The Acts of Parliament

The Acts of Parliament

The Quartering Acts ordered the local governments of the American colonies to provide housing and provisions for British soldiers.

Learning Objectives

Identify the Quartering Acts

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Two 18th-century acts of the Parliament of Great Britain, the Quartering Acts, ordered the local governments of the American colonies to provide housing and provisions for British soldiers.
  • These acts were amendments to the original Mutiny Acts, which had to be renewed annually by Parliament.
  • Originally intended as a response to problems that arose during Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War, they later became a source of tension between inhabitants of the 13 colonies and the government in London.

Key Terms

  • quartering: The provision of lodging or other accommodations.
  • Mutiny Act: An annual law by the Parliament of England, originally passed in 1689, that made desertion and sedition of English officers and soldiers punishable crimes.
  • Thomas Gage: A British general best known for his many years of service in North America, including his role as military commander in the early days of the American Revolution.
  • Quartering Acts: Laws of the Parliament of Great Britain ordering the local governments of the American colonies to provide housing and provisions for British soldiers.

Introduction

Two 18th-century acts of the Parliament of Great Britain, known together as the Quartering Acts, ordered the local governments of the American colonies to provide housing and provisions for British soldiers. They were amendments to the Mutiny Act, which had to be renewed annually by Parliament. Originally intended as a response to problems that arose during Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War, they later became a source of tension between inhabitants of the 13 colonies and the government in London.

The Quartering Act of 1765

Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of forces in British North America, and other British officers who fought in the French and Indian War, were finding it hard to persuade colonial assemblies to pay for the quartering and provisioning of troops on the march. As a result, Gage asked Parliament to find a solution. Most colonies had supplied provisions during the war, but the issue was disputed in peacetime. Following the expiration of an act that provided British regulars with quartering in New York, Parliament passed the Quartering Act of 1765, which went far beyond what Gage had requested.

This first Quartering Act was given royal assent in March of 1765 and provided that Great Britain would house its soldiers in American barracks and public houses, as by the Mutiny Act of 1765. However, if soldiers outnumbered the housing available, they would be quartered “in inns, livery stables, ale houses, victualing houses, and the houses of sellers of wine and houses of persons selling of rum, brandy, strong water, cider, or metheglin.” In addition, the costs of the troops’ food and lodging fell to the colonists.

Resistance to the Act

Since the time of James II, who ruled from 1685 to 1688, many British subjects had mistrusted the presence of a standing army during peacetime, and having to pay for the soldiers’ lodging and food was especially burdensome. Widespread evasion and disregard for the law occurred in almost all the colonies. The colonies disputed the legality of this act since it seemed to violate the Bill of Rights of 1689, which forbade taxation without representation and the raising and/or keeping of a standing army without the consent of Parliament. No standing army had been kept in the colonies before the French and Indian War, and the colonies questioned why a standing army was needed after the French had been defeated.

When 1,500 British troops arrived at New York City in 1766, the New York Provincial Assembly refused to comply with the Quartering Act and did not supply quartering for the troops. As a result, the troops had to remain on their ships. With its great impact on the city, a skirmish occurred in which one colonist was wounded. For failure to comply with the Quartering Act, Parliament suspended New York’s governor and legislature in 1767 and 1769; however, this was never carried out because the Assembly soon agreed to contribute money toward the quartering of troops. The Quartering Act was circumvented in all colonies other than Pennsylvania and expired on 1767.

The Quartering Act of 1774

An amendment to the original Quartering Act was passed on June 2, 1774. This act was passed and enforced along with many others, known by the colonists as the “Intolerable Acts.”  The new Quartering Act similarly allowed a governor to house soldiers in other buildings, such as barns, inns, among other unoccupied structures, if suitable quarters were not provided. Unlike the previous act, it did not require that soldiers be supplied with provisions. The new act also required that the housing of troops be a mutual agreement between the parties involved. If a colonial government had laws that provided troops with accommodations that were approved by the crown, the act was not applied. This act expired on March 24, 1776.

