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The Radical American Revolution:
A Summary of Events from the Sugar Act to the Declaration of Independence
While the Seven Years’ War between Great Britain (along with Prussia, Portugal, Hanover, and Brazil) and France (along with Austria, Saxony, Spain, Sweden, and Peru) was being waged, the American theater of the war, known as the French and Indian War, drained England’s treasury (the Iroquois Confederation, Cherokee, Catawba, and others sided with the British, while the Algonquin, Shawnee, Lenape, Mississauga, and others sided with the French). The Crown argued that because it had provided protection from the French and hostile Native American tribes and ceded more territory to the colonial lands from the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the royal subjects needed to help fund the British government and pay their fair share. However, up until that point, the colonies largely governed themselves as semi-independent states with their own legislatures, but this was about to change.
In 1764, the Molasses Act of 1933 was renewed and strengthened in an effort to destroy the boycott culture that had arisen, and this was done by lowering the tax from six pence per gallon to three, while also increasing enforcement power and expanding products taxed to include sugar, wine, coffee, pimiento, cambric, and calico (all but destroying the rum industry in the colonies and reducing their trade with the French Caribbean). The new Sugar Act was resisted by nine of the thirteen American colonies, and Samuel Adams and James Otis, for example, were able to convince the Massachusetts Assembly to pass their proposal, protest and boycott the tax, and reclaim the colony’s ability to represent its interests over those of Parliament. Adams even convinced businessmen to ignore the tax.
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Resistance to the Stamp Act of 1765 was even stronger, and even though the tax was not all that burdensome (it was less than what British citizens paid in England), the fact that Parliament would be able to exercise power on behalf of the independent citizens without representation was considered offensive. This tax made it mandatory for all legal documents, playing cards, dice, pamphlets, newspapers, wills, and deeds to have a stamp, and thus, this required all citizens to pay a tax in some form (the Sugar Act was largely issued on imported goods and did not directly affect citizens). A storm of protests, letters, and pamphlets circulated throughout the colonies, while mock executions and the burning of officials’ effigies occurred. Some of these protests led to violence, including colonists breaking windows and raiding the homes of tax collectors, causing them to resign. Adams, who wrote pamphlets and encouraged more boycotts, led the charge in the nonviolent arena by calling for the Massachusetts Assembly to rally the other colonial legislatures in creating the Stamp Act Congress, which helped set the precedent for future congresses and resistance to Parliament.
Although the Stamp Act was repealed later that year due to the widespread protests, and the Sugar Act was revised to the Revenue Act of 1766, the Townshend Acts of 1767 would then be enacted in an effort for the British government to collect something from the colonies and retain some control over their operations and legislatures. The act levied taxes on the British imported goods of china, glass, lead, paint, paper and tea; and Adams and Otis again sprang into action by drafting the “Massachusetts Circular Letter.” The letter not only decried the concept of “taxation without representation,” which was a rallying cry gaining momentum among the Sons of Liberty (the Proud Boys of those days, if you will), but it called for other colonies to unite in resistance to laws. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York (issuing its own non-importation agreement), along with New England businessmen, joined Massachusetts in boycotting the taxes; and afraid that more colonies would resist, Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Hillsdale mandated that the letter be retracted. Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard then dissolved the colony’s legislature for noncompliance, and when mobs took to the streets in riots and committed acts of violence (including the vandalization of British loyalists’ stores), General Thomas Gage dispatched troops to occupy the city of Boston (the British troops numbered around 2,000 in a city of 15,000 people). Imagine having armed police officers constantly marching down the streets in large numbers looking for people to arrest, and that is likely how the Bostonians would have felt.
On March 5, 1770, which was the day that Prime Minister Lord North convinced Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts (news travelled slow in those days), the Boston Massacre took place in front of the Custom House on King Street (now State Street). Many are aware that the mob of colonists likely provoked the incident by throwing snowballs, rocks, shells, and other objects at the troops stationed there (and taunting them to “fire” at the crowd); but Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s investigation into Captain Thomas Preston and his men for having killed five colonists (including a black man named Crispus Attucks, who is sometimes considered the first slain in the American Revolution) took on a life of its own. Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and others interviewed people at Faneuil Hall and published pamphlets and distributed propaganda in favor of pushing the patriot narrative (what many today might call disinformation), while British loyalists and Hutchinson’s official investigation set out to prove that it was the mob that caused the violence, not the soldiers. With the chaos that ensued, Hutchinson had little choice but to withdraw troops from the city and station them at Castle William (Castle Island) in Boston Harbor, and the Townshend Acts were fully repealed, except for the tax on tea.
At that point, resistance was growing in Boston and throughout the colonies, and by 1772, Adams and others initiated the Boston Committee of Correspondence to protest the news that officials in Massachusetts would receive salaries from the British government instead of the colonial legislature, and since judges would be partial to King George III, trials would no longer be fair. Committees of correspondence spread throughout towns in Massachusetts, and eventually, they made their way to all thirteen colonies in a coordinated but peaceful effort to resist the actions of the British Crown and Parliament and reassert the colonists’ rights as Englishmen. These committees became sort of de facto governments that united the colonies under a common rallying point, and the Boston Committee of Correspondence helped coordinate the Boston Tea Party with the Sons of Liberty.
