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Causes of the American Revolution

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Causes of the American Revolution

Many countries have undergone a complete revolution and dramatic constitutional change in the last two or three centuries. This has resulted in countries splitting up, the formation of new countries, and the independence of former colonies from their rulers. The United States of America was perhaps the first country to go through this change, winning its independence from Great Britain and becoming the first modern constitutional liberal democracy as a result of the American War of Independence. This was the culmination of a revolution in the second half of the 18th century.

What were the origins of the American Revolution, and why did it lead to the American War of Independence? Let's take a look and find out!

American Revolution Summary

The American Revolution is the name given to the period of political and ideological change in the British American colonies from 1765 to 1791. Until the 1760s, the colonies had a significant degree of autonomy from the British government. During the Seven Years' War, the colonial militia had been funded by local taxes, so at the conclusion of the war, the Colonies unsurprisingly expected taxes to go down as the need for defence decreased. However, the British government had accumulated such astronomical debt that British taxpayers demanded a drop in spending, and so the people of British America were expected to pay for their own defence entirely. This meant that taxes actually went up in the Thirteen Colonies.

Map of the Thirteen Colonies (Dark Red), source: Wikimedia Commons

With the colonists already disgruntled by this, the British government then began to impose its own taxes on the Colonies throughout the 1760s despite them not having any representation in the British Parliament, fuelling discontent and increasing opposition to the British. Thus began a cycle of punitive laws and taxes imposed by the British and ever-escalating resistance in the Thirteen Colonies.

This culminated in the American Revolutionary War or American War of Independence, which lasted from 1775 to 1783. A year into the war, on 4 July 1776, the Colonies signed the Declaration of Independence and formed independent states. They defeated the British in the Revolutionary War and gained full independence from the Crown with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Key terms

TermDefinition
British North AmericaThe British colonial possessions in North America, including the Thirteen Colonies and also Quebec (taken from France after the Seven Years' War), Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.
The Thirteen ColoniesThe thirteen British colonies in America that eventually sought their independence: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Vermont also rebelled against Great Britain but, due to land disputes with New York and New Hampshire, was not recognised until 1791, when it became the 14th state of the United States.
The Seven Years' War (1756-63) This was a global conflict in which Great Britain and Prussia fought against Austria, France, and Russia across Europe, the Americas, and India. In North America, it was known as the French and Indian War (1754-63), originally a separate conflict which escalated into the Seven Years' War and was fought mainly between French and British American colonists and their respective Native American allies.

American Revolution Timeline

YearEvent
1763The end of the Seven Years' War.
1765The Stamp Act is passed by the British Parliament.
1766The Declaratory Act is passed.
1767The Townshend Acts are passed.
1770The Boston Massacre takes place.
1773The Tea Act is passed, leading to the Boston Tea Party in December.
1774The Intolerable Acts are passed. The First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia the same year.
1775The battles of Lexington and Concord outside Boston mark the start of the American War of Independence.
1776The Declaration of Independence is passed by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
1783The Treaty of Paris: the end of the American War of Independence. Great Britain recognises the United States.

Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

There were two main ideologies behind the American Revolution - you will see that they are essentially the opposite ideals of what the Colonies had under British rule. They were unhappy with the imposition of taxes and laws without their consent, and with the permanent ruling class of Great Britain.

Liberalism and Republicanism

Liberalism is the idea that governments require the consent of the governed. It is often attributed to philosopher John Locke, who believed that as all humans were created equally free, a ruling class could not encroach on that freedom without the consent of those under their rule. There was a belief among the Founding Fathers that people had a natural right to overthrow their leaders if they abused their positions. Therefore, as the British were imposing taxes and other laws on the Colonies without their consent they could rise up and overthrow them.

The Founding Fathers were a group of men who are considered to be instrumental in the founding of the modern United States and led the Revolutionary War against the British. They also helped establish how the new United States would be run and authored its original Constitution.

Republicanism is the idea that a government representational of the people is elected for a pre-defined fixed term. Furthermore, republics (from the Latin 'res publica' or 'the public thing') typically write a constitution or set of basic rights which are guaranteed for all citizens and which cannot be altered by the government.

Laws Imposed by the British

Stamp Act 1765

This was an Act passed by Great Britain imposing a direct tax on the American Colonies and also required many materials to be printed on special stamped paper produced in London. It was incredibly unpopular amongst the Colonists as they considered it a violation of their right not to be taxed without their consent; the slogan "no taxation without representation" was born. The Stamp Act lasted only a year until its repeal under pressure from the Colonists. The American Colonies Act of 1766, or Declaratory Act, was passed with the repeal of the Stamp Act and asserted the subservience of the Thirteen Colonies to Britain and the British Parliament's power to legislate for the Colonies. This included the right to impose taxes, regardless of the views of the Colonies:

That the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain; and that the King's Majesty [...] had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.1

Townshend Acts 1767-68

These are a series of Acts named for Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend. The repeal of the Stamp Act had quelled the Colonial anger to an extent, but these new laws fuelled the start of major widespread opposition to British rule. The Acts were passed in order to punish the Province of New York for refusing to follow earlier laws imposed on them, to create more effective ways to enforce trade rules and to raise money to pay Governors' and Judges' salaries. It further entrenched the British position that they had absolute authority over the Colonies.

