Lecture 3 - The Roots of Revolution

17A Lecture 3

The Roots of Revolution

 

In a broad sense, the American Revolution was not the same thing as the American War of Independence.

 

The war itself lasted only eight years.

 

But the Revolution lasted over a century and a half and began when the first permanent English  settlers set foot on the new continent.

 

 Insurrection of thought usually precedes insurrection of deed.

 

 Over the years such a ferment had occurred in the thinking of the colonists that the Revolution was partially completed in their minds before the  musketballs began to fly.

 

 America was a revolutionary force from the day of its discovery.

 

     England's colonies were settled largely by emigrants who were discontented or rebellious in spirit--by people who had failed to adjust to their harsh lot in the Old World.

 

Most of them had not been able to get along, whether socially,  politically, economically, or religiously.

 

Some of them were tired of taking off their hats and standing bareheaded in the presence of their "betters."

 

 Others wanted a larger share in government, or a richer portion of this world's goods, or an  opportunity to worship God in their own particular way.

 

     The nightmare of crossing the Atlantic normally lasted about six to eight weeks, often much longer.

 

Ships were frequently turned into "floating coffins" by food shortages or epidemics of disease; in one extreme case, 350 of 400 passengers and  crew perished.

 

Cannibalism was not unknown, and starving voyagers fought over the bodies of vermin. As a sailor's song ran,

 

     We ate the mice, we ate the rats,

     And through the hold we ran like cats.

 

     Such a perilous crossing left many emotional scars. Survivors who staggered ashore on the promised land were, as a rule, isolated spiritually from the faraway Old World.

 

They were more than ever aware that the long arm of the London government,  enfeebled by 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) of ocean, could not reach them nearly so effectively as at home.

 

Distance weakens authority; great distance weakens authority greatly.

 

     America's lonely wilderness likewise stimulated ideas of independence.

 

 Back in England some villagers had lived near graveyards that contained the bones of their ancestors for a thousand years past.

 

Born into such conservative surroundings, the  poor peasants did not question the social rut in which they found themselves.

 

But in the New World they were not held down by the scowl of their overlords.

 

     In America all was strange, crude, different.

 

Dense forests and the rugged pioneering conditions changed patterns of living and consequently habits of thought.

 

Those wretched settlers perished who could not adapt to their raw surroundings, and  hundreds of the early Virginia colonists paid the supreme penalty.

 

 Before long, Americans were eating Indian corn, wearing Indian moccasins and buckskin, and in extreme instances on the frontier uttering the war whoop as they scalped their fallen  Indian foe.

 

Hacking a home out of the wildwood with an ax developed strength, self-confidence, individualism, and a spirit of independence.

 

     As the Americans matured, they acquired privileges of self-government enjoyed by no other colonial peoples.

 

They set up thirteen parliaments of their own and emulated the parliamentary methods of England.

 

Ultimately they came to regard their  own legislative bodies as more or less on a footing with the great Parliament in London.

 

One governor of Rhode Island would wear no wig unless it had been made in England and was exactly like that worn by the speaker of the British House of Commons."

 

The costly Seven Years' War, which ended in 1763, marked a new relationship between Britain and its transatlantic colonies.

 

A revolution in British colonial policy precipitated the American Revolution.

 

     Victory-flushed Britain emerged from the conflict possessing one of the biggest empires in the world--and also, less happily, the biggest debt.

 

It amounted to £140 million, about half of which had been incurred in defending the American  colonies.

 

British officials wisely had no intention of asking the colonials to help pay off this crushing burden.

 

But London felt that the Americans should be asked to defray one-third the cost of maintaining a garrison of some ten thousand  redcoats, presumably for the colonies' own protection.

 

     Prime Minister George Grenville, an honest and able financier not noted for tact, moved vigorously.

 

Dedicated to efficiency, he aroused the resentment of the colonials in 1763 by ordering the British navy to enforce the Navigation Laws.

 

 He also  secured from Parliament the so-called Sugar Act of 1764, the first law ever passed by that body for raising revenue in the colonies for the crown.

