AMERICAN REVOLUTION          home | history

Rebellion to 1776 and First Shots

At the end of the Seven Years' War the majority of those of European origin in Britain's colonies are said to have thought of themselves as loyal British subjects. They believed that they deserved the same rights as people in the mother country. They had been participating in local self-government. Their assemblies, under the authority of a colony's governor, had been making laws that were seldom overturned. The right to vote in the colonies was more widespread than in England. (In colonial Massachusetts as many a 96 percent if adult males could vote.) And in the colonies there was no hereditary nobility.

In Britain, however, there was a huge national debt, inherited by George III when ascended the throne in 1760. By 1763, according to historians Steven Hause and William Maltby,

Britain became the dominant colonial power in the world, but she thereby acquired even greater administrative costs. The Britsh nation ... was loath to pay the taxes needed to repay war debts, support military expansion, and meet the expenses of empire.

The British were interested in passing their tax burdens onto the relatively prosperous colonists. (By 1770, according to Samuel Eliot Morison, the median income for white colonists was as high if not higher than median incomes for people in Europe.) At the close of the Seven Years' War, Britain chose to maintain a large army in North America. It expected its colonists to do their part in helping the mother country fight those endangering them on the frontier — fighting done largely by British troops with a small number of colonists participating (among them a major in his twenties named George Washington). The colonists were expected also to help Britain's troops with food and shelter, and they were expected to obey the law regarding selling goods to the enemy: the French and Spanish, who were willing to pay good prices for food grown in Britain's colonies.

There was annoyance among some colonists over a proclamation that limited colonist settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. It had impressed the Pontiac Indians enough that they withdrew for their alliance with the French, contributing to France's defeat in the area. But it stirred resentment among some frontier colonists.

But more than this, there was in 1765 a push through Britain's Parliament the Stamp Act, intended to make colonists help Britain meet its expenses protecting them. Stamps were to be sold by the British government to colonists to put onto goods for trade (a sort of value-added tax).

Money and wealth distribution were sensitive issues even though the colonists were not suffering unusually. Colonists responded to new taxes with protests that included rioting and boycotts of British goods. Parliament responded with appeasement: they repealed the Stamp Act. Some taxes remained, but parliament defended their authority in the colonies by passing the Declaratory Act. It stated that parliament had the "full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever."

Colonists remained disturbed by their lack of political power and what some called taxation without representation. In the early 1770s, Britain tried to help the economically distressed British East India Company. It allowed the company to sell tea directly to the colonists rather than to importers. The importers were upset and began a boycott of the Company's tea business along the Atlantic coast. In late 1773 in Boston some angry businessmen disguised themselves as Indians and threw 342 chests of tea into the harbor waters — the so-called Boston Tea Party. Britain didn't want to mess around. It's authorities intended to impress with their toughness. King George's agents moved against the lawbreakers by closing Boston Harbor, curtailing local elections in Massachusetts, forbidding town meetings and obliging colonists to pay for the tea dumped into the bay. It was another instance of fear of appearing weak not producing the best of policies.

Closing the harbor meant economic ruin for Boston. People in the twelve other colonies also felt threatened, believing that if the mother country was willing to punish the Massachusetts colony in this manner they might also do the same to them. And they sent food and money as relief to Boston. Leaders among the colonists agreed on a "Grand Congress" in Philadelphia to consider options such a boycott of trade with the mother country and drawing up a list of rights and grievances. Every colony except Georgia selected delegates to the Congress. Delegates from Canada were also invited, but they didn't attend. It was to be known as the First Continental Congress.

Among the delegates were George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry. The Congress supported a boycott of trade with the mother country -- a boycott to have member committees in communities in each of the colonies.

In a concluding document signed in October 1774, titled a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, they complained of parliament having claimed "the right of power to bind the people of America" with statues of all kinds and of having created "commissioners with unconstitutional powers." They wrote of "grievous acts and measures" to which "Americans cannot submit," and they announced their intention to address "the people of Great Britain" and "his Majesty," in hope of resolutions.

At night on 18 April 1775, moving against the possibility of armed violence by the colonists, around 2,000 soldiers were sent to confiscate munitions storing at Concord – 26 miles northeast of Boston. Paul Revere and fellow riders went from house to house quietly warning members of a group called Minutemen.

Ten miles short of Concord, at the village green in Lexington, armed townspeople and around 130 armed Minutemen came face to face with the British soldiers. The commander of the soldiers called on people to disperse. A colonist fired a shot at the soldiers from behind a stone wall, and firing broke out on both sides. Eight of the soldiers were killed and ten wounded.

The soldiers (also called redcoats) moved-on to Concord, and there another skirmish occurred. At noon on the 19th the British soldiers began their return to Boston, and on their way they were attacked by colonists firing from behind walls and trees. By the time the soldiers made it back to Boston they had suffered 72 dead, and 49 colonists had been killed.

The skirmish was big news, and many colonists were eager to retaliate. In May, eighty-three colonists crossed Lake Champlain from Vermont and took over the forts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point. In June, soldiers drove armed insurrectionists off Breed's Hill (next to Bunker Hill) near Boston in what was to become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Since May, the Second Continental Congress had been in session, and it responded by declaring the creation of their own army and navy. The Congress declared itself as having powers over relations Indians and it sent diplomatic agents to Europe. In July, the Congress attempted conciliation with George III. Instead of conciliation, King George on August 23, 1775, declared that a rebellion existed and that it would be crushed and the "traitors" brought to justice.

Among the colonists were those who had begun reading Tom Paine's book titled Common Sense, which called for independence. In January 1776, George Washington stopped his routine toasting of George III at army officer dinners. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared independence. Language in the declaration was drawn from the freedoms expressed in Britain's constitution. There was also a concern of Thomas Jefferson's favorite ancient philosopher, Epicurus, a phrase about "happiness" that stood as opposition to the suffering favored by Stoics. The declaration stated:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Division among the Colonists

London's famous Samuel Johnson was soon to ask, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were slave owners. But there were also slave owners in the colonies who remained loyal to King George III.

Remaining loyal to George III were his governors in the colonies and those who were officials under those governors. Ranking ministers in the king's Anglican Church also remained loyal. The most wealthy of businessmen tended to be loyal to King George, but so did many humble farmers and shopkeepers. Loyalists were strongest where the king's military could protect them. This was so in the area of New York city, which Britains military held through much of the war. Where the soldiers had the least control — in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia — loyalists were few. Support for the insurrectionists was stronger in coastal regions where trade had been more of an issue, and stronger in inland near the frontier.

The historian Gary B Nash lists about 10 percent of the white population in the colonies as actively loyal, about 40 percent as supporting the insurrection and about 50 percent as neutral.

Among the neutrals were the Quakers, the Moravians (originally from Prague) and the Mennonites (originally from Holland.) The Quakers were opposed to participating in any bloodshed.

CONTINUE READING: American Revolution: War, Independence and Debating the Constitution

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.