Following the Boston Massacre in 1770, the conflict between the colonies and the mother country cooled. The colonial economy improved as the postwar recession receded. The Sons of Liberty in some colonies sought to continue nonimportation even after the repeal of the Townshend Acts. But, in New York, a door-to-door poll of the population revealed that the majority wanted to end nonimportation. And so April 1770 to the spring of 1773 passed largely without incident. But Britain’s desire and need to reform imperial administration remained.
In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act to aid the failing East India Company, which had fallen behind in the annual payments it owed Britain. But the Company was not only drowning in debt; it was also drowning in tea, with almost 15 million pounds of it in stored in warehouses from India to England. So, in 1773, the Parliament passed the Regulating Act, which effectively put the troubled company under government control. It then passed the Tea Act, which would allow the Company to sell its tea in the colonies directly and without the usual import duties. This would greatly lower the cost of tea for colonists, but, again, they resisted.
Merchants resisted because they deplored the East India Company’s monopoly status that made it harder for them to compete. But, like the Sugar Act, it only affected a small, specific group of people. The widespread support for resisting the Tea Act had more to do with principles. By buying the tea, even though it was cheaper, colonists would be paying the duty and thereby implicitly acknowledging Parliament’s right to tax them. According to the Massachusetts Gazette, Prime Minister Lord North was a “great schemer” who sought “to out wit us, and to effectually establish that Act, which will forever after be pleaded as a precedent for every imposition the Parliament of Great-Britain shall think proper to saddle us with.”
The Tea Act stipulated that the duty had to be paid when the ship unloaded. Newspaper essays and letters throughout the summer of 1773 in the major port cities debated what to do upon the ships’ arrival. In November, the Boston Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and John Hancock, resolved to “prevent the landing and sale of the [tea], and the payment of any duty thereon” and to do so “at the risk of their lives and property.” The meeting appointed men to guard the wharfs and make sure the tea remained on the ships until they returned to London. This worked and the tea did not reach the shore, but by December 16, the ships were still there. Hence, another town meeting was held at the Old South Meeting House, at the end of which dozens of men disguised as Mohawk Indians made their way to the wharf. The Boston Gazette reported what happened next:
But, behold what followed! A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted, in less than four hours, emptied every chest of tea on board the three ships . . . amounting to 342 chests, into the sea ! ! without the least damage done to the ships or any other property.
As word spread throughout the colonies, patriots were emboldened to do the same to the tea sitting in their harbors. Tea was destroyed in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, with numerous other smaller “tea parties” taking place throughout 1774.
Britain’s response was swift. The following spring, Parliament passed four acts known collectively, by the British, as the “Coercive Acts.” Colonists, however, referred to them as the “Intolerable Acts.” First, the Boston Port Act shut down the harbor and cut off all trade to and from the city. The Massachusetts Government Act put the colonial government entirely under British control, dissolving the assembly and restricting town meetings. The Administration of Justice Act allowed any royal official accused of a crime to be tried in Britain rather than by Massachusetts courts and juries. Finally, the Quartering Act, passed for all colonies, allowed the British army to quarter newly arrived soldiers in colonists’ homes. Boston had been deemed in open rebellion, and the King, his Ministry, and Parliament acted decisively to end the rebellion.
The other colonies came to the aid of Massachusetts. Colonists collected food to send to Boston. Virginia’s House of Burgesses called for a day of prayer and fasting to show their support. In Massachusetts, patriots created the “Provincial Congress,” and, throughout 1774, they seized control of local and county governments and courts. In New York, citizens elected committees to direct the colonies’ response to the Coercive Acts, including a Mechanics’ Committee of middling colonists. By early 1774, Committees of Correspondence and/or extra-legal assemblies were established in all of the colonies except Georgia. And throughout the year, they followed Massachusetts’ example by seizing the powers of the royal governments.
