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Coming of the Revolution, 1754-1775

For the English-speaking colonies on the continent, the French- and Spanish-speaking colonies were an obstacle to territorial expansion, rivals in trade, competitors for the cooperation with American Indian groups, a potential military threat, and a bastion of Roman Catholic Christianity (which bothered the largely-Protestant English colonies). This tension prevailed on the international scene as well, for Great Britain contended with France and Spain for power and wealth in North America, the Caribbean, and Europe. In 1739, Great Britain declared war on Spain in what was known as the War of Jenkin's Ear, fought mostly in the New World. This war merged into the much larger war of the Austrian Succession (1744-48), a war which saw Great Britain and France as opponents. Although the war was a draw, it had the effect of intensifying British-France rivalry and both kingdoms increasing its military capacity and trying to fortify its interests in the New World.

One source of this tension included the population growth of the British continental colonies from 250,000 in 1700 to 1.75 million in the 1760s. Although the colonies were sparsely-populated by modern standards, eighteenth century colonials did not see it that way. They were pushing westwards into the Appalachian Mountains and beyond, invading territory claimed by France. Fur traders and land speculators led the way. One means of getting richer was to get land cheaply by arriving on unsettled land first and then selling it at a high price to those who came afterwards. Land companies promoted migration as a necessity. George Washington of Virginia was one of those who speculated in land.

Given the fact that the Anglos were going to move into territory claimed by the people who had been living there for hundreds of years, people such as the Delaware and Ottawa in the Ohio Valley and who had good relations with the French (who also claimed the region and had numerous forts in it), the mighty Iroquois confederation in New York, and the Cherokee in the colonies of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, it was inevitable that there would be warfare between the French and/or the Indians, on the one hand, and the Brits, on the other. As they moved into the region, the British began building outposts (usually forts) in the Ohio Valley, to challenge the French and its allies. British colonies had hugged the eastern seaboard whereas the French had settled or gained control of the Canadas, the Great Lakes, the Ohio River and Mississippi River valleys, down to New Orleans. Frenchmen had built trading posts and forts and, perhaps more important, made alliances with tribes living in those areas. Neither group wanted the British to expand. And the Indians and the French had some initial success for, by 1755, the French at Fort Duquesne beat General Edward Braddock's British and American army. With that, Indian armies, supported by the French, launched raids across the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontiers. The British tried to buy the support of the Iroquois peoples but failed until 1758.

From the viewpoint of the rulers in London, war in the New World was a way to cripple their chief rival, France, and to promote their and their colonies' interests. William Pitt poured some 23,000 troops into the colonies to suppress the Indians and drive France off the continent. These numbers were huge and their cost was considerable but they produced victories. Sir Jeffrey Amherst captured Fort Louisbourg in Canada and John Forbes took Fort Duquesne. With those victories, the Iroquois sent an army to join the British attack on Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. By taking Niagara in 1759, the British cut off the French from the western part of their empire. The British fleet bottled up the French on the St. Lawrence River on the eastern end. British General James Wolfe captured Quebec city by scaling the heights and surprising and defeating General Montcalm's army in 1759. The next year the British took Montreal. War against the French continued in the Caribbean and Europe but French power had been destroyed on the continent. Indian power was not. Although the Cherokee wreaked damage across the eastern South and often beat Anglo-American troops, they finally quit because they were hungry, out of ammo, and dying of smallpox, one of the silent armies1 the Europeans had brought to the New World.

Having won the French and Indian War (1754-63)2, the British government controlled the Maritime Provinces, the Hudson Bay territory, and French Canada (Quebec), the two Floridas, and the land east of the Mississippi River save New Orleans. In short, they had increased the North American empire from 15 colonies (Bermuda and the Bahamas were considered part of North America) to 20. 3and done so with almost no help from the colonies. Canada was French, Roman Catholic, and not happy being occupied by Anglos. It also faced serious warfare in the newly-acquired Ohio River Valley in 1763-64 because Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa created an alliance of most of the tribes in the region and went to war against the Englishers. Although defeated in 1764, the point was clear; they wanted to maintain control of their property and would resist encroachments by English colonists and their mother country. The British government declared a Proclamation Line in 1763 across which the colonials were not to go until some means could be found to minimize warfare with the Indians, find some acceptable means to settle the various and often conflicting claims by Frenchmen who had been living in the area and colonies such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Unfortunately for the British government, their colonials believed that the land was theirs for the taking and resented British interference. And they were perfectly willing to kill anyone who got in the way.

