Chapter 6: The Limits of Imperial Control 1763-1775


The Pacific Coast: Spanish North America, Russians in Alaska, French & English Explorers

With France out of the way, Spain regained nominal control of the American interior from the Mississippi to the Pacific where they established missions along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. In reality, Native American nations, one million people strong, still controlled the interior lands. Russian trade expeditions challenged Spain’s control of the Pacific coast as well. Russia laid claim to Alaska and developed forts and a fur industry at the expense of the Aleutian Islanders and other native peoples who were forcibly pressed into service as trappers when Russians kidnapped their wives and children (a practice Russian trappers had used in Siberia). Seeking another Pacific landmass to conquer, the French “discovered” Pacific islands like Tahiti and Samoa at this time, while the famous British explorer Captain Cook came upon Hawaii (his ultimate destination).


The Atlantic Coast: Native Americans continue to resist British Colonists, British North Americans begin to resist England,

Pontiac’s Rebellion 1763-1766

After the Seven Years War, the British laid claim to land once claimed by the French - land that was populated by Native Americans. This change greatly concerned Native Americans. British traders lacked the reputation for fairness in dealing with the Indians that had been the hallmark of the French. The locals had become dependent on European firearms, ammunition and other manufactured goods, and were now forced to deal with untrustworthy English partners. British arrogance was well-known among the Indians. The French in many instances had married native women and been adopted by the tribes. Few British followed that example and many expressed utter contempt for the natives' lifeways and worth as human beings. Tensions were further heightened when, in early 1763, the new North American governor-general, Sir Jeffrey Amherst (who had ensured British victory in the Severn Years War with the defeat of the French in Montreal) announced that he would discontinue the practice of presenting annual gifts to the tribes, an event long honored by the French. The Indians were insulted by this snub, but also were angry to be denied the expected tools, blankets, guns and liquor. General Amherst, who did not hide his contempt for Native American peoples, turned his attention to destroying Cherokees in the South and then attacked the Indians north of the Ohio River.

The Delaware Indian holy man and prophet, Neolin, who had long preached for the return to traditional ways and the rejection of the British, inspired a powerful Ottawa warrior in the Ohio valley named Pontiac (who had supported the French in the French and Indian War). Pontiac, a skilled orator and respected leader, ultimately forged a large coalition of about 20 Native American nations with the aim of driving the British out of their lands for good. The coalition attacked Britain’s Fort Detroit (the site of modern Detroit) and Fort Pitt, and, ultimately, took almost every British fort in the Ohio valley and around the Great Lakes. The Indian coalition continued east into Pennsylvania and Virginia. The British General Amherst (for whom Amherst, Massachusetts is named) ordered a war of extermination on the Native Americans that included giving them blankets infected with smallpox. Despite early Native American successes, the lack of replacement weapons and gunpowder once supplied by the French resulted in defeat.

In reaction to Pontiac's Rebellion, British policymakers issue the Proclamation of 1763, a measure designed to shut down white settlement of the West to avoid future warfare with Native Americans. The Proclamation prohibited settlers from moving west of the Appalachian divide. American reaction to this measure was very negative – especially for members of the colonial gentry like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were investors in companies that sought profits in western land speculation (based on buying land cheaply from Native Americans to sell to white settlers at great profit).


American Discontent

The Proclamation of 1763 was only one of several British measures that irritated colonists during this period. Numerous Acts (Sugar, Currency, Stamp) increasing taxation (and apparently decreasing local authority) were issued in an attempt to reverse the extensive debts incurred in Seven Years War. Prior to the war, American colonials had often managed to evade the taxation called for by earlier British policy. Resistance to the Stamp Act, famously orated by a young Patrick Henry and observed by an even younger Thomas Jefferson (who was a student at the College of William and Mary at the time), galvanized organized as well as not-so-organized (in fact rather violent and out of control) resistance among colonials – across class, gender, and racial lines. “Prominent” citizens organized groups like the Sons of Liberty whose speeches galvanized the masses of ordinary folks. At times this resistance seemed on the brink of full-scale rebellion of the lower orders, including women and African-Americans. In Boston a mob attached and pillaged the homes of wealthy office holders. In South Carolina, when white workers harassing wealthy plantation owners were joined by African American slaves in protest, the elite became very alarmed by the call for liberty from South Carolina’s black majority. Africans were temporarily banned from entering the colony, and local leaders expanded slave patrol and briefly placed Charleston under martial law.

