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7.3: The Downward Slide to Revolution, 1772-1775

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    Two incidents in June 1772 marked the beginning of the end of the calm that followed the Boston Massacre. The first involved a British schooner, the Gaspee, which had been patrolling for smugglers when it ran aground near Providence, Rhode Island. The townspeople boarded the vessel, removed the crew, and destroyed the ship. Though a commission of inquiry looked into the incident, no one could be found to testify. The second occurrence centered in Boston, a city that had long been a thorn to the Empire and the royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Concerned about a recent announcement from Hutchinson that salaries of royal officials would come from customs revenues rather than the colonial assembly, Sam Adams persuaded the Boston town meeting to create a Committee of Correspondence. This committee would facilitate the exchange of ideas between those in Boston and other towns of Massachusetts. Other colonies soon followed the example of Massachusetts with their own Committees of Correspondence that became one more example of inter-colony cooperation. These Committees were effective in stirring up and coordinating colonial expressions of resentment about British rule.

    and Party of 1773

    The lull before the storm ended permanently in 1773. At that time, in a move designed to help the nearly bankrupt British East India Company, the British passed the Tea Act. This Act made it easier for the British East India Company to sell tea in the colonies by eliminating the duties on the tea coming into England. The Act also permitted the company to sell its tea directly to customers in the colonies, instead of going through colonial merchants. Tea was thus cheaper than previously and, in fact, the colonists could now buy tea more cheaply than could those living in England.

    If members of Parliament and the ministers of George III thought that the Americans would be pleased with the act and the ability of colonials to buy cheap tea, they were sadly mistaken. American leaders and the Committees of Correspondence railed against the act, declaring it to be an underhanded means for getting the colonists to pay a tax on tea. They argued that not only would the act deprive American merchants of profits but also the tax money would be used to pay public officials in the colonies, thus depriving the colonial assemblies of the “power of the purse.” A member of the Sons of Liberty in the state of New York put it bluntly: “Whoever shall aid or abet, or in any manner assist, in the introduction of tea from any place whatsoever, into this colony…shall be deemed an enemy to the liberties of America.”

    The colonial reaction to the Tea Act was strong and swift. The Sons of Liberty in many of the major towns forced company agents to resign and many ships loaded with tea to return to England. In Boston, however, when Governor Hutchison refused to let the ships depart, meetings were held to protest this unconscionable action. One meeting was held on December 16, 1773 at the Old South Church in Boston, during which the delegates drafted one last plea to Hutchinson to address their grievances. When the town meeting reconvened the following day to receive the governor’s response, the members were greeted by the sheriff of Suffolk who held a command from Hutchinson for them to disband.

    Several people at the meeting knew that, if Hutchinson still refused to let the tea ships sail, they had an alternative plan. When news of the Hutchinson’s final refusal reached Sam Adams, he ended a speech with words some had been anticipating: “This meeting can do no more to save the country.” Thus, disguised as Indians, fifty young men left the church and headed for the docks. A crowd watched as the “Indians” threw 342 chests of tea overboard. When their job was completed, the crowd broke up and awaited the reaction of the British government. John Adams, who was not nearly the revolutionary that his cousin Sam was, wrote in his diary: “3 Cargoes of Bohea Tea were emptied into the Sea. This is the most magnificent moment of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the patriots that I greatly admire.”

    Screenshot (230).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Boston Tea Party | On December 16, 1773, a group of “Indians” stormed a British tea ship anchored in the Boston harbor and dumped 342 chests of tea overboard. The reaction of the British would eventually lead the colonies to revolution and independence. Author: Lithograph by Sarony & Major Source: Library of Congress

    In early 1774, just months after the Tea Party, the British Crown and Parliament decided that the time had come to punish Boston and all of Massachusetts Bay for its continuing recalcitrant activities. A furious Parliament quickly enacted four Coercive Acts:

    1. The Boston Port Bill closed the port of Boston until the town paid for the tea.

    2. The Massachusetts Government Act revoked the Massachusetts charter and changed the legislative assembly so that no longer would the upper house be elected. Rather it would now be appointed by the crown. A final insult was the provision that in no town in Massachusetts could there be more than one town meeting a year.

