Wednesday, March 23, 2011

American Revolution: Short-Term Causes

The House of Hanover -- the "George" Kings I and II -- had long treated the colonies with a policy of "salutary neglect," leaving them mostly on their own and enjoying the benefits of access to their resources and markets. But with the coronation of George III in 1760, the seventeen-year-old grandson of George II, that policy changed dramatically.  This policy change was initially directed by King George's Prime Minister, George Grenville.

Taxation without Representation
One of the most significant developments in the colonies as George III assumed the throne was the presence of thousands of British troops fighting the French-Indian War.  Salutary Neglect was soon thrown out the window as it became apparent that the troops would have to be paid for, and that the troops could collect taxes imposed on the colonists.  This was at the root of the parliamentary legislation of the 1760s and '70s that led to a civil war between the colonies and the Mother Country.

It began with the Sugar Act of 1764.  It actually reduced the tariff imposed by the Molasses Act of 1733, but the presence of both troops and ships in the colonies made enforcing the Act much easier.  It also spelled the end of Salutary Neglect, a policy to which the colonists had grown accustomed.  Many merchants who had simply smuggled molasses or sugar into the colonies suddenly found their activities scrutinized and some had their ships and cargoes seized.

But it was the Stamp Act of 1765 that changed everything between the Britain and her North American colonies.  This was an excise tax, not a tariff, on paper products.  Individuals who sold paper products had to pay a tax to the collector who would then stamp the paper indicating the tax was paid.  Many colonists, particularly in the port towns where paper was widely used, were outraged.  Groups of men formed themselves into "Sons of Liberty" organizations and began to practice old folk mores of intimidating, abusing, even tar and feathering tax collectors.  Those who paid the tax were at risk from these groups as handbills calling for the boycott of their shops would be pasted on their windows.

This anger was channeled into a convention that dubbed itself the Stamp Act Congress.  This was a gathering of representatives from nine of the thirteen colonies that issued a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" in response to the Stamp Act.  The Declaration stated that King-in-Parliament had no right to tax the colonies in this way since there was no representative elected from the colonies to serve in Parliament.  The Congress also called for a boycott of British goods in an attempt to use economic power against the Stamp Act.  George Grenville responded to this complaint by stating that the colonies were "virtually represented" in Parliament because that institution inherently had the colonists' interests at heart.  Many colonists were skeptical.

Moreover, many of the colonists insisted that if there were to be a tax imposed on them, it should properly be brought through the colonial legislatures.  This was their right as Englishmen, they argued.  Grenville held that King-in-Parliament was the sovereign, and that the authority to tax resided only in that institution and not in the colonial legislatures.  This was a constitutional crisis: many colonists had assumed that their legislatures had held some measure of sovereignty for the purpose of conducting public affairs in the colonies.  Nevertheless, it was a fact that Parliament -- specifically the House of Commons -- had become the institution entrusted with the power of taxation.

The tensions and threat of escalating violence had reached such a level over the winter of 1765-'66 that in March, Parliament voted to repeal the Stamp Tax.  They reasserted, however -- by passing the Declaratory Act -- Parliament's right to tax the colonies as they saw fit.  They just hoped to quell immediate unrest by repealing the tax, but the colonists, Grenville and others insisted, must pay for the army that was in North America to protect them from Indians and possible incursions from the French or the Spanish.  Again, many colonists were skeptical and preferred that the "standing army" of redcoats simply go home.

The following year, in 1767, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend proposed another way of increasing revenue from the colonies.  The equivalent of the modern American Secretary of the Treasury, Townshend asked Parliament to pass a tariff on the manufactured goods tea, lead, paper, paint, and glass.  This "Towshend Act" led to another wave of discord in the colonies: boycotts, handbills, riots, protests, and tar-and-featherings returned and continued through the end of the decade.

A new Prime Minister was named in 1770.  Lord Frederick North (or simply Lord North) was somewhat less heavy-handed toward the colonies and got Parliament to repeal the Townshend tax on all the itemized manufactured goods except for tea.  By retaining a tariff on tea, the equivalent of the Declaratory Act was achieved; i.e., Parliament retained the right to tax the colonies.

On the day the Townshend Acts were repealed, a confrontation took place between angry citizens and the military guards of the Boston Customs House.  The situation deteriorated rapidly and reinforcements were called in as citizens hurled bricks as well as insults at the guards.  Finally, the officer in charge ordered the soldiers to open fire in self-defense, killing several (the number varies in the sources) citizens.  News of this incident circulated rapidly and was soon called the "Boston Massacre."  John Adams, a local lawyer, was outraged by the riot and offered to defend the soldiers, saying it was a nation of laws, not of men.  He won the case, with the officer in charge receiving a reprimand.

This incident gave both colonists and British officials pause.  Did they really want an escalation of violence?  While propaganda wars continued on both sides, on the surface things calmed down somewhat.  Historians call the years 1770-'73 the "Quite Period" because of this seeming calm.  But when the British Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, essentially subsidizing the British East India Company with taxpayer dollars, tensions escalated again.