In an effort to placate and relate to the reactions of the masses of ordinary folks, conservative American elites loyal to the crown began to openly challenge the British parliament. The repeal of the Stamp Act was a cause for celebration in the colonies. But the simultaneous issue of the Declaratory Act stating parliament’s power “to make laws…to bind the colonists and people of America …in all cases whatsoever”undermined the victory of the repeal of the Stamp Act. The problems surrounding taxation and representation had clearly not been solved and a flurry of pamphlets circulated in the colonies revealed and helped to organized the discontent expressed during the Stamp Act crisis. “For the first time, colonists from separate regions and different countries of origin began to identify themselves as Americans, gradually adopting a term that had previously applied only to Indians” (Jones p. 199).


Sons of Liberty: Patriot Terrorists

With the passage in 1765 of the Stamp Act and Navigation Acts, which taxed manufactured goods entering the American colonies, the popularity of Whig ideology (the ideas of the sanctity of private property and government by representatives of the people) in the colonies led to impassioned written attacks on the taxes. Letters began to circulate from committees of correspondence urging boycotts of British goods and other forms of resistance, and from the ranks of the committees, wealthy merchants John Hancock and Samuel Adams formed the sons of liberty in Boston in 1765. Adams managed to win the allegiance of two Boston gangs who carried out violent terrorism for the organization. The name came from a speech on the Stamp Act by Member of Parliament Isaac Barré, in which he referred to the colonists as "sons of liberty." The sons of liberty engaged in direct action against British rule, more or less covertly. Membership was native-born American white men of the gentry and "middling sort," most of them in the Northern colonies.

The sons of liberty are surrounded to the present day by enormous quantities of folklore and antiquarian fiction. Nevertheless, despite the claims of genealogists and moviemakers, it is clear that the sons were a secret organization meeting at night, likely in the Green Dragon Tavern or some other safe place rather than, as legend has it, beneath the "liberty tree." They were violent and destructive: the New York chapter, led by Alexander McDougall and John Lamb, destroyed the carriage of acting governor Cadwallader Colden in 1765 and later on January 9, 1766, stole and burned 10 boxes of parchment and stamped paper to protest the Stamp Act. That most of this terrorism went to benefit not the gang members who acted but the merchants and landowners who avoided taxes is an irony lost in most accounts of the sons.

The sons of liberty formally disbanded in 1766 after the Stamp Act was repealed. They then reorganized in 1768 to battle the hated Townshend Acts, duties on such manufactured goods as paper, glass, and paint. Lord Frederick North, who became prime minister of Great Britain in 1770, agreed to repeal the Townshend Acts but kept a reduced tax on tea. This led to a series of actions against tea drinking in America.

In 1773, the sons of liberty organized the Boston Tea Party, in which they blackened their faces and seized a British ship, dumping its load of 342 chests of green tea into the Boston harbor. Samples of the tea, recovered from the beaches, remain to this day in museum collections. Although Americans did not cease drinking tea, this vandalism remains the best-known action of the sons of liberty. Throughout the revolutionary period, the sons of liberty continued to fight, eventually disbanding in 1783 with the end of the war. In later years, the original sons and their descendents became national heroes.

At present, the sons of liberty are seen as patriots and liberators rather than as the terrorists and stooges for the merchant elite of Boston that they may have seemed at the time. A right-wing group calling itself by the same name is today active in the anti-government, pro-gun, and privacy rights movements.



The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre was a milestone on America’s road to independence and one of the most dramatic events leading up to the American Revolution. In Boston on the night of March 2, 1770, five civilians were shot to death by British soldiers. The massacre took place in the context of continuing agitation over British taxes (the Townshend Acts) and the resulting colonial boycott of British goods. The presence of British troops in itself had long been a sore point for many Bostonians.

