World Civilizations

AMERICA: A Narrative History

From Empire to Independence
Chapter Five



Many American colonists had no interest in the dispute over British regulatory policy raging along the seaboard. Parts of the backcountry stirred with quarrels that had nothing to do with the Stamp and Townshend Acts. Rival land claims to the east of Lake Champlain pitted New York against New Hampshire and the Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen against both. Eventually the denizens of the area would simply set up shop on their own as the state of Vermont, created in 1777 although not recognized as a member of the Union until 1791. In Pennsylvania sporadic quarrels broke out with land claimants who held grants from Virginia and Connecticut, whose boundaries under their charters overlapped those granted to William Penn, or so they claimed.

A more dangerous division in Pennsylvania arose when a group of frontier ruffians took the law into their own hands. Outraged at the lack of frontier protection during Pontiac's rebellion because of Quaker influence in the assembly, a group called the "Paxton Boys" took revenge by massacring peaceful Conestoga Indians in Lancaster County; then they threatened the so-called Moravian Indians, a group of Moravian converts near Bethlehem. When the Moravian Indians took refuge in Philadelphia, some 1,500 Paxton Boys marched on the capital where Benjamin Franklin talked them into returning home by promising that more protection would be forthcoming.

Farther south, frontier folk of South Carolina had similar complaints about the lack of settled government and the need for protection against horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and Indians. Backcountry residents organized societies called "Regulators" to administer vigilante justice in the region and refused to pay taxes until they gained effective government. In 1769 the assembly finally set up six new circuit courts in the region and revised the fees, but still did not respond to the backcountry's demand for representation in the legislature.

However, the South Carolina assembly also voted £1,500 for the radical Bill of Rights Society in England to pay the debts of the government's outspoken critic, John Wilkes. When the king's ministers instructed the governor and council to assert themselves in the matter, royal government in South Carolina reached an impasse. The assembly passed its last annual tax law in 1769, and after 1771 passed no legislation at all.

In North Carolina the protest was less over the lack of government than over the abuses and extortion inflicted by appointees from the eastern part of the colony. Farmers felt especially oppressed at the refusal either to issue paper money or to accept produce in payment of taxes, and in 1766 they organized to resist. Efforts of these Regulators to stop seizures of property and other court proceedings led to more disorders and an enactment of a bill that made the rioters guilty of treason. In the spring of 1771 Governor William Tryon led 1,200 militiamen into the Piedmont center of Regulator activity. There he met and defeated some 2,000 ill-organized Regulators in the Battle of Alamance, in which eight were killed on each side. One insurgent was executed on the battlefield, twelve others were convicted of treason, and six were hanged. While this went on, Tryon's men ranged through the backcountry, forcing some 6,500 Piedmont settlers to sign an oath of allegiance.

These internal disputes and revolts within the colonies illustrate the fractious diversity of opinion and outlook evident among Americans on the eve of the Revolution. Colonists were of many minds about many things, including British rule. The disputatious frontier in colonial America also helped convince British authorities that the colonies were inherently unstable. The colonies required even keener and firmer oversight, even to the extent of using military force to ensure civil stability.


Two events in June 1772 further eroded the colonies' fragile relationship with the mother country. Near Providence, Rhode Island, a British schooner, the Gaspee, patrolling for smugglers, accidently ran aground. Under cover of darkness a crowd from the town boarded the ship, removed the crew, and set fire to the vessel. A commission of inquiry was formed with authority to hold suspects (for trial in England, it was rumored, under an old statue passed during the reign of Henry VIII), but no witnesses could be found. Four days after the burning, on June 13, 1772, Governor Thomas Hutchinson told the Massachusetts assembly that his salary thenceforth would come out of the customs revenues. Soon thereafter word came that judges of the Superior Court would be paid from the same source and no longer be dependent on the assembly for their income. The assembly expressed a fear that this portended "a despotic administration of government."

The existence of the Gaspee commission, which bypassed the courts of Rhode Island, and the independent salaries for royal officials in Massachusetts both suggested to the residences of other colonies that the same might be in store for them. The discussion of colonial rights and parliamentary encroachments regained momentum. To keep the pot boiling in November 1772 Sam Adams convinced the Boston town meeting to form a Committee of Correspondence, which issued a statement of rights and grievances and invited other towns to do the same. Committees of Correspondence sprang up across Massachusetts and spread into other colonies. In March 1773 the Virginian assembly proposed the formation of such committees on an intercolonial basis, and a network of the committees spread across the colonies, mobilizing public opinion and keeping colonial resentments at a simmer. In unwitting tribute to their effectiveness, a Massachusetts Loyalist called the committees "the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition."

