IMPERIAL CRISIS -- View the video:     Annenberg Biography of America

Adapted From  Biography of America (Annenberg) and from the text: A Nation of Nations

The full transcript of the video program.
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The Colonies Under British Rule

[Picture of Professor Maier]Maier: The British colonists saw the year 1763 as a great watershed in American history. In the past, a great semi-circle of "Catholic enemies" had hemmed them in from French Canada and Louisiana on their north and west to Spanish Florida in the south. But in 1763, the Peace of Paris gave all the lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River to Britain's young King George III. That change, the colonists assumed, would bring peace and security beyond anything they or their parents or their parents' parents had known. And now nothing would keep them from spilling beyond the Appalachian Mountains.

 

In the wave of patriotism that swept the colonies after the French and Indian War, no one doubted that the America of the future would be British. At the time, in fact, the various colonies had no ties with each other except through London and their shared British identity.

The Americans were particularly proud of being governed under the "British constitution," that is, Britain's form of government, which divided power among the King, Lords, and Commons, and which they, like many enlightened Europeans, considered the best mankind had ever devised for the protection of liberty. (Though they were appalled at the corruption and bribery involved in British politics.) Affection reinforced the imperial bond. One set of colonists after another testified that their hearts were "warmly attached to the King of Great Britain and the royal family."

The mystery is why, only thirteen years later, they declared their Independence. That mystery is not ours alone. It was the colonists' too. As events unfolded, they wondered at the unexpected course their history was taking, and sought explanations.

 

 

English actions and colonial reactions. (helpful single sheet list)


Taxation and the Stamp Act

The conflict between Britain and her American colonists began over taxes. The war left Britain with a large debt and new financial obligations. A massive Indian uprising known as Pontiac's Rebellion showed that the Crown had to keep an army in America. The British restored peace and then, to prevent further trouble, issued the Proclamation Act that excluded settlers from lands west of  the Appalachian mountains -- lands that Americans had assumed would be open to settlement after the war. Not only was Britain blocking the colonists' westward expansion; it wanted them to help pay for its army in America. First they had Parliament put new duties on molasses imported into the colonies from the non-British West Indian Islands. That awoke little opposition. But when the King's minister announced plans for a "stamp tax" on American legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, and items such as dice and playing cards, all hell broke loose.

 

Never before had the Parliament laid a direct tax on the colonists. In Britain, taxes were considered "free gifts of the people" that could be raised only with the people's consent or that of their representatives. Since the colonists elected no members of the House of Commons, they argued, Parliament had no right to tax them. Colonists insisted that only their elected assemblies had the right to tax them. Even a small tax was dangerous.  The power to tax was the power to govern ands to destroy. Influenced by the writings of John Locke, they viewed property as essential to liberty. To tax was to take property. Therefore, the power to tax had to be jealously guarded and housed only in the peoples' elected representatives in the colonial assembles. Once Parliament established its right to tax the colonists, it would tax them to death since by taxing the Americans, members of Parliament reduced their own tax burden and that of their constituents. In addition, violators of the Stamp Act (and the earlier Molasses Act of 1764) would be tried in admiralty (naval) courts by naval officers, thus depriving them, at least in the colonistsí eyes, of the traditional Englishman's right of a trial by a jury of peers. The Americans made their case in petitions that Parliament refused even to receive. Then, after all else failed, they found a way to prevent the Stamp Act from going into effect.

On the morning of August 14, 1765, an effigy of the Massachusetts Stamp Distributor, Andrew Oliver, appeared hanging from a tree in the center of Boston. All day, goods brought into town from the countryside had to be "stamped" by the effigy. At night a crowd took it down, paraded the effigy through town, then burned it in a great bonfire with materials torn from a supposed "stamp office" that Oliver was building. Later, part of the crowd attacked Oliver's home. Fearing more of the same, he resigned his office the next day, and no one was willing to take his place.

That meant the Stamp Act could not go into effect in Massachusetts since there was no one to distribute the stamps. Soon stamp men in one colony after another resigned to avoid Oliver's fate. Then groups called the Sons of Liberty appeared to coordinate opposition to the Stamp Act across colony lines. Representatives from a number of colonies forged stronger inter-colonial bonds by meeting in what became known as the Stamp Act Congress. They agreed to boycott certain British imports. Parliament gave in. In 1766, it repealed the Stamp Act, but only after insisting in the Declaratory Act that it had a right to bind the colonies by legislation "in all cases whatsoever."

