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Politics in The American Revolution

The French, the Indians, and the Americans

In 1763, a worldwide imperial conflict called the Seven Years' War ended in resounding victory for the British Empire, which smashed its European rivals to emerge from the conflict as one of the largest and most powerful empires in world history. North America had been just one of many fronts in the global Seven Years' War, which American colonists usually called the French and Indian War in honor of their enemies in the conflict. In the end, the French and their Indian allies fell to British and colonial forces, leaving England officially in control of the whole part of North America east of the Mississippi River and north of Florida. Of course, the several hundred thousand Native Americans who inhabited the continent would not have seen it that way. But for Englishmen everywhere, the war's end was a time of triumph and liberty. Englishmen enjoyed more rights and freedoms than the subjects of any other world empire at the time. The colonists reveled in the victory they had helped the mother country to achieve. Colonists in 1763 would have thought the very idea of independence unthinkable, and probably downright mad.

Who could have foreseen that within just two years, angry mobs of Americans would attack the private residences of colonial officials; within five years, colonial leaders would call for a boycott of British goods; within seven years, five colonists would lie dead on Boston Common, shot down by British troops?

While Britain may have been especially powerful after the French and Indian War, it was also quite broke financially. Imperial wars waged on multiple continents over a period of several years were very expensive endeavors. At war's end the British sought to recoup some of their costs from the Americans, who had certainly benefited from the protection of British soldiers and the expansion of the realm westward. So England issued the Proclamation of 1763, prohibiting colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains, in order to avoid potentially costly and protracted frontier wars between settlers and Indians. This, of course, angered white settlers who had already pushed into the backcountry of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as the elite eastern planters who had already speculated in the purchase of extensive land claims beyond the Appalachians. American ire only increased when England went on to pass a series of taxes, designed to enlist the colonies in helping to pay off their share of the war costs.

For 100 years, England had passed laws to regulate colonial trade in the interest of a mercantilist policy designed to ensure that imperial commerce benefited the mother country. These laws supposedly bound American colonists to trade only with English merchants and ship their products only in English vessels, even if the Americans could find better prices through foreign traders. Yet until 1763, the imperial government in London had allowed those laws to go largely unenforced, and the colonists had since become accustomed to a sense of self-determination during this period of so-called "salutary neglect." In short, the British failed to appreciate just what a century of salutary neglect had done. While lawmakers in London believed they were simply enforcing their old laws and applying new ones for the good of the entire empire—including its American subjects—the colonists interpreted the new Parliamentary acts after 1763 very differently. Colonists felt that these acts were violations of their liberty, unacceptable infringements of their rights as free Englishmen. When British officials tried to take such freedoms away, Americans not only protested, but they began to think and speak of those freedoms as their essential rights.

The Sugar Act

British taxes and regulations on colonial commerce were not entirely unknown before 1763, but most had gone unenforced due to a combination of Britain's salutary neglect and Americans' ingenuity in bribing, smuggling, or otherwise skirting the rules. Therefore, when Parliament passed the Sugar Act, it hardly considered such a tax as new or unorthodox. The Molasses Act of 1733 had sought to regulate the same items. It levied high duties of six pence per gallon on molasses, in an effort to shut down the trade between the French Caribbean (where sugar plantations produced the molasses) and New England (where molasses was a principal ingredient for distilleries manufacturing rum). The 1764 act actually cut those taxes in half, to three pence per gallon—but in contrast to the 1733 act it also included new safeguards to ensure that it would actually be enforced. For merchants, this effectively meant a change from no tax to a three pence tax. The act also provided for stronger admiralty courts, where merchants accused of smuggling could be tried without a jury; colonial juries were notoriously sympathetic to their fellow Americans. The ultimate effect was to create anxiety among colonists whose economic livelihoods were substantially threatened by the new (or newly enforced) taxes and regulations: these were primarily the inhabitants of port towns along the coast.

