Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763) seemed to confirm its position as the dominant imperial power. The Union Jack flew from Lake Superior to Calcutta, and English merchantmen and men-of-war ruled the waves. However, in just over a decade, the 13 American colonies were in revolt, and Britain fond itself confronting the rebels and a hostile Europe in the North Atlantic’s last great colonial war.
The Thirteen Colonies in 1763
The colonists were not primed for revolt in 1763. They had long enjoyed the relative autonomy of a benevolent government. Restrictive trade legislation was laxly enforced, and British merchants had been left to handle their own affairs with colonial customers. Each colony had its own assembly whose self-regulatory legislation was usually sanctioned by the Privy Council. The defeat of France and its Indian allies opened the prospect of cheap, bountiful lands to the west.
In 1763 the colonies contained approximately 1.5 million inhabitants. Aided by a high birth rate and immigration, by 1775 the population had risen to 2.5 million, approximately one third the population of Britain. The colonies, however, remained almost entirely rural with only Boston, Philadelphia, new York, and Charleston having more than 10 thousand inhabitants. Although the colonies shared a primarily British stock and a culture that included Protestantism and the common law, to which was added the leaven of the frontier experience, each formed a fairly compact community that cooperated with its neighbors only in times of greatest danger.
Roots of conflict
Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War failed to consolidate its imperial position. Discord soon racked North America. Sources of conflict arose directly from Britain’s recent victory. After concentrating for decades on imperial defense, King George III’s government was determined to organize an effective mercantile system that would ensure a colonial contribution to imperial defense and administration.
The decision was made at the very time when the colonies, no longer facing the threat of French attack, were unlikely to accept increased taxation or interference from Britain. The divergence of British and colonial interests after 1763 generated antagonism and then open conflict.
Proclamation of 1763
The defeat of france did not bring immediate peace to the western wilderness. Pontiac, the Ottawa chief, angered by British neglect and the westward movement of settlers, formed a great alliance of the western tribes. They launched a coordinated attack on Britain’s outposts beyond the Alleghenies and overwhelmed all but forts Detroit, Niagara, and Pitt (1763). But they were unable to capitalize on their victories, and their alliance disintegrated in 1765.
At the outbreak of hostilities, the English government issued a proclamation (1763) prohibiting the movement of colonists beyond the Allegheny divide, an action intended to ease tensions, prevent costly hostilities, and protect the settlers. But England could not prevent westward expansion, and its attempts caused resentment among colonists who wanted to develop the territory.
The search for revenue
George Greville became prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer in 1764. He and his successors were determined that the colonies would begin to pay their upkeep and form an integral part of a mercantile empire designed to promote England’s well-being. Their attempts served only to raise the political temperature in the colonies.
Sugar Act (1764). The Sugar Act revised the Molasses Act (1733). While lowering the tariff on molasses (the raw material of rum), the government was determined to eliminate smuggling and collect the duties, thus curbing the colonial traffic with the French West Indies.
Stamp Act (1765). This act required placement of revenue stamps on all legal documents and many luxury items. The tax was low, easy to collect, and expected to provide substantial revenue. There was an immediate outcry from the colonies, who had not been consulted. The Virginia House of Burgesses condemned the act as illegal taxation. The Stamp Act Congress, an ad hoc convocation with delegates from nine colonies, condemned the tax and denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. The colonists harassed tax-stamp agents and refused to buy English goods. The British government gave way, and the act was repealed in March 1766. While repealing the Stamp Act, the Parliament did not concede in principle. The Declaratory Act reaffirmed the Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.
Townshend Duties (1767). The colonists had denied Parliament’s right to levy internal taxes in the colonies. Chancellor of the exchequer Charles Townshend thus sought a remedy in the imposition of new customs duties and tighter monitoring of trade. The new duties were imposed on tea, lead, paper, paint, and glass. Although American propagandists had drawn a fine distinction between internal and external taxation in their attacks on the Stamp Act, their denunciation of the Townshend duties made it obvious that they were adverse to paying taxes of any kind levied at Westminster. Again a public outcry and a boycott of English imports led the government to repeal the duties in 1770.
Coercion and resistance
The question of revenue was soon overshadowed by the more fundamental issue of who controlled colonial affairs. The British pressed the issue, and the colonists dug in their heels.
Boston Massacre (1770). Friction between Bostonians and redcoats turned to hatred in 1770 when British sentries were provoked by snowballs and hecklers to fire into a crowd, killing five.
Boston Tea Party (1773). Under the terms of the Tea Act, the east India Company was permitted to sell its tea in America, directly to retailers. The inexpensive tea carried a tax and hurt American wholesalers. On the night of 16th December 1773, the “Sons of Liberty”, costumed as Indians, boarded ships in Boston Harbor and destroyed their cargoes of tea. The “Tea Party” resulted in severe reprisals.
Intolerable Acts (1774). In response to Bostonian vandalism, Parliament was determined to bring the colonials to heel. The Intolerable, or Coercive, Acts closed the Boston port, placed Massachusetts permanently under martial law, permitted the quartering of troops in homes, and suspended the jurisdiction of colonial courts over royal officers. The Quebec Act, which placed the territory west of the Alleghenies under Canadian jurisdiction, is often included in this list. These acts galvanized opinion against British rule.
The War of Independence (1775 – 1783)
At the outbreak of hostilities, Britain had economic and military superiority; but British opinion was divided, and the rebels, though lacking in training and discipline, ranged easily over a large, familiar, and generally hospitable country. The British army performed well, as expected, but it is difficult to imagine how it could have converted battlefield success into lasting political control of the colonies after the shooting began in 1775.
American victories, though scattered, came at crucial moments. The opening rounds at Concord (April 1775) and Bunker Hill (June 1775) gave the colonists’ cause a psychological boost. The Declaration of Independence by Congress in Philadelphia (4th July 1776) brought no insurance of military success, and the British occupied New York City (September 1776) and Philadelphia (September 1777). But American morale rebounded with the capture of General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (October 1777). This victory ensured open French support, which was formalized by a treaty of alliance (February 1778). Britain soon found herself at war not only with France but also with Holland and Spain. In addition Russia made it clear that is would protect its neutral status against Britain’s blockade with force if necessary.
In 1779 the war shifted to the Carolinas, where after initial success the British army of George Cornwallis retreated to Yorktown, Virginia, to await support from the fleet. The British fleet was defeated, and Cornwallis surrendered after being encircled by an Anglo-French army commanded by George Washington (19th October 1781). The campaign ended the fighting, but the peace terms were not agreed until 1783. Under the terms of the Peace of Paris (20th January 1783), the former colonies were recognized as the sovereign United States.
The United States became a testing ground for republicanism in a world of monarchies, and the experiment was followed closely by European men of affairs. Although Britain lost this phase of its colonial wars, it was nor seriously weakened. The French, on the other hand, had won the war, but soon reaped a financial crisis as the result of its cost.