Early America and the Quest for Independence
Seldom has there ever been a sense of “we” in Great Britain. National unity did manifest itself as a result of wars, but this has always been a fickle indicator because people tire of war rather quickly, particularly when they realize its cost regarding taxes and loved ones lost. If we ignore the temporary unity that comes from national mobilization, there have always been class distinctions in British society: Royals vs. everyone else, wealthy class vs. middle class, better off vs. worse off, industrialists vs. agriculturalists, white-collar vs. blue-collar, and the usual racial or ethnic divisions. If we remove “royals” from the equation, then we find favorable class comparisons within American society.
Several conditions in Merry Old England explain why so many British people migrated to the American colonies, including escaping poverty, persecution, political turmoil, famine, and disease. It takes a powerful incentive to push or pull people away from their loved ones, their homes, and everything they knew or cared about in the homeland — which leads us to assume that life in the old country was grim enough for the “push” and that the promise of America was sufficiently significant to make the venture a worthwhile risk.
Yet another incentive to leave the English homeland was the always-present authoritarian boot of the British government resting on the necks of the King’s subjects. Migration to the colonies was also encouraged by the absence of hope for a brighter future in the land of their birth.
The risks associated with a decision to relocate to the American colonies were never small. Still, in the minds of many, life in the colonies couldn’t be any worse than it was in the British Isles. British subjects migrated to the colonies by the tens of thousands. Between 1620 and 1775, British subjects living in the American colonies increased from around zero to 3.1 million people.
Of course, not every migrant survived the American ordeal. Not every migrant became successful. But every settler quickly learned that if they hoped to last or achieve success, it would have to be on their own merits — and that there was never a guarantee of achieving either. They learned, through their experiences, that while they were free to choose their fate, the cost of doing so was often dear. Freedom in America was never free.
Every effort to achieve success in the colonies involved land acquisition — even among the indentured, once released. Property ownership was the engine of the American success story because the land was essential for raising crops, pasturing livestock, building homes and stores, constructing ships for commerce, or tying up fishing boats.
There was no land for the average Englishmen back home, but there was plenty of land for them in North America. The problem, however, was that other people already possessed that land. Acquiring land, therefore, meant dispossessing its occupants, which became the primary reason for hostility between Europeans and Indians. American settlers eventually succeeded in removing the Indians from their ancestral lands, but it was an expensive undertaking in terms of lives lost.
Colonial governments had always placed some restrictions on where migrants could settle. As streams of migrants flooded into the colonies, they quickly occupied the vast tracts of land nearest the seacoast, and later arriving groups had little choice but to move west to find parcels yet unclaimed. Just over the Appalachian Mountains, on their western side, millions of acres awaited them. All they had to do was risk their lives to obtain it. Despite colonial restrictions on moving across the Appalachia, settlers learned that the farther west they went, the less attention was paid to them by colonial officials. It was a matter of being out of sight/out of mind.
This, too, was a lesson not wasted on the early Americans. Since, for the most part, there was no penalty assessed for doing as they pleased, Americans learned that ignoring government regulations was beneficial. It did not take long for these early Americans to adopt disobedience as a symbol of American freedom — choosing to call it their independent nature, of course — and why should it matter if the Indians were tossed off their land?
It began to matter when the Indians decided they would not go quietly into that good night.
There were several “French and Indian Wars” in North America, beginning as early as 1609. However, the Seven Years’ War, which also involved French colonists and their Indian allies, was part of a more significant European conflict. On one side was a British, Prussia, and Hanoverian alliance against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia, and Spain. France and Spain were not happy with British meddling in North America. After all, the French and Spanish were “there” first. So, as it unfolded, the Seven Years’ War became a conflict of nations striving to achieve commercial and imperial superiority in the New World.
Great Britain’s imperative in 1754 was simple enough: destroy France’s ability to compete. To achieve this goal, the British focused their efforts on destroying French shipping and the productivity of the French colonies in New France.