In Boston, which was the headquarters of colonial radicalism by this time, the local Sons of Liberty - led by Samuel Adams - issued a warning to commercial ships bearing tea in the cargoes to leave the port.  Indeed, this warning was repeated throughout the colonies.  Most ships took the warning seriously, but some did not.  In Boston, Sam Adams led the local Sons of Liberty in an action against the H.M.S. Dartmouth.  Dressed as Indians, they threw over 200 casks of tea into Boston Harbor -- a loss of around 18,000 British pounds.  The response of the British to this event is the reason why this is remembered as the "Boston Tea Party."  Other actions, some more serious than this, occurred in the colonies, but Boston was a long-time thorn in the side of the Colonial Office. 

Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts.  These were four in number and were very punitive toward to town of Boston and the colony of Massachusetts:
1) The Port Bill.  This closed Boston harbor to all commerce until restitution was paid for the loss of the tea.
2)The Government Act.  This disbanded the colonial council and replaced it with a military governor, General Thomas Gage, who assumed "command" of the colony and port.
3) The Quartering Act.  Required residents to provide housing and sustenance for troops brought into the town from the western forts.
4) The Justice Act.  This allowed for any British official who killed or injured a colonist "in the performance of their duties" to be taken back to London for a hearing.  This, as opposed to being tried by a colonial jury.

Many colonists resented these Coercive Acts, but what really got under their skin was the Quebec Act.  The French-Indian War, many colonists thought, would result in their having access to the Ohio Country.  This had been forbidden by the Proclamation Line of 1763.  Now, Parliament moved the boundary of Quebec to the Ohio River, giving access to the region to French-Catholics forbidden to British Protestants.

Altogether, these became known to the colonists as the "Intolerable Acts."  As with the Stamp Act, the colonies formed a congress, this one became known as the First Continental Congress.  In debating how to respond to the Intolerable Acts, this Congress decided upon a proposal from the Massachusetts delegation -- predictably the most radical delegation -- known as the Suffolk Resolves.  This proposal called for colonists to arm themselves, prepare for war, and to once again boycott British goods as had been done in the 1760s.

In the process of establishing arms caches and training militia -- many colonists vigorously opposed the idea of a standing army -- Gen. Gage launched an expedition to find and destroy these caches and to round up the leaders of the insurgents.  He sent a force of 700 British regulars on a foray to the villages of Lexington and Concord, west of Boston.  At Lexington, a group of militiamen were engaged in military drills on the village green as a show of defiance to the British.  Lt. Col. Francis Smith, in command of the British force, ordered a volley to be fired at the militia and a battle ensued resulting in the deaths of several militiamen.

The company then moved onto Concord, being increasingly harassed by fire from militia members coming in from the countryside.  They hid behind trees and rocks often, leading the British to label them as cowardly - fighting guerrilla or Indian style.   By the time the British troops were headed back to Boston, they were outnumbered by militiamen and broke into a full retreat.  In the end, upwards of 300 British troops were killed, wounded, or missing.  The militia suffered around 100 casualties.  Ralph Waldo Emerson would later immortalize the event as the "shot heard 'round the world."  The Revolutionary War had begun.

That was on April 19, 1775.  By July, the town have Boston had experienced a profound turnover in population.  "Whigs," or those sympathetic to the boycotts and protests, left Boston for the countryside as it became occupied by British troops and came under martial law declared by Gen. Thomas Gage.  "Tories," or those sympathetic to the British, left the countryside and came into Boston for protection.  The population was reduced by about half in the town.  In June, "Continentals," as the Whig troops were now called, set up artillery on Breed's Hill -- mistakenly thinking it was Bunker's Hill -- across the river from Boston, and began to shell the British-occupied town.  The British counter-attacked and a bloody battle ensued.  When the smoke cleared, the British suffered over one thousand casualties and the Continentals around five hundred.

The significance of the battle was two-fold.  First, the British had to face the fact that the colonists had been able to muster a significant fighting force, and while the British had been victorious, their losses had been very heavy.  Second, the colonists' Continental Congress had submitted an "Olive Branch Petition" in hopes of a peaceful resolution, but Bunker Hill hardened George III's attitude toward them.

In 1776, the 2nd Continental Congress was convened.  After months of debate, Richard Henry Lee proposed it, and Congress decided to issue a Declaration of Independence to be written by Thomas Jefferson, one of the Virginia delegation.  Jefferson tapped John Locke's "Social Contract" in laying out the colonists' argument for independence.  King-in-Parliament had failed to protect the natural right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" guaranteed to all British citizens.  Jefferson listed the grievances and then stated that because of this, the colonists essentially had no choice but to create a new government. 
The document was signed by John Hancock on July 4, and by the others in August when they returned to the Congress.

Between Bunker Hill and the Declaration of Independence, a British immigrant by the name of Thomas Paine had published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense.  This was a diatribe against monarchy and imperialism and was really quite radical in its rhetoric.  It was widely read in the colonies and won many colonists over to the cause of independence. 

All of this of course added up to a civil war between Britain and her North American colonies (with the exception of Canada).  It would be a protracted war fought between a rag-tag army of farmers and artisans against the most powerful empire in the western world.