Step by Step:

Colonial Progression from Annoyance to Revolution

 by Erin Klitzke

          Over 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:

The 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 is.[1]

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 glory.”[2]  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.”[3]  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...”[4]  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...”[5]  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 one.”[6]  He went on to say

[The 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.[7]

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.[8]

          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].”[9]  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.”[10]  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.”[11]  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 Liberty.[12]  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.[13]

          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...”[14]  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.”  He continued

To say that the commons are a check upon the king, presupposes two things:

First -- 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.
-- That the commons, by being appointed for that purpose, are either wiser or more worthy of confidence than the crown.[15]

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.”[16]  He believed that nothing could “settle [the affairs of the colonists] so expeditiously as open, and determined declaration for independence.”[17]  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.

[1] Jack P. Greene, Colonies to Nation 1763-1789: A Documentary History of the American Revolution (W.W. Norton, 1975) pp. 28

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, pp. 53

[5] Ibid, pp. 55

[6] Ibid, pp. 72-76

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, pp. 76-78

[9] Ibid, pp. 124

[10] Ibid, pp. 233

[11] Ibid, pp. 197

[12] Ibid, pp. 198

[13] Ibid, pp. 202-209

[14] Ibid, pp. 270

[15] Ibid, pp. 272

[16] Ibid, pp. 282

[17] Ibid.