 

Among various provisions, it increased the duty on foreign sugar imported from the West Indies.

 

After bitter protests from the colonials, the duties were lowered substantially, and the agitation died down.

 

But resentment was kept  burning by the Quartering Act of 1765.

 

It required certain colonies to provide food and quarters for British troops

.

     Then in the same year, 1765, Grenville imposed the most odious measure of all: a stamp tax, to raise revenues to support the new military force.

 

 The Stamp Act required the use of stamped paper or the affixing of stamps, certifying payment of  tax.

 

Involved were about fifty trade items and certain types of commercial and legal documents, including playing cards, pamphlets, newspapers, diplomas, bills of lading, and marriage licenses.

 

     Grenville regarded all these measures as reasonable and just.

 

He was simply asking the Americans to pay their fair share for colonial defense, through taxes that were already familiar in England.

 

In fact, Englishmen for two generations had  endured a stamp tax far heavier than that passed for the colonies.

    

Yet the Americans were angrily aroused at what they regarded as Grenville's fiscal aggression.

 

The new laws pinched their pocketbooks, and, even more ominously, menaced the local liberties they had come to assume as a matter of right.

 

 Thus some  colonial assemblies defiantly refused to comply with the Quartering Act or voted only a fraction of the supplies that it called for.

 

     Worse still, Grenville's noxious legislation seemed to jeopardize the basic rights of the colonists as Englishmen.

 

Both the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act provided for trying offenders in the hated admiralty courts, where juries were not allowed. 

 

The burden of proof was on the defendants, who were assumed to be guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent.

 

Trial by jury and the doctrine of "innocent until proved guilty" were ancient privileges that the English people everywhere,  including the American colonials, held most dear.

 

     And why was a British army needed at all in the colonies, now that the French were expelled from the continent and Pontiac's warriors crushed?

 

Could its real purpose be to whip rebellious colonials into line?

 

Many Americans began to sniff the  strong scent of a conspiracy to strip them of their historic liberties.

 

They lashed back violently, and the Stamp Act became the target that drew their most ferocious fire.

 

     Angry throats raised the cry, "No taxation without representation."

 

There was some irony in the slogan, because the seaports and tidewater towns that were most wrathful against the Stamp Act had long denied full representation to their own  backcountry pioneers.

 

But now the agitated colonials took the high ground of principle.

 

They vividly recollected the theories of popular government developed during England's own Puritan revolution a century earlier.

 

American firebrands hurled these  doctrines back at their English masters, who were stunned at the keenness of the colonials' historical memory.

 

     The Americans made a distinction between "legislation" and "taxation."

 

 They conceded the right of Parliament to legislate about matters that affected the entire empire, including the regulation of trade.

 

But they steadfastly denied the right of  Parliament, in which no Americans were seated, to impose taxes on Americans.

 

Only their own elected colonial legislatures, the Americans insisted, could legally tax them. Taxes levied by the distant English Parliament amounted to robbery, a  piratical assault on the sacred rights of property

.

     Grenville dismissed these American protests as hairsplitting absurdities.

 

The power of Parliament was supreme and undivided, he asserted, and in any case the Americans were represented in Parliament.

 

Elaborating the theory of "virtual  representation," Grenville claimed that every member of Parliament represented all British subjects, even those Americans in Boston or Charleston who had never voted for a member of the London Parliament.

 

     The Americans scoffed at the notion of virtual representation.

 

And truthfully, they did not really want direct representation in Parliament, which might have seemed like a sensible compromise.

 

If they had obtained it, any gouty member of the  House of Commons could have proposed an oppressive tax bill for the colonies, and the American representatives, few in numbers, would have stood bereft of a principle with which to resist.

 

     Thus the principle of no taxation without representation was supremely important, and the colonials clung to it with tenacious consistency.

 

When the English replied that the sovereign power of government could not be divided between  "legislative" authority in London and "taxing" authority in the colonies, they forced the Americans to deny the authority of Parliament altogether and to begin to consider their own political independence.

 

This chain of logic eventually led to  revolutionary consequences."