In the conflict between Great Britain and France, both of whom maintained North American colonies, a limited number of French regulars enlisted the assistance of some 5-8,000 of their Algonquin allies to confront between 42-45,000 British soldiers and militia and around 3,000 Iroquois. The Seven Year’s War raged between 1754-1763.
There is no record of the French and Indian casualties sustained during the Seven Years’ War, but British losses in North America were 3,012 killed in action/died of wounds, and an additional 10,400 deaths from diseases. These were losses that the British had to replace to exercise their control of the vast territory formerly known as New France.
In 1763, the British government quite reasonably concluded that hostility with native populations might subside if settlers stopped invading Indian lands. Thus, in that year, a Royal Proclamation forbade any Anglo settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. Moreover, British authorities ordered colonists living in the west of the Appalachians to return “back east.” Most of these settlers complied, of course, but they weren’t happy about it. In 1764, The Royal Proclamation of 1763 became a popular topic among several of the earliest committees of correspondence.
While the idea was simple enough, British regulations governing colonial and territorial commerce were complex. The scheme anticipated that colonies would produce raw materials and ship them to England. British industries would transform these raw materials into finished goods and sell them to British overseas colonies, territories, and other markets. In the early 1700s, British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, known as a “free trader,” developed a “hands-off” policy toward the enforcement of commercial regulations.
Walpole appointed a like-minded statesman named Thomas Pelham (Duke of Newcastle) to serve as Secretary of State for the Southern Departments. Pelham, responsible for managing affairs in the American colonies, was indifferent with respect to trade regulations — which later became known as salutary neglect. In effect, Pelham not only ignored the bribes paid to tax collectors for looking the other way, but he also disregarded numerous complaints from colonial governors who complained about the rampant lawlessness in the American colonies.
The effect of salutary neglect was an increase in smuggling — and most Americans saw nothing wrong with it. They wanted the government to keep its hands off the “natural right” of free trade. As but one example of this widespread smuggling, between 1756-1757, 400 chests of tea were imported into Philadelphia; of those, only sixteen were imported legally. In 1763, the British government estimated that its losses in revenues due to smuggling exceeded £700,000 — an enormous sum of money back then. Nor was the preference for inexpensive (smuggled) tea limited to American colonists. Other estimates claim that English and American smugglers trafficked half the tea imported to England.
Notwithstanding the Seven Years’ War, trading with Great Britain’s enemies had become an American tradition. During earlier conflicts, American merchants frequented neutral ports in the Caribbean to exchange their provisions for French molasses, bribing customs officials, of course, to obtain false clearance papers.
In Rhode Island, trading with the enemy became an art form. During the Seven Years’ War, combatants used flags of truce to exchange prisoners. Smugglers found that they could purchase these flags at reasonable prices from colonial governors. Ship captains would hire deckhands who could speak French and then used them to pose as prisoners. Sailing into a belligerent harbor under a flag of truce enabled American/British smugglers to trade with the French West Indies. One American smuggler recorded in his journal, “French trade is the most profitable business I know of …”
Illegal trade with the enemy continued throughout the war, particularly during its later phase when the French West Indies were desperate for food stores. American merchants from Newport, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia made a handsome profit from such transactions. Pennsylvania’s wartime governor, William Denny, actually enriched himself by selling “flags of truce.” He sold so many flags that by 1760, they were openly traded in New York markets. This blatant disregard for trade restrictions and British law brought “salutary neglect” to a screeching halt in 1763, but greater customs enforcement failed to solve the problem. Sympathetic colonial juries routinely acquitted American smugglers, and government informers who ratted on them were too often found lying in alleyways with their throats cut.