    3. The Administration of Justice Act specified that any person charged with committing murder while enforcing royal authority in Massachusetts was to be tried in England or in another colony. The Act was modestly entitled: An act for the impartial administration of justice in the cases of persons questioned for any acts done by them in the execution of the law, or for the suppression of riots and tumults, in the province of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England.

    4. The Quartering Act directed the royal governor of Massachusetts to requisition houses for quartering British troops.

    These acts were followed the same year by the Quebec Act which confirmed the following: Roman Catholicism was the official religion in Quebec; there would be no elected legislature in Canada; and that the new boundaries of Quebec included the western lands north of the Ohio River, lands that had long been claimed by Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Connecticut. All of these provisions were anathema to the colonists, who had come to prize religious toleration and representative government, and who still looked to the land west of the mountains as theirs to settle.

    The four Coercive Acts and the Quebec Act quickly became known in America as the “Intolerable Acts.” The message spread throughout the colonies that, while Boston may be the target at the moment, none of the colonies were safe from the long arm of the British Crown. While Parliament had issued the Coercive Acts to punish Massachusetts, the acts had the effect of uniting the colonies. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson called on the Virginia Assembly to set aside June 1, the date when the Boston Port Act went into effect, as a day of prayer and fasting. When dissolved by the royal governor of Virginia, the assembly met in a nearby tavern and drew up a resolution calling for a Continental Congress.

    First Continental Congress, 1774

    Several previous instances displayed inter-colonial cooperation; none was as significant as the Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia in September, 1774. Its proceedings explained that, “justly alarmed at the arbitrary proceedings of Parliament,” the colonies had elected representatives to consider a response to Parliament. An impressive array of colonial leaders were in attendance, including Samuel Adams and John Adams of Massachusetts, John Jay of New York, Joseph Galloway and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington of Virginia. Participation in the Congress was better than in the Stamp Act Congress, with only Georgia withholding a delegation.

    The Congress set to work and moved quickly to make American displeasure with the Intolerable Acts known to the British Crown. First, the delegates approved the Suffolk Resolves, which declared the Intolerable Acts null and void. Second, they drafted a Declaration of American Rights specifying that Parliament had no right to pass legislation that interfered with the internal workings of the colonies and including a list of grievances levelled at the Crown and Parliament. According to the statement of rights, each colonist was entitled to protection under the law of the realm, including the 1689 Bill of Rights and Act of Religious Toleration; any person could petition the king; and all colonists were entitled to “life, liberty and property.” It further reminded the British government that the Americans had “never ceded to any foreign power whatever a right to dispose of [these privileges] without their consent.” Most probably, few Americans expected this tactic to bring the relief they wanted, however. Indeed, John Adams wrote to Patrick Henry, “I expect no redress, but, on the contrary, increased resentment and double vengeance.”

    The list of grievances against George III and Parliament included in the Declaration of American Rights was not unlike those that would appear in the Declaration of Independence. The delegates railed against the Admiralty Courts, which had always been intended to deprive the colonists of the right to a fair trial, against the establishment of the Catholic Church in the Canadian provinces, against the forcible quartering of British troops in American homes, and against the maintenance of a standing army in times of peace. Before concluding the meeting, the Congress created the Continental Association of 1774, whose purpose was to oversee a boycott of all British goods. The representatives vowed:

    1. That from and after the first day of December next, we will not import into British America, from Great-Britain or Ireland, any goods, wares or merchandize whatsoever…

    2. That we will neither import, nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade…

    3. As a non-consumption agreement, strictly adhered to, will be an effectual security for the observation of the non-importation, we, as above, solemnly agree and associate, that, from this day, we will not purchase or use any tea imported on account of the East-India Company, or any on which a duty hath been or shall be paid.

    The boycott was to be put into effect by September 5, 1774. The Congress gave power to the Committees of Correspondence, along with the Continental Association, to oversee the boycott of British goods and to make sure that violators be “universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty.”

    During the meeting, discussion inevitably arose about the relationship of the colonies to the mother country. In the course of these conversations, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed an imperial union with Britain, in which Parliament could legislate for the colonies, but the legislation would not take effect until approved by an American Assembly. The proposal was defeated by one vote only; the “independent thinking” of the colonists, as George III called it, was fully evident. Before disbanding, the Congress agreed to meet one year later to consider the response of the Crown to its enactments. By the time the Second Continental Congress convened in May, 1775, however, the firing at Lexington and Concord had occurred and the first Americans lay dead.