 

The Stamp Tax Uproar

 

Colonial outcries against the hated stamp tax took various forms.

 

 The most conspicuous assemblage was the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, which brought together in New York City twenty-seven distinguished delegates from nine colonies.

 

 After  dignified debate the members drew up a statement of their rights and grievances and besought the king and Parliament to repeal the repugnant legislation.

 

     The Stamp Act Congress, which was largely ignored in England, made little splash at the time in America.

 

But it did do something to break down sectional suspicions, for it brought together around the same table leaders from the different and  rival colonies.

 

It was one more halting but significant step toward intercolonial unity.

 

     More effective than the congress was the widespread adoption of nonimportation agreements against British goods.

 

Woolen garments of homespun became fashionable, and the eating of lamb chops was discouraged so that the wool-bearing sheep would  be allowed to mature.

 

Nonimportation agreements were in fact a promising stride toward union; they spontaneously united the American people for the first time in common action.

 

     Violence also attended colonial protests.

 

Groups of ardent spirits, known as Sons of Liberty and Daughters of Liberty, took the law into their own hands.

 

Crying "Liberty, Property, and No Stamps," they enforced the nonimportation agreements  against violators, often with a generous coat of tar and feathers.

 

Houses of unpopular officials were ransacked, their money was stolen, and stamp agents were hanged on liberty poles, albeit in effigy.

 

     Shaken by violence, the machinery for collecting the tax broke down.

 

On that dismal day in 1765 when the new act was to go into effect, the stamp agents had all been forced to resign, and there was no one to sell the stamps.

 

While flags flapped  at half-mast, the law was openly and flagrantly defied--or rather, nullified.

     England was hard hit. America then bought about one-quarter of all British exports, and about one-half of British shipping was devoted to the American trade.

 

Merchants, manufacturers, and shippers suffered from the colonial nonimportation  agreements, and hundreds of laborers were thrown out of work.

 

Loud demands converged on Parliament for repeal of the Stamp Act.

 

But many of the members could not understand why 7.5 million Britons had to pay heavy taxes to protect the colonies,  whereas some 2 million colonials refused to pay for only one-third of the cost of their own defense.

 

     After a stormy debate, and as a matter of expediency and not of right, Parliament in 1766 reluctantly repealed the Stamp Act.

 

At the same time, and by an overwhelming vote, it saved face by passing the Declaratory Act.

 

This futile measure  proclaimed that Parliament had the right "to bind" the colonies "in all cases whatsoever."

 

A bare assertion of this right was but a feeble victory for England's authority, for the unruly colonials had proved that the London government could be  forced to yield to boycotts and mob action.

 

     America forthwith burst into an uproar of rejoicing.

 

 Grateful residents of New York erected a leaden statue to King George III--a tribute that was later melted into thousands of bullets to be fired at his own troops."

 

Parliament Forced to Repeal the Stamp Act

 

Control of the British ministry was now seized by the gifted but erratic "Champagne Charley" Townshend, a man who could deliver brilliant speeches in Parliament even while drunk.

 

Rashly promising to pluck feathers from the colonial goose with a  minimum of squawking, he persuaded Parliament in 1767 to pass the Townshend Acts.

 

 The most important of these new regulations was a light import duty on glass, white lead, paper, and tea.

 

Townshend, seizing on a dubious distinction between internal  and external taxes, made this tax, unlike the Stamp Act, an indirect customs duty payable at American ports.

 

But to the increasingly restless colonials, this was a distinction without a difference.

 

For them the real difficulty remained taxes--in any  form--without representation.

 

     Flushed with their recent victory over the stamp tax, the colonists were in a rebellious mood.

 

 The impost on tea was especially irksome, for an estimated 1 million people drank the refreshing brew twice a day, and even tipplers used it when  alcohol was not available.

 

     The new Townshend revenues, worse yet, would be used to pay the salaries of the royal governors and judges in America.

 

From the standpoint of efficient administration by London, this was a reform long overdue.

 

But the ultrasuspicious Americans,  who had beaten the royal governors into line by controlling the purse, regarded Townshend's tax as another attempt to enchain them.