The BOSTON TEA PARTY Lord North soon provided the colonists with the occasion to bring resentment from a simmer to a boil. In May 1773 he undertook to help some friends through a little difficulty. North's scheme was a clever contrivance, perhaps too clever, designed to bail out the East India Company, which was foundering in a spell of bad business. The company had in its British warehouses some 17 million pounds of tea. Under the Tea Act of 1773 the government would refund the British duty of twelve pence per pound on all that was shipped to the colonies and collect only the existing three-pence duty payable at the colonial port. By this arrangement colonists could get tea more cheaply than English buyers could. North, however, miscalculated in assuming that price alone would govern colonial reaction. Even worse, he permitted the East India Company to serve retailers directly through its own agents or consignees, bypassing the wholesalers who had handled it before. Once that kind of monopoly was established, colonial merchants began to wonder, how soon would the precedent apply to other commodities?

The Committees of Correspondence, backed by colonial merchants, alerted people to the new danger. The government, they said, was trying to purchase colonial acquiescence with cheap tea. Before the end of the year, large consignments of tea went out to major colonial ports. In New York and Philadelphia popular hostility forced company agents to resign. When no one received the tea, it went back to England. In Charleston it was unloaded into warehouses--and later sold to finance the Revolution. In Boston, however, Governor Hutchinson and Sam Adams engaged in a test of will. The ships' captains, alarmed by the radical opposition, proposed to turn back. Hutchinson, who of whose sons were among the consignees and stood to profit, refused permission until the tea was landed and the duty paid. On November 30, 1773, gathered in Old South Church, the Boston town meeting warned officials not to assist the landing of the tea. But they were legally bound to seize the cargo after twenty days in port, which in this case fell on December 16. On that night in December a group of men hastened to Griffin's Wharf where, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, they boarded three ships and threw the tea overboard--cheered on by a crowd along the shore. Like those who had burned the Gaspee, they remained parties unknown--except to hundreds of Bostonians. One participant later testified that Sam Adams and John Hancock were there. About £15,000 worth of tea, a substantial sum in 1773, went to the fish.

Given a more deft response from London, the Boston Tea Party might easily have undermined the radicals' credibility. Many people, especially merchants, were aghast at the wanton destruction of property. A town meeting in Bristol, Massachusetts, condemned the action. Ben Franklin called on his native city to pay for the tea and apologize. But the British authorities had reached the end of their patience. They were now convinced that the very existence of the empire was at stake. The rebels in Boston had instigated what could become a widespread effort to evade royal authority and imperial regulations. A firm response was required. "The colonists must either submit or triumph," George III wrote to Lord North, and North strove to make the king's judgement a self-fulfilling prophecy.

THE COERCIVE ACTS In April 1774 Parliament enacted four measures designed by North to discipline Boston. The Boston Port Act closed the port from June 1, 1774, until the city paid for the lost tea. An Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice let the governor transfer to England the trial of any official accused of committing an offense in the line of duty--no more redcoats would be tried on technicalities. A new Quartering Act directed local authorities to provide lodging for soldiers in private homes if necessary. Finally, the Massachusetts Government Act made the colony's council and law-enforcement officers all appointive rather than elected; sheriffs would select jurors, and no town meeting could be held without the governor's consent, except for the annual election of town officers. In May, General Thomas Gage replaced Hutchinson as governor and assumed command of British forces. Massachusetts now had a military governor.

These actions were designed to isolate Boston and make an example of the colony. Instead they galvanized colonial unity and emboldened resistance. "Your scheme yields no revenue," Edmund Burke had warned Parliament; "it yields nothing but discontent, disorder, disobedience . . ." At last, it seemed to the colonists, their worst fears were being confirmed. If these "Intolerable Acts," as the colonists labeled the Coercive Acts, were not resisted, they would eventually be applied to the other colonies.

Further confirmation of British designs came with the news of the Quebec Act, passed in June. It set up a totally unrepresentative government to the north in Canada under an appointed governor and council that gave a privileged position to the Catholic church. The measure was actually designed to deal with the peculiar milieu of a predominantly French colony unused to representative assemblies, but it seemed merely another indicator of tyrannical designs for the rest of the colonies. In addition, colonists pointed out that they had lost many lives in an effort to liberate the trans-Appalachian west from the control of the French Catholics. Now the British seemed to be protecting papists at the expense of their own colonists. What was more, the act placed within the boundaries of Quebec the western lands north of the Ohio River, lands that Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Connecticut claimed.

