The Roots of Rebellion (1763–1769)
The Roots of Rebellion (1763–1769)
With the French defeated at the close of the Seven Years' War (1756–63), Great Britain had new problems—far greater ones than she could handle. The war with France had resulted in the accumulation of many debts. The British were now in charge of a remote New World frontier that was populated by hostile Native American tribes. And no sooner had the French been expelled from North America than there was trouble with the Indians.
Native Americans had no great love for the British colonists. They had welcomed British settlers to the New World in the early 1600s, but gradually the land-hungry colonists pushed the Native tribes out of their homeland along the eastern seaboard. The displaced tribes, in turn, drove other tribes off their ancestral lands and into the southern Great Lakes area.
The Native Americans in the Great Lakes area enjoyed a peaceful relationship with the French who trapped furs there and traded European goods with them. Unwelcome changes came when British traders made their way to the region in the 1730s. The British had different ways of dealing with Native Americans. Unlike the French, they did not
believe in cementing friendships by giving gifts. They were unwilling to hand over guns and ammunition to the Natives. In addition, British trappers and traders cheated the Indians out of their goods and land.
Finally, the Indians of the Ohio Valley became desperate. They knew it was only a matter of time before large numbers of English settlers would crowd into their territory. Indians of several tribes united under the leadership of Chief Pontiac (c. 1720–1769) of the Ottawa, a tribe known for its great warriors and hunters.
In Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763, the Indians captured British forts in a sweep across the western American frontier from New York to Virginia. Hundreds of pioneer families were killed. Hostilities continued to boil for years, but the rebellion was crushed within a matter of months—not by Americans but by British redcoat soldiers. According to Lee Sultzman, British military commander Simeon Ecuyer arranged to have small-pox-infected blankets delivered to the Indians. The terrible disease spread quickly, and, as a result, thousands of Native Americans and British colonists died. Through invasion and conquest, the whites would go on to claim and settle the rest of the present-day United States.
Proclamation of 1763
Great Britain was quick to point out that British soldiers—not Americans—were the ones who finally put down Pontiac's Rebellion. Several pressing issues now confronted the British government: How were the Indians to be treated? In spite of the often bad relations between whites and Native Americans, the British believed that the Indians were entitled to certain rights as the original inhabitants of the New World land. How were these rights to be balanced against the wishes of American colonists? North American furs were highly prized in Great Britain, and skilled Indian hunters were vital to the fur trade. Should Native hunting grounds be reserved for Indians alone, or should whites be allowed to hunt there as well? How was the frontier to be made safe from land-grabbing Americans until a land policy could be worked out?
The British thought the time was right to tackle these issues, and King George III's (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820) solution was the Proclamation of 1763. It laid down a boundary line along the Appalachian Mountains to separate the colonies from Indian land—land that the British considered barren and useless anyway, except for its prized furs. In the Proclamation of 1763, King George stated: "We do strictly forbid, on pain of our displeasure, all our loving subjects from making any purchases or settlements whatever in that region."
Any colonists who were already west of the line were ordered to move eastward. American colonists were to be confined to the eastern seaboard, where they could more easily be controlled by England, the so-called "Mother Country." King George also ordered that new forts be built on the frontier and be manned by British soldiers, who would direct and manage Indian affairs and keep the peace in the region. This was a costly proposal.
American reaction to English meddling
Ever since the settlement of the New World, the colonies had handled most of their own affairs without interference from England. "Being left alone became an indispensable component of the colonists' sense of well-being," wrote Bruce and William Catton in The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America's Founding Years, 1492–1815. "By the middle of the eighteenth century they had grown too accustomed, too strong, and too self-confident to submit to any other kind of handling." But now England had decided to meddle. Americans
believed that unlimited westward expansion was both their right and their destiny. The colonists were incensed by the king's command to establish an Indian-controlled frontier. In retrospect, many critics note that the Proclamation of 1763 was not a very practical document: it would have been nearly impossible to enforce. An unknown number of settlers already lived west of the boundary line, and there would have been no way to move them, short of marching them out at gunpoint.
The Proclamation was just the first of a series of British acts to which American colonists would object over the next twelve years. As Americans asserted their rights as a free people within the British Empire, Britain insisted that they still had duties as loyal British subjects. Within twenty years, Great Britain—the world's foremost military power—would forever lose control of this spirited nation.
