by Charles Morris, 1899
England was never guilty of greater folly than in the treatment of her American colonies after the close of the French and Indian War. She was oppressed by burdensome taxation and began seeking an excuse for shifting a large portion of it upon the shoulders of her prosperous subjects across the sea, who had always been ready to vote money and give their sons to help in the wars which were almost solely for the benefit of the mother country. It has been shown that the intercolonial conflicts were of no advantage to the colonies, which were dragged into them and suffered greatly from. Since the surrounding territory would soon be necessary for the expansion of the Americans, they had much to gain by the defeat of the French and their expulsion from America; but they had done their full share, and it was unjust to demand further sacrifices from them.
The Stamp Act
Hardly had peace been declared when, in 1764, the British government asserted that it had the right to tax her colonies. The latter paid little attention to the declaration but were rudely awakened in 1765 by the passage of the Stamp Act, which was to go into effect in November of that year. It decreed that thenceforward no newspapers or pamphlets could be printed, no marriage-certificate given, and no documents used in lawsuits, unless stamps were attached, and these could be bought only from British agents.
It was ordered further that the oppressive Navigation Acts, which had been evaded for a hundred years, should be rigidly enforced, while soldiers were to be sent to America to see that the orders were carried out. Since these troops were to be paid from the money received for the stamps, it will be seen that the Americans would be obliged to bear the expense of the soldiers quartered upon them.
The issues were not so much the taxes but “taxation without representation,” as the colonies never had a representative in the British Parliament. The news of the action of the British government threw the colonies into an angry mood, and they vehemently declared their intention to resist the Stamp Act. They did not content themselves with words but mobbed the stamp agents, compelled others to resign, and, when the date arrived for the act to go into effect, they refused to buy a single obnoxious stamp.
The Stamp Act Congress, as it was called, met in New York City, October 7, 1765. There were representatives from all the colonies except four, but they supported the others. Lacking the authority to make any laws, it issued a bold declaration of rights and sent petitions to the king and Parliament, setting forth the American grievances. The sturdy resistance of the colonies alarmed England. They had many friends in Parliament, including the illustrious William Pitt, and, at the beginning of 1766, the act was repealed. The Americans were so delighted that they almost forgot that England, in repealing the act, still asserted her right to tax them.
Several years now followed in which the colonies quietly resisted the efforts of England to tax them. This was done by a general agreement not to buy any of the articles upon which taxes were laid. The men who did this and opposed the mother country were known as Whigs, while those who stood by England were called Tories.
Defiant Acts by the Americans
But violence was sure to follow where the indignation was so intense and widespread. There were continual broils between the British soldiers and citizens, the most serious of which occurred in Boston on March 5, 1770, when the soldiers fired upon the citizens who had attacked them, killed three, and wounded several more. This incident, known in history as the “Boston Massacre,” added to the mutual anger. In North Carolina, William Tryon, the Tory Governor, had a battle with the patriots at Alamance in 1771, killed a large number, and treated others so brutally that many fled across the mountains and helped to settle Tennessee. In 1772, a British vessel, the Gaspe, which was active in collecting duties from Providence, was captured and burned by a number of Rhode Island people. England offered a reward for the capture of the “rebels,” but, though they were well known, no one would have dared, if so disposed, to arrest them.
The Boston Tea Party
The British Parliament was impatient with the colonies and threatened all sorts of retaliatory measures. In 1770, Parliament took the tax off’ of all articles except tea, upon which it was made so light that the luxury was cheaper in America with the tax than in England without it. The Americans, however, were contending for a principle and contemptuously rejected the offer. When the tea ships reached Charleston, the cargoes were stored in damp cellars, where they soon molded and spoiled. At New York, Philadelphia, and other points, they would not allow the ships to land their cargoes, and they sailed back to England. A similar reception having been given the vessels in Boston, the British officers refused to leave the harbor. Late at night on December 16, 1773, a party of citizens, painted and disguised as Indians, boarded the ships and emptied 342 chests — all on board — into the harbor.
The “Boston Tea Party” thrilled the colonies and exhausted the patience of England, who felt that the time for stern measures had come. Her dallying course had only encouraged the rebels, and as in the story, having tried in vain the throwing of grass, she now determined to see what virtue there was in using stones.
The measures which she passed and which were unbearable were: 1. The Breton Port Bill, which forbade all vessels to leave or enter Boston harbor. This was a death-blow to Boston commerce and was meant as a punishment for those who were leaders in the revolt against the mother country. 2. The Massachusetts Bill, which was another destructive blow at the colony since it changed its chattel by taking away the right of self-government and placing it in the hands of the agents of the king. 3. The Transportation Bill, which ordered that all soldiers charged with the crime of murder should be taken to England for trial. 4. The Quebec Act, which made the country east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River a part of Canada. These acts were to be enforced by the sending of troops to America.
The First Continental Congress
The result of the passage of these harsh measures was to unite all the colonies in a determination to resist them to the last. The necessity for consultation among the leaders was so apparent that, in response to a general call, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, with all the colonies being represented except Georgia, which favored the action. This Congress adopted a declaration of rights, asserting that they alone were empowered to tax themselves, and it named a number of acts of Parliament that were a direct invasion of such rights. An address was sent to the king and to the people of Great Britain, but none to Parliament, which had deeply offended the Americans. The agreement known as the Articles of Association pledged our ancestors not to buy goods or sell them to Great Britain until the obnoxious acts were repealed by Parliament. It declared further that, if force was used against Massachusetts by England, all the other colonies would help her in resisting it. Before adjournment, a new Congress was called to meet in the following May.