Rather than leaving the Colonies to pay their own Governors and Judges, if Britain paid the salaries, they could pay more to those who supported the Crown and less to those who were critical; it was, in essence, a form of bribery.

  • There is slight disagreement as to what exactly is included under the umbrella of the Townshend Acts, but generally, it is accepted that at least these five are included:
    • New York Restraining Act 1767
    • Revenue Act 1767
    • Indemnity Act 1767
    • Commissioners of Customs Act 1767
    • Vice-Admiralty Court Act 1768

The Townshend Acts sparked fury in the Colonies - unrest caused the British to land troops to control the outrage, ultimately leading to the Boston Massacre in 1770, a riot that saw British troops fire at civilians who were throwing rocks, killing five. Although at this point, the Townshend Acts were partially repealed, the British government insisted on retaining a duty on tea to assert their dominance over the Colonies. Although it was a minimal amount, they failed to realise that the Colonies' opposition was to the very idea of taxes imposed on them by the British without their consent.

Boston Tea Party and Intolerable Acts

This idea that American Colonists were opposed to the British imposition of taxes themselves rather than the amount was entrenched by the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The British had passed the Tea Act several months earlier in order to undercut Dutch smugglers who were costing the East India Company vast amounts of money.

The East India Company was the powerhouse of the British economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, exporting tea around the world. Its near-collapse at the start of the 1770s led to the Tea Act, reducing the cost of tea legitimately imported into Colonies by the Company in an attempt to draw trade back from the illegal smugglers.

Flag of the British East India Company, likely to have inspired the flag of the United States, source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the Tea Act lowered the cost of tea, it was the last straw for Colonists in Massachusetts, who, unlike other Colonies, could not persuade importers to resign or to return the tea to Britain and colonial importers were also undercut by the East India Company due to the Tea Act. On 16 December 1773, between 30 and 130 men disguised themselves as Native Americans and threw 342 cases of tea overboard from three ships in the Boston harbour. This was the Boston Tea Party.

The British government responded by imposing five Intolerable Acts designed to punish Massachusetts and recoup the cost of the tea. This was a key turning point in the American Revolution and can be considered a major factor in starting the American War of Independence in 1775.

Ultimately, the tension precipitated from these Acts of the British Parliament led to extreme points of resistance, particularly in Boston, which had been the site of the Tea Party. This opposition to the political and economic control of the Colonies by Britain reached such heights that the only action the Colonists felt they could take was to begin a military uprising against the British. These Acts were the spark for the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which many consider the true genesis of the American Revolution.

First and Second Continental Congresses

The passing of the Intolerable Acts saw the closure of Boston's port until the cost of the destroyed tea had been repaid and the abolition of the Massachusetts Government - the Colony was placed under direct British rule. This greatly upset the Colonists, and the Colonies promptly rallied around Massachusetts. Twelve of the thirteen colonies sent representatives to form the First Continental Congress and coordinate resistance to the British government in 1774. The Congress was content to attempt to compromise, agreeing on the non-importation and exportation of British goods rather than a declaration of independence.

The Second Continental Congress, which met shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, declared King George III a tyrant, and fighting began in April 1775. Parliament rejected the so-called Olive Branch Petition sent by the Colonies to try and find a peaceful solution in July 1775, and in August, the British declared that the Colonies were in a state of rebellion. The Declaration of Independence was signed on 4 July 1776, and the Revolutionary War continued until 1783.

The origins of the First Continental Congress lie in the British blockade of Boston Harbour and the passing of the Five Intolerable Acts. While it may be easy to assume that Congress had a simple goal, it became clear that not all the delegates agreed on exactly why they were there. Indeed, Loyalist support outweighed the separatists in Georgia, so they didn't even send a delegate.

The Congress was modelled on the Albany and Stamp Act Congresses, which had taken place in 1754 and 1765 and were the first meetings of the Colonists to determine a unified response to perceived overreach by the British. The First Continental Congress, however, was the first real meeting of the colonies to oppose the British.