The Stamp Act

In 1765, Parliament followed up the Sugar Act with the Stamp Act, a direct British tax on a wide variety of printed materials (everything from playing cards to court documents, land deeds, books, newspapers, and even dice). Because each of those documents had to contain the official government stamp, colonists had to pay the tax whenever they wanted to purchase any of the printed items. In one sense, the Stamp Act was merely Parliament's attempt to strengthen and enforce the long-ignored Navigation Acts, which had been passed a century earlier to ensure that valuable American exports—such as tobacco—would have to travel through English ports. But in another sense, the Stamp Act marked a departure from all imperial regulations that preceded it, as it was the first time the British sought to gain revenues by taxing colonial commerce directly (an "internal tax") instead of regulating trade (an "external tax"). Some of these revenues were supposed to go towards the cost of stationing British troops in North America, to ensure security and stability.

American colonists responded to the Stamp Act with outrage. They quickly became alarmed at the prospect of a permanent standing army in their midst. Local elites were offended by Parliament's challenge to their own authority. And a large cross-section of Americans who read books or newspapers, played cards or dice, or purchased any of the printed items specified in the Stamp Act, were angered not only by the financial burden incurred but by the principle of the matter: Parliament had directly taxed the colonists without their consent or the consent of their representatives. Colonists thought of themselves as equals in the British Empire, not subordinates, and they couched their protests in language that invoked the rights of all Englishmen. If they allowed this precedent to stand, the reasoning went, then Parliament could forever run roughshod over them and their rights. British officials, on the other hand, thought of the colonists as a population subject to Parliamentary authority, and believed that the London government could not capitulate without surrendering that authority.

Colonial resistance became violent over the summer of 1765, when a shoemaker named Ebenezer Mackintosh led an angry mob on a building owned by Andrew Oliver, a merchant appointed to enforce the Stamp Act who was also a relative of Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson privately opposed the act, but publicly fulfilled his role as a symbol of British authority by helping to disperse the crowd. A few days later, Mackintosh led his fellow Bostonians over to Hutchinson's own house, where they broke down the front door and looted everything in sight, leaving little intact but the bare walls. Hutchinson and his family, who were eating dinner when the mob approached, just barely got away in time. Mackintosh was subsequently arrested, but then released, thanks to the intervention of prominent craftsmen and merchants—a group known as "the Loyal Nine"—who led the Stamp Act opposition but had not anticipated that it would escalate so rapidly.

Yet not all resistance was violent or threatening. In Virginia, the talented orator Patrick Henry persuaded his colleagues in the House of Burgesses to pass five resolutions that asserted the colonists' rights as Englishmen, including their right to consent to taxation. The more conservative members of the House rescinded the fifth resolve the next day, feeling it went too far by declaring that any entity attempting to assume the power of taxation—other than the General Assembly of Virginia—"has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom."85 Two additional proposed resolves were not passed, as they remained too radical for the time: they called for outright resistance to unlawful taxation and declared anyone who denied the colonial assembly's sole right to tax "an enemy to this his majesty's colony."86 Although these last two resolves were never enacted, they (along with the other five) were all reprinted in papers throughout the colonies. Virginia's resolutions received further support in October 1765, when prominent delegates from nine colonies convened in New York as the Stamp Act Congress. The Congress endorsed the Virginia resolves, and in so doing, became the first united coalition of the North American colonies.

As colonists persisted in their objections to the Stamp Act, whether by formal convention or by vigilante action, the distinction between internal and external parliamentary taxes began to fade. Soon any form of English taxation without representation was deemed insupportable. Liberty became the catchword of the day: in New York City, the pine mast where anti-Stamp Act activists gathered was known as the Liberty Pole. In Boston, the elm tree where protestors hung an effigy of stamp distributor Andrew Oliver was dubbed the Liberty Tree, and it became an iconic symbol in colonial pamphlets and prints. By the end of 1765, hundreds of New Yorkers chanted "Liberty!" as they moved through the city streets in nightly processions. Amidst these moving symbols and stirring concepts, previously ambivalent people of all social ranks mobilized into a grass roots movement that unified colonists across towns and regions. Beginning in Boston, Committees of Correspondence soon emerged throughout British North America to relay information on recent British actions and to coordinate colonial protests. England had inadvertently prompted colonial unity in resistance to its own authority.