Application Today: The Third Amendment

The Third Amendment to the United States Constitution places restrictions on the quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner’s consent, forbidding the practice in peacetime. The amendment, introduced in the United States Congress a decade after independence in 1789, was a direct a response to the Quartering Acts, which the colonists had greatly opposed. The Third Amendment was introduced by James Madison as a part of the United States Bill of Rights, in response to anti-Federalist objections to the new Constitution. The amendment is one of the least controversial of the Constitution.

Portrait of Thomas Gage

Thomas Gage: “Thomas Gage,” oil on canvas, by the American artist John Singleton Copley.

The Sugar and Stamp Acts

The Sugar and Stamp Acts of 1764 and 1765, intended to raise revenue in Great Britain, led to increased resistance from the colonies.

Learning Objectives

Define the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Sugar Act was a revenue-raising act passed by the British Parliament in April 1764. By reducing the earlier Molasses Tax’s rate and expanding enforcement, the British hoped that the tax could be effectively collected.
  • The Stamp Act of 1765 required that many printed materials in the colonies be on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp.
  • The purpose of these taxes was to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory in the Seven Years’ War.
  • The acts were met with great resistance in the colonies, as many colonists considered it a violation of their rights as Englishmen to be taxed without their consent.
  • Colonial uprising led to the first joint colonial response to British measures. Local protest groups created a loose coalition that extended from New England to Georgia, and organized resistance kept the stamp tax from being effectively collected.

Key Terms

  • Molasses Act of 1733: A law passed by Parliament at the insistence of plantation owners in the British West Indies, imposing a tax of six pence per gallon of molasses.
  • George Grenville: A British Whig statesman who rose to the position of Prime Minister of Great Britain.
  • Sugar Act: A revenue-raising law passed by the Parliament of Great Britain on April 5, 1764.

The Sugar Act of 1764

The Sugar Act, also known as the American Revenue Act, was a revenue-raising act passed by the British Parliament of Great Britain in April of 1764. The earlier Molasses Act of 1733, which had imposed a tax of six pence per gallon of molasses, had never been effectively collected due to colonial resistance and evasion. By reducing the rate by half and expanding measures to effectively enforce the tax, the British hoped that the new tax on sugar would actually be collected. The passage and enforcement of the Sugar Act increased the colonists’ concerns about their rights as British citizens and the intent of the British Parliament to more directly rule the colonies. These concerns also fed the growing resistance movement that became the American Revolution.

Background

The earlier Molasses Act of 1733 was passed by Parliament largely at the insistence of large plantation owners in the British West Indies. Molasses was used in New England for making rum, and the molasses trade had been growing between New England; the Middle colonies; and the French, Dutch, and Spanish West Indian possessions. Sugar from the British West Indies was priced much higher than its competitors, and an increasing number of colonial merchants turned to Britain’s imperial rivals for the molasses they needed.

In the first part of the 18th century, the British West Indies were Great Britain’s most important trading partner, so Parliament was attentive to their requests. However, rather than agreeing to demands to prohibit the colonies from trading with the non-British islands, Parliament instead passed the excessively high tax on the colonies and molasses imported from those islands. If actually collected, the tax would have effectively closed that source to New England and destroyed much of the rum industry. Soon, smuggling, bribery, and intimidation of customs officials effectively nullified the law.

During the French and Indian War, the British government substantially increased its national debt in order to pay for the war. As the war ended in February of 1763, the ministry headed by John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, decided to maintain a standing army of 10,000 British regular troops in the colonies to protect them, which would also increase post-war expenses.