  Stamp Act Congress Resolutions

[Picture of John Dickinson]

Townshend Acts, 1767-70: A year later, it tried to raise revenue through new duties on paper, glass, and tea. If that's how colonists preferred to give money to the Crown, the King's new minister, Charles Townshend, argued, let them have their way. But now a series of newspaper essays entitled "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania" urged the colonists to resist. They were, in fact, written by a mild-mannered lawyer named John Dickinson, a man of property with Quaker connections who was dead set against violence. Duties meant to raise revenue were taxes, he said, and so every bit as dangerous as the Stamp Act. What's more, those duties were part of Townshend's attempt to weaken the colonial assemblies. For proceeds from the duties would be used to pay the salaries of royal governors, customs collectors (who were often little more than racketeers who extorted money from merchants and shop keepers), and colonial judges, thus giving them far more independence from the colonial assembles.  But Dickinson wrote, "we cannot act with too much caution," because anger had a way of producing anger, and could cause a separation of the colonies from Britain. "Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce" he said, "we must bleed at every vein."

Dickinson recommended peaceful forms of opposition, such as non-importation associations, if the colonists' petitions went unanswered. Dickinson's "Farmers' Letters" were copied from one newspaper to another. And everywhere the colonists said he had expressed their position perfectly. They also followed his advice and cut back imports. They established "committees of inspection" to enforce the ban on trade with Great Britain.  The committees publicly denounced merchants who continued to import, vandalized their warehouses, forced them to stand under the gallows, and sometimes resorted to tar and feathers. After 1768, the resistance also brought a broader range of colonials into the politics of protest. Artisans who recognized that non-importation would spur domestic manufacturing began to organize as independent political groups. In many towns women took an active part in opposing the Townshend Duties. The "Daughters of Liberty" took to heart John Dickinson's advice: they wore homespun clothing instead of English finery, served coffee instead of tea, and boycotted goods selling English tea. Again, Parliament gave in. On March 5, 1770, the day of the so-called "Boston Massacre," it repealed all the new duties, except the one on tea.

The Boston Massacre

By then, however, many colonists' old confidence in the British government had been shaken. Taxes were not the only reason. In 1768, the Crown had sent two regiments of troops to Boston to support royal officials there whose customs commissioners had sparked riots when they seized John Hancock's sloop, the Liberty, on trumped up charges. Bostonians said the troops were unnecessary and, like all Englishmen, distrusted governments that used "standing armies" against their own people. Freemen, they said, are not governed at the point of a gun.

[Picture of Paul Revere's painting 'The Boston Massacre']It seemed as if the soldiers and civilians were always scuffling with each other. Finally, on March 5, 1770, a contingent of troops fired into a crowd, killing five people. Paul Revere, a local silversmith and patriot, memorialized the "Boston Massacre" with one of the most famous prints of the era. It shows redcoats willfully shooting unarmed civilians. Another smoking gun protrudes from a window behind the soldiers, in a building labeled "Butcher's Hall."

 

Was its trigger perhaps pulled by a hated customs man? Nowhere to be seen are the snowballs, some with rocks inside, that crowd members threw at the soldiers. Nor is there any indication that Bostonians provoked the soldiers by shouting "fire! fire!," which they thought the troops could not do without the permission of town officials. The print, in short, gave only one side of the story. Patriot John Adams defended Captain Prescott and his men and was able to secure an acquittal for the Captain and most of the soldiers. Two of the soldiers were branded on the thumb as punishment. But with Parliament's revocation of all of the duties except that on tea and with the removal of British troops from the streets of Boston to Castle William in the harbor things settled down to a semblance of normality.