    It soon became evident that the colonists would not get their hoped for response from the King and Parliament. Shortly after the arrival of the petitions from the colonies, George III complained that “blows must be exchanged to determine whether [the American colonies] are to be subject to this country or independent.” And in early 1775, Parliament declared that Massachusetts was in rebellion and specified that New England could not trade with any country outside of the British Empire. In May, 1775, Lord North, the Prime Minister, presented a Conciliatory Proposition, which was as far as Parliament would go to meet the demands of the Americans. The Proposition affirmed that Parliament would continue to legislate for the colonies, but that any taxes imposed would be to regulate trade. In addition, the monies collected would go to the individual colonies, as long as they agreed to assume partial responsibility for their own defense. These provisions, while perfectly reasonable in the eyes of the British, far from met colonial expectations, and when the Second Continental Congress convened in May, 1775, they were faced with both an unsatisfactory response and with British “aggression” at Lexington and Concord.

    Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775

    In 1775, the situation in Massachusetts Bay was delicate and deteriorating. The citizens of the colony chafed at the continuing British occupation of Boston. The British, too, were on edge, expecting a colonial uprising at any time. Colonial militia existed throughout the colonies, composed of volunteer forces of local men who provided emergency defense against enemies, such as hostile Indians. They were originally formed to provide protection in the absence of available British forces. By 1775, the British were the enemy that concerned the militia. To prepare for their defense, the militia maintained stores of weapons, shot, and powder at various locations. General Gage, the British military commander in Massachusetts, learned that the militia had such a store in Concord. He had received orders to disarm the rebels and arrest their leaders. By all accounts, Gage was sympathetic to the Americans; he had personal ties to the colonies, as his wife was from New Jersey. He therefore tried not to provoke the people of Massachusetts, even as he did his duty for the British Crown.

    Sidebar \(\PageIndex{1}\) : Battles At Lexington and Concord

    • Location: Middlesex County, Massachusetts Bay, the road from Boston to Concord
    • American commanders: Colonel James Barrett, Colonel John Buttrick, Dr. Joseph Warren, Captain John Parker, Brigadier General William Heath
    • British commanders: Lieutenant-General Hugh Percy, Major John Pitcairn, MajorGeneral Francis Smith
    • American Force: 3,800 total: 77 at Lexington, 400 at Concord and fewer numbers at other points
    • British Force: 1,500 total: 400 at Lexington, 100 at Concord; number varies at other points
    • American losses: 49
    • British losses: 73
    • Who won? The Americans

    Sidebar \(\PageIndex{2}\): Colonial Fighting Forces

    The colonial militia had been created in most of the colonies in the seventeenth century. This militia was composed of able-bodied men in every colony (except Pennsylvania where Quakers eschewed violence) who were responsible for furnishing and caring for their own weapons. The Minutemen grew out of the tension following the Tea Party of December, 1773. In most colonies they were an elite arm of the colonial militia, ready to assemble at a moment’s notice, hence the name. The Continental Army was created by the second Continental Congress and charged with fighting the war against Britain. The colonial militia continued to participate in the fighting until the war’s end.

    At the same time, by early spring, George III had lost all patience with the American colonies, believing it time to teach them a lesson. He and his ministers were well aware that each of the colonies had formed colonial militia, the Minutemen, so called by their vow to be ready for military action at a moment’s notice. The British were also under the impression, as Major John Pitcairn commented, “that one active campaign, a smart action, and burning two or three of their towns, will set everything to rights.”32 As it turned out, Pitcairn was overly optimistic. On April 14, Thomas Gage, commander of the British garrison in Boston, sent 1,000 troops to move against the colonials at Lexington and then Concord, where, he had heard, the Americans were stockpiling weapons and gunpowder.

    Despite Pitcairn’s best efforts to keep the colonists in the dark about his plans, by mid-April, the Americans were receiving alarming information concerning British intentions. They knew through sources that Gage was ordered to seize the munitions and leaders of the rebellion, such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock. When Gage took action to prevent news of the British movements from leaving Boston and to locate the leaders, his actions confirmed the colonists’ fears. Worse for Gage, he was too late. As the British made preparations to march, both Samuel Adams and John Hancock had already slipped away from Boston and were staying with Hancock’s relatives in Lexington. The militia stores in Concord had been moved out to other towns for safekeeping, and Paul Revere and William Dawes were riding towards Lexington, spreading the word that the British were on their way.

