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How did the American Revolution begin?

Professor Benjamin Carp reveals how growing discontent over British taxes led embittered American colonists to rebel against the Crown and embark on a fight for independence

An oil painting by Benjamin West shows some of the main belligerents of the Seven Years’ War, a conflict that lay the foundations for future discord between Native Americans and the British and French empires
Published: July 4, 2022 at 8:24 am
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When Great Britain emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War in 1763, most of its American colonists celebrated the event as ardent British patriots. They were proud to belong to the Protestant commercial empire and they honoured their king and queen. But the end of the war with France also exposed problems in North America that proved difficult to resolve. Amid a postwar economic depression, the continent’s settlers, enslaved labourers and indigenous peoples faced an uncertain new world.

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For decades, many indigenous Americans had been able to play British and French interests against one another, but the departure of the French had changed the equation. The British empire no longer depended as heavily on its Native allies and the ministry hoped to reduce its expenses. After General Jeffrey Amherst scaled down the gifts that were a crucial ingredient of frontier diplomacy, a confederation of northern Native peoples attacked several British forts, from Fort Michilimackinac on the Great Lakes to Fort Pitt on the Ohio River. Amherst retaliated with biological warfare, distributing smallpox blankets among Native Americans around Fort Pitt.
The American colonists, meanwhile, eagerly schemed to seize the land beyond the Appalachian Mountains for themselves. The ministry knew that further settlement would continue to provoke warfare with indigenous people, and the country could afford neither the blood nor treasure that such conflicts would entail. The king issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prevented the colonists from claiming western lands. This arrangement left squatters to themselves and frustrated the speculative land schemes of men like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

The colonists’ frustrated ambitions contributed to their sense of grievance. Great Britain had also incurred massive debts from its war for empire, and the Treasury shouldered further expenses by stationing troops in the North American interior. Rather than place the entire tax burden on subjects in Britain, parliament hoped to derive some revenue from its colonies, particularly in South Asia and North America. They passed a series of laws for the American colonies, including the Sugar Act of 1764, to discourage the act of smuggling molasses from foreign Caribbean islands; the Stamp Act of 1765, which raised the costs of newspapers, playing cards and legal documents; and the Revenue Act of 1767, which taxed imports of items such as glass, lead, paper, paint and tea.

A depiction of a fierce clash between colonists and British troops in Boston on 5 March 1770
A fierce clash between colonists and British troops in Boston on 5 March 1770 resulted in the deaths of five people, including black protester Crispus Attucks. (Image by Getty Images)

The colonists raised a constitutional objection to being taxed without their consent, and they responded with petitions, printed screeds, street protests and boycotts of overseas goods. Leaders such as Samuel Adams, John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson emerged to articulate colonial grievances. Men gathered in taverns and called themselves ‘Sons of Liberty,’ while women participated by joining in efforts to limit consumption of overseas goods.

Colonists wanted to be able to trade freely, which would enable them to pay low prices for imports and fetch high prices for their produce. They wanted the British to respect them as fellow subjects, but instead found that many people in the mother country disdained them for their provinciality, their dissenting religious views, their military performance and their historic association with slavery, transported convicts and ethnic pluralism.

Transatlantic alliances

Black people in the Atlantic world heard these cries for liberty. Some joined local protests against parliament, such as Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Wampanoag (indigenous) descent, who was slain along with four other men in a fracas between Bostonians and British soldiers on 5 March 1770. Some, like Felix Holbrook, began to point out the discrepancy between the American ‘spirit of freedom’ and the oppressions of slavery.

Black activists forged alliances with small numbers of Quakers and evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. James Somerset, who had been enslaved in Virginia and Massachusetts and brought to England, sued for his freedom and won in 1772; the Lord Chief Justice ruled that slavery had no legal foundation in England. Phillis Wheatley, brought to Boston as a girl, published poems that raised consciousness about the injustice of slavery.

A party like no other

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 and most of the Revenue Act duties in 1770, but it kept the tax on tea in place, and it insisted on its right to make laws for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”. In 1773, the ministry followed up with the Tea Act, allowing the East India Company to sell directly to the colonies. The colonists worried that parliament was trying to entice them into paying taxes without their consent, for the benefit of a favoured charter company. On 16 December, a group of Bostonians protested by dressing as Native Americans and dumping 46 tonnes of the company’s tea in the harbour.