In 1763, British Prime Minister George Grenville implemented a campaign to crack down on smuggling. He detailed eight warships and twelve armed sloops to patrol American waters to arrest smugglers and confiscate their ships and cargo. Before Grenville’s tenure, British-appointed customs officers remained in England while sending low-paid subordinates to collect taxes in the American colonies. Grenville ordered these officials to either take up their duties in America or resign. Many resigned rather than face the smuggling mafia in the colonies.
During the Seven Years’ War, American colonists opened their homes to British troops. It was called “Quartering Troops.” Once the war ended, however, these same colonists objected to quartering British soldiers. The troops, they argued, were no longer required in North America. While it was true that the Seven Years’ War was officially concluded, disaffected Frenchmen who remained in the British western territories continued to urge Algonquin attacks against British settlements — a problem that reasonably justified the continued presence of the British army; the need for security was significant enough to require the assistance of American volunteer militia. In this sense, despite the official end of the French & Indian War, hostilities continued.
The general dissatisfaction among the colonists of mandatory quartering of troops led to the first committee of correspondence — a relatively successful effort, as it turned out, to spread the seeds of discontent among colonists who wanted the government to leave them alone — except, of course, when the British army was needed to kill Indians. Colonial attitudes in this regard offered no favor to the young men wearing red coats who provided security and safety to those very malcontents.
By 1765, senior British officers found it nearly impossible to convince colonial assemblies to pay for the quartering and provisioning of British soldiers. The unwillingness of colonists to “support the troops” (beyond an occasional bumper sticker) prompted Lieutenant General Thomas Gage to petition Parliament to help resolve this problem.
Parliament responded to General Gage’s plea by passing the Quartering Act of 1765. Incensed colonists rejected the law, arguing that it violated the Bill of Rights of 1689, which (a) forbade taxation without representation, and (b) prohibited the raising and maintaining of an army without the consent of Parliament. The former argument was only marginally more substantial than the latter because colonists were represented by colonial assemblies and, in most cases, a Crown-appointed magistrate (governor). In any case, the quartering of British soldiers in the homes of civilians was a “use tax.” Their second argument was nonsense because the British military presence in North America was only possible by Parliamentary approval.
In 1766, when 1,500 additional British troops arrived in New York, the New York Assembly and the governor refused to comply with the Quartering Act. A year later, as a punitive measure, Parliament suspended the governor of New York and the assembly. By this time, the committees of correspondence had done their work, and every colony except Pennsylvania supported New York’s refusal to quarter troops in private homes, inns, and other business establishments.
Quartering was not the only issue, however.
Great Britain emerged from the Seven Years’ War as the victor — but along with the euphoria of defeating the French on land and sea came the burden of administering the vast expanse of land previously known as New France. It fell upon military governors and soldiers to establish and maintain British authority over these acquired lands, which was in addition to protecting the western settlements from French instigated Indian attacks.
Great Britain also emerged from the Seven Years’ War deeply in debt, which necessitated cost-cutting measures and increased taxes. One of these cost-cutting measures was, as previously mentioned, a requirement that colonists provide room, board, and other provisions to British troops. Increased taxes on goods and services was the other method of debt reduction. Since smuggling goods had become an American art form, other means of raising revenues became necessary.
Prime Minister Grenville was serious about curtailing the smuggling operations prevalent in the American colonies, but that was only the beginning. Customs duties were designed to regulate the flow of trade, not to raise revenue. In any case, trade regulations cost the British government about four times more than it brought to the treasury, so Grenville set to work on a long list of proposals to raise revenue and curtail smuggling. Parliament enacted Grenville’s proposals in 1764 — commonly referred to as the Sugar Acts.
Six sections of the Sugar Act dealt with new taxes; forty additional areas were devoted to far-reaching changes to already complicated commercial regulations, including a doubling down on enforcement mechanisms. Typical of government regulation, the Sugar Act opened the door to racketeering by corrupt officials who lined their pockets by seizing vessels for minor infractions or technical violations. For example, the owner of a captured ship had to pay the cost of his trial — in advance — or forfeit the vessel and all of its cargo. Even if acquitted, the owner could not recover his “court costs.” Customs officials were exempt from lawsuits so long as judges decided that the confiscation was made with “probable cause.” Worse than this, the vessel owner carried the burden of proving his innocence. Not surprisingly, the abuses of customs officials became widespread.
