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The Coming of Independence
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The Colonies Under British Rule

[Picture of Professor Maier]

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 Mountains.

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 mountains.

[Picture of a stamp]

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.

[Picture of a cartoon protesting the Stamp Act]

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.

[Picture of John Dickinson]

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 vein."

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.

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