Archive for the ‘Colonial history (1607-1775)’ Category

On April 12, 1770, British Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts.  That’s Today’s History Lesson, and you’re free to go.  Enjoy your evening.

For those of you that would like a wee bit more information, you’re welcome to hang out for a couple minutes longer.

The Townshend Acts were a series of laws passed by the British in the late 1760s.  Their function (like many of the “acts” of the time) involved some form of taxation.  The British were carrying an enormous war debt and needed help paying for it.  They also maintained a sizeable military force in the Colonies, and one of its functions was (ostensibly) to protect the Colonies.  So Parliament believed that the protected citizens should help defray the costs.

The Townshend Acts included the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, the Vice Admiralty Court Act, and the New York Restraining Act.  In the past, it had been notoriously difficult for the British to collect the taxes it levied against the Colonies, because people didn’t want to pay and found ways around them.  The Townshend Acts were designed to make the people kind of feel better about paying up.

The taxes from these acts were used to pay the salaries of judges and governors, the idea being that the money collected came from the Colonists, so the people in power would be independent of British rule.  Yeah, it seems a little fishy to me, too.  The money was also used to improve enforcement of other trade rules (in other words, to make sure taxes from other laws still in place were collected).  And, in the case of the New York Restraining Act, there was a bit of punishment for the response to the Quartering Act.

Like most other tax laws of the day, these were met with serious opposition.  This led to the call by local British officials for more soldiers.  This led to more unrest, and eventually the city of Boston was occupied by the British.  This led to more angst, and then there was the death of Christopher Seider which, along with the strong British presence, culminated in the Boston Massacre.

At this point, debate began on at least a partial repeal of the “revenue” parts of the Townshend Acts.  That repeal was passed a month later, on April 12th.

One interesting note as we close.  The one tax that remained was the tax on tea, and we all know how that ended up.

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As Garrison Keillor would say, “Well, it’s been a quiet week…“.  I thought about writing every day last week, but I have this silly little birth defect in my lower back that flares up from time to time.  It’s usually not too much trouble – a little discomfort, a little inconvenience – but this time it was worse.  While walking and riding my bike weren’t too bad, it was pretty painful to sit.  So I spent a lot of time standing around the house, and standing isn’t really conducive to typing on the computer.

I’m a little better today, so much so that I was able to do a few things around the house while my wife was off at a baby shower.  The small of my back is still quite tender, but it seems the worst may have passed.  So while things are good, let’s have a quick write here.

We’ll head back to pre-Revolutionary days.  After all, if I’m not on a World War Two battlefield, I’m pretty much in the Colonies.

The Stamp Act was created by a vote of British Parliament in March of 1765.  It was levied on the Colonies in November of that year.  And to say it was unpopular would be a gross understatement.  But it’s not as though taxes were a new thing.  The Thirteen Colonies had seen their share in recent years, particularly since Britain had stopped fighting with France.  The government had put down its sword and taken up its fiscal pen, only to find itself mired in the all-consuming quicksand of debt.

The interest payment alone on the debt amounted to more than half of the overall yearly budget.  And regardless of the actual number, that’s a staggering percentage.  So the British decided to raise taxes.  Sometimes that’s a necessity.  Living in 21st-century America and up to our eyeballs in government debt, we understand the reality of taxes.  If any government (American, British, or Quatloo) wants to spend lots and lots of money, the people outside of the government are going to have to provide that money.  It was no different in the 18th-century British empire.  But the British also maintained a solid military presence in the Colonies, and Parliament believed it was reasonable that the Colonies pay for the benefits they received.

It wasn’t so much that taxes angered the Colonies.  As I just wrote, taxes weren’t new.  But as we all know, the Colonies were required to pay the taxes without any participation in the process.  They weren’t allowed to offer up alternative ideas, no “colonial” representatives were given any voting power in Parliament, and Colonists had no say in how the revenue would be spent.

So while the tax wasn’t really all that evil, the Colonists were pretty unhappy.

