Move Toward Independence Chapter 5
We now go back into the Magic Tree House & set the dial for 1763. This would be a pivotal year in the American Experience. In fact, it would be a pivotal year in Europe, also. It was the year that the French and Indian War ended. This was part of a larger war that was called the Seven Years War in Europe & the Great War ForEmpire worldwide. It was one of seven world wars. Americans have been involved in all seven.
When the fighting stopped with the Peace of Paris, 1763, Britain emerged as the dominant power not only in Europe, but also in the world. The British will dominate for about a century and a half.
With the victory, the British adopted a new colonial poicy for her North American colonies. This was necessary because of a changing situation. The repercussions of this change will eventually result in a revolution of 13 of those North American colonies against the mighty British Empire.
As a result of their experience in the French & Indian War, the British changed their attitude toward their 13 North American colonies. What caused this change?
1. British ignorance of the colonial point of view.
2. Britain’s experience with the colonists during the war.
3. Britain’s concern with the cost of the war & of administering her vastly larger empire in North America.
Britain’s ignorance of the colonial point of view existed mainly because of the fact that 3,000 miles separated the two. Very few, if any, high British officials ever visited the colonies. They did not realize that the colonists had become used to being on their own. Although the colonists felt a strong loyalty to Britain, they were used to being left alone to rule themselves within the British Empire.
It is quite possible that if the British officials had been more aware of the colonial point of view & their feelings, the British would have handled things differently.
As I said the British experience with the colonists during the French & Indian War affected, even prejudiced their thinking. British military & political leaders had expected colonial help during the war. In their minds they did not get it. From their point of view the colonial militias were ineffective. Colonial officers were inept. Also, the colonist had continued trading with the French during the war. William Pitt estimated that colonial trading with the enemy had caused the war to last three more years than necessary.
This led the British to feel that the colonials could not or would not be able to defend themselves against the Indians after the war. Therefore, the British would have to station troops in America.
Britain had acquired a huge national debt as a result of the war. It had to be paid off. Since part of that debt was incurred to protect the colonists from the French & the Indians, British
officials thought it only fair that the colonists should help pay off some of that debt. The British also felt that the colonists should pay part of the cost of keeping British soldiers in North America to protect the colonists.
The period of the Americans being left alone was about to come to a screeching halt.
With the end of the war, most Americans looked forward to a return to the good old days. The threat of the French in the Ohio Valley was now gone. They could pour into that land. They could pick up their illegal trade with the French & Spanish. The future would be prosperous. The Americans would have the protection of the British fleet along with the independence to control their own affairs.
At this point in time, many, if not most, Americans felt stronger ties of loyalty to the crown than to other Americans. Virginians had little in common with New Englanders. Those along the coast in the Carolinas had little in common with those living along the frontier in the Carolinas. In fact those on the frontier tended to resent those along the coast.
One thing most colonists did have in common was that they were used to going their own way with little interference from the British government. They were used to making their own decisions. It would be natural that not only would they resent attempts at outside control, they would resist those attempts.
There were two notable attacks on British legitimacy that should have been a warning to the British policy makers of colonial attitudes. However, the British ignored those warnings. The first warning had to do with Writs of Assistance, the second with the king’s veto power.
During the French & Indian War, hoping to stop the illegal colonial trade with the enemy, British officials issued Writs of Assistance. These were general search warrants that allowed customs officials & soldiers to look anywhere for unspecified smuggled goods. They did not have to provide reasons for thinking that goods might be where they were going to search.
In 1761, colonial merchants, determined to trade and smuggle with whoever they wanted, hired the attorney general of Massachusetts, James Otis, to argue their case in court.
Otis argued that Parliament had no right to issue the hated Writs. He argued that Englishmen, be they in England or in the colonies, had certain fundamental right that Parliament could not violate. His argument was brilliant. "One of the most essential branches of liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle." The Americans lost their case but the cause & the publicity generated by the trial aroused a lot of people against the British.
The second warning came from a Virginia lawyer named Patrick Henry. By Virginia law, Anglican preachers were paid an annual salary by the Virginia colonial legislature. That salary was not in money but in tobacco. It was set at 17,000 pounds per year. In the 1750’s there were several bad tobacco years in a row. (crop failures) What happens to the price of tobacco
then? The colonial legislature realized that meant the preachers were getting large raises & also a higher percentage of the colony’s tobacco.
