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Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued

The American War of Independence
The final revolt of Britain's American colonies was a long time coming: it certainly could have been foreseen and better prepared for by the intransigent London government. The enormous expense of the Seven Years War, and the protection of the Colonies from the designs of France, led Parliament to insist that Americans should pay for their own defence. It therefore could justify the infamous sugar tax of 1764 and the stamp duty one year later. But these taxes were only the latest in a long history of repressive measures that were designed solely to benefit England's mercantile, industrial and agricultural interests.

In 1651, the Navigation Act forbade importation of goods into England or her colonies except by English vessels or by vessels of the countries producing the goods. This was passed to help the nation's merchant navy in their struggle against the Dutch. It was still too early to be a bone of contention with the Colonies. In 1660, Charles I sought to strengthen the Navigation Acts in that certain "enumerated articles" from the American colonies may be exported only to the British Isles. These articles include tobacco, sugar, wool, molasses and many other essential items of American livelihood; the result was widespread economic distress and political unrest, especially in Virginia.

In 1663, a Second Navigation Act forbade English colonists to trade with other European countries. In addition, European goods bound for America had to be unloaded at English ports and reshipped. Export duties and profits to middlemen then made prices of the goods prohibitive in the Colonies. In 1672, Parliament imposed customs duties on goods carried from one American colony to another. Even though not many colonists were engaged in the woolen industry, it was mostly restricted to their individual homes, further resentment came with the Woolens Act of 1699 that prevented any American colony from exporting wool, wool yarn, or wool cloth to any place whatsoever."

Trading restrictions continued in 1733 when the Molasses Act taxed British colonists on the molasses, rum and sugar imported from non-British West Indian islands. The price of rum, a drink heavily favored because of its supposed therapeutic properties increased dramatically in the Colonies. A hint of later rebellion was provided in 1741 when Salem sea captain Richard Derby avoided the British Navigation Acts by sailing his schooner Volante under Dutch colors. Six years later, London marine insurance companies began to charge exorbitant rates on ship and cargo from New England to Caribbean ports, but large profits were made by American merchantmen carrying cod from the Newfoundland banks.

In 1750, the Cumberland Gap through the Appalachians was discovered by English physician Thomas Walker. Colonists could now break out of their relatively narrow coastal areas and move westward; ideas of breaking away from the Mother Country were sure to follow the pioneers as they moved over the mountains in search of new lands to settle, farther away from English interests. By 1763, the Mississippi River was recognized as the boundary between the British colonies and the Louisiana Territory. Meanwhile, the raising of the bounty on whales by the English government in 1750 did much to encourage the New England fishing industry, not to be overlooked in the growing aspirations for independence.

In the meantime, the population of the American Colonies was enjoying a rapid population increase, due to the high birth rate and high rates of immigration, especially from Germany, Ireland and other countries not disposed to favor keeping ties with Britain. A rolling iron mill established in New Hampshire also gave notice that the colonists could engage in an industry that had hitherto been an English monopoly.

In 1757, after a visit to England, Benjamin Franklin was able to report to the Colonies just how far American importers could safely go in flouting London's mercantile acts. In 1763, there was an angry reaction to George III's decree that Colonists must remain east of the sources of rivers that flow into the Atlantic. The decree was honored only in the breach and further intensified the Colonists' growing desires for independence from the dictates of London. The king had not wished to antagonize Spain and France; the land-hungry Colonists were indifferent.

In April 1763, Parliament passed the Sugar Act and sent customs officials to order colonial governors to enforce it. In May, the Currency Act then forbade the Colonies from printing paper money. Also in May, Boston lawyer James Otis denounced "taxation without representation," and urged the colonies to unite to oppose Britain's new tax laws. During the same month, Boston merchants organized a boycott of British luxury goods and initiated a policy of non-importation. As the colonists had contributed little tax support to England, the government decided at this juncture to take a harder line American industry, in the meanwhile, received a great boost by the invention of Pennsylvania mechanic James Davenport that could spin and card wool.

