From Stamp Act to Tea Party

The sequence of events that led from the Stamp Act to the revolution isn’t much fun to read. In this case history is something like what Bismark said about sausage and legislation: If you like it, don’t look too closely into how it is made. So we’re going to trot quickly through a sequence of events that warrant closer examination than they’re going to get.

Seven years of war, which we will trace shortly, had expelled France from North America. Canada was now British, and Louisiana was now Spanish. The colonists had been glad for England’s protection against the French, but the Spanish, and the Indian tribes, they could handle by themselves. Happy ending.

But then Parliament decided that since the North American colonies were the chief beneficiaries of a very expensive war, it was only right that they should help pay for it. Enter the Stamp Act of 1765. The British people had paid it for three quarters of a century, so why should the colonies be exempt? Only fair, right? The MPs, as is so often the habit of legislators, apparently legislated without understanding what they were doing, how it would be perceived, or why it would be opposed. They never did seem to understand why the colonies objected, and apparently it never occurred to them that they might be unable to have their way. The Stamp Act passed by overwhelming margins — 205–49 in the House of Commons, unanimously in the House of Lords.

It was to go into effect November 1, 1765. After that date, every newspaper and legal document would have to use stamped paper. (In this instance, stamped means embossed. We’re not talking about the equivalent of postage stamps.) Can you think of a better way to assure a people’s hostility to a given tax than to be sure that it bears particularly on lawyers and editors? Attorney licenses, court papers, land grants, playing cards, dice, newspapers and pamphlets….

Add to that the fact that, by law, the tax could be paid for only in English specie, rather than colonial paper, which was impossible even if the tax were not objectionable for other reasons. Add to that the fact that the tax was imposed in order to help pay for British troops to be stationed in North America, when the peace had made their presence entirely unnecessary.

But what was worst was that according to their royal charters, all the colonies were subject to the king, not the parliament. They had their own long-recognized legislatures, and other than in matters of imperial trade and defense, they governed themselves and taxed themselves without interference from a legislature they were not represented in (and did not want to be represented in, since they would be so hopelessly outnumbered).

Samuel Adams cogently argued: “For if our Trade may be taxed why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our Charter Right to govern & tax ourselves…. If Taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves.

Taxation without representation became the burning issue among the colonials, while the MPs appear to have considered the issue little more than a smokescreen used to avoid taxes.

Well, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, stamp tax collectors were named in various cities, stamped paper was sent across the ocean – and they collected hardly anything! Resistance was immediate, organized and seemingly unanimous. The first joint colonial response to any British measure, the Stamp Act Congress, met in New York City in October, 1765, to petition for repeal. The Congress met in secret for 12 days, and produced a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Besides protesting the Stamp Act, it asserted that Parliament could not represent the colonists. The Declaration was sent to the king, and petitions were also sent to both Houses of Parliament, but the most important result of the congress was that it met at all. From the Stamp Act Congress to the First Continental Congress was only a step, although that step took nine years.

Protest was not confined to the Stamp Act Congress. Colonial legislatures sent petitions and protests, the first committees of correspondence arose, to create communications links among the colonies, and — the darkest manifestations of resistance, and perhaps the most effective — incidents of mob violence became common, orchestrated by groups such as the Sons of Liberty. The revolutionary nature of the struggle is here apparent for the first time, as the lower classes begin to express their resentment of the rich and powerful, and find their own strength as they do so. Leaders such as James Otis and Samuel Adams were riding the back of the tiger, needing to retain mob support but attempting at the same time to restrain them from the worst excesses.

Boston was in the forefront of the violence. Its stamp distributor was hanged in effigy, had his stable house and coach and chaise burned, and his house looted, and resigned the next day. Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts colony, suffered mob violence which evicted his family from his mansion, destroyed the furniture, tore down the interior walls, emptied the wine cellar, and scattered his collection of Massachusetts historical papers. The governor offered a reward for information on who led the mob, but mobs freed everyone arrested. Naturally, in short order, every stamp tax distributor had resigned his commission, and a lot of stamped paper had been seized and either burned or dumped in harbors. For lack of the official paper, the courts couldn’t function. Wills couldn’t be probated, nor lawsuits entered or settled. It was an impossible situation.