On 16 December, a group of Bostonians protested by dumping 46 tonnes of tea in the harbour

By this time, parliament was so angry with protest actions in Boston that they passed a series of laws known as the Coercive Acts in 1774. They closed the port of Boston until it repaid the East India Company for its losses. They restricted Massachusetts town meetings and deprived the assembly of its voice in choosing provincial councillors. They protected British officials who were accused of capital crimes.

Meanwhile, the Quebec Act granted religious freedoms and western jurisdiction to Quebec, which struck the land-hungry Protestant colonists as a betrayal. Over the summer, local committees in 12 mainland colonies resolved to send delegates to a Continental Congress in September.

The resistance movement was particularly popular among the Congregationalists of New England, southern Anglicans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians in the backcountry. Dissenters and low church Anglicans both feared the appointment of a bishop in America and called for civil and religious liberty.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 sparked an angry reaction from the British government, which passed a series of restrictive laws known to colonists as the ‘Coercive Acts’. (Image by Getty Images)

Other Americans distinguished themselves as ‘friends of government’ throughout the years of political resistance and would support the Crown during the war. Many colonists didn’t trust the leading patriots for political, economic or religious reasons, or they predicted that violence would be ruinous. Many had benefited from their economic connections to the British empire and believed in the superiority of English liberty. British officials and many Church of England ministers were, of course, vocal loyalists. A number of minority groups were cool to the revolution, such as Highland Scots, French Canadians and non-evangelical Dutch and German Protestants who owed their privileges to the Crown. Pacifist sects such as the Quakers and Moravians also argued against violent rebellion.

“Submit or triumph”

Many enslaved black people took advantage of political unrest and fled from their American owners. Although some black men, particularly in New England, would eventually enlist with the Continental Army as a path toward emancipation, many more, particularly in the South, would join the British Army in exchange for freedom (so long as they fled from masters who were rebelling against the Crown). Most Native American groups feared the land hunger of the white settlers: some, such as the Stockbridge or Catawba, made alliances with the colonists, but many more confederacies, such as the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami and Wyandot, aligned themselves
with the British.

To calm the rebellion in New England, the ministry sent General Thomas Gage to serve as governor of Massachusetts in 1774, along with 3,000 soldiers. (Boston
only had a population of about 16,000 people at the time.)

General Thomas Gage
General Thomas Gage was tasked with calming the rebellion in New England, but his efforts to seize patriot weapons ended up sparking the battles of Lexington and Concord. (Image by Getty Images)

As early as 11 September, George III wrote, “the dye is now cast, the Colonies must either submit or triumph”. Parliament prohibited arms shipments to America
on 19 October. Finally, the king declared New England in a “state of rebellion” on 18 November, concluding “blows must decide” whether the colonists would choose obedience or independence.

From his headquarters in Boston, Gage quickly realised he had to keep gunpowder out of the hands of the New Englanders. His preventative measures almost touched off a revolt on 1 September, with thousands gathering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, believing that the rebellion had begun, until cooler heads prevailed. On 26 February 1775, the people of Salem, Massachusetts, forced the 64th Regiment to retreat empty-handed.

Gage’s spies told him that the rebels were storing weapons in Concord, where an illegal provincial congress had previously met.

After receiving orders from the ministry to confiscate the rebels’ weapons and arrest their leaders, Gage sent 700 grenadiers and light infantry under Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith to Concord on 18 April.

The British expedition encountered resistance at Lexington in the early morning hours of 19 April. No one knows who fired the first shot, but the gunfire left eight colonists dead and wounded other men on both sides. After the British detachment pressed onward to Concord, another battle at North Bridge led to three British soldiers killed and two colonists.

New Englanders rose up en masse. Militiamen fired on the British column during the retreat to Boston. In the coming weeks, both sides blamed one another for committing acts of butchery, and 20,000 New Englanders surrounded the British garrison at Boston. The war had begun. Within months, Washington would take his place at the head of a Continental Army in rebellion. A year later, 13 colonies formally declared their independence from the Crown.

Benjamin Carp is associate professor and Daniel M Lyons chair of history at Brooklyn College, and an expert on the American Revolutionary War. His books include Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (Yale University Press, 2010)

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This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

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