And when it went into effect, the British discovered that enforcing the tax was really difficult.  More troubling was the fact that many colonial merchants were now refusing to import British products until the Stamp Act was repealed.  As a result, British companies were feeling a pinch.  Most troubling of all was the discontent that the taxes had created in America.  People were taking to the streets.  There was shouting.  They were burning tax collectors in effigy (see the image above).  There were inflammatory articles in newspapers that fanned the emotions of the readers.

The British realized that no good thing was coming out of what amounted to a one-penny tax.  So on March 18, 1766, Parliament and King George III repealed the Stamp Act.  For the Colonists, it was a victory of principle and the end of a hated four-month tax.  For the British, it was “back to the drawing board” for new ideas on getting the Colonists to pony up and help pay down the debt.

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Pretty much everybody has heard of the Boston Massacre.  Even if one doesn’t know all the details, almost anyone can put enough facts together to get the gist of the story.  Way back in 2008, when Today’s History Lesson was newborn, my good friend Michael covered the Boston Massacre.  I don’t feel any real need to add to his very good synopsis, but let’s take a couple minutes and cover a related issue.

The Fifth Anniversary of the Boston Massacre.

March 5, 1775 was the date and the Old South Meeting House was the venue.  The gathering included, of course, Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  There were several men that spoke, including Hancock and Benjamin Church.  They were followed by Dr. Joseph Warren, wearing a white toga (reminiscent of the orators in the ancient Roman Senate).  He spoke of the Pilgrims leaving Europe, comparing it to Noah’s year in the ark, leaving a sin-stained world for a fresh, new existence.  He talked about Britain’s committment to its taxation of the Colonies.

But Warren’s most colorful language was spared for the memories of those killed on that fateful day five years earlier, and Ira Stoll records it in his biography of Samuel Adams.  “Take heed, ye orphan babes, lest, whilst your streaming eyes are fixed upon the ghastly corpse, your feet glide on the stones bespattered with your father’s brains. . . . We wildly stare about, and with amazement ask, who spread this ruin round us?  what wretch has dared deface the image of his God?  has haughty France, or cruel Spain, sent forth her myrmidons?  has the grim savage rused again from the far distant wilderness?  or does some fiend, fierce from the depth of hell, with all the rancorous malice, which the apostate damned can feel, twang her destructive bow, and hurl her deadly arrows at our breast?  no, none of these; but, how astonishing!  It is the hand of Britain that inflicts the wound.”

Warren’s goal of winding up those gathered was achieved.  But more than that, the British officers that were present (and seated towards the front) also got excited, but for entirely different reasons.  As he finished, Samuel Adams told those assembled to return the following year to again commemorate the bloody massacre.

And it was the word “bloody” that set the officers off.  A bit of a melee ensued, and some report that Adams was challenged to a duel.  Others report that Adams accepted.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and a second Boston Massacre was avoided…barely.

But there is little doubt that Colonists like Church, Adams, and Hancock left the Meeting House with big British targets on their backs.  And you could add Joseph Warren to the list as well.  He joined the Massachusetts militia, but his Revolution (and his life) ended just three months later when he was killed at Bunker Hill.

Recommended Reading: Samuel Adams: A Life

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Little Christopher Seider probably just wanted to play.  I will wager that, like any ten-year-old boy, he was short on attention and long on energy.  Running through town with his friends, throwing whatever he could fit in his hands, and yelling were not strange activities to him.

I can say all that because I was ten once, though it was quite a while ago.  I did all those things.  I also rode a bike, played with toys, watched a little TV, and so on.  The biggest difference between myself and Christopher Seider (besides the year in which we were ten) is that I lived to see my eleventh birthday.

Christopher Seider did not.

In fact, little Seider died on this day in history.  But his death was not just another in a long line of deaths that has plagued a world where death rates run pretty close to 100%.  This young boy lost his life at a significant time in history, and while you may not have heard of him, he was famous.