Popular protest spread across the continent and down through all levels of colonial society. The ladies of Edenton, North Carolina, for example, signed an agreement to “follow the laudable example of their husbands” in avoiding boycotted items from Britain. The ladies of Edenton were not alone in their desire to support the war effort by what means they could. Women across the thirteen colonies could most readily express their political sentiments as consumer and producers. Because women were often making decisions regarding which household items to purchase, their participation in consumer boycotts held particular weight. Some women also took to the streets as part of more unruly mob actions, participating in grain riots, raids on the offices of royal officials, and demonstrations against the impressment of men into naval service. The agitation of so many empowered an emboldened response from elites.
Committees of Correspondence agreed to send delegates to a Continental Congress to coordinate an inter-colonial response. The First Continental Congress convened on September 5, 1774. Over the next six weeks, elite delegates from every colony but Georgia issued a number of documents including a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.” This document repeated the arguments that colonists had been making since 1765: colonists retained all the rights of native Britons, including the right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives as well as the right to trials-by-juries.
Most importantly, the Congress issued a document known as the “Continental Association.” The Association declared that “the present unhappy situation of our affairs is occasioned by a ruinous system of colony administration adopted by the British Ministry about the year 1763, evidently calculated for enslaving these Colonies, and, with them, the British Empire.” The Association recommended “that a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town … whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association.” These Committees of Inspection would consist largely of common colonists. They were effectively deputized to police their communities and instructed to publish the names of anyone who violated the Association so they “may be publicly known, and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty.” The delegates also agreed to a continental non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement and to “wholly discontinue the slave trade.” In all, the Continental Association was perhaps the most radical document of the period. It sought to unite and direct twelve revolutionary governments, establish economic and moral policies, and empower common colonists by giving them an important and unprecedented degree of on-the-ground political power.
But not all colonists were patriots; indeed, many remained faithful to the King and Parliament, while a good number took a neutral stance. As the situation intensified throughout 1774 and early 1775, factions emerged within the resistance movements in many colonies. Elite merchants who traded primarily with Britain, Anglican clergy, and colonists holding royal offices depended on and received privileges from their relationship with Britain. Initially, they sought to exert a moderating influence on the resistance committees but, following the Association, many colonists began to worry that the resistance was too radical and aimed at independence. They, like most colonists in this period, still expected a peaceful conciliation with Britain.
However, by the time the Continental Congress met again in May 1775, war had already broken out in Massachusetts. On April 19, 1775, British regiments set out to seize local militias’ arms and powder stores in Lexington and Concord. The town militia met them at the Lexington Green. The British ordered the militia to disperse when someone fired, setting off a volley from the British. The battle continued all the way to the next town, Concord. News of the events at Lexington spread rapidly throughout the countryside. Militia members, known as “minutemen,” responded quickly and inflicted significant casualties on the British regiments as they chased them back to Boston. Approximately 20,000 colonial militiamen lay siege to Boston, effectively trapping the British. In June, the militia set up fortifications on Breed’s Hill overlooking the city. In the misnamed “Battle of Bunker Hill,” the British attempted to dislodge them from the position with a frontal assault, and, despite eventually taking the hill, they suffered severe casualties at the hands of the colonists.
While men in Boston fought and died, the Continental Congress struggled to organize a response. The radical Massachusetts delegates––including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock––implored the Congress to support the Massachusetts militia then laying siege to Boston with little to no supplies. Meanwhile, many delegates from the Middle Colonies––including New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia––took a more moderate position, calling for renewed attempts at reconciliation. In the South, the Virginia delegation contained radicals such as Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson, while South Carolina’s delegation included moderates like John and Edward Rutledge. The moderates worried that supporting the Massachusetts militia would be akin to declaring war.
The Congress struck a compromise, agreeing to adopt the Massachusetts militia and form a Continental Army, naming Virginia delegate, George Washington, commander-in-chief. They also issued a “Declaration of the Causes of Necessity of Taking Up Arms” to justify this decision. At the same time, the moderates drafted an “Olive Branch Petition” which assured the King that the colonists “most ardently desire[d] the former Harmony between [the mother country] and these Colonies.” Many understood that the opportunities for reconciliation were running out. After Congress had approved the document, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend saying, “The Congress will send one more Petition to the King which I suppose will be treated as the former was, and therefore will probably be the last.” Congress was in the strange position of attempting reconciliation while publicly raising an army.
