The 18th century saw a change in the way people viewed themselves and their country. By the mid-nineteenth century, Americans had developed an increasingly democratic system of government, whereas England’s monarchy remained firmly entrenched. British authorities believed that Parliamentary Sovereignty allowed Parliament alone to tax and govern within England and its colonies. American colonists felt they possessed a certain amount of sovereignty to check the power of appointed governors.
The colonists viewed only these elected bodies as having the ability to tax. Colonial charters were ambiguous regarding Parliament’s authority to rule and tax in America. When it tried to impose order following the French and Indian War, a clash of concepts ensued. The colonists fought back against Parliament’s efforts to take power for years, but it wasn’t until the Boston Tea Party that Parliament took a hard line in order to force compliance.
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Why did the British government take so long to act? What could the colonists anticipate after the Intolerable Acts passed? What alternatives were left for Boston and the other colonies after the Intolerable Acts were implemented? Could England attempt to persuade or cajole them into giving in if they rebuffed English demands? The Intolerable acts, although not causing war to be unavoidable, certainly raised tensions.
The American colonists fought and rebelled against the British government’s attempts to dominate and control them for years, at which time the government responded with mild or conciliatory measures until the Boston Tea Party in 1773. With the Revenue and Currency Acts of 1764, Parliament first taxed the colonies and interfered with their internal affairs. The Stamp Act was implemented a year later to impose additional taxes on Americans.
The colonists’ reaction was diverse, ranging from negotiation, such as the request for a Stamp Act Congress issued by Massachusetts, to outright violence with effigies hanging and burning stamp distributors and their homes and offices by mobs. Parliament’s reluctant response was to repeal the Stamp Act and pass the Declaratory Act in March 1766, which clearly stated Parliament’s authority to regulate the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” At the time, England’s attempt to impose a workable policy in America was held back by domestic difficulties as well as King George III’s frequent change of ministers.
The Townshend Acts of 1767 were finally passed in an attempt to regain authority. In response, Bostonians assaulted customs officials and formed a powerful boycott that spread to other colonies. The English government dissolved the Massachusetts legislature and sent troops to occupy Boston as punishment for rebelling against the imposition of taxes without representation. Parliament subsequently discontinued all but one of the Townshend duties save for the tea tax, which was said by Lord North to be “a sign of Parliament’s supremacy and a clear assertion of their right to govern the colonies.”
In 1773, after a decade of relative prosperity and decreased resistance, the economic situation improved, the protests subsided, and Dutch tea was smuggled in. The colonies began to protest through Committees of Correspondence in Massachusetts.
In 1764, Rhode Island colonists set fire to a British ship and brought charges against the captain for “illegally” seizing what he said was smuggled sugar and rum. The Tea Act of 1773 granted the East India Company a monopoly over the North American tea trade. Colonists continued to boycott tea by boycotting tea agents until they forced their resignation. Eventually, Bostonians boarded tea ships in order to dump their cargoes into the harbor, hence forming the Boston Tea Party.
By the summer of 1773, England’s government had endured eight years of colonists’ protests and disobedience. The Boston Tea Party was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The king’s minister felt that taxes were no longer an issue. He saw the Boston Tea Party as a direct challenge to English rule. “We must either subjugate them or totally abandon them to their own devices,” said King George III. They reacted with their most severe response yet – the Intolerable (Coercive) Acts – against Massachusetts.
The Intolerable Acts shut down the port of Boston and increased the powers of the governor while removing significant teeth from the elected assembly. Simultaneously, King George III granted Canada to Quebec in an effort to hinder colonial growth and allow only a governor-appointed legislature in former French territory. This looked like England’s modus operandi when it came to dealing with them.
Massachusetts and the other colonies were left with little choice but to suffer more harsh treatment from what they saw as a tyrannical English government after the Intolerable Acts. The colony was given two options: resist or submit to an authoritarian regime. It is clear that bowing has the short-term benefit of restoring Boston’s port, but in the long run, they would lose additional self-government powers. In the past, resistance appeared to be effective; however, what else could they do now?
The French and Indian War had left a bitter taste in the mouths of a number of American colonists. They were forced to temporarily abandon their farms due to the fighting, and they needed financial assistance from other colonies that they sought through circular letters and a request for the First Continental Congress. The other colonies were forced to choose between aiding their American neighbor and protecting their own economic interests. Boston’s circular letter urged the colonies to cease all trade with England, but this might have serious consequences on both sides of the ocean. It was a difficult decision for them.
They recognized that what occurred in Massachusetts might one day happen to them. The colonies compromised and delayed trade restrictions until after a deadline for withdrawing the Intolerable Acts at the first Continental Congress.
The Intolerable Acts brought the two sides closer to war, but it was still avoidable. Some hard-liners desired outright resistance, while others pushed for reconciliation. Even after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress sent an “Olive Branch Petition” to King George III, who could have accepted it. The English may have re-examined the American response and altered their strategy if they had chosen to do so.
They could have seized this chance to redraw parliamentary constituencies and eliminate “rotten boroughs,” thereby allowing the colonies representation in the House of Commons. Parliament may have written a letter to the colonies stating that because the French-speaking majority would dominate, an elected assembly was not permitted under the Quebec Act; there was no intention to disband their own legislatures.
Instead, the English government lost its compassion and got more ruthless. They dissolved colonial legislatures, banned American imports, and attempted to arrest resistance leaders in Concord, where they were prevented from doing so by a group of farmers armed with pitchforks. They rejected the Olive Branch Petition, declared the colonies in rebellion, and sent thousands of soldiers to put down the uprising.
In a struggle of wills, neither side would give ground. The Boston Tea Party challenged Parliament’s authority, necessitating a forceful reaction from a government unwilling to back down. The colonists were fearful for their sovereignty after the Intolerable Acts and the Quebec Act were passed in 1774.
As a result, they had no choice but to surrender or join together and fight. England decided to deal with the problem through increased oppression rather than peaceful methods. This is why the final links of reunion were burned.
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