III: The Imperial Problem

by liill I.

1. The Government in the Colonies

  • Some members of Charles II court –such as James, Duke of York, and the Count of Shaftesbury- were the first to show an interest in transforming the overseas territories into an Empire, through the Privy Council.

  • At the beginning this Council attempted to solve the more serious problems of the colonial government by the creation of special ad hoc meetings. —> not an authentic government office, specialized in colonial matters, until the creation, in 1696, of the Board of Trade and Plantations, during the kingdom of William III.

    • The basic aim of the Board of Trade was to control the colonial trade and fishing industry

    • also took part in the designation of governors, and it

    • intervened in the supervision of military, naval and financial matters in the colonies, in the revision of laws approved in the colonies.

  • Several governmental offices collaborated with the Board of Trade; the most important of these was the Treasury Board, which supervised the work of customs officers, in charge of the application of the Navigation Laws in the colonies.

    • Like the modern lobbies, some of the American-born members of the Board, such as Benjamin Franklin, strove to defend the interests of their brother citizens and toward a true coordination between the diverse governmental organs.

    • Finally, the officials sent to the colonies were not designed according to their management skills, but because of political or family connection, and even sometimes helped by mere bribes.


c. Local Government

  • All the colonies had a system of judicial administration which was a simplified version of the English model, with

    • justice of the peace, who decided on civil and criminal causes in the first instance and courts of a higher rank –composed of justice of the peace-

    • who assisted the important civil processes and criminal trials which could bring goods or life (losses).

  • Above these remained, as mentioned, the supreme courts, constituted by the Governor and his Council, which resolved possible appeals, but in some civil litigations of special economic value, one could directly appeal to the Privy Council in England.

  1. In the four colonies of New England, the city was the basic unit of government. The local council elected the officials (renewable each year as a rule), appointed city delegates to the colony charter, discussed and approved government ordinances, and established local taxes. All people could participate in the council meetings, but the access to the offices was restricted to those who complied with certain requirements of property and religion.

  1. In the Mid-Atlantic colonies, Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina, the basic unit of local government was the county, as in England. Along with the justices of the peace - who not only exercised judicial functions, but also administrative and financial- the basic figure in the public life of the county was the sheriff, who kept peace and order and collaborated with the former.

  2. Finally, in South Carolina and Georgia the basic component of the local administration was the parish, a political subdivision of the county and the administrative unit of the church as well. In front of each parish there was a group of officials appointed by the governor, which occupied their offices for life.

2. North American colonies and imperial politics

The English and French rivalled for hegemony in the East of North America from the beginning of colonization. By the time the English founded Jamestown, the French built the settlements of Port Royal in Acadia (1605) –called New Scotland by the English- and Quebec (1608), capital of the province of New France. During the 17th century, the French, attracted by the fur trade which the Iroquois Indians dominated, penetrated the region of the Great Lakes and discovered the Mississippi River. Navigating along it, the explorer La Salle arrived at its mouth in 1682 and took possession of all the vast territory that surrounded that valley, which he named as Louisiana, in honour of the king Louis XIV. At the beginning of the 18th century, the French colonists started topeople the Mississippi delta, introducing black slaves to cultivate land and founding the city of New Orleans.

The first great Anglo-French conflict in North American soil was a consequence of the war of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697), known in American history as King William’s War.

King William’s War was settled without profit for any party. Actually the ones who came off worse were the Iroquois, allies of the English, because they suffered big losses and needed to negotiate peace independently with France. On the other hand, this war demonstrated the lack of solidarity among the Anglo-American colonies.

The Spanish Guerra de Sucesión (1702-1713), called in North America the Queen Ana’s War. In the few years after the end of the previous war, the French had erected new commercial factories and fortresses in New France and Louisiana, such as Detroit (Fort Portchantrain) in the area of the Great Lakes, and Biloxi (Fort Maurepas) in the Mexican Gulf. The incursions of French and Indian troops caused many deaths in Maine and Massachusetts. On the contrary, the English offensives in the continent failed, as well as the attempts to conquer Montreal and Quebec. In any case, Europe was the principal battle field and the conflict was finally resolved in Europe. Unlike in King William’s War, this time the English drew substantial profits. In the Peace of Utrecht (1713), Great Britain was entitled to the possession of New Foundland, New Scotland and Hudson Bay, and also to the “seat of Blacks” (monopoly of slave trade in Spanish America) for thirty years, as well as the “ship permit” (right to send every year a 500- ton ship to Spanish America), from whose shelter many smuggling operations would be carried out in the future.

