When British Rule Became Intolerable

Historians tend to mark the stirrings of the American Revolution with events like the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Boston Massacre of 1770 (when British soldiers killed five Americans). In her new book, 1774: The Long Year of Revolution, Mary Beth Norton argues that it was only the aftermath of 1774’s Boston Tea Party that unified the colonies and led to revolution. One piece of evidence is how Americans referred to new laws passed by Parliament after the Tea Party as the “Intolerable Acts”.  Another is how residents of all thirteen colonies quickly joined together for the first time, creating the Continental Association (something I don’t remember ever hearing about).

This is from a review by T. H. Breen:

The most serious problem with the claim that the revolution resulted from a long-simmering sense of injustice is that ordinary Americans initially showed very little interest in confronting imperial authority. Resistance to the Stamp Act and the killing of civilians during the Boston Massacre certainly got attention, but even at the moment of greatest discontent, colonists hesitated to voice support for urban protest. In many places people feared that a few radicals were stoking a political crisis that could destabilize an imperial system responsible for widespread prosperity. . . .

The political landscape changed dramatically on the night of December 16, 1773, when the destruction in Boston Harbor of tea imported by the East India Company made the scattered protests that had gone before suddenly seem irrelevant. It took several months for the full implications of the Tea Party to play out in England and America. As Norton explains, the incident served as a political catalyst for the subsequent spread of popular resistance throughout the colonies.

To be sure, an outpouring of anger greeted the arrival of the tea. Everyone knew that by purchasing the imported tea, they would be compelled to pay a tax set by Parliament, a body in which they had no representation. . . .

As with the earlier protests, however, many Americans expressed reservations about what a group of men dressed crudely as Indians had done in Boston Harbor. They worried that extremists had taken protest to an unacceptable level. Of course, no colonists wanted to pay taxes on their favorite drink. But the tea was private property, and not a few people counseled the City of Boston to compensate the East India Company for the lost cargo. . . .

Everyone in Boston expected Parliament to punish the city for this brazen attack on private property. They assumed that negotiations with officials in London would result in censure, and then, after emotions had cooled, relations with the mother country would return to normal. That did not happen. As has occurred so often in the long history of imperial regimes, the leaders of Parliament decided to teach the troublesome Americans a lesson. A mere warning that they should behave themselves . . . would not serve the purpose. Obedience required a show of force.

Speakers in the House of Commons could hardly contain themselves. They insisted that it was time to crush the people of Boston for their audacity. One member of Parliament announced that . . . “the town of Boston ought to be knocked about their ears, and destroyed.” . . . Another MP observed that “the Americans were a strange set of People, and that it was in vain to expect any degree of reasoning from them.”

The punishment was far worse than anyone had anticipated. It was spelled out in four acts known in England as the Coercive Acts. Americans called them the Intolerable Acts. Richard Henry Lee, an influential Virginian, described the legislation as a “shock of Electricity,” causing universal “Astonishment, indignation, and concern.” The most vexing—the Boston Port Act—closed the city to all commerce; other acts restricted town meetings throughout Massachusetts to once per year and gave the royal governor of the colony enhanced authority over political appointments. Trade now had to flow through Salem, which greatly added to the cost of doing business. More disconcerting, the legislation created widespread unemployment in Boston, where many poorer residents worked on the docks.

Bostonians pointed out that it was grossly unfair to penalize the entire population of the city for a crime carried out by a small group, but British officials expressed no sympathy. They suspected that the Americans had absorbed a spirit of democracy. . . .

The show of force did not intimidate the colonists. British leaders greatly increased the chance that the situation in America would explode by appointing a military officer, Thomas Gage, as governor of Massachusetts. He seemed to possess the kind of toughness needed to pacify rebellious colonists. . . . He arrived in Boston on May 13, 1774, accompanied by a large contingent of troops. Not surprisingly, an army of occupation served only to further enflame the populace.

Within weeks imperial authority outside Boston collapsed. Officials appointed by the crown resigned; committees were formed throughout the colony to fill the administrative vacuum. Militiamen began to drill. Local bodies enforced a prohibition on drinking tea. The celebrated orator Edmund Burke had predicted this would be the result of the Coercive Acts. “Have you considered,” he asked the House of Commons, “whether you have troops and ships sufficient to enforce an universal proscription to the trade of the whole Continent of America?” When it became clear that his audience was determined to bring the Americans to heel, Burke concluded, “This is the day, then, that you will go to war with all America . . . ” No one listened.

During the summer of 1774, it became clear that the punitive policies championed by the North administration were stunningly counterproductive. . . . The suffering of Boston soon became the cause of colonists outside the city. They sensed that if they did not support resistance, they too might soon find themselves living under military occupation.

. . . People living in distant colonies sent food to the unemployed workers of Boston. . . . Britain’s show of toughness encouraged ordinary people from New Hampshire to Georgia to reach out to other Americans who before this moment had been total strangers. They began to talk of themselves as if they were no longer British, or at least not as British as they had been before Gage and his army arrived in Boston.

