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Revolutionary War: The Prelude Essay, Research Paper


-Prelude to War-

The Development of Americans

The American settlers had early become used to taking a share in government. Every colony elected an assembly. The Virginians set up their House of Burgesses only 12 years after Jamestown was settled. The Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact before building their first log cabin in 1620. This was a set of rules for governing their colony.

Many settlers came to America to be free to worship as they pleased. Two of the colonies–Rhode Island and Maryland–offered almost complete religious freedom. The settlers also believed firmly in the benefits of education. Harvard College was founded in 1636, only 16 years after the Pilgrims landed. In 1647 Massachusetts required its towns to provide primary education. The protests against British injustice printed in papers, pamphlets, and books could be read by most Americans.

Land was free or cheap. In the border wilds a man needed only to build a cabin and clear a planting space, and he was a landowner. Even a bond servant could look forward to owning a farm, once his period of service was over. Timber was plentiful, and some port towns had shipyards. American ships visited and traded American goods in foreign ports. Small industries milled grain, wove textiles, and made leather and metal articles. The Americans were inventive, hard-working, and prosperous.

The 13 colonies all had grievances against the mother country. But each colony was jealous of the others. Farsighted leaders in England and America tried to persuade the colonists to take united action on common problems, but they failed. One of the efforts was the Albany Congress. It was called to meet in Albany, N.Y., in 1754, at the beginning of the French and Indian War.

In spite of the danger to all the colonies, only seven sent representatives to discuss plans for unified action in relation to the war and the government of the colonies. Benjamin Franklin drafted proposals, but they were never implemented.

Results of the French and Indian War.

The treaty of 1763 ending this war made England master of Canada and of the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. The whole cost of governing this vast region was suddenly shifted from France to Britain. Yet the British people already staggered under an immense national debt, and their taxes were higher than ever before. In the view of Britain’s ministers, England had made great sacrifices in order to expel the French from Canada. The chief motive had been national advantage; but as one of the results the 13 colonies might now live in peace. George Grenville, Britain’s prime minister in 1763, did not understand the views of the colonists or concede that they had any political rights. He now sought ways to make the colonies most profitable to England at the least expense.

Settlers were pouring into the Ohio Valley, and land speculators were busy with schemes for opening the country won at so great a sacrifice from the French. Such activity excited the worst fears of the Indians. Land, fur-bearing animals, the red man’s very existence–all would be engulfed by the relentless advance of the white man. Fur traders were debauching the Indians with rum and cheating them of their furs. Up and down the western rivers traveled French agents who incited the tribes against the English, promising that a huge French army was on the way to recover the lost lands for the red man and France. Indian discontent grew. Now there emerged a great chieftain, Pontiac, who united the tribes in 1763 and led them in a series of destructive raids on the advanTo quiet the Indians, England issued the Proclamation of 1763. This decree prohibited settlers from buying lands beyond a line that ran through the sources of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic. England, it seemed, meant to favor the Indians and the fur traders. It would do so at the expense of the pioneer, the land speculator, and the colony whose charter gave it a claim to a section of the interior extending westward to the Mississippi River.

But the settlements east of the “Proclamation Line” were not to be neglected. For their defense England decided to station a large army on the frontier. Should the colonies contribute toward the expense of this protection? England decreed that they should–by paying taxes imposed by Parliament.

Sugar, Stamp, and Quartering Acts

Trade offered one source of revenue. The old Molasses Act, having yielded but little income, was modified in 1764. The colonists now had to pay import duties on foreign molasses, sugar, wine, and other commodities. More important, measures were adopted to prevent smuggling. Revenue officers sought writs of assistance allowing them to search homes for smuggled goods, and James Otis gained fame in his flaming attack upon their use .

Since the new Sugar Act would not afford a large revenue, it was supplemented in 1765 by the Stamp Act. This measure levied a direct tax on all newspapers printed in the colonies and on most commercial and legal documents used in business. It was realized that these two revenue acts would provide less than half the money needed for the army. Another measure–the Quartering Act–required each colony to bear part of the expenses incurred by British troops when stationed or moving within its borders. The Currency Act of 1764 increased the load of taxes to be carried by the colonists. This act directed the colonists to pay, within a fairly short time, the whole domestic debt which they had created in waging the French and Indian War.