George Grenville—who became prime minister in April 1763—had to find a way to restore the nation’s finances, address the large debt, and pay for this large peacetime army. Raising taxes in Britain was not an option due to virulent protests in England, and the Grenville ministry decided Parliament would raise this revenue instead by taxing the American colonists. This was something new, as Parliament had previously passed measures to regulate trade in the colonies but had never before directly taxed the colonies to raise revenue. Grenville did not expect the colonies to contribute to the interest or the retirement of the debt; however, he did expect the colonists to pay a portion of the expenses for colonial defense, and so he devised the Sugar Act of 1764 to raise those funds.

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George Grenville: Portrait of George Grenville

Passage

The Molasses Act was set to expire in 1763. The commissioners of customs anticipated greater demand for both molasses and rum as a result of the end of the war and the acquisition of Canada. They believed that the increased demand would make a reduced tax rate both affordable and collectible. When passed by Parliament, the new Sugar Act of 1764 halved the previous tax on molasses. In addition to promising stricter enforcement, the language of the bill made it clear that the purpose of the legislation was not to simply regulate trade but to actually raise revenue.

The new act listed specific goods, the most important being lumber, which could only be exported to Britain. Ship captains were required to maintain detailed manifests of their cargo, and the papers were subject to verification before anything could be unloaded from the ships. Customs officials were empowered to have all violations tried in vice admiralty courts rather than by jury trials in local colonial courts, where colonial juries generally looked favorably on smuggling as a profession.

The Stamp Act of 1765

Parliament announced with the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764 that they would also consider a stamp tax in the colonies. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, was a direct tax imposed by the British Parliament on the colonies of British America. The act required that many printed materials in the colonies be on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. Similar to the Sugar Act, the purpose of the tax was to help pay for troops stationed in North America after the British victory in the Seven Years’ War.

The novelty of the Stamp Act was that it was the first internal tax—that is, a tax based entirely on activities within the colonies and levied directly on the colonies by Parliament. Because of its potential widespread application to the colonial economy, the Stamp Act was judged by the colonists to be a more dangerous assault on their rights than the Sugar Act. Although opposition to this tax was soon forthcoming, there was little expectation in Britain. Members of Parliament and American agents in Great Britain did not expect the intensity of the protest that the tax would generate.

Colonial Resistance to the Acts

The Sugar Act was passed during a time of economic depression in the colonies. While it was an indirect tax, the colonists were well informed of its presence. A significant portion of the colonial economy during the Seven Years’ War was involved with providing food and supplies to the British Army. Colonists, especially those affected directly as merchants and shippers, assumed that the highly visible, new tax program was the major culprit for their economic struggles. Calls for the Act’s repeal began almost immediately, and protests against the Sugar Act at first focused more on the economic impact rather than the constitutional issue of taxation without representation.

The Stamp Act was met with even greater resistance in the colonies. Opposition to the Stamp Act was not limited to the colonies—British merchants and manufacturers, whose exports to the colonies were threatened by colonial economic problems exacerbated by the tax, also pressured Parliament.

“No Taxation Without Representation”

The First Congress of the American Colonies, also known as the Stamp Act Congress, was held in 1765 to devise a unified protest against British taxation. The colonies sent no representatives to British Parliament, and therefore had no influence over what taxes were raised, how they were levied, or how they would be spent. Many colonists considered it a violation of their rights as Englishmen to be taxed without their consent—consent that only the colonial legislatures could grant. Colonial assemblies sent petitions and protests, reflecting the first significant joint colonial response to any British measure by petitioning Parliament and the King.

The theoretical issue that would soon hold center stage was the matter of taxation without representation. The counter to this argument, held by members of Parliament, was the theory of virtual representation. Thomas Whately explained this theory in a pamphlet that readily acknowledged there could be no taxation without consent; however, he argued that at least 75% of British adult males were not represented in Parliament because of property qualifications or other factors. Since members of Parliament were bound to represent the interests of all British citizens and subjects, colonists—like those disenfranchised subjects in Great Britain—were the recipients of virtual representation in Parliament. This theory, however, ignored a crucial difference between the unrepresented in Britain and the colonists. The colonists enjoyed actual representation in their own legislative assemblies, and the issue was whether these legislatures, rather than Parliament, were in fact the sole recipients of the colonists’ consent with regard to taxation.