Parliament was stunned by the Americans' aggressive resistance, and English merchants and manufacturers, anxious to safeguard their American markets and business ties, pressed the government to repeal the measures that had so inflamed the colonists. Parliament thus repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. But Parliament also felt it needed to avoid the appearance of succumbing to the colonials, and thus issued the Declaratory Act, which explicitly rejected the assertions that only colonial representatives could levy taxes. Parliament instead asserted its right to rule by virtual representation—that is, the government in London would determine what was good for the empire as a whole, representing the interests of subjects in all British territories, whether or not they elected their own representatives.

The Townshend Duties

During the Stamp Act opposition, colonial leader Ben Franklin—who was living in London at the time—told the English Parliament and press that Americans would not object to87"external" taxes. But Franklin was an ocean apart from his comrades, and he was wrong. The Americans' anti-tax fervor had spread beyond opposition to the "internal" taxation of the Stamp Act. Franklin's miscalculation was soon revealed when Parliament acted on the belief that the colonists would submit to taxation on imported merchandise—the "external" form of taxation. Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend successfully ushered through Parliament a new series of colonial taxes on British imports to the colonies; they would be known ever after—notoriously—as the Townshend Duties. The new duties also included safeguards to empower customs commissioners and suppress smuggling.

Merchants opposed this new legislation, and gradually a larger colonial resistance once again emerged. Boston, the epicenter of colonial trade—and colonial protest—began a boycott (or "non-importation") movement that soon spread throughout the colonies. Urban artisans were only too happy to support the boycott movement, since it directly benefited their own businesses by literally eliminating the competition. But the propertied classes worried once again about the potential upheaval and chaos that might be unleashed by the lower classes in the process of opposing the legislation. Just as during the Stamp Act crisis, large protests overtook the streets, and Bostonians rioted in 1768 when royal troops seized John Hancock's ship Liberty for violating trade laws. When five Bostonians were shot in a brawl with British troops in 1770, colonists memorialized and propagandized the incident as "the Boston Massacre."

There were still ample sources of division to keep the colonists from uniting as one. The wealthy not only worried about the tactics and rebelliousness of the lower-class masses, but some of them openly objected to such behavior. John Adams, who later became one of the foremost Patriots of the Revolution, defended the nine British soldiers put on trial for the Boston Massacre. Adams believed that the entire incident exemplified the dangerous potential of unorganized mob protest actions. Other elites found that they were more reliant on British imports than they first realized; when merchants also found themselves unable to maintain a profit, the non-importation movement imploded. Though the boycott had reduced the value of British goods shipped to the colonies by a third in 1769, those imports soon rebounded.88

Finding Common Cause with a Common Foe

Many of the most galvanizing and unifying incidents of the pre-revolutionary period entailed seemingly isolated acts with the potential to affect all colonists. When the citizens of the Providence, Rhode Island area boarded the grounded British vessel Gaspee in the summer of 1772, removed the crew, and set the ship afire, they committed a simple act of vigilantism. But they also manifested widespread colonial frustrations with customs patrollers, who were aboard the Gaspee in search of smugglers before it hit a sand bar. British officials such as the customs patrollers were simply doing their job, but they also embodied the new post-1763 Parliamentary policies that suddenly enforced taxes that had gone ignored for a century. The community clearly sided with the arsonists, as not one single person would come forward as a witness. When the British authorities then formed an independent commission of inquiry, bypassing the colonial courts, Americans interpreted their action as further evidence of English tyranny.

