The Age of George III

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The Slide to War: North's Ministry and America 1770-76

The Townshend Duties of 1767 were raising no revenue because of the colonial non-importation agreement and so no goods whatsoever were being sold in America. British trade was hit very badly. Lord North decided on conciliatory measures and in 1770 he decided to repeal the Townshend Duties except for the tax on tea which he retained to maintain Britain's right to tax the colonies. The Americans refused to import tea from Britain. The smuggling of Dutch tea increased and more coffee was drunk in America.

On the same day as the repeal of the Townshend Duties, 5 March 1770, the Boston Massacre took place. Four regiments of British regular soldiers had been stationed in Boston since September 1768 and had been subject to verbal and physical attacks from the Bostonians for eighteen months. There had been a number of minor clashes in 1769. In February 1770 a mob attacked the home of a customs official who fired a gun from an upstairs window and shot an 11-year old. Troops had to be called out to defend the customs-man and his home. On 2 March a fight broke out between soldiers and workmen. The fight was broken up but the men involved agreed a resumption of the fracas on 5 March.

On 5 March a Boston mob was out, looking for trouble. Fifty to sixty men surrounded the customs-house; Captain Preston sent seven soldiers to support the sentry. The mob attacked the soldiers who fired, killing five and wounding six - mostly onlookers behind the mob. The colonial press made the most of the event: black-edged newspapers were published and the British troops were maligned. It is debatable what actually happened. Every contemporary report tells a different story. The British troops had to be withdrawn from Boston to Castle William and did not return to Boston until after 1776. Preston and seven soldiers were tried in America for murder; they were defended by John Adams and all were acquitted. However, by this time the non-importation agreement began to break down and the Sons of Liberty, now calling themselves the 'Patriots' had a difficult time in maintaining the conflict between colonies and Britain.

On 9 June 1772 the Gaspée incident occurred. The Gaspée was a British revenue cutter which ran aground near Providence, Rhode Island, whilst chasing an American packet ship. Captain Duddingston was arrogant, zealous and offensive to smugglers and traders alike. Everyone seems to have hated him. Providence merchants boarded the Gaspée, wounded Duddingston and set him adrift in an open boat, then burned the cutter. Lord North's government offered a £500 reward for information but the culprits "could not be found". A Board of Inquiry was set up in January 1773 but was unable to get any evidence because

The government also decided in the autumn of 1772 that Judges of the Massachusetts court were to be paid from custom-house receipts, not by the colony. The British hoped that this would make judges more independent because one colonial ploy was to withhold judges' salaries if the judges did not follow popular opinion. The colonists said that the British decision deprived them of their liberties. The result of this in the American colonies was the setting up of Committees of Correspondence which provided the political machinery by which thirteen separate colonies came to act together against Britain. The first Committee of Correspondence was the work of Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, James Otis and eighteen other Boston men. They stirred up the other colonies against Britain. Only Massachusetts wanted a struggle with Britain at this point, but the 1773 Tea Act changed all that. By the Autumn of 1773 all the colonies had active Committees of Correspondence. The Committees of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty decided not to let the tea from India be landed; if it was, it would sell because it was so cheap.

Samuel Adams

The most famous incident in the colonists' attempts to prevent the landing of the tea took place on 16 December 1773 when the Boston Tea Party occurred. This followed a confrontation between the Patriots, the consignees and customsmen. 340 chests of tea worth £9,000 were dumped into Boston harbour but those responsible ensured that all the damage to the ships was repaired. Elsewhere - Philadelphia, New York, Charlestown - the consignees were "persuaded" not to accept or to sell the tea through threats of - or actual - violence. Tarring and feathering was one colonial means of persuasion, as was pouring castor oil down the victim's throat.

News of the Boston Tea Party reached England by January 1774 - very quickly. The press had published the story before Lord North even knew about it because the ship docked in Plymouth and riders took the news to London faster than the ship could sail there. The reaction in Britain was one of anger and a feeling that Massachusetts must be punished, as an example to the other colonies. The government rushed a series of pieces of legislation through parliament. In Britain they were called the Coercive Acts, in America they were known as the "Intolerable Acts". The Quebec Act was passed on 16 June. It was not a Coercive Act but the timing was poor.