Non-important agreements among merchants added to pressure on Parliament, for the American colonies were an important percentage of British trade. London merchants began coordinating a a national effort to pressure Parliament for repeal. The Act was repealed in March, 1766, having served to coordinate colonial resistance to Parliamentary interference with American domestic affairs. Naturally, Parliament made things worse, affirming its power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

Then came the Townshend Acts. In order to provide posts for 150 politically connected army officers who otherwise would have had to make an honest living, the British proposed to maintain a standing army in America when all external threats had been eliminated. That army cost money. In 1767,  Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed to raise that money by taxing America. The Revenue Act of 1767 levied duties on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. These were five items that could not be manufactured in the colonies, and could not be bought legally from any source but Britain. (Townshend apparently thought that the colonists objected to direct rather than indirect taxes, and therefore would not object to tariffs. He never could understand about taxation without representation. He told MPs that he was establishing a precedent, which could be expanded.) So then the MPs needed the Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767, to create the American Board of Customs Commissioners to enforce trade regulations, and the Vice Admiralty Court Act of 1768, to create four district court to help customs officials prosecute smugglers.

Not only did Townshend want to tax America, he proposed to use some of that revenue to pay the salaries of governors and judges, to render them independent of the colonial legislatures upon whom they heretofore had been dependent. And, he wanted to tighten up compliance with trade regulations (that is, crack down on smuggling). And as if that weren’t enough, he proposed to punish the colony of New York for refusing to quarter troops as required by the 1765 Quartering Act.

You can imagine (but apparently Parliament could not) how well any of this went over. It is as if the MPs were deliberately working to teach the Americans to cooperate against them. In short order, matters were out of hand, mobs were intimidating Boston, and four British Army regiments were being sent to preserve or restore order. This worked about as well as anything else the MPs did, and on March 5, 1770, harassed troops threatened by a mob killed five American civilians (the “Boston Massacre”), and the Sons of Liberty had the incident they needed.

In April, the Repeal Act left in place the American Board of Customs, but removed the tax on everything but tea — to assert “the right of taxing the Americans.”

Tea party

While we’re building monuments to those who made the American Revolution possible (not to say necessary!), we should include Lord North, still remembered in England as the man who lost America. And let’s not forget that much-abused Loyalist, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Between them, North and Hutchinson lit the fuse, and Samuel Adams and others blew on it as hard as they could, to keep it burning, and Boston Harbor, December 16, 1773, is where and when it blew.

You know the bare bones of what happened. The government tried to make colonists pay tax on imported tea. The colonists refused, the government insisted, and a suspiciously organized mob fed the tea to the fishes. Then followed the Intolerable Acts, and revolution.

The story behind the story reads differently to us than it did to the patriots of the day. It has a strangely modern ring:

  • the company with special access to government;
  • the quasi-official position that made it “too big to fail”;
  • the arrogant, insulated bureaucracy that proposed to solve a problem by taking new injudicious action rather than by undoing what it had previously done to cause it;
  • the conspiracy theorists who found dark plots in every official action;
  • the rabble-rousers who poured unmeasured abuse on whatever official made their blacklist; and
  • the “show of government resolution” that unerringly made a bad situation worse.

The background on tea is complicated but can be simplified to this.

In 1698 – three-quarters of a century before the events we’re looking at — Parliament conferred on the East India Company a monopoly on the importation of tea, but required it by law to sell its tea only at auction in England, wholesale, and assessed it a 25% ad valorum tax on every pound imported. Tea imported into Holland was not taxed by the Dutch government, which of course made Dutch tea much cheaper. Big surprise, and who would have guessed it, suddenly there was this huge market for smuggled tea in England and in British America.

It took a while, but in 1767, Parliament decided to refund to the East India Company the tax on any tea re-exported to the colonies. Then, to recover the income, it imposed various taxes on the colonies (as well as in the home islands). That didn’t work spectacularly well. The result, throughout the colonies, was political protest, non-importation agreements, and vigorous smuggling.

