For years before the Declaration of Independence, the Colonies had felt wronged by Great Britain. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), British leaders treated colonial soldiers, who fought and died alongside the British redcoats, as inferior. Then afterward, Great Britain expected the Colonies to help pay its massive war debts.
In 1764, Britain began to strictly enforce laws that taxed various items brought into colonial harbors. It added new taxes, too, on items like sugar and other goods coming into the country. Also, because laws limited where Americans could sell cargo, shippers were at the mercy of English buyers. Currency restrictions were another problem. Britain would not let the Colonies use paper money, and gold and silver needed for taxes and other business became scarce.
In 1765, Great Britain issued the Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on printed documents in the Colonies. This law covered everything from mortgages, wills, and shipping papers to newspapers and even playing cards.
The colonists were outraged. How dare Great Britain tax them directly when Americans could not even elect representatives to Parliament?
As James Otis of Massachusetts famously declared, "Taxation without representation is tyranny."
A Stamp Act Congress, consisting of delegates from nine colonies, gathered in New York to protest the law. Elsewhere, mobs rioted and destroyed the homes of several stamp masters, who worked for Great Britain. Almost no American merchants would sell stamps, and shippers would not buy them. The colonists' backlash basically halted all trade with Britain.
So, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. But then it passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament could pass laws for the Colonies "in all cases whatsoever" including taxes. The next year, the Townshend Act imposed more duties on paper, glass, paint, lead, and even tea. Angry colonists vowed a boycott.
To maintain order, British soldiers patrolled colonial towns. Then, adding insult to injury, Parliament ordered the Colonies to pay for the English soldiers' housing! When the New York Assembly refused, Parliament suspended that colony's meetings. In 1768, after the Massachusetts Assembly declared that Parliament did not have the right to tax the Colonies, Parliament barred that assembly from gathering, too.
When British customs officers seized Massachusetts politician John Hancock's ship, the Liberty, for violations of shipping and tax laws, a mob forced the officials to flee. Colonists began to openly insult patrolling redcoats.
Then on March 5, 1770, tragedy struck in Boston, Massachusetts. After a British sentry struck a boy for offending him, a furious crowd of colonists gathered. More soldiers arrived as the mob's shouts continued. Someone threw something at a soldier, and in the confusion, the British opened fire and killed five colonists. A court held later that the soldiers acted in self-defense. But this event, known as the Boston Massacre, angered people throughout America.
In 1773, Great Britain enacted the Tea Act. It declared that the East India Company could sell tea directly from India to the Colonies, which would cut costs because the tea would not have to go through England. But the law also eliminated competition in the Colonies (only certain shops, chosen by Great Britain, were allowed to sell tea) and forced colonists to pay the Townshend Act tax on tea.
Angry colonists refused to let ships unload tea. But Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, a British servant, would not let the ships leave the harbor with their cargo. On December 16, 1773, colonists staged the Boston Tea Party and resolved the deadlock. Disguised as Mohawk Indians, they boarded the ships at night and dumped 342 cases of tea into Boston Harbor.
Britain responded with what the Americans called the Intolerable Acts in 1774. This set of laws closed the port of Boston and greatly limited Massachusetts' colonial charter, particularly by banning town meetings. It also reasserted the order that forced the Colonies to house British troops in their cities. That same year, the Quebec Act set up Canada's government with no locally elected representatives. Colonists feared that this meant that Great Britain would end their right to elect local representatives, too.
Alarmed by all these developments, the First Continental Congress, consisting of representatives from all the colonies except Georgia, met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 1774. It wrote a Declaration of Rights, which detailed the Colonies' complaints. The Congress also approved the Suffolk Resolves, part of which called upon the Massachusetts colonists to begin militia training.
In addition, the Congress renewed America's boycott of British goods. Towns were to elect Committees of Inspection to enforce the boycott. These groups turned into the local governments when the Revolutionary War began. And, indeed, fighting broke out on April 19, 1775, in the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
The Second Continental Congress began meeting on May 10 in Philadelphia. On June 15, it named George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental army. And even though Britain won the Battle of Bunker Hill two days later, Americans proved that they were fighters.
In July 1775, the Congress asked King George III to resolve the problems between the Colonies and Great Britain. The king, however, declared that the Colonies were in open rebellion.
Thomas Paine wrote in his January 1776 best-selling pamphlet Common Sense that "[G]overnment even in its best state is but a necessary evil, in its worst state an intolerable one." The "last cord" between England and America was "now broken," Paine argued. What would be the Colonies' next step?
Duties are taxes charged by a government, especially on goods coming into a country.
A boycott is a form of protest in which people stop using or buying a product or service.
A sentry is a guard.
A militia is an army of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers.
Kathiann M. Kowalski has written more than a dozen books for young people. She writes regularly for COBBLESTONE and ODYSSEY.