Why America Is Free: The Shaping of the Revolution

THE SHAPING OF THE REVOLUTION 

Chapter 5  Protest

Many colonists believed that the return of peace would bring opportunity and prosperity. They no longer had to fear the French to the north or the Spanish to the south, nor did they have to worry about France or Spain arming the Indians and encouraging them to attack settlements on the frontier. The British Empire had triumphed over its enemies. The Royal Navy dominated the sea lanes of the Atlantic world. The empire had extended its hold on India and was expanding trade with Southeast Asia and China. Britain was rich and growing richer, and the colonists expected to share in Britain’s success.

The reality proved very different. The sprawling, global conflict had been the most expensive war in European history. Before the war, the British government had operated on an annual budget of about 8 million pounds. At the end of the war, Britain was 137 million pounds in debt. The interest alone was 5 million pounds a year. To pay down the debt, Parliament imposed new taxes on the British people, but a post-war downturn in the economy made it hard to raise revenue. A new tax on cider, one of Britain’s favorite drinks, led to protests and rioting.

British officials decided to impose taxes on their American colonists. The British had never collected much tax revenue in America, but they reasoned that the colonists benefitted from the victory as much as an of the king’s subjects and ought to pay their share of the costs. Those costs would include troops stationed in America and an aggressive system for collecting taxes, enforcing tax laws, and controlling the territory taken from France and Spain.

This new imperial system of taxation and regulation frustrated and angered many Americans, who were used to managing their own affairs. They, or their parents or grandparents, had come to America to secure a degree of personal independence denied to them in Europe. For generations the colonists had governed themselves with little interference from the British government. They believed that the new laws and policies introduced by the British government violated their rights. They evaded the new laws, protested their enforcement, and demanded their repeal. British officials gave way on some measures, only to follow up with new taxes, new regulations, and military force to compel the colonists to accept their authority.

 

The Proclamation Line of 1763

The Peace of Paris more than tripled the size of the British Empire in North America. Britain acquired East and West Florida from Spain. France gave up Newfoundland, Canada, and any claims it had to land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. From the perspective of many American colonists, the war had been fought to secure the land beyond the mountains for settlement, and they looked forward to occupying it as soon as possible.

They were outraged when the British government made a sweeping decision to forbid settlement beyond the mountains. Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the British commander in chief in North America, estimated that the British army would have to station ten thousand men in North America to maintain order among the French colonists and the Indians and to deal with illegal settlers, bandits, and smugglers. This was more than twice as many soldiers as the British had ever stationed in North America in peacetime. The cost of maintaining this army would be enormous, and Amherst knew that the cost would increase dramatically if pressure from settlers provoked a war with the Indians who lived west of the mountains and around the Great Lakes.

Amherst managed to provoke the Indians on his own by denying them arms and ammunition and by ending the practice of presenting Indian chiefs with gifts of guns, blankets, and clothing. In May 1763, Indians led by an Ottawa chief named Pontiac attacked Fort Detroit, an important post in the Great Lakes region. The conflict quickly escalated into a general Indian war on the frontier from Niagara through western New York and Pennsylvania, west to the region between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, and south to the Virginia frontier. What became known as Pontiac’s War cost the British about four hundred soldiers killed in action. Another fifty or so were captured and tortured to death. As many as two thousand colonists were killed or taken prisoner by Indians, and twice as many were forced to abandon their homes, mostly on the Pennsylvania frontier. The number of Indian casualties is not known. The conflict burned itself out by the fall of 1764, leaving a legacy of mutual distrust and hatred that persisted for more than thirty years.

In the fall of 1763, while this conflict was at its height, George III issued a proclamation forbidding settlement beyond the Appalachians. The proclamation had been in the works before Pontiac’s War began, but frustrated colonists quickly concluded that it was intended to pacify the Indians at the expense of American colonists who wanted to claim western land and occupy it. George Washington called the proclamation “a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.” His response was among the most moderate. Many colonists regarded the proclamation as a deep betrayal of their interests by the king and his ministers. It was the first serious blow to the reputation of the young George III among his American subjects.

 

 Regulating the Empire

The proclamation forbidding settlement west of the Appalachians was just one in a series of steps the British government took to bring order to the confused and disorganized British Empire in America. The British had always imposed regulations on colonial trade, but for many years these regulations had been lightly enforced and easily evaded.

The British ministry had signaled its intention to enforce regulations on colonial trade more vigorously during the latter part of the French and Indian War, employing writs of assistance to stop smuggling. Writs of assistance were general search warrants. They allowed customs officials to search anywhere for smuggled goods without securing warrants for any specific premises and without evidence suggesting that a crime had been committed—what is now commonly referred to as probable cause. Writs of assistance had been used in Britain and in British America for generations but resentment grew as their use increased.

The writs were issued to individuals and could be used for many years, but they were subject to a limitation: they expired six months after the death of the monarch in whose name they had been issued. King George II died on October 25, 1760, and news reached America the end of December. All writs of assistance would expire on April 25, 1761. When the customs collector in Boston, Charles Paxton, applied for a new writ of assistance, Boston merchants brought suit before the Massachusetts Superior Court, contending that writs of assistance were contrary to the unwritten British constitution and violated the rights of the king’s subjects.

The case against the writs was presented by James Otis, Jr., a brilliant young lawyer who refused to accept payment for his services. John Adams, who was in the courtroom, recalled how skillfully Otis argued the case:

Otis was a flame of fire! With a promptitude of Classical Allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events & dates, a profusion of Legal Authorities, a prophetic glance of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous Eloquence he hurried away all before him. . . . Every Man of an immense crouded Audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take Arms against Writs of Assistants. Then and there was the first scene of the first Act of opposition to the Arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the Child Independence was born. In fifteen years i.e. in 1776. he grew up to Manhood, & declared himself free.

Otis won the crowd, but the court decided in Paxton’s favor. Warrantless searches continued, fueling frustration with the administration of justice and distrust of the British government.

The increased use of writs of assistance was only one part of an aggressive program of regulation. At the end of the war, the British appointed new customs collectors with broader powers, granted the Royal Navy the power to stop and inspect merchant ships, and increased the authority of courts to enforce customs laws. Even law-abiding merchants found themselves required to complete new paperwork and obey new regulations simply to sail from one North American port to another. Merchants resented these regulations but the penalties for ignoring them were high.

The purpose of the old customs laws—the ones American merchants had frequently evaded—was to regulate trade. The most important of these laws was the Molasses Act of 1733. Molasses is a byproduct of sugar manufacturing. Most of it was used to make rum, which New Englanders made in enormous quantities. The Molasses Act imposed a tax of six pence per pound on sugar and molasses brought into British America from foreign sources. The British government wanted the North American colonists to buy these products in Jamaica, Barbados, or one of Britain’s other sugar-producing colonies, and not from French, Spanish, or Dutch colonies where they were usually cheaper.

Under the Molasses Act, the cost of foreign sugar and molasses, with the tax included, was greater than the cost of British products. The British assumed New England merchants would respond to the law by buying British sugar and molasses. In fact, merchants simply bought these products at the lowest price they could find. If they bought them in a foreign colony, they avoided paying the tax by smuggling. They landed the goods at night or avoided the port towns and landed their sugar and molasses at some hidden spot on the coast or along a river. New England merchants learned to be expert smugglers. The tax collectors never had enough men to catch them, and the merchants sometimes secretly paid them not to try.

Parliament changed the rules of this game by passing the Revenue Act of 1764, commonly called the Sugar Act. As its formal name suggests, the purpose of the Revenue Act was to raise revenue for the British government. It did so by imposing new taxes on foreign cloth, indigo, coffee, and wine, but the most important part of the law lowered the tax on foreign sugar and molasses to three pence per pound. For the first time, merchants could buy foreign sugar and molasses, pay the tax, and still pay less in total than they would have paid for molasses from the British islands.

The greatest profits were still made from smuggling foreign sugar and molasses, but the increased efforts of customs collectors and Royal Navy ships working to catch smugglers made smuggling a big risk. Some merchants paid the tax and made less profit when they sold their molasses to rum distillers. Other merchants took the risk to keep smuggling. Either way, they were angry about British interference in their business.

 

Taxation without Representation

Many colonists did not see a reason to complain about a law that lowered taxes on sugar and molasses, but a group of colonial leaders argued that Parliament had no right to impose taxes of any sort on the American colonies. Samuel Adams, a popular leader of the Boston town meeting and member of the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature, became a spokesman for this group. “If our trade may be taxed,” Adams wrote,

why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands and everything we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves. It strikes at our British privileges, which as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our fellow subjects who are natives of Britain. If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?

James Otis made the argument more directly in a pamphlet titled Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. “The very act of taxing,” he wrote, “exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights, as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disfranchisement of every civil right.”

This argument was reduced to a simple slogan: “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” No one who lived in Britain’s North American colonies had a seat in Parliament or the right to vote for a member of Parliament. Parliament was elected by the people of Britain and therefore had the right to tax the people of Britain. The colonists did not get to elect members of Parliament so they were not represented in Parliament. The right to tax the colonists, they argued, belonged to their own colonial assemblies, which were elected by the colonists themselves.

Parliament ignored this argument and charged ahead with its new effort to raise money in America and impose order on the unruly colonists. In 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which imposed taxes on documents, including licenses, court papers, and documents involved in buying and selling land. The stamp tax was also applied to newspapers, diplomas, pamphlets, and even playing cards. The taxes imposed by the Sugar Act were to be paid by merchants importing sugar and molasses, but the taxes imposed by the Stamp Act were to be paid by nearly everyone. The British had been paying stamp taxes for almost one hundred years. British officials thought the Americans would pay stamp taxes without much complaint.

American colonists protested immediately. Some thought the taxes were too high. Many more agreed with Samuel Adams, and worried that if they paid the stamp taxes, British officials would add more and more taxes, gradually forcing everyone in the American colonies into poverty. What could stop them?

Samuel Adams’ cousin, John Adams, called the Stamp Act an “enormous Engine, fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America.” Opposition to the Stamp Act spread through the colonies and unified them in a common cause. In Virginia, a young lawyer with a gift for public speaking named Patrick Henry led the resistance. In a speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses, he warned King George of the fate that had befallen monarchs who trampled on the rights of their subjects. “Caesar had his Brutus,” he said, and “Charles I his Cromwell.” Henry was interrupted by cries of “Treason!” but he continued, “and George III may profit from their example.” Henry introduced a series of resolutions, known as the Virginia Resolves, protesting the Stamp Act. The “Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them,” the resolves asserted, “is the only Security against a burdensome Taxation.”

Many protests were peaceful, but others involved violence or threats of violence. In Boston a crowd tore down the office of the man appointed to sell the hated stamps, then marched to his house with a dummy representing the tax collector. They beheaded and burned the dummy and destroyed his house. Secret groups calling themselves “Sons of Liberty” staged violent demonstrations. In New Hampshire, an angry crowd led by Sons of Liberty demanded that George Meserve resign as the stamp tax collector and then made him burn his commission in front of everyone. Meserve later wrote: “I did not know whether I should have escaped from this mob with my life, as some were for cutting off my head, others for cutting off my ears and sending them home with my commission.”

