US History Essay

Paul Fischer
US History to 1865
December 4, 2010


For early colonists in America, the Atlantic and the distracted British Empire insulated and protected them from British prejudices and governance. At the end of the Seven Years War, the imperialistic ambitions of the recently victorious British sought to extend control through the colonies. The colonies were unable to swallow the existence of an enforced British rule, which manifested itself both indirectly and directly. While pointing to a single act or event that triggered the imperial antagonism necessary to unite on a platform of independence cannot fully describe the unique phenomenon that occurred, the Continental Congress of 1774 represents the both the first contact between many colonial leaders and the culmination of escalating republican colonial conflict with British attempts to reassert control over its citizens. For the first time, the colonies were united and, while they appealed to the same constitution as Parliament, agreeing on a set of rights, against the monarchy, laid the foundation for how independent colonial government could operate. While this seven week meeting was just the beginning of the road to independence, it was the culmination of decades of escalating conflict between the British and their colonies in America. The Continental Congress was also the first time that the colonies united officially, which separates it distinctly from the localized events leading up to it.
The British had some reason to be assertive in their relations with their North American colonies: the massive debts incurred by war with the French, which occupied a quarter of the eighteenth century, created an economic nightmare on a scale practically unimaginable. Britain tried to thwart American smuggling operations through the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, in which taxes were generally lowered but far better enforced by numbers of British regulators who were granted rights to operate in colonial America. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Charles Townshend apparently underestimated the influence of both smugglers and the colonial political system who had been long united in opposing British economic rulings.
The use of colonial assemblies to let off smugglers in a political statement of solidarity to the crown developed as a result of the stricter shipping laws. As both a smuggler and an elite patriot, John Hancock, who was said to have employed most of Boston at various points, realized the economic potential of adopting a patriotic stance. When British customs officials seized his ship, Liberty, and threatened him with harsh fines, Hancock rallied thousands of boys in his employ for a mob to drive off the British. The commitment of merchantmen smugglers and politicians to opposing Britain allowed colonial patriots to begin organizing, for some time, effective boycotts and propaganda programs, which over the period of time the duties remained in effect cost the British over 75-fold the tea of the Boston Tea Party. Yet still the patriots were relatively radical and most colonists were afraid of republican ideals that were to support the drive for independence; it was not until later that the problems of New England merchants were truly felt to reverberate throughout the colonies.
Following the ineffectiveness of their attempts to tax the colonies, the British government let up for some time, and by 1772 imports into the colonies had doubled. This was due in part to the efforts of a fiery politician and cartoonist named Samuel Adams. His portrayal of the Boston massacre, in a simple but incriminating cartoon, became among the most widely reproduced in the British Empire. Horrified citizens even in Britain questioned the moral legitimacy of British rule in America and authorities repealed nearly all of the duties, with the exception of tea. The lull from the Boston massacre until the Tea Act of 1773 and the subsequent tea party, resulted in the near total dismemberment of the nonimportation movement.
The Tea Act was meant to be a win-win: British East India Company is able to cut out middle men, and sell cheaper tea to colonists thus defusing rebellious sentiment. This satisfied, perhaps, the economic basis of patriot complaints, but ignored the political issues that went along with republican ideals that were fanned across the colonies by early patriot leaders. These patriot leaders were a new sort of elite, with strong connections and access to the mechanisms of populism. By provoking British retaliation at more and more drastic levels, they were able to engage more of the country with talk of British oppression. With the British fury that accompanied the Boston Tea Party, several acts were passed with the explicit intention of punishment. Boston, as the center of the resistance, was also hit the hardest, and was turned into an island of rebels locked away from the mainland by a drunken, uncontrollable army let loose on the streets of Boston. The tensions between appointed governors and their population from before the Boston massacre returned with full, if not greater force in Massachusetts.
All of the events leading up to this point had been local in nature, even movements such as Sons of Liberty were qualified by region or locality. What united them was the hundreds of printing presses operated by men such as Ben Franklin or Sam Adams. These resistance leaders, along with fifty-four other delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies, met in 1774, many for the first time, and unified in opposition to the British government’s policies. According to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the blockade ordered by the Continental Congress eliminated 97 percent of British-American trade in the next year.
This resolved some of the economic issues Americans had with England, but the problems over Boston and Massachusetts remained. The Suffolk resolves represented a recognition of the plight of Massachusetts and a political sense of solidarity as a united colonial assembly voted to passively defy the intolerable acts, actually resulting in British regulars dieing outside of Charleston from disease because they were not allowed to quarter in private residence.
Far more important is the declaration of rights insisted upon by the Continental Congress. These rights are similar to those expounded by the declaration of Independence two years later, though not quite as openly defiant yet. The Continental Congress is significant not in the direct or immediate impact, but in that it is representative of the decades of conflict preceding it. With the Suffolk resolves, the Declaration of Rights and embargo on Britain, the Continental Congress addressed the humanitarian, political, and economic aspects of the crisis that occurred in America before the Revolution. After declaring such solidarity in opposition to England, without government permission, the Continental Congress delivered the unwelcome message to the British: leave us alone, or go home.

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