The Outcry Against the Stamp Act

Opposition to the Stamp Act spread through the colonial assemblies, especially that of Virginia. It came to a head in the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, which asserted that the colonists, as English subjects, could not be taxed without their consent. Alarmed by the refusal of the colonial towns to buy additional goods while the act remained in force, British merchants petitioned Parliament for its repeal. Meanwhile Grenville was succeeded by Lord Charles Rockingham, a minister more friendly toward the colonists. The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. At the same time, however, Parliament declared that it had full power to tax the colonies whenever and however it thought best.

The Issue of Taxation

During the Stamp Act controversy a Maryland lawyer, Daniel Dulany, wrote that although Parliament might lay external taxes on the trade of the colonies, it could not rightfully impose internal taxes to be collected directly from the people. This distinction became immensely popular at the time. When Charles Townshend was chancellor of the British Exchequer, he framed his famous revenue act of 1767 in line with the colonial view. Duties were placed on lead, paint, glass, paper, and tea, when imported into the colonies. The money collected was to be used to support British officials in the American service. Opposition to these taxes was not foreseen.

The colonists, however, objected strenuously. Their spokesman this time was John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. In his widely read `Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania’, he made a new distinction –between taxes levied to regulate trade and those intended to raise revenue. If the purpose was to promote imperial commerce, the tax was justifiable. But if England could levy taxes simply to obtain revenue, the colonial rights of self-government would soon be at an end. Only through their power to withhold the salaries of British governors had the colonial assemblies been able to keep them in hand. If England paid such salaries from Parliamentary taxes, the governor would dominate the assembly.

Tea and the “Tea Party”

In 1770, a new prime minister, Lord North, believing it unwise for England to hamper the sale of its own wares in outside markets, secured the repeal of most of the Townshend duties. At the request of King George III the duty on tea was retained, in order to assert the right of England to tax the colonies. The American merchants accepted this compromise, and the agitation in the colonies soon died down. The remaining duty was evaded by smuggling: the odious tax was not paid on about nine tenths of the tea imported after 1770.

Then, in 1773, Parliament passed another act that set all the elements of discord in motion. This measure allowed the British East India Company to ship tea to the colonies without paying any of the import duties collected in England. The nearly bankrupt company had on hand an immense quantity of unsold tea. It could now sell this tea more cheaply in the colonies than local merchants, who had to pay high duties, could sell the tea that they imported. The company was quite willing to pay the Townshend tax of threepence a pound when its tea was unloaded in America.

In the colonies this cheap tea was greeted as a bribe offered to the people for their consent to a British tax. The merchants everywhere were alarmed. If the East India Company could receive a monopoly for the sale of one article, it might receive other privileges and thus deprive the local merchants of most of the colonial trade. In New York and Philadelphia the company’s ships were not allowed to land. Meanwhile, in Boston, a group of citizens disguised as Indians tossed 15,000 pounds worth of the offensive tea into the harbor. This incident, afterward known as the Boston Tea Party, brought about the greatest pre-Revolutionary War crisis, for it was the first act of resistance to end in the destruction of a large amount of private property. Since the East India Company was carrying out a British law, Lord North and George III felt that the colonial opposition must not go unchallenged.

The Five “Intolerable Acts”

Parliament replied to the Boston Tea Party with the five “punitive,” “coercive,” or “intolerable” acts of 1774. The first of these closed the port of Boston until the East India Company was paid for the lost tea. Since commerce was the lifeblood of Boston, this act inflicted hardships on all the townspeople–the innocent and the guilty alike. The second modified the Massachusetts charter of 1691, taking away many highly prized rights of self-government which that province had long enjoyed.

The third measure provided that British officials accused of committing crimes in a colony might be taken to England for trial. The fourth measure allowed the governor of Massachusetts to quarter soldiers at Boston in taverns and unoccupied buildings. The fifth act was not intended to punish the colonies. It extended the boundaries of the province of Quebec to the Ohio River and gave the Roman Catholics in the province both religious liberty and the double protection of French and English law.

Acceptance of the “intolerable acts” by the colonists would have meant yielding nearly all their claims to the right of self-government. Neither the colonists nor England could now back down without a complete surrender.

