Modern history

Resistance to Britain Intensifies

Over the next decade, between 1764 and 1774, the British Parliament sought to extend its political and economic control over the American colonies, and the colonists periodically resisted. With each instance of resistance, Parliament demanded further submission to royal authority. With each demand for submission, colonists responded with greater assertions of their rights and autonomy. Yet no one—neither colonists nor British officials—could have imagined in 1764, or even in 1774, that a revolution was in the making.

The Stamp Act Inspires Coordinated Resistance

Grenville decided that his next step would be to impose a stamp tax on the colonies similar to that long used in England. The stamp tax required that a revenue stamp be affixed to all transactions involving paper items, from newspapers and contracts to playing cards and diplomas. Grenville announced his plans in 1764, a full year before Parliament enacted the Stamp Act in the spring of 1765. The tax was to be collected by colonists appointed for the purpose, and the money was to be spent within the colonies at the direction of Parliament for “defending, protecting and securing the colonies.” To Grenville and a majority in Parliament, the Stamp Act seemed completely fair. After all, Englishmen paid on average 26 shillings in tax annually, while Bostonians averaged just 1 shilling. Moreover, the act was purposely written to benefit the American colonies.

The colonists viewed it in a more threatening light. The Stamp Act differed from earlier parliamentary laws in three important ways. First, by the time of its passage, the colonies were experiencing rising unemployment, falling wages, and a downturn in trade.

All of these developments were exacerbated by the Sugar, Currency, and Quartering Acts passed by Parliament the previous year. Indeed, in cities like Boston, British soldiers often competed with colonists for scarce jobs in order to supplement their low wages. Second, critics viewed the Stamp Act as an attempt to control the internal affairs of the colonies. It was not an indirect tax on trade, paid by importers and exporters, but a direct tax on daily business: getting a marriage certificate, selling land, and publishing or buying a newspaper or an almanac. Third, such a direct intervention in the economic affairs of the colonies unleashed the concerns of leading colonial officials, merchants, lawyers, shopkeepers, and ministers that Parliament was taxing colonists who had no representation in its debates and decisions. Their arguments resonated with ordinary women and men, who were affected far more by the stamp tax than by an import duty on sugar, molasses, or wine.

By announcing the Stamp Act a year before its passage, Grenville assured that colonists had plenty of time to organize their opposition. In New York City, Boston, and other cities, merchants, traders, and artisans formed groups dedicated to the repeal of the Stamp Act. Soon Sons of Liberty, Daughters of Liberty, Sons of Neptune, Vox Populi, and similar organizations emerged to challenge the imposition of the Stamp Act. Even before the act was implemented, angry mobs throughout the colonies attacked stamp distributors. Some were beaten, others tarred and feathered, and all were forced to take an oath never to sell stamps again.

Colonists lodged more formal protests with the British government as well. The Virginia House of Burgesses, led by Patrick Henry, acted first. It passed five resolutions, which it sent to Parliament, denouncing taxation without representation. The Virginia Resolves were reprinted in many colonial newspapers and repeated by orators to eager audiences in Massachusetts and elsewhere. At the same time, the Massachusetts House adopted a circular letter—a written protest circulated to the other colonial assemblies— calling for a congress to be held in New York City in October 1765 to consider the threat posed by the Stamp Act.

In the meantime, popular protests multiplied. The protests turned violent in Boston, where Sons of Liberty leaders like Samuel Adams organized mass demonstrations. Adams modeled his oratory on that of itinerant preachers, but with a political twist. Sons of Liberty also spread anti-British sentiment through newspapers and handbills that they posted on trees and buildings throughout the city and in surrounding towns. At dawn on August 14, 1765, the Boston Sons of Liberty hung an effigy of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver on a tree and called for his resignation. A mock funeral procession, joined by farmers, artisans, apprentices, and the poor, marched to Boston Common. The crowd, led by twenty-seven-year-old Ebenezer Mackintosh—a shoemaker, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and a popular working-class leader—carried the fake corpse to the Boston stamp office and destroyed the building. Demonstrators saved pieces of lumber, “stamped” them, and set them on fire outside Oliver’s house. Oliver, wisely, had already left town.

Oliver’s brother-in-law, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, arrived at the scene and tried to quiet the crowd, but he only angered them further. They soon destroyed Oliver’s stable house, coach, and carriage, which the crowd saw as signs of aristocratic opulence. Twelve days later, demonstrators attacked the homes of Judge William Story, customs officer Benjamin Hallowell, and Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson.

