Great Britain’s Deteriorating Relationship with Her American Colonies, 1765-1775

For 10 years (1765-1775), Great Britain experienced a deteriorating relationship with her 13 colonies in North America. This eventually lead to the American Revolutionary War starting in April of 1775. Here is a summary of the major events in this decade’s pre-war struggle.[1]

In 1765 the British Parliament adopted the Stamp Act imposing taxes on paper for various purposes, and the colonial Stamp Act Congress that same year responded with resolutions opposing the tax and asserting rights as Englishmen. This led the next year, 1766, to British repeal of the Stamp Act in the Declaratory Act that asserted parliamentary authority over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

The 1765 British Mutiny and Quartering Acts required the colonists to provide quarters and supplies to the British troops in the colonies. In response, the Massachusetts and New York legislatures refused to provide the supplies.

To counter that colonial resistance, Parliament in 1767 suspended the New York legislature, adopted the “Townshend duties,” i.e., duties on various colonial imports and established a board of customs commissioners in the colonies. The purpose of these measures was to raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so that they would be independent of colonial rule, to create a more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations, to punish the province of New York for failing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act, and to establish the precedent that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.

These measures were not well received in the colonies. To protest these measures the Massachusetts legislature led a colonial resolve to resist every tax imposed by Parliament while Boston merchants organized a boycott of British goods.

In 1770 Parliament repealed the Townshend duties, except for the import duty on tea. But hostile crowds in Boston forced the customs commissioners to take refuge in a castle in the city’s harbor. In response additional British troops were stationed in Boston, but they were hassled by the crowds, and on March 5, 1770, during one of these encounters the troops fired and killed five colonists and wounded others. This quickly became known as “The Boston Massacre.”

In 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act to aid the nearly bankrupt East India Company. It permitted the Company to export its products in the colonies without paying the usual British export taxes; this resulted in lower prices to the American consumers even with the Townshend import duty on the tea in the colonies. But the colonists renounced tea in favor of coffee and chocolate. On December 16, 1773, “the Boston Tea Party” occurred when colonists threw tea chests on three British ships in the city’s harbor into the water.

Britain responded in the Spring of 1774 with five “Coercive Acts” (“Intolerable Acts” in the colonies). The Boston Port Act closed the port to all shipping. The Massachusetts Government Act concentrated power in the royal governor. The Administration of Justice Act allowed British soldiers and officials to be tried in Britain or another colony. The Quartering Act directed the local Boston authorities to find quarters for British troops in the city. The Quebec Act enlarged the boundaries of Quebec and granted religious freedom to the Roman Catholic inhabitants of the province; the colonists saw this statute as a new model for British colonial administration, which would strip the colonies of their elected assemblies and promote the Roman Catholic faith in preference to widely-held Protestant beliefs; It also limited opportunities for colonies to expand on their western frontiers.

Britain hoped that the Coercive Acts would isolate the so-called Massachusetts radicals and cause American colonists to concede the authority of Parliament over their elected assemblies.This was a horrible miscalculation by the British because the harshness of some of the acts made it difficult for colonial moderates to speak in favor of Parliament.

Instead the Coercive or Intolerable Acts promoted sympathy for Massachusetts and encouraged colonists from the otherwise diverse colonies to organize the First Continental Congress. At its meeting in Philadelphia in September 1774 the Congress called for military preparations for a possible British attack in Boston and for a boycott of British goods. It also adopted the Declaration and Resolves that objected to the Intolerable Acts. More importantly, it declared that the colonists, “by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts” had the following rights:

  1. “That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.”
  2. “That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England.”
  3. “That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them, as their local and other circumstances enable them to exercise and enjoy.”
  4. “That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved, in all cases of taxation and internal polity, subject only to the negative of their sovereign, in such manner as has been heretofore used and accustomed: But, from the necessity of the case, and a regard to the mutual interest of both countries, we cheerfully consent to the operation of such acts of the British parliament, as are bonfide, restrained to the regulation of our external commerce, for the purpose of securing the commercial advantages of the whole empire to the mother country, and the commercial benefits of its respective members; excluding every idea of taxation internal or external, for raising a revenue on the subjects, in America, without their consent.”
  5. “That the respective colonies are entitled to the common law of England, and more especially to the great and inestimable privilege of being tried by their peers of the vicinage, according to the course of that law.”
  6. “That they are entitled to the benefit of such of the English statutes, as existed at the time of their colonization; and which they have, by experience, respectively found to be applicable to their several local and other circumstances.”
  7. “That these, his Majesty’s colonies, are likewise entitled to all the immunities and privileges granted and confirmed to them by royal charters, or secured by their several codes of provincial laws.”
  8. “That they have a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the king; and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same, are illegal.”
  9. “That the keeping a standing army in these colonies, in times of peace, without the consent of the legislature of that colony, in which such army is kept, is against law.”
  10. “It is indispensably necessary to good government, and rendered essential by the English constitution, that the constituent branches of the legislature be independent of each other; that, therefore, the exercise of legislative power in several colonies, by a council appointed, during pleasure, by the crown, is unconstitutional, dangerous and destructive to the freedom of American legislation.”

Early the next year (1775) Parliament considered the American Declaration and Resolves and adopted the Conciliatory Resolution. It declared that any colony that contributed to the common defense and provided support for the civil government and the administration of justice (ostensibly against any anti-Crown rebellion) would be relieved of paying taxes or duties except those necessary for the regulation of commerce. But this was “too little, too late.” In fact, the Conciliatory Resolution did not reach the colonies until after the war had started.

In the meantime the colonists were organizing militias with Minute Men (men with muskets ready to go to war at a minute’s notice) to be ready to fight the British troops and with means of communication for prompt distribution of news about political and military events. They also developed a philosophy of revolt based upon the English constitution, the laws of nature and of God.

As we have seen, John Brown (my maternal sixth great-grandfather) was involved in some of these events as a leader of the town of Leicester, Massachusetts.

[1] E.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], Ch. 6 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Chs. One & Two (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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