When King James II was expelled from England in 1688, Parliament invited King William III of Orange and his wife Mary II (daughter of James II), of the Netherlands, to assume the throne. Parliament promised no resistance. The only requirement was that they sign the English Bill of Rights that Parliament had drawn up on behalf the people. It condemned James II for violating the rights of Englishmen, which the Parliament called the "laws and liberties of this kingdom,"
and placed restrictions on the powers of the monarch. William and Mary "gladly accepted what was offered them"
and signed the English Bill of Rights.
Those from England who settled the colonies, particularly Massachusetts, seeking freedom from religious persecution (Puritans and Pilgrims) and others, brought this history - and these rights - with them. After all, they were still Englishmen; they were living on a continent claimed by England and establishing settlements and communities pursuant to land patents issued by the King.
But the bond of affection would seem to be one-way only. While the colonists sought to live as loyal subjects to the Crown, enjoying the same the rights and liberties as the citizens of England, England sought to exploit the colonies for raw materials, trade, and taxes. For several years, things were good. No complaints. But just as the British colonies were growing and expanding, there were French colonies growing and expanding as well - in the frontier region west of Virginia up to Canada. They were mainly fur-trappers. Eventually, Britain felt its American colonies and interests were being threatened and the two empires went to war. It lasted seven years (the French-Indian War, aka, the Seven Years War, 1754-1763), and eventually, the French were expelled and England secured greater territory. Believing the war was primarily for the benefit of the safety and security of the colonies, Parliament enacted a series of taxes on the colonies to recoup the money it had spent. [Note that around 1750, the plantations were established and against the wishes of the colonies, Britain pushed the slave trade on them to ensure that raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, and rice were produced plentifully and productively and shipped to England]
Accordingly, Parliament enacted the following taxes: The Navigation Acts (1651, 1660, and 1663; duties on tobacco and molasses, to name a few), the Plantation Duty Act (1673; a duty on plantations), the Sugar Act (1764; a duty or tax on sugar), the Stamp Act (1765; a tax on all documents, including legal documents, calendars, cards, etc), and the Townshend Acts (1767; duties on items imported by the colonists, including glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea). The colonists were outraged. They weren't outraged at the taxes themselves, but rather by the violation of their essential right to have representation in the legislative body that passes such tax measures. "No Taxation Without Representation!" They compared the current king, King George III, to Charles I for indiscriminately taxing the colonies without their consent. The Sons of Liberty organized at this time - originating in Massachusetts and New York and eventually having a presence in all thirteen colonies - and they were extremely effective at protesting these taxes and frustrating their enforcement.
Protests heightened with the passage of the Tea Act in 1673. The Tea Act allowed the British East India Company, which had a surplus of tea, to have a monopoly on import tea to the colonies. In passing this act, Parliament actually thought it was doing a favor to the colonies by providing tea at a reduced price (due to the surplus). In fact, the cost of the tea, together with the new tax ("a mere 3 pence"), would be lower than the cost of the tea provided by other sources. But Parliament didn't get it. The colonists didn't think government had the right to force a monopoly on them and interfere with the trade of colonial tea merchants. Colonial merchants couldn't compete with the less-expensive tea that the East India Tea Company provided so abundantly. And so, the colonists once again took matters in their own hands. In Pennsylvania and New York, colonists did not allow British tea ships to enter the large city ports. They sent ships out into the harbors to block the tea ships. In Boston, they had a "party." On that evening of December 16, 1773, approximately 100 "radicals," members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, dressed up as Mohawk Indians, boarded three East India Company ships, broke open all 342 wooden chests of tea, and dumped them into the Boston Harbor. The value of the tea destroyed, in today's market, would amount to about $1 million.
Well, that particular act of protest was the one that the broke the camel's back. At first King George III didn't seem too perturbed at the incident, but soon, the tide of British public opinion would grow against the colonists, whom they regarded as rebellious and childish, and that rising sentiment would force Parliament and King George to punish the citizens of Boston for their recalcitrance. Parliament would no longer tolerate disobedience; the colonies' "rebellious spirit" would finally have to be addressed and they would have be made to obey British laws. Parliament would no longer be soft when it came to obeying British laws. It would show the colonies what happens to those who happen to have a "rebellious spirit" and are disobedient, and in doing so, reinforce upon them the need to obey its laws. What followed would be a series of laws called the "Coercive Acts" (also referred to as the "Intolerable Acts").
On March 28, 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed four acts which together became known as the Coercive Acts. These individual acts included: (1) The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until damages from the Boston Tea Party were paid (no ship carrying colonial goods could enter or leave Boston Harbor until the Massachusetts Colony paid for all the tea that was destroyed); (2) The Massachusetts Government Act, which effectively revoked Massachusetts Charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1691), its colonial charter, prohibited democratic town meetings, and turned the royal governor's council into an appointed body with wide-ranging powers (in other words, shifting government authority from Massachusetts colony to the royal governor); (3) The Administration of Justice Act, which made British officials immune to criminal prosecution in Massachusetts; and (4) The Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and quarter British troops on demand, including in their private homes as a last resort.