The taxes were repealed in 1770. Two years later, Parliament restored the tea taxes within Britain that had been repealed in 1767, which once again drove up the price of British tea, and of course sales dropped. By late 1772, the East India Company had imported a huge surplus of tea that it couldn’t sell, and was in serious financial trouble.

The tea couldn’t be sold cheaply in Europe, because it would be smuggled right back into the islands. The best market for the surplus tea was the American colonies, if it could be made cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea. So, the Tea Act of 1773 not only restored the refund on the duty for importing tea into Britain, it permitted the company to export tea to the colonies without a middleman. The East India Company could now sell its tea slightly cheaper than what smugglers were charging, so, once again, happy ending – except that there was still that Townshend tax. The Tea Act retained the three pence duty that Townshend had imposed on tea imported to the colonies, and North refused to repeal it.

Of course the company knew that the tax was a sore point with the colonials, and if it had had its way, the government would have removed it. All it wanted to do was unload that mountain of unsold tea. The company appointed colonial merchants in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Charleston as consignees for the tea, and tried to have the tax paid in London, or have the consignees quietly pay the duties after the tea was sold. But, no such luck. Although the people by and large just wanted to go about their business, and although the merchants were willing to pay three pence per pound, and although most of the tea that came into American ports was smuggled anyway, the political activists saw that if you once admitted Parliament’s right to tax the colonies, the camel’s nose was under the tent. So now it wasn’t about the tea, it was about the principle of the thing.

In September and October 1773, the company sent four shiploads of tea to Boston (one of which was destroyed by a storm en route), and one each to New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. In all, nearly 300 tons of tea. Faster ships gave America the details of the Tea Act while the ships were on their way, and in Boston, particularly, the Sons of Liberty set out to terrorize the consignees in the way they had terrorized the stamp distributors. In New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston, tea consignees were forced to resign or to return the tea. But in Boston, Governor Hutchinson convinced the tea consignees not to back down. A show of resolution, you know.

Opposition centered around three issues:

  • Taxation without representation.
  • Independence of the judiciary and elected officials. The revenue to be derived from the tax was to be used to pay the salary of officials hitherto dependent upon the colonial legislatures, hence responsive to them.
  • Official monopolies. Tea importers who had not been named as consignees by the East India Company were threatened with financial ruin. Also, if tea could be made subject to official monopoly, so in principle could other goods, leading to potential economic strangulation.

(A fourth, unacknowledged, concern was that the Tea Act, in making legally imported tea cheaper, threatened the interests of the smugglers of Dutch tea.)

So when the first of the tea ships, the Dartmouth, arrived in Boston Harbor in late November, Samuel Adams convened a mass meeting, attended by thousands, that passed a resolution urging the captain to send the ship back, and assigned twenty-five men to watch the ship and prevent the tea from being unloaded. But Governor Hutchinson refused to grant permission for the Dartmouth to leave without paying the duty. Two more tea ships arrived in Boston Harbor, and sat there too.

British law allowed customs officials to confiscate the cargo of any ship that did not pay duties within twenty days of arrival. On December 16—the deadline for the Dartmouth  — Hutchinson again refused to let the ship leave. In response – and it can hardly have been spontaneous, unless some of the men were in the habit of bringing along costumes designed to disguise themselves as Mohawk Indians – a group of men boarded all three ships, and flavored the waters of Boston Harbor with the contents of 342 chests of tea. As usual, nobody saw anything or heard anything or recognized any of the perpetrators.

(Four American merchants offered to pay for the losses, but Lord North turned them down. He thought it important to take a stand.)

The tea party discredited and alienated America’s friends in Britain, at least for the time, and there was little opposition when the government closed the port of Boston. The other American colonies took note, concluded that while today it was Massachusetts, tomorrow it could well be them, and mentally took the next step toward joint action. The fuse had reached the powder keg.

Keeping it straight

A disadvantage to this plan of proceeding from topic to topic in short sections, from most recent to less recent, is that a series of closely linked events may make little sense if sketched without their immediate background, but may involve tedious repetition if the background is sketched in, only to be repeated in detail in the next section. So, it may be worthwhile to take a fast look at the sequence. Here in a nutshell is how the British government managed to turn total victory over the French in 1763 into the American revolution in just a few years.

