Until the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, few colonists in British North America objected to their place in the British Empire. Colonists in British America reaped many benefits from the British imperial system and bore few costs for those benefits. Indeed, until the early 1760s, the British mostly left their American colonies alone. The Seven Years' War (known in America as the French and Indian War) changed everything. Although Britain eventually achieved victory over France and its allies, victory had come at great cost. A staggering war debt influenced many British policies over the next decade. Attempts to raise money by reforming colonial administration, enforcing tax laws, and placing troops in America led directly to conflict with colonists. By the mid-1770s, relations between Americans and the British administration had become strained and acrimonious.
The first shots of what would become the war for American independence were fired in April 1775. For some months before that clash at Lexington and Concord, patriots had been gathering arms and powder and had been training to fight the British if that became necessary. General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces around Boston, had been cautious; he did not wish to provoke the Americans. In April, however, Gage received orders to arrest several patriot leaders, rumored to be around Lexington. Gage sent his troops out on the night of April 18, hoping to catch the colonists by surprise and thus to avoid bloodshed. When the British arrived in Lexington, however, colonial militia awaited them. A fire fight soon ensued. Even so, it was not obvious that this clash would lead to war. American opinion was split. Some wanted to declare independence immediately; others hoped for a quick reconciliation. The majority of Americans remained undecided but watching and waiting.
In June 1775, the Continental Congress created, on paper, a Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander. Washington's first task, when he arrived in Boston to take charge of the ragtag militia assembled there, was to create an army in fact. It was a daunting task with no end of problems: recruitment, retention, training and discipline, supply, and payment for soldiers' services were among those problems. Nevertheless, Washington realized that keeping an army in the field was his single most important objective.
During the first two years of the Revolutionary War, most of the fighting between the patriots and British took place in the north. At first, the British generally had their way because of their far superior sea power. Despite Washington's daring victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in late 1776 and early 1777, the British still retained the initiative. Indeed, had British efforts been better coordinated, they probably could have put down the rebellion in 1777. But such was not to be. Patriot forces, commanded by General Horatio Gates, achieved a significant victory at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777. Within months, this victory induced France to sign treaties of alliance and commerce with the United States. In retrospect, French involvement was the turning point of the war, although that was not obvious at the time.
Between 1778 and 1781, British military operations focused on the south because the British assumed a large percentage of Southerners were loyalists who could help them subdue the patriots. The British were successful in most conventional battles fought in that region, especially in areas close to their points of supply on the Atlantic coast. Even so, American generals Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan turned to guerrilla and hit-and-run warfare that eventually stymied the British. By 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis was ordered to march into Virginia to await resupply near Chesapeake Bay. The Americans and their French allies pounced on Cornwallis and forced his surrender.
Yorktown was a signal victory for the patriots, but two years of sporadic warfare, continued military preparations, and diplomatic negotiations still lay ahead. The Americans and British signed a preliminary peace treaty on November 30, 1782; they signed the final treaty, known as the Peace of Paris, on September 10, 1783. The treaty was generally quite favorable to the United States in terms of national boundaries and other concessions. Even so, British violations of the agreement would become an almost constant source of irritation between the two nations far into the future.
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Writing with the benefit of hindsight in 1818, John Adams, one of the central figures in the American Revolution, recalled that Americans were committed to independence in their hearts long before war broke out in America in 1775. Adams' comment suggests that American independence was inevitable: this was not the case. In 1763, Americans joyously celebrated the British victory in the Seven Years' War, revelling in their identity as Britons and jealously guarding their much-celebrated rights which they believed they possessed by virtue of membership in what they saw as the world's greatest empire.
Americans had contributed significantly to the recent victory both militarily and financially, yet within a dozen years of the British victory war broke out between British soldiers and Massachusetts militiamen at Lexington and Concord. Between 1763 to 1775, successive British governments took decisions which resulted in the loss of the 13 rebellious colonies in America. If John Adams was correct and revolution was in the hearts of Americans years prior to 1776, then it was the actions of British ministers which made independence first a possibility and then a likelihood.
The British victory in the Seven Years' War had been costly in human and financial terms. In 1763, George Grenville, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, reckoned that Britain's budget deficit was in excess of £122 million. Desperate to find new sources of revenue, Grenville looked to the colonies and viewed from cash-strapped London, the North American settlements were very attractive.
The Stamp Act
George Washington © In 1763, the average Briton paid 26 shillings per annum in taxes whilst a Massachusetts taxpayer contributed one shilling each year to imperial coffers. Americans, British officials concluded, benefited from the protection afforded by the British army and the Royal Navy, and it would only be fair if they contributed to their own defence.
So in 1765 Grenville, acting as prime minister, proposed a far-reaching tax for Americans and Parliament adopted a Stamp Act in March of 1765. Under the terms of the Act, scheduled to take effect on 1 November, almost anything formally written or printed would have to be on special stamped paper for which a tax must be paid. Among the items covered by the tax were wills, deeds, diplomas, almanacs, advertisements, bills, bonds, newspapers, playing cards and even dice. Anyone who was involved in any legal transactions, purchased a newspaper or pamphlet or accepted a government appointment would have to pay the tax. In short, the Stamp Act would affect nearly all Americans. Grenville intended, with the full agreement of Parliament, that the Stamp Act should not only raise revenue, it should clearly demonstrate that the British government through Parliament exercised political sovereignty over the colonies.