 

Their worst fears took on greater reality when the London government, after passing the Townshend taxes, suspended  the legislature of New York in 1767 for failure to comply with the Quartering Act.

 

     Nonimportation agreements, previously potent, were quickly revived against the Townshend Acts.

 

But they proved less effective than those devised against the Stamp Act.

 

The colonials, again enjoying prosperity, took the new tax less seriously  than might have been expected, largely because it was light and indirect.

 

They found, moreover, that they could secure smuggled tea at a cheap price, and consequently smugglers increased their activities, especially in Massachusetts.

 

     British officials, faced with a breakdown of law and order, landed two regiments of troops in Boston in 1768.

 

Many of the soldiers were drunken and profane characters.

 

Liberty-loving colonials, resenting the presence of the red-coated  "ruffians," taunted the "bloody backs" unmercifully.

 

     A clash was inevitable. On the evening of March 5, 1770, a crowd of some sixty townspeople set upon a squad of about ten "bloody backs," one of whom was hit by a club and another of whom was knocked down.

 

Acting apparently without orders but  under extreme provocation, the troops opened fire and killed or wounded eleven "innocent" citizens.

 

One of the first to die was Crispus Attucks, described by contemporaries as a powerfully built runaway "mulatto" and as a leader of the mob.

 

Both  sides were in some degree to blame, and in the subsequent trial (in which future president John Adams served as defense attorney for the soldiers) only two of the redcoats were found guilty of manslaughter.

 

The soldiers were released after being  branded on the hand.

 

     The so-called Boston Massacre further inflamed the colonials against the British, especially after the conviction spread that the Americans had been wholly unoffending.

 

The Townshend Tea Tax and the Boston "Massacre"

                       

By 1770 King George III, then only thirty-two years old, was strenuously attempting to restore the declining power of the British monarchy.

 

He was a good man in his private morals, but he proved to be a bad ruler.

 

Earnest, industrious,  stubborn, lustful for power, and later plagued with periodic fits of supposed madness, he surrounded himself with cooperative "yes men," notably his corpulent prime minister, Lord North.

 

     The ill-timed Townshend Acts had failed to produce revenue, though producing near-rebellion.

 

Net proceeds from the tax in one year were £295, and during that time the annual military costs to Britain in the colonies had mounted to £170,000. 

 

Nonimportation agreements, though feebly enforced, were pinching British manufacturers.

 

The government of Lord North, bowing to various pressures, finally persuaded Parliament to repeal the Townshend revenue duties.

 

But the three-pence tax on tea  was retained to keep alive the principle of parliamentary taxation.

 

     Flames of discontent in America continued to be fanned by numerous incidents, including the redoubled efforts of the British officials to enforce the Navigation Laws.

 

Resistance was further whipped up by a master propagandist and engineer of  rebellion, Samuel Adams of Boston, a cousin of John Adams.

 

Unimpressive in appearance (his hands trembled), he lived and breathed only for politics.

 

His friends had to buy him a presentable suit of clothes when he left Massachusetts on intercolonial  business.

 

Zealous, tenacious, and courageous, he was ultrasensitive to infractions of colonial rights. Cherishing a deep faith in the common people, he appealed effectively to what was called his "trained mob."

 

Skillful also as a pamphleteer, he  soon became known as the "Penman of the Revolution."

   

 Samuel Adams's signal contribution was to organize in Massachusetts the local committees of correspondence.

 

After he had formed the first one in Boston during 1772, some eighty towns in the colony speedily set up similar organizations.

 

 Their  chief function was to spread propaganda and information by interchanging letters and thus keep alive opposition to British policy.

 

One critic referred to the committees as "the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of  sedition."

 

No more effective device for stimulating resistance could have been contrived.

 

     Intercolonial committees of correspondence were the next logical step.

 

Virginia led the way in 1773 by creating such a body as a standing committee of the House of Burgesses.

 

Within a short time, every colony had established a central committee  through which it could exchange ideas and information with other colonies.

 

These intercolonial groups, which were supremely significant in stimulating and disseminating sentiment in favor of united action, evolved directly into the first American  congresses."

