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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION · American Independence·»

Resistance and Retaliation

The Continental Congress.—When the news of the “intolerable acts” reached America, every one knew what strong medicine Parliament was prepared to administer to all those who resisted its authority. The cause of Massachusetts became the cause of all the colonies. Opposition to British policy, hitherto local and spasmodic, now took on a national character. To local committees and provincial conventions was added a Continental Congress, appropriately called by Massachusetts on June 17, 1774, at the instigation of Samuel Adams. The response to the summons was electric. By hurried and irregular methods delegates were elected during the summer, and on September 5 the Congress duly assembled in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. Many of the greatest men in America were there—George Washington and Patrick Henry from Virginia and John and Samuel Adams from Massachusetts. Every shade of opinion was represented. Some were impatient with mild devices; the majority favored moderation.

The Congress drew up a declaration of American rights and stated in clear and dignified language the grievances of the colonists. It approved the resistance to British measures offered by Massachusetts and promised the united support of all sections. It prepared an address to King George and another to the people of England, disavowing the idea of independence but firmly attacking the policies pursued by the British government.

The Non-Importation Agreement.—The Congress was not content, however, with professions of faith and with petitions. It took one revolutionary step. It agreed to stop the importation of British goods into America, and the enforcement of this agreement it placed in the hands of local “committees of safety and inspection,” to be elected by the qualified voters. The significance of this action is obvious. Congress threw itself athwart British law. It made a rule to bind American citizens and to be carried into effect by American officers. It set up a state within the British state and laid down a test of allegiance to the new order. The colonists, who up to this moment had been wavering, had to choose one authority or the other. They were for the enforcement of the non-importation agreement or they were against it. They either bought English goods or they did not. In the spirit of the toast—“May Britain be wise and America be free”—the first Continental Congress adjourned in October, having appointed the tenth of May following for the meeting of a second Congress, should necessity require.

Lord North’s “Olive Branch.”—When the news of the action of the American Congress reached England, Pitt and Burke warmly urged a repeal of the obnoxious laws, but in vain. All they could wring from the prime minister, Lord North, was a set of “conciliatory resolutions” proposing to relieve from taxation any colony that would assume its share of imperial defense and make provision for supporting the local officers of the crown. This “olive branch” was accompanied by a resolution assuring the king of support at all hazards in suppressing the rebellion and by the restraining act of March 30, 1775, which in effect destroyed the commerce of New England.

Bloodshed at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775).—Meanwhile the British authorities in Massachusetts relaxed none of their efforts in upholding British sovereignty. General Gage, hearing that military stores had been collected at Concord, dispatched a small force to seize them. By this act he precipitated the conflict he had sought to avoid. At Lexington, on the road to Concord, occurred “the little thing” that produced “the great event.” An unexpected collision beyond the thought or purpose of any man had transferred the contest from the forum to the battle field.

The Second Continental Congress.—Though blood had been shed and war was actually at hand, the second Continental Congress, which met at Philadelphia in May, 1775, was not yet convinced that conciliation was beyond human power. It petitioned the king to interpose on behalf of the colonists in order that the empire might avoid the calamities of civil war. On the last day of July, it made a temperate but firm answer to Lord North’s offer of conciliation, stating that the proposal was unsatisfactory because it did not renounce the right to tax or repeal the offensive acts of Parliament.

Force, the British Answer.—Just as the representatives of America were about to present the last petition of Congress to the king on August 23, 1775, George III issued a proclamation of rebellion. This announcement declared that the colonists, “misled by dangerous and ill-designing men,” were in a state of insurrection; it called on the civil and military powers to bring “the traitors to justice”; and it threatened with “condign punishment the authors, perpetrators, and abettors of such traitorous designs.” It closed with the usual prayer: “God, save the king.” Later in the year, Parliament passed a sweeping act destroying all trade and intercourse with America. Congress was silent at last. Force was also America’s answer.

«·THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION · American Independence·»