On the Brink of War (1770–1774)

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On the Brink of War (1770–1774)

After Parliament's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, violence in the American colonies escalated, especially in Boston, Massachusetts. Surprisingly, some of these disturbances were orchestrated by well-educated, upstanding, respectable adults who held a grudge against England. (It is interesting to note that just before the Revolutionary War started, about half the population of the colonies was quite young—under fifteen years of age. An entire generation of colonial youth, then, was raised in a culture of rebellion.)

People like Samuel Adams (1722–1803), who favored a break with England, used mob action to keep the spirit of independence stirring. Newspaper publishers objected to the Stamp Act requirement that decreased American profits on their papers, so they kept the people riled up, too—and not just by publishing fiery letters. It was the publisher of the Boston Gazette who provided the dummies dressed as stamp agents for burning by a mob gathered to protest the Stamp Act.

A massacre takes place in Boston

British soldiers had been sent to the Massachusetts colony in late September of 1768 to try and keep the peace, and their presence on the streets of Boston was a constant irritation to its citizens. "Soldiering was a low, nasty profession," noted Albert Marrin in The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. The redcoats were an unsavory bunch of convicts, "dropouts, [and] no-goods…. Judges often gave prisoners a choice between the army or the noose."

Some soldiers harassed colonial women and children as they went about their daily business. On top of this, many colonists were—for a variety of reasons—having a hard time supporting themselves. Decent-paying jobs were in short supply, and because of a cutoff in trade with Great Britain, goods were scarce and higher prices were being charged for them. Yet, under the terms of the Quartering Act, the colonies were expected to provide food, housing, and supplies for British redcoat soldiers. The underpaid British soldiers often accepted odd jobs to supplement their incomes: they were viewed by unemployed colonists as unwelcome competition for work. It was only a matter of time before things got out of control.

On the afternoon of March 5, 1770, citizens and off-duty soldiers exchanged insults on the streets of Boston. Throughout the afternoon and early evening, mobs roamed the streets, taunting and provoking one another. Such incidents had occurred regularly throughout the nearly eighteen-month-long British military occupation of Boston. Finally, a series inflammatory remarks directed at a redcoat guarding the Customs House in Boston led to all-out violence. The soldier called for assistance, prompting British Captain Thomas Preston and several redcoat soldiers to race to his aid.

Verbal attacks gave way to a physical confrontation, in which colonists pelted the redcoats with stones, snowballs, chunks of ice, and clubs. After one of the redcoats was hit on the head, someone from the British side fired into the huge crowd of colonists that had gathered outside the building. Three people were killed outright; two were wounded and later died; six others were injured. According to one of the dying men, Samuel Adams had masterminded the bloody incident. But Adams claimed to be surprised and confused over the whole affair. It was probably Adams, though, who dubbed the incident the "Boston Massacre."

Differing views of the incident

Samuel Adams and his followers wasted no time in spreading the news far and wide: a "horrid Massacre" had taken place in Boston. Large numbers of American colonists were convinced that desperate Boston citizens had been forced to defend themselves against out-of-control British soldiers. (The troops were removed to a nearby island in the aftermath of the incident.) In fact, this version of the event was taught to generations of American schoolchildren. According to the British view, though, the soldiers had been driven to violence by the abusive and threatening actions of infuriated Boston citizens.

Captain Thomas Preston and eight of his men were arrested for the deaths that occurred that day in Boston. Preston offered a detailed account of the episode, beginning with "the arrival of his Majesty's troops in Boston [which] was extremely [hateful] to its inhabitants." He spoke of the "malicious temper of the people," an "alarming circumstance to the [soldiers]."

Captain Preston went on: "The insolence [insulting behavior] as well as utter hatred of the inhabitants to the troops increased daily." He then described the scene of utter chaos that occurred on the evening of March 5, with fire alarms ringing to call a colonial mob together. Finally, "one of the soldiers having received a severe blow with a stick, stepped a little on one side and instantly fired" without orders. A fight broke out, heavy clubs and snowballs were thrown, and "all our lives were in imminent danger." In the greater confusion, more shots were fired, several men fell, and the crowd ran away. "The whole of this melancholy [sad] affair was transacted [took place; occurred] in … 20 minutes."