Only four days after the Gaspee incident, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson announced that his salary would thereafter be paid from customs revenues, not the colony's elected assembly. Not long after, he announced that Superior Court judges would be paid the same way. Colonial officials were thus freed from reliance on the assembly, which saw its power reduced because of these changes. The shift to customs revenues as the source of pay for royal officials also increased pressure on colonial smugglers, since crown agents now found it in their own self-interest to raise revenues by stamping out the black market. Hutchinson's actions threatened colonial interests beyond Massachusetts's borders; prominent Americans from several colonies soon accepted Boston merchant Sam Adams's invitation to join Committees of Correspondence in order to coordinate colonial strategy in the struggle with the mother country. These Committees played a critical role in keeping the colonies interconnected, organizing colonial responses to British policies, and ensuring that Americans remained committed to the cause of liberty.

Tea and Sympathy

In May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which would spark a legendary rebellion in Boston. The Act did not actually impose any new taxes, but sought to save the East India Company—a large British trading monopoly—by shipping its surplus tea to the colonies. The English government would subsidize the tea so that East India could afford to sell it at discounted prices. East India was the largest mercantile firm in the entire British empire, and Prime Minister Lord North backed the Tea Act as a means of bailing out the monopoly and thereby avoiding the risk of a general economic collapse. But the colonists interpreted the scheme as a strategy to bolster support for the detested Townshend Duties. They felt that Parliament was trying to trick them into giving East India their support by offering bargain prices for the sake of bailing out an officially sanctioned English monopoly. Colonists also recognized that direct sale of tea by British agents would only hurt local merchants' businesses. They sought a dramatic gesture to prove that their principles could not be bought with cheap tea.

On 16 December 1773, Patriot leaders in Boston dressed up as Mohawk Indians and boarded three ships carrying the East India tea. They threw 342 chests of the stuff overboard, where it sank to the depths of Boston Harbor. Like Rhode Islanders at the time of the earlier Gaspee incident, Bostonians supported the illegal action of the Tea Party, closing ranks to prevent the identities of the participants from getting out to British authorities. (Samuel Adams and John Hancock were definitely among them). The Boston Tea Party may have been the most dramatic act of colonial resistance to the Tea Act, but it was not the only one. In Charleston, the Sons of Liberty had so intimidated local consignees that they had all resigned by the time the ship arrived with its controversial cargo. There was simply no one to sell the tea, so instead the Governor ordered it stored in warehouses until he received further instructions from London. Once the war broke out two years later, colonists sold the warehoused tea to help finance the Revolution. In New York and Philadelphia, tea ships were turned back at the port and forced to return to England without unloading their cargo. Nonetheless, many colonists—including Ben Franklin—condemned the flagrant destruction of property in the Tea Party and called for Bostonians to refund the substantial (£10-15,000) value of the drowned tea. Such restitution might have helped to resolve the colonial crisis, but Parliament responded to the provocation of the Tea Party by seeking retribution, not restitution. That response only inflamed colonial opinion by seeming to confirm many Americans' fears of a growing English tyranny.


In March 1774, Parliament adopted the Boston Port Act, which shut down Boston Harbor, threatening to strangle the commerce of America's most important port. This provided the impetus for leaders in Maryland and Virginia to initiate a boycott on exports and imports from Britain. (The patriotic gesture was also one of self-interest for Chesapeake tobacco farmers, since the tobacco industry had been in a serious recession since late 1772.) The Boston Port Act was followed by three other measures to restore Parliament's control over the colonies; together, the colonists regarded these "Coercive Acts" (in Parliament's terminology) as the "Intolerable Acts." No matter which appellation they received, this combination of 1774 Parliamentary measures were designed to single out Boston as an example to the other colonies. Boston's punishment was meant to reassert English authority and to dissuade any other regions from rebellion by showing them the consequences of such an act. The ultimate effect was actually the complete reverse of what English authorities had intended. The Intolerable Acts soon prompted the colonists to protest British policies regardless of self interest, or perhaps because of it—because they had reason to believe that they could well be next.