Events started moving to a head in 1765. First, Parliament passed the Quartering Act ordering colonists to provide barracks and supplies to British troops (quite fair considering the expense of maintaining the defence of the Colonies). The Stamp Act, passed in March, was particularly resisted: it was the first measure to impose direct taxes in the Colonies. It required revenue stamps on all newspapers, pamphlets, playing cards, dice, almanacs and legal documents. In May, in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry stood up to denounce the Act, despite cries of "Treason" from other delegates. The Act was also denounced in Boston, where the Sons of Liberty formed clubs to show their resistance. In October a Stamp Act Congress convened in New York to protest taxation without representation and resolved to import no goods that required payment of duty. Ironically, the greatest protest against the Act came, not in the Colonies, but in England, where merchants complained that it was contrary to the true commercial interests of the Empire.

Self-confident American colonials were beginning to flex their muscles. In Philadelphia the opening of the first American medical school, later to become the College of Physicians and Surgeons, showed only too well that the fledgling nation could develop its own institutions. In commerce, shipping interests were booming. Exports of tobacco, bread and flour, fish, rice, indigo and wheat were streaming out of the ports of Boston, New York and Providence. Philadelphia, with over 25,000 inhabitants, had become the second largest city in the British Empire.

Early in 1766, it seemed that reconciliation was in the offing when Parliament, partly in response to the persuasive powers of visiting Benjamin Franklin, repealed the Stamp Act. However in March, the Declaratory Act rekindled the flames of colonial resentment, for it declared that the King, by and with the consent of Parliament, had the authority to make laws and to bind the British colonies in all respects.

Though William Pitt had returned as Prime Minister, his powers were no longer as effectual, and the arrogant Lord Townsend introduced the infamous Townsend Act, a Bill that imposed duties on American imports of paper, glass, lead and tea. Rebellion may not have been immediately on the minds of the Colonists and John Dickinson's "Letters from a Farmer" advised caution and loyalty to King and Empire, but the Townsend Act would be on the minds of the merchant classes. They were now beginning to despair of bringing the British Government to reason through limited resistance.

In 1767, Daniel Boone took his party through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, thus defying the 1763 decree of King George, completely out of touch with the aspirations of the American Colonists. Two years later he was emulated by a party of Virginians moving into what later became Tennessee (10 years later, Boone led a party to break the Wilderness Road to be used by more than 10,000 pioneers pouring into the new territories of Western Tennessee and Kentucky).

When delegates from 28 towns in Massachusetts met at Faneuil Hall, Boston in September to draw up a statement of grievances, following anti-British riots, infantry regiments were brought in from Canada. More riots broke out in Boston the following June when Customs officials seized a sloop belonging to John Hancock. In the meantime, Cherokee lands were ceded to the Crown in the Carolina and Virginia Colonies, as were lands of the Iroquois between the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers. Another pioneering journey was that of a fleet of American whalers into the Antarctic Ocean to begin a new and most profitable industry.

In 1769, a huge step towards independence was taken by the Virginia House of Burgesses that issued its resolutions rejecting Parliament's right to tax British colonists. When the governor dissolved the assembly, its members met in private and agreed not to import any duty-liable goods. In January, 1770, at the Battle of Golden Hill, New York, the first blood was shed between British troops and the colonists.

In March, the so-called "Boston Massacre" further inflamed passions, already being incited to rebellion by radicals in many of the Colonial governments (aided by such Whig newspapers as "The Massachusetts Spy"). The repeal of the Townsend Acts by newly-appointed Prime Minister Lord North, came too late to assuage those who had already made up their minds that the future of their country was as an independent nation, completely freed from its political links with Britain.

Events moved fitfully towards an inevitable conclusion. The so-called Boston "Tea-Party" in December 1773 had protested British taxes on American imports and in September 1774, the first Continental Congress of twelve colonies met in Philadelphia. It is interesting to note that the protest was organized by Samuel Adams, supported by John Hancock, whose smuggling of contraband tea had been made unprofitable by the measures passed in Parliament. "Men of Sense and property" such as George Washington, however, deplored the actions of those who staged the "Boston Tea-Party" and it is safe to say, at this juncture, that the majority of the colonists opposed independence, or at least, were not willing to fight Britain to gain it.