Clearly, the great losers of Utrecht were –from the colonial perspective- the Bourbons. The Spaniards, on their part, immediately made, after 1713, a political course oriented to punish with all severity any violation of the treaty. In this way, the two decades after the Peace of Utrecht were in practice years of latent war between Great Britain and Spain. Things got worse due to the first Pact of Family between France and Spain in 1733, which observed a preferential treatment for French trade with Spanish America. In the end, the accumulative hatred exploded in 1739 with the so called War of Jenkins’ Ear, which a year later acquired a new dimension when the Austrian War of Succession (1740-48) broke out, known in America as King George’s War (George II, king from 1737 to 1760).

The breach between American colonists and Great Britain grew wider during the Seven- Year War (1756-1763), also known in American history as the French and Indian War (from 1754), the most important of all fought in the continent up to the Revolution. If something distinguishes this conflict from the previous one, it is that North American territory was the main cause and stage of the fight.

This time the reason of the French and British conflict was the control of the Ohio Valley. The French occupation of it collided head-on with the colonization plans for the region of the two Anglo-Virginian companies (Ohio Company and Loyal Land Company), which, facing the refusal of the French to leave those lands, decided to expel them by force.

The British Government immediately understood that two problems ought to be solved: get the collaboration, or at least the neutrality, of the Iroquois Indians, and establish some defence mechanism common to the Thirteen Colonies. With this double objective, the Board of Trade summoned an inter-colonial conference in Albany (June 1754), before of which Benjamin Franklin presented his Plan of Union. Synthetically, this plan foresaw the constitution of a “general council” in which all the colonies would be represented, and directed by a royally appointed president. But Franklin’s project of acon-federal government was turned down both by the colonists and the British Government.

William Pitt (the Old), Minister of Defence in 1757, intended to strangle New France, attacking from all sides. In 1758, the three principal bastions of the French territorial arch surrendered: Louisbourg, Fort Frontenac and Fort Duquesne. In 1759 and 1760, British conquests continued in the Canada (Quebec, Montreal) up to the Peace of Paris. The Peace of Paris (1763) put an end to the fight and finished off any French hopes to become a great colonial power in North America. France ceded Canada and all the Louisiana to Great Britain, which, in turn, gave it to Spain in exchange for Florida. In this way, after the Seven-Year War Great Britain became the biggest world power.

For North Americans, this war brought other repercussions. First, the menace of possible French or Spanish aggression was almost eliminated, and opened the gate to the expansion to the West, by which, paradoxically, British military protection began to be felt as a heavy burden rather than an American need. Secondly, the daily contact between the colonists and the British soldiers during the war generated reciprocal feelings of dislike and distrust. Thirdly, the war accelerated the process of political maturing of North Americans. Finally, the conflict also stimulated the economic development of the colonies.

Not only the metallurgical industry, but New England fishers, free from their French competitors, became the sole owners of the New Foundland fishing grounds. The agricultural sector profited from the high demand for horses and food by the army. All in all, American colonists began to imagine how prosperous their economy could become when liberated from the commercial restrictions imposed by the English Parliament. However, the sentiment of independence was not yet deeply rooted in the majority of the North Americans.

3. Origins of the Independence: the road to Revolution

To the complications derived from the extraordinary enlargement of territory under the control of the British Monarchy, we should add those resulting from the assimilation of 80,000 French-Canadian colonists with different language and a religion, and also the expansion to the West, with the foreseeable negative consequences that new settlements would provoke in the native peoples. Nevertheless, for the British Government the priority question was the defence of the Empire, which required the presence of a permanent army and the provision of funds needed for its maintenance.