Local protest groups led by colonial merchants and landowners established connections through correspondence, creating a loose coalition that extended from New England to Georgia. Protests and demonstrations initiated by the Sons of Liberty often turned violent and destructive as the masses became involved. Soon, many stamp tax distributors were intimidated into resigning their commissions, and the tax was never effectively collected.

The Stamp Act was repealed on March 18, 1766, as a matter of expedience, but Parliament affirmed its power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever” by also passing the Declaratory Act. There followed a series of new taxes and regulations, likewise opposed by the colonists.

Swelling Protest

The passage of the Stamp Act in the colonies was followed by a marked rise of organized protest movements and groups, including the Sons of Liberty.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the colonists’ response to the Stamp Act

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following the Molasses, Sugar, and Quartering Acts, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which provided the first internal tax on the colonists.
  • The Stamp Act was faced with vehement opposition throughout the colonies — ` merchants threatened to boycott British products, and thousands of New Yorkers rioted near the location where the stamps were stored.
  • To protect the rights of colonists, delegates of the Stamp Act Congress drafted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, declaring that taxes imposed on British colonists without their formal consent were unconstitutional.
  • After 1765, major American cities saw the formation of secret groups set up to defend their rights. Groups such as these were absorbed into the greater Sons of Liberty, a political group formed to protect the rights of the colonists.
  • Opposition to the Stamp Act inspired both political and constitutional forms of literature throughout the colonies, strengthened colonial political perception and involvement, and created new forms of organized resistance.

Key Terms

  • Samuel Adams: An American statesman, political philosopher, and one of the founding fathers of the United States.
  • Sons of Liberty: A political group made up of American patriots; it originated in the pre-independence North American British colonies.

Colonial Resistance Strategies

Following the Molasses, Sugar, and Quartering Acts, Parliament passed one of the most infamous pieces of legislation: the Stamp Act. Previously, Parliament imposed only external taxes on imports. However, the Stamp Act provided the first internal tax on the colonists and faced vehement opposition throughout the colonies. Merchants threatened to boycott British products, and thousands of New Yorkers rioted near the location where the stamps were stored.

After 1765, the major American cities saw the formation of secret groups set up to defend their rights. Groups such as these were absorbed into the greater Sons of Liberty organization, a political group made up of American patriots formed to protect the rights of the colonists from the usurpations of the British government after 1766. Political groups such as the Sons of Liberty evolved into groups such as the Committees of Correspondence: shadow governments organized by the patriot leaders of the 13 colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. They coordinated responses to Britain and shared their plans; by 1773 they had emerged as shadow governments, superseding the colonial legislature and royal officials.

Declaration of Rights and Grievances

The Stamp Act stirred activity among colonial representatives to denounce what they saw as the disregard of colonial rights by the Crown. To protect the rights of colonists, delegates of the Stamp Act Congress drafted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, declaring that taxes imposed on British colonists without their formal consent were unconstitutional. This was especially directed at the Stamp Act, which required that documents, newspapers, and playing cards to be printed on special stamped and taxed paper. The Declaration of Rights raised 14 points of colonial protest. In addition to the specific protests of the Stamp Act taxes, it asserted that:

  • only the colonial assemblies had a right to tax the colonies (leading to the common phrase, “no taxation without representation”);
  • trial by jury was a right;
  • the use of Admiralty Courts was abusive;
  • colonists possessed all the rights of Englishmen; and
  • without voting rights, Parliament could not represent the colonists.

