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The American Revolution for Kids
A History with 21 Activities
By Janis Herbert
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2002 Janis Herbert
All rights reserved.
Sons and Daughters of Liberty
1760: Be a King!
"Be a king, George!" demanded Queen Augusta. She wanted her son to be a powerful ruler. The last two kings of Great Britain, George I and George II, were from German royal families and didn't really care what happened in England or its colonies. They left most of the decisions up to the prime minister and Parliament. When George III took the throne, he remembered his mother's words. He intended to be a strong ruler.
In some countries kings were all-powerful, but in Great Britain there were limits on the king's rule. George III found this very frustrating. Over the centuries of England's history, the monarchy had gradually been forced to give up some of its power. The nobles, knights, and burgesses (leading citizens) of England had gained rights and a voice in their government. Eventually they had an official role in the state and became part of the governing body known as Parliament.
He wasn't cruel, but George III did not intend to be pushed around. He was king! That pesky Parliament, for instance — he couldn't just do away with it, but he threatened or rewarded its members until they voted his way. And those upstart colonists across the ocean? King George was not about to let them decide for themselves on important issues such as trade and taxes. The colonies existed to benefit the Crown! Their trade and markets were supposed to bring wealth and power to Great Britain.
Deciding for themselves was exactly what many colonists wanted to do. They worked hard to build towns and settlements in a wild new land. They fought, often without any help from the British, to keep their settlements safe from Indian attacks. They built up industries and trade and added to the wealth of their mother country. Yet the distant government seemed only to care about how much money it could make off its colonies. Since George III had come to the throne, the colonists felt things had gotten worse.
As far back as the 1660s, Parliament had passed laws telling the colonists exactly what, and with whom, they could trade. The Navigation Acts forbade the colonists to sell certain goods to any country other than England. In another act, Parliament demanded that any goods the colonists bought from other countries had to go through England first so a special tax could be collected on them. Parliament even put a stop to some kinds of trade among the colonies. England passed these acts so its own merchants and landowners would profit. The colonists seethed with anger. They filled their ships with illegal goods and smuggled them past customs agents to avoid the trade laws they felt were so unjust.
George III stamped his royal foot. He would bring a stop to this smuggling! He intended to control all the trade going in and out of the colonies. He armed his customs officials in colonial ports such as Boston and New York with "writs of assistance." These documents allowed them to enter any buildings, at any time, to search for illegal smuggled goods. The colonists cried, "Unfair!" In England, such writs were illegal. There, not even King George could enter a man's home without going through the legal system. The colonists who had left England to settle in North America had been assured that they and their heirs would have all the rights of free English subjects. What had happened to that promise?
Some colonists claimed the writs of assistance went against their "natural rights." Natural rights were so basic, they said, that they went beyond Parliament's laws or King George's decrees. Preachers in pulpits and street-corner philosophers quoted the philosopher John Locke, who wrote that it was a "law of nature" that all people have an equal right to life, liberty, and property. Locke also said that the purpose of government was to protect these rights. The colonists thought that since their government was breaking these ancient (though unwritten) laws, that gave them the right to refuse to obey the writs of assistance. King George said, "We do not agree."
The Parson's Tobacco
A lawsuit in Virginia became the talk of the colonies. It was about a parson and his tobacco, but it was also about whether England had the right to overrule local laws passed by the colonies.
Virginia's clergymen were paid in tobacco, 17,000 pounds of it a year. During bad crop years, the price of tobacco was high and the clergymen made a lot of extra money. Planters and Virginia's colonial House of Burgesses thought it would be better if the clergymen were paid with money instead. The House of Burgesses passed a law to this effect.
Unhappy clergymen took this matter up with the British government, which struck down the Virginia law. When they still didn't get their tobacco, one of them took the matter to court. The case, called the "Parson's Cause," became famous. So did Patrick Henry, the intense, redheaded lawyer opposing the parson. Henry stood in the Virginia courtroom and passionately argued that the British government could not cancel the colony's law. The jury agreed and gave the parson only a penny for his trouble. A struggle for power between England and its colonies had begun.
The acts passed by the distant Parliament affected the colonists' livelihoods and their everyday lives, yet they had no vote or voice. When they complained, the king responded by sending soldiers across the ocean. The colonists felt threatened when they saw the armed, red-coated soldiers in their towns. When they needed help, the colonists said, they were left on their own. Now, British soldiers were everywhere.