Consider the whole subject of Parliament taxing America. Would you throw away a continent to avoid retiring a few army officers? Or to prove that you had the right to legislate taxes that you couldn’t enforce? Or just to show that you could make the colonists obey you? Parliament did all those things, and in the process threw away the first British empire. Sometimes governments make monumentally stupid decisions for reasons that seem, to them at the time, perfectly sensible.

The Americans of the day believed that these measures were part of a dark purpose. It would be rash of us to assume that dangers seen by so many eminent practical men – New Englanders, southerners, and men of the middle colonies alike — were totally nonexistent. The danger lay more in the tendency than in the intent, perhaps, but that didn’t make things less dangerous. Nonetheless, we in our day can see how great were the elements of chance involved in the drama.

Here was the sequence: First came victory over the French in 1763, a victory so total as to free the North American colonies from military danger. Then came the need to pay for that war. Then came “practical” measures to obtain the revenue by taxing the colonies. Then came resistance, and insistence, and an escalation of tensions and suspicions, and within a dozen years of victory, the two halves of the empire were at each other’s throats, and within a couple years more, France was exacting its revenge, forcing its hated rival to make a peace that cost it the most populous part of its empire.

And it started as a way to prevent some army officers from losing their positions.

In the wake of Britain’s victory over the French in 1763, the ministry of the Earl of Bute decided to keep 10,000 British regulars in the American colonies. Why? To avoid having to demobilize 1,500 politically connected officers. Just that!

It was politically impossible to maintain a large standing army in the home islands. (Britain historically looked for protection to its navy, not its army.) So, Bute’s brilliant idea was to station the army in the colonies, and the prime minister after Bute, George Grenville, made the even more brilliant decision to tax the colonies to pay to maintain the army, since it was there for their defense. But after the peace of 1763, Americans saw no need for British troops, and they weren’t willing to pay for them.

What made things worse was the means proposed. First came the Sugar Act of 1764, an import levy that was largely avoided by smuggling. But then came the Stamp Act of 1764. Great Britain had had its own Stamp Act since 1712, taxing newspapers, legal documents, pamphlets, etc. – even commercial bills and advertisements, but in 160 years, Parliament had never directly taxed the North American colonies. It had regulated colonial trade, but it had not imposed taxes. (Americans had contributed to the cost of their defense by providing colonial militias and sometimes by voting funds to help maintain British troops.)

Next came the Townshend Acts — the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, the Vice Admiralty Court Act, and the New York Restraining Act — designed to make the governors and judges independent of colonial legislatures, to suppress smuggling (that is, to enforce compliance with trade regulations), to punish New York for failing to comply with the Quartering Act of 1765,  and to establish that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.

When widespread resistance to these acts showed that they were impractical, Parliament repealed all but the tax on tea, which was just enough to keep the pot boiling, because it told the colonists that Parliament was still intent on taxing them at its will, regardless of the fact that it included no American representation.

Naturally, the British government attempted to deal with the colonies separately, on the theory of divide and conquer. This very effectively taught the colonists the need for increased coordination, and so came into being the Committees of Correspondence. Those committees were one of the roots of the call for a Continental Congress, in response to the Boston Tea Party and the retaliatory acts that followed.

It’s fascinating, really, to watch. It tempts you to conclude that ministerial stupidity of such magnitude can only have come by way of divine providence, in the sense of the old saying, “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

First Continental Congress

The American revolution was a snowball rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum as it went. Conspiracy theorists see a deep design behind each new event. Coincidence theorists argue that the revolution “just happened,” because of this or that decision or action.

Well, it didn’t “just happen,” but neither was it planned. We of a later age can see that many of the events were the unintended consequences of decisions made for other reasons, but on the other hand, those events had their own logic, rooted in a century and a half of de facto American self government. The way America was governed was going to change, but it didn’t have to change in just the way it did. The specifics were determined by chance, or divine providence, or destiny, however you choose to think the world’s events are determined. The one thing we may be sure of is that no one envisioned what happened.