 

The Seditious Committees of Correspondence

 

Thus far--that is, by 1773--nothing had happened to make rebellion inevitable.

 

Nonimportation was weakening.

 

 

 

Increasing numbers of colonials were reluctantly paying the tea tax, because the legal tea was now cheaper than the smuggled tea and  cheaper than tea in England.

 

Even John Adams on one occasion hoped that the tea he was drinking was smuggled Dutch tea, but he could not be sure and did not want to know.

 

     A new ogre entered the picture in 1773. The powerful British East India Company, overburdened with 17 million pounds of unsold tea, was facing bankruptcy.

 

If it collapsed, the London government would lose heavily in tax revenue.

 

The ministry  therefore decided to assist the company by awarding it a complete monopoly of the American tea business.

 

The terms thus granted would enable the giant corporation to sell the coveted leaves more cheaply than ever before, even with the three-pence  tax added.

 

But to many American consumers, principle was more important than price.

 

     If British officials insisted on the letter of the law, violence would be inevitable, for the new tea monopoly had many features that were abhorrent to the colonials.

 

Above all, it seemed like a shabby attempt to trick the Americans, with the  bait of cheaper tea, into accepting the detested tax.

 

Fatefully, the British colonial authorities decided to enforce the law literally, and once more the colonials rose in their wrath.

 

Not a single one of the several thousand chests of tea shipped by the company reached the hands of the consignees.

 

At Annapolis, the Marylanders burned both the cargo and the vessel, while proclaiming "Liberty and Independence or death in pursuit of it."

 

At  Boston, which was host to the most famous tea party of all, a band of white townsfolk, disguised as Indians, boarded the three tea ships on December 16, 1773.

 

 They smashed open 342 chests and dumped the "cursed weed" into Boston harbor, while a  silent crowd watched approvingly from the wharves as salty tea was brewed for the fish.

 

     Reactions varied. Extremists in America rejoiced; conservatives shuddered.

 

 This wanton destruction of private property was going too far.

 

The British at home were outraged; even friends of America hung their heads.

 

Punishment and coercion were  the only possible responses of the London authorities, as long as the mercantilist philosophy prevailed and the colonials refused to accept responsibility.

 

The granting of some kind of home rule to the Americans might have prevented rebellion, but  not many Britons of that age were blessed with such vision.

 

Edmund Burke, the great conservative political theorist and a friend of America in Parliament, stoically declared, "To tax and to please, no more than to love and be wise, is not given to  men.""

 

Tea Parties at Boston and Elsewhere

 

An outraged Parliament responded speedily to the Boston Tea Party with measures that brewed a revolution.

 

By huge majorities in 1774 it passed a series of "Repressive Acts," which were designed to chastise Boston in particular, Massachusetts in  general.

 

They were branded in America as "the massacre of American Liberty."

 

     Most drastic of all was the Boston Port Act.

 

It closed the tea-stained harbor until damages were paid and order could be assured.

 

 By other "Intolerable Acts"--as they were called in America--many of the chartered rights of colonial  Massachusetts were swept away.

 

Restrictions were likewise placed on the precious town meetings. Contrary to previous practice, enforcing officials who killed colonials in the line of duty could now be sent to England for trial.

 

There, suspicious  Americans assumed, they would be likely to get off scot-free.

 

     By a fateful coincidence, the "Intolerable Acts" were accompanied in 1774 by the Quebec Act. Passed at the same time, it was erroneously regarded in English-speaking America as one of the "repressive" measures.

 

Actually, the Quebec Act was a  good law in bad company.

 

For many years the British government had debated how it should administer the sixty thousand or so conquered French subjects in Canada, and it had finally framed this farsighted and statesmanlike measure.

 

The French were  guaranteed their Catholic religion.

 

They were also permitted to retain many of their old customs and institutions, which did not include a representative assembly or trial by jury in civil cases.

 

In addition, the old boundaries of the Province of  Quebec were now extended southward all the way to the Ohio River.

 

     The Quebec Act, from the viewpoint of the French Canadians, was a shrewd and conciliatory measure.