The battle against the Stamp Act unfolded across the colonies with riots, beatings, and resignations reported from Newport, Rhode Island, to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to Charles Town (later Charleston), South Carolina. In Charleston, slave trader and stamp agent Henry Laurens was attacked by white artisans who hanged him in effigy and then by white workers and finally by slaves who harassed him with chants of “Liberty! Liberty!!” On November 1, 1765, when the Stamp Act officially took effect, not a single stamp agent remained in his post in the colonies.

Protesters carefully chose their targets: stamp agents, sheriffs, judges, and colonial officials. Even when violence erupted, it remained focused, with most crowds destroying stamps and stamp offices first and then turning to the private property of Stamp Act supporters. These protests made a mockery of notions of deference toward British rule. But they also revealed growing autonomy on the part of middling- and working-class colonists who attacked men of wealth and power, sometimes choosing artisans rather than wealthier men as their leaders. However, this was not primarily a class conflict because many wealthier colonists made common cause with artisans, small farmers, and the poor. Indeed, colonial elites considered themselves the leaders, inspiring popular uprisings through the power of their political arguments and oratorical skills, although they refused to support actions they considered too radical. For example, when Levellers in the Hudson valley proclaimed themselves Sons of Liberty and sought assistance from Stamp Act rebels in New York City, the merchants, judges, and large landowners who led the protests there refused to help them.

It was these more affluent protesters who dominated the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1765, which brought together twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies. The delegates petitioned Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act, arguing that taxation without representation was tyranny and that such laws “have a manifest Tendency to subvert the Rights and Liberties of the Colonists.” Delegates then urged colonists to boycott British goods and refuse to pay the stamp tax. Yet they still proclaimed their loyalty to king and country.

The question of representation became a mainstay of colonial protests. Whereas the British accepted the notion of “virtual representation,” by which members of Parliament gave voice to the views of particular classes and interests, the North American colonies had developed a system of representation based on locality. According to colonial leaders, only members of Parliament elected by colonists could represent their interests.

Even as delegates at the Stamp Act Congress declared themselves disaffected but loyal British subjects, they participated in the process of developing a common identity in the American colonies. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina expressed the feeling most directly. “We should stand upon the broad common ground of natural rights,” he argued. “There should be no New England man, no New-Yorker, known on the continent, but all of us Americans.”

Eventually the British Parliament was forced to respond to colonial protests and even more to rising complaints from English merchants and traders whose business had been damaged by the colonists’ boycott. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, and King George III granted his approval a month later. When news reached the colonies in May, crowds celebrated in the streets, church bells rang, and fireworks and muskets saluted the victory. Colonists now looked forward to a new and better relationship between themselves and the British government.

From the colonists’ perspective, the crisis triggered by the passage of the Stamp Act demonstrated the limits of parliamentary control. Colonists had organized effectively and forced Parliament to repeal the hated legislation. Protests had raged across the colonies and attracted support from a wide range of colonists, including young and old, men and women, merchants, lawyers, artisans, and farmers. Individual leaders, like Patrick Henry of Virginia and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, became more widely known through their fiery oratory and their success in appealing to the masses. The Stamp Act agitation also demonstrated the growing influence of ordinary citizens who led parades and demonstrations and joined in attacks on stamp agents and the homes of British officials. And the protests revealed the growing power of the written word and printed images in disseminating ideas among colonists. Broadsides, political cartoons, handbills, newspapers, and pamphlets circulated widely, reinforcing discussions and proclamations at taverns, rallies, demonstrations, and more formal political assemblies.

The Repeal, 1766 The announcement of the Stamp Act in 1764 ignited widespread protests throughout the colonies. Colonial governments petitioned Parliament for its repeal, crowds attacked stamp agents and distributors, broadsides and newspapers denounced "taxation without representation," and boycotts and mass demonstrations were organized in major cities, some of which turned violent. The cartoon celebrates the repeal of the Stamp Act by depicting a funeral for the act led by its supporters. Library of Congress

For all the success of the Stamp Act protests, American colonists still could not imagine in 1765 that protest would ever lead to open revolt against British sovereignty. More well-to-do colonists were concerned that a revolution against British authority might fuel a dual revolution in which small farmers, tenants, servants, slaves, and laborers would rise up against their political and economic superiors in the colonies. Even most middling- and working-class protesters believed that the best solution to the colonies’ problems was to gain greater economic and political rights within the British empire, not to break from it. After all, Great Britain was the most powerful nation in the world, and the colonies could only benefit from their place in its far-reaching empire.

