British Actions, Colonial Reactions
British Actions, Colonial Reactions
The Stamp Act . . . 7
The Declaratory Act . . . 19
The Townshend Revenue Act . . . 25
The Intolerable Acts . . . 37
Edmund Burke . . . 49
King George III . . . 55
John Dickinson . . . 63
Benjamin Franklin . . . 71
Thomas Jefferson . . . 81
Patrick Henry . . . 89
Thomas Paine . . . 97
By the late 1500s, after centuries of petty fighting among the many noble families of Europe, four nations had emerged that were stable and wealthy enough to turn their attention to overseas exploration. These nations were Spain, Portugal, France, and England (also known as Britain or Great Britain). They all looked to the vast and unknown wilderness of the North American continent as an exciting opportunity for exploration. For the most part, their motive was profit.
The English (also called British) focused their early efforts on the Atlantic Coast. It was English businessmen, not the nation of Great Britain, who paid for the settlement of Roanoke (1585) and Jamestown (1607) in Virginia, and Plymouth Colony (1621) in Massachusetts. By the time the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, there were thirteen such settlements, or colonies. For more than 140 years, the colonies and Great Britain, the "mother country," shared strong bonds of friendship and business, based on a common language and customs and a profitable trade relationship. The colonies sent farm products and raw materials to Great Britain and in return got British-manufactured goods. Everyone seemed to be happy with the relationship.
But in the 1760s, some discontented voices began to be heard in the colonies. The unhappiness grew and grew and finally erupted in war in 1775. Why did the American colonies rebel against England? John Adams (1735–1826), a Founding Father of the new American nation that was formed while the two countries fought, said the Revolutionary War began only after a revolution took place "in the minds and hearts of the people." Sometimes "revolution" means the overthrow of a government. Another meaning for "revolution" is a momentous change in any situation. In the momentous change that took place in their minds and hearts, the people of colonial America began to look hard at their relationship with Great Britain.
The American colonies were three thousand miles from Great Britain. Over the years, far from their homeland, colonists had developed their own system of looking after their own affairs. People in the colonies began to question whether there was any need to be ruled by a distant king and country, or whether it was possible to break away from an unsatisfactory relationship and rule themselves. This was revolutionary thinking.
Gradually, the colonists became convinced of the rightness of a system of government in which everyone had a say. But to achieve this goal, they were finally forced to go to war against England, then one of the most powerful nations in the world.
The first rumblings of colonial resentment started in 1763, when the French and Indian War (1754–63) ended and colonists were told they could not buy land west of the Appalachian Mountains. (In the modern-day United States, the Appalachians stretch from Maine in the north to Alabama in the south.) Two years later, the British government passed the Stamp Act, the first of several acts designed to collect taxes from the colonies. The Stamp Act was followed by the Townshend Acts in 1767 and later by a series of acts the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. What was behind those actions by Great Britain, actions that finally lost them a vast, rich country?
Great Britain's actions seemed harmless enough—the country needed money, and plenty of it, to pay off huge war debts run up during the French and Indian War. And Great Britain expected the colonists willingly to help pay off those debts. After all, the British had been protecting the colonists in that war.
The French and Indian War was fought in America by Great Britain and France to decide who would control North America. Tensions between the longtime enemies had reached a boiling point when British colonists tried to expand westward from the Eastern Seaboard (the colonies bordering the Atlantic Ocean) into territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The region was inhabited by Indians and claimed by France. The situation erupted into a war in 1754. The French enlisted the help of their Indian allies but were soundly defeated by the British. With this victory, Britain became the world's leading power, with vast new territories to oversee.
Americans expressed their admiration for the astounding British victory. Americans, who had furnished and paid for twenty-five thousand of their own soldiers to fight the war, congratulated themselves on having been a major factor in assuring victory. Now that the bothersome French were gone, it seemed that a glorious era of peace, prosperity, and westward expansion was about to begin, an era that would benefit both the colonies and Great Britain. But within a dozen years, the loyal and admiring colonists turned into freedom fighters, seeking total independence from Britain.
The French and Indian War was a long and expensive ordeal for the British. They believed they won the war single-handedly, because they had no respect for the untrained American soldiers who had fought by their side, and they saw the American contribution as minimal. Their contempt was reinforced when angry Indians on the western frontier (the territory west of the Allegheny Mountains, won from France) rebelled against years of being cheated by colonial traders and rose up in Pontiac's Rebellion in 1763. British soldiers had to put down the rebellion.
After Pontiac's Rebellion, English political leaders agreed that British soldiers would have to keep the peace between Indians and colonists. England was not pleased that it had to protect the colonists from the consequences of their own actions. King George III (1738–1820) promised the Indians that his American subjects would stay off Indian lands for a time. At least ten thousand British soldiers would be stationed in forts along the frontier to protect colonial settlements. But King George and his advisers agreed that it was only fair and right that the colonies should help pay for food and other expenses for the soldiers.
The British decided that the colonies' share should be one-sixth of the yearly cost of feeding and housing the soldiers. To raise the money, Parliament, Britain's lawmaking body, passed the Stamp Act in 1765. To Parliament's complete surprise, the Americans strongly objected to the Stamp Act. Americans may have taxed themselves to help support British soldiers during the French and Indian War, but they were totally unwilling to allow an outside body—the British Parliament—to tax them for the same purpose. The Stamp Act was soon repealed. But Parliament did not wish to appear weak in the face of American protests, and Great Britain still needed money. Parliament followed up the Stamp Act with one act after another, including the Declaratory Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Intolerable Acts.
The first acts of Parliament were either taxes on the colonies or declarations of Parliament's right to tax them. As each act of Parliament was passed, Americans grew angrier. At first, only a few men, such as Boston political leader Samuel Adams (1722–1803), urged an open break with Great Britain. Adams formed the Sons of Liberty and staged violent actions to get Americans stirred up against the British.
But to most Americans, the prospect of a complete break remained a fearful one for a long time. Before resorting to war, the colonists tried to persuade King George and Parliament to see reason—as the colonists interpreted "reason." The king and most members of Parliament saw matters differently and stubbornly continued to insist on their right to tax the colonies. Between 1765 and 1776, many pamphlets were written and fiery speeches were made, in America and England, arguing both sides of the issue. In America, words poured from the pens of men such as John Dickinson (1732–1808; author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America), and Thomas Paine (1737–1809; author of Common Sense). The cause of liberty also found expression in the passionate speeches of Patrick Henry (1736–1799; "Give me liberty, or give me death"), and in the humorous writings of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; including "An Edict by the King of Prussia"). These men wrote and spoke of the rights of Englishmen (the colonists still saw themselves as Englishmen), and explained how these rights were being violated by Great Britain. Gradually, they convinced many of their countrymen that it was time to form a new nation apart from Great Britain. British statesmen argued otherwise and finally grew impatient with the Americans' words and actions.
In 1774, Great Britain retaliated against the violence and disobedience in the colonies with the Intolerable Acts— acts to punish the colonies for their resistance to British taxes. By 1775, a fever pitch had been reached, with the British loudly asserting their rights over Americans, American political leaders and writers eloquently denying such rights, and Sons of Liberty members resorting to violence in hopes of provoking a war. The colonists were finally convinced that a violent separation from Great Britain was the only possible way to achieve their basic human right to govern themselves as they saw fit. When shots rang out between British and American soldiers at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1775, the Revolutionary War had effectively begun.