In October 1765, representatives from nine colonies met in New York. This Stamp Act Congress adopted what they called a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” protesting the Stamp Act and insisting that Parliament did not have the authority to tax the colonies—that only the legislatures in each of the colonies could impose taxes on their people.

Colonial resistance to the Stamp Act went beyond formal protests, demonstrations, and mob actions. Merchants in many of the port towns agreed not to buy British products until the Stamp Act was repealed. This was called a non-importation agreement. British merchants complained to Parliament that non-importation hurt business and asked Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act.

Faced with protests in America and pressure at home, Parliament voted in early 1766 to repeal the Stamp Act. The British prime minister, George Grenville, was not pleased. In a speech in Parliament, he said:

Protection and obedience are reciprocal. Great Britain protects America; America is bound to yield obedience. If, not, tell me when the Americans were emancipated? When they want the protection of this kingdom, they are always ready to ask for it. That protection has always been afforded them in the most full and ample manner. The nation has run itself into an immense debt to give them their protection; and now they are called upon to contribute a small share towards the public expense, and expense arising from themselves, they renounce your authority, insult your officers, and break out, I might also say, into open rebellion.

 

The Empire Divided

At the same time it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, insisting that it had the right to make laws for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” If Parliament had been wiser, it would have abandoned its efforts to tax the colonies with this symbolic statement. The colonists might then have relaxed and never followed the path from protest and resistant to rebellion and revolution. But British officials did not see this.

Parliament, they reasoned, was the supreme legislature of the whole British Empire and had the right to impose taxes on British subjects wherever they might live. It was nonsense to expect that members of Parliament should be elected in every colony in the empire and travel thousands of miles to London for meetings. And it wasn’t necessary. Each member of Parliament, they reasoned, represented everyone in the empire, not just the people who voted for him.

We cannot know whether the British ministers who made this argument believed that members of Parliament who had never seen America, including some who could not find the colonies on a map, were qualified to pass fair laws for millions of people thousands of miles away. We know only that they insisted in the Declaratory Act that they had the power to do it. Their reasoning supported an arrogant, overbearing determination to impose their will on the colonists. They regarded the colonists as a subordinate and even inferior people who owed allegiance to the British government but who had few rights that Parliament was obliged to respect. They charged ahead and pushed the colonists from resistance toward rebellion.

In 1767 Parliament adopted a series of new laws known collectively as the Townshend Acts, named for Charles Townshend, the British minister who proposed them. The acts included laws to tighten colonial regulation, taking power out of the hands of local officials and putting it in the hands of judges and bureaucrats appointed by the British government. Among these acts was one giving customs collectors the power to use writs of assistance to search anywhere for smuggled goods, including private storehouses and homes.

The Townshend Acts also included a new revenue law imposing taxes on imported paint, paper, lead, tea, and glass. Unlike the stamp tax, which was to have been paid by ordinary people in the course of everyday business, the Townshend duties were to be paid by the merchants bringing the goods into the colonies. Townshend and his supporters in Parliament referred to the duties as an external tax—a fee to take goods into the colonies—as if the tax would be collected outside the colonies, which was simply not the case. Townshend believed that these taxes would be invisible to the ordinary colonist. He reasoned that even if merchants raised their prices to account for the tax, the buyers would not recognize that fact.

He was wrong. The tax burden imposed by the Townshend duties was very small, but the principle at stake, in light of Parliament’s claim to the power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever,” was enormous. A new cycle of protests, riots, and petitions began when the Townshend Acts were announced. In the Virginia House of Burgesses, George Washington introduced a resolution, written by his neighbor George Mason, protesting that the “late unconstitutional Act, imposing Duties on Tea, Paper, Glass, &c. for the sole Purpose of raising a Revenue in America, is injurious to Property, and destructive to Liberty.” Thousands signed non-importation agreements pledging not to buy British goods until the taxes were repealed.

The colonists reasoned that if they allowed Parliament to tax them without their consent, then Parliament could deprive them of all of their property and all of their political rights as well. This seemed so clear to the Americans that many of them concluded that British officials were carrying out a secret plan—a conspiracy—to deprive American colonists of their rights. This made them suspicious of every act of Parliament. The colonists worried that if they accepted even a small tax, Parliament would follow it with larger and larger taxes and drive them into poverty.

Parliament had brought on a crisis that would end in revolution. The issue at stake was not the cost of the taxes Americans refused to pay. The issue was the role of the colonists in their own government. Parliament had announced, in the Declaratory Act, that the colonists had no right to a voice in making the laws imposed on them. This power rested solely with Parliament. By passing the Townshend Acts, Parliament had announced that it intended to use that power to govern the empire.

 

“Be United with One Spirit, in One Cause”

The most thoughtful American response came from a Pennsylvania lawyer named John Dickinson, in a series of essays titled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, published first in Philadelphia newspapers and then reprinted in pamphlets all over the colonies. Dickinson agreed that Parliament had the authority to regulate trade in the empire “for the common good of all.” But this authority did not extend to taxing the colonists, because the power to tax, unchecked by representation in Parliament, was the power to destroy. The power to make such laws, Dickinson argued, must rest on the consent of the people, expressed through representatives of their choosing.

Dickinson warned against ignoring the threat posed by the Townshend duties. “Some persons may think this act of no consequence,” he wrote, “because the duties are so small.” Dickinson called this “a fatal error,” explaining that “the authors of this law would never have obtained an act to raise so trifling a sum as it must do, had they not intended by it to establish a precedent for future use. To console ourselves with the smallness of the duties, is to walk deliberately into the snare that is set for us.”

It was the principle that mattered, Dickinson explained, not the size of the tax. Without naming Townshend or the other British ministers, Dickinson predicted that future generations would “execrate, with the bitterest curses, the infamous memory of those men, whose pestilential ambition unnecessarily, wantonly, cruelly, first opened the forces of civil discord” between Great Britain and her colonies.

Dickinson urged Americans to “be united with one spirit, in one cause,” in asserting their rights. But he discouraged violent protests, which he called “hot, rash, disorderly proceedings.” Armed resistance should be the last resort, after every peaceful means of settling the dispute had been tried, and only when it was clear that the British were intent on destroying American liberties. A war to separate the colonies from Britain, he warned, would be a catastrophe. He hoped that it would never happen, warning that “the calamities attending on war outweigh those preceding it.”

The British soon made their intentions clear. In June 1768 customs agents in Boston seized a merchant ship called Liberty that belonged to John Hancock, one of city’s wealthiest merchants. They charged that the ship was used for smuggling. Hancock was a popular man who supported the resistance to British taxation. Angry Bostonians rioted, forcing the customs collector to flee to a fort in the harbor. The British government decided to meet resistance with military force.

 

Chapter 6  Resistance

On September 30, 1768, a British fleet sailed into Boston harbor and anchored, with the guns of the fleet aimed at the town. Two regiments landed and marched through Boston with their muskets loaded, ready to fire if the colonists resisted. Two more regiments began arriving in November. British officials thought this show of force would quiet the opposition in Boston. It did not. The military occupation of Boston made the city a center of American resistance to British tyranny.

The people of Boston hated having the soldiers in their town. They felt certain the army was there to take away their rights and force them to obey unjust laws. The British troops did not establish a camp in the town. Instead, soldiers were housed in stables, barns, inns, and vacant buildings all over Boston. The people who owned the buildings were not given a choice. A law called the Quartering Act made it legal for the army commanders to occupy property without the owner’s permission. The townspeople resented the soldiers. They called the soldiers names like “lobster back” because of their red coats. Angry words led to street fights. Sometimes soldiers started the fights. More often, angry townspeople assaulted soldiers. It was only a matter of time before a tragedy occurred.

 

Christopher Seider

On February 22, 1770, a market day in Boston, a ten-year-old boy named Christopher Seider was enjoying a day off from school. Christopher and other schoolboys gathered outside the shop of a merchant named Theophilus Lillie, who was selling British goods without regard to the non-importation agreement. Someone had put a sign up outside the shop that read “IMPORTER.” The boys yelled at Lillie’s customers, discouraged people from going in the shop, and pelted the building with dirt clods.

Ebenezer Richardson, a customs official who lived down the street, yelled at the boys to go away. He tried to take down the sign, so boys started throwing things at him. Richardson went back to his house. The boys followed him and began yelling, calling him an “informer.” It was commonly known that Richardson had been paid for tipping off other customs officers about where smuggled goods were hidden. He was an unpopular man. The crowd of boys outside his house grew to sixty or seventy. They began throwing dirt clods and trash at the house. Some adults joined the crowd, too.

An egg or some piece of trash may have hit Mrs. Richardson or scared her. Whatever happened, Ebenezer Richardson had had enough. He got his musket and loaded it with gunpowder, leaving out the bullet. He went to the door and yelled at the boys that “as sure as there was a God in heaven, he’d blow a Lane thro ’em.” Then he fired. The boys scattered. But they returned right away, and began throwing rocks and bricks at Richardson’s house, breaking the windows.

Growing angrier, Richardson loaded his musket with swan shot, a kind of ammunition about the size of a pea, used to shoot large birds. He stuck the musket out of an upper window and fired. Richardson hit nineteen-year-old Samuel Gore in the leg. He hit Christopher with at least eleven pellets. One or more passed through his lungs. Bystanders carried the boy into a house where Dr. Joseph Warren tried to save him. Christopher suffered for several hours in great pain. The newspapers said he faced it all with a “manly spirit” and thanked Dr. Warren and the minister who came to pray with him. Christopher died that evening. The people of Boston were furious. Richardson was charged with murder.

Christopher’s funeral, held on February 26, was one of the largest in the history of Boston. It was carefully organized by Samuel Adams and others to stir up public passions against the British government and the British troops occupying the town. All “the friends of Liberty,” the Boston Evening-Post reported, “may have an opportunity of paying their last respects to the remains of this little hero and first martyr to the noble cause.”

Christopher’s funeral procession wound through the streets of Boston for many blocks. John Adams, a lawyer, wrote that he saw “a vast number of boys walked before the coffin,” which was carried on a cart, and hundreds of men, women and girls following behind. A newspaper estimated that four to five hundred boys led the way. The procession, Adams wrote, stretched “farther than can be well imagined.” Boston had never seen an event like it. “This shows,” Adams wrote, “there are many more Lives to spend if wanted in the Service of their Country.”