Stamp Act of 1765
English attempts to profit from the growth of American trade had begun back in 1651 with the passage of the Navigation Acts, which restricted trade and required that English ships be used to conduct colonial trade activity. More than a century later, the British government was intent on raising funds to pay off its war debts (equal to more than $30 billion in present-day currency, incurred during the French and Indian War) and pay for forts and soldiers in Indian territory. While the British had been financing the costly defense of the colonies against the French, many Americans prospered by providing for the needs of the fighting British soldiers. Other colonists had grown rich from smuggling (bringing goods in and taking them out of the country illegally, without paying taxes on them; see box titled "Did Smuggling Cause the American Revolution?"). Great Britain had been too busy with her world war to do anything about the smuggling. But after the war was over, the British government turned its attention to the war debt—and turned to the colonies for money to help offset it.
The Sugar Act and the Currency Act were passed by Parliament, England's lawmaking body, in 1764. The first increased taxes on sugar, coffee, wine, dye, and several other goods; the second prohibited the colonies from printing their own paper money. Both acts were clear attempts on the part of Great Britain to assert her power over the colonies. Their passage intensified the colonists' feelings of bitterness and resentment toward the Mother Country, further alienating the already disillusioned Americans. To raise even more money to cover the cost of sending British troops to the colonies, Parliament passed the extremely controversial Stamp Act in 1765. At the same time, the equally disturbing Quartering Act went into effect, requiring colonists to house and feed British troops. Americans were outraged.
The Stamp Act declared that as of November 1765, certain documents and other items ranging from newspapers to playing cards had to have stamps affixed (attached) to them. Unstamped documents were of no value. The stamps denoted payment of a "direct" tax to England, even though the colonists had no representatives in Parliament. Stamps had to be purchased from official Parliamentary-appointed stamp agents. Many prominent colonial men eagerly applied for this well-paying job—and then lived to regret it.
Parliament and King George thought the stamp tax was a rather small sacrifice to ask of the colonists, yet the services it would pay for (management of Indian territory, for instance) were enormous. American colonists were paying only a tiny fraction of the taxes that the English paid, and many colonists lived far more comfortably than the people of England. King George and Parliament, believing it was high time the colonies sent more money to England, were not prepared for the Americans' reactions to the Stamp Act.
Pamphlets and resolutions
Colonial opposition to the Stamp Act grew quickly. Newspaper articles, pamphlets, and lectures about "taxation without representation" (the colonies had no representatives in Parliament) fanned the flames of indignation. It was a bad time for Parliament to be trying to collect taxes. The colonies were suffering from a smallpox epidemic. On top of that, many people found themselves out of work at the end of the French and Indian War. Colonial lawmaking bodies up and down the East Coast, from Rhode Island to South Carolina, passed strongly worded resolutions against the Stamp Act. Insisting on their right to tax themselves, they declared that Britain seemed determined to enslave Americans. In Virginia, Representative Patrick Henry (1763–1799) spoke against the Stamp Act before the colony's lawmaking body, the House of Burgesses. His fellow representatives were speechless with admiration at his eloquent words, but newspapers in England
wondered why he was not tossed in jail for treason (speaking out against his king). "If this be treason," contended Henry, "make the most of it."
After Henry's stirring words, the Virginia House passed a resolution declaring that the colony's General Assembly had "the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes … upon the inhabitants of this Colony." Anyone who said otherwise was viewed as an enemy of the colony. The Virginia resolution was a direct challenge to Parliament's authority.
"Howling mobs in the streets"
The unfortunate men who accepted jobs as stamp agents felt the anger of mobs (or possibly members of secret anti-British organizations like the Sons of Liberty; see "The Sons of Liberty Unite"), who destroyed their property and hanged or burned effigies (images or dummies of them) to show their contempt. Finally, the job became so dangerous that every stamp agent quit his post. In The Reluctant Rebels, author Lynn Montross described the disorder that grew from the passage of the Stamp Act this way: "Mobs of howling Liberty Boys surged through the streets of every town in America. There was a great deal of spectacular hell-raising, which reached a climax when forts occupied by British [soldiers] were attacked in New York and both Carolinas."
