1770-1774: Increased tension between the British and the Colonies leads to violence, governmental action and revolutionary prose.
- March 5
- The Boston Massacre leads to the death of five colonists
- Boston had been living with British troops for close to two years before the sound of gunfire was heard. Ostensibly there at the request of Governor Bernard and Boston's customs commissioners to quell colonial lawlessness, the soldiers found they had very little to do. To the chagrin of the governor and commissioners, no danger materialized from which the soldiers might rescue them. Neither Governor Bernard nor his replacement, Thomas Hutchinson, could find justification for declaring martial law. With Boston still under their control, city magistrates invoked dusty ordinances and antiquated bylaws to harass the troops, and citizens flung taunts at them as they passed. A terrible hostility hung in the air between the soldiers and the colonists as members of each group walked down the streets, going about the business of living in dangerously close proximity.
The details of the afternoon on which the antagonism flared into real conflict are obscure. It was a freezing day in March when a noisy crowd of troublemakers gathered in front of the Boston Custom House, and began throwing snowballs and stones at the British sentry, who summoned help. A small contingent under Captain Thomas Preston responded, and for a few moments, the little band of redcoats stood together tightly on the steps, tensely facing the mob. In the building behind them, some of the commissioners responsible for bringing troops to America peered uneasily out of the windows.
What happened next is not quite clear. Some said that the mob began daring the soldiers to "Fire! Fire!" Others thought that the first part of Captain Preston's order to "Hold your fire!" got lost in the shouting. A British soldier, who later claimed he had heard the order to fire, shot into the crowd. The mob surged forward, and the panicked British began shooting at unarmed people. Five colonists were killed, and six more were wounded.
Those who were in the mob that day were not heroes, but mischief-makers. On the other hand, the British soldiers were professionals, and should not have panicked. Samuel Adams made the most of the tragic incident, using it as propaganda to hasten the war for independence. His cousin, however, was compelled by conscience to ensure that the eight British men received a fair trial. Braving a ferocious tide of public sentiment that blamed the redcoats for what was already being called "the Boston Massacre," John Adams-one of the ablest lawyers in the colonies-volunteered to defend the soldiers in court. Six were found not guilty and two others were convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder.
Governor Hutchinson acceeded to colonial demands that the troops be removed from the town, and for the next three years, only one regiment remained in Massachusetts, on an island in Boston Harbor. The Board of Commissioners continued unchecked
- April 12
- All provisions of the Townshend Act are repealed, except for the duty on tea.
- A committee of inquiry appointed by the town of Boston and headed by James Bowdoin (1726-1790), a merchant and politician in the community, prepared "A Military Combination: a Report of a Committee of the Town of Boston." This report attributed the Boston Massacre to tensions arising between the colonists and the British as a result of the various acts of Parliament taxing America unfairly. It also appealed to the British Bill of Rights, according to which it is against the law to raise and keep a standing army in a time of peace, and blamed the British Board of Commissioners, whose job was to oversee trade in the colonies, for quartering troops in America "in direct violation of an act of Parliament."
- June 9
- An angry colonial mob burns the British ship Gaspee, off the coast of Rhode Island.
- The Gaspee, a customs schooner, was stationed in Rhode Island for the purpose of enforcing the Navigation Acts and other imperial commercial regulations. She ran aground on June 9, a few miles south of Providence. Late that night, several boatloads of townsmen boarded her, wounding her commander in the process. The crew was conducted ashore, and the ship burned right down to the water's edge.
In a letter sent to the Earl of Hillsborough, Governor Joseph Wanton explained that the citizens of Rhode Island were incensed by British interference in colonial trade. Several small freight vessels conducting trade within the colony had been detained, on slight pretext, by British officers, affecting stores and prices for Rhode Island inhabitants.
One British soldier afterward testified that as many as 150 men participated in the burning of the Gaspee. Although a $500 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest of guilty parties, the commission appointed to investigate the affair could not find sufficient evidence for a single arrest, to the embarrassment of the British ministry.
