All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 1972

The Founding of the American Republic: 7. The First American Crisis: 1763-66



Dr. Carson lives in Florida. He is a noted lecturer and author, his latest book entitled Throttling the Railroads.

It may well be that the pivotal event for the onset of American resistance was the coming to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1760 of George III. He was the third of the Hanoverian monarchs of England, the grandson of George II who immediately preceded him, and the great grandson of George I. He was the first of this line of British rulers to be native-born, a fact he thought worth emphasizing. When George III came to the throne, he was in the first blush of manhood, and this promising young man should have been a welcome relief from the rule of his grandfather, who had no high regard for his own abilities. Indeed, the powers of the monarch had declined greatly in the unsure hands of both George I and George II. It was commonly said that ministers were kings during this earlier period, and there can be no doubt that the Whigs had dominated so long that the government was run by factions within a party rather than by political parties.

It became clear rather quickly that George III intended to change much of this. He meant to bring the executive authority into his hands and to direct the course of Parliament as well. George III was a man of strong will unbend ably stubborn when he had set his mind on a course — much courage, and already in grasp of some of the principles of power when he was crowned.

One of his first acts was to displace William Pitt, the Elder, from leadership of the government. Beyond that, he acted to break up the dominance of the Whig party, professing to want members of the cabinet who were the ablest instead of those who belonged to a particular party, but probably moved also to this as a means of loosening Whig rule. His method of dominating Parliament was not particularly subtle: he bought the necessary numbers by handing out sinecures to those who would do his will. He visualized himself as a patriot king who would not only restore some of the glory of monarchy but also instill pride and greatness in the people over whom he ruled. Instead, it was his lot to see the dismemberment of his empire and the British people determined to limit the power once again of a briefly resurgent monarchy.

Harsh Rule and Additional Appointments

This new king’s determination to rule as well as to reign affected the colonial situation in two ways particularly. Whig ministers had generally ruled with an eye toward accommodating the Americans rather than using undue force. For example, Pitt arranged to reimburse the colonies for their effort during the French and Indian War rather than insist that they should honor requisitions without hope of return. Over the years, Parliament had permitted the colonies to legislate for themselves — subject to having their acts vetoed, of course — rather than imposing legislation upon them for their internal arrangements. As the new monarch broke up this Whig rule, he appointed officers more concerned with imposing British rule and less concerned, with maintaining good trade relations which would benefit British merchants.

Secondly, the new monarch augmented his power by increasing the number of appointive positions. By appointments he rewarded his friends in Parliament and increased the number of people who owed their positions to him. This fact of political life gave George III incentive to maintain larger armies and navies as well as more civilian agents in the colonies. That such actions did not endear the monarch to his colonial subjects did not greatly trouble him during the early years of his rule.

Writs of Assistance, 1761

It is difficult to decide exactly when the train of events got under way which led to open resistance in the colonies. The British government adopted a more rigorous enforcement of the navigation laws during the French and Indian War. As already noted, George III came to the throne in 1760. Convention has it that the train of events began in earnest in 1763. But there was one bellwether event which occurred in the colonies before that time. It involved a court case which was argued in 1761 in Massachusetts over the issuance of writs of assistance in that colony. A writ of assistance was a kind of general search warrant without a fixed date of termination which would enable officers to search for merchandise illegally brought into the colonies. Unlike a search warrant, it did not require the naming of the place to be searched or what goods were to be located. Such writs had been issued in 1755, and there were applications for new ones after George III came to the throne.

James Otis took the leadership in opposing the issuance of new writs before the court in the old townhouse in Boston. If Otis had contented himself to argue against the issuance of the writs on the grounds simply that there were few precedents for them in more recent times, the occasion might not have been remembered. But he went much further than this: he proclaimed such writs to be contrary to reason and denounced them as arbitrary and tyrannical by nature. According to John Adams’ reconstruction of his speech, he said: “Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner also may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm…. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him.”1 He declared his opposition to them in emotionally charged language: “I will to my dying day oppose with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand, and villany on the other, as this writ of assistance is.”²

James Otis lost this particular case before the court, but he emerged from it as the man who would take the earliest leadership in presenting and arguing the American cause. His local popularity was vouchsafed in the ensuing election when he became representative for Boston in the Massachusetts legislature. For the next three or four years he used his pen as well as his forensic abilities to formulate and expound the rights of Americans and the limits of British rule. Whether he would have continued his early leadership role in the later stages of resistance will never be known, for he was inactivated by bouts with insanity after 1769.

