Stirrings of Revolution: 1730–1774

British Reforms and Colonial Resistance

Sons and Daughters of Liberty

Secret organizations called the Sons and Daughters of Liberty emerged after passage of the Stamp Act. Using boycotts and political propaganda, they opposed Parliamentary laws and encouraged rebellion against Britain.

Clandestine organizations called the Sons and Daughters of Liberty were formed throughout the colonies following the issuance of the Stamp Act in 1765. The name of the groups was inspired by a speech given in British Parliament in February 1765 in which colonials who opposed unfair laws were referred to as "sons of liberty."

The Sons of Liberty and their sister group first concentrated on securing the repeal of the Stamp Act. The women organized boycotts of British goods, including tea, and in many cases made their own substitutes, such as homespun cloth and herbal beverages known as "liberty tea." The men were more visible in their protests, holding public assemblies and distributing political propaganda—informational material written with a bias against Parliamentary rule and meant to sway readers' opinions. One individual who influenced the Sons of Liberty was Massachusetts Assembly member James Otis, whose phrase, "taxation without representation is tyranny" became a rallying cry for the group. The Sons were not opposed to violence, and many urged their fellow colonists to join the cause, even if it meant taking up arms.

The Sons and Daughters of Liberty were secret organizations. There isn't any paper trail of meetings and members, and with good reason. Plotting against acts of Parliament would have been considered treason, or the criminal act of plotting against one's government. Yet historians believe John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, among hundreds of others, were part of the burgeoning rebellion against the British government.

Boston Massacre

On March 5, 1770, a skirmish between British soldiers and angry colonists—known as the Boston Massacre—resulted in the deaths of five civilians.

American colonists refused to abide by the Townshend Revenue Act of 1767, which imposed taxes on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. In addition to boycotting British goods, patriot colonists in Boston retaliated by harassing British officials and vandalizing their property. British troops arrived in October 1768 to quell the uprising. That only increased tensions between the patriots and those loyal to the Crown.

In early 1770 the Sons of Liberty and other radical colonists in Boston began threatening local merchants who continued to sell British goods and verbally attacking their customers. On March 5, a flyer said to be written by a British soldier was passed around town. It said the soldiers weren't afraid to defend themselves if the colonists attacked. That night, an angry mob stormed the barracks where the soldiers were living.

Meanwhile, a group of 50 to 60 people surrounded the solitary soldier stationed outside the British government office. Seven soldiers tried to disperse the crowd, which responded with jeers. In the melee, a soldier's gun discharged. Other soldiers thought that was the command to fire and started shooting, too. Three crowd members died almost immediately. One of them was Crispus Attucks, a black sailor and former slave. His death is considered to be the first of the American Revolution. Eight more colonists were wounded, two of whom would later die from their wounds.

Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson managed to get the soldiers back to their barracks before calming the crowd. He promised justice would be done. In the meantime, the soldiers were moved to an island in Boston Harbor and a trial was scheduled. However, the angry colonists circulated their versions of the event to boost patriot sympathy. Benjamin Edes, the publisher of the Boston Gazette, referred to the confrontation as "a horrid massacre." The term "massacre" persisted despite dissenting accounts of the evening, some from British soldiers.

John Adams was part of the legal team defending the British soldiers who had been charged with murder. Historians aren't sure exactly why he—an outspoken patriot who later would become the second president of the United States—agreed to take the job. Some speculate he felt everyone deserved a fair trial, while others believe his acceptance of the job was a rebuke to his cousin Samuel Adams and the often-violent Sons of Liberty. In either case, all but two of the soldiers were found not guilty. The two, who were convicted of manslaughter, were sentenced to have their thumbs branded with a hot iron.
To heighten anti-British sentiment, a sensationalized rendering of the Boston Massacre showed British soldiers firing at unarmed colonists. The actual event was more of a confused brawl.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-01657

Committees of Correspondence

Individual Committees of Correspondence formed to facilitate communication about colonial rights between towns and entire colonies. They distributed literature protesting Parliamentary rule, thus strengthening patriots' awareness and resolve.

As dissatisfaction with Parliament's restrictive legislation in America grew, so did the need for communication between towns and colonies. On November 2, 1772, at a Boston town meeting, colonial leader Samuel Adams appointed 21 men to a new committee. Its purpose was "to state the rights of the Colonists and of this Province in particular … and to communicate and publish the same to the several Towns in the Province and to the World." The group was tasked with spreading the word about Bostonians' interpretation of their rights under the Crown and Parliament. Nearly 80 similar groups soon emerged in Massachusetts.