The Townshend Act and the Boston Massacre

The repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766 led directly to Parliaments passage of the Declaratory Act. That act declared that Parliament had the authority to pass any law “to bind the colonies and peoples of North America” closer to Britain. No new tax or policy was established; Parliament simply wanted to proclaim Great Britain’s political supremacy in the aftermath of the successful stamp tax protests.

Following this direct assertion of British sovereignty, relative harmony prevailed in the colonies for more than a year. Having rid themselves of the burden of parliamentary taxation, colonists were content to abide by less offensive restrictions on smuggling, domestic manufacturing, and similar matters. Then in June 1767, a new chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, rose to power in England. He persuaded Parliament to return to the model offered by the earlier Sugar Act. The Townshend Act, like the Sugar Act, instituted an import tax on a range of items sent to the colonies, including glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea.

Now, however, even an indirect tax led to immediate protests and calls for a boycott of the items subject to the tax. In February 1768, Samuel Adams wrote a circular letter reminding colonists of the importance of the boycott, and the Massachusetts Assembly disseminated it to other colonial assemblies. In response, Parliament posted two more British army regiments in Boston and New York City to enforce the law, including the Townshend Act. Angry colonists did not retreat when confronted by this show of military force. Instead, a group of outspoken colonial leaders demanded that colonists refuse to import goods of any kind from Britain.

This boycott depended especially on the support of women, who were often in charge of the day-to-day purchase of household items that appeared on the boycott list. Women were expected to boycott a wide array of British goods—gloves, hats, shoes, cloth, sugar, and tea among them. Single women and widows who supported themselves as shopkeepers were expected to join male merchants and store owners in refusing to sell British goods. To make up for the boycotted goods, wives, mothers, and daughters produced homespun shirts and dresses and brewed herbal teas to replace British products.

Despite the hardships, many colonial women embraced the boycott. Twenty-two-year- old Charity Clarke voiced the feelings of many colonists when she wrote to a friend in England, “If you English folks won’t give us the liberty we ask . . . I will try to gather a number of ladies armed with spinning wheels [along with men] who shall learn to weave & keep sheep, and will retire beyond the reach of arbitrary power.” Women organized spinning bees in which dozens of participants produced yards and yards of homespun cloth. By1770 wearing homespun came to symbolize women’s commitment to the colonial cause.

Refusing to drink tea offered another way for women to show their support of protests against parliamentary taxation. In February 1770, more than “300 Mistresses of Families, in which number the Ladies of the Highest Rank and Influence,” signed a petition in Boston and pledged to abstain from drinking tea, and dozens of women from less prosperous families signed their own boycott agreement.

Boston women’s refusal to drink tea and their participation in spinning bees were part of a highly publicized effort to make their city the center of opposition to the Townshend Act. Printed propaganda, demonstrations, rallies, and broadsides announced to the world that Bostonians rejected Parliament’s right to impose its will, or at least its taxes, on the American colonies. Throughout the winter of 1769—1770, boys and young men confronted British soldiers stationed in Boston. Although they were angry over Parliament’s taxation policies, Boston men also considered the soldiers, who moonlighted for extra pay, as economic competitors. The taunts and tension soon escalated into violence.

By March 1770, 1,700 British troops were stationed in Boston, a city of 18,000 people. On the evening of March 5, boys began throwing snowballs and insults at the lone soldier guarding the Boston Customs House. An angry crowd began milling about, now joined by a group of sailors led by Crispus Attucks, an ex-slave of mixed African and Indian ancestry. The nervous guard called for help, and Captain Thomas Preston arrived at the scene with seven British soldiers. He appealed to the “gentlemen” present to disperse the crowd. Instead, the harangues of the crowd continued, and snowballs, stones, and other projectiles flew in greater numbers. Then a gun fired, and soon more shooting erupted. Eleven men in the crowd were hit, and four were “killed on the Spot,” including Crispus Attucks.

Despite confusion about who, if anyone, gave the order to fire, colonists expressed outrage at the shooting of ordinary men on the streets of Boston. Samuel Adams and other Sons of Liberty, though horrified by the turn of events, recognized the incredible potential for anti-British propaganda. Adams organized a mass funeral for those killed, and thousands watched the caskets being paraded through the city. Newspaper editors and broadsides printed by the Sons of Liberty labeled the shooting a “massacre.” When the accused soldiers were tried in Boston for the so-called Boston Massacre and the jury acquitted six of the eight of any crime, colonial leaders became more convinced that British rule had become tyrannical and that such tyranny must be opposed.