Turning Point in 1763

A cluster of events in 1763 does mark a turning point in British and American relations, as has been commonly held. Up to that point, there is no evidence of resistance to British rule, though, of course, there were objections to particular actions. To all outward appearances, Americans generally accepted British rule if it could not be said that they were always contented with it.

In retrospect, historians are apt to see that the stage was already set for independence. Trends were well on their way to fruition which prepared the way for American separation. Americans were very nearly cut loose already from the Church of England which was the religious basis of being English. Colonists had much experience in politics which prepared them for governing themselves. There was widespread sensitivity to any dangers to liberty in actions by the British government. The natural law philosophy was familiar to thinkers, and was at hand to serve as a basis both for breaking from England and erecting new governments. Feudal, mercantile, and religious restrictions were very nearly anachronisms in America already.

Even so, Americans were a long way from being ready for independence in 1763. The above were conditions which might well have continued to exist for a long while without leading to independence. Americans still professed their allegiance to the king, as they would continue to do for more than a decade. Their rights and privileges they still traced to England, and the claims to their property to royal grants. There was as yet neither a sense of unity among the continental colonies nor any factual unity, except for a common allegiance to the British monarch. The conference at Albany in 1754 had shown how little desire there was for common action by the colonists.

Resistance to Britain, then, was provoked by changes in British policies, and these began most notably with a cluster of actions in 1763. Most of what happened in 1763 was not so much the provocation of resistance as the prelude to it. One of the most momentous of the developments of that year was not provocative at all. It was the Treaty of Paris which brought to a conclusion the Seven Year’s War. By its terms, Britain got all French territory in Canada and all territory east of the Mississippi river, except New Orleans, belonging to both France and Spain. No longer were the American colonies threatened by European powers with immediately adjacent territories. It was now much easier to think in terms of independence from Britain.

Restrictions on opening up this new territory did provoke many colonists. Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out as Indians feared and resisted encroachment by the white man in the interior. The British government attempted to prevent settlement beyond the mountains by the Proclamation of 1763. The crucial part of the Proclamation is found in this prohibition: “that no governor or commander in chief of our other colonies or plantations in America, do presume for the present, and until our further pleasure be known, to grant warrant of survey, or pass patents for any lands beyond the heads or sources of any of the rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the west or north west….”³ The effect of this on colonists has been described in this way: “The establishment of the boundary line of 1763 blocked at once the plans of land companies such as the Ohio Company of Virginia which had a grant west of the line, and the schemes of new companies which planned to take up land in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. The whole region on which men had fastened such high hopes was now reserved to the despised Indians.”4 These restrictions were particularly galling in view of the fact that taxes were shortly to be levied on the colonists to help pay for their defense.

The “Parson’s Cause”

Another symptomatic event occurred in 1763. It is known as the “Parson’s Cause.” It was a symptom both of the potential for resistance to British impositions and of the limits to that resistance at this time. The “Parson’s Cause” was a court case arising out of the payment of the Anglican clergy in Virginia. A Virginia Act of 1748 provided that each such clergyman should have an annual salary of sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco. Confronted with a crop failure in 1758, the Virginia legislature authorized that all debts and taxes payable in tobacco could be paid at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco, a rate of about one-third the price that tobacco was bringing. The Privy Council in England disallowed the law, and some clergymen sued for damages. The most famous suit was brought by the Reverend James Maury. The court found the law invalid and remanded the case to trial before a jury to determine the amount of damages to be paid.

The case attained its fame because of the efforts of Patrick Henry, who was one of the lawyers opposing Maury. Patrick Henry’s arena was politics, and the endeavor in which he excelled was oratory. It took him a while to discover this. He was an undistinguished student. He tried his hand twice at storekeeping, and was a failure both times. His efforts at becoming a farmer met with a like reward. He then studied law briefly, and was admitted to practice at the age of 24. He rapidly acquired a sizable practice, and emerged as a popular political leader and a much sought after lawyer following the “Parson’s Cause.” His fiery oratory in defense of colonial rights eventually earned him a special niche in history books and a unique position among American heroes.

