The Struggle of the British colonies in America for Independence

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

For a number of years English officials had been presenting argu­ments and plans for closer ties between England and America. Rapid development of America’s society and economy coincided with years of virtual self-governments, and English leaders discerned a serious absence of centralized control and a growing surliness in their far-off provinces. The conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 prompted a reas­sessment of the “American problem” and a decision to restructure impe­rial relations. Although acutely aware of colonial restiveness, British offi­cials nevertheless consistently underestimated America’s resentment of tighter British regulation. Their postwar decisions triggered an evergrow­ing protest movement which ultimately exploded into the Revolutionary war.

In 1763 George III turned to George Grenville, an experienced administrator, as chancellor of the exchequer and parliamentary leader. As head of a ministry until 1765, Grenville inaugurated a series of meas­ures that widened America’s road to revolution.

Grenville’s measures irritated a number of different groups in Ameri­ca. His ministry’s decision to station permanent detachments of British forces in North America caused grumbling about the danger of standing armies, and the Quartering Act (1765), which required colonials to fur­nish shelter and provisions for the troops, added a related grievance.

The Proclamation of 1763, which recognized the land rights of In­dians and closed the territory between the Appalachians and the Missis­sippi to whites, antagonized frontiersmen2 and influential landowners such as George Washington. Although these actions gained Grenville few colonial admirers, they were not the stuff of which revolutions are made. Colonials petitioned Parliament and through their agents in Lon­don sought peaceful redress. But when Grenville touched the vital nerve of taxation, he set off more violent spasms of dissent4 within the colonies.

In early 1767, Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer in yet another ministry, unveiled his program. Capitalizing on the frequent dis­tinction between “internal” and “external” taxation, Townshend taxed a wide range of colonial imports including glass, paper, lead, and tea. He further proposed creation of a new American customs service as well as a crackdown on New York’s continually defiant assembly. After Parlia­ment enacted all these potentially explosive measures, the ministry indi­cated its determination to enforce the trade laws. It appointed several un­popular officials to the new customs board and established the body’s headquarters in Boston, the center of opposition to stricter commercial regulation.

At the height of the protests against the Townshend duties, Great Britain retreated one last time. American complaints and economic pressure figured in the decision, but fierce power struggles within England, growing urban radicalism, and the everpresent French threat7 were probably more potent reasons for the reversal. In 1770 Parliament repealed all the Townshend duties except the tax on tea. King George himself intervened and insisted that the tea duty remain as a demon­stration of Britain’s constitutional authority to tax its provinces. Following a clash between British redcoats and civilians in Boston - the celebrated “Boston Massacre”-the government withdrew royal forces from the city, a move which undercut protests against standing armies. In com­mercial centers, the boycott against importation of British goods soon collapsed, and merchants resumed their old trading patterns. And even resistance to the new customs board subsided. The troubled imperial waters appeared calm between 1770 and 1773.

But it was the lull before the approaching storm. Parliament had removed the immediate focus of discontent, British taxation, but the most basic source of discord remained: Parliament’s power to legislate for America.

Then in 1773 a new British measure rekindled colonial apprehensions and sent opposition groups into action. The “Tea Act” was a seem­ingly innocent piece of special-interest legislation, designed to assist the nearly bankrupt East India Company. Parliament allowed the company to export tea from England without duty and to sell it directly through its own agents rather than through American merchants. England, of course, would collect the tea tax, the last of the Townshend duties still in force. According to John Adams, Parliament “threw off the mask”, so that all alert patriots could see the depths of Britain’s determination to tax American subjects.

The East India Company’s attempt to land tea on Boston set off a chain of events. Poorly disguised as Indians, a group of Bostonians held their famous tea party in Boston harbor.14 Exasperated with colonial defiance-“the die is now cast”, proclaimed King George, “we must not retreat” - English officials retaliated with measures the colonials called the Intolerable Acts. The Boston Port Act closed Boston Harbor until colonials paid for the wet tea leaves; the Massachusetts Government Act transferred the Massachusetts assembly’s traditional power to appoint members of the council to the governor; it also limited the powers of the obstreperous town meeting; and armed with a new Quartering Act, the Crown sent redcoats back into Massachusetts’s capital. Soon after these measures, the Quebec Act gave the former French province control over a large area west of the Appalachians, land claimed by various American colonies.

Angry and fearful, Americans established interprovincial Committees of Correspondence, and in 1774 twelve colonies sent delegates to a Con­tinental Congress in Philadelphia. The Congress formed the “Associa­tion”-an agreement which authorized various types of economic pres­sure against Great Britain until colonial grievances were redressed, and American lawyers, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Wilson, went beyond earlier denials of Parliament’s authority to tax the colonies and rejected its power to legislate at all in North America. Attempts by Brit­ish and colonial moderates to settle the grievances failed; both sides pre­pared for armed conflict. American minutemen and British regulars skirmished at Lexington and Concord in “April of ’75”. And less than two months later a full-scale clash occurred at Breed’s Hill. The Second Continental Congress convened and, acting as a central government, authorized an American army, appointed George Washington its com­mander, and issued paper money to finance a military effort. Finally in early July 1776 the Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of Inde­pendence, an event confirmed by Jefferson’s immortal document of July 4, 1776.

The Continental Congress authorized creation of a professional Con­tinental Army in 1775, but it could not offer the salaries or equipment to attract great numbers of volunteers.

Throughout the war, General Washington’s most difficult obstacles stemmed less from British power than from colonial apathy and dis­union. Most Americans were farmers with crops to tend and families to feed; they would eagerly volunteer for a brief fight near their homes, but were reluctant to join the army on a long-term basis.

Shortages of men, money, and equipment made conventional warfare impossible. Greatly outnumbered by British forces, Washington’s stra­tegy was simply to maintain an army in the field, to avoid decisive defeat, and to engage the British only when surprise might tip the odds in his favour. American commanders also compensated for deficiencies by superior knowledge of the terrain and experience gained from years of guerilla warfare against Indian enemies.

In August 1776 Great Britain landed twenty thousand troops on Long Island near Brooklyn in its first major offensive against the rebellious co­lonials. Washington’s army proved no match for the advancing British, and it retreated out of Manhattan and through New Jersey. As it crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, the American army was on the verge of collapse, decimated by casualties and desertions, dispirited by defeat, and with most men nearing the end of their period of enlistment. Washington needed a victory, and he carefully selected the time and the victim. Leading his army through the cold and snow, he attacked the British quarters at Trenton on Christmas day, finding the enemy caught up in holiday celebrations. The Americans took nine hundred prisoners and followed up the triumph with another success at Princeton a few days later. These victories lifted American spirits, generated reenlist­ments, and perhaps saved the Continental Army from early dissolution.

Throughout the spring of 1777 the British troops continued to move slowly and indecisively, hoping the American effort would die of apathy or show signs of accommodation. Making the fatal mistake of underesti­mating America’s staying power, the British government and its generals did not take Washington’s ragged army seriously. British soldiers finally occupied Philadelphia but holding population centers was far easier than controlling the countryside. General John Burgoyne, a vain and incompe­tent British commander marching south from Canada into New York with some seven thousand troops, found himself entrapped by the skilful manoeuvres of the American generals. Finally in October 17, 1777, Bur­goyne surrendered his entire army at Saratoga.

From: America. A Portrait  in History by D. Burner and R. D. Marcus