Causes of the American Revolution - Key takeaways

  • There were two key principles behind the Revolution - Liberalism and Republicanism - these were ideas that favoured rule by consent of the people and a country governed by fixed-term leaders bound by a charter of basic rights (in the US, the Constitution)
  • After the end of the Seven Years' War, Colonists were unhappy that their taxes did not go down due to the new requirement to pay for their own defence.
  • They were made even angrier by the constant imposition of taxes and punitive laws on them by Britain, even though they had no representation in the British Parliament.
  • The last straw for the Colonists was the harsh punishment of Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and they formed the First Continental Congress.
  • This led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776

1. The American Colonies Act (1766), 6 George III c. 12.

Frequently Asked Questions about Causes of the American Revolution

The increased opposition to the British and their rule because of their imposition of new taxes and laws on the Colonies  without their consent

This could be something you need to make your own mind up on and justify! But certainly 3 significant causes were the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts and the Intolerable Acts

The rejection of a rule without consent and a permanent ruling class; a desire for liberalism and republicanism

As far as most of the Colonists were concerned, they had! But not all of the Colonists were desperate to get rid of the British, there are always two sides of a story, but generally, the Colonists had achieved their aims and benefitted from being able to do their own thing without the British 

Final Causes of the American Revolution Quiz

Question

What happened in the Treaty of Paris?

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Answer

In 1763, Spain, Great Britain, and France met in Paris to sign the Treaty of Paris. France gave up most of its North American territory to Great Britain, but also gave away Louisiana to Spain. After Spain relinquished Florida to Great Britain, Great Britain's territory now spanned the entire Atlantic coast.

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Question

What is the difference between the French and Indian War and the 7 Years' War?

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Answer

The French and Indian War is generally used for the war efforts that took place in North America, whereas the 7 Years' War is used to describe the war efforts that were happening elsewhere.

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Question

What area was France and Great Britain fighting over? 


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Answer

Ohio River Valley

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Question

What happened at Fort Necessity? Why did the French begin attacking this continued? 


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Answer

After Washington kills the commander of a French scouting party, the French attack Fort Necessity. Washington's troops were outnumbered 2: 1, which resulted in him retreating to Virginia. Afterwards, the French burn the fort down.

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Question

Benjamin Franklin came up with the Albany Plan of Union. What was the specific phrase he used and why is it important? 


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Answer

“Join or Die”. This is important because he introduced the idea that colonists should work together to fight against superior fighting forces.

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Question

Give 2 (of a possible 3) key reasons for British victory.


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  1. Pitt's leadership 

  2. Superior navy 

  3. Better resources: more food and more troops

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What did France give to Spain in the Treaty of Paris and why is it important? 


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Answer

New Orleans / Louisiana is important because whoever has this territory controlled trade on the Mississippi River

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What did France give to Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris? Name one.


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  1. Canada

  2. All lands lying east of the Mississippi River

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What is the Royal Proclamation of 1763? 


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It was an order issued by Great Britain that stated that colonists were prohibited from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains.

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What were the colonists' reactions to the Proclamation of 1763?


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They largely ignored this proclamation, which contributed to further straining the relationship between Britain and the colonists.

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What was the realization that colonists had after the war was over? 


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  1. Being so dependent on Britain brought on unwanted obligations

  2. We should begin distancing ourselves from the king and Parliament. 

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What is the relationship between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution? 


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The French and Indian War was the precursor of the American Revolution and caused colonists to realize that they were unhappy under British rule.

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What was at the heart of the conflict between Parliament and the colonists?

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Colonists were upset that Parliament levied taxes on them, especially since colonists did not elect any members into Parliament. Colonists believed that it violated their rights that they could not be taxed without any representation.

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Why is Lee’s Resolution important?

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Lee’s Resolution is important because it influenced the creation of the Declaration of Independence.

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What did the Declaration of Independence state? 


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The document stated that the colonies considered themselves thirteen independent sovereign states who were no longer under British rule.

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Where was the Declaration of Independence issued? 


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Second Continental Congress

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What was the Prohibitory Act? What decision of King George further strained the relationship between colonists and Great Britain? 


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The Prohibitory Act blockaded American ports, and American ships were to be recognised as enemy vessels. Tensions increased when the colonists learned that King George had hired German mercenaries to suppress the rebellion and American colonists.

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What pamphlet did Thomas Paine publish? What was its impact on the colonies?


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  1. Common Sense 

  2. Paine argued for colonial independence and advocated for a republic (over a monarchy). His argument influenced more people to discuss colonial independence from Great Britain publicly. 

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Why was voting on Lee’s Resolution postponed?


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Some delegates supported this resolution, but others were hesitant to endorse it fully. Congress voted to postpone voting on this resolution. In the meantime, a separate committee would be formed to draft a document announcing the colonies' independence from the rule of Great Britain.

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Name three (of a possible five) members on the Committee of Five.