Take, for example, the First Continental Congress. Who really brought it into being, the colonists, or Parliament? You could argue it either way. The delegates were meeting to coordinate a response to what were called the Intolerable Acts. Parliamentary spokesmen might have replied, accurately, that the acts were passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, which took place the previous December. Colonists might have replied that “the Tea Party only took place because…” You get the idea. You can always find a preceding cause for anything.

We’ll get to the Boston Tea Party in the next section. You know what happened anyway. To English eyes, it was an act of vandalism and defiance that had the complicity of the colonial government of Massachusetts. As all governments think themselves obliged to do, it took firm measures, and, as usually happens, those actions proved to have unexpected and undesired consequences.

The acts were:

The Boston Port Act, which closed the port until the East India Company should be repaid for the tea that was destroyed.

The Massachusetts Government Act, which suspended the legislative functions of the colonial government, and the Administration of Justice Act, which provided that royal officials accused of crimes could be tried in Great Britain rather than in Massachusetts.

The Quartering Act, which required private citizens to lodge British soldiers in their houses upon official request.

The Quebec Act, which expanded the boundaries of the province to the Ohio, and guaranteed freedom of religion to Catholics.

Taken together, these laws were a masterpiece of legislative stupidity. One can imagine the British MPs, rubbing their hands together and saying to each other, “this will teach those recalcitrant colonials.” It did. It taught them the need for unity amongst themselves.

It didn’t occur to the MPs, perhaps, that the major port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Charleston might look at Boston’s fate and consider that they might be next, and hence might better unite to defend Boston than wait their turn. Or that the other colonial governments might look at what happened to the Massachusetts government and draw analogies to their own situations. Nor that the Quartering Act went directly against a cherished English tradition that said that a man’s home was his castle. And as for the Quebec Act, there they managed to jangle two nerves with one measure: Regardless what the Crown wanted, the colonists were going to cross the Appalachians and settle. And (less creditably, but also in the English tradition of the previous 200 years) granting Catholics freedom of religion aroused all their fears of renewed domination by a Roman church. (To understand this fear, we need to recall American fears of Communist subversion that were rife in the 1950s.)

The acts presented a common threat. They required a common response. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty called for a boycott, but to succeed a boycott would require unanimity among the colonies, or at least widespread agreement, and enforcement provisions. That required coordination. Various colonial legislatures named delegates to attend a common assembly to argue it out. And so in September, 1774, in Philadelphia (which was not only centrally located but was the largest city in the colonies), 55 men met, calling themselves the Continental Congress, and representing every colony but Georgia. Among them were George Washington and John Adams.

The delegates weren’t radical. They still thought their position, if stated clearly enough, might obtain a fair hearing. They sent separate addresses to the people of Great Britain and to the North American colonies, explaining the colonial position, and added a similar address for the people of Quebec. They sent a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” directly to the king. (Note, they didn’t send it to Parliament, which they saw as the source of the problem.)

But they didn’t just plead. They made it clear that they were serious.

For one thing, they agreed that the colonies boycott British goods beginning on December 1. Each colony was to form committees of observation and inspection to assure enforcement of the boycott. (And, in fact, in 1775, imports from Britain were down to three percent of the 1774 figures.) They also provided that if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed, exports to Britain would cease as of September 10, 1775, but by the time that date came around, matters had proceeded far beyond boycotts.

Then they agreed to reconvene in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, and they went home.

So what had they accomplished? More than they knew, perhaps. For the first time representatives from New England, southern and middle colonies had met in a common assembly and had learned to work together and understand each other. They had come to common understanding, had agreed on measures, and – more important than anyone could guess – they had arranged to meet again, the following year, never dreaming that in calling for that meeting they had provided the nucleus around which a government and a nation would eventually coalesce.

Bunker Hill

Neither the Battle of Bunker Hill nor the siege that preceded and followed it will make much sense if you don’t understand the geography of Boston as it was in the 1770s. In those years, prior to decades of land-filling, Boston was little more than an island, with only the narrowest connection overland, an ideal place for a naval power to defend.

