By Arthur Cecil Perry and Gertrude A. Price in 1914
“The people, I believe, are as truly loyal as any subjects the king has; but they are a people jealous of their liberties, who, if those liberties should ever be violated, will vindicate them to the last drop of their blood.”
— A member of the British House of Commons during a heated discussion concerning the British colonies in North America
For more than a century England had possessed thirteen colonies stretching along the coast between Canada and Florida. In 1763, by the treaty that followed the French and Indian War, her sway had been extended over the greater part of North America. Though England was immensely proud of the large territory her colonists had helped her to win from the French, she used strange means of showing her gratitude. Like the other leading nations of Europe, she believed that colonies were particularly useful for trading purposes. One reason why England maintained colonies was that she might sell goods to them at great profit.
The British Parliament made many laws that benefited the English merchants. For instance, if a prosperous Virginian wished to buy for his wife some shimmering silks from Paris, the law forbade him to send directly to France for them. He was allowed to purchase them only through English merchants, which added greatly to the cost. Again, although another country might be willing to pay him a better price for his tobacco and his rice, England was the only land to which he was allowed to send them. For these reasons, and many others, the colonists felt that they were being unfairly treated. Naturally, they began to do what they could to secure better conditions.
n fact, even as early as 1676 a spirit of rebellion had appeared in Virginia. When a number of colonists had been killed by the Indians. Governor William Berkeley was asked to take action, but he refused. It has been said that he was trading with these Indians and wished to keep on friendly terms with them. When they attacked the plantation of a young lawyer, Nathaniel Bacon, and killed his overseer, he asked the governor’s permission to punish the red men. The governor again refused.
Then Bacon, with a party of young men as bold and vigorous as himself, marched against the Indians and punished them so severely that they troubled the colonists no more. But, because Bacon and his men had acted without permission, the governor declared them outlaws.
Bacon, however, had the support of many of the people of the colony and the governor was afraid of his power. For some months the two men waged a contest for the control of the government. First one and then the other would gain possession of Jamestown. Finally, Bacon completely destroyed the village by fire, to make sure that it would not again shelter the governor. When rebuilding time came, a better site was chosen. The new capitol was known as Williamsburg. Bacon’s Rebellion was only one instance of trouble between the colonists and their governors. There were many other cases of dispute, which; however, did not lead to open revolt.
By the year 1750 England had passed many laws to encourage trade with her colonies. Some of the laws forbade them to trade with other countries or even, in some cases, with one another. Had all these laws been rigidly carried out, the great Revolution might have come before it did.
But, they were not so enforced. The colonists were able to evade them in many ways. For example, they smuggled goods into the country and out, in violation of the laws. The royal governors made the best of it and pretended not to see what was going on. At the same time, they did many things that displeased the liberty-loving colonists. Sent over by the king, the governors felt and acted as though they had his power. But, the colonists came to regard their Assemblies as having more authority than the governors. This, of course, angered the governors and the king.
While France was a power in America, England had seen that she must keep on good terms with her colonists, lest France step in and win them over to her side.
After that danger was past, the English government thought it was quite time to enforce the laws. It determined to stop the secret trading between the colonists and other countries. Customs officers were encouraged to search for smuggled goods.
This, they could do by using warrants known as “writs of assistance.” Such a writ gave the officers the right to enter, in their search, any store or private residence. They could break down doors and open trunks, on the mere suspicion that goods had been smuggled. The colonists were indignant. James Otis, of Massachusetts, argued eloquently against these writs of assistance, but the courts decided that such writs were lawful.
The French and Indian War had given the colonists new confidence in themselves. Fighting side by side, they had learned to respect one another. They had discovered that their men were good fighters and that they had able leaders, such as George Washington, John Stark, and Israel Putnam. They had lost both men and money in the war, but they gloried in the loss, because they were Englishmen fighting for England. At this time, the colonists were not anxious to be rid of their mother country. Far from this, they were true patriots asking but for the rights of Englishmen.
However, this would begin to change when England decided to keep a standing army in the colonies for their protection, and to force the colonists to bear a part of its cost. To help raise the needed money the Stamp Act was passed. This law compelled the people to buy stamps that had to be placed upon business contracts, legal papers, and newspapers. Some of the stamps cost but a penny or two; others, from twenty to fifty dollars.
The colonists were incensed, not so much because of the tax, but, because of the way in which it was levied, and because of its purpose. One of the rights an Englishman holds most precious is that of being represented in the lawmaking body that decides upon the taxes. It is true that the Americans had their own Assemblies, but they were not represented in Parliament, the English taxing body. And, it was Parliament that had levied the Stamp Tax and had made other unsatisfactory laws for the colonists. Moreover, the colonists did not believe that a standing army was needed in America in a time of peace.
People in Boston greeted the Stamp Act as they would have greeted some great sorrow. The church bells were tolled, the flags were put at half-staff, and a storm of protest broke forth.
In New York, copies were made of the law, but, in place of the king’s coat of arms, usually printed on all legal papers, a grinning skull appeared. The people then destroyed boxes of the hated stamps and stamped paper, and threatened the men who were appointed to collect the stamp tax. James Otis suggested that a Congress be called to take action. Nine of the colonies sent delegates to this Congress, which was held in New York and signed a petition that was sent to the king and to Parliament.