Rise of the Sons of Liberty

Public outrage over the Stamp Act was demonstrated most notably in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island. It was during this time of street demonstrations that locally organized groups started to merge into an inter-colonial organization of a type not previously seen in the colonies. In Boston, the street demonstrations originated from the leadership of respectable public leaders such as James Otis, who commanded the Boston Gazette, and Samuel Adams of the “Loyal Nine” of the Boston Caucus, an organization of Boston merchants. Otis and Adams made efforts to control the people below them on the economic and social scale, but they were often unsuccessful in maintaining a delicate balance between mass demonstrations and riots. These men needed the support of the working class, but they also had to establish the legitimacy of their actions to have their protests of England taken seriously.

At the time of these protests, the Loyal Nine was more of a social club with political interests, but by December of 1765, it began issuing statements as the Sons of Liberty. Although the term “sons of liberty” had been used in a generic fashion well before 1765, it was only around February 1766, that its influence as an organized group using the formal name “Sons of Liberty,” extended throughout the colonies. Its emergence led to the development of a pattern for future resistance to the British that would carry the colonies toward revolution in 1776.

The flag consists of 9 wide vertical stripes that alternate in color from red to white. There are a total of 5 red stripes and 4 white stripes.

Flag of the Songs of Liberty: The Sons of Liberty flag had five vertical red stripes interspersed by four white stripes.

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Portrait of Samuel Adams: Samuel Adams was a leader in the colonial opposition of Stamp Act.

The organization spread month by month after independent starts in several different colonies. By November of 1765, a committee was set up in New York to correspond with other colonies, and in December, an alliance was formed between groups in New York and Connecticut. In January, a correspondence link was established between Boston and Manhattan, and by March, Providence had initiated connections with New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Sons of Liberty organizations had also been established in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, and a local group established in North Carolina was attracting interest in South Carolina and Georgia.

Politics of Resistance

The officers and leaders of the Sons of Liberty largely consisted of middle and upper-class white men—artisans, traders, lawyers, and local politicians. Samuel Adams and his cousin, John, did not become members of the Sons of Liberty so as not to be directly connected with any violence that the organization may have been involved in. However, Samuel Adams most likely participated in the organization through writing, shared opinion, and association with prominent members that had influential power with the people.

Though they were speaking out against the actions of the British government, they still claimed to be loyal to the Crown. Their initial goal was to ensure their rights as Englishmen. Throughout the Stamp Act crisis, the Sons of Liberty professed continued loyalty to the King because they maintained a “fundamental confidence” in the expectation that Parliament would do the right thing and repeal the tax.

The Sons of Liberty knew they also needed to appeal to the masses that made up the lower classes. To do this, they relied on large public demonstrations to expand their base. While the organization professed its loyalty to both local and British established government, possible military action as a defensive measure was always part of their considerations. Several Sons of Liberty members were printers and publishers who distributed articles about the meetings and demonstrations the Sons of Liberty held, as well as its fundamental political beliefs and what it wanted to accomplish. In print, they related the major events of the struggle against the new acts to promote their cause and vilify the local officers of the British government. Office holders identified by the Sons of Liberty as being part of the Stamp Act injustice quickly fell out of favor and lost their positions once local elections were held again.

The Sons of Liberty would hold meetings to decide which candidates to support—those that would bring about the desired political change. In return, the British authorities attempted to denigrate the Sons of Liberty by referring to them as the “Sons of Violence” or the “Sons of Iniquity.” The inter-communication afforded the colonies by the widespread nature of the Sons of Liberty allowed for decisive action against the later Townshend Act in 1768. One by one, the groups penned agreements limiting trade with Britain and imposing a highly effective boycott against the import and sale of British goods.

Effects of Protest

The overall effect of these protests was to both anger and unite the American people like never before. Opposition to the Stamp Act inspired both political and constitutional forms of literature throughout the colonies, strengthened the colonial political perception and involvement, and created new forms of organized resistance. These organized groups quickly learned that they could force royal officials to resign by employing violent measures and threats.

