- Politics and Social Issues
America's Journey to Independence
America’s Declaration of Independence
In 1763 Americans were satisfied with their relationship as a Colony of Great Britain. But the government of King George lll was not. It had devised no method of exacting contributions from the Colonies for defense, and parliament introduced the first internal tax on the Colonies.
The English Levied a Tea Tax
The American Revolution started because of the dissatisfaction of taxation without representation which England levied on America. Then England levied a tea tax, which the Americans refused to accept. The ‘tea act,’ gave the British East India Co monopoly of the tea trade. Although the tea would have been cheaper, the patriots saw the monopoly as a start of Great Britain to enslave them. This was a turning point in the history of America.
The Colonists, disguised as Indians, dumped the tea cases in Boston harbor. The King and the English parliament were furious. The Colonists stood up to them. It led to war and the Declaration of Independence, as well as the defeat of the British army at Yorktown. Thousands of English and American soldiers died as a result.
America met the attempts of the British government to impose these taxes with indignant agitation and finally with armed resistance. They were liberty minded and intended to preserve the liberties that Americans already had under Britain. The one remaining duty was that of tea entering the Colonies. In five years the thirteen Colonies had imported and paid duty on 1,866,615 pounds of tea. Tea was also smuggled in. In 1773 Parliament removed the duty on tea entering Britain and allowed the British East India Company to be its own exporter to the Colonies, doing away with the middleman. This would enable the East India Company to undersell the smugglers, and give the Colonial consumers cheaper tea.
In every seaport a group of middle-class men gathered and called themselves ‘Sons of Liberty.’ They often disguised themselves as workman or sailors and ‘convinced,’ distributors into resigning, as well as inciting people to attack unpopular local characters. The radicals wrote articles against the ‘illegal monopoly,’ given to the chartered company. When the tea ships began to arrive at four ports of America in December 1773, the Sons of Liberty allowed the tea to be unloaded in Charleston, but kept under bond in a damp warehouse. At Philadelphia and New York, the masters of the tea ships were ‘persuaded,’ to turn back without entering the harbor.
The Boston Tea Party
The Boston Sons of Liberty, nettled by a criticism heard in the South, were determined to put on a better show. They let the two tea ships sail into the harbor. Samuel Adams summoned a convention of committees of correspondence to meet at Old South Meeting House, and back up what he planned to do. The convention sent a message to the governor demanding that he order the ships to take the tea back to England, which was unlawful, since the ships had already entered the customs limits.
When the governor’s refusal reached the mass meeting, a mob rushed down to the waterfront and emptied 342 big chests of precious tea into the harbor. The Boston Tea Party had the calculated effect of irritating the British Government into unwise acts of reprisal. Lord North, wished to avoid trouble, but the King was furious. So was the public, and Parliament passed the so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts.
Assertion of Power
The Coercive Acts were an assertion of power. It consisted of 'The Boston Port Act,' which virtually blockaded Boston until it chose to pay for the destroyed tea.
The Quartering Act, which empowered royal governors to commander private houses in any town for quartering soldiers. The Quartering Act was intended to ease the military occupation for the soldiers who had been forced to sleep on the Boston Common.
The towns were also forbidden to debate their Colonial rights of appointing committees of correspondence. The Boston Port Act created the most widespread indignation. All customs officials were transferred to Salem and the guilty port sealed up, even boat landings were illegal. The law was enforced by a squadron of the Royal Navy and by five regiments under General Gage who at the time was appointed Governor and Captain-General of Massachusetts Bay.
To the surprise of the Bostonian's, the other Colonies send food and money for the relief of the blockaded town. In 1774, an assembly resolution started the process which led to independence. Drafted by Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, it denounced the military occupation as a ’hostile invasion,' and designated that when the Port Act went into effect on June 1, it would be a day of prayer and fasting. The Virginia assembly was promptly dissolved. But before dispersing to their homes they met at a tavern in Williamsburg, and resolved that should an attack be made on any of the Colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, it would be taken as an attack against all the Colonies.’