But who was to pay for the expenses of the colonial defence? In general terms, at that time the financial burden on Great Britain was 25 times greater than that for the colonies. In these circumstances, the British Government decided to redistribute this financial burden so that the colonists would contribute more money than they used to.

The man in charge for this task was George Grenville, British First Minister in 1763. His first move in that direction was the Sugar Act of 1764. Despite its name, this law imposed a new tariff on various products that the colonies exported to England: sugar, indigo, lemon, etc. The Sugar Act was received by North American traders with alarm and anger, mainly because its enforcement coincided with the post-war Depression, but still it did not bring an immediate change in the relations between the colonies and the central Government.

More commotion was provoked by the Stamp Act of 1765, by which the use of stamped paper –requiring the payment of a tax- became obligatory for the publication of bills and legal documents, as well as periodicals, almanacs and playing cards. The approval of this law was a profound mistake on the part of the Government, because up to that time, the approval of taxes was a function performed by the colonial charter. In addition, the tax on stamped paper affected directly those social groups with a high influence on public opinion. So that what started only as a fiscal issue became a constitutional matter.

The resistance reached a higher level of organization in Boston, where the Sons of Liberty emerged, a group of patriots constituted by people of humble origins, such as typographers, shopkeepers, little traders and craftsmen, all of them affected by the law of the stamped paper. The Sons of Liberty took over the city for several days, destroyed the offices of British officials and boycotted the unloading of cargo brought from England. The city traders resolved to follow their example and decided to reduce their imports from England. (Also the Daughters of Liberty)

In order to give an answer to the imperial government, in October 1765 delegates from the colonies met in the so-called Stamp Act Congress. This congress decided to recognize the authority of the British Parliament, but rejected its right to impose taxes on them, because they were not represented in it.

Instead of revoking the law, the British Government repealed the Stamp Act at the beginning of 1766, but at the same time published a law –the Declaratory Act- which ratified the right of the Parliament to legislate for the colonies in any matter and on any occasion. The ambiguous attitude of the Government made all and nobody happy: in England they considered the Declaratory Act a triumph; but in the colonies they saw the derogation of the Stamp Act as a victory.

Confirmation of the hidden potency of the problem arrived soon. In 1767, Charles Townshend, made possible Parliament’s approval of new tariffs over various products that the colonies imported from England. Following Grenville’s example, Townshend accompanied the new taxes with measures for their implementation, such as the creation of the American Department, a special ministry for the American colonies, and the movement to the East of a part of the army deployed in the West of the colonial territories.

At the beginning of 1768, the Massachusetts Charter required the rest of the colonies to boycott the importation of products from England. The violent actions against customs officers began to be frequent in all Northern ports, especially in Boston. Eventually, the American Department decided to finish with this disorder and sent two regiments of Irish soldiers to Boston. This was the first time in the history of the colonies that the“red coats” (the name by which the British army was known) acted against the civil population.

On March 5, 1770, a crowded gathered at the Boston wharf, directed to protest against the customs guard. Nobody knows why British soldiers opened fire against the crowd, but five people were killed. This episode is known as the “Boston massacre”. Ironically, on this same day the British Government repealed Townshend’s laws, for the disadvantages of the boycott of English trade was much worse than the advantage of the money collected because of the new tariffs (700,000 vs. 21,000 pounds). This retreat appeased feelings for a period, but from that point on the “Boston massacre” became formany North Americans the symbol of the British tyranny over them.

The calm came to an end in 1773, when the British Parliament approved the Tea Act, promoted by the Tory government of Lord North. The law conceded the monopoly of the sales of tea in the colonies to the British Company of the East Indies –then suffering from some economic problems- and it exempted payment of tariffs which burdened this product, after which prices tended to come down. Despite this the law was very badly received in North America, because the traders who sold Dutch tea, afraid that the monopoly would ruin them, mobilized the population to protest.

