Drifting toward Revolution

Two events in 1772 brought the period of calm to an end. Rhode Island colonists burned the British ship Gaspee, which had run aground while patrolling for smugglers. Although the authorities ultimately found no one to prosecute, colonists learned that the plan had been to send the culprits to London for trial. At about the same time, the British government announced that the salaries of the Massachusetts governor and judges would henceforth be paid by the Crown, not the colonial legislature. Both incidents suggested that Britain was determined to undermine colonial liberties, and together they led to the formation of committees of correspondence. Created in Massachusetts to bring news of British abuses to town meetings, they promoted political education among the colonists and whipped up anti‐British sentiment; by 1773, hundreds were operating nearly throughout the colonies.

The Tea Act and Boston Tea Party. In an attempt to rescue the almost bankrupt East India Company, Prime Minister Lord North gave the business a monopoly on the sale and distribution of tea in the colonies. The Tea Act (1773) lowered the price on tea to a point that not even the smugglers could match, and Parliament expected the colonists to welcome the windfall. North miscalculated the reaction to the tea monopoly just as Townshend had misjudged colonial reception of the external taxes. Revenue from the tea tax, despite the low price to consumers, cemented Parliament's right to tax the colonists, which was unacceptable to many Americans.

In Boston, colonists insisted that tea shipments be sent back to England without payment of the customs duties. When the governor refused, Bostonians, led by Samuel Adams, took matters into their own hands. Fifty men disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded one of the ships and threw the entire cargo of tea into the harbor. The Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) was a crucial turning point. The colonists had moved beyond boycotts to the destruction of property, and as far as Lord North and King George III were concerned, the new issue was whether and how Britain would regain control over the colonies.

The Coercive Acts. In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed a series of punitive measures against Massachusetts. The Coercive Acts (called the Intolerable Acts in the colonies) closed the port of Boston until the cost of the tea and customs charges were repaid; revoked parts of the Massachusetts charter, letting the king select members for the legislature's upper house and the governor appoint most officials; and allowed British troops and royal officials accused of a capital offense while carrying out their duties to be tried in another colony or in England. A new Quartering Act, which applied to all the colonies, permitted the governors to house soldiers in private houses or buildings. Around the same time, Parliament enacted the Quebec Act, which recognized Catholicism as the official religion of Quebec. The act was an affront to Protestant Anglo‐Americans, particularly in New England. More important, the Ohio River was made the southern boundary of Quebec, taking territory that Massachusetts, Virginia, and Connecticut claimed.

Clearly, the Coercive Acts were aimed not just at Massachusetts but all the colonies. Prior loosely coordinated colonial responses to English laws were judged to be inadequate this time, and calls went out for a meeting of representatives to develop a joint plan of action. Twelve of the thirteen colonies (only Georgia did not send a delegation) participated in the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia during September and October 1774.

The First Continental Congress. Although the representatives attending the First Continental Congress endorsed the Massachusetts Suffolk Resolves, a set of statements which in addition to condemning the Coercive Acts called on the colonists to form their own militias, the final declaration adopted by the Congress was considerably more moderate. The grievances and resolves were essentially a condemnation of Parliament for denying the colonists the rights and privileges they traditionally enjoyed as English subjects. In matters of taxation and internal policy, the colonies, through their legislatures, were free to chart their own course, subject only to a veto by the king. The declaration sought the repeal of all legislation enacted since 1763 that ran counter to this basic principle, including the Intolerable Acts, and a redress of their grievances by appealing not to Parliament but to the Crown and the British people. The Congress was clearly not prepared to completely break with Britain.

To specifically fight the Coercive Acts, the representatives agreed to suspend all economic ties—imports, exports, and consumption—with Great Britain. While several colonies had already approved nonimportation agreements, the economic plan was significant in several respects. First, it included a ban on the importation of slaves, not out any moral concern over the evils of slavery but because of the impact a ban would have on the British slave‐trade monopoly. Second, the boycott was to be enforced through the committees of correspondence operating under rules set by the newly created Continental Association.