Boston Massacre followed by a brief calm

A trial was held, but little evidence was produced that Preston had ordered his men to fire. In all the confusion, it was difficult to even figure out who had done the shooting. Preston and six others were finally let go; two others were found guilty, branded (burned) on the hand, and released.

Paul Revere (1735–1818), a respected silversmith, engraved an image of "The Bloody Massacre" as he imagined it happened (engravings could be used to make many printed copies), and copies were circulated all along the East Coast. As Marrin pointed out, Revere seems to have altered the truth to increase sympathy for the colonists. His drawing depicts "Captain Preston, his sword raised …, ordering the Redcoats to fire into the 'peaceful' crowd." The press continued to hammer home the point that liberty was being threatened. The publicity surrounding the episode contributed to growing anti-British feelings in the colonies.

Among cooler heads, however, there was a feeling that the violence had gotten out of hand. For a time, calm descended on the colonies, and matters returned to normal. Some trading resumed between England and the colonies (except for tea). England withdrew her troops from the western frontier (the troops were supposed to keep colonists out of Indian territory; see Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769]), and settlers began to move westward.

The mighty pen

While some people indulged in mob activities to show their distaste for British policies toward the colonies, others expressed their opinions through strongly worded writings. For ten years, from 1765 to 1775, Americans used their ideas about freedom and justice as forceful weapons in the struggle for their rights. With the exception of a few people like Samuel Adams, the majority of colonists were not pushing for independence during those ten years. Most colonists remained loyal to King George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820). They did not wish to withdraw from the British Empire but only to reform it, to make it better. American patriots were engaged in a struggle to express their rights as English citizens under the British constitution.

The war of words began in 1764 with James Otis's (1725–1783) Rights of the British Colonists Asserted. (See Chapter 3: Literature and the Arts in the Revolutionary Era.) John Dickinson (1732–1808) followed in 1767–1768 with his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Richard Bland offered An Enquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies. Samuel Adams contributed A Statement of the Rights of the Colonies in 1772. Two years later, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) offered his Summary View of the Rights of British America, which set out two of the themes that would run through the revolutionary struggle: the importance of individual rights and the notion of popular sovereignty (pronounced SOV-ruhn-tee)—meaning that the right to govern lies within a society and does not belong to kings.

Jefferson also scolded King George for having sent "amongst us large numbers of armed forces, not made up of the people here, nor raised by the authority of our laws." He appealed to the king to open his heart and mind to "liberal and expanded thought" and added, "Let not the name of George the third be a blot in the page of history…. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail. [Don't continue] sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the … desires of another: but deal out to all equal and impartial right."

In addition to individual writings, colonial legislatures bombarded the British government with petitions, in which they attempted to interpret their vision of American rights under the British constitution. Among those rights was the right to tax themselves.

The British government relented in 1770 and repealed all of the Townshend taxes (see Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769]), except the tax on tea (a very popular English beverage). Ironically, the repeal was passed on the very same day the Boston Massacre took place. It would be more than a month before Parliament heard about the violence in Boston and Americans heard that the tax on their tea had not been lifted.

King George is petitioned

In 1770 American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was serving as a colonial agent in England. He was living in London at the time, was well respected by the British, and had friends in Parliament. But even with his inside information, Franklin did not know that it was King George's idea to keep the tea tax in order to demonstrate British power over the Americans. When Americans found out that the tax on tea was to remain in effect, they concluded that King George must be getting bad advice from his ministers; otherwise, hearing their objections, he would have done away with the tax.

Colonial legislatures decided to change tactics, and they began to address their petitions directly to King George, thinking they would "educate" him about the evil actions of his advisers. Petition after petition was sent, with no reply from the king. His colonial subjects simply could not understand it. King George declared, "I shall always be ready … to listen to the Complaints of my Subjects," but added that the tone of the petitions was "disrespectful to me, injurious to Parliament, and [not in accord with] the Principles of the [British] Constitution." In 1773 the Massachusetts Spy newspaper urged an end to the petitioning, calling it "degrading." Hopes of reasoning with King George began to dwindle in America. The mood in the colonies grew gloomier.

