Emerging victorious from her seven years war with France, but staggering under a tremendous burden of debt, Britain tried to compel her American colonists, who had benefited from the conflict to share the load through certain taxes, the response, was an ominous rumbling of colonial discontent which grew as King and parliament adamantly pressed their claim. Over a dozen years passionate resentment on both sides waxed ever stronger until it threatened the very fabric of empire.
Kings, no more than commoners are privileged to chose their own exits from life, but the departure in 1760 of King George II who died whilst performing his morning toilet, seemed a particularly inappropriate for the one who’s sceptre represented a British authority, that had never been stronger. Britain’s overseas empire, born in exploration and nurtured with colonisation and trade had been tested in war and confirmed by victory. Englishmen had beaten down the French challenge east and west. British sea power was supreme from Bengal to the Caribbean and from Dakar to North America.
King George III only 22 when he succeeded his grandfather had good cause to tell his subjects, as he ascended the throne that he ‘Gloried in the name of Britain’. But even in that hour of bright promise, however, forces were at work which would plunge the Empire into civil war, and tear from it a great piece of British civilisation - great in English wealth, English thought, and Englishmen - and thrust the 13 American colonies on to their own separate highly significant course in history.
At this point in time the interest on the British National Debt alone was £5 million annually, an astronomical sum for the period, and running an empire was proving to be a costly business. It is no surprise therefore that officials searching for additional income should have turned their attention to the North American colonies.
Here, virtually untouched was a rich and populous section of the English speaking world. One fifth of British subjects lived in America. Poverty of the degree common in England was unknown in the New World. American freeholders enjoyed a higher standard of living than their tenant farmer cousins back at home.
Most well educated Americans such as Thomas Jefferson had studied the works of John Locke the English political philosopher who wrote that people should not be taxed without their consent, meaning parliament’s consent for, he argued, the crown possessed only specific powers all others being reserved to the people through their representatives in parliament. This was the basis of the American conviction that Parliament could not tax them without their consent or representation. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to justify the revolution, most of his phrases echoed the thought of Locke.
When in 1764, Prime Minister, George Grenville, decided to reduce the current rate of tax on rum, (which, due to the American coyness about paying such a tax, was being smuggled on a grand scale by the citizens of New England), from sixpence to three pence a gallon, there was general indignation as in fact it had never been collected anyway. The Americans felt the British parliament was unfairly sacrificing them to the interests of the British west Indies, their long time rivals in the sugar and molasses trade. In 1765, two years after the peace treaty with France, unshipped timber lay rotting on the wharves and property values in Rhode Island had dropped by half. At this highly propitious moment parliament approved a law, the Stamp Act, that seemed designed to irritate the most influential colonists and affected all commercial contracts, newspaper, legal documents, university degrees and tavern licences. It looked for a while as if parliament would have its sway, but then Patrick Henry, the Virginian lawyer and rebel-rouser made a speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses which was so extreme he was accused of uttering treason. He apologised then continued with more of the same. One resolution declared that Virginians could be taxed only by their own assembly. This gave rise to groups of colonists banding together and calling themselves ‘Sons of Liberty’ and arose to challenge .
Opposition to the Stamp Act became wide spread and direct action in many places resulted. In South Carolina, the stamps were placed in Fort Johnson for safe keeping, whereupon ‘Sons of Liberty’ stormed the fort. The 14 British soldiers surrendered the stamps and the fort without a fight. A Stamp Act Congress set up in New York state in 1765, petitioned for a repeal of the Stamp Act while at the same time agreed a boycott of British goods. As cancellation of orders flooded into London offices King George III reluctantly yielded and the Act was repealed.
In his ill-considered response to Sam Adams’s Massachusetts Circular Letter, in which he concluded that all powers of taxation belonged to the Colonial Assemblies, Lord Hillsborough, British Colonial Secretary, used inflammatory language in his response. The resulting backlash was a boycott of British goods and in 1769, Boston reduced its imports by half, while new York’s fell from £428,000 to £74,000.