The Sugar Act ignited a short fuse in the colonies. Rhode Island judges and prosecutors routinely found in favor of the defendants in such matters; they were, after all, Rhode Island voters. In some cases where a judge had no choice but to convict a smuggler and confiscate his ship, he might later sell the vessel back to the owner at a fraction of its value. Easiest to all concerned, however, was paying bribes to customs officials.
The British had no one to blame but themselves for these deplorable conditions. Americans had become accustomed to “salutary neglect” and deeply resented Grenville’s efforts to repair the British treasury and pay for maintaining 10,000 troops in the colonies. American colonists were never intimidated by the government’s efforts to sort out the British treasury. The number of letters exchanged between the committees of correspondence dramatically increased, and it did not take long for colonial anger to turn violent.
British Parliament was also not intimated. Following the Sugar Act, Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767. Again, Parliament was wrestling with its war debt and noted that American colonists enjoyed a higher standard of living than Englishmen back home. More to the point, they paid less than 5% of the taxes paid by people living in England. Since it was evident that the Americans could afford to pay higher taxes — they damn well should. On the other hand, Americans saw the Acts as another example of Parliament’s abuse of power.
The Townshend Acts levied duties on British porcelain, glass, lead, paper, and tea. Charles Townshend anticipated that taxes on tea alone would raise £40,000. Townshend intended more than raising revenue, however. He wanted to use the Acts to restructure colonial government. Townshend revenues, for example, would pay the salaries of colonial officials, including governors and judges, which, from the American point of view, would only ensure the loyalty of judges to the British government. The Acts’ only real accomplishment was to cause colonists to boycott British-made goods. Charles Townshend didn’t live to see the effects of his scheme. He died in September 1767.
The Townshend Acts went into effect on 20 November 1767. To clarify Parliament’s authority over the colonies, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act of 1767. Undaunted, John Dickinson (Pennsylvania), Sam Adams, and James Otis (Massachusetts) circulated correspondence urging colonists to boycott British-made goods. New England merchants agreed not to import British goods for a year. Resistance to the Townshend Acts led to the British decision to occupy Boston.
More than 2,000 British troops arrived in Boston in 1769 for occupation duty. At the time, only around 16,000 people lived in Boston, but scuffles between patriot colonists, loyalists, and British troops became increasingly common. Protest demonstrations evolved into the violent ransacking of stores and threatening merchants and their customers. The “Boston Massacre” occurred on 5 March 1770. On that same day, but unrelated to the shooting, Prime Minister Frederick North asked Parliament to repeal the Townshend Acts. All of the Act’s provisions were repealed in April, except the tea tax.
Following the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts of 1774. Known to the colonists as the “Intolerable Acts,” these measures were intended to punish acts of defiance in Massachusetts. Parliament stripped Massachusetts of its right of self-governance, which became another critical element of the colony’s declaration of independence.
While four acts related directly to the Tea Party mob, another, which seemed unrelated, was equally contested by the colonists. The Quebec Act enlarged the boundaries of the Province of Quebec to include the Ohio country and extended reforms generally favorable to French Catholics. Patriots regarded the Quebec Act as offensive to them because, to enlarge Quebec, Parliament reduced the territory allocated to Massachusetts. By 1774, the American colonists had had their fill of British meddling. The First Continental Congress was organized in September 1774.