The spreading resistance movement persuaded political leaders of the various colonies to meet in Philadelphia in early September 1774. The first Continental Congress brought Americans of very different backgrounds together. . . . Prominent figures such as . . . the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly presented powerful arguments for reconciliation. Some of his colleagues sensed, however, that the moment for constructive compromise had passed. The people needed direction. Otherwise the defense of American rights would fragment.

The Continental Congress devised a brilliant solution. On October 20, it authorized the creation of the Continental Association, which bound the thirteen colonies in order to bring additional pressure on Parliament by cutting off trade with Britain. Boycotts had been tried before, but because of local jealousies and competition among merchants, they had failed to achieve their purpose. The Continental Association was different. It established precise dates for the cessation of the importation of British goods. It also set down regulations for trade with the mother country. According to the Congress, the goal of the commercial regulations was “to obtain redress of these grievances which threaten destruction to the lives, liberty, and property of his majesty’s subjects in North America.”

The problem was how to enforce these regulations. How could the Congress unite thousands of small communities in a common effort? The answer appeared in the eleventh article of the Continental Association, which transformed the entire character of the resistance movement. A document of such fundamental significance in the history of the United States merits close reading:

That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfaction of a majority of any such committee, that any person within the limits of their appointment has violated this association, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.

The association signaled the moment in a new revolutionary narrative when ordinary Americans realized that there was no turning back. At the time, almost no one was calling for independence. The groundwork for that break, however, was now in place. The crucial move was that the Continental Congress gave ordinary Americans the responsibility for monitoring commercial violations, but as one might have predicted, these local committees quickly assumed additional duties. By 1775 they were legitimizing popular resistance to imperial rule and channeling mobilization. The Continental Association did something even more important: it revealed the pressing need for some form of centralized authority to oversee the actions of thirteen very different colonies. Unity was essential to sustaining a common cause.

Norton accomplishes something more than a revision of the traditional story of the coming of the American Revolution. She reminds us that even when it seemed inevitable that continuing protest would lead to violent confrontation with British troops, there were intelligent, articulate people in America who wanted desperately to head off the crisis. . . .

It was hard for people such as the Reverend Thomas Bradbury Chandler, an Episcopal minister from New Jersey, to break with the comforting security of a monarchical regime. He wrote an immensely popular pamphlet called “The American Querist”, which consisted of one hundred questions designed to challenge assumptions driving the resistance movement. . . .

[But] writers of Chandler’s persuasion . . . were defending a social system that no longer made sense to many Americans.

The committees that enforced nonimportation seemed to Loyalists to invite anarchy. Mob rule, Chandler and his allies claimed, would destroy the ordered security of a monarchical world. The Reverend John Bullman, an Episcopal rector in Charleston, South Carolina, railed against the notion that ordinary men were capable of judging “the Fitness or Unfitness of all persons in power and Authority.” Bullman rejected the idea that a person “who cannot perhaps govern his own household, or pay the Debts of his own contracting,” should “dictate how the State should be governed.” Chandler shared this opinion. He asked, regarding “interested, designing men…or ignorant men, bred to the lowest occupations,” whether “any of them [were] qualified for the direction of political affairs, or ought to be trusted with it.” . . . . As the events of 1774 demonstrated, however, a great many Americans of the lowest occupations strongly disagreed.

One can appreciate why loyalists equated revolutionary change with disorder. [But] mobilization for the fight for independence did not promote anarchy. Americans followed the Continental Association’s regulations, sacrificing the imported consumer items that brought them so much pleasure. The revolutionaries who came forward in 1774 would have found it hard to understand modern Americans who define liberty as the right to do whatever they please during a time of national crisis, even though they know that their self-indulgence threatens the welfare of the larger community.

“An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America” by Nick Bunker

Like most Americans, my knowledge of the Revolutionary War is spotty. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, one if by land, two if by sea. The minutemen. Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”. Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware. Later we got the Constitution.


I didn’t realize the Revolutionary War lasted eight years. The Civil War only lasted four, but it’s sucked up most of the historical oxygen, along with World War 2. I did know that Washington was going to New Jersey when he crossed the Delaware River and that the Continental Army had terrible winters at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, even a winter that was worse than Valley Forge’s.

Reading An Empire on the Edge was helpful, therefore. The book covers events leading up to the war in great detail, sometimes in more detail than I needed. The author begins with the state of the American colonies after the French and Indian War (known elsewhere as the Seven Years War) and concludes with the British government having finally decided it’s necessary to use force to put down the rebellion in Massachusetts in 1775.

What really surprised me was the highly complicated, years-long series of events in both America and Great Britain that preceded the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in 1775. If there is one event that marked the beginning of the conflict, it was the Stamp Act, parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies by requiring printed materials to be produced on embossed paper made in London. That means there were ten years of escalating tensions, with the Americans resisting parliament’s efforts to make laws for the colonies and the British government convinced that parliament had the authority to do so. There were acts of violence on both sides, but mainly there was a lot of discussion: speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, meetings and personal diplomacy. All that talk eventually led parliament to declare Massachusetts in open rebellion and initiate a military response.

