What is today known as the United States of America was first settled by several British emigrants who wanted to live a freer life. They established several colonies on the Eastern coast of future American land, beginning with Jamestown (1607). Eventually, there would be thirteen colonies, those that would later be the homes to men who would fight for the freedom they held so dear.
When the colonists sailed away from Britain and colonized New England, they fully expected to have self-government under the British crown. This included having representative assemblies in the colonies. In 1619 the first of these assemblies was established in Virginia.
Towards the latter half of the 17th century the British began to undermine colonial self-government. They believed that this self-government was a gift from their king and could be revoked at any given time. So the British established the Dominion of New England: a system in which one man, the governor, was given the power to govern all the colonies. Though this was later dissolved when it proved too troublesome, it was a firm step forward by the British in their campaign to fully control New England.
With the colonists wanting self-government and the rights of free-born Englishman on one hand, and the absolutist British monarch on the other, the tension increased as the British attempted to tighten their hold, and the colonists struggled to get free.
A key event in this struggle was the battle against the writs of assistance begun by James Otis in 1761. The writs of assistance were general search warrants granted to the British to search the colonists’ private homes for ‘smugglers.’ These smugglers were colonists who would smuggle in imported goods without paying the tariff (tax on imported goods).
There were three reasons why the colonists went against these writs of assistance. The first was because they believed in their right to privacy. Second, they were guilty of smuggling. Last, because it was a form of legal positivism. This is something that is forced upon you, such as when you ask your parents for something, they say no, you ask why, and the answer is: “…because we say so.” The colonists believed that this, coming from a government, was unconstitutional*.
In New England at that time there were two types of tariffs. There were the revenue tariffs, which were designed to gather money for the government, and the protective tariffs, which were enforced in order to control the direction of trade. The revenue tariffs were disliked, obviously, by the colonists. They wanted to be able to decide how much this revenue tax would be. On some occasions the British did not allow that, and the colonists called this, “taxation without representation.”
The colonists didn’t fight the protective tariffs as much, though, because these weren’t meant to be paid, only to control (nobody is going to pay a 100% tax on an item). An example of this was the Sugar Act of 1764. There was, and had been, a 100% tax on molasses. But the British lowered the tax so that it became a revenue tax instead.
However, more important than the Sugar Act was the Stamp Act (1765), which placed a tax upon all printed documents. There were three forms of resistance:
- Direct action and intimidation (e.g. the Sons of Liberty)
- Official remonstration
But this act was relatively unsuccessful and was repealed shortly after. It was made clear, however, that the British did not repeal it out of weakness but because it caused too much trouble.
Another momentous event was the attempt by the British to enforce the Townshend Acts (1767). These acts imposed the acceptance of the quartering act (agreement to give food, shelter, etc… to the British), and the taxation of glass, tea, lead, paint and paper.
A suspicion aroused within the colonists as they wondered how the British would use the money gathered by these taxes. Their answer struck fire from them: to pay the salaries of British officials in the colonies. For decades the colonists had been the ones to decide the salary of these officials, therefore keeping them under control. Now the British government would do this instead and the colonists would lose their control. This was intolerable.
Three years later these taxes were repealed, all except the one on tea. Then, in 1773, the Boston Tea Party ensued and pounds upon pounds of precious tea were dumped into the Boston Harbor by angry colonists. It wasn’t thrown away because the price was too high, but because they didn’t want some colonists to begin buying the cheap tea, therefore paying the tax (which would symbolize their acceptance of it).
The response to the Tea Party was the Coercive Acts of 1774. These were,
- another quartering act
- the Boston Port act
- the Massachusetts Government Act: a limit upon their self-government
- the Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice: the British would be sent to England to be ‘fairly’ judged.
Finally, the string snapped and the first shots were fired in the battles of Lexington and Concord. And on July 4th, 1776 the colonies declared their independence from Britain, after signing The Declaration of Independence (written by Thomas Jefferson).
Seven years later, 1783, the colonists, finally victorious, signed the peace treaty with Britain and embarked upon another journey: making America into the most powerful nation in the modern world.
*The British constitution was not a written document, but a collection of long standing traditions and customs. The colonists believed that anything that did not agree with these was unconstitutional.
I wanted to add here an excerpt from “The American War of Independence” from a blog called The Lighthouse of Essays.
“Some people preferred to live under English rule no matter how many taxes, but others were completely fired by Patrick Henry’s famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
The War of Independence was a war of great bloodshed, a war of sorrow and hardship and a war of ultimate victory. It is an event to be remembered.”