The First Continental Congress Held In 1774
They instructed their committee of correspondence to exchange views with similar committees in other Colonies on the propriety of summoning a Continental Congress. All the committees were in favor. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress, which evolved into a federal government of a nation at war, was held in Philadelphia. America as a whole did not want independence, but Congress had to do something about the Coercive Acts.
While it was debating, word reached Philadelphia of the sensational Suffolk resolutions passed by a convention, of the towns around Boston. These declared the Coercive Acts to be unconstitutional and urged Massachusetts to form a free state until the Coercive Acts were repealed. They advised the people to arm themselves and recommended economic sanctions against Britain. Congress endorsed the Suffolk resolutions. It issued a Declaration of Rights stating that Americans were entitled to all British liberties. They then adopted an agreement virtually cutting off imports from Britain after December 1774, and exports to Britain after September 1775,
The Bill Was Defeated
In Britain, Benjamin Franklin supported a common sense suggestion to send a royal commission to find out what the Colonists really wanted. King George disagreed. Then William Pitt put forward a motion in the House of Lords to withdraw the British troops from Boston. The Americans, he said would never be reconciled unless it was done. The House of Commons debated a petition signed by hundreds of British merchants to repeal the Coercive Acts. William Pitt managed to have introduced in the Lower House a bill which would preserve Parliamentary control of trade and navigation, but recognize the Continental Congress as a legal body. The Coercive Acts and the tea duty would be repealed and Boston set free. Colonial judges would be appointed during good behavior, and the sanctity of Colonial charters guaranteed. The Bill was defeated. Had the bill been passed, there would have been no war and no Declaration of Independence.
Congress Takes Over The Government
The Province of Massachusetts Bay had become virtually independent in October. The assembly, dissolved by Governor Gage, met at Concord as a provincial congress under the presidency of John Hancock. This congress took over the government, ignoring Gage and his newly appointed council. It appointed a treasurer to collect taxes, and a committee of safety.
Masts of naval vessels were sent to enforce the Boston Port Act, but outside the town the royal governor could exert no authority. All winter long the committee of safety collected arms, organized and drilled selected military for instant action. They also set up a system of intelligence to anticipate any British move. They were prepared to resist any attempt of the royal government to take over the interior. Governor Gage dispatched Major John Pitcairn to destroy patriot ammunition's at Concord on the night of April 18-19, 1775. Paul Revere and other riders roused the countryside along their route. His military were on the march by break of day as far away as New Hampshire and Connecticut. When Major Pitcairn reached Lexington, after marching his soldiers all night, he found a grim band of men lined up on the village common. The British halted. A shot was fired and firing then became general. By the time that Paul Revere’s men had dispersed, they had left eight dead on the green. In Virginia and North Carolina civil war broke out. When all America was buzzing with the news of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress met at Philadelphia in May 1775. John Hancock was chosen as president.
Resistance By Force
Congress still took a line which left the way open to conciliation. It approved the war that had broken out in Massachusetts, appointed Colonel George Washington Commander-in-chief, and sent Benedict Arnold across the Maine wilderness in the expectation of bringing in Canada as the fourteenth colony.
To explain this inconsistency, Congress issued a declaration on defending themselves against the British. It assured fellow subjects in other parts of the empire, ‘We mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us. We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separation from Great Britain and establishing independent States. We fight not for glory or for conquest.’ But we are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice.’
The majority in Congress sincerely hoped that firmness and fighting spirit on the American side would cause the House of Commons to vote down Lord North’s group, and that the King would call to power someone like William Pitt.
The British Force Were 10,000
In June, Washington started from the north of Philadelphia, to take command of the army. He was met en route by the stirring news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In May, General Gage had received reinforcements which brought the British force in Boston up to 10,000. This did not include the sailors and marines in Admiral Graves’ fleet.
On June 12, Gage issued a proclamation to the ‘infatuated multitudes’ who, ‘with a preposterous parade, were holding the army besieged.’ He promised pardon to all who would lay down their arms, except John Hancock and Samuel Adams.
