This paper is dedicated to the history of American Revolution and the War for Independence. The primary purpose of the survey given here is to carry out an analysis of the events of the late 18th century in the British colonies in North America on the basis of vast historical material published in the United States. The process that took place before and during the 1776-1783 period when 13 British colonies’ aspiration for independence broke out into the so-called War for Independence is very remarkable for it’s many unique features, on the one hand, and for many historical parallels that took place a century later when the world-wide spreaded colonial system began to collapse.
John Adams, second President of the United States, declared that the history of the American Revolution began as far back as 1620. "The Revolution," he said, "was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people." The principles and passions that led the Americans to rebel ought, he added, "to be traced back for two hundred years and sought in the history of the country from the first plantation in America."
As a practical matter, however, the overt parting of the ways between England and America began in 1763, more than a century and a half after the first permanent settlement had been founded at Jamestown, Virginia. The colonies had grown vastly in economic strength and cultural attainment, and virtually all had long years of self-government behind them. Their combined population now exceeded 1,500,000-a six-fold increase since 1700.
The implications of the physical growth of the colonies were far greater than mere numerical increase would indicate. The 18th century brought a steady expansion from the influx of immigrants from Europe, and since the best land near the seacoast had already been occupied, new settlers had to push inland beyond the fall line of the rivers. Traders explored the back country, brought back tales of rich valleys, and induced farmers to take their families into the wilderness. Although their hardships were enormous, restless settlers kept coming, and by the 1730s frontiersmen had already begun to pour into the Shenandoah Valley.
Down to 1763, Great Britain had formulated no consistent policy for her colonial possessions. The guiding principle was the confirmed mercantilist view that colonies should supply the mother country with raw materials and not compete in manufacturing. But policy was poorly enforced, and the colonies had never thought of themselves as subservient. Rather, they considered themselves chiefly as commonwealths or states, much like England herself, having only a loose association with authorities in London.
At infrequent intervals, sentiment in England was aroused and efforts were made by Parliament or the Crown to subordinate the economic activities and governments of the colonies to England's will and interest - efforts to which the majority of the colonists were opposed. The remoteness afforded by a vast ocean allayed fears of reprisal the colonies might otherwise have had.
Added to this remoteness was the character of life itself in early America. From countries limited in space and dotted with populous towns, the settlers had come to a land of seemingly unending reach. On such a continent natural conditions stressed the importance of the individual.
1. Frontier situation
The colonists-inheritors of the traditions of the Englishman's long struggle for political liberty-incorporated concepts of freedom into Virginia’s first charter. This provided that English colonists were to exercise all liberties, franchises, and immunities "as if they had been abiding and born within this our Realm of England." They were, then, to enjoy the benefits of the Magna Charta and the common law.
In the early days, the colonies were able to hold fast to their heritage of rights because of the King's arbitrary assumption that they were not subject to parliamentary control. In addition, for years afterward, the kings of England were too preoccupied with a great struggle in England itself - a struggle which culminated in the Puritan Revolution - to enforce their will. Before Parliament could bring its attention to the task of molding the American colonies to an imperial policy, they had grown strong and prosperous in their own right.
From the first year after they had set foot upon the new continent, the colonists had functioned according to the English law and constitution - with legislative assemblies, a representative system of government, and a recognition of the common-law guarantees of personal liberty. But increasingly legislation became American in point of view, and less and less attention was paid to English practices and precedents. Nevertheless, colonial freedom from effective English control was not achieved without conflict, and colonial history abounds in struggles between the assemblies elected by the people and the governors appointed by the King.
Still, the colonists were often able to render the royal governors powerless, for, as a rule, governors had “no subsistence but from the Assembly”. Governors were sometimes instructed to give profitable offices and land grants to influential colonists to secure their support for royal projects but, as often as not, the colonial officials, once they had secured these emoluments, espoused the popular cause as strongly as ever.
The recurring clashes between governor and assembly worked increasingly to awaken the colonists to the divergence between American and English interests. Gradually, the assemblies took over the functions of the governors and their councils, which were made up of colonists selected for their docile support of royal power, and the center of colonial administration shifted from London to the provincial capitals. Early in the 1770s, following the final expulsion of the French from the North American continent, an attempt was made to bring about a drastic change in the relationship between the colonies and the mother country.