British views on the American colonies

As far as the British were concerned, Parliament had the absolute right to supervise the British Empire and to tax its subjects as necessary, without question. The Mother Country protected her colonies and needed tax money to pay for that protection. The colonies had to recognize that they were dependent members of the empire, not her equals—it had always been that way, and there was no reason to change.

British politicians and newspapers had much to say on the subject of American colonists who seemed to have forgotten that their purpose was to make profits for England. Surely they could not be so foolish as to think that taxes collected from Englishmen should be used for the benefit of Americans. John C. Miller quoted the opinions of the English in his book Origins of the American Revolution: "I have always regarded the Colonies as the great farms of the public, and the Colonists as our tenants," said one. Many looked upon "the American colonists as little more than a Set of Slaves, at work for us, in distant Plantations." Another Englishman gave voice to an opinion shared by most of his countrymen: "We sent them to those Colonies to labour for us…. For what purpose were they[allowed] to go to that country, unless the profit of their labour should return to their masters here?"

While a few English statesmen spoke for Americans as defenders of English liberties, King George had his own agenda, and an outspoken, disobedient America was not a part of it.

Lord North and British Parliament

In his first ten years on the throne, King George III went through five prime ministers. The prime minister was the head of Parliament, and Parliament had the power to make and carry out laws. If George wanted to have a hand in the law-making process, he needed a prime minister he could work with—one who would listen to his ideas and incorporate them into laws that would be passed by a majority of members of Parliament.

In 1770 King George at last found a man he liked in Prime Minister Sir Frederick North (1732–1792), better known as Lord North. North would hold the post for twelve event-filled years that spanned most of the American Revolution. Together, Lord North and King George continued stubbornly along the political path that resulted in England's loss of the American colonies.

For North's first two years in office, the atmosphere in the colonies was fairly calm. A peace-loving man, North was pleased. Parliament busied itself with other matters and was almost silent on the question of the American colonies. Then came the Tea Act of 1773.

The Tea Act was North's solution to a business problem. The British East India Company, a large trading business, was in danger of failing. Eighteen million pounds of East India Company tea was going to waste in a London warehouse, mainly because Americans refused to import (and pay taxes on) British tea. Under the Tea Act, small taxes would be charged on East India tea, but the company would be able to send the tea directly to American tea agents. Even with the tax, the tea sold by East India would be cheaper than any other tea sold by American merchants (smuggled in from other countries). It was North's hope that Americans would go along with the tax because the price of the tea would remain so low.

A tea party is held in Boston

The tea was to be delivered to a select group of agents who would reap big profits from its sale; other colonial merchants would be left out in the cold. Americans saw through Lord North's trick. The small tax on the tea was still a tax "without representation" in Parliament—and a clear example of the English flexing their political muscle over the colonies. Just as irritating was the threat the tax posed to American businesses.

Despite American objections, the tea was taken from the London warehouses and sent on its way to the colonies.

The citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, left the tea to rot in warehouses. In New York and Philadelphia, officials refused to allow the tea to be unloaded from trading ships. But Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780), a staunch defender of British authority (and the father of two of the men who were supposed to sell the tea), insisted that the tea-bearing ships in Boston Harbor remain there until the taxes were paid. In response, Samuel Adams and other Boston rebel leaders organized the Boston Tea Party.

On the night of December 16, 1773, a group of Boston patriots disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians. (The Mohawks were fierce warriors who painted their faces black before engaging in battle.) Armed with small hatchets and clubs, they went down to Griffin's Wharf, quietly boarded three ships at anchor there, and over the course of three hours dumped 342 chests of tea—more than 90,000 pounds' worth— into Boston Harbor. The day after the Tea Party, Founding Father John Adams (1735–1826) wrote in his diary: "This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a dignity, a Majesty … in this last Effort of the Patriots that I greatly admire…. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, sofirm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences and so lasting, that I cannot but Consider it as an Epocha [period of significance] in History."