The Boston Tea Party

In 1773, however, rouble began again after Parliament tried to help the East India Company sell tea in the colonies at a price lower than that of smuggled tea. (Because it was sold directly to customers, the tea, even with the still-existing tax, was cheaper than before. Colonists saw this "poisoned cheap tea" as an attempt by Parliament to lure them into accepting Parliament's right to raise a revenue. They also objected to Parliament's actions in wiping out a whole class of American merchants. Parliament  refused, however, to remove the old duty, which, from the colonists' perspective, "poisoned" the East India Company's cheap tea. Again they resisted, but in as peaceful a manner as they could. Colonists in New York and Philadelphia, for example, convinced the captains of tea ships to turn around and take their cargoes back to England without paying the tea tax. In Boston, however, the tea ships entered the harbor before the opposition organized. Townsmen spent the next twenty days trying without success to get clearances so the ships could go back to sea. Then, on the night before the tea could be seized by the customs service, a group of men disguised as Indians boarded the ships and emptied 342 chests of tea into the water. The proceedings were amazingly quiet except for the "ploop, ploop, ploop" of tea dropping into the sea.

 

A young lawyer from the town of Braintree named John Adams, an obscure cousin of the better- known Boston leader, Samuel Adams, and by no means a lover of mobs, found the event "magnificent." The "Boston Tea Party," as it was later called, was "so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible," and would have such important and lasting consequences, he said, that "I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history."

 

The British government proved him right. For the first time also the King became involved, viewing the actions of the Bostonians as rebellious. With George III's hearty approval, Parliament  punished Boston with a series of "Coercive Acts" that the colonists promptly renamed the "Intolerable Acts." Among other things, they closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for, throwing hundreds of people out of work. The Acts also altered the Massachusetts charter,  suspending  the assembly (known as the General Court) and preventing town meetings from gathering. Then Britain put Massachusetts under military rule, appointing General Thomas Gage as royal governor and sending troops to enforce his authority. From there on, the crisis got worse without respite.

 

Many colonists saw the Coercive Acts as proof of a plot to enslave the colonies. In truth, the taxes and duties, laws and regulations of the last decade were part of a deliberate design -- a commonsensical plan to centralize the administration of the British empire. But those efforts by the king's ministers and Parliament to run the colonies more efficiently and profitably were viewed by more and more Americans as a sinister conspiracy against their liberties.

 

For colonials, the study of history confirmed that interpretation, especially their reading of the histories written by those known as the English Opposition, men such as Trenchard and Gordon who authored Cato's Letters. The Opposition's favorite historical subject was the downfall of republics, whether those of ancient Greece and Rome or more recent republican governments in Venice and Denmark. The lesson of their histories was always the same: power overwhelmed liberty. Those who had the power would always seek more and ambitious politicians would always pursue the same strategies to replace representative government and popular freedom with tyranny. In all places and at all times in the past, the Opposition warned, the conspiracy against liberty unfolded in predictable stages that they called the "DARK SCENARIO."

 

First, the people of a republic were impoverished by costly wars -- something the colonists could well appreciate after the Seven Years' (French and Indian) War. Then the government loaded the people with taxes to pay for those wars as in the case of the Stamp Act or Townshend Duties. Next, the government stationed a standing army in the country , pretending to protect the people but actually lending military force to those in power. And, of course, troops had been unloaded in Boston harbor, were quartered in New York, and were making trouble wherever they appeared. Then wicked men were favored with public offices and patronage to secure their loyalty and support for the foes of liberty. And how else could one describe the royal governors, customs collectors, and judges who now received salaries from the revenues of the Townshend Acts? Those in power also deliberately promoted idelness, luxury, and extravagance to weaken the moral fiber of the people -- like the consumption encouraged by the low prices ensured by the Tea Act, which still contained the odious tax. Finally, those in power attempted to provoke the people to violent action in order to justify new oppression. Witness the Tea Act, followed by the Tea Party and the resulting Coercive Acts. Throw in the Quebec Act that had dropped the southern boundary of Quebec all the way down to the Ohio River, had recognized the Roman Catholic Chuch in Quebec as the official church there, and that had set up government without a representative assembly, and many colonials came to believe not only that ambitious men plotted to enslave the colonies  but also that those conspirators included almost all British political leaders. At the time of the Stamp Act and again during the agitation against the Townshend Acts, most colonials had confined their suspicions to the king's ministers. By 1774 in the minds of many colonials, members of Parliament were also implicated in that conspiracy -- and a few radicals were wondering aloud about George III.