Meanwhile, colonists rallied to the cause of besieged Boston, taking up collections and sending provisions. In Williamsburg, when the Virginia assembly met in May, a young member of the Committee of Correspondence, Thomas Jefferson, proposed to set aside June 1, the effective date of the Boston Port Act, as a day of fasting and prayer in virginia. The governor immediately dissolved the assembly, whose members retired to the Raleigh Tavern and drew up a resolution for the "Continental Congress" to make representations on behalf of all the colonies. Similar calls were coming from Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, and in June the Massachusetts assembly suggested a meeting at Philadelphia in September. Shortly before George Washington left to represent Virginia at the gathering, he wrote to a friend: "the crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition, that can be heaped upon us, till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway."

THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia. There were fifty-five members, elected by provincial congresses or extralegal conventions, and representing the twelve continental colonies, all but Georgia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and the Floridas. Peyton Randolph of Virginia was elected president and Charles Thomason, "the Sam Adams of Philadelphia," became secretary, but not a member. The Congress agreed to vote by colonies, although Patrick Henry urged the members to vote as individuals on the grounds that they were not Virginians or New Yorkers or whatever, but Americans. In effect the delegates functioned as a congress of ambassadors, gathered to join forces on common policies and neither to govern nor to rebel but to adopt and issue a series of resolutions and protests.

The Congress gave serious consideration to a plan of union introduced by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania. His proposal followed closely the plan of the Albany Congress twenty years before: to set up a central administration of a governor-general appointed by the crown and a Grand Council chosen by the assemblies to regulate "general affairs." All measures dealing with America would require approval of both this body and Parliament. The plan was defeated only by a vote of six to five. Meanwhile a silversmith from Boston, Paul Revere, had come riding in from Massachusetts with the radical Suffolk Resolves which the Congress proceeded to endorse. Drawn up by Joseph Warner and adopted by a convention in Suffolk County, the resolutions declared the Intolerable Acts null and void, urged Massachusetts to arm for defense, and called for economic sanctions against British commerce.

In place of Galloway's plan the congress adopted a Declaration of American Rights, which conceded only Parliament's right to regulate commerce and those matters that were strictly imperial affairs. It proclaimed once again the rights of Americans as English citizens, denied Parliament's authority with respect to internal colonial affairs, and proclaimed the right of each assembly to determine the need for troops within its own province. In addition the Congress sent the king a petition for relief and issued addresses to the people of Great Britain and the colonies.

Finally the Continental Congress adopted the Continental Association of 1774, which recommended that every county, town and city form committees to enforce a boycott on all British goods. These committees would become the organizational and communications network for the Revolutionary movement, connecting every locality to the leadership. The Continental Association also included provisions for the non-importation of British goods (implemented in December 1774) and the nonexportation of American goods to Britain (to be implemented in September 1775 unless colonial grievances were addressed).

In taking its bold stand, the Congress had adopted what later would be called the dominion theory of the British Empire, a theory long implicit in the assemblies' claim to independent authority but more recently formulated in two widely circulated pamphlets by James Wilson of Pennsylvania (Consideration on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament) and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (Summary View of the Rights of British America). Each tract had argued that the colonies were not subject to Parliament but merely to the crown; each colony, like England itself, was a separate realm, a point further argued in the Novanglus Letters of John Adams, published in Massachusetts after the Congress adjourned.

In London the king fumed. In November 1774 he wrote his prime minister that the "New England colonies are in a state of rebellion, " and "blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent." British critics of the American actions reminded the colonists that Parliament had absolute sovereignty. Power could not be shared. Parliament could not abandon its claim to authority in part without abandoning it altogether. Only a few members of Parliament were ready to comprehend, much less accept, the colonists' "liberal and expanded thought," as Jefferson called in. In the House of Commons, Edmund Burke, in a brilliant speech on conciliation, urged merely an acceptance of the American view on taxation as consonant with English principles. The real question, he argued, was "not whether you have the right to render your people miserable; but whether it is not your interest to make them happy."

But Parliament rejected the notion of compromise. Instead it declared Massachusetts in rebellion, forbade the New England colonies to trade with any nation outside the empire, and excluded New Englanders from the North Atlantic fisheries. Lord North's conciliatory Resolution, adopted February 27, 1775, was as far as they would go. Under its terms, Parliament would refrain from any measures but taxes to regulate trade and would grant to each colony the duties collected within its boundaries, provided the colonies would contribute voluntarily to a quota for defense of the empire. It was a formula, Burke said, not for peace but for new quarrels.


World Civilizations

RESEARCH: Ralph'sWorld Civilizations
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