The Seven Years’ War ended in 1763 with Great Britain the undisputed winner, gaining control over French territory in North America and India. But in the seeds of Britain’s great victory lay the beginnings of the American Revolution, since Parliament now turned to the American colonies to help pay the enormous debt left behind by the war.
Paying Down the Debt
Prior to the French and Indian War (as the Seven Years’ War was known on the North American continent), Britain seldom bothered to tax Americans, or when it did, did not bother to collect. This "benign neglect," as the British statesman Edmund Burke would call it, encouraged mercantile trade between the colonies and the mother country. But now, needing funds, Great Britain turned to a policy of stringent taxation, which the colonies opposed.
Britain started by enforcing the taxes on sugar and molasses (levied before the war, but seldom collected). This was followed by the Stamp Act of 1765, a tax placed on the purchase of playing cards, legal documents, newspapers and the like. This was the first direct consumer tax levied on the colonists, and they rose in violent protest against it, particularly in Boston. In addition, the colonists believed that only their own assemblies could tax them, not Parliament. England backed down and repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but issued the Declaratory Act, which reiterated its policy of passing any laws over the colonists that it pleased.
The following year, Parliament issued a series of acts known collectively as the Townshend Revenue Acts, named after Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Townshend Act did not place a direct tax on consumers, but instead placed import taxes on items such as glass, paint, oil, paper and tea. Once again, the colonists protested against these, both with riots (in Boston, especially) and with highly effective boycotts, which caused British merchants to complain to Parliament that their businesses were being hurt. By this time, tensions between Great Britain and the colonies were running high. Britain sent four British regiments to Boston to serve as a sort of police force, insurance against the Bostonian rioters instigated by the patriot group, the Sons of Liberty. The presence of these troops led directly to the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, in which five colonists were killed when the British forces opened fire on them.
As a result of the massacre, British troops were withdrawn to an island in Boston Harbor. Parliament, in 1770, repealed the Townshend Acts, except for the tax on tea, which it deliberately kept as a symbolic measure to show the colonists Great Britain had a right to tax them as it pleased. But both these retreats on the part of Great Britain showed that Britain’s policy toward the colonies was in fact a weak, reactionary one. Radical colonists would keep on protesting the tax on tea, protests that culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, and ultimately, war.
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images