Run-Up to the Revolution, Part I

In the news in America, exactly 250 years ago: The British Parliament, incensed after learning about the Boston Tea Party of late 1773, and comparing Boston’s thunderous action of dumping the tea in the harbor to avoid paying duties on it, to Charleston’s more modulated one of letting the tea ships dock but refusing to unload their cargoes, reacts by passing what is called the Coercive Acts of 1774.

Americans label them the Intolerable Acts, because, as Joseph Warren, a Boston firebrand, puts it, they display “the power, but not the justice, the vengeance but not the wisdom of Great Britain.”

The Acts could not have been more perfectly designed to enrage Americans by attacking their basic rights to 1) ownership of property, 2) autonomy of governance, and 3) judgment by peers and neighbors. They are an important step to pushing Americans toward Revolution. But they are not the first.

In 1763, the French and Indian War ended. During its seven years, British regulars had defended the American colonies, although colonial troops also played major roles. After it, King George III decreed that Americans should pony up accelerated taxes to retroactively pay for their defense. Our forefathers did so at such a tremendous pace that by 1765 they were almost all paid up! That was because America’s colonists were relatively well-off compared to the masses in the large English cities. And they were still loyal. “There are not five Men of Sense in America who would accept of Independence if it was offered,” George Mason wrote in 1770.

Members of Parliament, seeing how easily the American colonists were managing, created new taxes. The first was the Stamp Act in 1765, and when Americans successfully protested and the Stamp Act was withdrawn, they passed the equally onerous Townshend Acts. By 1773 an American boycott had caused these too to be repealed but for a tax on tea, imposed to enable the British East India Company to replace its losses from other areas of the world.

Great Britain revels in exerting power. If you are a tobacco farmer in the American south and want to export your crop to France, whose people have developed a liking for it, you cannot do so directly. Because the British Navy rules the seas, you first must send that tobacco (in a British-owned ship) to London, for re-shipment to France at an inflated price, the rewards going to the London brokers, not to the American tobacco farmer.

The first Intolerable Act of 1774 closes Boston’s port, denying tens of thousands their livelihood until Boston repays the East India Company for the value of the tea. The second (dated May 20) assumes that Massachusetts is under mob rule and replaces its elected government with Crown appointees, giving the new Royal Governor the right to appoint judges and sheriffs, and restricts town meetings to one a year. A third act (also May 20) takes away the right to a trial by one’s peers by giving the governor the power to move any trial to another jurisdiction to assure a Crown-friendly result. The fourth, the Quartering Act (June 2), gives the British the right to quarter their troops on the colonists’ private property -- at the colonists’ expense.

These acts are intolerable enough to change the mind of George Washington, the 42-year-old Virginia planter (neighbor to George Mason), colonial legislator, and French and Indian War veteran. He has earlier disapproved of the Bostonians’ “conduct in destroying the tea,” but on July 4, 1774, writes his friend, Bryan Fairfax, that he too wants to counter the British government’s actions but feels that petitions will no longer suffice. “Does it not appear, as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness, that there is a regular systemic plan formed to fix the right and practice of taxation upon us? …Ought we not, then, to put our virtue and fortitude to the severest test?”

[In my next column, Washington’s response to this challenge in early summer ‘74, and those of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Laurens and other eventual leaders of the Revolution.]

Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written many books, including three about the Revolutionary Era.

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