In June, 1775, Washington had not yet arrived. The Continental Army did not yet exist. It was only two months after Lexington and Concord. The colonial militia – 15,000 strong — surrounded the town and cut off the Roxbury Neck to the south, the only land access. But of course the British navy dominated the waters of the harbor, which meant that British troops in the city could be resupplied and reinforced indefinitely. In the absence of a navy, the only way to force the British out of Boston would be to mount artillery somewhere capable of bombarding the city.

We think of Bunker Hill as being in Boston, but actually it was across the Charles River, and the battle was fought less on Bunker Hill (which commands the Charlestown Neck, the only way off the peninsula) than on Breed’s Hill, farther east. Why the British didn’t land west of Breed’s Hill, flanking it and rendering it irrelevant, says a lot about the causes and progress of the revolution. The British got a shock that day they never forgot.

The only reason the colonials were able to occupy and fortify Bunker and Breed’s Hill in the first place is that commanding officer General Thomas Gage had withdrawn the British troops to Boston after their long retreat from Concord in April. Yet if he had left a garrison on the Charlestown Peninsula, they would have had to defend against the pursuing colonial militia, so perhaps we would have seen a Bunker Hill in reverse. Hard to imagine the colonials attacking a fortified British position, though. At any rate, that isn’t what happened.

Throughout May, Gage received reinforcements, and by June he had about 6,000 men. On May 25, three generals arrived on the same ship. We know them all: William Howe (Lord When?), Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the assault on Breed’s Hill was strategy designed by a committee of four able generals. Gage’s plan was to take Dorchester Neck, fortifying the heights, then march on Roxbury, then take the Charlestown heights and scatter the forces in Cambridge. General Clinton wanted to attack from the Charlestown Neck, sensibly enough, but he was outvoted. Howe thought that the hill would be easy to take, and Burgoyne agreed, thinking that the “untrained rabble” would be no match for trained troops.

By the 13th the colonials knew all about the British plans. By the 15th, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety ordered defenses set up on the Charlestown Peninsula, specifically on Bunker Hill. (Bunker, not Breed’s.) On the night of the 16th, Colonel William Prescott led 1,200 men to the peninsula. They started to fortify Bunker Hill, decided that Breed’s hill was a better choice, and built their main fortification there, six-foot-high earthen walls with ditches outside them. In the morning, Prescott had breastworks built from the hill to the water on the east side, to protect from being flanked.

No point in discussing the battle in any detail. Suffice it to say that the British made three frontal assaults before they took Breed’s Hill when the colonials ran out of ammunition. In those attacks, they took terrific casualties. Of 3,000 men engaged, they lost 226 killed (including a lieutenant colonel, two majors, seven captains and nine lieutenants) and 828 wounded. In all, a third of the force went down. With respect to casualties, this was the worst single day of the war for the British; they never again lost so many men in one encounter.

American casualties came to 450, which included 115 killed. The death chiefly noted was that of Dr. Joseph Warren, the President of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress. He had been appointed a Major General three days earlier, but since his commission had not yet taken effect he was serving as a volunteer private. Warren was killed during the retreat from Breed’s Hill on the third British charge.

It is hard to adequately estimate the effect of Bunker Hill, on either side (not to mention the large population uncommitted to either side). A faint analogy would be if a party of home-grown self-styled patriots took on a unit of the United States Army and inflicted heavy damage on it, with the obvious sympathy of a good part of the people. Regardless who held the field at the end of the day, such a battle would change everything.

The colonials abandoned the field, but they merely retreated to Cambridge and regrouped. Gage was dismissed from command as soon as London received his report, and Howe was named to succeed him. Like Clinton and Burgoyne, Howe was influenced by the slaughter he had witnessed. Perhaps this contributed to the indecisive and unaggressive style that he subsequently displayed.

As we know, within a year, cannon from Fort Ticonderoga would be installed on Dorchester Heights (at the bottom right of the map below), and the British would have to leave. The British never assaulted Dorchester Heights: After Bunker Hill, no British officer ever again had an appetite for attacking Americans in entrenched positions.


Lexington and Concord

Was the revolution inevitable? Maybe, maybe not. As Thomas Paine pointed out the following year, it is merely common sense to see that an island is not going to rule a continent indefinitely. But even if separation was inevitable, did it have to come when and how it did? Did a series of Parliamentary bungles have to lead to warfare? Who knows? Let’s ask an easier question: What price conspiracy theories?

