Modern history

Postwar British Policies and Colonial Unity

Throughout the 1750s and 1760s, ordinary colonists challenged the authority of economic and political elites to impose their will on local communities and individual residents. Before and during the French and Indian War, most of these challenges involved conflicts among colonists themselves. Yet in the decade following the war, from 1764 to 1774, common grievances against Britain united colonists on the frontier and along the eastern seaboard, allowing them to launch effective protests against the British government. British policies, like the Proclamation Line of 1763, inspired widespread dissent as poor farmers, large landowners, and speculators sought to expand westward. A second policy, impressment, by which the Royal Navy forced young colonial men into military service, also aroused anger across regions and classes. At the same time, the Great Awakening, for all the upheaval it had engendered, provided colonists with shared ideas about moral principles and new techniques for mass communication. Finally, Britain’s efforts to repay its war debts by taxing colonists and its plan to continue quartering troops in North America led colonists to forge intercolonial protest movements.

Common Grievances

Like the Proclamation Line, which denied all colonists the right to settle beyond the Appalachian Mountains, the policy of impressment affected port city residents of all classes. British agents, desperate for seamen during the extended European wars of the eighteenth century, periodically impressed sailors and other poor men from British ports around the world, including seaboard cities in North America, and from merchant ships at sea. Impressment had been employed for decades by the time of the French and Indian War. Increasingly, however, merchants and other well-to-do American colonists joined common folk in demanding an end to this practice.

Seamen and dockworkers had good reason to fight off impressment agents. Men in the Royal Navy faced low wages, bad food, harsh punishment, rampant disease, and high mortality. As the practice escalated with each new war, the efforts of British naval officers and impressment agents to capture new “recruits” met violent resistance, especially in the North American colonies. At times, whole communities joined in the battle—relatives and friends, blacks and whites, women and men.

In 1757, in the midst of the French and Indian War, some 3,000 British soldiers cordoned off New York City and visited “the Taverns and other houses, where sailors usually resorted.” According to printer Hugh Gaines, “All kinds of Tradesmen and Negroes” were hauled in by British press gangs. Local residents rioted along the docks the next day, but of the 800 men picked up the night before, some 400 were “retained in the service.” With impressment robbing colonial seaports of much-needed laborers, some merchants and colonial officials began to petition Parliament for redress. But Parliament, seeing no reason why the British in America should avoid the fate of their counterparts in Great Britain, ignored the petitions.

In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, more serious impressment riots erupted in Boston, New York City, and Newport, Rhode Island. Increasingly, poor colonial seamen and dockworkers made common cause with owners of merchant ships and mercantile houses in protesting British policy. Colonial officials—mayors, governors, and custom agents—were caught in the middle. Some insisted on upholding the Royal Navy’s right of impressment; others tried to placate both naval officers and local residents; and still others resisted what they saw as an oppressive imposition on the rights of colonists. Both those who resisted British authority and those who sought a compromise had to gain the support of the lower and middling classes to succeed.

Employers and politicians who opposed impressment gained an important advantage if they could direct the anger of colonists away from themselves and toward British officials and policies. The decision of British officials to continue quartering troops in the colonies gave local leaders another opportunity to join forces with ordinary colonists. Colonial towns and cities were required to quarter (that is, house and support) British troops even after the Peace of Paris was signed. While the troops were intended to protect the colonies against disgruntled Indians and French on their borders, they also provided reinforcements for impressment agents and surveillance over other illegal activities like smuggling and domestic manufacturing. Thus a range of issues and policies began to bind colonists together through common grievances against the British Parliament.

Forging Ties across the Colonies

The ties forged between poorer and wealthier colonists over issues of westward expansion, impressment, and quartering grew stronger in the 1760s, but they tended to be localized in seaport cities or in specific areas of the frontier. Creating bonds across the colonies required considerably more effort in a period when communication and transportation beyond local areas were limited. The Albany Congress of 1754 had been one of the first attempts to develop intercolonial bonds, but it had not been very successful. Means had to be found to disseminate information and create a sense of common purpose if the colonists were going to persuade Parliament to take their complaints seriously. One important model for such intercolonial communication was the Great Awakening.

By the 1750s, the Great Awakening seemed to be marked more by dissension than by unity as new denominations continued to split from traditional churches. For example, in the Sandy Creek region of North Carolina, home to Herman Husband, radical Protestants formed the Separate Baptists (named for their separation from traditional Baptists) in order to proclaim a message of absolute spiritual equality. From the late 1750s through the 1770s, Separate Baptists converted thousands of small farmers, poor whites, and enslaved women and men and established churches throughout Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Methodists, Dunkards, Moravians, and Quakers joined Separate Baptists in offering southern residents religious experiences that highlighted spiritual equality. Appealing to blacks and whites, women and men, they challenged the social order, especially in frontier regions that were beyond the reach of many established institutions. Some dissenting preachers invited slaves and free blacks to attend their services alongside local white farmers and laborers. Slaveholders and other elite southerners considered such practices outrageous and a challenge to the political as well as the social order.

Most women and men who converted to Separate Baptism, Methodism, or other forms of radical Protestantism did not link their religious conversion directly to politics. Those who did, including many Regulators, suggested that religion was a force for division rather than unity in the colonies. But as more and more ordinary colonists and colonial leaders voiced their anger at offensive British policies, evangelical techniques used to rouse the masses to salvation became important for mobilizing colonists to protest.