England had many debts to pay after the French and Indian War, and the members of Parliament felt it was only right that the colonists pay them. After all, British troops had driven the French off their colonial doorstep. The colonists disagreed. More than 20,000 of them had fought in that war, too, and they had their own debts to pay. Besides, England and France had been fighting for 70 years, not only in America but in Europe and Africa, too. England was lucky to have the colonists to help them beat their longtime enemy.
Parliament tried different ways to get money from the colonies. It passed a "Sugar Act," to make money off the profitable trade in sugar and molasses, and a "Currency Act," which prevented colonists from using their own paper money (it wasn't worth as much to British merchants). When it passed the "Stamp Act," the colonists howled in anger.
This new law stated that all official papers in the colonies must be stamped by a government agent — for a fee. This meant that people had to pay for special stamps for all court documents, diplomas, wills, and licenses. There were even stamps for newspapers, almanacs, and playing cards!
Everyone was upset about the Stamp Act. How was it that Parliament, 3,000 miles away, had the right to lay such a heavy burden on the people of the colonies? From New Hampshire to Georgia, people were angry because they had no say about what happened to them. They had no representatives in Parliament who would stand up and state their point of view. The English landowners were represented. Why shouldn't the colonists have a voice in their government, too? Massachusetts lawyer James Otis, who had already been fighting in court against the writs of assistance, coined a phrase that colonists everywhere repeated: "Taxation without representation is tyranny!"
The Stamp Act was quickly followed by the "Quartering Act." This law decreed that colonists had to pay for the British soldiers stationed in the colonies. Soldiers could be quartered in the homes of families, whether the families wanted them there or not. The British government said the law was necessary because there wasn't enough housing for its soldiers. This new act was threatening. With soldiers lodged in their shops and homes, who would dare challenge any acts of Parliament or the king?
Samuel Adams knew how to make his voice heard (maybe because he was one of 12 children). His father, a Massachusetts brewer, paid Samuel's university tuition in flour and molasses, then sent him to apprentice with a successful trader. But Samuel Adams had no head for business or brewing; his passion was for politics. When Parliament passed the Stamp Act, he went into action. He sought out the common people, spending time at the docks and taverns to listen to their opinions and share his own. The British thought he was a nuisance and a rabble-rouser and kept an eye out for the determined man in his rumpled red cloak.
Many of the people Samuel Adams met felt as he did, that the new acts passed by Parliament violated their rights. They were angry and felt helpless, but after talking to Adams they didn't feel so helpless anymore. He organized protests to get the colonists' message back to England. They were not going to pay!
Boston was in turmoil, and much of it was due to Samuel Adams. He helped to form a secret society pledged to fight the Stamp Act. They called themselves the "Sons of Liberty," taking their name from a phrase coined by Parliament's Isaac Barré, who had voted against the Stamp Act. Barré warned that the Stamp Act would lead the colonists, those "sons of liberty," to revolt against their mother country. The Sons of Liberty got support from John Hancock, the richest man in New England.
The "Liberty Tree," a large elm tree in a central part of Boston, became their favorite place to gather and talk. British officials shivered when their carriages passed the Liberty Tree. Its trunk was covered with flyers protesting the Stamp Act. Dummies dressed like the British officials hung from the tree's branches. When Sons of Liberty groups began to form in other towns, they met beneath other "liberty trees" or raised "liberty poles" and held noisy gatherings around them.
To protest the Stamp Act, many colonists boycotted (refused to buy) British goods. The Sons of Liberty turned to violence to get their way. They threatened merchants who traded with England. They destroyed the homes of British government agents. By the time the Stamp Act was about to go into effect, there wasn't a person in the colonies who would serve as a stamp agent.
Lawyer James Otis wrote to influential men in every colony, inviting them to send delegates to meet and discuss the Stamp Act. Representatives from nine of the colonies met in New York. (The other four supported the idea but didn't choose their delegates in time.) This meeting, called the "Stamp Act Congress," was the first time the colonies had worked together in a common cause. Before this time, they acted as if they were 13 separate countries. Now they had a common goal. A Massachusetts delegate, Dr. Joseph Warren, noticed it. "Until now the colonies were foolishly jealous of each other. Now they are united," he said. As allies, they would be more powerful.