The British government had to find ways to pay for the almost constant wars which had expanded and protected the colonies and to administer the empire. George Grenville in 1763-1765 adopted a new imperial policy. Having a vast territory to govern, one with hostile Indian tribes, French, and Spaniards, London stationed 10,000 soldiers in North America as a permanent military force. Control of Indian relations was transferred from the colonies to Imperial officials because the British government, believed, correctly, that the colonials were incapable of being wise in dealing with the Indians. As noted above, he also restricted western advancement. Because some of the colonies had issued paper money during the war, money which quickly depreciated and with which colonials were able to pay their debts to British merchants at a discount (the merchants believed they were being robbed and lobbied Parliament) its issuance was forbidden. In order to pacify Quebec—French-speaking, Roman Catholic, with French law and traditions—Parliament passed the Quebec Act which allowed the Quebeçois to maintain most of their culture. The Quebec Act was thus enlightened legislation but the English colonies did not see it that way. Because it included the Ohio Valley as part of Quebec, they saw it as an infringement on their "coast-to-coast" land claims and, worse, as favoring Roman Catholicism.

Complicating matters was a misunderstanding of the English constitution. Since William and Mary assumed the throne of England in 1689, Parliament had more power than the Monarchy. Parliamentary power grew during the reign of George I (1714-27), for he was more interested in his native Hannover than his Britain. 4 One consequence was that his First (or Prime) Minister gradually acquired enormous power as long as he could maintain a majority in Parliament. The constitution had thus evolved into rule by King-in-Parliament but with Parliament having more power. George III (1760-1820) wanted to rule his empire and took means to select ministers who would do his will and to influence elections in order to get a majority. That he was not a good judge of men and blundered badly in his colonial policy, did not negate that it was Parliament which was trying to force the colonials to obey and to pay their fair share of the war debt and administrative costs of the Empire. Arguing against the representative body was very difficult so, in the Declaration of Independence, they would blame George III for what he did not do. The populace needed to blame a person not an institution.

A further complication regarding the constitution was that the dissidents or rebels would argue that the constitution was different from what it really was, in essence to amend the constitution by force and without the consent of the rest of the peoples in the Empire be it those in the mother country, the North American colonies, or the colonies located in other parts of the world. In the British constitutional system, the Houses of Parliament represented everyone in the Empire; the Lords represented all nobility and such Anglican church figures as bishops; the Commons represented everyone else. Even in the House of Commons, representation was not based on geography. One did not have to live in a district to represent it. 5 When the framers of the Constitution (1787)wrote residency requirements for the US House and Senate, they followed the British constitution almost exactly—one only had to be residing in the district or state on the day of election. So it is clear that they understood this kind of representation. There was "no taxation without representation." Colonials could have stood for election in a Commons district in Great Britain. The practicality of doing this, the real issue, was dubious.

When the War ended in 1763, the inhabitants of British North America considered themselves thoroughly patriotic and loyal British subjects but that was before they learned that they had to help pay for security and administering the Empire and that the British expected to rule more than it had in the past. Even though the colonies had flourished and become prosperous, in large part because of the Navigation Acts, many colonials (it is impossible to know how many but one should assume that it was a minority) believed that they were entitled to these things and should not have to shoulder any burden, a common human attitude. A smaller minority had already begun to move away from strict loyalty.

Grenville, the chief minister of the young George III, faced a £145 million national debt (which had only been £75 million before the war and a heavily-taxed population the the British Isles. Plus he had to find the funds with which to pay the 10,000 soldiers stationed in North America. He decided and Parliament agreed that the colonials as well as the people in the British Isles should be taxed. Few would have dreamed that his revenue program would cause problems.