Sixteen-year-old Phillis Wheatley witnessed the funeral procession, too, and wrote a poem about it. Phillis was born in West Africa and had been captured by slave traders. She was sold in Boston in 1761, when she was about seven. Horrifying as her experience must have been, she was more fortunate than most enslaved people. A tailor named John Wheatley purchased her for a house servant. The Wheatleys helped her learn to read and write, and she became a gifted poet. Her first published poem was printed in 1767, when she was about thirteen. Three years later she wrote a poem about Christopher’s funeral, beginning:

In heaven’s eternal court it was decreed

How the first martyr for the cause should bleed

To clear the country of the hated brood . . .

The “hated brood” Phillis had in mind was the British army. The soldiers occupying Boston had no part in Christopher’s death, but they were in Boston to help enforce the hated tax laws and support men like Christopher’s killer, Ebenezer Richardson.

 

The Boston Massacre

Although a minor customs official had killed Christopher, Bostonians blamed the army of occupation for his death. The army had disrupted the peace of their city and replaced it with the constant threat of force. Relations between soldiers and citizens, never good, grew steadily worse.

On March 2, a street fight broke out between soldiers and civilians. The next day groups of British soldiers and Boston rope makers fought with clubs and bats. Then on the evening of March 5, a British private, Hugh White, who was standing guard outside the customs house, exchanged insults with a young wigmaker’s apprentice named Edward Garrick. White hit Garrick on the side of the head with his musket and knocked him down. A crowd gathered and began throwing things at White and taunting him to fire his musket.

White called for help. Captain Thomas Preston appeared with six armed soldiers. The crowd continued to grow—eyewitnesses report at least forty or fifty people, and some as many as two hundred or more. Henry Knox, a nineteen-year-old bookseller who was in the crowd, warned Preston: “For God’s sake, take care of your men. If they fire, you must die.” Preston shouted at the crowd to go home. Instead of obeying Preston, people began throwing sticks, snowballs, and chunks of ice at the soldiers.

One hit Private Hugh Montgomery and knocked him down. Montgomery got to his feet, picked up his gun and fired it into the crowd. Within a few moments other soldiers began firing without orders. They shot eleven people, including a ropemaker named Samuel Gray, a sailor named James Caldwell, and a dockworker named Crispus Attucks, who was of mixed African, American Indian, and European descent. The three men died on the spot. They soldiers also shot seventeen-year-old Samuel Maverick and an Irish immigrant named Patrick Carr. Maverick and Carr suffered for a few days before they died.

The angry crowd moved back into the nearby streets and many more armed soldiers arrived to support Preston and his men. The soldiers stopped shooting. Governor Thomas Hutchinson came to the scene and spoke to the crowd from the balcony of the nearby State House. He promised an investigation and asked the people to go home. The sullen crowd broke up. The people of Boston were furious about what they called the “massacre.” Preston and several of the soldiers were arrested. Public funerals were held for the five victims. To prevent further bloodshed, the British commander withdrew all his troops from the city and moved them to Fort William on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. The military occupation of Boston ended—at least for a few years.

News of the Boston Massacre spread quickly and angered colonists from New Hampshire to Georgia. Samuel Adams and other patriot leaders made sure that published accounts of the event made it appear that the soldiers were entirely to blame. A pamphlet published by the Boston town meeting titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre described the shooting as an unprovoked attack on peaceful Bostonians. In response, loyalists published a pamphlet titled A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. It described the shootings as the result of an ambush planned by street gangs.

Boston lawyers who were sympathetic to the British soldiers refused to defend Captain Preston and his men in court. They worried that angry Bostonians would retaliate against them. Finally John Adams, a cousin of Samuel Adams, agreed to serve as their lawyer. He believed everyone deserves a fair trial, including the services of a lawyer to argue on their behalf. Preston was found not guilty because the jury agreed he did not order his men to fire and that he tried to stop them.

Hugh Montgomery, the soldier who fired first, and another soldier who fired into the crowd were found guilty. The jury agreed that the two soldiers had been afraid they might be killed and so were not guilty of murder. They were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. They were released after having their thumbs branded. This was a sign that they had been found guilty of manslaughter and that if they were found guilty of it a second time they would be executed.

The news that British soldiers had fired on colonists armed only with snowballs and sticks shook the loyalty of many colonists to King George III and his government. They became more convinced than ever that the British government did not care about them and was working to take away their freedom. John Adams later wrote that the “foundation of American independence was laid” on the evening of March 5, 1770, in the streets of Boston.

Christopher Seider’s killer, Ebenezer Richardson, was tried for murder in April. The facts in the case were not in dispute. The judge, a royal appointee named Peter Oliver, instructed the jury that Richardson had good reason to fear that the mob was going to kill him and that the shooting was a justifiable homicide. Richardson, Oliver said, was not guilty of a crime. If anyone was guilty, Oliver said, it was “the Promoters of the Effigies and the Exhibitions which draw the people together and caused unlawful and tumultuous assemblies.” Oliver thus implied that men like Samuel Adams were responsible for Christopher’s death. The jury found Richardson guilty of murder, but Oliver refused to pass sentence on him. Richardson was returned to jail, where he waited for more than year before receiving a full pardon issued by the authority of His Majesty King George III.

 

Frontier Discontent

Violent resistance to imperial regulations and British authority was not limited to Boston or to the cities and towns of the Atlantic coast where most of the taxes on imported goods were collected. In other parts of British America, colonists resisted the imperial regulations that most touched their lives.

People in the western parts of the colonies, from the New England frontier through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia were not much concerned about taxes on imported luxuries. Taxes on paint, paper, lead, tea, and glass had little effect on people who didn’t paint their homes, use much paper, drink tea, or buy glass for their windows. They used a little lead for bullets, but most of the time they got it without paying taxes. They had other grievances, either against imperial policies or the failure of the empire to respect their rights and respond to their needs.

Often their grievances involved securing ownership of land. People moved toward the colonial frontier in unprecedented numbers in the decade after French and Indian War. They were intent on acquiring farms where they could support themselves and their families and enjoy personal independence. This ambition was frequently frustrated by imperial regulations, the interference of royal officials, and nearly everywhere by the failure of colonial governments to ensure that ordinary people could acquire secure title to land. Protests, in many cases violent, flared along the colonial frontier from Vermont, where wealthy absentee New York landowners disputed the claims of ordinary people from New England to the land where they had settled, southward to the Carolinas and Georgia.

The most serious of these protests occurred in North Carolina. For most of the eighteenth century, North Carolina’s population was spread along the coast from the lower Cape Fear River, near the South Carolina border, northward along the tidewater rivers and sounds to the Virginia line. Settlers began occupying land in the North Carolina piedmont in the middle of the eighteenth century. After the French and Indian War their numbers increased dramatically. Many of the newcomers came from Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, and included people of Scots, Scots-Irish, and German as well as English background.

They had little in common with the planters of the North Carolina coast. Many belonged to a Protestant church other than the Church of England, which was the dominant church in eastern North Carolina. They were more likely to be Presbyterians, Baptists, or belong to a German Protestant group. Some newcomers brought slaves with them, but most owned few slaves or none at all. Many were self-sufficient farmers who raised what they needed and produced little to sell.

Most importantly, many of the newcomers lived on land they did not own, at least in the eyes of the colonial government. Until 1763 the northern half of the colony, a region about sixty-five miles wide from the coast to the mountains, was legally the property of John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville. An English aristocrat who had inherited his claim to the land, Granville never came to America, but his agents operated a land office in North Carolina where settlers could purchase land. When he died in 1763 the land office was closed, just as settlers were arriving in large numbers. Robert Carteret, 3rd Earl Granville, inherited his father’s vast land claim. He never saw it and did nothing to make legal settlement possible. Some newcomers bought land from earlier settlers, but most simply staked a claim to undeveloped land by clearing trees, building a house, and establishing a farm.

To the royal governor, William Tryon, these people were a problem. They paid little or no taxes and seemed to live outside the law. Corruption in local government made the situation worse. County sheriffs collected some taxes from them, often by threats, and then kept the money for themselves. Other local officials charged high fees to register deeds and provide other services. Settlers short of money resisted paying taxes and fees to a government that did little or nothing for their benefit.

The settlers had no peaceful way to resolve these problems because they had little voice in the North Carolina Assembly. Representatives of the tidewater counties controlled the assembly and were slow to give the new settlers a fair voice in government. In 1767 coastal Currituck County, with just 889 taxable residents, elected five members to the assembly, while western Orange County, with some 4,300 taxable residents, was limited to two members. Coastal Pasquotank County, with 792 taxable residents, elected five members, while western Rowan County, with 2,632 taxable residents, elected only two members.

Frontier discontent increased after 1766, when the assembly voted to impose new taxes to fund the construction of an elaborate residence for the governor in the coastal town of New Bern. What became known as Tryon’s Palace included meeting rooms for the governor’s council and the assembly. The building was a source of pride for the governor and his supporters. Frontier settlers regarded the palace as a symbol of tyranny and objected to paying taxes to build it.

 

The Regulators

The situation became so bad that in April 1768, settlers in Orange County met and resolved to take control of local government. Calling themselves Regulators, they demanded the county sheriff and other officials produce copies of tax laws, tax collection records, and evidence of how tax money had been used. The Regulators agreed to meet four times a year until their grievances were resolved.

When the county sheriff seized a man’s horse for non-payment of taxes, Regulators tied the sheriff up, took back the horse, and shot holes in the house of a local officeholder and landowner named Edmund Fanning. A close associate of the governor, Fanning was then a Crown attorney, militia colonel, judge, member of the assembly, and county register of deeds. The Regulators accused him of extorting large fees to record land transfers and using his several offices to acquire large tracts of land and enrich himself.

Governor Tryon described the situation in the western counties as “an absolute Insurrection” and the men who led the Regulators as traitors to the king. In fact the Regulators were mostly simple farmers who lacked the money to pay the taxes and fees demanded by government officials. Since many could not obtain deeds to their farms, they lived in fear that the government would take their homes and property. Their petitions to the governor and the assembly accomplished nothing. A petition from Anson County asserted that “we . . . have too long yielded ourselves slaves to remorseless oppression.”

In September 1770 a large party of Regulators took over the courthouse in Hillsborough, beat their opponents, and destroyed Fanning’s house. When the assembly met in December, it adopted a stern law to punish rioters, in many cases with death, and announced that any group of men who took up arms to prevent the lawful operation of the government would be dealt with as traitors. Under this law sixty Regulators were indicted by a special court convened in New Bern. The accused were ordered to turn themselves in to face trial or become outlaws, subject to being shot on sight by anyone.

By then Governor Tryon had decided to put down the Regulators by force. He raised some 1,300 militia, most in the eastern counties of North Carolina, and marched west to the Hillsborough, in the heart of Regulator country. Among Tryon’s aides was John Malcolm, a Boston sea captain recently appointed one of His Majesty’s customs officials in North Carolina. On May 14, 1771, the governor’s army reached Alamance Creek, west of Hillsborough. Some two thousand armed Regulators gathered at a nearby plantation and prepared to resist Tryon’s army. The governor sent word that he would pardon them if they would surrender their leaders for trial, lay down their arms, and swear their allegiance to King George III. The Regulator responded by asking the governor to remove tax collectors and other officials they said were dishonest.