The Townshend Acts

Enforcement of colonial taxation in the form of the Townshend Acts only increased colonial tension and resistance, especially in Boston.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Townshend Acts and the colonial response

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Townshend Acts were a series of laws passed beginning in 1767, by the Parliament of Great Britain, relating to the British colonies in North America.
  • The acts are named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who proposed the program.
  • Five laws are frequently included in the Townshend Acts: the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, the Vice Admiralty Court Act, and the New York Restraining Act.
  • The purpose of the Townshend Acts was primarily to raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so they would be independent of colonial rule.
  • The Townshend Acts were met with resistance in the colonies in the form of boycotts, the work of the Daughters of Liberty, and nonconsumption agreements.
  • Resistance to the acts prompted the occupation of Boston by British troops in 1768, which eventually resulted in the Boston Massacre of 1770.

Key Terms

  • John Hancock: A merchant, statesman, and prominent patriot of the American Revolution.
  • Boston Massacre: An incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers killed five Anglo-American colonial men and injured six others.
  • Charles Townshend: A British politician.

The Townshend Acts

The Townshend Acts were a series of laws passed beginning in 1767, by the Parliament of Great Britain relating to the British colonies in North America. The acts are named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who proposed the program. Five laws are frequently mentioned that are included in the Townshend Acts:

  • the Revenue Act of 1767
  • the Indemnity Act
  • the Commissioners of Customs Act
  • the Vice Admiralty Court Act
  • the New York Restraining Act

The purpose of the Townshend Acts was to raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so that they would be independent of colonial rule. The acts were also meant to create a more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations, to punish the province of New York for failing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act, and to establish the precedent that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.

Raising Revenue

The first of the Townshend Acts, sometimes simply known as the Townshend Act, was the Revenue Act of 1767. This act represented a new approach for generating tax revenue in the American colonies after the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. The British government thought that because the colonists had objected to the Stamp Act on the grounds that it was a direct (or internal) tax, colonists would therefore accept indirect (or external) taxes, such as taxes on imports. With this in mind, Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, devised a plan that placed new duties on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea that were imported into the colonies. These were items that were not produced in North America that the colonists were only allowed to buy from Britain. The British government’s belief that the colonists would accept external taxes, however, came from a misunderstanding of the colonial objection to the Stamp Act; the colonial position was that any tax laid by Parliament for the purpose of raising revenue was unconstitutional.

The original stated purpose of the Revenue Act and the following Townshend Acts was to raise revenue to pay the cost of maintaining an army in North America. Townshend changed the purpose of the tax plan, however, and instead decided to use the revenue to pay the salaries of some colonial governors and judges. Previously, the colonial assemblies had paid these salaries, but Parliament hoped to take the “power of the purse” away from the colonies.

Portrait of Charles Townshend

Charles Townshend: Charles Townshend spearheaded the Townshend Acts but died before their detrimental effects became apparent.

Reaction from the Colonies

Along with boycotts, two colonial movements, the Daughters of Liberty and the nonconsumption agreements, were created in response to British taxation. The goal of these movements was to make the colonies less dependent on British imports and other goods.

Boycotts

Merchants in the colonies, some of them smugglers, organized economic boycotts in order to pressure their British counterparts to work toward repealing the Townshend Acts. Boston merchants organized the first non-importation agreement, which called for merchants to suspend importation of certain British goods effective January 1st, 1769. Merchants in other colonial ports eventually joined the boycott. However, the non-importation movement was not as effective as promoters had hoped. The boycott movement began to fail by 1770, and came to an end in 1771.

The Daughters of Liberty

The Daughters of Liberty was a colonial American group, established around 1769, consisting of women who displayed their loyalty by participating in boycotts of British goods following the passing of the Townshend Acts. The Daughters of Liberty used their traditional skills to weave and spin yarn and wool into fabric, known as “homespun.” They were recognized as patriotic heroines for their success, making America less dependent on British textiles. Proving their commitment to “the cause of liberty and industry,” they openly opposed many of the British taxes and experimented to find substitutes for taxed goods, such as tea and sugar. Discoveries like boiled basil leaves to make a tea-like drink, referred to as Liberty Tea, helped lift spirits and also allowed colonists to keep traditions alive without the use of British taxed tea.