To know Christopher, you must also know Ebenezer Richardson.  Well, we can’t fully know him, because there isn’t a lot to know.  He was something of a shady character with a spotted reputation around Boston.  He was a Loyalist, which should give you a hint that we’re heading toward the time of the American Revolution.  He also was an informant to the Attorney General, giving up information about “rebel” activity in town.

February 22, 1770 was a cold, bleak, wintery Thursday that found the Boston townsfolk in an uproar about a local Loyalist merchant.  The standard action was to raise a ruckus at the shopkeeper’s home, yell a lot, throw some rocks, break a window or two, and make their point.  Ebenezer Richardson, wanting to protect a fellow Loyalist, tried to stop the mob, but they simply threw rocks at him, at least one of which hit him in the head.

So Richardson did what all too many people do when something doesn’t go their way:  get a gun and shoot somebody.  More specifically, he went to his house, grabbed his musket, and headed for the shopkeeper’s house, where the mob had gathered.  He climbed to the top of a neighboring building and…

Christopher Seider had little idea what the mob was about, but here was a chance to run down the streets of Boston and throw some rocks.  He and his friends were having a ball.  The people they were with were not only going to let them throw rocks, they were going to do it themselves.  For a ten-year-old, this was pretty exciting.  Exciting, that is, until the bullets started flying.

Richardson, in an effort to break up the mob, began firing randomly into the crowd.  He hit Christopher twice, in the chest and head, and the little boy died that evening.  Ebenezer was immediately apprehended and jailed, but later acquitted.

Needless to say, Seider’s death galvanized Bostonians against the British.  Where there used to be vocal exchanges between the two groups, there now snowballs, which became rocks and homemade spears.  The tensions rapidly reached the breaking point.

Two weeks later, the rocks and snowballs morphed into a physical group attack, as angry citizens charged into a group of British soldiers.  This most famous of events, which we know as the Boston Massacre, left another five people dead.

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There are a lot of things I could say about the Seven Years’ War, but most of those things would be made up.  I vaguely remember discussing it in high school American History class and again in World History, but I was in high school many years ago and the memories have mostly faded.

I seem to recall that this conflict was something of a “world war”, not so much because the conflict spanned the globe (though it was pretty widespread), but more because the players involved were all the “all-star” countries.  Britain and Prussia and Portugal were on one side.  They were opposed by France, Russia, Spain, and Austria on the other.  There were probably some other players, too.  The conflict included the French and Indian War, where George Washington became a colonial hero.

The war began in 1755 and, if we hold to the war’s name, simple math tells us the war ended in 1762.  In fact, the Treaty of Paris (not this Treaty of Paris) was signed on February 10, 1763.  And as it turns out, a bunch of territory conquered by each nation was returned to its previous owners, which begs the question as to why they went to war in the first place.  Of course, I don’t know…like I said, high school was twenty-five years ago.

But some countries actually did alright for themselves.  Here in America, Britain (which already owned the Thirteen Colonies) gained from France all the territory east of the Mississippi that it didn’t already possess.  France also ceded New Orleans and, if I recall, the Lousiana Territory to Spain.

So Britain did alright as far as territory was concerned.  But as we well know in the 21st century, war carries baggage of its own, and the 18th century was no different.  In his biography of Samuel Adams, Ira Stoll writes, “One might not know it from the lavish spending or displays of wealth at the coronation, but Britain was mired in war debt . . . The debt was staggering – by 1763 it was £122.6 million, which meant £4.4 million just in annual interest costs, or more than half the total annual budget of £8 million.

The incredible financial burden not only caused King George III to come to the peace table, it had him looking for ways to pay down this massive debt.  And that meant taxes.  And it meant taxing the Thirteen Colonies.  And that meant imposing the taxes on the Colonists without really seeking their input or getting their approval.

First, steps were taken to better enforce collection of existing tariffs, which didn’t sit well with folks accustomed to having the British mostly look the other way.  But it was the Sugar Act, imposed the following year, that started the Colonial blood boiling.