The Virginia House of Burgesses, trying to keep the actual salary of the preachers where it had been set, decreased the amount of tobacco each preacher would get. They were looking at the spirit of the law, not the letter. They passed two laws decreasing the amount of tobacco to be paid to the clergy.
The clergy protested & appealed to the king’s Privy Council in London. In 1758, the Privy Council annulled one of the acts of the House of Burgesses.
Now several clergy sued for back pay. The case was called the Parson’s Cause. Patrick Henry defended the Virginia legislature. He argued that "a king by disallowing acts of this kind, degenerates into a tyrant & forfeits sll right to his subjects’ obedience."
The jury really had no choice but to fing in favor of the preachers. Where they did have room to show their anger & disgust was in the award. They showed their defiance of the king’s government by awarding each member of the clergy the back pay of one penny.
These two actions should have warned the British that the colonists would resent attempts at control. But, as I said, the British ingored the warnings.
Britain’s new colonial policy, in the beginning, was not really new. Parliament decided to start enforcing laws that were already on the books. Read about Prime Minister George Grenville & the laws he persuaded Parliament to pass in order to raise revenue from the colonies & to tighten control over them.
When enforcing the old laws did not bring in enough revenue, Grenville persuaded Parliament to pass more laws. Read about the Sugar Act & the Stamp Act.
It was during this time that colonial leaders such as John Adams & his cousin Sam, both from Massachusetts, rose to prominence. It was also during this time that protests over what the British government had the authority to do in the colonies began to take shape.
Explain the Stamp Act & why the British were surprised at the colonial reaction.
The most significant attack against the Stamp Act came from a Maryland lawyer named Daniel Dulany. He said that much of the opposition was too extreme. He was totally against any mention of revolution or use of violence. But he did argue that Parliament did not have the right to impose taxed on the colonies for the purpose of raising revenue. He, like Otis, argued the "rights of Englishmen". Through the Magna Carta & the English Bill of Rights, Englishmen could be taxed only by their elected representatives.. Dulaney argued that not only were the colonists not represented in Parliament, there was no way they could be effectively represented. Therefore, Dulaney argued, Parliament did not have the power to levy internal taxes on the colonists. Only their colonial assemblies could do that. He did agree that
Parliament had the right to levy external taxes in order to control trade within the empire &between the empire & foreign countries.
Dulaney might have been the first to distinguish between internal & external taxes. Stamp taxes were internal while taxes on imports or exports were external. Many of the rich liked this argument because it gave them an excuse to do what they wanted. Avoid paying taxes. It allowed them the benefit of being in the British Empire while limiting Parliament’s interference in their money making.
Now we get the idea of "no taxation without representation". There also comes to light a different interpretation of what constituted "representation". The British argued that the colonists were indeed represented in Parliament. British tradition was that every Member of Parliament represented every citizen in the Empire. They called this "virtual representation".
The Americans said virtual representation was nonsense. One cannot be represented by someone for whom they cannot vote for or vote against. The Americans had the better argument here. In fact, it was no contest.
The actual economic burden of the Stamp Tax was relatively light. The people in Britain paid a higher stamp tax. What seemed to upset the colonists most was not so much the immediate cost but the precedent it set. It was a direct attempt to raise revenue in the colonies without the consent of the colonial assemblies. If this would go through without opposition, it would open the flood gates for far more burdensome taxation in the future.
Not many in the colonies thought they could do much more than grumble about the situation (death & taxes) & in the end, pay the tax. That is until the House of Burgesses sounded a trumpet call. The call to action was sounded by a group of young Virginia aristocrats. Foremost among the malcontents was Patrick Henry. He was already famous for his part in the Parsons’ Cause.
He now made a dramatic speech in the House of Burgesses in May 1765. He introduced a set of resolutions declaring that Virginians were entitled to the rights of Englishmen – that colonial assemblies alone had the right to tax colonials – that taxes imposed bu any other source were illegal & unjust - that taxation without representation was wrong.
Henry concluded with a reminder and a warning to George III of the fate of other tyrants – men like Charles I & Julius Caesar. When he finished this part of hs speech, there were shocked cries of "treason" from other delegates. Henry became famous for his reply: "If this be treason, make the most of it!" However, according to at least one eyewitness, when the cries were made, he immediately apologized. The quote seemed not to have come public until years later.
The Burgesses defeated the most extreme of the resolutions but all of them were printed & circulated throughout the colonies as the Virginia Resolves. People got the impression in the other colonies that the people of Virginia were more militant than they actually were.