The Army Had Good Engineers
The army which included a few good engineers, had the British hemmed in on every side except Charlestown. Their fortifying of Breed’s Hill on the night of June 16, 1775, brought on the battle. This was the first stand up fight between raw New England troops and British regulars. Although the British won the hill, they lost 1,054 men, who were killed and wounded out of 2,200 men. American losses were 441, out of an estimated 3,200 engaged. Thus, although Bunker Hill was a tactical victory for the British, it was a strategic and moral victory for the Americans. It aroused a spirit of exultation and confidence throughout America. Washington assumed command at Cambridge on July 2, and began a remarkably successful job of whipping some 15,000 undisciplined military into an army.
Loyalties Were Divided
Nearly 14 months elapsed between the opening of the war and the Declaration of Independence. Loyalties were being torn apart. No colony had ever thrown off dependence on a mother country, or even wished to. Independence meant sailing forth on an uncharted sea. Thomas Paine a middle class English Quaker brought the discussion to a conclusion. Complete independence was the only real guarantee for American liberty, he wrote. An independent America could trade with the whole world and manufacture what she liked.
They Also Adopted The Virginia Bill of Rights
These arguments won over George Washington, who had been toasting the King nightly at his officers’ mess. And the movement for independence received another important boost from a Virginia convention. In May 1776 the members were outraged by the news that the King was sending 12,000 German mercenaries to put down the rebellion. The convention instructed its delegates in the Continental Congress ‘to declare the United Colonies free and independent states.’ They also adopted the Virginia bill of rights, parent of all American bills of rights. The Virginia resolutions were read in Congress and on June 7, Richard Henry Lee moved the Independence resolution. That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Independent States. That all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be, totally dissolved.
The Declaration of Independence
Congress appointed a committee of five to prepare a Declaration of Independence. They were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. The committee delegated to Jefferson the task of making the first draft. Before the report of the committee of five was presented to Congress, many alterations were made by Adams and Franklin and by Jefferson himself. The basic theory of the Declaration was that of the ‘social contract,’ as the precedent and justification for government. But there are certain rights of which no government can deprive mankind.
The Declaration Adopted July 4, 1776
The Declaration was adopted on the evening of July 4, 1776. Printed copies were sent next day to the former Colonies, new States and to the army. The Declaration was read from the balcony of Independence Hall on July 8, and on the 19th, Congress voted to have it signed. After the declaration, most of Washington’s army expected to be discharged. King George should have given up when he read the ringing words of Thomas Jefferson. But the war went on. France joined as an ally. It was a true civil war. A strong minority of Americans who called themselves Loyalists, supported the mother country. There was much fighting between Loyalist and Patriot bands. Families were divided. Nearly every leading American had Loyalist kinsman and there were also many thousand farmers, artisans and shopkeepers on the King’s side. In Britain, sympathy with the American cause was widespread. Vice Admiral Keppel, General Conway and General Sir Jeffrey Amherst refused to serve against America. The French alliance had proved a bitter disappointment. The French expeditionary force had been in Newport since the summer but for want of sea power Washington knew not where to employ the 6,700 French. Then help arrived from France. Louis XVI decided to commit the major part of his navy to support Washington.
A New Order
Twenty line-of-battle ships under a great fighting sailor, Rear Admiral the Count de Grasse, departed from Brest in March 1781. On August 31, Washington‘s and Rochambeau’s armies began marching through Philadelphia. On October 19, Cornwallis knew he was beaten and surrendered his entire force.
No later British monarch ever aspired to the power that King George lll exercised between 1774 and 1781. The French hailed the triumph of liberty and reason over tradition and autocracy. Liberals everywhere, filled with an unsatisfied longing for liberty, equality and the rule of reason, felt that the triumph of the American Republic introduced a new order for old Europe. As the historian Lord Acton stated, ‘a nation can never abandon its fate to an authority it cannot control.'
‘The Oxford History of the American People’ by Samuel Eliot Morison
Readers Digest 1984
© 2016 Anita Hasch