American resistance was not limited to words alone. A nonimportation policy was adopted, whereby colonial merchants refused to accept imported British goods. (This is known as a boycott.) Soon British merchants were crying out for the repeal of the Stamp Act. In the colonies, a Stamp Act Congress met in New York. Its members informed King George
that colonial residents would not recognize or tolerate His Majesty's policy of taxation without representation.
The colonies did have some friends in Parliament who voiced their objections to the Stamp Act. High-ranking English politician William Pitt (1708–1778), sixty-seven years old and ailing, argued that the act should be done away with. "I rejoice that America has resisted!" he declared. "Were I but ten years younger I should spend the rest of my days in America, which has given the most brilliant proofs of its independent spirit."
The Sons of Liberty Unite
Long before the Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament, the expressions "sons of freedom" and "sons of liberty" were used commonly by Americans whose parents or grandparents had fled to the New World to escape ill treatment in other lands. The phrase "sons of liberty" became even more popular in 1765. Parliament was discussing the proposal to tax the American colonists, and a pro-American British politician by the name of Isaac Barré spoke passionately against the proposal. Barré was a soldier who had fought in America and knew the country and its people well. He reminded Parliament that a people who had "fled tyranny [a harsh and unjust government] … [and] exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable" were not likely to put up with British oppression.
When the Stamp Act was passed in 1765 and Americans saw the danger it posed to their liberty, the name Sons of Liberty was gradually adopted by various groups throughout the colonies who opposed the act. Some of these groups were already meeting under other names such as the Charleston (South Carolina) Fire Company (volunteer firefighters) and the Loyal Nine, a Boston social club.
The Sons exchanged letters with their brother organizations, keeping them informed on the progress of resistance to the Stamp Act. The letters—and the organizations—were supposed to be secret, but it was hard to maintain secrecy while trying to build up support among the population for the cause. The Sons claimed to oppose violence, but violence often erupted when large crowds gathered to hear their message— that colonial liberties must be upheld. The Sons of Liberty organized mass demonstrations to protest the Stamp Act, demonstrations that included setting fire to dummies resembling colonial officials. Such demonstrations often ended in chaos and rioting.
On April 26, 1766, less than six months after it went into effect, the Stamp Act was repealed. Americans had learned a valuable lesson from the experience: that Parliament could be forced to back down if the opposition was loud enough. The Sons of Liberty thought their work was done, and most groups disbanded. But Samuel Adams (1722–1803), a Boston Son, continued to keep the spirit of resistance alive in his city. Adams despised King George; he believed the king was plotting to destroy colonial liberty. His was one of the earliest voices to call for complete independence from Great Britain; most people had to be convinced over time that independence was necessary.
Samuel Adams spent much of the 1760s writing articles for Boston newspapers, reporting stories about British soldiers beating up on "innocent" citizens and attacking young women. Sometimes his stories were exaggerated, but many people accepted them as true. Adams is said to have provoked confrontations with British soldiers stationed in Boston, and he often staged mob violence from behind the scenes. Throughout the course of the American Revolution (1775–83), he took an active part in organizing resistance to Great Britain.
The Stamp Act was replaced with the Declaratory Act, which would prove to be just as bothersome. But America was so busy rejoicing over the repeal of the former that they paid little attention to the latter. The Declaratory Act stated that the British government had the power to make laws that would bind the colonists "in all cases whatsoever." Parliament then
proceeded to test that right by making more tax laws to demonstrate its power over the colonies. The Declaratory Act of 1766 paved the way for the Townshend Acts of 1767, named for the King's adviser, Charles Townshend (1725–1767), who created them. The Townshend Acts called for taxes on lead, glass, paint, tea, and other items.
These taxes were the heaviest ever placed on the colonies, and they aroused intense criticism. According to historian William Lecky (1838–1903), from the time of the Townshend Acts onward, "the English government of America [was] little more than a series of deplorable blunders," meaning the king and Parliament made a lot of stupid mistakes in their handling of the colonies. Clearly, the British government was determined to raise money in the colonies by taxing them, no matter what the king's American subjects might say or do.