Indeed, the situation was intolerable. Parliament ordered the Royal Navy to blockade the Boston Harbor, preventing ships from entering and bringing in goods and supplies and blocking colonial merchant ships from leaving and selling their goods. By fiat, the basic structure of colonial government was altered. England was now governing the colony. To add insult to injury, King George appointed General Thomas Gage, who had served as the head of the British Army in North America, as the new Governor of Massachusetts, and he brought troops with him. On May 13, General Gage arrived in Boston with four regiments of troops. Aside from the fact that the colonists felt stripped them of their previously enjoyed rights, perhaps more unnerving was the presence of four thousand British soldiers in Boston. Under the Quartering Act, there would be guaranteed residence for the British Army and the citizens of Massachusetts would be required to quarter them, if necessary (otherwise they would have to remain on ships). The Quartering Act required the colonies to house British soldiers in barracks provided by the colonies. If the barracks were too small to house all the soldiers, then localities were to accommodate the soldiers in local inns, stables, ale houses, and houses of sellers of wine. Should there still be soldiers without accommodation after all such public houses were filled, the colonies were then required to take, hire and make fit for the reception of his Majesty's forces, such and so many uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings as shall be necessary. Finally, British officials could abuse these acts and be free from prosecution in the colony.
In response, provincial militias started to gather munitions and store them in the countryside out of reach of the British regulars.
On May 26, Parliament dissolved Virginia's colonial government - its Virginia House of Burgesses. And on September 1, General Gage seized the Massachusetts Colony's arsenal at Charlestown, located just across the Charles River from Boston - near Bunker Hill.
On Benjamin Franklin's advice, the colonies decided to meet in a common body to address Britain's treatment of the colonies, in particular the blockade of Boston Harbor and the Intolerable Acts on the Province of Massachusetts. And so, on September 5, the First Continental Congress met with 56 delegates in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve out of the thirteen colonies sent delegates (Georgia did not send any). The Continental Congress, which would meet on two separate occasions, became the governing body of the "united" colonies during the time leading up to and then during the American Revolution.
On October 14, the First Continental Congress adopted a Declaration and Resolves against the blockade, the Coercive Acts, the Quartering of troops, and other objectionable British actions. These resolutions listed a series of grievances against Parliament (where have we seen that response before?) and appealed to the King to intercede on behalf of the colonies for proper respect for their rights as Englishmen. The Declaration and Resolves began as follows:
The good people of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North- Carolina and South-Carolina, justly alarmed at these arbitrary proceedings of parliament and administration, have severally elected, constituted, and appointed deputies to meet, and sit in general Congress, in the city of Philadelphia, in order to obtain such establishment, as that their religion, laws, and liberties, may not be subverted: Whereupon the deputies so appointed being now assembled, in a full and free representation of these colonies, taking into their most serious consideration, the best means of attaining the ends aforesaid, do, in the first place, as Englishmen, their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for asserting and vindicating their rights and liberties, DECLARE,
That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:
Resolved, N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.
Resolved, N.C.D. 2. That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.
Resolved, N.C.D. 3. That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them, as their local and other circumstances enable them to exercise and enjoy.
Resolved, 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved.
The Declaration and Resolves was presented to the King and then to Parliament on January 19, 1775. King George laughed and dismissed the document and the Parliament did not even address it. King George, to whom the Declaration was addressed, never even offered a formal response, for in his mind, he did not have to submit to the demands of the colonists, whom he regarded as insolent children. He famously said to the Prime Minister Lord North: "The die is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph." He would not negotiate with them. His tacit response made it clear that he meant to maintain political unity between the colonies and the United Kingdom even at the expense of the happiness of the colonists.
Word of the Intolerable Acts and the subjugation of the colonists in Boston began to spread to other colonies and they began to react. Perhaps the most famous response came from Virginia, and Patrick Henry!
Because England had dissolved Virginia's colonial government, its Virginia House of Burgesses, the state's colonial leaders were forced to meet in secret. And so they did, on March 20, 1775, at a small church which is now called St. John's Church, in Richmond, away from the Capitol in Williamsburg. Delegate Patrick Henry presented resolutions to raise a militia, and to put Virginia in a posture of defense. He believed that martial law would eventually come to Virginia. Henry's opponents urged caution and patience, holding out hope that the King would eventually respond - and respond generously - to the Declarations and Resolves. On the evening of the 23rd, Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every county of Virginia and delivered a fiery speech in support of it. His final words "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" would be a rallying cry for the cause of independence and indeed, his entire speech is probably the most stirring, most passionate case in defense of liberty in our American history.
The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.
Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.