 

 


The First Continental Congress

If Boston and Massachusetts could be punished so severely without a trial or any chance to defend themselves, how could New York or Pennsylvania or South Carolina feel safe?

Twelve colonies, every one but Georgia, sent delegates to a "Continental Congress" in Philadelphia to coordinate their response. They turned to their old economic weapon albeit with more teeth, organizing a Continental Association to enforce non-importation and non-consumption of British goods, and non-exportation of American goods to Britain -- a complete trade embargo. Committees of public safety were formed in communities to enforce the trade ban.  The Congress also petitioned George III in the Olive Branch Petition to intercede on the colonists' behalf, emphasizing the Americans' loyalty to their sovereign and conceding Parliament's right to regulate trade and control foreign and defense policy, but insisting that only the assemblies had the right to legislate on matters within the colonies themselves. The King decided that the colonies were "in a state of rebellion," and that "blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent."

 

The Battles of Lexington and Concord

The blows began on April 19, 1775 after General Gage sent troops to seize colonial arms stored at the town of Concord, some twenty miles outside Boston. On the way they went through Lexington, where local militiamen on the town green began to disperse once they saw how outnumbered they were. Somewhere, someone fired a gun. Then the regulars emptied their muskets into the fleeing militiamen, killing eight and wounding ten.

Amos Doolittle recalled the scene in an engraving he made seven months later. It is much like Revere's "Boston Massacre." Again Doolittle showed British soldiers, with their commander urging them on, shooting innocent colonists. Doolittle also recorded the regulars' march to Concord; an engagement between the provincials and regulars at Concord's North Bridge and, perhaps most interesting of all, the redcoats' retreat back to Boston, burning houses along the way, while militiamen from nearby towns shot at them.

The retreat from Concord almost finished off Gage's army. Once the remaining troops got back to camp in Boston, they pretty much had to stay there. The provincial army that formed across the river in Cambridge saw to that. An ordinary soldier, whose name is unknown, kept a journal of his life in the American army during 1775 and 1776. He had some trouble deciding just what to call the King's troops. He couldn't call them, as legend has it, "the British," since the colonists were still British. He wrote, of "the regulars," sometimes of "the Gageites." But after a while he found a better name -- "the enemy."


The Second Continental Congress

[Picture of George Washington]Within weeks of Lexington and Concord, a Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. It appointed one of its members, an uncommonly tall, dignified Virginian named George Washington, to take charge of the army at Cambridge. Washington had some military experience, none of it especially glorious and some of it disastrous. Even so, he had spent more time as a military officer than most any of his countrymen, and so was appalled at the dirty, disorderly men in the American camp.

Washington quickly began imposing discipline, trying desperately to transform that collection of patriots and adventure-seekers into a respectable army. Meanwhile, the Congress recruited men and officers and gathered military supplies. It took charge of the post office and Indian affairs. It also borrowed money, and eventually issued its own currency. In fact, the Second Continental Congress became the first government of the United States.

It had to assume those powers, it seemed, to prevent the British from crushing the Americans and ending their dream of finding a way to live as free men under the British flag. But reconciliation was becoming increasingly unlikely. The King refused to answer another petition from Congress even though it was written, in a scrupulously respectful way, by our old friend John Dickinson. The colonists' statements of loyalty, the King told Parliament, were meant "only to amuse" while they schemed to found an independent country. Wasn't the Congress seizing one power after another?


Thomas Paine's
Common Sense

[Picture of Thomas Paine]Then, in the opening weeks of 1776, Common Sense appeared. That pamphlet was the work of Thomas Paine, an Englishman of no particular distinction and little formal education, a man who had been trained as a corset-maker and dismissed from the English customs service before arriving in America less than two years before he wrote Common Sense. With language that spoke to ordinary people, it said what so many native-born colonists were afraid to say. The time had come for America to go her separate way.

The problem wasn't the ministers, or the Parliament, or even George III as a person, although Paine did call him "the royal brute of Britain". It was the "so much boasted constitution of England." The British system of government, Paine argued, had two deadly flaws -- monarchy and hereditary rule. Only by governing themselves could Americans secure their freedom and realize the peace that they so deeply desired.

[Picture of 'Common Sense']Common Sense spread through the colonies like wildfire, opening among the people a debate over independence that was already well underway among congressmen. And yet, when they looked back over the previous decade, the colonists wondered at the road they had traveled.

