A New Colonial System
Throughout the 18th century, the maturing British North
American colonies inevitably forged a distinct identity.
They grew vastly in economic strength and cultural attainment;
virtually all had long years of self-government behind them. In
the 1760s their combined population exceeded 1,500,000 – a
six-fold increase since 1700. Nonetheless, England and America
did not begin an overt parting of the ways until 1763, more than
a century and a half after the founding of the first permanent
settlement at Jamestown, Virginia.
In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, London saw a
need for a new imperial design that would involve more
centralized control, spread the costs of empire more equitably,
and speak to the interests of both French Canadians and North
American Indians. The colonies, on the other hand, long
accustomed to a large measure of independence, expected more,
not less, freedom. And, with the French menace eliminated,
they felt far less need for a strong British presence. A
scarcely comprehending Crown and Parliament on the other side of
the Atlantic found itself contending with colonists trained in
self-government and impatient with interference.
The organization of Canada and of the Ohio Valley
necessitated policies that would not alienate the French and
Indian inhabitants. Here London was in fundamental conflict with
the interests of the colonies. Fast increasing in population,
and needing more land for settlement, they claimed the right to
extend their boundaries as far west as the Mississippi River.
The British government, fearing a series of Indian wars,
believed that the lands should be opened on a more gradual
basis. Restricting movement was also a way of ensuring royal
control over existing settlements before allowing the formation
of new ones. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 reserved all the
western territory between the Allegheny Mountains, Florida, the
Mississippi River, and Quebec for use by Native Americans. Thus
the Crown attempted to sweep away every western land claim of
the 13 colonies and to stop westward expansion. Although never
effectively enforced, this measure, in the eyes of the
colonists, constituted a high-handed disregard of their
fundamental right to occupy and settle western lands.
More serious in its repercussions was the new British revenue
policy. London needed more money to support its growing
empire and faced growing taxpayer discontent at home. It seemed
reasonable enough that the colonies should pay for their own
defense. That would involve new taxes, levied by
Parliament – at the expense of colonial self-government.
The first step was the replacement of the Molasses Act of
1733, which placed a prohibitive duty, or tax, on the import of
rum and molasses from non-English areas, with the Sugar Act of
1764. This act outlawed the importation of foreign rum; it also
put a modest duty on molasses from all sources and levied taxes
on wines, silks, coffee, and a number of other luxury items. The
hope was that lowering the duty on molasses would reduce the
temptation to smuggle the commodity from the Dutch and French
West Indies for the rum distilleries of New England. The
British government enforced the Sugar Act energetically.
Customs officials were ordered to show more effectiveness.
British warships in American waters were instructed to seize
smugglers, and "writs of assistance," or warrants, authorized
the king's officers to search suspected premises.
Both the duty imposed by the Sugar Act and the measures to
enforce it caused consternation among New England merchants.
They contended that payment of even the small duty imposed would
be ruinous to their businesses. Merchants, legislatures, and
town meetings protested the law. Colonial lawyers
protested "taxation without representation," a slogan that was
to persuade many Americans they were being oppressed by the
Later in 1764, Parliament enacted a Currency Act "to prevent
paper bills of credit hereafter issued in any of His Majesty's
colonies from being made legal tender." Since the colonies were
a deficit trade area and were constantly short of hard currency,
this measure added a serious burden to the colonial economy.
Equally objectionable from the colonial viewpoint was the
Quartering Act, passed in 1765, which required colonies to
provide royal troops with provisions and barracks.
Questions with answers in bold:
1. The colonies wanted to extend their boundaries as far west as the _____.
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Text courtesy of the U.S. State Department, Bureau of International Information Programs, 2005