The night of December 16, 1773, a group of men disguised as Mohican Indians threw overboard the tea cargo, with a value of 10,000 pounds, transported by three English ships (Boston Tea Party). Facing the impossibility of identifying those responsible for this act of sabotage, Lord North decided to give Boston and the whole colony of Massachusetts an exemplary punishment and, with the majority support of the Parliament, published the Coercive Acts, which in North America were called Intolerable Acts (March 1774). These laws established: 1) the closing of the Boston port (except for the food transportation) until the value of the cargo was repaid to the Company of the East Indies; 2) the possibility that officials to participate in the repression of riots were judged in England, if they were afraid they would not receive a fair trial in Massachusetts, (which obviously was interpreted in the colony as a manoeuvre to get impunity for the British officials); 3) the reduction of the faculties of the Massachusetts Charter and the extension of the Governor’s powers; and 4) the obligation to provide the British troops with appropriate buildings for their quartering. Otherwise, the Governor was authorized to requisition the necessary properties.

Some months later, in June 1774, other law, the Quebec Act, increased the resentment of the colonies toward the British government. This law widened the frontiers of the old French province of Quebec to the South, up to the Ohio River, and to the West, up to the Mississippi River. Besides, it guaranteed the freedom of worship to the Catholics of the province and maintained in force the French civil law. Therefore, the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies interpreted the Quebec Act as an intrigue to deter them from settling in the Western territories and people these with Catholics, in collusion with the despotic ways of the British Government.

As a means to debate the answer to the new coercive politics of the British Government, all colonies, except Georgia, sent delegates to a congress in Philadelphia –first Continental Congress- in September 1774. The majority of those present believed that the Parliament had exceeded its duty, but there was no unanimity on what decision the colonies should take. The moderates chose to search for the reconciliation with theCrown, and even presented a Plan of Union, which contemplated a North American Charter to work along with the British Parliament, but this plan did not succeed. The members of the Congress approved a set of more radical resolutions proposed by Suffolk County, Massachusetts, to which Boston City belonged. These were: 1) to interrupt all commercial interchanges with England; 2) to form a voluntary militia to defend the rights of the colonies; and 3) to declare unconstitutional, and therefore invalid, the Intolerable Laws.

The measures adopted by the Continental Congress upset Lord North and the Parliament. Instead of smoothing over discrepancies, the British Government prohibited the New England colonies (and later the rest of them) from fishing in New Foundland and trading with any foreign country, and it sent reinforcements to the army already deployed in North America. Finally, as a gesture of good will, though clearly insufficient, Lord North promised the colonies not to overload them again with any tariff, tax or duty, if they contributed a satisfactory amount to the expenses for their defence.

To round off the reprisal, in April 1775, Lord North gave the order to destroy the arsenals of the recently founded North American militia, located in Lexington and Concord. Nevertheless, on the way to attack the arsenals, the British troops encountered militiamen who confront them and obliged them to return to Boston. They were assaulted along the way back by thousands of farmers, who joined the militia, but all in all, war could still be avoided.

Some weeks later, in May, the Second Continental Congress reconvened, this time with representatives of the thirteen colonies. Even though the general feeling was one of hostility against Great Britain, the representatives still decided to prevent a definitive rupture. The evidence is that although they approved the organization of a Continental Army, with George Washington in the charge, in the text of the Declaration of the Causes to Take the Arms (July 6), the Congress explicitly rejected any intent to split with Great Britain and to constitute independent states. At the same time, the Congress sent King George III the so-called Petition of the Olive Branch, pleading him for establishing the means to reach a “happy and permanent reconciliation”.

But in the process of sending this plea to the King, the Congress was implicitly refuting the authority of British Parliament over the colonies, and recognizing the person of the Monarch as their only tie with the mother country. In other words, North American subjects were giving the British Crown the last chance to remodel its relations with the colonies, not over the principle of subordination to England, but over the principle of confederation. But the only answer they received from George III was the dispatch of additional troops to suffocate the North American rebellion, and the Prohibitory Act, by which the embargo of the North American trade was ordained.

As Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, the time of Independence had arrived. Nothing could be expected from a king like George III, who appeared as a Pharaoh interested in enslaving the Americans, nor from an institution such as the Monarchy, a vestige from the dark ages. If they aspired to become freemen, Americans ought to break their chains.


liill I.


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