Go to The Time Traveller homepage

Aspects of America's past

The American

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that the creator of Knowledge4Africa, Dr T., has passed away. Helping people through his website gave him no end of pleasure. If you had contact with him and would like to leave a message, please send us an e-mail here.

At the time of the formation of the American colonies, the European states had no previous experience of running overseas colonies. Furthermore, wars in Europe ensured that the European governments were not able to pay much attention to the governing of the new colonies.

As a result, government evolved in different ways so that each colony gained a different form of government. This was especially so in the case of the 13 New England colonies.

Some, such as New England itself, were almost entirely democratic where every adult male could take part in town and state government, although only leading persons were usually elected to public office. In others, such as Connecticut, most of the top offices were confined to members of the aristocracy.


The common feature of government, however, was that it consisted of a Governor appointed by the Crown but had the features of democracy to a greater or lesser extent. Certainly by 1750 the electorate in America was far greater than that in Britain where, in most cases, only a handful had the vote.

The British constitution had evolved over the centuries and had never become a written document. It consisted of nothing more than a collection of traditions and documents which set forth the separation of the powers of King and Parliament.

Since the King, in the mid-18th century, was by no means a mere figurehead but had real powers to rule the country, Parliament jealously saw to it that the King was unable to erode those powers which had been given to it.

It was in the interpretation of this issue that much of the problem lay. The British Parliament saw any institution which undermined its powers as a threat to its own existence since the King might be able to use such an institution to his own advantage.

Colonial parliaments fell into this category. The British Parliament alone had to be supreme and therefore local institutions had to be subservient to it.

The difficulty, however, lay in the theory of parliamentary representation. Because the franchise in Britain was extremely limited, the person who was voted or nominated for a seat in Parliament did not regard himself as representing his constituency but as representing the interests of the whole British Empire and the chief of these interests was to maintain the supremacy of Parliament.

The American colonists saw things differently. The legislatures were there to serve colonial interests and each delegate was elected to represent the wishes of his constituency. Constituencies therefore had the right to dictate to the delegate how he should vote on certain issues, a feature that was unheard of in the British tradition.

The colonists therefore came to believe that the British Parliament could not represent their interests and that local legislatures must be considered supreme to Parliament on certain issues. Their attitude towards the British Parliament was in fact identical to the British Parliament's attitude towards the King: powers must be controlled lest Parliament/King become too dictatorial.

The colonists and the British Parliament were therefore viewing things in an identical fashion but, because Parliament saw itself as supreme, it was not prepared to allow the existence of any other body which could be even partially independent of it. For that reason it was not prepared to allow the American colonies any form of independence.


By 1760 British politics had come to be dominated by the Whigs or Liberals, and it was with this group that the American colonists always had to deal during the time of their Revolution. Even King George III called himself a Whig. The Whigs, however, were divided into factions whose policies differed.

The "Old Whigs" were in many ways the more conservative as regards British affairs but, at the same time, they were also the more liberal when it came to dealings with the colonies. They disagreed, for instance, with taxing the colonies both because it was new and therefore not traditional but also because it was unjust. They tended, however, to be leaderless.

King George III, in the meantime, was a young man who was attempting to regain much of the royal power which had been lost through previous decades. He was seeking to rule the Empire, and was therefore attempting to create a party-within-a-party which would enable him to do so.

Eventually, after failing in his aims with several Prime Ministers, he appointed Lord North to the office and this man allowed him to rule in such a manner. Indeed, North was the Prime Minister who drove the colonists into revolt but it was largely the King who was responsible for the Coercive Acts of 1774 after the Boston Tea Party, because he saw this incident as a personal challenge to his power as king.


The Seven Years War (1754-1763) as it was known in Europe, or the French and Indian War as it was known in America, was in many ways the beginning of America's headaches for it brought Canada into British hands, thereby creating a much larger British colonial area which had to be governed and protected, especially from incursions by the Indians.

This increased British expenditure which had to be met by increased taxation. A new means of taxation had to be sought and, because the American colonists were the ones being governed and protected, it was felt to be only just that they pay some of the taxation.

