Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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Benjamin Franklin was in attendance at the Albany Conference in June of 1754.  The Conference, consisting of representatives from 7 of the 13 colonies, mostly from the Northeast, was called to strengthen trade relations with the Iroquois Nations.  Another topic of discussion concerned French military incursions into their colonial territories. 

At 48 years old, Franklin had already reached worldwide acclaim as a scientist, inventor, and publisher.  He was also known for his leadership in managing colonial communities in matters such as establishing the first hospital and university in the city of Philadelphia, while also creating a postal system, a fire department, and a militia.  At that time, there was great concern over keeping the colonies safe from outside attacks from a variety of adversaries, including the French government, so Franklin addressed the Albany Conference with his “Short List of Hints” which he formalized with his Plan of Union.

Twenty-two years before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin’s Plan of Union called for a confederation of colonial governments.  Under this plan, the security of the colonies would be enhanced by the formation of a centralized governing body which he called the Grand Council.  Franklin’s innovative plan was adopted by the Conference delegates.  However, the Albany Plan of Union was quickly rejected by King George II, as it represented a threat to his authority.  It was also rejected by each of the individual colonial governments as they were concerned about upsetting their relationship with the British government. 

Over the next two decades; however, it was the British government that proved to be the greatest threat to the stability of the colonies.  In 1755, France defeated England in the French and Indian War over land rights in the Ohio River Valley.  When their hostilities escalated onto the European continent, it extended into the prolonged Seven Years’ War, with England ultimately defeating the French.  Unfortunately, after financing these wars, the British Parliament was left with a diminished treasury.  Consequently, they looked to the colonies as a source of revenue and began steadily increasing their authority over the lives and pocketbooks of the colonists. 

The roots of colonial resistance against British taxation without representation began with Parliament’s issuance of the Stamp Act in 1765.  After more than a century of colonists believing they had the same legal rights as their English cousins, the Stamp Act imposed the first tax on all paper goods including, newspapers, documents, and note paper used in the daily activities of the colonies. 

Parliament was caught off guard when their tax act sparked angry reactions from Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech in Virginia.  In Massachusetts, John Adams wrote, “…We further apprehend this tax to be unconstitutional…” while his cousin Samuel Adams was instrumental in organizing the Sons of Liberty, whose motto was “No Taxation without Representation”.  In general, the colonists rioted and refused to accept this burdensome tax.  Parliament quickly repealed the Stamp Act, only to replace it the following year with the Townsend Acts which levied taxes on all essential imports coming into colonial America.

It became clear that the taxes being collected by Parliament were paying the salaries of both the British magistrates and soldiers who were attempting to take total control over the colonies.  After the Boston Massacre of 1670, in which British troops fired into a crowd of protesting colonists, the colonies began to unite to declare their rights as British citizens.  In 1773, Parliament repealed the Townsend Acts but enacted the Tea Act in its place.  This new tactic for raising taxes on the colonies immediately inspired the Boston Tea Party where members of the Sons of Liberty tossed 345 chests of English imported tea into the Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773.  

 As discussed in previous essays, the following is a brief review of incidents that caused otherwise loyal British colonists to eventually be willing to fight for their freedom against the powerful British government: 

1774   Coercive/Intolerable Acts - British closing of Boston Harbor;1775   Lexington and Concord – British attempt to disarm colonists;
1775   The Battle of Bunker Hill – The start of the Revolutionary War;
1775   The Olive Branch Petition – Congress’ attempt at reconciliation;
1775   Proclamation of Rebellion – The King’s Denial of Colonial Rights;
1776   Common Sense – Thomas Paine’s appeal for colonial patriotism. 

With each passing year, the Parliament increasingly treated the colonists as second-class citizens rather than recognizing their rights as British citizens.  Tensions began to mount when the British government ignored the colonists’ Boston Tea Party protest over excessive tea taxes.  Instead, Parliament initiated even heavier controls on the lives of the colonists when they initiated the Coercive Acts.  These laws meant that Parliament levied even higher taxes on imported English goods to the colonies, while cutting off their means of exporting colonial goods to countries other than England. Their families were also being forced to house and feed British troops while having no recourse for their bad behavior.  At the same time, British officials were immune from criminal prosecution.   

In the fall of 1774, the Delegates of the First Continental Congress met in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia.  Now operating as an interim governing body for the 13 colonies, the Congress members deliberated on the abuses that were being perpetrated against their fellow colonists.  Choosing to bypass the unresponsive Parliament, they sent their Declaration of Rights and Grievances directly to King George III.  The declaration stated that unless the onerous Coercive Acts were repealed by mid-December of 1774, the colonies would discontinue all trade with imported English goods.   

After having no response from King George regarding their Grievances document, the Second Continental Congress convened in early May of 1775 at Philadelphia’s Town Hall, later known as Independence Hall.  A month into their conference, messengers arrived from Boston to report that the British military laid siege to the Minutemen on Bunker Hill

Seeking to avert all-out war with England, Congress submitted its Olive Branch Petition on July 7, 1775.   Once again, the king dismissed Congress’ attempt at reconciliation and ordered his government to issue a Proclamation of Rebellion which declared that anyone showing disloyalty to the king would be labeled a traitor to England.  In addition, an increase of British troops was immediately dispatched to the colonies in order to prevent any further uprisings.  The city of Boston was now overrun with British soldiers, and Boston Harbor had become clogged with British warships.

In anticipation of what their overlords may be planning, in June of 1775, Congress authorized the formation of the Continental Army and named General George Washington to be its Commander-in-Chief.   

Initially, the army was comprised of the New England militias including veterans from the French and Indian War now in their 60s.  Each colony was then given regiment quotas to fulfill with enrollments including men aged 16 years and older.  Infantry soldiers were paid $6.25 per month with inducements of bonuses and future land grants for their service.  Officers were paid $20 to $50 per month.  Well aware that his army was critically underfunded, George Washington and other high-ranking officers considered it their patriotic duty to be self-sustaining throughout the war.

As a recent immigrant from England, Thomas Paine recognized the methods being used by the king and his government to bring the colonists under complete control.  In January of 1776, he published his widely-read pamphlet Common Sense, in which he exposed the threat British tyranny was to colonial freedoms.  Paine also galvanized the patriotic spirit in the hearts of the colonists when he wrote, “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth…We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” 

The arduous path toward becoming a free, law-abiding nation was being set in motion as the Founding Fathers prepared to declare our independence from the British government.