2. British and French conflict
While the British had been filling the Atlantic coastal area with farms, plantations, and towns, the French had been planting a different kind of dominion in the St. Lawrence Valley in eastern Canada. Having sent over fewer settlers but more explorers, missionaries, and fur traders, France had taken possession of the Mississippi River and, by a line of forts and trading posts, marked out a great crescent-shaped empire stretching from Quebec in the northeast to New Orleans in the south. Thus they tended to pin the British to the narrow belt east of the Appalachian Mountains.
The British had long resisted what they considered "the encroachment of the French." As early as 1613, local clashes occurred between French and English colonists. Eventually, there was organized warfare, the American counterpart of the larger conflict between England and France. Thus, between 1689 and 1697, “King William’s War” was fought as the American phase of the European "War of the Palatinate." From 1702 to 1713, “Queen Anne’s War” corresponded to the "War of the Spanish Succession." And from 1744 to 1748, “King George’s War” paralleled the "War of the Austrian Succession." Though England secured certain advantages from these wars, the struggles were generally indecisive, and France remained in a strong position on the American continent.
In the 1750s, the conflict was brought to a final phase. The French, after the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, tightened their hold on the Mississippi Valley. At the same time, the movement of English colonists across the Alleghenies increased in tempo, stimulating a race for physical possession of the same territory. An armed clash in 1754, involving Virginia militiamen under the command of 22-year old George Washington and a band of French regulars, ushered in the “French and Indian War” - with the English and their Indian allies fighting the French and their Indian allies. This was destined to determine once and for all French or English supremacy in North America.
Never had there been greater need for action and unity in the British colonies. The French threatened not only the British Empire but the American colonists themselves, for in holding the Mississippi Valley, France could check their westward expansion. The French government of Canada and Louisiana had not only increased in strength but had also in prestige with the Indians, even the Iroquois, the traditional allies of the British. With a new war, every British settler wise in Indian matters knew that drastic measures would be needed to ward off disaster.
3. First stirrings of unity
At this juncture, the British Board of Trade, hearing reports of deteriorating relations with the Indians, ordered the governor of New York and commissioners from the other colonies to call a meeting of the Iroquois chiefs to frame a joint treaty. In June 1754, representatives of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the New England colonies met with the Iroquois at Albany. The Indians aired their grievances, and the delegates recommended appropriate action.
The Albany Congress, however, transcended its original purpose of solving Indian problems. It declared a union of the American colonies "absolutely necessary for their preservation," and the colonial representatives present adopted the Albany Plan of Union. Drafted by Benjamin Franklin, the plan provided that a president appointed by the King act with a grand council of delegates chosen by the assemblies, each colony to be represented in proportion to its financial contributions to the general treasury. The government was to have charge of all British interests in the west - Indian treaties, trade, defense, and settlement. But none of the colonies accepted Franklin's plan, for none wished to surrender either the power of taxation or control over the development of the west.
The colonies offered little support for the war as a whole, all schemes failing to bring them "to a sense of their duty to the King."The colonists could see the war only as a struggle for empire on the part of England and France. They felt no compunction when the British government was obliged to send large numbers of regular troops to wage colonial battles. Nor did they regret that the "redcoats," rather than provincial troops, won the war. Nor did they see any reason for curtailing commerce that, in effect, constituted trade with the enemy.
In spite of this lack of wholehearted colonial support and in spite of several early military defeats, England's superior strategic position and her competent leadership ultimately brought complete victory. After eight years of conflict, Canada and the upper Mississippi Valley were finally conquered, and the dream of a French empire in North America faded.
Having triumphed over France, not only in America but in India and throughout the colonial world generally, Britain was compelled to face a problem that she had hitherto neglected - the governance of her empire. It was essential that she now organize her vast possessions to facilitate defense, reconcile the divergent interests of different areas and peoples, and distribute more evenly the cost of imperial administration.
In North America alone, British overseas territories had more than doubled. To the narrow strip along the Atlantic coast had been added the vast expanse of Canada and the territory between the Mississippi River and the Alleghenies, an empire in itself. A population that had been predominantly Protestant English and Anglicized continentals now included Catholic French and large numbers of partly Christianized Indians. Defense and administration of the new territories, as well as the old, would require huge sums of money and increased personnel. The "old colonial system" was obviously inadequate. Even during the exigencies of a war imperiling the very existence of the colonists themselves, the system had proved incapable of securing colonial cooperation or support. What then could be expected in time of peace when no external danger loomed?