- June 13
- Thomas Hutchinson, royal governor of Massachusetts, announces that he will henceforth be paid by the crown, instead of by the colonists; Massachusetts judges follow suit in September
- This declaration did not represent the first clash between Massachusetts' governor and her House of Representatives. In 1769, armed with a royal instruction, Hutchinson had transferred the meeting place of Massachusett's General Court to Cambridge, hoping to remove the court from the influence of the more radical patriots in Boston, the court's lawful place of meeting. In 1770, Hutchinson further angered colonists when, again acting with royal sanction, he replaced the garrison of colonial troops at Castle William with British soldiers, and relinquished the small fort, located on an island in Boston Harbor, to British control.
But it was his pronouncement in the summer of 1772 that aroused the greatest protest. Henceforth the imperial government, and not the colonists, would hold the means of accountability intrinsic to control of the salaries of Massachusetts governor and judges. To the colonists it was clear: it was the plan of the imperial government to remove both the executive and judiciary branches of the colony out from under the influence of the legislative branch (which contained the representatives of the people), and into the pocket of the crown.
- November 2
- The first Committee of Correspondence is formed in Boston, and produces Samuel Adams’ bold assertion of the “Rights of the Colonists,” and Dr. Joseph Warren’s “List of Infringements and Violations of Rights.”
- Colonial response to Governor Hutchinson's declaration was swift, and not surprisingly, it was led by patriot Samuel Adams. At a Boston town meeting on November 2, 1772, at Adam's suggestion, a standing Committee of Correspondence was appointed for the purpose of writing a declaration of colonial grievances and an assertion of their rights. Adams' "Rights of the Colonists" and Dr. Joseph Warren's "List of Infringements and Violations of Rights" were transmitted to other Massachusetts towns, and soon more Committees of Correspondence sprang up. With each new committee came new declarations, invariably denying the authority of Parliament over the colonies.
The system of committees would later spread throughout the colonies during the inquiry into the burning of the British schooner Gaspee, due to colonial concerns that the commission investigating the incident was empowered to remove suspects to Britain for trial.
The committees resembled the Sons of Liberty, first organized in 1765, which had arisen in response to the Stamp Act Crisis. But whereas the Sons of Liberty had been extralegal, the committees would operate under the sanction of town meetings. With the Committees of Correspondence, the organized political machinery for revolution was being assembled.
- January 6
- Massachusetts’ Governor Hutchinson argues the supremacy of Parliament before the General Court.
- Dismayed at the daring refutations of Parliament's authority springing up in his colony, Governor Hutchinson undertook a speech to the General Court, in which he argued that because sovereignty cannot be divided, Parliament's authority in the colonies could not be shared with the state legislatures. There were but two alternatives: either Parliament was supreme, or the colonies were independent entities.
Hutchinson's strategy backfired; his listeners favored the latter alternative. The House of Representatives issued a reply to his speech, prepared in part by John Adams, making the most explicit and comprehensive claim to exemption from parliamentary authority that had yet been seen. Now not only the Committees of Correspondence had taken a stand against Parliamentary control, but Hutchinson had provoked the colonial legislature into adopting the same public stance.
Massachusetts had led the way with breathtaking boldness. It would be months before another declaration of this kind would be elicited from any of the other colonies.
- May 10
- With the passage of the Tea Act, the East India Company is granted a virtual monopoly on the tea trade in the colonies.
- Parliament passed the Tea Act to enable the East India Company, which was in financial straits and on the verge of bankruptcy, to sell a portion of its huge surplus of tea in America at prices that undersold all other merchants. It was not intended to punish the colonies but to help the East India Company. This did not matter much to the colonists, who regarded the Tea Act as a clever way for Parliament to impose its will upon the merchants in the colonies. If Parliament could grant a monopoly to a particular company for the colonial market on tea, why could it not do the same with other commodities, to the detriment of colonial merchants?
- December 16
- A group of men dressed as Mohawk Indians and led by Samuel Adams dump 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, an incident known as the Boston Tea Party.
- On November 27, 1773, the Dartmouth, carrying a cargo of tea, sailed into Boston Harbor. Boston patriots refused to allow the ship to land and pay the duty imposed by the Tea Act. Governor Hutchinson was equally determined that the Dartmouth should not leave without paying the duty. For twenty days the ship simply floated in the harbor.
All over the colonies protests were raised regarding the Tea Act. One of the most significant was "The Association and Resolves," adopted by the New York Sons of Liberty on December 15, 1773. This document decried the Tea Act as a "diabolic project of enslaving America." Furthermore, it argued that Act was simply another attempt by Parliament to tax the colonists without their consent, and that if Parliament did indeed have the authority of taxation without representation, then no one's property was secure.