The governor ordered his little army forward on May 16. As the two sides drew close, Tryon sent John Malcolm forward with a final offer, demanding the Regulators lay down their arms and surrender their leaders for trial. The Regulators, according to a witness, “rejected the Terms offer’d with disdain, said they wanted no time to consider of them and with rebellious clamor called out for battle.”

Although outnumbered, Tryon had several cannons, which he used to fire grapeshot, a kind of ammunition made up of dozens of iron balls. “The enemy,” Tryon reported to the ministry in London, “took to tree fighting and much annoyed the men who stood at the guns.” The two sides exchanged fire for two hours before firing by the Regulators slowed, probably because they were growing short of ammunition. Tryon directed the artillery to cease firing and ordered his men to advance. The Regulators fled the field, leaving behind some three hundred dead and many others wounded. The governor’s army lost about sixty men.

Tryon’s army took hundreds of prisoners. The governor ordered one of the captured men hanged the day after the battle. Twelve more were tried for treason and six of them were executed. Tryon issued a proclamation offering pardons to other Regulators who would come to his camp, surrender their arms, take an oath to obey the government, pay their taxes, and submit to the law. In the North Carolina legislature, Samuel Johnston, a tidewater planter, introduced a bill to requiring the Regulators to turn themselves in or be declared outlaws, liable to be shot on sight. By the end of the year, over six thousand Regulators surrendered their arms and took the required oath.

Others left their farms and moved west, beyond the Proclamation Line and beyond the reach of the king’s government. Joining frontier families from Virginia, they settled in the valley of the Watauga River in what is now eastern Tennessee, where they agreed to “Articles of Association” creating their own local government. Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, learned about the Watauga Association and reported to the British ministry that the Wataugans had set up a “separate state” that “set a dangerous example to the people of America.”

William Tryon was rewarded for his conduct with appointment as royal governor of New York. He was replaced by Josiah Martin, an ambitious young British official who soon found that conditions in North Carolina were far worse than reported. Customs officials were corrupt and county officials were just as bad as the Regulators had claimed. Martin removed John Malcolm, whom Martin described as a “hair brained” bully, guilty of “extortions and depredations and violence” against His Majesty’s subjects.

Martin toured the backcountry in the summer of 1772 and wrote to the British ministry about the people he met: “I now see most clearly that they have been provoked by insolence and cruel advantages taken of the peoples ignorance by mercenary tricking Attornies, Clerks and other little Officers who have practiced on them every sort of rapine and extortion.” Martin did his best to deal with the problems of backcountry settlers, but his efforts to reopen the land office and end the confusion and uncertainty about land ownership were unsuccessful.

The struggle between the Regulators and the North Carolina government was just one example of rising discontent about the ineffectiveness and injustice of government in the empire. That government—from county clerks who overcharged for basic services, to customs officials who extorted payoffs from merchants, to a governor who used military force to compel obedience, to the ministry in London, which cared more about the property claims of an English aristocrat than the needs of thousands of colonists—put the interests of the few over those of the many. It enriched aristocrats and office holders but paid little attention to the needs of small farmers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and laborers. Americans would soon unite to free themselves from the empire and create revolutionary new governments responsive to the interests of ordinary people.

 

Chapter 7  Americans Unite

On March 5, 1770, the new British prime minister, Lord North, asked Parliament to repeal the Townshend duties on paint, paper, lead, and glass. In his remarks, he expressed surprise that “so preposterous a law could originally obtain existence from a British legislature.” North explained that law had angered Americans, harmed British commerce, and encouraged the Americans to form “dangerous combinations.” He recommended keeping the tax on tea to make it clear that Parliament had the right to tax the colonies. Giving up the tea tax, he said, would invite the Americans “to insult our authority, to dispute our rights, and to aim at independent government.

No one in Parliament that day could have known that just a few hours later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, British soldiers who had been sent to America to intimidate His Majesty’s subjects into obedience would shoot and kill several of those subjects in a confrontation remembered as the Boston Massacre. News of the massacre would take several weeks to reach Britain. Shortly thereafter Parliament passed Lord North’s bill to repeal the Townshend duties.

The withdrawal of British troops from Boston and the repeal of the Townshend duties removed two of the most important sources of friction between the colonies and the king’s government and was followed by several months of calm. The colonial non-importation movement, which had aimed to force Parliament to abandon its efforts to tax the colonies, came to an end. The embargo had cost American merchants and storekeepers a great deal of money in lost sales. They were glad to restock their shelves with British goods. Most colonists were happy to be able to buy imported goods again.

Samuel Adams and other leaders of the American resistance wanted to keep the embargo going, but the remaining tax on tea was not enough to excite much popular opposition. Patriotic Americans simply refused to buy British tea. They drank less expensive tea smuggled into America from Dutch colonies instead. John Adams wrote in his diary in February 1771 about a meeting at John Hancock’s house with Joseph Warren and other patriots. “Drank green tea,” Adams wrote, “from Holland I hope.”

 

The Conspiracy Against Liberty

The period of calm after the repeal of the Townshend duties and the withdrawal of the army from Boston was deceptive. Gangs no longer intimidated shopkeepers accused of selling imported goods and British soldiers no longer traded insults and blows with the people of Boston, but the issues that had divided the British government and the colonies since 1763 had not been resolved.

The British government still maintained that it had the right to make laws for the colonies and it denied that the colonies had a right to elect members of Parliament to share in making those laws. The colonists denied that Parliament had the right to tax them and insisted that they were only bound to obey laws made by their own assemblies. Unless the British government gave up and returned to the old policy of salutary neglect, allowing the colonies to govern their own affairs without interference from London, another confrontation was bound to happen.

The British government had good reasons to abandon its efforts to tax the colonies and regulate their affairs. The government had spent more in paying tax collectors, customs inspectors, and treasury officials than it had raised in taxes. Sending troops to Boston to keep order and warships to the American coast to catch smugglers added more cost. Non-importation had hurt British manufacturers and merchants and cost the Crown tax revenue it would otherwise have collected at home. The seven-year effort to tax the colonies had lost money, and the British government had no good reason to think that would change soon.

Why, then, did the British government persist? Four explanations seem plausible. The first is folly—that British officials did not understand that the expenses involved in taxing the colonies exceeded the taxes collected and so pressed on with a policy that lost money because they were too ignorant to understand what was happening. The second is stubborn pride—that British officials recognized that the tax program was losing money but persisted because they would not accept being beaten by colonial agitators. The third is distraction—that the future of America, so important in hindsight, did not seem so important to British officials at the time, and they pressed on with an unsuccessful tax program because their attention was focused elsewhere. The fourth explanation is that they persisted in order to create the administrative organization they would need to impose and collect much higher taxes in the future.

Each of these explanations has merit. Ignorance of American affairs shocked Americans who talked to members of Parliament. American Henry Cruger visited London in 1766 and wrote that he spent “every Day with some one Member of Parliament . . . It is surprising how ignorant some of them are of Trade and America.” In 1769 a British lawyer asked an American whether Philadelphia was in the East or West Indies and said he had “a notion in was upon the coast of Sumatra. Such is their knowledge of America.” Men who could not find Philadelphia on a map probably did not calculate the costs and benefits of taxing the American colonies very carefully.

That stubborn pride played a role in Britain’s persistence cannot be doubted. Lord North admitted it when he told Parliament that repealing the tax on tea would invite American insults. British officials had spent seven years denouncing their American critics as traitors and their supporters as a vulgar mob. Conceding victory to them would have been too humiliating to accept.

Distractions, too, prevented British officials from reconsidering their American policies. “The great Defect here,” Benjamin Franklin wrote from London in 1773, “is, in all sorts of People, a want of attention to what passes in such remote Countries as America . . . and a Disposition to postpone the Consideration even of the Things they know they must at last consider, so that they may have Time for what more immediately concerns them.”

The leaders of the American resistance were prepared to believe that many British officials were ignorant, proud, and worried about other things, but they were convinced that the men shaping British policy were planning to impose higher taxes and assume greater control of American affairs, and that if left unchecked they would impoverish Americans and strip them of the traditional rights of Englishmen. They believed that the king’s ministers and their supporters in Parliament were engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to deprive Americans of their liberty. This was the only explanation that made sense of British actions. The trouble and expense to which Britain had gone since 1763, it seemed to Samuel Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and many others, was just the beginning of a British campaign that would only end when American colonial governments were powerless to defend American rights. Their worst fears were soon confirmed.

 

HMS Gaspée

British officials may have given up the idea of taxing paint, paper, lead, and glass, but they were determined to enforce the customs laws and collect duties on molasses, sugar, and rum brought into British America from foreign colonies in the Caribbean. They were also determined to stop the illegal trade in foreign tea and other goods, forcing Americans to buy British products.

This would have been a difficult task under the best circumstances. Hundreds of vessels sailed in and out of American ports every year. Any one of them might carry illegal cargo. The Royal Navy had only twenty-four ships to patrol the entire American coast from Florida to Newfoundland. The navy put them under the command of Admiral John Montagu, a tough veteran sailor, and told him to get on with the job. Montagu despised the colonists, and many of them felt the same way about him. John Adams called him a “beast of prey” whose “brutal, hoggish manners are a disgrace to the Royal Navy.”

One of Montagu’s ships was HMS Gaspée, an armed schooner commanded by a young lieutenant named William Dudingston. A naval officer who captured a ship smuggling goods was entitled to a share of the value of the ship and its cargo when they were sold at auction. An industrious officer could make a lot of money for himself catching American smugglers. Cruising off the coast of Maine and around Cape Cod in late 1771, Dudingston established a reputation as an energetic commander. In January 1772, Montagu ordered him to Rhode Island.

Rhode Island was a smuggler’s paradise. The colony surrounded Narragansett Bay—a maze of waterways, scattered islands, and secluded coves that offered smugglers abundant opportunities to land goods out of sight of customs officers. The Rhode Island government was run by merchants, many of whom engaged in smuggling as a normal part of their business, and they had no intention of cooperating with the Royal Navy or the British government to stop it.

They were sure their charter guaranteed that the colony could make its own laws. They acknowledged the king as the common head of the British Empire and expected the protection of the Royal Navy in time of war, but otherwise they regarded their colony’s relationship with Britain as a kind of business arrangement in which, as long as everyone was making money, no one had a reason to complain. Stephen Hopkins, a merchant who served for many years as chief justice of the colony, wrote in 1767 that “the King and Parliament had no more Right to make Laws for us than the Mohawks.”

Joseph Wanton, another merchant, was elected governor in 1769 and immediately wrote to Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of state for the colonies, informing him that the supreme authority in the colony rested with the assembly. He added that “the power exercised by the Parliament of Great Britain (in which we are not represented), of raising monies upon us without our consent (which it is possible under a bad administration, may be extended to our last penny), is a real grievance.” The British government, the governor informed the king’s chief minister for the colonies, could not expect Rhode Island’s help in collecting taxes of any sort. Rhode Island officials routinely helped merchants accused of violating the customs laws and Rhode Island courts regularly let violators and their ships go free.

