The American Revolution, A History

“Rioting had long been common in England, but many of the popular uprisings of the 1760s were different from those in the past. Far from being limited to particular grievances such as high bread prices, much of the rioting was now directed toward the whole political system. The most important crowd leader was John Wilkes, one of the most colorful demagogues in English history. Wilkes was a member of Parliament and an opposition journalist who in 1763 was arrested and tried for seditiously libeling George III and the government in No. 45 of his newspaper, the North Briton. Wilkes immediately became a popular hero, and the cry “Wilkes and Liberty” spread on both sides of the Atlantic. The House of Commons ordered the offensive issue of the newspaper publicly burned, and Wilkes fled to France. In 1768 he returned and was several times elected to the House of Commons, but each time Parliament denied him his seat. London crowds, organized by substantial shopkeepers and artisans, found in Wilkes a symbol of all their pent-up resentments against Britain’s corrupt and oligarchic politics. The issue of Wilkes helped to bring together radical reform movement that shook the foundations of Britain’s narrow governing class.

Thus in the 1760s and early 1770s the British government was faced with the need to overhaul its empire and gain revenue from its colonies at the very time the political situation in the British Isles themselves was more chaotic, confused, and disorderly than it had been since the early eighteenth century. No wonder that it took only a bit more than a decade for the whole shaky imperial structure to come crashing down.

The government began its reform of the newly enlarged empire by issuing the Proclamation of 1763. The crown proclamation created three new royal governments – East Florida, West Florida and Quebec – and enlarged the province of Nova Scotia. It turned the vast-Appalachian area into an Indian reservation and prohibited all private individuals from purchasing Indian lands. The aim was to maintain peace in the West and to channel the migration of people northward and southward into the new colonies. There it was felt, the settlers would be in closer touch with both the mother country and the mercantile system – and more useful as buffers against the Spanish in Louisiana and the remaining French in Canada.
But circumstances destroyed these royal blueprints…The demarcation line along the Appalachians that closed the West to white settlers was hastily and crudely drawn, and some colonists suddenly found themselves living in the Indian reservation.

In the Quebec Act of 1774, the British government finally tried to steady its dizzy western policy. This act transferred to the province of Quebec the land and control of the Indian trade in the huge area between Ohio and Mississippi rivers and allowed Quebec’s French inhabitants French law and Catholicism. As enlightened as this act was toward the French Canadians, it managed to anger all American interests – speculators, settlers and traders alike. This arbitrary alteration of provincial boundaries threatened the security of all colonial boundaries and frightened American Protestants into believing the British government was trying to erect a hostile Catholic province in the Northwest.

In March 1765, Parliament by an overwhelming majority passed the Stamp Act, which levied a tax on legal documents, almanacs, newspapers, and nearly every form of paper used in the colonies. Like all duties, the tax was to be pain in British Sterling, not in colonial paper money. Although stamp taxes had been used in England since 1694 and several colonial assemblies had resorted to them in the 1750s, Parliament had never before imposed such a tax directly on the colonists.
It is not surprising therefore, that the Stamp Act galvanized colonial opinion as nothing ever had. “This single stoke,” declared William Smith, Jr., of New York, “has lost Great Britain the affection of all her Colonies.”

Convinced that something more drastic had to be done, the British government reorganized the executive authority of the empire. In 1767-68 the government created the American Board of Customs, located in Boston and reporting directly to the Treasury. It also established three new Vice Admiralty courts – in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston – to supplement the one already in operation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In belated recognition of the importance of the colonies, it created a new secretaryship of state exclusively for American affairs, an office that would cap the entire structure of colonial government.”

Wood, Gordon, S. “The American Revolution, A History”. Random House, 2002.