4. Colonial resistance
Clear as was the British need for a new imperial design, the situation in America was anything but favorable to a change. Long accustomed to a large measure of independence, the colonies were demanding more, not less, freedom, particularly now that the French menace had been eliminated. To put a new system into effect, to tighten control, the statesmen of England had to contend with colonists trained to self-government and impatient of interference.
One of the first things attempted by the British was to organize the interior. The conquest of Canada and of the Ohio Valley necessitated policies that would not alienate the French and Indian inhabitants. But here the Crown came into conflict with the interests of the colonies, which, fast increasing in population, were bent upon exploiting the newly won territories themselves. Needing new land, various colonies claimed the right to extend their boundaries as far west as the Mississippi River.
The British government, fearing that farmers migrating into the new lands would provoke a series of Indian wars, believed that the restive Indians should be given time to settle down and that lands should be opened to colonists on a more gradual basis. In 1763, a royal proclamation reserved all the western territory between the Alleghenies, the Florida, the Mississippi, and Quebec for the use of the Indians. Thus the Crown attempted to sweep away every western land claim of the thirteen colonies and to stop westward expansion. Though never effectively enforced, this measure, in the eyes of the colonists, constituted a highhanded disregard of their most elementary right to occupy and utilize western lands as needed.
More serious in its repercussions was the new financial policy of the British government, which needed more money to support the growing empire. Unless the taxpayer in England was to supply it all, the colonies would have to contribute. But revenue could be extracted from the colonies only through a stronger central administration, at the expense of colonial self-government.
The first step in inaugurating the new system was the passage of the Sugar Act of 1764. This was designed to raise revenue without regulating trade. In fact, it replaced the Molasses Act of 1733, which had placed a prohibitive duty on the import of rum and molasses from non-English areas. The amended Sugar Act forbade the importation of foreign rum; put a modest duty on molasses from all sources; and levied duties on wines, silks, coffee, and a number of other luxury items. To enforce it, customs officials were ordered to show more energy and strictness. British warships in American waters were instructed to seize smugglers, and "writs of assistance" (blanket warrants) authorized the King's officers to search suspected premises.
5. Tax dispute
It was not so much the new duties that caused consternation among New England merchants. It was rather the fact that steps were being taken to enforce them effectively, an entirely new development. For over a generation, New Englanders had been accustomed to importing the larger part of the molasses for their rum distilleries from the French and Dutch West Indies without paying a duty. They now contended that payment of even the small duty imposed would be ruinous.
As it happened, the preamble to the Sugar Act gave the colonists an opportunity to rationalize their discontent on constitutional grounds. The power of Parliament to tax colonial commodities for the regulation of trade had long been accepted in theory though not always in practice, but the power to tax "for improving the revenue of this Kingdom," as stated in the Revenue Act of 1764, was new and hence debatable.
The constitutional issue became an entering wedge in the great dispute that was finally to wrest the American colonies from England. "One single act of Parliament," wrote James Otis, fiery orator from Massachusetts, "has set more people a-thinking in six months, more than they had done in their whole lives before." Merchants, legislatures, and town meetings protested against the expediency of the law, and colonial lawyers like Samuel Adams found in the preamble the first intimation of "taxation without representation," the catchword that was to draw many to the cause of the American patriots against the mother country.
Later in the same year, Parliament enacted a Currency Act "to prevent paper bills of credit hereafter issued in any of His Majesty's colonies from being made legal tender." Since the colonies were a deficit trade area and were constantly short of "hard money," this added a serious burden to the colonial economy. History of American Money equally objectionable from the colonial viewpoint was the Billeting Act, passed in 1765, which required colonies to provide quarters and supplies for royal troops.
Strong as was the opposition to these acts, it was the last of the measures inaugurating the new colonial system that sparked organized resistance. Known to history as the “Stamp Act”, it provided that revenue stamps be affixed to all newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, licenses, leases, or other legal documents, the revenue (collected by American agents) to be used for "defending, protecting, and securing" the colonies. The burden seemed so evenly and lightly distributed that the measure passed Parliament with little debate.