To Admiral Montagu, in his Boston office, the merchants who ran Rhode Island seemed like a well-organized criminal gang. He urged Dudingston to teach them a lesson. Dudingston quickly captured a sloop smuggling sugar from the French Caribbean and brought her into Newport, where Governor Wanton interrogated him about his authority. In February 1772 Dudingston stopped the sloop Fortune and found twelve giant barrels of rum on which, he claimed, no duty had been paid. He seized the rum and the ship and sent them to Boston, beyond the reach of the Rhode Island government. One of the owners of the cargo was a young Rhode Islander named Nathanael Greene. He was so angry at Dudingston, he wrote to a friend, that “I have devoted almost the whole of my time in devising measures for punishing the offender.”

Greene was not the only Rhode Islander determined to punish the young naval officer who was making so much trouble. On June 9, 1772, Dudingston set off in pursuit of a merchant ship, the Hannah, sailing up the bay toward Providence. The Hannah’s captain knew the waters well and led a chase that ended with the Gaspée stuck on a sandbank while the Hannah escaped to Providence. There was nothing for the embarrassed British commander to do but wait for the rising tide to float the Gaspée free. He posted a sentry on the deck and the rest of the crew went to sleep.

Late that night a party of about sixty armed men rowed down from Providence. As they approached the ship, Dudingston, called to the deck by the sentry and wearing nothing but his breeches, hailed the boats. Recognizing Dudingston, an eighteen-year-old named Joe Bucklin turned to his friend Ephraim Bowen, who had brought his father’s musket, and said “Ephe, reach me your gun, and I can kill that fellow.” Bowen said later “I reached it to him accordingly.” Bucklin fired, Dudingston fell, and Bucklin exclaimed “I have killed the rascal!”

In fact, Bucklin had shot Dudingston in the rear end. The raiders boarded the Gaspée and after a brief scuffle, took control of the ship. They promptly herded Dudingston and his men into one of their boats and rowed them to the beach close by, from which the helpless crew watched while the raiders set fire to the Gaspée and burned her to the waterline.

 

 “A Powerful Cause of Union”

Mobs had attacked customs officials many times, in Britain and America, and they had even burned boats used by customs collectors. The Gaspée was not a customs vessel. She was a ship of His Majesty’s Royal Navy. And the men who boarded her, took her commander and crew prisoner, and burned her were not a mob—at least not an ordinary one. The men who boarded the Gaspée that night included some of Rhode Island’s most important merchants and sea captains, including John Brown, Joseph Brown, Abraham Whipple, Joseph Tillinghast, John B. Hopkins, and Simeon Potter. The rest were sailors, dock workers, and other men who depended on trade, including the trade in smuggled goods, for their livelihood.

They went about their work with calm efficiency, confident in the justice of their actions. Dudingston had defied the authority of the governor of Rhode Island and evaded the Rhode Island courts. The only law the Brown brothers, Whipple, and the others recognized was the law of Rhode Island. In their eyes, Dudingston and his crew were the criminals—pirates sailing Rhode Island waters and stealing the property of Rhode Island merchants under cover of British tax laws that did not legally apply in Rhode Island, at least as far as Rhode Islanders were concerned.

Admiral Montagu was outraged and demanded the men responsible for the destruction of the Gaspée be found and punished. Under British law, attacking a ship of the Royal Navy, shooting her commander, and setting the ship on fire was treason, for which the punishment was death. The British government created a commission to investigate the crime. Governor Wanton pretended to cooperate, but Dudingston and his crew were not able to identify their attackers—the whole thing had happened quickly, and in the dark—and no one could be found who could (or would) identify any of the Rhode Islanders involved. And so in the end the British, powerless to impose their will on Rhode Island, did nothing but threaten.

Their threats were ominous. The British government announced that when the men who destroyed the Gaspée were found, they would be brought to Britain to stand trial. The British army, if needed, would be sent to impose order so this could be done. The Providence Gazette declared this plan “repugnant to every dictate of reason, liberty, and justice.” The principle that someone accused of a crime had a right to a trial where the alleged crime occurred before a jury of his peers—that is, of the people of his own community—was a sacred part of the British legal tradition. The announcement that men accused of destroying the Gaspée would be taken to Britain in chains was evidence to many colonists that the British government intended to strip all colonists of their rights.

News of the threats spread across the colonies. A writer in the Providence Gazette described the British officials responsible for them as “a pack of worse than Egyptian tyrants, whose avarice nothing less than your whole substance and income, will satisfy; and who, if they can’t extort that, will glory in making a sacrifice of you and your posterity, to gratify their master the devil, who is a tyrant, and the father of tyrants and liars.”

Among those who read the news was a Virginia planter named Richard Henry Lee, a member of one of Virginia’s most prominent families. His father had been governor of Virginia, and he had been a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses since 1758. Lee knew all of Virginia’s political leaders, but he did not know the leaders of the resistance in other colonies.

In February 1773 Lee wrote a letter introducing himself to Samuel Adams and suggesting that they begin writing letters to one another to share information and ideas. “To be firmly attached to the cause of liberty on virtuous principles,” Lee wrote, “is a powerful cause of union.” Lee explained that the British reaction to the destruction of the Gaspée was proof of the British government’s plans to deprive the colonists of their rights. The plan of “removing Americans beyond the water, to be tried for supposed offences committed here. This is so unreasonable, and so unconstitutional a stretch of power, that I hope it will never be permitted to take place, while a spark of virtue, or one manly sentiment remains in America.” Lee asked Adams for an accurate account of the Gaspée affair, explaining that he did not trust reports from “the uncertain medium of newspapers.” Adams replied with details Lee did not have.

A few weeks later Lee went to Williamsburg for a session of the House of Burgesses and met with a small group of like-minded members—Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Lee’s brother Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Jefferson’s brother-in-law, Dabney Carr—in a private room at the Raleigh Tavern. Jefferson, just twenty-nine years old, had already impressed Lee and Henry as a promising young leader.

They agreed, Jefferson later wrote, that “the most urgent of all measures was that of coming to an understanding with all the other colonies to consider the British claims as a common cause to all.” Together they drafted a resolution proposing that they each colony appoint a “committee of correspondence” to communicate with the others and agree on a unified response to British actions. Carr presented the resolution in the House of Burgesses, while Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee—well known as the best public speakers in Virginia—spoke in support of the resolution, which was adopted by a unanimous vote.

The Virginians sent their resolution to the other colonies. Committees of correspondence were soon formed from New Hampshire to Georgia. This was an important step in establishing a union between the colonies and the future union of independent American states. In this way the destruction of Gaspée, which might under other circumstances have remained a local matter, shaped the future of all thirteen colonies and ultimately of the United States.

 

The East India Company

Events in America were not foremost in the minds of the men in charge of running Britain’s far-flung empire. Lord North’s government faced financial problems at home and challenges from France and Spain, which had rebuilt their navies and were looking for chances to revenge their defeat in the last war. The declining value of sugar was another serious concern. Sugar, molasses, and rum imported from Britain’s island colonies in the Caribbean were worth about four million pounds a year, more than four times the value of the tobacco grown in Maryland and Virginia. The taxes collected on these products were essential to the government.

Most troubling was the precarious condition of the British East India Company. The company was the most important business enterprise in the British Empire. The company had enormous assets, including a private fleet of armed merchant ships and a vast network of forts and warehouses. It controlled the importation of cloth and saltpeter (the main ingredient in gunpowder) from India, where it maintained a private army larger than the peacetime army in Britain. In the 1760s the company had used this army to acquire control of Bengal, a region larger than France, from which it collected land taxes. The company also imported spices from Southeast Asia and controlled the importation of tea from China.

Tea consumption in Britain and the colonies had been increasing for decades, but in 1772 and 1773 the company’s sales in Britain collapsed due to high prices, heavy taxes, and competition from smuggled Dutch tea, leaving the company with a huge inventory of unsold tea. The company had invested heavily in India, but a terrible famine cut the land tax revenue there at the same time tea sales were declining in Britain. The costs of running the company, including the costs of operating and maintaining its ships and forts and paying its private army, suddenly exceeded the company’s income. The East India Company faced bankruptcy.

The East India Company was too big for the government to allow it to fail. Many English aristocrats and prominent merchants had invested in the company and looked to the government for help. To help the company sell its inventory of tea, Parliament adopted the Tea Act. The act, which was passed on May 10, 1773, eliminated the tax of twelve cents collected on every pound of tea brought into Britain as long as the tea was shipped to America, where a tax of three cents per pound was to be collected. This would make East India Company tea cheaper in America than the smuggled Dutch tea the Americans were drinking.

British officials hoped the quick sale of cheap East India Company tea in America would save the company. In the fall of 1773, seven East India Company ships left Britain, carrying more than 1,700 wooden chests filled with more than 600,000 pounds of tea. Four were bound for Boston. The others sailed for Philadelphia, New York and Charleston.

 

Tea Parties

Patriot leaders were determined not to allow the tea to be sold in the colonies. When the Polly, bound for Philadelphia with 697 chests of tea, arrived at the mouth of the Delaware River, a mass meeting was held in the city and agreed that Captain Ayres of the Polly should not be allowed to unload the tea. A “Committee for Tarring and Feathering” posted a notice warning the captain to turn his ship around and return to Britain:

You are sent out on a diabolical Service; and if you are so foolish and obstinate as to complete your Voyage, by bringing your Ship to Anchor in this Port, you may run such a Gauntlet as will induce you, in your last Moments, most heartily to curse those who have made you the Dupe of their Avarice and Ambition. What think you, Captain, of a Halter around your Neck—ten Gallons of liquid Tar decanted on your Pate—with the Feathers of a dozen wild Geese laid over that to enliven your Appearance? Only think seriously of this—and fly to the Place from whence you came —fly without Hesitation—without the Formality of a Protest—and above all, Captain Ayres, let us advise you to fly without the wild Geese Feathers.

Captain Ayres wisely stocked the Polly with food and water and sailed it back to Britain without unloading his cargo of tea. In Charleston, the merchants to whom the tea had been shipped refused to pay the duty. Customs officials then seized the tea from the ships and stored it in a warehouse, where it remained unsold for years. In New York, Governor Tryon, who was worried about the reputation he had earned in North Carolina, agreed to turn the tea ship around. He told the British government that the tea could only have been landed in New York “under the protection of the point of a bayonet, and muzzle of the cannon.”

Three tea ships—the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver—arrived in Boston harbor. A fourth tea ship, the William, ran aground on Cape Cod. Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the three ships to leave Boston without unloading their cargo. British Admiral Montagu ordered the Royal Navy warships in the harbor to prevent the ships from sailing. Boston patriots were equally determined to prevent the tea from being unloaded.

