July 2, 1999

The American Revolution

The Ancien Regime

In 1909 Carl Becker declared that the American Revolution was not only about home rule, but about who should rule at home. Historians have not yet decided how revolutionary the American Revolution was. They are still arguing about whether the revolution was principally an anticolonial struggle or whether it became a vehicle for transforming social change. Such consensus as there is sees the revolution marking the development of modern ideas of government and economy in the new United States.

After 1748 various imperial reforms were in the air. William Pitt and other royal officials had been provoked to reforms of the imperial trading system when they saw how the colonists evaded the navigation laws. The Indian trade had to be regulated, land claims had to be sorted out, and something had to be done to keep the conflicts between land-hungry white settlers and restless native Americans from exploding into open warfare.

On top of all this, the British government was facing astronomical military costs to maintain the empire. By 1763 the war debt totaled (137 million. The annual interest was (5 million. None of the new acquisitions was settled by Englishmen, so the military costs were bound to rise. Lord Amherst, commander in chief in North America, estimated that he would need 10,000 troops to keep the peace among the French and Indians and to deal with squatters, smugglers, and bandits. At this point the British administration decided to keep a standing army in America. It cost (400,000 per annum to maintain the army in North America.

The British government soon decided that the colonies should pay some of these costs.

The government began its reform of the newly enlarged empire by issuing the Proclamation of 1763.

This crown proclamation created three new royal governments in Florida and Quebec, and turns the trans-Appalachian area into an Indian reservation by prohibiting all settlement. The imperial authorities wanted to maintain the peace in the west and keep migrants in the coastal strip where their economies would focus on trade with the mother country.

The British government made similar efforts to rationalize colonial trade. The Sugar Act was designed to curb smuggling and corruption. Customs officials were made to enforce the law, and court jurisdiction was broadened. Duties were also raised on cloth, sugar, indigo, coffee and wine.

Most importantly, the Sugar Act reduced the supposedly high duty of sixpence a gallon on foreign molasses to threepence. The government hoped to raise more money with the lower tariff because merchants would find it more economical to use legitimate suppliers. These reforms might have passed as traditional imperial regulations, but Grenville was determined to find new colonial revenue to meet the huge military debt. In March 1765 Parliament by an overwhelming majority passed the Stamp Act, which levied a tax on legal documents, almanacs, newspapers, and the like. Stamp duties had been used in England and imposed by some colonial legislatures in the 1750s, this parliamentary tax, which directly touched Americas' everyday affairs, exposed the nature of political authority within the empire in a way no other issue in the eighteenth century had.

Resistance and Revolution

Colonial trade contracted severely in the early 1760s as Britain reduced military spending, and tobacco prices slumped. Colonial merchants and politicians immediately blamed the economic problems on England. In 1764 the British government banned all colonies from issuing their own paper money and so exacerbated the depression.

Merchants in Boston, Phil-adelphia and Charleston form-ed protest associations and pledged to stop importing British goods. Newspapers and pamphlets carried articles that seethed with resentment against what one New Yorker called "these designing parricides" who had "invited despotism to cross the ocean, and fix her abode in this once happy land." At hastily convened meetings of towns, counties and legislative assemblies, the colonists' anger boiled over into fiery declarations.

This anger threw the imperial relationship into question. In early 1765 the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted a series of resolves denouncing the parliamentary taxation and asserting the colonists' right to be taxed only by their representatives. They were introduced by Patrick Henry whom the Speaker stopped at one point for suggesting treason, but the impact in the other colonies was to galvanize the protest sentiment.

Violence ultimately destroyed the Stamp Act. On August 14, 1765, a crowd wrecked the office and home of Andrew Oliver, the stamp distributor for Massachusetts. Publicly humiliated, he promis-ed the next day not to enforce the Stamp Act. Twelve days later a mob burned down the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson who seemed to be responsible for enforcing the Act. As news of the rioting spread to other colonies, similar violence and threats of violence spread with it.

In February 1776 Parliament finally repealed the Stamp Act. But the British were angered by rioting in the colonies and the constitutional issues that the colonists had raised. The government was forced to couple repeal with a Declaratory Act stating that Parliament had the right to legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." But it was much too late. The crisis over the Stamp Act aroused and unified Americans as no previous political event ever had.

But the British government had not changed its fiscal policy. It now imposed the more traditional "external" and "indirect" taxes than the hated "direct" and "internal" taxes (like the stamps). Led by Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Parliament imposed new levies on glass, paint, paper, and tea in 1767.