In the countryside, while patriots supported the non-importation movements of 1765 and 1769, the Daughters of Liberty continued to support American resistance. They helped end the Stamp Act in 1766. In 1774, the patriot women helped influence a decision made by the Continental Congress to boycott all British goods. The Daughters of Liberty would later have a large influence during the war. In order to support the men on the battlefield, the women made bullets and sewed uniforms, raised funds for the army, and made and circulated protest petitions.

Nonconsumption Agreements

Nonconsumption agreements were protests organized by American colonists in 1774 in opposition to the Townshend Acts. Thousands of colonists joined the resistance by signing the nonconsumption agreements, in which they stated that they would not consume or use any objects that were imported from other countries and instead would use colonial-made products in an attempt to starve the foreign companies. This led the Continental Congress to impose a suspension of all trade with Britain.

Unrest in Boston

In Massachusetts in 1768, Samuel Adams wrote a letter that became known as the Massachusetts Circular. Sent by the Massachusetts House of Representatives to the other colonial legislatures, the letter laid out the unconstitutionality of taxation without representation and encouraged the other colonies to again protest the taxes by boycotting British goods. In Great Britain, the secretary of state for the colonies—Lord Hillsborough—demanded that Massachusetts retract the letter, promising that any colonial assemblies that endorsed it would be dissolved. This threat had the effect of further uniting the colonies against the taxes.

The Massachusetts Circular got Parliament’s attention, and in 1768, Lord Hillsborough sent 4,000 British troops to Boston to deal with the unrest and put down any potential rebellion there. The troops were a constant reminder of the assertion of British power over the colonies, an illustration of an unequal relationship between members of the same empire. As an added aggravation, British soldiers moonlighted as dockworkers, creating competition for employment. Boston’s labor system had traditionally been closed, privileging native-born laborers over outsiders, and jobs were scarce. Many Bostonians, led by the Sons of Liberty, mounted a campaign of harassment against British troops. The Sons of Liberty also helped protect the smuggling actions of the merchants; smuggling was crucial for the colonists’ ability to maintain their boycott of British goods.

John Hancock was one of Boston’s most successful merchants and prominent citizens. While he maintained too high a profile to work actively with the Sons of Liberty, he was known to support their aims, if not their means of achieving them. He was also one of the many prominent merchants who had made his fortune by smuggling which was rampant in the colonial seaports. In 1768, customs officials seized the Liberty, one of his ships, and violence erupted. Led by the Sons of Liberty, Bostonians rioted against customs officials, attacking the customs house and chasing out the officers, who ran to safety at Castle William, a British fort on a Boston harbor island. British soldiers crushed the riots, but over the next few years, clashes between British officials and Bostonians became common. These clashes would eventually culminate in the Boston Massacre of 1770.

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A view of the town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops in 1768: Paul Revere’s engraving of British troops landing in Boston.

Partial Repeal of the Townshend Acts

On March 5, 1770—the same day as the Boston Massacre—Lord North, the new Prime Minister, presented a motion in the House of Commons that called for partial repeal of the Townshend Revenue Act. Although some in Parliament advocated a complete repeal of the act, North disagreed, arguing that the tea duty should be retained to assert the right of taxing the Americans. After debate, the Repeal Act received the Royal Assent on April 12, 1770.

The Boston Massacre and Military Occupation

The Boston Massacre was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which nine British Army soldiers killed five colonial civilian men.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the effects of the Boston Massacre

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768, in order to protect and support crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular Parliamentary legislation and taxes.
  • Amid ongoing tension between the colonial population and the soldiers, a mob formed on the night of March 5, around a British sentry who was subjected to verbal abuse and harassment.
  • The sentry was eventually supported by eight additional soldiers, who colonists continued to goad and throw things at; after a tense standoff, they fired into the crowd (though no orders were given to fire), killing five colonists and wounding several others.
  • The Boston Massacre is widely viewed as foreshadowing the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War five years later.