On the evening of December 16, 1773, Boston patriots took action. About sixty or seventy men and boys, many of them dressed like Indians and carrying hatchets and axes, boarded the ships, broke open the tea chests, and threw the tea—over 90,000 pounds of it—into the water. No guards had been posted on the ships, and the few sailors on board them offered no resistance. The first mate of the Beaver handed the ship’s keys to the raiders and supplied them with candles to light the ship’s hold. The raiding parties were careful not to damage the ships or anything on board except the tea.

It took the raiders nearly three hours to bring all the tea on deck, break open the chests, and dump the tea overboard. Hundreds of people lined the wharf to watch. Admiral Montagu watched the proceedings but did nothing to stop the raiders. “I could easily have prevented the Execution of this Plan,” he wrote the next day, “but must have endangered the Lives of many innocent People by firing upon the Town.” When the raiders’ work was done, they swept the loose tea off the decks and marched away. When they passed the house where Montagu had been enjoying dinner, the admiral opened a window and called out, “Well, boys, you’ve had a fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven’t you?  But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet.” From the street, one of the “boys” called back: “Never mind, Squire, just come down here, if you please, and we’ll settle the bill in two minutes.”

The names of the men and boys who participated in the what was later called the Boston Tea Party were kept secret for many years. Samuel Gore, the teenager who was shot in the leg on the day Christopher Seider was killed, was one of them. So was Joseph Warren, the doctor who had removed the ball from Samuel’s leg, and Paul Revere, a silversmith who was a popular leader of Boston’s craftsmen. So, too, was George Hewes, a shoemaker. These and thousands of other ordinary, daring Americans shaped the popular rebellion that made America free.

 

Chapter 8  Intolerable Acts

 

Ten years of continuous controversy took a heavy toll on relations between the British government and His Majesty’s American subjects. By the beginning of 1774, the surprise and dismay the colonists had expressed a decade earlier had hardened into distrust and anger. Americans in every colony were disgusted with imperial government that invaded their rights but did little to improve their lives. British officials and their supporters, weary from years of arguing with colonists about the supremacy of the British government, spoke openly about sending troops to American to compel obedience.

Moderate voices on both sides of the Atlantic called for discussion and compromise, but the influence of moderates, in Britain and America, was fading. In Britain, the influence of men who favored stern measures and the use of military force was growing. They were supported by writers who laid bare their contempt for the colonists and openly called for expanding imperial authority and limiting the voice of colonists in their own government.

The secret conspiracy against liberty the colonists had long suspected and feared emerged from the shadows as an open assault on the rights of the king’s American subjects. With each new act of Parliament, each British speech demanding the colonists be punished, and each British publication expressing contempt for Americans, colonial leaders who counseled moderation and restraint lost credibility. Support for men who believed in the possibility of the colonies maintaining control over their own affairs—of independence within the empire—eroded and finally collapsed.

Ordinary Americans lost faith in cautious leaders and increasingly took matters into their own hands. As moderation failed, colonists were drawn to one side or the other—toward a commitment to American rights or to loyalty to the king and his government. As divisions among the colonist widened, political violence, barely restrained in the past, grew more common and more vicious.

 

Tar and Feathers

On the night of January 25, 1774, an angry mob dragged John Malcolm from his house in Boston, stripped of his clothes, and coated with tar and feathers. Malcolm had been deprived of his customs post in North Carolina in 1773 and returned to Massachusetts, where he was assigned to the customs house in Falmouth, on the coast of Maine. There he seized a merchant brig loaded with lumber because of a narrow, technical irregularity in its paperwork. The vessel was promptly condemned by a British admiralty court and Malcolm received one hundred pounds as his share of the value of the ship and its cargo. A few days later a party of thirty sailors pulled Malcolm out of a house, took his sword, cane, hat, and wig, and then coated him, over his clothes, in tar and feathers. After marching Malcolm through the streets for an hour, they released him.

Malcolm had then returned to Boston, complaining about the humiliating attack. On January 25—a brutally cold day, even for Boston—Malcolm encountered a young boy in the street, pushing a sled. The boy may have said something that infuriated Malcolm. A newspaper reported that the boy had run over Malcolm’s foot with his sled.

What happened next is not entirely clear. John Adams wrote that Malcolm “attacked a lad in the street, and cut his head with a cutlass, in return for some words from the boy, which I suppose were irritating. The boy ran bleeding through the street to his relations, of whom he had many. As he passed the street, the people inquired into the cause of his wounds; and a sudden heat arose against Malcolm.” Malcolm’s superior in Falmouth heard it that way, too, and wrote that what happened to Malcolm “was occasioned by his beating a Boy in the Street in such a manner as to raise a Mob.”

The newspaper account of the incident was slightly different. It reported that a Boston shoemaker, George Hewes, came upon Malcolm “cursing, damning, threatening and shaking a very large cane” at the boy. Hewes intervened and Malcolm turned on Hewes, calling him an “impertinent rascal.” The confrontation quickly escalated, and Malcolm struck Hewes with his cane, gashing Hewes’ forehead. Hewes fell to the ground, bloody and unconscious. A Captain Godfrey saw the attack and reported that “after some altercation” Malcolm retreated to his house. Bystanders took Hewes to Dr. Joseph Warren, who dressed the wound and joked grimly with Hewes about his thick skull. “Nothing else could have saved you.” The deep scar left by the cane was clearly visible when Hewes died more than sixty-six years later.

The newspaper account says nothing more about the child. Perhaps Malcolm struck him, too, as Adams reported. Or perhaps when Hewes arrived, the boy ran. Whatever happened, the story ran through the city. That night a mob attacked Malcolm’s house. Men broke in through a second story window and dragged Malcolm into the street, where they beat him and threw him into a sleigh. When they reached King Street, near the site of the Boston Massacre, unnamed “gentlemen” tried to convince Malcolm’s captors to let him go, assuring the crowd that the courts would punish him. The mob, which by then numbered in the hundreds, was unmoved. What had the courts done to punish Preston or his men? What had they done to punish Ebenezer Richardson? Malcolm, they said, “had joined in the murders at North-Carolina” and behaved in a “daringly abusive manner” without being punished. The law had had its chance.

They put Malcolm in a cart, stripped him, and coated him with pine tar and feathers. Then they drove him through the bitter cold night to the Liberty Tree—an elm on the Boston Common—where they demanded he renounce his office and, according to a report friendly to Malcolm, ordered him to curse the king and the governor. Malcolm stubbornly refused, so they drove him through the city to the gallows near Boston Neck and threatened to hang him. Along the way, according a later report, the mob forced Malcolm to drink hot tea until he vomited, taunting him to drink to the royal family. When he still defied the mob, they beat and whipped him and threatened to cut off his ears. Broken, Malcolm finally gave up and agreed to do whatever the mob wanted. His tormenters drove him through the streets and dumped him in front of his house.

 

Franklin in London

News of the Boston Tea Party reached London about the time the mob was dragging John Malcolm through the streets of Boston. A few days later, Benjamin Franklin, the London agent of the Massachusetts assembly and the most famous American subject of the king, was called before the Privy Council—the king’s senior advisors—and subjected to a different kind of political attack.

The official reason for the hearing was to ask Franklin questions about a petition from the Massachusetts Assembly requesting the removal of Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. More than a year before, the two men had written to British officials about ways to impose order on America. Hutchinson had said that it was impossible that colonists should enjoy the same rights as subjects in Britain. Governing the colonies properly required, in Hutchinson’s words, an “abridgment of what are called English liberties.” Oliver suggested stripping the assembly of the right to choose the governor’s council, which should be appointed by the king instead.

Someone in the British government passed copies of the letters to Franklin, who sent them to the assembly. In May 1773 they were published in the Massachusetts Gazette. The public was outraged. To Samuel Adams and other patriot leaders, the letters were evidence that British officials and their American allies intended to take away the rights of British colonists. Angry members of the assembly petitioned the king to remove Hutchinson and Oliver.

The privy counselors had no intention of recommending that the king remove either man, but they wanted Franklin to face them while they denounced him and his disloyal associates in America. Thirty-five members of the Privy Council attended the hearing. The hall was packed with spectators, including members of the House of Commons and at least one general, Thomas Gage. Alexander Wedderburn, the king’s solicitor general, represented the ministry. In a speech lasting an hour, Wedderburn attacked Franklin’s personal character, mocked his international reputation as a scientist, and accused Franklin of trying to subvert His Majesty’s authority in America. Franklin, he said, was a thief who had constantly misled the king’s subjects and was a “prime conductor” of the opposition to British authority in America.

Addressing the lords, Wedderburn accused Franklin and his American friends of “perpetually offering every kind of insult to the English nation. Setting the King’s authority at defiance; treating the parliament as usurpers of an authority not belonging to them, and flatly denying the Supreme Jurisdiction of the British empire.” These traitors, he added, “in form of a Committee of Correspondence, have been inflaming the whole province against his Majesty’s government.”

Franklin and Americans like him, Wedderburn charged, had encouraged the colonists “to destroy the ships of England, to attack her officers, to plunder their goods, to pull down their houses, or even to burn the King’s ships of war.” Governor Hutchinson was not to blame for the strained relations between the British government and the colonies. The blame, Wedderburn argued, belonged to Franklin and the disloyal agitators who constantly misled His Majesty’s subjects and had just recently “destroyed the cargo of three British ships.”

The members chuckled with pleasure as Wedderburn abused Franklin. Many laughed out loud. Lord North listened silently. So did Franklin, who remained standing while Wedderburn spoke, his expression calm and unmoving. When Wedderburn announced that he was ready to question the witness, Franklin replied through his lawyer that he did not wish to be examined, and quietly left the room. Franklin worried for several days that he would be arrested and charged with some crime, but the government was not yet prepared to go that far.

Wedderburn’s attack on Franklin reflected the government’s anger about the destruction of the tea and its frustration at the refusal of Americans to accept the government’s supremacy. It also reflected something more important. British officials like Wedderburn and Lord North believed that the problems in the colonies were the work of a small group of troublemakers, including Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and John Dickinson, who misled ordinary people into resisting the king’s government. Distant, unruly colonists could not be governed like the king’s subjects in Britain. The government had been too lenient with them. All of that was about to change, starting with Massachusetts.

 

“War with All America”

On March 7, 1774, Lord North presented a bill in Parliament to close the port of Boston and to keep it closed until Bostonians paid the East India Company for the lost tea and law and order had been restored in the city. The issue, he said, was larger than the tea or even the right of Parliament to tax the colonies. In Boston, he explained, Britain and Massachusetts were “considered as two independent states.” The issue to be resolved by the Boston Port Bill was whether the British government actually had any authority in America.