John ‘Hancock, the wealthiest merchant in Boston, resorted to smuggling to avoid taxes, and when HM Custom Agents demanded to see the cargo of his ship ‘Liberty’ they were locked in a cabin, the contraband was landed and the Customs Agents thrown overboard. To restore order after the Liberty riot, the British sent four regiments to occupy Boston. The prominent Virginian lawyer, Sam Adams, a trouble-maker, hoped their presence would lead to further unrest. By early 1770 the relations between troops and citizens could not have been worse, or from a radicals point of view - better.
On March 1st 1770, an incident out side the Boston Customs House was the tinder which set alight the fuse to the explosion of real violence. A mob antagonistic to the British militia protecting the customs house indulged in extremely provocative behaviour to the troops who were levelling loaded muskets, eventually one of the soldiers was knocked to the ground and some of the troops fired their guns. Five Bostonians were dead and this became known as the Boston Massacre. At the resulting trial most reasonable men believed that the behaviour of the Patriots was to blame.
Colonists were mad for tea, drinking about 2 million cups a day. To avoid tea duty, which lord North, the British Prime Minister, had retained, Americans drank smuggled Dutch tea. The refusal to touch the taxed tea shipped by the British East India Company was contributing to the disastrous financial problems of the company. Britain moved and cut the price of their tea from 20 shillings to ten shillings a pound, making it cheaper than the smuggled Dutch tea.
In the autumn of 1773, seven ships loaded with the politically explosive beverage were on the high seas heading for American ports. In Boston three vessels carrying 90,000 pounds of east India tea arrived there in late November 1773. The American patriots knew that if the duty were not paid, within 20 days on December 17th, customs men would seize the cargo. The fear was that once confiscated, the tea would be slipped out of customs warehouses and sold in the colony.
The sailors aboard the ships helped the ‘Indians’ heave more than £10,000 worth of tea into the harbour. British warships nearby made no attempt to interfere, and whilst British officers on the shore could discern what was happening the crowd on the wharf kept them from seeing enough to identify the men involved, which included some of Boston's most prominent citizens. Othger tea parties followed in Greenwich, New Jersey, an East India cargo was burned, and in Annapolis, Maryland, Indians burned the ships and the tea.
On December 16th 5,000 Bostonians gathered at the old South Meeting Hall and learned of the governors final refusal to allow the ships to leave before paying the duty. “What more can we do”? Sam Adams asked from the podium. An Indian war whoop answered from the gallery, and a crowd of men wearing blankets, faces blackened with soot suddenly appeared a the back of the hall. Amid cheering and shouts of “The Mowhawks are Coming”, the meeting adjourned to the wharf where the troublesome tea ships lay.
His Majesty’s government today announced a series of measures specifically designed to punish the American Colonists for their increasingly belligerent and anti-British behaviour. The so-called Coercive Acts close the port of Boston and take away much of the power of the Massachusetts legislature. This power will be turned over to the colonies Royal governor. Also, from now on juries will be selected by the local sheriffs (not the people) and henceforth a town meeting can only be called into session by the Governor who will also set the agenda. Another provision of the legislation states that, if any royal official serving in the American colonies is sued for carrying out his official duties, the trial of that representative of the crown will be removed from the unfriendly colony to England (where he would get a more favourable hearing). There is also a provision in the Acts to establish a permanent government in Canada.
The Americans were suspicious and feared the less committed colonists might trade freedom from British taxation for the price of a low cost cup of tea. Tea became the central political issue of the day.
The American rich were very rich. Much of this affluence had been created during the seven years war between the major European powers that started in 1756, but though Britain fought France to protect the colonies, the colonies themselves gave the mother country little support until Westminster promised to reimburse them for their help. Before the British agreed to pay for supplies, the American had even sold arms to the enemy. It was only when the war ended that the English taxpayer learned that the cost of victory to Great Britain’s public debt amounted to £18 per man and that of the colonies 18 shillings per man. The average American was paying sixpence a year in taxes whilst the average Briton had a tax bill 50 times greater. In his decision to raise taxes from the American colonies, the British Government saw no reason to expect a united opposition. Each colony was jealous of its territory and authority and internecine squabbles were frequent between neighbouring colonies.