The History Cat Classroom
The History Cat Classroom
Countdown to Revolution
In a Nutshell
If we were to ask most Americans what led to the American Revolution of 1776, we’d bet the answer would sound something like this: “the colonists, fed up with being overtaxed and used as target practice by trigger-happy British soldiers, dropkicked those tea-drinking Red Coats back to England.” Except, well, no…. In reality, the colonists paid lower taxes than their counterparts back in Great Britain, and as British citizens had more freedoms than most people in the world. So what pushed the American colonists, who were content colonials in 1763, to rise in rebellion in 1776? Like every other war in history, the answer comes down to a struggle for power.
The Game Changer
The year 1763 was a game changer that most people have long forgotten.The British had defeated their arch-nemesis, France, in a long and bloody war for global domination known as The Seven Years’ War, extending her grasp into India, Canada, and the Great Lakes region. The British Empire stretched across the globe yet was clueless about how to manage such a vast enterprise. Their solution was an economic system known as mercantilism that worked a lot like a modern Starbucks franchise. In exchange for membership in the empire and use of the company logo (the British flag) colonists were given protection so long as they kept sending a steady stream of goods flowing back to the Mother Country. Tea and spices shipped from India, sugar from the Caribbean, and furs, timber, and tobacco from the American colonies. All of these goods went to the factories in England, turned into manufactured goods (cigars, fancy hats, furniture, etc…) and sold back to the colonists at prices set by the Mother Country. And, to prevent the colonials from shopping around for better deals, Parliament passed Navigation Acts that barred them from trading with foreign powers or other colonies.If, for example, a Virginia tobacco merchant wanted to sell his product he had to ship it 3,000 miles away to England where it was inspected, taxed, and then exported to buyers in Massachusetts, the Caribbean or France.
To American merchants, this system was just plain nuts. Mercantilism ensured that the colonists imported more goods than they sold, which was perfect for British businesses but bad for colonial ones. Most American merchants got around these pesky laws by bribing corrupt customs officials and smuggled their goods directly to other colonies.
Smuggling was such a problem that 70-90% of imports were illegally snuck into the colonies. But in 1763, Lord George Grenville, the new prime minister of Parliament, decided it was time for a shakeup.The war expanded Britain’s power, but it also came with a monstrous price tag. The national debt doubled to 129 million pounds (about 21 billion dollars today) leaving Parliament scrambling to raise revenue. The British were already the most heavily taxed people in Europe. Raising taxes back home would likely end in pitchfork-wielding mobs. On top of that, Parliament planned to station 10,000 additional troops in America driving the debt even higher. When Lord Grenville looked at the books, he noticed that the British were paying 26 times more in taxes than the Americans. Parliament decided that it was time to take a more active role in governing the colonies and passed a series of laws that transformed the Americans from purring kittens into fiery revolutionaries. The Sugar Act took aim at the rampant smuggling that was cheating Britain out her cut of the profits. The tax on molasses ( a key ingredient in rum) was reduced by half and corrupt officials replaced with men who would enforce the law. The Sugar Act riled American merchants, but up next up came the Stamp Act, which went over about as well as a firecracker in a dog pound. The Stamp Act taxed everything and anything that could be printed on paper; legal documents, diplomas, land contracts, liquor licenses, marriage licenses, wills, and even playing cards had to be purchased using the new stamped paper. And because laws are like tigers, not all that scary without teeth, anyone caught smuggling or evading the tax would be tried in an Admiralty court which didn’t allow juries. (author’s note: toothless tigers are still dangerous: do not pet) Parliament never anticipated the fireball of rage that these acts were about to unleash.
The Sugar Act took aim at the rampant smuggling that was cheating Britain out her cut of the profits. The tax on molasses ( a key ingredient in rum) was reduced by half and corrupt officials replaced with men who would enforce the law. The Sugar Act riled American merchants, but up next up came the Stamp Act, which went over about as well as a firecracker in a dog pound. The Stamp Act taxed everything and anything that could be printed on paper; legal documents, diplomas, land contracts, liquor licenses, marriage licenses, wills, and even playing cards had to be purchased using the new stamped paper. And because laws are like tigers, not all that scary without teeth, anyone caught smuggling or evading the tax would be tried in an Admiralty court which didn’t allow juries. (author’s note: toothless tigers are still dangerous: do not pet) Parliament never anticipated the fireball of rage that these acts were about to unleash.