Moderates in Parliament warned that the bill would “create that Association of the Americans which you have so much wished to annihilate” and predicted a rebellion if the bill became law. Edmund Burke, a member of the House of Commons who was convinced that the opposition in America was a popular movement and not simply the work of a few rabble rousers like Samuel Adams, said the bill amounted to a declaration “that you wish to go to war with all America.” North answered that if the act provoked a rebellion, it would be America’s fault. Americans could not be reasoned with, another member said, because they preferred “to decide the matter by tarring and feathering.” Anger won. The Boston Port Bill became law. Nothing but food and firewood could be shipped to Boston, and every ship carrying them was to be unloaded at Salem and the goods brought into Boston by land. Nothing could be shipped out.

Parliament piled on other laws to bring Massachusetts to heel. The Administration of Justice Act made it possible for royal officials charged with offenses in Massachusetts to be tried in Britain. George Washington called this the “Murder Act,” because he believed it would make it possible for royal officials to get away with any crime. The Massachusetts Government Act deprived the people of the right to elect the upper house of the legislature. The king would appoint the members instead. The Quartering Act, which applied to all of the colonies, allowed British commanders to house their troops in unoccupied buildings if the colonial authorities did not provide barracks. Many colonists feared this would soon lead to the army taking over private homes.

Members of Parliament competed with one another in expressing their contempt for Americans. If Americans resisted the laws, one member said, “I would burn and set fire to their woods, and leave their country open to prevent that protection they now have.” As for Boston, he said that “nest of locusts” should be destroyed as the Romans destroyed ancient Carthage. Beyond Parliament, the king’s supporters denounced America and Americans. Samuel Johnson, famous for writing the first major dictionary of the English language, wrote that Americans were “a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” In a widely circulated pamphlet, Johnson wrote that Americans were not entitled to a voice in government, having “voluntarily resigned the power of voting” when they or their ancestors left Britain. If they resisted the new laws, Johnson suggested that the British arm the Indians and encourage them to attack the colonists. These statements circulated widely in the colonies, and confirmed the colonists’ worst fears about the government in London.

The Boston Port Bill called for the British army to occupy Boston until order was restored and the colonists paid for the tea dumped into the harbor. The first regiment arrived in May. The troops were commanded by Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, who was both commander in chief of His Majesty’s army in America and the new royal governor of Massachusetts.

Gage had served in America for many years, married the daughter of a wealthy New Jersey family, and owned property in America. He knew the colonies better than most British officials and had very definite ideas about how to keep the colonists in line. They had to be treated with firmness. Town meetings and other popular institutions stirred resistance to authority and should be discouraged. “Democracy is too prevalent in America,” he had written in 1772, and the British government should devote “the greatest attention to prevent its increase.” The government, he insisted, should never retreat from its policies because of local opposition. Yielding bit by bit to colonial protests only encouraged the colonists to resist the law.

Gage intended to enforce the law without yielding. He closed the port of Boston on June 1. On hi orders, a sixteen-gun sloop-of-war patrolled the entrance to the harbor and the wharves were guarded by a sixty-four-gun ship-of-the-line, with thirty-two guns aimed at the city. Two weeks later more troops arrived and pitched their tents on the Boston Common, displacing the herd of cows that normally grazed there. Dock workers and sailors went unemployed, and very soon artisans and manual laborers were out of work as the materials they used and the money to pay them vanished. With no work to do and no money in their pockets, they grew angrier every day.

 

The Common Cause

Thomas Gage tried to stop town meetings but the townspeople defied him and met anyway. The Boston town meeting framed the problem in a letter sent to the other colonies. The British government’s attack on the rights of Americans, they said, “though made immediately upon us, is doubtless designed for every other colony” as well. “The single question then is,” the letter continued, “whether you consider Boston as now suffering the common cause?”

The same answer came back from all over the colonies. In Farmington, Connecticut, the people erected a liberty pole, burned the port bill, and denounced the ministry as “pimps and parasites” in league with the devil. The people of Durham, New Hampshire, sent a few cattle and money they had collected to help Bostonians through the ordeal. Other towns and parishes throughout New England sent food. The people of Savannah sent sixty-three barrels of rice to Boston along with money. In New York, a popular meeting condemned the port bill and protestors dragged effigies of Lord North, Alexander Wedderburn, and the devil through the street and then set them on fire.

New Yorkers also called for representatives of each colony to meet to consider a common response to the crisis. Colonists elsewhere echoed this call, although their leaders had different ideas about what a general congress should do. Some were in favor of a new non-importation agreement, while others were for stopping all trade with Britain and Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Most farmers disliked that idea. Merchants in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston opposed anything that would obstruct trade and looked to a general congress to support them. Some thought a general congress should prepare a petition to the king. Each colony had internal disputes, local concerns, and reasons to distrust the other colonies.

The Virginia House of Burgesses was meeting in Williamsburg when news of the Boston Port Bill arrived in mid-May along with a disturbing rumor that the British government intended to arrest Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other Massachusetts leaders and take them to Britain in chains to stand trial for crimes against the state. In response, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and several others members met privately and agreed to support the patriots in Massachusetts. The next day, at their urging, the House of Burgesses declared June 1 “a day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer” for its members “devoutly to implore the divine interposition, for averting the heavy Calamity which threatens destruction to our Civil Rights, and the Evils of civil War.” Governor Dunmore, who held that the authority to issue proclamations rested with the governor alone, and who regarded an expression of solidarity with the riotous colonists of Massachusetts as disrespectful to the king’s government, promptly dissolved the House of Burgesses.

Dissolving the House of Burgesses was within Dunmore’s power, but it was a serious miscalculation. Instead of going home, as Dunmore expected, the burgesses simply moved down the street to the Raleigh Tavern, where they met without the sanction of the governor. As a meeting of private individuals they could not pass laws, but doing so was not their goal. They agreed to consult with their constituents and reconvene at the tavern on August 1. This mild act of rebellion set in motion a series of events that led to the collapse of royal authority in Virginia.

In June and July, Virginians gathered in county conventions to discuss the crisis. Though many of them deplored the destruction of the tea, they regarded the closing of the port of Boston, the changes imposed on the Massachusetts government, and the military occupation of Boston as an intolerable invasion of American rights and a threat to everyone in the colonies. Many of these popular conventions adopted resolutions condemning the actions of the British government.

The boldest were the Fairfax Resolves, written by George Mason and adopted by a public meeting in Alexandria presided over by George Washington. Mason argued that the colonists possessed the same rights as their ancestors who had first settled Virginia—the rights of Englishmen—among whom the most sacred right was the right to participate in the making of the laws under which they lived. They acknowledged that it was impractical for the colonies to be represented in the British Parliament, which was why the power to make laws for the colonies belonged to the colonial legislatures. For Parliament to make those laws was “totally incompatible with the Privileges of a free People, and the natural Rights of Mankind.”

The Virginia Convention met at the Raleigh Tavern on August 1. It chose delegates to a general congress to meet in Philadelphia, adopted a non-importation agreement for Virginia effective immediately and a non-exportation agreement to go into effect in a year if the grievances of the colonies had not been resolved. The convention agreed to meet again in the spring of 1775. The agreement to meet again without a call from the royal governor was revolutionary. When the convention met in 1775 it assumed the functions of the House of Burgesses, bypassing the royal governor and effectively separating the government of Virginia from the British Empire.

Maryland and North and South Carolina held their own conventions and dispatched delegates to Philadelphia, as did the colonies to the north. Georgians, their tiny colony pressed between the British military outpost in East Florida and hostile Creek Indians to the west and dependent on the one for defense against the other, decided not to send a delegation to the Continental Congress.

 

The Continental Congress

The delegates from the other twelve colonies arrived in Philadelphia in little groups during the last days of August and the first days of September. Until all the delegates arrived, those who arrived early occupied their time seeing the sights of Philadelphia, socializing with Philadelphians who welcomed the delegates into their homes, and talking among themselves. It would be difficult to overestimate the interest the delegates took in meeting one another. A few of them had corresponded. Richard Henry Lee and Samuel Adams had been trading letters for more than two years and must have greeted one another like old friends, though they had never seen each other.

Others were complete strangers, known to one another by reputation and rumor. Several delegates commented, with undisguised excitement, that they had met John Dickinson, “the celebrated Pennsylvania farmer,” whose eloquent pamphlet against the Townshend Acts they had all read. Some were surprised to see him arrive in an elegant coach pulled by four horses—the opposite of the simple, bookish farmer whose pose he had assumed in his Farmer’s Letters. John Adams noted that Caesar Rodney of Delaware was “the oddest looking Man in the World,” tall and thin, “his face is not bigger than a large Apple.” But Adams found Rodney full of “Sense and Fire, Spirit, Wit and Humour.” Much of the work of the First Continental Congress was done in these encounters, as the leaders of twelve very different colonies met and took the measure of one another.

George Washington and Patrick Henry traveled north together and were among the last to arrive. Each caused a considerable stir among the delegates. Washington’s presence was commanding. He was tall and athletic, and stood out in a room full of stout, middle-aged men. He seemed younger than forty-two, yet his seriousness attracted the attention of much older men. Washington talked privately with members to persuade them that the colonies needed to prepare to defend themselves together. “Shall we sit,” he wrote, “and see one province after another fall a prey to despotism?”  Men who had never met Washington were impressed by his good judgment and determination as well as by his military experience.

Many delegates were drawn to Patrick Henry, whose reputation as a public speaker had preceded him. In a private moment, Samuel Adams told Henry he did not expect the British government to soften its position. He expected “double vengeance,” and concluded, “We must fight.” Henry nodded. “By God,” he said, “I am of your opinion.”

When Congress convened in Carpenters’ Hall on September 5, Henry made a speech that confirmed his reputation as an orator. He called on the delegates to set aside their provincial concerns and embrace a common purpose and a common destiny. “The distinction between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders,” he said, “are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” The crisis had dissolved the old order, he said. “Government is at an End. All Distinctions are thrown down. All America is thrown into one Mass.”

Saying it out loud did not make it true. There remained enormous differences between Virginians and Pennsylvanians and even more differences between New Englanders and Carolinians. But saying it raised the possibility that one day it might be true—that the colonies of British North America might somehow form a single nation. Neither Henry nor anyone else understood how this might happen, but they had come together to deal with common concerns, and every day they worked together the closer together they would be drawn until somehow they would be more American than anything else. Their shared labors, shared ideals, and the shared experiences of thousands of soldiers and citizens over a war that would last for eight years would create an American national identity.

The issue that led Henry to suggest that all America had been thrown into “one Mass” was how votes in Congress should be apportioned. As a delegate from the most populous colony, Henry naturally favored a system based on population. Delegates from the least populous colonies preferred that each colony have one vote. Delegates from South Carolina—immensely wealthy but lightly populated compared with others—preferred a system that gave greatest weight to property.

This would remain an issue throughout the American Revolution and remains an issue today. The Federal Constitution ratified in 1788 was a compromise—giving weight to population in the House of Representatives and giving each state two votes in the Senate. The Continental Congress was incapable of reaching such a compromise. It had been called as a meeting of delegates from colonies determined to maintain their autonomy in the face of an unprecedented challenge from the British government that threatened to strip them of local control. If Congress was to do business at all, each colony had to have an equal voice. Rhode Island and New Hampshire would never consent to Virginia having more votes in Congress. Virginia accepted that as the price of unity—the first of many compromises upon which our union of diverse states and diverse people is based.