These were some of the very first steps down the road to the American Revolution, and they began as the ink was still drying on a peace treaty.

Recommended Reading: Samuel Adams: A Life

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When the members of British Parliament debated the Tea Act, some were skeptical of the measure’s success.  William Dowdeswell stood up and said, “I tell the Lord Noble [the bill’s author] now, if he don’t take off the duty, they won’t take the tea.”  He had little idea how accurate he would be.  The majority of Parliament’s members didn’t side with Dowdesdell, and the Tea Act of 1773 was passed in May.

Over the next few months, word of the Tea Act began trickling through the Colonies.  It was accompanied by a rumor that 300 chests of tea were headed for Boston Harbor in what appeared to be a test of wills.  Those opposed to the Act moved into high gear, working hard to convince their fellow citizens to abstain from British tea.  The Town Meeting of Boston met and, led by Samuel Adams, drafted a resolution reminding men of their freedoms and chastising the British for, once again, imposing legislation on the Colonies without consent.

Newspapers got into the act as well.  The Massachusetts Spy turned up the rhetoric and Ira Stoll’s biography of Samuel Adams gives the details.  The paper suggested that the (supposedly) incoming tea would likely be infested with disease-carrying insects.  It could not be sold in England, so it was being shipped to the Colonies.  The best remedy was simply to avoid the tea altogether.

On November 28, 1773, the rumor became reality when the Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor, carrying 114 chests of East India Company tea.  The Eleanor arrived on December 2nd with another 114 chests and the Beaver joined them on the 15th with her 112 chests.

The pieces were now in place for the most famous of all pre-Revolution events…The Boston Tea Party.

Recommended Viewing:  The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum website – Lots of great stuff, and an actual museum that’s currently under construction.

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Several months back I got a smartphone.  I really didn’t have much interest in one at the time, but since our company was planning to build a mobile version of one of our websites, it kind of made sense (as one of the developers) to have one.  So now we’re developing the site, and it’s been pretty handy.  In the meantime, I’ve added a few free apps to the phone, which have made the fact that it’s bulkier than its predecessor a little more bearable.  One of the first apps I installed was one called “Latest Quakes” that allows me see when quakes occur anywhere in the world.  And this year, we’ve had plenty of them to view.

Back in 1755, smartphones didn’t exist.  Dumb phones didn’t exist, either.  But earthquakes did, and they could certainly be felt, whether seismographs were around or not.  And one of the largest quakes to hit the eastern seaboard occurred on November 18, 1755.  The quake has been estimated to be something greater than 6.0.  Now that doesn’t sound especially large in light of the quake that struck off Japan’s coast back in March, but apparently, the composition of the ground east of the Rockies means that earthquakes have a greater “punch per Richter number”.

This particular quake struck early in the morning off the coast of Massachusetts.  It was in the general vicinity of Cape Ann, so it’s been named the Cape Ann Earthquake, but the shaking wasn’t limited to Cape Ann.  It was felt as far south as South Carolina and well out into the Atlantic.  Damage in eastern Massachusetts was pretty extensive.  Since the Richter Scale didn’t exist back then, earthquakes were measured by the Chimneys-Knocked-Down Scale.  Jay Feldman quotes the Boston Weekly News-Letter in When the Mississippi Ran Backwards (which, by the way, is a completely fascinating read)  “The Convulsions were so extreme as to wreck the Houses in this Town to such a Degree that the Tops of many Chimnies…were thrown down…”.  Fences were reported knocked down and there was some soil liquifaction as well.

Many citizens pointed ominously to the sky and fingered the Hand of God as the cause of the quake, citing punishment for evil deeds and immoral behavior.  This led to something of a religious revival, as preachers took the opportunity to remind their congregations of the Almighty’s Powerful right hand.  It also led to a lot of employment opportunities for guys that knew something about brickwork.

Recommended Reading: When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes – A super-intriguing tale. A little murder. A little earthquake. A Cape Ann mention.  I think you’ll like it.

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