The Virginia Resolves
Boston gets most of the attention for being the hotbed of revolutionary activity, with its fancy massacre and tea party, but the first major outcry against the Stamp Act came from Virginia. On May 29, 1765, Patrick Henry stood up before the House of Burgesses and practically spat fire. In his speech, which became known as the Virginia Resolves, Henry told the assembled men that the colonies had been built through the colonists own hard work with little help from England. Therefore, the colonial legislatures were only ones who could tax the colonists, not Parliament. And not one to pull punches, Henry implied that King George was a tyrant which quickly drew shouts of “treason” from the more conservative members. Henry pressed on saying that anyone who supported Parliament’s right to tax the colonies should be considered an enemy of the colonies. The Virginia Resolves adopted the first five of Henry’s arguments but left out that last “enemy of the colony” bit. Newspapers reprinted the Virginia Resolves and debate spread like wildfire. Never before had the 13 colonies come together on anything. In fact, Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and the rest saw each other as competitors than partners. But the Stamp Act had lit the fire that would lead to revolution.
The Sons of Liberty
In Boston, a secret society, calling itself the Sons of Liberty, organized to fight taxation by the British government. Officially, the organization had no leadership, but men like Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock went down in history as known members. Being an underground group, the Sons of Liberty held their meetings under “liberty trees,” in taverns, or private houses to organize boycotts and discuss plans of action for resisting Parliament. The Sons adopted one of the most famous catchphrases in American history; “No Taxation Without Representation” to sum up their complaint that since the colonists couldn’t send representatives to Parliament, then London couldn’t control them with taxes. Sons of Liberty chapters began popping up all across the 13 colonies. Officially, their goals were peaceful: organizing boycotts and communicating with other branches via the Committees of Correspondence. But the organization had a darker side as well. The Sons of Liberty have been accused of inciting drunken mobs to commit violent acts to intimidate tax collectors and anyone else they deemed to be an “enemy of liberty”.
Destroying the governor's mansion is one way to let the government know that you disagree with its tax policies.
Tax collectors and customs agents became particular targets because after all, you can’t collect taxes if there’s no one willing to take the job. Back in those days, it was common to vent your anger in a passive-aggressive ritual called effigy burning. Colonists spent a lot of time and creative energy decorating straw dummies of their enemies to be hung in the town square while drunken crowds pelted it with rocks, beheaded the thing, and then burned it a great bonfire. Just one way to send a message to the intended victim that, “you’re next.” As mobs usually go, the drunker they got, the less peaceful the protest became. Mobs ransacked the homes of the rich and powerful. The governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, became the famous target as an angry mob broke into his house one night while he and his family were having dinner, ransacked the place, looted his wine cellar, and used his expensive furniture as bonfire fuel. The Hutchinson’s barely escaped out the back door with their lives. The same thing happened to Andrew Oliver, the guy appointed to collect taxes for the Massachusetts Colony. One night a large mob in Boston went on a rampage, tore down the tax office, and then completely ransacked Oliver’s house. Fearing for his life, Oliver quit his job and sailed back to England.
But, a special punishment, called tar and feathering, was reserved for those who refused to be intimidated. Although tarring and feathering may sound cute, it’s actually a very painful and humiliating experience. The victim would have hot pine tar poured over his head while the mob “decorated” him with feathers. To show off, the crowd would then march the poor guy through the streets, giving the mess enough time to cool and harden. This experience was humiliating, but the cleanup was even worse. Often layers of skin and hair came off during the process. The victim suffered from the painful rashes and sores that covered his body. Many people called the medieval practice barbaric. But Sam Adams, a leader of the Boston Sons of Liberty, fired back saying that if there had been no unconstitutional taxes, such things would never take place.
Parliament tried to defend the Stamp Act with the weak argument that the colonies had “virtual representation” and that even though the colonists couldn’t elect a representative to London, they were still thinking of them when they made laws for the empire. But how could someone living 3,000 miles away in London possibly know what problems the colonists faced? The boycotts continued which put pressure on British business owners to exert pressure on Parliament. In the end, Parliament got the message and repealed the Stamp Act. But not wanting to lose face it threw in the Declaratory Acts telling the colonists that Parliament had the right to pass any taxes or laws on the colonies that it wanted. The rioting died down, but the Sons of Liberty could see the writing on the wall. It was time to unite the colonies by creating a communications network known as the Committees of Correspondence. That way, any news of government abuse would spread quickly, giving the colonists time to organize their response.