To ensure that colonists throughout North America learned about the Boston Massacre, committees of correspondence formed once again to spread the news. These committees became important pipelines for sending information about plans and protests across the colonies, connecting seaport cities with one another and with like-minded colonists in the countryside. They also circulated an engraving by Bostonian Paul Revere that suggested the soldiers purposely shot at a peaceful crowd.

In the aftermath of the shootings, public pressure increased on Parliament to repeal the Townshend duties. Merchants in England and North America pleaded with Parliament to reconsider policies that had resulted in economic losses on both sides of the Atlantic. In response, Parliament repealed all of the Townshend duties except the import tax on tea. Parliament retained the tea tax to prove its political authority to do so.

Continuing Conflicts at Home

As colonists in Boston and other seaport cities rallied to protest British taxation, other residents of the thirteen colonies continued to challenge authorities closer to home. In the same years as the Stamp Act and Townshend Act protests, tenants in New Jersey and the Hudson valley continued their campaign for economic justice. So, too, did Herman Husband and the Sandy Creek Association. Governor Tryon of North Carolina had been among those who claimed that Parliament had abused its power in taxing the colonies, but he did not recognize such abuses in his own colony. Instead, he viewed the Regulators, formed during the campaign against the Townshend Act, as traitors. The Regulators, however, insisted that they were simply trying to protect farmers and laborers from deceitful speculators, corrupt politicians, and greedy employers. A year after the Boston Massacre, Governor Tryon sent troops to quell what he viewed as open rebellion on the Carolina frontier. The Regulators amassed two thousand farmers to defend themselves, although Husband, a pacifist, was not among them. But when twenty Regulators were killed and more than a hundred wounded at the Battle of Alamance Creek in May 1771, he surely knew many of the fallen. Six Regulators were hanged a month later in front of Governor Tryon, local officials, and hundreds of neighboring farm families. Although North Carolina Regulators did not proclaim this the Alamance Massacre, many local residents harbored deep resentments against colonial officials for what they viewed as the slaughter of honest, hardworking men. Herman Husband fled the Carolina frontier and headed north.

Resentments against colonial leaders were not confined to North Carolina. An independent Regulator movement emerged in South Carolina in 1767. Far more effective than their North Carolina counterparts, South Carolina Regulators seized control of the western regions of the colony, took up arms, and established their own system of frontier justice. By 1769 the South Carolina Assembly negotiated a settlement with the Regulators, establishing new parishes in the colony’s interior that ensured greater representation for frontier areas and extending colonial political institutions, such as courts and sheriffs, to the region.

Tea and Widening Resistance

For a brief period after the Boston Massacre, conflicts within the colonies generally overshadowed protests against British policies. During this period, the tea tax was collected, the increased funds ensured that British officials in the colonies were less dependent on local assemblies to carry out their duties, and general prosperity seemed to lessen the antagonism between colonists and royal authorities. In May 1773, however, all that changed. That month Parliament passed a new act that granted the East India Company a monopoly on shipping and selling tea in the colonies. Although this did not add any new tax or raise the price of tea, it did fuel a new round of protests.

Founded in the early seventeenth century, the East India Company had been one of the major trading companies in the British empire and a symbol of British commercial supremacy for more than 150 years. By the 1770s, however, it was on the verge of economic collapse and asked for a monopoly on the tea trade and the right to sell tea through its own agents rather than through independent shopkeepers and merchants in the colonies. Many members of Parliament had invested in the East India Company, so their decision to grant it a monopoly on tea involved financial as well as political considerations. Still, the decision was not seen as especially controversial since East India Company tea sold by company agents cost less, even with the tax, than smuggled Dutch or French tea.

Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Christopher Gadsden, and other radicals had continued to view the tea tax as an illegal imposition on colonists and refused to pay it as a matter of principle. They had established committees of correspondence to keep up the pressure for a colony-wide boycott, and Adams published and circulated “Rights of the Colonies,” a pamphlet that listed a range of grievances against British policies. Their concerns became the basis for a new round of protests when Parliament granted the East India Company its monopoly. By eliminating colonial merchants from the profits to be made on tea and implementing a monopoly for a single favored company, Parliament pushed merchants into joining with radicals to demand redress.