Enter Patrick Henry

According to the Reverend Mr. Maury, who was, of course, a biased witness, Patrick Henry “harangued the jury for near an hour” toward the close of the case known as “Parson’s Cause.” He argued that the Virginia Act of 1758 met all the qualifications of good law, and “that a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” Moreover, he declared that it was the duty of the clergy of an established church to support law, and not to be going into the courts to challenge it. The jury upheld Mr. Maury’s claim, as it was informed by the court it must, and awarded him one penny’s damage for his losses. British rule had been technically vindicated, but everyone perceived that Henry had, in fact, won the case. His remarks about the king’s becoming a tyrant were greeted with murmurs of “treason, “5 but neither judge nor jury reproved him. Virginians were used to maneuvers by which the will of British rulers was thwarted. There was nothing new in this. Henry’s rhetoric was audacious, however, and the reward he received in public admiration suggests that sentiment was shifting away from ancient loyalties toward new visions.

Occasions for expressing these changing sentiments were not long in coming. In fact, a change in ministries in Britain had occurred before some of the above events which set the stage for provocative action. In April of 1763, George Grenville became Chancellor of the Exchequer and formed around him a new government. Grenville should have been able to deal with Britain’s financial problems, if anyone could, for he had long experience in finance. He had served earlier as a lord of the treasury and as treasurer of the navy. Moreover, “Grenville’s chief concern was revenue and economy; they were his passion, which he pursued relentlessly…. He could not endure the sight of red ink, an unbalanced budget, or waste and extravagance….”6 King George found him to be a bore with his interminable talk of money, but Grenville was the man given the task of doing something, and do something he did from 1763 to 1765.

George Grenville’s ministry was responsible for two major lines of action on the American colonies. One was the tightening of administration and enforcement of the laws. The other was the passage of laws which were aimed at raising revenue from the colonies. An apparently casual action by Parliament in 1763 set the stage for much that followed. In March of that year funds were voted for maintaining a standing army in America. This was handled without much ado, since there was already an army in America in connection with the war. Grenville had a more direct hand in stationing naval vessels in America. He was First Lord of the Admiralty, and had much to do with getting the law passed which effected this. “The law gave naval officers power to act as customs officials…. By the autumn of 1763, naval vessels were cruising in American waters from Newfoundland to the West Indies, with their officers and crews on the alert for the profits to be gained from the capture and successful prosecution of illegal traders.” A profound change was occurring between Britain and her colonies; the decision to have military force available was a prelude to increased exercise of authority by Britain. This change could be made with little fanfare because it did not differ on the surface from what had just been done during the French and Indian War.

That Grenville meant business should have been clear from his orders to customs officials in 1763. Appointments to major customs posts in the colonies had long been sinecures for Englishmen. Quite often they drew their pay while continuing to reside in Britain. Grenville decreed that henceforth they must reside in America. Many who held such positions resigned rather than to go to live in the colonies, and new officers were appointed in their stead.

Grenville took the lead in getting much new legislation for the colonies in 1764. The key piece of legislation is the one usually referred to as the Sugar Act, though it dealt with a great deal more than sugar. The act lowered the duties on molasses coming into the colonies, prohibited the importation of rum, added items to the enumerated lists, and provided strenuous regulations on shipping for its enforcement. The greatest departure from precedent in it was that it was designed to raise revenue. The preamble reads, in part: “Whereas it is expedient that new provisions and regulations should be established for improving the revenue of this kingdom…: and whereas it is just and necessary, that a revenue be raised, in your Majesty’s said dominions in America, for defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same; we… have resolved to give and grant unto your Majesty the several rates and duties herein after mentioned.”8

Regulations on Shipping

Even more galling to many people involved may have been the onerous regulations on shipping from the British West Indies. Captains of vessels had to have affidavits, certificates, definitive listings of goods, and had to post bond. Moreover, the burden of proof that he had in every way complied with the law was placed on the shipper in order to reclaim a vessel after it had been seized by the authorities. The Act read, in part: “… if any ship or goods shall be seized for any cause of forfeiture, and any dispute shall arise whether the customs and duties for such goods have been paid, or the same have been lawfully imported or exported, or concerning the growth, product, or manufacture, of such goods…, the proof thereof shall lie upon the owner or claimer….”9 In addition, the act provided mandatory decisions for juries, partially, at least, taking discretion from them. “The result of these provisions was to free customs officers from virtually all responsibility for their actions…. Small wonder that the Americans fought back.”¹º

The Currency Act of 1764 was yet another attempt of the British government to impose its authority. This act forbade the colonies south of New England to make any further issues of paper money which would be legal tender in any sense. They were now to be at the mercy of a money situation which was artificially tipped in favor of Britain.

