British Repress Colony: Others Rally To Its Aid

A crisis now confronted Britain. The East India Company had carried out a parliamentary statute, and if the destruction of the tea went unheeded, Parliament would admit to the world that it had no control over the colonies. Official opinion in Britain almost unanimously condemned the Boston "Tea Party" as an act of vandalism and advocated legal measures to bring the insurgent colonists into line.

Parliament responded with new laws-called by the colonists "Coercive Acts." The first one, the Boston Port Bill, which closed the port of Boston until the tea was paid for, threatened the very life of the city, for to exclude Boston from the sea meant economic disaster. Other enactments prescribed appointment by the King of Massachusetts councilors, formerly elected by the colonists; and the summoning of jurors by sheriffs, who were agents of the governor. Hitherto jurors had been chosen in colonial town meetings. Also, the governor's permission would be required for holding town meetings, and the appointment and removal of judges and sheriffs would be in his hands. A Quartering Act required local authorities to find suitable quarters for British troops.

The Quebec Act, passed at nearly the same time, extended the boundaries of the province of Quebec and guaranteed the right of the French inhabitants to enjoy religious freedom and their own legal customs. The colonists opposed this act because, disregarding old charter claims to western lands, it threatened to interfere with the westward movement and seemed to hem them in to the north and northwest by a Roman Catholic dominated province. Though the Quebec Act had not been passed as a punitive measure, it was classed by the Americans with the Coercive Acts, and all became known as the "Five Intolerable Acts." These acts, instead of subduing Massachusetts, as they had been planned to do, rallied her sister colonies to her aid.

At the suggestion of the Virginia Burgesses, colonial representatives were summoned to meet in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, "to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies." Delegates to this meeting, known as the first Continental Congress, were chosen by provincial congresses or popular conventions. Every colony except Georgia sent at least one delegate, and the total number of 55 was large enough for diversity of opinion but small enough for genuine debate and effective action.

For a map of the USA in 1775 click here

The division of opinion in the colonies posed a genuine dilemma for the Congress: it must give an appearance of firm unanimity to induce the British government to make concessions and, at the same time, it must avoid any show of radicalism or "spirit of independence" that would alarm moderate Americans. A cautious keynote speech, followed by a "resolve" that no obe- dience was due the Coercive Acts, ended with a Declaration of Rights and Grievances addressed to the people of Great Britain.

The most important action taken by the Congress, however, was the formation of an "Association," which provided for the renewal of the trade boycott and for a system of committees to inspect customs entries, publish the names of merchants who violated the agreements, confiscate their imp0rtations, and encourage frugality, economy, and industry.

The Association everywhere assumed the leadership, spurring new local organizations to end what remained of royal authority. These intimidated the hesitant into joining the popular movement and punished the hostile. They began the collection of military supplies and the mobilization of troops. And they fanned public opinion into revolutionary ardor.

A breach that had been developing slowly among the people widened with the activities of the Association committees. Many Americans, opposed to British encroachment on American rights, favored discussion and compromise as the proper solution. This group included most of those of official rank (Crown-appointed officers), many Quakers and members of other religious sects opposed to the use of violence, many merchants, especially from the middle colonies, and some discontented farmers and frontiersmen trom southern colonies. The patriots, on the other hand, drew their support not only from the less well-to-do but from many of the professional class, especially lawyers, most of the great planters of the south, and a number of merchants.

While the course of events after the passage of the Coercive Acts left the loyalists appalled and frightened, the King might well have effected an alliance with them and, by timely concessions, so strengthened their position that the patriots would have found it difficult to proceed with hostilities. But George III had no intention of making concessions. In September 1774, scorning a petition by Philadelphia Quakers, he wrote,"The die is now cast, the Colonies must either submit or triumph." This cut the ground from under the loyalists or "Tories," as they were coming to be called.

General Thomas Gage, an amiable English gentleman with an American-born wife, was in command of the garrison at Boston, where political activity had almost wholly replaced trade. A leading patriot of the town, Dr. Joseph Warren, wrote to an English friend on February 20 1775:

"It is not yet too late to accommodate the dispute amicably, but I am of the opinion that if once General Gage should lead his troops into the country with the design to enforce the late acts of Parliament, Great Britain may take her leave, at least of the New England colonies, and if I mistake not, of all America. If there is any wisdom in the nation, God grant it may be speedily called forth!"

General Gage's duty was to enforce the Coercive Acts. News reached him that the Massachusetts patriots were collecting powder and military stores at the interior town of Concord, 32 kilometers from Boston. On the night of April 18, 1775, he sent a strong detail of his garrison to confiscate these munitions and to seize Samuel Adams and John Hancock, both of whom had been ordered sent to England to stand trial for their lives. But the whole countryside had been alerted by Paul Revere and two other messengers.

When the British troops, after a night of marching, reached the village of Lexington, they saw through the early morning mist a grim band of 50 minutemen - armed colonists - lined up across the common. There was a moment of hesitation, cries and orders from both sides and, in the midst of the noise, a shot. Firing broke out along both lines, and the Americans dispersed, leaving eight of their dead upon the green. The first blood of the war for American independence had been shed.

The British pushed on to Concord, where the "embattled farmers" at North Bridge "fired the shot heard round the world." Their purpose partly accomplished, the British force began the return march. All along the road, behind stone walls, hillocks, and houses militiamen from village and farm made targets of the bright red coats of the British soldiers. By the time the weary column stumbled into Boston its losses totaled nearly three times those sustained by the colonists.