Reactions to the Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party marked a point of no return in relations between England and America. Clearly, defiance against England was in the air. But public opinion was divided over the dumping of the tea. Many people felt empowered and filled with pride after the tea party and were ready to forge ahead in the battle of wills with England. Others were troubled. Some Boston merchants, fearing a total disruption of business, offered to pay for the tea. Americans were forced to think hard about where they stood with respect to England's colonial policies.

Parliament was in no mood to make deals; the desire to punish the colonies was too strong. The British government considered the dumping of the tea to be a wicked and totally illegal action. British citizens were outraged, and public opinion was firmly set against America. Parliament regretted the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act. Tired of the mob violence and disrespect in America, the Mother Country felt the need to show the colonies who was boss.

Lord North went before Parliament with several harsh proposals designed to punish the citizens of Boston. They included the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and an extension of the Quartering Act of 1765. Called by Parliament the Restraining Acts or the Coercive Acts, Americans referred to them as the Intolerable Acts of 1774.

The Intolerable Acts

Under the Boston Port Act, Boston Harbor would be closed to all trading and shipping activities until the East India Company was paid for the dumped tea. Even fishing boats could not enter the harbor. If this act remained in effect long enough, reasoned North, Boston's citizens would be starved into paying for the tea.

Under the Massachusetts Government Act, General Thomas Gage (1721–1787), chief of British forces in the colonies and newly appointed governor of Massachusetts (he replaced Governor Hutchinson), would assume complete control of town meetings. From the earliest days of colonial history, citizens had jealously protected their right to make decisions for themselves at these meetings. To take away this right was, to them, an outrage. The Intolerable Acts would also place Massachusetts under military rule, meaning the colony would be controlled by the British army.

The Administration of Justice Act would protect British officials in the colonies. Those who were accused of committing major crimes while trying to carry out their duties would be tried in Great Britain, not the colonies. (Those duties included putting down riots and collecting taxes.)

In addition, the Quartering Act that had been passed in 1765 would be extended. The earlier act required colonists to provide housing and supplies to British troops in America for two years. In 1766 the act had been amended to permit the use of public buildings (such as inns) and unoccupied houses for British soldiers. On June 2, 1774, the act was extended to include occupied buildings in all colonies; this could include private homes.

Reactions to Intolerable Acts

Parliament believed that once the colonies saw how Boston was being punished, all Americans would fall meekly into line. Lord North concluded his remarks to Parliament: "We must control them or submit to them." One by one, the acts were passed by Parliament, and by June of 1774, King George III had approved them all.

On June 1, the day the Boston Port Act went into effect, the citizens of Boston fasted and prayed. Church bells rang mournfully from morning until night, and public buildings were draped in black, the sign of mourning.

Parliament thought that Boston was the source of all its problems in the colonies, and everything would turn out all right if the Massachusetts town could be forced to submit. But since the Stamp Act had been passed, colonists in favor of a break with England had been hard at work throughout all the colonies, stirring up a spirit of rebellion and building a network of supporters. Samuel Adams sent word of the Intolerable Acts to his network (called Committees of Correspondence), and they rallied in support of Boston. Food, supplies, and messages of sympathy poured into the town from supporters throughout the colonies, and a new spirit of colonial unity arose from Boston's sufferings.

There were strong reactions against the acts throughout the colonies. From Baltimore came word that all her trade with the Mother Country would be suspended. In Philadelphia, angry mobs burned dummies representing tax collectors. Virginia's legislature called for a day of prayer in support of Boston.

Meanwhile, King George sent British redcoat soldiers to occupy Boston. Their job was to keep the city's unruly citizens in line and make sure the Intolerable Acts were enforced. The acts would be repealed in 1778, but by then it would be too late. The colonies were too deeply committed to independence to avoid a revolution.

For More Information


Donoughue, Bernard. British Politics and the American Revolution: The Path to War, 1773–1775. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.

Franklin, Benjamin. Poor Richard's Almanack, 1733-1758. In Benjamin Franklin Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1987, pp. 1181–1304.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 121–77.

Labaree, Benjamin W. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Web Sites

Additional links can be accessed through "Yahooligans! Around the World: Countries: United States: History: Colonial Life (1585-1783): American Revolutionary War." [Online] Available http://www.yahooligans.com/Around_the_World/… (accessed on April 16, 1999).



