In 1763, British power stretched from India to North America and the Caribbean, but the cost of creating the empire was high. Britain was facing an enormous postwar debt and already‐high taxes as well as the need to finance the administration of its newly acquired lands. The British expected the American colonies, which prospered during the Seven Years' War through lucrative military contracts despite additional taxes, to assume at least part of the financial burden. The colonists had expectations as well: unfettered access to western lands, for example. Although most considered themselves English subjects and were proud to have helped Britain win an empire, a sense of American identity was developing. The colonists had gained greater control over their lives during the war, through their colonial assemblies' exacting concessions from royal governors as the price for raising revenue, and whether the colonists would again meekly accept the role of imperial subject was unknown.
Discontent in the Colonies
The Seven Years' War had begun over control of the Ohio River Valley; affairs in that region became the first issue the British faced in governing their new empire. France's Indian allies certainly knew that the British victory meant more and more settlers would flood onto their lands. In the spring of 1763, Pontiac, an Ottawa leader, formed a coalition of tribes to drive the British off the western lands. Pontiac's Rebellion caused chaos in the Great Lakes region as his forces overran eight British forts and threatened both Detroit and Pittsburgh. The British fought back by giving Indians smallpox‐infected blankets, an early example of biological warfare. Although Pontiac himself did not agree to peace until 1766, Parliament tried to placate the Indians through legislation.
The Proclamation of 1763. Intended to keep the colonists and Ohio Valley tribes separated as much as possible, the Proclamation of 1763 established a boundary running along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Unlicensed traders and settlers were banned west of the boundary. The colonists considered the proclamation a challenge to their land claims and continued pushing west, rendering its orders ineffective. Within a few years, British Indian agents negotiated treaties with the Iroquois, Cherokee, and other tribes, opening up large areas of western New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia to settlement.
The Proclamation of 1763 represented an attempt by Britain to exercise greater control over the colonies. The Sugar Act, passed by Parliament in 1764, had the same goal. For more than a century, the Navigation Acts had loosely regulated colonial trade to protect British commerce and manufacturing from competition; the duties imposed on the imports and exports were not intended to raise revenue. The Sugar Act reversed this policy; indeed, the law was officially called the American Revenue Act. By reducing the tax on molasses from the French West Indies and providing for stricter enforcement against smugglers through British vice‐admiralty courts, Britain hoped to raise enough money to offset the cost of maintaining troops in the colonies.
The Stamp Act. The Stamp Act required the use of specially marked paper or the affixing of stamps on all wills, contracts, other legal documents, newspapers, and even playing cards. Any colonist who bought a newspaper or engaged in any business transaction was required to pay the tax, and violators faced severe penalties. In contrast to the duties charged under the Navigation Acts and even the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act charges represented the first internal tax, falling directly on the goods and services in the colonies.
Some British leaders, most notably William Pitt, objected strenuously to the Stamp Act because it raised the question of taxation without representation. Prime Minister George Grenville countered that all British subjects enjoyed virtual representation; that is, the members of Parliament represented not only the constituents of their district but the interests of British citizens everywhere, including those in America. The colonists, of course, sided with Pitt and claimed that if Americans were not sitting in Parliament, there was no way the members could know their concerns and interests.
The colonial reaction to the Stamp Act. To the colonists, the Stamp Act was a dangerous departure from previous policies, and they were determined to resist it. The Virginia House of Burgesses, led by Patrick Henry, passed resolutions against the legislation. Violent protests broke out in several of the colonies, led by groups calling themselves the Sons of Liberty. Stamp distributors were hung in effigy and suffered the destruction of their homes. In October 1765, representatives from nine colonies met as the Stamp Act Congress, which agreed that Parliament had the right to enact laws for the colonies but not to impose direct taxes. As the effective date of the Stamp Act approached (November 1, 1765), the colonists simply refused to use the stamps and organized an effective boycott of British goods. To prevent business from coming to a halt, royal officials backed away from requiring stamps on legal documents.
While Parliament was surprised by the extent of the colonial reaction, British manufacturers and merchants were distressed. Pointing out that the boycott could have serious economic repercussions at home, they demanded and got the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766. The revocation was more expedient than principled, and Parliament made it clear by passing the Declaratory Act on the same day that it still had the right to legislate for the colonies.
The policies of Charles Townshend. Charles Townshend became prime minister of Great Britain in 1767. He had opposed the Stamp Act, and the colonies initially hoped he would pursue more reasonable policies for North America. They were quickly disillusioned. Responding to protests in New York over the Quartering (or Mutiny) Act of 1765, which required colonial legislatures to pay for supplies needed by British troops, Townshend threatened to nullify all laws passed by the colony unless the payments were made. New York backed down but understood that the threat clearly interfered with colonial self‐government. Townshend was just as committed as Grenville to raising revenues from the colonies. The Revenue Act of 1767, better known as the Townshend duties, taxed American imports of glass, lead, paper, paint, and tea. Because the new duties were external taxes unlike those of the Stamp Act, Townshend believed there would be little opposition; the colonists had moved beyond the distinction between internal and external taxes, however. John Dickinson, whose Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania was published in almost every newspaper in the colonies, argued that Parliament could not tax commerce for revenue purposes because that power resided in the colonial assemblies alone. Townshend had also created the American Board of Customs Commissioners to regulate the collection of the duties. Its soon‐hated agents and commissioners used their office to enrich themselves by levying heavy fines for technical violations, to spy on alleged violators, and even to seize property for dubious reasons.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives circulated a letter, the Massachusetts Circular Letter, drafted by Samuel Adams, protesting Townshend's policies and again raising the issue of “no taxation without representation.” When the letter was not rescinded, the legislature was dissolved by the royal governor on orders from London. A boycott again proved to be the most effective weapon the colonists wielded in their ongoing confrontation with Parliament. Merchants as well as consumers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and then throughout the colonies agreed not to import or use British goods. Colonial women joined the Daughters of Liberty, supporting the boycott by making their own thread and cloth. As a direct result of the boycott, the value of colonial imports from Britain dropped significantly from 1768 to 1769, a loss far exceeding the revenue generated by the Townshend duties. Parliament repealed the law for all goods except tea in 1770.
The Boston Massacre. Rioting in Boston over the actions of the Board of Customs Commissioners brought British soldiers to the city in October 1768. Over the next few years, animosity toward the soldiers grew and finally boiled over on March 5, 1770, when troops fired on a crowd of rock‐throwing demonstrators, killing five. Although the soldiers had been provoked, and several were later brought to trial, patriots Samuel Adams and Paul Revere tried to use the incident to stir up anti‐British passions. In fact, the “Boston Massacre” did not trigger further resistance, and tensions between the colonies and Britain eased, although temporarily.