The colonists had hardly had time to take in the implications of the Sugar Act when Parliament passed the Stamp Act. It was passed in March of 1765. The Stamp Act required that after November 1, 1765, stamps be used on all legal papers, commercial papers, liquor licenses, land instruments, indentures, cards, dice, pamphlets, newspapers, advertisements, almanacs, academic degrees, and appointments to office. The money collected from the sale of stamps was to go to the British treasury to be used for expenses incurred in America. This act was the most clear-cut departure from tradition yet made by the British government, for it placed a direct tax on the Americans, something that had not been done before.

It was followed in very short order by an indirect taxing measure, an act known as the Quartering Act, passed in May of 1765. The act provided for the quartering of troops in the facilities of colonial governments, in alehouses and inns, and in unoccupied dwellings. So far, so good, but the act also provided that “all such officers and soldiers, so put and placed in such barracks… be furnished and supplied there by the persons to be authorized or appointed for that purpose… with fire, candles, vinegar, and salt, bedding, utensils for dressing their victuals… without paying any thing for the same. That the respective provinces shall pay unto such person or persons all such sum or sums of money so by them paid….”¹¹ In short, the colonies were to be indirectly taxed for the maintaining of troops in quarters; they might levy such taxes themselves, but they were to be compelled to do so.

However, the fat was already in the fire well before news of the Quartering Act had reached America. Resistance was mounting in America even before the Stamp Act was passed. Some were alarmed by the revenue aims of the Sugar Act, perceiving in it a violation of the principle of taxation without representation. “When it was learned in Boston that the British government intended to collect duties on foreign molasses, the merchants appointed a corresponding committee to consolidate the opposition of the Northern merchants to the Sugar Act and to ‘promote a union and coalition of their councils.’ “¹² The New York legislature denied the justice of duties placed on the trade of New Yorkers, and declared that it was their right to be free of involuntary taxes.”

But it was resistance to the Stamp Act that drew the colonies together in a unity of opposition.

Opposition was shaping up even before the act was passed. Nor was Parliament wanting in opponents of the taxing idea. When Charles Townshend asked: “Will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence…, will they grudge to contribute their mite…?” He was answered in resounding terms in a speech by Sir Isaac Barre:

They planted by your care? No! Your oppressions planted ‘em in America. They fled from your oppression….

They nourished by your indulgence? They grew up by your neglect of ‘em. As soon as you began to care about ‘em, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule over ‘em….

They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence….14

This was the famous “Sons of Liberty” speech, for Barre used the phrase in describing the Americans, and it came to be used as the basis of organizations in America. Before the Stamp Act was passed, several colonial legislatures went on record as opposing it. All this was to no avail, the die had been cast in 1764, and Parliament proceeded to the enactment of a direct tax.

American Sentiment Misread

Not only was Parliament misinformed as to the probable reception of the act in America, but even colonial agents representing colonies in England had misjudged American sentiment and determination. Several agents accepted commissions as stamp agents, actions which they were to regret. Even the usually prudent Benjamin Franklin caused friends to be appointed stamp agents and expressed himself of the opinion that the wise course would be to abide by the law.15

Whether it would have been wise to do so or not, obedience was not the course followed in America. On the contrary, Americans moved from opposition to resistance to outright defiance. Colonial legislatures adopted resolutions against the tax. Virginia led the way under the prodding of Patrick Henry. He charged that the Stamp Act was an act of tyranny and was reported to have declared: “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third —” The Speaker of the House interrupted him to declare that he had spoken “Treason!” With only a brief pause, Henry continued: “— may profit by their example! If this be treason, make the most of it.”16 Not all of Henry’s resolutions were adopted by the House of Burgesses (though they were all published in newspapers elsewhere), but, of those that were, the following gives the crux of the argument:

Resolved. That the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burthensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.17

Massachusetts sought to go beyond the action of separate resolutions by colonial legislatures to some sort of common action. The assembly of that colony, therefore, sent out a call for a congress. It was fulfilled, at least partially, by the meeting of the Stamp Act Congress in New York in October of 1765. Six legislatures sent delegates, and three other colonies were represented by delegates not so formally chosen. The delegates in Congress assembled affirmed their allegiance to the king and their willing subordination to Parliament when it acted properly. But they resolved that there were limits to this authority, some of which they spelled out:

That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives….