Key Terms

  • Thomas Hutchinson: A businessman, historian, and prominent Loyalist politician of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in the years before the American Revolution.
  • Boston Massacre: An incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers killed five colonial civilian men and injured six others.

Overview: The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre, called “The Incident on King Street” by the British, was an incident on March 5, 1770, in which British Army soldiers killed five colonial civilian men. British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768, to protect and support crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular parliamentary legislation and taxes. Amid ongoing tension between the colonial population and the soldiers, a mob formed around a British sentry, who was subjected to verbal abuse and harassment. He was eventually supported by eight additional soldiers, who were further subjected to verbal threats and thrown objects. The soldiers fired into the crowd without orders, killing three people and wounding others. Two more people died later of wounds sustained in the incident.

The Incident

On the evening of March 5, Private Hugh White, a British soldier, stood on guard duty outside the Custom House on King Street. Edward Garrick began calling out insults to White and another British officer, Captain Lieutenant John Goldfinch. White left his post, challenged Garrick, and struck him on the side of the head with his musket. As Garrick cried in pain, one of his companions began to argue with White, attracting a larger crowd.

As the evening progressed, the crowd around Private White grew larger and more boisterous. Church bells were rung, which usually signified a fire, bringing more people out. Over 50 of the Bostonian townspeople gathered, throwing snowballs, rocks, and sticks at White and challenging him to fire his weapon. White, who had taken up a somewhat safer position on the steps of the Custom House, sought assistance. A non-commissioned officer and six privates of the 29th Regiment of Foot were sent with fixed bayonets to relieve White. When they reached Private White on the custom house stairs, the soldiers loaded their muskets and arrayed themselves in a semicircular formation. The soldiers were heckled by the mob as “lobster backs,” a reference equating them with bottom feeders.

After a tense standoff, the soldiers fired into the crowd. Rather than a disciplined volley (there were no orders given to fire), a ragged series of shots was fired, which hit 11 men. The crowd moved away from the immediate area of the Custom House but continued to grow in nearby streets. British soldiers adopted defensive positions in front of the State House. Acting Governor Thomas Hutchinson was summoned to the scene and was forced by the movements of the crowd into the council chamber of the State House. From its balcony, he was able to minimally restore order, promising that there would be a fair inquiry into the shootings if the crowd dispersed.

Five people in total were killed. Crispus Attucks, the first man killed—and, though no one could have known it then, the first official casualty in the war for independence—was of Wampanoag and African descent. The bloodshed illustrated the level of hostility that had developed as a result of Boston’s occupation by British troops, the competition for scarce jobs between Bostonians and the British soldiers stationed in the city, and the larger question of Parliament’s efforts to tax the colonies. In the days and weeks following the incident, a propaganda battle was waged between Boston’s radicals and supporters of the government. Both sides published pamphlets that told strikingly different stories, which were principally published in London in a bid to influence opinion there.

Portrait of Thomas Hutchinson

Thomas Hutchinson: Thomas Hutchinson, governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

Aftermath

The Boston Massacre is considered one of the most important events that turned colonial sentiment against King George III and British parliamentary authority. John Adams wrote that the “foundation of American independence was laid” on March 5, 1770, and Samuel Adams and other patriots used annual commemorations of the event to rally against British rule. Later events such as the Boston Tea Party further illustrated the crumbling relationship between Britain and its colonies. Although five years passed between the massacre and outright revolution, it is widely perceived as a significant event leading to the violent rebellion that followed.

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Depiction of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere: A sensationalized portrayal of the skirmish, later to become known as the “Boston Massacre,” between British soldiers and citizens of Boston on March 5, 1770.