    By the time the British left Boston in the early hours of April 19, Adams and Hancock were safely out of Lexington. The riders, Revere, Dawes, and others, continued to pass the news. A system of alarm was engaged using bonfires, bells, and other means to alert the people of Massachusetts to the approach of the possibly hostile British forces. The Lexington militia assembled, and more volunteers in the surrounding countryside answered the call as well. As for the British, their morning was a miserable affair. Boston in 1775 was almost an island, with only one narrow passage connecting it to the mainland. Rather than march on foot out of Boston, the British troops were packed onto barges and transported across the bay, where they were then forced to disembark in deep water. The 700 wet and muddy troops formed up and began to make the seventeen-mile journey to Concord, passing through difficult, swampy terrain. The British had hoped to catch the militia unaware. Instead, they were surprised and alarmed to see that everyone on the road to Concord already knew they were coming. Colonel Smith sent Major Pitcairn and his troops ahead, hoping that the speed of a quick march might still be somewhat of a surprise to the militia. He also sent word back to Boston for reinforcements.

    On April 19, the first “battle” of the Revolutionary war then took place. Pitcairn arrived in Lexington to find the militia of seventy-seven awaiting the British on the green; the seventy-seven included the Minutemen, who had been quickly assembled after the warnings of Revere and Dawes. There was also a crowd of about 130 bystanders. Evidently these colonials had planned a protest only; rather than ignoring the militia and continuing to march down the road adjacent to the green, however, the officer leading the march, Marine Lieutenant Jesse Adair, decided to form up on the green itself in order to disperse the militia. But the militia stood their ground, facing the hundreds of British troops, even as Major Pitcairn arrived and ordered the colonists to leave, shouting “Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!” Some records say the militia did begin to do just that when suddenly a shot rang out. It seems clear that whoever fired the shot was not actually on the green. Other than that, nothing is known about the person who, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, fired the “shot heard round the world,” so called because it marked the beginning not only of the American Revolution, but the inspiration for the French Revolution as well.

    In the moments before the shot was fired, both the militia and the British were in disarray; the sound of the shot was all that was needed to set off tragedy. The British troops, tired from lack of sleep and the wet march and nervous at being in hostile territory, opened a volley on the militia. While some of the Minutemen ran, others did not. After firing their volleys, the British troops charged the remaining militia with bayonets. Eight militiamen were killed, including Captain Parker’s cousin, Jonas Parker, who was bayoneted. Ten were wounded, including a slave, Prince Estabrook. The British troops then turned their attention to the village, firing at will. Colonel Smith, who was still travelling with the slower troops, heard the sounds of the gunfire and hurried to Lexington. He brought the British back in line and then moved them off towards Concord, leaving the people of Lexington to tend to their own dead and wounded.

    Colonel Smith later sent the following account to General Gage, governor of Massachusetts:

    [When Pitcairn approached Lexington] a body of country people drawn up in military order, with arms and accoutrements, and, as appeared after, loaded; and that they had posted some men in a dwelling and Meetinghouse. Our troops advanced towards them, without any intention of injuring them, further than to inquire the reason of their being thus assembled… [when] one of them fired…and three or four more jumped over a wall and fired from behind it among the soldiers; on which the troops returned it, and killed several of them.”

    Meanwhile, the militia in Concord did not know what had happened in Lexington, other than that shots had been fired. They had intended to confront the British but retreated when they saw Colonel Smith’s full force on the road, a force which outnumbered theirs by almost three to one. Their commander, Colonel James Barrett, decided to surrender the town and moved his men out of Concord to a nearby hillside where they could watch the British. They were joined by militia from surrounding towns, which increased their number to several hundred.

    The British combed the town for supplies as the militia looked on; most of the provisions had been removed, but the troops under Smith were able to seize and destroy some food and munitions. The British, now outnumbered, fell back across a bridge where command fell to Captain Laurie, a less experienced officer. Laurie, with fewer than one hundred soldiers, was facing possibly as many as 400 colonials. The Americans killed fourteen British troops at the North Bridge, and, within an hour of fighting, Colonel Smith turned his troops back on the road to Boston. By this time, the militia and Minutemen numbered over a thousand.