The petition arrived in England on August 13, 1775, but, before it was delivered, the King issued his own “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition.” He believed his subjects in North America were being “misled by dangerous and ill-designing men,” who, were “traitorously preparing, ordering, and levying war against us.” In an October speech to Parliament, he dismissed the colonists’ petition. The King had no doubt that the resistance was “manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” By the start of 1776, talk of independence was growing while the prospect of reconciliation dimmed.
In the opening months of 1776, independence, for the first time, became part of the popular debate. Town meetings throughout the colonies approved resolutions in support of independence. Yet, with moderates still hanging on, it would take another seven months before the Continental Congress officially passed the independence resolution. A small forty-six-page pamphlet published in Philadelphia and written by a recent immigrant from England captured the American conversation. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense argued for independence by denouncing monarchy and challenging the logic behind the British Empire, saying, “There is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” His combination of easy language, biblical references, and fiery rhetoric proved potent and the pamphlet was quickly published throughout the colonies. Arguments over political philosophy and rumors of battlefield developments filled taverns throughout the colonies.
George Washington had taken control of the army and after laying siege to Boston forced the British to retreat to Halifax. In Virginia, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation declaring martial law and offering freedom to “all indentured servants, Negros, and others” if they would leave their masters and join the British.
Though only about 500-1000 slaves joined Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian regiment,” thousands more flocked to the British later in the war, risking capture and punishment for a chance at freedom. Former slaves occasionally fought, but primarily served as laborers, skilled workers, and spies, in companies called “Black Pioneers.” British motives for offering freedom were practical rather than humanitarian, but the proclamation was the first mass emancipation of enslaved people in American history. Slaves could now choose to run and risk their lives for possible freedom with the British army, or hope that the United States would live up to its ideals of liberty.
Dunmore’s Proclamation had the additional effect of pushing many white Southerners into rebellion. After the Somerset case in 1772 ruled that slavery would not be allowed on the British mainland, some American slave-owners began to worry about the growing abolitionist movement in the mother country. Somerset and now Dunmore began to convince some slave owners that a new independent nation might offer a surer protection for slavery. Indeed, the Proclamation laid the groundwork for the very unrest that loyal southerners had hoped to avoid. Consequently, slaveholders often used violence to prevent their slaves from joining the British or rising against them. Virginia enacted regulations to prevent slave defection, threatening to ship rebellious slaves to the West Indies or execute them. Many masters transported their enslaved people inland, away from the coastal temptation to join the British armies, sometimes separating families in the process.
On May 10, 1776, nearly two months before the Declaration of Independence, the Congress voted a resolution calling on all colonies that had not already established revolutionary governments to do so and to wrest control from royal officials. The Congress also recommended that the colonies should begin preparing new written constitutions. In many ways, this was the Congress’s first declaration of independence. A few weeks later, on June 7, Richard Henry Lee offered the following resolution:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Delegates went scurrying back to their assemblies for new instructions and nearly a month later, on July 2, the resolution finally came to a vote. It was passed 12-0 with New York abstaining.
Between the proposal and vote, a committee had been named to draft a declaration in case the resolution passed. Virginian Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, with edits being made by his fellow committee members John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and then again by the Congress as a whole. The famous preamble went beyond the arguments about the rights of British subjects under the British Constitution, instead referring to “natural law”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
The majority of the document outlined a list of specific grievances that the colonists had with the many actions taken by the British during the 1760s and 1770s to reform imperial administration. An early draft blamed the British for the transatlantic slave trade and even for discouraging attempts by the colonists to promote abolition. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia as well as those from northern states who profited from the trade all opposed this language and it was removed.
Neither the grievances nor the rhetoric of the preamble were new. Instead, they were the culmination of both a decade of popular resistance to imperial reform and decades more of long-term developments that saw both sides develop incompatible understandings of the British Empire and the colonies’ place within it. The Congress approved the document on July 4, 1776. However, it was one thing to declare independence; it was quite another to win it on the battlefield.