Progression from Annoyance to Revolution
the course of twelve years, the residents of what became the United States had a
major change of heart regarding their mother country.
Between the years of 1764 and 1776, colonial sentiments toward the
government of Great Britain changed greatly.
This was due to acts of Parliament that violated British liberties in the
case of the colonists. After twelve
years of telling Parliament what it could and could not do, by 1776, the
colonists decided enough was enough. Because
of acts of Parliament, sentiments changed in the colonies between the years of
1764 and 1776, and that change in sentiments had solid roots.
In 1764, life was good in the colonies. The French and Indian War was over and things were getting back to normal. Then, Parliament made its first mistake. It handed down the Sugar Act, which placed a three pence per gallon surtax on French molasses, which was down from six pence per gallon. The Sugar Act was a tax, whereas previous surtaxes on molasses, such as the Molasses Act, were prohibitive measures. The direct tax sparked protest in the colonies -- Parliament was taxing them without the colonists having representation in Parliament. However, the Sugar Act did not incite an independence movement. Rather, it merely caused protests, due to a deep-seated belief that Parliament would only do right by the colonies and would listen to the colonists. The colonists believed, as evidenced by the the writing of James Otis, that it was in their best interest to remain a part of Great Britain’s empire because the British constitution protected them. In support of the British system, in his “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved,” Otis wrote:
British constitution in theory and in the present administration of it in
general comes nearest to the idea of perfection, of any that has been reduced to
practice; and if the principles of it are adhered to, it will...always keep the Britons
uppermost in Europe, ‘til their only rival nation shall either
embrace that perfect model of a commonwealth given us by [Harrington, a
political theorist of the time], or come as near to is as Great-Britain
From this, it is clear that Otis thought very highly of the British
system, which emphasized the protection of private property and the rights of
man. Otis writes “the finest
writers...on the continent of Europe...envy [Great Britain], no less for
the freedom of her sons, than for her immense wealth and military
Otis believes that the constitution of Britain is responsible for this.
He believed that Parliament would do the right thing because people have
entrusted Parliament with the protection of their rights and as such Parliament
should “incessantly consult their good.”
Because such high praise of the British system was so prevalent in the
American colonies following the Sugar Act, apparently the Sugar Act was not the
event that sparked the American Revolution -- but it was part of the process
that culminated in the American Revolution.
The next blow came in 1765 with the Stamp Act, which aroused extreme
behavior in the colonies. When
Parliament handed down this tax, it believed that it was within its rights to do
so. In order to refute the lack of representation argument heard
after the enactment of the Sugar Act, Parliament said that the colonists were
“virtually represented” in Parliament.
Virtual representation hinged on the idea that even though certain areas
of England did not send people to Parliament, members of Parliament elected from
similar areas of England still represented them. Daniel Dulany refuted this idea in his “Considerations on
the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies...”
In this piece, Dulany set out “to disprove the supposed similarity of
situation, whence on the same kind of representation is deduced, of inhabitants
of the colonies, and of British non-electors...”
Dulany went on to say that no one electing officials in England could
appreciate the situation in the colonies because there was no “intimate and
inseparable relation between the electors of Great-Britain, and the Inhabitants
of the colonies, which must inevitably involve both in the same taxation; on
the contrary, not a single actual elector in England, might be
immediately affected by taxation in America...”
When Dulany proved that virtual representation did not work in the case
of the colonies, he opened the door for protest, which is what he advocated: the
protection of British liberties through protest to the Stamp Act.
During the Stamp Act crisis, the colonists only took into their own hands
the protection of their British liberties -- something that Parliament was
failing to do.
In neither of these instances is there any sort of indication that the
colonies wanted independence. In
fact, after the repeal of the Stamp Act, colonists were content to remain a
vital part of the British Empire. Parliament
did not stop, however. In February
of 1766, after issuing the Declaratory Act, an act that stated Parliament had
the right to pass legislation and to tax anywhere in the Empire -- Parliament
called Benjamin Franklin before the House of Commons to discuss colonial
concerns. The House of Commons
questioned him on the Stamp Act, which he admitted would never work, no matter
how much Parliament wanted it to, because it was an internal tax.
Franklin attempts to avoid the subject of external taxation where he can
in the course of the discussion. Eventually,
members of the House of Commons corner him into speaking on the subject.
Franklin explained to them the difference between “[duties] on the
importation of goods and [excises] on their consumption” as “a very material
He went on to say
colonists think you can have no right to lay [taxes] within their country.
But the sea is yours; you maintain, by your fleets, the safety of
navigation in it, and keep it clear of pirates; you may have therefore a natural
and equitable right to some toll or duty on the merchandizes carried through
that part of your dominions, towards defraying the expence you are at in ships
to maintain the safety of that carriage.
The House of Commons eventually forced him to admit that there was no
difference between internal and external taxation in ideological terms.
Franklin did not want to discuss ideology because it would only cause
more problems -- he urged Parliament to remain in the real world and away from
ideology. Franklin did this because
he knew that there was nothing the colonists could do to stop Parliament from
taxing externally -- and the colonists were willing to accept external taxation
-- but the colonists would not stand for internal taxation.
By remaining in the real world and out of the realm of ideology,
Parliament could tax the colonies externally and the colonists would not have
reason to be upset. The House of
Commons seemed to ignore Franklin’s urgings to stay within the realm of
reality in this regard.