Unsurprisingly, Americans responded negatively to the Stamp Act, arguing that they had contributed to their own defence during the late war by providing manpower, money and supplies to the British war effort. They argued that they already paid taxes which were raised locally - each colony had its own assembly which levied local taxes. Colonists in America felt that they discharged their obligations when they paid colonial taxes and they resented being compelled to pay taxes levied by a Parliament in which they were not represented. Moreover, they contended, the distance between America and Britain precluded American representation in Parliament. And so, in the spring and early summer of 1765, most of the colonial assemblies adopted resolutions condemning the Stamp Act.
The government in London was unimpressed by the constitutional arguments made by the colonists or the petitions and resolutions adopted by their assemblies. If the Americans wanted to register their dissatisfaction with the Stamp Act, they would have to resort to less subtle means.
A reconstruction of the Redcoats and Rebels in Lexington, USA © During the summer, matters came to a head in the colony of Massachusetts which was in the grip of a post-war recession. Its major town, Boston, had a long tradition of rioting and popular demonstrations to defend local interests and it was particularly hard hit by the downturn. The combination of economic hard times, an unpopular and unprecedented tax as well as a local tradition of violent resistance was potentially dangerous.
On 14th August, an angry mob attacked the house of Andrew Oliver - the local man rumoured to be responsible for collecting the tax. Then on the 26th they damaged the houses of colonial officials and completely destroyed the home of the colony's Lieutenant Governor. The demonstrations spread throughout the colonies and, through threats, intimidation and violence, American opponents of the Act rendered it a dead letter by the autumn.
Having nullified the proposed tax on the streets, American protestors wanted to secure the repeal on the offending legislation in Parliament. In October several colonies sent delegates to New York to attend a 'Stamp Act Congress' which proposed a commercial boycott as means to pressure Parliament to act. American opponents of the Stamp Act would refuse to purchase British goods in order to put commercial pressure on Parliament to repeal the act.
The tactic worked. In March 1766, Parliament acquiesced and repealed the Stamp Act. Parliament simultaneously declared:
In other words, although Parliament was repealing the Stamp Act, it retained its right to govern America. Many Americans took a different view. The Boston loyalist Peter Oliver - the brother of Andrew Oliver who had suffered during the riots of August 1765 - wrote bitterly of the repeal:
Oliver was one of the few supporters of British rule in America who understood its limits and could explain its failure. Having given in to colonial pressure, Parliament ceded the authority it was trying to assert.
Yorktown battlefield, Virginia, USA © The conflict between Parliament and the colonies had arisen out of the different assumptions made on each side of the Atlantic. For most of the previous 150 years, the colonists had been left largely to their own devices in what some historians have described as 'salutary neglect'. Because land was plentiful most adult males (at least those of European origin) could meet property requirements and vote. In consequence a strong tradition of self-government developed in the colonies and colonists jealously guarded their political rights which they saw as theirs because they were British.
Paradoxically, it was Parliament, supposedly the guardian of British liberty, which seemed to endanger the liberties of Britons in America in 1765. In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, British political leaders and imperial administrators sought to assert greater control over the far-flung parts of the empire and in so doing they came into conflict with the political traditions and assumptions of the colonists who resisted what they saw as unconstitutional parliamentary innovation. The American Revolution began in a dispute over finance in which the British government advocated change and the colonists sought to maintain tradition. As the imperial crisis developed neither British nor American political leaders demonstrated a willingness or ability to compromise.
George Grenville resigned from the Chancellorship in July 1765 at the height of the Stamp Act crisis. His successors over the next decade confronted the same problem of trying to raise revenue in America. In 1767, Parliament adopted a wide range of customs duties which revived American opposition so that protests and rioting ensued and British troops were moved from frontier posts to the major seaports, especially Boston, where the resistance was concentrated.
Boston Tea Party
In another climbdown, in March 1770 Parliament repealed the duties, with the symbolic exception of the tax on tea. Relations continued to deteriorate and the American resistance became more intransigent. In December 1773 in the famous 'Boston Tea Party' protestors destroyed £10,000 worth of tea in protest of the tea duty. In consequence, Parliament adopted a series of punitive measures and Massachusetts was placed under military rule in 1774.
By the spring of 1775, political resistance gave way to violence as war between the British and colonists broke out. The conflict quickly spread. In 1776 the colonists declared themselves independent and in 1783, following a prolonged and bloody war, Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the United States.
A lesson learned
Surrender house, Yorktown © Some historians have suggested that the British army mismanaged the American War of Independence and that the war could have been won. On the contrary, the war was lost on its first day, owing not to 'inevitability' but to the nature of the conflict. The fundamental difference between the British and the rebellious Americans concerned political authority. Prior to the Stamp Act crisis British authority, rarely asserted, rested on ties of loyalty, affection and tradition, not force. In the wake of the Stamp Act, Parliament repeatedly asserted its sovereignty and was compelled by American resistance to back down. Each time that this occurred the foundation for British rule in America eroded a little bit more.
When Parliament sought to re-establish its sovereignty by force it undermined the loyalty, affection and tradition upon which that authority had rested. Indeed, between one-fifth and one-third of the colonists remained loyal to the crown once the war broke out. Many of these, however, switched allegiances to the rebels when they experienced or learned of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the British army in America. Had the British managed to 'win' the military conflict they would have had to resort to a degree of force antithetical to their ultimate objective - the reestablishment of British authority in the colonies.
Had American independence not been inevitable then a political settlement would have been found between 1765 and 1775. It was not. In fairness to the imperial administrators and politicians who 'lost' the colonies, they were confronting an unprecedented political, economic and diplomatic challenge in seeking to govern the empire and balance the books in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War. They handled the issue of American taxation in a relatively clumsy manner, but they learned their lesson.
In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine argued that the colonies should declare themselves independent because 'there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island'. During the nineteenth century the island in question would come to rule a large portion of the world. Its leaders would never again attempt to impose direct taxes on its colonies.