The episode began when a group of men and boys were taunting a British guard in front of the custom’s house - a common practice in the days leading up to the massacre. A boy hurling insults at the guard was hit in the ear with a rifle butt. His scream drew a crowd and then the sound of church bells – the town’s fire alarm, in this case false – drew an even larger crowd. When eight British soldiers, led by Captain Presoctt, came to the aid of the British sentry the crowd harassed the British soldiers by insulting them, throwing chunks of ice and other objects, and daring them to fire. The colonists falsely believed that the soldiers had no such authority. One of the soldiers was knocked to the ground, and then the others fired into the crowd. Four men were killed instantly and another was fatally wounded.

Among these men was Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution. Attucks had escaped slavery and become a sailor. The evening of March 2 he led several dozen sailors waving banners and brandishing clubs to front of the melee with the soldiers. John Adams would later declate "Attucks appears to be the hero of this night."

Did the soldiers fire with provocation?
Did they fire on their own?
Was the Captain (Prescott) guilty of ordering his men to fire into a crowd of civilians?
Was he innocent and being used by men like Samuel Adams to build anti-British sentiment?

The British soldiers went to trial represented by John Adams who was strongly opposed to the British military presence in Boston but believed that the soldiers were entitled to counsel. Although he put his own public standing on the line, his own ties to the Sons of Liberty and other patriots through his cousin Samuel Adams probably gave him greater freedom to represent the soldiers than if he had been regarded as a Tory sympathizer. Adams was elected as Boston's representative to the state legislature even after he accepted the case and during the time when his cousin Samuel Adams was using the massacre for continuing agitation of the patriot cause.

A total of three trials were held—one for Captain Thomas Preston, who, although unarmed, had been in charge of the soldiers and was alleged by some to have given an order to shoot; another for the eight soldiers who had fired; and yet a third for Tory sympathizers alleged to have fired at the crowd from the windows of the Customs House. Preston was acquitted.

In the trial of the other eight soldiers, Adams selected a jury of men from outside the city of Boston because tensions in the city were running so high. Adams argued that it was better for a guilty man to go free than for an innocent one to be punished, and he argued that the soldiers were justified in trying to save their own lives in the face of multiple assaults from a mob. At the same time, he avoided testimony that would have identified individual mob ringleaders, including Samuel Adams. Six of the soldiers received a not-guilty verdict and two were convicted of manslaughter. After Adams requested that they receive a reduced sentence, they were branded on their thumbs and released.

The trial of the Tories followed a week later but was quickly over, as the witnesses were discredited, and the jury gave an acquittal without even adjourning for conference.

Adams' defense of the British during the Boston Massacre trials was a testament to his sense of fairness, and their acquittal was an indication that, even as revolutionary passions grew, appeals could still be made through basic principles for legal fairness. Adams was as aware as any of the patriots that vindicating the rights of British soldiers was one way to vindicate the rights of all, and his defense appears to have tempered the further use of violence by the Sons of Liberty.

The Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was the most dramatic (and most illegal) act in a series of actions organized by the Sons of Liberty throughout the North American colonies to protest the British Tea Act of 1773.

In the Tea Act, Parliament had assigned a special monopoly trading status to the British East India Company in an attempt to bolster the company's failing finances. The British government wished to continue to benefit from the company's position in India and thus adjusted import duties to make it possible for the company to undersell anyone in the colonies.

The patriots interpreted those actions as infringing on their right to legislate and tax themselves. They immediately began to put pressure on the local merchants who would sell the tea on consignment. Though merchants in New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston refused to accept the tea shipments, those in Boston would not concede.

On the evening of December 16, 1773, 150 patriots, who had disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded three British ships anchored in the harbor of Boston, Massachusetts and threw 342 chests of tea belonging to the East India Company into the water. It took three hours to dump the 90,000 pounds of tea worth £10,000.

To Parliament, this event confirmed the suspicion that Boston was the hub of resistance to legitimate rule, and the Coercive Acts of 1774 were designed to punish that city in particular (one of the acts closed Boston ports until the colony reimbursed the East India Company for the looted tea, another required people to house British soldiers, another protected colonial leaders from being charged with murder if they used any means necessary to suppress rebellion, another prevented town meetings). Such swift reprisals from the British government also signaled to the rest of the American colonies that a new, more radical phase of anti-British protests had begun. The Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts) were intended to punish Massachusettes for its unruliness and help the British regain control of the colony; however, they ultimately helped the British lose control of the colonies-- the Intolerable Acts prompted patriot colonists to call the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1774.