings reached their climax with a violent incident involving some British soldiers and American civilians. The incident, now known as the Boston Massacre sent shockwaves throughout the colonies.

The Events Leading to the War of Independence

The Gaspee Incident

Due to the strong anti-British feelings aroused by the Townshend Acts, the Parliament in London was compelled to repeal it. And for years, there was peace between the colonies and the mother country. Hostile feelings surfaced, when in 1772, the "Gaspee" incident shook the British throne. This incident occurred in Rhode Island. To stop the smuggling of goods from the numerous coves and inlets of the Island, the British Government had sent a ship "Gaspee" to guard the seacoast of Rhode Island. Due to the tide, the ship was pushed onto a sandbar. When some of the members of the "sons of Liberty" group, Rhode Island, heard this, they took over the stranded ship, arrested the captain with his crew, and set the ship on fire.

The king was shocked. The British government immediately instructed a commission of inquiry, to investigate the "Gaspee" affair. Further, it gave the commission the power to send suspects to England for a trial. But the commission could not do much in America, because witnesses to the incident refused to testify against the people involved in the incident. So the committee had to return home midway. The incident only served to anger the Patriots further.

Another interesting phenomenon that resulted due to the Gaspee affair was that a committee of correspondence was set up in each colony. The committee consisted of men who decided to send and receive messages on matters concerning mutual concern. This network of responsible patriots went on to play a leading role in the struggle against Britain.

The Boston Tea Party

In 1773, Britain passed the Tea Act. By this Act, about 17 million pounds of surplus tea (assets of the East India Company, India) was proposed to be sold in America, by under selling it. Since the tea would be sold at an extremely cheap rate by bypassing the traders, the wholesalers in America were going to be seriously affected. For this reason, the Act was fiercely resisted by the colonies. Since British tea was already being boycotted because of the heavy duties on it, the Act in America was seen as a bribe from the British Authorities.

In Boston, the opposition against the Tea Act took a dramatic form. Here some men dressed as Indians boarded a ship containing tea, at the Harbor and dumped the entire consignment into the sea. This incident is known as the Boston Tea Party. While the people in Boston rejoiced, the British Parliament passed certain laws to punish the colony. They passed what the colonists popularly called the Intolerable Acts in 1774. Under these Acts, the Boston port was closed until due compensation was paid to the government (London) for the lost tea. Further, the British troops were re-stationed in the city.

These measures were just the first few in a series of laws passed by the parliament in Britain. The British authorities, under the Administration of Justice Act - announced that if any royal official in the colonies was prevented from carrying out their duties the suspects could be brought to Britain for a trial. Besides, the Massachusetts Government Act gave a hard blow to the self-government (in Massachusetts) by depriving its legislature of many powers. Instead, a royal governor was appointed - who had the sole right to call town meetings. Members of the Jury, who were always elected in Massachusetts, were now, to be summoned by the sheriff.

These Acts obviously, made the colonies furious. Something, had to be done to fight the unjust, Intolerable Acts.


The First Continental Congress

When the Intolerable Acts (1774) were passed, the House of Burgesses in Virginia, met at the Raleigh Tavern, since it was not allowed to meet at the usual place, by an order of the royal governor. At this meeting, it was decided to convene a Congress of members from all colonies to formulate a joint action against Britain.

This Congress - the first Continental Congress was held in Carpenters Hall, Philadelphia, in September 1774. Representatives from 12 colonies came for the Congress. Georgia did not send anyone, because the royalists there marginalized the patriots. Most of the 56 delegates, attending the Congress were lawyers, big planters and merchants. And almost all of them were prominent members of the committees of correspondence.

Three groups were present at this historic Congress. The Conservatives were led by Joseph Galloway. They wanted to establish a Union of colonies under a President general appointed by the king. The Moderates believed that force against the mother country should be used as the last measure. They hoped for a peaceful solution. The Radicals were led by Joshua Wilson, John Adams and others who questioned the authority of the British Parliament over the colonies and to use force if necessary, to assert their independence.

The Radicals won the day, by defeating the proposal introduced by the Conservatives. The Radicals persuaded the Congress to adopt its own plan i.e. denouncing the coercive Acts as unjust and unconstitutional. The Resolution condemned the revenue acts, the presence of British army in America and the dissolution of the Democratically elected assemblies of the colonies by Britain. It supported the Suffolks resolves - declaring the Intolerable Acts null and void. The Congress adopted regulations, which would cut off all commercial relations with England. Before closing the members agreed to convene a second Congress in May 1775.

The Congress proved to be very popular among the colonists. Just before the second Congress, in April 1775, the patriots learned that British troops were going to capture the arms and ammunition hidden by colonists in Concord, Massachusetts. It was evident that the leaders here would be arrested. So Paul Revere and his fellow patriot rode for miles, the night before, to warn the people at Concord.

When the British troops entered Lexington, the people were ready to meet them. The famous battles of Lexington and Concord were fought then. It is said that local people from barns and homes fired at the British troops. Thus began the Revolutionary war for Independence from the British Crown. After the battles at Lexington and Concorde, each colonys assembly passed a resolution to raise troops for an army.

Though, these troops were rather ill equipped and unorganized, they defeated the British troops on Bunker Hill. Meanwhile, in the second Continental Congress, held at Philadelphia, George Washington was appointed as the commander of the Continental army. Washington kept the ill equipped and undisciplined army together, in the long protracted war with Britain.

A final break from the mother country was brought about due to the famous pamphlet written by Thomas Paine. His passionate and eloquent work called: Common Sense criticized the institution of hereditary Kingship: "For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever."

Tom Paines work became a significant and revolutionary statement against the whole system of hereditary monarchy. The message in this pamphlet inspired millions of Americans to fight for independence.

The Declaration of Independence

A peoples convention in North Carolina gave its delegates in the Congress, the right to decide towards Independence. The legislature in Virginia passed a similar motion. Thus, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of five prominent members: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingstone. The chairman of the committee, Thomas Jefferson prepared the historic document declaring Independence.

This moving declaration states that: "All men are created equal", and "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights", which are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." A governments duty is to "secure these rights." But when the government is or becomes "destructive of these ends," it is "the right of the people to alter or abolish it" so as to create a new government which would respect these natural rights of men. This historic declaration was adopted on July 4, 1776.