The Townshend duties provoked the same popular reaction as the Stamp Act. Pamphleteers and newspapers writers again leapt to the defence of American liberties. John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania rejected all parliamentary taxation. According to Dickinson, Parliament had no right to levy taxes for revenue. Again the nonimportation associations were activated, and by 1770 had cut British exports to the colonies by two-thirds. The wearing of homespun cloth was encouraged, and in New England villages "Daughters of Liberty" held spinning bees so that they would not have to import English cloth. More Americans were becoming involved in the resistance movement. Extralegal groups and committees emerged to intimidate tobacco inspectors, punish importers, mob a publisher or harass customs officials.

Again Massachusetts led the way. Samuel Adams led the Boston radicals. In 1768 the Massachusetts House of Representatives issued a "circular letter" to other colonial legislatures denouncing the Townshend duties as an unconstitutional violation of the principle of no taxation without representation.

The critical sequence of events began in 1773 when Parliament granted the East India Company the exclusive privilege of selling tea in America. This monopoly was designed to save the East India Company from bankruptcy, but it was understood to be much more sinister in the colonies. In several ports colonists stopped the ships from landing the company's tea. When tea ships in Boston were prevented from unloading their cargoes, the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to allow the ships to leave without landing the tea.

On December 16, 1773, a group of patriots disguised as Indians dumped about $10,000 worth of tea into Boston harbor. The British saw the Boston Tea Party as the ultimate outrage. British opinion clam-ored for a suitable punishment for the colonies.

In 1774 Parliament passed a series of laws that became known as the Coercive Acts. The port was closed until the tea was paid for; the governor was given much greater powers to appoint officials and influence policy; he could also seize buildings to quarter troops. The British commander, Thomas Gage, was made governor.

All of these measures were read as fundamental threats to colonial liberties. Parliament had no right to legislate for the colonies. The Stamp Act Congress had insisted that no tax was constitutional without popular consent. Americans were not represented in Parliament, and so could not be subject to taxes it legislated. Only the colonial legislatures, they argued, could impose taxation. They never abandoned this essential point.

The Coercive Acts of 1774 provoked open rebellion in America. Whatever royal authority was left in the colonies now dissolved. The political situation became very fluid as popular action tried to reconstitute political authority. Mass meetings which often attracted thousands of colonists endorsed resolutions and called for new political organizations.

These new governments ranged from town and county committees and the newly created provincial congresses to a general congress of the colonies, the First Continental Congress which convened in Philadelphia in September 1774.)

The Congress was led by the radicals Samuel and John Adams of Massachusetts, and Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. It endorsed resistance to the Coercive Acts.

At the end of 1774, the British were planning military action to restore their authority in America.

The Second Continental Congress approved the Olive Branch petition to George III which proclaimed colonial loyalty and asked him to break with his "artful and cruel" ministers. At the same time Congress summed up the American case against Britain when it issued the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking up Arms." They formally denied any intention of independence, but the declaration showed that it was now impossible to reconcile the differences.

Fighting had broken out in Massachusetts in April, 1775. The British had long assumed that Boston was the center of all the troubles, and if they could isolate the radicals the American troubles would resolve themselves. They ordered General Gage to arrest the rebel leaders and reassert royal authority in the colony.

On the night of April 18 Gage's army attempted to seize rebel arms and ammunition stored at Concord (just outside Boston). Colonial scouts, including the silversmith Paul Revere, rode ahead of the advancing red-coats, warned patriot leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams to flee, and roused the farmers of the countryside, the minutemen, to arms. No one knows who fired first at Lexington, but shots between the colonial militia and British troops were exchanged there and later at Concord, where the British found only a few supplies. During their long march back to Boston, the strung-out British were repeatedly harassed by patriot militia. By the end of the day, 273 redcoats and 95 patriots had been killed, wounded or lost, and the countryside was in revolt.

This fighting transformed the Second Continental Congress from a debating society into the central government for the colonies. It now created a continental army under George Washington, issued paper money for the support of colonial troops and formed a committee to negotiate with foreign countries. In August, George III declared the colonies in open rebellion.

On July 4 the delegates approved Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. It blamed George III for the colonial grievances and accused him of seeking to establish "an absolute Tyranny over these States." The Declaration expressed Enlightenment ideals of equality and inalienable rights which nonetheless seemed "self- evident" to a colonial society with great class divisions and the glaring contradiction of black slavery. Jefferson later described the Declaration as not creating new principles, but rather placing "before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent."

(Information for this story was derived from the internet site HomeworkCentral.com. For further information on the American Revolution visit the website at: http://www.homeworkcentral.com /spotlight/4thofjuly/)

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