By September 1774 the Patriots were arming and drilling in Massachusetts and General Gage was fortifying Boston. The Boston Sons of Liberty and Committee of Correspondence had persuaded delegates from all the colonies to meet, to decide on measures to defend their liberties. This resulted in the

The First Continental Congress (6 September - 26 October 1774)

Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies met in Philadelphia: Georgia did not send any delegates. The Congress comprised a distinguished body of men. Many of them were lawyers and all were fit to rule. The New England colonies favoured confrontation with Britain; the middle colonies favoured conciliation with Britain; the southern colonies were fearful of action against Britain. No colony had ever moved against the mother country so Congress had no precedent to follow. The Americans also knew that Britain was one of the most powerful nations on earth. The colonists could be defeated easily: the Americans had seen the power of the British army in the Seven Years' War. In October 1774, the Declaration of Rights was passed by Congress, demanding that Britain should recognise the liberties of Americans. It demanded

Congress also imposed another boycott of British goods until their demands were met. The non-importation took effect on 1 December 1774. Many of the delegates wanted to remain in the British Empire and most wanted a settlement with Britain.

Lord North and George III decided to make a stand. They had a moral right to expect the Americans to pay for their own defence and anyway, there were more Loyalists than Patriots in America. The Sons of Liberty had to resort to violence to maintain their point. Parliament was still under the impression that the rebellion was confined to Massachusetts because of the problems of communication. Gage was never sent sufficient troops. When he asked for 20,000 more men, he received 2,000. It seems that the king had decided that conflict was unavoidable. On 11 September 1774 he wrote in his diary:

The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph. I do not wish to come to severer measures, but we must not retreat

On 18 November he wrote:

Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent

In January 1775: Gage was ordered to move against the Massachusetts rebels and to arrest the principal movers of the Continental Congress, using force of arms if necessary. The orders did not arrive in Boston until 14 April. Meanwhile, the colonists armed, drilled and organised militias ready for the expected but unwanted war. Some of the colonial militias were "Minutemen"- ready to go at a minute's notice. A series of blunders led to open conflict. It had been said that this was because North was a poor leader.

On 18 April 1774 Gage sent a detachment of troops to seize the colonists' arms supplies at Concord. The Americans were warned of the British advance by Paul Revere and William Dawes. The Minutemen and militia turned out to meet the British troops. On 19 April, 700 British troops found about seventy colonists waiting for them at Lexington. The British troops fired and charged on the colonists and then moved on to Concord. The Patriots attacked the troops at Concord and the militia set up ambushes on the return route. In fact, there were few weapons and supplies left at Concord because the colonists had had advance warning and had moved them. The British troops had problems returning to Boston and had to be rescued by 1,200 reinforcements sent by Gage. The casualties of the skirmish were as follows:















It was obvious that the Americans would fight desperately and - if organised - very effectively. Gage's 6,000 troops soon were blockaded in Boston by 15,000 Patriots. The war actually had begun at this stage.

On 10 May 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, as had been arranged at the end of the first Continental Congress. Moderates were worried by events at Lexington and John Dickinson (who had written the Farmer's Letters in 1765 complaining about Britain's taxation of the colonies) persuaded the Congress on 8 July to send the Olive Branch Petition to George III. The colonists used the traditional idea that the actions of parliament were those of "evil councillors" and that they had only to petition the King to obtain redress. The Petition set out their grievances and asked the king to intervene on the colonists' behalf.

Rebels in America were still in the minority and the politicians felt that the rowdies had gone too far at Lexington and Concord. The Petition was an attempt to reduce the tension but George III and parliament rejected it because they felt that they could not negotiate with an overtly rebel and illegal assembly. British pride was at stake. Congress chose George Washington to levy and lead American troops. They gave him little assistance, however.

On 17 June 1775 the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought. Three new Majors-General had been sent to Boston to replace Gage: Burgoyne, Howe and Clinton. They planned to attack the rebels first by occupying the Dorchester Heights to the south of Boston and Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill to the north. The Americans fortified Breed's Hill in one night and threatened the British troops on Boston Neck. Howe led a frontal assault on Breed's Hill in the mid-day sun: a suicidal attack which was successful despite the odds. The casualties were:

Total troops














For Britain, this was a classic Pyrrhic victory that she could ill afford. The British army then withdrew into inactivity in Boston for the winter, but boredom and dysentery took its toll. The Americans went on to occupy and fortify Dorchester Heights. The British evacuated Boston in March 1776.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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