World Civilizations

AMERICA: A Narrative History

From Empire to Independence
Chapter Five



Meanwhile, the king continued to have his ministers play musical chairs. Rockingham fell because he lost the confidence of the king, and his own administration suffered a paralyzing fragmentation. The king invited Pitt to form a ministry including the major factions of Parliament. The ill-matched combination--which Edmund Burke compared to pigs gathered at a trough--would have been hard to manage even if Pitt had remained in charge, but the old warlord began to slip over the fine line between genius and madness. For a time in 1767 the guiding force in the ministry was Charles Townshend, chancellor of the Exchequer, who's "abilities were superior to those of all men," according to Horace Walpole, "and his judgement below that of any man." The erratic Townshend took advantage of Pitt's absence to reopen the question of colonial taxation and seized upon the notion that "external" taxes were tolerable to the colonies--not that he believed it for a moment.

THE TOWNSHEND ACTS In May and June 1767 Townshend put his plan through the House of Commons, and in September he died, leaving behind a bitter legacy: The Townshend Acts. First, he sought to bring the New York assembly to its senses. That body had defied the Quartering Act and refused to provide billets or supplies for the king's troops. Parliament, at Townshend's behest, suspended all acts of the assembly until it yielded. New York protested but finally caved in, inadvertently confirming the British suspicion that too much indulgence had encouraged colonial bad manners. Townshend followed up with the Revenue Act of 1767, which levied duties ("external taxes") on colonial imports of glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. Third, he set up a Board of Customs Commissioners at Boston, the colonial headquarters of smuggling. Finally, he reorganized the vice-admiralty courts, providing four in the continental colonies--at Halifax, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston.

The Townshend duties did increase government revenues, but the intangible costs were greater. The duties taxed goods exported from England, indirectly hurting British manufacturers, and had to be collected in colonial ports, increasing collection costs. But the greater cost was a new drift into ever-greater conflict. The Revenue Act of 1767 posed a more severe threat to colonial assemblies than Grenville's taxes for Townshend proposed to apply these moneys to pay governors and other officers and release them from financial dependence on the colonial assemblies.

DICKINSON'S LETTERS The Townshend Acts surprised the colonists, and this time the storm gathered more slowly than it had two years before. Once again citizens resolved to resist, to boycott British goods, to wear homespun, to develop their own manufactures. Once again the colonial press spewed out expressions of protest, most notably the essays of John Dickinson, a Philadelphia lawyer who hoped to resolve the dispute by persuasion. Late in 1767 his twelve Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer (as he chose to style himself) began to appear in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, from which they were copied in other papers and in pamphlet form. His argument simply repeated with greater detail and more elegance what the Stamp Act Congresses had already said. The colonists held that Parliament might regulate commerce and collect duties incidental to that purpose, but it had no right to levy taxes for revenue, whether they were internal or external. Dickinson used the language of moderation throughout. "The cause of Liberty is a cause of too much dignity to be sullied by turbulence and tumult," he argued. The colonial complaints should "speak at the same time the language of affliction and veneration."

SAMUEL ADAMS AND THE SONS OF LIBERTY But the affliction grew and the veneration waned. British ministers could neither conciliate moderates like Dickinson nor cope with the firebrands such as Samuel Adams of Boston, who was now emerging as the supreme genius of revolutionary agitation. Born in 1722, Adams, the son of moderately well off and sternly pious parents, was graduated from Harvard and soon thereafter inherited the family brewery, which he quickly ran into bankruptcy. The lure of monetary gain never intoxicated him. His distant cousin John Adams described Sam as a "universal good character," a "plain, simple, decent citizen, of middling stature, dress, and manners," who prided himself on his frugality and his distaste for ceremony and display. Politics, not profits, was his abiding passion, and he spent most of his time and midcentury and after debating political issues with sailors, roustabouts, and stevedores at local taverns. Often dressed in a dingy red coat and ink-stained shirt, he would bring his huge Newfoundland dog to the tavern and, while eating raw oysters and fish chowder, engage in animated discussions about British rule. Stubborn, cunning, courageous, pious, and impetuous, Adams grew obsessed with the conviction that Parliament had no right to legislate at all for the colonies, that Massachusetts must return to the spirit of its Puritan founders and defend itself from a new conspiracy against its liberties.

While other men tended their private affairs, Sam Adams was whipping up the Sons of Liberty and organizing protests in the Boston town meeting and the provincial assembly. Early in 1768 he and James Otis formulated another Massachusetts Circular Letter, which the assembly dispatched to the other colonies. The letter restated the illegality of parliamentary taxation, warned the new duties would be used to pay colonial officials, and invited the support of other colonies. In London the earl of Hillsborough, just appointed to the new office of secretary of state for the colonies, only made matters worse. He ordered the assembly to withdraw the letter. The assembly refused and was dissolved. The consequence was simply more discussion of the need for colonial cooperation.

