Causes of the American Revolution

Patrick Henry "Give me liberty or give me death!"

The colonists believed that Britain was the best government on earth. British liberties promised the due process of common law, trial by jury, and freedom of the press. Most importantly, colonists valued the right to pay no tax unless taxes were collected by elected representatives from the colonies.

Britain, however, did not treat the colonists the same as other British citizens. The colonists tried to express their frustrations with being treated differently. They wanted respected from the British government or at least, representation in Parliament.

Parliament decided that the colonists should do more to help Britain's empire. In 1764, the new prime minister, George Grenville, proposed raising money by collecting taxes already in effect. He did this with the Sugar Act.

George Grenville resigned as prime minister in 1765. He was replaced by Marques of Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth.

The Sugar Act of 1764 actually lowered the tax on molasses, and also assigned customs officers and created courts to collect taxes and arrest smugglers.

The Quartering Act of 1765 required colonies to provide housing and supplies for the British troops stationed in the colonies after the French and Indian War.

The Stamp Act, of March 1765, required colonists to pay a tax on almost all printed materials, including newspapers, books, court documents, contracts and land ownership documents.

The Stamp Act was the final straw. Colonists rebelled against the tax with a boycott on British imports. The colonist's boycott aimed to deprive the British of the colonial income that they desperately needed. The boycott worked. The British repealed the Stamp Act in 1766.

Death of the Stamp Act: This cartoon was created by the British artist Benjamin Wilson. He was hired by prime minister Wentworth to poke fun at Parliament. Wentworth wanted a print that would smooth over the failed Stamp Act. The print shows members of the British government mourning their failed Stamp Act. George Grenville carries a coffin to a tomb containing the remains of other unpopular acts. The Stamp Act survived only four months in the colonies before it was repealed by Parliament. In the background, warehouses are empty because the contents have quickly been shipped to America.

Tax resistance among the colonists took three forms: intellectual protest, economic boycotts, and violent intimidation.

Patrick Henry, a young Virginia representative, used Enlightenment ideas to draft a radical document known as the Virginia Resolves. He argued that only the colonial assemblies had the right to tax the colonists.

The Enlightenment writers, like John Locke of England, argued that people were born with the natural rights including life, liberty and property. A good government would protect these individual rights. Government existed for the good of the people.

"our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our legislatures have resolved, our towns have voted." - John Adams, Massachusetts lawyer

In this painting, Bostonians pour hot tea down the throat of a tax collector who has been tarred and feathered. How do you think this type of artwork affected colonists still loyal to the British Crown?

In the months following the passage of the Stamp Act colonists began to work together to fight it, which created a new, but still fragile sense of American unity. Those who opposed the British taxes called themselves "Patriots." In the seaport streets, people showed a powerful new interest in politics. Men formed the Sons of Liberty to lead the popular protests against the British government. Their most famous leader was Boston's Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams.

As protests continued, angry crowds assaulted colonists who supported or helped to collect the taxes. The crowds were especially violent in Boston.

In August 1765, a mob led by the Sons of Liberty tore down the office and damaged the house of the stamp tax collector.

The Massachusetts lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, tried to stop this riot. He insisted that the colonists had a legal duty to pay Parliament's taxes. Another mob destroyed Hutchinson's house. Thereafter, no one in Boston dared to voice support for the stamp tax.

To control and coordinate their protest activities, nine colonies sent delegates to a Stamp Act Congress held in New York City, in October 1765. Members encouraged a consumer boycott of goods imported from Britain.

Women played an important economic role in the boycotts. When colonists stopped buying British goods, they needed "homespun" cloth to substitute for British manufactured cloth. Gatherings of women to spin thread and weave cloth drew applause from spectators and from the Patriot newspapers. Women also gave up certain comforts when they pledged not to buy any manufactured British goods. Known as "Daughters of Liberty," these women won respect for their efforts in the political struggle.

The combination of tactics worked. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766.

New taxes, called the Townshend Acts lead to new protests. The Townshend Acts taxed everyday items such as glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. In response to the Townshend Acts, the colonists revived their protests, boycotts, and street violence.

Customs officers seized the merchant ship Liberty in June 1768, for smuggling, a violation of the Sugar Act. The ship belonged to John Hancock, a wealthy merchant and an important colonial politician. (Also a well known smuggler to the colonists.)The seizure set off riots against the British customs officers. The King sent 4,000 troops to occupy Boston, a city of only 16,000 people. For over a year, the presence of British troops inflamed popular anger, especially because the poorly paid soldiers competed with unskilled workers for jobs.

John Hancock

John Hancock was put on trial, and was certainly guilty of the smuggling charges, but his lawyer, John Adams, was able to get Hancock off on all charges.

The Boston Massacre: Paul Revere helped to demonize the British by engraving this picture of the Boston Massacre. How can you tell that Revere intended this engraving to be used as propaganda?
Engraving of the Boston Massacre, by Paul Revere

One night in March 1770, a group of colonists hurled snowballs and rocks at British soldiers guarding the Customs House. The nervous soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five colonists. The dead included Crisps Attucks, a sailor who may have been an escaped slave of mixed Indian and African decent. Under the leadership of Samuel Adams, Patriots called the killings the Boston Massacre.

The Boston Tea Party

The tea boycott worsened financial problems for the British East India Company. To help the company and encourage the colonists to pay the tax, Parliament passed a law allowing the company to sell directly to the colonists. This made their tea cheaper than the smuggled tea, even with the tax.

Instead of buying the cheaper tea, the colonists protested that the British were trying to trick them into paying the tax. If the East India Company sold tea directly, it would also hurt the wealthy colonists who smuggled tea. On the night of December 16, 1773, Boston Patriots took matters into their own hands. Dressed as Indians, they boarded three British ships laden with tea and dumped the tea into the harbor. The event became known as the Boston Tea Party.

Parliament was outraged by the actions of the New England colonists. To punish Boston, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts.They closed the port to trade until the Bostonians paid for the destroyed tea, including the tax.

To punish Boston, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts.

To enforce these new rules, the British sent warships and troops to Boston.

The Coercive Acts aka the Intolerable Acts in the colonies, closed the port of Boston, forced colonists to house British troops and allowed British officials to be tried in Britain for crimes committed in the colonies. In addition, the Quebec Act extended Canada's southern boarder, cutting off land claimed by several colonies.

The First Continental congress met in the fall of 1774, in response to the Intolerable Acts. Delegates from every colony except Georgia met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where they outlined a plan to pressure Parliament to end these acts.

Virginia's delegates included the fiery Patrick Henry who became famous for declaring, "Give me liberty, or give me death."

At the First Continental Congress, Patrick Henry also rallied the New England delegates by declaring "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."

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