From 1066, when William the Conqueror crossed from France and conquered England, wars were continuous between these two territories. After 1600, when both England and France began to establish overseas colonies, any war between the two countries automatically involved their colonies.

In this way the Seven Years War in Europe spilt over into North America and involved the British American and the French Canadian colonies. When the war ended in 1763, the peace treaty gave both the French colonies of Florida and Canada to Britain.

Britain had now to focus attention on control of a vastly expanded North American territory. Problems lay in two directions: (1) protecting the settlers from Indian incursions and (2) governing a territory which consisted primarily of French settlers. Britain therefore introduced more strict legislation.

A Proclamation of 1763 closed the area to the west of a line between Quebec and Florida to white settlers and a British garrison was placed in the area as a buffer between Indians and settlers. Colonists in search of new land were encouraged to settle in Canada so as to increase the English population in that territory. This legislation angered those colonists who desired westward expansion.


Between 1764 and 1770 a series of Acts of Parliament interfered with the colonists' attempts to govern and tax themselves. Many of the Acts were logical and perfectly understandable but tended to create economic hardship for the colonists and brought stubborn reaction from them.

Since the colonies had no mines, they had no way of minting specie or hard money. Moreover, an unfavourable trade balance with England tended to drain the colonies of whatever specie they had earned through trade with the Spanish and French West Indies.

To counteract this problem, colonial banks and legislatures took to producing paper money. The British Parliament, however, was afraid that this practice would tend to have inflationary features and so curtailed the system by means of the Currency Act of 1764.

This Act had a marked influence on the American economy and deepened the depression which had started at the conclusion of the French and Indian War.

The Revenue Act (sometimes known as the Sugar Act) was a means of raising revenue to pay for the maintenance of the 10 000 British troops stationed in America. Although it theoretically lowered the price of sugar, the Act had major implications for the colonists.

Since the Molasses Act of 1733 had often been violated by smugglers with a resultant loss of revenue to the Crown, British authorities decided that they would strictly enforce the Sugar Act. This involved British warships patrolling the American waters and it gave naval officers and customs officials the right to search any vessel on demand, even if the vessel was partaking only in colonial trade.

Hence merchants and farmers who shipped goods from one American colony to another were forced to obtain the necessary customs certificates from the nearest customs office, often some distance away, and thereby increasing expenditure at a time of deepening recession.

Even more objectionable was the fact that violators of the Sugar Act were not to be tried in the customary manner of a jury consisting of fellow Americans, but by Admiralty Courts which traditionally only tried crimes which had been committed on the high seas. In such a court, a person was presumed guilty unless he could prove his innocence.

The very purpose of the Sugar Act was found questionable, for the tax went to pay for the troops stationed in America. Since these troops were totally unsuited for fighting Indians, the rumour soon spread that their real function was to enforce the increased taxation by England.

Furthermore, although it was only a tax on trade, it raised the question: would Parliament's next Act be to tax land or anything else? The Stamp Act which was passed the following year seemed to prove the validity of this supposition.

When the Seven Years War ended, Britain decided to bring in new forms of taxation to help pay the costs of the war.

As part of this taxation, it was decided to implement a Stamp Act on the American colonies which Act demanded that a tax be levied on every legal document, as well as newspapers and instruments of gambling (dice and cards). All such articles had to bear a stamp to prove that the tax had indeed been paid.

This was the first direct internal taxation to be levied on the colonies. The Act alarmed the colonists not only because it was imposed at a time of serious economic hardship and raised the price of everyday transactions, but also because its method of imposition violated political beliefs.

The Stamp Act was imposed by an Act of Parliament and not by colonial legislature. Furthermore, the taxes raised would be used to support British troops in America and it was commonly believed that the tax on newspapers was a means to bring in censorship on those papers by denying them the necessary stamped paper.

The timing of the Stamp Act was also unfortunate, for it coincided with the Quartering Act of 1765 which made the government of any colony responsible for the provision of accommodation, bedding, drink and basic supplies to British troops stationed in that colony.

Furthermore, the Act offended the most influential people in America: the merchants, lawyers, journalists and clergymen.