The Sons of Liberty revived in response to the passage of the Townshend Acts. Several important newspapers of the time were controlled by the Sons, and the news they published kept the public informed and the cause of liberty alive. The colonists reacted with renewed boycotts of British goods and escalating violence. Officials who tried to collect taxes were tarred and feathered (a painful and oftentimes crippling form of punishment in which a person is covered with hot tar and sprinkled with feathers).The tax collectors appealed to Governor Francis Bernard for protection, but he claimed he could do nothing. He told them that Bostonians would never let him get away with summoning British troops to patrol the city. Desperate, the tax collectors then appealed to the commander of the British Royal Navy stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada). Commodore Samuel Hood was happy to help, and on his orders, a fifty-gun British warship sailed into Boston Harbor in the summer of 1768.
John Dickinson opposes Townshend Acts
Among the most eloquent objections to the Townshend Acts of 1767 were those voiced by American lawyer, politician, and author John Dickinson (1732–1808). The Townshend Acts had received different reactions in the various American colonies. In the North, they were greeted with violence and fierce opposition. In the Middle and Southern colonies, there existed a large group of individuals who objected to the passage of the Townshend Acts but remained loyal to King George; this loyalty made them more inclined to go along with the acts. Dickinson tried to change their minds with his influential work, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to Inhabitants of the British Colonies.
The letters appeared in the form of essays addressed to "My Dear Countrymen." There were about a dozen in all, published first in newspapers and later in pamphlet form. Pamphlets—reading material with a paper cover—were a popular way of communicating at the time. In his letters, Dickinson pointed out that with the Townshend Acts, Parliament was trampling upon colonial rights. He claimed that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies but did have the right to regulate trade.
The letters were read widely in both England and America. Many Americans—and even some people in England—found themselves in agreement with Dickinson. His argument would turn up again and again in the many writings and speeches that appeared before the war for independence finally broke out.
Townshend Acts are repealed
The colonists continued to boycott British goods. Their efforts were successful, and British exports to the colonies fell off tremendously. Nervous British merchants saw their profits dwindling and pressured Parliament for a remedy. Finally, in 1770, all the Townshend taxes were done away with, except the one on tea.
The colonists were no happier with the tax on tea than they had been with the other taxes. As they fumed, the people of Boston were also growing annoyed with British soldiers, who had little to do but loaf around on the streets while being fed and housed at Bostonians' expense. Not surprisingly, tensions continued to mount.
For More Information
Bushman, Richard L. "Revolution: Outbreak of the Conflict." In The Reader's Companion to American History. Edited by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Fradin, Dennis B. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.
Minks, Louise, and Benton Minks. The Revolutionary War. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Beard, Charles Austin. The Beards' New Basic History of the United States. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Canfield, Cass. Sam Adams's Revolution (1765–1776). New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Catton, Bruce, and William B. Catton. The Bold and Magnificent Dream: America's Founding Years, 1492–1815. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.
Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760–1785. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.
Dolan, Edward F. The American Revolution: How We Fought the War of Independence. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1995.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Lecky, William E. Hartpole. History of England in the Eighteenth Century. 7 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1968.
Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.
Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.
Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.
Morison, Samuel Eliot, and others. The Growth of the American Republic. Vol 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
"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).
Native Americans Urged Not to Join the Fight
When it became clear that a war with Great Britain was likely, colonial governors grew increasingly concerned over the issue of Indian relations. The Native people had many grievances against the colonists: American settlers had trespassed on their land, and American traders had cheated them. The Indians had a more agreeable relationship with England, which in 1763 had promised to keep American colonists out of Native lands west of the Appalachian Mountains (see section titled "Proclamation of 1763").
At best, leaders of the colonial government hoped to get a pledge of neutrality (noninvolvement) from the Indian nations. Congress appointed commissioners to go out and deliver this speech to the Native American peoples:
Brothers and friends!… This is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don't wish you to take up the hatchet against the king's troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join on either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep…. Brothers, observe well! What is it we have asked of you? Nothing but peace … and if application should be made to you by any of the king's unwise and wicked ministers to join on their side, we only advise you to deliberate [a verb; pronounced dih-LIB-uh-rate; think it over and discuss], with great caution, and in your wisdom look forward to the consequences of a compliance. For if the king's troops take away our property, and destroy us who are of the same blood as themselves, what can you, who are Indians, expect from them afterwards?
Source: James J. O'Donnell, III, Southern Indians in the American Revolution. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1973.
Did Smuggling Cause the American Revolution?