On December 16, the impasse in Boston Harbor was broken. According to law, the Dartmouth became subject to seizure for failure to pay duties, in which case the tea should have been unloaded and sold. In order to prevent this, Samuel Adams led some 200 men, dressed as Mohawk Indians, on board the Dartmouth and two other vessels. An estimated crowd of 8,000 people watched from the shore as the patriots deposited 342 chests of tea, representing about ﾣ9,000, onto the bottom of Boston Harbor.
Similar events occurred in other colonies during the next year. Sometimes the tea was destroyed; at other times, it was merely prevented from landing. In one case in Charleston, the tea was stored and later sold to raise funds for the Revolutionary government during the War for Independence. At any rate, following the example of the Boston Tea Party, the Tea Act was nullified in practice.
- March 31-June 2
- The British Parliament passes the five Coercive Acts in order to punish Massachusetts for the Tea Party and regain control of the colony.
- The failure of the commission investigating the Gaspee incident made clear the unlikelihood of finding and punishing the parties directly responsible for the Boston Tea Party. Parliament opted instead for blanket punitive measures against the entire colony.
The Boston Port Act closed the port of Boston beginning June 1, 1774, until the East India Company was reimbursed for the tea destroyed by the Tea Party. The Administration of Justice Act authorized the Massachusetts governor to send any official or soldier accused of a capital crime committed in the line of duty, and who could not expect a fair trial in Massachusetts, to Britain or to another colony. The Massachusetts Government Act changed the Charter of Massachusetts to require that the Council be appointed by the King rather than elected by the House of Representatives. It also decreed that town meetings could not be held without the prior written approval of the governor. The Quebec Act extended Canada's southern border to the land west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River. An enlarged version of the Quartering Act provided that even homes occupied by colonists were subject to that law.
In addition, Governor Hutchinson was replaced with General Gage, commander in chief of all British forces in North America.
With these measures, the British ministry hoped to bring a swift halt to Massachusetts' resistance to British authority and, by isolating and making an example of one colony, to halt the general subversive spirit elsewhere. In fact, however, the Coercive Acts had quite the opposite effect. Many Americans believed that the Acts were far too harsh a punishment for the Boston Tea Party, and concluded that they could be understood only as a part of a plan to enslave all the colonies.
- Several important publications appear in print, advancing the colonists’ argument against Parliamentary authority; these include Wilson’s
- The great issue of contention between the two sides was the nature and extent of Parliament's authority over the colonies, and during August of 1774, a flurry of arguments concerning Parliamentary jurisdiction appeared in print.
On the 17th, James Wilson's "Considerations on the Authority of Parliament" appeared, though it was written much earlier, in 1768. Wilson was an attorney of Scottish and Irish descent who had migrated to the colonies only recently, in 1765. In his pamphlet, he systematically argued that the colonists were not bound by any act of Parliament, not merely those concerning taxation. He stated that the authority of all legislation depended upon representation. Because the colonists were not represented in Parliament, that body had no authority over them. Wilson's conclusion was that the colonists owed their allegiance only to the King.
Thomas Jefferson made a similar argument in a pamphlet entitled "A Summary View of the Rights of British America." He too believed that the various acts of Parliament passed over the previous years showed a "deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery." Although Jefferson agreed with Wilson's argument that the colonies were united only by their common allegiance to King George, he went farther than Wilson in boldly stating that the King himself was guilty of "wanton" exercise of power. Jefferson composed a long list of charges against the King, which would later form the basis for the list of "abuses and usurpations" contained in the Declaration of Independence. He further argued that kings are not the "proprietors" of the people, but rather, the servants of the people. Should King George not cease from his oppressive treatment of the colonists, Jefferson warned, they would have no choice but to separate themselves from British rule.
As early as January of 1774, John Adams' Novanglus letters had been foreshadowing the arguments of James Wilsonand Thomas Jefferson in saying that the colonies were under the control of the King, and not of parliament.