The Stamp Act produced serious reaction. Riots broke out in several towns and the law became completely nullified when offices were looted and stamped paper burnt. New clubs came into existence, known as the "Sons of Liberty", to unite the colonists in the common cause.

A Stamp Act Congress was formed which met in October 1765 and drew up the creed of "no taxation without representation". Colonists protested both the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act by boycotting British goods which brought pressure to bear on British merchants who were already suffering the effects of the Seven Years War.

In the meantime, because all stamped paper had been destroyed, business continued as usual without it. In England, in the meantime, the Grenville ministry fell from power to be replaced by an "Old Whig" ministry. As a result of this and the American reaction, the Stamp Act was repealed in March 1766.

In 1767 the Chancellor of the British Exchequer, Charles Townshend, brought in another series of taxes to raise customs revenue in the American colonies and so reduce income tax in Britain by 25 percent. These included import duties on tea, paint, glass and other luxury items.

Unlike the previous taxes, this new one was not to be spent on maintaining the garrisons but on the payment of governors' and judges' salaries so as to make them independent of the colonial assemblies.

Although these duties failed to increase revenue to any great extent, they had the effect of further angering the colonists. More boycotts ensued as political feelings continued to ferment.

In March 1770 a group of Bostonians heckled soldiers guarding the customs building, and began throwing snowballs filled with rocks. The soldiers panicked and opened fire, killing some four or five Bostonians. This lead to waves of violence throughout the city.


On the day of the "Boston Massacre", a new ministry under Lord North repealed all the Townshend taxes except the one on tea. This was maintained probably to prove Parliament's right to levy taxes on the American colonies.

Calm was restored because the radicals could scarcely use this as a reason to maintain violence, although the "Boston Massacre" was celebrated each year as a remembrance.

By 1773 the British East India Company was on the verge of bankruptcy. To help the Company towards solvency, a Tea Act was promulgated which gave the Company a monopoly to sell tea to the colonies.

It was hoped that the Act would produce two things: (1) It would make the Company solvent and thereby secure Britain's position in Asia; (2) It would make tea from Britain much cheaper than elsewhere, thereby forcing the colonists to give up their boycott of British tea and, as a result, accept the principle that Britain had the right to levy taxes on the colonies.

The Company chose to sell its tea directly through its own agents so as to reduce prices considerably but this antagonised the merchants and drove them again onto the side of the revolutionaries.

Resistance to the new move was immediate as patriots recognised that the system might work. Reaction varied from colony to colony. In general, merchants were pressured into refusing consignments of British tea and tea-bearing vessels were refused permission to off-load their cargoes.

In cases where tea had been unloaded, merchants were to refuse to pay levies, thereby causing the tea to be impounded. In Boston a group of radicals boarded three ships and dumped their cargo into the water.

Parliament took instant revenge on the "Boston Tea Party". In June 1774 a series of Coercive Acts (which came to be known in America as the "Intolerable Acts") were promulgated to punish the colony of Massachusetts.

The port of Boston was closed to all traffic until the East India Company was paid for its losses. The powers of the Governor of Massachusetts were substantially increased. British officials charged with crimes committed in Massachusetts were to be tried in England, thus insulting the local law courts.

Troops were stationed in Boston under the Quartering Act and a military man, General Gage, was appointed Governor.

The colonists responded to the "Intolerable Acts" by calling a Continental Congress which met in September 1774. The Congress approved that taxes would continue to be collected but would not be handed over to the Crown until the traditional government of Massachusetts was restored.

It also called on military resistance to British troops stationed in Boston, recommending that citizens be empowered to arrest and imprison British officials if any patriots were arrested by British authorities. It also instigated a new embargo on British goods.

Revolutionaries now began to use force, together with intimidation, to ensure that the embargo was maintained. At the same time gunpowder and weapons were stored in secret. In Massachusetts, groups of militia were trained, to be known as Minutemen, to defend the colony if necessary.

It was here that the Revolution began. General Gage and a party of British soldiers set out for Lexington in search of concealed gunpowder and there they came across a band of Minutemen who had decided to defend themselves.