The language of the First Continental Congress sounds bold, but the people themselves were bolder. Companies of armed men began drilling everywhere, and the Americans were eager for a conflict with the detested “red coats.” The excitement was more intense in Massachusetts than anywhere else, and it was plain that the opening gun of the impending Revolution would be fired upon her soil. The affairs of the colony were directed by a provincial congress, which collected a quantity of guns and ammunition and ordered the enrollment of 20,000 “minute men,” who were to hold themselves ready to answer any call at a minute’s notice.
General Thomas Gage was the British commander in Boston, and he was so alarmed by the aggressive acts of the Americans that he began to throw up fortifications on the neck of land connecting the town with the mainland. His alert spies notified him that the Americans had collected a quantity of military supplies, which were stored at Concord, some 20 miles from Boston. Gage ordered 800 troops to march secretly to Concord and destroy them.
Guarded as were the movements of the British, the Americans were equally watchful and discovered them. Paul Revere dashed out of the tow50 minutemen gathered on the village green. Major Pitcairn ordered them to disperse, and when they refused to do so, a volley was fired. Eight Americans were killed and a large number wounded, the others fleeing before the overwhelming force. Thus was the shot fired that “was heard around the world.”
The British advanced to Concord and destroyed the stores there, and then began their return to Boston. All the church bells were ringing, and the minutemen were swarming around the troops from every direction. They kept up a continuous fire upon the soldiers from behind barns, houses, hedges, fences, bushes, and from the open fields. The soldiers broke into a run, but everyone would have been shot down had not Gage sent reinforcements, which protected the exhausted fugitives until they reached a point where they were under the guns of the men-of-war. In this first real conflict of the war, the Americans lost 88, and the British 273 in killed, wounded and missing. General Gage was now besieged in Boston by the ardent minutemen, who in the flush of their patriotism were eager for the regulars to come out and give them a chance for a battle. Men mounted on swift horses rode at headlong speed through the colonies, spreading the stirring news, and hundreds of patriots hurried to Boston that they might take part in the war for their rights. Elsewhere, the fullest preparations were made for the struggle for independence, which all felt had opened.
As agreed upon, the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. It included some of the ablest men in America, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and Peyton Randolph, of Virginia; Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris, of Pennsylvania; John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, of Massachusetts; John Jay, of New York; and Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut. The former Congress had talked; the present acted. By general consent, it was accepted as the governing body of the colonies. The forces around Boston were declared to be a Continental Army, money was voted to support it, and Washington was appointed its commander.
Meanwhile, British reinforcements under William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne arrived in Boston, swelling Gage’s army to 10,000 men. They occupied the town, on the peninsula which covers the middle of the harbor, while around them on the hills of the mainland was a larger force of Americans, without uniforms, poorly clothed, badly armed and undisciplined, but overflowing with patriotism.
A little to the north of Boston, a second peninsula extended into the harbor. It has several elevations, one of which, Bunker Hill, the patriots determined to seize and fortify. Colonel William Prescott with a thousand men set out one dark night to perform the task, but, believing Breed’s Hill more desirable, since it was nearer Boston, he set his men to work upon that. (The name “Bunker” is more euphonious than “Breed’s,” and the latter is now generally known by the former name. Upon it has been built the Bunker Hill Monument.
Although close to the British sentinels, the Americans toiled through the night without discovery. When the sun rose on June 17, 1775, the enemy in Boston was astonished to see a line of entrenchments extending across the hill above them, with the Americans still working like beavers. They continued without interruption until noon when the British were seen coming across the harbor in boats. They were the regulars, finely disciplined and numbered nearly 3,000, who, landing near Charlestown, formed in fine order and advanced with precision against the 1,500 patriots, eagerly waiting for them behind their entrenchments.
It was about the middle of the afternoon that the British columns marched to the attack, covered by a heavy fire of cannon and howitzers, Howe himself commanding the right wing. the steeples and roofs of Boston swarmed with people, breathlessly watching the thrilling sight. Charles town had been fired, and four hundred of its houses laid in ashes.
The Americans behind their breastworks were impatient to open fire, but Prescott restrained them until they could “see the whites of the eyes” of their enemies. Then in a loud, clear voice, he shouted “Fire!” There was an out flame of musketry along the front of the entrenchments, and scores of troops in the first rank fell. The others hesitated a moment and then turned and fled down the slope. There, their officers formed them into line, and once more, they advanced up the slope. The delay gave the Americans time to reload, and they received the troops with the same withering fire as before, sending them scurrying to the bottom of the hill, where, with great difficulty, the daring officers formed them into line for a third advance. The British cannon had been brought to bear, and the ships and batteries maintained a furious cannonade. The patriots were compelled to withdraw from the breastwork outside the fort, and the redoubt was attacked at the same moment from three sides. The spectators were confident of seeing the invaders hurled back again but saw to their dismay a slackening of the fire of the Americans, while the troops, rushing over the entrenchments, fought with clubbed muskets.
At the very moment victory was within the grasp of the patriots, their recklessly fired ammunition gave out, and they began sullenly retreating, fighting with clubbed weapons. As it was, their retreat would have been cut off, had not a company of provincials checked the British until the main body of Americans had fallen back. The battle of Bunker Hill was over and ended with the defeat of the patriots, who had lost 150 killed, 270 wounded, and 30 taken prisoners. General Gage gave his loss as 224 killed and 830 wounded. Among the killed was Major John Pitcairn, the leader of the English troops who fired upon the minutemen at Lexington. The American Colonel Prescott had his clothing torn to shreds by bayonet thrusts but was not hurt. A British officer, recognizing the brilliant Warren, snatched a musket from the hands of a soldier and shot him dead.