    Colonel Smith well understood the position he and his troops were in. The road from Concord to Boston meanders in a general west to east direction. In 1775, it was narrow by today’s standards and had in many places walls along its sides, confining the troops marching along it and forcing them to form columns. The militia and minutemen were able to leave their towns and villages and come near the road and wait for the long red line of British soldiers. Then they could take their shots, retreat into the shelter of the woods, and move down the road to find a new position from which to attack. The British, marching on foot and having to follow the road, could neither outrun nor hide from the colonists. They were exposed and had no cover from enemy fire for the full seventeen miles back through Lexington to Boston with the militia firing on them. A British soldier explained the situation thus:

    …upon on our leaving Concord to return to Boston, they began to fire on us from behind the walls, ditches, trees, etc., which, as we marched, increased to a very great degree, and continued without the intermission of five minutes altogether, for, I believe, upwards of eighteen miles; so that I can’t think but it must have been a pre-concerted scheme in them, to attack the King’s troops the first favourable opportunity that [was] offered.

    By the time the redcoats reached Boston, they had lost three times more men than had the colonists. In commenting on the shots exchanged at Lexington, Benjamin Franklin expressed outrage to a member of Parliament: “[You] have doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns and murder our people” As if the situation at Lexington and Concord were not bad enough, news reached the southern colonies that a member of Parliament had suggested several months earlier, in January 1775, that a general emancipation of American slaves would “humble the high aristocratic spirit of Virginia and the southern colonies.” The measure did not pass, but that did nothing to reassure the Americans.

    The actions at Lexington and Concord were accidents, but given the high tension of the times, they were all that was needed to spark a war. General Gage, in his attempt to prevent a war, helped to cause one. His miscalculations concerning the people of Massachusetts Bay and the poor security and mishandling of his internal communications led to his failure to preserve the peace. Afterwards, he would be blamed by the colonists throughout New England, members of the British government, and even his own soldiers for the events of April 19, 1775.


    The lull in action that followed the Boston Massacre ended in 1773 with the passage of the Tea Act. Although this act actually lowered the price of the tea in the colonies, making it cheaper than in the mother country, the colonists were enraged, and insisted that the tea ships return to England. When this did not happen, and after petitioning Governor Thomas Hutchinson with unsatisfactory results, a group of “Indians” boarded the tea ship in the Boston Harbor and threw its content overboard. At this point, there was no turning back, and in the next year and a half relations between mother country and colonies deteriorated. Britain responded to the action of Massachusetts with a series of acts designed not only to punish, but also to bring sweeping changes to the government and economic endeavors of the Bay colony. The Boston port was closed to traffic and even the long-revered New England town meetings were disbanded.

    In a spirit of cooperation reflective of the Committees of Correspondence, the colonists, with the exception of Georgia, sent representatives to the First Continental Congress, whose purpose it was to respond formally to the Intolerable Acts by drafting a list of grievances and a statement of the rights of the colonists. The delegates agreed to meet in one year’s time to consider the Crown’s response, but before this Second Continental Congress could assemble, the first shots of the Revolutionary War had been fired at Lexington and Concord, and this Congress would become involved in leading the war effort and providing a government for the new American states.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The colonists did not necessarily object to the principle of taxation, but rather how the tax money would be applied.

    1. True
    2. False


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Which of the following Parliamentary Acts was not one of the Intolerable Acts?

    1. Boston Port Bill
    2. Massachusetts Government Act
    3. Quebec Act
    4. Tea Act


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The purpose of the First Continental Congress was to

    1. raise an army.
    2. draft a declaration of war against Great Britain.
    3. compile a list of grievances against the British government.
    4. draft a Declaration of American Rights.


    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Which of the following as a provision of the Quebec Act?

    1. Quebec was to be annexed to Massachusetts Bay.
    2. The boundaries of Quebec were extended into the Ohio Valley.
    3. A state of war existed between England and France.
    4. Tea ships forced to leave the colonies would be re-directed to the St. Lawrence Seaway.


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