Gaining an identity through unity
Britain’s colonies in North America had traditionally lacked a high level of unity in days prior to 1754, when the Seven Years’ War was just beginning. Factors such as wide distances, conflicting religions, multiple nationalities, geographic barriers, boundary disputes, and differing forms of colonial governments all added to the disunity that was characteristic of the colonies. It took the foreign threat of the French on American borders to spark a movement toward working together. Colonial unity was bolstered by many events beginning with the French and Indian War, but the American identity was not significantly pursued and lived out until the Lexington Massacre.
Since fighting between was already taking place within Ohio, a need for collaboration between colonies became apparent, in order to ward off the Indians and the French. In 1754, an intercontinental congress was organized by Britain, to take place in Albany, New York. A month before the meeting was to take place, Benjamin Franklin published one of his famous works (Doc A), the “JOIN, or DIE” cartoon. The message behind the cartoon was that the only way the colonies could endure the events that were to come is by uniting under a common cause. Franklin introduced his plan for partial home rule at the convention. Seven of the 13 colonies were present, initially to help persuade the Iroquois to remain loyal to Britain. The long term goal, however, was to encourage unity among colonies, thus providing better defense against France. As the French and Indian War gained momentum and spread world-wide, America gained self-esteem, mostly from its military’s performance. The British annoyed the Americans by refusing to recognize them as American soldiers. This friction between the British and the colonials would only get more severe. American shippers dealt with Britain’s enemies, and Americans demanded the rights of Englishmen. This showed that Americans were not thinking of themselves as separate from their British kin yet, but simply longed to be equal to their brothers overseas. The war, nonetheless, allowed for some of the cultural and geographical barriers to unity to begin to melt away. Inter-colony cooperation was proved to be possible, and ideas would now be shared more openly.
After the war, the American landscape was quite different. The French threat was eliminated, meaning Britain’s defenses would not be needed as much. Spain was driven from Florida, and much of the Indian nuisance was no more. The time for westward exploration and settlement was upon the Americans – until Parliament passed the Proclamation of 1763, banning settlement beyond the Appalachians. Although not meant to constrict the colonials, Americans were less than pleased. They blatantly ignored the proclamation, and boldly marched west. The stage was set for rebellion.
Attitudes in the colonies became more hostile as Britain attempted to levy some of the cost of empire on the Americans. This was a new colonial policy for Britain, and contributed to the reinforcement of the American political identity, though Americans still did not think of themselves as completely separate – they only wanted rights of Englishmen. Americans were reluctant revolutionaries, following a cause sparked by bickering over economic policy. An example of this is the enforcement of the Navigation Laws in 1763. Up until that point, the laws existed, but were seldom enforced. This helped the colonists to grow accustomed to disregarding laws early in their history. When Britain suddenly enforced the Navigation Laws, uproar broke out. Colonials grew closer together in their grief over Britain’s control. Perhaps the revolution was caused by Britain’s failure to recognize a rising nation.
Some of the last straws leading to a revolution were a series of laws passed by Parliament under Prime Minister George Grenville, with the aim of exercising control over the colonies, but resulted in quite the opposite. In Britain, people were very familiar with taxes, but not in America. The first tax on colonists by Britain was a direct tax on sugar, with the Sugar Act of 1764. The Quartering Act of 1765 was heavily opposed, which called for Americans to aid in supporting the troops that defended the colonies. When Parliament imposed the Stamp Tax on the colonies in 1765, many Americans became enraged. Although the tax itself was very low compared to the taxes in Britain, Americans who were not used to taxes would not accept them. Further conflict was caused by the implication that people charged with a crime under the Stamp Act would not get a trial by jury, but would have to prove their innocence. America did not like this policy at all. Edmund Burke suggested in 1766 (Doc B) that it was crazy to think that Americans would allow themselves to be governed like Britain, but across a sea. The slogan “taxation without representation” could be heard throughout the colonies, yet Parliament refused to sympathize with colonists. This more than anything as of yet caused the colonies to contemplate independence from Britain.
The idea of unity in the colonies was pushed more and more with the collaboration that followed the Stamp Act. In 1765, the Stamp Act Congress met to protest the taxation. While Parliament did respond by repealing the Stamp Act in 1766, the Declaratory Act was also passed. This basically reaffirmed Parliament’s supremacy over the colonies, which angered many Americans who wanted equal rights. The Townshend Acts were then passed, which dictated an indirect import tax to be collected at ports. As far as the colonists were concerned, this was still taxation without representation, which could not be tolerated. Perhaps seeing what was to come, Samuel Adams organized the first committee of correspondence in 1772 to discuss ways to spread the spirit of resistance. Soon, 80 towns had followed suit, which led to inter-colonial committees. Provoked by the taxation, some activists in Boston decided in 1773 to protest. They did so by throwing a large quantity of British tea into the water. Britain’s swift response was intended to punish Boston and the colonists, but in the long run it caused Britain to suffer the greater loss. Several laws comprised the Intolerable Acts, as they were called in America. The Boston Port Act closed the Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for. The beloved town meetings were restricted in the colonies also. An outpour of support for Boston was shown by the many colonies that donated supplies to their fellow colonists (Doc G). This showed an elevated level of unity. Richard Henry Lee saw that Americans were beginning to be firmly united to defend their liberties, against anyone who threatens them (Doc C). It would surely not be much longer before a major insurrection took place, because tyrannical rule in any form in not to be desired. This theme showed its face in literary works, notably Mather Byles’s publications (Doc D).
As a last effort to preserve the shaky peace, the 1774 Continental Congress convened. This time 12 of the 13 colonies considered ways to redress grievances. The consultative gathering was anti-tax, and not pro-independence, yet. The colonies still were hanging on to the notion that they would one day gain their rights as Englishmen. As a result, the congress wrote the Declaration of Rights, and formed the Association – and enacted a complete boycott of British goods.
The very last straw was finally drawn in April of 1775. The British military present in Boston sent troops to nearby Lexington to seize gunpowder and the two rebels who caused Britain grief: Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The American “Minute Men” did not allow British forces to easily do what they wished, which resulted in bloodshed. British troops fired on the militia, and both sides engaged in battle. It was more of a massacre than a battle, which was enough to, for many more Americans, solidify conjectures that America will break away from Britain. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in his literature about the idea of America and Americans. He described how Americans were entirely different from any European folk, in that they have entirely different convictions and social hierarchy. This was very true, which was a contributor to the quarrelling between America and Britain over economics, especially taxation. Now that Britain had committed its final act to convince much of America that there would be no peaceful solution, many Americans rose to the cause of freedom. On July 6, 1775, the Second Continental Congress wrote a declaration stating why they resorted to military action. In that declaration, the congress explained that Americans would rather “die free than live like slaves.” Although the colonists had not desired to be completely independent until fairly late in the course of events, now it was rather obvious that there would be no re-uniting with Britain. Americans had finally become united for the most part, and defined their identity in the world as Americans, independent from any other country. As the declaration emphasized, Americans would now pursue their freedom relentlessly, and stop at nothing until they were completely free of Britain’s governmental control.
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