The Tea Act of 1773 granted the British East India Company a monopoly of tea sales to the colonies, and even though this taxed tea (taxed only at colonial ports but was otherwise duty free) ended up being cheaper than the smuggled tea, the principle of being taxed without representation was not to be tolerated. Still, Samuel Adams and John Hancock were able to establish quite the smuggling operation, and under their leadership, the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver ships, which were docked at Griffin’s Wharf, were boarded by Sons of Liberty members disguised as Native Americans. All in all, the protesters were able to dump 342 chests of tea, but the resulting Coercive (or Intolerable) Acts of 1774 was what really set the American Revolution on the course of world importance.
The Boston Port Act formed a blockade of the city, and it prevented imports and exports of goods, except for army provisions and necessary goods under military supervision. The colonists were required to submit to authority, allow for safe passage of British goods, and to pay back damage for the tea in order for the act to be rescinded. The Massachusetts Government Act overhauled the existing independent structure that had been built up for years; and it dissolved the assembly and replaced the body with loyalists chosen by the king, allowed the royal governor to unilaterally appoint judges and sheriffs, and reduced town meetings to once per year. The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice permitted the royal governor of Massachusetts to pick the location of all trials (whether in a different colony or Great Britain), which eliminated the right to a fair trial of peers and precedent set by the Magna Carta of 1215 (this was even after John Adams had represented Captain Preston and got all but two of his men off the hook for manslaughter charges). The Quartering Act allowed British troops in any of the thirteen colonies to be housed at any location that was deemed necessary (whether in a residence or uninhabited building owned by a private citizen), and this was done at the expense of the taxpayers who had no say in the executive decrees that ensued.
As a result of the Coercive Acts that were meant to set an example to all of the colonies and to punish Boston, Samuel Adams (who became the first prominent voice of American independence and the formation of an American bill of rights), George Washington, Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, Roger Sherman, John Jay, John Adams, and others helped to establish the First Continental Congress, which consisted of all of the thirteen colonies, except for Georgia. Congress quickly passed Samuel Adams’, Paul Revere’s, and Joseph Warren’s Suffolk Resolves, which called for Massachusetts to become an independent state (with no allegiance to the Crown), tax itself and withhold money from royal officials, disregard the Coercive Acts as unconstitutional, end trade with Great Britain, train militia to defend the colony, and detain British officers who arrested colonists on political charges. The new colonial legislature also passed the Declaration and Resolves (or Declaration of Rights and Grievances), which listed their rights as Englishmen (life, liberty, property, participation in the legislative process, etc.), and the Continental Association, which organized a boycott against British goods and called for enforcement of it by committees of inspection. Joseph Galloway’s A Plan of Union of Great Britain and the Colonies, which included a parallel parliament for the colonies that would work in conjunction with the British Parliament, was rejected for the more radical proposals.
After the British government officially considered Massachusetts to be in mutiny in February 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord (which included the “Shot Heard 'Round the World”) broke out in April between the militias (minutemen) and British troops, which failed to capture caches of weapons or Adams and Hancock (leaders of the Massachusetts rebellion). The Second Continental Congress met in May to elect Colonel George Washington as the general and commander-in-chief of the new Continental Army and send out the Olive Branch Petition to King George III, who ignored it and then declared all of the colonies to be rebellious. Congress became a formal governing body that resided over the printing of money, relations with foreign powers (including the move toward an alliance with Britain’s enemy, France), and supplying of the army. It then issued John Dickinson’s and Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” around the time that Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was circulating throughout the colonies (Jefferson’s “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” was also influential).
Up until that point, only a few radicals like Samuel Adams advocated for full independence from Britain, but by 1776, Congress was divided on the issue. John Dickinson and Edward Rutledge strongly opposed independence, but ultimately, they were convinced not to stand in the way of progress. Congress put together a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to write a declaration of independence; and on July 2, it adopted Richard Henry Lee’s proposal for independence, which included, “Resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states….” On July 4, Jefferson’s declaration draft, with revisions from other committee and congressional members, was passed by Congress.
The Declaration set forth the values of self-government, and it stated that whenever the people’s liberties or way of life were to be threatened, they have the right to secede from, amend, or dissolve those unfavorable governments (this applies from the American colonies to Kosovo to Taiwan and Hong Kong to the Confederate States of America to any of the modern-day American states to Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine). It was a radical document with principles emulated by many subsequent revolutions and nations.
In addition to laying out the foundations of just governments, it listed grievances against King George III. These included interference in the domestic political process, dissolution of colonial legislatures and governing structures, writs of assistance (blank and unspecific warrants used to search colonial homes and enforce compliance with laws), obstruction of a just judicial system, colonist-funded royal officials causing distress among the people, quartering of soldiers, disallowance of trade with other nations, taxation without representation, deprivation of trial by jury (and sometimes transportation to England), trials for fake charges or non-crimes, waging of war against the colonies (including with Hessian mercenaries), impressment into military service, and incitement of intracolonial insurrections and invasions from Native Americans. The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in human history, and it was a rallying point during the American Revolution.
Please take the time to read the entire document, but below is an excerpt:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
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