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Seeds of the American Revolution

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The beginning of the philosophical movement that motivated the American Revolution can be traced back to the development of the Social Contract theory of government. In the late 1600s, when it first appeared, this was a radical change from the monarchical, divine-right systems dominating Europe. Thomas Hobbes is credited as the originator by most historians, when he said:

The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he can protect them.

John Locke is the best-known proponent of the social contract theory. He developed it beyond Hobbes in Two Treatises of Government, published in February 1690. In it, he refutes the divine right to rule, introduces the concepts of consent of the governed, equal rights, and coins the term 'social contract'. The idea behind it is that there is an unspoken contract between the governors and the governed. The governed have duties to the governors, but the governors also have duties to the governed, and the people have the right to modify or revoke the social contract.

The Seeds in Britain

The social contract theory was never widely embraced in the British Isles, but it did fuel an outspoken fringe group who urged reforms in Parliament. A group of writers known as 'Commonwealthmen' wrote harsh criticisms of the parliamentary system of patronage and corruption that dominated their time and of the consequent dangers to the personal liberty of the people. Most notable among them were John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who wrote a scathing criticism of Walpole's administration in 1723. Their works mostly failed to impress in Britain, because the people there considered themselves the freest people on earth at that time. Some reform movements were begun in Parliament prior to the conflict with the American colonies, but for the most part, change was slow and painful. In many ways, the plight of the colonies was necessary to bring the problems of the monarchy and Parliament into the light of day.

The story of one reformer - John Wilkes - had an enormous impact on colonial thought. He was a politically radical member of Parliament who published a newssheet, The North Briton. On 25 April, 1763, he wrote:

A nation as sensible as the English will see that a spirit of concord, when they are oppressed, means a tame submission to injury, and that a spirit of liberty ought then to arise, and I am sure ever will, in proportion to the weight of the grievance they feel.

In number 45, he wrote a strong criticism of Lord Bute's handling of negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, which was to end the Seven Years' War. He was arrested, but released under privilege due a Member or Parliament. A court later determined that the warrant under which he was arrested was illegal. However, the House of Commons later ruled that Number 45 constituted libel and expelled him. He fled the country, was declared an outlaw, and did not return until 1768.

When he did return, he was eventually arrested. Approximately 15,000 people came to St George's Field just outside his prison to protest, and to demand his release. They chanted 'Wilkes and Liberty!' 'No Liberty, No King!' 'Damn the King! Damn the Government! Damn the Justices!' The soldiers, fearing the crowd would attempt to break in and free Wilkes, fired upon the crowd, killing seven. The 'St George's Fields Massacre' touched off disturbances all over London.

He was eventually released; in 1769 he again stood for election to Parliament, and was elected. However, he was refused his seat, and Parliament insisted on another election, which he also won. After his third victorious election, Parliament declared the election null and void, and seated his opponent. Wilkes wouldn't sit in the House of Commons again until 1774.

Colonial Impact

The works of the Commonwealthmen, as well as the social contract thinkers Hobbes, Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, were largely ignored in Britain, but they found a receptive audience in the colonies. These republican ideas were only reinforced when Parliament began passing taxes and other laws that they felt were harbingers of the very fears the Commonwealthmen had raised of an absolute and arbitrary government. They saw much of that sort of thing in the John Wilkes escapade, which had been closely followed by the colonials. As the situation in the colonies escalated, those fears also escalated, until they felt that they had not only the right, but the obligation, to expel the government of Britain and create one of their own.

The Constitutional Debate

The chain of events was set into motion at the conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763. The British Empire found itself the unquestioned master of the world, the pre-eminent power in Europe, Asia, and the New World. It also found itself heavily in debt. Strapped for finances, Parliament turned to the North American colonies for revenue, which, they felt, had enjoyed a free ride for far too long. A portion of the expense of the war had involved the shipment of arms and soldiers to the colonies in order to defend them against the French and their aboriginal allies1, and it only made sense to recoup the costs for their continued defense.

The first such tax was The Sugar Act, passed in 1764. This act sparked the constitutional debate that was at the core of the disagreement. The British constitution was not a constitution in the modern sense of the word, but was a messy conglomeration of legal precedents, traditions, and historical documents, like the Magna Carta. Thus, there was a large amount of room for interpretation. The colonists protested the taxes, saying they were unconstitutional, because, since they had no representation in Parliament, Parliament had no right to tax them. Parliament's response was that they represented not only their home counties, but also all citizens of the British Empire, and were fully within their rights to tax. Furthermore, the protest of the colonials and the reform movement of John Wilkes were completely related, as both challenged the authority of the English government, which at that time was largely self-selected. It is worth noting that the principle of 'no taxation without representation' was a radical novelty; the taxpayers of London had no more real representation in Parliament than did the taxpayers of Philadelphia. Neither side would compromise on their position, and the situation escalated with each new move until violence was the only recourse in the opinion of both.

