The Revolutionary Period
In the wake of the French and Indian War, the British treasury was severely depleted and the national debt had risen ten-fold. Members of Parliament looked to the American colonists to help repay that historic and crippling debt. They sought any means necessary to pull money from the American economy— they raised taxes and tariffs, they quartered troops in colonists’ homes to save money, they issued more intrusive search warrants (writs of assistance) to stop free trade by colonial merchants.
From the American point of view, all of this denied colonists the rights they were due as British subjects- rights that were guaranteed to them under the English Bill of Rights of 1689. The result of course was armed revolution and the creation of a free and independent nation. Working to bring together disparate interests in a series of political compromises, the founders drafted a unique and powerful document that they hoped would steer the course of this new nation into an unknown future. Among the most significant events to occur during this revolutionary period are:
Parliament adopted the Sugar Act, a blatant attempt to raise money from the colonists to pay for the costs of the French and Indian War. The very Preamble to the Act read in part: “It is expedient that new provisions and regulations should be established for improving the revenue of this Kingdom ... and ... it is just and necessary that a revenue should be raised ... for defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same.”
The same year Parliament passed the Sugar Act, it also adopted its second Currency Act. This law forbid the colonies from using any of the paper currency that they’d been using during the French and Indian War to handle the increased wartime costs. Now in the years after that war, the paper currency had severely depreciated— yet colonists were still trying to pay their debts to London merchants with the often worthless paper money. Like all these measures at this time, the Currency Act was an attempt by the members of Parliament— and by explicit association, the reigning commercial interests in London— to secure its control over the economy of the British colonies in America.
Two bombshells hit the American colonists this year: the Stamp Act and the Quartering Act. The latter forced colonists to pay for provisions and housing for British soldiers. The Act allowed the soldiers to take up free residence in any house that sold wine or rum, any inns, or any outbuildings—in effect, pretty much anywhere they wanted to. The colonists had never had a standing army on their soil in peacetime. Despite winning the French and Indian War, Parliament did not call the soldiers back to England. In fact, they sent even more troops to America and passed this law that compelled colonists to provide for them— even though there was no war. With increasing numbers of British soldiers on street corners in places like Boston and New York, there was the very real sense of martial law in colonies.
The infamous Stamp Act of the same year was another law aimed at doing nothing other than demonstrating Parliament’s power over the colonies and diverting money out of the American economy and back to London. Any printed materials—legal documents, magazines, broadsides, newspapers, official government documents— had to use pre-stamped paper. Imagine if the United States government today passed a law which stipulated that every copier and printer in the country had to use officially sanctioned government-issued paper, and the price on each sheet was inflated so that the government could skim money off the top? Needless to say, the colonists were incensed.
In May 29-year old Patrick Henry made an impassioned now historic appeal in the Virginia colonial legislature against the acts of Parliament that were in effect denying the colonists their rights as Englishmen. While he was supported by the younger, more revolutionary burgesses from the Virginia backcountry, he was opposed by the older members of the Tidewater elite who had profitable business relationships with merchants in England.
Parliament passed a series of new laws— collectively known as the Townshend Acts — aimed at increasing taxes on a number of items the colonists regularly imported from England including paper, paint, glass, lead and tea. Opposition led to boycotts, rioting and mob violence throughout the colonies against British troops and customs agents in charge of enforcing the laws— which of course led to more troops, more resistance, and eventually war.
The newspapers called it the “Boston Riot” or the “King Street Attack.” History knows it as the “Boston Massacre.” On Monday night March 5, hundreds of Bostonians gathered in the street before the customs house, where controversial British imports were stored and taxes were paid. The angry mob spit on, taunted, and threw icy snowballs at about 10 British soldiers. Fearing for their lives, the soldiers fired on the crowd. Five Americans died. Their deaths represent a pivotal turning point in our history. A few weeks later, Parliament finally repealed its unpopular taxes— except those on tea.
By 1772, the East India Company was faced with a financial crisis and a tremendous glut of tea for which it desperately needed to find a market. Arguably the most significant commercial enterprise in Great Britain, the Company was — to borrow a more recent phase— too big to fail. So friends in Parliament passed the Tea Act on May 10, 1773, which allowed the East India Company to bypass middlemen and dump the tea in the American market on consignment— at a greatly reduced price when compared to the more popular smuggled Dutch Tea. In words we’re more familiar with today, this was a government bailout and a government-created monopoly that favored one corporation over a number of small business owners in the colonies. The Tea Act led of course to what we now call the Boston Tea Party. On Thursday night December 16, 120 colonists, masquerading as Mohawk Indians, climbed aboard three of East India’s ships. From about 7-10pm they dumped over 340 containers of Black Chinese tea overboard.
Parliament reacted to the Boston Tea Party by passing a number of laws, known to Americans as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts, collectively aimed at punishing and controlling New England and by extension all the colonies. That fall, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies (Georgia did not participate) gathered in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress, launching what would eventually become the United States Federal Government.
Just days after the battles at Lexington and Concord in the spring, a Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. The delegates found themselves overseeing a war effort, outfitting an army, and mobilizing national sentiment in support of an all-out revolution. The following year, the delegates approved a Declaration of Independence, which was followed by the Articles of Confederation, the colonists’ first attempt at an American Constitution.