Adams, John. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words. Edited by James Bishop Peabody. New York: Newsweek, 1973.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Lloyd, Alan. The King Who Lost America: A Portrait of the Life and Times of George III. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971, pp. 190–91.

Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959.

Schouler, James. Americans of 1776: Daily Life during the Revolutionary Period. Williamstown, MA: Corner House, 1984.

Web Sites

"American Revolution Timeline: Prelude to Revolution, 1763–1775." The History Place. [Online] Available http://www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/revolution/rev-prel.htm (accessed on December 17,1999).

"Boston Massacre" and "Boston Tea Party." DISCovering U.S. History. [Online] Available (password required) http://www.galenet.com (accessed on January 25, 1999).

"Captain Thomas Preston's Account of the Boston Massacre. (13 March 1770)." [Online] Available http://www.ukans.edu/carrie/docs/texts/preston.html (accessed on February 15, 1999).

A Participant Describes the Boston Tea Party

No one will ever know for sure who was actually present at the Boston Tea Party. Historians have spent years piecing together family stories and documents trying to determine who took part in it. Estimates of the number of participants range from 110 to more than 200.

Eyewitnesses claim the entire tea party was carried out in complete silence and that no one was hurt in the process. George R. T. Hewes, a thirty-one-year-old shoemaker, dictated his account of the event many years later. According to his version, the only violence came as a result of the tea-starved citizens of Boston trying to make off with their favorite beverage:

During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. …[T]hey would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets. One Captain O'Connor, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him and gave information to the captain of what he was doing. We were ordered to take him into custody, and just as he was stepping from the vessel, I seized him by the skirt of his coat, and in attempting to pull him back, I tore it off; but, springing forward, by a rapid effort he made his escape. He had, however, to run a gauntlet through the crowd [run through rows of armed guards] upon the wharf, each one, as he passed, giving him a kick or a stroke.

Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo by a tall, aged man who wore a large cocked hat and white wig…. He had sleightly[cleverly; craftily] slipped a little into his pocket, but being detected, they seized him and, taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets, into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick.

Source: Hawkes, James, alleged author. A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party, with a Memoir of George R. T. Hewes, Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbour in 1773. By a citizen of New-York…. New York: S. S. Bliss, printer, 1834. Quoted in The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Edited by Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.

What was King George Thinking?

It has been said that George III was not very bright—biographers claim that he was eleven years old before he learned to read. But he was a hard worker with a strong sense of duty, a man of simple tastes who enjoyed farming and country sports. Though he sometimes referred to the colonies as his "farms," the subject of America was of little interest to him.

By the time George III had ascended the throne in 1760 (he was twenty-two at the time), English kings no longer held the kind of absolute power they once did. The aristocracy—the upper-class minority—had taken over a large part of the king's authority and brought British Parliament under its control. Parliament passed all laws, and if King George wanted to have any legislative power, he had to befriend members of Parliament who would further his goals. Unfortunately, George clashed with many of the men he chose for the post of prime minister.

Then, in 1770, George appointed Lord North prime minister of Great Britain. Lord North faithfully carried out King George's orders and, in the process, helped drive the American colonists into revolt.

George viewed his role as ruler of the American colonies as that of a stern father dealing with a lot of unruly children. For the first ten years of his reign, he tried to keep his "children" in the colonies contented; he even ordered his friends in Parliament to vote to repeal the Stamp Act.

But George grew impatient with anyone who disagreed with him on how to handle the swelling troubles in the American colonies. "I wish nothing but good," he asserted, "therefore everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor and a scoundrel." It was hard to argue with that kind of attitude. When news of the Boston Tea Party reached him, King George saw it as the first challenge to his personal rule, and he did not like it at all.

Up until the mid-to late 1760s, American colonists had few complaints about King George. They appreciated his youth and personality. But he clearly failed to respond to the needs and issues that were growing within the colonies. Americans began to feel that their liberties were being threatened by the British Empire. In response, the greatest minds in the colonies came together to voice the call for American rights.

Those who came forth to lead the colonies to freedom were some of the most remarkable individuals in history: John Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and countless others—people of sense, courage, education, far-sightedness, even genius.

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