Up until about 1763, the Colonists were mostly loyal subjects. They, being mostly British themselves, had fought alongside the British military in the French and Indian War. It was when the war ended in 1763 that things changed rapidly and the Colonists became more and more intent on expelling the British. For years, they had dealt with many hardships, some due to the unsettled nature of the Colonies and some due to having to live with the consequences of decisions made by a King thousands of miles away. There wasn’t a single tipping point that pushed them to fight for their independence, but a series of events that led them there.
When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, King George III imposed a series of taxes to pay for the war. The Colonies were not excluded from these levies. In many cases, they bore a disproportionate share of the taxes. The King felt they should pay more since he had to deploy troops to the Americas to protect them. In just a few short years, popular support would shift away from King George and towards the idea of independence.
There were many issues that hastened this change, including several laws enacted by the British Parliament that the Colonists disagreed with, as well as overt acts by both the British and the Colonists that quickly divided the two groups. A short summary of those issues is as follows:
- The Proclamation of 1763, which prevented settlement south of the Appalachians
- The Currency Act, which prohibited the use of paper money
- The Sugar Act, which placed a tax on imported goods such as sugar, wine, and coffee
- The Stamp Act, which required tax stamps be purchased and placed on all paper goods
- The Townshend Acts, which placed duties on imports such as glass, paper, paint, and tea
- The Boston Massacre in 1770, when an angry mob confronted a small group of British soldiers and attacked them with snowballs, the soldiers responded with gunfire, killing five of the Colonists.
- The Tea Act in 1773, the catalyst for the Boston Tea Party and a turning point for the growing divide between the Colonies and the British
The British Parliament demanded repayment for the tea that was dumped into Boston Harbor and passed The Coercive Acts in March 1774, which were a series of laws including:
- The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston to trade
- The Massachusetts Government Act, which made significant changes to the Colony’s charter and outlawed town meetings
- The Quartering Act, which required Colonists to house British soldiers
- The Administration of Justice Act, which removed the jurisdiction of Massachusetts courts over British officials
- The Quebec Act, which established Roman Catholicism and a new form of government for the recently acquired colony of Quebec
All of these events combined to push the Colonists towards revolution. Delegates from the Colonies met in September of 1774, later known as the First Continental Congress, to discuss their options. They drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to King George, they formed the Continental Association with the primary intent of boycotting British goods and they agreed to meet again in May, 1775 to discuss their options after the King had time to respond.
The Colonists knew that a confrontation was unavoidable, so they began to train citizens to fight “on a minute’s notice”, thus the name “Minutemen”. British troops were deployed from Boston to Concord in April, 1775, at which time Paul Revere and Billy Dawes set off to warn the Colonists, and later, were joined by Samuel Prescott. The three were captured on the way to Concord, but Prescott managed to escape. The “shot heard around the world” happened in Lexington, when the Minutemen confronted the British troops in an effort to stop their advance, effectively starting the Revolutionary War.
In May, 1775, the Colonists met again as they had planned, which later became known as the Second Continental Congress. They spent the summer months setting standards for trade, foreign diplomacy and a “national” currency. King George sent 12,000 Hessian troops to the Colonies to suppress the uprising. The Northern Colonies were ready to fight, but it wasn’t until John Adams suggested that the Colonial troops would be led by French and Indian War hero George Washington, a Southerner, that the Southern Colonies joined the resistance.
Even at this point, Congress was hesitant to declare independence. In January of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense”, which laid out a strong argument for independence. This 55 page pamphlet became wildly popular throughout the Colonies and is widely credited (along with the threat of 12,000 Hessian mercenaries) with convincing Congress to move forward with a formal declaration.
Richard Henry Lee proposed to Congress on June 7, 1776 that the Colonies declare their independence from Britain, that they form some kind of union, and that they seek out foreign allies. This proposal went to a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson drafted a declaration which was forwarded to Congress.
On July 2, 1776, after some revisions that removed some inflammatory statements and unnecessary details, Congress voted to accept the declaration. The Declaration of Independence was officially accepted on July 4, 1776 and formally signed on August 2, 1776 (although some Members signed it at a later date).
The Declaration was printed and distributed throughout the Colonies, marking the birth of the United States of America. The Colonies would still have a long road ahead of them to gain their freedom. Years of fighting would finally end with independence when the Treaties of Paris and Versailles were signed on September 3, 1783.
This began a new chapter in world history that would see a group of petulant Colonists fight for their freedom, and in a span of slightly more than 120 years, emerge as a world superpower.
Happy 4th of July.