Nobody knows who fired first, but it started a war that was to last until 1783 (9 years).


In September 1774 some 55 delegates from 12 colonies met in Philadelphia to thrash out the problem of the Coercive Acts. The committee was known as the 1st Continental Congress. It showed unanimous support for Massachusetts and was ready to employ any means short of force to bring about the repeal of the Acts.

In the end it unanimously adopted a non-importation, non-exportation and non-consumption agreement against trade of any kind with Britain, Ireland and the West Indies. At the same time the Congress authorised the establishment of local committees to search out violators of the agreement and publish their names for all to see.

The Congress was, however, divided over its constitutional attitude towards Britain. The more radical element wanted total independence while the more conservative desired merely the repeal of the Coercive Acts.

Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Congress would accept a return to the status quo as it was before 1765. This in effect denied Parliament's authority over the colonies but accepted Parliament's Acts for the regulation of trade.

Had Parliament accepted this, it might have been possible for the differences to be settled there and then.

Britain had anticipated rebellion in the colonies but there was no conception of the size of the American forces. As a result, General Gage of Massachusetts was allowed an army of only 3500 men.

He was then instructed to march on the Americans and attempt to capture their supplies of arms and ammunition which resulted in the unfortunate debacle of Lexington where Minutemen were commanded to disperse, a shot was fired while they were doing so and the war had begun.


The war effort was by no means unified. Roughly a fifth of the population were loyalists and at first either sided with the imperial troops or went into exile. Another two-fifths were moderates who neither supported British actions nor desired resorting to warfare to attain their own ends.

Nevertheless, Lexington and Concorde, together with the aftermath of these battles, quickly reduced the opposition and the longer the war progressed, the more united the people became.

At this stage in the war there was still little desire for independence. The declarations of the 1st Continental Congress were generally accepted that the fight was merely for a return to the pre-1765 status quo.

Indeed, the majority still saw themselves as Englishmen and believed the struggle was against Parliament and not against the King. As a result a petition was sent to the King to ask him to intervene personally and to withdraw the "Intolerable Acts". The petitioners placed the blame solely on the shoulders of Parliament.

The King, however, chose to ignore the plea and forwarded the petition to Parliament which in turn answered with a vote to dispatch 25 000 soldiers to quash the rebellion. In December 1775 Parliament passed an Act which outlawed all trade with the American colonies and subjected the American ships and goods to confiscation.

The continued antagonistic attitude of Britain gradually gnawed at the colonists' loyalty. As a result, after January 1776 the image was portrayed of King George III as a tyrant and the revolt became a war against the King and not against Parliament.

This was also a subtle move to encourage support from Europe. There was already a strong democratic movement there, especially in France where it was widely believed that an elected parliament represented the "general will" of the people.

A war against such a parliament, therefore, would have been seen as wrong but a war against a tyrant-king was fully justified.

It further became clear that to stake everything on a war which merely aimed at regaining the status quo was impractical. During 1776, therefore, the tide of the revolution changed and the war became a War of Independence.

Moreover, the 2nd Continental Congress, which met in September 1775 by pre-arrangement, now became in effect an independent national government. The result was the Declaration of 4 July 1776 "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states."

At first the Minutemen outnumbered the imperial forces and, with their firing skill, won several victories but the British officers quickly became more wary and the imperial war machine, always slow to get rolling, gradually gained the upper hand.

The Americans also suffered from several disabilities, such as inadequately trained troops, lack of a standing army with volunteers willing to give brief service but not wishing to join a permanent army.

There was also a shortage of arms and ammunition, lack of a navy, poor leadership and a shortage of allies, with neither France nor Spain wishing to join a war against Britain when the Americans might at any moment declare a truce and leave a war in Europe.

The turning point came at the Battle of Saratoga when a British army under General Burgoyne marched south from Canada, was defeated and was captured. This made France realise that America could win the war, which would in turn weaken the British Empire.

Because the situation was still so much in the balance, however, it became important politically for France to enter the war to tip the scales. French troops were thereupon shipped to America where they learnt that a revolution against a tyrant-king could be successful.

See also:

Contact: The Project Coordinator