There was the Massachusetts Government Act, which radically altered the structure of that colony's government by requiring towns to gain the governor's approval before they could hold meetings. The Act also empowered sheriffs to select jurors and made law-enforcement officers and the colony council appointed rather than elected positions. Then came the Administration of Justice Act, which empowered the Massachusetts governor to transfer all trials of officials to England if their alleged offense had occurred in the line of duty.

Finally, the Quartering Act enabled colonial governors to commandeer housing for British officers and soldiers. Contrary to popular legend—even among many historians—the Quartering Act never actually stipulated private homes but instead specified "uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings."89 The 1774 Quartering Act was actually a clarification of previous legislation that Parliament had passed in 1765 and renewed and amended annually. Only the original 1765 act included taverns, alehouses, and inns among the locations that officials could commandeer for the regulars. Even then, provinces were to pay innkeepers and tavern owners for the use of their property.90 Colonists regarded the Quartering Act as another violation of their rights, but they made no mention of troops intruding in private homes. It was the final and least controversial of the Coercive Acts, but the overall effect of the "Intolerable" legislation was no less explosive.

Rather than accepting Parliament's singling out of Boston as a warning to others, Americans throughout the thirteen colonies became determined to resist these measures because they seemed to confirm fears of a growing tyranny that could oppress all of British North America. Their concerns were only renewed with Parliament's passage of the Quebec Act in October 1774, which established an appointed governor and council for the newly acquired province of Quebec, rather than a representative assembly.

The Final Appeal

In July 1775 the Continental Congress sent King George III the last-ditch "Olive Branch Petition," as it came to be called. Written by John Dickinson, the petition to the King reasserted American loyalty to the crown and appealed directly to King George III "with all humility submitting to your Majesty's wise consideration," hoping for "a happy and permanent reconciliation." But it also asked "that, in the mean time...such statutes as more immediately distress any of your Majesty's Colonies may be repealed."91 Representatives of the Continental Congress presented the Olive Branch Petition to a representative of the king, but King George III refused to receive it.

This was the breaking point. Up until that moment, many colonial Patriots believed that their grievances were solely with ministerial policy, not with the king himself. But King George rejected their appeal outright and instead angrily condemned them as a people in "open and avowed rebellion" in August 1775. King George declared that all his officers in America, civil and military, were "obliged to exert their utmost endeavours [sic] to suppress such rebellion, and to bring the traitors to justice."92

The king's proclamation meant war. In October, the House of Lords voted more than two-to-one and the House of Commons by an even greater majority to support war against the rebellious Americans.93 Even after this total rebuff, many colonists still held out hope for reconciliation. But these actions set the stage for the radical alternative of independence, and revolutionary Tom Paine seized that moment to persuasively argue for the creation of a new society instead of attempting once again to resurrect the old.

The next time Congress addressed the king (and the rest of the "candid world"), it was via the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers charged George III with 27 enumerated transgressions that they felt justified their move toward independence. When they finally, reluctantly rejected their king as a tyrant, the American Patriots rejected monarchy altogether, setting a course towards a radically new form of republican government.

"Revolution in the Minds and Hearts of the People"

Looking back on the Revolution at the end of his life, John Adams wrote, "The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people."94 Though most colonists did not have the time or luxury to read sophisticated Enlightenment treatises on political philosophy or theories on the rights of man, they understood, viscerally, the actions of Parliament—and subsequently of the king—as a threat to their liberty. That was enough. In the century of salutary neglect that led up to the end of the French and Indian War, Americans had developed an understanding of their rights and their place in the British empire, and they were not willing to submit to a different interpretation of who had the ability to tax them. Through a series of precipitous actions and reactions on both sides of the Atlantic, that initial difference of opinion spiraled into a challenge to monarchical rule itself by 1776. When Parliament offered the colonies a return to the status quo ante bellum on 16 March 1778—that is, they offered to grant all American demands short of independence—it was too late. By that time, the American Congress, and most of the American people, were dead set on gaining self-determination.

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