Meanwhile, the protest caused the Parliament to back down. They repealed the Stamp Act but passed the Declaratory Act. This would become a trend. They would pass taxes, the colonies would protest & they would back down. Parliament did not stick with a consistent policy.
The slow communication of the time made it difficult for either side to really understand the other. There were many, if not most, on both sides who really wanted tro avoid violence & war. In Britain, Edmund Burke begged Parliament to give up the right to tax the colonies. British merchants warned of cutting off their noses to spite their faces..
In July, 1775, delegates to the Second Continental Congress drew up the Declaration ofCauses & Necessity of Taking Up Arms. The delegates were explaining why militia were drilling on village greens. In it the delegates resolved that they would "Die freemen rather than live as slaves!" But they also said they were not raising armies to separate from Britain & establish themselves as independent states.
As late as January 1775, very few in America were using the "I" word. Most still hoped for peaceful reconciliation. Most thought if only they could get directly ot the king. They thought Parliament was the problem. TO those ends, the Second Continental Congress sent the "Olive Branch Petition" to George III (also in July 1775). In it they stated their loyalty to the king. Not only did George refuse to even look at it, shortly after receiving it, he declared the colonies to be in a "state of rebellion". In September 1775, he hired several thousand German mercenaries to help put down the "rebellion" in America.
In December, 1775, Parliament forbad all trade & communication with the colonies. John Adams wrote that "This makes us independent in spite of all our supplications & entreaties."
The "die was cast". Neither side was really ready to back down. Shooting had already taken place in April 1775. Once blood is shed, there is very little chance of playing it out any other way but through violence.
In April 1776, the North Carolina legislature became the first to vote for independence – the Halifax Resolves.
Still a lot of colonists were not certain of which stand to take. Should they stay loyal to the king & try to get Britain to change their policies or should they join the rebels? If they chose to fight, what should they fight for? Should they fight to get a change of policy or should they fight for independence?
It was in this time of indecision that Thomas Paine wrote his pamphlet, Common Sense.
For practical purposes, independence seemed to be the course to take. It seemed as if they were going to have to fight whether to get a change of policy or for independence. If they were going to have to fight a war with Britain, independence would be the greater incentive for war.
If they were fighting for a change of policy & won, what would prevent Britain from going back to the old policy later. The only way to be certain of permanent release from Britain oppression was to win independence. So, if they were going to have to fight anyway, fighting for independence made more sense.
Also, if they were going to have to fight a war, people would be more willing to make sacrifices if they were fighting for a cause such as independence.
Also, if they were going to take on the most powerful economic & military power on earth, they would need foreign help. France & Spain would be more likely to help if it were not a civil war.
TO those ends, in early July, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution to the Second Continental Congess. Be it resolved that these thirteen colonies are, and as a right, ought to be, free and independent states. After spirited debate, the Congress approved it on July 2, 1776. Ben Franklin said that date would forever be celebrated in American history with fireworks.
The Congress then appointed a committee ot write a formal declaration of their independence. Ben Franklin, John Adams & Thomas Jefferson secluded themselves to write the document.
Most of the writing was done by Jefferson. The document would be the Declaration of Independence. Very few great works of literature have been written by a committee. This is probably the greatest.
Much to Jefferson’s chagrin, the Congress made a few changes. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress formally approved the Declaration & released it to the public.
This was how the colonists learned what they were fighting for. George Washington had it read to his soldiers around Boston.
The Declaration is divided into three parts:
1. The Preamble – states the principles of the American democracy. If there is an American creed this is it. It is among the most important words ever written.
2. A long list of grievances against George III
3. A formal Declaration of Independence
The Preamble is the most important part of the Declaration. The ideas were not Jefferson’s alone. They were ideas that had been put forth by the ancient Greeks & more recently by political philosophers such as the Englishman John Locke. But Jefferson took those ideas and wrote them in a clear and concise language that everyone forever would be able to understand.
In the second part, Jefferson put the blame on the king rather than on Parliament or on the English people. I think he had two purposes here. One was to destroy the ties of loyalty that so many Americans still had to the king. The other was to focus Americans’ anger on one point. Narrow the focus.
It ended with a resounding resolution for independence that formally severed all ties with Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence summarized colonial complaints, appealed to liberals in America & Europe and acted as a call to arms.
Those signers showed terrific courage. They knew they were putting their lives on the line. If they failed or if they were captured they were surely to be tried as traitors. They would be executed & it would not be a soldier’s "honorable" death by firing squad. It would be a criminal’s death by hanging.