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Mounting antagonism: 1763-1773

If the results of the wars against France leave the British colonists in America with a new sense of confidence, they also make parliament in London increasingly aware both of the value of the American colonies and of the likely cost of defending them.

British America now consists of the thirteen colonies founded or developed by Britain between 1607 (Virginia) and 1732 (Georgia), together with four provinces won through warfare - Nova Scotia in 1713, and then Quebec and West and East Florida in 1763.

The British government feels that this important bloc of overseas territory now requires more coherent control and better defence - both to be supplied from London. But many in the original thirteen colonies are beginning to regard any such interference as an intrusion.

This difference in attitude leads inevitably to friction. London, sending over British troops (known from their uniform as redcoats), expects the colonists to contribute to the expense and to allow the soldiers to be quartered in American homes. The colonists see this as an unacceptable imposition, in both financial and personal terms.

Similar resentment results from British measures to control the judges and courts in America, to lessen the power of the elected assemblies in each colony, and to collect more effectively the customs due on trade between the American mainland and the West Indies.

But it is British taxes which provoke the most deeply felt grievances and the most effective American response. Between 1764 and 1767 London passes a series of taxes on goods imported into America: the Sugar Act of 1764 (covering wine and textiles as well as sugar), the Stamp Act of 1765 (a stamp duty on legal documents and newspapers), and the Townshend Acts of 1767 (taxes on glass, lead, paper, paint and tea). In retaliation the colonists organize very effective boycotts of British goods.

The boycotts affect British commercial interests in London, where several politicians (in particular William Pitt and Edmund Burke) are anyway inclined to find an accomodation with the colonists. The Stamp Act is repealed in 1766. Similarly the new import duties are lifted in 1770, with one exception - the duty on tea.

This exception is seen as London's emphasis on the right of parliament to tax the American colonies. Yet the colonists have no elected voice in the Westminster assembly. 'No taxation without representation' is a central theme in the colonial argument, and tea now becomes a symbolic substance at the heart of the conflict. A new Tea Act, in 1773, heightens the tension.

Boston Tea Party: 1773

Early in December 1773 three East India Company ships are in Boston harbour, waiting for their cargo of tea to be unloaded. No one will take it off the ship, because it will pay British duty as soon as it is transferred to American soil. However, if it is still in the harbour on December 17, the cargo can be legally seized by the British customs and sold.

At a mass meeting in Boston on the evening of December 16 the question is pointedly raised: 'Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?' Soon some Bostonians appear, roughly disguised as Indians. With the 'Indians' in the lead, the crowd marches to the harbour, boards the ships, and throws some 350 chests of tea into the water.

The night ends with a triumphal march through Boston to the accompaniment of fife and drum. The exciting news spreads rapidly through the colonies, but it takes more than a month for details to reach London of this direct act of defiance. The response of the prime minister, Lord North, is that the time for conciliation has passed. As an example to the other colonies, Boston must be brought to heel.

A succession of acts are passed in London during the summer of 1774. Known officially as the Coercive Acts (but in America as the Intolerable Acts), their purpose is to punish Boston - at the very least until compensation for the tea is paid to the East India Company.

The first of these parliamentary acts closes Boston's port. Subsequent ones place the city under the military command of General Thomas Gage and provide new arrangements for the quartering of troops. It is a policy which can only inflame the situation.

In colony after colony during 1774 provincial assemblies voice their support for Boston, bringing them into direct conflict with their own British governors - who in some cases use their powers to dissolve the assemblies. As a result a new idea gains rapid and excited support. Each colony is invited to send delegates to a congress in Philadelphia in September. Only Georgia hangs back from this next act of defiance.

First Continental Congress: 1774

Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies convene in Philadelphia. They are leaders of their own communities (George Washington is here for Virginia). Their voices will carry weight, and the message that they send to Britain is uncompromising.

They state that the recent measures passed into law at Westminster violate natural rights (a theme developed two years later in the Declaration of Independence) and that as such they are unconstitutional. They declare their united support for Massachusetts. In more practical terms they announce a joint boycott, from December, of all imported goods from Britain and the British West Indies. It is to be followed nine months later by a similar block on exports to those markets from America.

The delegates agree to reconvene in May 1775, but it is clear that the Congress has made war probable. This is welcome news to half the American colonists, who become known as the Patriots. Those who still hope to find an accomodation with Britain (perhaps 25% of the population) acquire the name of Loyalists.

The Patriots spend the winter in preparation, and events soon prove they are right to do so. An exasperated parliament in London decides that more forceful measures are needed. General Gage, commanding the redcoats in Boston, is sent an order to employ his troops more forcefully. He decides to make a surprise raid on the Patriots' stock of military supplies in Massachusetts.

Lexington and Concord: 1775

The target of General Gage's supposedly secret foray is a store of weapons held at Concord, twenty miles northwest of Boston. But the secret leaks out. When a force of 700 redcoats moves from the city, a horseman gallops from Boston to warn the local Patriots of their approach.

Popular tradition has long identified the horseman as the distinguished Huguenot silversmith Paul Revere. The tradition may well be correct. Revere, one of the 'Indians' taking part in the Tea Party of 1773, often rides with urgent messages from Boston's Committee of Public Safety.

On April 19 the redcoats reach Lexington, on the road to Concord. They find some seventy-five minutemen (the local name for volunteers ready to mobilize at a moment's notice) waiting to oppose their passage. It is not known who fires the first shot - later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson as 'the shot heard round the world'. But after a brief engagement eight minutemen are dead and ten wounded.

The British contingent marches on to Concord, only to find that all the weapons have been removed. Meanwhile the Massachusetts militia has assembled in force. The redcoats suffer heavily from snipers on the journey back to Boston. The American Revolution, also known as the War of American Independence, has begun.

The loss of the American colonies: 1775-1783

From General Gage's unsuccessful expedition against the patriots at Concord to the final surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the war between Britain and her American colonies drags on for six painful years. For much of the time there is no clear advantage in terms of battle honours.

It is probable that Britain could never prevail against the determined colonists, with their sights firmly set on independence, in a war 3000 miles away across the ocean. But the likely outcome is decisively tilted against Britain after 1778 when France, eager to avenge her losses of 1763, enters the fray in support of the rebels.

Britain ends the war humiliated (a new experience for a generation remembering the triumphs of 1759) and with the exchequer severely depleted. But soon after this disaster national self-esteem recovers, surprisingly rapidly, under one of the country's most exceptional prime ministers. British troops linger on in parts of America until 1783, withdrawing from New York only in November of that year. In the very next month the king, George III, appoints a 24-year-old as his chief minister.

In March 1784 the young man wins a good majority in a general election and is able to form a stable government. He is William Pitt, second son of Pitt the Elder. He comes to power in a Britain beginning to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution.

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