Some delegates, led Samuel Adams, were ready to declare independence immediately. Most, however, were not. They remained loyal to the king and wanted to persuade the British government to compromise. Congress sent a petition to the king expressing their loyalty while asserting the colonists’ rights to “life, liberty and property.” The petition asked the king to intervene with Parliament on their behalf. Delegates who favored independence had no faith that the king would do so, but they agreed to the petition as the price of maintaining a different kind of unity—the union of men who still hoped for reconciliation with those who had had given up hope and expected war. John Adams, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and their circle of determined patriots had identified the delegates they did not trust, whose loyalty to the king exceeded their attachment to liberty, and they agreed to make the effort those delegates demanded. The first tentative American union was built and maintained by such compromises.

After thorough discussion, the delegates endorsed the Suffolk Resolves, recently adopted in Boston. Congress agreed that the colonists should refuse to buy any British goods until the Intolerable Acts were repealed. The more cautious delegates were not enthusiastic about this boycott. The idea was unpopular with merchants, whose livelihood would be disrupted by it. The cautious delegates accepted this Continental Association as a compromise that would preserve their influence in Congress. It was to go into effect on December 1, 1774, giving merchants a chance to complete pending transactions and the petition to reach the king.

The delegates had convened to deliberate on common measures to resolve grievances with the British government, but they accomplished much more. They established system for working together. Conscious, as John Rutledge of South Carolina pointed out, that they had “no coercive or legislative Authority” and that their constituents were “bound only in Honour, to observe our Determinations,” they worked to ensure that their resolutions would command the widest possible respect in the colonies. In this way, the inherent weakness of the Continental Congress became, at the start, a most valuable asset. Without power, it had to forge consensus. Congress adjourned on October 26, agreeing to meet again in 1775 if Parliament had not repealed the Intolerable Acts.

Silas Deane of Connecticut wrote home to that “I never met, nor scarcely had an Idea of Meeting with Men of such firmness, sensibility, Spirit, and Thorough Knowledge of the Interests of America as the Gentlemen from the Southern provinces appear to be.” Patrick Henry was “the compleatest Speaker I ever heard,” rivaled only, it was said, by Richard Henry Lee—“they are stiled the Demosthenes, and Cicero of America.”

Deane was most impressed with the Virginian who said the least. “Col. Washington,” Deane wrote, has “a very young Look, & an Easy Soldierlike Air.” His youthfulness puzzled Deane, who knew that Washington had fought in the first years of the French and Indian War and “was with Braddock, and was the means of saving the remains of that unfortunate Army.” Washington spoke modestly, Deane observed, but with a “determined Stile.”

Deane reported a story about Washington that was whispered among the delegates: “It is said That in the House of Burgesses in Virginia, on hearing of the Boston port Bill, he offered to raise and Arm, and lead One Thousand Men himself at his Own Expence for the defence of the Country were there need of it. His Fortune is said to be equall to such an Undertaking.” Washington had made no such speech, but what is important about the rumor is that men who met him in Philadelphia readily believed it.

 

The Country in Arms

The Boston Port Bill had a consequence its authors in London did not anticipate. The law was intended to punish Bostonians for the destruction of the East India Company’s tea, but closing the port also crippled the economy of much of rural eastern Massachusetts, for which Boston was the commercial center. The economic slowdown focused the anger of people in small towns and villages—people who had never been as deeply involved in resisting the tax laws and customs regulations as Bostonians—on the British government. As a result the Massachusetts countryside was soon filled with angry patriots ready to resist British tyranny. That tyranny was represented by General Thomas Gage and the army of occupation in Boston.

General Gage wrote to London in August of the growing resistance outside Boston, where colonists were casting musket balls and collecting gunpowder. Gage was a practical military man, and understood that controlling the colony depended on denying rebellious colonists arms and ammunition. Most militiamen had their own guns, but they relied on common stores of gunpowder and musket balls, which were in short supply. Little gunpowder was made in the colonies, chiefly because saltpeter, the main ingredient, was hard to produce. Much of the gunpowder used in the colonies was manufactured in Britain using saltpeter from India.

Each town had its own gunpowder, but the largest supply in New England belonged to Massachusetts. It was stored in the Provincial Powder House, a stone tower on an isolated hilltop six miles from Boston—far enough from the city that if the powder exploded, nothing else would be lost. The isolation of the tower served the British well. On September 1, 1774, British troops seized the powder house and carried 250 half barrels of gunpowder back to Boston before more than a few colonists knew what had happened.

News that the British army had taken the powder spread quickly through eastern Massachusetts and into New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. With it went a rumor that militia had fought them and at least six Americans were dead. An even more extraordinary rumor, that the Royal Navy had bombarded Boston, was mixed with it. Militiamen from all over southern and eastern New England, in ones and twos and whole companies, set off for Boston in the belief that the colonies were at war. How many thousands set out is not clear. More accurate reports—there had been no fighting after all, the British army was not on the march, the fleet had not fired on the city—caught up with most men on the road and they turned back. Some four thousand reached Cambridge, just outside Boston, before they learned what had happened.

Dr. Joseph Warren wrote that he was delighted by the energy and “resolution” of the country people. Thomas Gage was surprised by the fury he had caused and realized that his army of three thousand men could not maintain control if the colonists started an armed rebellion. He wrote to the ministry in London asking for more troops. “If you think ten thousand sufficient,” he wrote, “send twenty; if one million is thought enough, send two.” No one in the government took him seriously. The standing army in Britain consisted of just twelve thousand men. The government sent Gage four hundred marines.

Gage pushed ahead with his plan. In December he sent troops to take the gunpowder and arms stored at Fort William and Mary in the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sixty miles from Boston. Paul Revere rode north to warn the townspeople that the soldiers were coming. Four hundred New Hampshire militiamen occupied the fort and carried away one hundred barrels of gunpowder before the British arrived.

In February 1775 the British tried to seize cannons kept at Salem, a town north of Boston. Warned that the troops were coming, local patriots hid the cannons. The soldiers were slowed by angry townspeople, including a young woman named Sarah Tarrant shouted from her window: “Go home, and tell your master he sent you on a fool’s errand and has broken the peace of our Sabbath. What do you think?  We were born in the woods to be frightened by owls?” When a soldier pointed his musket at her, she shouted, “Fire, if you have the courage, but I doubt it.” The British troops left empty handed.

Shortly thereafter Gage sent two officers disguised as farmers to map the roads and farm lanes in the countryside outside Boston where the army would have to operate in the event of war. The country people watched them with suspicion from the moment they left the city. Their rough brown clothes were not enough of a disguise to fool anyone. When they stopped at an inn in Watertown for dinner, the African-American serving woman looked at them with thinly veiled amusement. “We observed to her that it was a very fine country,” one of them later remembered saying. “So it is,” she replied, “and we have brave fellows to defend it.” Everyone in the countryside, it seemed, was watching and waiting.

At the end of March, British guards on Boston Neck searched a wagon leaving Boston and found 13,425 musket cartridges—musket balls and individual charges of powder wrapped in paper, ready to load and fire—along with some 5,000 loose musket balls. The guards seized the ammunition, ignoring the protests of the owner, who claimed it was private property. The people were preparing for war, and there was little Thomas Gage could do to stop them.

The king’s ministers in London had assured Gage that the colonists would not fight. Lord George Germain, an ally of Lord North, said that the people of Massachusetts were nothing but “a tumultuous and riotous rabble,” led astray by a few treacherous men. Get rid of them, the king’s ministers told Gage, and the resistance would collapse. Gage had learned how wrong they were. Ordinary colonists, many thousands of them armed, were as determined to defend their rights as their leaders. “It is to no purpose to attempt to destroy the opposition by taking off our Hancocks, Adams, and Dickinsons,” an American warned a member of Parliament in December. “Ten thousand patriots of the same stamp stand ready to take their place.”

 

Liberty or Death

General Gage comforted himself with the thought that an armed conflict, if it came, would be limited to New England. No help would come to New England rebels from the South. The southern planters, Gage wrote, “can do nothing. Their numerous slaves in the bowels of their country, and the Indians at their back, will always keep them quiet.”

Events soon proved Gage wrong. In January 1775, a meeting in Fairfax County led by George Washington called on the men of the county to join the militia. Other counties repeated the call. In March, when the Virginia Convention met at St. John’s Church in Richmond, military preparations were the main topic of discussion. Patrick Henry offered a resolution that “this colony be immediately put into a posture of defense.” Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson spoke in support of Henry’s resolution, but several speakers argued that Virginia should not do anything to provoke the British. Some warned that if Virginia angered the British it might suffer the same fate as Massachusetts.

Henry disagreed. He knew that the British army would overwhelm the Massachusetts patriots unless other colonies helped them. Virginia was the largest colony and had the largest population. Other colonies, Henry believed, would follow Virginia’s lead. When he rose to speak again, his aim was to persuade the convention to prepare for war.

Henry began in a low tone, but his voice became louder and more determined with each sentence. A Baptist minister who was there recalled: “His voice rose louder and louder, until the walls of the building and all within them seemed to shake and rock.” Americans had a choice, Henry said, between submitting to British tyranny and fighting for their liberty:

If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot?

Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come. . .

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun!

The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

The members of the convention were speechless. A young man named Edward Carrington, who was standing in the crowd outside the church, was so moved that he turned to a friend and asked to be buried at that spot, beside the open window where he had listened to Patrick Henry speak. He was buried there thirty-five years later. The convention approved Henry’s resolution. Virginians prepared for war.

Henry’s charge that the British were trying to reduce the colonies to “slavery”—an idea that echoed through the long controversy between the colonies and Britain—had special meaning for the many thousands of Americans who were already enslaved. For African-Americans, slavery meant much more than just being deprived of political rights. It meant being deprived of all rights. For them, slavery was not a danger to be avoided. It was a real condition to be escaped.

There were white colonists who understood that the natural rights they claimed belonged to people of all races. A few weeks after the Boston Tea Party, townspeople of Medford, Massachusetts, adopted a resolution that it was “greatly absurd for us to plead for liberty” while enslaved people “have not the least Shadow of Liberty” remaining. Boston leader James Otis wrote: “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.” In a statement published in the most widely read newspaper in the southern colonies, Richard Henry Lee’s brother Arthur wrote: “freedom is unquestionably the birth-right of all mankind, of Africans as well as Europeans.”

Some African-Americans saw the dispute between Britain and the colonies over rights as an opportunity to claim their own rights. In 1773, four African-American men published a pamphlet in which they spoke for the enslaved people of Massachusetts. “We expect great things,” they wrote, “from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.”

 

© 2021 The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, Inc.