The Other Side …
Few people realize, appreciate, or even care what the British had to contend with between 1764 and 1815. It was more than having to address war debt, disharmony in the colonies, rebellion, and the Napoleonic Wars — there were also significant challenges on the home front: industrialization, acts of union, issues of slavery and equality, dealing with seditious movements, and at least two attempts at regicide.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born political activist, philosopher, theorist, and revolutionary. In 1776, he authored Common Sense and The American Crisis (a series of 13 pamphlets between 1776-1783), two of the most influential writings of the American Revolution. Common Sense presented moral and political arguments for egalitarian society and government. It also made a persuasive case for independence. Common Sense was translated into French in 1790. Additionally, read in Great Britain and Ireland, Paine’s work inspired certain movements inside the United Kingdom that resulted in seditious activities against the British government and society. On 16 November 1802, Bow Street Runners arrested forty dissidents and their alleged leader, Colonel Edward Despard, for attending an illegal meeting of members of the Society of United Irishmen and anti-monarchical/pro-French republicanism.
Did the British government address these challenges adequately? Considering what was at stake in the decade preceding the American Revolution, the answer must be “no.” But given the insufferable arrogance of the British ruling class at the time, decisions are taken by the Parliament and an exceptionally uninformed monarch, there could have been no other solution but armed rebellion in the American colonies. The same attitude was apparent twenty years later as the British government wrestled with unhappiness at home — demonstrating an unsophisticated overreaction to a small number of unhappy subjects. Giving credit where due, the British did address the psychotic Napoleon well enough and then made a few quick stops in America to remind Mr. Madison that the United States was not quite ready for prime time.
- Ammerman, D. In the Common Cause American Response to the Coervive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton Press, 1975
- Bailyn, B. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992.
- Bailyn, B. The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America – The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675. Knopf Publishing, 2012.
- Churchill, W. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Age of Revolution. London: Dodd-Meade, 1958.
- Ellis, J. J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: First Vintage Books, 2004.
- Ferguson, N. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. New York: Basic Books, 2004.
- Lloyd, T. O. The British Empire 1558-1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Maier, P. R. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. London/New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1972.
- Richter, D. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Past. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2011
 In speaking of “citizens,” I admit to being influenced by my American mindset. Someone recently reminded me that in the United Kingdom, people aren’t “citizens” as much as they are “subjects” of the Crown. To clarify, the term British subject has several different meanings depending on the time period. Before 1949, the term “subject” referred to almost all citizens of the British Empire (including the United Kingdom, dominions, and colonies but excluding protectorates and protected states. Between 1949 and 1983, the term “subject” was synonymous with Commonwealth Citizen. It currently refers to people possessing one of six classes of British nationality, largely granted under limited circumstances to those connected with Ireland and British India born before 1949. The British government considers individuals with Irish or Indian nationalities as either British Nationals or Commonwealth Nationals, but not British citizens. The term “citizen” suggests “republicanism,” which is the antithesis of a monarchy.
 The development of a unique American culture was an evolutionary process that took place over 150 years. Generations that followed the arrival of immigrant parents/grandparents developed much different attitudes about such things as community, national identity, and adherence to colonial rules and regulations. These subsequent generations were the westward moving populations seeking to find their own way apart from their relations “back east.”
 Salutary neglect was the policy of avoiding strict enforcement of parliamentary laws, particularly trade laws, so long as the British colonies remained loyal to the government and contributed to the economic growth of Great Britain.
 The British employed a similar strategy in the years following the American Revolution by stirring up the Indians, supplying them with weapons and munitions, and paying bounties for the scalps of American settlers.
 Executed on 21 February 1803.
 The Bow Street Runners were London’s first police force.
 It is fitting that readers compare the utter arrogance of the British government (1763-1815) with the superciliousness of the American government in the present day — and decide whether, in the environment of our “superior” form of government, voters have done their due diligence in selecting national leaders. After careful analysis, Americans may very well conclude that the US government today is far too full of itself; that its general attitude toward “we the people” mirrors the haughtiness of those bad old revolutionary days — and who knows, Americans may even decide that it is time to reassert popular sovereignty over what has become an ineffective, oppressive, and thoroughly corrupt government.