Why did the final break occur? Ever since the beginnings of settlement, England and America had been growing apart. In 1774, England was still an aristocracy, ruled by men born and bred to a high station in life. Their society was one of culture and refinement. The common people, deprived of abundant opportunity at home, accepted a position of dependence. They regarded hard work, deference to superiors, and submission to rulers as their lot in life.

Old England and the “New Englands”

But in America things had taken a different turn. The tone of society was essentially democratic. There were no lords or hereditary offices. Manners were yet crude and society wore a garb of rustic simplicity. The wilderness had attracted men of independent spirit, and the stern conditions of the frontier had bred self-reliance and self-respect. The Americans did not like to look up to superiors, nor were their leaders set apart by privileges of birth and inherited wealth. The opportunities of the New World made men enterprising, energetic, and aggressive. Restraints were few, custom counted for little, and rank for less. Between these two societies there could not be much in common. Convention, decorum, and formality guided the aristocracy of England. Its leaders looked down upon the crude manners of the Americans–their uncouth dress and speech, their boisterous ways, their lack of formal education, and their aspirations for independence and self-rule. Most ancestors of the Americans had belonged to that humble class which was still without political rights or influence in England. What magic of the American woods could transform these lowly folk into peers of the chosen few who lived on the fat of England’s fertile soil?

Equally wide was the gulf that separated the colonists and England in their political thinking. By 1750 British statesmen believed that Parliament had complete authority over the colonies. It could tax them, make laws for them, and even abolish their elected assemblies.

All this the patriot leaders in America denied. Parliament was not a free agent, they said. It was bound to respect certain natural rights of man; any of its acts which tried to take these away from British subjects was automatically void. The king, not Parliament, was the link that really bound the colonies to England. They had been planted under his auspices, and the colonial governments rested on charters that he alone had issued. These charters were regarded as contracts between the king and the first settlers, giving them and their descendants the rights of life, liberty, and property. Should England try to take away these rights, the original contract would be broken and the Americans released from their duty of allegiance to the king.

Taxation Without Representation

Foremost among these rights was the one expressed by the saying–”a subject’s property cannot be taken from him without his consent.” The colonists denied that they were represented in Parliament; therefore they did not give their assent to taxes it imposed. The English leaders, on the other hand, held that members of Parliament looked after the best interests of the whole empire. They said that the colonists were as fully represented as the great mass of English people, who did not have the right to vote at home. Believing themselves unrepresented in Parliament, the Americans argued that only a locally elected assembly could tax them. In fact, the revolutionary leaders eventually placed the assemblies on a par with Parliament. It should have no more power over them than they had over it. This view meant that the colonies were virtually independent states, held to England by ties of sentiment but not subordinate to it. By 1750 the king could do scarcely anything without the consent of Parliament. Thus the Americans, by asserting that the colonies were subject solely to him, recognized only an ineffectual authority.

Misgovernment and Exploitation

The defects of British rule also contributed to the final break. For a long time England had let the colonies drift along with little restraint. There was no central colonial office which was supposed to supervise them; executive authority in England was divided among several ministers and commissions that did not act quickly or in unison. The Board of Trade, which knew more about the colonies than any other body, did not have the power either to decide things or to enforce decrees. English politics were honeycombed with corruption, and agents sent to America were often bribe-taking politicians too incompetent for good positions at home. Distance also counted against England. “Seas roll, months pass between the order and the execution,” wrote Edmund Burke. Just before the Revolution, England was governed by rapidly changing party factions that did not hold to a consistent course.

Ascending the throne in 1760, George III endeavored to check the growing power of Parliament and to become himself the ruling force in English affairs. His arbitrary acts raised up powerful opponents in England, who regarded the colonists as fellow sufferers in a far-flung struggle between liberty and tyranny. Divided counsels at home, corruption and inefficiency in government, authority divided at the top, sudden changes of policy, measures boldly announced but feebly enforced–all these brought England’s claims over the colonies into disrepute. When the Americans had resisted, they had usually gained their point.

The Colonies as a Source of English Profits

England always treated the colonies as sources of profit to itself, regarding them as dependencies and endeavoring to utilize their resources for its own gain. In the New England woods it tried to prevent the local lumbermen from sawing planks out of trees capable of furnishing masts for the Royal Navy. After 1763 it proposed to control the granting of land in the West with an eye to its own advantage. Since land was the principal source of wealth among the colonists, they could not prosper to the utmost until its fruits were freely accessible to all the people.