In 1767, news arrived of a new law called the Townshend Acts. Parliament and King George were not about to let the colonists get away with rioting and not paying their fair share of the taxes. But to avoid the mistake of the Stamp Act, the new law taxed only paint, tea, lead, glass and a few other imported goods. And, the cry of "No Taxation Without Representation" went out again. Colonial Assemblies from Massachusetts to Virginia to Pennsylvania passed resolutions to boycott British goods. Women made home-spun clothing and mended goods rather than buy new. Even tea, the original colonial pick-me-up, was off the shopping list. Not to mention that the attacks on customs’ agents “and their spies” resumed.
The American boycott could not have come at a worse time. British merchants were suffering from one of the worst economic depressions in years and with the boycott in full effect, a steady supply of colonial goods dried up. British merchants urged the king to do something to end the boycott. A wise king might have worked out a compromise, but King George III was anything but. Described as being stubborn and a bit nuts, George was the wrong person to deal with rebellious colonials. The king decided that things had already gone too far and the insubordination had to be put down, by force if necessary.
The Boston Massacre
Many of us think we know what went down on the night of March 5, 1770: known forever as the Boston Massacre, but the only thing accurate about that term is the word ‘Boston.' The image that we about this infamous night comes from an engraving made by Paul Revere showing British soldiers mowing down five colonists (with a dog watching for some strange reason). Revere was a master of propaganda because what we don’t see are the six terrified soldiers surrounded by a mob of fifty angry colonists (some of them armed with clubs) being pelted with ice chunks and oyster shells. If you want to get a better idea of what really happened, you need to read the court records kept at the soldier's’ trial who were arrested and stood trial for manslaughter.
But first, let’s set the mood. Handling 40% of British exports to the colonies, Boston was the center of trade, and it makes sense that most of the trouble over taxation and smuggling took place there. In 1768, two regiments of British soldiers landed to restore order in the aftermath of the rioting caused by the Townsend Act. Overnight, Boston (with a population of 16,000) added 4,000 more mouths to feed. Even worse, these soldiers were paid so little that they had to compete with colonists for a second job. Rather than being intimidated, the citizens of Boston grew even more hostile at the sight of British redcoats who could be seen everywhere.
Whenever colonists and redcoats came together, it usually turned ugly. In taverns or on the streets, insults often turned into fist fights which then transformed into a scene from West Side Story. Both sides called for backup from their buddies, and the whole thing became gang brawl. This is exactly what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre when a haircut ended in a deadly shooting. Captain John Goldfinch was walking back to the barracks when a young barber’s apprentice, Edward Garrick, shouted an insult at him. Apparently, the captain had cheated the kid by not paying for his haircut. Another soldier nearby did what any man might have done when a name-calling kid was threatening his captain; he clubbed him in the face with the butt of his musket. Garrick ran off crying. Goldfinch continued making his way back to the barracks when he ran into an angry crowd who were getting into their own fight with a different group of soldiers. Goldfinch ordered the troops back to barracks, and things died down. That is until a second angry mob armed with clubs came marching down the street with the barber’s apprentice leading the way. The crowd grew and began pelting the soldiers and shouting death threats. More troops arrived to defend their buddies and disperse the crowd. You can imagine the chaos that was unfolding. Then Captain Thomas Preston hit in the head with an ice ball, ordered his troops to fire. When the musket smoke had cleared, a dozen colonists were lying bleeding in the snow. Three died instantly; two would die later from their wounds, and six seriously injured. The soldiers wisely decided to high-tail it out there and locked themselves inside their barracks. The streets of Boston had erupted into open warfare.
The governor, Thomas Hutchinson, raced to the scene to restore order. Hutchinson was never popular, but this time he made the smart move and had Preston and eight other soldiers arrested (probably for their safety) and promised to move the troops out of town to avoid another episode. The soldiers were put on trial and defended by John Adams who argued that the soldiers were provoked by "...a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes, and mulattoes, Irish Teagues, and outlandish Jack tars". News of the Boston Massacre spread like a BP oil spill. Outrage over the event united the colonists against the British.