With the passing of the Townshend Act by Parliament, the familiar
argument resurfaced. John Dickinson
wrote in response to them “the parliament has no right to compel [the
assembly of New York] to execute [the Townshend Acts].”
His work did not say anything different from what James Otis and Daniel
Dulany before him said: that it was not right for Parliament to tax the
colonists without representation. Dickinson,
however, did say “For my part I am resolved to contend for the liberty
delivered down to me by my ancestors.”
However, the American Revolution was still eight years away.
More insults to the British liberties that the colonists held dear were
yet to come.
With the Tea Act came yet another insult to British liberty in the
Americas and major protest to external taxation.
While Parliament viewed it was a “clever ruse to inveigle Americans
into paying the [third] duty on tea and thereby openly [admit] Parliament’s
right to tax the colonies.”
The colonists viewed it somewhat differently.
In response to the Tea Act, the “great number of the principle
gentlemen of [New York], merchants, lawyers, and other inhabitants of all
ranks” issued a document condemning the Tea Act and all that adhered to it.
The “great number” was the membership of the New York Sons of
On December 15, 1773, the same day the Sons of Liberty in New York issued
the document, another great event in the course of American history took place
-- the Boston Tea Party.
In response to the actions of the Boston Sons of Liberty, Parliament
issued the Coercive -- Intolerable -- Acts.
In four acts, the Quartering Act, the Boston Port Act, the Government
Act, and the “Murder Act,” Parliament set out to punish Bostonians for what
happened that December night. The
Quartering Act required that Bostonians clothe, house, and feed British
peacekeeping troops in Boston. The
Boston Port Act closed the port at Boston until the city paid for the ruined
tea. The Government Act changed the
very constitution of the colony of Massachusetts, and the “Murder Act,” as
it was referred to by the colonists, made certain that the trial of soldiers who
committed crimes in the colonies would face trial in England or Canada.
With the Intolerable Acts came colonial refusal to abide by legislation
set down by Parliament. In 1776,
when Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense,” all alternatives sough by various
parties -- mostly the colonial elites and former members of colonial
legislatures -- had proven ineffective. Paine’s
“Common Sense” was popular reading in 1776.
In it, he said, “government even in its best state is but a necessary
evil; in its worst state an intolerable one...”
He reminded people that government exists because people even at their
best, need to be ruled, but the government that rules people should also protect
them. He stated that the English
system of government could not possibly work because the very institution of
monarchy was flawed. This is drastically different from what James Otis said.
Paine said, “[to] say that the constitution of England is a union
of three powers reciprocally checking each other, is farical, either the
words have no meaning, or are flat contradictions.”
say that the commons are a check upon the king, presupposes two things:
-- That the king is not to be trusted without being looked after, or in other
words, that thirst for absolute power is the natural diseases of monarchy.
Secondly -- That the commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown.
Neither of these things, in the case of Great Britain, Paine believed,
were true. He saw the British
system as being full of contradictions that rendered it inoperable.
The colonies needed to shove the British system aside and begin anew,
Paine believed, with a democracy, where “the law [was] king.”
He believed that nothing could “settle [the affairs of the colonists]
so expeditiously as open, and determined declaration for independence.”
Thus, with the Declaration of Independence following the publishing of
“Common Sense,” the war was on.
The progression through events from 1764 to 1776 showed each step toward
American independence. First, the
colonists protested Parliament’s attempt to tax them without representation.
As Parliament attempted to force the colonists into accepting its right
to tax them, it alienated the colonists, who reacted in ways Parliament did not
expect. With the passage of
legislation deemed in its very name “intolerable” by the colonists, they
decided that Parliament no longer had the right to legislate for the colonies,
either. With no options left, by
1776, independence seemed to be the best solution to all the problems faced by
the colonies. Not everyone shared
that belief, but despite the Loyalists in the colonies, the American Revolution
happened and the thirteen colonies in North America became independent -- became
the United States of America.
Through those twelve years between 1764 and 1776, colonists tried
everything until they had no other option but to declare their independence from
Britain -- from the government that was no longer doing its duty by them. The colonists understood the whole point of government was to
protect their rights. They viewed
themselves as living under the rule of the greatest nation in the world, a
nation where men had liberties guaranteed to them by British common law and the
Magna Carta. It was only when
Parliament stopped upholding and protecting those inborn rights that the
troubles began. The troubles grew
worse with the Parliament stopped upholding and protecting those inborn rights
that the troubles began. The
troubles grew worse with Parliament’s inability to understand -- or perhaps
the unwillingness to listen -- to the colonists’ complaints and concerns about
the state of tings. Had Parliament
listened to and acted on the complaints and concerns of the colonists the way
the colonists hoped, Parliament and the colonists could have prevented the
American Revolution -- or at least postponed it.
 Jack P. Greene, Colonies to Nation 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution (W.W. Norton, 1975) pp. 28
 Ibid, pp. 53
 Ibid, pp. 55
 Ibid, pp. 72-76
 Ibid, pp. 76-78
 Ibid, pp. 124
 Ibid, pp. 233
 Ibid, pp. 197
 Ibid, pp. 198
 Ibid, pp. 202-209
 Ibid, pp. 270
 Ibid, pp. 272
 Ibid, pp. 282