Stamp Act Crisis
After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the British government began a concerted effort to gain more control over the colonies and to collect additional revenues to reduce the debt incurred during the war. The Stamp Act, passed by Parliament and signed by the king in March 1765, was one such measure. It created an excise tax on newspapers, customs documents, licenses, college diplomas, and most legal documents. Violators were to be tried in vice-admiralty courts without benefit of a jury.
Residents of Britain, where tax rates were much higher than in the colonies, strongly applauded the passage of the Stamp Act. They often paid such taxes themselves, and the Prime Minister projected that the yearly revenues from the tax would offset 12 to 20 percent of the North American military expenses. The colonists, the British believed, were represented in Parliament (albeit indirectly), and therefore such an act was perfectly within the rights of the British government.
The colonists, however, uniformly resented the Stamp Act and its assumption that Parliament could tax them without their direct representation in Parliament. The colonists taxed themselves through their own local assemblies, and they resisted the limitation on their self-rule.
Violent reactions to the Stamp Act began to occur throughout the colonies. A mob in Boston hanged the stamp distributor in effigy, then beheaded the effigy and “stamped” it to pieces before shattering the windows of the stamp distributor’s home, destroying his furniture, and tearing out the paneling. The stamp distributor in Newport, Rhode Island, also lost his home, and one in Maryland was so upset upon seeing his store pulled down that he rode off in panic.
In October 1765, representatives of nine colonies met in New York City as the Stamp Act Congress. There, the colonists agreed on the general principle that Parliament lacked the authority to levy taxes on the colonies and to deny individuals a jury trial.
The colonists’ resistance to the Stamp Act was successful, and the measure became increasingly unenforceable. In March 1766, Parliament revoked the Stamp Act, although not before it had reasserted that Parliament had complete legislative authority over the colonies. The colonists were grateful for the repeal of the Stamp Act and were eager to mend their relations with the mother country. At this point, a complete break from England remained unimaginable, but a precedent for colonial defiance and mutual distrust had been created.
The Path Toward Independence, 1765-1775
Despite the repeal of the Stamp Act, underlying philosophical differences remained. The British wanted colonists to pay for the cost of royal government in the colonies, whereas the colonists resisted imperial taxation and limits on self-government. This clash led to an atmosphere of mistrust. After a series of incidents emphasized these differences, a break from England had become a distinct possibility (although still not a certainty) by 1775.
The Townshend Duties of 1767 taxed imports and led to colonial nonimportation agreements (boycotts of British goods). These nonimportation agreements injured the British economy and caused the repeal of the duties in 1770. Customs racketeering, in which greedy customs officials seized ships and their cargoes whether or not evidence of smuggling existed, led to widespread violence and to the British occupation of Boston in 1768. The British occupation itself led indirectly to the Boston Massacre of 1770, when an angry mob incited a soldier to fire into the crowd. The ensuing mayhem caused five deaths. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the punitive British response solidified colonial fears that the Crown was attempting to limit traditional English liberties throughout North America. In response to these events, the first Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in 1774. The delegates summarized their principles and demands in the Declaration of Rights, which conceded to Parliament the power to regulate colonial commerce but argued that parliamentary efforts to impose taxes, enforce laws through admiralty courts, suspend assemblies, and unilaterally revoke charters were unconstitutional.
By mid-1775, the colonies as a whole were torn by divided loyalties. Most colonists had hoped that their resistance would either convince the king to dismiss the ministers responsible for the repressive legislation or would jolt Parliament into renouncing its authority over colonial matters except trade regulation. As it became clear that neither course would be followed, some loyalist colonists accused patriots of creating a rift and inflaming existing problems. Revolutionary patriots often browbeat clergymen who preached pro-British sermons, pressured their countrymen to boycott British goods, and coerced merchants to burn British imports.
By July of 1775, the first battles between British and Americans had already taken place at Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. In Williamsburg, Governor Dunmore’s order for the removal of guns and powder stored at the Magazine alarmed city residents and nearly led to a violent clash between the Virginians and the British. Dunmore soon fled to a British ship in the York River. Determined to regain control of the colony, the governor, in November 1775, offered freedom to the slaves who ran away from rebel masters and joined the British army.
Despite this ominous turn of events, not all parties saw revolution as inevitable. For example, a majority of the Second Continental Congress, which began meeting in May of 1775, still opposed independence. Even Samuel Adams, among the most radical of the colonists, described himself as “fond of reconciliation.”
King George III did not proclaim that New England was in a state of rebellion until August 23, 1775. The rest of the colonies were declared to be in rebellion in December of that year. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which influenced many a fence-sitter, was published in 1776. Virginia declared independence on May 15, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence followed a few weeks later. Only a year earlier, in July 1775, the course of events was not yet clear. Although hindsight may give us some indication of the choices individuals should make, if we place ourselves in the shoes of the British colonials, we will experience the problems as they did—with no clear-cut answers.