Among Townshend's legacies, the new Board of Customs Commissioners at Boston further confirmed Adam's suspicions of British intentions. Customs officers had been unwelcome in Boston since the arrival of Edward Randolph a century before. But the irascible Randolph had at least had the virtue of honesty. His successors cultivated the fine art of what one historian has called "customs racketeering." Under the Sugar Act, collectors profited from illegal cargoes and exploited technicalities. One ploy was to neglect certain requirements, then suddenly insist on a strict adherence. In May 1768, for example, they set a trap for Sam Adam's friend and patron John Hancock, a well-to-do merchant. On the narrow ground that Hancock had failed to post a bond before loading his sloop Liberty (previously he had always posted bond after loading), they seized the ship. A mob gathered to prevent its unloading. The commissioners towed the ship to Castle William in the harbor and called for the protection of British troops.

In September 1768 two regiments of redcoats arrived in Boston. Clearly they were not there to protect the frontiers. On the day the soldiers arrived, a convention of delegates from Massachusetts towns declared their "aversion to an unnecessary Standing Army, which they look upon as dangerous to their Civil Liberty." To members of Parliament the illegal convention smacked of treason, but it gave them little reason to believe that any colonial jury would ever convict the likes of Sam Adams. As a consequence, Parliament recommended that the king get information on "all treasons, or misprision of treason" committed in Massachusetts and return the accused to England for trial.

The king never acted on that suggestions, but the treat was unmistakable. In mid-May 1769 the Virginia assembly passed a new set of resolves reasserting its exclusive right to tax Virginians, challenging the constitutionality of an act that would take a man across the ocean for trial, and calling upon the colonies to unite in the cause. Virginia's governor promptly dissolved the assembly, but the members met independently, dubbed themselves a "convention" after Boston's example, and adopted a new set of non-importation agreements. Once again, as with the Virginia Resolves against the Stamp Act, most of the other assemblies followed the example.

In London, events across the Atlantic still evoked only marginal interest. The king's long effort to reorder British politics to his liking was coming to fulfillment, and that was the big news. In 1769 new elections for Parliament finally produced a majority of the "King's Friends." And George III found a minister to his taste in Frederick, Lord North, the plodding chancellor of the Exchequer who had replaced Townshend. In 1770 the king installed a cabinet of the King's Friends, with North as the first minister. North, who venerated the traditions of Parliament, was no stooge for the king, but the two worked in harmony.

THE BOSTON MASSACRE The impact of colonial boycotts on English commerce had persuaded Lord North to modify the Townshend Acts, just in time to halt a perilous escalation of conflict. The presence of soldiers in Boston had been a constant provocation. Bostonians copied the example of the customs officers and indicted soldiers on technical violations of local law. Crowds heckled and ridiculed the "lobster backs."

On March 5, 1770, in the square before the customs house, a group of rowdies began taunting and snowballing the sentry on duty. His call for help brought reinforcements. Then somebody rang the town firebell, drawing a larger crowd to the scene. At their head, or so the story goes, was Crispus Attucks, a runaway mulatto slave who had worked for some years on ships out of Boston. Finally one soldier was knocked down, rose to his feet, and fired into the crowd. When the smoke cleared, five people lay on the ground dead or dying, and eight more were wounded. The cause of resistance now had its first martyrs, and the first to die was Crispus Attucks. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, at the insistence of a mass meeting in Faneuil Hall, moved the soldiers out of town to avoid another incident. Those involved in the shooting were indicted for murder, but the were defended by John Adams, Sam's cousin, who thought they were the victims of circumstance, provoked, he said, by a "motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack tars." All were acquitted except two, who were convicted of manslaughter and branded on their thumbs.

The so-called Boston Massacre sent shock waves up and down the colonies, and the unrest caught the attention of British officials. Late in April 1770 Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties save one. The cabinet, by a fateful vote of five to four, had advised keeping the tea tax as a token of parliamentary authority. Colonial diehards insisted that pressure should be kept on British merchants until Parliament gave in altogether, but the non-importation movement soon faded. Parliament, after all, had given up the substance of the taxes, with one exception, and much of the colonists' tea was smuggled in from Holland anyway.

For two years thereafter discontent simmered down and suspicions began to fade on both sides of the ocean. The Stamp Act was gone, as were all the Townshend duties except that on tea, and Lord Hillsborough disclaimed any intent to seek further revenues. But most of the Grenville-Townshend innovations remained in effect: The Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Quartering Act, the vice-admiralty courts, the Board of Customs Commissioners. The redcoats had left Boston but they remained nearby, and the British navy still patrolled the coast. Each remained a source of irritation and the cause of occasional incidents. There was still tinder awaiting a spark, and the rebellious among the colonists promoted continuing conflicts. As Sam Adams stressed, "Where there is a spark of patriotick fire, we will enkindle it."


World Civilizations

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