The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7


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The American Revolution

The principles of the American Revolution lie more than a century back in English politics and economic thought.

At the time of the Puritan Revolution and what was its logical consequence, the Bill of Rights, the principle of taxation only with the consent of the taxed was thoroughly established in England. Around the year 1688 men of influence in England were lined up into two great parties that about that time had come to be called Whigs and Tories. The Whigs supported parliament, William of Orange, and a moderate toleration in religion. The Tories still cast sheep’s eyes at the exiled House of Stuart, and favored High Church conformity. The House of Hanover owed its succession in 1714 to Whig influence, and the Whigs became so powerful that they split up into factions. Cabinet government came in, the Cabinet being made up of the leaders in parliament and the country or their lieutenants. From 1721 to 1742 Walpole ruled through the support of the Duke of Newcastle and a Whig aristocracy that owned deserted boroughs or openly bought the votes they needed in parliament. Parliament had become but poorly representative and party lines had been largely lost in personal friendships and animosities. The influence of the great Whig houses lasted until the coming of George III. to the throne in 1760.

George III. was determined to regain the power once held by the king. He had the ideas of the Stuarts and looked to the Tories for support. The head of the Whigs in the House of Lords at this time was the Duke of Newcastle, representative of the old Whigs, powerful and corrupt; in the Commons, it was William Pitt, eloquent, a brilliantstatesman, and personally honest, the leader of the new Whigs and the movement for a purer parliament. George III. eventually got rid of the influence of both, and formed a Tory cabinet, first under Lord Bute, then under Lord Grenville.

At this time, as we have noted in the previous volume, the prevailing political economy of Europe was that of the mercantile system. All Europe believed in controlling trade, preserving the balance of exports over imports, favoring home manufactures, hindering those in the colonies, levying import duties, and prohibiting all trade of the colonies save with the home country. The Whigs, or part of them, had tempered this system with the belief that the principle of no taxation without the consent of the taxed, a principle for which the Whigs stood in England, should apply also in America. But the Tories considered the rule of parliament or the king over the colonies to be absolutely autocratic, subject to no restrictions whatever. The majority of the colonists were Whigs and practically all of them—if for no more than selfish reason—believed they should not be taxed without their own consent. Here lay the first great issue of the Revolution—practically the same issue as had caused the Puritan revolution and eventually written the Bill of Rights.

Restrictions on trade though long borne without questioning their propriety, were many and irksome. The governors were haughty and overbearing. The colonial laws prohibiting slavery had been annulled—they hurt a profitable trade. All commerce had to be carried on in ships built in England or the colonies, and the colonies could not manufacture anything that could be manufactured in England. Sugar, tobacco, cotton, wool, indigo, ginger, dyeing woods, could be exported only to England. All goods imported had to be bought in England and carried in English vessels. Provinces could not sell woolen goods, hats, or ironware to another. In Maine trees over two feet in diameter had to be saved for the royal navy. Astonishing strictures, certainly, but they were built directly on the mercantile theory of political economy then followed by practically every nation in Europe.

Smuggling and the evasion of these laws became common, but the king and the Tory ministry resolved to reinforce them. Government custom-house officials (1761) applied for "Writs of Assistance" empowering them to enter private houses and search for smuggled goods. The protest of James Otis against this revival of a custom of Charles II. was the first formulated protest of the Revolution.

The ministry wanted to establish a garrison of 10,000 men in the colonies, and proposed to have the colonies bear a third of the expense. Lord Grenville brought forward the stamp act to cover the bill. The colonists did not want the soldiers, and strongly protested against the act. It was passed, however, in 1765. The excitement throughout America was intense. Massachusetts sent out a general letter to the colonists protesting against the act. Patrick Henry before the Virginia House of Delegates delivered his famous invective against it. A convention of nine colonies drew up resolutions condemning the act, and all the colonies concurred in these resolutions. The stamp officer at Boston, Oliver, was hung in effigy. The home of .Chief Justice Hutchinson at Boston was destroyed. Boxes of stamps were thrown from the ships into the sea. The act could not be enforced without at once precipitating a war, and the question of repeal was taken up in the House of Commons. Lord Grenville was now out of office and Lord Rockingham prime minister. Grenville and Mansfield, among others, spoke for the act, Pitt and Burke, against it. Franklin was examined on the question before the bar of the House of Commons.

Finally, in 1766, the act was repealed, and the joy in the colonies was unbounded.

Six months later the Rockingham ministry gave way to the second of Pitt’s, now the Earl of Chatham. The new ministry was composed of all parties. Pitt was taken sick and left the premiership to the Duke of Grafton. During Pitt’s sickness Townshend brought in a bill to levy duties on glass, paper and tea imported into the colonies. The duty would amount to little; the act was passed (1767) because it would serve to make the ministry popular in England. Along with the tax went a provision for the establishment by the crown of a civil list in the colonies, with the power to grant salaries and pensions at will, and the suspension of the New York legislature until it should have provided certain supplies for the troops quartered in the city. Townshend died in September, 1767, and was succeeded by a man as much of a Tory as himself, Lord North.