The American Revolution may be seen as an case-study in how to create what you fear. The British feared loss of political control over the North American colonies. Americans feared a conspiracy to take away their rights as Englishmen and British citizens. Both sides acted on their fears; each validated the fears of the other, and together they brought about a result that nobody planned and perhaps nobody really wanted.

As an illustrative example, look at the first armed clash between the colonists and the empire.

Here’s how the British saw it: After the Boston Tea Party, a series of events deprived the legitimate government of effective control of most of the colony of Massachusetts. (The only sizeable British armed force in Massachusetts – in all 13 colonies, actually – was stationed in the city of Boston.) The crown’s response had been to shut down the colonial government. The rebels had formed an insurgent government, and had established a militia specifically for the purpose of resisting the legitimate government and the army. Could the authorities, in all conscience, allow the insurgents to gather arms and ammunition, including cannon and shot, and wait for an inevitable assault? Would it not be better policy to gather information on where the arms were being stored, and act to confiscate them?

Americans saw it differently: To them, the Boston Tea Party and in fact all the political disturbances of the past dozen years were the result of a series of unprecedented usurpations by the British government, regardless whether the prime mover was Parliament as a whole, or the Tory majority, or the king. Quartering British troops on the people, imposing new taxes, closing the port of Boston – it was evident that they were being coerced, and could either resist or surrender the freedom they had enjoyed for more than a century and a half. The colonists were accustomed to forming and serving in militias. Militias had been their first line of defense against Indians, and then against the French. After Gage dissolved the government, the militia, rather than continuing to be used  under the leadership of the colonial governor, instead were headed by the Massachusetts provincial Congress. In effect, the militia was the armed force of the de facto government.

In February, 1775, with the colony of Massachusetts officially declared to be in a state of rebellion, General Thomas Gage became both military governor and commander-in-chief of 3,000 troops that had been garrisoned in Boston. On April 14, 1775, he received orders from home: disarm the rebels and imprison their leaders. At the top of the list were Samuel Adams and John Hancock. (Note, this was 15 months before Hancock, as President of the Continental Congress, signed in large letters, so that the King could read his name without needing eyeglasses.) On the 18th, Gage ordered Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith to take 700 men and proceed from Boston to Concord, seizing any military stores.

But the Americans knew of Gage’s instructions from London literally before he did, and Paul Revere had already ridden to Concord with a warning ten days before Smith set out. The stores were removed and distributed among surrounding towns.

What’s more – incredibly – the Americans knew the details of the secret mission of April 19 even though neither the officers nor the rank and file did. On the night of April 18, 1775, Joseph Warren (who had two months to live) sent William Dawes and Paul Revere to warn Lexington that British regulars were coming their way. In Lexington, they met Hancock and Adams and decided that Concord was the main target. Revere, Dawes, and Samuel Prescott set out to warn Concord. Revere and Dawes were captured, but Prescott made it, and his warning triggered a recently developed system of “alarm and muster” that alerted neighboring villages to know to muster their militias because regulars in numbers greater than 500 were leaving Boston. This system used express riders, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires, lots of things. So effective was it that people in towns 25 miles from Boston were aware of the British army’s movements while they were still unloading boats in Cambridge!

You know the bare bones of the story from here. The army got to Lexington, a few shots were fired at sunrise, the outnumbered militia saved themselves by falling back (rightly) and the army proceeded to Concord. They didn’t find any supplies to confiscate, but at the old North Bridge three companies found themselves outnumbered and outfought by 500 militiamen. Then, the army had to fight its way all the way back to Boston, as more militia continued to arrive. Reinforcements from Boston saved the expedition, but the militia followed them all the way. All told, of the 700 men sent out, they had lost 73 killed and 174 wounded, with 53 men missing. The Americans had lost 49 killed and 39 wounded. (And 5 missing. One wonders about that.)

The next day, the British were faced with militia numbering 15,000 men, blocking what was then the only land access to the peninsular city. (The back bay would not be filled in for many decades.) The siege of Boston had begun. Bunker Hill would follow, and then Washington would arrive to take command of the Continental army, demonstrating that Boston was not going to be left to face the British alone.