That the only representatives of the people of these colonies are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.18

The most dramatic action, of course, was direct action. The groundwork was laid for direct action by the Committees of Correspondence, and much of it was done by the Sons of Liberty. The first effort was to secure the resignation of stamp agents, without whom the stamps could not readily be distributed. In some colonies, stamp agents resigned when they perceived the temper of the people. In others they held out for awhile, and were subject to threats, abuse, and humiliation. The case of Jared Ingersoll of Connecticut who had accepted an appointment as stamp agent while in England as colonial representative shows the lengths to which crowds went sometimes to secure a resignation. “They caught Ingersoll at Wethersfield and silently and pointedly led him under a large tree. They parlayed for hours…, with Ingersoll squirming, arguing and refusing to resign. The crowds… grew so large and threatening that finally Ingersoll read his resignation to the mob and yielded to the demand that he throw his hat in the air and cheer for ‘Liberty and Property.’ “19

No Stamps Available

So successful was this direct effort that on the day that the Stamp Act was to go in effect there were no stamps available in the mainland colonies. The question became now whether business would go on as usual in defiance of the law. If the law were observed, ships would not sail, courts would not hold sessions, newspapers would not be published, and much of life would come to a standstill. Many newspapers continued to be published; ships sailed, and some courts carried on business. In short, the colonists operated in defiance of the law.

Parliament was confronted with a crisis in America, one of its own making, when it convened in December of 1765. However, the king’s speech opening the session acknowledged only that “matters of importance have lately occurred in some of my colonies in America….”²º Even so, Parliament had to take some kind of action. It had to take Draconian measures to achieve enforcement, or it had to back down. Grenville’s ministry had already fallen, and a new government was organized under the leadership of Rockingham. With the matchless orator, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, taking the lead in the debate for repeal, the House voted 275 to 167 for repeal on February 22, 1766. The bill was signed into law on March 18. However, Parliament refused to yield on the principle, for it insisted on passing the Declaratory Act, which went into effect on the same day that the Stamp Act was repealed. The Declaratory Act tried to make up in unyielding language for what had, in fact, been yielded. It declared, in part: “that the King’s majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons of Great Britain, in parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies… in all cases whatsoever.”²1

The theoretical issue was joined, but the crisis had passed — for the moment.

This was the first American crisis. It was the first because for the first time all the colonies were drawn together in action and resistance to Britain. Heretofore, they had been separate, linked only by their common allegiance to Britain; now, they had been linked without that tie in common sentiment and for a common cause. Not only that, but they had seen Britain falter before their resolution and back down.

Several other points need to be made about this crisis. One is that it was provoked by British action. Parliament was the innovator, abandoning precedent to tax the colonies, extending itself to direct taxation, which hardly anyone in America would admit was its right. The colonists were defend‑ing; in an important sense, they were conservative, for they were attempting to preserve the rights and privileges they had enjoyed. Another point is that the course on which Parliament was bent was potentially tyrannical. Force was being assembled in America; Parliament was moving to take colonial control of their domestic affairs from them. Thirdly, the colonists based their arguments on the rights of Englishmen and the British constitution. They were not rebelling; they were resisting what they perceived as unconstitutional action.

The colonists drew a line beyond which they said Parliament was not to go. They denounced direct taxes imposed from without, and distinguished between internal and external taxation, the latter some theorists held to be acceptable. Parliamentary leaders learned from this debacle. Never again would they act so directly on America. They would now try by less direct means to accomplish their object. But the Americans had been aroused; henceforth, every act of Parliament would be examined with great care to see if there was in it a potentiality for oppression. Such acts were not long in coming.

Next: British Acts Become Intolerable.



 1 John Braeman, The Road to Independence (New York: Capricorn Books, 1963), p. 14.

2 Ibid., p. 13.

3 Jack P. Greene, ed., Colonies to Nation (New York: Oxford University 17-18 Press, 1968),

 4 Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), pp. pp. 58-59.

5 See Braeman, op. cit., pp. 17-19. 

6 John C. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1943), p. 83.

7 Jensen, op. cit., p. 45.

 8 Greene, op. cit., p. 19.

9 Ibid., p. 24.

10 Jensen, op. cit., p. 51.

1¹ Greene, op. cit., p. 44.

¹2 Miller, op. cit., p. 101.

13 Jensen, op. cit., pp. 94-95.

¹4 Ibid., pp. 63-64.

15 See Lawrence H. Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), p. 83.

¹6 Ibid., p. 87.

¹7 Richard B. Morris, The American Revolution (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1955), p. 90.

¹8 Ibid., p. 91.

¹9 Jensen, op. cit., p. 113.

20 Gipson, op. cit., p. 105.

21 Greene, op. cit., p. 85. 

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.