American colonials struggle against the British Empire, 1765 - 1775

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Colonial agitation began in 1763 due to the Proclamation of 1763 which limited westward expansion and increased British taxation and “interference” in the colonies. Following the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, the independence movement switched to violent revolution in mid-1775
Location and Goals
United States
Location Description: 
The 13 English colonies in what is now the United States. Limited actions (lobbying and letters of support) occurred in British cities
Initially the movement wanted a return the status quo before the French and Indian War, when they were left in “salutary neglect.” The movement did not fully unite behind the goal of independence until after the decade-long nonviolent campaign concluded in favor of the War of Independence and the Declaration in 1776.

For much of the decade, therefore, the movement demanded representation in Parliament, the repeal of tax and other laws considered repressive, and a lessening of the effectiveness of British rule in the colonies.


The 13 English colonies in North America were established and grew during the 17th and 18th centuries. During most of this time, the colonists lived under what historians have termed “salutary neglect,” meaning that the English government mostly left them alone and the colonies prospered under these conditions.

From 1754 to 1763, British soldiers and colonists alongside several Native American tribes fought against the French and tribes allied with them in the French and Indian War. This war was very expensive for England, which decided to leave armies stationed in the colonies and restrict westward expansion with the Proclamation of 1763, to prevent inciting other tribes.

To pay for the stationing of soldiers in the colonies, many colonists had to house and feed soldiers. Soldiers' pay was reduced, which encouraged the soldiers to enter the local labor market and compete with unemployed colonists for jobs. Soldiers, securely housed and fed, often offered to work for less than the living wage, arousing resentment among working class colonists.

Parliament imposed a series of taxes on the colonies. These taxes, enacted without assent from the colonies, galvanized opposition to the British and led to colonial resistance. Further, British soldiers and officials tended to look down on American colonists and treat them poorly. This change in events led many colonists to wish for a return to the period of salutary neglect and to question their lack of representation in Parliament.

With each act by Parliament, opposition grew to the British control. The Stamp Act of 1765 in particular angered many colonists, who increasingly began to see themselves as Americans during the campaign against the act. The Stamp Act placed a tax on all documents, ranging from trade documents to playing cards to court documents.

Legislatures in the colonies passed resolutions against the Stamp Act, merchants in New England agreed to boycott British exports, and many Americans began to wear American-made clothes. Colonial organizations made up of activists who called themselves patriots began to form. A year after the act went into effect, Parliament was forced to repeal it when the patriots’ organizations succeeded in making the act unprofitable, harming transatlantic trade, and convincing (and coercing) many officials not to participate in the act.

The Townshend Act of 1767 imposed duties on the colonists' imports. The movement's response was to encourage colonists to refuse to buy the goods. Smuggling grew and Britain established admiralty courts, where smugglers could be tried without a jury.

The growing refusal of colonists to buy British imports became an important stimulus to the quality and capacity of their own manufacturing. By 1773 this became formalized in a number of localities by making agreements not to import or buy British goods.

In the late 1760s the tension between the King's soldiers and colonists grew, often reflected in street fights even though the organized resistance movement relied on nonviolent struggle and colonists sometimes tried to control outbreaks of random violence. There was a notable scarcity of violent attacks on governmental officials, even those trying to enforce hated measures like the Stamp Act.

In Boston in 1770 an incident of tension in the street panicked a group of British soldiers who opened fire on the crowd, hitting eleven and killing five. Patriots’ groups called this the Boston Massacre and widely publicized it.

The Townshend Act was partially repealed, but Parliament next decided to pass the Tea Act. To protest this act, a group of colonists snuck onto a British ship carrying tea and dumped it into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

Parliament was infuriated by the Boston Tea Party, and in 1774 passed four laws which the American colonists called the Intolerable Acts. These bills closed Boston Harbor until the colonists repaid the East India Company for the tea spilled in the Harbor, put Massachusetts under direct British control, allowed British soldiers and officials to be tried outside of the colonies (where few witnesses could afford to travel to testify against them), and allowed British governors to force colonists to take soldiers in their homes.

These acts were intended to make an example out of Massachusetts, but instead unified the colonies even further by moving moderates to a more anti-British position. Boston's economy was sea-based and the closing of the harbor reportedly led to starvation. People in other colonies rallied to send food and supplies to Massachusetts.

In 1973-74 an increasing number of counties and towns were organizing themselves independently of British rule, adding a refusal to export American goods to Britain alongside the growing refusal to import British goods. Confidence grew that commercial coercion could be effective. Some official courts closed for lack of business because the colonists created their own alternatives; others became less active.

American colonial resistance leaders agreed to meet at the First Continental Congress in autumn, 1774.

British power in the colonies was disintegrating rapidly. The governor of Massachusetts Bay reported in early 1774 that all official legislative and executive power was gone. By October 1774 the legal government in Maryland had virtually abdicated. In South Carolina the people were obeying the Continental Association instead of the British. Virginia Governor Dunmore wrote to London in December 1774 that it was counter-productive for him to issue orders because it only made more obvious people's refusal to obey them.

During its meeting the First Continental Congress adopted a plan for further nonviolent struggle; scholar Gene Sharp believes that had the plan been followed instead of the armed struggle that became its substitute, the colonies might have become free sooner and with less bloodshed.

Following the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775 the movement turned to armed struggle. The preceding 10 years of boycotts and many other methods considerably loosened the bonds that tied the colonies to the mother country. The nonviolent struggle encouraged an independent economy, alternative organizations for governance, and a sense of shared American identity.

Whatever future scholarship may reveal about the chance of the colonies achieving their independence nonviolently, many historians believe that the decade-long campaign allowed the Americans to build parallel institutions that ensured an orderly and democratic transition to independence following the American Revolutionary War.

Research Notes

Enlightenment thinking had a profound impact on the movement. The colonists were also inspired by the Magna Carta and other British advances in democratic governance.

Walter H. Conser, Jr., Ronald M. McCarthy, David J. Toscano, Gene Sharp (eds.) Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1986.

Arendt, Hannah. On Revolution. NY: Penguin, 2006.

Additional Notes: 
Because the decade-long nonviolent campaign of the colonists has been overshadowed by the more celebrated revolutionary war which took its place, this case is more dependent than most on the scholarly sources, both American and British, published in one book.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jasper Goldberg, 2010.