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The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict

Taxation Without Representation

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The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict

General Thomas Gage

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act which called for tax stamps to be placed on all paper goods sold in the colonies. This represented the first attempt to levy a direct tax on the colonies and was met by fierce opposition and protests. Led by vocal orators such as James Otis and Patrick Henry, the colonists began a massive boycott of British goods causing colonial imports to fall from £2,250,000 in 1764, to £1,944,000 in 1765. In several colonies new protest groups, known as the "Sons of Liberty" formed. Most active in Boston, the Sons of Liberty attacked an admiralty court and looted the home of the chief justice.

That October, delegates from nine colonies gathered at the Stamp Act Congress in New York. Guided by Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, the congress drew up the Declaration of Rights and Grievances which stated that as the colonies had no representation in Parliament, the tax was unconstitutional and against their rights as Englishmen. In London, colonial representative Benjamin Franklin argued a similar point and warned that continued taxation could lead to rebellion. Relenting, Parliament repealed the tax, but issued the Declaratory Act (March 1766) which stated that they retained the power to tax the colonies.

Townshend Acts to the Boston Massacre

Still seeking a way to generate revenue, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts on June 29, 1767. An indirect tax, the acts placed import duties on commodities such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea. In addition, they created three new Admiralty courts in the colonies and reaffirmed the legality of writs of assistance. As with past taxation attempts, the colonists protested with claims of taxation without representation. While colonial leaders organized boycotts of the taxed goods, smuggling increased and efforts commenced to develop domestically-produced alternatives.

Over the next three years, boycotts and protests continued in the colonies. These came to a head on the night of March 5, 1770, when angry colonists began throwing snowballs and rocks at British troops guarding the Customs House in Boston. In the commotion, British troops opened fire on the mob, killing three immediately. Two more colonists died a short time later from their wounds. The soldiers involved were indicted for murder and their trial scheduled for that fall. Defended by John Adams, the accused were acquitted of murder, though two were convicted of manslaughter. With tensions in the colonies reaching a breaking point, Parliament repealed most aspects of the Townshend Acts in April 1770, but left a tax on tea.

Burning of HMS Gaspée

Despite the withdrawal of the Townshend Acts, colonial tempers remained flared in 1772. Actively patrolling to prevent smuggling, the Royal Navy drew the ire of many colonial merchants. This came to a head on June 9, when the revenue schooner HMS Gaspée ran aground while chasing the packet boat Hannah into Warwick, RI. At dawn on June 10, members of the Providence Sons of Liberty, led by Abraham Whipple, rowed out and attacked the stranded vessel. In the fight that ensued, Gaspée's commanding officer was wounded and the vessel burned to the waterline.

Responding to the incident, the British government ordered a Royal Commission of Inquiry to be formed to investigate the attack. Once the perpetrators were identified, the commission was to charge them with treason and send them to London for trial. Concerned over Americans being taken to England, several committees of correspondence were formed in the various colonies to consult on the crisis. Ultimately, the case was dropped as the commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence, but the incident did work to further unify colonial leaders.

The Tea Act & The Boston Tea Party

On May 10, 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act with the goal of aiding the struggling British East India Company. Prior to the passage of the law, the company had been required to sell its tea through London where it was taxed and duties assessed. Under the new legislation, the company would be permitted to sell tea directly to the colonies without the additional cost. As a result, tea prices in America would be reduced, with only the Townshend tea duty assessed. Aware that this was an attempt by Parliament to break the colonial boycott of British goods, groups such as the Sons of Liberty, spoke out against the act.

Across the colonies, British tea was boycotted and attempts were made to produce tea locally. In Boston, the situation climaxed in late November 1773, when three ships carrying East India Company tea arrived in the port. Rallying the populace, the members of the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans and boarded the ships on the night of December 16. Carefully avoiding damaging other property, the "raiders" tossed 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. A direct affront to British authority, the "Boston Tea Party" forced Parliament to take action against the colonies.

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