The author emphasizes throughout that, even so, the British government paid as little attention as possible to what was happening in the colonies. The government’s representatives in the colonies did a poor job informing London, while London was usually much more interested in events far from America. He sees the basic problem, however, as the inability of British aristocrats to understand the American point of view:

The crisis that led to the revolution in America had many causes, and ranking high among them was the narrowness of vision that afflicted [British prime minister Lord North] and his colleagues. . . . They found the rebels in America unthinkable. Nothing in rural Oxfordshire could prepare Lord North for an encounter, at a distance of three thousand miles, with men like . . . Ethan Allen of Vermont. For radicals like . . . Allen, the tenant was the equal of his landlord or even his moral superior; they would never pay a tithe to please a vicar or doff their hat in the street as he walked by . . . 

Perhaps the deepest divide of all was the one that separated Lord North from John Hancock. In the eyes of the king and his ministers, a Bostonian so wealthy had a duty to defend the status quo. . . .At best the man was deeply ungrateful, while at worse he was a traitor. . . 

A man with origins like those of Frederick North could never understand an enemy of Hancock’s kind. Nor could he be creative in response to the challenge that the colonies threw down. The very qualities George III liked best about him — his devotion to his church, to his king and to the landed gentry — were precisely those that rendered North incapable of governing America. . . . [368-69].

The war had been long in the making, the product of an empire and a system deeply flawed, the work of ignorance and prejudices and of men well-meaning but the prisoners of ideas that were obsolete and empty. “You cannot force a form of government upon a people”, the Duke of Richmond had said in the House of Lords . . . but although the radical duke would be proved right, it would take long years of fighting before the nation could admit that this was so [365]. 

It was never going to be as easy for Great Britain to rule over its American colonies the way it did over a country like India. The Americans believed they should be accorded the same rights as proper Englishmen. However, I came away from An Empire on the Edge feeling some sympathy for the British. I’m an American, but the Americans of the 1770s seem to have been a cantankerous lot, too ready to see looming tyranny.

Not much has changed in 250 years. 

Many States, Not Very United

If you asked them, most Americans would say that winning the Revolutionary War was the crucial step in the creation of the United States. The 13 colonies became a new nation once the British went home. Anyway, that’s the impression you’d get from the Wikipedia article about the Treaty of Paris, which put an end to the war eight years after the first shots were fired: 

The Treaty of Paris, signed in Paris by representatives of King George III of Great Britain and representatives of the United States of America on September 3, 1783, ended the American Revolutionary War. The treaty set the boundaries between the British Empire and the United States, on lines “exceedingly generous” to the latter…. Only Article 1 of the treaty, which is the legal underpinning of United States’ existence as a sovereign country, remains in force.

But this is what Article 1 of the treaty says:

His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, [etc.], to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.

Listing all thirteen “sovereign and independent states” from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south is an odd way to refer to a new nation. It made sense, however, because at that point the thirteen colonies considered themselves to be separate states or nations. The “United States” referred to the thirteen countries loosely joined together by the Articles of Confederation:


The Style of this Confederacy shall be “The United States of America”.


Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.


The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…

In his book The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, the historian Joseph Ellis says we should think of the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War as something like the European Union. I’d add that it was more like the EU plus NATO, but the point is that the people we call “Americans” considered themselves to be citizens of their respective states, not U.S. citizens. The colonists had banded together to win their independence from Great Britain. Having succeeded, they were willing to remain part of a “league of friendship”, but nothing more. Having won their freedom from a distant, centralized government, they didn’t want another one, even if the capital would be Philadelphia instead of London. 

After what became known as “Shays’ Rebellion”, an armed anti-government uprising centered in western Massachusetts, some feared that the “league of friendship” would fall apart. According to Ellis:

[Some expected] the complete collapse of the confederation leading to civil wars between the states and predatory intrusions by European powers, chiefly Great Britain and Spain, eager to carve up the North American continent… The more realistic scenario was dissolution into two or three regional confederacies that created an American version of Europe. New England would become like Scandinavia, the middle states like western Europe, the states south of the Potomac like the Mediterranean countries.

The New England press enhanced the credibility of such prophecies, observing that the attempt at a national union was obviously a failure because regional differences made political consensus impossible. The only option was a union of the five New England states, “leaving the rest of the continent to pursue their own imbecilic and disjointed plans”.

It should be noted that even during the writing of the Articles of Confederation, the state of South Carolina threatened to walk away over the issue of slavery, a threat that was finally carried out when South Carolina seceded from the Union 80 years later.

Looking back, John Adams wondered how the colonies had ever agreed on anything:

The colonies had grown up under conditions so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, habits had so little resemblance and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles … and the same system of action, was certainly a difficult enterprise.

Considering America’s subsequent history, including the regional conflict that led to the Civil War; the continuing resistance to Federal law in the southern states during Reconstruction and into the 20th century; the current division between consistently “Red” and “Blue” states; the popularity of right-wing news media that cater to a desire for “alternative facts” in opposition to what’s reported in the “mainstream” media; and the bizarre fact that we hold 51 elections, separately administered by the individual states, in order to elect a President, it’s fair to say that creating a United States that’s truly united continues to be a “difficult enterprise” and may never succeed.