By the end of 1773, 10 colonies had established central Committees of Correspondence. These groups, which were appointed by colonial legislative bodies, provided leadership and helped the separate colonies work together. Passing messages back and forth let residents of each colony know what the other colonies were doing to combat harsh Parliamentary rule. The Committees also distributed pamphlets, newspaper articles, and letters supporting the patriot cause.

The Committees of Correspondence helped unify the 13 colonies prior to the American Revolutionary War. Their influence also led to the formation of the First Continental Congress, a representative body assembled in 1774 to formulate a unified response to the Coercive Acts.

Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was a patriot protest against taxation without representation in the colonies. Britain retaliated by passing a punitive set of laws called the Coercive Acts.

Tensions in Boston came to a boiling point in autumn 1773. A shipment of tea from the British East India Company was set to be delivered toward the end of November. The colonists—particularly members of the Sons of Liberty—didn't want the tea to reach American soil. They were upset about the Tea Act of 1773, which lowered the price of tea in the colonies without getting rid of the tea tax. Even though tea was cheaper than ever before, the colonists were still being taxed for it. They didn't even have to buy the tea to be taxed—taxes were levied as soon as the tea reached the shore. Accepting the tea shipment would mean accepting British taxation, even though the colonies weren't represented in Parliament.

Nearly 5,000 Bostonians protested the arrival of the first of four ships carrying tea on November 28, 1773. Two more ships arrived over the next few weeks. Protesters agreed the tea couldn't be allowed to leave the ships. But the ships' owners and captains, all Americans, couldn't let the ships leave the harbor without unloading the tea. They had 20 days to unload their cargo. If they didn't, the British government could legally seize the ships.

On the evening of December 16, 1773, Sons of Liberty members disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded the ships. Being careful not to harm the ships or injure any crew members, they politely requested the keys to the cargo hold. They used tomahawks and axes to split open the trunks holding the tea. All 342 chests of tea—$1 million worth in today's dollars—were thrown into the harbor before the "Indians" disappeared into the night. The event was accomplished without violence. As one of the Sons of Liberty later recounted: "We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us."

King George III and the British Parliament were outraged by what became known as the Boston Tea Party. After considering going to war, Parliament passed a set of laws called the Coercive Acts. Known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts, these laws were punishment for the colonies' blatant disregard of British law and authority. Though most of the laws pertained only to Boston, a few affected the colonies as a whole.

Citizens of Massachusetts were the first to rally around Bostonians. As word of the Coercive Acts spread through New England and the South, so did ire against the British government. Committees of Correspondence of 12 colonies (all minus Georgia) agreed to discuss a unified response to the Coercive Acts at the First Continental Congress in September 1774.
Bostonians watched and cheered as the Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, smashed trunks of tea before throwing them in Boston Harbor.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-08593

Coercive Acts

To punish Bostonians for the Boston Tea Party, Britain's Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774, a move that would push the colonists further toward war.

Coercive Acts

Act, Date What It Did Goal Outcome
Boston Port Act, 1774 Closed Boston's port until the value of the tea—including taxes—was repaid. To punish the colonists for their rebellion against British authority and the destruction of British goods. Goods had to be shipped to Salem—some 16 miles away—then transported over land, which was extremely expensive. Because of this, many Bostonians, especially those who lost their jobs at the closed harbor, suddenly couldn't afford imported goods.
Massachusetts Government Act, 1774 Abolished the colony's 1691 charter and made Massachusetts a colony of the Crown. To strengthen Britain's authority over the 13 colonies. A military government was established. The local, colonist-run government no longer existed. Even town meetings couldn't occur without consent of a Crown-appointed official.
Administration of Justice Act, 1774 Allowed British officials charged with a capital offense, such as murder, while in the line of duty to be tried in England or another British colony instead of in the American colonies. To ensure a fair trial for British officials charged with capital offenses in the American colonies. Colonists were certain relocating trials to friendlier environs would result in the acquittal, or a verdict of not guilty, of the accused. That's how it came to be known as the "Murder Act."
Quartering Act, 1774 Expanded the original Quartering Act of 1765, which had required housing of troops in barracks. The new Act gave colonial governors the right to house British troops in any unoccupied buildings, including private homes, anywhere in the colonies. To ensure housing for British troops in barracks or other buildings. Colonists were so infuriated by the original Quartering Act (1765) that it was allowed to lapse in 1770. Renewing it four years later only reignited colonial fury.

The Boston Port Act and Massachusetts Government Act targeted residents of Massachusetts, but the Administration of Justice Act and the Quartering Act applied to all 13 colonies. Colonists promptly renamed the new measures the Intolerable Acts.