Chain of Events

Tax and Response

The Sugar Act commenced the chain of events. The Stamp Act followed in 1765, which assessed taxes on legal documents and printed materials, such as newspapers. Parliament felt that this act was legal because the money collected was to be spent in the colonies. The colonials feared this act however, since they felt that if their government was financed from outside, they would lose control over it. Further alarm bells went off when the Quartering Act was also passed in 1765. This act required the colonies to furnish barracks and supplies for British troops. The idea of standing armies was abhorrent to British subjects all over the world at the time, as they were considered a tool of tyranny2. The colonies organised the Stamp Act Congress to oppose these new taxes, which drafted a formal protest letter that was sent to Parliament. The letter protested the new taxes, the suspension of trial by jury in the colonies for certain offences, and the extension of the authority of the admiralty courts. According to the protest letter, each of these was seen to 'have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists'. Parliament repealed the taxes in 1766, but issued the Declaratory Act, which stated that they had the right to tax the colonists.

The situation flared again in 1767, when British Finance Minister Charles Townshend led Parliament to pass a series of taxes on colonial imports. The colonists responded with protests and boycotts. They also used intimidation tactics on the tax collectors, such as tarring and feathering. By 1768, most of the tax collectors had returned home with very little tax collected. The British response was to send over more collectors, protected by troops, which were dispatched to Boston. The Bostonians reacted badly to the presence of a standing army in their midst and tensions ran high.

The Boston Massacre

During one weekend of tensions in Boston, an exchange between a British soldier and a local ended with a butt stroke of a musket. Some reports say the conflict was with a merchant, but others say the soldier swung at a taunting child. Regardless, this touched off a small riot. The next day, 5 March, 1770, a mob gathered in the commons to taunt and threaten the British garrison troops. They hurled snowballs at the soldiers, which more often than not had rocks and pieces of oyster shell in them. When Private Hugh Montgomery was struck by a thrown club, he regained his feet and fired into the crowd. His fellows, without receiving orders from their captain, joined in. Five colonials were killed, and the rest broke and fled.

The soldiers were arrested by the local authorities. Anger about the incident ran high, and the politics of the situation were very delicate. The British ministers feared to extradite them to England, where they might get a fair trial, because it would only have incited the locals further. Colonial lawyers were afraid to defend them in court and be labelled a Tory3. Justice was served, however, as the talented young lawyer John Adams stepped up to defend the soldiers, at great injury to his reputation. His articulate arguments for self-defense won over the jury, and all the soldiers were acquitted with the exception of two, whose punishment was to have their thumbs branded. Although he denounced the actions of the mob on that fateful day, John Adams later wrote of the incident:

This however is no Reason why the Town should not call the Action of that Night a Massacre, nor is it any Argument in favour of the Governor or Minister who caused them to be sent here. But it is the strongest Proofs of the Danger of Standing Armies.

The Boston Massacre was used as a powerful propaganda device in the colonies as an argument for independence from that point on. In fact, John Adams' cousin Samuel, the leader of the Boston radical group Sons of Liberty, was accused of instigating the riot for just that purpose. In an act of conciliation, Parliament repealed all of the Townshend Acts that year, except the one on tea.

Boston Tea Party

For a few years, life returned to relative peace in the colonies. Then, in 1773, the East India Tea Company appealed to Parliament for salvation from bankruptcy, which had been brought about through internal corruption and mismanagement. Parliament proposed to save the company by authorising them to export 500,000 pounds of tea to the colonies without duties or tariffs of any kind. This would have guaranteed them a monopoly in the colonies, as they would have been able to undersell every legitimate and illegitimate (smuggling had become a popular business venture when the Parliamentary taxes went into effect) tea enterprise there. The unfair advantage would bankrupt American merchant and shipping concerns.