 

If England had only shown as much foresight in dealing with its English-speaking colonies, it might not have lost them.

 

     But from the viewpoint of the American colonials as a whole, the Quebec Act was especially noxious.

 

All the other "repressive" laws slapped directly at Massachusetts, but this one had a much wider range.

 

It seemed to set a dangerous precedent  in America against jury trials and popular assemblies.

 

 It alarmed land speculators, who were distressed to see the huge trans-Allegheny area snatched from their grasp.

 

 It aroused anti-Catholics, who were shocked by the extension of Roman Catholic  jurisdiction southward into a huge region that had once been earmarked for Protestantism--a region about as large as the thirteen original colonies.

 

One angry Protestant cried that there ought to be a "jubilee in hell" over this enormous gain for  "popery.""

 

Parliament Passes the "Intolerable Acts"

 

American dissenters, outraged by the Quebec Act, responded sympathetically to the plight of Massachusetts.

 

It had put itself in the wrong by the wanton destruction of the tea cargoes; now England had put itself in the wrong by brutal punishment  that did not seem to fit the crime.

 

 Flags were flown at half-mast throughout the colonies on the day that the Boston Port Act went into effect, and sister colonies rallied to send food to the stricken city.

 

 Rice was shipped even from faraway South  Carolina.

     Most memorable of the responses to the "Intolerable Acts" was the summoning of a Continental Congress in 1774.

 

 It was to meet in Philadelphia to consider ways of redressing colonial grievances.

 

 Twelve of the thirteen colonies, with Georgia  alone missing, sent fifty-five distinguished men, among them Samuel Adams, John Adams, George Washington, and Patrick Henry.

 

Intercolonial frictions were partially melted away by social activity after working hours; in fifty-four days George  Washington dined at his own lodgings only nine times.

 

     The First Continental Congress deliberated for seven weeks, from September 5 to October 26, 1774.

 

It was not a legislative but a consultative body; it was a convention rather than a congress.

 

 John Adams played a stellar role.

 

Eloquently swaying  his colleagues to a revolutionary course, he helped defeat by the narrowest of margins a proposal by the moderates for a species of American home rule under British direction.

 

After prolonged argument the Congress drew up several dignified papers.

 

 These included a ringing Declaration of Rights, as well as solemn appeals to other British American colonies, to the king, and to the British people.

 

     The most significant action of the Congress was the creation of The Association.

 

Unlike previous nonimportation agreements, this one called for a complete boycott of British goods; nonimportation, nonexportation, and nonconsumption.

 

A document  known as The Association, by providing for concerted action, was the closest approach to a written constitution that the colonies as a unit had yet devised.

 

But still there was no genuine drive toward independence--merely an effort to bring about a  repeal of the offensive legislation and a return to the happy days before parliamentary taxation.

 

If colonial grievances were redressed, well and good; if not, the Congress was to meet again in May 1775.

 

     But the deadly drift toward war continued.

 

The petitions of the Continental Congress were rejected, after considerable debate, by strong majorities in Parliament.

 

In America chickens squawked and tar kettles bubbled as violators of The  Association were tarred and feathered.

 

Muskets were being collected, men were openly drilling, and a clash seemed imminent.

 

     In April 1775 the British commander in Boston sent a detachment of troops to nearby Lexington and Concord.

 

They were to seize stores of colonial gunpowder and also to bag the "rebel" ringleaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.

 

At Lexington the  colonial "Minute Men" refused to disperse rapidly enough, and shots were fired that killed eight Americans and wounded several more.

 

The affair was more the "Lexington Massacre" than a battle.

 

 The redcoats pushed on to Concord, whence they were  forced to retreat by the homespun Americans, whom Emerson immortalized:

 

     By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

     Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,

     Here once the embattled farmers stood,

     And fired the shot heard round the world.

     (Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Concord Hymn.")

 

The bewildered British, fighting off murderous fire from militiamen crouched behind thick stone walls, finally regained the sanctuary of Boston.

 

Licking their wounds, they could count about three hundred casualties, including some seventy killed.  England now had a war on its hands.