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Foundations of U.S. Government

Colonial American Conflict with Britain

French and Indian War and Britain's Debt

Britain's debt from the French and Indian War (1754–63) led Parliament to impose new taxes on the colonies, which led to conflict with American colonists.

    For much of the colonial period, Parliament paid little attention to the colonies. Parliament regulated commerce through a series of navigation acts, but those were regulations on trade. Those regulations were laxly enforced by British authorities under a policy called salutary neglect, under which colonies came to act with a great deal of political autonomy.

    Relations between the colonies and Britain became tense in the wake of the French and Indian War (1754–63), a conflict that began as the British and French competed for control of the Ohio River valley. The conflict escalated into a global war for the empire—known as the Seven Years' War—that Britain and its allies waged against France and its allies. Through victory in this war, Britain gained control of most of France's territory in North America.

    Britain also emerged from the war with a large debt, as Parliament had financed the war through heavy taxes at home. In Parliament's view, the war had been fought to defend the colonies, and thus the colonists should help pay for the cost of the war. Britain also passed new trade regulations that it intended to enforce. The shift from the policy of salutary neglect to one of direct taxation sparked a conflict with the American colonists that led to the American Revolution.

    Conflict over Taxation Escalates to War

    Parliament's attempts to raise revenue from the colonies met with resistance from colonists because they were not represented in Parliament. Colonial protests over taxes prompted Parliament to retaliate, and the resulting laws led colonists to form the First Continental Congress to discuss united action.

    The first conflict over taxes arose when Britain passed the Sugar Act in 1764. Colonists soon rallied to the cry of "no taxation without representation." From the colonial perspective, Parliament had no right to tax them because colonists had no elected representatives in Parliament. The following year, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on printed materials in the colonies. The Stamp Act led to widespread protests and boycotts that proved to be even more unpopular. This act imposed a direct tax on printed materials in the colonies and directly affected many more colonists.

    In response to the Stamp Act, several colonial assemblies passed resolutions condemning the tax. Nine of these assemblies sent representatives to the Stamp Act Congress, which demanded the repeal of the Stamp Act and issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. This document asserted the principle that taxation without the consent of the people's representatives violated their rights. Since the colonists were not represented in Parliament, that body had no authority to tax them.

    Following boycotts of English goods and further protests, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but it also passed another act that asserted Parliament had the authority to tax the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." In 1767 Parliament passed a series of taxes known as the Townshend Acts. Boycotts and protests again led Parliament to repeal the taxes, except for the tax on tea. In 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act, which allowed the British East India Company to import tea directly to the colonies, thereby undercutting colonial merchants who imported tea (and smugglers who illegally brought in Dutch tea). In Boston, residents refused to allow three ships carrying tea to be unloaded. Then, on December 16, 1773, in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, angry colonists dumped tea into Massachusetts Bay to protest the import taxes levied upon it.
    Colonists' protests against the British were sometimes violent, as shown in the tarring and feathering of a British tax official. A noose hangs from the tree, suggesting the colonists might hang the man. In the background, tea is being dumped into the harbor.
    Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-9487
    The British responded in 1774 with what came to be known in America as the Intolerable Acts, a set of four laws passed by Parliament as punishment for the Boston Tea Party. One law closed the port of Boston to trade until the colonists paid for the tea. Another placed a military governor in charge of Massachusetts and stripped colonists of the right to elect officials, select jurors, or hold town meetings. Under another of these laws, soldiers and British officials accused of crimes in the colony would be tried in England, not in Massachusetts. Another measure required people in all the colonies to feed and house British soldiers when requested.

    These measures were met with outrage by many who lived in the colonies, though some colonists were appalled by the Boston Tea Party and sympathetic to the British response. However, many viewed Parliament as depriving the residents of Massachusetts of self-government, which they saw as a threat to the liberties of all colonists. In 1774, representatives from 12 colonies met at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and denounced the Intolerable Acts. In April 1775, colonists battled the British in Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord, which is generally taken as the beginning of the American Revolution.