When the first three ships arrived in Boston Harbor, the local authorities prevented the ships from being unloaded. The radicals feared that the tea would eventually be seized for failure to pay tariffs and eventually be made available for sale. Samuel Adams' Sons of Liberty moved to prevent that. On the eve of 16 December, 1773, the Sons of Liberty dressed themselves up in unconvincing Mohawk Indian costumes, and made their way to the ships. They harmed nobody aboard the ships, but quietly and efficiently hacked open chests with their axes and hatchets, and dumped 342 crates of tea into the harbour. British Admiral Montague was standing outside his house as the Sons made their cheerful return from the harbour, and as they filed past, he said:

Well, boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet.

The Breach Widens Beyond Repair

The Coercive Acts

Montague's words were all too prophetic. The Boston Tea Party galvanised the conservative elements of Parliament, and they resolved to bring the headstrong, rebellious colonists to heel. They punished the colony of Massachusetts severely with four acts which became known to US history as the 'Intolerable Acts' or 'Coercive Acts', which were passed in 1774:

  • The Massachusetts Government Act annulled the charter of the colony, and gave complete control of town meetings to the British governor. Since the colonists elected their members of the legislative body at the town meetings, this gave the governor considerable control over whom was elected.

  • The Administration of Justice Act granted British officials virtual immunity in all of the colonies. They could not be tried in local courts for capital offences, but were rather to be extradited to Britain and tried there.

  • The Boston Port Bill closed Boston Harbor until payment for the dumped tea was received.

  • The Quebec Act alarmed every colony. It reapportioned the Canadian colony to extend to all areas west of the Appalachian Mountains under English control, restricting the future growth of the American colonies and cutting off the western claims of the colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia.

In addition, the Quartering Act of 1765 was expanded to include occupied buildings. Thus, a British army could legally quarter itself in people's homes, eat up all their food, mess up their house, threaten the men and leer at the women, and leave the farm in a physical and economic shambles. This scenario became quite common when the fighting broke out.

Open Hostilities

In May 1774, General Thomas Gage, commander of all British forces in North America, arrived in Boston to replace Royal Governor Hutchinson as the chief executive of the Massachusetts colony. He was backed by the arrival of four regiments of British troops. Martial law was declared, and all assemblies were banned. As with all previous orders from British authorities, the colonists ignored this. Gage embarked on a campaign to confiscate weapons in the colony, beginning with Charlestown, Massachusetts in September.

The colonies met to discuss the events of 1774 in Philadelphia, in the First Continental Congress, through September and October of that year. They declared the Coercive Acts illegal, and 'not to be obeyed'. The delegates agreed to a full embargo of trade of any kind with Britain, and promoted the formation of militias within the colonies. Massachusetts formed a militia, known as the 'Minutemen', with a communication system in place to rouse them quickly to repel any British incursions. Before the vote to raise a militia was taken in Virginia's House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry delivered his famous speech that ended with the immortal words, 'Give me liberty, or give me death!'

The Minutemen received their first trial on 25 February, 1775. Gage's troops marched to Salem to capture 19 cannons that the colonists had built. Advance notice arrived, and Gage's forces found themselves unable to enter the town, as the drawbridge had been raised, and the ships had been stovepiped. A British sympathiser negotiated a settlement with Gage's commander, during which the cannons were spirited away. Gage's forces returned to Boston without firing a shot, and without accomplishing their objective. The colonists were reassured that they could muster a sizeable force within enough time to repel a British advance.

In April, Gage received instructions from Parliament ordering him to enforce the Coercive Acts with whatever force he deemed necessary. Shortly thereafter, he ordered troops forward to Lexington and Concord to destroy arms supplies there. Paul Revere and William Dawes rode forth to alert the Minutemen, and they were assembled across Lexington Green when the troops arrived. The American commander had learned of the events at Salem, and likely expected the same sort of result. Nevertheless, when a shot rang out from an unidentified source, the British opened fire, and the colonists fled into the woods. The British then proceeded to advance to nearby Concord.

The American forces at Concord were better prepared. They were arrayed across the bridge when the British troops arrived. When the British opened fire, the Americans responded with the 'shot heard round the world'. The British retreated from Concord, and the Americans used guerilla tactics to harass them all the way to Boston. It was the first use of armed resistance against British rule. Although the colonists would make further entreaties for conciliation and peace, the War for Independence had officially begun.

1This front of the Seven Years' War is known to US History as the French and Indian War.2One of the documents that makes up the British Constitution is the British Bill of Rights, written in 1689, which makes this same point.3Tory was the name applied to English loyalists throughout the revolutionary period, and carried the connotation of a cowardly boot-licker.

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