How, the freemen of Virginia's Buckingham County asked in the spring of 1776, had Britain and America become so "incensed" with each other?


 

The Declaration of Independence

The British saw everything the colonists did to protect their rights as a great outrage. Step by step, mutual confidence and affection had slipped away until they were beyond all hope of recovery. As a result, Buckingham County called for "a total and final separation from Great Britain. Then, perhaps "some foreign power may, for their own interest, lend an assisting hand."

That became imperative once the colonists learned that George III had hired German soldiers to help put down their "rebellion." Unless the colonists also got outside support, they would surely be destroyed. It was do or die.

Not everyone agreed. In the end, about a fifth of all colonists remained loyal to Britain. Nonetheless, on July 2nd, 1776, twelve colonies approved a resolution that "these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are dissolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved." A week later New York made the decision unanimous.

After approving independence, Congress spent two days editing a draft declaration submitted by a committee and its draftsman, a thirty-three old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's reputation as an eloquent writer preceded his appearance in Congress a year earlier. Now, as the delegates hacked away at his prose, changing words, cutting large passages, rewriting much of the last paragraph, Jefferson suffered visibly. Later he complained bitterly that the delegates had "mutilated" his text."

On July 4th, the delegates finished their editorial work and ordered the declaration printed and distributed so it could be read "at the head of the Army" and "proclaimed" throughout the land. In that way the people learned that a new nation, the United States of America, had assumed a "separate and equal station" among the "powers of the earth."

They celebrated independence by shouting "huzzah," shooting off canons, and watching militia companies parade. Crowds tore down or destroyed symbols of royalty on taverns and public buildings. In New York, people pulled a bronze statue of George III from its pedestal and sent it off to Connecticut, where patriotic women melted the statue down and used the metal to make bullets.

When Americans of 1776 cited the Declaration of Independence, they quoted the last paragraph, the one in which Congress declared that "these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." Little attention, indeed, so far as I can tell, none at all, was given to the document's second paragraph, which began: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." Those ideas were expressed in many other contemporary writings. But only the Declaration announced American independence.

And that was the news in 1776.


The War for Independence

To declare independence was one thing; to win it was another. While Congress whittled away at Jefferson's prose, a massive British fleet arrived at New York. After evacuating Boston, the British had assembled one of the largest sea and land forces ever seen in North America to end this pesky colonial rebellion once and for all. They almost succeeded.

In 1776, the American Army suffered one defeat after another. Washington broke the downward spiral with small but significant victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in late December and early January. By then he had convinced Congress that the American cause could not depend on local militiamen, who would serve only for short periods and preferred to remain near their homes. It needed an army of trained soldiers and officers willing to sign up for long terms of service in return for concrete rewards including bounties, respectable pay, and the promise of land at the war's end.

Thereafter the American cause was primarily defended not by men defending their homes and families, as at Lexington and Concord, but by young, single men, both white and black, with little if any property. Militiamen sometimes supported the Continental Army, as at Saratoga, New York, where they gathered from all over New England to stop an invasion from Canada under the British general "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne in October 1777.

The victory at Saratoga gave the signal for France, which was hesitant to join the United States in a losing war, to negotiate an alliance with the Americans. That tipped the odds against Britain. Thereafter, Britain concentrated its attention on the South, where it set off a brutish, bloody civil war. Finally, the British commander, Lord Charles Cornwallis, turned east and settled in at Yorktown, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay, waiting for supplies and reinforcements.

Washington and a large body of French troops moved in and mounted a siege while the French fleet prevented the British from rescuing Cornwallis. On October 18, some three years after Saratoga, Cornwallis surrendered. When the British minister learned the news, he exclaimed, "Oh God, it is all over."

And so another group of negotiators gathered in Paris. The Americans, including the wily Benjamin Franklin and honest John Adams, won extraordinarily favorable terms. The trans-Appalachian west became part of the United States, along with all the land between Canada and the northern border of Florida. And Britain recognized the United States as an independent nation.

Not 1763, but 1776 turned out to mark the great watershed in American history. How would life be different on the other side of that great divide? Now, at least, the Americans could decide that themselves.