America in the British Empire
The British Colonial System. Although Americans in the second half of the eighteenth century paid no more than one-twentieth of their income in taxes (far less than people living in England), taxation provoked considerable protest. In part, the resentment derived from a change in how taxes were assessed. During the first half of the eighteenth century, most taxes were set by colonial assemblies; after 1763, the British government in London imposed new taxes on trade. Each British colony had its own form of government, and the British government did not regard the colonies as a unit. Common traditions and loyalties developed slowly. However, English political and legal institutions took hold throughout the colonies. Few questioned England’s sovereignty; at the same time, distance and British inefficiency allowed the colonists substantial freedom. The Crown generally left colonists to make their own laws pertaining to local matters. Although the King’s Privy Council held responsibility for formulating colonial policy, it never established general principles to which all colonial legislatures had to conform. Rather, it operated on a case-by-case basis. Parliamentary legislation applied to the colonies, but before mid-century, Parliament legislated on specific conditions in North America only rarely.
Occasionally, British authorities attempted to create a more cohesive and efficient colonial system. By the late seventeenth century, British policy was to transform proprietary and corporate colonies into royal colonies. The Board of Trade took over management of colonial affairs in 1696. It became the focus of colonial lobbying efforts designed to influence British policy.
The failure to establish a centralized colonial government contributed to the development of independent governments and eventually to the United States’ federal system.
Mercantilism. Mercantilism described a loosely-related set of policies designed to make a country as nearly self-sufficient as possible, while selling more goods abroad than it imported. This theory supported colonization. Even if colonies lacked gold and silver, they could provide raw materials and markets for the mother country.
The Navigation Acts. Commerce was essential to mercantilism. Beginning in the 1650s, Parliament responded to Dutch preeminence in shipping. The Navigation Acts reserved the entire trade of the colonies to English ships and required that the captain and three-quarters of the crew be English. The acts also limited the export of certain enumerated items. These acts were designed to stimulate British industry and trade and to restrict and shape, but not to destroy, infant colonial industries.
The Effects of Mercantilism. Mercantilist policy benefited both England and the colonies, although England’s interests prevailed when conflicts arose. Thus, had the system continued to operate, it would have hampered the colonies. On the other hand, the inefficiency of English administration lessened the impact of mercantilist regulations. When regulations became burdensome, the colonists simply ignored them; and England was inclined to look the other way. In fact, the mercantilist laws really reflected as much as they molded the colonial economy.
The Great Awakening. People in the colonies began to recognize common interests and a common character. By about 1750, the word “American” had entered the language. One early common experience was the Great Awakening, a wave of religious enthusiasm. Religious fervor had slackened in all the colonies by the early eighteenth century. Two ministers, Theodore Frelinghuysen (a Calvinist) and William Tennent (a Presbyterian), arrived in the 1720s and sought to instill the evangelical zeal they had witnessed among Pietists and Methodists in Europe. The colonial tours of George Whitefield, a powerful orator, sparked much religious enthusiasm. Whitefield did not deny the doctrine of predestination, but he preached of a God receptive to good intentions.
Many denominations split between the “Old Lights” or “Old Sides,” who supported more traditional approaches, and the “New Lights” or “New Sides,” who embraced revivalism. Such splits often reflected class divisions. The better educated and more affluent members of a congregation tended to support traditional arrangements.
The Great Awakening did not involve opposition to British tax policies, per se, but it did undermine traditional conceptions of authority.
The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards was the most famous native-born revivalist of the Great Awakening. He took over his grandfather’s church in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1727. Edwards’s grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, had been a highly influential minister who practiced a policy of “open enrollment” at his church. Members did not need to present evidence of saving grace; they needed only to behave well. Edwards set out to ignite a spiritual revival. His sermons warned in graphic language of the Hell awaiting the unconverted. Edwards’s approach upset some of his parishioners, and in 1749 they voted unanimously to dismiss him. A reaction against religious enthusiasm set in by the early 1750s. Although it caused divisions, the Great Awakening also fostered religious toleration. The Awakening was also the first truly national event in American history.
The Enlightenment in America. The Enlightenment had an enormous impact on America. The founders of the colonies were contemporaries of scientists such as Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, who provided a new understanding of the natural world. The earth, heavens, humans, and animals all seemed part of a great machine, which God had set in motion. Through observation and reason, humans might come to understand the laws of nature. Faith in these ideas produced the Age of Reason.
Ideas of European thinkers reached America with startling speed, and the writings of John Locke and other political theorists found a receptive audience. Ideas that in Europe were discussed only by an intellectual elite became almost commonplace in the colonies.
