Moments in History: 7 Major Events That Led to the American Revolution and Independence
Updated: Jul 4
America’s war for independence wasn’t a knee-jerk, emotional reaction to British overreach. Rather, a series of events over many years gradually increased tensions and culminated in the thirteen colonies finally deciding they’d had enough of King George III’s tyranny.
There are seven critical events that occurred over more than a decade that caused the eventual rift between the Crown and its colonies. These events, in turn, inspired the Bill of Rights and The Constitution that would protect the colonists and future generations from tyrannical government.
Problems between the American colonies and Britain began in 1763 shortly after the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War.
1. The Stamp Act (March 1765)
War is expensive. And Britain had been at war for the majority of the 1700s. In fact, here’s a timeline of the wars Britain fought leading up to the American Revolutionary War:
War of the Spanish Succession 1701–1714
Great Northern War 1717–1720
War of the Austrian Succession 1740
Carnatic Wars 1744–1763
Seven Years' War 1756–1763
Anglo-Mysore Wars 1766–1799
First Anglo-Maratha War 1775–1782
American Revolutionary War 1775–1783
As you can see, there are very few years during the 18th century when Britain wasn’t at war. And because of the costs associated with shipping troops, feeding them, paying them, and keeping them supplied, the Crown needed to fill the coffers. In order to recoup some of the financial losses, Parliament passed laws like the Stamp Act, which for the first time ever taxed a wide range of transactions in the colonies.
Until the Stamp Act, each colony had its own government which decided what taxes they
would have and their own system for collecting those taxes (akin to the later adopted States’ Rights). However, the British government believed they’d risked lives and money to protect colonists from the Indians and the colonists owed the Crown payment for that protection. The colonists didn’t see it that way because not only were they paying taxes levied locally, they would now be forced to pay taxes to the Crown on British goods, too--and interestingly many of the goods came from Britain. However, the tax was never collected because the people rioted across New England. Finally, Benjamin Franklin convinced the British to nix the tax, but that actually made things worse for the British because it gave Americans the idea they could push back and gave them notions about living in freedom.
2. The Townshend Acts (June-July 1767)
But the British are a determined lot and within a few years, thinking the Americans might have forgotten about that whole Stamp Act debacle, they decided to make another attempt at taxing British exports to America. The Townshend Acts seem like a decent idea from the British perspective since they established a board of customs commissioners to stop smuggling and corruption among local officials in the colonies, who were often in on the illicit trade. This was, no doubt, intended for the Crown to keep its profits. However, this would also cut into profits of those who had been making money in illicit trade. But again, as with the Stamp Act, it was excessive taxation (without government representation, too) because colonists were already paying their local taxes.
So, Americans organized a boycott of the British goods that were subject to taxation and began harassing the British customs commissioners. In an effort to subdue the growing resistance, the British sent troops to occupy Boston; this maneuver only intensified the colonists’ resentful feelings toward the Crown. For anyone who doesn’t understand why the colonists would resent the presence of the occupying British soldiers, you should read up on past British occupations in Ireland and Scotland. It’s an unfortunate fact of history that British troops could sometimes be at best rowdy and at worst brutal.
One thing I'm curious about, however, is why did it end differently for the Americans? There are stories of the British army completely destroying entire villages in Ireland and Scotland, and massacring entire communities of people. So, why not in the American colonies? The only thing I can think of is that the British could only send a limited number of troops to the American colonies and they could carry limited supplies and food rations; whereas the proximity of Ireland and Scotland ensured an unlimited supply of troops and supplies to beat down rebellious peasants.
At any rate, the presence of the British troops angered the colonists, and the mounting hostility that lead to the next two events.
3. The Boston Massacre (March 1770)
Within a few years the tension and resentment boiled over in Boston one late afternoon
between an apprentice wig maker and a British soldier. The fight led to a crowd of 200 colonists surrounding seven armed British troops. The Americans began taunting the troops and throwing things at them, causing the soldiers to lose their cool. They fired into the crowd, killing three men and wounding two others. The attack became a useful propaganda tool for the colonists—especially after Paul Revere distributed an engraving that misleadingly depicted the British as the aggressors.
4. The Boston Tea Party (December 1773)
Though it took a few years, the British eventually withdrew their forces from Boston and repealed much of the Townshend legislation. However, they left the tea tax in place and enacted a new law in 1773 called the Tea Act in order to assist the financially struggling British East India Company.
The new tax allowed the British East India Company to sell their tea at a price that undercut the American merchants who imported from Dutch traders. This angered the American merchants because 1) they wanted to be able to trade with any country they wanted; 2) it hurt their business, profits, and ability to support their families because most people would be driven to purchasing cheaper teas. So, if British tea was cheaper, it would shove the Americans out of business and establish an East India monopoly; 3) the monopoly would narrow the availability of goods, creating unfair market practices and funneling the money into the hands of a few wealthy British merchants instead of expanding the wealth into the hands of more merchants and traders in the colonies.
As a result, a group of Americans formed The Sons of Liberty to openly confront the British. They disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and destroyed more than 92,000 pounds of British tea by dumping it into the harbor. In order to drive home the point that they were rebels rather than vandals, they conducted the affair without harming any of the crew or damaging the ships and, the next day, even replaced a padlock that had been broken.
But the event ratcheted up the animosity and infuriated the British government because many of the East India shareholders were members of Parliament who had each paid about 1,000 pounds sterling (approximately a million dollars in modern money) for a share in the monopolistic company.