Thus even though the Great Awakening had spent its religious passion in most parts of North America by the 1760s, the techniques of mass communication and critiques of opulence and corruption it initiated provided emotional and practical ways of forging ties among widely dispersed colonists. Many evangelical preachers had condemned the lavish lifestyles of colonial elites and the spiritual corruption of local officials who failed to consider the needs of their less well-to-do neighbors. Now in the context of conflicts with Great Britain, colonial leaders could turn such rhetoric against new targets of resentment by painting Parliament and British officials as aristocrats with little faith and less compassion.

During the Great Awakening, preachers also honed techniques of popular appeal that proved useful in uniting colonists to voice opposition to British policies. The public sermons and mass rallies meant to inspire loyalty to a greater moral cause could all be translated into forms applicable to political protest. These techniques challenged established forms of authority, which certainly gave pause to some colonial leaders. Nonetheless, casting aside deference to king and Parliament was necessary if colonists were going to gain rights within the British empire that met the needs of elites and laborers alike. The efforts of Great Britain to assert greater control over its North American colonies provided colonial dissidents an opportunity to test out these new ways to forge intercolonial ties.

Great Britain Seeks Greater Control

Until the French and Indian War, British officials and their colonial subjects coexisted in relative harmony. Economic growth led Britain to ignore much of the smuggling and domestic manufacturing that took place in the colonies. Although the system of mercantilism (see chapter 3) assumed that the colonies supplied raw materials and the mother country manufactured goods, a bit of manufacturing for local needs did not significantly disrupt British industry. Similarly, although the king and Parliament held ultimate political sovereignty, or final authority, over the American colonies, it was easier to allow some local government control over decisions, given the communication challenges created by distance.

This pattern of benign (or “salutary”) neglect led some American colonists to view themselves as more independent of British control than they really were. Impressment offers a good example. The Royal Navy had the right to impress men when needed, yet even in the midst of the French and Indian War, American colonists viewed impressment as an unwarranted infringement on their rights as British subjects. Many colonists had also begun to see smuggling, domestic manufacturing, and local self-governance as rights rather than privileges. Thus when British officials decided to assert greater control, many colonists protested.

To King George III and to Parliament, asserting control over the colonies was both right and necessary. In 1763 King George appointed George Grenville to lead the British government. As prime minister and chancellor of the Exchequer, Grenville faced an economic depression in England, rebellious farmers opposed to a new tax on domestic cider, and growing numbers of unemployed soldiers returning from the war. He believed that regaining political and economic control in the colonies abroad could help resolve these crises at home.

Eighteenth-century wars, especially the French and Indian War, cost a fortune. British subjects in England paid taxes to help offset the nation’s debts, even though few of them benefited as directly from the British victory as did their counterparts in the American colonies. The colonies would cost the British treasury more if the crown could not control colonists’ movement into Indian territories, limit smuggling and domestic manufacturing, and house British troops in the colonies cheaply. With more British troops and officials stationed in or visiting the colonies during the French and Indian War, they had greater opportunities to observe colonial life. Many of these observers voiced concern about the extent of criminality in the colonies and the rebellious spirit that existed among many servants, seamen, frontiersmen, tenants, and even women and slaves. Others feared that the religious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening had nurtured disdain for established authority among the colonists. Clearly it was time to impose a true imperial order.

To establish order, Parliament launched a three-prong program. First, it sought stricter enforcement of existing laws and established a Board of Trade to centralize policies and ensure their implementation. The Navigation Acts, which prohibited smuggling, established guidelines for legal commerce, and set duties on trade items, were the most important laws to be enforced. Second, Parliament extended wartime policies into peacetime. For example, the Quartering Act of 1765 ensured that British troops would remain in the colonies to enforce imperial policy. Colonial governments were expected to support them by allowing them to use vacant buildings and providing them with food and supplies.

The third part of Grenville’s colonial program was the most important. It called for the passage of new laws to raise funds and reestablish the sovereignty of British rule. The first revenue act passed by Parliament was the American Duties Act of 1764, known as the Sugar Act. It imposed an import duty, or tax, on sugar, coffee, wines, and other luxury items. The act also reduced the import tax on foreign molasses but insisted that the duty be collected, a shock to the many colonial merchants and rum distillers who relied on cheap molasses smuggled in from the French and Spanish Caribbean. The crackdown on smuggling increased the power of customs officers and established the first vice-admiralty courts in North America to ensure that the Sugar Act raised money for the crown. That same year, Parliament passed the Currency Act, which prohibited colonial assemblies from printing paper money or bills of credit. Taken together, these provisions meant that colonists would pay more money into the British treasury even as the supply of money (and illegal goods) diminished in the colonies.

Some colonial leaders protested the Sugar Act through speeches, pamphlets, and petitions, and Massachusetts established a committee of correspondence to circulate concerns to leaders in other colonies. However, dissent remained disorganized and ineffective. Nonetheless, the passage of the Sugar and Currency Acts caused anxiety among many colonists, which was heightened by passage of the Quartering Act the next year. Colonial responses to these developments marked the first steps in an escalating conflict between British officials and their colonial subjects.


• How did Britain's postwar policies lead to the emergence of unified colonial protests?

• Why did British policymakers believe they were justified in seeking to gain greater control over Britain's North American colonies?

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