Boston Massacre According
to Paul Revere
Boston Massacre According
The Boston Tea Party
Parliament was equally shocked by the massacre and was ready to back down. They repealed all of the taxes in the Townshend Act (all except for a small tax on tea). Everyone seemed happy. The British were able to save face by keeping the tax on tea and the colonists kept on being defiant because they illegally smuggled most of their tea from Holland anyhow.
But on May 10, 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act which becomes the equivalent of hitting a hornet’s nest with a flaming stick. Parliament was confident that the Tea Act would incite no riots as it didn’t add any new taxes that weren’t in place already. In fact, the law cut existing tea taxes in half. How could the colonists’ have a problem with that?
The Tea Act was a corporate bailout. The British East India Company was bleeding money, and the government decided to step in and save it from going belly up. The new law lowered taxes on the colonists, and by picking up the remainder of the tab, the BEIC paid zero taxes. This is the sort of thing that politicians still do today. But the law also gave the BEIC the right to sell to the colonies directly. Before this, inbound ships from India first had to dock in London, pay a tax, and then colonial ships would transport the goods to America. From the standpoint of the British, this helped to cut out the middleman and made tea cheaper. But the colonists were the middlemen, and soon merchants saw their jobs threatened by cheap tea. Protests and boycotts were organized and continued throughout 1773. For months, British ships sat in port unable to unload their cargo due to threats made by angry mobs. But members of the Boston Sons of Liberty decided to take things a step further. On the night of December 16, 1773, men dressed up as Mohawk Indians boarded three British merchant ships and dumped 340 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party was celebrated by Sam Adams and other patriots as an act of defiance against the British.
The Other Boston Tea Party
Parliament and the king had had enough. Protests and boycotts were one thing. But Parliament saw this as the intentional destruction of property by individuals too cowardly to even claim responsibility. Even George Washington spoke out against the Tea Party. Until Boston repaid the destroyed tea, all trade in Boston was shut down, and assemblies of the people were banned. The law also gave the governor and military greater powers in dealing with suspected criminals. Together, these acts were known as the Coercive Acts. But the colonists renamed them the Intolerable Acts. Across the thirteen colonies, the people were divided about how to respond. On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to discuss the issue. This marked the first time that the colonies had come together as Americans.
The Intolerable Acts
After the shenanigans of the Boston Tea Party, and by “shenanigans” we mean straight-up corporate vandalism, the British government is on high alert. Parliament decides that enough is enough. And, like any mother with bad parenting skills, it slaps down one controversial law after another (collectively known as the Intolerable Acts) to punish Boston and quash what it sees as open rebellion.
To restore law and order to Boston Parliament sends in Thomas Gage as the new military governor of Massachusetts. Governor Gage convinces Parliament that the best way to deal with a bunch of angry colonists who feel their rights are threatened is to take away more of their rights. Makes perfect sense! The Boston Port Act shuts down Boston’s trade with the outside world, which immediately throws hundreds of people out of work. Next came the Administration of Justice Act and the Massachusetts Government Acts which put an end to democracy, banning the Massachusetts colonial assembly. Massachusetts is now under marshall law. All decisions in Massachusetts will, from now on, be handed down directly from King George. So it comes as a surprise to no one that these “Intolerable Acts” went over like a squirrel into a cage-full of dogs.
On February 2, 1775, Parliament officially declares Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion. Cue the standoff music. Patriots continue to hold illegal meetings in direct violation of the Massachusetts Government Act. Meanwhile, colonial merchants not so-secretly defy the Boston Port Act by continuing to smuggle their goods into Boston Harbor. With these acts of defiance, the colonists had erected the 18th-century version of a billboard that read: “Up yours King George!”.
But the biggest showdown will come to blows over the issue of gun control. Colonial towns had always been allowed to store their weapons and gunpowder for easy access in case of an Indian attack. But, now the colonists have become the threat to British law and order. Both Gage and the Patriots know that the gunpowder houses will be the first target when things turn ugly. Gage orders that the powder be moved to Boston where he can keep a better eye on it. Afterall, Gage is doing what any commander with half a brain would do. But the colonials interpret this as the first move to disarm and force them into submission.