Second Continental Congress

They never dreamed what they would end up doing. They had to make it up as they went along.

The First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia during September and October of 1774, had been selected in various ways, all outside the law (necessarily, since there could be no legal basis for such a gathering). Probably the delegates thought of themselves as an extension of the committees of correspondence – in other words, a mechanism for coordinating the opinions and the efforts of the colonies. They wound up petitioning the king for repeal of the Coercive Acts, and coordinating a boycott of British goods, and they agreed to meet again in May.

But when the second congress convened on May 10, 1775, Lexington and Concord were already three weeks in the past, and a long, long step had been taken. Events had a logic of their own, and over time circumstances turned this second congress into a de facto government. As the man said about the dog walking on its hind legs, the wonder wasn’t that he did it so badly, but that he could do it at all.

Granted, the congress had plenty of talent to draw on. Besides holdovers from the previous year, it had newcomers Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson. In addition, July saw the arrival of representatives of the state of Georgia, which had not participated in 1774, thus completing the roster of colonies..

But the problem to be solved was unprecedented, in a way that we, who are the heirs to their solution, have to work to realize.

It wasn’t just that these men had no legal authority to become the government. All rebels have that problem.

Nor was it that they had to overcome staggering disproportions between the means at hand and the work to be done.

Nor that their former protector, now to be their enemy, was the world’s greatest naval power and one of the top two economic powers.

Nor that the colonists themselves were by no means united in their perceptions and goals. (It would take this congress 14 months to achieve unanimity on the need for independence.)

It wasn’t even the problem of converting the colonies into states with a republican form of government: John Adams, out of his vast scholarship and industrious scribbling, would show them how to do that.

No, the problem was greater than any of these, and more intangible. It was this: Although the colonies spoke the same language and shared the same traditions and (more or less) the same grievances, they were thirteen governments, not one. The British Empire had never governed them as one unit. Each was as separate at Bermuda, say, or East and West Florida, or Upper and Lower Canada. None of the colonies was prepared to give up sovereignty, not to another colony and certainly not to a faceless entity that would purport to represent them all.

The key to all the financial and logistical problems of the revolution, and many of the military ones, is to be found right here in e pluribus unum. What history had made plural, imagination and skill would have to find a way to make one. If the colonies continued to act in isolation, Britain would divide them and break them one by one: It wasn’t just the men in the forefront of action who were going to hang together or hang separately; it was the cause of American self-government.

Throughout the war, Congress would be hampered by its inability to assess the new state governments for money or supplies or soldiers. It could determine each state’s assessment; it could plead undoubted necessity; it could beg. But the fact of the matter was, it had no means of compelling them to do so, and no recognized moral authority to act as a general government.

The delegates didn’t yet know it, but time, and the pressure of events, would demonstrate the need for another layer of government above state government, a layer that would concern itself with matters that would affect them all, and matters such as foreign affairs that required them to speak with a single voice, but would nonetheless leave them sovereign within their areas of competence.

The Second Continental Congress was an expedient that kept growing under the pressure of events. It never had the resources or authority it needed, and it often lacked vision. Still, it functioned. In June, it renamed the militia units in the field as the Continental Army and named George Washington to command it. In July, it approved a Declaration of Causes, justifying their resort to arms, and at the same time voted to send what was called the Olive Branch petition to King George. The following May, it would pass a resolution recommending that every colony form a revolutionary government.

And, finally, this congress would have to take it upon itself to declare the colonies independent of Great Britain, because no other authority existed to do it, and, if they were to have a hope of foreign assistance, it had to be done. (Nobody was going to intervene as long as it remained, or seemed to remain, an internecine struggle that might be patched up.)

Declaring independence led, in turn, to the Articles of Confederation, which would bind thirteen states into “a firm league” able to act together. The Confederation government came into effect in 1781, got them through the war and the immediate postwar period, and then gave way to the great federal experiment.

It all came out of this Second Continental Congress, one improvisation upon another. Perhaps it is no wonder that contemporaries saw the hand of divine providence in the events they had lived through.