5. The Coercive Acts (March-June 1774)
After the Boston Tea Party, and rebellion in other cities, the Americans likely suspected there was no going back, no repairing the relationship with the Crown—at least not without a great deal of groveling and financial loss. As King George III said, “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”
In the spring of 1774, the enraged British Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party with a series of laws called the Coercive Acts. The first act was to close Boston Harbor with a blockade of British warships, which effectively destroyed the city’s commerce. So, Paul Revere rode south from Boston and brought the news of the Coercive Acts to each town and city as far distant as Philadelphia.
Soon, in every colonial Assembly from Massachusetts to South Carolina, delegates were being selected for the journey to Philadelphia. Only one colony — Georgia, the newest and most distant — failed to respond.
In addition to closing Boston Harbor, the Coercive Acts, known as the Intolerable Acts among the colonists, replaced the colony’s elected council with one appointed by the British, gave sweeping powers to the British military governor General Thomas Gage, and forbade town meetings without approval. In addition, another provision allowed British colonial officials charged with crimes in Massachusetts to be returned to Britain for trial instead of being charged and tried where they committed crimes and, lastly, Quebec would no longer be a colony.
In many ways, the worst of the provisions was the Quartering Act, which allowed British military officials to house their troops in unoccupied houses and buildings in towns. Contrary to popular belief, the Quartering Act did not direct British soldiers to be quartered in the colonists’ private homes. Actually, the 1765 prohibited British soldiers from being housed in private homes, but it did make the colonial legislatures responsible for paying for and providing for barracks or other accommodations to house British regulars. Other accommodations the British troops could use included “inns, livery stables, ale houses” and other public houses; which meant that private citizens who owned those places would have to pay to house and feed the troops. Undoubtedly, this could be an expensive venture when thousands of men showed up at your inn or ale house expecting room and board.
Battling intense heat, dusty, bumpy, primitive roads, and overnight stays in uncomfortable inns, the delegates made their way to Philadelphia to discuss what could be done about the British government.
The first order of business was to establish the First Continental Congress, electing men to their various positions like secretary, president, etc. By Monday, September 5, the Congress set about the business of deciding what must be done about King George III. At first only the solidly anti-British Sam Adams spoke of independence. Most everyone else was looking for a compromise. Many even endorsed a government comprised of American-British co-equal rule.
Congress then established two committees to recommend action on areas of dispute with Britain. Two delegates from each colony were appointed to a committee to define colonial rights and how Parliament and the King had infringed upon them. A second committee comprising one delegate per colony was charged with specifying how acts of Parliament had seriously affected the colonial economy. Consequently, daily sessions of Congress had to be suspended temporarily, since most delegates now sat on committees.
It was on Friday, September 16 — a day committees were deliberating — that Paul Revere galloped down Second Street to Philadelphia's City Tavern with a document which, if adopted, would make a break with Britain unavoidable. Ten days earlier, on September 6 — the day after Congress convened — 50 citizens representing Boston and other communities of Suffolk County endorsed what they named the Suffolk Resolves.
Congressional President Randolph read The Resolves aloud. In short, The Resolves declared that the Intolerable Acts were gross infractions, that the British were their enemy, and they urged Suffolk citizens to raise a militia. Lastly, they called for an embargo on British goods, which would close British ports in retaliation for closing the port of Boston.
Everyone listened attentively, then most delegates applauded wildly—except delegate Galloway who shouted: "For Congress to countenance such a statement is tantamount to a complete declaration of war." He was right. But Congress was no longer in a mood to compromise. Each day's debate brought agreement closer on the meeting's two principal accomplishments: the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and formation of a Continental Association.
6. Lexington and Concord (April 1775)
On April 14, 1775 General Gage received orders from London to take decisive action against the Patriots. Given intelligence that the militia had been stockpiling weapons at Concord, Massachusetts, General Gage ordered detachments of regulars from the Boston garrison to march there on the night of April 18 to confiscate them and capture the colonial rebellion leaders, Sam Adams and John Hancock. But American spies got wind of the plan and sent riders to spread the word for the colonials to be ready for the British.
On the Lexington Common, the British force was confronted by 77 American militiamen, and fighting ensued. Seven Americans died, but other militiamen managed to stop the British at Concord, and continued to pursue them on their retreat back to Boston.
The British causalities consisted of 73 dead, 174 wounded, and 26 missing in action. The bloody encounter proved to the British that the colonists were worthy foes who should be taken seriously. It was the start of America’s war of independence.
7. British attacks on coastal towns (October 1775-January 1776)
Though the Revolutionary War’s hostilities started with Lexington and Concord, things weren’t so simple as the colonies vs. Britain. When the war began, it was unclear that the southern colonies were completely aligned with the north since the southern colonies relied completely on the English to buy their crops. And even in the early colonial days, there was tension between the north and the south: the south didn’t trust the Yankees and the Northern Puritans thought southerners were lazy. But the north and south were able to put aside their differences and unify against the brutal British naval bombardments and the burning of the coastal towns of Falmouth, Massachusetts and Norfolk, Virginia.
In addition, the British offered freedom to slaves if they took up arms on the loyalist side, which would, in essence, divide and conquer from within through slave rebellions and a division of colonist attention and resources. But there were other divisions: not everyone wanted separation from Britain. There were many Loyalists living in the colonies who were content to live under the Crown. But “Common Sense,” a pamphlet published by Thomas Paine, fueled revolutionary sentiments and a desire for the colonials to unify against the Crown.
By July 2nd, the Continental Congress cast a near-unanimous vote for the American Independence from Great Britain (New York at first abstained, then later voted in favor of independence). On July 4th, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, which had been written largely by Jefferson. Though the vote for actual independence took place on July 2nd, from then on the 4th became the day that was celebrated as the birth of American independence.