American Revolution: Taxes, Independence, and Union

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4.1 Taxes and Rights

  • The Seven Years’ War had doubled Britain’s national debt and increased 5-fold the cost of running and defending North America: Britain wanted more revenue from America and claimed the right to extract it.
  • The Stamp Act of 1765 extended this duty to the colonies – it was the first direct tax as distinct from duties on trade. It hit merchants, lawyers and editors the hardest, leading to mob violence against British agents in Boston and other cities from the Sons of Liberty. Merchants boycotted imports from Britain.
  • The Stamp Act Congress met in New York to petition the king to repeal the Stamp Act. The delegates agreed a Declaration of Right which stated that ‘no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent’.
  • The Stamp Act was repealed, but the British Parliament passed another Act declaring that it had full authority to make laws over the American colonies.
  • In 1767, Charles Townshend, the British Chancellor, imposed higher duties on glass, paper and tea: this revived the resistance movement and Britain garrisoned cities across the American colonies.
  • The Boston Massacre of 1770 led Britain to withdraw troops and repeal all the Townshend duties except the one on tea, in order to affirm the supremacy of the British Parliament over the colonies.
  • The Boston Tea Party of 1773: following the Tea Act of 1773, the British East India Company was given a monopoly on the tea trade – tea could now only be imported by officially appointed consignees and the price of legally imported tea was now cheaper than that of smuggled Dutch tea. In protest, 340 chests of tea were dumped into the harbour by the Sons of Liberty. In retaliation, the British government closed the port and placed Boston under military rule pending compensation for the sabotage.
  • These ‘intolerable’ British measures united the colonies as never before: thousands sent cash, food and fuel to Boston.
  • George Washington, a Virginian landowner and future Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and first President of the USA, wrote: ‘The cause of Boston…now is and ever will be considered as the cause of America’ and ‘The crisis has arrived when we must assert our rights, or submit to every imposition that can be heaped upon us till custom and use will make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway’.

4.2 The Independence Movement

  • The First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia in 1774. Delegates from the 13 colonies opted for a ban on British imports in the hope that the king would accept the basic demand of no taxation without representation.
  • Back in Britain, Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher, tabled a motion to give American colonists seats in the British Parliament, but the proposal was defeated by a 4 to 1 majority.
  • The American Revolutionary War/American War of Independence began at Lexington and Concord (Massachusetts) in April 1775, when fighting broke out between British Redcoats and local militia.
  • Varied attitudes towards the British for different reasons:
    • New Englanders hostile towards British policy of granting freedom of worship to French Catholics in Quebec.
    • The Governor of Virginia angered colonial landowners by offering to free black slaves who joined the British troops to fight against their masters.
    • Moderates still believed the king might be persuaded to win over his ministers.
  • In August 1775 King George III rejected the American demands and issued a Proclamation of Rebellion.
  • The Declaration of Independence was finally adopted by the Second Continental Congress on 4 July 1776. Its principal author was Thomas Jefferson, although John Adams was the leading figure in the independence movement: ‘That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved’.

4.3 Winning Independence

  • September 1776: British troops defeated George Washington’s forces in New York and New Jersey. The patriot army recruited German instructors to improve their operational capability.
  • October 1777: the American victory at Saratoga (NY) marked an important turning point. The French, Spanish and Dutch signed treaties to support the American cause.
  • October 1781: Washington inflicted the definitive defeat on the British forces led by General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, aided by a French naval blockade.
  • The Treaty of Paris of 1783 recognised the independence of the United States of America: territory extended to frontiers with Canada to the north and Florida to the south, and the Mississippi River to the west.
  • Also a civil war: 40-45% of colonists supported the rebellion, whereas 15-20% remained loyal to the British Crown, the rest keeping a low profile; 25,000 Americans died, two-thirds from disease.

4.4 Strengthening the Union

  • Immediately after independence, the federal government was in danger of splitting up into 3 regional governments: it had a weak executive, lacked power to levy taxation, and found it difficult to obtain affordable overseas credit.
  • Root problem: the confederation was a loose league of independent states who jealously guarded their sovereignty. At the time, the states were even waging a trade war amongst themselves.
  • The U.S. Constitution was drawn up at a Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and adopted later that year, finally coming into effect in 1789.
  • It required major compromises on issues such as:
    • The equality of states: James Madison proposed that seats in the new Congress be allocated in proportion to each state’s population. This was accepted for the lower house – the House of Representatives - but in the upper house – the Senate - each state would have 2 seats.
    • The continuance of slavery: Abolition was out of the question if the southern states were to remain part of the union. Slaves counted as 3 fifths of a person when allocating the number of seats each state held in the House of Representatives, although they were regarded as property rather than as citizens in 8 states, and were not allowed to vote. The debate on banning the international slave trade was put off until 1807.
    • The balance of power: Executive, legislature and judiciary would be kept separate. Neither the President nor heads of executive departments would sit in the legislature. In the upper house, senators would be chosen by the legislature of their state and would serve 6-year terms (2 years for members of the lower house).
  • George Washington was elected first president in 1789, serving 2 terms until 1797.
  • The Bill of Rights (first 10 Amendments to the Constitution) was ratified in 1791:
    • 1st Amendment affirms basic freedoms of speech, assembly and the press, and declares: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’.
    • 2nd Amendment contains the right to bear arms.
    • 6th Amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial.
  • Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia), the world’s first purpose-built capital, was founded in 1791. It was located on the Potomac River, on land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia. The federal district is not part of any U.S. state and is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress.
  • The debate on the economic model became an enduring argument:
    • Alexander Hamilton (Treasury Secretary from New York) wanted a capitalist, manufacturing nation trading with the world, like Great Britain.
    • Thomas Jefferson (Secretary of State from Virginia) believed that the USA’s greatest asset was its free farmers. He regarded those who made money through speculation or wage labour as parasites.

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