Since the British first settled North America in the early 1600s, the American colonists had, for the most part, governed themselves. This arrangement
had worked well for the colonies and the mother country for over a century, but the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763) brought about a
departure from the status quo. In fact, the issues of taxation and representation, which arose after the war, were the main concerns of diplomacy between
the colonies and England in the period up to 1776.
The French and Indian War had served to remove France from the North American continent, but it had also greatly depleted the British national treasury.
In an attempt to make the colonies help pay for the cost of the war and for the administration of Britain’s new territorial possessions, Parliament passed a
series of controversial taxes, which were viewed as unjust by colonists and ultimately led to a defiance of the mother country. The most notable example
of this new policy was the Stamp Act, which was a tariff placed on all printed materials. Under the Stamp Act, instead of paying taxes to a local
legislature, the colonies were now ordered to pay the tax directly to England. The main objection to the tax did not reside in the amount of the tax.
Rather, outrage among the colonists stemmed from the fact that they had not been consulted in the matter.
Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most world-famous American colonist of his time, had been in England since 1757 on a mission representing the
legislature of Pennsylvania in a taxation dispute. To Franklin’s chagrin, the president of the Privy Council, Lord Granville, informed him that, in the opinion
of the king’s advisers, King George III was the supreme legislator for the colonies. This did not sit well with Franklin, and he expressed his disagreement.
Franklin replied to Granville that the king did not have such power. Instead, Franklin insisted, legislatures had the right to pass laws with the king’s
consent. After Franklin’s speech, Granville reiterated that Franklin was mistaken. Consequently, Franklin left the meeting appalled by the inequality with
which British subjects in the colonies were regarded.
When, in 1765, the Stamp Act was passed by Parliament without the consent of the colonists, Franklin protested and lobbied in London for the repeal of
the new law, but he found little support for his efforts. Likewise, in North America many colonists penned petitions to Parliament requesting that the Stamp
Act be repealed, but the pleas were ignored. Daniel Dulany, Jr., a Maryland lawyer, gave credence to the colonial protest when he wrote that, according
to British law, Parliament had a right to impose external taxes on the trade of the colonies, but that it did not have a right to impose internal taxation. As a
form of protest, colonial leaders proposed more drastic measures than petitions and organized a boycott of all British goods. By 1766, British
businessmen back in England began to feel the brunt of the boycott and begged Parliament for relief. Parliament relented, and the Stamp Act was
repealed that same year.
King George III, among other British leaders, held the belief that the removal of France from North America might encourage the colonists to rebel. Since
British protection against a French threat would no longer be necessary, independence might seem like an attractive alternative to the colonists.
Consequently, the king felt that there was a greater need to keep the colonies under tighter control than ever before, and both Parliament and the king
felt that taxation was an effective way of doing so. Not surprisingly, the same day in 1766 that the Stamp Act was repealed, the Declaratory Act was
passed. According to the Declaratory Act, Parliament claimed the right to continue to pass any laws for the colonies that it deemed necessary. Colonial
defiance of British law led to stronger military control, but, ironically, stronger control only seemed to push the colonists to further rebellion.
One year later, Parliament passed a new set of taxes called the Townshend Duties, which placed a tariff on a variety of imports. Immediately, colonists
again organized a boycott of all British goods, and mobs gathered to protest. In an attempt to restore order, British troops were shipped to the colonies by
the thousands. On March 5, 1770, the protests, coupled with the strong military presence in Massachusetts, culminated in tragedy. As the troops arrived
to quell a riot in progress in Boston, the crowd began harassing the troops. In retaliation, the troops fired on the crowd, killing five civilians. The Boston
Massacre, as it came to be called by the colonists, led to the repealing of most of the Townshend Duties with the exception of the tax on tea.
Encouraged by their success in getting tariffs repealed, colonists now took on the tea tax. Once again, Franklin unsuccessfully pleaded in London on
behalf of the colonists. In protest of the tax, Bostonians, disguised as Native Americans, boarded British ships and dumped their cargo of tea overboard.
News of the 1773 Boston Tea Party spread across the colonies and led to copycat tea parties in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and South
In 1774, relations between Britain and the colonies went from bad to worse. In London, Franklin discovered some letters written by royal governor Thomas
Hutchinson, dated 1772, which asked Parliament to take stronger measures against the colonists. Franklin mailed copies of the letters to the colonies,
hoping to make Hutchinson the scapegoat for all the past troubles between the colonies and the mother country, and he asked the Privy Counsel for
Hutchinson’s removal. To Franklin’s surprise, however, it was he who was reprimanded for leaking the private letters of a government official and
fomenting trouble. Having fallen from grace in the eyes of many in Britain, Franklin left the mother country and returned to the colonies. After the
departure of this important ambassador, matters continued to worsen with Parliament passing the Coercive Acts (1774), which were called the Intolerable
Acts by colonists.
One of the Coercive Acts, the Boston Port Bill, authorized the closing of the port of Boston until the town paid for the tea that had been destroyed half a
year earlier. Since the Boston economy was primarily based on trade, the closing of the port hurt all of Boston economically. Also, General Thomas Gage
became the military governor of Massachusetts, placing the colony under military rule, which defied the Massachusetts charter of self-government.
Another of the acts underlined British duplicity in legal treatment by allowing British officials accused of crimes in the colonies to be tried in England.