Colonial Scientific Achievements. A largely unexplored continent provided a laboratory for the study of natural phenomena. Colonials such as John Bartram and Benjamin Franklin contributed to the accumulation of scientific knowledge. The theoretical contributions of American thinkers and scientists were modest, but involvement in the intellectual affairs of Europe provided yet another common experience for colonials.
Repercussions of Distant Wars. As European nations competed fiercely for markets and raw materials, war became a constant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The American colonies were minor pieces in the game, but they inevitably became involved in these European wars for dominance. European powers vied for allies among the Native American tribes and raided settlements of opposing powers. The colonies paid heavily for these European conflicts. In addition to battle casualties, frontier settlers were killed in raids; and taxes went up to pay for the wars. These conflicts served to increase bad feelings between settlers in French and English colonies. More important, perhaps, Europe’s colonial wars inevitably generated some friction between England and its North American colonies; however, such problems were seldom serious.
The Great War for the Empire. England and France possessed competing colonial empires in North America, but a band of wilderness had generally separated their activities. In the 1750s, however, the two powers came into direct conflict. The result was yet another colonial war; but, unlike earlier wars, this one spread from the colonies to Europe, rather than vice versa. Although English colonists outnumbered French colonists, the English effort was badly mismanaged, and England fared poorly. Not until William Pitt took over the British war effort did England’s fortunes improve. Pitt recognized the potential value of North America and poured British forces and money into the war. He also promoted talented young officers such as James Wolfe. The British took Montreal in 1760, and France abandoned Canada to the British. The British also captured French and Spanish possessions in the Pacific, in the West Indies, and in India.
Britain Victorious. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, France gave up virtually all claims to North America. Given the extent of British victories in battle, however, the terms of the treaty were moderate. England returned captured French possessions in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. Spain got back the Philippines and Cuba, in exchange for which it ceded Florida to Great Britain.
The victory in North America was won by British troops and British gold. In contrast, the British colonies contributed relatively little money, and the performance of colonial troops was uneven. The defeat of the French seemed to tie the colonies still more closely to England.
Burdens of an Expanded Empire. Britain now controlled a far larger empire, which would be much more expensive to maintain. Pitt’s expenditures for the war had doubled Britain’s national debt, and it was expensive to administer a far-flung empire. The British people, however, were taxed to the limit. Moreover, the American colonies now required a more extensive system of administration. Issues such as western expansion and relations with the Indians needed to be resolved. Many in England resented the growing wealth of the colonists. Compounding matters, even the best informed people in England remained ignorant of conditions in America. Most English leaders regarded the colonials as uncouth and inferior.
Tightening Imperial Controls. British attempts to deal with the problems resulting from their victory in the great war for empire eventually led to the American Revolution. After the war, the British decided to exert greater control over their American colonies. With the exception of the disastrous attempt to centralize control of the colonies in the 1680s, Britain had allowed the colonies a great degree of freedom, and the colonists had come to expect this as a right. Thus, colonists resented restrictions on their freedom.
With the removal of competition from the French, the English colonies increased their pressure on the Indians. In response, the British stationed fifteen regiments along the frontier, as much to protect the Indians from the settlers as the settlers from the Indians. A new British policy prohibited settlement across the Appalachian divide. This created further resentment among the colonists, who had plans for development of the Ohio Valley.
The Sugar Act. If Americans disliked the western policy, they were outraged by British attempts to raise money in America to help defray the cost of administering the colonies. The Sugar Act placed tariffs on sugar, coffee, wines, and other imported goods. Violators were tried before British naval officers in vice-admiralty courts. Colonists considered the duties to be taxation without representation. To make matters worse, the law came at a bad time. The economic boom created by the war had ended with the war, and economic depression increased the impact of the new laws.
American Colonists Demand Rights. The British dismissed colonial protests over the Sugar Act. Under the concept of “virtual representation,” every member of Parliament stood for the interests of the entire empire. Americans probably would have resented taxes to support the imperial administration even if they had been voted by their own legislatures. The colonies failed, however, to agree on a common plan of resistance.
The Stamp Act: The Pot Set to Boiling. A new act of Parliament served as a catalyst to unite colonial opposition. The Stamp Act placed stiff excise taxes on all kinds of printed matter (including newspapers, legal documents, and licenses). While the Sugar Act had related to Parliament’s uncontested power to control colonial trade, the Stamp Act was a direct tax. Virginia’s House of Burgesses took the lead in opposing the new tax. An intercolonial Stamp Act Congress passed resolutions of protest. Irregular organizations, known as the Sons of Liberty, staged direct-action protests against the act; sometimes the protests took the form of mob violence.
