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The Coming of Independence
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Page 1234

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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.

[Picture of Paul Revere's painting 'The Boston Massacre']

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.

[Picture of the Boston 'Tea Party']

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

[Picture of Amos Doolittle's painting of the Battle of Lexington]

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 enemy."

The Second Continental Congress

[Picture of George Washington]

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

[Picture of Thomas Paine]

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.

[Picture of 'Common Sense']

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?

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