In America the opposition blazed forth once more. Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts wrote tellingly against the new act. Massachusetts again invited a convention of the colonies. Troops quartered in Boston aggravated the discontent. Otis was assaulted by Robinson, a commissioner of customs. Matters gradually reached a climax. The night of March 5, 1770, a crowd beganreviling the soldiers and snowballing them. A riot seemed imminent, when the soldiers were recalled into the barracks. The alarm of fire brought still a larger crowd to the scene of trouble. The sentinel was threatened. Captain Preston and seven men went to his aid, and lined up facing the crowd. The mob threw snow into their faces and dared them to fire. All at once, without orders, so it is declared, seven of the muskets were discharged, killing four men and wounding seven others, two of them fatally. Preston and his men were arrested. The city, through Samuel Adams, demanded the removal of the regiments, and they were sent to Castle William. The soldiers were afterwards, when tried, defended by John Adams and Josiah Quincy. All but two were acquitted, and these were given a light punishment for manslaughter.

Lord North, a thorough Tory, was now prime minister. The colonies had resolved to import nothing until the taxes were repealed. In April all these last taxes were done away with save on tea, and New York merchants sent orders for everything except tea. This divided the colonies. Lord North for a time assisted the division by local quarrels. In 1771 in North Carolina an attempt to revive excessive fees for officers, really an indirect tax, led to a pitched battle at Alamance, but the colonial militia assisted the governor, and the event did not have the significance it might have had. In Rhode Island the sloop Gaspee, which had been patrolling thereabouts for smugglers, was burnt to the water’s edge.

The imported tea at Charleston had to be stored in damp cellars, where it spoiled. At Philadelphia and New York the tea-ships were sent home. At last at Boston, a party of men dressed up as Indians boarded the vessels and threw the tea into the bay. Parliament retaliated. The port of Boston was closed. Gage was made governor of Massachusetts.

Resistance became more active. A continental congress was called, September 5, 1774 that declared obedience not due to the recent acts of parliament. The colonists began to gather stores of arms and provisions. Gage heard that there was a supply at Concord, and sent out eight hundred men to destroy them. On the way at Lexington they came upon a company of minute men just gathering. Pitcairn ordered them to disperse. They did not obey. The troops began to drive them away and in the skirmish seven Colonists were killed. The whole region took up arms, and when the English returned from Concord, they were attacked from all sides. Gage had to send out reinforcementsfrom Boston, and as it was, they lost three hundred men. This was the first pitched battle of the Revolution.

Then followed Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Quebec, the evacuation of Boston, and the attack on Fort Moultrie.

In the meantime the sentiments of the colonists had passed from passive to active resistance, and was passing from active resistance to independence. The colonists split into two factions. The supporters of the king were called Tories and had practically the same ideas of the divine rights of the king and non-resistance which the English Tories had. The great majority of the colonists had much the same principles as the English Whigs. They believed in the sovereignty of the people, and their right to resistance whenever the king failed to govern as he should. The ideas of Locke, and the Bill of Rights, of Montesquieu and Rousseau had an enormous, though silent, influence in developing the idea of independence.

In England the new Whig faction, led by the Earl of Chatham, steadily took the side of the revolting colonists, because the colonists stood for the same principles as themselves. The old Whig faction, led by Newcastle, Rockingham, Burke, and later Fox, were also for them, partly on principle, partly for policy. The king and the English Tories, however, were strong enough to carry on the war.

The idea of independence grew slowly. It is said that as far back as 1768 Samuel Adams seems to have dreamed of independence, but when the Continental Congress met September 5, 1774, the idea was still far from strong. Mecklenburg county, North Carolina, inhabited by Scotch-Irish, first declared for an independent government until parliament should recede from its claims (May 31, 1775). New governments were soon formed in the other colonies. North Carolina in March, 1776, sent instructions to her representatives declaring for absolute independence. Virginia followed May 6. June 8 Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." John Adams seconded the motion.

There was considerable debate on the resolution, Dickinson and Wilson of Pennsylvania, and Livingston of New York thinking it too early for so bold a step. The question was referred back to the colonies for instructions. Connecticut and New Hampshire declared at once in favor of the declaration. In New Jersey, Governor Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son, at first held the legislature for the king, but a newprovincial congress was chosen and the motion for independence indorsed. The Quakers of Pennsylvania also hesitated, but the sense of their close connection with the other colonies finally carried Pennsylvania for the new movement (June 18).

Delaware took the same action June 14. Maryland had few grievances, but felt that the colonies were bound together and authorized her delegates to concur in the motion. New York was under the guns of the British fleet, and the Tories were strong enough to delay instructions until after the declaration was passed. On the first vote New York was excused from casting a ballot, Delaware was tied, Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted nay, the other nine colonies voted for independence (July 1, 1776). The next day the vote was made unanimous and the committee consisting of Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Livingston, which had been appointed three weeks before to draw up the formal declaration, made its report. The declaration had been written by Jefferson and was only made a little more concise by the other members of the committee and in the committee of the whole before it was adopted July 4, 1776.

The Declaration of Independence starts with the statement of the natural rights of man. The idea may be traced back through Rousseau, Locke, and Puffindorf to Roman law. Then follows the Declaration’s theory of government, basing it on the social contract idea and putting it in much the same way as did Locke and the English Whigs. The strictures on the king that follow are to show how he has broken the social contract and hence justified the movement for independence by the colonies.

Thus a new nation was brought into the world. It was the result of the struggle of such modern ideas as no taxation without the consent of the taxed, the sovereignty of the people, and free trade, against the theory of the divine right of kings, arbitrary rule, and the mercantile system of political economy.


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Chicago: "The American Revolution," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 167–172. Original Sources, accessed July 6, 2022,

MLA: . "The American Revolution." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 167–172. Original Sources. 6 Jul. 2022.

Harvard: , 'The American Revolution' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 7. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.167–172. Original Sources, retrieved 6 July 2022, from