Rioters or Rebels? In many instances, the rioting took on a social, as well as a political, character. If the colonial elite did not disapprove of the rioting, the looting associated with these protests did alarm them. Yet even in the face of hard times, the mass of people were property owners and had some say in political decisions; they had no desire to overthrow the established order.
The Stamp Act hurt the business of lawyers, merchants, and newspaper editors—people who greatly influenced public opinion. The greatest concern, however, was Britain’s rejection of the principle of no taxation without representation. As British subjects, the colonists claimed “the rights of Englishmen.” Passage of the Quartering Act further convinced many Americans that the actions of Parliament threatened to deprive them of those rights.
Americans responded by refusing to use the stamps and boycotting British goods. The boycott hit British merchants, who exerted pressure on Parliament, which repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766.
The Declaratory Act. The same day it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted that Parliament could enact any law it wished with respect to the colonies. The Declaratory Act revealed the extent to which British and American views of the system had drifted apart. Words such as representation, constitution, and sovereignty had come to mean very different things on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The Townshend Duties. After the repeal of the Stamp Act, the British resorted to indirect taxes to raise money. The Townshend Acts (1767) placed levies on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea imported into the colonies. Colonists responded with a new boycott of British goods. They also made efforts to stimulate colonial manufacturing. Opposition to the Townshend duties further unified the colonies. Leaders of the resistance ranged from moderates such as John Dickinson to revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams. The British responded to protests by dissolving the Massachusetts legislature, which had emerged as a focal point of opposition to the Townshend Acts, and by transferring two regiments of troops from the frontier to Boston.
The Boston Massacre. The presence of British troops in Boston resulted in any number of minor scuffles during the winter of 1769–1770. On March 5, 1770, a crowd of rioters began throwing snowballs at a company of Redcoats. The crowd grew increasingly hostile, and the panicky troops responded by firing on it. Five Bostonians lay dead or dying. The incident infuriated the populace.
John Adams volunteered his legal services to the soldiers, most of whom were acquitted. The others were treated leniently by the standards of the day. The British also relented; all the Townshend duties except the tax on tea were repealed in April 1770. A tenuous truce lasted for two years.
The Pot Spills Over. Trouble erupted again when the British patrol boat Gaspee ran aground in Narragansett Bay in 1772. Its commander had antagonized the local populace, and that night a gang boarded the ship and burned it. When the British tried to bring the culprits to justice, no one would testify against them. Things escalated when Governor Thomas Hutchinson announced that the Crown, rather than the local legislature, would henceforth pay his salary. In response, groups of radicals formed “committees of correspondence” to plan joint action in case of trouble.
The Tea Act Crisis. The final crisis came in 1773, when Parliament, in an attempt to save the corrupt and inefficient British East India Company, agreed to remit the British tax on tea, thereby permitting an overall reduction in the price of tea. The Townshend tax, however, was retained to preserve the principle of Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Americans regarded the measure as a diabolical attempt to trick them into paying the tax on tea. Public indignation was so great that authorities in New York and Philadelphia ordered the ships carrying the tea to return to England without unloading.
In Boston, the governor was determined to collect the tax. On December 16, 1773, a group of colonists disguised as Indians dumped the tea in the harbor. England received news of the Boston Tea Party with great indignation.
From Resistance to Revolution. Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by passing the Coercive Acts in the spring of 1774. These acts weakened the colonial legislatures and judiciary. In addition, the Boston Port Act closed Boston Harbor until the city’s citizens paid for the tea. The Intolerable Acts, as Americans called them, marked the beginning of united colonial opposition to British rule. The First Continental Congress met at Philadelphia in September 1774. Although complete independence was not yet the goal, John Adams rejected any right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies. The Congress passed a declaration condemning Britain’s actions since 1763, as well as a resolution that the people take arms to defend their rights. Delegates also organized a boycott of British goods. Members of the Continental Congress might not have intended it, or even been aware of it, but they were taking part in the birth of a new nation.
LEARNING OBJECTIVE QUESTIONS
1. What were the structural weaknesses of the British imperial administration?
2. Explain the theory of mercantilism and its application to Britain’s colonies in North America.
3. What were the causes and consequences of the Great Awakening?
4. Discuss the intellectual impact of the Enlightenment in America.
5. How did Europe’s wars of the eighteenth century affect North America?
6. How did England’s victory in the war for empire lead to the loss of its North American colonies?
7. Why did colonists regard England’s attempt to gain greater control over its colonies as an encroachment on their rights?
8. How did the conflict with Britain over the administration of the empire lead to a sense of unity among the colonies?