His first taxing effort was to reduce the Molasses tax from 6 pence to 3 pence a gallon, thereby cutting the tax rate in half! But this Revenue Act (Sugar Act) of 1763 was, for the first time, clearly revenue and not the regulation of trade. It added more colonial products which could only be sent to Great Britain and required colonial shippers to post a bond before they shipped. Worse, it created new vice-admiralty courts, providing the machinery for enforcement. Whereas the British government was lax in allowing criminal activity in colonial trade in the past, it was clear that the British were going to collect the taxes and punish the criminals. The order navy was ordered to enforce the Navigation Acts. 6 Only the legislature of New York officially objected.

Far more maddening was the Currency Act (1764)which prohibited the colonials from issuing paper money and required the use of the pound sterling, the currency of Great Britain. British merchants did not like these IOUs or promissory notes because they were of uncertain value (almost always depreciated from their face value) and of so many different kinds and issued by many different businesses; they often believed that the colonials were cheating them. To most people in the European world, which the New World was in, money was hard currency or specie—gold and silver usually. The problem for the North American colonials was that there was an insufficient amount of hard currency in circulation so, in desperation, they had resorted to issuing IOUs (paper money) during the wars and in the depression which began in 1763. The Currency Act was, therefore, a great hardship to trade within and without the colonies and, equally important, proof that the British government put the interests of mother country merchants ahead of theirs.

It was the Stamp Act in 1765 that stirred many colonials to protest strenuously and to engage in violence and other criminal behavior. People in Great Britain were long accustomed to stamp taxes on legal documents, playing cards, marriage licenses, newspapers, printing, and the like, so Grenville had no inkling that the colonials would object to paying lesser taxes on fewer items. He gave them a year to find alternative ways to raise revenue but they did not do that. Instead, they erupted in protest. The Stamp Tax offended the most influential (and richest) colonials, for it affected them disproportionately and affected their everyday business transactions. Moreover, the act provided for trials of offenders in admiralty courts which had no juries. Prominent people, no matter how guilty, would unlikely to be convicted by a colonial jury, which is why the British government wanted to avoid them. The radical left group, the Sons of Liberty, organized mob riots and attacked government officials. Houses and other buildings were burned in Boston and New York. Stamp commissioners were so terrorized that they resigned for fear of their lives. Nine of the colonies sent representatives to the Stamp Act Congress in New York. They signed non-importation agreements (boycott) to pressure British merchants to pressure Parliament. They had learned who had power. The Sons of Liberty and members of the Stamp Act Congress argued that Parliament did not have the right to tax them directly because, as Englishmen, they should not have to bear taxation without representation. Parliament said they were represented, virtually, because the House of Commons represented all commoners in the Empire and colonials were free to come to England and stand (run) for a seat. Both sides were being disingenuous. The colonials wanted to run their own affairs and any sensible British politicians knew that a colonial in Parliament could not effectively represent his colony. After all, it was a minimum for week voyage each way, longer than it takes to go from Earth to Mars.

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic were aghast at what had happened, at the wanton destruction of private property and flouting of authority and, more important, by the involvement of the lower and middling classes in politics. They were supposed to defer to their betters. The Stamp Act crisis changed politics in many of the colonies and brought to prominence left wing leaders such as Sam Adams, John Hancock, and James Otis of Massachusetts Bay and Patrick Henry of Virginia, men who operated the revolutionary cells, often secret, called the Sons of Liberty. Committees of Correspondence, created by private citizens and some colonial legislatures to inform each other of events, were taken over by the radicals and used as a transmission means to foment defiance of legitimate authority.

The tactics by the colonials worked. In 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act but passed the Declaratory Act which said that Parliament had not conceded the right to tax. By doing this, however, Parliament was giving the advantage to the left wing of colonial politics. It meant that the radicals has Parliament in the run. It was a sign of weakness.

