On 26 October 1775 George III, King of Great Britain, stood up in front of his Parliament and declared the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion. Here, for the first time, the use of force was authorised against the rebels.
The road to war
Over the last decade relations between George’s government and his colonial subjects had progressively soured. In 1767 Parliament passed the Townshend Acts levying taxes on many essential goods such as glass, paper and tea. In truth, this was not particularly onerous, but the colonists regarded it to be unconstitutional and resentment simmered.
Just a year later the governor of Massachusetts was already calling for the other twelve colonies to join his state in resisting the British and boycotting their goods, coinciding with a riot in Boston over the seizure of a boat aptly named Liberty for smuggling. Despite these tremors of discontent, nothing suggested that the colonies might seriously consider fighting their British masters until the infamous Boston massacre of March 1770.
A detachment of redcoats were accosted by a large crowd in the city, and bombarded with snowballs and more dangerous missiles as the cold and frustrated townsfolk vented their anger on the soldiers. Suddenly, they opened fire after a soldier was knocked down, killing five and injuring six others.
This is often represented as the inevitable start of a revolution, but in fact it prompted Lord North’s government to withdraw the Townshend Acts and for a time it seemed like the worst of the crisis was over. However, some radicals such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson kept the resentment ticking over, and suddenly in 1772 the anger of the colonists exploded back into life.
Adams makes a stir in Boston
A switch had been flicked, and now everything London did was seen as an affront to their liberties. The British government had this chance to make important political concessions to these disgruntled voices, but they did not, and the opportunity to avert rebellion was lost.
That year a British ship which had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations was burned by angry patriots, and Adams set about creating Committees of Correspondence – networks of rebels which linked all of the 13 colonies.
These committees soon boasted a membership of 7-8000 and loyalists were pointedly excluded. In December 1773 the most famous and open display of anger took place – as Samuel Adams and some followers poured huge amounts of British tea into the sea at Boston Harbour. This act – now known as the Boston tea party, remains important in patriotic American folklore.
The British respond with force
The British response was the wrong one – as they passed the repressive “Intolerable Acts” rather than attempting to appease the rebels. They lost much support with this, and patriots formed the first Continental Congress, where men from all the colonies were formally represented, in September 1774. In Britain opinion was divided as the Whigs favoured reform and North’s Tories wanted to demonstrate the power of the British Parliament. In the end the Tories won.
Meanwhile, Congress raised a militia, and in April 1775 the first shots of the war were fired as British troops clashed with militiamen at the twin battles of Lexington and Concord. British troops were landed in Massachusetts and defeated the rebels at Bunker Hill in June – the first major battle. Afterwards the British withdrew into Boston – where they were besieged by an army commanded by the newly appointed General George Washington.
King George gives the go-ahead
Such was the situation in October, when the King of England addressed his parliament. His speech was long but certain phrases made it clear that a major war against his own subjects was about to begin:
“It is now become the part of wisdom, and (in its effects) of clemency, to put a speedy end to these disorders by the most decisive exertions. For this purpose, I have increased my naval establishment, and greatly augmented my land forces, but in such a manner as may be the least burthensome to my kingdoms.”
After such a speech, the Whig position was silenced and suddenly a full-scale war was inevitable. From it the United States of America would emerge, and the course of history radically changed.