Road to Revolution:

American and British relations, 1763 – 1768

by Erin Klitzke

          The American Revolution, quite possibly the most pivotal event in the history of the United States, still has dozens of explanations for its causes.  The military battles of the Revolution began at Lexington in 1775 and did not end until a battle at Yorktown in 1781.  The political battles, according to Edmund S. Morgan, began as early as the 1760s.

          Shortly after the French and Indian War, there was no indication that within the next few decades colonists in what would become the United States would stage a revolution and win their freedom from England and her empire.  Most people living in the colonies were more than happy to live there, as part of “the largest Empire the Western world had ever known.”[1]  One of the major reasons for this was because colonists enjoyed privileges won for all British citizens during the Glorious Revolution, an event that occurred during the seventeenth century, in which Parliament removed James II (a Stuart) from the English throne and replaced him with William of Orange.[2]  Quite possibly the most important privilege won, in the eyes of many English, was freedom.  Other important things to the citizens of the British Empire were set down in the Magna Carta and other great documents in British history.  The ideas of a constitutional monarchy, something that no other nation in the period had, the concept of a trial by a jury of one’s peers, and no taxation without representation were important to the British citizens.  The colonists thought they should enjoy these things as well because they were, in fact, British citizens.

          Disunity and disorganization characterize the colonies during this period.  There was no sense of these people being Americans, only the sense of one being a Virginian, a New Yorker, a South Carolinian, and English above all.  However, these people were far more alike than they ever realized, and had far more in common with each other than with their English brethren.  The one thing that truly set the colonists apart from the English was the fact that almost every colonial adult male owned his own land.  Another thing that set the colonists apart from citizens of the English mainland was that they had no district from which to send members to Parliament.  As such, the colonists believed that Parliament, while it could pass acts of legislation such as the Navigation Acts, could not tax them.  When Parliament attempted to force the Sugar and Stamp Acts upon the colonists, they began to react negatively because they saw these acts as violating their English liberties.

          The Sugar Act, itself, was a modification of the Molasses Act.  The Molasses Act, which was part of the Navigation Acts, had been a prohibitive action on the part of the British government.  The purpose of the Molasses act was to prevent the import of French molasses to the colonies.  Enforcement of this act would have destroyed New England rum trade.[3]  With the Sugar Act, the surtax on molasses from the French colonies in the Caribbean dropped from six pence per gallon to three, which made it a tax because it was no longer a prohibitive tariff.  It was possible for merchants to import molasses, paying the surtax rather than bribes, without going bankrupt.  The Sugar Act aroused colonial wrath, however, because it was a tax and the colonists went unrepresented in Parliament.  Similar wrath was aroused the Stamp Act, an act where any official document including but not limited to newspapers, wills, marriage licenses, and decks of playing cards had to have an official stamp on them, a stamp that the purveyor of the goods would have to buy from a representative of Parliament.[4]  The colonists called with loud voices for the repeal of these taxes.  It was the first time since the French and Indian War that the colonies had stood together in the face of anything.

          Although Parliament—George Grenville and Thomas Whatley most of all—tried to appease the citizens regarding their concerns about their representation in Parliament, their comments about the colonists being “virtually represented” were not believed.[5]  The colonists’ counter-argument—presented most eloquently by Daniel Dulany—was that the concept of virtual representation could exist only in England, where Parliament members have a vested interest in keeping taxes low.  Because no members of Parliament lived in America, colonists there could not be represented.[6]  It is very likely that the Revolutionary War might have begun sooner had Parliament not repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but things quickly settled down after the colonies won that battle.[7]  It would not be the last.

          The colonists apparently did not realize it at the time, but their cries of anger had not been heeded by Parliament and were not the reason for the repeal of the Stamp Act; the reason for the appeal was purely on the British side of things, where several factions within Parliament favored repeal of the Act.[8]  Things swiftly went downhill from there, with the issuing of the Declaratory Act, which reaffirmed the power of Parliament over the colonies, followed swiftly by an act forcing colonial legislatures to raise taxes to support British troops stationed in the colonies.  The colonists did not react well.[9]  In response to their negative reaction and a change in power, soon the Townshend Acts came down from Parliament, resulting from Charles Townshend’s assertion that “the difference between internal and external taxes [was] absurd.”[10]  The colonial response was similar to their response to the Sugar and Stamp Acts – rallies, boycotting, riots, and the like.  The situation was only made worse by the type of men the Customs agents working in America were, who were described as “always [being] a bad lot.”[11]  The fact that customs officials in the colonies claimed that they were powerless and trapped before reactions ever started did not help matters much, either.  When they called for troops to be sent to Massachusetts, the Secretariat of State, Lord Hillsborough, was all too happy to send them.  In September of 1768, there were already two regiments of British regulars on their way to Boston.  Two more were to follow.[12]  When this occurred, all hope for peaceful resolution to the conflicts between the colonies and England began to die.

[1] Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789 (Chicago, 1956) p. 9

[2] Ibid, p. 17

[3] Ibid, p. 10

[4] Ibid, p. 20

[5] Ibid, pp. 19-20

[6] Ibid, pp. 24-25

[7] Ibid, p. 28

[8] Ibid, p. 29

[9] Ibid, pp. 32-33

[10] Ibid, p. 34

[11] Ibid, p. 37

[12] Ibid, pp. 36-42