In 1765, Parliament had also passed the Quartering Act, a measure to house British soldiers stationed in America. Their commanders were given the right to requisition vacant buildings and rooms in hotels and inns. The act specified that they would be paid and how much. Moreover, the act provided for the rental of wagons and other carriages by the army. It was part of an act to punish mutiny and desertion and included provisions for searches of private homes only with a warrant issued by a judge. In sum, it was not an abuse of the colonials. Coming close to the issuance of the Stamp Act, however, the left wing radicals, such as the Sons of Liberty, were able to label it as another abuse by Parliament.

Nevertheless, Parliament still faced the problem of financing the administration of its expanded Empire and still believed that its North American colonials should bear their fair share of the costs. In 1767, it passed the Townshend duties on trade, small tariffs on paper, lead, paint, tea and glass. In addition, it created the Board of Customs Commissioners based in the colonies. The Board could use the non-jury admiralty courts. Further, some of the revenues could be used to pay royal officials in the colonies, this removing colonial control. Another law suspended the New York legislature until it agreed to obey the Quartering Act; it soon did.

The leftists swung into action again, organizing mob action and non-importation agreements. Although they had argued previously that Parliament could regulate trade within the Empire but not tax them directly, they now argued that Parliament could not tax them at all. Their tactics worked. In 1778, the Townshend Duties were repealed except for the tax on tea, left to make the point that Parliament did have the right to tax.

The next few years were quiet and prosperous but it was clear that the left was setting the agenda for American politics and that it had begun to move away from strict loyalty. These radicals were a small but well-organized and ably-led group who opposed the slightest effort to tax the colonies or to regulate their internal affairs. They were the leaders of the violent aspects of the anti-Stamp Act, anti-Townshend Duties efforts. They could count on the fact that most people in the colonies were apathetic or conservative and loyal to the British government. They understood that, to achieve their ends they had to convince the movers and shakers of colonial society and then, with the help of the latter, that the British government was not letting them have what was rightfully theirs. Whether their rights were actually being denied was irrelevant. They had to generate anger. They tried and failed in 1770 when they precipitated the incident between British soldiers and colonial ruffians in Boston in the winter of 1770. Some Bostonians resented the soldiers for competing for menial jobs when off duty (they were not paid very well) and for women. And, of course, they resented the presence of outsiders, armed ones at that. Their taunting of and throwing snow balls at the soldiers resulted in shots being fired and the death of three persons. The Sons of Liberty quickly called it the "Boston Massacre," which it was not. As the soldiers' attorney, John Adams, who became President of the United States, showed in court and got them acquitted, it was simply an unfortunate incident which occurred when young men fought over non-political issues. Modern commentators might label it as resulting from testosterone poisoning or males being males. Others understood the situation and the leftists were unable to make much hay from it. 8. The port of Boston was closed until the colony paid for the tea. The Massachusetts Bay charter was amended to change the upper legislative chamber from being elected by the lower house to one appointed by the governor. Local courts were forbidden to try British soldiers for following orders when putting down civil disturbances so they could get a fair trial. Town meetings were forbidden except the annual one to elect local officials. The civilian governor, hated by the radicals, was replaced by a military governor, General Thomas Gage.

That same year, Parliament passed the Quebec Act which granted toleration of Roman Catholics in Quebec, recognized the claims of the Quebeçois to the lands west of Appalachians, and allowed the Quebeçois to continue their traditional form of government under British supervision. This liberal treatment of the newly-acquired colony infuriated some because it denied the claims of British colonies that they stretched coast-to-coast." Others in their bigotry objected to the toleration of Roman Catholics. The radicals exploited these discontents and asserted that the unrepresentative government in Quebec was what the Crown wanted for the British colonies. They lumped the Quebec Act with the Intolerable Acts.