England also controlled the commerce of the empire in order to increase its own wealth. In accordance with England’s “mercantile theory,” the colonies were directed to produce what Britain was unable to produce and to exchange their products in British ports for British goods. As far as possible, the profits of American trade should go to British merchants, and the ready money of the colonies should come to Britain in payment of colonial debts. The assemblies should do nothing to restrict the sale of British merchandise in America, nor should the colonists produce the kind of wares which Britain could supply. These principles were given force by a series of Acts of Trade that greatly limited the economic opportunities of the colonies.

Meanwhile the colonists became increasingly dissatisfied with this condition. The agricultural produce that they sold abroad did not bring enough revenue to buy all the manufactured goods that they needed. After they became indebted to British merchants, they often felt that they were being exploited by their creditors. Denied the right to develop local manufactures, they produced an ever-growing surplus of a few agricultural staples, which flooded the available markets and lowered the final sales price abroad.

The remedy for this condition was to reduce the agricultural surplus by developing local manufactures and by engaging in free commerce with all the world. A vast share of America’s wealth went to British manufacturers, shipowners, and merchants. If the American colonists performed the services formerly supplied by Britain, their wealth would increase, their debts would decrease, and economically they would be able to stand on their own feet.

While the colonies were sparsely peopled and undeveloped, the settlers realized that the benefits they derived from England outweighed the losses inflicted by British restrictions. Now, however, in 1775, the American people were approaching the stature of manhood. Their population exceeded 2 1/2 million, and their growing wealth was able to support new enterprises, of which England disapproved.

The time had come when it seemed that the Americans could do for themselves what England had done for them before. The increase of wealth which freedom promised was expected to overbalance the cost of defending their frontiers, of maintaining a navy, and of securing commercial privileges for their products abroad in free trade with other countries besides England.

The Organization for Revolution

In order to act together in resisting the measures of Britain, the colonists established an effective revolutionary organization. In structure it resembled a pyramid. The bottom stones consisted of committees of correspondence. The first of these committees were set up in the New England towns through the influence of Samuel Adams and at the suggestion of Boston. Elsewhere committees of correspondence were generally established in the counties. They enabled the people of each locality to act together and to communicate with fellow colonists in remote places. When the break with England came, these and similar committees took charge of the work of local government.

The next layer of the pyramid consisted of provincial congresses. Some of these were the former assemblies, meeting in defiance of the English governors. Others were unauthorized bodies composed of delegates selected by the committees in the towns or counties. When England’s authority was rejected, these congresses were ready to make laws and to provide soldiers and money for carrying on the war.

At the apex of the pyramid stood the Continental Congress. Nearly all the delegates who attended its first meeting at Philadelphia in 1774 were members of local committees of correspondence, and many of them had been selected by the provincial congresses. They elected Peyton Randolph, a Virginia lawyer, as president. The Congress denounced parliamentary taxation and the five “intolerable acts.” It signed a Continental Association, intended to destroy all trade with England if the British did not yield. The Congress prepared to enforce this agreement by means of the local committees.

The only authority which the Congress had came from the people themselves. Consequently, England did not regard its acts as legal. When the Congress attempted to force everybody to follow a certain course of action, it functioned as a de facto government. The colonial leaders had now divided into two camps–the Patriots, who were willing to accept the Congress as their guide, and the Loyalists, who counseled submission to Parliament’s decrees.

Conciliation or Force

Meanwhile the air was full of plans for conciliation. Lord North suggested that England would not tax the colonies if they provided a permanent revenue for the support of British officials stationed there. Edmund Burke wanted the colonists to vote their own taxes and govern themselves. William Pitt (now Lord Chatham) wished to repeal the “intolerable acts” and to promise that taxes would not be levied by Parliament except with the consent of the American assemblies. At the first Continental Congress, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed to erect an American legislature, subordinate to Parliament, which would have the right to veto all British laws relating to the general interests of the colonies. Some leaders favored American representation in Parliament, and a few Englishmen were ready to give the colonies their independence. But all these plans failed, and the issue had to be decided by force.

cing frontier.

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