The Boston Massacre
By then, however, many colonists' old confidence in the British government was
pretty much gone. Taxes were not the only reason. In 1768, the Crown had sent
two regiments of troops to Boston to support royal officials there. Bostonians
said the troops were unnecessary and, like all Englishmen, distrusted
governments that used "standing armies" against their own people. Freemen,
they said, are not governed at the point of a gun.
It seemed as if the soldiers and civilians were always scuffling with each
other. Finally, on March 5, 1770, a contingent of troops fired into a crowd,
killing five people. Paul Revere, a local silversmith and patriot,
memorialized the "Boston Massacre" with one of the most famous prints of the
era. It shows redcoats willfully shooting unarmed civilians.
Another smoking gun protrudes from a window behind the soldiers, in a building
labeled "Butcher's Hall." Was its trigger perhaps pulled by a hated customs
man? Nowhere to be seen are the snowballs, some with rocks inside, that crowd
members threw at the soldiers. Nor is there any indication that Bostonians
provoked the soldiers by shouting "fire! fire!," which they thought the troops
could not do without the permission of town officials. The print, in short,
gave only one side of the story.
The Boston Tea Party
Trouble began again after Parliament tried to help the East India Company sell
tea in the colonies at a price lower than that of smuggled tea. It refused,
however, to remove the old duty, which, from the colonists' perspective,
"poisoned" the East India Company's cheap tea.
Again they resisted, but in as peaceful a manner as they could. Colonists in
New York and Philadelphia, for example, convinced the captains of tea ships to
turn around and take their cargoes back to England without paying the tea tax.
In Boston, however, the tea ships entered the harbor before the opposition
organized. Townsmen spent the next twenty days trying without success to get
clearances so the ships could go back to sea. Then, on the night before the
tea could be seized by the customs service, a group of men disguised as Indians
boarded the ships and emptied 342 chests of tea into the water. The
proceedings were amazingly quiet except for the "ploop, ploop, ploop" of tea
dropping into the sea.
A young lawyer from the town of Braintree named John Adams, an obscure cousin
of the better- known Boston leader, Samuel Adams, and by no means a lover of
mobs, found the event "magnificent." The "Boston Tea Party," as it was later
called, was "so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible," and would
have such important and lasting consequences, he said, that "I cannot but
consider it as an epoch in history."
The British government proved him right. It punished Boston with a series of
"Coercive Acts" that the colonists promptly renamed the "Intolerable Acts."
Among other things, they closed the port of Boston, throwing hundreds of people
out of work, and changed the government of Massachusetts so the Crown had more
power, the people less. Then Britain put Massachusetts under military rule,
appointing General Thomas Gage as royal governor and sending troops to enforce
his authority. From there on, the crisis got worse and worse, without respite.
The First Continental Congress
If Boston and Massachusetts could be punished so severely without a trial or
any chance to defend themselves, how could New York or Pennsylvania or South
Carolina feel safe?
Twelve colonies, every one but Georgia, sent delegates to a "Continental
Congress" in Philadelphia to coordinate their response. The Congress
petitioned George III to intercede on the colonists' behalf, emphasizing the
Americans' loyalty. But the King decided that the colonies were "in a state of
rebellion," and that "blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this
country or independent."
The Battles of Lexington and Concord
The blows began on April 19, 1775 after General Gage sent troops to seize
colonial arms stored at the town of Concord, some twenty miles outside Boston.
On the way they went through Lexington, where local militiamen on the town
green began to disperse once they saw how outnumbered they were. Somewhere,
someone fired a gun. Then the regulars emptied their muskets into the fleeing
militiamen, killing eight and wounding ten.
Amos Doolittle recalled the scene in an engraving he made seven months later.
It is much like Revere's "Boston Massacre." Again Doolittle showed British
soldiers, with their commander urging them on, shooting innocent colonists.
Doolittle also recorded the regulars' march to Concord; an engagement between
the provincials and regulars at Concord's North Bridge and, perhaps most
interesting of all, the redcoats' retreat back to Boston, burning houses along
the way, while militiamen from nearby towns shot at them.
The retreat from Concord almost finished off Gage's army. Once the remaining
troops got back to camp in Boston, they pretty much had to stay there. The
provincial army that formed across the river in Cambridge saw to that. An
ordinary soldier, whose name is unknown, kept a journal of his life in the
American army during 1775 and 1776. He had some trouble deciding just what to
call the King's troops. He couldn't call them, as legend has it, "the
British," since the colonists were still British. He wrote, of "the regulars,"
sometimes of "the Gageites." But after a while he found a better name -- "the
The Second Continental Congress
Within weeks of Lexington and Concord, a Second Continental Congress met in
Philadelphia. It appointed one of its members, an uncommonly tall, dignified
Virginian named George Washington, to take charge of the army at Cambridge.
Washington had some military experience, none of it especially glorious and
some of it disastrous. Even so, he had spent more time as a military officer
than most any of his countrymen, and so was appalled at the dirty, disorderly
men in the American camp.
Washington quickly began imposing discipline, trying desperately to transform
that collection of patriots and adventure-seekers into a respectable army.
Meanwhile, the Congress recruited men and officers and gathered military
supplies. It took charge of the post office and Indian affairs. It also
borrowed money, and eventually issued its own currency. In fact, the Second
Continental Congress became the first government of the United States.
It had to assume those powers, it seemed, to prevent the British from crushing
the Americans and ending their dream of finding a way to live as free men under
the British flag. But reconciliation was becoming increasingly unlikely. The
King refused to answer another petition from Congress even though it was
written, in a scrupulously respectful way, by our old friend John Dickinson.
The colonists' statements of loyalty, the King told Parliament, were meant
"only to amuse" while they schemed to found an independent country. Wasn't the
Congress seizing one power after another?
Thomas Paine's Common Sense
Then, in the opening weeks of 1776, Common Sense appeared. That pamphlet was
the work of Thomas Paine, an Englishman of no particular distinction and little
formal education, a man who had been trained as a corset-maker and dismissed
from the English customs service before arriving in America less than two years
before he wrote Common Sense. With language that spoke to ordinary people, it
said what so many native-born colonists were afraid to say. The time had come
for America to go her separate way.
The problem wasn't the ministers, or the Parliament, or even George III as a
person, although Paine did call him "the royal brute of Britain". It was the
"so much boasted constitution of England." The British system of government,
Paine argued, had two deadly flaws -- monarchy and hereditary rule. Only by
governing themselves could Americans secure their freedom and realize the peace
that they so deeply desired.
Common Sense spread through the colonies like wildfire, opening among the
people a debate over independence that was already well underway among
congressmen. And yet, when they looked back over the previous decade, the
colonists wondered at the road they had traveled.
How, the freemen of Virginia's Buckingham County asked in the spring of 1776,
had Britain and America become so "incensed" with each other?