The first Continental Congress quickly adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, but no less than George Washington himself wrote that "... no thinking man in all of North America desires independence." Benjamin Franklin also cautioned against a break with the mother country, for despite its unkindness "of late," the link was worth preserving. The radicals were still few in number and all measures taken by the Colonies were undertaken to pressure the British Government to listen to their grievances, not to force its hand. However, when news of the Bostonian's "tea-party" reached Parliament, outrage by many of its members produced its coercive acts in a failed attempt to bring the colonists to heel. Boston Harbor was closed until the East India Company was reimbursed for its lost tea and until trade could be resumed and duties collected. The acts were a fatal blunder by the Prime Minister, Lord North. As nothing else, they united the colonies against the government.

Other "tea-parties" followed Boston's example, and many colonies sent supplies to help the Bostonians survive the closing of its port. 1774 can be called the year of the pamphlets, with huge amounts of tracts being written and distributed throughout the American Colonies, arguing the pro's and con's of independence. In March, 1775, Patrick Henry made his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech, and the dye had been cast. The war began in April 1775 when a force of redcoats, sent to seize war material stored at Concord, were met by a force of patriots. The resulting skirmishes of Lexington and Concord meant that there would be no turning back for either side.

The War of Independence can be summarized briefly. The strong determination of the colonists to make themselves completely independent would surely have succeeded in the long run, but they were aided enormously by incompetent English generals. One George Washington in charge of English redcoats would have quickly ended the rebellion. In addition, without the notoriously corrupt Earl of Sandwich in charge at the Admiralty, the Royal Navy would have surely held the seas against the French relief forces. Yet even with these crippling burdens, the war started well for the government.

In June, the Second Continental Congress had followed after the urging of Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to make foreign alliances and form a confederation. The resolutions were adopted on July 2, 1776. Efforts to end the war by negotiation broke off. At first, the colonists were no match for the better trained, better armed and better disciplined regulars of the British army, augmented by King George's Hessians, despite the incompetence of its generals.

The publication of The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson which was signed by 56 delegates was no doubt influenced by the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense written in July 1776. It created a major shift in political emphasis. One of its immediate effects was to create a will and strength to see the thing through. Before the Declaration, the revolutionaries had seen their cause as mainly fighting for their rights as British subjects against a stubborn English Parliament; after the Declaration, they saw their fight as necessary to protect their natural rights as free men against a tyrannical and out-of-touch king. This indeed was a cause worth fighting for.

To aid in the fight, General Washington appointed Polish military expert Kosciusco to help train the volunteers, "the citizen-soldiers" who made up the bulk of the American armies. Following many early defeats, it was a surprising victory over the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas Day, 1776 which provided a stirring impetus to continue. In January, Washington followed up his victory at Trenton by defeating Cornwallis at Princeton. Later in the year, however, when he lost the Battle of Brandywine and retreated to Valley Forge, General Howe failed to consolidate his victory, preferring to sit out the winter in Philadelphia, and the American army was miraculously able to recover.

In Parliament, Lord North expressed his dismay at the poor leadership shown by the British commanders in America. When the British forces, surrendered one of its armies under Burgoyne at Saratoga, who returned to England, it was the beginning of the end for the valiant redcoat armies. Poorly led, forced to march and counter-march through untracked wildernesses, dispersed over hundreds of miles of unknown territory and harassed every step of the way, they had been betrayed by the incompetence of their officers as much as by the determination of the Colonists under Washington's inspired leadership. The victory at Saratoga galvanized into action the French government, who followed up its policy of aiding the Colonists with money and supplies by recognizing American independence and forming an alliance with the fledgling nation. The French fleet was to prove decisive in the struggle and ultimate victory of the Americans. In 1779, Spain and Holland, for reasons of their own, also provided aid in the form of money, supplies and military hardware. Not only that, but sympathetic (and profit-hungry) British merchants, including Robert Walpole, were engaged in smuggling arms and provisions to the Americans through the West Indies.

When Cornwallis surrendered his troops at Yorktown, after foolishly digging in where he had no natural defences except the sea, which was blocked the French fleet, no further military operations of any consequence took place. The British armies in North America were exhausted. The War was over. Signed on September 3rd, 1783, the Treaty of Paris recognized the independence of the American Colonies. Britain's great age of Empire, paradoxically was just about to begin.

Resource Information

Part 7: The Age of Empire, continued


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