The Colonies Under British Rule
Maier: The British colonists saw the year 1763 as a great watershed in
American history. In the past, a great semi-circle of "Catholic enemies" had
hemmed them in from French Canada and Louisiana on their north and west to
Spanish Florida in the south. But in 1763, the Peace of Paris gave all the
lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River to Britain's young
King George III. That change, the colonists assumed, would bring peace and
security beyond anything they or their parents or their parents' parents had
known. And now nothing would keep them from spilling beyond the Appalachian
In the wave of patriotism that swept the colonies after the French and Indian
War, no one doubted that the America of the future would be British. At the
time, in fact, the various colonies had no ties with each other except through
London and their shared British identity.
The Americans were particularly proud of being governed under the "British
constitution," that is, Britain's form of government, which divided power among
the King, Lords, and Commons, and which they, like many enlightened Europeans,
considered the best mankind had ever devised for the protection of liberty.
Affection reinforced the imperial bond. One set of colonists after another
testified that their hearts were "warmly attached to the King of Great Britain
and the royal family."
The mystery is why, only thirteen years later, they declared their
Independence. That mystery is not ours alone. It was the colonists' too. As
events unfolded, they wondered at the unexpected course their history was
taking, and sought explanations.
Taxation and the Stamp Act
The conflict between Britain and her American colonists began over taxes. The
war left Britain with a large debt and new financial obligations. A massive
Indian uprising showed that the Crown had to keep an army in America. The
British restored peace and then, to prevent further trouble, excluded settlers
from lands beyond a line that ran north and south through the Appalachian
Not only was Britain blocking the colonists' westward expansion; it wanted them
to help pay for its army in America. First they had Parliament put new duties
on molasses imported into the colonies from the non-British West Indian
Islands. That awoke little opposition. But when the King's minister announced
plans for a "stamp tax" on American legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, and
items such as dice and playing cards, all hell broke loose.
Never before had the Parliament laid a direct tax on the colonists. In
Britain, taxes were considered "free gifts of the people" that could be raised
only with the people's consent or that of their representatives. Since the
colonists elected no members of the House of Commons, they argued, Parliament
had no right to tax them. Even a small tax was dangerous.
Once Parliament established its right to tax the colonists, it would tax them
to death since by taxing the Americans, members of Parliament reduced their own
tax burden and that of their constituents. The Americans made their case in
petitions that Parliament refused even to receive. Then, after all else
failed, they found a way to prevent the Stamp Act from going into effect.
On the morning of August 14, 1765, an effigy of the Massachusetts Stamp
Distributor, Andrew Oliver, appeared hanging from a tree in the center of
Boston. All day goods brought into town from the countryside had to be
"stamped" by the effigy. At night a crowd took it down, paraded the effigy
through town, then burned it in a great bonfire with materials torn from a
supposed "stamp office" that Oliver was building. Later, part of the crowd
attacked Oliver's home. Fearing more of the same, he resigned his office the
next day, and no one was willing to take his place.
That meant the Stamp Act could not go into effect in Massachusetts since there
was no one to distribute the stamps. Soon stampmen in one colony after another
resigned to avoid Oliver's fate. Then groups called the Sons of Liberty
appeared to coordinate opposition to the Stamp Act across colony lines. The
colonists also boycotted certain British imports. Parliament gave in. It
repealed the Stamp Act, but only after declaring that it had a right to bind
the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." A year later, it tried to raise
revenue through new duties on paper, glass, and tea. If that's how colonists
preferred to give money to the Crown, the King's new minister, Charles
Townshend, argued, let them have their way.
But now a series of newspaper essays entitled "Letters from a Farmer in
Pennsylvania" urged the colonists to resist. They were, in fact, written by a
mild-mannered lawyer named John Dickinson, a man of property with Quaker
connections who was dead set against violence. Duties meant to raise revenue
were taxes, he said, and so every bit as dangerous as the Stamp Act. But "we
cannot act with too much caution," he wrote, because anger had a way of
producing anger, and could cause a separation of the colonies from Britain.
"Torn from the body, to which we are united by religion, liberty, laws,
affections, relation, language and commerce" he said, "we must bleed at every
Dickinson recommended peaceful forms of opposition, such as non-importation
associations, if the colonists' petitions went unanswered. Dickinson's
"Farmers' Letters" were copied from one newspaper to another. And everywhere
the colonists said he had expressed their position perfectly. They also
followed his advice and cut back imports until, again, Parliament gave in. In
1770, it repealed all the new duties except the one on tea.