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  1. Thomas Jefferson.

  2. John Adams.

  3. Benjamin Franklin.

  4. Roger Sherman.

  5. Robert Livingston.

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Question

What two works influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence?

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  1. Virginia’s Constitution.

  2. Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

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The famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence mentions 'certain unalienable rights'. What are the three rights listed?


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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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If fighting had already broken out for a year, why was it necessary to still issue the Declaration of Independence?

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The colonies needed to let the world know that this was a struggle between two countries – not an internal British struggle. It would have been difficult for colonists to receive help from other countries if it were an internal struggle.

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What was the significance of the Seven Years' War for the Sugar Act and Stamp Act?

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The debts resulting from the war effort left the British government looking for new means of raising money. George Grenville, the prime minister, believed that the British American colonies needed to pay their share.

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The Sugar Act was passed in 1764. What did it tax? Why were colonists angry?

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The Sugar Act was a tax on sugar and molasses. Colonists were upset because they used sugar and molasses to make rum--a product they used to import to other countries.

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What is the famous quote that colonists cited for why they viewed British rule as unfair?

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“No Taxation without Representation”

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What did the Quarter Act do? 


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Colonial governments had to feed and house British troops that were stationed in their colony.

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Name one action that the Daughters of Liberty did to protest British legislation. 


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  • They switched from coffee to tea
  • They spun clothes by hand

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Was the colonial reaction against the Stamp Act successful?

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Yes, the British parliament was pressured into repealing the Stamp Act in 1766.

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Who were the Sons of Liberty?

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A group of American colonists that agitated against the Stamp Act and other perceived over-reaches by the British parliament.

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What was "Salutory Neglect"?

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The practice of successive British governments for much of the early 18th century whereby the British colonies in North America would largely be left to their own devices and not be heavily taxed.

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How did ideas spread from colony to colony? 


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Through the Committees of Correspondence

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Why did Britain pass so many pieces of legislation?


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After the French and Indian War, Britain’s territory spanned the entire Atlantic coast. With this new territory came a significant debt. In order to reduce this debt, Britain imposed taxes on all of its colonies.

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What was significant about the Stamp Act Congress for the American Revolution?


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The First Continental Congress of 1774 would be based on the model provided by the Stamp Act Congress.

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What did the Stamp Act do?

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The Stamp Act taxed printed materials sold in the British American colonies. Items taxed would bear a stamp marking the tax paid.

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Why were the Committees of Correspondence important?


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The Committees of Correspondence helped spread and exchange ideas within and among the colonies. While initially, the Committees of Correspondence were used to discuss the colonists’ displeasure with the British legislation, eventually, it was used to gain public support for independence from Britain.

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What were the Intolerable Acts?

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The Intolerable Acts were five acts in total.

  • Three of them applied only to Massachusetts
  • One applied to all colonies
  • The other expanded Quebec’s territory

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What influenced the Sons of Liberty to carry out the Boston Tea Party?

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The Townshend Tax influenced the actions of the Sons of Liberty. Think of “No Taxation without Representation”.

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What were Parliament’s intentions in passing these Acts? 


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Parliament hoped to quell Massachusetts’ rebelliousness and prevent it from spreading to the other colonies.

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How did Colonists view these Acts?


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The colonists viewed these acts as unnecessarily cruel punishments and resulted in even more colonists turning away from British rule.

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Besides the Boston Tea Party, how else did colonists react to the Townshend Tax? What good did they boycott? 


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Tea

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What were the Intolerable Acts called in Britain?

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The Coercive Acts

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What did the Boston Port Act do?


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Closed the port of Boston

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When Parliament passed the Boston Port Act, why did it further anger the citizens of Boston? 


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Citizens felt wrong that they were collectively being punished, rather than only the colonists who had destroyed the tea. Again, the issue of no taxation without representation comes up.  

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How did other colonies react to the Massachusetts Government Act? 


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Colonies became fearful that Parliament would do the same to their colony. This act abolished the colonial government and placed the colony under the British government’s control.

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Why did Washington call the Administration of Justice Act the “murder act”? 


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This Act allowed British officials to harass Americans with virtually no consequences because royal officials could receive trials in Great Britain.

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What made it difficult for witnesses to testify for the Administration of Justice Act? 


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It was too expensive to miss out on work

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How did colonists react to the Quebec Act? 


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The Quebec Act was favorable for the French Catholic inhabitants in the region because they were free to practice Catholicism. Colonists were offended because most colonists were Protestants. 

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What were the consequences of the Intolerable Acts in relation to the unity of the colonies? 


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It united them more

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What is “No Taxation without Representation”?

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Since Colonists were not electing members into Parliament, Parliament did not have the right to tax the colonies.

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