Committees ofcorrespondence quickly organized another colony-wide boycott. In some cities, like Charleston, South Carolina, tea was unloaded from East India Company ships but never sold. In others, like New York, the ships were turned back at the port. Only in Boston, however, did violence erupt as ships loaded with tea, and protected by British troops, sat anchored in the harbor. On the night of December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty organized a “tea party.” After a massive rally against British policy, a group of about fifty men disguised as Indians boarded the British ships and dumped forty-five tons of tea into the sea.

Although hundreds of spectators knew who had boarded the ship, witnesses refused to provide names or other information to British officials investigating the incident. The Boston Tea Party was a direct challenge to British authority and resulted in massive destruction of valuable property.

Parliament responded immediately with a show of force. The Coercive Acts, passed in 1774, closed the port of Boston until residents paid for the tea, moved Massachusetts court cases against royal officials back to England, and revoked the colony’s charter in order to strengthen the authority of royal officials and weaken that of the colonial assembly. The British government also approved a new Quartering Act, which forced Boston residents to accommodate more soldiers in their own homes or build more barracks.

The royal government passed the Coercive Acts to punish Massachusetts and to discourage similar protests in other colonies. Instead, the legislation, which colonists called the Intolerable Acts, spurred a militant reaction. Committees of correspondence spread news of the fate of Boston and the entire colony of Massachusetts. Colonial leaders, who increasingly identified themselves as patriots, soon formed committees of safety—armed groups of colonists who gathered weapons and munitions and vowed to protect themselves against British encroachments on their rights and institutions. Other colonies sent support, both political and material, to Massachusetts and instituted a boycott of British goods. All ranks of people—merchants, laborers, farmers, housewives—throughout the colonies joined the boycott.

At the same time, a group of patriots meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the spring of 1774 called for colonies to send representatives to a Continental Congress to meet in Philadelphia the following September to discuss relations between the North American colonies and Great Britain.

By passing the Coercive Acts, Parliament had hoped to dampen the long-smoldering conflict with the colonies. Instead, it flared even brighter, with radical leaders committing themselves to the use of violence, moderate merchants and shopkeepers making common cause with radicals, and ordinary women and men embracing a boycott of all British goods.

The Continental Congress and Colonial Unity

When the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia’s Carpenter Hall in September 1774, fifty-six delegates represented every colony but Georgia. Many of these men—and they were all men—had met before. Some had worked together in the Stamp Act Congress in 1765; others had joined forces in the intervening years on committees of correspondence or in petitions to Parliament. Still, the representatives disagreed on many fronts.

First Continental Congress This 1783 French engraving depicts the meeting of the First Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia in September 1774. Fifty-six delegates attended from every colony but Georgia. After spending most of the first day debating whether to start the meeting off with a prayer, the congress got down to the business of petitioning King George III to remedy the colonists' grievances. The Granger Collection, New York

Some were radicals like Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Christopher Gadsden. Others held moderate views, including George Washington of Virginia and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. And a few, like John Jay of New York, voiced more conservative positions.

Despite their differences, all the delegates agreed that the colonies must resist further parliamentary encroachments on their liberties.

They did not talk of independence, but rather of reestablishing the freedoms that colonists had enjoyed in an earlier period: freedom from British taxes and from the presence of British troops and the right to control local economic and political affairs. Washington voiced the sentiments of many. Although opposed to the idea of independence, he echoed John Locke by refusing to submit “to the loss of those valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free State, and without which life, liberty, and property are rendered totally insecure.”

To demonstrate their unified resistance to the Coercive Acts, delegates called on colonists to continue the boycott of British goods and to end all colonial exports to Great Britain. Committees were established in all of the colonies to coordinate and enforce these actions. Delegates also insisted that Americans were “entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures.” By 1774 a growing number of colonists supported these measures and the ideas on which they were based.

The delegates at the Continental Congress could not address all the colonists’ grievances, and most had no interest in challenging race and class relations within the colonies themselves. Nonetheless, it was a significant event because the congress drew power away from individual colonies—most notably Massachusetts—and local organizations like the Sons of Liberty and placed the emphasis instead on colony-wide plans and actions. To some extent, the delegates shifted leadership of colonial protests away from more radical artisans, like Ebenezer Mackintosh, and put planning back in the hands of men of wealth and standing. Moreover, even as they denounced Parliament, many representatives felt a special loyalty to the king and sought his intervention to rectify relations between the mother country and the colonies.


• How and why did colonial resistance to British policies escalate in the decade following the conclusion of the French and Indian War?

• How did internal social and economic divisions shape the colonial response to British policies?

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