Ebenezer Baldwin, who had been a student and then a tutor at Yale College, and pastor of the First Congregational Church in Danbury, Connecticut, delivered a sermon entitled "A Settled and Fix'd Plan for Enslaving the Colonies," on August 31, 1774. In it, he went beyond the concern over taxation without representation, and claimed to have discerned in the policies and acts of the British government its intention of bringing the colonies "under an arbitrary government." The British, he argued, would accomplish this with the consent of the colonies by giving "places or pensions" to "the children or friends, or dependents of the members of parliament," thereby advancing Britain's interest in maintaining and strengthening British rule over the colonies.
- September 5
- All the colonies except Georgia meet in the First Continental Congress
- Instead of isolating Massachusetts, the Coercive Acts served to unite all of the colonies. When the Massachusetts' House of Representatives called for a meeting in Philadelphia in September, 1774, only one colony did not respond. Delegates to the Congress included some of the most radical thinkers of the day, patriots who eagerly fed upon the ideas of James Wilson and Thomas Jefferson. These men included Samuel Adams from Massachusetts, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee from Virginia, and Christopher Gadsden from South Carolina.
Not all Americans, however, favored a radical approach. There were many who believed that Parliament had justly punished Massachusetts for the Tea Party. Some-those who feared armed conflict with Britain-urged compliance with the laws and edicts of the British government. Others sought a compromise that would pacify relations between the Americans and British. One such man was Joseph Galloway (1731-1803), a Philadelphia attorney who urged the search for a compromise that would prevent the permanent separation of the colonies from Great Britain in a long letter, dated August 10, 1774, to a friend and member of Parliament, Richard Jackson. Galloway embodied his ideas in a "Plan of Union," which he presented to the First Continental Congress. His plan proposed that the colonies should retain control over their internal affairs; but that a branch of the British legislature should be established in America to control those affairs that affected America generally. It was narrowly rejected by a vote of 6-5.
- September 11
- King George III commits Britain to a policy of intractable opposition to colonial claims.
- The King wrote to his prime minister Lord North that "The dye is now cast. . . . the colonies must either submit or triumph." Both houses of Parliament overwhelmingly supported the king's determination to maintain "the supreme authority of this legislature [parliament] over all the dominions of my crown."
- September 17
- The Continental Congress passes the Suffolk Resolves.
- Having rejected Joseph Galloway's "Plan of Union," Congress chose instead to endorse the Suffolk Resolves, which had their origins in a Suffolk County, Massachusetts convention. These resolves declared the Coercive Acts unconstitutional and favored economic sanctions against Great Britain. They also urged the citizens of Massachusetts to form a new government to administer the colony for as long as the Coercive Acts remained in effect, and exhorted the colonists to arm themselves and chose officers for a colonial militia. Although entirely different in spirit than Galloway's proposal, the Suffolk Resolves were nevertheless not radical enough for some delegates, and represented a moderate course of action.
- October 14-20
- The Continental Congress approves the Declaration and Resolves
- The Continental Congress' Declaration and Resolves proclaimed that the colonists were possessed of rights founded upon "the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts." The Declaration further stated that the colonies could not be represented in the British Parliament and were entitled to "the exclusive power of legislation" for themselves, but would "cheerfully consent" to Parliamentary regulation of trade "from the necessity of the case."
The Declaration and Resolves, like the Suffolk Resolves, were adopted only after lengthy and heated debate. Samuel Adams recalled the debates, years later, in his Autobiography: ". . . The two points which we labored most were: 1. Whether we should recur to the law of nature, as well as to the British constitution, and our American charters and grants. Mr. Galloway and Mr. Duane were for excluding the law of nature. I was very strenuous for retaining and insisting on it, as a resource to which we might be driven by Parliament much sooner than we were aware. 2. The other great question was, what authority we should concede to Parliament. . . . "
- October 20
- The Continental Congress advocates a boycott of British goods.
- The Continental Congress formed an association, "under the sacred ties of virtue, honour, and love of our country," to implement a "non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement" among the colonies. Under the terms of this association, each county or town would have a Committee of Safety "to the end, that all . . . foes to the rights of British America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty."
- October 26
- The Continental Congress adjourns.
- Upon its adjournment, the First Continental Congress agreed that another Congress would meet in Philadelphia in May 1775, should the colonists' grievances not be redressed. John Dickinson stated that now "Great Britain must relax, or inevitably involve herself in a civil war."