During the years after the end of the French and Indian War there is mounting tension between Britain and her American colonies. The contentious issues are British taxes and the presence of British troops on American soil. Unrest centres particularly on the most radical of the colonial cities, Boston.
In 1770 there is an incident in Boston of a kind familiar in northern Ireland two centuries later. An unruly crowd throws stones at the much resented troops. The soldiers open fire, killing five. The event becomes famous in folk history as the Boston Massacre. Even more famous, three years later, is Boston’s response to cargoes of tea which are subject to the most resented of British taxes.
Boston Tea Party: AD 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: AD 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 forecful 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: AD 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.
Second Continental Congress: AD 1775
When the delegates of the continental congress reconvene as planned, in May 1775, hostilities have already broken out in the skirmish at Lexington. These are followed by a great mustering of militiamen of Massachusetts, soon joined by supporters from neighbouring colonies.
This American volunteer army is laying siege to British-held Boston when the delegates assemble in Philadelphia. These events transform their congress into a de facto government of the united colonies, with responsibility for conducting the military campaign. Their first duty is to select a commander-in-chief of the colonial army, to take charge of the campaign at Boston.
On June 15, after much preliminary negotiation, the choice falls on George Washington. He has his own past military successes to recommend him, but his selection also fulfils a political necessity in that he comes from the south. The present quarrel involves the most populous and prosperous northern colony, Massachusetts. Virginia has the same status among the southern colonies.
If north and south are to cooperate in a shared cause, it is appropriate that a southern general commands the northern militia (formally adopted by the congress on May 31 as the Continental Army). Within a few days of his appointment, Washington travels north to take up his post.
Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights: AD 1775-1776
Two weeks before Washington reaches Boston, an important engagement has taken place on Bunker Hill (or more accurately Breed’s Hill) – a height overlooking the city from the north. Colonial troops occupy and fortify this vantage point, constituting a threat to the British in the city.
On June 17 the British storm the hill. They eventually succeed in taking it, but only after a battle so hard fought (some 1000 British casualties to only about 450 American) that it seems a victory for the amateur colonial militia rather than the British regulars. Certainly Washington is impressed by the spirit of the men he has come to command.
Washington spends the rest of 1775 training his troops, who number some 20,000. He also arranges for the transport, over difficult roads, of cannon captured by the colonists when they seize Fort Ticonderoga in a surprise attack in May 1775. On the first day of 1776 Washington flies for the first time a new colonial flag. With thirteen alternating red and white stripes, one for each of the colonies, the design evolves a year later into the Stars and Stripes.
To the south of Boston, overlooking the harbour, there is a promontory – Dorchester Heights – which has been inexplicably left undefended by the British. During the night of 4 March 1776 Washington moves his Ticonderoga cannon up the slopes of this hill.
From his commanding position Washington can now make the harbour unsafe for British naval vessels. The move proves decisive. On March 17 the British in Boston (by now under the command of William Howe) evacuate the city and sail to safety in Nova Scotia. They leave in the city two hundred cannon and large numbers of muskets with their ammunition – valuable additions to the American arsenal.
Washington, anticipating that New York is the next likely target for a British assault, marches to its defence. After settling his army in Manhattan and on Brooklyn Heights, he continues south to spend two weeks at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The subject under discussion is a contentious one – independence.
Steps to independence: AD 1775-1776
During the eleven-month siege of Boston there have been significant political developments on the wider stage. Hopes that parliament in Britain might adopt a more conciliatory tone are dashed by the declaration in August 1775 that the American colonies are in a state of rebellion. This is followed by a Prohibitory Act in November instituting a naval blockade of the American coastline.
Meanwhile the congress in Philadelphia is still in session. It is carrying out the practical activities associated with government – organizing public finances, issuing money, running a postal service, placing orders for munitions, even commissioning the first colonial navy.
Increasingly, during these months, colonists are coming to the view that a complete break from Britain may be the only way forward. In May 1776 the revolutionary convention of Virginia votes for independence and instructs the Virginia delegation to present this motion to the Continental Congress. Early in June, in Philadelphia, a small committee is set up to draft a declaration of independence. Its five members include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The task of composing the document is left to Jefferson. It is passed on June 12 as the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
This powerful move towards independence comes to a head in early July. In the month between July 2 and August 2 the final break is proposed, proclaimed and eventually signed as the Declaration of Independence.