In January 1774, Benjamin Franklin (kneeling), the agent of Massachusetts to the British government, was reprimanded by London’s Privy Council for his
role in the “Hutchinson Affair.” He returned to America committed to the cause of independence. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)
Further enraging the colonists, the Quartering Act authorized General Gage to quarter soldiers in privately owned Boston taverns, uninhabited houses,
and other buildings. Britain deemed this action as a practical solution to the shortage of housing for the thousands of troops that had recently been
shipped to the colonies. However, this intrusion upon private property upset the colonists so much that it would later appear as a grievance in the
Declaration of Independence and as a protection in the American Bill of Rights.
As a whole, the Coercive Acts were so offensive to the colonists that, as a direct reaction, the leaders of the colonies gathered at the First Continental
Congress in 1774. George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were among the delegates who met to bring organizational
strength to the rebellion. After some debate, the delegates came to a compromise, agreeing to unite in defense of Massachusetts and the other colonies,
which meant that the time had come for them to arm themselves against military aggression. As a conciliatory measure, the delegates also agreed to
send a new petition directly to the king, affirming their continued loyalty.
Parliament and the king saw the Continental Congress as an illegitimate body that was not to be recognized or negotiated with. The British felt that the
colonists were conveying betrayal, rather than loyalty, through their recent actions. Consequently, after 1775, the British continued to reinforce the troops
in the colonies, and the colonists continued to arm themselves.
On April 19, the British army found out that the rebels had a storehouse of arms and gunpowder at Concord near Boston, and they proceeded to seize it.
The storehouse, however, was under rebel guard, and an exchange of fire between both groups led to the battle of Lexington and Concord. Although not
a major battle, it had major significance as the first skirmish of the rebellion. One month later, the Second Continental Congress met and drew up plans to
establish the Continental army and appointed George Washington as commander in chief.
As the rebellion progressed, more and more colonists began to feel that a break with England was unavoidable. For example, by 1775, John Adams
believed that petitions were a waste of time. A few others, however, still sought reconciliation. John Dickinson convinced Congress to bypass Parliament
and send the Olive Branch Petition directly to the king. After the king heard about the high British casualties in battles such as Bunker Hill, however,
negotiations were far from his mind. He drove the point home by declaring the colonists enemies of Great Britain and outside his protection. The defiance
that the colonists had exhibited had firmly convinced the king that force was the only way to crush the rebellion.
In 1776, the civil disturbance between the colonies and the mother country was transformed into a full-scale war for independence. Understanding that
the colonies could not hope to defeat Great Britain without foreign aid, the delegates had created the Committee of Secret Correspondence in late 1775
and appointed Benjamin Franklin as the chair.
At the time, France seemed the most likely nation to approach for aid, as the French government, wanting revenge for the loss of its North American
territories to the British in the French and Indian War, was eager to begin discussions with the colonists. In fact, the French had placed secret agents in
the colonies as early as 1770 to report on the state of the ongoing rebellion. To the delight of the colonists, the Comte de Vergennes, foreign minister
under King Louis XVI, wasted no time in sending agent Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir to North America to meet with the Committee of Secret
Correspondence. Bonvouloir reported back to France that the colonists were, in fact, seeking independence. Greatly encouraged, Vergennes
recommended to King Louis to approve secret aid to the colonies. On April 6, the Continental Congress voted to open American ports to all nations, and
the next month France began to secretly ship arms, ammunition, clothing, and tents to the colonies. France, however, was reluctant to publicly commit
itself to the fight as long as the colonists pledged loyalty to the British king.
To convince France and other European countries of the sincerity of its desire for independence, Congress asked Thomas Jefferson to begin drafting the
Declaration of Independence in June. After undergoing a few revisions by members of Congress, the Declaration was finished on July 2, 1776, and was
formally approved and signed two days later. Heavily influenced by the British philosopher John Locke, the document set out to justify the colonists’
cause of independence to Britain and the world. Interestingly, in the Declaration, Jefferson makes King George III the scapegoat of all past troubles
between the colonies and the mother country. Finally, the document declares that the colonies would henceforth be called the “United States of America,”
which would exist free and independent. In light of this new status, all political ties between Great Britain and the newly created United States were
dissolved. From that point on, these states would have the right to wage war, make peace, enter into alliances, and regulate trade.
As a way of putting teeth into the declaration, in September Congress appointed Arthur Lee, Silas Deane, and Benjamin Franklin to a commission to
France. John Adams proposed that the three agents seek continued aid and recognition from France without entering into a military alliance. By early
1777, however, the war was going badly for the colonists. It became painfully obvious to the Americans that a military alliance with France was
This alliance did not occur until 1778, after Franklin convinced France that the colonies would be forced to surrender to Britain if France did not commit to
an alliance. Shortly after the alliance was formalized, France declared war against Great Britain, and French troops were sent to North America. The war
would drag on for another five years. Ultimately, the French alliance was perhaps the greatest determinant in winning American independence.
See also: Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Chronology); Military and Diplomatic Affairs (Essay).
Bailey, Thomas A. “The Colonial Backdrop.” In A Diplomatic History of the American People. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980.
Bemis, Samuel F. “America: The Stakes of European Diplomacy (1492–1775).” In A Diplomatic History of the United States. New York: Henry Holt, 1955.
Bemis, Samuel F. The Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.
Clarke, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.
Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774–1787. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.
Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1980.
Morris, Richard Brandon. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Savelle, Max. The Origins of American Diplomacy: The International History of Anglo-America, 1492–1763. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
Stinchcombe, William C. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1969.
Stourzh, Gerald. Benjamin Franklin and America Foreign Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.
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