The delegates were angry about the Stamp Act, but most wanted to remain part of Great Britain. Most of the people in the colonies felt the same way. Though they were angry, few thought about breaking away from England. They simply wanted to have their voices heard. John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, wrote a declaration to King George and Parliament denying their right to tax the colonies without consent. The Stamp Act Congress sent the declaration to England.
King George and the members of Parliament already knew how the colonists felt. The boycotts were hurting British merchants. An American visitor in London, Benjamin Franklin, was questioned by members of Parliament about the situation. "What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the Stamp Act?" he was asked. "The best in the world," Franklin said. "And now?" they asked. "Oh, very much altered!" he said. He told Parliament that the colonists would not pay unless "compelled by force of arms."
When the hated Stamp Act was about to go into effect, the Sons of Liberty planned special demonstrations. Merchants shut down their businesses. People pretended to be in mourning, tolling bells and flying flags at half-mast. In one city, a funeral was held. On the coffin, the word Liberty made clear what had died. The riots, boycotts, and declarations were heard across the ocean. Parliament canceled the Stamp Act.
When the news reached the colonies, people rejoiced. They sang and danced in the streets. They gathered around huge bonfires and cheered for their kinsmen across the ocean. The king was on their side after all! Feelings of loyalty swelled their hearts. They celebrated King George's birthday with festivals and banquets. Statues of the king were unveiled in town squares.
1767: Champagne Charlie and the Tax on Tea
The colonists had celebrated too soon. The Stamp Act was canceled, but, at the same time, Parliament passed a new law, the "Declaratory Act." With this law, Britain held on to its right to tax the colonies without their consent. Soon it did.
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasury), Charles Townshend, wasn't about to give up on taxing the colonies. One day, after a few glasses of champagne, he stood up and gave a speech in Parliament. He scolded the members for taking back the Stamp Act. When one of them replied that they didn't dare tax the colonists, he boasted, "I will!"
With his urging, Parliament passed the "Townshend Acts," which required the colonists to pay taxes on glass, lead, paper, and tea. British customs agents used their writs of assistance to enter buildings and board ships to make sure these goods weren't being smuggled into American ports. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty went back to making the British agents miserable. Once again, colonists boycotted British goods.
In New York, General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of British troops in America, was having a difficult time. No one would help him find homes for his soldiers. The colonists refused to obey the Quartering Act. General Gage took his problem to the colony's government, the New York Assembly, but it would not force people to open their homes. Gage had the British royal governor of New York dissolve the Assembly. The colonists were outraged. Were they to have no government of their own? British soldiers pulled down a liberty pole in New York and cut it into little pieces to show their scorn. People rioted in the streets.
In the harbor of Boston, British customs officials seized a ship, the Liberty, which they suspected of carrying smuggled goods. It belonged to John Hancock, the wealthy merchant behind the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty rioted and set fires. British customs agents feared for their lives.
Great Britain reacted to the riots by ordering two regiments of troops to Boston. British ships, bristling with cannons, soon filled Boston's harbor. British soldiers paraded in the streets. Parliament had ordered them to find the troublemakers and bring them back to England for trial and punishment.
With British troops in their streets and buildings, Bostonians were tense. They taunted the soldiers, calling them "redcoats" and "lobsterbacks" for their crimson-red uniforms. Night after night, fights broke out between soldiers and citizens. One involved the lawyer James Otis. An argument with a British customs agent turned into a brawl, and Otis was beaten by British soldiers. He never quite recovered from a blow he received on the head.
One cold night in March 1770, a British soldier standing guard at a Boston customs house became the target of a crowd of angry people. They jeered and threw snowballs at him until he called for help. His captain sent soldiers to get him away from the crowd, giving them strict orders to hold their fire. When they arrived, the scene was chaotic. People threw rocks and dared them to "Fire!" One private shot his musket, then the rest began to shoot. Crispus Attucks, a black sailor and former slave, was the first in the crowd to fall. Five people were killed in the incident, which became known as the "Boston Massacre."
As bad as the incident was, public opinion made it seem even worse. It was said all over Boston that the soldiers had fired in cold blood and without cause. They were brought to trial for murder.
Excerpted from The American Revolution for Kids by Janis Herbert. Copyright © 2002 Janis Herbert. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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