In September 1774, confiscates the gunpowder stored at Somerville. The same thing almost happened in Salem (but colonials got there first). But things would go down differently in Lexington.
Thanks to his network of spies, Gage was well-aware of Patriot activities. A British armory had been robbed, with the guns and ammunition now hidden somewhere in the Boston suburbs. Gage, puts together a secret mission to locate the contraband, rumored to be hidden in the village of Concord. He also orders the arrest of two colonial troublemakers: Sam Adams and John Hancock. Under cover of darkness, 700 elite British troops set out on April 18, 1775.
Paul Revere: Night Rider
But the Patriots also had their spies and sprung into action to get to Concord first. Around 10 p.m. two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes break curfew and slip past British sentries. The locals have set up a prearranged code of lanterns “one if by land, two if by sea” to communicate the movement of British troops. To confuse the Patriots Gage set up a feint, sending troops down the Charles River, but the real force is marching down the road towards Concord. Dawes and Revere each take a different route to evade the British sentries who patrol the streets at night. But forget the nonsense about yelling the “British are Coming.” Remember, this is supposed to be a covert mission. Hence, the sneaking past the guards. Anyone fool stupid enough to go around shouting in the middle of the night would totally deserve the arrest and beating that they would have received.
Around midnight the duo rolls into Lexington and sounds the alarm, giving Adams and Hancock enough time to high-tail it out of town. Dawes and Revere pick up a friend, local leader Samuel Prescott who happened to be returning from a one a.m. “visit to a lady friend.” The trio head off to Concord to raise the alarm there but was spotted by a unit of sentries. (You know, the same ones that they were supposed to be avoiding.)
Dawes and Prescott outrun the soldiers leaving Revere to fend for himself. British troops are now questioning Revere. With a gun to his head, Revere spun a story about large numbers of militia who were setting up an ambush back in Lexington. The sentries take the bait and march back to Lexington to investigate.
The Battle of Lexington & Concord
When the 700 redcoats reach Lexington the next morning, they find a tiny group of colonial militia lined up on the town green waiting for them. It turns out that Revere had lied about the numbers. But the Lexington militia wasn't here to fight, but to make a silent protest. The Americans had heard that the British were not allowed to fire unless they fired first. An anonymous British officer demanded the militia to “lay down your arms.” But the militia stood firm. In the tension, someone fired the shot "heard 'round the world," as the line goes. The Americans claimed it was a British officer on horseback. Naturally, the British pointed the finger at the Americans. But it doesn’t matter; shots had been fired.
The British charged, stabbing with bayonets. The militia fired back from behind trees and tavern windows. By the time order was restored four militiamen were dead and ten wounded.The British continued to Concord, but the missing ammunition was already long gone.
When news spread like pee in a community pool that the British troops had killed Americans, farmers armed with muskets raced to Lexington. As the British marched back to Boston, they found themselves surrounded at every turn by angry colonials who, fighting Indian style, fired at the British regulars from behind trees and rocks. The British had to fight every inch of the way back to Boston. By the time the British reached their headquarters in Boston, 250 Red Coats were dead. The American Revolution had begun, even if nobody realized it yet.
Sybil Ludington: The Prettier Paul Revere
On the night of April 26, 1777, a Patriot messenger rode to the house of militia leader Colonel Henry Ludington with a message that 2,000 British regulars had just staged a suprise raid on Danbury, Connecticut. Most of the troops were drunk and out of control burning Patriot ammunition, food, and other badly needed supplies. After giving his dire warning the messenger collapsed from exhaustion. The Colonel was needed to gather his men and beat the British out of Danbury. But who was going to get word to his men?
Up steps, Sybil Ludington, the colonel's 16 year old daughter. The colonel probably wasn't pleased at sending his eldest daughter out on such a dangerous mission. But he really didn't have much of a choice. Sybil leaps on her horse and takes off into the moonless night. Not only did Ludington have to keep a look out for British troops on the lookout for spies and messengers, she also had to keep her eyes on the notoriously bad dirt roads. With nothing but a big stick and her horse, Ludington manages to make it to the door of every man in her father's milita company. Although the militia arrived too late to save Danbury they caught up with the Red Coats at the Battle of Ridgefield and drove the British back to Long Island.