The radicals in 1774 launched an all-out campaign to get action against the British, and got the First Continental Congress to meet in September, 1774 in Philadelphia. Georgia, Hudson Bay, Quebec, East Florida, West Florida, the Bahamas, and Bermuda sent no delegates to this extralegal congress, for they remained loyal. If those who did go from the other twelve colonies, most were left wingers because they were chosen at the height of the furor and did not represent majority sentiment in their respective colonies. A small minority had become a radical majority in the Congress. The radical committees of correspondence often automatically became the delegates. Conservatives stayed away.

Even so, the liberal Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania almost had his compromise plan of colonial union adopted. It called for a royally-appointed, governor-general and a council representing the colonial assemblies with the power to legislate and the right to veto Parliamentary acts affecting the colonies. When it was narrowly defeated, the radicals adopted a "Continental Association" calling for non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation of goods between colonies and Great Britain. Further, the Congress adopted a plan of enforcement that laid basis for this extralegal government

During the winter and spring of 1774-1751, the radicals began putting plan into operation, terrorizing anyone who disagreed with them. Probably a minority of the colonials supported the radicals. Radical control was far from complete by spring of 1775.

The situation escalated into armed confrontation in the Boston area. The British sent additional troops to serve under Thomas Gage, the military governor. He was stationed in Boston, which was on a peninsula. The radicals, with the endorsement of the Continental Congress, began to collect military supplies and train soldiers, clearly treasonous activity. On April 19, 1775, Gage sent detachment of troops to Concord to confiscate the arms and arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, two of the ring leaders. Minutemen at Lexington and Concord fired on British troops. The casualties were 273 dead, wounded or missing. The radicals sent circulars around the colonies talking about a massacre by the British, which was a lie but effective propaganda. There was a burst of patriotic indignation and seizure of governments with royal governors being driven from their posts.

On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress hastily assembled, in Philadelphia. As a gesture to conservatives, they made a last appeal to the king, but they devoted their time and energies to war preparation. The left had won. Thirteen of the colonies went to war against the British Empire. The crises of the period taught them that they were Americans not British, that their loyalties were to their own areas. They were taking a chance because, as John Adams remarked, no more than a third of the colonists supported the war at any one time. Adams, a revolutionary, was overestimating.


1Most people, including professional historians, ignore the fact that the diseases, such as smallpox, typhus, typhoid, and measles, served as armies of millions in the wars against the pre-Columbian peoples. Humans don't want to share the credit or the glory with such tiny organisms.

2 The English were constantly at war against the French and their allies. They had fought them in the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1713)and the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-48). The victory in the French and Indian War, which was the Seven Years' War (1756-63) in Europe seemed to promise peace. However, they would be fighting the French and their allies again in the American Revolution (1775-1783), the French Revolution (1791-1799), and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).

3The emphasis on the "13 colonies" is after-the-fact patriotism because it avoids the problem of why six of the colonies chose to stay with Great Britain. Bermuda had long-term ties with the Virginia colony and the Bahamas with Southern colonies but, as islands, revolt would have been difficult in the face of British naval might. The French in Canada were an occupied people and not very numerous at that. It was bad enough being governed England; it would be worst to be governed by upstart English colonials. The English Canadians had acquired a vast, virtually unsettled, territory. When the Americans tried to conquer the Canadas during the Revolution, they were repulsed. The Quebec Act, explained below, also helped to insure loyalty. The Floridas were, likewise, sparsely populated; there were neither large numbers of Europeans nor American Indians there. The British easily controlled the few settlements.

4George spoke almost no English but he did speak Latin, the language of the court.

5A few represented districts were even under water. The person who owned the land elected the member of Commons.

6The Navigation Acts had been passed in the 17th century and were designed to insure that the mother country prospered. Colonies existed to enrich the mother country and trade had to be between the two. The colonies were forbidden to produce items that the mother country could supply but they received subsidies for various products grown in the colonies. This policy, called mercantilism, was an early form of capitalism.

7The incident became part of the mythology because the American left eventually won and created a new country. They, the victors, wrote the history and, of course, engaged in self-justification.

8In a brilliant propaganda move, the leftists immediately labeled them the "Intolerable Acts."


Don Mabry 081603