Some historians suggest that smuggling caused the American Revolution. Goods that are smuggled are brought into or taken out of a country without having legal duties (taxes) paid on them. It is true that smuggling by Americans was a common occurrence in the eighteenth century and a serious violation of British laws regulating trade in the colonies. The British charged high duties on items imported into the colonies in order to benefit British merchants and planters, but smugglers avoided these duties by bringing in cheaper goods produced by countries other than Great Britain.
Several acts were passed in the 1760s by a British government determined to stop American smugglers. British tax collectors, naval officers, royal governors, and other officials were put on alert to make sure taxes were collected and trade regulations observed. British ships patrolled the Atlantic Coast, stopping, searching, and holding ships suspected of smuggling goods. These actions put a severe crimp in the cherished American freedom to trade at will. After a particularly heated incident involving wealthy Boston merchant John Hancock and his boat Liberty in the spring of 1768, British soldiers were sent over to ensure peace in Boston. The presence of British troops only aggravated the situation further.
The Affair of the Letters
In 1773, the same year the Tea Act was passed (see Chapter 5: On the Brink of War [1770–1775]), an international scandal erupted over some letters that had been written by leading citizens of Massachusetts to influential people in England back in 1767–1768. Historians say the publication of these letters probably helped convince the British government that it was time to take drastic steps to put down the rebellion in the colonies. It was these steps that led to the American Revolution.
Key figures in the scandal were royal governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson (one of the alleged authors of the letters) and colonial agent Benjamin Franklin (one of the finders of the letters). Hutchinson, a Boston-born merchant turned colonial administrator, had a history of upholding all decisions made by the British government. Many critics agree that Hutchinson's policy of backing British authority no doubt hastened the move toward colonial revolution.
The letters that caused the uproar had been written after the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767 and voiced an antipatriot sentiment. Americans were becoming increasingly irate over British attempts to tax them. Officials appointed to collect the taxes were abused and their property damaged or destroyed. Mobs rioted in the streets of Boston. The letters, said to be composed by Governor Hutchinson and others, described these and other events taking place in America. Once written, they were sent to key people in Great Britain.
Benjamin Franklin got hold of the letters while he was serving in London as a colonial agent for Massachusetts. Agents were representatives appointed by lawmaking bodies in the colonies to live in London, circulate among prominent people, and report back on what was happening in Parliament. The agents voiced the colonies' needs and wishes as Parliament prepared to make laws that affected colonial territory.
Franklin had watched as relations between England and America soured in the 1760s and early 1770s. He loved both countries and he could not understand why Parliament seemed so determined to upset and anger the colonists. One day in 1772, he thought he found the answer in a mysterious packet of letters given to him by a gentleman whose name he would not reveal. After reading the letters, Franklin came to believe that Parliament had taken harsh actions against the colonies at the urging of Governor Hutchinson and others like him.
Franklin felt that if the colonists knew about the bad advice coming from their own leaders, then colonial resentment toward Great Britain might cool and Parliament would have time to create and implement more appropriate policies. He decided to share his discovery with the Massachusetts legislature. Across the ocean and into the hands of Speaker of the Assembly Thomas Cushing went the packet of letters; they arrived in March of 1773. (The Massachusetts Assembly was the lower house of the legislature). Cushing was told to show the letters to whomever he wished, but not to publish them.
Samuel Adams got hold of the letters, though, and he did publish them. When American colonists read them—in particular the line "there must be a great restraint of natural liberty"—they were furious. Dummies representing Hutchinson were set on fire in Philadelphia and Princeton, New Jersey; poems were published comparing Hutchinson to evil rulers of ancient times; a popular play of the day accused him of selling "his native land." John Adams called Hutchinson a "vile serpent" and declared that his letters bore "the evident marks of madness." The letters convinced many Americans that the rumors spread by the Sons of Liberty were true—there were plots against their liberties brewing on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Massachusetts legislature petitioned King George III to remove Hutchinson from office. King George's advisers held a hearing and determined that the charges against Hutchinson were "false and erroneous" and "calculated only for the … Purpose of keeping up a Spirit of Clamour [loud outcry] and Discontent" in the colonies. Shunned in America, Hutchinson sailed to England in 1774 and died there six years later. Franklin was called a thief for taking the letters in the first place, and he lost his well-paying job as deputy postmaster of the colonies. After this incident, Franklin's feelings toward Great Britain underwent a drastic revision.